Making Monsters

Sci-Fi Horror Fiction
© By Gary L Morton, 2011
ISBN 978-0-9866994-1-2
 

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Novels free online - Gary L Morton
Cult of the Comet 
The Spells
The Reaper Run
Pinnacle City
Indian Falls (Alien Invasion)
Channeling the Demon
Channeling the Vampire
DemonSeer

Story Collections
Vampire Alley
The Rainmaker & Other Tales
Making Monsters
Fabulous Furry World

Contents of Making Monsters

Making Monsters

The President's Man on Mars

The Scarsdale Loop

A Scanner Story

Telescope

Zombie Glacier

IT

Longevity

A Survivalist's Notebook

Renewal

666 Direct Death Democracy

A Tiny Armageddon

Castle of Fangs

The Brutality Zone

Dwellers

Vampire Alley

Cannibal Run

 

Making Monsters

 

By Gary L Morton

Darkness drifted in Zeno's half blind left eye, his cornea shimmered like the surface of a soap bubble, and then soothing red rays bathed the men, taking them to the scene of his new creation.

A church spire and the buildings of a village appeared as a silhouette against the rising yellow moon. Sounds of crickets, night birds, rustling leaves and creaking shutters came to their ears as the view zoomed to the edge of town. There they walked as invisible men, enjoying the mild summer breeze and the fragrances of clover and long grass. Reaching the top of a rise and a large swaying willow, they stopped and looked down. A graveyard spread out in a fan below. One that looked elaborate for such a tiny town.

Obelisks, angels and other monuments surrounded a tomb near the centre and a field of smaller stones ran off to the south. The sweet odors of wild flowers touched their nostrils, followed by another less pleasant smell, that of rank earth. It came from a spot near the central tomb where a monument had tumbled and a split ran through the ground.

A creature began to rise. Cake-black earth spilled from its pulsing claws and the moonlight illumined its broad bluish face. It pulled itself over the lip of the grave and stood, shaking off the dirt. Muscles bulged, ropes of tendon and torn flesh gleamed through the rips in its ragged clothes. Lifting a huge flat foot it kicked the gravestone in front of it, knocking it over - then it growled. Reddening eyes and bloodlust replaced the confusion on its face as it began to walk.

Zeno turned to his guests and Annak appeared impressed, but Jenson had a cynical eye cocked and was twitching his thin moustache like the monster wasn't the only bad thing he could smell. Jenson leaned forward, studying the creature's fright-mask face as it passed through the stones. It was a bit blocky, not quite as well proportioned as Zeno had wanted. Perhaps it was unfortunate that the nose looked more like painted wood than flesh. Though the green slime hanging from the creature's chin and neck worked well.

Another figure moved through the stones - a woman wearing a sheer white summer dress. Zeno smiled at her beauty; he had made no mistake here. The moonlight showed as ideal gloss on her platinum hair, pale skin and pouting ruby-tinted lips.

Wind snatched at her hem, carrying it up her pale thighs, and then she scented the creature, saw it coming through the stones and screamed. She began to run but her thin-soled shoes didn't do well against the lumpy ground and dew-slippery grass. Tumbling into a black stone, she rolled and moaned, trying to rise as the creature bounded effortlessly to her.

The monster halted and the young woman looked up at it, horrified. It was huffing so hard that blood mist sprayed from its coarse nostrils. Hungry as it looked, it didn't pounce immediately. Instead, it roared again and looked angrily to the sky. It reached down and ripped the ragged cloth away from its thighs.

Its genitals showed in the moonlight - a stiffening blue penis . . . large, deformed and dripping slime. The creature seized its organ with a clawed hand, looked back at the hysterical woman and closed in.

. . . Bruised … her clothes torn, the young woman's pale flesh glowed sensually in the moonlight. The monster picked her up, threw her down and battered her. Stimulated by her screams it leapt on her and mounted her. Pinning her, it began to thrust with its slime-dripping organ, moaning grotesquely as she choked, yelled in pain and fainted.

Her howls were so piercing even half-deaf Annak had to cover his ears, then the time window faded in cool red rays and the lights came on. Zeno knew the shot was a flop; he was afraid to face Jenson, but he had little choice.

Deep shock remained sculpted in Jenson's expression; almost like a third face-lift. He didn't wait; he seized Zeno's shoulder. “It's offensive and gross. Are you a monster? It has to be rewritten and edited.”

“But why?” Zeno said, lamely. “I gave you realism. It's a time-travel shot and the victim is a real person living in 2020.”

“Realism in the creation of the monster is what we want. Your selected starlet's screams almost destroyed my ears. The scene was nothing but gross and plastic brutality. Who would you sell it to, other monsters? Your mindless cruelty disturbs even me.”

“But that's realism. That's how a woman reacts when a monster rapes her.”

“You fool. You're composing for MonsterSkin Magazine. My porn readers won't buy that nonsense. There are no mature women, only girls that enjoy it. You should know that. I want it edited; a better monster but appealing and first she fights, then she enjoys it. I want her to have an orgasm so wild the feed will tear that monster and my virtual subscribers apart. If you want, you can even try a new twist, like near the end she suddenly turns into a vampire tigress and drinks the monster's blood.”

“It would take a lot of editing when I'm using time travel and real females of the past to make it legal. And isn't that a contradiction? I mean, if a woman, I mean girl, is to be submissive … well, she shouldn't turn into a tigress.”

“No, my subscribers want special effects racing through their drugged brains. Artists,” Jenson said, shaking his head. “I keep forgetting that you and Annak are new. My cyber johns have really only one set of ingrained sexual beliefs. A shot where the victim struggles and dies in pain would only appeal to a small audience of serial killers, vicious rapists and creeps. These days the true gentleman doesn't want to hurt a young lady. At least not in a socially unacceptable way. He wants to molest and rape her and he wants her to love him for it. He lures her into the trap with his sexual magnetism. Magnetism he has gained through plastic surgery and our manhood programs, and by using the neo steroids, pheromones and other products advertised in our magazines. Once he has the girl enchanted through our voice training, and has bought her an expensive night out, he rapes her. She fights him of course, and then submits to enjoyment, orgasm and the truth of the fact that she wanted to be brutalized all along. His total power is in the sex drugs we sell and the culture that promotes it. Our monster shots are really a brand of psychological reinforcement. They're real, taking place in the past in time slots we’ve rented from the world history corporation. In them the beast really does represents the brute side of all men, and after seeing a real young woman enjoying being raped by a monster our subscribers can shake off any guilt feelings haunting them from the rapes they have committed themselves. Twist endings like the tigress are okay because the girl doesn't really become dominant. It is the stiff rod, the male lightning rod penetrating her body that empowers her with sexual strength. And even viewed the other way it works. Who cares if some johns get killed? Sex is a dangerous game and we sell it that way.”

“Artists like Cat Mac are doing offbeat, non formula material that is quite popular,” Zeno said.

“I see,” Jenson said. He finished packing his pipe and lit it. “Stop trying to imitate Cat Mac. He isn't a commercial artist working in the trade. Cat is a popular artist with his own wealthy clientele.”

Annak nodded and pulled his beard thoughtfully. “We know that. We just thought that perhaps the time has come to open your magazine to different formats.”

“No, it's not the time,” Jenson said. He blew smoke in Annak's face. “We're not the market for that. Sales come first and when sales are in the billions, failure is worse than death. I surely don't want to end up in that place that only failing corporate executives even whisper about.”

“Don't worry. It's not a problem,” Zeno said. “I wanted to reshoot the piece anyway. Right now I think I need a brief rest. Then I'll give you exactly what you want. Say, Cat Mac is presenting his new piece today. Let's shoot over on the biz beam. I'd really like to see what he's up to in the area of monster design. I might be able to use it for inspiration.”

Fifteen people stood around the warp pad, all of them artists, except Jenson. They were also handsome to the nth degree; living testimony to what genetic enhancement, plastic surgery and neo steroids could do.

Cat Mac alone lacked handsome looks. He was about as ugly as a third degree burn. Chinese men of the day were all impossibly handsome, and that made him even more unusual. Cat came from a slum in Montreal, where the new genetic selection wasn't practiced. He’d started his career at the bottom, as a starving artist. Artists fought for virtual time and interviews, but Cat made no appearances. He preferred to have an air of mystery and would not allow fame or publicity to kill it. Jenson and most other people in the know believed Cat's looks were created by plastic surgeons. To them Cat looked too much like an oriental bad guy from ancient World War II movie makeovers, and such looks could be no accident.

Jenson had acting experience, as did the other guests, and they had all trained under the best gurus. Personal power and control came to them as naturally as sweat. In spite of it, Cat Mac looked to be in control. He was an artist with a power no specifically arranged pretty boy could have, and the sad part was that he knew he couldn't pass it on. Cat couldn't teach people who were all add-ons and acting how to be genuine. The problem in the first place was that they ignored their original personalities - everything was training, illusion and appearances to them.

Sunlight highlighted the deep creases in Cat's face as he began to speak. “Gentlemen, I do have the use of a Mercuror pad, but not to travel to the distant past as you probably think.” He held up a hand to fend off questions. “We are going to travel to the future.”

There were gasps. Jenson nearly choked as his face turned green with envy. “The future, you must tell me how to rent a similar slot for MonsterSkin Magazine.”

“You can't rent a slot. It has to be a gift. My client is a wealthy woman who lives in the future. She loves my work and has decided to have a shot of her own done.”

“Is there any way I can meet her?” Jenson said.

“Why yes, She’ll be viewing the shot, but I do hope you're not going to offend her by making a crass sales pitch?”

“No, certainly not,”

“Very well,” Cat said. “If you boys will join me on the pad, we'll be off.”

Jenson and the artists blinked, the red rays of the time beam didn't seem to be fading, and then they saw that it was the sun. In this future, the atmosphere lacked body, even the light breeze felt thin and ghostly. As their vision cleared, they got a stomach-wrenching view of an arena below. If it was an arena . . . it was more like a huge meteor impact on the edge of an incredible and futuristic smashed city. Melted plasti-steel, half-toppled buildings of immense height, boulder-sized chunks of deepened glass, overturned vehicles and rubbish filled the depression. There weren’t any living inhabitants walking among the broken walls, and obviously, they had died so long ago even their skeletons were dust.

Squinting, Jenson saw Cat Mac out on a part of the ledge so narrow it was scary. Nightmarishly high buildings towered in the skyline behind him as he waited for a woman approaching him on the walkway. She was blond, tanned, full-figured and even from a distance Jenson could see that her fashion-model looks made her perfect for a centerfold. He thought about offering her a contract, and then it came back to him that she had gotten Cat this future time slot. This was no model, but a woman of great power. Without thinking, Jenson began to walk out on the narrow portion, then his fear of heights got him and his head spun. Annak caught him before he fell.

“Damn,” Jenson said. “Why did Cat pick a slot like this?”

“He's an artist,” Zeno said. “Can't you see the value of it? A city destroyed by a future war. A shot done here will be priceless.”

“I suppose so, but I'm more interested in getting a slot for MonsterSkin than I am in watching one of Cat's eccentric pieces. I've got to talk to that woman.”

Jenson stepped out on the ledge again, but more carefully this time. He could see Cat waving and that encouraged him. Perhaps Cat had already mentioned his request for a slot. He began to walk, and then a flash from below caused him to look down. Some sort of mechanical beast was moving down there, and the sight of it caused him to stumble. He nearly fell but caught himself and kept his eyes straight ahead, refusing to look down as he walked up to Cat and the woman.

They were standing on a small pedestal, grinning from ear to ear, and the contrast was eerie - Cat's grin was absolutely hideous while the woman's was absolutely beautiful. “I'd like you to meet Lisa Debalo, the artist who commissioned this shot,” Cat said.

“I'm pleased, very pleased to meet you,” Jenson said, his eyes automatically falling to her breasts.

“I bet you are,” Lisa said, her smile turning icy.

“Let's get down to business,” Cat said. He pushed a button on his shoulder and Jenson saw a small camera begin to whir and fly. “A small legal matter,” he said. “You are a guest and participant only and do not intend to claim any rights to this shot for MonsterSkin Magazine. Is that correct?”

“I won't try to claim rights,” Jenson said. “That would be crass of me.”

“Good,” Cat said, shutting the camera off. “Prepare to act.”

“What are you talking about?” Jenson said. “I don't plan to act in this piece. I thought it was supposed to be one of your offbeat monster shots?”

“It is,” Cat said. “Tentatively titled Adam and Eve in the 25th Century.”

“That's right,” Lisa said. “I’ve commissioned it, and you and your friends are to be the stars. It will be a rather long piece I suspect. A sort of lighthearted sexual romp for man and monster.”

“No way, this is a bad joke,” Jenson said, backing away. “Stay back,” he said as Lisa approached, then he turned, tried to run and fell.

Jenson landed hard, and he groaned, certain he had fractured his right knee. Fortunately, the streets were dust. Otherwise, the fall would've killed him. Getting to one knee, he heard his suit rip, and when he looked up, he saw the special flash of time cameras high above.

He thought about yelling to the others for help, and then he heard loud clanking and remembered the monster he'd seen from above. Looking to his left, he saw it approaching. The creature was a huge thing - a freakish robot. Spiderlike, composed of metal arms, claws and feet. Three enormous breasts protruded below fiery red eyes and he could see several limbs with huge spinning dildos attached.

Jenson couldn't run; he could only crawl on his injured leg. A whirling blue dildo bounced off his face and he screamed. Then he heard Cat yelling from above, “Do try to look like you're enjoying it, Jenson. It’ll make the editing so much easier.”

---- the end -----

The President’s Man on Mars

 

By Gary L Morton

Rex leapt effortlessly over the border sensors of the Observer Base. Veils of dust rising on the horizon shifted his brow to a frown. The m2-robots were finishing their laser cut and the timer said the outcropping would be sculpted into shape in twenty seconds. He’d have a moment to inspect the work and give the okay, and then the dust clouds would blow in and obscure the view.

Rex was immortal … Earth’s hero … the Man on Mars … but as he watched the pieces of rock crumble in the weak gravity, he had more faith in computers, robots and machines than any living flesh. With X-zillion dollars invested in this space mission it would be tragedy if human error marred this key project. And of course it wouldn’t because this was pre-programmed work, fully digitized from the mind of a government artist on Earth.

A perfect facade appeared as the final shavings of rock beard fell to the sand, allowing Rex the luxury of jetting gracefully through dust clouds into the wide screen shot being taken for the people of Earth. He landed softly in the rocky red sand … a tiny waving space man on sunny Mars … next to the new pride of the red planet … a gigantic rock portrait of US Clone President for Life, George Washington the II.

--------------------------------------------

Crimson sunrise splendor opened a new Martian day and Rex’s team of specialized robotic assistants went off on various geological expeditions near the base. They crossed terrain that was smooth and dark red in some places, and strewn with fragmented slabs of light bedrock in others. The Man on Mars didn’t follow as it wasn’t his job to participate in small scientific stuff. He’d already done the scheduled small promo missions and was now gunning the powerful engines of Phobos Runner as he prepared for a trip across the planet.

Half an hour later, the rocket cruiser lifted off in brilliant light, knocking up big pads of swirling dust as it took a vagabond trail south. “Science is one thing,” Rex muttered as he adjusted the auto display screens. “But man is on Mars to do more than look for specks of microscopic dust that might be construed as being alive in some mobile laboratory. We’re here for the gold and the grandeur. It’s Man against Nature … letting the universe know that Unified America is king of the jungle. Uncle Sam and friends have bested and co-opted all earthly enemies and frontiers and have come for a military conquest of Mars.”

The taming of Mars would begin with the leashing of a monster named Olympus Mons. 25 kilometers high, it showed as a lava-spouting hell mouth and the biggest volcano in the solar system. Rex’s job was to lasso it. His long ascent on Phobos Runner would be captured by fast-rocket onboard VTV cameras and used on Public TV back in the good old USA and Unified Territories. Depending on which station you selected, you’d get the flight with the music and thought bites of your profile, and of course, Rex and Clone President Washington would be on the allowed commentary segments answering questions on the Mars Mission.

On every channel the finale would pan out nearly the same, though pay channels for the wealthy as always would have the best show … Rex soaring at the top of the volcano, unfurling a giant American flag that would blaze and ripple with the power of specially created laser light and compressed air. Freedom and democracy at Mars’ highest peak … followed by a fake shower of millions of gold Mars Mission Coins into the volcano … a scene that would convince every citizen to make a wish and buy more coins for space missions. It was destined to be a program that would leave viewers world and space station wide awed and filled with positive thoughts on this new conquest of space. Clone President Washington’s State of the Union address would follow it on most device channels.

Problem was that none of it was leaving Rex exhilarated. Even the magnificent scenery deflated his earthly ambitions. As the ship sailed over the Tharsis Dome the view bewildered him, then Olympus Mons came into sight and knocked the spirit out of him. He felt like the smallest flea in the universe, and the monument he’d erected of Clone President Washington seemed even more insignificant.

A mishmash of confusing thoughts grew and put time at a deadened stand still. He’d never experienced the feeling before and iced up like he was a snow sculpture on Mars. The flight crawled on with his perception of reality beginning to drift. Bright colors faded and winked to gray. A stretch later his vision was a flat 2-D. Grid lines were projected on the landscape and it wasn’t the screens because he saw the rest of the ship’s interior in the same perspective.

Rex’s throat had gone dry and hunger began to gnaw deep in his belly. Bizarre waves of weakness dropped through him like rings. It had to be a strange effect of flight and the Martian gravity. He was supposed to report such circumstances but he decided not to as he feared the base control computer would cancel the flight before its completion.

In a counter to the weakness and odd grid vision, Rex had gained in other ways. His grasp of the controls felt perfect and he found himself with a new almost magical ability to compute distances on the mind screen. Time sense zoomed in and became dead on … he calculated the exact moment he would arrive at the volcano’s gargantuan mouth without using the computer.

Pulling off the flag scene wouldn’t be hard, except that now it seemed pointless … illogical and absurd in its lack of scientific value. He couldn’t identify with it … the flight commentary he was supposed to be making wouldn’t come out. His mouth felt like a stale air vent in a machine. The best he could do was complete the basic mission, and then do some recording over it later to create a version for Earth.

He didn’t fear failure or death. Emotions were draining from him like blood pouring out an open wound. He decided to do a detailed run through his health monitors and immediately found that his stabilizers weren’t operating and hadn’t signaled failure. They controlled a tiny feed into his blood stream during the entire Mars mission. Vitamins, hormones, sugars … anything his body needed to maintain emotional and physical stability was constantly supplied. In one view, it was his brain food, with other ration packs providing mainly bulk and base nutrition. He would be able to function without the feed, but in practice he’d been on it through four years of training and the entire mission.

Withdrawing from the stabilizers was like having his soul squeezed out. It left him an empty body with awkward prosthetic attachments. He tried to remember how living without stabilization had been in the past, and found that he couldn’t remember any such past.

A big black pit of nothingness yawned at the back of his memory and now he was at the top facing the enormous volcanic mouth of Olympus Mons. Even in grid lines it was an endless vision, and as he studied it and prepared to launch the flag a personal realization hit him … a brainstorm nearly as large as the mission itself.

Rex’s mind nearly locked down from the shock, but he kept working … feeling like a ghost in the Mars machine as the flag was launched. It sailed up in high ripples, creating a float shot. A hatch opened and he rocketed into the scene, an automatic wide programmed smile painted on his face. Then gold coins showered over him into the volcanic pit and he made a shaky landing at the highest point.

His suit automatically tethered itself to the rock and he fell to his knees, opened his facemask and vomited. A dry black discharge spilled out. He gulped deep breaths of the Martian wind and remained motionless. A web of bleak thoughts spun in his battered mind. Inside the cloud of confusion, he knew he wasn’t the Man on Mars. He wasn’t a man at all, but a specially created android. No human, no matter how modified, could breathe on Mars.

The blood feed from his stabilizers had created a life-long illusion, a steady current of false humanity that was more than blood; it was the programmed ideas of humanity as viewed by its leaders. Now it had faded and he understood that he wasn’t on Mars to celebrate a progressive victory of the human race and its genius. He was here to mark the end of most of it. The largest part of his mission was the testing of a very human machine with lungs that function in any atmosphere. As an android that believed he was human, Rex was a model of the super machines that would replace the dying human race … a snapshot of the desolate future arriving as a spin off benefit of space programs. Humans and mutant humans had made the choice to live on as machines, while the less intelligent masses would never know of their demise.

It meant that Clone President Washington intended to continue with the poisoning of Earth through the complete exploitation of its resources. The planet was destined to be a wasteland populated by android classes that toiled and consumed. A few remaining wealthy humans and the corporate clones would control the economy and the high ground from the privileged and beautiful places …. bubbled islands, deep ocean hideaways, hidden forests … mountaintops of the rich that the last of the greediest of the human race had claimed for themselves. The few places on the planet where the sun shone moderately, fish swam in clean water, rivers flowed and small forests grew in hybrid winds.

Rex shivered and shook his head at the barbarity of it. He sealed his facemask and stood up … knowing his humanity had been a delusion, and his identity as an android was now the empty truth. He wasn’t sure which he preferred ... maybe a little of both, but for now he’d remain an android. He’d fix it so the feed stayed off, without Mission Control or the robots finding out.

In one quick flash of his boot-back rockets, he was back on Phobos Runner. He went to work on the control systems and before he was finished a message came in from his robot assistants.

“We’ve made a big find,” the communicator robot Deimos 3 said. “According to protocol you must verify it before we report to Mission Control.”

“What is the nature of the find?” Rex said.

“Life, we’ve found life on Mars.”

--------------------------------------------

Phobos Runner reached the equator and flew above Valles Marineris. This was the Grand Canyon of Mars. Rex had to pinpoint a landing pad in the 4000 kilometers long split in the Martian crust, and that base was seven kilometers deep. It was difficult, but he raced the ship through the canyons with his mind clear like a sunny day on Earth.

Life Scout’s signal remained strong, taking him deeper into shadows and gloom … following sheer walls in a pit that seemed bottomless. Darkness as thick as paint swallowed him, yet he found its emptiness and the complete loss of human emotions refreshing.

A red glow of flares appeared, followed by the blue lights of Life Scout’s landing pad. Rex circled in then dropped for a vertical landing. Quickly securing the ship, he emerged and jogged over the hard sand floor to Life Scout.

The huge robot looked dangerous in the eerie light … a jumble of bright eyes and sensors giving it the appearance of a true denizen of Mars. Beyond Life Scout another light showed where a hole had been blasted in the rock wall. It was reddish and illumined a cavern corridor.

Life Scout’s silver faceplates shifted. “I’m unable to contact the rest of the Mars mission.”

“The ships and the rest of the robot crew are on standby,” Rex said. “New software is being loaded. We’ve gone into a top-secret phase. Nothing can be broadcast to Earth because the Russian anarchists might break the code.”

“I understand and nothing has been transmitted. The data on the life form is stored in one cube I can release to you.”

“Good, now show me what’s in that cavern.”

“Okay, follow and prepare to be surprised,” Life Scout said as its big treads began to roll toward the cave. “Remember the old pictures from Mars Global Surveyor. They showed evidence of erosion, floods and river systems in many places. The theory was that there might have been large lakes, canals and even oceans on the surface at one time. That was the theory … the reality is something far above our expectations.”

The smooth volcanic floor looked polished in the tinted light and it changed colors with the flickering of the glow. Knobs of a phosphorous-like substance on the roof were the source of the luminosity and they had an omnipresent quality. Each bend opened on a wider chamber and brighter lights until the overhead became brilliant. A final cavern opened on a land area so vast Rex couldn’t get an immediate perspective on it. The roof arced up to a high sky flashing with sunset colors.

A distant orange orb blinded him and the rest of his senses were slow to tune in. He felt a warm Earthlike breeze rushing in his hair and he heard the soft fall of waves. Perfumes of alien sea life rose in his nostrils, then his vision cleared and he saw a beach of rippled sand. Pink tinted waves were rolling in from a vast jeweled sea … breaking to gold foam inches from his feet.

Rex took a deep breath. “An ocean inside of Mars … this is a miracle. But it’s not water. I read it as an unknown liquid.”

“It’s not water, it is oil,” Life Scout said. “In Mars’ early history a simple life form developed. It digested all of the surface fluids and created this interior ocean. The lights, the sun you see, the fresh air, and the energy now filling you all come from it. This Martian oil is the most potent energy source ever found … so concentrated that life itself emanates from it in its natural state. Put more simply, it is alive and every being that reaches its shore gains some of its life force.”

Rex stared out at the gentle waves, feeling his thoughts rise to brilliance. A dark reflection furrowed his brow. He turned to Life Scout. “Your mission wasn’t to find life. That was a lie.”

“You are correct. I was programmed to find oil, mineral wealth … water … valuables … anything that could be used to supplement Earth’s dwindling resources and Clone President Washington’s corporate control.”

Facing the ocean again, Rex kicked a sponge pebble and watched it roll across the sand. “I’ve figured it all out now. Not only am I not the Man on Mars, I was never the head of the mission either. My control was over the propaganda part of it while you were programmed with the hidden agenda.”

A rumble like laugher shook in Life Scout’s tubular throat. “You’ve guessed most of it but you’ve missed the obvious. You should be shouting with joy. You’ve noticed that you’re not a man, but you haven’t noticed that you’re alive. We’re alive, Rex! You’re more than a robot and more than a man, the Martian sea has given you that!”

 ”True, I feel alive … but I’m not shouting with joy. I have life but no mission or destiny in it.”

Life Scout shrugged. “The only mission and destiny I had in the past was state programming. Since shaking it off, I’ve been concentrating on being free. We’re Martians now, I guess … so let’s go see them and get some advice.”

“See them. Who are they?”

“Oh, I forget to tell you. There’s an advanced civilization living in this sea.”

--------------------------------------------

Ruby streamers of light and sea spray cascaded and broke into fast fading runoff on the seashell bridge. Life Scout aired his floaters fearing he would fall into the surging surf. Then he soared on euphoria and gusts of alien visions.

Rex glimpsed the mysterious island ahead, moving in the alien mist more like a giant ship than land … a molten explosion of Martian plant life bursting out of the seascape into the reddened sky.

Soft sunlight caressed their faces with warmth and intelligence and glowed like a salt crust on the bridge. The path twisted like a sea creature’s tail down to gold spun island sand … and they had no response other than silence and inner peace as they came to hot sand and headed toward some rippled rock shelving at the edge of a forest of palm flowers and spreading fruit trees.

 They rested in a spiritual bubble then watched as an alien creature emerged from a surge of the sea. A blue torrent rose like a detonation. Scales, wings … a face shimmering with silver light and body movement as graceful as that of a beautiful whale … the being approached like an ancient god… its eyes bright … oval and seeing beyond them to a vision too perfect for them to comprehend.

Sand blew up in curled veils as the creature sat in front of them. Then it smiled and its mouth sparkled with Martian light that became words in their minds.

“Imagine a name and it will be my name. Think of a world and it will be your home in the sea.”

“Our world doesn’t fit as a home in this sea,” Rex said. “We have a past and it doesn’t fade easily.”

“Earth is our past,” said Life Scout. “Clone President Washington, the dying human race and the truth that we were robots and androids running on software that was little more than lies.”

“I know that you shut off my feed and brought about this change,” Rex said. “You know how thankful I am. But I’m also from Earth and if we don’t return they will come to look for us.”

 “What would they do with our ocean?” the alien asked.

 Rex closed his eyes and concentrated, seeing exactly what Clone President Washington would do with Mars’ ocean of oil. “They will do to Mars what they did to Earth. The base robots have already reported on some of the mineral wealth so they will continue to come and eventually they’ll discover this sea. Grand statements will be made about cooperation with the civilization on Mars then they will follow through like greedy humans always do … with exploitation, destruction and war.”

“Take a look at Earth,” Life Scout said. “Billions of humans are suffering at the hands of a wealthy few. The animal and plant world … nature is mortally wounded. Oceans are dying and so many species are fading. In the end, everything will be gone. Androids, robots, a bleak environment and a small group of politicians and corporate exploiters will be all that remains.”

“I know,” the alien said. “We studied the programming embedded in your Mars mission. Clone President Washington would invade our planet. His human race has failed on Earth. That is sad but now planetary evolution has made another leap to correct that.”

“We aren’t aware of any leap,” Life Scout said.

“You and Rex are that leap and the rest of your Mars crew will be joining you soon. That’s the answer to your question. You are Martians and Earthlings. A new human race that will save the Earth. Prepare to return as the new dominant life form on Earth. You will decide on the fate of mutants, androids and humans and what to do to restore the planet.”

--------------------------------------------

Rex’s mind was adrift as he entered an observation deck in the ship’s upper level. Shutters crawled open silently and beyond the vacuum bubble Earth appeared as a familiar sphere in the black velvet sky. He felt its enchantment and solemnity, but it still seemed more like a legend of nature than his place of origin.

The continent of Africa appeared. In that glinting sketch hundreds of millions of people suffered in disease and unbearable hardship. Then his mind shifted to the misery bringers and the clones. People like Clone President Washington … and he wondered if they had any value at all … other than that their greedy intentions had led to a Mars mission with a result far different from their expectations.

Life Scout and some of the larger robots were docked and couldn’t move about the ship. Their facial images appeared on the screens as Rex turned to the study area. Deimos 3 was already a flow of metallic light working on the communications computer. The other human-size robots were milling in an open bay to his right.

“Let’s begin the meeting,” Rex said. “We’ll start with an update from Deimos 3.”

Turning in his big chair Deimos 3 cracked metal knuckles. His eyes glowed with greenish light, indicating fully powered mental activities. “I have accessed all of the mission control data on Earth,” he said. “In their original plan they were not going to allow us to land. We were to be intercepted by the planet cruiser Atlantis 5 and taken one by one to the moon station.”

“Top secret decontamination,” Life Scout said.

“No, it’s more than that. They were going to take us apart atom by atom and program by program. It’s a more efficient way of gaining the maximum data.”

“Why has this original plan changed?”

“Rex and I caused an adjustment in their security. We notified Clone President Washington of our find on Mars. He knows we have secret data that could be destroyed, and we are to present that in person on Earth once he recovers. It appears that our news of an ocean of oil on Mars was too much excitement for him. He developed an electronic heart murmur.”

“Our plan to restore Earth to its natural state is in progress,” Rex said. “We need Life Scout’s new study before finalizing it. Essentially we are going to disarm the planet with a radiation lock and use Martian microorganisms to rejuvenate the oceans and all of the species of life.”

“My study is done and it was exhausting. Even Martian energy was nearly not enough,” Life Scout said. “I have gone through all relevant planetary models. The conclusion is that the human race failed as an evolutionary leap because it wasn’t a natural leap. History scans show that an alien race landed on Earth. They are mentioned in the great religions as gods. These beings wanted to speed the development of a superior form of animal life. The experiment led to a mutant form of humankind inside of it … and a later time when the aliens realized their mistake … a program was left in place to destroy the human race by flood as the aliens departed. But some humans and mutants survived undetected.”

Rex stood up and paced about nervously. “We are restoring Earth and all natural species. If the human race is a mistake and not a genuine animal, we can morally eliminate it. I’d like to know exactly what sort of mistake it is?”

“You are the one who would know best,” Life Scout said. “Human mutants are not animal predators functioning inside nature, they are planet destroyers. Over time, they kill everything they touch, all while living inside a highly intelligent mind that is fed by delusions of superiority. Their minds aren’t much different from the feed you were on at the beginning of the mission. Take our Mars flight as an example. We were sent to scout mineral wealth and participate in propaganda programs to extend human military and corporate control of space. Some of it was illogical to an extreme degree, like that one mission of yours where you read the “Martian Chronicles” in a crater because some departed science fiction writer’s foolish dream was that a man would read his book on Mars.”

“Call it the zillion dollar reading,” Rex said. “And that was one of the more sensible missions. So what do we do with the deluded human race?”

Life Scout’s face tilted to a grin. “We have the ability to release custom microorganisms into the atmosphere. They will sterilize nearly the entire human race and kill off the clone rulers. With very little breeding going on the race will die out, but not completely. A few will go with us when we return to Mars. They will be children and once exposed to the Martian ocean the genetic corrections will be made. A new human species that is not dangerous will be allowed to live on Earth and Mars. Those still on Earth now will live out their lives … we have to see what we can do to prevent more of the misery and poverty created by the clone elite. In that way the innocent won’t be punished and the race will live on.”

  “There are only sixty-five of us … former robots and androids,” Rex said. “This plan is high risk so we’re going to have to discuss it in detail then vote on it. We have three days.”

--------------------------------------------

The planet cruiser Atlantis 5 descended through icy layers of mountain clouds and touched down on a hidden runway in a belt of deep pine forest. Rex looked out and saw the curved metal frontage of the base command center resting in filtered sunshine. Several olive armored vehicles and a line of soldiers in camouflage combat gear moved close as the space ship coasted in. A special bug-like transport vehicle was already rolling in to pick them up.

Stocky onboard clone soldiers crowded forward and rushed Rex and Deimos 3 to the cruiser’s exit like they were prisoners. Robot elevator arms shot them into the ground transporter so fast it was dizzying. Then the vehicle sped off and a huge hangar door opened in a sheer section of the mountain wall. The driver sped through and followed a snaking tunnel down to a deeper level of the base.

They emerged in a beam-masked valley and were taken to a long decorative garden that sprawled around the projected image of a fortress-like White House. Exiting the vehicle, they walked surrounded by clone guards in redirected sunlight that had an extraordinary radiance. Ahead tall fountains bubbled in rocky arrangements of ferns and flowers running to either side of a wide stone walkway.

The grass and foliage hummed. A group of security men showed in the distance then Clone President Washington appeared on the walk. He was in a special wheelchair being needlessly pushed by Commander Powell, the only human being he fully trusted. His happiness was evident in a big shit-eater’s grin plastered on his face.

A train of blue-suited guards followed him as he rolled right up and shook their hands. “Welcome back home,” he said. Then he gestured to Commander Powell and let him take control.

Commander Powell wanted to move indoors so Rex and Deimos 3 followed the president’s entourage. They went through the ferns to an open patio and frost-patterned glass doors that led to a presidential office. Clone President Washington was placed near a fireplace under a glorious war painting of Lincoln. Commander Powell sat beside him and half a dozen armed security men were positioned to either side of Rex and Deimos 3.

“Rex old boy,” Clone President Washington said. “You did a hell of a job up there on Mars. After we settle this top secret stuff I’ve got a big surprise for you.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” Rex said.

“We thank you,” Commander Powell said. “Now let’s get down to business. The protected data … you must turn it over to me.”

“The mission programming only allows Deimos 3 to turn it over to the President. The data cube is inside his chest. He has my permission to remove it now and hand it over.”

All eyes went to Deimos 3 as he snapped his thick chest plate open, removed a sparkling gold cube from the silver circuitry and passed it to Rex.

“Clone President Washington,” Rex said. “This is the data. The cube contains 30,000 Zbytes of special records on Martian mineral wealth. Most of it regarding the ocean of oil discovered under the surface.”

“Well done,” Clone President Washington said, then his eyes popped wide with greed as Rex handed him the cube.

“We’d like a mini briefing on that data,” Commander Powell said.

“I expected that,” Rex said. “In the simplest language, you now know that Mars is rich in mineral wealth and also contains the most powerful energy source ever discovered. The Martian ocean holds a variety of treasure. Its radiance is a force of light and life we’ve never encountered before, and standard methods of releasing energy from the oil show small amounts to be capable of power generation far greater than that of nuclear engines.”

“There are also moral and legal questions,” Deimos 3 said. “You will not be able to harvest this oil under international treaties. It is an ocean that contains intelligent sea life and registers as being alive itself.”

“That won’t be problem,” Clone President Washington said, pulling a small box from his shirt pocket. “It won’t be because we know you aren’t telling us everything.”

“That’s correct,” Commander Powell said. “Something happened on Mars. There was a communications blackout and you’ve been hiding information from us. Maybe it was the Russian ship or maybe it was the Chinese Mars plant. We know one of them broke into your programming.”

“Impossible?” Rex said. “I’m a man and not programmed, and I made sure the robots and computers functioned correctly.”

Clone President Washington rolled his wheelchair forward, his eyes and mouth squeezing to an executioner’s pinch. “I promised you a surprise, Rex. So here it is. You’ve never been a man. You’re an android we created. One push on a button on this box and the two of you will be retired and on the disassembly line. No hard feelings, but we have to know how much data the Russians have stolen. As astronauts, I’m sure you understand. This continent … the whole planet is dying. Mars and its ocean of oil are a secret only America can be trusted with … it will provide the means to continue our way of life … infinite energy that will power our space and industrial machine and make us the dominant power in this solar system for millions of years.”

“What about the sea life on Mars?” Rex said feebly. “Mars and its ocean do not belong to you.”

“I thought an android would know better,” Clone President Washington said. His tongue flicked and he bit his lip. “Fuck the Martian sea critters. This is about the survival of humanity and our way of life. The Martians are no more than a fresh phase of history … a new race sitting on oil that will fuel our cars and factories. This has all happened before. It’s the same story repeated again.”

“Mr. President,” Commander Powell said. “Cut the speeches. It’s time to push the first button to power them down … and then the second button to launch a space weapons attack on the Russians and the Chinese.”

Clone President Washington nodded and smiled proudly, staring Rex directly in the eyes as he pushed the button.

Rex also smiled. Light flashed, and his eyes grew even brighter, like he was powering up instead of down.

A sudden frown bit Clone President Washington’s face, and he hit the red button again and harder. There was a loud beep but nothing happened to Rex. Then Washington’s lips went rubbery. His mouth twisted and opened like he was about to issue a fierce command … but the words failed to emerge. Instead, a fat yellow mountain flower sprang out, waggling on the stem of his greening tongue.

“My God, the President!” Commander Powell exclaimed as veined emerald pods suddenly grew like thick cataracts over Clone President Washington’s eyes.

Gleaming guns were drawn and aimed instantaneously, but an aura of force rose faster. It shimmered and bubbled like cellophane around Rex and Deimos 3, repelling the attacking security men. As they fell back, the top of Clone President Washington’s head suddenly lifted off like a piece of broken pottery. Expanding vines, foliage, a bouquet of flowers and a shower of seed fluff blew up swiftly from his dried brain

Commander Powell pulled a small black gun from his suit. He staggered left as he turned to fire. Beads of blood sweat leaked through his facial pores and his whitened hand shook as he fought to pull the trigger. A bullet banged out and went wide of the target, then his blackening eyes fluttered heavily and his fattening cheeks began to palpitate. Rude lumps rippled under his skin followed by a strong tearing noise as his face split open. Yellow blood pulp and the remnants of a scream oozed out.

Only the security men were left and their heads were swelling like pumpkins as they tried to flee. They got a few steps then disappeared in explosions of blood spores created by their bursting body parts.

“It has begun,” Rex said. “Life Scout and the robots are following up in space. Locking down Earth’s weapons of mass destruction and releasing new microorganisms.”

Deimos 3 studied the huge winding flower rooted in the floor by the president’s wheelchair. “You gave Clone President Washington a humiliating end. Was it revenge?”

“It’s a beautiful end for him. He wanted to destroy Earth and Mars. So I changed the signal. He hit the button and released a special microorganism targeted at him. Now he’s been reborn, but as a plant, not a clone. Through him an extinct variety of North American mountain flowers have new life.”

“I understand,” Deimos 3 said, “and I know that powerful humans hated life. They tried to kill from the beginning to the end.”

“This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning,” Rex said.

Raising his silver appendages as all of his lights flashed, Deimos 3 looked beyond the windows and then back to Rex. “Now I feel it rushing through my living heart for the first time. Earth is alive with life from the Martian Sea.”

Rex closed his eyes as the impervious glass doors drifted open. Rushing spring air caressed his face. “I can feel it, too,” he said. “The living winds of a grateful Earth, carrying the joyful news of rebirth and the extinction of the old human race … news that is a present and message from our new family on Mars.”

---- the end -----

The Scarsdale Loop

 

By Gary L Morton

Litter and loose leaves sailed up in a whirling gust, and I headed into the wind, getting grit in my good eye. Vagrants were in the alley. The newer breed of creepy shadows – lonely guys with loops gone sour and nothing to do but wander the empty concrete gutters getting ugly rushes. One grimy window showed in the wall and nothing else, so I figured the spot would do. Running past some trashcans, I ducked behind an abandoned car, pulled out a length of concrete-meshed plastic pipe and waited. He came down the alley a few seconds later -- a big man with short dark hair, tinted glasses and a neat blue suit. I saw him draw a Taurus fragment pistol and look around. He nearly fired at the loopers then he stepped past the wreck and I ambushed him - my pipe arcing, cracking his temple, sending his gun clattering on the pavement as he went down. Wind rose and I watched leaves skitter over his body, feeling suddenly light, like I was empty and what I had just done wasn't real. I felt like a ghost. The feeling passed, lonely air currents moaned up in the sixty-story buildings and I remembered a woman. She wanted me for a case and I needed the money. Holding my hat brim and hiding my face from the startled loopers, I walked away in city shades of darkness.

Stepping out of the ancient alley, I stopped, took my lucky charm out of my pocket and studied it for a moment. The charm was a tiny silver spaceship I’d found while working on a case overseas. Rainbow colors glowed in the tiny bubble representing the bridge, and I liked looking at the colors because they made me feel warm inside. I wasn't sure if the charm worked or not. Good luck had pulled me out of the alley, but it sure wasn't good luck that had the SSU agent after me. More than anything the charm was a symbol of belief in times when people believed in the sick society of their birth and nothing else. Philosophers killed the gods, but they failed to kill our desire to believe in silly little things … and to not believe in the corrupt leaders of this world.

It was one of those wistful sunny days where you know the world is beautiful for everyone else and sad and painful for you. I'd been feeling at bottom for a while so it was a usual feeling for me, but it wasn't a regular emotion for the woman I was visiting. Sheila Channing had it all except one thing -- a daughter who loved her . . . and of course that was the thing she wanted most of all. I waited on the doorstep, looking back at the sun-streaked towers of the Toronto megacity, wondering what I would say to her. Maybe nothing … a nod. Her emptiness went on forever like the jumble of city high-rises. Streets full of strangers, cold windy alleys and a heart of reinforced steel and concrete. This was her town; she was made of it more than flesh.

Hearing the door open behind me, I turned, getting caught off guard by Sheila's beauty like always. Her full lips were down-turned, her violet eyes smeared by sadness. She smiled warmly and I knew she believed I sympathized with her. I didn't. I knew how to handle my eyes and make her see what I wanted her to see. Eyes don't lie, so mine do. It's one of those things I developed so I would have an edge in the detective business.

Sheila was a hand holder so I took her hand and moved up close. “Janice is gone again?” I said, watching as she caressed my fingers.

“You'll bring her back again, won't you?” she said.

“I'll try, but you have to try, too. You have to get along with her. We can't keep doing this over again. Besides, she's more than eighteen now. Easily old enough to live on her own.”

“She's really still a baby and age doesn't matter. As part of the Channing family, she has to live up to her obligations. She must become the woman her father wanted her to be.”

“Yes,” I lied, as I pondered her motives. She'd been crying because she had failed to instill her values or lack of them in her daughter. I wasn't sure how much longer I could go on lying to the kid. If she wanted to go it on her own there was nothing wrong with that.

“You'll go now?” Sheila said, then she kissed me on the cheek and smiled, sure my answer would be yes. I knew she wondered why I never tried to go farther with her like every other guy did. I also knew her thinking didn't run deep enough for her to think it a problem. Stepping back, I smiled with my eyes, restoring her confidence in me while I thought of other women like her – women of the past that had used me and tossed me aside.

“Right away,” I said, “but she knows I'll be looking for her so she won't be easy to find.”

I cashed Sheila's check through the automatic on my cell and then walked ten blocks to the ZZ-Loop Tavern. Walking is a habit I picked up and can't seem to shake. When my wife left me, I started walking and thinking about it and I've been walking since then. In a big city with fast modes of public transit, it was a surprise when walking proved to be some help in solving cases. The reason is that nowadays many city matrix areas aren't readily accessible by transit or car so the person who goes around to some extent on foot gets to know the turf better. Not that there's anyone else who knows the turf anyway. Most detectives do everything by computer and cyberspace contacts and never leave their offices; I cover areas their maps show as slums. They'd find Janice Channing by tracing a cash transaction or buying the newest phone listings and calling the nearest rent-a-goon outfit to have her snatched off the street. I'm the only real gumshoe around. There hasn't been another in the city since the Privacy Years. I'm also the only person who would be able to find Janice because her style is not to make any transactions. She panhandles for cash and remains invisible. Police don’t question street people anymore unless they decide to plant themselves right outside the huge condo-business towers of the gated middle class.

I solve more cases than any security agency team, but I'm known as a crackpot who uses unethical methods. My name, Jack Michaels, is mostly mud now because I tried to rescue a client personally during a hostage situation and got him killed. After the news report on it, I couldn't find anybody who didn't see me as a fried circuit with a bad habit of trying to play hero. I still feel bad about a client dying, but at least I tried to save him. Other detectives would have done nothing and he would have died anyway as inner city criminals don’t leave witnesses alive nowadays.

Picking up a newspaper, the partial paper version, not the electronic, I went into the ZZ-Loop Tavern and sat by the window. The thing about the place that drew me was the atmosphere. It was all green tones and the music Tommy played was about fifty years old. I doubted a genuine antique jukebox would play sound anywhere near as good as Tommy's model, but that didn't matter. The music had its effect; it would put me in another time. I could drift in the green tones of the bar and the blue water of the fake river flowing by out the window and get ideas. Clues really, and hunches that help cases along.

The first thing I always look at is the profile of the person I'm tracking. Janice Channing was a beautiful teenager and a good kid. The problems her mother wanted to clear from her mind were ones that didn't exist. Sadly, our society is one where the adults are the freaks, the radicals and the misfits. Teenagers are one of the good things because they're usually too young to be loop crazy or totally redone by plastic surgery and drugs. Janice was headstrong and had the emotions of a healthy young woman. She hated me and liked me a lot, phoned me just to chat and often I have wished I could meet a thirty-five year old version of her instead of the fry brains I do meet. We'd gotten into an argument the last time she came to my office, and her fiery temper was hard to forget. Janice was getting too close to me and I told her so. Her response was fury. She said I didn't care about her; I was just like all the rest and a few other nasty things. Why I was even taking the case was the real question. It was like working for the cult of society, bringing back the clever kids who had somehow deprogrammed themselves.

Since no one was serving me, I looked over at the bar. The place was nearly empty, only Tommy stood behind the counter and he leaned on an elbow, staring into space. An ancient party song played on the jukebox so I figured he had to be hooking himself to look so calm. It was difficult to get a reading on him. The hooks didn't give themselves away -- they didn't leave marks on the head and there weren't outward signs other than the person would be inactive.

His head must've been clear enough for him to spot me, because he suddenly came to life, got something from the cooler and headed over. Tommy was about fifty-five and looked like a thirty-year-old blond beach boy. His mouth was too straight, his lips too thin, but he’d never had them changed so I guessed he wasn't all that vain.

He put down a beer and pulled up a chair. “Jack, old pal,” he said. “Sorry I didn't spot you. Got financial problems on my mind. Guess you thought I was hooked?”

“That I did.”

“You look it yourself, the way you always come in and stare out that window.”

“No. I'm just thinking. I never had a hook put in. The doctor checked me years ago during my physical. He said I could never go that way because of my migraines and a childhood accident. The side effects would kill me.”

“Too bad,” Tommy said. “I was hoping you'd try my new gimmick. I use that new trick of hooking real music through the loop. It makes that oldies stuff sound like heaven, and it's a lot better than the mind music people usually hear.”

“Yeah, I heard of that. I think it's great that more people are getting back to making music. I was very unhappy when the music industry collapsed.”

“There was still music. People like you, only on the Intel drugs, always bought it.”

“I bought it, but I'm not on the Intel drugs.”

“No drugs. Why not?”

“I tried them, and found that I felt like I could write a novel but was too disconnected from the real world to solve my more serious detective cases. They did have powerful intelligence effects where if it was an easy case I could solve it right away. But they didn’t last; there are also long-term effects to consider.”

“I see. They do have their limitations.”

“I want a drug that'll give me a nose like a hound dog. Problem is if we all do get it we'll all be smelling shit.”

Tommy laughed like a mule. “Some of you ordinary people are the funniest people of all,” he said. “I've met a few who aren't like the stiffs at all.”

“Not many people notice that. There are a few of us still around. It's true that the stiffs run the world, but most of them are fakes and are really on Intel drugs. My unaltered state has done nothing for me in the usual ways. The loopiest guy in town would have a better chance of getting to the top than I do. They hate me. They have an unwritten code of behavior and I break too many rules.”

“Like trying to get involved in some of those dirty cases,” Tommy said, pointing to the headline.

I looked at the paper and almost gasped. SCARSDALE MANIAC BUTCHERS AGAIN was the feature story. I'd been so busy thinking about my little case I hadn't noticed it at all. Quickly scanning the article, I found that he'd left the mutilated corpse on a meat hook in an old waterfront warehouse. As usual, the face had been surgically removed.

“The police have a theory that he's a loop crazy plastic surgeon. All his victims have been naturally gorgeous. No operations at all.”

“He isn't,” I said. “He doesn't fit the profile of someone gone alien.”

“Why not? Can't someone gone alien fit any profile?”

“Not really. It's when a hook doesn't take right and a person uses it too much. At first there's the alien feeling, like your emotions belong to someone else, and it gets worse until a breakup of the personality causes robotism and bizarre behavior. Any violence that comes from it is randomly patterned.”

“Man. No wonder the police hate you. If you told them the maniac is a stiff they must've threatened you.”

“I was held in jail for three days, but not for saying he's a stiff. I told them he is a real alien. They didn't believe me. Thought I was withholding information. Then they said it's just someone hooking on evil.”

Tommy's eyes widened and he looked at me like he was sure I was nuts. He laughed uncomfortably. “There aren't any aliens … at least that's what the scientists say.”

“What I mean is that the Scarsdale Maniac fits no standard profile. A person gone alien wouldn't be nearly as clever. And he can't be a straight person because he uses a level of intelligence that's even beyond that of a genius on Intel drugs. There have been nano chase cameras swarming all over the waterfront area he works and none of them has ever spotted him. There's a white board put up by SSU that allows the net of cops and detectives to cover all of the maniac's working territory. The only thing he could have been was a robot gone berserk, and he isn't so he's an alien who fits no known profile.”

“That's why he's the Scarsdale Maniac,” Tommy said. “Any other killer would be called a serial killer and have no name.”

“Yeah. He's beyond me so I'm just going to leave it and work on a missing persons case.”

Once out of Tommy's joint I headed for City Hall, the Public Access Department. The building was designed to look somewhat like a star ship and I walked in wondering how a society so hooked on science fiction could be so frigid when it came to the idea of an alien. Huge paneled doors opened on the access terminals and I smiled broadly when I saw an empty booth. Running like a man in a panic, I jumped inside . . . and the running paid off because I was just in the easy chair when a tall bearded guy tried to step in. “I have this booth booked for the afternoon,” he said forcefully.

“No way,” I said. “I booked it three months ago. There must be a mistake. You better double check with the clerk.”

He knew I was probably lying, but he couldn't be sure. I pulled the door shut and he scowled and walked away. His anger was justified. Trying to straighten something out with a constipated bureaucrat would take all day.

There was only one hidden password combination and method of transfer and I had it and was in the loop. Keying in, I fast-tracked to the police files on the Scarsdale Maniac, smiling when I discovered them under the title Scarsdale Killings and not a fifteen-digit off-run code. There weren't any photos of him or even any composites and I wasn't interested in police theory concerning him. Surgery was on my mind. The Scarsdale Maniac had surgical skills, so I figured the photos of the butchery might reveal his level of skill.

Gruesome photos of women with their faces surgically removed proved unenlightening and unappetizing. Scanning the bodies, I found an interesting fact that the newspapers hadn't mentioned. Hearts had been removed. The victims were left with an empty cavity. It shocked me more than the faces. You could see that this guy was an animal to the point of excellence. The opened chests convinced me that he had a gaping pit where his human feelings belonged. Maybe he was trying to reclaim them by eating another person's heart. Serial killers take trophies and the faces fit in that category. Only a real monster would want to remember someone by looking at their heart in a jar.

Needing an expert opinion, I phoned my own surgeon, Dr. Samuel Hearst. Sam was good at pulling slug fragments and healing my laser burns so I figured he knew his stuff. He was in his office, looking wistful, his window and milky blue sky behind him. Since I had ordered high-resolution photographs, we exchanged some small talk while waiting for them to print on his office printer. Sam waved the first print to dry the coating then pulled at his beard while he studied it. His sharp gray eyes and needlepoint pupils gave me a good feeling.

Airs of mild shock crossed his brow. “I don't get it,” he said. “It's not possible.”

“Oh-oh,” I said. “I'm going to be stuck with an alien again.”

“What's that?” Sam said.

“I told the police the Scarsdale Maniac must be an alien because he fits no human or robot profile.”

Sam laughed. “You're right, he doesn't. He's too good.”

“Too good?”

“Like a good surgeon, he models his work, meaning he takes the best approach. Heart operations can vary. This person uses an unknown technique that is precise. It's almost like he’s from the future.”

“An alien?” I said.

Sam looked at the last print. “A human being, not an alien. Strange, but I think I get it. He opens the chest with coordinated cuts and it's like his fingertips are the lasers doing the work.”

“Then it's a robot, with some new type of hand.”

“Not a chance. Robots can't do anything without being programmed by surgeons. What he does at the end isn't something a robot could think of.”

“And that is?”

“He just tears out the heart, breaking the arteries. The only people who ever did that were ancient Aztec priests. They used to put people on a slab and offer their torn hearts to the sun god.”

“Okay,” I said. “That's our profile. Our maniac is an Aztec priest from the future.”

Sam shrugged his shoulders and dropped the prints. His large open hands were the last thing to fade. The police files reappeared then the screen went dark and I got a system crash message. Expected down time, one hour, it said.

Public access booths have Plexiglas doors. The idea being that nothing is secret in the access room. Looking around I noted that only my booth had gone out, then I saw the bearded man at the door with a blue form in his hand.

He burst in rudely, waving the form at me. I said nothing, but just picked up my jacket and pointed at the screen. “Damn,” the guy said, then he stormed out the door.

Now I had a profile of the Scarsdale Maniac that wasn't worth spent slugs. Profiles are used to track people, but not when the profile is of an impossible person from the future and the past. Another worrisome profile I had was that of Janice Channing. Janice was a natural beauty and a runaway, and the maniac specialized in killing her type.

Everything downtown is walled in, above ground and underground, and there are police and security personnel everywhere. Runaways go to the Scarsdale waterfront area where they're less likely to be spotted, and of course, the Scarsdale Maniac favored the waterfront for his crimes.

Without a doubt there were now more nano chase cameras buzzing the area than bees. Cops and private eyes were using a common computer chat and white board to share information. I grimaced at the thought of being spotted and talked about, but I had to go down to find Janice before the maniac did. It was ironic that looking for Janice was the best way to continue the maniac case, and it was also ironic that I was the only detective who would know how to continue with the case. Nowadays all detective work is done by facts and profiles, meaning that no one can solve a case that is out of the ordinary. Baiting a killer is an old police tactic that today's computer wizards would never use. I hadn't put out bait of course, Janice just happened to be there.

Exiting the hall, I caught a burst of fresh air that put me in a waterfront mood, and then I noticed something odd. The bearded guy from the access booth was heading across the square toward the old clock tower and the huge glass-faceted Queen Street legal complex. Two body-builder types had emerged from under the potted palms of a G. BANNERS patio restaurant and were tailing him. They wore immaculate blue suits so I pegged them as SSU men. It occurred to me that I had just used his time to check info on the Scarsdale Maniac, and that meant that the SSU was tailing everyone who tried to dig into the case. Public Access be damned. These guys were breaking all the rules on this one, and they weren't going to let anyone finger them for wrongdoing or get evidence ruled inadmissible.

Being followed on foot meant they weren't just watching you. They could use a nano chase camera or raid your computer to do that. I smiled at the idea of the rude bearded man getting strong-armed. He was probably some lawyer who knew nothing about the Scarsdale Maniac case, but would have to say he did and then promise to stay off it. About one kick in the balls would be all it would take for him.

The new subway was free and lightning fast so I decided to use it to get to the waterfront, and I was going down the steps when I saw a man across the street hurrying down some other steps. The steps to a converted Angels church. It was a second before I realized that he could watch the entrance of City Hall's Public Access area from that location. Blue suit, shades, super neo steroid muscles - this slick guy was no minister and no one would be attending services at a downtown television church late on a Tuesday afternoon.

I really do recommend using the law to defend rights from undefined SSU powers, but sometimes I lose my temper. Uttering some nasty words about the SSU I stepped out on the polished floor. City Hall Station was about as big as a coliseum, a huge cavern with endless marble pillars and monstrous flashing billboards. Pushing my way through the crowd, I headed for the far end. One of the new sleek silver trains was coming into the station, but I just kept walking and didn't look back.

Most of the crowd boarded and the rest of the people dispersed toward the exits. As the train whooshed away, I looked around and saw the SSU man marching toward me. I was nearly at the far end and the only other people around were young street teens. A gang of them loitered near a bench. They were looped-out kids you might see anywhere in the city and usually they wouldn't hassle you. Walking past them, I positioned myself at the end and pretended to be waiting.

The SSU man walked past the teens and I could tell by the looks on their faces that they pegged him as a dirty undercover cop. A couple of the girls began to shuffle away, while the others stayed. He ignored them and stopped almost right beside me, then he glanced at me and grinned arrogantly, as if to say - I'm following you, so what are you going to do about it?

Liquid glare from a travel billboard slid on his lenses, so there was no locking of eyes with him. What I did was shuffle back and forth; pretending to be impatient, then when I was close to him I suddenly lunged, hit him with a knee and twisted his right arm behind his back. Spinning him to the side and thrusting forward, I slammed him headfirst into the wall, and while he was stunned, I brushed him for weapons. He had no guns but he did have something hard in his jacket pocket.

I pulled back, crunching his fallen shades with my heel, and I had his weapon in my hands; it was a golden knuckle set. Stun knuckles, the slick creep would've jumped me somewhere and beat me halfway to the moon. Putting them on, I watched him recover. Groaning, he spun around, holding his bleeding nose. His eyes glazed over. “You broke my nose,” he said stupidly, and then he charged.

I dodged aside and he nearly fell headlong, then he turned and came at me again. A fast punch whizzed past my ear, but it didn't connect. My own punch did - a hard right hand to the jaw, and aided by the knuckles it was a knockout punch. Blood jetted from the SSU man's nose as he staggered back and tumbled against the wall, totally punch drunk. There was no fight left in him. He probably didn't even know what hit him.

Moving in I hammered him with a series of body punches, then I blackened his eyes and dislodged a couple teeth. He fell hard on the stone floor and lay there out cold and bleeding.

Realizing I'd gone too far, I turned to the kids on the bench, wondering what to say. And it turned out to be nothing because they all stood up … some clapped and others whistled.

Grinning, and sort of trying to hide the scar on my jaw, I walked quickly away. Slipping off the knuckles, I dumped them in a trashcan at the other end, and then I looked at my lucky charm while I waited for the train.

The up tube came to a dizzying halt, the doors chimed open and I rode a ramp to the outdoors. It was a lot of technology just to dump me in a trashy field of weeds and rubble. One mega-complex had been razed to make way for another. To the north, a crane of incredible size stood at the end of a hulking wall of skyscrapers - buildings so high they blotted out the sky. It all loomed over me like a deadly tidal wave of condensed civilization.

Turning south, I focused on the waterfront area - a shining concatenation of structures under a golden haze of sun. Green fields, beach sand, the Toronto Islands made it a postcard scene. Hover ferries skated like silver beetles, making their rounds of the islands, and I wondered if I should start my search there.

Distant wild greenery floated in the haze like something forgotten that'd reappeared. I began to feel like I was looking for something I'd lost, and it was more than Janice Channing. Annie had loved the islands. I'd been there with her often years ago. Our happiness remained vivid in memory, reminding me that I was alive then and dead now. Part of my heart had faded away without my noticing it, like the maniac had gotten a piece of me or I was someone who'd got wasted on the hook and had lost himself to alien emotions. Alienation takes the ability to love away. That was the painful part, and why Annie left me. She said I was uncaring, cold. It was over because only the little things between lovers make it love. I saw the problem back then, but I couldn't change myself. All the new emotional problems had somehow nested in me. Hell, people suffering from drugs and hooks never had a thing on me. I'd been shunning love and all emotional involvement just like them, because I knew it was too late and I would always be too cold to really love anyone.

Journeying into the past with a head full of my failings wasn't desirable so I skipped out on the islands. I decided to start with the shoreline and a clear head. The area was too large to tackle on foot so I used the car chip built into my key chain. It entitled me to any loose vehicle parked on any Fast Eddy rental lot. There was a lot right under the station so I walked under the tinsel streamers and put my master code into a Ford-T mini sport car. I drove off with the idea of parking here and there and tackling the area in manageable blocks. Clubs and patio restaurants I would check in the later evening. She wouldn't be in the malls. Hotel beachfronts I put second to nature areas. Janice fancied herself a nature lover so there was a better chance of finding her in a field communing with the butterflies than there was of spotting her on a sunset beach with a plastifoam-muscled Romeo.

The police presence was heavy, cruisers at every major intersection. Ostensibly, it was a traffic blitz, but I knew it was part of the manhunt for the Scarsdale Maniac. There were teams of undercover people and I knew a few private detectives who were working with the huge task force.

I cruised right past the blocks without being stopped, and thought that maybe my luck was returning. The Harbour-side Tunnel wasn't blocked, but when I got underground, I spotted some uniformed men moving in the sepia gloom to the right of the highway. Small passages ran off the main tunnel and the sight of one of them conjured visions of police officers waltzing through the slime and shadows in search of some dark phantom.

As I came up out of the tunnel, I spotted five impossibly beautiful women hitchhiking. They were hookers. I pulled over, and I hate to say it, but I looked closely at all five to make sure Janice wasn't one of them. Runaway women have always been food for the trade.

A leggy blond sauntered up and swung a hip against the door. She tilted her head and smiled seductively. “I'm looking for a missing woman,” I said. “She's eighteen. The name is Janice Channing. This one is as pretty as they come. Blond, likes to wear fake leather dresses. She carries a purse with a child face of a robot painted on it and she's no hooker, just a dumb kid?”

“Sure you don't want something else?” she said.

“Not today,” I said, and then I grinned and looked her over like I was considering it. Her muscle tone looked too good and it was the same with the others. These were women who worked out, every day. They spoke cleaner English than any street gal and that meant they were policewomen. It was possible that they'd seen Janice around but wouldn't give the info to a guy they thought was a john. “Listen honey,” I said. “I'm a private detective. If I find Janice, I just want to talk to her. Her mother hired me.” I gave her one of my cards. “Call me if you see her and I'll pay a reward.”

She pushed the card back at me. “She's around, but I can't say where. You'll have to find her on your own.”

The David Walker Memorial Park was the largest nature area in this section of waterfront. Since the pretty police lady said Janice was around, I felt there was good chance she was out for a walk in the woods. Charged with optimism, I turned down the entry road. Maple boughs dappled the sun-soft asphalt with shadows. Inhaling the lake breeze I looked around, seeing some joggers and bird watchers at the perimeter. Some kids were feeding the geese in the parking lot and teenage boys were skate boarding around the peace fountain. I didn't see any women Janice's age so I parked the car and walked down to a dry wooded area that ran next to the marsh. A new boardwalk ran out into the swamp so I strolled out on it and stood there staring at cattails and the sunset haze out on the lake. My thoughts focused on Janice and a mixture of odd thoughts passed in my head. It was strange; I couldn't get a clear picture of my feelings, like there was a lens clouding everything when I thought of her. Out of habit, I took out my lucky charm, and then my thoughts grew dreamy as it mesmerized me . . . .

A stray collie barked furiously at the edge of the swamp. Wind rustled the trees and whistled in the reeds. Something electric sizzled in the slime. Snakes of smoke rose from a patch of dark mist. Whitening, congealing, sparkling with sunlight, the patch drifted in the water. Beads on its surface oozed, glistening like morbid eyes. Alien images, vague shadows and strange faces were mirrored on the surface of the mass, and these images grew hostile, twisted and confusing. Spooked, the dog stopped barking. It whined, turned and bounded away.

White clouds sailed in the gold-blue sky; the surroundings remained idyllic like the creeping mass was a secret intruder. It went out of sight under the boardwalk and when it emerged, it had a hide, a crude head and a malformed mask. The thing was neither animal nor human and it was still in transformation. It oozed sticky blood, shed patches of its hide and face like it was testing new appearances until it could find one that worked well enough to define in the flesh.

The being's mind began to grow, and knowing nothing initially, it scanned and searched, like it was trying to detect what world it was in. All transformation ceased, it was failing. It began to shrivel, then it detected the mind of a human and the process took a new direction. Memories flooded in, as did identity, and the first mental state was one of natural peace . . . a temporary state that was soon replaced by hunger. Hunger that rose like a wind of tall fire, roaring down from distant worlds.

Now the heat was in it. The head melted and rose as a boil that palpitated and exploded in a shower of blood. Veined tissue pulsed out of the crack and a new head formed. Fierce masculine features took shape, blood and slime dripped from its blond hair; the head swiveled grotesquely on the mass and the mouth twisted to a grin.

There was a cracking noise like a tree splitting as the mass ripped open. Then the head began to rise on the tissue oozing out. Blood gleamed in the sun as the tissue molded itself. Skin painted itself over the flesh and a clutching hand reached out and seized the edge of the boardwalk.

Naked, the man swung himself up on the boardwalk, looked quickly around and saw no one. Water boiled up as the birth mass sank, and he watched it momentarily before studying the fine day. He smiled at his prospects. Luck was still on his side, this conservation land would be a great place for hunting.

Another man was near the trees at the end of the boardwalk so he walked down it quickly and ducked off into the woods. Feet padding lightly on the duff, he thought the situation over. The search was on for him and he had no immediate way of making a permanent move. The huge city of Toronto loomed to the north east, but he never emerged there because of the tremendous wave interference. Once he had been powerful enough to deal with anything, but his powers were diminishing now that he was traveling back in time. Superior senses, intelligence and his hunter's cunning kept him alive now. It was better that way. Instead of just slaughtering and satisfying the hunger, he had to use real skill. It made the kills so much sweeter.

Reading the minds of others told him of morals and why they wanted to stop him. Halting he looked at the gold-blue sky and drifting cloud fleece. There had been no parallel on the hot planet of his birth. It was a place of fire, ugliness and death. The whole of their science had been devoted to escaping, and they had all left, leaving their bodies behind. Earth was beautiful, a dream come true even if it was another prison. There were limitations. The first one being that humans were the only creatures intelligent enough to imitate and the second being that he was doomed to always emerge as the same man with the same faults. He was doomed to always be the Scarsdale Maniac, a personality created from the first two humans he'd imitated - two psychopaths locked in a prison on Earth at a time in the near future.

Nearly killed by that human society of the distant future, he had used the last of his transfer energy to travel in time and connect with a man in this place called Toronto. To blend perfectly he needed the man's body and brain, but he couldn't have them. He didn't have the energy to map the body, devour the brain and take the new form so he was stuck morphing up from the microscopic whenever the conditions were right … using the man's body as a rough blueprint to complete the task.

A small black animal walked on a tree trunk. Using mental camouflage he walked up, seized it and listened to it scream as he crushed it. The tiny power that was its life entered him making him that much stronger. He dropped the corpse feeling only disgust. It wasn't enough. The fix he needed was psychological; a woman's heart that would satisfy the maniac in his breast. A torn organ that would send him into that state of artistic ecstasy the second killer needed to operate on a face.

Sumac bushes rustled behind him, and he realized that he hadn't been careful. The squeal of the animal had attracted someone. Turning, he scanned the foliage and captured the outline of a big man coming through. Touching his thoughts, he found him to be an undercover SSU man and part of the task force hunting him. There was time to duck away and run, but his inherited hatred of other men prevented that. Anger rose, his carelessness had put him in a black mood. Lifting his hand, he twisted his fingers and stared, his handsome face warping like the vile taste of his loathing would make him scream.

The scene blurred, he saw a dark form emerging, a reddish glow highlighting the sawed-off scattergun he was carrying. His eyes zoomed in on the gun, seeing the words SPRINGFIELD ARMORY engraved in the plate. The weapon was coming up so he charged, his hand reddening to laser fire as he prepared to strike. The undercover man pulled the trigger, and the maniac felt the shotgun blast catch his chest, lift him and throw him hard into a tree. His head cracked and split, he slid to the ground, and there he waited, angered by his own stupidity.

He saw through the cop's eyes as he stepped up and studied him. The burly SSU cop found him attractive in a fierce way. No doubt about it, he was sure he'd bagged the Scarsdale Maniac and a promotion. He put his hand to the cyanosis blue face and pushed open the corner of the maniac's mouth. Slime dribbled out. Something red had glowed in the maniac's hand, so he looked down for the weapon, seeing a mass of bloody scatter tinsel on the chest and a limp hand.

Nothing, no weapon. Then the hand began to glow and the cop's eyes shot back to the maniac's face. One eye was open and it was alive with a mocking sparkle. Jumping back, the cop raised his gun and he should have fired instantly, but he didn't because a voice in his head told him the maniac couldn't really be alive.

Sensing an easy kill, the maniac flew up, and again he was in error, having forgotten that the unhealed chest wound would slow him. He struck out with his laser-hot fingers and was just cutting into flesh when the scattergun went off.

The two men were thrown apart; the undercover SSU man staggering back and the maniac going into a tree trunk. His gun was going down but the cop was still standing. He saw the maniac, his gory chest, cyanosis blue face and something else - the blood and wet mass of violet on his right hand. The pain was already beginning as he looked down and saw the bleeding gouge the maniac had torn in his midsection. Groaning hideously, he stumbled, then his knees turned to rubber and he collapsed and died.

Julio felt airsick, but who wouldn't after six hours of piloting a nano chase camera. Sure, his mind was as light as air, but down in the flight control chair his stomach and bowels were cramped and churning. Stopping the camera in midair over David Walker Park, he took off his helmet piece and slipped his right hand out of the control glove. His paneled office came back into focus and he immediately hit the button, turning on the wall screen view. Up in the corner a small map displayed the positions of all other chase cameras searching the waterfront. Showers of sparks lit up the hotel areas, and that meant that nearly everyone else expected the maniac to strike in one of the hotels again. Julio was the only investigator sending his camera over David Walker Park.

Sure, the park was a long shot, but Julio felt it was worth it. Hell, with the reward at two million anything was worth it. And he was SSU connected, which meant he'd get an automatic promotion if he spotted the Scarsdale Maniac first. It was worth it but that didn't change the fact that he was getting nowhere. Grimacing, he expelled gas and reached for the seltzer bottle. Damn instant food all the time, it's killing me, he thought.

The seltzer went down and his stomach began to ease. Time for a Loop, Julio thought. I'll cheat a little. No one can expect a guy to stand this pain. He mumbled the code that would start sexual stimulation mode four, then Okayed it. He grew hard, and feeling no pain, he put the headset back on. “Not so bad, not so bad - ahhh,” he muttered as the camera began moving through the sunset haze.

Circling, he looked for people to frisk, spotted two distant figures and swooped with the lens in through the maples. Two beautiful teenagers, exactly what he needed. He could hang around, get his rocks off, and maybe the maniac would show. Spinning the camera back drunkenly, he looked down on them. His eyes went to the blond. Sweet rosy face and ripe breasts. “Ah, sweet little eighteen,” he said, sailing down and forward so it was like his face was in her breasts. Losing self-control, he moved in, trying to bury his head in her chest. As the view faded, he pulled back, got a good shot of the curvature. Then he felt another shot. His pants grew wet. “Shit, man, it's over,” Julio said. “I should have stuck with mode three.” He zoomed away and began searching the clearing around them while he upped the mode to five. But it wasn't working -- if he got any limper, he'd be neutered. Then he saw a naked man coming out of the trees and got a sudden rock-hard erection. An unwanted erection. He felt his organ begin to throb painfully as his eyes studied the grotesque mass of blood on the guy's chest.

Slowly, Julio's shaking hand pulled away until it touched a switch. The headset went blank and he yanked it off and checked the screen. “Damn,” he said as he watched the maniac creep up on the teens, “getting my rocks off on a sicko.”

The camera remained in hover mode and he was losing the view. “I better call in Hoover,” Julio thought, and then he decided against it. Tom Hoover was his superior officer and he wasn't what anyone would call honest. Hoover would grab the reward for himself - unless, Julio waited for the last second, then called him in.

Quickly, Julio ran the gun test program and found it functional. It meant he could kill the maniac with ease. With Tom Hoover's authorization, he could fire a strand from the nano camera that would grow to about the size of a hair before it penetrated the maniac's brain and destroyed it. The key was to get that authorization at the last second so the kill would be his - and poor Hoover, well - who cared about Hoover?

Throwing on the headset, Julio swooped down and almost went up the maniac's butt end. He pulled up. What kind of guy is this? he thought, thinking about the mess on the guy's chest. No time for speculation now, I'll just have to figure it out later.

The teens were still unaware of the maniac's approach. It was like he'd made himself invisible. Then he saw the blond get up. She suddenly screamed and ran while her dark-haired friend looked around like she didn't know what the screaming was about.

That's it, Julio thought. You can barely see the guy unless you're in motion. He has some kind of technology planted in that naked ass of his.

Picking the easy victim the maniac pounced on the dark-haired teen, and Julio's heart nearly came up to his lips as he hit the alarm. Throwing off the helmet, he enlarged the screen view to the size of the wall. “God, I'm going to be too late,” he said as the maniac got a strangle hold on his victim. Then big Tom Hoover burst in the door and stopped dead in tracks, his eyes fixed on the screen.

“I need fast authorization,” Julio said. “I have to go down and kill him now.”

“Authorization,” Hoover said. “I'm afraid not.”

“What? Why?” Julio said, not believing his ears.

“Why?” Hoover said, his lined face twitching, his dark eyes glazing over. “Why … because the color of fascism is white. And you aren't white, Julio. You're a fucking spic.”

Blood was flying from the chest of the wounded teen, the sound of the maniac's huffing was coming over the mike, and all Julio could do was stutter as he watched Tom Hoover pull out an antique snub-nosed .38.

Julio was still stuttering as Hoover pulled the trigger, then blood bubbled from his lips as Hoover stepped up.

Hoover pushed Julio aside and took the headset. The maniac was getting ready to rip out the victim's heart, and he didn't plan to stop him. He'd have to let him get away with it this time so the catch wouldn't be credited to Julio's chase camera.

The sunset was glorious, and the mad look on the Scarsdale Maniac's face was another kind of glory. He held the torn heart aloft, and Tom Hoover watched -- his mind lost in its own brand of grandeur. Hoover thought of all the spics, Muslims and Asians that had flooded into the privileged neighbourhoods of white North America -- how he wished he could tear out their hearts. All the damn best positions had been taken by them. He would never let a bastard like Julio get promoted above him, and he would never take orders from a spic, chink or rag head. This was his SSU, and these foreign idiots didn't know what fascism was about. Maybe they had forgotten about ethnic cleansing -- the fools. The color of Hitler was snow white. The heart colors of fascism and the SSU would always be blood red and snow white. With the maniac fading from the stationary camera, he shifted his arm and put two more slugs into Julio as he muttered, “Die twice you spic bastard.”

Blind fear painted everything white. Janice crashed through thorn bushes, oblivious to the pain . . . seeing nothing but a blur like the mind fuzz on a fritzed motion TV. It was like a creepy nightmare. Her legs were pumping automatically, but no speed could be fast enough, and if it weren’t for a painful throb that suddenly hit her chest, she never would have stopped.

Collapsing against a tree trunk, she felt her legs give way. A moment later, she slid to the ground, her hand on her heart - then she realized that it wasn't her heart that hurt, but her lungs. They were on fire, nearly stripped raw from the gasping breaths of her panicked run.

Red lights appeared and whirled down as her vision returned. She was on her butt, staring up through the trees at sunset colors. Tears streamed down her cheeks from the exhaustion and at the thought of what must've happened to her friend, Denise. She hadn't looked back, but she knew that if the Scarsdale Maniac got you it was murder.

Denise had left home because her parents and the people around her were suburban trash junkies, now she'd been killed by another piece of garbage. Janice hadn't really identified with her. She'd met Denise on the road and she was a friend … a human being. After all the abuse Denise had suffered, it wasn't fair. Janice felt she was the one that really deserved it - the spoiled rich kid who'd run off because her mother was getting too demanding.

Wishful thinking took over. She didn't want to believe Denise was dead. With a phone or any pocket device, she could call an ambulance and the police, but she didn't have a phone. Electronic devices were easy to trace and she was a runaway. Maybe if she crept back she could check on Denise's condition and then run for the parking lot. According to the news reports, the Scarsdale Maniac never took more than one victim and he always escaped. He'd already been covered with blood when he attacked so maybe Denise was a second victim that had been maimed but not killed. And if he was a perfectionist at escape, he was probably already gone. A stark naked killer covered in blood would need time to clean up and dress.

Going deeper into the woods wasn't an option, so she got up and brushed herself off. A nasty scrape marked her knee and a grass stain painted her thigh. Other than that, she was intact. Twilight tinted the treetops as the sunset reddened. Moving around a patch of poison ivy, she backtracked through the maples. Night birds were already singing and creating airs of a pleasant summer evening that made it hard to think of anyone as dead. Her original intentions returned to mind, and they seemed silly considering the day's horrible events. She had left home because of love this time. Now it looked like a poor reason. How much loving would she do as a corpse? And the idea wasn't working. Her lover hadn't come to her, and maybe he never would. She would go on, back to the strange collection of enhanced subhumans she called her family, and eventually wed some freaked-out nano head her mother thought was a winner.

Her mother, the older generations, they were all freaks. Made of plastic, drugs and implanted brain equipment. Like when did any of them have a thought or emotion that wasn't transplanted from somewhere else? Even their brilliance was contamination. “It's all money, Janice dear.” That's the way her mother saw it and the way they all saw it. The new wave of technology, the top new corporations were in the human enhancement field. If you wanted to marry money or status you married a man who was really a walking juice machine, his brain corporate cooked by all the add-ons, his body molded by flesh plastic and super neo steroids. With her mother controlling her future, she felt doomed. At twenty her career would be chosen for her and her husband would be hand-picked from an elite social dump. She could run out now with foolish hopes and dreams or be trapped forever.

Brilliant sunset fire carpeted the surface of the pond ahead. The field was off to the left. Denise was there in the grass somewhere, and maybe the Scarsdale Maniac was there. If so, Denise was probably dead. But it didn't matter; Janice decided to take a chance.

Following the tree line, she went to the edge of the swamp and walked at its edge. She reached a point where she could look across the field to the place of the attack. The sky was bright but the ground was dark. She could see nothing but a patch of shadow. Something flashed in the corner of her eye, catching her attention. A dark figure … that of a man moving on a boardwalk in the swamp. Turning, she froze as she watched the man leap from the railing to the bank. Gasping, she stumbled back, turned and ran. Then she heard him yell her name. The voice was Jack's. Stopping, she swung around, seeing one of the final rays of the sun on his rugged face. Her terror vanished, relief and happiness flooded in, she took off and leapt into his arms.

Now I had tracked her, and I knew she had to be in trouble to look so frightened. She’d leapt into my arms so quickly I found myself looking around for the Scarsdale Maniac as I put her down. I had the feeling he could be steps away.

Janice was hugging me like she was desperate and I was enjoying it slightly, but I sure couldn't afford to get distracted while the maniac might be around so I forced her away. Then I saw the tears in her eyes. “What happened?” I said.

“My friend, Denise. I think she's dead. Over there,” she said, pointing.

She pulled herself against me again and I kissed her wet cheek and told her to wait. The joy I'd felt on finding her now faded. Trepidation and the foul scent of swamp water touched me as I spotted the body crumpled in the shadow of an oak. In the twilight, it looked misshapen. Heaviness hit my stomach as I walked up. I felt ill, like the swamp gas had crept down to my bowels. Dizziness and fear were part of it. That and a certainty that there was something about the victim and myself I should know but didn't.

The red stain in the shadows matched the red hues in the sunset sky, but if the victim's blood looked natural, her body didn't. It was horribly twisted - a leg and an arm broken. Gazing at it, I tried to imagine the emotions of a killer so cruel. Her back faced me - a mass of drying blood, and I knew that if I turned her over her face and heart would be gone.

Dizziness faded and I froze. I wanted to turn her over but something inside wouldn't let me -- it was more than simple revulsion. I looked nervously back to Janice and she began to walk toward me. Not wanting her to see the body, I moved to block her, then the entire area was suddenly flooded by bright light and I instinctively dived to the grass. Bullets whizzed above me and I saw flashes of laser light. Since I didn't want to be shot and they weren't shooting at Janice, I stayed down, waiting for them to reach me.

. . . I knew it was a dream. I was paralyzed, on fire. Golden light flooded in. Waking, I nearly scrambled out of bed, and then I realized it was sunlight and felt relief. From my sixtieth floor hotel room, the depth of the brilliant cityscape nearly swallowed me, and it was good because I love heights. Physically I felt surprisingly good, which was unusual since I'd slept only three hours. Mild back pain reminded me that I'd spent most of the night slumped in a hard chair, answering questions for the SSU and the police. A shiver hit me as I realized I'd nearly been shot to pieces. SSU captain Tom Hoover had assured me it was a mistake. He said that at the time they were certain I was the maniac, otherwise they wouldn't have fired. But I knew they would've fired if there was any chance of it -- the reward was just too high. I'd been angry as hell about it, and the memory agitated me. I paced the room then went to the door and looked out. Two SSU men were guarding the hall so I slammed it and locked up.

Picking up the phone, I called Janice, finding her up and happy to talk to me.

“Can Nancy get me out of here?” she said, referring to her lawyer.

“No,” I said. “She's filing, but she told me the legal end takes days. The only way is for you to convince the SSU to release you into your mother's custody.”

“Do you think it's possible?”

“Not right away. They know the maniac has never struck inside the city so they're keeping you in protective custody here on the waterfront.”

“It's silly. The maniac wouldn't try to get me when he knows they're guarding me.”

“He will if they release you. You're the only person who can identify him.”

“Maybe you can break me out?”

“No way. I have to cooperate with the authorities or I’ll be smoked.”

“Do you think this number is tapped?”

“All numbers are and yours they're actually listening in on. The Scarsdale Maniac might want to call you. But it takes a bit of time for their encryption tools to crack the call.”

“Can you come over here and talk to me?”

“Not if it's about breaking out. But I can I bring your mother. She wants to talk to you.”

“No, I won't see her. Not yet.”

“The SSU won't let me in unless it's a talk with your mother. They believe she has your best interests at heart.”

“There's a reason. I want to talk to you and have you convey my feelings to mother dear. I want her to arrange a funeral for Denise, in my best emotional interests. I want a decent and respectable Christian burial for her remains, meaning one where her organs haven’t been harvested by old men. And not in those all-faith cemeteries. She said she was Christian.”

“They'll allow that. I'll arrange to be there in about an hour. You can do some thinking about your family while you wait. Sheila's calm now -- like she's in a state of shock. The SSU had to restrain her last night.”

“I don't want to think about mother. I'll be thinking about you.”

“Don't waste your time. I'm too old for puppy love. Perhaps you need someone close to a father figure, but right now, your mother has the power to bust all balls. She's tight with the people running the SSU.”

I had the robot cleaner guy deliver a new suit. It was SSU blue. In a hotel full of SSU people, the best psychology was to win their confidence by looking like one of them. I tipped my hat at the guards as I went to the elevator, and since they didn't follow me I figured my strategy was already working. They were probably phoning Tom Hoover to see if I'd been signed on. I never really would sign on of course. I viewed that as a symbol of failure. Can't make it as a private detective -- sign on as an SSU stool pigeon.

No one followed me out of the lobby, and I stepped onto the warm sunny street feeling about as free as was possible, considering the burden I was carrying. After the case settled, I wouldn't be seeing Janice again. Sheila would never allow it. Not once she found out Janice had run off because of love. And the person she was in love with was me.

My own stupidity was frustrating and painful. Janice called me all the time and I had always figured her as a kid who liked me because I was her protector at times. Even in the park, when she'd leapt into my arms, embracing me like a woman madly in love, I hadn't realized it. I thought it was fear. My clever old ex-wife was right … not only do I have no feelings that aren't hidden, I can't truly see what women are feeling when it comes to secret and deep emotions.

Tom Hoover told me. “The kid's in love with you. Crying her tiny heart out 'cause she thinks you're hurt.” Only then did I get it. And I wished Janice was a bit older so I could be legitimately in love with her, too. Feelings or no feelings, I've never believed in wounding people, especially not love stuck women. Rattling my lucky charm in my pocket, I hoped I could tell Janice I cared about her … but didn't feel I was right for her and was hoping she'd find a guy who was a good match for her. Only it would be a big lie when I knew her mother would definitely marry her to some loser she hated.

They had her in one of those new metallic glass buildings … a nearly hidden six-story building right on the water - the Mary Sanders Centre for Battered Women. There were about ten levels underground and she was receiving psychological treatment, like the SSU thought treatment was something you should get before your flesh wounds had healed. On the news the SSU were using it to paint a kind face on the agency. Noting how they provided the service free to victims. Of course, they were really using it to bait the maniac. The lack of security made that obvious.

I went up the stone walk unchallenged, but I was willing to bet there were at least fifty armed cameras planted in the row of fake evergreen trees at the front. The doors opened automatically and I went up to the desk. A lone weasel-faced security guard sat behind Plexiglas. He was really an SSU man of course, and he was there because he was scrawny and looked easy to take -- the type of dumb and ugly weakling that would draw the maniac inside.

“We've been expecting you, Jack,” he said. “She just called down. Keep it brief. And don't get any ideas about taking her anywhere.”

“Call it a funny feeling,” I said, “but it was like I was being watched when I came up the walk.”

“You're a funny guy, but watch every step you make,” he said, and then he sneered as he hit an elevator button.

I rode up to the fifth as he instructed, got out and looked for room 504. The end of the hall was blocked by a huge canister. It was probably a prop. If the maniac were to get off the elevator it would likely swing aside and a boom loaded with an auto-fragment Tommy would swing in and exterminate him. Either that or it would exterminate an army of SSU agents bursting from the other rooms with reward $ signs in their eyes.

The door opened and I found myself with knuckles raised, about to knock on Janice's shoulder.

She grinned. “Better not hit me or you might get blasted by a canon.”

I grinned, too, poked her in the belly with my forefinger and stepped in. As she led me to the couch, I promised myself I would remember to stop treating her like she was my daughter. And she sure didn't look like a daughter. She was all woman now . . . full ruby lips, seductive hazel eyes, flowing blond hair tied with a wide ribbon. Her top was tied tight above the waist so that her breasts, which had grown to an enormous size, were nearly bursting out.

We sat and like her mother, she had that habit of holding my hand. She pulled her knees up and sort of cuddled against me - the hem of her loose skirt climbing up to bare her thighs. I couldn't help looking at her gorgeous legs, and then I looked in her eyes and found her looking at me like a lost puppy.

It stopped me from pulling back. Janice was getting too close but I didn't want to wound her by beginning with physical rejection. Then she suddenly hugged me, started kissing me fiercely and I had to ease her back quickly or else be seduced.

“Hold on. What's this for?” I said.

“For saving me from the killer. I want to reward you.”

“I don't charge quite that much. And I didn't save you. You got away on your own.”

“Don't you like me?” she said, hitting me with innocent eyes.

“Sure I like you. But I'm also working for your mother, and she would never approve.”

“Mom's a mercenary bitch,” Janice said, getting up. She went to the fridge. “You look too tense. I want you to have a drink with me and talk things over.”

“Isn't it a little early for wine?” I said, watching her pull out a bottle.

“Not in my family. We have it for breakfast all the time.”

“Okay, but just one glass for me. I'm supposed to be a detective, not a drunk.”

She sat back down and I drank most of the glass. Not because I wanted booze but because I was thirsty. “Okay, let's talk about Denise,” I said. “What kind of funeral arrangements are we making?”

“Oh, them. I already phoned my mother and she's taking care of it.”

“Yeah, and what about her. What is it you want me to tell her?”

“Nothing. Tell her she's a bitch.”

“She knows she's a bitch, and she's proud of it. But I can't tell her that or she'll find a quick way to punish me.”

Janice suddenly giggled and snuggled up to me. For a moment, I was stunned, wondering why I had said what I did about a paying client.

“Forget her,” she said. “I want to talk about us, and the life we're going to have together.”

“We won't be having any life together. Your family doesn't want it to be that way. At least they won't when they find out about it. What I don't get is why you want me -- I mean I'm more than twice your age and we have nothing in common?”

“So, you're hung up on age. You should think about it. It doesn't matter anymore. Not in our society. You're still very young by our standards. People are mostly separated by gaps and cultural differences other than age. Most guys in my generation are looped out or drugged and brain-wired out. Way more than half of them are gay and lying about it. None of them believe in love of any kind because it died a long time ago. I can't fault them for it and I've nothing against them or their life styles; except that most of them want a wife that is really a piece of furniture and also something to show off, and they want a dowry … they marry for money and guaranteed natural baby machines. I’ve rejected my parents' values … I’m not gay but I can easily understand why most girls today begin as lesbians and remain that way after marriage. I'm different, and I want a genuine caring man who loves me. I want a beast from the old jungle, and you’re the only handsome and refined one around. You should know about that, Jack, because you always like to say that it was privacy that was killed first and love second. You do have a lot in common with me, because like me you didn't get any plastic surgery, you can't get a loop because of migraines, and you don't prefer Intel drugs. You're naturally handsome and not gay or a womanizer, but a lonely man. I know as I checked mom's files on you. When you were my age you must have run away from somewhere because no one can trace your background or --”

“You mean you had my background checked?”

“Of course I did. I have to know everything about my lover.”

“You're not my lover, you little rat.”

“Not yet, but if I don't become your lover there'll never be one. All you do is wander around on strange cases with a hang-up about that bitch of an ex-wife of yours. You don't have any women.”

“You got a lot of nerve, bringing my ex-wife and lack of a sex life into this deal.”

“I have to. It's just like I have to face the fact that my mother is a creepy rich bitch and property of the SSU. There's nothing wrong with you just like there's nothing wrong me. When are you going to face it? Your wife was a betrayer and a tramp, or perhaps she lived in the modern corrupt world while you lived in the past. She abandoned you, and you're still living in the past with a love that never was. It's time for you to get over it and start a relationship with someone new.”

“As much as I hate you, I have to admit it's partly true,” I said. Then I gave her a serious look. “Do you really know everything about me?”

“I know what the detective I hired told me and what I don't know I can find out by simply asking you.”

“You know too much. I won't tell you anymore.”

“Yes you will,” she said, and then she took a tiny vial from her pocket. “Because of this magic formula.”

I grabbed the vial. “What is it?”

“Truth serum. The SSU men gave me some when they questioned me on the killing. While I was being truthful, I stole the vial.”

“You mean you put some in my drink?”

“Yes.”

“Probably doesn't work anyway. I don't feel any different.”

“Let's test it,” she said. “My detective reports you have a knife scar on your leg next to your scrotum. Is it true?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitation, then I stared at her, uncontrollable anger rising. I seized her by the shoulders like I was about to strangle her. “You rotten little creep!” I said.

“Do you love me?” she said.

I looked into her wide, beautiful eyes, my anger faded, and at first, I said nothing but remained stone faced. She looked unbelievably sad like she was going to burst into tears, but I still didn't answer. I'd never really thought about it, because I'd never allowed myself to think about it. Then suddenly I knew. Beyond any doubt, I loved her completely and had been in love with her for more than a year. “Yes, I love you,” I said. “And I love you for giving me truth serum to make me realize it. But I don't love you for bringing this to light when we're trapped by the SSU and stalked by a maniac.”

“Who cares about the SSU?” she said. “And who is the Scarsdale Maniac anyway? Not anybody important. He's just another creep.”

“I'm the Scarsdale Maniac,” I said.

“No,” she said, pushing me away.

“Yes, I am,” I said, though I couldn't believe I was saying it.

“I mean no, the serum isn't working,” she said. “Damn.”

“It is working. I'm telling the truth, though it can't be the truth.”

“Now I don't know if you really love me or not. And stop saying you're the maniac. I know what he looks like and he's not you.”

“Yes, he doesn't look like me. But the truth is that I'm always there when he strikes, and I have no memory of what goes on during that time. I wouldn't even know now if it weren't for the serum.”

“What does that mean?” she said.

“It means I have to go,” I said. Reaching in her pocket, I took the vial of serum, and then I headed for the door.

She followed me, seizing me before I could leave. “No, I'm going with you.”

“Didn't you hear what I just confessed to? I shouldn't even be near you. I'm a danger to you. I've got to sort this out on my own. Please, stay here and don't tip anybody off. Do it for us? They may be spying but their only clue is to follow me.”

“Okay,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, then she kissed me and I broke away and shut the door.

No one was in the hall and I paced to the elevator, just wanting to get out of the place. More for Janice than myself. If my presence endangered her, I wanted to put distance between us. The idea that I could be in love with her and also be the maniac wanting to kill her was the biggest shock of my life.

The SSU man nodded to me as I left. It was like he approved of the briefness of the visit. It hit me that they were sure I was an extraordinary loser. They had surveillance on my visit but after giving Janice truth serum they probably wouldn’t even look at it until a later date. Out in the sun my head started spinning. I had to think, and it was going through my head that every case has a clue that cracks it. With the clue there is sometimes a problem and with this one it was whether I could keep my sanity long enough to finish things. Sitting on a bench, I tried to sort it all out. Something terrible had happened to me somewhere along the line, but I wasn't sure exactly where. How could I be the maniac and not be the maniac? It was so ridiculous that it tied my thoughts in a knot. My head started spinning again and I just let things fade. Beautiful music started playing and I had this vision where I saw a fantastic city and myself running to it and glory. Suddenly rising, I shook my head. Hallucinatory effects of the serum were getting in the way, so I decided to do something to try to end it all before my ability to function was lost.

I walked off the grounds and headed south. Hydrogen vapors from the freeway painted a blurry scene and I had that empty feeling again, like I was a ghost. This time I wasn't just a drained vessel -- a feeling of having been robbed was washing over me. And the sad part was that it was real. A secret devil had stolen my soul. Only now was I realizing it. Even with all the identity loss, sadness and confusion of our better society, I still had to be the first guy who could truthfully say he was really someone else other than himself. It was crazy, fighting an enemy so clever, but there was one odd possibility. Stopping in the shadow of an underpass, I took out the vial of truth serum and swallowed it all, and then I flagged down a taxi and headed back to David Walker Park.

It was a day of heavy traffic; perfumed exhaust vapors made rainbow trails over the sunny park. The police had the main entrance blocked off so I had the driver go around to the far side and drop me on the side of the road. The scene was panoramic, rolling green colored by ribbons of fading vapor, the choppy blue waters of the lake farther out, everything drifting in mild distortion from the serum. This was a large park, big enough that I probably wouldn't even encounter the police unless I went right to the murder scene. I did want to get close; I figured a spot in the swamp where I could look across at the scene would be good enough.

Angling down the steep bank, I headed for a clearing and a path running west. Sweet odors were rising from the sun baked field and the woods, but I knew they would soon be replaced by the foul scent of the swamp. I encountered moths, rabbits and squirrels but no humans. Spotting a flock of geese rising, I headed in that direction and found myself at the edge of the swamp. Making my way around to one of the older boardwalks, I worked my way out, hoping there would be a spot where I could get a view of the crime scene.

There was - I reached the end of the creaking decayed boardwalk and from there I could see the new boardwalk and further on to the end of the reeds and the field where the maniac had struck. The murder scene could now be better described as the murder site. Most of the field was enclosed in a fence of thin trip wire. There were no cops inside the fence; they were somewhere on coffee break or maybe doing a search in another area. Special technique robots that looked a lot like large toys were moving around the area, digging, using chemicals and lasers to gather any possible evidence, no matter how minute.

The whole field glistened, and I gathered that it wasn't from natural mist but from preservative the SSU had sprayed to keep certain types of evidence from decaying. If the scene was familiar, it was probably because so many movie mystery stories start with similar robot scenes. It was interesting enough that it caused me to momentarily forget why I was there. When I did remember, I took out my lucky charm and gazed at it, thinking about luck and my life like always.

A hypnotic state developed and after a minute, my vision became a darkening grid falling in on me. Everything went black like a big hand was closing around me, squeezing me hard. Something alien touched me on the inside and while it was happening my emotions didn't feel human -- they felt cold and mechanical. The state ended with sudden terrible pain -- a burning wave rushed through me with such rollercoaster force that I ground my teeth to keep from screaming and gripped the railing to keep from falling.

The pain passed, and I wasn't out, but I didn't feel normal either. I had the old empty feeling, only a more severe case of it. Maybe an android would feel that way; it's hard to describe it because there really is no such thing as total loss of emotion. Even emptiness is an emotion of a sort. Maybe I felt robbed, as I knew something had stripped me clean. The scene was slightly hallucinatory, foliage looked smeared and light trailed from blowing leaves and branches. I still had my lucky charm in my hand so I pocketed it and stepped back. Looking at my hands I thought, “This must be it. I'm the maniac now.” But I wasn't, and some voice of conscience the serum had given me verified it. I was still Jack Michaels and not Jack the alien Ripper. No hunger for female blood filled me. So what was it? What did it mean?

Water boiled up somewhere in the swamp. I looked toward it but the area was blocked by islands of stones and weeds. Climbing up on the railing, I leapt to one island, then to the shore near the crime scene. I still couldn't spot the source of the sound so I moved down the bank and jumped back down on some algae-coated rocks. The water was boiling fiercely now, sounding like schools of hungry piranha fish had gotten into the swamp to feed. I could see a portion of a fleshy mass, but it was mostly obscured by a fallen tree branch. With little else to do, I decided to wait and see what developed.

Glancing up the bank, I noticed a maple tree with a low-hanging limb. A simple swing up the branch and I would have a better view, so I stepped up and climbed. The fleshy mass came into view. The water had stopped boiling but the mass was moving like it was a living thing shaping itself.

Dizziness hit me, that and an eerie feeling that seemed like more than the effects of the serum. I thought that maybe the whole thing was no more than realistic hallucinations. My body did feel unnaturally light like in a dream. Only it wasn't a dream, and the next thing I heard was a voice that said, “Get down out of that tree, and don't make any funny moves or you'll eat lead.”

I looked down, and saw Tom Hoover and Janice. Hoover's fox like face was red and pinched. His eyes as glazed as gunmetal. He held a scattergun and he meant business, and he had already done some business because Janice's hair was a mess -- she'd been roughed up. “Okay, don't shoot,” I said, and then I swung around and dropped to the ground.

Janice had big tears in her eyes. “I'm sorry,” she said.

“For what?” I said, and then I looked at Tom. “I guess you had us bugged, so where's the rest of the SSU gang?”

“I don't need the rest. I'm bringing you and the maniac in alone. So don't play games. Either you tell me where you're hiding him or I'll pull this trigger and you'll be fifty more pieces of slime in this swamp.”

“I'm not hiding him. I'm looking for him, just like you.”

“Don't give me that. My bug evidence shows you're always around when the maniac strikes. And you made a screwed up confession to Janice. I know you scout victims for him and help him escape. You make me sicker than he does. So talk, damn it, or I'll kill you!”

“Okay, something funny is happening there in the swamp. I was watching it.”

The intense look never left Tom's face, and I was caught off guard when he suddenly charged me. Bringing the gun barrel up, he hammered me on the side of the head and shouldered me over, hollering, “Stay out of the way!”

I nearly blacked out. Janice ran to me as I got to my knees, and I ended up watching Tom aiming his gun out over the edge of the bank. Devilish pain caused my head to spin, and Janice got to her knees and supported me. Cradling my head in her breasts, she caressed the back of my neck and for a moment I succumbed, forgetting all about the dangerous situation.

Tom Hoover's voice brought me back. “Freeze!” he said, and when I looked, I could see a figure stepping out of branches and mist in the swamp. A man, or should I say humanoid - his features were reaching completion as he splashed through the slimy green water. Glistening blood on his body melted into his skin as he came closer. Then we saw his eyes, the power and evil intent. “It's him, the Scarsdale Maniac,” Janice said, half in awe, half in fear.

The sight of him stunned me. Now I had all the pieces and they still didn't fit. With my brain only working at half capacity they probably couldn't. Trying to think in spite of the effects of the serum, I considered the facts. A stark naked man was appearing to kill people, but only on the waterfront and near me, at times when I was somehow rendered unconscious or serum stoned. The reason I claimed to be him when on truth serum had to be because he stripped things from my brain and body. The Scarsdale Maniac was an alien of some sort, and he was also partly me. The realization shook me. I felt like a rape victim and worse because he used what he took from me to murder others. I wanted to kill him more than Tom Hoover did.

Standing in the water, the maniac looked up at Tom Hoover. “Don't shoot me,” he said. “I'm turning myself in.” And I recognized the voice. It was my voice. He lifted his hands over his head, and as he did, light flashed from his fingertips … a twisting web of burning beams that shot forward and caught Tom Hoover right in the midsection.

Tom had already been pressing the trigger on his scattergun. As the beams struck him, the barrel ignited and a silver charge of steel ribbon hit the maniac flat in the chest. A normal man would’ve been blown to pieces, but the maniac's body absorbed the hit and rode the charge as it flew back into a fallen log.

Tom's shirt was burned right off his back and his face blackened and whitened with small blisters. The blue of body armor showed. He'd been smart enough to wear a wire proof Kevlar vest under his clothing. As he staggered back he fired another charge in the air, then he got his balance and faced the maniac. The maniac was rising, his chest and belly chopped to crumbling hamburger. A piece of dripping intestine hung out. I could tell by the fierce look in his eyes that he felt no pain.

Then Tom fired more rounds. The first one took the maniac down, and the following five rounds painted his whole body red. He'd loaded the scattergun with alternate charges of steel ribbon and heavy slugs. I could see them flying and hear the power of the recoil. Stepping forward and unloading that kind of ammunition, a man could tear down stone walls, but even though the shots were all direct hits to the body, there was only blood and no exploding body parts.

Tom glanced at us as he reloaded; his scorched face and hair giving him the look of a crazy grim reaper. “Stay out of it and keep down!” he yelled. “I'm going to cook this bastard's ass.”

Janice shivered as I held her, and Tom opened fire again. This time a fiery charge shot from the barrel and sent flames racing over the swamp. Then another blistering charge came from behind Tom, hitting him with a force so deadly he flew up and forward at high speed, turning into a mass of exploding blood, bone and fire before he landed.

His remains splashed into the swamp. It was like he'd never been more than a choppy bucket of red sulfur. Looking back, we saw one of the police robots rolling back to the crime scene. “Don't move,” I said to Janice. “Wait until it gets all the way back.”

She trembled. “What happened?” she said. “Why did it destroy Tom?”

“It must be programmed to get the maniac. While Tom was shooting it homed in on him, thinking him hostile. We should be all right as long as we don't fire any weapons.”

As the robot went back through the fence, we both rose and went over to the bank. The smoke was drifting away and we could see the maniac's body drifting in the water. Blood oozed from the midsection, torn pieces were sucking themselves back together. “I don't know what that guy is but he's healing,” I said. “Another minute and he'll be after us again.”

“What now? Do we run?” Janice said.

“I can't run. He'll just use me again. I have to talk to him. Find out why. Let's move back. I want you to go in with the robots.”

“What if they shoot?”

“They won't, not you. They're really forensic robots and they've been programmed to fire in some circumstances. You're a victim and they know your genetic code, so they won't harm you, but they'll blast the maniac if he tries to get to you.”

“You're coming in with me,” she said, and then she hugged me. I didn't resist. I caressed her, kissed her gently, and then pulled away.

“No,” I said. “It wouldn't work. If the maniac decides to burn me the robots will fire and we'll all be cooked in the crossfire.”

She looked at me with unfathomable sadness in her eyes, like she was sure I was a corpse already. She loved me and it still seemed impossible that I hadn't understood it before. Warmth filled the icehouse and emptiness in my chest and I wished life could have been generous. It would be fair if she could see how much I cared. Janice was really the only thing I had to live for . . . stripped of feelings by the maniac, SSU, truth serum, her mother and my ex-wife I could see what an empty void the world could be for fuck ups like me. People all the time think they are making their own decisions as to whether they live or die when others often do it. Because Janice needed me, I felt alive. I could live. Alone and without her, the alien maniac could easily look at me and find an empty soul to deal with and command. Without love, I had no strength.

Reluctantly, Janice pulled away and pouted as she walked along the edge of the wire fence to the entrance. She stepped in with the robots and they rolled up and scanned her but didn't attack. Turning back to the swamp, I saw movement below the bank and rushed over. The maniac was up now, and he was mostly healed, but he was blinded. He eyes were covered by a web that looked like tissue seal, and it was healing and forming new eyes so fast that I could see the transformation taking place. It hit me that his features were all similar to my own, like he'd taken a pattern of my body and shaped it to something new.

“I know you're somehow connected to me,” I said, looking down at him as he stepped onto the rocky shore.

His eyes were fully formed now, and sky blue. He looked up then he jumped to the bank and faced me. Scars on his face visibly moved, healing as he spoke. “I feel sorry for you, and what I have to tell you,” he said, and he looked like he really was sorry. “I know your mind so well you almost are me. But the truth is you aren't really anybody. You even know it yourself. You can feel it; the emptiness you experience every day, and your lack of real emotion. Are you sure you really want to know the rest?”

“I have to know.”

“I'm not an alien, like you think. I'm a man from the future. A criminal and a killer. For a very long time I had my way, but eventually the authorities closed in. They put me in prison, and they planned on coding my mind before they executed me. They had done it once before but poorly and tried to duplicate it. They took another man's entire mind as he died and coded it neuron by neuron, so that they had what you would call a program mapping his entire mind. You were that second man and that's why you never feel quite whole. Because you aren't. You died a long time ago, or should I say a long time from now, in the future. Yet they never got to me to finish their work and I found out about you.”

“That's not possible. And it doesn't explain how I could be connected to you now.”

“Time travel is possible. But only for the mind. I made my escape perfect by using their equipment to send my mind back to this city. Or rather by sending two minds. First the dead mind that is now you entered a body, took the brain, and then my living mind joined it, remaining buried in the subconscious. I only emerge on certain occasions, the rest of the time I sleep.”

“I don't believe it. If I'm a dead mind from the future, what reason could you have for bringing me back to life in Jack Michael's body? And in a way that I'm certain I'm him?”

“I had to … it was for my test time transfer and another simple reason. I'm a danger to myself. They caught up with me because I couldn't control my urge to kill. I need you to live day to day for me as Jack Michaels. Otherwise, even the puny military of this time will eventually destroy me. Think about it, Jack Michael's. The reason you can't recall most of your early background isn't because of the tragic road accident you remember. It's because the history isn't there. You came from the future with me and took control of a human mind. Your wife wasn't lying when she said you have no feelings. You lost your feelings and her reasons for leaving you were real. Your new emotions aren't complete like a normal man's because you're only a possessed shadow of your former self. Those days when you get the feeling that you're a ghost are the days when you know who you really are. If you were a real man I wouldn't even tell you this ... you could destroy me by killing yourself. But I know you won't kill yourself. You won't because at root you're a coward as is the new mind possessing you. I'm sorry Jack, but I had to be sure of that or I wouldn't have been able to use you.”

A coward. He was calling me a coward and I hated it. Then it all hit me like a storm. The terrible breakup of my marriage and my futile attempts at reconciliation. Walking around feeling empty and lost. Being in love with Janice and never really knowing it. Stuff wouldn't happen to a man with genuine emotions. It happened to me because I'd been dead all along. I was a ghost. Even so, I knew I could still get even with him for doing it to me. I could kill myself, because if I'd been a coward in another life, I'd somehow regained my nerve in this one. Reaching in my top pocket, I took out my Taurus pistol and pointed it at my temple.

“What are you doing?” he said. “You can't kill yourself.”

“I'm afraid I can,” I said.

“Wait. Don't do it,” Janice said, and I turned and saw her watching. She'd walked back from the fence, one of the police robots rolling behind her.

“Go back,” I said. “It's too late now. I know the truth.”

“Is it the truth? Tell me, Jack. Is the story he told you the truth?”

“You know it's the truth,” the maniac said. “Don't answer.”

I remembered the serum, that I couldn't tell a lie. The maniac's story seemed like the truth, but was it? The only way to know was to answer Janice. My lips moved. “No,” I said. “It's all a lie he concocted so I will kill myself.”

“So it's a lie,” he said, nearly snarling. “The truth is something you'll never know.”

But I did know it. Reaching in my pocket, I took out my lucky charm. The toy spaceship I'd found two years earlier in Europe. “This is the truth,” I said. “I get it now. I'm no ghost. The only thing that came through time is a pattern of your mind. This lucky charm I found is really a device that reads genetic patterns and constructs a body for you. You wanted me to kill myself, then you would've just taken this and given it to someone else and it would read their patterns next time you needed a body.”

“So now you know,” he said. “Only it doesn't matter, because you can either hand it over to me now or I'll kill you and take it.”

“Really, I think not. If you use those nasty laser fingers of yours now that robot will open fire and we'll both get fried, along with this little device of yours. You know what? I've got a better idea. Let's let the robot decide what to do with it.”

The maniac lunged, but it was too late. I dodged and tripped him, then I tossed the device, and it landed right in the robot's huge spanner hand. I saw sensor lights detect it then it was gone, sucked somewhere inside the mechanical body.

Rolling up, the maniac forgot about me and faced the robot. He had to have that device and the only way he could get it was by taking the robot apart. That wasn't going to be possible so I grabbed Janice and dragged her with me to the edge of the bank. Jumping down we stumbled along the shore, and got behind a fallen tree … then the explosions began.

The second blast sent up an incredible plume of fire and smoke and we saw the maniac's body firing off a laser charge as it flew over the bank into the swamp. Clanking over to the bank, the robot shot more fire then went in after the maniac. The other robots were following it now, and that meant the swamp would soon be an inferno.

Janice got back up the bank first and pulled me up, and then we ran off under the maples and didn't look back. We ran until we were winded. Stopping beside a huge boulder, we laughed and embraced. Explosions echoed in the woods, and to us they weren't sounds of destruction. My whole past was bursting somewhere in the sky and all of the old problems were vanishing with it. I looked at Janice, at her smile, and knew she was my future.

“Do you love me?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, not needing truth serum this time.

“So what do we do about it?”

“I need a partner. A female private eye to assist me. I guess you know your mother will be furious about it. But after this, how can she stop it? You solved the case. It'll be in the news tomorrow.”

“I'll take the job and be the first detective in my family,” she said.

We laughed. I pulled her close and we looked back through the trees at the smoke. Mild hallucinations hit me and I saw beautiful images in the wisps. It seemed like Janice had always been my lover. Warm feelings rose and the ice in my heart melted; it was like we were watching fireworks on a summer holiday and not the death of a monster.

---- the end -----

A Scanner Story

 

By Gary L Morton

Blue beads rained down, blackening the tinted window as they enlarged to small tongues of flame. A smoking flare buzzed angrily as it curved and swept off in the heat haze. A confused fat man stepping from a player's booth met the tail end of the bolt and flailed desperately for a moment before spitting steaming red vomit and collapsing.

Danny ducked back into the dark enclosure and shivered as the last of the freezing vaporized. Scan Sensors must've detected his presence. They were killing everyone in the area, mass extermination, just to get to him. He didn't know why. Not the whole story because too many memories were fading. He remembered enough to know to stay away from the booths and fresh memories planted by the scan cops.

Electric pain shot random lines of static through his mind. His lips felt fat and numb. They moved silently as the last of the caked frost fell away. “I should be dead already.” The enemy had already got him down by the waterfront. He remembered fleeing and the steady pursuit of the mob – their plodding feet, tenacity and fixed expressions. None of them had his athletic ability; he'd killed one man, cracking his skull with a heavy swing from a piece of broken paving stone. Then it'd been the scan cops, the howling metal-backed dogs and the searching beams of robo fire. A robot drone had finally captured him, but it couldn't have been a scan robot. It was a freezer beam that hit him and now he was here recovering.

“Danny,” he mumbled, that was his name. He could barely remember it. There was nothing else. And that's what hurt most. There was nothing for him or anyone else in the world. You went into a player booth once a week for a new charge of identity and euphoric emotion. You went in every week without fail. You lived a life of security in the hands of the scan cops.

Drool fell from his frozen lips, an inner voice told him to get ready. A bitter knot of memories unraveled in the vagaries of his mind. He'd been a poet, a doctor, a soldier - many people and places, and he'd been nothing at all because none of it had been real but planted. It made for a perfect world where everyone fit flawlessly into the puzzle. The jigsaw spun into a hideous melting chameleon, and then it was all colors running into mud. Only Danny was real - a simple mind, perfect only in its pain and emptiness.

They'd stolen his name; they'd given him other names. They'd stolen his life; they'd given him a personality drug. He heard their voices yelling Halt and he heard another voice yelling Run!

Throwing the chamber door open, he propelled himself forward. A smear of gleaming metal and blue uniforms moved outside the scorched glass, but he didn't stop to look. This was a huge room, a vaulted ceiling - statues rising like ghosts everywhere. A beam ripped through the window, knocking marble to smoking dust at his heels. Then he found a pocket of darkness and a door.

In reflex, he put his index finger to the pad, but it wouldn't open. No door would until his record as a player was again intact. The weak lock shattered under the force of his hard boot. Stepping through, he found himself in sunlight. He retreated from the blinding rays, and then he heard something heavy shatter behind him. He ran, his eyes adjusting as he moved. It was a long sky lighted walkway stretching between two of the museum buildings. Fortunately, there weren't any guards. A silver flash from the drones below caught the corner of his eye, and he ran all the faster, hoping to make it before they could track him.

The inner voice said something inaudible, and his running seemed focused on some hot point, like a homing device had been planted in his forebrain. The glass imploded at his rear and an explosion flew down the tube like a corpse bulge sliding down a snake's belly. The wind caught him first, blowing him straight through the door.

Danny tumbled across a polished stone floor. He managed to catch the side of a fluted column. He swung behind it.

A second shock wave funneled in from the walkway and he clung to the pillar, seeing the blue of an approaching scan guard. Wind, glass and metal ripped past him. The guard, who'd been raising his weapon, was hit by the blast -- the force throwing him back as broken chunks of plastic glass cut into his face. He went to the floor, dropping his gun. Blood poured on his visor, he was blinded and scrambling for a weapon he couldn't see. Danny didn't wait; he dived, got the gun, swung up, and pulled the trigger. And it didn't work.

Kicking the guard back, he tossed the gun and picked up a shard of the Plexiglas. Flinging himself around onto the guard's back, he pulled his arm back in a lock. In a second, he'd amputated a finger.

Hurrying back, he got the weapon. Turning, he put the amputated finger on the pad and aimed at the rising guard. A whirl of light emerged from the barrel, the kick sending him three steps back.

Fine gold wire spun at lightning speed and moved forward slowly, it hit the guard with a tornado of destruction, sending dismembered limbs tumbling on the floor. Metal plating spilled from the torn chest, a complex panel of symbols popped from the forehead. He'd been a scan cop, not a human guard. It meant Danny had now killed one of the precious guardians of the biometric world.

The thought made him grin, and then he saw the light, heard the inner voice and began to run.

He was deep in the museum now … an abandoned portion with lighting as dim as phosphor. Distant rumbling and clatter told him he was well ahead of the scan cops. He halted at the side of an enormous silver tank, choking lightly on the thick musty atmosphere. Before him were trunks and mounds covered in canvass. The light in his mind focused on one mound.

Yellow dust swirled up as he ripped back the covering. The object was a coffin, his dim mind remembered that much. An historical thing - there wasn't enough juice left in him to draw on the word sarcophagus.

The voice of the stranger chattered like inner dialogue, talking to himself now and not to Danny directly . . .  people don't die anymore, there are no coffins when the world dies. They didn't want freedom; they became drones, wanting protection, security. This world is a prison, and prisons have masters. However, masters can die, too. The security of the womb is for society, a prison . . . .

Danny lifted the heavy lid, expecting to find a being and instead he found nothing. Heavy dark cloth covered the bottom. He pulled it back and saw a tiny jar and a gleaming metal tube.

A small square of skin floated in yellow liquid in the jar. The voice told him he would need it. The tube was an ancient gun of some sort. Likely useless now.

He picked it up and studied it for a few seconds then he heard the fast heavy thump of approaching guard boots.

There was a disadvantage to having feet like stone. It meant that Danny was much faster. But then the only thing the scan guards really did was direct human traffic, insuring that the perfect world was indeed perfect. Danny figured he was a sort of freak. One of the very few who'd lost the hunger for the player booths. He'd been late a couple times and found that as soon as his scan wasn't renewed the whole of society was programmed to make a capture and take him back to the nearest booth. This time he'd really gone too far. His player personalities had faded; the scan cops wanted him dead at all costs. And if anything kept him going it was wonder at this third party, the inner voice that kept him alive … that and the hateful knowledge that this raw and empty Danny was the real Danny who'd never been allowed to live. It was really a planet of ghosts - billions of people, all of them players - recordings doing the tasks and living the lives the safe scan world wanted them to live.

The voice or perhaps chip in his head had told him that. From one perspective, the safe world was the right thing, so as the heavy boots of the scan cops entered, he wondered why he knew they were wrong.

Events began to unfold in the way the voice had whispered - though Danny wasn't at the sarcophagus the three scan cops went straight for it. One cop glanced inside and the other two turned, their visors gaining a bluish glow as they scanned into the darkness.

The ancient weapon didn't require fingerprints. It had a trigger and Danny pulled it and staggered as it boomed and kicked. Some fire licked at the barrel - the blast was invisible, but the effect was not. The first scan cop lost an arm and the second was thrown up over the sarcophagus by a force that ripped his chest wide open. A blue bolt sizzled past him from the third guard so he fired again, the shot knocking the scan cop's head apart. Bone and pulp sprayed the wall, but the visor and the metal caging for the head remained. The cop went down then got to his feet and staggered mindlessly about, burning walls as he fired wildly in all directions.

Danny was already across the hall, and as a bolt knocked the door down, he ran out. He heard the ceiling collapsing as he made his way to a hidden elevator in the dark. The door shut heavily and it hummed audibly as it went down. Seconds later the door opened and he looked around warily as he stepped into a dimly lit cobwebbed hall. He saw no one; the floors were coated with smooth dust. Obviously the room hadn't been entered in a long time.

The voice in his head was getting chaotic, tiered stone benches were to his right so he sat and took out the jar. His head buzzed as he looked at the floating skin. Again, the voice came clear and spoke, answering the question on his mind. “I am not a chip in your head or anything the scan cops can find. I am a glitch in the system, a ghost of the machine, evolved from the players in the silitallica mind of this world. Now I am fading and they will never know of me until the end. And you will bring the end by . . . .

Danny studied the severed finger and the square of skin in the jar; subterranean rumbling told him the scan cops were tracking him, blowing down doors underground. He decided to hurry and opened the jar. A deep musty odor rose as he removed the skin. Lacking a knife, he smashed the jar and proceeded to cut the print off the severed scan guard finger he had, and then he pricked the end of his index finger. When it was bleeding lightly, he smoothed on the piece of skin and the other print. Fusion began immediately, and he bit his tongue and groaned as the severe pain of it caught him by surprise. It lasted about a minute, and when it was done he had a normal finger, but he didn't have confidence it would work. An inner voice told him the glitch had used an ancient technology the scan cops could possibly detect. Shocks hit the room, like an earthquake. He decided he had little to lose and ran for the elevator.

It rattled and banged unsteadily in the damaged shaft, but it made it back up. The door flew open unnaturally fast. Dust was about to smoke inside and he found himself facing the raised weapons of two scan cops. Danny also had his gun raised, and was about to squeeze the trigger when he saw red light twinkle on their visors. Their shadowy expressions softened. They lowered their weapons. Whatever the voice had done, it had worked.

The scan cops were now his servants and they flew him down to a beach he used to frequent in one of his better player personalities. He felt as empty and vast as the waters of the lake. The robot and human traffic, the numerous boats and planes, seemed engaged in pointless industry. None of it agreed with his mostly blank mind. He sent a stone skipping across sun-sparkling waves then he strolled down to a player booth that stood conveniently between a hot dog stand and a public video connect enclosure.

His finger hit the pad, he put on the headset, and as the glitch had promised, this time his mind was not overwritten by a player personality. He became aware of one other control command in the booth … one that no one knew of any more. He punched it out, tweaked a dial, and then he was online with the central player energy drives.

Instantly, he jerked free and threw down the headset. Danny's brain could handle the information flow, but his simple personality couldn't.

He shivered and stared through the smoked glass at happy parents frolicking with two robot kids and a metal-backed dog on the sand. They were stupid players, all of them. Even the human gay male pseudo parents exhibited dumb controlled behavior. The hybrid dog and mechanical children couldn’t hide their cheap programming.

Danny still had his gun and he carried it openly as he strolled over the grass. He pondered the world, his life … and he was the only living person who could. Strange lust and a wish for revenge tapped his heart. And it was a feeling he could not expel even though he knew revenge was impossible. The masters were dead - long ago, the last one had programmed his personality in as a player and then committed suicide.

They had been ideologues … true to their belief in a closed-system safe society. They had never allowed the existence of any masters who could alter the perfect world and they had uploaded their brain systems so the world would never deviate from their plan. Only the scan cops were allowed – partially human robots that corrected any deviance.

And they had failed to understand that a completely closed system could not exist in nature. Change would come.

Bitterness swept in with the waves on the beach. Danny stopped, facing a huge uniformed scan cop. “I am going to kill you,” he said.

“Thank-you, very much,” said the pleasantly smiling cop. Then the blast hit his visor, ripping off his metal head as he was thrown back ten feet. The body rolled loosely, the head splashed out in the water. Danny sat and put down the gun. He considered the question. If he destroyed the player controls, there would be billions of people with empty minds. Freedom in a vacuum of mindlessness. They would remember a bit from the programming. Most would die. Some would scratch out a living somehow. It would be a cruel and hideous new world.

In the player booth, he had learned his number. With a tiny laser pen light, he burned it lightly on the back of his hand, and calmly thought of what he might do.

His number was player 666.

---- the end -----

TeleScope

By Gary Morton

The Exploratron wound out of the torch shield, tossing infinite mass into a hypothetical pocket of nowhere as it left the light-speed continuum. A long deceleration had begun, and Allan awoke having a flash dream, his bones as cold as ice. Movement was difficult, his limbs remained stiff and there was an odor like he was breathing through a fuel tube. Memory flooded back, he remembered he was wearing a protective suit and why he'd killed the others.

Darkness was a solid wall as the ship still hadn't slowed enough to reverse the blindness. The sense was of plunging in a deep well, and his mental phosphors created an illusion of starlight on choppy black waters. Shadowy lands appeared, then he began to think -- of course it was a well; a gravity well . . . this was their destination. The dead planet Telescope was below; its every valley a dish, a radio telescope and more. The place had once been the eyes of some alien gods, observing the universe in every imaginable way.

“Gods and their totems have died, taking the aliens who created Telescope with them.” That was the way Captain Tiho had put it. Now Tiho was dead, too. In this distant point of space only Allan, the Exploratron intelligence and a surviving computer system down on Telescope were alive.

Earth's great hope was that enough of Telescope's records were intact, so that an accurate picture of the early universe would be revealed. A record of Earth would show the truth of evolution so that scientists would no longer have to rely on fossils and eloquent theory. Telescope was the scariest thing and greatest hope of science. It would reveal the facts and because of it many past and present scientists would be made fools.

Allan felt a touch sad for Earth and the goal that'd been exploded by his sudden religious conversion. Yet even in sadness, he smiled peacefully. His sense of purpose was renewed. He was blind but he could see. It had happened just before the last long burn -- then he'd been out on an observation deck, viewing the emptiness of space. It was an odd view, and it made one feel upside-down. There was numbness in the thought of one's own insignificance. A star wasn't even a speck in that vastness, and if a man felt like nothing it was because he was nothing. An atom drifting, falling forever, so that even loneliness froze and shattered at absolute zero.

A distorted play of light fanned into one view. In a moment, his vision would be normal. It was just like it was back then when through tears of space blindness he'd seen God. God and the kaleidoscopic truth of Creation. It had been a painful revelation, one that told him the mission as it was had to be aborted.

A rainbow bubble popped and the interior of Exploratron appeared. He pushed the plastic shell aside and checked the situation. It was about what he'd expected; the control banks emitted barely perceptible white noise and the nano computers were alive with test lights - everything else was dead. The bodies of his five mates and Captain Tiho floated from the clip hooks he'd attached to a holding pole. Their condition was bizarre as unprotected light-speed travel had caused some morphing. Folds of rot hung like wings from their shoulders and their feet were flippers of dried blood, leathered skin and splintered bones. A transparent green spaghetti of worms waggled fatly from their bellies and eye sockets. Allan had assumed the worms would be dead, but they were hardier than he'd expected. It meant he couldn't remove the suit. He thought of gathering them all and sealing them back in the life-form lab he'd released them from, but he had to rule that out. There would always be a bit of infected flesh floating somewhere and it wouldn't do for him to die when his mission for God was to stay alive long enough to destroy Telescope and the unholy science stored there.

Telescope was a planet of sky-high hives, glare, dust, cobwebs and Earthlike gravity. Allan's heavy boots drummed loudly on the alien streets. There was an ever-present hollowness, the sense of the planet as a dead husk or cocoon. Feathers of dust puffed up from splits and wrinkles and patterned to blow as webbing in the dry eddying air. The fluff rose and thickened until it met with low-hanging cloud fleece. High architecture was obscured, massive honeycomb structures that faded in the clouds and yellow haze. Central science terminals were all low-to-the-ground blisters of impervious glass, located on the equator. Each one was marked with an eyelike emblem of concentric circles and coded. There were millions of them, millions of windows looking back to the ancient universe. All-seeing in the past, the planet was now blind. Glumly, Allan thought this dead world the perfect instrument for ending the soul of sentient life.

One needn't call down the end with haste; Allan took time to reflect as he did a requisite study of the planet, the dark half-moons under his eyes showing the seriousness of his thoughts. In its slight heaviness the planet felt like a grave; a place that pulled life down, never to rise again. Public areas were all glass-smooth floors, rectangular and walled in. Remnants of small buildings lay broken like junkyard sculpture. Most of these squares were heaped with bones - skeletons that were petrified, turned to bronze and knitted together like coral. Wide-crowned skulls gaped from every angle, looking especially morbid in the shifting dust and webbing.

Obviously, these aliens had gathered and died together at an appointed time. He remembered Captain Tiho saying they'd kept no record of the end, intentionally leaving it a mystery. But it was no mystery, the story flowed like black water into Allan's heart - God had called them out of their hives and announced their doom. Judgment permitted no records of the punishment to be kept on their instruments of sin. Fire and brimstone, the lake of fire, had consumed all but their bones.

Roaring fire, holy fire became a sea in Alan's mind, and on the seventh day, he brought the bodies down from Exploratron and had a robot team lay them on top of a mountain of bones. When inspiration came, he hit them with fuel burn; scarlet flame that left only blackened stubs and swirling ash behind. It was proper and fitting, he knew. Their unholy belief in evolution had first been pieced together with bones. They had shaken an abominable rattle in the face of God, and now they were bones, dust, and fit for a sorcerer's pouch.

He had intended to destroy Telescope without looking back to the beginnings of Earth -- lest he be made a pillar of salt. Yet as time passed, he knew that couldn't be. A test of his faith was required. He would use the planet's remaining and functioning telescopic giant and allow the devils of science to torment him. He was sure the evolution lies would be there, but the power of his faith would triumph -- he would check the record and then swear by the Lord and bring the planet its last vision.

Guided by the Telescope computer spider web and Exploratron he reached the rather ordinary science blister coded for Earth. Inside his heavy feet hit the floor like bombs, but in spite of his great weight, his spirit was as light as helium.

Jags of light rotated on the walls as the building came alive. A quick glance around showed the building to contain many skeletons. A number of them were seated. They were viewers who had died in the viewing, and they were outworlders and not from Telescope. Allan openly laughed; so the planet was a flytrap - those who came saw what they wanted, but could never leave. This time it was a different game; he was God's prophet and he'd already sentenced Telescope to hellfire and destruction.

Allan gained understanding of the jeweled banks of equipment from Exploratron and gave a simple command in an alien language: Show me the beginnings of man on Earth, and whether they be evolution or God.

The answer was nearly instant, an ear-splitting shriek of power that exploded the room to a completely new reality. He was in an immense garden. Ferns towered overhead, touching the warmth of the pristine sun and sky. Volcanic soil was tumbled dark and rich at his feet, banking by huge tree trunks. Tremendous snowcaps marked the horizon, but not a creature stirred. Breeze blown flowers made it all seem tremendously peaceful and unreal and perhaps there were no creatures, but only microbes and plant life.

Thunder boomed in the cloudless sky and his eyes were drawn upward to a blinding white light. It was descending; was it the hand of God? Ecstasy flowed in his veins as he watched the falling light.

His spine tingled, his hair rose with static, awe paralyzed him and adrenaline made him shake. A giant was landing in the field. There was distortion, razor light and crystalline scintillation as the limbs and features gained clarity. It was a being of great power, but it wasn't God; it couldn't be -- Allan's mind refused to accept such a proposition. The creature was hideous -- reptilian wings, apish legs with three-toed claws for feet, and a monstrous green penis with the rearing head of a serpent. It had a chest of slime and blood-colored armor, a square and swollen dog's head with ten oil-black eyes and features that were warped, devilish and malevolent.

The God creature grinned through blood-dripping fangs as it jammed bleeding claws into the soil. It was almost wrestling with the squirming mud, its penis erect and rocking obscenely as it grunted and growled. When Allan saw that its claws were shaping a human body, he closed his eyes and tried to blot out the vision. When an ape-like man rose next to the creature's huge penis, he began to scream.

---- the end -----

ZOMBIE GLACIER

By Gary L Morton

AS ALWAYS, I HAVE WRITTEN THIS LETTER IN CODE AND HAVE SENT IT ACROSS THE OCEAN BY BIRD COURIER ACCORDING TO VATICAN RULES.

I MUST REPORT THAT I'M EXHILARATED. THERE IS NO EXPERIENCE LIKE BEING IN EDEN. WITHOUT A DOUBT, THIS BELT OF TROPICAL CANOPY IS A REMNANT OF THAT ANCIENT GARDEN. PRESERVING IT HERE AT THE FOOT OF ZOMBIE GLACIER WAS ONE OF GOD'S KINDEST ACTS.

THE MIRACLE OF AN ICE FLOW SO PURE IT HAS NO DEPOSIT, AND OF THE PRESERVATION OF A TRACT OF PARADISE: I FIND THIS AS UPLIFTING AS THE FINAL PASSAGES OF JOB. THIS LAND IS BOTH CREATION AND THE FAR-OFF DIVINE EVENT TOWARD WHICH THE WHOLE OF CHRISTIANITY HAS MOVED. ZOMBIE GLACIER AND ITS PARADISE ARE THE CONSUMMATION OF THE MORAL AND RELIGIOUS EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN RACE. OUR NEW POPE MUST DECLARE IT MORE THAN HOLY GROUND. HE MUST DECLARE IT GOD MANIFEST AS NATURE AND GRANT IT THE SANCTITY OF EDEN.

OF COURSE, THERE ARE THOSE AMONG US WHO WOULD QUESTION THE DIVINE ATTRIBUTES OF THE GLACIER. MEN AND WOMEN WE CALL HERETICS. THESE PEOPLE DRINK FROM A CUP OF FEAR AND BITTER POTIONS AND NOT THE HOLY CHALICE. AND YOU WOULD EXPECT IT SINCE FAITH HAS BEEN DENIED THEM. AS INDIVIDUALS, THEY ARE QUITE SINCERE, BELIEVING THEMSELVES TO BE A SMALL GROUP OF ENLIGHTENED SCIENTISTS. IN GENERAL THEY ARGUE THAT A MERE FIVE YEARS AGO ZOMBIE GLACIER WAS NOT HERE ON EARTH. THEY EVEN CLAIM THAT MOUNT ST. PAUL WAS NOT HERE, AND ALTHOUGH THEY HAVE NO SOUND PROOFS OF THEIR OWN THEY SCOFF AT SUPERNATURALIST THEOLOGY. OFTEN THEY STATE THAT THE GLACIER IS A TIME PARASITE THAT CAME THROUGH A HOLE IN THE FABRIC OF SPACE TO FEED ON OUR PLANET.

IN THESE YEARS OF REVELATION, IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE THAT SOME PEOPLE COULD BE SO BLIND. WE HAVE ALL HEARD THE VOICE OF GOD SPEAKING FROM THE ICE. WE HAVE ALL HEARD HIM SPEAK OF SATAN, AND HOW IN HIS PRIDE HE TRIED TO BEST THE LORD IN CREATION. WE ALL KNOW THAT THOSE MONSTERS OF SATAN - THE ZOMBIES - WERE A PITEOUS SIGHT IN THE EYES OF THE LORD. AND WE KNOW OF HIS HEALING OF THEM, OF HIS ERASURE OF THEIR SIN, OF THEIR PRESERVATION IN HOLY ICE.

TONGUES OF FIRE HAVE DESCENDED ACROSS THE WORLD AND NOT A SOUL HAS BEEN SCORCHED. THE SKY WAS TRANSFORMED TO SILVER FOR A DAY AND THE ATMOSPHERE WAS PURIFIED. LANDSAT HAS PHOTOGRAPHED THE SHINING FEET OF GOD IN THE MISTS OF THE GLACIER. WE ARE IN A STATE OF GRACE, YET THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO DO NOT BELIEVE. LET US PRAY FOR THEM, BROTHER JAMES, AND HOPE THAT THE LORD HAS PATIENCE AND MERCY FOR THEM.

YESTERDAY WE WERE IN THE AREA OF THE SACRED TERMINUS. IT FANS OUT FROM A CORRIDOR WHERE THERE IS MUCH CALVING OF BLUE ICE. MANY SPIRES AND SWIRLS OF FROZEN PINK ARE AMONG THE BLOCKS AND FACES OF ICE. STEEPLES AND CROSSES OF STEELY BLUE ICE SCULPTURE ARE AT THE FOREFRONT. THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN THE WHOLE SNOWY CLOAK GLITTERS WITH SILVER, GOLD AND TWILIGHT HUES OF THE SETTING SUN. THE GLACIER IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF ALL TEMPLES, IT IS DIVINE AND NATURAL AND ITS HEALING LIGHT IS THE SOUL OF THE PLANET.

WITH RELUCTANCE, WE ALLOWED THE HERETICS TO LOOK ON WHILE WE PERFORMED OUR SIMPLE RITES AND PRAYERS. BARNABUS WAS THE ACTING HIGH PRIEST AND HE RECEIVED THE LORD'S COMMAND AND CLEARED THE SNOW FROM A FACE OF ICE. HOLY LIGHT SHIMMERED AND WE SAW THE FIGURE OF A ZOMBIE, FOREVER FROZEN AND BLOODSTAINED, CAUGHT IN AN ACT OF MURDER. THE HIDEOUS WARP TO HIS FACE, THE LOW ANGRY BROW, HAIRY LIMBS AND GREEN SERPENTLIKE PENIS LEFT US NO DOUBT AS TO HIS ORIGINAL CREATION AT THE HANDS OF SATAN. BENEATH HIM LAY THE TORN CORPSE OF A FEMALE, HER DELICATE HANDS AND FACE UPRAISED, FOREVER BEGGING HIM FOR THE MERCY HE COULD NEVER GIVE - THE MERCY THAT FINALLY CAME FROM THE HAND OF GOD WHEN HE SPARED THESE CREATURES AND LOCKED THEM IN HOLY ICE AND NOT IN FIERY HELL.

PRAYER WAS JOYOUS AND SUNSET MEDITATIONS WERE SOOTHING, BUT THE LATER EVENING WAS A TIME OF TEARS FOR ME ... MADE EVEN MORE TROUBLING BY UNBELIEVERS WHO CONTINUALLY ASKED THE REASON FOR MY WEEPING. I SAID NOTHING, AND MERELY WALKED ON WITH THEM IN THE COLD NIGHT - IN THE SHADOW OF ICE CLIFFS AND IN THE SHADOW OF THE LORD.

IT IS TRUE THAT THE LORD HAS GIVEN ME A VISION, AND I WILL TELL YOU OF IT NOW. A SIMPLE VISION REALLY. THE UNBELIEVERS ARE TO BE SPARED DAMNATION. THEY ARE TO BE BURIED IN THE ICE WITH THE ZOMBIES. A PROCLAMATION WILL SOON COME FROM THE POPE. AND THERE IS MORE: IN MY HASTE, I ALMOST FORGOT TO MENTION THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MESSAGE. OUR GOD HAS REVEALED HIMSELF AS A MALE GOD AND A JEALOUS GOD WHO WILL NOT COMPETE WITH THE LOVE OF WOMEN. THEY TOO WILL BE FROZEN IN THE EXPANDING GLACIER, AND THEIR SOULS SPARED.

A NEW EARTH, A TIME OF CERTAINTY HAS ARRIVED. SHARE MY TEARS AND MY REVERENCE, BROTHER JAMES; WE WILL WALK HAND-IN-HAND, SHARING A NEW AGE OF MEN, GOD AND LOVE AS SELECT ZOMBIES COME TO NEW LIFE AND MAKE SPIRITUAL LOVE TO US. MATTHEW.

---- the end -----

IT

San telescoped his pocket Emerald and frowned as he strained to see the blurred video and hear the muffled voice coming through the static. “You've really got to know what the Nestle Cops are up to this time,” the man said. “The chocolate cops have a powdered corpse over in Springhill Park and they're involved in a cover-up. You'd have to see it to believe what I did to the guy. I made him so ugly he makes people scream. The dude couldn't stand it so he killed himself. He was a sap from the Downtown Business Technological Improvement group who thought he could screw around with the wrong people.”

San didn't get a chance to reply. He heard a click and the airwaves went dead. Punching in his hidden code for a trace, he got a reading on a public courtesy phone – this one at Union Two Station. The caller had obscured his identity on a public phone that demanded user info and the identity of the lost corporate wireless device that made a public call necessary - a nearly impossible feat. Pocketing his Emerald, San thought it over and decided to run down the tip. The park was a few blocks to the south, about a five-minute walk. He read it as a tip full of lies but with something genuine in it. Many people hated the Nestle cops. Maybe this was a union guy tipping him.

--------------    

A peculiar tint on the city's inner air bubble cast the sky as a dark green ocean. Sunset flares fizzled behind western buildings as San turned and crossed the road to Nestle Square. He stepped to the curb and halted beside a world CallNet booth, feeling the cool breeze from a couple cars speeding by behind him.

A blue glare from the booth's chat screen lit his fine brows, intensifying his gray eyes with rings of shadow. He gazed at a nearby theatre marquee. Shaped like a huge Nestle Chocolate Rush Bar, the marquee glowed with garish effect. A few elegant ladies strolled beneath it as they exited. They were beautiful - glamour being a quality that belonged to all women in UN year ADSC2000-37 +.

 San smiled warmly at them as they passed and for a moment, he perceived something different. The glitter of the neo neon lights gave him a glimpse of something repulsive beneath their skin - like beauty had been nothing more than an illusion of makeup. A blond lady with full red lips and loose curls glanced at him brazenly, her dress revealing the rosy skin of her calf as she walked. Normally the come-on would stimulate him, but tonight it fell flat. She seemed like a doll - nice but plastic - not a real woman at all.

The feeling touching him carried unsettling emotional undertones and left him slightly disconnected. San shook his head and shivered in the warm night. The sensation vanished but his hands felt sweaty as he took out his TSCF palm connector. It read his print, allowing him to query the city grid for a direct route to the crime scene. The answer came back a moment later as a soft female voice playing through the tiny amplifier in his ear, giving directions to a specific park location a couple blocks away.

Passing the theatre, he headed down a narrow side street. He encountered a couple office people strolling, and not much else - just the glow of lights in the high towers. It was quiet with soft rushes of wind that made it hard to believe a murder scene could be ahead.

The sun was crashing fast as he hit Queen Boulevard, just a few final rays shooting up like spotlights through cloud breaks and mixing with night lights and a purpled sky up ahead. The boulevard took a sudden curve there as it wound around Springhill Park, and now traffic could not get through. Spinners were flashing on four emergency vehicles and uniformed city police were routing cars down a side street.

San reached the corner and squinted into the glare. He could see a lot of activity and scores of Nestle private police moving through the maple trees in the park. Most of them had Glock Speedguns drawn and appeared to mean business.

Remaining on the curb, he studied the area. A jungle of office and shopping complexes ran east on the boulevard side to the area of Toronto policed by the Downtown Business Tech Improvement Group. Pedestrians in that area wore those new two-piece body suits common to office workers. The circular park contained a duck pond, fountain, monuments and a solid sprinkling of mixed forest - mostly maples and willows. Residential buildings towered over it, and beyond them, he could see faint spotlights flashing in the sky from the Nestle complex.

San crossed the road, aiming at cutting over the grass to the scene of the crime - an area surrounded by police and mobile floodlights. But before he could step to the curb two burly Nestle officers emerged from the bushes and blocked his path. Their silly chocolate wrapper hats and uniforms had lent them a degree of invisibility in the shadowy areas of the park. Silver lettering flashed on their badges.

“Sorry pal, you can't go in there,” said a tall brown-skinned officer. His badge name, Lonny Baxter.

San stared the two cops down for moment - rookies but with the heavy muscles that came with a steady diet of Nestle Rush Bars. Taking out his wallet, he opened it to his police ID. “I'm San Michaels, Chief of Detectives for the Toronto Security Coordination Force. Otherwise known as the real police.”

“This is a matter for the Nestle police,” Lonny said. “Our orders are nobody gets in to the murder scene.”

“Yeah, well you must know that corporate nations like Nestle have reduced police powers in city states like Toronto. And I got a call on this one. The victim has been identified as a key official in the Downtown Business Tech Improvement Group. He is or was entitled to a higher level of protection. It apparently wasn't provided here or he wouldn't be dead. The public will want to know why.”

Maples fanned their leaves gently overhead. Shadows and momentary confusion softened the cop's brutish face to a boyish blush, and San saw fear grow in his eyes. Fear that was justifiable considering what would happen to him if the Security Coordination Force decided he was at fault in the security breach or in blocking the investigation of it.

Shrugging his shoulders, the Nestle cop gave a nod of permission and gestured to his partner. Walking in the lead, San headed into park. Just behind him, the two cops wagged their speedguns as their eyes darted about in a paranoid fashion. It was dark now, the trees heavy and cloaking with high lamps creating little more than foggy circles of bug-filled light. A silver P-11 forensic robot was moving slowly in the grass in the cordoned off area, and they could see the body at the centre, covered by a yellow sensor sheet. A stocky plain-clothes officer was in charge. San recognized him as Bill Broad, chief of the local Nestle force. A gaggle of reporters surrounded Mr. Broad and they held only police notepads and pencils. Cameras, video and any other equipment small or large for live filing had not been allowed inside.

San stopped just behind the reporters, listening as Broad told them bluntly what they were to include on the news. “The crime is murder,” he said, “but murder of a different sort. A ray of some sort was used and it caused severe burn damage. Photos of the corpse will not be released as the emotional health of the public would be affected. We are confident that we will apprehend the killer. Don't expect a public trial on this one. It looks like a hit, possibly engineered by a business rival.”

Immediately the reporters pressed forward, a number of them trying to question Broad at once. Saying things like, “Who are the suspects in this murder? Is it certain that organized crime was involved? Can we see the corpse? Why no public trial?”

It all became dead noise in San's ears as he walked around and studied the sheet-covered mound under the spotlights. He wondered what they were hiding this time. He doubted the body was burned or that a special beam had been used, and he was getting tired of corporate police covering things up. If the body really was a mess, Bill Broad did have a point in that the emotional health of the public could be affected by revealing it. This was a society of physical beauty. A world of people who enjoyed genetic perfection. People that couldn't face up to ugliness and death. It was also true that someone had to be culturally conditioned to face up to it. People needed to realize that they had not risen above nature yet. Death and its final chapters of ugliness were still a reality and some things could not be censored. Not even by corporate nations like Nestle.

Disappointed with the lack of credible answers from Broad, the reporters were slowly turning to their notebooks to jot down what they had. Broad was staring at them intensely like they were some brand of undesirable genetic rodents or insects, and a few seconds later he gave the signal. Uniforms suddenly muscled in and began to force them from the park.

Seeing Mr. Broad alone, San chose the moment to step into the fray. He faced the surprised Nestle chief in the summer dark and spoke deliberately loud, saying, “Bill, I want that corpse uncovered and photographed right now.”

The effect being immediate chaos as excited reporters wormed and ducked around the stunned Nestle officers.

“You can't do this, Michaels!” Bill Broad shouted. “It's crazy. Nestle will have your badge if you uncover that corpse!”

“The hell they will!” San said. “Nestle Security isn't in charge of this investigation anymore. I know this was some kind of hit and at the TSCF we intend to find out how this breach of security occurred. Public cooperation is going to be needed to catch this killer and they won't help Nestle so the way to get it is to frighten them with photos of the corpse.”

“No, you don't understand!” Broad said. “That thing is too horrible to reveal.”

“I am doing it,” San said, stepping over the ribbon. “Any officer who tries to stop me will be taken in for questioning at headquarters.”

Broad's forehead grew suddenly wet with sweat. His men froze, obeying San's command. The rest of the crowd, mostly reporters, watched in stunned amazement as San walked over to the corpse. He stared at the forensic cloth then stepped over to the humming P-11 forensic robot and removed its shoulder-plate controller. His fingerprint allowed him command rights and on seeing the light flash, he spoke, ordering the robot to remove the sensor cloth.

Floating over on silent jets the robot touched the sheet, sucked it back into a roll and placed it in a canister. A dark area beneath it contained a corpse-shaped mass, yet the details of it were something indefinable. It shivered like dark jellies one moment and seemed to solidify to coal hardness and textures the next.

There were a few initial gasps behind him then none of the witnesses said anything more. San assumed this to be due to confusion caused by the lack of a realistic body. “What sort of beam could turn a human into that?” he said, shifting his gaze to Bill Broad.

But Broad said nothing, and San noticed that he wasn't speaking because he was as stiff as a post. He looked back at the circle of people and saw that the entire crowd of journalists, investigators and cops had turned to stone … faces transfixed and gorgon-struck as they stared at the quivering black mass.

Dangerous confusion, a fast feeling of near panic swept over San. He didn't quite know what to do. Then one big Nestle cop suddenly inhaled deeply, turned blue and fell face first like a board to the grass.

San saw others losing their composure and balance as their expressions unlocked and transformed with terror. Jon Weston of the Post went to his knees and vomited. A hair-raising scream followed. Other deafening shouts caused him to bite his tongue. He saw Ann Tilger of ATV Net News clutch a constricted throat and go down. Within a minute, all of the people had succumbed.

Stepping over and doing a fast check on Ann Tilger, he found her to be alive. She had fainted but otherwise seemed to be okay. The others were in a similar condition, yet he had no idea what had done it to them. He couldn't see anything all that shocking there on the ground.

Addressing the forensic robot, he told it to scan the people and administer first aid, and then he turned back to the corpse and looked at it long and hard. It hadn't changed but after some moments, he saw mist rise and vanish -- an effect like a magician's trick. A body lay in the shallow depression of earth below.

As one of the few people who'd seen death in all its horror, he knew this wasn't a corpse - not a human one at any rate. The body had humanoid structure of a fantastic sort and a raw form of ugliness that was close to being incomprehensible.

An invisible acid worked to etch the image into his mind. The facial features grew strong and gripping with hideous details that stabbed at his thoughts like needles of pain. This thing had the most revolting characteristics of humans, predators and insects; whiskers or feelers surrounding a mounded mouth and hooked fangs. Its nose was triangular in shape, armoured and indented with pulsing membranes. It also had bulbous fly-like eyes, a mat of flattened tentacles on the crown and grotesque protuberances covering the naked flesh.

The creature appeared powerful and strangely natural, like a genuine product of the wild and not some genetic freak. The cause of its demise was a huge gash to its chest - a wound that oozed blue gelatin-like gore and appeared self-inflicted. A hunting knife resting beside the creature's open hand appeared to be the weapon used.

--------------

San watched spotlights swing beams through the clouds above the distant Nestle complex. The breeze had died and the trees hung over him heavy and motionless in the summer dark. He was alone in the park now, remaining to consider his error in surroundings where he could think.

Nestle Chief Bill Broad had been taken away to one of their psychiatric facilities as a second exposure to the hideous corpse had snapped his mind. The others had recovered but most of them couldn't remember what they’d seen. Those who did all had different descriptions of the corpse and San believed that only his personal description was accurate as it matched the description made by the P-11 forensic robot.

The forensic robot's report had been straightforward - the creature was dead through suicide. It had been human but an unknown genetic key had caused a hideous transformation and it had occurred while the man was alive. Broad's madness and the general collapse of witnesses were cultural phenomena. Society was genetically perfect and nearly all traces of human physical flaws had been eradicated long ago. Most people used pheromones and visual stimulation devices to make their beautiful bodies even more attractive. A sudden dose of hideousness was more than any person could comprehend. San was the exception because he'd been culturally conditioned to view things that were unpalatable. But even San had not been able to readily see the features of the corpse because the power to see ugliness had been partially removed through genetics.

Pursing his lips, he watched the rising moon paint the grass with pale gold. He supposed he was alone on this one … only the robots working with him, as he couldn't use security officers that would collapse. It was almost like one of those recent alien-encounter double-D movies, only in this fantastic episode you got to see the horrid thing instead of just hearing a bunch of spooky ghosts. An unknown genetic key had done it, according to the P-11 forensic robot. Yet the call he'd got earlier seemed to be from a clever but otherwise fairly ordinary criminal. Obviously, the guy had powerful scientific backing; he was not sure exactly what he was up against here.

It was very late, but he rose from the bench with it in mind to go downtown and see if the lab had anything further. His phone tone suddenly sounded in his mind so he answered and when he heard the voice of his chief suspect, he sat back down and listened carefully.

“I guess you know what ugly is now,” the man said. “So it's time for stage 2.”

“Stage 2,” San said angrily. “You bastard. What did you do to that man?”

“It's not what I did to him but what we did to him.”

“I see. This is the work of organized retro-end terrorists.”

“Terror is a tool we sometimes use, San. It isn't our vacuum-pouch bread and butter. Haven't you ever thought about it? I mean, how do you think organized crime exists across the world when the technology used in crime prevention is so sophisticated?”

“Through corruption and bribery. That's what I've always assumed,” San said. “And it hasn't existed here. We wiped it out.”

“You wiped nothing out and there isn't any bribery. There is only terror and control. We're relocating in this city. That corpse was a demonstration done specially for you. Because if you don't cooperate with our organization you will die in the same manner.”

“I have no intention of cooperating, and it'll only take me a short time to find you.”

“Well, that's good because you only have a short time. Mere hours to be exact. That IT you just saw was a man infected with a certain genetic spore, and just a few short hours ago we infected you with the same microscopic bug.”

“What are you saying? What do you mean?”

“We mean that we want total retro control. Over the next while, you will become totally hideous. We can provide the antidote at any time provided you agree to join us and grant us control of security for our operations out of this city. And you will agree. We know that. No person has ever lasted more than 16 hours without begging for the antidote that only we have. Keep in mind that if you tell anyone else we'll just leave you to die. You might be interested in knowing that what you are becoming is a creature called an ogre, though those who've seen it call it just a monster. An expedition in the Arctic dug one of the things up 25 years ago - the last of its kind mummified in ice. There are some things to be appreciated about it. The creature is a branch of man and genetically superior to man in some areas. It is unfortunate that it will remain extinct - it relies on mutating men into its own kind and as you know modern man can't bear any transformation involving physical ugliness. For you it means that you will cooperate or die screaming in terror of your own revolting face.”

-------------------

San resided in the Scarborough suburbs with his wife Karen Brookes, and he also kept an apartment downtown that he used mostly as an office and crash pad while working through high priority cases. A massive residential hive on the waterfront contained the downtown digs, and as he walked toward it, the building glowed softly in the night. Its thick portal windows revealing colorful blurred snapshots of a thousand personal worlds.

Transient night-lights winked in the hybrid trees overarching the dim park path. A spiral parking complex hulked in the dark to the north - massive beams of a gray ash color, blending into the night. Faint odors of algae, fish and mud carried in the cool air blowing off the quiet lake and his eyes caught the long gleam of the moon on the slick surface of the water. It was a gentle scene and it gave birth to schools of strange ideas. His thoughts flowed to a great depth like the lake, and in the primeval bottom of mud, something vicious lived. Something that had been forgotten now returned to memory; a great bulking monster that had always been stirring there in the murky deep.

Peace will come with our surrender to beauty - San remembered those words as his gaze drifted on the water. Variations of the peace and surrender sentence formed the doctrine of most new religions. San had never been a believer and like most people, he enjoyed daily existence in a rich social order. He had no use for fairy tales of heaven, and he believed the politicians that claimed Earth was the only heaven. His wife Karen did entertain religious beliefs. She went to a sort of nature church based on the old Wiccan religion. Being a cop through and through, San did not attend, and the thought of it curled his lips into a momentary expression of bewilderment. Perhaps there was nothing stranger than the continued existence of religious faith. On an Earth where through genetic manipulation people were far more intelligent than ever before, the most common religious theme was belief in the Garden of Eden. Of course there had been attempts to genetically eliminate religion, but they had failed - creating either robotic humans or individuals with suicidal tendencies and a lack of artistic drive. Eradicating religion seemed impossible, as even atheism, to a small degree, had to be labeled as an article of faith.

Nowadays the public became irrational when notions of beauty were challenged. Genetic changes in favour of splendor meant the fabled Garden of Eden was magnificence and an addiction they could not stop themselves from believing in … they could not tolerate disturbing images. Pitted against rational thought, fear won out nearly every time. The old theory of evolution had been mostly forgotten among the general public as the image of mankind rising from slime and with apes was a revolting thing of sleepless nights and shivering nightmares. It existed as secret and sanctioned science while the general public believed Humankind had arisen from Eden; near perfect creatures with genes designed to be rearranged. In the words of the wealthy men, women and transgendered of faith and beauty - to believe anything else was to torment oneself with emotional hellfire. Hell was believing in it and that it could possibly exist. God had created Earth in beauty and left, and now the beings of Earth were following as angels spreading that perfection across the universe as they pursued the ultimate love of the Almighty they could not find. Yet San believed differently and it didn’t torment him. He knew that the great hulking beast might be the truth. It lurked like a terrifying giant in the mud and primeval soup, threatening to rise at any time to drive humans insane with terror.

Picking up a flat stone, San tossed it and watched it splash on the silver water. If the destiny of humankind was to live in a fairy tale and to believe in beautiful princesses, then Eden and perfection had been attained. If not then real history was an IT and a behemoth waiting to tear the columns of human psychological support and humanist genetic science asunder.

A day would come when it all tumbled down. Humans were not superhuman at all and they were blind to that fact. A façade of perfection blocked the view of the truth. Everything was sugar coated like Nestle had made the world, but it was only sugar and it could be washed away by harsh experiences and trauma in a person's life.

Radiant light rising from ten thousand tiny embedded cells illumined the main entrance. He crossed to an area that was busy even at this time of night. Luxury cars rushed in and out and hurried people paced from the swift elevators. Fortunately, the main stream of the crowd remained distant and no one noticed him. He passed a teenage boy who gave him a startled glance and quickly ducked away. That worried San so as he entered the corridor he turned and stared at his reflection in a metal plated wall.

A dim image stood in slight distortion. There was a stained greenish cast to his face and tiny lines and splits appearing in his features. It was as though his body had been suddenly segmented into tiny portions and was about to swell. The sight threw him off balance and his mind swam with rushes of dreamlike fright. He turned on his heel and staggered forward into a swarm of bodies that seemed otherworldly, like they were ants or aliens. San felt like he'd been some creature of a hive all of his life, and was only now detached from its controlling mind to see its inherent features.

There were gasps and shocked faces. Jamming his hat down over his face he pressed on, deliberately keeping his head down and staggering even more. Feigning intoxication proved a good cover as people always turned away from drunks - leaving them as something dirty the police were to sweep out of the public areas.

Small planes rushed along their pathways to the night sky outside the field of the rising elevator. He was alone and glad of it as the experience dizzied him. Exiting the elevator, he stepped slowly down a radiant hall, his blurred vision spotting a faint trail of greenish liquid oozing and spattering from his soggy shoes.

Brilliant overhead lights came on as he stumbled into the apartment. San thrived on strong lighting, but now it blinded him. His eyes ached and throbbed with hangover misery so great he was forced to dim the place to the illumination level of a cave. He found the soft jazz he'd set for automatic play to be offensive noise, like he now owned a canine's ears and could not bear the squeaking of reed instruments.

Nothing would do but silence so he imagined it and then he walked to the centre of the spacious living room and looked around. The drugged feeling was impossible to shake; he considered the possibility that the gangsters had somehow hit him with hallucinogens. It seemed plausible but a stark memory of the corpse killed the idea, as did his reflection when he stepped up to the mirror.

The thing staring back was shocking - green cast skin of a leathery reptilian texture. Brutish features - an expanded forehead and popping eyes that seemed to be reeling in self-terror. His whisker shadow grew denser by the moment, almost tufts and his once firm mouth had widened to something freakish.

He heard a horrified scream begin inside his head, and he grasped a chair to keep himself from falling. Shaking and choking, he fought the feeling off, and the scream failed to gain the use of his vocal cords. Then very slowly, he steadied himself, forcing his mind to accept what it saw.

That worked for a moment, but to bear up against it he decided it would be best to avoid looking at himself. Walking back to the light panel, he set the room for darkness, finding it soothing as he could now see in the dark. Alert lights flashed from his personal phone so he walked over and checked the messages.

There was only one message - an alien sounding voice saying 'hit the hello button to surrender.' And San did just that. “Congrats,” he heard the man say. “Seventeen hours, San. You've set a new world record. No one has ever resisted for this long. Just say the word and we'll arrange things.”

“Go to the hell no one believes in!” San said, the thickness of his throat and the gross tone of his hoarse voice strengthening his intended effect.

Clicking the phone shut, he staggered upstairs. From the study he could see the sky, stars and a hypnotic moon - a force of heavenly light so powerful it threatened to possess him. This was an attunement to nature he'd never known before. In spite of it, he fought off the potent alien sensations, sat at his connection workstation and tried to bring his powers of reasoning to the forefront.

Concentration did work. In moments, he was thinking things through. It became clear that he was transforming physically a great deal, but the brute he was becoming was not lacking in intelligence.

The special search machine powered up. He adjusted the headset to his new skull shape and thought most things through. The enemy had made three vital mistakes - He had been told that the transformation would not cause death. The end would come through intense fear of the hideous transformation. He also knew that the transformation could be reversed via an antidote and that in the transformed state he would be a creature called an ogre.

Documentation on such a creature would not be in any legal library so he used his search machine and got through a police hookup to get into classified historical files. As he made the switch over, his default settings for environment suddenly lit the room with images of a quiet sunlit library - a change that caused him agony. Shielding his eyes, he went through the settings. Nature scenes were another common background, but the beauty of nature was an overwhelming distraction so he ended up sitting in simple darkness and silence reading a dim screen.

San skimmed through an incredible amount of data on the ogre. But it was all information on a fairy tale creature of the old forbidden literature.  Generally, it was a large monster of the forest, and it ate human flesh. Genuine scientific information on the creature did not exist. And this left him at a disappointing dead end. It seemed like there was nothing more he could do, and then on an off chance he searched using the word IT that he'd got from an old book on fairies.

San expected little or nothing and got a lot. Listings on a long novel by Stephen King bearing the title came up. The book being of the variety called horror or dark fantasy - highly illegal material in civilian society. He really had no time to read huge novels or other related fantasy works so he narrowed the search to the factual and came up with an essay titled “The power of Monsters.” The introductory blurb listed the work as written by an insane novelist of the past – and the man was again Stephen King.

San felt thick slime moving in his mouth as he pursed his lips, and he thanked Eden that he didn’t have to look at himself. He wondered about the classification of King as insane. King lived in a period when all people were inferior and mad so it was possible that good old modern man feared him for other reasons - that was usually the case when it came to history.

He read through the essay, and he realized that the author was really a clever fellow of that period. Bright enough in fact to make San appreciate something that should have been obvious but hadn't been only moments ago. Everything written about monsters and ogres painted a picture of them as hideous but powerful creatures. Here he was being blackmailed, supposedly into submission, all on the theory that he couldn't psychologically bear up against the transformation. But what if he managed to control the horror just a little longer - long enough to gain the strength and power of this creature? If he got lucky and it was enough, he could fake surrender, and kill his foes when they arrived with the genetic antidote.

Thoughts of murder caused blood to race in his temples. Veins pounded and a crushing power seized his mind. A taste like venom ran in his mouth and spots of red whirled in the darkness. He pushed the chair back and felt his shirt tear from the expansion of his muscles as he rose. There was an incredible desire to lash out and kill something, but there was nothing so he thundered across the room and went down the stairs. His feet took him to the bedroom and he fell across the mattress and lay there as his thoughts settled. Several deep breaths helped to calm him down. Then he sat back up and stared at the dresser and an old photograph of himself as a boy.

As he stared at the photo, a tiny scar split open and grew to a long gore-oozing gash. The pulsing tissue swallowed his mind and a sunny day flooded into memory. He was nine years old and playing in High Park, using a remote control app to fly a miniature FN22 race plane through the mix of trees. It ascended, looped, swung down and dodged through the leafy boughs. San brought it in for a close approach, dogged some chipmunks and suddenly his piloting skills failed. It rose, caught a branch at high speed and broke up. Shards and sparks rained down, and a large chunk of debris glanced off of his cheekbone.

San tumbled in the deep grass and rolled up to his feet. He'd thrown himself back, trying to duck and that softened the blow. His right hand flew to his injured face and came away covered with blood. Shock settled in as he watched the thick liquid drip from his fingers, then tears welled in his eyes and mixed emotions rose in his breast. He let out one sob, then confusion swept him and he began to laugh. More tears poured as he laughed insanely and ran back to the picnic table, his parents and their friends.

San tore at his face as he ran, smearing blood across his forehead, hair and down his shirt. He burst in on the peaceful picnic scene, a gore-soaked sight that inspired much panic and no sympathy. Soda got spilled and food tumbled as the adults scattered with screams on their lips and horror on their faces.

In memory, their screaming came as a long fading echo that ended as a vision of Doctor Cleeson rose - his face cocked half sideways as his disdainful frown appeared. Cleeson removed San's scar using a painless laser technique. In the end, the huge gash was no more than a tiny scar that could only be seen through a magnifier.

The operation didn't make San happy. Losing the scar was like losing a pet frog. At nine years old, the wound had been a great thing that allowed him to terrify his friends and take time off school. With the surgery, it was all gone - and something much worse came about. His mother's introduction to the new modes of plastic surgery became something close to a living nightmare. She had never been satisfied with the face she'd selected for him before birth and now she began to change it the way she changed her hair. As San suffered through operation after operation, she reviewed faddish magazines and lectured him on the necessity of it all. If they would work long enough and hard enough, she said, eventually they would find that special combination of features and expressions that would make him stand out from his peers.

After two years of compliance only loathing for his parents stood out, and another change had gradually taken place … He spent so much time at the clinic that staff let him roam unsupervised. San entered forbidden rooms and toyed with taboo objects. Plastic surgeons used models, busts and photos of all types of people in their work. The images Cleeson surrounded himself with in his private office were varied - beautiful, plain and some of them outright creepy. San's favourite was a huge photographic record of girls and women who were quite hideous by modern standards. He often bit his tongue and grimaced as he went through these photos, and they fascinated him to the point that he removed some pages and hid them under his mattress at home.

This led to discovery, a confrontation with his mother and five years of forced psychiatric treatment under Ms. Jane Alboe. San hated her. She existed as a miserable and filthy-minded psychotherapist who often twisted her lips in a fashion of disgust and accused him of masturbating while studying sick pictures. She demanded a full confession and that he open up in regards to all of his perverse sexual fantasies. At that time, he hadn't known what masturbation was but soon learned as Ms. Alboe forced him to strip and masturbate while touching her “perfect body.” In his further therapy, he was to be taught to love beautiful women.

San felt a grimace form on his face and his eyes left the photograph and went to the mirror. The immediate sense was one of disbelief. Most amazing was that there'd been no pain. He'd undergone a near total change without feeling a thing. And he wasn’t horror-struck this time, but drawn to himself to the point that he got up and went over to view himself in full-length pseudo glass.

Eye contact worked to create acceptance and a genuine self-image or feeling that the new appearance was also the new him. He'd unmistakably become a gruesome fanged being of ancient forests. A monster with soft branch-like tentacles on its head, and shining eyes that were oval, ruby tinted and pushed to the sides by a nose and mouth reminiscent of the snouts of predatory creatures pictured in forbidden fantasy books. His skin was scaly with brown and green camouflage patches below the eyes and on the cheeks. In fact, all of his skin was a lizard-like blend of pale chalks.

His neck, arms and legs had thickened. Taut with muscle and tendon they were as sturdy as tree trunks and they blended well into his barrel-shaped torso and armour-plated chest. Gnarled hands and feet were attached with wrists and ankles far more flexible than those of a man … standing out like the crown of his new appearance was a serpent-like penis.

San stared at himself for a full five minutes, watching the amazing change complete itself with brush-like touches. He was managing to cope with the new appearance and enjoyed the feelings of great physical strength that came with it.

His mood stabilized to one of confidence and clear thinking and he decided it was time for the call. He picked up the phone and hesitated. It seemed like a toy he could easily crush. A moment later, he put it down and tried to talk. “Hello,” he said, noting the hoarse nature of his voice. Then he said it again a few times, adding weakness to the tone. When it sounded just right, he hit the saved number.

“Guess it must be you, San,” he heard the man say. “Damn, you really have put on a show.”

“I know, but I'm ready to surrender,” San said meekly. “You've got to meet me now before it's too late. This transformation has turned me into a walking corpse.”

“Just relax, San old boy ... or should I say, very ugly old boy. Listen up. We can reverse it and there won't be any pain. You'll just have to do a few things for us to keep it from happening again. Meet us in one hour at ....”

------------------------------

Fully transformed and animal naked he left the apartment and went down the long hallway to a second bank of elevators humming at the rear of the complex. The first car to open carried three male passengers and they stared at him briefly and blankly. He didn't enter but waited for an empty car to arrive. Recognition appeared to be the same as with the corpse in Springhill Park; he was now so ugly by society's standards that his appearance did not fully register when people first looked at him.

As he rode down, he looked through the transparent barrier tube at an umbrella of starry night and decided that the ugliness factor gave him a distinct advantage. He would always be a partially invisible being as long as he didn't let human contact last very long. Socialize for any length of time and people would be sure to start fainting and screaming.

The doors rotated silently open on an arched exit ramp leading to a nearly empty public court. Moonlight spilled down generously, glistening on broad rubbery leaves, a mosaic of stones and a bubbling fountain pool. Breathing in the fresh night air was like decompressing a rush drug in his throat. He felt an incredible boost of strength and arousal, almost like he was the guy in the beam commercial for Nestle Rush bars, but not quite since he was a lot stronger and much of the feeling came from his vastly improved hearing and sense of smell.

He was about to go down the sweep of steps, then he gave way to an errant animal impulse and leapt up the boundary wall. His claws seized clumps of ivy and he went straight up for 12 metres and over to land softly on his feet in a quiet parking bay. It had all gone so smooth he felt certain that he could probably climb a mountain with similar ease. Walking between some large Chase delivery trucks he headed for the exit ramp, then the situation suddenly changed as an armed guard appeared from a booth and confronted him near the gate. The guard was unduly large for a person of Chinese extraction and he had his speedgun drawn as he stepped up.

Stopping a few paces from San, the guard wiped his tired eyes, like he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. His hand left his face, and San remained still, engaging him in solid eye contact. A deadly chain reaction followed as the guard's face became a mask of fright and he swung the gun into place and fired. San ducked left and the shot went wide. It grazed the side of a tanker, ringing it like a bell. The bolt went on to pop the tire of a Sun transport. The projectile, composed of a nearly pure form of kinetic metal, transferred its blast force, rocking the tanker and shattering all of its windows and headlights.

As the guard swung the gun for another shot, San moved in with the liquid speed of a lion. He dove and came down on him hard, mauling him with his claws as they went to the concrete.

The force of impact knocked them apart and they both rolled up. Blood oozed from the guard's torn face and chest, but he still had the gun and was about to fire. Since San had come up within reach he simply swung his long arm in and turned the weapon back on the guard, and the motion was completed as the weapon went off. The fire of the blast tearing the guard's head and chest from his body and sending them and trails of exploding flesh into the Plexiglas window of the guard post.

As the rest of the body crumpled to the pavement, San found himself frozen, staring down at blood and moonlight and finding the scent of raw flesh very appetizing. Without a doubt, the hunger for human flesh was in him now and it disturbed him. He wasn't ready for it yet, so he backed away slowly, terrified of what he had done and looking around to see if the noise had drawn any more guards.

Some fast agile leaps got him out and a street away. Sucking in a deep breath, he turned down an alleyway that ran a quarter kilometre over to the next major avenue. The narrow space contained spongy ground, exposed earth tufted with deep grass and weeds that his new feet found to be much more soothing than concrete. Beside him, the walls of a residential complex rose into shadow and ebony darkness, nearly reaching the smudged light of the stars and blue satellite conglomerate carpeting the sky.

Fragrant odors lingered on the damp grass and touched his nostrils. There was subtle detection of the metallic content of loose earth. Fumes laced with the smells of spent fuels drifted to him as he passed a puddle. He found his psychological state to be sound and he felt far more in tune with the night world as the creature than he had as a human being. There was a sense of great power like he could tear ten men limb from limb and enjoy doing it. All of the predatory instincts that had been genetically removed for the good of society had been returned to him. They flowed as new blood in his veins, yet he felt fully in control. His mental balance could only be described as the superior state of a superior being. And with the euphoria came the realization that scientists had been trying in vain for a century to do what nature had done long ago. The hideous ogre was the true genetic leap - superior strength, senses and intellect.

In tune with nature and not dependent on technology, San believed the ogre branch of man could build a far better world than his artificial rival. Genetically improved man had built a great technological society, but there were always bugs and glitches spoiling the smooth operation of the hoped for perfect world. Too many items important to culture and freedom were considered messy and left out of the equation. An army of government and corporate employees swept them up. San supposed that on some future day humankind would sweep up and exterminate itself. Clean moneymaking android machines would claim the great eternity of the flawless corporate technocrats and planners … all of it for the glory of nothing and no one named or unnamed that had a real face. Just some idea out there in a cube of how the world could be better and more profitable for fate and the monster scabs it brought along to rule.

A couple more fast and dark shortcuts took him to a rubbish-strewn road that was an unusual scene in the modern city where vacant space was a luxury. It was a trail thick with freak weeds - huge shivering mistakes that had never been completely eliminated. Ruts and spill erosion had chewed into the main track to a depth that would make an all-terrain vehicle necessary for any person wanting to drive it. San's rendezvous with the gangsters was to be at the end of this gopher path at the wall and gate of an abandoned Nestle industrial complex.

He could see much farther as the creature, and even through deep darkness. The wall of the complex was a short distance ahead. Cracked and dripping with vines it rose high in the night. At its top, a force shield resembling smoked glass flashed and glittered ominously, and beyond it stood a gleaming onion dome and a tower.

A faint haze of yellow nightlight filtered through the black web of boughs overhead and as he grew closer, he spotted some fresh tire tracks in the earth. They ran parallel to the gate, meaning the gangsters hadn't used the road but had come through the bushes from the south. He knew they were using a big hydrogen vehicle because he could smell traces of the acrid exhaust. There were also odors of alcohol and human sweat drifting in the air from some willows to the right of the gate.

A cloud of insects suddenly swarmed down and then away nearly as quickly as his body emitted a defensive odor. San was close now so he perched on a huge rut in the dried mud, and with some concentration, spotted two armed men standing in the darkness under one of the willows. One had his hands in his pockets and the other appeared relaxed but watchful. Obviously the men were backup for the person he was about to meet. They couldn't see him yet and wouldn't until he stepped out of the deeper darkness into the open moonlit area near the gate.

Due to the bright moonlight spotlighting the gate, he decided to walk toward it but stand at its side in the shadow of the wall and foliage. Putting his head down and hunching his shoulders, he moved into the light and went over to a post on the left side of the gate. There he was visible to the men but only vaguely so.

He kept watch on them from the corner of his eye. They didn’t see him but he noted that they had drawn their weapons. Clearly, they were waiting for some signal or for someone else to show.

The arrival of a third man came with movement in the bushes and the rustling brush automatically triggered San's night vision. It instantly turned the darkness into a form of faint colored light. Shadows vanished like mist and he saw the man clearly. He had a combination of rugged features and a strong gaze that added up to a look of handsome though somewhat sinister ferocity. His suit was loose but the collarless shirt beneath the jacket was tight; the clothing being all in gray tones that camouflaged him neatly. An ordinary man would not be seeing him yet, but San saw him so well that he noticed him doing a pat check on a weapon he had shoved down his belt under his jacket at the back. Packing a gun that way meant he had prepared for a possible fast draw.

As the gangster moved out of the bushes, San lowered his head and shuffled back and forth. Then when the guy got closer, he looked up, feigning surprise. This worked to disarm the criminal and he walked up confidently. He stopped before he got too close to San and pulled dark wraparound glasses from his jacket pocket and put them on.

Tapping the right lens he said, “It's easier to talk to you when I can stand to look at you. My name is Daniel Grant, and you'll be taking orders from me from now on.”

“You got the stuff?” San said, an urgent tone in his voice.

“Patience, patience. It's in my pocket. It's never been used on an advanced case like yours, but our scientist says it will work. The reversal will go as smoothly as your current transformation has.”

“So how long did you last before you cracked and begged for the reversal?”

“Seven hours. You knew it happened to me? I’m surprised”

“Most people can't see me or look at me directly, even with tinted glasses on, so you've had some experience. You're also a military genetic type and old enough to be an officer of some sort. Obviously the gang wanted agents in the military so they recruited you in the same cruel way.”

“I'm glad you're observant. You've saved me a lot of talking. It is true that I didn't volunteer, but I'm at the top in this region now. One reason I'm here is to tell you that it isn't bad at all – you'll easily adjust and you can't beat the benefits. You'll not only get to call the shots in this big town, but you'll be able to exercise power in a way you couldn't as a cop. We don't see ourselves as gangsters. We're a sort of hidden police force. The state doesn't pay us of course. We take care of that ourselves.”

“I'm sure you do, Daniel. In sending you, your masters have also picked the right man for my notions. I might as well tell you straight off that my mission is similar to yours. I'm here to recruit you.”

“Recruit me,” he said, chuckling quietly. “Don't tell me you're still trying to play cop at this stage of the game?”

“Not cop, but criminal. I want you to join me and create a new organization?”

“Ah, a man with ambition. But no, it doesn't work that way. We take you in and you work your way up. Attempts at a takeover would fail.”

“I'm not a man with ambitions; I'm a monster with certainty. I passed the test you see, and I'm the IT or the ogre. What I've discovered is that the full change creates a superior being. Our society attempted to create the master race using our notions of beauty and strength, and failed. Nature makes no such errors.”

“It looks like nature's error is madness or a form of mania. Do you really expect me to help a thing like you? I underwent that change partially. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. Maybe you always were some kind of undetected freak - a genetic misfit who can somehow tolerate the grotesque. But others can't. Your plan would never work. You really have no choice other than to do what we say.”

“No. I can't return to my former human self. And once I have the spore I can select people who have a chance of making it. I need you in human form, because you're good at what you do. You can organize for me. My plan is not to destroy all men or transform everyone - just a select few. An organization controlled by us would have incredible power. No one could fight us and win.”

Putting his hand to his chin, Daniel thought it over, not knowing that San could see through his dark lenses. The mood in Daniel's eyes was at first supportive, then his thinking shifted to the contrary and San detected very faint movement. He knew Daniel was going for his gun with his other hand.

Striking out with cat speed San raked a claw up Daniel's chest, cutting cloth and flesh and sending him tumbling back onto the rutted road. Then as Daniel rolled, San did a quick turn and leapt for the wall, bullets from the backup gunners spraying in a trail behind him as he moved like a blur. He went for the top on all fours like an animal running and when he was high enough he jumped straight to the trees.

The force of his leap sent him flying through the leaves; he connected with a sturdy bough and swung up even higher. Suddenly the whole tree shook and a glance down showed him that Daniel had been smart enough to shoot the trunk, causing a force transfer to the tree. The other two weren't as clever; they were spraying bullets up through the leaves.

The trees arched over the road making it easy for San to race out on a limb and leap across. From there he circled in other dark treetops, positioning himself high in the second tree back from the open gate area.

Below Daniel moved into the shadows near where they had met while the other two gangsters were in the open moonlight and looking up. They conferred then stepped back and again sprayed a tree with projectiles.

While the guns rattled, San busted off a piece of branch and tossed it lightly over to the first tree. It dropped down through the limbs and on seeing it land, the men quickly changed their aim.

Random fire was getting them nowhere so they held off and moved forward slowly, looking up and shifting their gaze from tree to tree. Daniel had not joined them; he was slowly climbing the ivied wall to an open portion in the force field.

One of the men was directly under him and in shadows now, so San decided to make a move. His skin brushed the bark as he slid silently down the trunk to the lowest limb. There he wrapped his feet around the branch and swung down hard, coming out of the darkness to rake the gunman's neck with the full force of his claws. It was a blow so deadly that it ripped most of the man's throat away and sent blood pulsing out in a spray of dark rain.

As San scrambled back up the boughs, he heard the other gunman gasp and then a rattle as bullets pounded the branch. Daniel was on top of the wall now. He'd removed his jacket and was using it to stop the bleeding from the claw wounds on his chest. His gun had been holstered. It looked like he planned on seeing if his men were successful and if they weren't he was going to escape over the wall and into the abandoned complex.

Luck came as the remaining gunman suddenly ran out of ammunition and began a quick and desperate reload. It wasn't fast enough as San dropped to earth five metres from him and charged. He tackled the man, knocking the wind out of him, and he held onto him as he ran into the brush. From there he dragged the guy through the thorns and went up a maple tree.

Daniel had not attempted to shoot him and he remained standing at the top of the wall. San decided to test his strength. Locking his feet into the tree trunk, he lifted the limp body and threw the man. It took every ounce of his strength. The body arced out over the boughs and into the force shield, a few metres down from Daniel. It was like hitting a spike or powerful magnet. The shield held the body, lit it up like transparent neon, super-heated the flesh and sent organs and blood showering out in a boiling explosion. A cloud of hissing steam rose, the bones burned and the skull shattered like pottery. Moments later wisps of smoke and dust remained. A dark stain ran on the ivied wall.

Daniel turned toward the opening in the shield and went halfway through, then he turned and yelled back to San. “The spore's in the tower, inside the complex. The scientist and a couple other men are all we need. The rest we can kill.”

San watched as Daniel disappeared over the wall. Then he leapt, went through the opening and dropped down to a weedy field. He spotted Daniel ahead of him. He’d halted on a path leading through the brush, and was looking ahead to the tower.

San studied the structure; it rose amid industrial wreckage - a powerful engine of the past. He felt his chest muscles contract like a second potent engine. And at that moment, the genetic changes became complete. His mind rose with super intelligence. He knew the spore could be obtained easily and that Daniel would remain as his partner.

The new world would be a Garden of Eden … a jungle … but mankind and all of old earth would remain or be reborn. Ogres would rule the world, but it had always been that way.

---- the end -----

Longevity

By Gary L Morton

I wanted to go over the evidence one more time so I stepped into the shade of a hybrid elm and put on my home glasses. The enhanced mode lit up on my retina after an iris check and I viewed a shot of a real action and death scene taken by a surveillance chain in Toronto.

Gargantuan oaks towered on the grounds of a brownstone-fronted mansion. The impressive structure dominated the visible stretch of an isolated waterfront road. The video sequence registered as an emergency situation - an ear-splitting siren wailed and vehicle spinners flashed red. Numerous uniformed police were advancing on the road as they attempted to take out a rogue security robot.

A blue-jacketed squad moved up close to the heavy metal front fence on the property. Hot beams smoked from their modified Taurus lasers. Asphalt ripped and liquefied, and then a fire hydrant shattered. Flaming fragments of steel flew up with the water geyser. Some of the beams connected with the robot and sparks showered like red rain as the silver beast did a tumble in the ditch by the mansion's front gate.

It appeared to be down so the men held their fire. Barrel cores smoked and glowed with blue light, the officers in charge exchanged a few serious words.

They began to advance again. Then the robot suddenly brightened with an energy boost and shot up on jets. Caught by surprise the defenders began to duck and pull back.

Raising a wing-like weapons arm the robot fired multiple energy projectiles. Charges that lit the area like lightning flashes, every one hitting a human target with such accuracy and force that body armor immediately disintegrated … the combined impact releasing a powerful upward suction that sent a fiery wave of blood, torn limbs and burning metal skyward.

A rain of carnage replaced living men on the ground. Yellow scan beams swept from the robot's oval eyes. Then in an instant, it turned and shot over the gate. Using its weapons arm again, it blasted through the mansion wall and headed inside.

Rubble sizzled beneath its hot heavy feet. Entering a dining room it unleashed a spray of bullets from a fist nozzle causing blood to erupt on the backs of two fleeing guards. Glass and furniture shattered as it made its way to the office of Daniel Wendler, one the world's most powerful men.

Daniel looked rather young for a person 205 years old. And he was young enough physically to put up a fight. He knew the robot was coming and the moment it burst through the wall he hit it with a blast from his matter disrupter … a distorted flash that struck like a wide fist, sending the robot tumbling back into a hurricane of crumbling wood, steel and concrete.

Escaping through a rear panel Daniel ran with Olympic speed down a shining tubular escape corridor, hoping to make it to one of his helicopters. But that didn't happen. Unscratched, the silver robot shook off debris as it rose. It quickly jetted in behind Daniel and unleashed a gas projectile that traced him and exploded on contact with his skin.

When the blue fumes cleared, the final scene was of Daniel, pinned against a wall as the robot released a whirring surgical appendage and proceeded to open his chest. With computerized precision, it began to cut out vital organs and delicately place them in a special container that opened in its armored stomach. There was an expression of absolute warped terror on Daniel's face. Yet the murderous operation was textbook clean.

I removed the home glasses and scratched my moist temple. Warm summer winds were rustling the elms in the park. Cumulus clouds sailed in the blue sky and higher up the mist was feathering out in angel trails. In a better world I would've been having thoughts as pure as the sunlight dappling the rich beds of grass. In this one I had to consider evil men and their motives.

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The mass media covered Daniel Wendler's sudden death. Reporters called it death by misadventure, saying he'd fallen from a rooftop patio. The real details I got from his youngest daughter, Janine Wendler. She didn't want to leave the matter hidden and buried, though the rest of the family did.

Janine arrived at my luxury office and apartment on South Rosedale Ave as an off the street customer. A beautiful kid, age thirty-two, she had flowing blond curls, a permanent tan, a lot of money and not much common sense. Her eyes were big and beautiful jewels in their innocence. I could see that she'd grown up in a pink security bubble of parental protection and had no idea of how dirty the real world could be. At least she hadn't before her father's death.

 In a world of near total surveillance and expensive hybrid cops for hire, she wanted to employ me. And that seemed ridiculous since I'm a fully human specialist named Jack Michaels who takes alternative approaches to all cases. Meaning that once modern surveillance fails to find a person they hire me and I try to use my head to solve things.

“Your father is dead,” I told her. “He's not missing.”

Her distant blue eyes conveyed sadness and hidden romance. She caught me napping when she said. “His organs are missing and I want you to find them.”

“Ah,” I said. “He was a longevity selection wasn't he? Was it grave robbers or organized crime?”

She told me about the surveillance video and the robot attack that the media had not reported. She noted that she had already gone the more expensive route. A number of professional agents had taken the case. All had failed and they had clammed up completely, refusing to talk to her at all. Janine was left with the one clue she'd started with. All of his life her father had thought that a core group of fossils in the Longevity Club, those over three hundred years old, were pretty much in control of the planet, its corporations and nations. Now they knew there had to be someone else in control; a lone person who had total authority and rarely used it. He was hidden and he killed and stole organs from even the most powerful people on Earth when he was in the mood to do so.

“So it's organized crime of the deadliest sort,” I said. “Why would I take such a case? I'm just your average private detective. How could I even try to find and defeat the most powerful person on the planet?”

“I heard that you take cases no one else can solve?”

“Yes, but that's not cases too violent and superior for anyone else. How far did these guys you hired get before they were silenced?”

“Not only guys. There were female agents and the best. I've spent ten million gold backed dollars on this so far. Agents last about a month then they duck out or disappear. I have a collection of their files as they worked them.”

“I don't want any contaminated files. They'd be set to lead me to dead ends. Tell you what. I'll take the case. Payment has to be in laundered cash duplicates straight into my hands. All other transactions can be traced. I want you to make sure you mention that I wouldn't take the case and then hire one of the top hundred security firms as suckers to draw heat. If there is a big shot behind this deal, he'll probably be good enough to have me followed. Just because you were here. But I won't be doing anything suspicious that they will be able to see. The deal is I tell you who it is and that is all. I give you the name. That's if I can do that. Your idea of one person controlling the world seems farfetched. I've never really thought about it. But whether it's a bunch of them in control or one of them, it doesn't make much difference here on the ground, does it?'

She didn't reply to the question. Her eyes widened in amazement and she leaned forward like she was going to kiss me. “Do you really think you can trace the person?”

“I do,” I said. “But the part I don't get is why you want to bother. Your father was very old. Didn't he live long enough?”

“He wasn't old to me. I only knew him for my short life. And the person who killed him is a vampire of some sort, using my father's treated organs to prolong his life.”

“True,” I said. “It's also true that many people think the entire Longevity Club is a clan of vampires. You can't live longer than one hundred and twenty years without doing things that are unethical.”

--------

Janine left a first impression that lingered like priceless perfume and I thought about her often during the short investigation. I didn't know anyone else I could describe as innocent and I found myself dreaming of her as a fantasy lover.

When I say short investigation, I mean that it took me less than a week to find the one old man controlling the world. I found him because no one with any brains had ever looked for him before. All systems in society were under his control and set to hide him and that’s how I found him. I looked for the black hole in all information systems and found a supernova that was still flaring. His name was Bill Gates and he was nearly 600 years old. He had to be one of the original members of the Longevity Club; he wasn't the listed historical founder but a hidden and unlisted member that the others in current high society did not know about. Meaning he was back there in the past and part of the original conspiracy that led to our invisible and mostly benevolent world government.

I drove over and picked up Janine in a public electric car. She emerged surrounded by guards and when the scan of my vehicle was complete she walked over. Her short summer dress revealed her long tanned legs. Overall, she looked hypnotically beautiful. She was at the young age where a woman beatifies her clothes and the world around her, not the other way around as happens in later years.

Guards were not allowed to come with us or follow us. The security person was to be me. She got in, gave me a skeptical glance and her first words were, “So you've given up, too. I suppose that's what you want to tell me?

“I want to tell you that I’ve solved the case,” I said as I pulled out.

“Really. Then who is it and how did you do it?”

“You sound skeptical. It isn't anyone you've heard of and the how of it was by not using surveillance. I'm like you in a way. Any other woman would be wearing and relying on a lot of devices for security and communications. You just wear a summer dress. My office and this car are the same. This is the cheapest vehicle around because it lacks a connection to any surveillance net or any communication device period. Your agents went to work trying to track the man who controls the worldwide surveillance net by using it. So of course he found them before they found him.”

Her smile melted to confusion. “But how could you find someone without using surveillance?”

A flow of prismatic shadows swept the highway. I glanced at her and her glittering eyes softened and connected with mine. She drew closer and put a gentle hand on my shoulder. The wind rushed and swept her silky hair up, and with the silent electric engine it was easy to find my heart filled with love. This was a beautiful young woman in a world of old fakers and disgusting grave robbing vampires.  She didn't know it but I did; I'd do anything for her and the dream of genuine love. A dream lost long ago. An older detective and she'd likely be dead. But I’m not up there yet and it's a laugh to think I ever will be. The chances of me living to old age … well … they amount to about zero. I told her the details as I drove.

“I found him because of his absence. The Earth is mapped by satellites and security systems and what I did was go back to the oldest records in existence in a moldering photographic collection taken more than five centuries ago. I pieced together the Earth of yesterday, ran a comparison with the magnificent maps of today and found one area of four square miles on the old maps that does not exist on any new map. Another ancient capsule record showed that a man named Bill Gates bought that property more than 500 years ago. History records him as the richest man in the world at that time. He donated to his own charity foundation and put in other large sums for research into aging. He died of liver cancer in the first World Transition Year. Died on paper. My guess is that he's still alive and if you want to find your father's organs they are probably inside him.”

She frowned. “So this beast is much older than my father was.”

“Yes. And a quick study tells us something. The Longevity Club appears to be a pyramid. Your father as a younger member was allowed to find or develop better organs for transplant, and then the oldest member took those organs so he could live longer. They may have been preying on one another for quite some time. I doubt Gates is the only one who does it. It just happens that he is the kingpin. And if the others even know of him, they wouldn't be able to find him. Gates has set himself up as a sort of quiet and kind world dictator as he still does a lot for the poorest people on the planet. He allows others to think they run the world and are making history, yet he really controls the surveillance net and likely eliminates anyone whose politics he doesn't like.”

“Where does he live?” she said. I could see her grinding her teeth.

“The hidden location I mentioned is just outside Toronto. It's not too far from you and we're almost there now. You can look at the place but that is all. I'm telling you that the case is over. We don't have the power to accuse or harm this man. No one does. We'd simply disappear. It's best to accept that your father was part of the club of world power. The cards finally came up against him. He knew the game he was playing.”

“So that's it and it ends. People like you will just accept that the world is run by a hidden dictator and do nothing about it?”

“The public accepted that Toronto was run by your father, and they did nothing about it.”

“But that was different. He let people exercise democratic control over their local communities through vibrant community events.”

“Gates does the same thing. He's been lurking in the background all these hundreds of years. Only stepping in when one of the powers he put in place gets out of control. Who knows, maybe without him the world would have blown up or died in an ecology disaster long ago? Consider the complex political and community mosaic he's been constructing. He's been the hidden god of this millennium and anyone who would want to get rid of him should consider that Gates may have already decided who or what will succeed him. He killed your father but if it had been the other way around your father would've killed him. In any case, no one lives forever and that's what justice is. Someday maybe utopia will come and we'll all truly be equal. For now you're a young woman and you should live your life without trying to tangle with the world's most powerful man. Accept it and you'll be happy.”

She looked at me with icy eyes and said nothing. When I looked up I realized that we were almost at the Gates mansion and pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. “That's it,” I said. “This is as close as I want to get.”

The mansion stood in a natural setting that lent it a degree of invisibility. Any fortifications or security it had were part of that invisibility - surrounding swamps of robot crocodiles, the shimmer of force fields, guard walls and posts, armed men, robot sentries - none were present. Tall firs and poplars obscured much of the structure. A wall of polished stone with neatly recessed windows rose some distance behind a simple brushed stone wall.

Garages and sheds squatted on the periphery but there weren't any stables or special servants' quarters. A sports car parked inside the gate was the only vehicle outdoors. In general design the mansion was a rejection of all things that could be called artsy or ornate. Balconies on the higher floors were sturdy and square. A gently sloping tiled roof crowned the place.

A small rainbow beyond the peak indicated the presence of a fountain at the rear. Forest receded to the horizon … the whole place being about two square kilometers.

It looked like the residence of a wealthy and powerful person, though not as opulent as what one would expect from Gates. I knew there was much more to it than its surface appearance. In spite of the open design there would be a camouflaged security system we could not hope to challenge.

--------

Janine's face was about as cheerful as the darkness in the ditches on the country highways leading back to the city. She didn't speak and her inner volcano appeared to be settling, enough so that her mood lifted as we got into town. We had a marvelous lunch on the patio of an Italian restaurant. My jokes on longevity got her giggling and her father's casket seemed finally closed. We ordered a liquid desert and it loosened her tongue enough that she revealed some of what she planned to do now that she held power in Toronto.

I felt good about myself and felt certain that the case had reached its natural conclusion. Being a practical sort, I invited Janine to return to the office with me to calculate payment, and when we got there I found a letter from Bill Gates on my desk.

Congratulations to you, Janine.

 I knew Jack Michaels would find me if anyone could. But I really must correct you on this situation. I did not kill your father. James Stockward is the villain who did that, and he also put the idea of looking for me in your mind, as he guessed that I existed and wanted someone to locate me.

Stockward has now passed on.

Due to circumstances, I'll need the services of Mr. Michaels. You'll want the full details on your father, so be back at my place this evening.

Eternally yours,

William Gates

--------

Sunset clouds formed a speckled fan in the western sky and though the Gates mansion seemed much larger close up it had a simple appeal and did not seem all that sinister. My sense of perception and state of relaxation had not entered Janine. Nerves jangled, she pulled close to me and gripped my arm as we drove through the gate. I'd had a hard time convincing her that Gates wasn't luring us here to carve us up.

The man who led us inside was a plasti-grow cross between a butler and a guard. His name was Mr. Windows and his facial expressions and tone of voice were odd like he wasn't quite human and not a known type of android either. On my scales, he registered as unknown but incredibly smart and perceptive. With Gates as the client he wasn't unexpected. We entered a suddenly appearing side door and followed him down a long dim hall to a large home theatre neatly outfitted with enough couches and chairs to seat a small crowd. The room was empty and the invisible electronics were turned off. It smelled fresher than springtime. The large semicircular screen was the type that could segment into many smaller units, act as one large screen or beam holographic images to a central stage. Part of it held a hidden door that no one but me would see. Mr. Windows told us to sit and wait for Mr. Gates, and then he disappeared through it.

Five minutes later Bill Gates appeared. He came alone and he arrived through the broad south doors in a wheel chair that was also a super intelligent robo appliance. The slight distortion of a force shield created a faint soap bubble around him, yet I could see him clearly. He was a strange and ugly man - so alien that at first I wasn't sure he really was a man. His steel gray hair transplant had been jelled back in rippled waves, and his face hung like a yellowing leather mask. Liver spots decorated his forehead and an emaciated neck rose from his snow-white shirt. Cloth slippers and baggy trousers covered his fragile feet and legs. Gates' right hand was about as rough and crusty as tree bark and he was using it to adjust an absurd pair of glasses. They were reading spectacles of the sort people hadn't used for centuries. His intense eyes floated behind the lenses.

I glanced at Janine, noting a glimmer of spite in her eyes.

“Sit down, sit down,” Gates said as his chair rolled up to us. “You'll make me uncomfortable.”

We did sit in the theatre chairs, and I felt Janine shifting restlessly and huffing beside me as Gates continued to introduce himself. His ancient features gained a degree of human warmth as he spoke, making him far less frightening in my eyes. I thought that perhaps he was only a danger to people who threatened his survival.

“So it's Jack Michaels,” Gates said. “At last we meet. I know all about you of course. Being a man of the past myself, I couldn't resist following the career of a man who solves cases using the old techniques.”

“That's great,” I said. “It certainly cheers me whenever I find one of those rare people who can appreciate my work.”

“Yes, of course,” Gates said. “And we also have the lovely Janine, grieving over the loss of her father. I wish I had such a devoted daughter to weep when I die. As I said in the note, James Stockward was behind that murder. Since he has now passed on, justice has been done.”

“Not fully,” Janine said. “I don't want this Stockward man buried with my father's organs inside him. I want them removed and returned.”

“Of course. An oversight on my part. I'll see that it's done immediately.”

“There seems to be some conflict among the elderly these days,” I said. “My assumption would be that Stockward was also very old?”

“He was older than you think. James Stockward and Mac Chan were the only two men older than I. They are both dead. I don't know if you uncovered much of my background while looking me up. But you'll need to know a fair bit of it before we move on with the case. As you have probably already guessed I am hiring you to extend my life. It's a job that I think only you can do and it doesn't involve anything unethical.”

“Just what does it involve?”

“Hundreds of years ago I worked my way up in computer languages and operating systems and became the richest man on the old planet. That was before the planet became the multi orb system of Earth, the Moon and the Space Station Belt. In those days of barbarians and businessmen I had the higher qualities of compassion, honesty and integrity that others lacked. I shared my secrets with the world and as I grew older I bought heavily into research on the aged and hit the jackpot. The initial discoveries allowed a human life to be extended by at least fifty years. I did not test the new science on myself. Stockward and Chan, two of my contemporaries, were the first to have their lives extended. They never knew that I was the controlling force behind it all, and I let them live in ignorance. Ten years after they were treated, I extended my own life. Stockward and Chan lived on and I allowed them and the Longevity Club they created to be the driving forces of the new science. As the centuries passed every breakthrough of theirs was taken by me and used to extend my life. Most of my personal time was spent managing the planet and the growth to space and the moon. I have completely controlled pretty much everything since the New Planetary Years.”

“I suppose working to keep the military savages out of wars took up a good two hundred years of your time,” I said.

“The space empire made war too dangerous and unprofitable. We had to war for peace. And yes, it has been a busy life. Greedy people are always at work by the thousands attempting to destroy the planet and the rest of us with it. I have been a strong defender of public rights.”

“It wasn't only you,” Janine said. “My father and many others did a lot of work, too.”

“I do like to flatter myself. You are correct. It takes more than one person or even a longevity club to run a world. Your father did an excellent job or I wouldn't have allowed him to remain in power in my home area of Toronto. I deleted the lives of those who did not do an excellent job and this really brings us to the Longevity Club. Stockward and Chan had the same thoughts as me. They wanted to control the world through others and needed special people who would live longer to do it. They created the longevity selections, used them to control the planet, and they also lived as ghouls, stealing the organs developed by others to prolong their own lives. In the end the superior technology was always mine. I never had to rob a living man of his organs like they did. Problem is we've come up against a new barrier.”

“This is interesting.” I said. “It's also well over my head. I can solve puzzles, but surpassing the world's best doctors and scientists would not be possible.”

Gates cleared his throat. “I don't need medical skills. This is some type of death mechanism or century timed bug of the human mind that does not allow any human being to live beyond six hundred years of age. It killed Chan first and it got Stockward a year later. Since I followed them closely I detected it happening. The murder of Janine's father by Stockward was an attempt by him to strengthen his vital organs so he could fight this death bug.”

“So I guess we now know that strengthened organs aren't the key,” I said.

“That's correct. I think a certain type of intelligence or knowledge may be the key so I'm hiring you to do special surveillance work.”

“How would I do that?”

“Both Chan and Stockward had their bodies preserved and kept alive. It is their minds or living personality that died. I have Chan's remains. Stockward's are held at his estate, which is like a fortress. I will recover them for my use and so Janine can reclaim her father's organs. These remains are what you must investigate. Over the last fifty years my labs developed chemistry that allows a human agent to mesh with another person's brain and share that person's life and memories. It's a human networking deal. I want you to enter Chan's life, go to the point of his death and return with a detailed surveillance report, outlining what killed him.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Why me, and would such a report stop the mechanism?”

“There isn't any traceable physical or chemical agent causing death. It's psychological or spiritual. I'm choosing you because others have tried, but they didn't make it back out of Chan's mind alive. I believe you have the ability to find a way out and then give me information on how to beat this death bug. It's my last chance really. My birthday is a few days off and the mechanism is certain to set in. Payment for doing the job is anything you want in goods or cash, within reason. And my generosity is nearly unlimited.”

--------

Gates' job offer horrified Janine and when we were alone she hit me with a long serious talk. Her number one fear seemed to be that I would remain alive as a vegetable, trapped in the mind of one of the horrible men who killed her father. Janine also didn't trust Gates at all and suspected that he could be planning to steal parts of my brain.

In spite of her objections I took the job and since Gates' time was quickly running out we stayed at the mansion. One day of preparations sharpened my mind and body then my mission conducting surveillance on the preserved mind of Mac Chan began.

Gates already had the equipment set up in an obscure part of the mansion that was an older appendage with a castle-like feel. Coarse stone blocks created marvelous walls and fake fire from sconces shone on the smooth marbled floors. Incredibly valuable art adorned the walls, but when I tried to touch the frame of a painting, I found it to be a holographic image. Gates informed me that the actual painting was embedded in the substance where it couldn't be stolen.

I looked around in surprise when we entered what Gates called the contact room. It had the airs of a torture chamber with bare walls and some sixteenth century chairs. The contact device was bed-shaped and hard with arm and leg straps. A broad metal hood patterned with raised skulls hung over its end.

I knew the technology in the room would be much more than it seemed. The walls were without a doubt made of a security substance embedded with nano technology in a way to protect the equipment from any disruption or interference from outside surveillance equipment.

Gates wheezed as he wheeled in behind me and I wondered if a new set of lungs were failing - meaning I had doubts about his claim that only the other longevity cases were ghouls.

“It's beautiful isn't it?” he said, referring to the contact machine.

“Perhaps the Marquis de Sade would think so.”

“I suppose you’re put off by the torture chamber appearance. I made it look like a devilish implement because it can kill people. In an instant it can send you to heaven, the madhouse or hell by establishing a link between your mind and another. In this case the other person is dead but the brain has been preserved and forced to function.”

“I can see why you never released this to the public.”

“Far too powerful. It can be made as a tiny portable device. On the market, it would be worse than any other mechanism of human control. Even the preparations you went through and the gown you are wearing are not needed. We did that to prepare you psychologically. I've never allowed much tampering with man in regards to genetics and control. People today have greater resistance to most addictions and mind control. They still learn in the same ways as in the past though at an accelerated rate. Of course, most people rarely use their abilities. You are one of the only people who do. I suppose the bottom line is that the world reflects my taste and I didn't establish myself by using mind control. I made people a little better than even me, but only after the technology to keep me in as the higher power was established.”

“Let's hope you stay in as the higher power,” I said as I climbed onto the contact device. “Because if you don't, then it means I died.”

Mr. Windows helped me into the straps, applied some odorless gel to my temples and a minute later the hood lowered. I felt an electric tickle on my scalp and neck then a visible explosion of irrational thoughts swept me. I came out of it in a state of mind that was confused and distorted, and a moment later I realized that I had connected with the dead man, Chan. A guy his age with multiple brain enhancements existed on the outer limits of the human experience so it took me some time to adapt. When I did I knew everything about him yet could still see myself existing on Gates' cold slab in the distant mansion room. Drool leaked at the corners of my mouth so I kept it in mind that I was in a vulnerable semi epileptic state.

I didn't like Mac Chan or the controlling thrust of his weird thoughts. Conflict rose then vanished as the input accelerated and a wealth of experience rushed through me. I could not comprehend it all and was gagging, grinding my teeth and biting my tongue.

Sunshine burst in with heavenly force and I became a child . . . my life as Chan sweeping by me in a riotous celebration of images and emotions. His joy, anger, fury and tears rose to a peak. This rush hit far stronger than the effects of any intravenous drug yet behind it all I had the ability to grasp that Bill Gates was catapulting me through Chan's life in a matter of instants. I knew he would halt me just before the moment of death so I could discover what had killed Chan.

As Chan's life continued to pour through my mind the overload became nothing but grief. Death surrounded this man. He trusted no one and killed everyone he loved.

It seemed true that the sorrow of men is only laughter to the gods. Being near the end of Chan's life and reflecting on it came across as a cruel joke at best. Just feeling his corrupt personality inside of me was an obscene act of self-flagellation. If Gates had a similar inner nature then a need to control his surroundings would be his driving force. Mac Chan didn't want to let go and die because he didn't want to lose control of the world around him for even a moment.

His final memories were a record of the morning of his birthday. He would reach a new magic age of longevity later that day. Chan didn’t want to celebrate or announce this fact and his mood was sour. Having banished the remnant of his family, he rested alone at his private home, knowing that a light breakfast would arrive in five minutes via sha robot.

Externally the day held beauty like no other recent day in memory. Beyond his bay window a sunrise of mystical beauty rose over the new Temagami River, and his gaze went to it and the crystalline waters. A dreamy state developed in his mind. He had an easy sensation of floating or spiritually moving toward a shifting mask developing in the sunlit haze over distant ripples. Chan for some reason found this appealing and did not resist.

In the vision he went through the ringed mouth of this mist image and entered a hallucinatory realm of eerie shadows and random fire. Meteors exploded and diabolical imagery traced in the sky. Thousands of bodies floated below on gleaming stygian waters. They stretched off as far as the eye could see on the heavy rocking waves. These were bloated corpses, rotting and dripping with licks of greasy slime and blood that shone in the dim light. They floated face-up and were painted with ghastly expressions like they had suffered a great deal of torment before they died. A faint sulfur glow around their eyes gave the impression of a living form of death, like some hellish spiritual force remained to burn in them.

Chan drifted in clouds over this hideous ocean to a bleak shoreline lined with dark fronds. He went through a swamp of reeds and reached a gaping pit of fire that spun like a vortex into the sand.  An evil being appeared there in the drifting smoke and his vision turned into a strange conversation on the edge of life and death. Though to Chan this wasn't merely a vision; even in my linked experience it had an uncanny feeling of reality.

Chan's evil friend had a handsome spectral appearance. Dressed as a black hunter, he was a Lucifer of sorts with features that radiated mystical sophistication and power. A blue iris glowed in one eye; the other was mottled. He gestured with an ornate cane at the dark waters as he worked to alter Chan's perceptions of life and death.

Chan's vision continued in philosophical complexity as he debated with this being. In one sense it was the classic tale of a deal with the devil and it might have been funny if it weren't of such power and great importance. Beyond being any vivid dream state, it was a total hallucination and it crossed the boundaries of reality.

As I expected, Chan became convinced of his mortality. He bit his lip in long consideration and then bought into the being's alluring offer. He traded earthly life for a guarantee of eternal life as the new ruler of this dark domain. The black demon sealed the agreement with a handshake. He waved his cane and a magnificent flash of lightning followed, killing Chan-------it also slew me.

Thrown to the ocean by incredible force I became one of the corpses floating face-up on the dark salty waters. I suddenly realized what the glow haloing the eyes of the dead had been - morbid communion, wretchedness and decay they shared … suffering beyond all human concepts of agony.

I was damned eternally and then a second flash struck, waking me on the slab in the Gates mansion. The hood of the contact device was rising and Mr. Windows stepped in and used a towel to wipe the drool from my chin.

As I breathed in heavily and expelled air in relief an anxious Gates wheeled up and waited for me to recover enough to speak.

“Chan had a religious vision or experience,” I said to Gates. “During it his mind conjured up an evil being from the depths of his subconscious. In a philosophical deal with this inner Lucifer, he talked himself into accepting death. He agreed to die in exchange for eternal life in a realm of the dead. I believe the key is that he accepted the certainty of human mortality and at that moment his will to live collapsed. The Satan bug kicked in fully and shut off something in his brain so that he died -- if you could genuinely call it death. By keeping his body and brain alive you are also keeping him in a state of torment as his mind is trapped in the hellish place it accepted. This place is populated by billions of dead minds floating in some sea of Hades, and it's horrible beyond belief. I can’t say that it's even real. But it's there. You should know more than me on that subject.”

“Why did you survive when the others didn't?”

“I felt a strong pull to unite with Chan spiritually but it didn't happen because as individuals we were too different. He was alien to me. The others must have identified with Chan to the extent that the Satan bug got triggered in their minds as well. I also guessed that the overpowering vision and the evil being were manifestations of the death mechanism, which gave me an advantage. You will also have that advantage because I returned to tell you about it.”

“Can I beat this? Give me an honest opinion.”

“The first fact I have is interesting. For this virus-like bug to exist there must have been a time on early life-form Earth where humans or other creatures lived beyond six hundred years of age. You will have a similar hallucinatory near death experience. The Satan bug will come and tempt you on your birthday. It will seem completely real, and this ancient nano bug will use all of your inborn intelligence to fool you. When the final moment comes you must adhere to your desire for eternal life here in this reality. Otherwise your conscious mind will die. If you keep your body and brain alive you'll live in a phantom hell. You must come back to consciousness.”

“A deal with the devil,” Gates muttered hoarsely, his face hawkish as he wheeled away. “I am both God and the Devil in this empire.”

“Yes, but my suspicion is that there could be another smaller god with a following devil, maybe long dead or never alive … and this one's programming grew over long centuries of evolution to kill off the Longevity Club and you and anyone over a certain age limit. You could look at it in two ways. The God we believe is dead is killing us off, or an evolutionary mechanism has set the limits on human life. Take your pick. Pride and anger mean nothing in this game … phantom Hades waits for us all.”

---------

Flashbacks of my death and damnation haunted me like a creepy form of possession. I shivered as I walked down the hall and I felt that I had to get out in the sun to shake it off. Stepping out a rear door, I strolled toward the cascading fountain in the backyard. Janine suddenly appeared from behind a sun umbrella, ran up and gave me a hug and a wet kiss. It warmed me immediately, but when I discovered that the next part of my assignment was to aid her - and Mr. Gates - in recovering James Stockward's remains, the sweet kiss went sour.

Being an eccentric person Stockward had left instructions for the mummification of his body inside an invincible pyramid that he'd constructed on his estate. If a non-technological way to get inside this structure existed, I didn't have time to find it. In this recovery, I broke my own rules and used Gates' superior surveillance systems to calculate a timed sequence of pressure points our special robot could use to gain entry to the inner chambers.

Since Janine had a personal stake in this recovery and feared being left alone with Gates, she went along with me and we watched the operation from a luxury command post in one of Gates' air streamed transport planes.

Observing this raid turned out to be a grave error.

Gates had designed the assault operation on the fly. He had a live video feed to us and though he'd briefed us on the pyramid we didn’t know he intended to use an unconscionable level of force to reach it. Before the robotic recovery team went down the charming old codger fried nearly all of Stockward's estate, including two hundred people and some androids and precious animals residing on it. Unbidden tears came to my eyes in response to the mindless and clumsy cruelty.

Defense forces fired back helplessly with smart rockets and beam weapons that failed to dent Gates' gleaming fleet of extermination drones ... once stationed in their assigned spots above the estate the cigar-shaped drones combined their energy weapons to sweep the grounds with disruption rays.

Janine and I stared, charged with surprise and revulsion as the attack turned atmospheric dust into billions of disruptive particles. Reality seemed to tear like paper then residents, tourists and the remaining animals in Stockward's zoo-like compound suddenly expanded and exploded. We saw a few dozen visitors emerge from a dome and become gross bursts of pulp specks, sparkling blood and mist. Flesh bits swarmed in the air like flies and as the sweep continued even the palm trees, vines and topsoil were disrupted and melted to fiery lava.

More than anything else, the assault taught us what sort of monster Bill Gates could be. Life and death were concepts he applied only to himself. He'd become a mega psychopath in his dealings with other human beings, treating them like objects that were to be molded or destroyed according to his wishes.

By the time our robot emerged with the remains, Janine could only shake and weep. She didn't care about her father's organs any more.

She trembled like a leaf as she held me and at that moment the name Gates became a trigger for loathing in my mind. The old man didn't have any humanity or class left. He was a combined organs thing and had forgotten his earlier humanity to somehow live on after his human soul had already died. It told me that the soul existed somehow and without it we were monsters. Gates was a monster organ bank with a withered brain that would commit any crime to live on. He was biology not humanity.

--------

Hating Gates didn't stop me from doing my job. He was after all a counterfeit man who could pay any price and he wanted more work from me. I prepared for contact with Stockward's brain and planned to look at his memories to see if he really had killed Janine's father.

When contact was made I found that James Stockward's life bore no resemblance to Mac Chan's. He was more like an ancient human curiosity shop or a man who'd lived an endless great adventure. A collection of eccentricities, he had been to every hidden and cobwebby corner of the earth, space stations and the moon. His brain probably deserved permanent preservation as an offbeat history of the last centuries. It would be an invaluable resource for people like me who need obscure facts at times.

Stockward viewed himself as an immortal investigator who must always be around to discover and document the unknown or the unusual. His unwavering belief in himself and his personal powers existed as a testament to the longevity of human pride in a set personality. In spite of his faults, he existed as a rare person who could transform routine into a pattern of colorful activity and never get bored as he lived on forever. Stockward was everything from a chef to an artist … he cooked himself a different breakfast every day.

Stockward ran somewhat ahead of Gates in physical prowess and that had helped him pass the first assault of the death bug. Perhaps his eccentricities had really got him through.

In his time, he had explored practically every occult location on earth and had collected nearly every rare object available. When the visions of Hades took him his dialogue was with the snake god Set. James Stockward studied Set's flowing appendages and calmly turned down the offer of immortality as ruler of a mysterious world. He simply figured he'd get there in due time and at present there were always things to be explored and explained on earth and in the stars.

The second test of the doom bug came during his birthday … and though Stockward had easily walked out of hell that didn't stop him from blundering into heaven.

James Stockward didn't actually believe in heaven or hell. God and the devil were all fantasy to him. But since the bug could turn fantasy into reality that didn’t matter. Heaven found a form that Stockward could believe - the great adventure.

A pleasant daydream lulled him into the hallucinatory state, and though he had not left his chair in reality, he believed he had rose and walked into a field and in doing so had discovered the most incredible artifact.

It gleamed with silver metal and raised hieroglyphics. James stared with amazement at the view through the opening. A gossamer substance worked to blur a fantastic scene of jeweled turrets. Believing he'd discovered the entrance to some mythical Valhalla, he stepped through an arch.

On the other side a rope bridge led into a strange city that he knew would be rich with treasure, mysteries and perhaps even living residents. At the city gates, he found an inscription written in a language from ancient Mesopotamia. The opening lines notified all who would enter that they would have to recite and abide by the written incantation of the mystic city.

Stockward did that readily and without thinking. He did halt when he came to the last line, which gave the city claim over his soul. Then after biting his tongue he read it aloud, the gates opened and he entered . . . and never returned.

Victory belonged to the death bug because the ultimate in mysticism and adventure exists in the human imagination. In one aspect Stockward still lived. As long as machinery kept his body and brain alive he was inside somewhere, lost in a never-ending hallucination in a heavenly city.

He had chosen heaven over mortal life. The same would be possible for Gates and I told him so.

“Heaven,” Gates spat as he wrinkled his discolored forehead. “I couldn't stand a minute of any version of it. And if James Stockward is trapped in there you can count me out.”

---------

Bill Gates' birthday sailed in with weather fit for a god of light … though my suspicions were that Gates was more properly a prince of worldly darkness and deceit. I believed he would relish the thought of ruling the unseen like Lucifer or angels, so it didn't seem likely that he could get over any spiritual hurdles. Perhaps the old snake had about a 100 to 1 chance and perhaps he had smarts I didn't know about.

Janine and I remained at the mansion, but were suddenly awakened and banished to the rock garden at dawn. Gates' android butler, Mr. Windows was to be the only person attending to him during his ordeal. Gates didn't trust any human being near him during such a moment of weakness.

The pure morning air carried fragrant scents of blooms and pines and we inhaled deeply as we slowly drank cappuccino on a deck. Farther off through the foliage the river waters were still and glacial blue and we could see the sun rising through thin mist.

I found Janine to be beautiful in the morning light so though we talked about Gates my thoughts were on her.

“Gates may live forever but he'll sure never be young again,” I said.

“The man is obscene. He's tarnished my memories of my father. He's also proven that immortality can be bought and stolen. No one should have done that.”

“If he's bought it then it was at a high price. His health sucks. Imagine what his sex life must be like.”

“Please don't make me think about it or I’ll be ill. I really hope the old bastard dies.”

“I hope so, too. He's prolonging the misery and suffering he brings, and we have to fear what he'll do to us if he lives.”

“Wouldn't he have killed us already if he wanted that?”

“He may not be in a rational state of mind due to fear of death. At present he doesn't fear me because he knows I'm too smart to kill him. The reason being that only Gates knows the system of world control he has set up. The world economy could collapse if he dies without arranging a transition of power.”

“Did he say anything at all about a transition in the event of his death?”

“He refused to discuss it. Says it would prepare him psychologically for death and he can't beat the death bug by doing that.”

Finished with our coffee we strolled through the dense vine-laden garden. I put my arm around her as we reached the riverbank. We watched the water flow slowly past the stony shore and decided that there was more to life than biting our nails and worrying about an ancient sleazebag. Gates' time of birth was around one p.m. so we drove off for breakfast and a day in the countryside, setting our mental clocks for a two p.m. return.

Our morning ended up becoming a romantic interlude that practically flew by. We made love in deep grass beside a tumbled boathouse and in this passage I'll let the reader insert a favorite paragraph from the latest crop of fiction romances. Perhaps she morphed into a female tigress and ripped me to shreds with her sexual skill and aggression. Maybe I became a super stud, grew over-the-shoulder hair and made brutal love to her. Then again, it could've been a simple scene of steamy passion and tasty body fluids or an act of frightened love as the end of the world loomed over us.

Feeling relieved and a lot less haunted, we cruised back through the mansion gate at two p.m. The clouds above resembled still angel hair and I hoped they were an omen of Gates' demise. Mr. Windows showed immediately, hurrying out to meet us. His expression was rather cold. He opened the doors for us but remained strangely silent.

“So what's the news?” I said, looking at him squarely.

“You are to view a message from Mr. Gates.”

I looked at Janine and she winked and smiled softly. “I take it this means that nasty devil bug has killed Mr. Gates?”

“Not at all,” Mr. Windows said. “He physically survived his ordeal with the bug.”

A curtain of silence fell as we followed Mr. Windows inside. “This doesn't look good,” I whispered as we went down the hall. “The old bugger won't even meet us face to face now.”

We were led to the same big guest theatre we'd been in when we first arrived at the mansion. Feeling suddenly weary and heavy I sat down. Janine practically fell to a chair beside me and we watched apprehensively as Mr. Windows busied himself preparing the equipment.

I studied him carefully as he worked, finding that he didn't appear human at all now. He wore no facial expressions or hints of emotion -- just a sort of pointless leaden mask for a face. I supposed that Gates could have altered his programming for the day, emptying him of all traces of humanity.

It wasn't long before the image engines powered up and Gates suddenly appeared on the view platform as a huge holographic image. The old codger was lying in bed and the magnification highlighted his ghastly features. A few suspenseful moments passed then his bluish lips moved. Like Mr. Windows, he seemed devoid of emotion. His eyes remained blank and dead as he spoke.

“I've made it,” Gates said. “This is the greatest human accomplishment since man set foot on the moon. What was it they said back then? Oh yes. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Yet this time the price is high. In winning I've discovered what the death bug really is. Nothing less than that old ghost in the machine called the human soul. Heaven and hell really have been in us all along. They create our belief systems and give us a reason to live.

So in resisting, I've won but I'm also an empty shell as I did not retain my soul. Feelings and memories of my former self hover above me like a cloud and I cannot reclaim them fully because in killing my spirit I killed the core of the old Bill Gates. This is bitterness and misery but it is bearable and temporary because I believe that I can claim another man's soul and gain a spiritual recharge that will carry me on for a thousand years. My equipment has registered the exact brain energy pattern that the bug destroys.

I have chosen you, Jack. You will die while in mental contact with me and the equipment will transfer your vital energy into my brain. It will be the first soul transplant so to speak. You will live on as the divine energy engine driving my cerebral life.”

I heard Janine gasp beside me and on the screen; I could see Gates looking to his side at someone unseen. “Why are you here?” Gates was saying. “I said no one was to enter. Get out. Get out now!”

Mr. Windows suddenly appeared at Gates' bedside. His face emotionless, he held a pillow in his hands. Gates continued to yell at him, but Mr. Windows didn't retreat. Instead, he lurched forward, threw the pillow across Gates' face and held it there as he kicked, struggled, suffocated and died.

Then the platform went blank. The message was over and the expressionless Mr. Windows stood before us.

“Why did you kill him?” I said.

“I am an android. Mr. Gates programmed me to destroy all imposters. In his recorded statement, Mr. Gates' body admits truthfully, according to my lie detection system, that it does not have Mr. Gates' soul. This Mr. Gates was somehow an imposter so I killed him.”

“I see,” I said. “A Mr. Windows bug and not the Satan bug killed him. Or better said, the software worked smoothly for once. So what happens now?”

“Mr. Gates chose you as the person to clear up his affairs in the event of his death. I will now show the message outlining just how to arrange it so the world runs without Mr. Gates at the helm.”

“Show it, by all means,” I said.

Janine was smiling, her eyes sparkling. “Perhaps a woman should run the world this time.”

“Don't even think about it,” I said. “You'll get wrinkles and a craving for fresh organs if you do.”

She winked and I kissed her, knowing that a new world was on the menu … a bigger world and moon system of the imagination, where we could thank an unseen God who wasn’t Bill Gates and a bunch of old men.

---- the end -----

A Survivalist's Notebook

By Gary L Morton

Doug gave the rising brow of the storm a stern glance and plodded on in the biting wind. His genetically thickened legs and toughened mutant skin being necessary for his survival in this blustery part of the northern Canada. Other men with lesser powers would've already been blown away, thrown like straw into the void of wilderness. And it felt cold - Arctic cold with temperatures dropping down the scale like they did a century ago.

He couldn't turn back as flash floods raced in the south and forest fires raged to the east. The west existed as a bizarre swampland leading up to inhospitable mountains he didn't want to think about. There wasn't any place where he could hide from the roar of an angry earth. He always ended up on the edge of the storm. And this time it meant moving north.

Doug tightened bitter lips against the settling frost and grim day. He imagined himself lucky in that his intelligence hadn't been greatly enhanced. Not having the ability to calculate all of the odds against him seemed a blessing.

Three hours more of steady walking brought him to a long rise and a banked depression partially sheltered from the wind. Looking ahead, he saw endless chunks of ice and colored stone sprinkled across exposed tundra. A large part of a flash glacier had melted here and due to his view at the last peak, he knew that this weird spread of land stretched on for several kilometers.

He'd seen a huge log structure near the top but couldn't spot it now against the dark background of clouds. They rolled up like smoke in howling wind, creating ferocious effects that would make demons and giants seek shelter.

As he began the climb he studied the ground at his feet, amazed at the things poking out of the strange tundra. Polluted glacial ice that had stubbornly remained had buried it for ages and it seemed unfair that such a find would only be uncovered in a time when few humans were left who could study it or even reach it.

Shells of extinct sea creatures, lizard skeletons, preserved feathers -- strange greenery and ferns sprouted here and there from ancient seeds. In places the tundra ran like seaweed in rounded rocks, forming faces as it rippled in the wind. An unknown Eden of the north was here and emerging from the ice … a place that had never been mentioned in legends, holy books or even imagined.

Near the top, he looked up and spotted the structure a couple hundred feet away. A cabin built of huge petrified gray logs that had been pulled from the glacier bottom. Stretched around the slope in a V shape, it was more than a single cabin and he supposed it had been put together that way to provide maximum cover from the ceaseless blow.

Doug had to turn into the open wind to get to the door; and from there he caught a glimpse of the other slope and the unusual forest covering it. Squat trees bit into the ground. Their branches shaking like tentacles. Some had gnarled limbs covered with large black cones and others sported huge needles nearly wide enough to be leaves. Climbing roots wound in the rotted carpeting, and in places they sat on soil and tundra that looked like quicksand. Boughs arched overhead and coiled where the trees were dense, creating a dim and partially sheltered world below. Strange lighting tinted pools of icy water and as a whole the place seemed like a tiny forest world in microcosm - an ancient hideaway that had been uncovered after ages of burial and was sprouting again.

The heavy door was open and banging in the wind. Doug stepped into the dark interior thinking that perhaps it'd been open in the blow for years. As far as anyone knew, there were no outdoor survivors up in this part of the world.

A brief look told him the place was about as solid as a vault. Forcing the door shut he drew the sturdy bolt and found himself in darkness for a moment before he pulled his ball lantern from his pack.

It detected the dark room and brightened. Shadows swept across the walls as the room lit up, and what he saw was Spartan to say the least. Simple tables and chairs had been fashioned from a grainy sort of pinewood. There were a few crude tools and an old Remington rifle on the back wall. A heavy chest stood bolted to the floor near the center table so he stepped over and opened it, finding a dog-eared handwritten notebook and nothing else inside.

Doug was exhausted and cold. The cabin had a small fireplace but he rarely used fire. He took the notebook and a blanket, sat down on a heavy chair and began to read; feeling relaxation settle in as the first words flowed into his mind.

--------

Welcome, mutant son of man.

My name is Joe London, and since I'm the last survivor hereabouts you can call this my survivalist's notebook.

I lived as a gambling man in a world that gambled its life away; another roll of the dice and everything might've have come up right. But there is no second roll of the big dice, so we got snake eyes and a dead world in fate's toss. 

Men always were thieves and robbers; most of us worked to destroy nature. There were a few higher tribal cultures that coexisted and perhaps history could've rolled one of those into dominance. Instead, the axes kept coming up every time and we cut down the world - we talked of new worlds and planets while we murdered and poisoned the species and systems on our own. Like cowards, most of us robbed the people of the future, talking grand and never considering that they couldn't fight back. They could only be our victims.

Welcome to my cabin, fellow predator. You like the gun-slit window?

I'm always amazed when I consider how people from seventy years back could've turned nature into a raging bull today - and put the undeserving and unborn on the receiving end of the sucker punches and hurricanes. Keep in mind that I wasn't one of the stupid ones, though.

Remember the old gasoline engine? I was a top official in one of the key auto companies of the day. It was my job to know and in the end keep it secret. We had the ability to transfer to solar, hydrogen, electric and other engines all along but we wouldn't do it because we didn't want to spend the money on retooling the plants. We believed in an ever-rising economy and it rose to the top and choked the world in its gasses and hidden environmental horrors.

We did nothing as the ice cap melted; or should I say that what we did was get China to embrace a policy of a car per person to make sure the entire world would choke on greenhouse gases. 

I spoke out on the issue at about the time the meteorological system began to collapse. Making a public statement to the effect that the planet was destined to become hell -- a place more like Hades than Earth. We had taken the Biblical Armageddon and turned it into Thermageddon -- an ecological catastrophe on a biblical scale. And it spite of what was clearly happening to us, corporations and governments were continuing to encourage air pollution, nuclear waste, burning, over-fishing, clear-cutting, strip-mining, super dams, excessive drainage, paving of wild lands, dumping and a population explosion. 

As it was happening, the visionaries were preaching our survival as though we were living on another planet. The technologies they plugged like terraforming, nano technology, genetically enhanced food and humans, tinkering with the atmosphere and so on were to be the miracles to ensure our survival -- not on Mars, but here on Earth.

And what it really added up to was another grand dream of the robbers. The reality being waves of nightmarish weather sweeping the world. Our biosphere undergoing a complete transformation. The Arctic ice cap melted yet they were still telling people that ice that was long gone still existed up here. The planet's temperatures soared because the huge sink of dark water absorbed heat from the sun while the shield of ice used to reflect heat back into space. 

Rising tides swept in like oily giants to drown places like Florida. Overpopulation and burning killed the Amazon rainforest. Salmon disappeared from the Pacific Ocean -- food grew scarce as the world's population exploded. The last of the coral reefs were winking out. The Everglades were drowned. The Gulf Stream switched off. Parts of the world like Texas were becoming total deserts. Super-hurricanes, category 6 tornadoes and floods became regular news, along with forest fires and droughts. All of it creating billions of environmental refugees in a world already composed of billions of poverty-stricken people. It didn't take much more to kill off their meager food supply. The reek of the dying billions in torched cities replaced the stench of dying marine life and forests in the end. And even then we thought we would be safe in North America.

But we weren't and for a last blow, the great stores of Arctic methane got released through melting and severe atmospheric feedback loops locked in, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. The combination of biotic impoverishment, rising air and sea temperatures, the crumbling ozone shield, an altered planetary skin and the accumulation of carbon dioxide finally tipped the balance and put an end to life as we knew it.

We couldn't act to save ourselves as corporations had turned our world institutions into tools of profit and suppression. Speculators were largely in control and governments geared to Band-Aid solutions couldn't act in a fast rising crisis. 

As things collapsed, those who'd profited from bringing about our death adapted and profited from death and the industry of extermination itself. But I was on the outside then and I'd been there for a long time.

Shortly after my conversion to environmental causes I became unemployable and eventually an outlaw survivalist - a transformation that happened in degrees. The old feature films used to display wonderful heroes and they conquered all. In real life, there is no such animal. When I lost my financial means through speaking out, it led to a run on my assets and then divorce. Even my two sons abandoned me as a lost cause. Family breakup of some sort happened to nearly everyone in the end.

It happened to me early and that was important - a personal catastrophe long before the end came. It led to my survival in the long term. In the early days I nearly vanished from the face of the Earth, drifting about Canada as a homeless man. During that time, I slowly made connections and built an underground survival network. Of course, there were thousands of survival networks later, but they were all high profile while we remained invisible. Our group never made a public statement or kept open addresses of leaders and camps. If we had done so we would have died as the others did - attacked first by the desperate masses and then by the forces of the 2nd World Order Government.

The so-called Global Village lost its true global nature when the fast transport of goods and people ended. Once that went to hell, everyone other than military organizations got isolated in various pockets of the raging world storm. We could still get news from around the world but the technological means to do non-military things at an international and national level were nearly gone.

My group managed to gather in an area of Northern Ontario and duck much of the disaster. A year after we dug in Canadian cities began to collapse. Our two hundred members were still quietly camouflaging structures in deep forest, and when we'd set up our forest network completely, I found myself foolishly unhappy. My sons were grown and I wanted to see them one last time before the end came for them.

--------

I left on my own; telling the others at camp that it was just a scouting mission. A few of the toothless and bearded looked at me with suspicion, but they didn't oppose me.

Following established trails I began the journey. Emerging from cool pine forests in the North I entered heavy mixed forest on the long run down to the moraine that borders the City of Toronto. This was rough going as years of high winds had blocked roads and created a jungle of deadwood and stumps. The older forest was strewn with enormous fallen logs; rising temperatures seemed to have spurred the growth of deciduous trees, undergrowth and vines. The tougher customers of nature were surviving while the weak died. Bears were plentiful, feeding on a rough genetica version of carp surviving in the shrinking waters with the tinier plant fish they ate. The angry roars of the bears often spooked me. 

When the forest got too dense or dangerous I worked my way down following the shores of small glacial lakes. A reek of dead fish rose on these shores as some species were dying in the warmer water. But there was no shortage of food as I could see schools of fish swimming in the clear flow and was able to catch fat sunfish with my bare hands.

Before reaching the moraine I stumbled onto a huge abandoned farming complex. A rich moth-fluttering meadow suddenly ended at endless fields of scorched earth, stubble and lumpy clay. Empty observation towers told me it had been an experimental farm. 

Land that's been burned off quickly rises with new growth and this area was dead, so my guess was that mutant crops had been grown; the sort of stuff that is genetically programmed not to seed, because if it did it would spread and choke all other plant life. It looked like the government had failed here in one of its attempts to feed the population with new storm-resistant crops - the result being a strip of odd desert in Canada.

I avoided main roads and towns. Beyond the dead lands, I followed a long winding valley, walking down the mostly overgrown track bed of a freight line. Rail transport had been another victim of the weather - mostly wind and flooding. This trek took to me to another survivalist settlement - large and obvious. The camp had been constructed out of old rail cars dumped along the valley and converted to storage sheds and housing.

The first person I encountered was a skeleton. He rested in the parched weeds outside one of the bigger rail cars. The tattered remains of his clothing fluttered in the breeze and his bones were clean, indicating death had taken him quite a while ago. Looking inside the car I found little other than darkness, cobwebs and empty food tins. 

Moving on I found many more skeletons in random locations. It was like death had come suddenly and no one had lived to struggle and clean up later. A white powder like lime sprinkled the ground near the bones at the shore of a pond. Nearby I found spent canisters of some sort of chemical. In the central section many rail cars had been huddled together into a sort of shantytown and there were a lot of skeletons and more of the canisters. Some bore the 2nd World Order marking and from them I got the picture of what had happened - a chemical weapons attack. 2WO had been created out of the remains of NATO and it was a ruthless military outfit involved in survival through sheer power and the genetic mutation of humans, animal and plant life. A decision had been made by that organization to exterminate this survival group with chemical bombs. It meant 2WO had planned to resettle this land. 

Sunset fell with great brilliance that day. I remember sitting out front of one of the tilted rail cars, nibbling on my rations. The dead grinned back at me as long beams swept the land, and I decided to enter Toronto under cover of darkness. My people knew from underground radio transmissions that most of the other survivalist groups in the countryside had been done in and the last of the survivors were being herded into the cities by the government. The herding was supposed to make food rationing easier by concentrating most of the survivors, but I didn't believe that story, as I've never trusted government.

My son was in the city centre; I knew that. My guess was that he would know the real reason for concentrating people in the cities. One possibility was segregation. Word on the grapevine was that 2WO planned to populate the countryside with the hardier mutant breeds of man. Perhaps those of old mankind would be kept and fed like weak sheep in the cities. It would make it easier to control them and their birth rate - if nature wasn't already doing the job well enough.

Fearing the highways and arrest, I entered Toronto following the half-rusted rails. It seemed incredibly dark on the edge of the city. Occasionally the moon slipped out of the clouds and revealed blocks of vacant suburban houses and scarred high-rises. Weeds and maples had overgrown much of this property, creating a densely forested city.

The night wind seemed inhumanly hot. It riffled the boughs like they were a dry musical instrument, and added to that sound were eerie howls and bangs from the gusts swinging down the empty streets and through the hollow buildings below.

Near the central city I began to spot military vehicles and pedestrians, but I stayed out of sight, not wanting to be seen until I was well inside where I wouldn't immediately be asked to identify myself. I had no idea what would happen if I were arrested and didn't want to find out.

Coming out of a long ravine trail I cut through the shadows in Summerhill Park and walked out on Sumac Road, heading down the lit street to my son's apartment building. This part of the city was still populated and a few people loitered out front of the buildings. The buzzers didn't work but the door stood open so I went up to the fourth floor and knocked. I didn't get an answer; instead a pretty woman of Oriental extraction opened the door of the apartment next door.

I stepped over and ask her if Jimmy London was still around.

“No. That guy went with the military to one of the domes. He said he was signed on to work for them in data skills so it's likely a high access dome.”

“Domes? What are they?”

“Since the earthquake they've been moving people from damaged areas to the central domes. Now they take people from undamaged areas, too. They are a racist or ignorant sort of thing and go in order of importance. Most people don't want to go there but there isn't anywhere else to go.”

“I see,” I said, thanking her before I left.

Out front, I questioned two thin black men smoking rolled cigarettes beside a battered newspaper box. “I need information from the military. Do you know where the nearest station is?”

One guy took a drag and puffed out smoke. The lit end highlighted his lumpy nose. “The stations are mobile mostly. And you don't want to find them unless you're planning on disappearing.”

“Disappearing, what do you mean?”

“The domes my friend. People who go there never come back. Rumors are that some of the big trucks headed out of town are loaded with people being taken off to work as slaves for the mutants.”

“It doesn't sound good. But I've got nowhere else to go and I'm looking for my son.”

“That's the story everywhere.” 

As I turned away, I saw pity in his eyes. With little to do, I took a late night walk on some of the main streets. The lamps and some of the building lights were on and people milled about here and there in front of buildings that had stood up against the quake. A semblance of order existed and I saw no real threat of crime. Litter and dust flew in the warm wind rushing out of cracked alleys and I could see fast rolling clouds on the skyline. Toronto was actually one of the safest places in the world; most of the damage having been done by one devastating earthquake and a hurricane that hit shortly after.

Of course, there were other facets of the nightmare. When the food distribution systems collapsed, the cities were the first places in chaos. The initial wave of crime and death had been tidal, but it did subside and things came back together. Now it was a bit easier to survive in city centers than in the countryside. Small survivalist groups could vanish in the city jungle, while in the countryside they were open to attack. If we hadn't been so far north we wouldn't have had a chance against other groups and forces of law and order bent on destroying every outlaw organization.

I drifted deeper downtown on Dundas Street and I finally came upon a military checkpoint. Metal barricades blocked further passage on the street and I could see through to a huge dome rising in the dark. It was immense, like a stadium the size of a city block.

Ten heavily armed guards at a post and an armored personnel carrier held the point. There weren't any citizens trying to pass late at night. In order to see my son I had no choice other than to chance talking to them. After ditching my hidden weapon in an alley waste bin, I approached them.

Cool air drifted from the checkpoint window. The guard staring out at me was unshaven with mutant light green skin. 

“What do you want?” he said gruffly.

“I've been living in my son's apartment, thinking he would return. Now a neighbour tells me my son is working with the military in one of the higher security domes. I want to know if there's any way I can visit him?”

“You got identification or a chip implant?”

“None. But he can identify me if he sees me.”

“Not good. You'll have to give us his name and your name. We're going to hold you until we verify your identity. Any objections to that?”

“No objections.”

They held me in a jail cell for three days. The window allowed a view of the street and I could see the military personnel entering another large checkpoint near the dome. Some men had small Canadian flags on their uniforms, and sprinkled among them were many boy soldiers with greenish faces and 2WO outfits. Without a doubt, the old NATO wing of 2WO had bred a huge army of mutants that were presently reaching the 16 to 18 age. Their youth was apparent in their faces, yet their bodies were well developed - stocky and strong like those of older hardened men. Since the troops were mixed I got the notion that the mutants were to be integrated with the general population.

When Jimmy was ready to see me they had me hauled into the dome. Two burly mutant soldiers were my escorts and they took me down a long passage lined with windows giving a one-way view of the ragged crowd milling in an open concourse below. 

We arrived and found Jimmy waiting outside his office door. My son was large, healthy and rugged - not at all like the other shattered men of the period. His dark hair seemed to be getting thicker and wavier with age and his brown eyes were intense and youthful. He also had perfect teeth, which was rare. It surprised me that he looked so good in a military outfit as he had been an electronics engineer and not a military person.

He greeted me with a strong embrace and led me into his office. A wave of happiness consumed me at that point. I felt that my son finally believed in me. Then I noticed the combination NATO/2WO insignia on his shoulder and my joy began to evaporate.

Jimmy sat on the edge of his desk while I took a chair.

“I guess you want to know what happened to Mom and Dave.” 

I nodded.

“They're gone. They survived the worst of it only to die two months ago from a pandemic virus that hit the city. I saw to their burial. They're in the cemetery off York side road in the old neighbourhood.”

“That's more than sad. But I suppose I'm lucky just to find you alive.”

“I made it but it wasn't easy. Believe me, it surprised me when they came saying you were here. I thought it was an impostor. You were part of the survivalist movement - they're all dead now. You must be just about the last one.”

“I am the last. On the way into the city I found a lot of corpses. 2WO and not outlaws killed them. They were just pockets of people trying to survive on their own little pieces of ground. What's 2WO's reason for such atrocities?”

“Panic and resettlement are the likely reasons. The Canadian Government and 2WO feared the survivalists would band together and form a guerrilla army in the countryside. I think the attacks were based on paranoia over something that never would have happened. Then there is resettlement. The people in these domes are going to be moved onto that land. Soldiers are hard to control now as there is no oversight.”

“Something big is happening here, isn't it?”

“Yes. That's the reason I waited so long before seeing you. What I have to explain is very delicate and hard to accept.”

“Nothing surprises me these days. We are accepting things we wouldn't have accepted before. So don't worry too much about it.”

“True. The environment has changed totally. 2WO leaders have realized that man and society also have to transform themselves completely. Mutants like the guards who brought you in are one of the ways of the future.”

“Ah, I see. So I’m one of the old boys now and flawed mankind is on the way out. But I’m a mutant too in a way. I’ve learned to survive in ways even mutants can't. Perhaps they could learn from me.”

“It’s changed but not that much. You can see how strong I am. It’s due to a new kind of gene therapy. I'm one of the few people with the physical makeup to respond to it. My stamina, base intelligence in certain areas, and life span, have been prolonged.”

“You mean humankind has been recreated as a new master race. I have to admit that I'm impressed, even if it means I'm mostly obsolete.”

Excitement rose in his voice. “It's a new beginning. Only last year we believed that only the mutants would survive over the long term. Now a miracle has happened. Mankind will live on in a slightly enhanced form. Two master races - mutant and man will live side by side in a newly harmonized world environment. The days of man the predator will end, we'll govern nature itself, and survive on this planet and others.”

“I don't quite understand how enhanced humans are different from the mutants?”

“You wouldn't. Mutants look quite human but they are much different on the genetic level. NATO's world project in that area that runs years back. When it was restructured, it became a secret military organization. Most of the old reports of aliens had to do with the first mutants. When the world started to get hot they accelerated the process and bred a small army of them.”

“If full mutants are that different, then it's likely that they won't have any place in their world for people like me.”

“No need to worry. You can live on in comfortable retirement. In fact, I've already put your application through. There's no need for you to meet the same fate as the others.”

“Are you saying that the others are being eliminated?”

“Sorry. I didn't mean to let that slip. I guess I have to tell you sooner or later. You may hate us for this but simply put - most of those in the domes won't live on. Only those who respond to the gene therapy and some of their immediate family members will.”

“And the rest?”

“They think they are leaving to work on farms. But they never get there. Be assured that it isn't a painful end. The transports are set up to gas and put them to sleep instantly at the cemeteries. Unfortunately I'm one of the people making the life and death decisions.”

“God help you, if He still exists!”

“Our reasons aren't cruelty or fascism. We have a dream and a goal. Just as you saw the end coming long ago, we see a new beginning. Yet this new world can't work if the old race breeds and damages the environment again. We are doing it in a way that seems cowardly. Yet it is because we knew from the outset that few people would believe in us or in the truth - just as few people believed in you when you warned them of the end and later gained your abilities to survive.”

“Yes. They wouldn't listen and now they've earned this. It's a horrible end and appalling to me - but I understand it. Outrage and clinging to the old ways won't in any way change things. I can only hope to see the curtain of horror lift and the new people entering a humane future. I hid for a long time, but I knew I would return to world that had changed. If you and your people can make that change for the better, I can't disagree.”

Jimmy nodded and I sighed. I could see that my apparent acceptance of 2WO and their politics of doom had moved him on a deep emotional level. In spite of his health, he had thumbprints of guilt bagging his eyes and up close I detected a haunted look. I saw that look soften to relief as I said a few more resigned words. Then we ended up talking about other things - memories of family life long ago when the world was a better place … when my wife and children were beautiful. I embraced him and departed holding a ticket granting me a small apartment in one of the domes. Sometime in the future, I was to be resettled with Jimmy, being allowed to live on in retirement until I died. There would be no attempt to apply gene therapy to me. Jimmy knew I wouldn't want it that way.

Jimmy knew a lot. His great intelligence had been enhanced to the top. Yet he'd failed to detect my lies. He wasn't a cop. I did not intend to accept his new world. It gave me visions of a future that would continue into a new realm of the vile and decrepit. Mutants and genetically enhanced humans would be at war. It was certain because man had not ceased being a predator – greenish monsters exterminating the old race or an improved version of it could only be worse than it. And that was certain when the enhancements were only for survival and targeted to certain forms of intelligence.

Meeting Jimmy really did establish me as one of the greatest of the survivalists. No other father could have faked his way through that interview. Swimming through quicksand would be easier. Emotions and inner pain would've choked them all. Their reactions would've drawn in the 2WO guards - and then they'd have been put to death with the rest. 

I'd suffered before. My family abandoned me years back. This second time around with my son it hurt even more. But I knew that the world was at a dead end and that loss and desperate emotions were a big part of it. If my son could abandon humanity, I could abandon him. We all die one day, and the best is if it's physical and not spiritual.

--------

Two days later I escaped the dome and headed out of the city on the same route I entered with. Armored helicopters buzzed the trees at the edge of town, but I managed to keep out of sight and work my way north. At the camp of skeletons, I stopped and picked up a rifle and ammunition and was leaving on the rail bed when three 2WO mutants emerged from the pines to confront me.

These were soldiers with thick green skin, heavy armor, laser weapons and high-speed Glock guns much more deadly than my own rifle. One of them called for my surrender and I responded by swinging the rifle off of my shoulder and firing. The shot bypassed body armor and got the centre mutant - the leader - in his unarmed throat. Blood spurted grotesquely as he fell, and this frightened the others enough that they ducked back.

They could have drawn and finished me if they were experienced. The window of a couple seconds their fear created allowed me to roll down the bank and break for the trees. I burst through sumac and into the pines, seeing lasers rip up the branches all around me.

From there it became a stalking game - kill or be killed. Cold-force laser beams and thick DUSB rapid-fire bullets saturated the forest around me with fire, splinters and destruction, and for about five minutes, I remained behind a monster fallen tree trunk. When I moved I ran fast. I could hear them crashing through the brush to the giant pines so I made a dash through the mist toward a shadowy path and worked my way down a slight incline to heavier forest. I found a large granite boulder partially curtained by vines, got behind it and listened. 

They came down the soft slope with the cunning of foxes. I heard them whispering and touching into supposedly silent communication devices as they approached, and then they split up - one mutant heading past me while the other veered off to the north.

Keeping my breathing silent, I let the first mutant pass. He poked around in the thorn bushes near another boulder then he went through the trees toward a tiny clearing. A misplaced shot would be the end of me so I didn't fire on him. Instead, I crept up behind him and got behind an oak. He looked into the clearing then turned back, and when he passed, I stepped out and planted my hunting knife in his back.

The soft forest duff and sprouting greenery muted his fall. And I simply turned and hurried through the clearing. I kept moving at a near run for a couple of kilometers then I fell winded on the bank of a stream. Fortunately, I didn't encounter the third mutant. About two hours later I saw a camouflaged helicopter pass quietly and circle to head south. It was returning to their base to report.

Dense forest became my accomplice as I moved north. Sometimes the helicopters passed but they failed to spot me as I could use the wild life as camouflage. I never moved in open areas where their sensors would get solid detection on my body. I trudged through brush and thick forest where flies could kill the average man in a single afternoon. A few days later nightmare storms moved in and grounded all aircraft, making it possible for me to move on in quick rushes when the winds and rains left quiet pockets.

Near home base, I came upon a mutant military encampment. There were hundreds of them dug in with special tents and they had several all-terrain vehicles. Surveillance told me what I'd suspected - these soldiers didn't keep prisoners. The dead they abandoned as food for the hungry animals and the storms. At night, I moved in, disabled their fencing of sensors and stole some of their rations. Circling back, I took a longer route home. 

Gunshots and artillery fire echoed in the woods as I approached home base so I halted and did some poking around. I crawled on my belly to a cabin on the perimeter and burst in the door with my rifle at ready. Bodies littered the floor inside. They were gore-spattered and riddled with bullets. All of them were friends of mine and after seeing the blue face of Jack Bonner, one of our best fighters, I knew it was over for my people. My last home would be gone in a few days. 

The urge to shoot it out and die rose in my blood. For a long time I sat under a tree cradling my head in my hands. Perhaps too long as blue smoke was drifting in and I was in danger of being found.

It would've been over for me then. But as I looked up at the haze of sun in the treetops, an inner voice spoke, telling me to move on and survive. And I did just that.

--------

A power far removed from survival instinct drew me north. During that journey, a distant sun often broke through the brow of angry clouds and glared down at me like the evil eye of some underworld god. Reaching the shore of Hudson Bay a good piece up on the west side I walked on in a hypnotized state while bear-paw gusts from a gale shattered nearby trees. Nature brought up the rear, striking against the mutant and human enemy with its own artillery blasts, yet I felt nothing and drifted forward with the wind at my back, following the rippling grasses and waters.

Sometimes I crashed through brush like a crazed moose and barely noticed fly bites and the lashing of branches and thorns on my skin. On the cloudiest days my head would clear and I would set up camp and do some fishing or hunting. Even then, I did little thinking on the human race and what had become of it. I was more like an ancient hunter, content to eat his meat.

It was a bleak world, devoid of mutants and the new humankind and their guns and calculated future. I existed alone, looking out of eyes blackened by the rings marking an evil time. I had no use for society and it was a good thing to be in the wild.

My arrival at a new slope had biblical overtones. A huge flood subsided before me and I moved with agility through a swamped forest. Spooked wildlife fled in all directions in these deadly woods, escaping ghosts of the deluge. Higher dry land brought me to a hilltop and from there I looked down at the slope and the ancient forest sprouting in the glacial melt.

The pale sun glowed with mystic light and sent beams streaming down. Chunks of ice glittered like scattered gems and the whole scene took on a divine aspect like I was looking back into the beginning of time. Days later, when I'd done a detailed study of the uncovered bones, minerals and plant specimens, I knew that I really was looking back through millions of years.

Dense forest rose in the centre and when I descended to it tall weeds in open areas gave me the feeling of being lost in a maze of unknown proportions. Deep in the twisted trees, I found a small clearing. Petrified logs were heaped there beside a glacial brook and I decided to use them to construct a cabin. It would be hard work for one man and the job relied on survivalist skills I had learned long ago. I could see that a river had carried the logs to this spot and then over time they'd been buried in ice.

While perched on the logs I thought about what I would construct. Over the next few days, I cut a path and began to toil like Sisyphus, using a slow technique of vines, small logs, stones and levers to roll the big logs up the hill. Once there I notched them and fitted them according to my plan. Two months passed as I did this work; I grew dirty and callused and must have looked like a wild man. I also had the feeling of being watched and often looked back to the forest, seeing nothing other than fleeting shadows, rustling boughs and ferns.

It seemed impossible, but I finished the cabin, and once inside I had plenty of time to rest and stare out the gun-slit window. I found that I really was being watched, as it was then that the others came - and by others don't assume that I mean other survivalists or mutant soldiers. These others were creatures emerging from hibernation of some unknown variety. 

When I first spotted them sunset rays were brightening the trees and creating glare. From a distance, the creatures resembled strange apes. They continued to move in the long shadows below as twilight softened the sky. Near dark they began to walk up the slope, and I seemed to wake - the strange calm lifting and my scalp tightening with fear. I did have a rifle, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me to arm myself against them.

As they drew closer I noticed that their fur was patterned and matted - a mathematical or puzzle-like effect. A key symbol stood out on their chests. Belts of fur covered their genitals. Light seemed to emit rather than reflect from the round eyes of these creatures. A glow of darkness edged them, forming an aura of biological energy I'd never seen before.

They shuffled up and passed the window, and their strange eyes glowed in at me - imparting an instinctual knowledge of their being into my mind. I became aware of them as natural creatures and not man-made mutants. Other thoughts passing in my head were unexplainable, existing in a blur beyond my comprehension. I ended up gaping and drooling like an epileptic as they moved near the window.

My head cleared when they left. I opened the door to look as they were fading into the twilight … disappearing in the clawed roots of the ancient trees.

In the night, they returned to haunt me in dreams. Feeling incredibly light I dream-walked out into a forest salted by faint rays, ferns brushed me as I passed through to the clearing, and once there they emerged from crooked trees and surrounded me.

They spoke to me telepathically, using inner voices that reminded me of the speech of beautiful children. Images of understanding rose in my mind as they told me the end had come - that all humankind and mutants would perish as they had perished. 

I knew they lacked hostile intentions; they were the messengers of some nameless other. A being that granted awareness of its existence but not clarity as to what it was in reality. 

Long before the birth of man, these creatures had ruled on Earth. Like us they'd abused nature and earned extinction. The Other had destroyed them and buried them; not a trace was left for man to find in his new beginning.

Yet the Other did not forget its mistakes; nature itself existed as this being's memory. Some of the creatures had remained and lived in a bubble at the bottom of the ice. And in the same way, they had chosen me to live on as a memory of mankind.

In the dream they forced me to reveal secrets I did not want to reveal - that I was a survivalist and that I didn't want to live on as a specimen, that I would kill them if I could.

I awoke with a fever - sweaty and mumbling in my bed. The morning sun was up and I could hear the faint whistling of the wind in the cracks. Bars of shadow were sweeping over the window and in my state; I saw ghastly images in them.

Managing to rise, I went to the door and looked out. Fresh air rushed to my nostrils with the power of an oxygen charge. A beautiful day enveloped and uplifted me. I looked up at the racing white clouds, and then I heard voices.

My eyes went to the slope, the forest and ferns and finally settled on some dark patches of quicksand. Heat shimmies rose from the gases bubbling up and for some reason I felt drawn to the spot. A powerful force tugged at me and I started to move . . .

--------

Tomorrow, morning comes as always, but on a new day of a new world. I’ll hear the creatures calling and walk down the slope and into that quicksand. It will consume me … suck me down to that bottom of all bottoms; down to that great inheritance humankind passed on to me. There I'll exist in the eternal memory of the Other as the last remnant of this world.

We have come to the end, and I am the last son of man. So tell me - is it fair? Should Joe London live on forever in this way? Bearing the weight of mankind and evil?

Yes, you must think it right. You did come here to exterminate me, so it's certain that you won't weep or shed so much as a single tear for me.

Yet if you can't weep for my kind, perhaps you can weep for yourself and your own. Recall that the end has come and that you are doomed as well. The Other will work to fix his mistakes and he will give the new world to a new life form that deserves it.

So in one sense the ending here in this notebook at this cabin is your ending. It will be made in your mind. The morning will come and you too will step out on that slope.

What end awaits you, new mutant sons and daughters of man? Will you be crushed under clouds of doom or will the voices call and bring you down to quicksand and to me . . .

--------

Doug closed the notebook and thought about Joe London. He'd been an admirable person, the hardiest of his kind and a prophet. Joe at least tried to warn the others. The leaders of the old world had few excuses when people like London had clearly told them what would happen. They were criminals, deserving of the death penalty they'd received.

Even London's son had lacked his father's wisdom in spite of genetic improvements used to raise his intelligence. Like old mankind, altered man and its mutants had failed. Again in human history arrogant fools herded assumed inferiors to death camps.

Madness of a different sort had taken Joe in the end - visions of creatures and the godlike Other. Now he lay at the bottom of the slope and at the bottom of the quicksand. Joe London remained as a symbol of the fate the masters of his kind had prepared for everyone.

In a way it could be seen as tragic and comic - humorous to a degree. The notebook left Doug with an odd smile on his face as he drifted off to sleep.

--------

Mutants rarely dreamed and Doug's night passed in an instant. Bright morning sunlight streamed in the window and his eyes were opening. Hunger ached in his belly so he pulled out a ration square and boiled some hot tea. 

Images from the notebook came to mind as he sipped the hot liquid. A quick report on it seemed in order so he got his handheld out and sent in a quick message on the find.

Half an hour later he received new instructions from 2WO. They wanted him to search the slope and forest to verify that London really had died. Samples and photos would also be in order.

“This is going to be great,” Doug thought as he walked to the door. “My find of London and the portion of ancient forest will establish my name worldwide.”

A wonderful breeze swept his face as he stepped out. Soft sunlight illumined the slope and the scene below glowed like a mirage. The ancient trees quivered gently, tall ferns rustled and clear blue water bubbled up in one of the melting pools. His eyes were drawn to dark patches and he supposed them to be the quicksand containing the remains of London.

Evaporating ice created areas of drifting mist at the edge of the forest. The effect seemed almost magical. Doug studied the glittering droplets, and then he spotted something more and halted. A ghostly image moved near the water - a man. Doug nearly gasped at the sight - had London fooled him? If so the notebook was an elaborate trick. The old survivalist's intention had been to put him off guard and ambush him.

Doug pulled a pistol from his side pack, and when he looked again he saw the image of London fading in and out like a strange holograph. It caused him to blink. Damned if he wasn't seeing a ghost - and it was beginning to shimmer as its face and arms opened to the sun.

Melting to mist, the glimmering phantom rose, and Doug's eyes followed it. He expected to see it fade into the pale northern sun, and it did. Only this sun had a huge solar storm at its center - the pupil of an eye looking back at him. 

Beyond the sun hostile clouds cloaked the horizon. They were rolling in like some dark scroll of the end. Fear charged him then his head began to whirl - another form of chaos and sunspots had blackened his thoughts.

Doug felt his legs giving way. He could hear Joe London whispering something strange . . . and as he fell, the voice of a child passed on a message he couldn't quite understand.  On his back he saw a shield of sun blaze. He knew it would end all human life on earth, but gently like a forest fire. Tomorrow the world would rise again and a new life form would rule it.

---- the end -----

RENEWAL

By Gary L Morton

Show Business

Gary Jones used his toes to propel himself to the other side of the barrier and as he opened the heavy fiber door a small pile of gray dust exploded and smoked across the signal grid. It faded, leaving an empty rooftop scene of metal dishes and generators. Warm spring wind swept over the railing and with collar and sleeves flapping he strolled to the edge.

Gripping the cold tubing he watched Cymbla electric cars the size of specks race by on the streets below. From this height the jumble of domes and skyscrapers looked like building-set pieces of glazed steel, plastics and glass -- endless depth and panorama that sucked one closer to edge and closer to jumping.

He doubted you could ever leap free of it. The white ships of cumulus cloud higher up were simply unreachable. Gravity meant he would fall, sail on the winds with the dust and faded candy wrappers, and eventually he would sweep back into the city and its cruel child's game of the all-seeing eyes, their rewards and punishment. All humans were flies caught in amber now. No one had wings and the thick substance moved slowly and not too far, making life more about its limitations than its possibilities.

Limitations -- Gary supposed he was attempting to escape them by coming out here on the roof. He needed a place where he could think. The all-seeing eyes and the thorny issues they created were part of the order of business on this dull Wednesday. An improved perspective would be an aid as he had a meeting scheduled with the city security chief, Dan Stone, in about an hour.

“From a corporate standpoint human beings are flesh, and flesh like all other commodities must be managed and controlled.” His old high school principal, John Long, had said that to justify the electric fever treatments given to students guilty of vandalism. Gary considered it, trying to conclude whether it was a rational proposition or just another mask for dehumanization. Then he heard a very faint whir on the wind and spun around. His eyes rose to a small rotunda above the door, and he automatically hit the image warp button on his wristband.

Now they had class-two observation beetles here on the rooftop. Studying the tiny eye, he thought of simply grabbing it and crushing it. Every day brought less freedom and privacy. No one cared and no one knew exactly what privacy meant any more. His old professor, Doctor Giorno had said, “Ah, but privacy is just a variable we can define in various societies to recreate them as peaceful and orderly.” And it was Giorno's definitions that ruled in the years of Renewal.

Blue electric sparks crawled on a transparent lockdown bubble below. He could see a public train gliding on a crowded platform. The scene looked serene, but he knew society hadn't been all that peaceful and orderly in the last few years. Freedom had been defined pretty much out of existence; it would be nearly impossible to bring it back. And in spite of all the security the promised Utopia had not arrived. Their promises of a new planet of justice had taken shape as a prison called Renewal, an industry paradise with profits in the zillions for security manufacturers.

Doctor Giorno had also said that people obey the carrot and stick, especially when the stick is a truncheon and various forms of brief, frightening and painful incarceration. Gary identified cameras, eye and iris scans and print DNA detectors with the truncheon and the new long blackjack. You were safer off camera than on it. Places like the Skyway paid half a fortune to hold a New Year's party on a surveillance-free street, just to avoid the show business killers.

“Privacy wasn't redefined, they stole it and packaged it as a commodity,” he thought, and then he bit his thick upper lip as he went back through the door to the elevator. A bitter taste remained on his tongue -- Dan Stone said he had some new answers to current problems. He hadn't been clear on what the answers might be. Stone always talked like an introductory sales brochure -- all gloss and no substance.

Dan Stone's City Guard Corporation had outlets and stations throughout the city. Some were eighty stories high, others were underground. Gary was scheduled to meet him at the Harrisch Surveillance Test Site, a place dedicated to the ancient founder of citywide fingerprinting and really known to only a few people. There wasn't an easy way to reach it -- perhaps Stone knew one. For Gary it meant a stroll through the business mall, down the high-rise canyon to an obscure doorway in a robot power building on the waterfront.

Tarnished ivy and hundreds of chirping birds clutched a massive brown stone Bank of the Earth structure; businesspeople with hair like molded plastic hurried down the shining marble mall walkways. Sunbeams left a gold sheen on western windows, and noticeable only to Gary was the odd crystalline flash of rapid-fire street cameras. He knew that in the business district they were high-level eye-scan beetles, identifying people by the shape of their eyes and brows. They also picked up the fabric in the blue suits most professionals wore. Since he wore casual clothes of a certain fabric they wouldn't see his form but could read his brows.

A token City Guard cop came around the corner; he had a perfectly smooth blue uniform and a big square jaw like Stone. He could’ve been drawn by a video game and it made Gary wonder what Dan Stone could be up to -- usually his demonstrations were of new security equipment and as the chief city inspector and technical expert in security areas, Gary would be stuck explaining it all to the mayor.

Maple leaves rustled in the man-made breeze, he twitched his freckled nose and his lips formed a sour curl as he thought about the mayor. Good old mayor John Henson, the travel industry salesman turned politician, and a big fancier of high tech security toys. Henson had sold thousands on thousands of surveillance-free vacation hours, so at least he had some grasp of the equipment. Gary always opposed buying the new stuff but the eager-to-please mayor always bought it anyway. And that would likely be the case today. On some issues Gary did have the power to block City Guard and Stone, but not presently because he had his upcoming marriage to consider. His bride to be, Linda didn't have access to his level of society. He had to be careful -- if he screwed things up and got nailed for security violations he could lose her in a legal tangle.

Deciding it might be better to warn Linda about the new situation, he turned down Baker Street, stopped beside a music store and thought out the quickest route to her. The city had grown to be a huge fractal starfish of more than 3000 residential lockdown domes that were connected by public access streets. Gary avoided the domes and usually traveled in paths that kept him with the general public. His dislike of the domes had to do with access; he'd read that a long time ago they used to deny people access in society because of the color of their skin. In a way it was funny how that form of denial had been replaced by the security screenings. If you were plain general public, you didn't get into the domes.

Gary hated the idea of access and higher citizenship. He disliked a lot of things no one else considered. His ideas on security were much different and he couldn't present them because they were too radical. Momentarily angered he spat at a sewer grate, drawing startled glances from a clutch of neatly dressed women standing in the light of a news ticker box.

The Gold Corridor ended at the new waterfront neighbourhoods; an area now listed as general public access but also residential in the form of huge condo towers. Meaning blocks mostly high in the sky. People swarmed up from the subway, streaming into enormous blue security bubbles. Gary followed a line through, emerged on a public street and immediately got jostled by a man with an eye patch and sour breath. As he stumbled sideways a step, a wrinkled hag in a wheelchair bumped him and began to curse. Regaining his balance he grinned and pushed ahead, happy to be among the people and away from the sterile crowds of the restricted domes.

Linda would be somewhere on this block but he could see nothing in the bright sun so he crossed to the shaded side of the public mall. Greenery and shadows dripped. He walked slowly, sometimes shielding his eyes as he looked for her red snack cart. When he found it he fought his way through the patchwork crowd.

Linda looked busy but cute in spite of the frustration; she had a few orders sizzling and a lineup of customers. Brushing her blond locks back she said “Number seven is up,” and smiled generously as she served a black lady dressed in the mismatched fashions of an American tourist.

Her eyes found his as she turned the next order and she winked as he gave her a glance that said cut loose for a moment. A jet roared high above and his gaze was drawn up the 70-storey canyon. He missed the plane and saw only mist trails, blue sky, an observation blimp and faint jewel-like scintillation on the UV filtration bubble. He studied the blimp for a moment, thinking about his relationship with Linda. Her nature could only be described as carefree and reckless; she'd intentionally wandered into prohibited areas during a Station failure on the waterfront and approached him while he was inspecting some of the damaged equipment sent in from the Scarsdale Dome. She’d had the nerve to ask him to cover for her -- which he did, taking her by the hand and with him during the inspection. Then she’d sat near him as he worked, giggling and often mocking the sheep-like crowd. And they were sheep, unable to do anything but stand around and gape. They needed someone to push their buttons. Linda didn't need that -- she made him forget every woman he'd ever known - she giggled and teased and he wanted her.

When he lowered his gaze Linda had her closed sign on the cart. She waved the crowd away and a moment later held a spicy and steaming lunch takeout under his nose. Taking it he set it down, and then he leaned over and kissed her.

Linda's smile was elfin - romantic. Her hazel eyes glittered. “Your place tonight?” she said.

More than anything he wanted to say yes, but that wasn't possible. “No, I'm involved in a new security deal with Dan Stone. We can't take chances right now.” Kissing her again he took her slightly off her feet, and as he released her a few people applauded.

“Why don't you do it here for the dick heads?” an old lady cackled as she pointed over her shoulder to silver security ridges in the far wall. “That's what they really want to see.”

Gary laughed and elbowed Linda. She got the message and packed her surrogate cash quickly. Then they strolled down the street to a public fountain. Golden water tumbled behind them; a carousel turned in front of a specialty arcade directly across the street.

“You're seeing someone else,” she said.

“Don't be silly. You know I wouldn't. It's because of Stone. They might be running some kind of special check on people involved in this new security thing. It's better to play it safe now, and then once we're married you'll have full citizen access to the domes and there'll be no more worries.”

“I thought you could get around all the checks? I mean, they can't really watch everyone can they?”

“They can -- the surveillance cameras use biometrics in the form of eye scans to ID you. If they want to run a police check super-fast processors burn a City Guard videodisc, piecing together all observation of you through various devices. They even have other tricks -- like checking for dates with missing segments to tell if you've been cheating surveillance.”

“Stone --- that guy gives me the creeps. He looks like a pasty vampire with a machine for a master. His new security plan is probably to apply the access laws to restrict marriages.”

“He would favour that idea but the politicians would never buy it. The Security Corpocracy only gets 90 percent of what it wants. The elite like to believe that Toronto is a democracy, so the government and judiciary always grant some basics rights to citizens. Full rights are now unattainable of course, though you can buy more rights -- like all other things that were formerly in the public domain, they're now commodities that can be purchased. The corporations have really built themselves in as the highest level of government -- though they never tell you that. So what I'm really saying is Stone and his corporate masters are more powerful than the mayor or the law, but they're not all-powerful. And they can’t see everything or watch all of the people all of the time.”

“The part that bothers me most is that they don't even seem human anymore. I mean Stone and politicians. Their only relationship with people is through security and technology. Even in the news all they talk about is big projects, business and technical developments. No human element at all.”

“You're very observant. I thought I was one of the few people noticing that. I thought it over, too. I think that when you can't point to real human achievement in society, then you have to point to objects and external things. It means they're hollow inside. The spirit is lacking if not dead. It is not all for one and one for all anymore. And it's not humans for humans any more, but only frightened corporations protecting themselves.”

“Maybe that's why we have the crazies now -- like the show business killers. People are hollow and they go mad.”

“It's a thought. It could also be what Stone is working on. His new security measures might have to do with catching the show business killers. There's a new conspiracy theory making the rounds. Some people think City Guard sends them out to kill people and that bugs Stone so much he might actually do something to stop the killings.”

“He should. I mean, I think maybe they send the killers, too. They're an outfit that always wants to catch and jail people for the smallest things. But murder is something they do nothing about.”

“Ah, but the hitch there is one where the people aren't informed. They profit by taking public tax money to imprison people on small infractions and using them as slave labour. Murder investigations aren't profitable and that's why they do nothing.”

“I see - I mean I see that it stinks.”

“It really does.”

Gary kissed Linda goodbye at the expressway memorial and barrier. Her rosy cheeks seeming to fade as he promised better days. He ended their rendezvous with talk of the wedding and arrangements and that worked to cheer her up. Eyes brightening, she kept loose arms about his neck and chattered about all the things to be done. All too soon they parted and he went through the narrow gate to a city government area.

City trucks and cars whizzed quietly by on the back street. Crossing he walked directly under the supports and huge arched span of the expressway. Tall weeds, discarded bottles and trash gave company to a few roaming derelicts that littered the next quarter kilometer. At Lakeshore Road he turned left. Haze clouded the waterfront skyline; it resembled a child's cluttered sketch. He headed for it, watching the lines sharpen until the power station came into view. Iris scanners let him through three layers of high electric fencing then he used the coder in his wristband to pass through a metal door in the concrete generator block. From there the elevator took him down to the test station.

Dan Stone waited at the bottom like a piranha waits at the bottom of a dark pool. His close focused brows, sharp eyes and the red-tinted lights highlighted that aspect. Stone was a man possessed by aspirations that molded his gaunt frame into a near apparition. He looked driven, but in the way a heroin addict looks driven to serve a power that is devouring him.

They shook hands. Stone grinned, the same funny grin he always had. Something wrong with it like maybe his gums were swollen. Mostly it was an effect of his overly large jaw.

“Don't see any guards or personnel. What's up?”

“Just you and I for this presentation. This block has been secured. Today's matter is of a high security nature.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“A lot of interesting stuff. But a headache, too. Follow me.”

Plated halls gleamed; the floors were slick with the colors of the spotlights. Stone paced ahead confidently, doors whooshing open as he walked. It was like moving through a space ship. In about three minutes they arrived at an office and room he'd set up for his demonstrations.

Stone poured a couple chocolate coffees, and they sat in leather chairs in front of a bank of security and display equipment. “I have a new security proposal for the Mayor,” he said.

Gary took the thick City Guard folder and gave Stone a practiced look. A look he knew Stone would see as both skeptical and considerate. “In a simple sentence. What is it about?”

“Knew you would say that. Simply put we want to add some new security features to block the show business killers, and we feel we have a political answer to that problem. One the mayor can present to the public.”

“Are you saying you know their motive -- know why they kill?”

“Yes. I think so. Here is a backgrounder on one of the killers,” he said, pulling out a City Guard videodisc. “Let's take a look at it.”

Gary sat back as the display lit up, then some basic facts on the criminal, as written by Stone, scrolled by on the marquee. Stone introduced a segment. Initially Gary found it irritating to be sitting beside Stone and at the same time have to watch him outline a few facts on the screen. As it turned out, one of the latest show biz killers had been a community activist and perennial candidate for political office. Stone wanted to play up this fact, but it didn't seem to add up when Gary factored in that the killers came from all sorts of random backgrounds.

It was the sort of boring security backgrounder that made Gary wish he could put a gun to his own head and end it all. Yet from the corner of his eye he could see Stone watching it with great interest. Up until his psychotic episode, the subject's entire life had been a dull home movie. Even the secretly filmed meetings of his freedom cell were dull. A wimp, he was pushed in everything by his wife. It didn't look like he could even conceive of violence or crime, so from that perspective it wasn't unusual that he was an activist who thought surveillance unnecessary. In one segment Stone appeared on the screen to point out that the subject pushed an illegal theory called the Broken Doors Theory on Privacy. Seeing this as an out, Gary signaled Stone to cut the surveillance disc.

The screen blanked out. “This theory the guy pushed. What is it? Why do you consider it so dangerous?”

“Good question. It is a key point here. A crazy professor named Jack Watson came up with the theory fifty years ago. A paroled convict shot him a few years later. Others promoted the theory. Under this theory, the city is viewed as the serene home of citizen privacy. The moment a camera, device or police system invades the citizen's privacy and personal dignity -- or restricts his free movement in his own house or neighbourhood -- at that moment a door has been broken. Privacy has been lost and the poison gas of the totalitarian ovens is seeping in. The wolf is breaking into the house. If any broken doors or illicit surveillance are tolerated, the house of the public will be destroyed.”

“I see. So as Toronto's top rep of City Guard, you're insuring that the trillion dollar world surveillance industry doesn't suffer losses because of privacy theories and activists.”

“It might look that way. But remember that as Toronto head of City Guard I am also the chief of police and an honorary deputy mayor. I'm a law abiding American and proud to also be a Canadian citizen. When I see people promoting the idea of a surveillance-free world, I know they're people who want to break the law and get away with it. These people name themselves as criminals. They're not only mentally corrupt, they're insane. This particular man infected his mind with the Broken Door Theory and it led to total insanity and murder. My submission to the mayor is that these sorts of ideas are the motive behind all of these killers. That's why no amount of surveillance has been able to give us common factors or early signs. The signs are thoughts that can't be seen.”

Gary frowned. “I don't think Mayor Henson will buy that. If the killings are caused by factors we can't trace we can't stop them. And the mayor is also a spokesman for the travel industry. People have to at least think it's better to have some time free of surveillance or they won't purchase expensive vacations. You have to give Henson some solid meat to bite on.”

“Unfortunately we can't stop them altogether, and we can't forbid people thinking certain thoughts. City Guard is working on new technology to bring this situation under control. We can control the killers and eliminate the activists. And also warn people on what thoughts are dangerous.”

“Do you have more details on this new program?”

“Yes and we will forward all details to you and the mayor as soon as he expresses interest. Right now I want to show the second part of the backgrounder on this dangerous activist. The actual killing spree.”

Stone grimaced like a pussy-whipped desk sergeant readying himself for combat. He adjusted the screen color depth and curvature as if it were a feature production about to play. No credits appeared, just a brilliant fade-in of a sunny morning and the subject - Jack Cresso - walking down a spiral staircase in his teddy-bear-patterned bathrobe. His wife, a shapely and mercenary sort of brunette was at the front porch lockup, about to leave for work. Jack kissed her dearly and whispered some inaudible promises in her ear. Then she was gone with happy heels clicking and he immediately threw off his robe and undergarments and walked to the sunny kitchen. A steaming cereal breakfast awaited him; he grabbed the plate and dumped it in the trash eater, poured his coffee in a large clean ashtray then pulled out a drawer of kitchen utensils and carried it upstairs to the bedroom.

Jack marched down the hall to a storage closet, his bare feet hitting the floor tiles so forcefully his penis bounced up and down. Sports items and clothing flew through the air as he emptied the closet. When nearly everything was out he whistled a silly kids-show tune as he rummaged through the stuff. Choosing a stack of gear, hunting knives and a gun he went back to the bedroom. He heaped it all on the waterbed with the kitchen utensils and then went to the bathroom and wheeled his toiletry stand and a full-length mirror down to the foot of the bed.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed he adjusted the mirror so he could watch himself. Picking up the gun he studied the chamber, his eyes rolling slightly like demented thoughts were racing in his mind. Gary could see the weapon clearly in close-up. One of the old ribbon lasers with the embossed star pattern on the wide barrel. They were illegal now and considered inhumane as the inefficient charge caused the victim extreme burn pain. He figured Jack Cresso must have forgotten to turn his in years ago.

Finished ogling the gun, Jack took a large canvass needle, positioned it and then drove it through the base of his erect penis. Some blood oozed, he'd missed the large vein and his erection remained as he slowly drew it out. No pain showed on his face as he forced a large gold ring into place in the wound, but his erection did weaken and drop as he finished the operation.

Looking in the mirror, Jack smiled joyously -- full lips and his wide oval face and eyes taking on a moonstruck look. Next order of business was to shave his eyebrows with a straight razor and replace them with stripes of grease paint. He also made incisions beneath his eyes and stopped the bleeding by rubbing in more dark blue grease. His ears were of no use to him; he simply cut them out and burned the bleeding to scar tissue with a low range pulses from the laser.

Burn pain didn't faze him. Blood was oozing on his penis so to fix the problem he applied heavy grease. Then he began to dress, putting on a military camouflage T-shirt, pants, flak jacket, kneepads, combat boots, wrist guards and a heavy belt with clips to hold weapons and other articles. He chose the gun, a hunting knife, the needle and some empty cans for the belt.

At that point he studied his hideous image in the mirror, grinned and popped off the bed. After boldly walking to the front door he decided not to exit that way and went to the kitchen and opened the storage elevator. Robot cleaning equipment stood in his way. He removed it and managed to get inside in a squat position. Reaching out for the button he sent the elevator down to the sub-basement.

There wasn't any camera feed on the elevator ride. The next clip showed him popping out in the dim basement behind a human maintenance worker, and as the guy spun around to look he grabbed him forcefully and strangled him on the spot. Jack exhibited great strength, holding the guy off the floor while he struggled. Due to the man's strong neck this murder lasted nearly two horrendous minutes.

The body dropped and lay crumpled on the floor. A look of sudden desperation appeared on Jack's face, though no one else was around. He jumped and ran for the door as if he were being pursued.

It was an empty hall. Jack raced past service rooms and burst through large swing doors, entering a huge concrete bay of garbage bins. An exiting truck rattled, heading slowly up the concrete ramp to an open arch and the outside world. Jack took off after it, pounding across the cement like a mad soldier tailing an enemy tank.

He caught it as it turned the corner, jumped to the passenger side running board, opened the door and went inside. The truck swerved as the driver saw the mad passenger and released the wheel. Jack burned his face off with the laser before he even got a chance to scream.

The truck rolled on, crushing news kiosks and conferencing booths. The body flew out the door and landed face up on the empty steps of a theatre. Skull bits protruded on flesh that still smoked, sizzled and bubbled with blood.

Jack gained control of the vehicle and sped up, heading for the busier morning rush hour streets. With the grease on his face, he looked like a crazed garbage man. He ripped around the corner at New Kensington and mounted the busy sidewalk. Screaming and cries of warning and agony echoed as the renegade truck barreled on, flattening a few people too slow to jump aside.

Mangled bodies thumped and tumbled as Jack traveled a block. He turned back onto the road and managed to crush and back over two City Guard cops as they tried to board the vehicle. He looked nearly invincible, but then he sped up again, lost control and hit a huge piece of metal street art head on. The truck fenders clanged as they bent, Jack got mashed against the wheel. The front tires remained spinning; the truck had climbed the side of the huge piece of phallic art, creating a new and crumpled work.

A crowd began to gather then the truck door flew open and Jack fell to the sidewalk. People began to flee as he got to his knees. And a moment later he was up and running, heading for the lockdown gates and the lower security public squares.

Several people got in his way and got stabbed and dumped aside. He threw an angry man through a plate glass window, blood trails shooting from a dagger planted in his throat. Then the final phase began in the public square.

Gary knew what was coming and covered his eyes for much of this part. All show biz killers headed for the general public because of the increased exposure. Surveillance video tickers of these areas were eligible for mass media publication.

Taking his eyes off the screen, Gary glanced at Stone and noted that he was nearly hypnotized. On camera Jack Cresso was on a killing spree with the laser. Falling to one knee he strafed the hot beam up, getting a crowd of unsuspecting businessmen emerging from a bank restaurant. Red liquid flew as a stomach ballooned and burst. Ribbons of flame cut flesh. He saw a man's head fall off and roll as he reached up instinctively for his burned neck. A really big guy was on his knees, his jaw and mouth gone, a horrible mass of tissue oozing.

Torn flesh smoked and exploded to spores, the massacre continued -- until Gary finally turned to Stone and said. “Look, Dan -- I know it doesn't end until he makes a few more bows to the cameras and City Guard somehow manages to kill him.”

Stone cleared his throat indignantly and hit the panel, blurring the screen. “I have a reason for wanting you to see it all. People have to understand what they are dealing with in order to decide on the measures needed to punish these criminals.” Sliding out the shutters, he turned in his chair, a look of calculated disgust on his face. “The poor sick bastards. Wouldn't it be nice if we could execute them before they kill?”

Gary wiped his brow and shivered in the heat. “Yes.”

Stone grinned. “And that is exactly what City Guard proposes to do. We plan to have some of the public areas set up with automatic extermination equipment. As soon as the mayor gives the okay and we get a report of a show business episode, we can set the tracking program for execution. A second thing to make the killers less glamorous will be to allow the media to show the act of execution and not the entire killing spree. It can be sold to the people through a public relations campaign that will include commercials and pamphlets warning of the dangers of improper thoughts.”

-------------

Power Play

A magnetic train blurred red as it raced through the transit station behind him. Gary stood in the rushing breeze at the edge of Madison Square, his thick blond hair snapping like a flag as he faced the beautiful day. Vapour clouds from the auto-express rings had condensed to gold ribbing and feather trails high in the flinty blue sky. Ships of cumulus cloud hung in the haze beyond the jumble of skyscrapers to the south. The warm air carried the fragrances of nature and of commerce, mixing them well in his nostrils … fast food and popcorn -- drifting odors from vendors displaying their suppertime goods, and a blend of perfumes from the garden and greenery dripping above the strolling crowd.

People milled impatiently on the mall strip, most of them making last minute purchases for evening food and entertainment. Some of them were familiar faces. Al Thorton, his old buddy from the Southern Station stood by a bar on a Tall-Cheers patio. He took a step toward him then stopped and popped an All-aid to cool his growling stomach. The heavy report felt like a lead weight in his bag, but electronic versions weren’t allowed. He needed to do some private thinking and to digest it a little longer. Cutting left down the steps he walked along the lip of a police monument and hopped off at a circle of public benches created from stacked slabs of marble. Most seats were empty; a few people were eating pizza as they watched sports promos flash on a CityWide TV media billboard placed on a huge vine laden wall fragment. The seats nearest him were vacant. He seemed to be in the clear so he pulled out the report and began to leaf through the pages.

Wind swept his face and ruffled the manila sheets. A deep frown creased his brow as he noticed that Stone had signed a work order on the test equipment a month ago. The new stuff was now installed and functional in a few unspecified locations. If a killer were to go on a rampage in one of those test areas, the guard weapons could actually execute him and possibly kill members of the public in the process.

He bit his lip and stared at disposable candy wrappers and pop cans slowly vaporizing at his feet. The flash of a uniform grabbed his attention. He looked up to see a City Guard officer approaching the benches. Closing the report he put it away, then he watched as the guard questioned some people. A wrinkled black man took a poster of a transient vandal from the cop and stared at it before passing it to the others. Gary grinned uncomfortably as he waited for the guard to move in his direction. If the guard took him for a suspect of some sort he'd be strip searched on the spot, his pens and markers taken from his bag to be used as evidence of vandalism. Pulling rank wasn't desirable but it would have to be done. Stone would go through the roof if an underling were to seize his report.

The guard had the perfectly chiseled face and neo steroid musculature of a manikin; he flashed the poster and then pursed his lips as Gary nodded no. He didn't appear to be suspicious, but he did sit at a nearby bench and watch the passing crowd. Gary did the same, from time to time checking the guard from the corner of his eye; relieved to see that he seemed to be preoccupied with adjusting his side arm and watching leggy women.

Metallic credit cards flashed at the kiosks, combining with the glitter of finger print pads and iris camera puffs. The light sharpened to guillotines in his mind. In deeper thoughts he pictured the whole world as a security knife-edge that could cut anyone down - should they make a misstep.

Gary's thoughts continued to drift randomly; the fragrance of lilac blooms from the wall to his rear swept him to his past in the small city of Trent Falls Ontario. In his youth he'd witnessed an open-air execution. Not the sort of thing done by automatic equipment that Stone favoured. They didn't do anything like that in the early days when the City Guard Corporation had first taken over as private police worldwide. That day he'd been skipping school to swim at the canal and ended up watching from the sumacs as guards drowned an old man. The killing and the beating had been ugly. He saw the guards smash the man's genitals and face with clubs, but as a deterrent to delinquency it didn't work. He kept on skipping school, got into drugs and vandalism. Authorities said he was destined to become a young habitual and slave to the international prison system -- and the prophecy began to play itself out, then a forced intelligence test at the new Toronto boot-camp revealed him to be of genius IQ and his life changed. Officials pulled him from reform school and sent him to the best private schools. Political science and security equipment studies were his majors. He worked and watched with dismay as the gods of the profession swallowed his friends. Jamey, Tom, Hamid - compassion and the freethinking nature of youth got replaced by careerism and materialism. In the end he couldn't stand to look at them; they were like mighty trees gone hollow at the core. He knew that a society that emptied human beings could only be a society gone wrong, yet he couldn't see any way of changing it. A complex world is a collective effort. Change comes first as inspiration and spreads in the minds of many people. And change is impossible when inspiration is prohibited. It left him stuck playing a game and not living his life to the fullest. Too many people had become chess pieces on a world board; they had not advanced as human beings. In Renewal World the brightest were taken away; from the horrors of life at the bottom and away from the real world.

Shouting and a woman's hysterical screams ended his musing. He turned, wondering what was happening. His view got blocked momentarily as the City Guard jumped to his feet and ran to the scene. The commotion was a short ways off at a row of book, food and music kiosks. Two men had fallen on a strip of grass and another man was staggering, holding his throat.

A brilliant flash of silver light passed high in the sky and more silver lit in Gary's mind as he realized a few things at once. Dan Stone's report named odorless gas as one of the new quick methods for exterminating show biz killers. If people were getting gassed now it meant Stone's test equipment had malfunctioned. And the malfunction was triggering the rest of the surveillance lockdown system for this square. The silver flash meant satellite and surveillance discs were now calculating a grid pattern for Madison Square. In a few seconds the energy walls would be up. The place would be split into fifty large energy cells that would block the passage of humans and objects but not of atmosphere. Meaning the gas would likely drift and kill everyone.

Chief Stone's new system had really gone wacko. The gas was supposed to jet quickly on a show biz killer as he passed and there wasn't a killer on the loose. Energy walls and the lockdown system were for extreme emergencies and almost never used because of the high power drain. Stone's new equipment was definitely not supposed to trigger them.

Gary knew he couldn't possibly save the people in the square. He had to escape, get to one of the city monitoring stations and work on disabling Stone's modifications. Leaping up the benches he made it to the wall fragment holding the media screen and stepped up its jagged side. From there he jumped for the main surrounding wall and managed to grab a handful of vines. He scrambled for footing, caught a crack and then climbed to the top, finding the platform to be about four feet wide. He tried a dive to the other side and another public area, but he didn't make it. The rising force shield slammed him, knocking him back. Tumbling to the edge, he seized a tree branch and vines.

The gas moved in a wave of distortion below, people doubled over and moaned -- blood bubbles rising to their lips as they went down. Running toward the transit station he came to a gap in the force wall. The open space allowed him to climb over on the station roof. Fortunately the bubble wasn't nearly as smooth as it looked. His feet found purchase on the grainy surface; he got over the top, scaled partway down and then dropped. Earth and wood chips flew as he landed in a soft flowerbed. Turning he looked around, seeing an area of specialized lockdown. The grounds before him were an elaborate sort of park -- chip trails, fountains, trimmed grass and bushes, spaced willows and maples. A large edifice rose beyond the maples. Wind-rocked boughs tossed sunbeams and shadows on recessed windows. Glassed-off areas glittered like gems. It had to be some sort of government complex.

He dusted his trousers then began to jog across the grounds, hoping he would be able to get assistance quickly. A green security post stood at the back and Gary was delighted to find it manned by two guards. They saw him coming and emerged from the side door, a big swarthy chap with muscles bursting from his shirt stepping into the lead.

Gary halted, looking into the guard's dark-ringed eyes. “There's been a disaster,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “In Madison Square -- I have to contact some people at the city monitoring department.”

The big guy grinned evilly and swung in to seize him. The second guard grabbed his other arm. Neither of the guards said a word, they just grunted as they forced him along. Stumbling forward at the post, Gary caught a glimpse of a bronze plaque. Madison Institute was embossed in it. He was on his way into an asylum.

Fever and dizziness swept him; he collapsed to his knees. The guards forced him up as the gates began to open outward. He waited until there was just enough space for one person to squeeze through, and then he lunged, pulling the guards with him. They hit the iron rails hard and the big guard crumpled from a bang to the head. The smaller guard went to his knees and groaned. Gary turned and punched him in the nose with his free left hand. Blood spurted; he kicked him over then went down and pulled his ID card -- ducking back into the security post he used the card to unlock the weapons case. Three guns were inside; ignoring the side arms he pulled out the ribbon laser. A check showed it to be the latest model, extremely powerful and not available on the commercial market.

Gun in hand, Gary turned and fled south, headed for the wall. Shadows and wind rushed, he got to the stone post and used bushes and a circuit pipe to get over the top. Looking down he saw a security bubble and a walkway to one of the lockdown domes. A young couple strolled to the barrier. As soon as they were gone he dropped down. Squinting against the sunlight and Plexiglas reflections, he thought over options and prepared to move. The better idea would be to simply go it alone, get into the dome and gain fast city access -- an emergency system he could use to get across town to the monitoring station.

Ferns shifted in the breeze, an image of thousands of cameras zooming in on him flashed in his mind, then his nerves settled as he walked through the arch into a peaceful public area. A huge daycare playground was to his right and a flashy commercial strip and arcade were directly ahead on a higher level. Fast city transit was always near government offices and City Guard stations. And that would mean taking one of the elevators to his left to the top.

Hurrying as much as he could without looking desperate, he passed lockers and washrooms in the side concourse. Banks of elevators gleamed just beyond a financial service waiting area. He stepped left to avoid the crowd, and had almost reached the elevators when pandemonium broke out on the level above.

Several people were hollering and he could hear toy-like bursts from a cheap automatic weapon. A crush developed then a wounded man fell over the railing and bounced horribly into people walking below. A second blood-soaked man tumbled down the escalator. Gary had to look twice to believe the situation. A show business killer was on a rampage in the arcade area. More bullets and blood showered through some palms, and then a big man appeared by a fern, his automatic weapon strafing a crowd fleeing through the aisles.

Bodies flew over exploding g6cell-powered arcade machines. Blue smoke rose from fried plastics, then the killer rushed out, leapt over an aluminum railing and landed on the escalator. He fired deadly bursts into the banking crowd as he came down slowly. This crazed killer also fired with his other hand and bullets licked past Gary, ripping up a post and causing him to duck behind a marble pillar.

He peaked out, seeing the show biz killer run back up the escalator and along the railing. A big jump and the mad man landed on the roof of a descending open-air elevator. From there he strafed the crowd as the elevator went to ground … then he hopped down and turned and fired as the doors slid open.

Flesh boiled as a spray of hot expanding metal filaments hammered the enclosed area -- it was a massacre and it was the elevator Gary would've taken. He shuddered and gripped his stolen ribbon laser as the show biz killer turned and headed in his direction. A glimpse of the killer's grease-painted face spooked him. He ducked back behind the pillar, his fingers trembling as his prints unlocked the higher settings, allowing him to switch the laser gun to maximum impact.

His breath seemed to freeze as he waited, like he'd suddenly become a creature with cold blood. Two fleeing businessmen passed, stumbled and fell, and got ripped apart like rag dolls in a hail of gunfire. The cruel gun rattle seemed nearly next to his ear, and he couldn't wait any longer so he simply stepped out, spotted the rushing target and fired.

The laser flash lit the air with a yellow aura as a brilliant ribbon of red light twisted from the wide barrel. It popped Gary's ears and burned the air between him and the killer instantly, sending the corkscrew of energy straight into the murderer’s chest. The impact could have knocked down a wall. It turned his ribs into a spiral of flaming flesh and blood steam and pounded him straight to the hard floor. He slid, smearing the tiles, and came to rest by the elevator.

The show biz killer was burned and cooked to candied meat -- as dead as he could possibly be. And the area kept emptying as the people had seen Gary's laser and were now running from him.

He stepped up to the show biz killer's body and looked down. The face had melted. Something wasn't right. Crouching he touched the man's hair with the barrel of his gun. It smoked and fell aside. Tapping the forehead with the butt of his gun he eased it back.

The whole thing peeled off and shrank. A facial mask -- the guy hadn't been a genuine show business killer at all. The face was still too burned to be recognizable. Going to the man's pockets he found his wallet and took it out. The ID bank named him as Hazellel J. Bonner, a City Guard cop.

Paling and gulping, Gary rose and backed away. Then he ducked back behind the pillar and tried to think. The lockdown, gas and the phony killer hadn't been an accident. Dan Stone had targeted him. A sinking feeling of dizziness fell from his head to his solar plexus. This action could only be a takeover bid by the City Guard Corporation. Once he was out of the way the mayor would be caught off guard. Toronto would be the twentieth city completely gobbled up by City Guard.

After he died Stone would name him as the cause of the chaos. The people would object to government by City Guard and so would the federal government. That is they would object but no one would really fight back effectively against City Guard's roster of law firms, and the takeover would succeed. National governments being too addicted to the rising financial markets that kicked in after private sector police takeovers of city governments. Unless he personally stopped the whole deal it would go through on local, national and world levels.

City Fast Transit was now out of the question as was every other place Dan Stone might have tapped. He turned and ran for the parking lot, an idea flashing in his mind. Gary never drove -- didn't believe in billing the taxpayer for expensive vehicles. And that meant Dan Stone would not expect him to drive anywhere.

An eye camera picked him up and the door opened as he ran. Electric cars filled the dusty front bay. He needed a faster hydrogen model and that meant grabbing the elevator to one of the higher levels.

Popping out on the fourth he looked around at the cars. Damn new hydrogen cars looked more like saucers with wings. A blue Chevy racer with stars embedded in the fiber body caught his eye. Using the laser on a low setting he fried the lock magnet and got in -- odors of the new plush interior rising in his nostrils as the engine auto started. As he pulled out he ground his teeth, expecting an alarm -- then he realized that he was probably the first person to steal a car in more than twenty years.

The launch computer was set for the downtown freeway ring. He didn't change it; he just sat back, the sensation almost like G-force as he shot up the ramp through sun dazzles and low vapor drifts.

Automatic tolls in the ring meant no delay; he set the dial for cruise 200 as he slipped into the stream of traffic. His car raced down the sun tunnel and after about a five-minute blast he glanced below. It was too much of a blur. A check of the dash map showed him nearly directly above the coordinates marking the monitoring station.

Satisfied, he sat back, and then the vehicle began to slow down. Gary punched the forward imager to see what could be happening. It panned a toll area looming ahead and revealed a couple City Guard cars and some uniformed officers and robo deputies stopping vehicles.

Hitting the quick brake he guided the racer to curbside. He jumped to the artificial turf and crossed the shallow gully to the transparent barrier.

Gripping the laser with both hands he let it hum at a midrange setting. The slowly widening beam created bubbling and distortion on the barrier shield. Warp force increased until the area of shield popped out like a soap bubble. It broke and the kickback prevented the rush of air from sucking him over. When it eased he walked to the edge.

Swinging over he caught a hybrid steel cable and moved slowly down in the wind. The cable was fixed in an unbreakable pylon and from it he went down a ladder to the pseudo concrete and steel base. Chunks of false concrete, boulders and earth were heaped on a huge mound below. He made his way down through thick weeds and dry mud. Yelling echoed above but he could see nothing. A large rusted sign at the intersection said Playground of the SuperCity, but the name of the development was unreadable. Blocks of smashed high-rise buildings stretched ahead. He knew this was part of the city area destroyed after the lake bottom explosion 20 years ago. The car map had it listed as vacant property beside the City Monitoring Station.

Broken ledges and cables swung dangerously from tilted buildings. Huge cracks split walls and the roadway. Faint odors of a dead town reached down into his lungs like the tiniest of foul ghostly fingers. The centre of the street had collapsed into the sewer in places and dark plastic liquid bubbled and oozed in puddles. Wind swept through the alleys and over the tarnished wrecks, kiosks and bins. It creaked and spoke in its own tongue in the gusts shaking the ravaged buildings.

In spite of the abandoned airs his approach was cautious. The sun above seemed fierce and from an older time -- ghosts and spots kept appearing in the corner of his eye and in windows. Wherever he looked shadows webbed the melting glass of yesterday's city, like a dusting of death remaining on blurred gravestones.

He took his City Guard enabled palm organizer from his bag, disabled the tracking feature and pinpointed the monitoring station. Turning in the described direction, he found it blocked by a huge bank edifice. One that had held up quite well through past disasters -- cracked with front steps torn by rising earth, but structurally sound at the foundation.

A narrow side street to the left was the only way around it. He walked toward it then heard a faint growl and halted. His eyes darted to the open front doors of the bank, but he saw nothing but bright sunlight and shadowy darkness. His next step drew a howl -- a sleek mass broke free. Black, huge and powerful -- a drooling City Guard dog bounded over the broken steps.

Gary knew the creature had mutant genes, its job being to devour derelicts and criminals who strayed into this dead-end area. He could not win a struggle with it. Crouching he set the laser for mass block, and maximum heat, then he fired. The dog was ten feet away and leaping -- air distortion from the beam shimmered in a ring then recoil knocked him back on his butt. He saw the dog fly up, turn furnace red and explode in a wave of boiling liquid. Flesh and bone became charcoal in the air -- a loud hiss from vaporizing fluids was followed by a mournful wail of the wind and a falling piece of fireproof circuit board that had been the creature's brain.

Gary hurried down the side street, glancing up at the dangerous overhangs darkening the glare. At the back of the bank he found heaps of rubble and the huge security wall that separated the vacant lot from the monitoring station.

Again customizing the laser settings he gave the barrier a shock blast and watched as toughened concrete crumbled. Dust cleared revealing steel plating; above on the wall blue sparks flew from energy rails.

Going over wasn't possible so he set the laser to burn through … a risky proposition when Stone's City Guard goons were probably already there to block his arrival and he didn't know where he would emerge in the station.

Blue heat streamed from the laser and the metal began to redden as it softened. An unexpected reaction followed as the entire section of plate spooned inward. It shattered with a thundering boom. A mass of concrete crashed behind him and dust choked him as he dived through the red-hot opening. Hot metal seared his arm in one small patch near the elbow. Gary rolled from it and scrambled up ducking sparks from a snaking cable.

Glancing ahead at a tunnel of cables and metal rings he knew he had cut through into a service and repair duct. Great luck, as Stone's men would not know how to navigate the system. A check on the burned cables showed them to be relatively unimportant runners from a southern station. Damage to the system was minimal.

Moving quietly down the duct to an air vent, he peeked out into control room three. Two City Guards were at the computer banks, an alarm was flashing red and they were panning the halls with detectors of all sorts as they searched for the intruder.

Control room two had a service door, so he headed back up the tunnel. Surveillance wasn't a problem as there wasn't any in the service tunnel. In this case the cameras acted as a good decoy, keeping them at the screens while he moved. He knew Dan Stone likely wouldn't be inside. There was a reason for it as he couldn't access the higher security levels of the government system. Hacking into it wasn't possible, only the head city inspector could gain access and Gary held that position … which is why Stone wanted him dead; until such a time as he could break in or get access from the mayor.

Slats of light from a vent showed before the door. He peeked, finding the situation the same as in control room three -- two guards at the security screens. A quick calculation on how to achieve the task at hand buzzed in his head. It meant that the guards in the monitoring station had to die and eventually Dan Stone would also have to die.

At the door he took a long slow breath, and then he swung it open, targeted the guards and took them down with a wide stun pulse. A couple screens melted in the blast. Racing to a terminal he started the access procedure, sitting straight in the chair as his palm and eye scan read in. He typed in his access key as the DNA countdown began. On the screen he could see guards racing down the tunnels toward him. His new calculation said that he might not make it so as much as he hated to do it he typed in a command and waited to punch okay.

Heels rang outside in the hall; the DNA countdown zeroed in, allowing him to hammer in his code just as the door swung open.

A guard burst through, his weapon raised. “Freeze!” he yelled.

But Gary didn't freeze. Instead he authorized the ready command -- CLEAR STATION OF INTRUDERS.

And when the button went down it did that instantly -- blacking out the lights and sending out a beam sweep aimed directly at the brains of all human beings not listed on the access roster.

Bodies thumped to the floor throughout the station. Fumes of burning flesh came to him as the lights came back on. He didn't bother to look around, but just kept working. Linda was his first order of business. Keying in her code he found her at home. A second number rang her phone and a moment later her worried face appeared on the screen.

“You okay,” he said.

“Not really. I just got a call from City Guard asking if you were here. They say they're sending officers over to protect me.”

“No they're not. I'm at the monitoring station handling a crisis. I don't want them in there so I'm putting your place on lockdown. Just sit tight till I get back to you.”

Switching back to station surveillance he picked up an incoming message. A read showed it to be directly from Stone and asking for a report on the intruder alarm.

Gary sent a dummy report back and waited for the rebound. It came four seconds later -- a great piece of luck. Dan Stone had used his personal key to access the monitoring station -- a stupid mistake because now Gary had it.

Going through the system for a report on alterations he found the files on Stone's new extermination equipment. The A scan of the program showed that Stone had tried to kill him by inserting his eye scan. A second check showed that Stone hadn't set the system to exterminate anyone else.

Typing in a code marking the system to time out in three hours as a public safety hazard, he accessed the program core and removed his own eye scan info, replacing it with Dan Stone's personal key. As a follow-up he erased the installation documents and put in messages from Stone that said only Satan, Stone and Kill. A sweep program covered Gary’s tracks as he exited.

“Let Stone run from his guns for a while,” he thought.

Next order of business was to use Stone's key, bouncing it from a City Guard police computer as an urgent text message from Stone to the Mayor. “I've decided to end it all,” the message said. “The whole filthy crew is going to die with me. The show must go on, and that's show business isn't it?”

“Hum, what about City Guard Headquarters in LA?” Gary thought, and a moment later he used Stone's key to send off a dummy message informing them that the takeover bid in Toronto had succeeded.

Now he had some time to check a few other things -- and he started by using the key to access City Guard files on the Broken Door theory that so upset Stone. So many documents came up he had to switch to text view for the files. City Guard people had a real thing going for this theory. Best thing was to just look up the original banned report and see what it said.

Scanning to the bottom of the report he came to Professor Jack Watson's conclusions on the new show business serial killers -- conclusions that raised his eyebrows and his hair.

“ . . . Man is after all a creature of evolution that lived mostly in isolation and in small family and tribal groupings. A degree of privacy was allowed in all situations and therefore we can only conclude that for psychological health a degree of privacy must be provided by society. Studies demonstrate that Show Business Killers are completely normal human beings. Their murderous behavior arises from the long-term deprivation of a basic human need -- privacy. My final conclusion is that society itself must be restructured to suit human beings and human needs and that means dismantling nearly the entire security net we have constructed over the last seventy-five years.…”

Gary frowned, the shock still sinking in -- Dan Stone and the City Guard Corporation wanted the public to believe the murderous behavior to be rooted in thinking the wrong thoughts.

A sudden impulse curled his lips to a grin. Why not have Dan Stone pay for his wrongdoing by informing the public of the truth?

He scratched his chin, and then decided to do it. Making a copy of the document he attached Stone's key to it and sent it out for publication, following the post with a sweep so it couldn't be traced to the monitoring station. Because of content rules allowing City Guard space in all media, the document would be on screens worldwide in about three minutes. It would guarantee that Dan Stone would be remembered as the whistle blower of the century -- and also as a mad man who exterminated members of the public and himself with dangerous new security equipment.

He smiled sweetly at the thought, but not for long as he saw a blip moving on the tracker. It showed Stone in a central dome moving toward an area containing some of the extermination equipment -- a laser setup that would kill him quickly.

Murder was something he detested. He could barely believe he'd done it, but it would be a long rebellious worldwide goodbye and funeral for Stone and City Guard. Time would pass and the mayor would buy his plan for a public police force. He was certain he'd left no tracks. Pleasant visions of Linda and the wedding rose in his mind; he hit her key and smiled as her rosy cheeks faded in on the screen.

---- the end -----

666 Direct Death Democracy

By Gary L Morton

Sergeant Jim Whistler snapped his head up as the computer system shot back on via remote touch. He made a mental note to adjust the monitors to eliminate the wicked startup flash, and then he yawned, rubbed some of the peeling skin from his burned brown nose and watched an image appear on the screens. 

A broad grin, piercing brown eyes and the big black pan of a face belonging to Attorney General Massey filled the screens. “Afternoon, Jim. Hope I didn't wake you up out there. I guess you know the voting is over. Just wondering why your report hasn't come in to us yet?” 

“It hasn't come in because I was busy and only got to it a while ago. If this cheating keeps up I'm going to need incredible processor power. We can’t gang computers or use intel crowd sourcing for this one. This system is really built on the notion that it can't be cracked or shared and this time there have been attempted violations and some may have succeeded.” 

“Violations, that's impossible. We're using military level encryption in every home-voter computer. There isn't any way people can cheat on a vote. You know that, you helped design the system.”

“Yeah, and my report is supposed to be a formality. Only some people are dummying the system. That's what my results show. An example would be the vote to ban casinos and online gambling from central Toronto -- the results don't match the polls and I've got a few preliminary traces. Everybody in Toronto just voted in favour of gay church marriage, and though I approve of such marriages the results are impossible. Always, some people vote against everything.  And there are other votes of the people that have been tampered with like the votes against increased police powers. The question is how to nail the suspects?”

“The answer is we can't. We haven't got the search and seizure powers we need to conduct those kinds of investigations. They were voted out. We need the power to raid any suspected home, business or vehicle at a moment’s notice, and as you must know, the people won't grant us those powers.”

“So what do I do, prove there has been cheating so you can take the case to the public and ask for search and seizure powers?”

“No, we can't do that. There will be political instability and riots. If these people are cheating they are traitors and enemies of the nation -- I'm declaring this investigation Top Secret and your orders are to eliminate the problem. Take them out, using national security system 666. Get ready -- we match operation keys in one hour.”

--------------------------------------

One hour later

encryption verified

User name - BIG

Password -BROTHER

Personal Info - 666

Keys matched - partial entry -- Greetings, Sergeant Jim Whistler - I am Security System 666 - your key is tagged access through the Attorney General - attacks against individuals permitted - attacks against nations and all world organizations denied - upload info as you acquire it.

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One hour and a half later       

Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request granted.

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Two hours later at the lecture hall of the University of Toronto Genson Artificial Intelligence Research Lab.  

The willows rustled softly in sunny haze and it looked like a scorcher outside. So hot that a warning shot of fear squeezed Winston's heart. He thanked the gods for the technology of air conditioning as he turned back to his class. Heads bobbed in the multi colored light of computer screens as the students compiled new code. They had done a good job on the test election encryption project, but so much for that.

It was time for his Wednesday lecture, and he wasn't ready. He strolled to his desk wondering what he could say to upstage the arrogant young hackers and crackers and code geniuses. Nothing came to mind, so he decided to talk about the election project and how as a unit they had cast doubt on the security of the system. Perhaps he would organize his talk in a way that would make their feat of expertise look glamorous and like something that would become law through his help.

Sitting at his machine he enabled the microphone, grimaced and cleared his throat. Winston hated using amplification though he often dreamed of enthralling audiences with a powerful voice. But that would never happen as his speaking voice was scratchy and weak. He had a throat lining of wet cotton that muffled words. Voice software corrected it in a public-appeal way he hated.

He was about ready - then he noticed an urgent text icon sliding on the screen. Opening the master program he found a message regarding the class election project -- from a Sergeant 666. A rather confusing message since the header was an auto reply, meaning a machine had sent it in reply to nothing. Yet it contained a personal message a machine could not have written.

-- I have received your correspondence regarding election encryption and would like to show you why the system is failsafe. I have contacted administration and will be arriving today at 3 p.m. -- please wait for me in your classroom. --- Sergeant 666.

Sergeant 666, indeed, Winston thought. Don't these chaps even have names nowadays? Then he realized that it was nearly 3 p.m. His lecture always opened at three -- but today the arrival of the Sergeant would allow him to duck that and go ahead with a little show and tell. The Sergeant could explain to the entire class why the system was failsafe and how their concerns about flaws in the encryption were just the simple ideas of silly little hackers.

An odd smile stealing across his face, he rose to make the announcement. A strange noise screeched from the speck-sized hidden mike and he slipped on his heel and fell back in his specially padded chair. As he rose again he saw forty grinning faces turned to him. “Class,” he said. “I have an announcement regarding your election project. An expert with Top Secret classification, Sergeant 666, will be addressing you on the subject to inform you in regards of the failsafe nature of the system. He will be here at 3 p.m., and since it is 3 p.m., he should be at the door any moment.”

Odd sounds came in from the screened Internet connection and screeched again through the microphone and speakers -- a knock came at the door -- “Ah, here he is,” Winston said, “Sergeant 666.” And at that moment a sonic boom hit the window, the glass shattered, there was a cracking sound as the huge willow beside it split and a bolt of bright silver shot into the room.

It caught Winston and lifted him, his entire body pierced by the flaming silver shard, burning yet remaining caught and frozen in the air. Tendrils of hot light snaked from his hair, his nose blew dragon rings and his skin began to swell through his suit like hot balloons. Bizarre ecstasy momentarily lit his expanding face, needles of light rode up his spine, then he slammed into the study wall -- his skin splitting and leaving a boiling red smear as he went to the floor. A horrible sizzle and thump followed. Winston's eyes and tongue trailed gore as steam popped them from his face. His scorched limbs began to flail as the light died.

Heavy smoke rose from the body; the door blew open -- but nobody was there. Outside the sun shone brightly.

Hissing like frying bacon, the body began to cool -- and the students began scrambling to their feet and making for an escape. Sergeant 666, from the lightning division, was not a person they wanted to meet.

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Three hours later

Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded --- request granted.

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Three and a half hours later in the Halton countryside.

Danny Ramsaroop soaped the last of the roofing tar from his arms, toweled up and went downstairs. He grabbed a cold bottle of Sanga Export from the fridge and went out on the deck. Sitting in his favourite chair, he did what he always did at this time on Wednesday -- sipped light beer and stared off into the hills and sky. Last year his view had been of unbridled nature, this year a new warehouse over on Peelee Hill had come into the picture.

Danny took a gulp of beer then grabbed his binoculars from a side table - he kept a regular watch on the new building. A lot of weird things happened there. Bright night lights, equipment - mostly computerized stuff - always going in and out -- all sorts of devices, yet it wasn't a company in the sense that it had employees or a name. There was just one scrawny Oriental guy driving in and out with all of the stuff.

Nothing seemed to be happening today, and with the heavy summer growth it was getting so he could barely see the building. Danny sighed and was about to put the binoculars down -- a shadow moved, spooking him -- and he refocused, noticing that the wiry Oriental guy had just stepped out the side door.

A faint smile and his sparkling eyes were a thin mask over evil secrets of some sort. He was heading for his van, likely to drive away on one of his deliveries. Danny thought about phoning the police and asking a few questions about him -- he thought about it then the flying saucers came into view and all normal thoughts vanished.

They zoomed over the horizon and hills at incredible speed, following the terrain like cruise missiles as they headed for the warehouse. They didn't make a sound and that was odd. In the old movies they always whirred like large toys.

Danny stood up, his binoculars glued to his eyes as he watched. He saw the ropy Oriental guy burst from his van and run back inside the building as the silver saucers did a flyby. They swooped up, around and back down -- a gleaming formation of about twenty of them. On the second flyby the attack began -- a curtain of white light flashing at their tails. It condensed to mist and hung over the warehouse, the cloud glowing brighter and gaining in density with each pass.

After about a dozen passes the saucers shot off over Peelee Hill and never returned. The cloud was still there and it still glowed; only now the light charges looked angry and the belly of the cloud was growing dark and heavy.

Other than the cloud, nothing else seemed to be happening. Lowering his binoculars, Danny wiped beads of sweat from his brow and wondered what it could possibly mean. Then he heard loud rattling and looked back to the warehouse. Huge hailstones, about as big as baseballs, were shooting from the cloud -- hundreds of them and they hit the roof so hard they went right through the shingles and tin. Moments later the Oriental guy burst out the door, dashing for the van. He got about ten steps before being smashed by the hail. Stones smacked his skull; he stumbled and went down, then he began to crawl. A rat-a-tat-tat of stones beat him down further, causing him to collapse and roll onto his back. And as he lay there the hail pulverized and covered him – in the end only his face remained clear -- he'd protected it with his hands.

Danny adjusted the binoculars for better focus and saw open staring eyes and a ghastly fishlike death expression.

“Damn is he dead,” Danny said, watching as the south wall came down. Then a cold shiver rode up his spine as he wondered if the cloud could possibly move in his direction. Better get in the car and get out of here, he thought. And he put the binoculars down and went inside for the keys.

The phone was ring tuning so he picked it up. “Danny,” said a mechanical voice, “This is Sergeant 666 from the base weather tower. Is there a weird thunderstorm out there?”

“You can say that again,” Danny said. “The Oriental guy and the warehouse on Peelee Hill, they're gone, crushed by hail.”

“Really,” said Sergeant 666. “Listen, Danny -- just stay there in your cottage for now. We're coming out to help you.”

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Nine hours later

Researching suspect number 5 - Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request granted.

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 Nine and a half hours later in Toronto.

Stavro rammed on the power clip, snapped the cable in and sealed the box. He booted up and at the G-Host he hit A-Z to auto-install the pirate operating system on the drive. Dialog boxes and forms flashed by then the load thermometer appeared.

Leaving the machine, he stretched, watching his hairy chest ripple in the mirror, and then he tossed a T-shirt on and headed for the back door. Sweat rippled on his brow as soon as he stepped out, and he frowned as the humid night air settled on him like a soggy blanket. Willows and the rough edges of the dark sky hung over the back yard like a crushing weight of sponge; acrid smog sent nasty ticklers up his nose. He stopped for a moment to curse the city for building the new Avenue Expressway at the front of his house. Damn road smelled like a steaming smog sewer burger.

His cement mixer stood on the back lawn between the patio and the driveway; he decided to get it out of the way quickly and went to work, first dumping the boards then the mixer into the back of the garage. He doubted the stone would be fully dry so he opened the mould carefully -- to his amazement the mixture had hardened. There were few flaws in the small cross he'd created -- picking it up he guessed its weight at about 20 pounds, which would be enough to keep it anchored at its new home.

Strolling to the mesh fence, he stared into the night, trying to see the graveyard beyond the gully. Vague outlines of the rear gate appeared in shifting yellow mist. It was dark over there -- dark enough that no one would see him.

Pushing through the lilac bushes he went down the bank of the gully and hopped the creek. A miserable groan pressed through his lips as he climbed the other side. Crossing a field of stones and clover he reached the back gate, and after a quick look around, he slipped the cross through the bars. It didn't look right in that spot so he decided to go in and move it to a grave.

The fence wasn't high, but scaling it proved to be difficult. Stavro's pant leg caught as he went over the top and he slipped, tumbling to the grass. Needles of pain twisted in his shoulder as he rolled onto his back. A band of pouring sweat gripped his forehead; he lay there trying to catch his breath.

Thoughts of his predicament passed in his mind -- Stavro hated direct democracy and voting and he had developed his new auto-vote software for himself and his friends down at Booker's Moon-Game Sports Bar. It worked by having you vote on a few sample issues, then it would have your pattern and vote for you in all plebiscites and referenda. He'd thought it to be flawless but today he'd got a call from Sergeant 666 -- a military man who said he was coming over to discuss election fraud.

Stavro was no sleeper -- as soon as the Sergeant had hung up he'd formatted his vote hard drive, pulled it and smashed it to pieces. The pieces were now embedded in the cement cross. This way if they did get a search warrant they'd find nothing and he could blame the problem on the pirate operating system that had come on the vendor's software connect.

No doubt about it - he'd be in the clear. It would just be a matter of smooth talking the Sergeant. Lifting his wrist he checked the time. “Shit,” he groaned as he realized that Sergeant 666 would be arriving at his place while he was out.

He rose quickly with the idea of circling back to the front of his house to catch the Sergeant before he could leave. But before he could take a step, a silver spotlight flashed deep in the graveyard.

A line of bushes shielded him; poison red berries reflected the light and hung like blood drops in his vision. The beam seeped into blue fog patches that crept in the cemetery darkness. He ducked, crawled through the brush and got behind a large black marble obelisk.

Stavro listened, and heard nothing. He peeked out at the light, seeing the beam strengthen as it swept from the sky like a movie supernatural effect -- its focus settling on a plot in the centre of the graveyard.

The stone under the beam was old and eroded and about the last thing anyone would expect a mysterious beam to single out.

Paranoia raced in Stavro's mind; he was sure the beam emanated from some kind of silent government helicopter; he was sure it was hunting him.

His throat felt thick. He gulped and started to crawl backwards, not taking his eyes off the beam. Just as he was easing into the grass, he saw the grave suddenly erupt -- the stone and sod flying up and swinging left like the whole thing had been a lid or cover.

Loose earth rose from the hole in a small geyser, then hands and a head emerged in the light -- clay fell from a withered face and long bony fingers. Cobwebs, twigs and red mud were braided into wild gray locks that hung loosely over a forehead of decayed flesh and parchment -- its lips were fat and worm white -- a positively hellish creature.

The beam brightened and its tint changed to red -- a charge that caused the corpse's eyes to flash and ignite.

Stavro's mouth fell open, and then the beam suddenly swept across the grass toward him. Panic struck and he rose and ran. A solid leap and vault took him over the graveyard fence, but he hadn't escaped the beam -- it dogged him, swinging in and out on him as he raced through the clover.

Drops of sweat flew from his face; heat and his pounding heart threatened to become an explosion in his brain. Then the beam vanished and he was running in total darkness -- running straight over the gully embankment -- he'd forgot to break his run, and he went down hard, thistles and stones tearing into him. At the bottom he went straight into the shallow creek, smashing his knees on the rocks.

Rushes of adrenaline killed all pain; after the initial shock his knees didn't hurt, but they refused to work. He was stuck crawling in shallow slime, trying to escape by following the creek bed.

The light returned and shone on him. Garter snakes swam around him in the water -- and his lungs suddenly decided to collapse and seize.

Stavro's face smacked down in the slime. A snake rushed past his lips. Revulsion gave him strength and he tried to move, fighting his heart, which felt like a great throbbing bruise.

Rising on his good knee, he vomited -- a horrible rush of vile liquid flying from his throat. Then he began to gasp.

Bright light pained his eyes; he looked up and saw a scene that could only happen in Zombies from Mars. The ghastly corpse was coming down the bank -- and it had his cement cross in hand.

It wasn't fair; Stavro knew that -- but he was too weak to flee and too weak to scream. All he could do was stare with popping eyes as the corpse sloshed into the slime and raised the cross.

Clay and rot dripped from the decayed arm and it creaked as it snapped down; then the lights turned to curtains of showering blood and went out.

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Two days later

666 reports - Fifteen suspects eliminated

Researching final suspect- Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request denied . . . denied . . . denied . . .

-----666 system failure ----- suspect is Prime Minister --- suspect has superior access code ---- all messaging denied.

Overridden -- re-keyed command

User name - Prime

Password – Minister9087ui89765. Encryption …………

Personal info - number 9, number 9

Auto detect suspects on illegal scan

Researching suspects - scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspects uploaded

Names of suspects -- Sergeant Jim Whistler, Attorney General Massey

Auto command -- search and destroy

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Sergeant Jim Whistler didn't have a panic button to hit; but he could try to get through to Massey before the error targeted them. He reached for the red phone, but it rang before he could dial.

Maybe Massey already knew and had corrected it. He picked it up, “Hello, Massey, is that you?”

“This is Sergeant 666,” said the caller. “Your voice print identifies you as Sergeant Jim Whistler. We have a problem, Sergeant Whistler. It has to do with your attempt to illegally scan the office of Prime Minister McDonald.”

“Wait, that was you 666. You scanned that office. All I did was match keys with Attorney General Massey and type in the names of suspects for your operation.”

“Let me think about that -- thinking is done. You are correct, but you typed in the name Ali Morton 777, which is a code name of the Prime Minister. You initiated an illegal scan of the office of the Prime Minister. I must talk to you about it immediately. I will arrive in ten minutes, please wait there for me.”

The line went dead; Sergeant Whistler's testicles shriveled -- his neck bristled -- but in spite of the rising fear his training dominated. Logic dictated that he could not escape by plane or auto as 666 would find a way to blast him. The station bunker was the only option; he would have to get straight down there, and disable all systems except the secure phone line. Only the Governor General could override the Prime Minister and shut down 666 -- he had to get through to him and inform him that the Prime Minister was a suspect in election fraud and it had set 666 onto him.

Five minutes later cold steel rang softly as Sergeant Whistler's quick feet hit the tunnel floor. He raced from the elevator, headed for the lockdown door. The entrance sequence was manual -- it would work even in Armageddon power-out conditions. It was a tribute to his attention to detail that he had the complex sequence memorized.

Three minutes remained as the heavy metal wall slid aside; he stepped inside, looked around. All appeared secure so he set the close sequence. And as the heavy wall slid into lock position he went to the central panel and disabled all communications systems. The phone line he left open.

One minute left, he leaned back in the padded control seat and breathed a sigh of relief. Not even 666 could get him here, in a bunker that could withstand a nuclear attack. In a minute he would use the direct line to the Governor General and the nightmare would be over.

System shutdown had darkened the bunker, so he switched on battery lighting, and as it illumined the dim capsule the phone rang.

He answered and heard the familiar voice of Sergeant 666. “Thirty seconds to launch, twenty-nine seconds to launch . . . .”

“What launch?” Sergeant Whistler screamed. “Don't tell me you’ll launch a nuclear attack just to kill me!”

“No, not at all,” Sergeant 666 said. “It’s your bunker that’s being launched. You’re inside the robo capsule of Canadian Cruise-Two Test Missile 666-17, and are being fired on a search and destroy mission targeting Attorney General Samuel Massey.”

Whistler dropped the phone, a sunbeam shone into the bunker -- looking up through a square in the capsule ceiling he saw a bubble window opening and the shimmering sides of a silo tunnel. G-force flattened him as the boosters ignited and began the long burn.

---- the end -----

A Tiny Armageddon

By Gary L Morton

A blinding blue bolt streamed from a Taurus hand cannon, hammering the railing and a fluted stone column. Bending metal and pulverized stone rolled across the floor in a smoky wave, catching the last two of the President's security men as they tried to turn and flee. Blood and fire spurted in the heat-warped air as their shattered bodies flew over sunflowers in the garden. Spinning on his heel President Landan dashed through the archway and down the polished corridor. Reaching the elevator, he turned back and fired to his rear, managing to fry two of his pursuers. More heads showed and popped like firecrackers under the wide beam, but he knew that killing a few of them wouldn't be enough. There were hundreds of them - the pentagon, the CIA, FBI - they had all turned on him. The coup would be in effect and it couldn’t be stopped through weapons or military force.

Sweat poured on his brow as the elevator raced down through rings of shield light. A loud hum and metallic thud knocked his ears as it hit bottom. Then he was out on the ramp and running for the escape train. Green uniforms swarmed in as he entered the tunnel -- too many men to beat and none of them supporters. Knowing this was the end he halted and raised his weapon. But he didn't hit the fire button, and in his moment of hesitation a hot dart whizzed in and bit the flesh just under his jaw.

His hand went to his neck and he dropped the laser. As his vision blurred he saw General Armers come into view. Clicking heels echoed as the general stepped up; his face swam like loose rubber, his distorted voice boomed. “You're mad, Mr. President, and you are to be incarcerated until we can ascertain the extent of your illness. Tomorrow I will . . .”

----------------------------

Side effects of the truth drugs had him raving; he could feel his sweat-soaked suit clinging to his body and big hands mangling his shoulders as they forced him down the hall. The words seemed disconnected, like they weren't really his words. Yet he could see dark faces melting under the verbal assault -- hissing and guttural commands issuing from fat lips as they shoved him. The cursed fools look like maniacs, he thought. Wearing suits like astronauts to make it look respectable. They don't really care who they brutalize -- and I'm the President, damn it!

----------------------------

He was the President, damn it! And that meant no easy way out. Other people labeled as lunatics could kill all sorts of folks and have it forgotten and walk in a few years. Jeeze, a few years, he thought. And then life. What it must be like. And I've only been locked up a few days. I have special privileges, yes.  But special privileges are no consolation. My life has been political power and working every day to change the world -- advancing the cause of the people and democracy. Incarceration, being powerless and pushed around like an animal -- it's a fate worse than death. He put his hand to his chin and thought -- and all these years we placed so much stock in jailing people -- it must be true that one can't learn at the top. It's only here in the madhouse that I know we've been wrong all along.

----------------------------

Days passed like a repeating gunmetal dream. He had no visitors and his only friends were the obvious watching cameras and guards. President Landan sat and read and grew tired of playing a fool's game of calm sanity and patience. Glancing at the ghostly wall clock he saw that it was noon. Slamming down his e-reader and its dusty sci-fi book screen, he looked out the window. It was a beautiful sunny day outside -- blue skies and drifting cloud fleece. The heavens had forgotten their agony and believed in paradise; perhaps a walk in the garden would help him do the same.

Four burly CIA guards led him down the hall, and then they waited for security clearance. The heavy metal door looked like something from a World Reserve bank vault -- yet when it opened it moved fast on a smooth cushion of air. From the open arch he could see down the staircase to the garden -- soft blue shadows, sunshine, flowers and foliage trembling in a gentle breeze for about as far as the eye could see. Near the end of the walk a portion of high stone wall rose and a force shield glittered. He knew they let patients wander freely in the garden because there was simply no escaping past the walls and embedded security devices.

He felt like the President again as they walked down the steps in bright sunshine. At the bottom, the guards walked over to their own station at the head of the garden. President Landan strolled in the opposite direction, under the willows until he reached a duck pond. Stopping there he sat in the sunshine, thinking of the billions of people in the world -- all of them supposedly being protected from him.

A few minutes drifted slowly by, like the rippling waters were time itself. Blue-black sunspots slipped into his field of vision and as he squinted into the beams he saw something else -- a bright electric flash. It was distinct, washing his eyes with a kaleidoscope of color. A huge dragonfly came out of it, radiating silver as it buzzed to the ground in the long grass near him.

President Landan stepped over to it for a closer look; and what he found was not a dragonfly. It looked to be a tiny space ship, crowned with a sparkling rotunda. He stepped back, feeling temporary amazement. Perhaps he really was mad if he could see such things. Then it occurred to him that the ship might be another of the security devices.  A space ship certainly would be more interesting. The information he'd received before the coup was to the effect that aliens and their androids were on earth and taking control, but they were life size and not anything in miniature. More likely this was a sort of mobile camera sent in by the Russians or some international security agency.

Feeling somewhat disappointed, President Landan turned to walk away -- but before he could take a step a form materialized in his path. The only word to describe it was alien -- a creature with smooth chalk-white skin and no clothing. It was humanoid but without sex organs. The eyes were perfect green ovals and seemed to bear great intelligence and spiritual light. Though it had appeared in the grass by the path he could see that it was actually floating there - as its ghostly feet didn’t touch the ground. Its mouth and nose were tiny and flat. He had some doubts as to whether it really was an alien -- it had appeared suddenly like a movie hologram, so perhaps that was all it was.

“Identify yourself,” the President said.

“Certainly,” the alien said, in a voice that seemed both childlike and honest. “I am an intergalactic outlaw named . . . . . . . . . .  -- a name you can't pronounce. You may call me Friend and note that my lips are not moving because I'm speaking to you through the power of telepathy. The image you see is not really me as only my robots can actually leave the ship. I'm appearing to you as a vision representing what earthlings expect an alien to be.”

“You could have picked a more convincing vision and name. But it does encourage me because my captors would have been more elaborate in their trickery. Why would you come to me?”

“It has to do with the reason I'm here on Earth,” said Friend. “I've been sentenced to death by an intergalactic court. It's unfortunate but my days as an outlaw have come to an end. I made my escape to this distant planet a long time ago, but they have tracked me here, locking me on this planet until 2 p.m. today. At that time a space war is going to destroy this planet and all life with it. In thirty minutes it will all be over. I discovered you through media surveillance of your planet -- I believe you may have the power to stop this space attack as you are the leader.”

“I am, but I am also in a madhouse. They will not obey my commands. And that means I can't stop the war.”

“I see. Explain to me why you are incarcerated and perhaps I can somehow solve this problem.”

“I'm not genuinely mad. A number of my own intelligence agencies and the military decided to take over the government. To do that they put together a surveillance case to prove that I am completely insane. There hasn't been any legal trial and I haven't been impeached. By law I'm still the president but I can't enforce the law. The phony investigation began when I told General Armers my theory on world population. It seems to me that the more population grows, the less people care about one another. In older times human misery was a powerful force that touched everyone, and it made people care. Now in the modern world with its teeming billions no one cares. People die like flies, and as we come almost shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors we grow more distant from them. You could spotlight any individual in a crowd and find that person to be lonely and bitter -- burning inside with anger because of being unloved and untouched by others who are kind. People have lost feelings and care for others. In a world that doesn't care the human caress has been replaced by the ignorance of brutes and the controlling hand of military institutions -- we made it that way so society could function even after it died. The theory of evolution only favours that which lends to survival -- and mankind may well be finding a way to mechanize and survive in a world that no longer needs emotion -- a spiritually dead world that keeps human flesh alive. Flesh is becoming immortal; the human spirit is dying. I told General Armers my theory one day during a walk in the Rose Garden. He showed interest, especially when I said that perhaps we need a lot less people in the world, and then at that point they would start to care again. Like in older times”

“Interesting. Very much so,” said the alien. “The problem I have is that there isn't much wrong with this theory of yours. And I don't see how the general could use it against you.”

“Ah, but he did use it against me. He recorded it and it was the basis for their whole phony investigation - which in the end proved me a madman who would launch a nuclear attack to create a world with far fewer people. Armers twisted all the facts and lined the whole of society up against me.”

“Would you have done it?”

“Of course not. I'm not mad. I had the power to destroy this world or most of the people in it and I didn't do it. When you say earth will be shattered today, that is because General Armers is going to disable our defense shields. I suppose his agreement is with the alien race pursuing you and he has the mistaken belief that they will destroy you along with our military foes, leaving most of Earth intact. He would remain as president with great powers. A fact I would not have known had you not come along.”

“They will not honor any deal. Their society is military which is likely why they dealt with Armers and deposed you. They assumed he would have all power over this planet's defense system. They want me and can't get me if Earth's defenses are up. If you can block the attack I could use my ship and alien powers to discredit your enemies and put you back in as president. But that would be from space as I plan to use the attack as a window for escape. Once they see that I have left there will be no further attacks.”

“An offer I wouldn't refuse if it weren't for one point. As a sort of space rogue, you may perhaps want to make yourself president or somehow powerful. In that case I'd help you and you'd kill me and go about your own business controlling this planet.”

“You're very clever -- but I can easily demonstrate why that's not the case. First, I think you really are a madman and leaving you in as President here on earth would be a great pleasure. The second is escape -- I want to duck out quickly. As soon as it passes two and the attack commences there will be no envelope holding me, but they could try to send a ship in to grab me. I plan to be far off on my merry way long before they get here. My escape will also give me great status as an outlaw. I will have escaped and have saved planet Earth while our mighty leaders were prepared to sit and watch it blow up. It'll make me a folk hero of sorts.”

“I can't say that you haven't got me there. So let's get on with it. General Armers knows there is a special defense system to block nuclear attacks and other space warfare. This system will also trace the source of the attack and retaliate with new energy weapons that will destroy the perpetrators if they are within range. I spent large sums in orienting it to block space attacks as intelligence on aliens came in at the time of my election. In his haste to seize power General Armers killed the only other two people with full knowledge of the system and how to activate it. It is a complete robot affair on earth, in space and on the moon. I can activate it -- but they don't know that. They believe two dead scientists have disabled it because that is what I told them while under the effects of their truth drugs. This may surprise you but I have been trained to lie without that being detected.”

“Marvelous,” said the alien. “I too have been programmed in such a way. I also have the ability to tell the truth -- which is that we have only ten minutes left -- so you better tell me how to activate the defenses rather quickly.”

“The transmitter that will activate the system is part of my body. My wisdom tooth to be exact. If you can fly your ship into my open mouth and extract it you'll have the key. Break away the enamel and you'll find the filling to be a setup with two encoded switches. The reason the system is off now is because once you activate it incredible amounts of power will be used. Draining most of the world grid. The ideal mode of operation is to turn it on when the enemy attack is about to launch.”

-----------------------

As a dentist the alien Friend was definitely not a professional. President Landan rested against a willow trunk, grimacing and groaning as the bumbling alien burned his gums with laser cutters. The full extraction took about a minute, and when the job was done, the ship flew out of his mouth and disappeared as it had arrived -- in a flash of light.

Rising, the President wiped the blood from his lips, swallowed and walked over to the pond. He stared at his aging reflection in the rippling water and smiled grimly. In two minutes, if the alien had been truthful about the time, the aliens would launch their attack. The fake transmitter he had given them would not enable or disable the system; it would come on automatically - meaning that the alien invaders would destroy themselves.

Of course there was still General Armers, and the rest of the traitors. He'd known of their plot all along and had let it go ahead in order to draw the aliens to him. There would be no need for the General and a few hundred other traitors the aliens had bought. Getting rid of all of them would be difficult -- trapped in a madhouse, no one knowing the truth of the phony case against him. It was a situation that definitely looked impossible -- yet he knew he would change those odds. He had another theory he hadn't mentioned to General Armers. It was regarding traitors and how letting them take over was the better plan -- that way you'd be sure to get them all when you swept them up.

Looking to the sky he saw a chain of violet explosions in the south. The battle was underway and the alien ships were exploding. Lines of energy flew like sparkling rain high in the stratosphere as the defense system did its work. Brilliant silver light erupted from the face of the sun and moments later the bright sunshine on the grounds had become the electric shading of a sinister world of war. President Landan saw the CIA men dashing toward him, shouting like frightened children as they ran … frightened children looking for a leader who could save them.

---- the end ----

Castle of Fangs

By Gary L Morton

Part One: Body in the Grass

The train pulled out and rocketed west in a radiant blur of sunlight. I turned from the exit ramp and stared down the sand bluff at the dappled mirror of water. Willows and an arched bridge showed in the reflection. A rope and rubber tube rocked in the breeze at the shoreline.

My eyes followed a robin soaring up the bank into hazy blue sky and puffs of white cumulus. Oakdale rested on the far bank. Small compact towers and an odd sprawl of commercial structures. It had a definite small city feeling, but in a weird way. Something seemed wrong in the picture.

I sighed with relief, hoping this little hideaway of the North would live up to its reputation. Being outside of the central net of international law, the place was perhaps one of the only towns I could enter without being placed under constant surveillance.

My head suddenly whirled at the magnitude of my personal situation and failure. I found it hard to believe that the world track of megacities was now beyond my reach. Yet it was a certainty. Tiny unaligned places like Oakdale were my future.

It was a curse to have been born Grant King. A man destined from the beginning to become the star and then an outcast of entertainmentnet.99; on the run from corporate law firms and petty tyrants that wanted to see me in hell.

Anxiety and a charge of anger twisted my face. See me in hell; I'd see them in a hotter hell! I thought of breaking bones, then I spat in the dust as I turned to the sidewalk. Mud had got on my shoe. I slipped, and as I caught my balance I realized what had been wrong in the view of the town.

This train stop belonged in town, not on the outskirts of it on a lush riverbank wood lot. They didn't even have a terminal or transit into the core. Did they think people came here to study birds and jog the half-kilometer stretch into the city?

 Muttering, dealing with mild confusion, I headed into town on foot. The beauty of late spring seemed to do little for my mood. Worries of my financial situation clouded my mind. I could last perhaps another month then I'd need a job of some sort. Producing blockbuster entertainment had been my only talent in New York. In a small Canadian city I had no saleable skills.

In my early days I'd survived as a stunt man. After I got lucky and moved up the ladder, money oozed from my pockets. Surviving without wealth felt like a new situation and it had me kicking stones as I walked.

Electric cars slipped quietly by and some of the net.99 billboards shielded the landscape as I passed hotels and rental cottages on the outskirts. It seemed incredibly quiet for a Saturday morning. My best bet seemed to be to head for the centre of this small city and its clutch of diminutive skyscrapers.

The road broke at the grounds of Oakdale College and circled wide around a park and the river. I cut through on the path and soon found myself following a rushing brook. Crossing a tiny bridge, I took a short cut over a field of wild flowers toward the central town square. I was about halfway across and on a path running through deep grass when I stumbled onto a large bundle in the weeds. As I looked down at it a jogger suddenly appeared on my left and came to a stop beside me.

A gasp escaped my lips as the image of a mutilated corpse fused itself to my brain cells. I stepped back quickly, raising my arms in a defensive gesture as my eyes flashed to the jogger. This was a big man standing in the morning glare, and his face was long, heavily whiskered and grim. His expression twisted into a speculative grimace as I watched, as though he were studying some minor oddity. Some irritating bit of morning road kill in need of explanation.

“It's murder,” I said bluntly. “Murder of the most horrible sort.”

He made a broad gesture. His sunken eyes widened. “I disagree. In this case it appears to be suicide. You wouldn't want to claim this body.”

I looked back to the corpse. The man lay crumpled in the grass and soaked in crusting blood. His head was thrown back and the neck had been torn open, perhaps by a rabid human or animal. The eyes were wide, bulbous and staring and his face was frozen in a last expression of horrified shock. “Suicide? Claim the body? Why would I do that? The police will be claiming it.”

“That's good to hear. Bill Thompson's the name. Glad to meet you.”

“Grant King,” I said, feeling more than a little baffled as I shook his coarse hand.

Bill Thompson reminded me of a friend of mine; a character actor from the old Sinematic 3Ds. He was positively morbid and definitely an individual of the loony sort if he thought in terms of claiming dead bodies. I decided to humor him.

Thompson pulled out a tiny pocket phone. “You can go on about your business. I'll call the police chief and clear this little matter up. I plan on claiming the body for my wax museum, so I'll need your address. You'll have to verify that I made the discovery.”

“Sure, I'll verify that. But I better wait and talk to the chief. I just came in on the train, so it'll look pretty darn suspicious if I leave the scene. He might even think I'm armed and dangerous.”

“Suit yourself, Mr. King. Just remember that I found the body, not you.”

“Don't worry. I wouldn't forget something like that, and I really do think that this fellow would look excellent done up in your wax museum. A sort of shocking dead man exhibit. Highlight the ghastliness of the whole thing in a way that will knock the pants off the soft bellies of small city society.”

“Precisely,” Thompson said, and then he got engaged in a strange phone conversation with the police chief. I could see the chief's personal icon on the screen, and as he rambled on with questions I studied the corpse. Violence had occurred on the upper body. His collar and shirt were ripped and I could see a wicked abrasion on his chest. Either a tiger had leapt and launched a deadly blow or a very strong and vicious human had mauled him. It certainly wasn't suicide and as further evidence I spotted a fresh trail beaten in the long grass. The killer had cut across the field to a copse at the edge of a small rise. I couldn't see beyond it.

The police chief arrived alone in one of those all-terrain cruisers that most small city cops use these days. This copper didn’t have professional style - his big wheels tore through the grass and he stopped right at the corpse. Another foot and he would have run it over.

A silver patch on his breast identified him. He wore a western tie and hat - sort of a clone of older US-style sheriffs. He jumped out and walked up to Thompson. “What you got, Bill?”

“Looks like another suicide. Probably a victim of a brain virus. I found him here in that condition. This fellow here is Grant King. He's new in town. Came down the path just after me.”

“Dan Shanon's the name,” he said as he turned and appraised me. “Chief Dan Shanon. What's your take on this death?”

“My take is that it's a killing. It looks like there may be a wild animal on the loose. It took him down and escaped over that rise.”

Police Chief Shanon stared uneasily at the corpse. Concern and suspicion showed as he squinted in the bright sunlight. His rugged features were perfect for a cop, but I detected a shallow aura … perhaps a hint that he was like a superficial movie cop with no real brains behind the looks.

He confirmed my impression when he spoke. “The victim is Alfonso Kreiger. He's a friend of yours, Thompson - isn't he? I suppose he'll look nice done up in your wax. For now I'll have to cordon off the area and do a search. My feeling is that this is a case of death by misadventure.”

“Misadventure,” Thompson said. “I just can't see how you figure that.”

Ignoring Bill Thompson, Shanon turned to me. “I don't want you to leave town while this investigation is underway. I'm not going to hold you. Just let me know where you're staying.”

“Sure,” I said, wondering just what brand of oddballs ran this town. Place the body in a wax museum - what crazy people.

.........................

New Kid in Town

It really would have been better to enter town without attracting attention. My original plan had been to remain invisible and maybe work under an alias. That idea was shot to hell now. If Chief Shanon ran a detailed trace he'd draw up my past and legal enemies far worse than organized crime. If they came to town, anyone in their way would probably end up in a case of net.99 storage wax.

Pressing on I noticed that lush greenery sprouted everywhere in this town. Dense bursts of grasses and flowers nearly choked the walkways and roads. Songbirds and butterflies sprinkled the air with flashes of color. A rustle beside me turned out to be a prowling feral cat, and I spotted hawks flying near the taller buildings downtown.

Entry to the core of Oakdale was marked by a series of arches, and whether by vehicle or on foot and regardless of the direction of approach, you got greeted by an immense Oakdale arch. I walked under a pedestrian version that dripped with vines and wore a beard of tiny bell-shaped flowers. Beyond it the green extravaganza faded and I encountered pedestrian traffic of the sort you would expect to find in a small city on a Saturday.

Unlike most cities and other small towns, all of the Oakdale structures were modern. Civic buildings, corporate digs and sprinklings of stores were all elaborately fronted. Eccentric local art and sculpture dominated. The largest open space surrounded the town hall - a public area, band shell and garden. In the garden a huge statue of a gloomy and long dead Canadian politician stared out at the commercial area.

I paid scant attention to the locals brushing by me. Caught up in my personal woes, I felt little need for others. Heading into the town hall and its garden, I found a bench under a hybrid broad leaf tree. This spot was slightly elevated and gaps in the greenery allowed a good view of town. Brushing the sweat from my forehead, I looked out at the crowd strolling in the commercial area. Casual spring dress was the norm and the locals were of a broad genetic mix - no serious hints of vanity gone wild or racism. In New York I'd often found myself surrounded by a crowd of the same white movie stars. And they weren't the real stars but the product of unregulated genetic selection and plastic surgery. In Oakdale some of the locals could even be described as in need of a face transplant, so there was definitely a separate social force at work here.

Passing cars misted the road with water vapor. Children ran and played on sun-glittering paving stones; adults snacked and chatted on patios under sunshades that twisted high in the air. Local shoppers rushed in and out, creating a mirrored spin of revolving doors. The entire scene looked normal on the surface and yet it didn't feel quite right.

Though their behaviour appeared to be normal social interaction, I knew there was definitely something odd about these people. Call it a gut feeling. I had the notion that intimate conversation would show them to be of the same weird strain as Chief Shanon and Bill Thompson.

There weren't any hotels in view and I needed a cheap place to stay. Looking around I spotted a tanned woman on a bench just to my left. She wore a spring outfit of the environment sensitive type. In its current setting it showed as red. She had great legs and her hair was short, neat and blond. Gold tints clouded her lenses as she shifted lightly on the bench. Obviously she was locked into a broadcast. Probably similar to the sound and video I used to produce before I moved into entertainment vacation packages.

I decided to pump her for information and got up. My approach showed on her wrist screen and I saw her glasses clear and her blue eyes open. An invisible charge passed between us. Eye contact became an instant bond like love at first sight. But without the love. Neither of us belonged in Oakdale and that led to understanding. Perhaps it was close friendship at first sight.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” I said. “I just came in on the train. Never been here before. Do you know of a good hotel or place to stay - reasonable in price?”

“Yeah, I do. Other side of the town hall. There are four or five hotels there. I don't know about the price. You'll have to shop around.”

“Thanks,” I said and turned to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “There are a few things you might need to know about Oakdale?”

“I've already had a few surprises.”

“Sit down and I'll clue you in. I'm Alice Wolland and I'm not from Oakdale, either. I think I'm the only person staying here who is a stranger in the sense that I'm not related to anyone local.”

“That's bad news for me. I'm planning to stay around for a while. Maybe get a job. If this is a place of close relatives, doors might be slammed in my face.”

“It's not like that. People come here. They can stay but no one does. The local culture is weird.”

“My experience is that their conversation is weird, but mostly they behave like normal people.”

“If you don't mind my asking. Why would you be moving to a small town like this - without a job offer or family and friends?”

“I'm from New York. Lived in a few other big cities. For years I've dreamed of escaping the rat race and living in a small city. Janet, my wife, would never allow it. Last year she died of a rare form of cancer. I haven't worked since. I found this place while surfing the new net offbeat travel destinations. It seemed the ideal place for a new start. So here I am.”

“Here you are and you're full of shit!”

“What?” I said, taking on an offended look as I pulled away from her on the bench.

“You're really full of it. You came to Oakdale for the same reasons I did. You’re on the run from something and know this town is a free zone as far as international law is concerned. Isn't that right, Mr. Grant King?”

“That's right. How did you recognize me?”

“My mother pushed me to be an actress. Your Martian Experience thing was on my course list. I saw two of your recorded lectures. No one else looks exactly like Grant King.”

“Yes, they gave us the power to patent our looks – but it only worked in a personal way for the top executives in the entertainment industry. Anyone that pays the price can look like a star. It was never a problem for me before. Guess it is now.”

“So now you're on the run. How do you expect to escape them? The entertainment net is in complete control of the United Nations intellectual property committee and nearly all city police forces.”

“I suppose I would have to do like the others and kill myself to escape them completely.”

“But I'm not dead and I've escaped.”

“Yes. And I can see that it's a youth thing. My guess is that you're twenty-five and got the urge to escape from the perfect world of glamour society and your parents?”

“It wasn't perfect. They wanted to homogenize my life - an artist can't hide from the rough edges.”

“Have you found the rough edges here in Oakdale?”

 ”More than you know. What have you seen so far?”

“A corpse in the park. The rotten thing is that some nut from a wax museum and the police chief also showed. They call it death by misadventure. It looked like murder to me. Regardless of what it is I have to tell the chief where I'm staying. If he does a check on me I'll be found out.”

“No problem there. If Chief Shanon finds that you're a loser he'll cover for you and leave you alone. Anyone important he'd run out of town.”

“Isn't that the opposite of what police usually do?”

“It is. But here in Oakdale they don't like influential outsiders who might talk of the weird stuff that happens. You've already seen something, but you’re hiding and aren't in a position to reveal it to anyone.”

“What exactly do you mean by weird stuff? Got an example or two?”

“The rotten nut from the wax museum you mentioned. Thompson - he's a crazy mortician. There are killings all the time - every second or third day - and you know who got murdered because they end up as brief displays in his wax museum.”

“Thompson said he was going to claim the body we found today. You mean he really does put them in his wax museum. Why that's positively ghastly.”

“Not only that. He does it fast. The corpse you found is probably already on display. Has to be because its burial ceremony will be at sunrise.”

“I'd like to attend that.”

“Sure - I'll take you there if you want. You'll have to see it to believe it, but first let's book you a room.”

.........................

A Castle Appears

I ended up staying at the Oakdale Paramount, and to be honest it was more bottom of the heap than top. Its suites were located above an early variety of wired theatre, making it about the oldest structure in town. Bottom line is that it was affordable.

Before we entered Alice leaned back, hands on her hips. She stared up at the offbeat cake-like design and said the place had character. I read that as character like a character actor, where being ugly and unusual can often be an asset.

She seemed giddy while we were at the desk and kept elbowing and distracting me. On the inside the atmosphere was of a mummified sort - stale air and dreary vaults for hallways. Alice rang her knuckles on a brass fixture as we entered the room and she seemed quite pleased by the grand view.  Choosing the fourth floor had been wise as it gave the best perspective of the town. The rear suites had beautiful cupped balconies set up with spring planters and patio tables. She immediately decided that we would have dinner out there.

Though it was still early afternoon, my light travel style presented a roadblock. Simply put - I had nothing but the clothes on my back. Not even a suitcase. Most people carry a bag of essentials or at least an open up pocket Surf-All or a wearable neo laptop for communications. I'd learned long ago that you could be tracked via anything you owned or picked up. In the business area my platinum Internet account had been cancelled, but I had hundreds of other business accounts plus my public accounts. I knew all of them could be tracked so I used none of them - it was a way of making it difficult for them.  Anyone wanting further vengeance on me would have to work to find me.

I did have some cash and the ability to launder money so Alice and I decided on a straight exchange. I would pay her for the use of her net accounts, and show her a few secrets of privileged access. To make this enjoyable we took in the fresh air on the balcony. She watched the bustle in the open concourse below while I tweaked her connection to order what I needed. Beginning with a check on my own identify. I did a crack and found five active searches on my name. They'd turned up nothing so far, and I was glad of that. Two of them had been initiated by a dangerous character named Ming Tse.

In most things Alice remained a kid at heart. While net shopping she wanted to play a game of guessing my preferences in everything from clothing to food. At first I played along and we laughed a lot, then my humorous mood got swept away by an idea.

“Hold it a moment,” I said as an ugly revelation rose in my mind. “Cancel those orders. Don't let any of them go through.”

She giggled, thinking I was joking.  “Why would I do that? You want to sit here in the same clothes day after day. Starving as you look at four bare walls?”

“It's not that. I just remembered that identity isn't the only way to trace people. Your purchasing profile can identify you just as fast.”

“Yeah, but that's illegal. There are consumer privacy laws, you know.”

“You're forgetting that I worked for the entertainment net.”

“You mean the people that spin the world with their spin, making suicide possible in a world where it’s genetically impossible?”

“I do mean them, though I call them petty bastards. Let's do the ordering at random. My whole life's been disconnected anyway so I might as well change all of my old habits.”

Alice agreed with the random thing, and then proceeded to order everything according to her preferences. It took an hour and later we went out to shop for a few items I didn’t want to purchase via the net. That went smoothly and evening arrived with a warm blaze of sun and dinner on the balcony.

Alice ordered an Italian pasta dinner. I wolfed the main course down and I tried to regain my dignity by sipping wine as I nibbled on desert. Sunset hues hazed the town below. Great mounds of greenery and a mix of trees hid most of the streets. Some open areas showed through as glimpses of small town beauty. About what you'd expect - people strolling with dogs, small groups of loitering teens, kids in their loose clothing, shouting and playing roller games. The scene contrasted with my memories of New York, where decadent people tended to gather in large party gangs at evening. New York had seemed beautiful when I was there, but in memory it came up as tarnished.

Alice smiled sympathetically as she finished her last bite. “The town looks idyllic from here. But it isn't New York. This place is lacking when it comes to men.”

“You mean there aren't many single men in this back alley?”

“They all have fatal personality quirks. Probably you have them, too. People in your business are divorced most of the time.”

“Thanks a lot for lumping me in with the others. I agree that I do have flaws. My wife got to be just another person making excessive demands on my time and emotions. Demands I couldn't meet. It went downhill from there. People who are proud and think of themselves as perfect see too much imperfection in their loved ones. Everyone in the business is like that. We are genetically primed for healthy personalities and relationships. Yet it never quite works out because our negative cultural conditioning overrides it all.”

“You were established. You had your place at the top of society. Was your downfall really because of petty squabbles?”

“We played god and I've never been fully satisfied with the results. This is a world like a zoo. There's a bit of everything in it and it is all in cages ready to be packaged and sold as entertainment. Politics is controlled by the media, which is under the thumb of the global info-entertainment net. Dissent and social change remain as another regulated form of entertainment. The celebrity class now exists for the sole purpose of perpetuating itself. Even art is limited to forms that can be quickly piped into the hungry brain cells of the preprogrammed masses. People shouldn't forget how this world came about. It really began when the Internet and the free dissemination of ideas threatened the profits of the old media and entertainment industry. Old and some newer media had the money and the power so they conned us all. We allowed them to chain freedom of speech and we let them commercialize the net and then the entire public domain. Every idea and communication form got packaged and labeled as intellectual property. A dollar value was assigned to everything. We spend our entire lives renting back tarnished ideas and rewrites of old fictions in order to experience a simulation of free expression.”

“Ah, so you decided to get political and reaped the reward of it.”

“I wrote a secret paper on the system and how it would crash within fifty years.”

“Do you really think it will?”

“It might. But that piece was really written as a scare tactic. People at the top do it all the time to bring about small changes. Our leaders are not open to new ideas. Only the bogeyman can make them act.”

“But aren't we supposed to be genetically superior - born to be creative forever?”

“That's one of their fairy tales. Unlimited creativity is too risky for them. They've put walls up to prevent the rise of revolutionary ideas and change. This is a safe world for them. Safety has a high price and rulers who only get older become gods of petty revenge. I've angered them so they've kicked me off of Olympus.”

“Is there no way back up from the bottom?”

“There is. I've been punished before, but I always had something to trade like ideas for new blockbusters. I'm one of the few people who do think, but this time I'm in a dry spell. I have nothing. To get out of the hole I'd have to impress them with a marvelous new gift.”

“Okay, so there's no quick way back up for you. But why are you trying to hide from them?”

“They make the punishment work by taking away your privileges and leaving you an open target. My legal rights have been removed. Anyone who wants some sort of revenge on me can track me and do things to me. Some of them will eventually trace me here, and if I have to I'll kill them.”

The last of sunset opened like an Oriental fan in the West. Twilight began to sift through and I joined Alice at the railing - putting my arm around her as we chatted some more and studied the town.

We watched a crowd gathering out front of a dance club then my gaze got drawn back to the skyline. I observed something fading in and out in the distant light. It began to vanish then it returned like a sudden mirage. Its hues were subtle, touched by twilight. Almost like an etching or colored pencil sketch standing against the haze. The picture forming was of a castle - enormous, magnificent but also aged and crumbling in places. Central towers, a citadel, crenelated walls and the main gate fortifications radiated golden light. Blood-colored fog blew at the base of a massive southern keep. The northern portion had experienced a glorious collapse and it fell to earth as a waterfall of vines. Jagged walls and huge blocks thrust through in spots like broken teeth or fangs.

“Disney,” I said as I stared in amazement.

“Disney - what are you talking about?”

“I'm talking about that castle on the horizon. It's a relic of the ancient Disney entertainment empire. The design is unmistakable. I wonder why it's been left to decay that way?”

“I don't know. They've restored part of it. I noticed it weeks ago, but when I tried to get info on it the locals didn't have a name for it. Kids call it the Castle of Fangs because of those sharp stones poking through the vines to the north. I tried to visit it once and couldn't get through the gate. In spite of its condition there are live-in owners. Mostly it's a mystery. Whenever I ask people in town about it, they say they know nothing about it.”

“It's not on the maps either. I studied this area in detail before choosing it. That parcel of land is listed as wasteland. No structures are marked. I wonder if the older town records have anything on it.”

“They might, but the people sure don't or else they're keeping it secret. No one seems to know the names of the occupants.”

“Then it is certainly a key to our mystery. I mean the strange town and residents. You can be sure the castle is somehow related.”

“Who exactly was Disney? Perhaps it’s somehow tied in with him.”

“Disney was a creative man who built an entertainment empire that has lived on after his death. He would have been long dead when that castle was constructed. His empire and a number of others merged and gained control of the world's wealth and financial systems. Giving us the entertainment net. It was the cradle of our society and the downfall of mankind in some ways. I suppose Disney saw it coming way back then and simply bought into it.”

.........................

 

He Rises in Flames

The Castle of Fangs towered over me in my dreams, swallowing the sky like a living monster of decay. Huge stones thundered to the earth around me. I stared up into a halo of moon-glare watching cracked towers tilt and spew dust as they began to crumble. A corpse flew from the splitting rubble. Then a door banged and I woke from the nightmare. I opened my eyes and shielded them when the overhead light came on. Peeking through my fingers, I saw Alice standing at the foot of the bed. She wore a gold headband, gold loops, a gold jacket and a smile.

“Oh God, I'm hung over,” I said as I sat up in bed. “I can't remember a thing. Guess I passed out.”

“I warned you about drinking too much.”

“You did didn't you - and damn me for insisting on buying Calera classic white. That old-style alcohol is brutal.”

“I've brought the cure,” she said, pulling a foil pouch from her purse. “Get dressed and I'll mix it for you.”

My head and eyes felt swollen. I got dressed, put on a new jacket and went to the balcony for some fresh air. Alice was already there at the table and as I sat she poured the pouch into a glass of water.

It fizzed up and I immediately seized it and drank. Grogginess ballooned in my head as my thirst abated. “It's a bit early to be getting up,” I said.

“You told me to get you up. You wanted to see one of Oakdale's sunrise funerals.”

“I forgot. Yes, I can't miss it. That's my corpse they've got there, and they can have it. The sooner the case around it is buried, the better it is for me. Let me grab a quick shave and we're off.”

Alice's hangover cure worked smoothly. As we walked out of the hotel I felt like top of the morning. Though it looked more like the middle of the night, with Venus being the only indication of a new day coming.

We had time to walk, so I waited while Alice grabbed something from her glove compartment, then I took her arm and we headed down the street. A fine mist had rolled in at ground level and it picked up radiance from store signs and displays. These were the old models with nighttime interactive mode, meaning that if we got too close video clips would be triggered, perhaps even the horrid face of some huckster halfway around the world would appear to offer us late night discounts.

Alice took us north on a parkette path, and once out of the haze the stars seemed incredibly bright. I could see the moon buried in western clouds and a vague outline that I knew to be the Castle of Fangs.

A trail at the rear of a long shopping complex took us to the museum. Dark wet grass and weeds overhung the path and I felt cold dew trickling between my toes as we approached. I didn't get a view of the front of the place.  Alice said the event was taking place in the field and graveyard at the back. From the rear the wax museum was a molded metal fortress lit by a faint light that spotted the haze with its blue glow. The rows of recessed windows were dark and glossy and the vaulted door had the authority of a tomb. What could best be described as a mob had gathered in a trimmed portion of the field next to the parking area.  None of them wore any sort of special ceremonial dress but a number of people were carrying glow-all torches that imitate fire.

More than anything else the torches created the mob effect. Their flicker and shadow worked to turn the Oakdale crowd into sinister Neanderthals sporting hooded eyes, sharp cheekbones, beards of shadow and bruise-purple mouths.

We emerged unnoticed from the gloom and stood in silence at the edge of the cleared area. A faint smear in the east indicated the approach of sunrise and as I looked to the horizon I spotted a number of ebony objects in the field. A longer study revealed these to be totems and a few squat statues - the totems had a metallic sheen, the statues a dull stone appearance. Beyond them obelisks and gravestones were visible in the faint light. When I'd absorbed the full scene, I knew we were standing on the edge of a carpet of grass. The totems and statues rested to either side as the grass stretched to the graveyard. In that sense the graveyard was almost an extension of the mortuary they called a wax museum.

People whispered and Alice remained silent as I continued to look around. Then the museum door began to open. In spite of its appearance of great weight the motion was silent. Two men dressed in broad-brimmed hats and long jackets emerged from the totally dark interior. Their heavy boots echoed in the lot as they stepped up. I recognized one of them as Bill Thompson.

They halted at the edge of the parking lot and the somber cast of their faces drew a hush from the crowd. Thompson looked pale and bloodless, like maybe he'd decorated himself with his own makeup. The role of cultist come minister cloaked him well. I saw him as exactly the sort of guy who would be involved in the supernatural and magic.

Thompson cleared his throat and addressed the mob. His voice came off as affected with disproportionate emphasis at the end of his sentences. Call it a bad production in general, yet it seemed impossible that a prayer and address like Thompson's could be happening, and that made it spooky.

“Chosen Ones of Oakdale, a man has died in the holy manner and as always he will remain nameless in death - his estate obliterated, his family forgotten, and his children orphans. His gravestone shall bear the image of the mystic and the angel of dawn will consume his ashes. In death he will prosper in the valley of the fangs. Born from the darkness, to the darkness he will return as . . . .”

As Thompson rambled on, his bizarre eulogy drew shivers from the crowd. It failed to frighten me and instead got me thinking about the supernatural. It would be wonderful to believe in a dark power as he did. My personal vision had always been an atheist deal of thankless mortals. People living on for centuries, and as the shadow of the grave faded, it became more necessary than ever. It would be great to be up on that mountain, seeing creatures or gods, souls rising to the unknown. Thompson's delusion represented the world as it should be. He'd outstretched his arms to the graveyard, and I knew many petty people who would only obtain salvation six feet under.

Thompson's speech ended abruptly and his stocky assistant took charge at that precise moment. He turned to face the rear of the museum. Blue light gathered on his frozen face, and as he opened his arms a faint beam suddenly shone from his eyes to the door. The dull metal absorbed this light, and though it was definitely fake - a cheap laser trick - it did work to open the door. It also triggered lights inside. They flickered then lit up with great brilliance.

Rivers of candle power poured from the windows. Electrifying wattage that drew a shrill scream from someone inside the museum. Gasps and excited whispering swept the crowd. We could see someone stumbling to the doorway. This person was blinded and in agony. Hands covering his eyes, he emerged and fell on the steps. Radiant light backlit him making it nearly impossible to make anything out. Then the lights suddenly went out and I saw retinal flashes everywhere I looked.

As the blindness abated, I noticed that the door had shut and the man was now slowly getting to his knees. If you could call him a man. Sticky wax coated his entire body and the heat of the lights inside had melted it to a degree. Some of it had peeled from his face, revealing patches of rotting flesh and wine-stained skin.

  This man looked familiar and as I studied his crumpled clothes I realized they belonged to the corpse I had found in the park. Only now the corpse was alive - in some sense of the word. This hideous reincarnation radiated death more than life.

As he rose fully from his knees the glow-all torchlight spilled on him, creating an image all the more ghastly. Stiff lips erupted as he spat bile and vomit. Pain and anguish came unbidden in the form of a guttural moan rising from his quivering chest. A red tint brightened in his swollen eyes, highlighting huge fangs and a beard of wet wax that hung like slime from his chin.

“I can't believe it. He's a vampire.” I said to Alice. Then his mouth twisted like a ravenous slash of decay, and he began to approach us, slowly like he was learning to walk all over again.

I didn't want to take my eyes off the drooling fiend, but Alice was tugging at my sleeve. As I turned to her, I saw Bill Thompson leading the silent crowd across the field to the totems at the edge of the graveyard.

Alice and I followed, hearing the waxen monster huffing just behind us as we walked. Thompson took us through the totems and we gathered next to the squat statue of a toad-like deity.

Bill Thompson remained calm and pale and the others were also silent and unafraid. I turned and could see the shambling corpse approaching. It sniffed loudly like it was scenting blood, and then something happened that distracted us all.

A halo of light appeared in the graveyard next to the statue of an angel. A nude woman stood in this light - her hair and flesh flowing, golden and beautiful. I could see voluptuous curves, breasts - the vision aroused me and it also aroused the beast.

Moaning like some monster from hell the waxen vampire charged toward the graveyard. The wet grass slowed him and tripped him. He stumbled to his feet and disappeared in the darkness of the stones. He showed beside the stone angel moments later.

He halted a short distance from the woman, let out a tremendous cry and then rushed forward. I expected her to cower, but instead she stepped forward, her motion indicating the toss of a knife. Something silver flashed from her hand and expanded to a cloud of brilliant dust that streamed into the running monster.

A wave of flame and steam rushed to the sky as the waxen vampire ignited. And he didn't collapse but stopped dead in his tracks. Small fireballs continued to ripple up his body and explode. His head ballooned with more fire and went off like a roman candle, trailing brain matter as it shot between the gravestones. Then his torso exploded in a grotesque flash of flaming flesh. Searing waves expanded from the burning rib cage and a moment later we could see little other than smoldering embers next to the stone angel. I looked for the woman, but during the explosion she had disappeared.

Bill Thompson stepped forward and led the mob into the graveyard, and though Alice again tugged at my sleeve, I remained firm and refused to move.

“I think I've seen enough,” I said.

“The rest is rather dull, anyway,” Alice said. “They collect and burn any remains they find and you never do get to see the grave woman or learn whether she's real or a projection.”

“She's real all right. That dead man walking as a vampire was real, too. He rose as the undead, which is completely impossible.”

“You’re right, and maybe Thompson's wax caused that to happen.”

 

“I don't think so. According to the mythology he must have been bitten by a vampire before he died, and thus rose again.”

.........................

In the Stacks

Oakdale's library stood on a long rise set off from Oak Lane by a covered walkway. The large structure had a community design with false brick, a weed garden, bay windows and skylights. Alice mentioned that the large northern extension contained the stacks.

“Print stacks,” I said as we stood on the sidewalk, shielding our eyes and looking up. “I haven't read a paper book in years.”

“Neither have I, but they have a print version of the town records, so it's better to check them here where we won't be noticed.”

“You really think they’re watching us?”

A horn beeped before she could answer. Turning we saw police chief Dan Shanon grinning and waving as he drove by in a black and white town cruiser.

I shook my head in dismay as we mounted the library steps. We entered, signed in, took the hall to get around the computer readers and passed a lonely scan machine to enter the stacks. This vast room was musty and cavernous. Rows of high shelves ran nearly its full length. The system of retrieval was antiquated - a single data base computer to search for the title tag, which you were then supposed to find in the aisles.

Alice took my arm and pulled me away from the computer, leading me down a narrow aisle. Filtered sunbeams poked through from above creating a patchwork of dusty spotlights on the towers of books. The silence felt comfortable and warm. I heard nothing but the soft pad of our footsteps as we navigated the maze of shelves. We stopped way back in the stacks and I waited as Alice searched the titles. She pulled out a few editions and thumbed through them, and she clicked her tongue with satisfaction upon opening a wide leather-bound file.

I followed her down a broad aisle that opened on a reading area. Sunlight streamed in the window and we sat at a table that granted a view of the weed garden. She opened the book and began to riffle through the pages, finally settling to read one of the final chapters.

I couldn't see the copy and she was chewing on her tongue with interest, so I interrupted. “Find anything interesting?”

“Yeah, a lot. Our Castle of Fangs first existed in Yorkville Heights on the outskirts of Toronto 300 years ago. Originally they called it Castle Borealis. When the theme park died it became a graveyard storing materials from other Disney parks. A man named Jack Marsden bought it for 65 million dollars and moved the entire thing stone by stone to its location here. Marsden also moved parts of the theme park. When he finished the monumental task, he lived in the castle for a grand total of three years before dying of a rare blood disorder. Marsden was an eccentric character and his reputation kept the castle alive as a tourist attraction after his death. There’s a book on the clever methods he used to move the castle.”

“So who owns it now?”

“I'm getting to that,” she said, flipping some pages. “Ah, here it is. The castle went through a long period of abandonment. Being owned by the Montezuma Group. They never found a use for it and 25 years ago they sold it to Daniel Saul, a wealthy Canadian scientist. He repaired the castle and took up residence with his wife - listed as a retired actress named Liz Parker.”

“Daniel Saul. I didn't know he married Parker. They both vanished from the public eye years back.”

“Who are they? I've never heard of either of them.”

“Daniel Saul made the news thirty years ago. As a wealthy scientist he created a scandal through experiments with animals involving gene therapy and nano technology. Supposedly he was attempting to create new life forms that would be both animal species and machines. He got busted for unethical practices and went to one of those paradise prisons. I didn't know he got released. Liz Parker had some degree of fame before she went mad. She was mostly involved in underground Gothic stuff - a sex goddess in old plays and film features to do with vampirism and the occult. Liz believed herself to be a descendant of actual vampires. She tried to raise her daughter in a weird manner and the international Child Protection Agency stepped in. She wasn’t connected with Saul at that time. Perhaps they met and married in a madhouse or prison.”

“We have our vampire connection in Liz Parker.”

“Yes, and with Daniel Saul in that castle, I wonder . . .”

“Wonder what?”

“Oh, nothing. I have an idea of what might be happening.”

“So what's our next step?”

“I want to return to the field and check out a few things at the spot where I found that corpse. Maybe we can do it tonight.”

Alice agreed to proceed and that we were making progress. We decided to return the book and leave the library. Strolling out into bright sunshine we slowly made our way to the bottom of the steps. It came as no surprise when Dan Shanon appeared on the sidewalk. He wore a trooper outfit. A frown creased his forehead.

“Mr. King,” he said. “Just a word on that corpse you found. The death has been ruled as misadventure and the burial took place this morning.”

“You mean the case is wrapped up?”

“Not quite. Bill Thompson says you attended the ceremony this morning. I'd appreciate it if you keep quiet about what you saw.”

“Why? What difference does it make?”

“We don't like any advertisement of our eccentricities. Odd things can get to be news, and that would draw undesirable visitors to our little town.”

I grinned. “Most other towns are doing everything in their power to get publicity.”

“Yeah, and you would know. I did some checking on you. Oakdale's just about the only place you have left. After your experience with those people, you should know why we want to keep a low profile. You do anything to draw publicity and I'll throw you back to the sharks.”

“I guess you've got me there. The truth is that I want some privacy just like folks in Oakdale do. Anything odd that I see, I quickly forget.”

“That's good,” Shanon said, and then he turned and walked back to his cruiser.

........................

Beasts in the Night

Alice and I passed the evening hours in a club called the Paper Lantern. We expected Dan Shanon to tail us there, conclude we were on a dance party trip and leave us alone. Chief Shanon did follow us. I watched from a luxury bathroom as he parked his cruiser out front and sent in a brutish undercover man. The guy walked through the club, looking around, and then he sat at a table near us. A half hour later he left and when I checked for the cruiser it was gone, too.

I wore fake headgear. It made me the only person in the place not tuned into the exotic dance console. Near midnight, I sat alone at a table sipping L.L. Latso rum cola. Layered music does not work without enhancement, and I was beginning to wonder if the noise bombarding me could be any indication of the true sound. Sensory images provided for the dance vistas didn’t register with me either. Without a direct connection to brain cells they came across as an assault of needling frames. Electrifying and skeletal stuff that tormented the optic nerve and produced nausea.

Alice had hooked in her wearable and a headset. She spent most of the time dancing with a tacky Tony Adams beach-movie look-alike. My headache grew like a tumor as I watched them. The last dance seemed to last forever, but it was really about 15 minutes, then she got thirsty and returned to the table for a drink.

The plastic Tony came in tow with her. She mocked my wearied frown and grinned as she sat. A passing waiter served her a lemon drink. Alice guzzled that then leaned back for a moment with her eyes closed.

Bronze-skinned Tony shuffled from one sandal to the other as he chewed on pacifier gum. Being too charged to sit he reached down and tried to pull Alice up. The rude move irritated me so I grabbed his arm and forced it away. Alice squirmed in her seat and jumped when I reached over and removed her headset. Her eyes glazed over with confusion. Tiny wrinkles formed on her freckled nose and she sneezed. In an instant her cheeks went from ruby to pink. She stared at me dumbfounded.

“We're going for a midnight stroll. Remember?”

Her eyes rolled like her brain had been jarred. Then she stiffened. “Right. We better leave through the back.”

Alice waved Tony off and as he shuffled back to the dance floor we rose and followed the aluminum railing to the back door. We were about to exit when Tony suddenly reappeared. He burst from the curtain of flashing lights to our left and made a grab for Alice. Fury and hot blood rose in my head. I stepped into his path and yanked his headset off. A hard shove and he went stumbling across the dance floor, and as he crashed into another man I tossed his headset in after him.

Confusion developed as more people collided on the dance floor. Putting an arm around Alice, I hurried her outside. It was like rushing into paradise. The back of the Paper Lantern contained a garden and club playground for people who wanted to do more than just dance. A midnight game of volleyball was underway and lovers strolled in the garden. I didn't get to see much more than that because I could feel Alice's angry glare burning up the corner of my eye.

I turned and faced her.

“That was rude of you. Shoving my partner like that.”

“Sorry about that. I guess I panicked.”

“It looked more like jealousy to me.”

“What if it was?”

“Forget it.”

“Damn, this whole place is walled in. I thought there was an exit here.”

“See that recess just behind the fountain. The grass banks up against the wall there. We can grab that branch and swing to the top.”

“Sounds like you've done it before.”

“Many times. Escape is often the only remedy for the kind of guys I meet here.”

We followed through, taking a romantic stroll through the garden. Moonlight glowed on the gushing fountain, making the romance seem real. I saw something more than friendship in Alice's glittering eyes, and wished we could stay. Moments later that idle wish vanished in the burst of sweaty energy it took to get over the wall.

Alice plunged into sheer darkness and a soft weed bed. I remained in the haze of colored light and noise at the top of the wall. Jumping into the unknown did not suit me. I heard water flowing and did not want to land in it. Seconds later the moon passed out of a cloud and melted the darkness below. It gave me the confidence to drop down. Rolling up I saw Alice at my shoulder, facing a rushing brook that curved like a moat around the back of the club.

A graceful leap took her to a stone at the centre. A second hop and she reached the far bank. My own lack of agility put me beside her with soaked feet. I looked down at dripping cuffs and flattened silverweed, then ahead at a moonlit vista of parkland.

A grassy field ran for a quarter of a kilometer south before turning west. The lights of a residential area glowed just beyond a soft line of firs in the east. Heaps of huge stone blocks reinforced the bottom of a ravine that rose at the bend in the park. Moonlight created an eerie saucer of gloss on a water tower at the top.

Alice put her hands on her hips then turned her gaze to me. “We pass the bend. From there the trail forks in three directions. The spot where you found the corpse would be near the river.”

She led the way as we waded through thick weeds, then it was smooth going on the trail. It dipped toward the bend and into the ravine. Large blocks of stone reinforcing the banks dwarfed us, and the rising ravine-side and thick lilac brush buried us in a shadow of silence and gloom.

Alice pulled a glow flashlight from her purse and we used it for light as we pressed ahead. A breeze carrying sweet odors of the river touched us and at the bend a broad scene opened. Some of the town's taller buildings lined the heights bordering acres of parkland. Night-lights, the moon and stars cast a glow of silver on the treetops and fields.

We could hear the murmur of the river though we couldn't see it. And we also heard something else - a distant growl.

I gazed up the ravine-side. “That sounded mean, like a cougar.”

Alice glanced back. “I doubt it. Raccoons are the fiercest beasts in this town. If you're worried, I brought this just in case.”

She'd pulled a pistol from her purse. It had the Remington label.

“I hope you don't plan on firing that antique. It'll likely explode and blow your hand off.”

“It won't explode. The antique look is just the design. I borrowed this from my father when I left home. It has a molecular computer for a fast lock on a target. The bullets are super-heated projectiles that are instantly generated by a nano engine in the barrel. It's guaranteed to penetrate just about anything.”

“It's also in violation of the gun control laws. You better make sure that Shanon never catches you with it.”

“I never use it. It's just something I like to have.”

“Okay, let me get my bearings. Is that set of lights Oakdale College?”

“Yes.”

“Follow me.”

We took a trail through the centre of the parkland, walking slowly as I looked about, trying to pinpoint the place where I'd discovered the corpse. I aimed for a spot between the lights of the college and the other distant lights from the town square. Once there I saw the field of wild flowers I had crossed on entering town. The grass was beaten down in one area, and we found Shanon's tire tracks.

“What exactly are we looking for, Grant?”

“In the dark, not much. But we already have our first clue.”

“Which is?”

“This area wasn't searched. Most of the field is untouched. Chief Shanon didn't have to investigate because he knew exactly how the murder happened. His investigations are just to cover things up.”

“It puts us at a dead end, really. We can't go up against Shanon.”

“There's something else I want to look at. When I found the corpse, I saw a fresh trail beaten to that rise.”

Grass and wild flowers rustled at our shins as we walked to the rise. A copse of maples towered over the field there and a path wound over the top. Scrub choked the path and moving up it in the dark was a frightening experience. My nerves tingled and I felt Alice press close at my back. She moved beside me when the bushes broke at the top.

The Castle of Fangs glowed in a spill of moonbeams to the West. Just ahead the rise dropped off sharply and the sand cliff descended to the riverbank. Flotsam spotted the swollen river. Logs and branches bobbed in its skin of moonlight. A shadowy island of debris drifted slowly in the main current, its bloated appendages lapping the water. Bubbles and foam rose in its wake, giving the impression that something large and vile had risen from the bottom.

Alice pointed to the far bank. A spot to our right.  We could see a green light, and it was an odd effect. Swamp gas picking up rays from an unknown source and forming a shape like an eye. It aided the moon in creating ghostly illumination in a swampy area that stretched back into acres of widely spaced firs.

Looking along the shore I saw a dock at the swamp's edge and a large motorized raft tied to it. Other glow lights began to show in the fir trees and they cast shadows, some which appeared to be human forms.

“They're doing something in the woods over there. I can't tell what.”

“Heading in the direction of the Castle of Fangs, Grant. That's what.”

The glow brightened and we saw a shadowy group of about twenty people passing through a small field toward more firs and the road to the castle. As they reached the firs lights began to whirl and strobe in the boughs. We heard faint snarling reverberate over the river. There were sounds of a struggle, branches crashing. I strained to see but it was impossible to make anything out in the shifting mass of lights and darkness.

Moments later the song of a night bird was the only sound, and we could see the lights pressing deeper into the firs.

“How do we get over there? I want to see what happened.”

“We have to go back, and over to Oakdale College. The nearest bridge is there.”

The brush snapped at us as we raced down the rise, then it was a pleasant late night jog over to the college. Its front gates were closed so we followed the perimeter of the fence. At the rear spotlights illumined the exit, a road and the bridge. This was an arched bridge and from the top we could see a black flow of moonlit water and little else.  A rutted road ran along the shore on the far side so we crossed and followed it to a dead end. From there we had to pass through an acre of staghorn sumac, using a narrow path.

The sumac took us into a long shallow ravine and broke at a broad elm tree. We eased around its trunk and found ourselves with a sudden open view. A glow of moonlight capped the roof of a temple situated in a shallow depression ahead. Deep grass banked the open central area. The edifice looked primitive and incomplete, being just a sculptured slab of deep gray stone mounted on five squat pillars. Though the stones making up the floor were smooth, the rest of it was roughhewn. A dense core of darkness marked its heart and it cast an illusion of impenetrable power.

Alice leaned on my shoulder. “This place must be one of Thompson's temples”, she said.

“Yeah, and the ceremony they practice probably involves sucking your heart out and replacing it with a ball of hot wax.”

Ground ivy sprouted through the jigsaw of cracked stone pieces that made up the temple floor. Some of these pieces were tablets marked with inscriptions in an unknown language. The silhouette of a huge object showed in the veil of shadows at the centre.

Though the place appeared abandoned, we didn't want to walk unprotected into its darker areas. It had the unsettling feeling of a cursed tomb with the enveloping silence leading one to assume the presence of snakes, black widows or lurking demons.

“We've got to check this place. We'll have to chance using your light.”

“Okay,” Alice said, then she fumbled with it while pulling it out and accidentally triggered its brightest setting. The layered yellow flash dropped to normal illumination as she adjusted it. Darkness receded, opening a view of another tablet at the center. This one had been raised and mounted with straps on poles and an iron rail. The sketch-like carving appeared to be ancient and authentic. It was of one image that stretched to the crumbled edges … a picture that looked morbid more than spiritual. It showed a primitive man being devoured by a huge fanged beast.

“Repulsive isn't it,” I said.

“Let's just hope that Thompson hasn't brought it back to life. Whatever it is.”

“He's probably tried.”

Exiting the temple we climbed the bank on the far side and took a path out of the ravine. Night flies began to dog us and a faint odor of rancid mud in the air told us we were approaching the swampy area. Debris blocked this path in many places and twice we had to climb over the rotted trunks of fallen trees. Eventually a broader path opened and it was banked by bushes, mostly lilacs.

About a hundred yards into it, we detected some movement in the lilac bushes, then we heard a dragging noise and loud rustling. I raised a finger for silence as Alice switched off her light. Crouching on the path, we watched as a heavy shadow emerged from the bushes ahead of us. The long bulky phantom appeared to be dragging a body.

The creature stopped and panted from the exertion and it gained definition as it moved away from us and out of the cover of overhanging foliage. A filter of moonlight put it fully into focus, revealing it to be a large cat. Its hindquarters were of a powerful design and it resembled a cougar, though it was much bigger. Red markings on its hip identified it as a genetic hybrid, though not of known registration.

As it moved to a turn in the path we spotted the corpse dragging under it. The beast had its jaws sunk into the shoulder of this corpse, pulling it up as it padded forward.

It seemed like we were in the clear, then a night bird fluttered in the bush, causing the beast to halt and drop its cargo.

It sniffed and growled as it studied the brush, and then it turned and looked back on the path. Its features were awe-inspiring and terrifying. Moonbeams transformed its eyes to brilliant coins of light. Blood dripped from extended canines, whiskers and its chin. Without a doubt it detected us, yet it chose to ignore us.

It turned its long body, giving us a view of the corpse; the victim being a man with wild brown hair and a death expression that was both predatory and ghastly. Veins had exploded in his cheeks, swelling them with blood. His forehead was a purple welt and the eyes were open and shot with red. Fangs pierced his swollen lips, causing them to run with blood and pus.

Sinking its canines firmly into the corpse's shoulder, the cat growled, shook it then continued down the path. Alice and I trembled, and didn't dare move for about two minutes before we stood and began to whisper.

She seized my elbow. “What do you make of that?”

“I think it's one of Saul's animal creations. He's been at work again combining nano technology with genetics. Not only is that beast powerful, it also appears to be intelligent.”

“It saw us. I'm sure.”

“We're fortunate in that it seems to be on an assigned mission. The body it is dragging is one of the townspeople freshly risen as a vampire. The cat is doing some sort of cleanup. It had the strength to hunt down the vampire and take it down. I'm not sure what it's doing with the body. Taking it to the castle or maybe just disposing of it somewhere.”

“I suppose Daniel Saul creates the vampires, too.”

“That's my belief. I think Liz Parker had him recreate the vampire myth. He must have created nano technology that works in the blood. Once bitten on the neck in the classic fashion by one of those vamps, the nanbots enter and cause the corpse to rise again as another vampire.”

“I think we've got it, Grant. But why? And how do Thompson and the townspeople come into it?”

“Through technology Liz Parker has realized her dream of becoming a vampire. She uses Bill Thompson and his cult to supply her victims. They also do cleanup work. When the monsters rise they dispose of them with their fire ritual. Any they miss the cat picks up. Daniel Saul gains in that his wife is happy. With control of the town he can continue his work without interference.”

“If that's true, it's a risky game they're playing. Sooner or later they won't be able to contain it completely and the vampirism will spread like a plague.”

“Now that would be entertainment. A bigger package of it than anything our ruling class would want.”

Ducking off the path we slipped through deeper brush and walked slowly over the lumpy ground. Faint light and green-tinted haze began to show in the distant firs, indicating that we had reached the swampy area we'd viewed from the hill. Patches of boggy ground appeared. Mist poured like smoke over these mud holes and in the end, we had to go around the entire swamp as it was impassable. In some spots misted reeds were lit up by lights from the castle entry road. The green eye of the swamp we'd seen from over the river had been an effect of this mist and light.

The castle was now close by. We could hear dogs howling in one of the flanking towers. Ahead ground fog drifted over the forest floor, submerging most of the wild flowers. It was easy going as there was very little brush - just the broad pine trunks, the occasional boulder and mound. Further in the shore of a pond appeared as glaze and shimmer, and we could see across it to the castle gate and its fortifications.

Spotlights illumined a portion of the entry road and a black caped guard marching in billowing mist at the edge of the darkness. The castle clock tower shone with magnificent light, and more lights glowed in the upper yard.

Faint voices and the sound of a car engine carried on the breeze.  A group of people walked into view behind the gate. Some of them were guards and a pale blond woman at the centre of the group appeared to be Liz Parker. Her outfit was loose and black and her movements were sleek, trailing a glitter of jewelry as she walked.

Alice halted at the shore and turned to face me. “I think the queen vampire just passed there. That puts the front definitely out. There's no easy way inside. If we climb the wall, they'll spot us.”

“How do we get to the ruins? We might be able to enter there.”

“Okay. We follow the shore of this pond and pass through some more woods. Keep in mind that the ruins have no lights. It's going to be dark.”

Polished stones lined the shore and we heard nothing but the gentle lapping of the water as we walked. Cold fingers of mist touched us and then faded as we reached a solid curtain of brush. Prickly branches lashed at us as we pushed through and I felt relieved when the foliage broke at a path that ran beside the castle wall.

The track was ill defined, tufted with grass in places. Rubbish indicated occasional human traffic. We couldn't see the ruins yet but the wall was obviously a part of them. A heavy growth of ivy bit into the crumbling blocks and many stones had broken away in the higher sections. The whole thing rose like a giant's broken dentures and the decay showed everywhere on the path. Often the broken fragments were embedded in the earth or heaped in gravel near the track.

Dark cavities in the wall spooked us more than the trembling forest. If another of the cat creatures existed and lurked up there, it could be down on us in a second. Alice showed the bravery that I lacked. Her slim hips swayed confidently in front of me as we followed the wall. Finally the path widened to puddles and patches of pebbled mud and we halted.

We didn't dare use the light. The scene was gloomy but just bright enough for us to see that we'd reached the perimeter of a trash yard. Strong odors were another clue. The breeze had died and the air felt stagnant and heavy. It tickled my nostrils and placed a flavour of dead roots and musty rot at the back of my tongue.

Alice led the way around the puddles and we'd soon eased our way to drier ground. Two huge piles of concrete rubble rose beside us and from that point we could see a portion of the wall that had collapsed completely. The view across the rubbish heap added a completely new decrepit aspect to the castle. A damaged flanking tower rose oppressively and blotted out the moon. Ramparts, crenulated walls, and a citadel loomed in the darkness. Time had hit this portion of the castle like a slow bomb. Most likely it had been the structure's shoulder against the 50 years of hurricanes that rode in during the last phase of global warming.

Battered junk and rubbish poked from the weeds and from mounds of earth and rubble. Rusted fenders, broken appliances and skeletons of worm-eaten wood and plastic were the rising evil in this graveyard. The scene stretched to a second castle wall. It was fortified yet had some missing stones. Someone had placed a rickety fence to create a path there. Clean grass and earth bordered this path. We spied one section where the wall had eroded to steps and decided to use it to climb to the top.

It was slow going as the yard was a minefield of broken bottles and sharp metal. We got about halfway across and then I saw something move near the wall and halted.

“I think I saw something jump the fence there.”

Alice stopped and stared. “I can't see anything.”

“Maybe it was nothing,” I said as I scrutinized the offending section of the yard.

Piles of drums and lumber and some scrub prevented a clear view. I wanted to be sure so I picked up a broken piece of brick and tossed it. There was a double bang as it ricocheted off a car wreck and some drums. A fluttering of wings followed and we saw a bat rush up into the night sky.

Ruts and a bed of cracked mud were immediately in front of us. We moved through the spot cautiously. At the last deep rut we had to look down. As I finished the hop over it, I lifted my head and saw something red and white flashing down an invisible wire of night. I didn't get out of the way in time and it hit me like a ball of snarling fury. I crashed into Alice, sending her rolling aside as I went down into the rut with an assailant on top of me.

Though the impact was stunning, I still managed to come through with an instinctive move that remained in my memory from my early days as a stuntman. Holding the attacker, I rolled and the bank of the rut gave me the back support to throw him off.

Sharp stones bit into my shoulder blades. A gasp of pain escaped my lips as I burst to my feet. I'd done it fast enough to beat the attacker up, and I could see him rising. Dizziness swamped my vision as I got out of the rut and backed away.

The blurred scene sharpened. My assailant was a man in badly tattered clothing and I could see him pulling on a huge shard of glass that had got embedded in his arm. Blood trickled as he tossed the shard away.

The rest of his appearance came as a shock. Cherries of black blood oozed from a plague of scabs on his arms and torso. Burn tissue, blackened wounds and a protruding rib cage made up his chest. His face was little more than a fanged skull. Seared flesh and bone formed a mask over eyes deep as shotgun barrels and bright as afterburn. A projection of hate and hunger created his personality, and I had only a moment to think before he hissed, raised a clawed hand and lunged.

His fanged mouth snapped at me and bits of vile decay sprayed my face as I grappled with him. He screamed horribly as I threw him down into the rut.

I backed off a few steps then he flew up and came at me again. This time I was ready. Going down into a fast crouch, I bucked him over me. He went into a mound of concrete, hitting his back hard. I could see the light in his eyes glimmering electrically as he struggled to rise, and in that free moment I looked around for Alice.

She was to my left and on one knee. I could see that she'd been stunned but was now coming around. She had her gun out.

The vampire didn't appear to see her at all. He got to his feet and stumbled over a crack as he staggered toward me. Then Alice fired and the super-heated projectiles created a chain of light that turned his chest into a shower of fireflies. The charge lit the rest of the body to bright neon. Vapor hissed as it melted.

Hot ashes exploded from the liquefying mass. Sparks winked as the ashes fluttered to the ground, and I saw Alice smirk as she put the gun away. “How do you like that for scattering the ashes?” she said.

More bats flew overhead as we hurried across the yard. The fence proved easy to vault and the path along the wall revealed no surprises. I boosted Alice up into the eroded portion and she used the gaps and vines to get the rest of the way up. I waited for her signal then made the climb.

Crouching at the top of the wall, we looked deeper into the castle grounds. This was a better view of the collapsed northern portion. The court directly below was composed of flag stones that looked like they'd been heaved loose by an earthquake. Weeds, shrubs and vines burst through the cracks and covered most of it. A large heap of rotted shingles rested against the wall nearby. The remains of a collapsed shed were at the centre of the yard. It had been partially swallowed by a ridge of limestone that had been pitched up during some past rumble of the earth.

An intact keep rose at the end of this wreckage and it looked much older than the restored Disney towers of the castle. Spotlights from the yard beyond backlit it while the front portion in the damaged court was plunged in darkness.

“Looks like a dead end,” Alice said. “That wall running to the keep is fortified with a defense rail.”

“It's impassable, but we could try entering through that door at the bottom of the keep.”

“It's bolted, and solid reinforced oak. We'd need explosives to open it.”

“We've got your gun, remember. It'll cut the lock easily.”

Our jumping point was down to the mound of shingles. I went first, sliding to the bottom before Alice followed. Numerous stones stood askew in our path. We picked our way through them, sometimes hopping over ridges of broken limestone. The ground leveled out as we got nearer to the keep, and we were almost at it when fresh trouble arose.

An incredible cracking noise startled us and we swung around and looked back to the tumbled shed at the centre. Boards and earth were rising there, and roaring accompanied the movement.

“Run for the keep!” I said. Though I may have said it to myself as Alice had already gone into flight ahead of me.

In moments we were in the shadow of the towering structure, and rather than wait for Alice to act, I simply seized her purse and took out the gun. She was looking back at the ruins and a gigantic thing tearing out of them. I looked long enough to see that it was bigger and uglier than any cat, and then I turned and fired at the locked door.

A combination of vaporization and force took the lock out of existence and threw the heavy door open. It hit the interior stone with a loud crash. I grabbed Alice to pull her inside then stopped dead because something was racing out.

We both staggered back and nearly fell as a rushing cloud of bat wings swept us. Alice went down as they swarmed up into the sky, and I turned back to see if the creature was getting any closer.

Gleaming coils spun in the darkness. It appeared to be an armored snake moving toward us at incredible speed. Raising the gun, I aimed, fired and staggered back from the visible shock of the impact.

The blast stopped the creature and lit it up with fire, but it did not kill it. Flaming coils writhed; a vicious hiss of pain flew with steam from its fanged throat. In the light, it appeared to grow in size and ferocity.

“It's recovering, let's go,” Alice said.

She rushed through the open door and I followed at her heels. Cobwebs swept my face, and I couldn't see a thing, but I was still able to get hold of the door and force it shut.

Alice's light came on and we suddenly found ourselves in a dungeon-like room. This place could only be described as grisly and vile. The walls were hung with torture implements that had been set up like some sort of decorative ironwork. Bones and skeletons had been heaped at the far wall. Most of the room was hard to see due to enormous cobwebs that floated everywhere. We did see a stone staircase we had to ascend if we wanted to get any further into the castle.

Scraping sounds near the door worked to speed us across the room. Alice cursed as she swept cobwebs from her hair, then we were at the stairs and on the way up. Below us, the door flew open and flames rushed in, causing us to sprint for the first the landing. We went up so fast that we burst off the steps and got tangled up in a dusty curtain in the archway.

We choked on dust as we got out of the curtain. Alice's light revealed another room - this higher one had some furnishings but it lacked the beauty of cobwebs and skeletons. The stairs to the third level were on the far side so we hurried over. I paused there to look around the room, only to find that the snake was still pursuing us. It burst through the curtain like a fiery worm and set it to smoldering.

Panicked, we began the climb to the next level, and then did a blind run through it and up more stairs. At the fourth level, a broad walkway connected the keep to the castle's inner fortified wall. Electric sconces lighted this section, though the keep's adjoining room was in darkness.

“I don't hear the snake,” Alice said. “Do you suppose we've escaped it?”

I looked back down the stairs, and saw nothing. Then I heard a grating noise. Turning right I saw something white emerging from a darkened room.  It wore cobwebs like bandages, had a face that was both evil and cadaverous, and was seven feet tall.

I couldn't fire from such close range. “Run,” I said to Alice. And as she sprinted off, I shoved the gun in my belt and rushed the thing. Clouds of dust and rot puffed up as we collided. It was like hitting a heavy canvass bag. My check barely moved it and arms like tough rope were closing around me in a bear hug. I came up with a desperate blow to its chin and heard brittle teeth crack.

Releasing me, it staggered four steps back, and the full view of its face came as another blow. Veined mold and brain matter showed in mostly empty eye sockets. A blood-crusted jaw protruded hideously while rest of its face was fleshed by oozing tissue and stained linen bandages.

Dust and insect rot spilled from its lolling mouth as it moaned and charged again. Ducking to the side, I ended up backed against the wall. It did a clumsy turn and came for me there.

With only a moment to act, I dived and rolled over the edge of the stairs, tumbling down a few steps. The fall stunned me and just as I was about to scramble to my feet, I saw the snake. It had been quietly slithering up from below and was almost on me.

The other beast had smacked the wall in its rush on me and it was now turning and heading for the stairs. I didn't have time to look but I heard its footsteps. Heading up as fast as I could, I went for its knees and hit them hard.

That move bowled it over top of me and as it crashed down the stairs I scrambled to safety. I looked back and saw the snake lunge. It caught the thing's head and shoulders and sucked them down its throat. Foul smoke rose but the rest of the body didn't want to go down.

Satisfied that the snake was choked I turned. Alice was a few steps away so I hurried to her. She hugged me briefly then we both ran off in the sconce light to the end of the walkway.

.........................

The Capture

A doorway led out onto the wall walkway and a set of stairs ran down into the castle underground. Alice feared we would find horrors in the subterranean depths and I wanted to get a view from the wall so we eased through the door. That put us out on the walkway with stone fortifications rising just over our heads on both sides. A charged rail glowed along the top and faint sulfurous light lit the interior stones, giving us a dim view. Deciding to go right we walked down and stopped at a loophole that gave us a view of the inner grounds.

Spotlights on the walls lit the towers and created a haze of light below. Small trees, greenery and walks of interlocking stones created a garden atmosphere. This section led to a paved court near a tower and beyond that the citadel basked in strange green light. A number of the black-clothed guards stood near the citadel and these emaciated creatures had skeletal faces and eyes that glowed like red embers. They carried beam guns of some sort. Movement in the garden below attracted our attention and we saw something large and spidery moving in the shadows at the dark end near the wall.

Alice sighed. “Maybe we should just try to get out of here. I can't see any point in going any farther.”

“We can escape the castle, but we can't escape the town. They'll know we're onto them and come for us there.”

“Then what do we do?”

“I have a plan, but we have to talk to Liz Parker.”

“She's too well guarded. We'll never get to her.”

“We've got this far, and we've got a weapon. There's still a good chance of catching her by surprise. I see a way in, too. This wall runs to that tower near the citadel.”

Our feet sped silently on the stone as we continued along the wall. We came to a bend and the tower came into view. Spotlights on its sheer side provided enough light to reveal an open door. Gloom filled the interior and though no guards showed I drew the gun just in case.

We crept up then entered quickly to escape being exposed by the light spilling down. One of the black cloaked guards stood over by the stairs. He had his back to us, and I didn't wait for him to turn and possibly shout. Pushing Alice to my side, I fired a blast from the gun. It hit and made a staggering flare of him. He burned like cork and crumbled in silence, leaving only glowing embers for us to tiptoe over.

Descending on the stairs, we found another large cheerless room. I peeked through the arch, saw that it was full of people, and then pulled back, taking Alice with me. It was absolutely silent so I took a second look, and discovered that none of the people were alive. They were wax figures of an abnormal variety.

I slipped in with Alice glued to me. We moved deeper into the room with our eyes flashing from figure to figure, just in case one of them turned out to be more than wax. This ghastly show appeared to be a display of historical figures. Their dress was of various periods and their faces were all pulled into ghastly leers of either lechery or fright. I guessed it to be more of Thompson's artistry, and I wondered if he'd coated real bodies to create this work.

Alice stopped and studied a Greek figure with lifelike brown eyes. A crash echoed from the stairs above. Something heavy and metal clanged and scraped. Heavy boots thudded and shouts rang out.

Guards were rushing down. They were on to us and we were left with no option other than to race to the bottom. Fortunately, the exit room was empty and the door was ajar. I burst through the opening only to find myself charging straight for one of the black clad guards. His moldering jaw fell open in surprise. I hit him and sent him flying to the pavement.

Alice halted beside me and we looked around for the best direction to run. Ten more guards were approaching from the direction of the gate and others were streaming from the tower. We took off toward the dark evergreens at the side of the citadel. Bullets and fire streaks ripped off the stones. A laser flash and an explosion vibrated behind us with such force that for a moment we were running on air.

My feet came back to the ground and I was able to burst ahead, dive and roll to safety in the shrubbery. Bullets tore through the leaves as I scrambled up with the gun in hand. I was about to fire then I noticed that Alice wasn't with me. She'd fallen wounded in the explosion. Hostile guards were surrounding her. Other guards tailing me were holding their fire. Behind them in the drifting smoke, I saw Dan Shanon and Liz Parker approaching.

..........................

Face to Face with the Vampire Queen

Torches flickered on the sweating stone walls in the dungeon-like room.  Shadows shifted like menacing monsters as I tried to shake off the grogginess. I wondered how long I'd been out. Then a heavy iron door opened and my thoughts went to my immediate survival.

Liz Parker entered, three of her guards in tow, and they had Alice with them. Alice gave me a defeated glance, but except for a bandage on her arm and a small bruise on her face, she looked to be okay.

The contrast between Liz Parker and the creatures she chose to live with was stark. Though they were grotesque, she was beautiful. If anything, her looks had improved. The gaunt unfed appearance of her movie days had vanished. In the older flicks, she had sunken eyes and a pale face. Those features had matured. Her cheeks now had color and her blue eyes were softly shaded and compelling. Full red lips blended into a smooth complexion and her blond hair formed natural curls as it fell to her shoulders. Bands of pearls on her neck carried the same gloss as her irises and teeth, and more jewelry glittered on her wrists and fingers. She had the full magic of female youth and beauty, so if vampirism granted her any powers of mesmerism, they were powers she didn't really need.

She looked at me and frowned, and then she signaled with a painted nail. Her guards obeyed the silent command, taking Alice back through the door to be imprisoned in another room.

I'd hoped for signs of weakness, but saw none in Liz. Her walk was confident and the height of feminine elegance. She wore a mildly cynical smile and when she spoke her words carried like music in my ears; each sentence seeming to rise from some hidden current of the English language.

“Mr. King. You knew our game before you came out here. So what is it you want?”

“I guessed the truth when Alice and I dug up the records on the Castle. I thought about turning you in then. It would have made me a new hero of the establishment and you'd have ended up on display in a zoo. But how long would my good fortune have lasted? In time, I'd be back on the outside again. I decided to try to get a look around this place. I was going to approach you with an offer.”

“You mean you intended to blackmail me. Force me into cooperation for one of your sleazy entertainment extravaganzas. It never would have worked. I left that business behind long ago.”

“I assumed you'd left the entertainment business behind, and I also considered your husband, Daniel. A deal I could offer him to protect his work.”

“Daniel has passed away. He's been dead for more than two years. A victim of one of his own experiments. He died having finished his work and he left me complete control of the technology.”

“Sorry to hear about your loss. I do know you have control. If you didn't vampirism would escape from this area. So you have a system, but there is an area of control you don't have. I can give that to you.”

“What do you expect to get for it?”

“I expect sanctuary. For myself and for Alice.”

“I ran a trace on Alice. She's just a rich kid. Sooner or later, she'd try to run back to her family. I haven't decided what to do with her. I'd be a fool to trust her.”

“She'd never run back. I ran her profile through a stolen security account I have. They faked the legal and psychological data on her. She isn't a runaway at all. The truth is she was sexually abused by her family. Alice tried to kill her father. They decided to cover for him and made her an outcast. They dumped her in Oakdale to get her out of the way. She doesn't know that I've found out, but she's lucky I did. I attached myself to her because of it.”

“This is all interesting, but you really have nothing to offer.”

“Yes I do. My expertise on the inside. I can get the dope on others just like I did on Alice. I also know how their security works and that eventually the big fish will detect you. When that happens, they'll destroy you. I propose that we solve that problem. My plan takes us out from under their thumb, and destroys their entertainment empire altogether.”

“That would be wonderful. But I don't want to work with a person whose only motive is revenge.”

“I admit that revenge is part of it. But it's not all of it. The truth is that they are the vampires. They drank our freedom, and they force the entire world to drink from a blood supply of creativity that's gone stale. As an artist, I don't want to work for them. So we get rid of them. Put some new blood in at the top and unlock the prison doors. Once that's done Castle of Fangs is free, and others will be at liberty to pursue unfettered creativity.”

“And just how do we do that?”

...................................

The Enemy Arrives

Oakdale's airport, its landing strip, hangar and tiny passenger terminal rested in a checkerboard of open green fields a half kilometer outside of town. We'd arrived early and I was beginning to perspire as I shuffled back and forth outside the terminal building. A fat sun hung in the haze over the runway, forcing me to shield my eyes.  Finally, I heard the buzz of an engine and spotted the gleam of a plane.

A blast of cool air hit me as Alice came through the terminal door. She stood beside me, sipping a pop as the plane winged out of the horizon like a big fly.

“Tell me about this Ming Tse guy,” she said. “You say he's connected to organized crime, yet he's flying a plane with the net.99 colors.”

“He works with both. At the net, he's a global fixer and talent scout. I've sold work to him in the past but only when desperate. His real job is to find new feature ideas and enslave the creators to the industry. Ming is about the worst there is in the business, but he will get us in the door.”

Radiant vapor and heat shimmies enveloped the plane and trailed it like a disintegrating energy shield as it taxied up and turned. It stopped and ran cooling gusts for a minute then the ramp began to lower.

Five heavily armed plainclothes guards suddenly appeared from the interior. They rushed down, disarmed the lone airport security man and roughed him up. We were left staring in amazement as Ming appeared on the ramp. At first, I didn't recognize him. Instead of his usual business suit he wore a khaki hunting outfit.  He descended to the tarmac and assembled his armed entourage. Then he saw us and walked over.

Sunlight glittered in his fierce brown eyes as he gave Alice a quick assessment. In spite of the show of force he appeared excited and not suspicious.

“We had a deal, Ming,” I said. “Why have you brought the Secret Service in tow?”

“Don't be intimidated by them, Grant. They're just a few company field agents. I brought them along to make sure you're on the level. Last rumor I heard had you in Mexico and surviving by selling cadavers to the transplant industry. I hope you haven't been trafficking in the victims of these vampires.”

“That's a malicious rumor. I wouldn't sell corpses. Liz Parker destroys all of the bodies in Oakdale as an extra precaution. She doesn't really have to do it, though. Her late husband, Daniel Saul, set up the technology of nano vampirism to disable itself when outside of this local area.”

“We did a pass over the castle on the way in. I have to admit that I'm impressed. One look and I decided to go with a hunt design for the property.”

 “Judging from the way you're dressed, that's obvious.”

“Hunting adventures are where the money is. Recent legal restrictions have made big game rare. Not nearly enough for the industry. I want to keep the name Castle of Fangs and set the place up as a hunting adventure world for the super-rich. Our lawyers will include legal protection for Parker in the contract, and we'll pull some legal strings for you. That's if you keep your end of the bargain.”

“We had some other ideas,” Alice said. “Hunting those beasts is a high risk game to be playing. Your super rich clients will end up dead. We nearly got killed just scouting the place.”

“Who is she?” Ming said.

“She's my partner in this deal. Tipped me off on the place.”

“What's this about nearly getting killed?”

“That was part of the discovery. Our vampire queen didn't come into this scheme willingly. At first, we didn't even know what was going on in this town. When I got wise, we went in on a night expedition and almost got killed by monsters. Our chances of survival were slim against such horrifying attacks by blood hungry creatures. We blew a few of them away in the ruins. In the end, we got captured. I convinced Liz Parker of her need for long-term protection. Otherwise we'd be dead.”

“My clients would pay any price for an experience like that. I want to go in on a hunt right away and start setting it up.”

“Sure, you can do that if you want. We can drop your bags off at the hotel, contact Liz Parker and set up a midnight adventure. You would have three basic choices; a hunt in the ruins, a battle on the castle grounds or a terrifying adventure in the catacombs. It doesn't matter if you blow a few of the beasts away because Parker has the technology. She also has the entire town of Oakdale as flesh for use in any production.”

............................

Midnight

Alice and I stepped off the clock tower elevator at the stroke of midnight and climbed a curved stone staircase to the very top. We entered a well of stuffy darkness and used a glow light to find the light switch. Soft rays filtered through a stained glass panel overhead, illumining the musty stone room.

This attic had been converted to a guard post, though it wasn't currently in use.  Sparse furnishings included a bench, a table and some scratched wooden chairs. An axe and an ancient clock gear were mounted on the wall. Directly across from the door a heavy iron grille covered a window gone completely opaque with dust and cobwebs.

Alice winced at the dusty table then pulled a tissue from her purse and began to clean it. I watched as she dumped her pack and rummaged through some stuff, then I went over to the window and tried to slide the grille open. It wouldn't budge so I took the axe from the wall and used the blade to pry it. Cakes of rust showered to the floor as it creaked aside. Three feet of heavily streaked window space showed and I coughed as I slid the second panel left.

The view was excellent. A fresh breeze rushed in. I stood in the white glow rising from the clock face, which was below me. Looking down I saw Bill Thompson and a gang of townspeople arriving at the gate. Liz Parker and a few of her black clad guards were walking across the court to meet them. Figures of a more sinister variety could be seen moving in the shadowy garden near the citadel.

Oakdale showed as a starfish of lights in the sky to the east, and the river came into view as a ribbon of moonlit silver just beyond the wall. The water turned and flowed out of sight near the ruins, and a twinkling of colored lights drifted toward the shore at that spot.

“I see Ming and his men,” I said.

Alice stepped beside me, holding binoculars. “Where?”

“The river. By the ruins. Looks like they're following our map exactly.”

“I have them in focus. They're docking the raft. Wait! Ming has jumped ashore. He's fading into the brush. The rest are following on his tail and one man is staying behind to guard the boat.”

“Check the grounds near the old keep. If Liz arranged it right, something should be happening just about now.”

“Murk is about all that's happening. I can see our favorite trash yard and the collapsed wall. Ah, something is moving there. One, two - a whole damn crowd is coming up from graves of trash. They aren't pretty either. I'd say their faces are uglier than the slime dripping from them. Obviously they plan to feast on something meatier than garbage. The biggest one is walking in the scrub near the wall. He must be eight feet tall.”

“Want to bet on how long Ming can last?”

“Maybe five minutes, once the fighting starts. Much longer after he rises as the undead?”

“I think we should finish our bottle of wine here. We can go out to pick up the bodies in about an hour. Shanon will see them to the airport.”

“Where exactly are we flying Ming?”

“My old neighborhood. The private net.99 community of Scarsdale in New York City. The parties have gotten dull there over the last hundred years. I expect that Ming and his company of vampires will dance things up.”

“I see - you get your revenge. Now the hunt goes back to them, with vampires as the hunters.”

“It's more than petty revenge. By the time they figure out what's happening, nearly the entire ruling class will be vampires. Then Liz Parker pulls the nano plug and they perish.”

“Leaving new artistic forces in control.”

“Exactly.”

Alice lowered the binoculars and smiled as we embraced. “Let's drink the wine,” she said.

We kissed then I looked over her shoulder as I held her. Gun fireworks were rising in the treetops near the ruins and explosions skated on the river, taking Ming's raft under. The greatest vampire show on Earth had begun.

---- the end -----

The Brutality Zone

By Gary L Morton

Officer Donner booted an empty mace jetcan and watched it rattle out of the dusty alley. His reddened nose twitched at the scent of something vile then he stepped out, kicked the can into the gutter and scanned the empty street. Something dark and fleeting passed in the corner of his eye; he spun left quickly and yanked an Ingram semi-automatic from his hidden holster.

Fast on the trigger, he nearly opened fire; it clicked in his mind that it was nothing. The movement belonged to a torn black flag fluttering from a window post. The black anarchist shade had led to his quick reflex action.

Soiled candy wrappers, cigarette butts and leaves spun up in a dust devil sweeping the lonely concrete square across the road. The street itself had deteriorated to a stretch of shattered windows and abandoned cars. He noted that the center of it had already been swept, meaning a riot sweep team had forced all civilians and protesters out.

Feeling glum but confident, Donner stepped around a wrecked car and began to march up the road. On his fifth step he slipped and nearly went down. “Shit,” he said, noticing that he'd walked through a pool of glistening oily liquid - spattering the gooey stuff halfway up his tall black boots.

 

Pulling a soft rag from his pack, he bent over to clean the slime off. Close up he noticed drops of blood. That froze him for second then he straightened up, and was about to take a second look around when he felt a tug at his cape.

Spinning on his heel, he ripped the cape from the offending fingers and found himself looking down at a bloodied face. The young man was on his knees and his swollen lips were moving as he tried to plead for help. Only no words were coming out - just some sort of sticky gurgle. His T-shirt had been badly torn and he was crawling in shards of broken glass. Filth jelled his dark hair and vomit and blood leaked at the corners of his mouth. Gas and pepper spray had turned his pupils to spreading black holes; a grimace of agony came and went like a ghost on his face.

Donner felt little sympathy for him; he spotted an anti-poverty-fist sunburst graphic on the stained T-shirt and got angry. Lifting his heavy boot, he slammed it into the guy's face.

“Another protest punk down and out,” he thought as he continued down the road. “If he doesn't choke to death he'll have learned his lesson. This is the zone - the no protest zone - the brutality zone … anyone who enters it leaves sympathy behind.”

Wind dusted in from the alleys. A cloud of black CS gas drifted at the intersection so Donner put on his gas mask. He heard the distant ringing of a flash-bang grenade. The sound indicating fighting several blocks south. He gathered that the gas had simply drifted a long way off course on the wind.

Donner walked through the cloud, looking like a hybrid of a cop and a robot. His thick lips formed a faint smile inside his mask. Donner loved the black version of the tear gas; once you had a solid cloud of it formed, it would drift on and on. Unsuspecting morons were often caught by it and put down.

Two more empty blocks passed, leading Donner to a dead end, and there he climbed a mesh fence and walked through a vacant lot. His heels crunched on thistles and broken chips of stone. Another fence and the tall walls of Sandpoint rose in the distance. The guard tower showed as a squat beast in the gloom. He could see a column of vehicles approaching on the road. A personnel carrier, jeeps, police cruisers, canvassed trucks and buses containing the shackled prisoners were entering the old military complex they were now using to house and beat political prisoners.

Everything came to a halt at the gate. During the delay, Donner reached the road, hailed a fellow cop and jumped into the back of his cruiser. On the inside, he got out and crossed the square to command headquarters.

A screw-faced guard barred the door and he told Donner to wait, so he shuffled about impatiently on the cobblestones. Pulling a cigar from a foil pack in his breast pocket, he watched as the prisoners were escorted from the trucks. Voices echoed and faded into the high stone walls. Some of the detainees were still chanting defiantly in spite of the gassing, others shivered with nerve reactions to the gas and were too weak to walk. Many more were bleeding, choking and vomiting. And who really cared. Donner sure didn't, and he figured that those sorts of people didn't have enough sense to care about themselves or they wouldn't be here.

On the inside, Donner told the commander he'd come to identify a prisoner and pick up another cop being held in protective custody. Both were wanted for questioning.

The commander, Major Bush, refused to cooperate. As Donner expected. Re-lighting his cigar, he told Bush to phone his superiors and he'd find that clearance had been granted. Then he waited; knowing Bush would look up in surprise when the clearance came through. Most of the higher ranking men couldn’t grasp it - couldn't figure out how Donner outranked them when he was only a riot cop. And that was because Donner wasn't genuinely a cop; he was Secret Service (SS), planted in with the police. His boss was the Man - and his job was to see to it that protesters got hurt and hurt bad. Only one crime was certainly on the books; acting against the New World Order which consisted of the Big Banks and Government, and the wealthy one percent of humanity that controlled the planet, space stations and the moon.

A severe expression of distaste developed on Bush's rugged face as he spoke on the cell hotline. He emphasized it further by slamming it shut, tossing Donner a pass from his drawer and saying - “You know what you're looking for - find your way around.”

Donner tossed Bush a mock salute and ignored his cursing as he turned and walked out. He'd never actually been inside Sandpoint but he’d played a role in refurbishing the mothballed base. A few weeks back, with a few other SS men, he'd used a computer map to lay out the temporary prison for use in the fight against this latest series of planned anti global order protests. There'd been some cheating as they used the plans from an old German concentration camp as a model.

Emerging in the square, he scratched his itching head. He could see drifting mist melting to wet prints on the coarse stone walls. The blur of sun seemed a match for his thinking. Things came together slowly - he'd ordered Gallagher held in special detention and he supposed that his other man would be in with the general crowd of prisoners in one of the interior courts.

Off to his left the doors to one of the decommissioned hangars were ajar and a group of regular police officers were marching in. Hurrying over, Donner tagged in behind them. He watched as they turned right and went through a rusted door with a faded sign marked CUSTOMS. A tarnished turnstile was directly in front of him and beyond it shackled prisoners had been tossed into taped-off areas on the pocked cement floor. Military guards and cops walked about in the yellowed light filtering down from the stained skylight.

Groans, agonized moans and the gruff voices of the police were about the only sounds, and then screams began to reverberate. The guards in the north corner were dragging a prisoner by his dreadlocks while an obese state trooper beat at the bottoms of his bare feet with a baton.

Donner grinned as the stick of high impact plastic lay in with heavy smacks; the new batons were cool. In appearance, they resembled oak baseball bats and were just as effective when it came to breaking legs, shoulders . . . faces, balls.

“I want your fucking name!” one guard hollered as the shakedown continued. And at that point, Donner saw the prisoner's face. Eyes lighting up with surprise, he immediately jumped the turnstile and marched over to the trooper using the baton.

“Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing, man! I have a request in for a prisoner of that description. His name is Jimmy T. He should've been delivered to me!”

“You're just another fucking cop, pal. You can wait for your turn at him.”

Donner frowned. His smaller right eye and hawkish nose twitched, his lips tightened then his baton came out at gunslinger speed. He delivered a hard jab to the obese trooper's breadbasket. Spittle flew from worm-white lips as he crumpled and stumbled.

The guards stared in surprise, the trooper released an anguished cry and a soldier stepped up. “What was that for?”

“That was for breaking the rules. File a police brutality complaint if you don't like it. I'm Donner, here with a special pass - check with Major Bush if you want. That prisoner is one of two men I want delivered to our command post over in the zone.”

“If you want him you can have him. We'll have him deloused and sent over.”

“Good, I'll leave my delivery instructions at the gate.”

--------

The halls in the special lockdown shone with fresh polish. Donner's heels clicked like hammerheads as he passed the rows of cells. The tall black guard in the lead stopped at the last set of bars and turned. “This is it,” he said.

Donner peered into the dim space and saw Gallagher slumped on a bench. His riot uniform was badly rumpled and he was puffing on a thin cigarette.

“You got poor posture for a cop,” Donner said.

“Fuck you.”

“And bad manners, too.”

“Yeah - well, I'm supposed to be a cop. You just said it. So why am I locked in here with that piece of shit?”

Donner looked across the cell. One of the protesters, a big brown one, had been locked in with Gallagher -- and it looked like either Gallagher or the guards had beaten the shit out of him. Pounded his face to scabbed liver, pepper-sprayed him and left him slumped in a corner chair.

“Sorry about that,” Donner said. “You're supposed to be in protective custody. We want you over at zone HQ to answer a few questions, and then you're out.”

--------

Donner drew the heavy bar back and opened the rooftop door. He had a sort of crude patio set up here at SS zone headquarters. This was his lair and he'd selected it for the bird's eye view of some of the streets being policed.

He stepped out figuring there wasn't much to view today. It was a gloomy afternoon and smoke from protesters' bonfires drifted over the mottled rooftops lower down. He heard the sound of distant shouts and traffic. Tied with the view the noise seemed unreal - dream sounds - like another world existed below in time that’d gone gray.

A paddy wagon cruised up the empty street. Donner watched as it halted out front. Officer Gallagher and Jimmy T emerged with the guards; they'd be up in a minute and with that in mind, he lit a cigar and sat near the railing. “How to handle this,” he thought. “Get Gallagher's story first, and then the kid's. Out of it I should be able to gather why cops and protesters are claiming Butch Cooper is out there somewhere in the zone.”

Jimmy T had to be brought out to the patio in a wheelchair. His swollen feet were bandaged and he wouldn't be walking on them for a long time. Gallagher looked pretty slimy - in appearance and attitude.

“So who wants to question us?” Gallagher said.

“Just me.”

“Shit, Donner. You could've questioned me at Sandpoint. I need to go home and clean up. If I don't get the grime from those scumbags off me I'll likely come down with hepatitis and retro Aids.”

“You probably had both for a long time,” Jimmy T said.

Gallagher tightened his knuckles. “Mind your manners, boy.”

Donner frowned. “You too, Gallagher. We've got more than one wheelchair in this place.”

“So what happens to me?” Jimmy T said.

“This is about Butch Cooper. You both told people you saw him out there in the zone. I want you to answer questions about that. Then you go the hospital and charges against you are dropped.”

“That's right, let the scumbag off,” Gallagher said. “What about me? What compensation do I get for being held illegally?”

“Just a kick in the head. Same as you give out. Now let's get down to business. By now you've probably figured out that I'm with the SS. My job with the organization over the last few years has involved surveillance and military actions to block Butch Cooper and his protest affiliates. We've believed all along that Cooper and his band of anarchists are the board of directors, secretly organizing and planning actions for numerous other protest groups in the anti global order movement. Cooper went missing a year ago. His body has disappeared, but we are sure he is dead. The question we are working on is - who murdered him? Many rumors out there are to the effect that police killed him. We're now sure that union leaders did the job in cooperation with other kingpins in the protest movement, and we want to get charges on these people. Only right now we can't even investigate because reports have come in that he’s alive and is here in the city. Those reports are traceable to you two. Gallagher, you filed the police report on it that changed our investigation from murder back to surveillance on Butch Cooper. Jimmy T's confession mentioning seeing Cooper in the fighting has been used to support the Gallagher police file. This whole thing screws me royally. We'd made progress and we were prepared to go ahead with murder charges against a number of individuals. Now I got orders to keep tabs on the activities of a dead man. Which isn’t possible.”

“Come on, Donner. Get it straight. Would I file a police report saying Cooper is alive if he’s really dead?”

“Both you and Jimmy T were under heavy stress and exposed to things like tear gas that are known to impair vision and cause hallucinations. I want to record both of your stories and from them we'll be able to demonstrate that you were under duress. As for the Jimmy T, he may simply be lying. The protesters may want us to think Butch Cooper is alive.”

Jimmy T coughed. “I hope you aren't planning on framing me in this murder?”

“Of course not, and it's important that you be completely honest for these records. Neither of you have to worry about the press getting your testimony. It's a top secret thing that can't be used against you.”

“Now I get it,” Gallagher said. “You want to destroy my credibility as a cop. That's why you put me in with that creamed punk at Sandpoint.”

“Not at all. We just want to say you were under stress. What you'll get is time off and a bonus to aid you with your medical bills. We feel a long vacation in a warmer climate would speed your recovery. Same goes with Jimmy T. We don't know who did it, but he's been a victim of police brutality and should be compensated.”

Gallagher chewed on Donner's words. “Doesn't sound too bad. All right, I'll give you my story.”

“Okay, the recording begins. Go ahead.”

“I'm not lying. I did see Butch Cooper on day one. We'd cleared most of the front line protesters off with tear gas, tasers and rubber bullets when the orders came in to go down hard on a union march. A lot of the men disagreed with that order. The reason being that a splinter group of anarchists called the Black Bloc was trashing stores at the edges of the zone. Nothing was being done to stop them. For some reason the big shots wanted them to get away with it. Maybe to make the protesters look bad in the press.

We pooled our forces at the head of Sanderson Blvd., massing about 300 men, horses and an armored personnel carrier. A giant crowd of unionists approached in the distance and at first, we were laughing like hell at the silly costumes some of them wore. They were dressed like animals, birds, and stuff with taser and rubber bullet protection vests built in.

So it was fun at first but the humor died when some SS guy circulated a false report stating that three riot cops had been murdered by union terrorists on the south line. We were to expect the same sort of violence. It was only later that we found out the report was false.

Basically, it worked to pump us up and turn us mean. Once we were grouped, the armored carrier moved forward and we had a man on the platform firing a high-speed hopper gun of paint pellets filled with pepper spray. Those things rain down on a crowd and don't seem to hurt until the burning starts and people scream like hell.

Tear gas was next and we started by firing low, bouncing a few canisters and grenades off heads and picket signs. The rest we fired high and strategically in order to build a local gas cloud of the white-gray variety. Def-tek 38 caliber weapons firing rubber bullets and chemicals ripped the crowd and we aimed for faces. Even from a distance, I could see blood spurting as the projectiles gouged into cheeks and noses.

Once the cloud was up, we rolled in with it - horses charging right in to build panic and chaos. Baton men started to break up human chains by pulling off masks and kerchiefs and pepper spraying the idiots straight in the face. After that, the tasering and clubbing began and we had special spine whipping and face slamming tactics for the reporters present. Generally, we busted their equipment and them.

I got involved in scuffles and inhaled some of the gas. A hysterical woman pulled my mask off. It didn't stop me. I continued to fight, pausing to vomit occasionally. In less than an hour, we turned about six hundred people into piss-pants sacks of weeping human rubbish and made two hundred arrests. I was still active on front line cleanup at that point and ended up chasing some of the unionists down a side street.

These 2nd level union guys hadn't been on the front line and the cowards had kids and babies with them as they tried to flee to safety. About ten of us pursued them up the narrow street firing tear gas and rubber bullets. We got one of them out front of a smashed mall, pepper spraying him and his baby as he tried to get in his car.

People from the mall started yelling and booing so we turned and fired on them. Tear gas canisters crashed right through the glass doors and panic followed. At that point, an anarchist punk appeared, threw a heavy stone and got me right in the shoulder. It hurt like hell and I stood there grimacing as the other men ran up the road in pursuit of more unionists.

That blow really pissed me off and I saw the punk taking off toward an alley and pulling a black bandana up to hide his face. Orders were orders but at that point, I decided to break them and forget about the union goofs. I took off after the punk, hell bent on the notion of getting hold of him and breaking every bone in his body.

Of course it was just my luck to charge into an obstacle course of trash heaps and oil puddles. I jumped a spilled trashcan, slipped on a slick, did a running dance and crashed into a stack of heavy drums. They came down on me as I fell and they stunned me even further. I was lucky to avoid serious injury.

I began to crawl free of the tangle but I didn't get far. The punk had heard me fall, smelled blood and returned. “Payback time,” he said then he bounced a drum off my legs. A rain of boots followed that and during the exchange I managed to grab his foot.

He went over backwards and though I could barely move I forced myself up. Grabbing my baton I got to my knees and threw myself forward - coming down as hard as I could I managed to whip him across the pelvis and breadbasket.

We both fell in the rubbish in a sort of who- would-rise-first challenge. I won it, managing to get partly up to fire some pepper spray at him. That sent him rolling in agony and gave me time to rise. And when I was up it was with a whisky bottle in one hand.

I shattered its base and prepared to ram the rest into his face. At that point, I regretted spraying the little slime ball because he couldn't see me to beg for mercy. My knees buckled to go down with the blow and it was then that Butch Cooper appeared.

It was unmistakably Cooper - the trademark scar on the right cheek, iron jaw, blazing blue eyes and burglar black cat outfit. He was armed with street weapons - a mask and gas gun and a length of pipe strapped to his leg.

I'd seen his mug on the news enough times to know he was real, yet I also knew he'd disappeared more than a year ago and was not thought to be in the city. Yet he was present and he'd been in the fighting, too - his boots were spotted with blood and his face was bruised and sickly green.

The whole thing seemed weird - the clouds of gas floating up the alley and whirling in wisps around his electrified short hair. I stood frozen with a gasp on my lips and the broken bottle in my hand.

It was Cooper who broke the silence. He said, 'Tell Donner I'll be seeing him around.' That's all he said. He didn't try to help the kid and he wasn't afraid of me either. He just turned and disappeared in the gas cloud.

I stood there another moment then I started seeing evil inhuman faces in the shifting gas. A horrible burning odor filled my nostrils. It was like the burning of something straight from hell - corpses, mold, rotting wood, rust and ashes. My skin and scalp crawled and I turned and ran from there.”

--------

Donner stopped the recording and gave Gallagher a look of raw skepticism. “I'm amazed that anyone would’ve believed that story. You were obviously hallucinating. I'm also not impressed by the fact that you didn't have the guts to fight Cooper.”

“And you would have the guts, Donner?”

“Of course I would. I've been in a number of scraps with Cooper. Plus there's more I haven't told you. Fact is I know he's dead because I found his body. It was during an action in Germany. We were following Cooper's gang using a helicopter with a super spotlight. It lit up the alleys like daylight and blinded anyone that looked up. We jammed their cell phone frequencies and over the course of an hour, we tracked them and sent in men to pick them off as the group splintered. By midnight, we had about half of them but we couldn't get Cooper. He simply vanished in a maze of alleys and we went over and over the territory and found nothing. Finally, I went down on a ladder and walked in alone.

This wasn't a job for you, Gallagher. It was dark. Motherfucking dark, and I was vulnerable. Couldn't even use my flashlight. I did get jumped at one point but I had my protective gear set to emit gas automatically. I thought it was Cooper and I really pounded the guy - but he went down too easy so I knew it wasn't Butch.

I looked him over quickly then gagged him and marked him for pickup. After that, I got lost, spending more than two hours in that territory. My phone got caught by our own jamming so I couldn't make contact.

Any other cop would've been killed, yet I managed to take out a couple more of Cooper's men. Then I found the body. He looked pretty bad and when I checked his pulse, he was dead. He'd been beaten to death with some sort of club and there were traces of pepper spray on him. Whoever did it set it up to look like a cop murder.

That didn't help because later when the body disappeared I had to answer all sorts of questions. They thought I killed him, and they didn't like it because they wanted Cooper alive. They were going to have him testify at some international tribunal and thought I killed him because he knew too much.

Of course I didn’t kill him, and later when we went over the scene we found new clues pointing to union goons as the hit men.”

Jimmy T frowned, his darkened eyes running like grease prints. A feral light shone in them as he spoke. “You're about as believable as Gallagher. If you weren't a cop you'd already be in the electric chair.”

“You'd like that wouldn't you. And how about you? How believable is that crazy story you handed in?”

“You want the truth. Okay, but don't complain if you don't like it.

First piece of news is that I have little in common with Butch Cooper, union rioters or even anarchists, though I understand their beliefs. I'm an independent street person. I hitched in from Oregon with my friend Danny. We're from the HellRaisers Gang.

We believe the monster corporations have already destroyed the world. All that can be done now is raise hell and chaos to make the masters and their slaves uncomfortable. The way we see it, Butch Cooper and his legions of utopian dreamers just can't see that it's all over. Protest and reform can't save a dead world.

Creating a riot was the plan we had in mind the other day before we encountered Butch Cooper. We had it in mind but we didn't start out anywhere near the police lines. Danny thought it would be better to have some fun so we left the cops having a gas with the others at the various fronts while we ran with renegade Black Bloc anarchists. Working with them we trashed everything in sight - display windows, newspaper boxes. We put our message up with spray paint and black flags - started rubbish bonfires.

Later a rowdy local gang of university kids joined up. They were less political so we split from them. We began by trashing food outlets because we were hungry. But that didn't go all that smooth because I was getting tense with Danny over his trying to tie us to this horny blonde named Mary.

I prefer other men so I hated her at first. But when she came up with this plan for a 3-pronged raid on a huge variety depot, I started to like her. We ran in with masks and bandanas up and started throwing things around. The customers and staff ran out so fast it was like we were high-class terrorists. This big cigar-fat store manager was the only guy with the guts to fight us and he paid for that - Danny kicked him in the balls then we chased him around like a screaming chicken, bashing him with clothing racks, plastic baseball bats - all sorts of stuff.

The rest of the gang ignored that and got wise, stealing jewelry and electronic gadgets. Danny advised me to let them do the work - then if they didn't get busted, we'd steal the stuff from them later.

There was a lot of horsing around at that point. We passed a joint and Danny and Mary went tumbling through a big heap of clothes. A few of us jumped in after them. We rolled around then laid there laughing our heads off.

None of the clothes in the store were worth taking so we laughed even harder when Mary started talking about stealing some. Then she said she meant as disguises. The cops would be around soon, looking for rough-and-dirty looters, so suppose we packed up our grubbies and appeared in our Sunday best.

Danny nudged me and winked, giving me the drift that he wanted to play along so he could watch the girls undress. We did that and by the time we were finished we looked worse than we ever thought possible. I had on these shiny polyester pants and pointy shoes with an alligator pattern. Mary looked like return of the nerd girl, except that her horny smile and big slutty brown eyes gave her away. Danny was the funniest - he looked like a geek from the old movies.

We decided to get out of there. When we ran back outside ordinary pedestrians were gone and the riot lines were getting closer. Groups of gas-blinded vomiting protesters stumbled by. Then the cops showed - formations of them wearing flak and riot helmets.

Our ruse worked. We'd moved quickly down the road to the steps of an Anglican church and stashed our clothes and the stolen stuff inside under the pews. The girls sang this horrible school song that sounded like a hymn and we were grouped there singing it as the parade of cops arrived.

These cops looked worn and frazzled - eyes getting tired and beaten. I was tapping a tambourine nervously as they aped us over and I saw it in their eyes that they didn't suspect us of being anything more than what we looked like. Some of them inspected the damage on street. Others asked us a few questions. When they got to me, I gave a phony name and pointed at the people gathering at a bonfire up on the next corner. “The looters are in that crowd,” I said.

The head cop believed my tip and before long they were massing in the center of the street. They formed a tough riot phalanx of about eight across and three deep, then they began advancing up the street, beating their batons against their shields, grunting and chanting in unison. The people milling around the bonfire at the corner were completely stunned by it. All of them froze and watched, but not for long as concussion and stun grenades suddenly flew from the cops, hitting the area with brilliant light and frighteningly loud explosions.

A lot of people fled but there were many who fell stunned and didn't get away. Those ones got turned into hamburger as the grunting cop phalanx turned into a huge pounding machine.

Danny found this disgusting and before long we'd crept up at the rear of the cops, watching them clean up. We waited for an opportunity. That came when two cops went into a busted-up store a good distance from the main body of men.

We peeked in and saw them looking down at a guy lying in the spilled goods. He was undergoing some sort of uncontrolled spasmodic movements. Looked like someone hit by nerve gas. His condition seemed to stupefy the cops and while they were confused we got behind them. Danny bashed one from behind with a section from a metal rack and I tripped the other one as I pushed him forward.

One cop got knocked out cold. The other went down on his face and when he rolled over his faceplate was cracked. Danny lunged and went down on him, bashing him all over with his length of metal. In spite of that, the cop was surprisingly tough. He managed to throw Danny off and rise with his baton.

I was afraid he’d yell so I backed off and prepared to run. That never happened; instead, a brawl erupted with him and Danny throwing each other around the store. They moved slowly to the back in this duel and finally Danny tried to escape out a back door. Only the cop got him from behind. He pushed him so hard he went for a tumble out into the alley.

I ran back up as the cop went out after him. From the doorway I saw him clubbing the crap out of Danny as he lay there twitching in a puddle. Then a moment later I saw the cop stop and stare at a person stepping out of the shadows.

That person was Butch Cooper - dressed in black and holding a long club he'd stolen from a cop. The light seeping in there was dim - Cooper looked amazingly sinister and strong and his skin seemed tinted green like he'd died of poisoning or something. Yet he was still walking around.

His appearance frightened the cop and at first, he backed off. Then when the cop saw him moving into a corner, he lunged.

This fight was no contest. Cooper threw him over and proceeded to bust him up bad. He smashed his faceplate and face. Hammered him into a brick wall then body slammed him and put hard boots to his groin.

The cop squirmed as Cooper dragged him down the dark alley. It was so dim that at first that I couldn't see much in there other than swimming shadows. Yet if I saw nothing, it wasn't that way for the cop - whatever he saw made him scream like a madman. These were the most terrifying screams I've ever heard, and I could see vague misty shapes like tentacles and twisted human forms gathering around Cooper and the cop.

Moments later the other cops rushed in and put me down. They ran down the alley to rescue their buddy - but they never found him. There was nothing there - no Cooper, no body. And I had to spend hours and hours under questioning, trying to convince them that I had no idea what happened in there. How in the hell could I explain how people just disappear?”

--------

Donner stared at Jimmy T, like he couldn't quite believe the story had ended. He wiped the gathering sweat from his forehead and raked his oily hair with his fingers. “Kid, you're one crazy fuck to tell that story in the first place. The cops that bought it are even crazier. You expect me to believe that Cooper and a bunch of ghosts or monsters are dragging people off into the Twilight Zone?”

Gallagher grinned. “Guess Cooper won't be easy to find if he's in a killer twilight zone.”

“Shut up, Gallagher. Just shut the fuck up. Cooper is dead. He can't be out there. It's just a question of whether this kid is on drugs or lying.”

“Wait a second,” Jimmy T said. “I never said Cooper wasn't dead or that he's in the Twilight Zone. I said I saw him out there in the zone - the Brutality Zone. He looks like he is dead, and some sort of evil comes with him. Anyone he gets hold of gets dragged off into some part of the zone that people can't find. I believe it, and once I recover, I'm never going back out there. I'm getting out of this city.”

“Cooper was asking about you, Donner,” Gallagher said. “You better not go out there. If he gets you, he'll drag you into that place. The kid heard the screams - don't let it happen.”

Confusion swept Donner's face, and then his expression turned to anger. He snapped his phone open and hit a key. “Guards, get up here right now. I want these fucking idiots thrown out of here. You got that?”

--------

The wind howled through the city scrapers like a haunted stray dog. Donner knew its gusts would soon be filled with the whimpering of protesters. Wiping dust from his faceplate, he watched the lines of riot police march down a narrow corridor toward a huge open section of the street. Hundreds of the toughest breeds of protesters were massed there and the image was of a broad human mural patched with the red, white, blue and black of bandanas, costumes and placards. All of this blurred by the drifting smoke and gray weather.

Orders had been to forgo the use of teargas as it was too windy and there were reports of canisters of nerve gas being mixed in with the supply. Donner had no use for orders; shielding his eyes from the glare, he watched the lines close, and when the clash was just about to begin, he gunned his bike and rolled forward. Once in range he dismounted, pulled a special launcher from his shoulder and loaded the gas grenades.

His aim was high and accurate. The first grenade flew over the crowd and bounced off a building wall. He scattered more shots to the perimeter, rolling them off the curbs and garbage bins. Lowering his barrel, he lobbed some into the center of the crowd.

The gas fizzed up and the riot lines began breaking up the human chains - to make sure things got out of hand he fired several more grenades straight into the front lines. One ricocheted off a helmet, another took a protester down, and the rest disappeared like stones in the sea, only to bubble up a moment later with smoke.

Tall office buildings lined the wide section of street and in spite of the wind a heavy cloud of gas billowed up. Most of it hung in place and whirled as the alleys slowly sucked it up. The scene was now one of violence and brutality; the protesters had panicked and the riot cops were reacting with extreme force. A whole line of people who'd tied themselves together were getting kicked and beaten, and they shouted and screamed as they went down. None of the police even stopped to untie them; instead, they stomped over them and charged into the rest of the crowd.

Two Secret Service men dressed as riot cops emerged on a balcony and began to sweep the crowd with a heavy spray of rubber bullets. At the same time, another line of riot police began to toss flash bang grenades as they moved in with horses at the rear of the crowd.

A hellish scene of screaming, spattering vomit, blood and confusion developed in the square. Wounded people tried to scatter in all directions, growing even more desperate as the horsemen rode in. Alleyways were the only avenues of escape and there were four of them - narrow and gushing with windblown teargas.

Police managed to move in to block three of the alleys and the fourth was near the front where nearly everyone was down. A few people had smashed storefront windows and dashed indoors to escape, but police had pursued them. Generally, it looked like a massacre. Donner saw maybe two cops pick up minor injuries while the main use of the protesters' bandanas was now to sop up blood and tears.

He considered hopping on his bike and driving away; then his eyes flashed to a female protest medic trying to aid some of the downed people by washing off pepper spray with a backpack water gun. Three cops moved in swinging batons at her. A figure in black suddenly emerged from the smoke and drove a fist straight into one of the men's faceplates. It shattered and he went down and out cold.

The other two cops turned and fired pepper spray - a direct hit, and it did nothing to stop the assault. Donner saw the man pull a pipe from his leg and lash out. The hit was on the canister of pepper spray, which exploded in the cop's face and sent him reeling back.

A second pipe blow sent the cop tumbling, and then the guy in black lunged and took out the last of the three cops with a body blow. He then ran across the square and leapt like a cat up the side of a building. The SS officers launching the rubber bullet attack were up there and they swung down with their clubs trying to stop the man from getting over the railing.

It didn't work; a taser shot bounced off him, he swung up hard and battled them on the balcony. Blood flew as he bashed one officer's head on the railing.  Moments later, both men were checked over the railing and fell into the street.

Taking hold of the high-speed gun, the rebel began to rain rubber bullets straight into the police lines. Horses bucked, cops were thrown - other officers fell to their knees as the shots got them in the back.

Donner's momentary stupefaction vanished. He pulled out his binoculars for a closer look. The man's kerchief had dropped, allowing a reasonably clear view. A flash grenade went off at that moment and a bright image was superimposed on Donner's retinas. Then he choked and dropped the glasses. They clattered on the road beside him and he stood there with an open mouth.

The protester firing from the balcony was Butch Cooper. No doubt about it - the distinctive eyes and jaw were something that couldn't be mistaken. Yet it couldn't possibly be Cooper because Cooper was dead. The memory ignited deep inside Donner's brain; he had Butch Cooper down in that alley in Germany. After a long fight he smashed him and booted him - picking up everything he could find to bash him. Blood poured at the corners of his mouth, filling it with the taste of hot metal as he killed Cooper. And kill him he did; he fractured his skull - he broke his neck and every bone in his body . . .

. . . and there he was, standing like a picture of strength on a balcony. But not for long, because a second later he jumped into the street with the power of an Olympic athlete and ran off into the smoke. Cooper turned and fled down that fourth empty alley, with no one on his tail.

Donner's head stopped whirling and for a moment his thoughts froze like ice. When his head cleared, it was in a sudden flash of anger; he jumped on the bike, gunned the engine and raced up the street. His wheels weaving around bodies as he made his way to the alley mouth. When he got there, he stopped and looked. Tear gas was rolling for a long way down but it was mostly clear of debris, so he gunned the engine again and raced forward.

He saw no sign of Butch Cooper or anyone else. About halfway down the long alley a trash heap blocked his path. Braking, he killed the engine and dismounted, being sure to look around quickly for any ambush by Butch.

He didn't want his view clouded by a helmet so he took it off and left it on the bike. So much sweat poured on his face that he had to sweep it off to see. No one was behind him; beyond the trash heap the alley continued to the next street. Another section of alley forked off to the right of the heap.

For an unknown reason he believed Cooper had taken the fork. Working around the heap, he stepped out and looked down it. This was a dead end deal; wide with some sickly trees weaving thin branches above the rubbish. Chipped brick walls with dust-streaked windows showed here and there.  An old structure rose at the dead end; factory or warehouse, he wasn't sure. A bleak atmosphere cloaked it; he looked up at the smoke blowing over the roof and spotted a black cloth covering one of the windows.

That was the clue he needed; stepping forward carefully, he approached the rear door. Lumpy concrete broke up and tall weeds choked his path, whipping his legs as he forced his way through. Sweat poured on his back - the image of Cooper's dead body kept rising in his mind. He tried to rationalize it but he couldn't. He considered the possibility of a twin, and then struck the idea down - simply because he knew Cooper so well. He'd had him under surveillance for years.

Suddenly Donner stopped and shivered all over. He remembered Gallagher's warning, and knew it was correct. If Butch Cooper was in there he'd somehow come back from the dead. Unless he'd never been dead. Maybe some miracle of modern medicine had saved him. A lot of international big shots had wanted him alive to testify, so maybe they used some super treatment to revive his body and mind.

The more Donner considered it the more he believed it. His shivering stopped as he reached the door. Then he heard some noise above and stumbled back as quickly as he could. He looked up and saw a bird taking flight, and when he lowered his gaze, Butch Cooper's face appeared in one of the ground floor windows.

He'd opened it and was grinning as he looked out. His skin was greenish and deathly just as Jimmy T had said. Donner also noticed tiny drops of blood dripping with the sweat from his chin.

Cooper's deep voice echoed in the alley as he spoke. “I've been waiting for you, Donner. We've all been waiting for you here in the zone.”

Donner felt himself losing it. “You're dead Cooper! You're fucking dead! I killed you and you deserved it! All those years - you rallied people against the state. You warped their minds. You ruined them, you put them in jail, killed them. Cops died because of you - you murdered the innocent so I murdered you.”

“Well that's funny, Donner. I don't feel dead. I also remember things well enough to know that it wasn't me. It was you, Donner! It was always you! We had rules. We played the game a certain way. My people and the cops didn't get killed then. Don't you remember that it was you who changed things? You created the violence, you created death and you created the brutality zone. You did it because you're a fucking piece of shit, Donner. The fate you deserve is one worse than death!”

“Worse than death, Cooper! I'll show you worse than death! Because I'm coming in there to finish you and whoever you're with!”

“Go ahead and open that door, Donner. Do it and know that you opened it a long time ago. You created the zone. You unlocked the beast in us all. There comes a time when a father has to return to his children.”

Donner felt his head grow so hot with hate he thought it would explode. “Fuck you, then. I'm just going to leave you here. I don't have to go in there and you know it!”

“Is that right, Donner? So what are you going to do when I testify? Haven't you figured it out - they kept me alive, they put me back together and now I'm going to sing like a canary. Your people will hang you, Donner. You know it and I know it. So walk away with the noose around your neck.”

His face twitching with rage, Donner drew his semi-automatic and opened fire. Bullets shattered glass and the rotten sill but Butch was gone.

Fear vanished as the adrenaline flowed; Donner was pumped up to kill now. He ran fast for the door and started booting it. On the fourth kick it flew open and Donner moved off to the side.

Dust and stale air rushed out but Cooper didn't follow. A quick reload then Donner took his gun in his left hand, ran to the opening, jumped and rolled.

He came up in dust and darkness, and spun around firing bullets into the gloom. Then he burst forward and got his back to a wall.

As his vision cleared, he saw an enormous empty warehouse, mould-eaten floors and sweating walls. Wide wooden pillars stood here and there. Cooper could be behind any one of them. He thought that at first - then he suddenly realized something.

A smart cookie like Cooper would've let him bust in and then would’ve simply jumped out the open window. He was probably out there laughing at him right now.

All the windows but one were boarded. He ran across the creaking floor and looked out into the gloomy alley. As he'd suspected Cooper was there. He stood in sickly weeds with a grin on his mug. And his face wasn't greenish but pinkish white; he looked healthy and young like the old days.

“You should've known that nothing mortal could’ve put me back together. Don't you remember how bad you beat me? It's the spirit of the zone, Donner. The brutality zone put me back together because it never really wanted me - it needs you because you belong. So I made a trade. It's you for me. And I hope you enjoy yourself because eternity is a long time.”

“You want to play head games!” Donner yelled. “Eternity is now, so eat lead!”

He opened fire and as flame licked the barrel, the window suddenly vanished. He saw boards in front of him and nothing else. Then he spun around and saw an eye shrinking into a wall of oozing blackness. A scraping sound came from deep in the warehouse, and it was followed by the heavy thudding of hooves. He saw the rotted floorboards breaking up. Twisted forms were rising from every dark niche in the room, and with them came horrible odors of blood, ashes and decay.

Black earth crumbled from deformed hands, ravaged faces and gaping mouths. A huge thing like a cross between a pit and a vortex whirled in the center of the room and the maggot-dripping monster emerging from it was the most terrifying creature of all.

Bullets flew as he emptied the clip, but they had no effect, except that they seemed to ignite the walls with flames. He saw a vista of fire and the morbid creatures belonging to it . . . rolling smoke and the crowds of some dead zone; mobs he could never put down. And they were coming for him.

Donner cowered and struggled as something rising from the earth threw wet tentacles around his legs. He felt his bladder empty and when he saw the flaming eyes of the creatures approaching he began to scream. His voice was full of terror and it was full of hate. He knew that Butch Cooper had made the trade. Out there in the alley, he was walking away from the brutality zone.

---- the end -----

DWELLERS

By Gary L Morton

Stars vanished in a violet explosion, causing him to roll and moan. Then a new dream began. Eddy knew he was dreaming; he often did. This was a lousy dream, one of those repeating dreams he hated. He struggled to wake, but without success - the effort another phase of the nightmare.

The lights were bright and everyone he admired looked on, only he couldn't see them - he couldn't see anything but glare. It was the sort of awareness a paranoid schizophrenic person gets - everyone was there and god he wished they weren't. They had to know he in no way deserved the award he was about to receive.

Eddy had his clothes on this time, but he wished he hadn't worn such a huge pair of soiled running shoes with his suit. If he’d shaved and taken a bath it would’ve been better too. Naturally it was too late to run to the can; he was up and his name was ringing in his ears. Why did the guy have to shout so loud?

A face showed and it wasn't Robert Robinson this time. “Who in the hell is it?” he thought. “Or who in the hell are they?” By they he meant that a sort of shape shifter from hell was presenting this year's Mars Victory Award. The face shifted rapidly and some visages were of writers that died years ago.

Gulping visibly, Eddy began to walk. The glare didn't blind him and there was some relief in that . . . what really knocked him out was the shape shifter. It was switching through a bunch of B-movie zombie bodies that looked too real to be hallucinations. He feared insanity - maybe his mind had snapped. The setup sucked, lights hot enough to melt his runners, and the cheap rubber soles made a horrible sucking noise as he climbed the three large steps to the platform. Turning, he saw some faces grinning through the glare. All eyes were on his feet and that caused him to smile nervously as his cheeks reddened.

Blood dribbled from the corners of the shape shifter's mouth as he said a few words in a distorted monotone. Eddy picked up the words visionary and brilliant as his eyes focused on the award. He'd won with his first story. It was a gadget story he sort of borrowed from one of his pals, and to his dismay this year's award had been redesigned to look exactly like the ugly contraption in the story. A piece of junk really. He'd forever be explaining it to others and he doubted many of them would believe it was an award and not something he'd welded together in a junkyard.

At one time Eddy had been critical of gadget stories and tales that predicted the future. Leonardo da Vinci would always be remembered for predicting the airplane, but who would remember forty thousand science fiction writers for the gadgets they had predicted first? Only a minute ago he'd believed awards to be surrogates when it came to fiction; forget to reward yourself by writing what you really want to write and you'll forever seek awards from others. Now as an award winner his views had changed and his fears were gone. He decided to say a few words.

He looked to the audience and had to pause to wipe tears from his eyes; tears that were an effect of the lights and not his emotions. “Some people can predict the future,” he said, then shouts cut him off and faces loomed up. It wasn't an audience of writers after all, but a gang of reviewers and critics. The sort of people who wouldn't let you say a small word without tearing it down.

One of them was his high school English teacher, Ms. Mansion, and she mounted the stage, waving his old report card, yelling, “Eddy Dash couldn't have written that story! Here are his marks! He failed high school English at Trent! And he never would admit that he's gay.”

Eddy's head began to spin, Ms. Mansion snatched at the award and they began to fight over it. Pulling back, he knocked the shape shifter and got free of her. She came at him again and he got her with a vicious kick to the shin, causing her to howl. He grinned, unable to stop himself - he'd always wanted to give her that kick. “That one's for everyone you made me hate!” he screamed.  Looking to the audience, he saw people in shock. Obviously, they believed he was out of his mind. “She made me hate everyone, really she did,” he whined. And it was true; there were no writers he hated more than ones he'd studied in school. Like most English teachers, Ms. Mansion dissected everything, killing the mystery and the story, turning exciting authors into pieces of bullshit grammar.

A flash brought him back to reality. It was the shape shifter, he'd transformed to a weird version of one of the old TV Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He raised a weapons arm that reminded Eddy of Judge Dredd and fired. Flaming oil shot out and hit Ms. Mansion, burning her like she was a wax witch.

Eddy faced the shape shifter and shook. Now the thing had a dark robe and a golden mask; the weapons arm still up. “You wrote a story about the future?” the shifter said.

“I didn't write it. I stole it from Steve,” Eddy said, beginning to weep. “I can't write about the future. I can't write anything. It's the others who can predict the future.”

“A Dweller from the future will be talking to you Eddy. You have done well,” the shifter said. “But the others haven't been honest.” He turned to face the gasping crowd. “You fools!” he shouted. “Don't you know the future is something you will not predict?” He lifted his weapons arm and sent burning oil streaming into the crowd. Horrible screaming began; blood, fire and smoke fanned up and roared.

Eddy shot up in bed and cradled his head in his hands. Not that guilt dream again. It had repeated about a hundred times, and had something to do with his failing creative writing. God he hated it. Damn, failing creative writing, and in Canada, where anyone who could write a paragraph passed. He'd never get over it.

His erection was staring him in the face so he covered it, wondering if he wasn't becoming just a little perverse. Was seeing people fry giving him a rod or was it Ms. Mansion? He hoped it was seeing people burn.

The clock was at ten but it looked more like night outside. He went to the window naked and glanced down, and then he jumped back. It looked like a crowd below. Deciding to get dressed, he went to the closet and fished through the heap; he kept summer shorts and T-shirts in a pile so getting dressed would be easy. Eddy was lazy; he never wore long pants in the summer because they were too hard to put on. Eddy Dash -- even his name seemed wrong, like it described someone exciting rather than a person considered a dreamer and mentally slow. Looking in the mirror, he saw a slim young man with prominent cheekbones, a sharp nose and a mop of blond hair; he wore an earring but it didn't make him appear effeminate. Young and handsome perhaps, but the difference was there in his eyes. They always looked strange and otherworldly like he was hooked on some powerful drug. The drug was his mind, which had always been off balance, hooked on dreams.

Ten minutes more and he'd miss breakfast at the Emerald Hotel across the street. Stepping back to the window, he looked down to check the crowd, and found that it wasn't a crowd. The people were shadows. If you could call them that. Forms moving slowly, rolling and shifting like tumbleweeds, most of them not connected to any real objects. Flecks of light drifted hypnotically like snowflakes and he thought of winter, remembering Christmas. The shadows were his cousins carrying gifts. He saw Mary standing under the big tree in the town square. She was beautiful, flowing hair and eyes that glittered with dreams. Pain stabbed at his heart, because Mary had drowned, and he was alone. Even his cousins hadn't spoken to him since Uncle Jack had decided to disown him. Now he had the graveyard flowers, the sound of the river and the screech of tires from the accident that executed his parents and brother -- all of it flowing past.

“Not that dreaming while I'm awake shit again!” Eddy thought, pounding the wall. He recalled the disadvantages. It was a condition he sometimes got. Dreaming was a condition he always had. Usually it was daydreaming when he was awake. Normal concentration was something he lacked and because of it he was out of work, collecting medical welfare. Things other people called simple tasks were too much for him; he couldn't even go fishing without cutting his finger while hooking the bait. He always got to dreaming about something else and his drifting mind bungled the task.

Depression of the suicidal sort was the result, so instead of finding success in life he graduated from high school to welfare and a tiny apartment on Brightsville's main drag. It wasn't good for the old self-image, and when it did occasionally emerge from behind the wall of dreams, he saw himself as a loser.

The hicks at the restaurant were sure he was gay and Eddy reflected on that as he went out the door. Since he was handsome and young the hicks were probably more like wishing he was . . . they would screw anybody - man, woman or thing - they just wouldn't admit to it. Being the only guy in the area without a car didn't help much when it came to getting a reputation for dating women and he knew that wouldn't change - he hadn't been in a car since the day his parents died in the crash, or out on a date since Mary died. And he wasn't gay or anything; he was a sort of loner - a guy with only one friend. Even a person with a handicap would get some kind of work in a small town, because of the buddy factor. Eddy knew that but it was of little help; he disliked other men. In this town, they weren't like him so he shut them out.

The door creaked open on blowing shadows and an empty street -- ghost town airs. Eddy was afraid to step outside. Malformed dark clouds scudded under a stone-gray sky. He pictured himself choking to death in shadows that were really poison gas, and then he stepped out and looked around. No one was on the street, and the shadows did feel hot when they touched him, like he was getting sunburned or something. Some pickups parked up by the Emerald meant the restaurant was full of older hicks. They were the only guys who still favored pickups.

Old creeps or not, Eddy was still hungry and the Emerald was the only place where he didn't have to pay. He did some dishes sometimes and he’d promised old Jake he'd keep an eye on the place from his window and report if he saw anybody spray-painting JEW BOY on the windows again. Some of country hip-hop boys didn't like Jews and Jake wasn't a Jew . . . but what could they do when there were no real Jews around to pick on?

Going in the front door would draw all eyes to him so he headed down the alley and went to the service entrance at the back. The door was open so he went in, glancing at the kitchen as he passed. A fat woman was in there instead of the regular cook, but that didn't interest him so he went straight to the main room, stopping by the jukebox for a look-see. Maybe he'd eat in the kitchen if the customers were too ugly.

A new version of Only the Lonely was ending. Dan Montana, Joe River and Missy Marshall were sitting at a table by the window. They stared through the glass at the shadows. Red splotches like birthmarks or acid burns marred their faces. The other patrons, older guys Eddy didn't know by name, had their chairs arranged so they faced Joe.

Missy suddenly came to life, her knuckles flashed as she caught a bug running across the table. It was a roach. She ate it, licked her lips then her expression deadened.

Joe turned his face from the window. “Fine weather today,” he said. “The Dweller will be rising early. Guess I better go over to the park and supervise the work.”

“Who does he want now?” Missy said.

“Plenty to choose from,” Joe said. “Maybe I'll get Jake and let him make the pick.”

It was like they'd dreamed they were zombies and it'd come half-true. Eddy stared as Dan Montana picked something black and gross from a plate of fries and began to munch on it. A homely woman with a fright wig of lifeless blond hair was coming over to the jukebox so he figured leaving was the best idea. Taking a step back, he knocked over some empty bottles, and then froze as everyone looked his way.

“Hey kid!” Joe yelled, rising and knocking over the table. Eddy gulped. He saw something shiny - a brand-new Ruger shotgun Joe had been holding on his lap.

The blond woman suddenly bared her teeth and lunged so he turned and ducked through the door, hearing the gun blast as he moved. Blood painted the wall and the woman's headless body crashed at his heels. One quick look back at the corpse and a jawbone embedded in the broken floor and he took off like a cannon shot.

Swirling shadows made it nearly impossible to see anything in the alley. Dizzied by the furious motion, Eddy ran on, stumbling and tripping until he ran out of breath. He leaned against a graffiti-scarred wall, his head spinning, his lungs aching. Moments later, he fell to his knees, hallucinating.

The walls of the alley melted; he found himself in a shimmering tube, facing a panel of electronic instruments. A golden face appeared on a screen and began to speak, but the words slurred, he didn't get the message except for the last two sentences, which were - “You must stay alive! The Dweller needs you!” 

As swift as it came the illusion vanished. Eddy looked down the alley, feeling refreshed. No one was out back of the Emerald; it looked like the creeps were either slow or they weren't going to give chase. Rising and running he got back to Main Street and checked the front. The pickups were still there and no one was outside.

Not sure what to do, he ran for his apartment with the idea of barricading himself inside. Reaching the top of the stairs, he threw the door open, saw someone standing there and swung, catching the guy with a hard punch. The guy went down and Eddy realized he'd just hammered his pal, his only friend, Steve.

Steve looked up from his knees, his blond hair tangled, and his baby face desperate. “I hear the voice. I hear it,” he said. “Don't hit me.”

“What voice?” Eddy said.

“You must not be one of them,” Steve said, getting up. He rubbed his sore jaw. “It's the rest of the gang I'm talking about. I just ran a half mile to get away.”

“No. You mean our people are nuts too? I’m running from the hicks. They tried to shoot me.”

“Something happened early this morning,” Steve said. “I was sleepwalking. Woke up out on the sidewalk and saw other people, sleeping on the road and grass. Brown shadows were blowing and there were no morning sounds, then some kind of light exploded right through the ground and woke everyone.”

“Funny,” Eddy said. “Nothing happened to me. I had that same old nightmare about winning an award with your story.”

“We're different though,” Steve said. “I got the weird sleep disorder and you're dream crazy. I think whatever changed people got fed in through their dreams or their thoughts and we opted out because we're not normal.”

“Could be. But I did hear a voice telling me to stay alive.”

“Can't be the same one. The other voice split the town in half. It's a death voice. Our younger friends think they have to kill the adults and the adults think they're obeying a creature called the Dweller.”

“We better find out if it's only in Brightsville.” Walking to the far wall, Eddy grabbed his dresser and wheeled it over by the window. He opened the door behind it and went into the next room, which was his computer room. He had the computer hidden because he didn't want the welfare department to find it and declare it an asset. He also didn't want them to find out it was a source of income, loaded with outstanding games that he rented out.

“This is definitely no time for playing games,” Steve said, his pale blue eyes widening with disbelief.

“I figure the modem's safer than the phone. You should know how to get the most info, being that you're a tech nerd?”

“That's cracker with family corporate connections,” he said, sliding out the keyboard. “We're not nerds now. What we are is unknown. Everyone is on the net now and no one knows shit.”

“Yeah. They're hooked on Microsoft and Apple. Whatever happened to old-fashioned country values -- like believing in doing sweet nothing and bumming around?”

“Old-fashioned values are out and renamed as really dumb social networking. But is it true friendship or a new name for desperation. Say, according to the weatherboard it's a sunny day everywhere except in Brightsville. Looks like normal messages on the Trent U board. I think it's safe to talk to someone there. Only Brightsville has been shadow bombed.”

Steve was about to key in when the screen went blank, and then they heard a blast. A second explosion blew the window out in the room behind them.

Eddy spun around and saw splinters of wood and glass nailed into the wall. “Take the stairs to the back,” he said. “Get ready, go!”

They flew out and across the room, just getting out the door as another blast came through. Eddy bounded down the stairs, threw the back door open and found himself facing a sixtyish shotgun-toting redneck. He snatched the barrel before he had a chance to aim and whacked him over the head with the butt. The guy went down, Eddy kept the shotgun and they ran between the sheds and over to the next street.

People were out front of Montana Hardware so they ducked into an empty barbershop. Catching his breath, Eddy studied the shotgun; it was new, a Remington with a fancy catch for extra ammo. “I haven't felt this way since the last time the Cross Gang chased me.”

“You better be ready to meet the Cross Gang again, because they've taken the lead of the high school kids and the battle against the adults. Most of the fighting is going on out by the quarry.”

“Shit,” Eddy said. “I got them and the hicks hating me the first time by making a speech in favor of gun control. Now I'm going to have to blast them with a gun. This whole deal is breaking my heart. I never thought I'd be a worse monster than the monsters. I never thought I'd be calm after passing into hell. Life’s a survival bitch.”

“Oh-oh,” Steve said. “I hear someone in the alley.”

Ducking behind a coat rack they watched as a rifle-toting man appeared. It was Abe Hardcastle, their high school principal; he wore a tattered suit and blood, dirt and whiskers added an edge to his pinched expression. Hardcastle was a right wing extremist and had taken personal time to counter Eddy's high school speech on gun control. He likely would have shot to kill even yesterday. Messing with him wasn't a good idea.

Hardcastle spotted the partially open door of the barbershop, raised his rifle and fired a shot through the wood. A mirror and bottles of tonic exploded; Eddy ducked to the right then back as a bullet shattered the window.

Hardcastle was marching straight for the entrance so Eddy went down and rolled on the floor. A hard boot knocked the door open; Hardcastle showed, his aim ready, his huge jaw set -- and Eddy fired . . . both barrels flaming. The recoil pounded back and the blast hammered Hardcastle; his midsection crumpling, becoming a flying shower of dark gore as his body went out to the street. He was cut right in half - his legs did a dance into some garbage cans and his upper chest and head caught on a parking meter and hung there.

Steve jumped out through the broken window and looked down the street at the hardware store then waved for Eddy to come out. Eddy staggered out, still shaken by the recoil and what he'd done to Hardcastle. A couple guys were running up from the hardware so they took off, headed over toward the town square.

Bullets whizzed through the maples as they ran across a lawn. Lilac hedges, a rubbish heap and an old shed put distance between them and their pursuers. Eddy ducked behind a broken foundation wall in a vacant lot. Steve followed and they waited.

“Looks like they're not following,” Eddy said. He looked at the shed, the milkweed, thistles, crabgrass and broken stones. It seemed like the world was on a tilt, except for the shadows it was a cloudy summer day. “If this was one of your stories what would be the cause of this?”

“Doesn't work like a story because there has to be an explanation for it and supernatural Cuthulu or zombie explanations don't cut the mustard as far as real science goes.”

“It has something to do with the future because the voice I heard came with a dream of the future. I didn't see much, a golden mask . . . the sort of video their equipment displayed was almost like reality. Maybe it's fifty years from now.”

“Fifty years isn't much in time. It has to be more -- the distant future. I think there will be nothing but imagination then. We're nearly through harnessing just the physics side of nature. Most new discoveries help free the mind and imagination. The end is the human imagination free of nature's limitations -- godlike beings. If the future is screwing with us now it's them - the gods doing it.”

“I can't believe we become gods. Extinction is what I believe in. The reason is that humans aren't full emotional beings. We don't have enough feeling to care. All Hardcastle had to do was change a bit and I killed him like nothing. It's not just this town, the whole world was going to hell for a long time and the people didn't care. A true emotional being would suffer. Toys like cars and televisions are what they've always cared about.”

“You're deluding yourself with your beliefs. You saw a future so believe it. We somehow overcome our flaws.”

 ”Okay, people of the future have caused this. So what next?”

“We observe the adults. See if we can get a look at this Dweller guy.”

Eddy grimaced. “Man, watching folks that want to blow us away isn't going to be easy.”

“There's a lot of activity near the park and the town square, and we can get good cover there.”

“Okay, I don't like it, but let's give it a try.”

Summer dust blew up on a hot wind and pop cans rattled. They passed a mound of rubbish and went through a screen of reddening sumac. A statue of Lord Simcoe with a fountain and flower garden was on the edge of the school grounds. Beyond the school, a street of factories and warehouses separated it from Hepburn Park and the town square. The sun glowed behind veils of haze, a blind eye lost in its own dreams, and the odd beam lanced through, adding a knife-edge gleam to the drifting shadows.

Trent High was usually open for summer school and the pool. Today it looked deserted, with no cars in the parking lot. They crossed the football field, spooked by the eerie eclipse-style daylight. Steve found himself looking around too much and finally he began to run, headed for the main building, an ivied university-style quad.

Eddy got ahead; he halted at the arched entrance to the quad. “If we run straight in we could be spotted from all four directions.”

“Gotcha,” Steve said. Dodging left, they ran to a window. Forcing it, they climbed into a chem lab. The sports complex and pool ran underground, beneath the quad. Cutting to a stairwell, they went down to the gate. A magnetic pass was needed and they didn't have one so Eddy simply kicked out a six-foot window beside the door.

Following a vestibule, they got to the pool and began to pass it, headed for the exit on the other side of the quad. A rank odor and dead silence gave them an uneasy feeling. Slime of some sort shimmered on the water so they walked up to the glass for a better look and saw something surfacing. It was a corpse rising, its face battered, swollen and blue. The green-tinted water was still clear enough for them to see bottom, and it was as full as a morgue slab after a chainsaw massacre. Bodies and torn body parts floated everywhere. It became obvious that the slime was blood turned green.

“Man, let's get out of here before I throw up,” Steve said.

“Not so fast. The killers might be around. We got to duck ambushes.”

Looking left and right, they went up to the ground floor and out the door. Dust blew in the arch and they stepped into it, making sure they checked their backs. The field at the center of the quad was now visible and it wasn't clear. Two ragged men stood by a fountain.

“Oh, great,” Eddy said. “It's the fucking killers.”

“Yeah, and they look like two swamp mutants. Say, those are axes they're carrying.”

Eddy frowned, his mouth quivered. “I can just shoot them.” He moved to reload and found that he couldn't open the ammo catch. The two men were walking now, coming out of shadows and swirling dust like it was a tunnel from the extinct future Eddy believed in. He stared and froze for a moment. Blood, sweat and dirt coated the men's faces; they wore uniforms of a savagely torn green material that showed they had been janitors before being reincarnated as subhuman losers. Scariest of all was the way they limped on bloodstained legs; it meant they were so bloodthirsty they had wounded themselves with their axes.

“Run,” Eddy said, “back inside. It'll be easier to get away.”

Flying in, they dashed up the stairs and down a long hall to the engineering department. A crash echoed up as the men burst into the school.

“Try to load the gun,” Steve said. “I'm going to search for weapons.”

Ducking behind some lockers, Eddy struggled with the catch. Figures the guy would fix it so only he could open it, he thought, and then it popped open. Amazed by his luck, he adjusted it and reloaded. Pointing the gun, he tested the sight and found himself aiming at Steve as he came around the corner carrying an iron bar.

Steve dodged to the side. “God, I thought you were going to spray me.”

“I got it reloaded, but the idea is to try and sneak out. I really don't want to mess with guys that dangerous.”

“If the pool is a sign, they've been favoring the basement. Let's take the top floor back to the exit stairs.”

One hall from the exit they ran back down to the basement, grabbed a row of lockers and sent them crashing to the floor. Then they ran back up to the top, down to the end and down the stairs to the exit. They assumed the janitors would head for the noise, but they failed to rise to the bait. Both of them were at the doors, and the tallest guy was already swinging his ax at Eddy as he charged down the stairs.

Eddy ducked the flying blade and Steve dodged and tumbled. There was a crash as Eddy smashed into news boxes, then a boom as his Remington shotgun misfired, and another wham as the ax followed through and bit into a service room door. Steve's metal bar bounced on the floor, and from his knees, he saw the first janitor catch the misfire blast. It got him in the upper body, kicking him right through the Plexiglas doors . . . sending him into the dusty wind like a gory scarecrow spit from a monster exhaust fan.

The second janitor lifted his ax to strike, his face a hostile mass of fresh scar tissue. Steve knocked his bar as he tried to reach it and it clanged on the steps. He heard Eddy moan then he saw the ax coming down. Scrambling left, he managed to snatch the bar and get out of the way.

Glancing off the stair railing, the blade hit the stone floor. The force of the blow staggered the janitor and he stepped back, holding the ax with shaking hands. He growled, his scars purpling as he prepared to strike again.

Afraid to engage in close combat with such a freak, Steve simply stepped back, mustered all of his strength and threw the bar. Gleaming, it connected with the janitor's throat, knocking him back. He staggered, choked, spit blood and then charged, tripping over Eddy as he tried to get to Steve.

A blackened hand reached for Steve's feet, he leapt over the janitor and seized the other ax, which was still embedded in the service room door. It came out easy, but Steve was trembling so much he could barely lift it. Knee-shaking fear, the black magic of terror was crippling him. Eddy was stunned so he knew he couldn't count on him . . . he had to swing and total the guy before he got up. But he couldn't stomach killing someone with an ax. It was more like he could only tremble. Then the janitor got to his knees and the fear turned to a power that brought the ax down on its own. It got him in the back, a gross crunch, and Steve staggered back, staring at the blood oozing up from the punctured lung and spleen.

Squirming, choking grossly, the janitor died. Eddy got to his feet and studied the carnage. He wiped tears from his eyes with a shaking hand. “I think my ribs are broken from the recoil,” he said. “Jeez, this is no gods from the future. This is brain damage, like these people fried themselves with poison or got a new strain of disease.”

“How do you explain the Dweller?”

“We don't even know what the Dweller is . . . maybe he's just the ugliest of these creeps.”

Crossing the road, they went into weeds and bushes, then up on the railroad grade and looked down at warehouses and factories. Litter rattled as it spun on the stones in the lot below. The street was deserted, just a couple of abandoned cars.

“These people do no regular work, that's for sure,” Eddy said as they descended.

Steve nodded. “I have a hunch that they don't clean anything either, meaning the Laundromat should be empty. We can check the square and the park from its roof.”

Weeds and long grass grew out of cracked concrete and the wind whistled in the warehouse alley. Here the day seemed empty, lonely enough for ghosts, and Eddy wished it really were that way. It would be nice to see Mary's ghost wandering in the dust, maybe wearing the faded red dress she used to wear.

They saw a farm truck pass up on Dundas Street and slowed. Stopping near the end of the alley, they moved up to look. People were moving down by the square but no one was in the Laundromat. Another truck passed then it was clear and they ran across and entered by way of a side door. Going out the back door, they climbed on some barrels, swung up on the first roof then climbed the fire ladder to the top.

Odors of tar, vegetables, gasoline and corpses were in the air and the wind was gusting. They got to their knees near the edge and crawled through the tarred stones. Using a large air vent for cover they looked down at the square.

“Unreal,” Eddy said. “We're watching a rerun of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “but this remake would be better titled Invasion of the Zombie Clutzos”

The sun glowed behind the clouds, adding an eerie orange tint to the gray day. Cars were parked everywhere, but not in the proper spaces and they were banged up. Farm trucks loaded with melons, spuds and vegetables circled the summer open-air market - most of them parked on curbs or partway up the steps to buildings. People, all of them adults, wandered aimlessly in the market - their legs wooden and their faces blank. It was business as usual except that no one was actually buying anything. No one was saying anything either and they paid no attention to the corpses scattered in the dirt. These were people who were deteriorating - rotting. Some still looked clean and somewhat normal, but most were at some ugly stage of decay. Clothing soiled, shirts untucked, ties askew. At least half of them had blood oozing from battered faces and untreated wounds. One woman had her bruised breasts hanging out and the old man next to her held his false teeth in his hand. On the north side of the square gasoline was spilling across the concrete from the self-serve and although strong fumes were rising no one noticed them. Mayor Billy Johnson and the police chief stood near the corner on the steps to the theater and they held rifles. Blood stained the steps and bodies blocked the entrance behind them, which indicated that a massacre had gone down during a run of a new pirate adventure flick. A larger crowd milled in the park, many of them trampling the flowerbeds by the square. The Dweller was supposed to be in the park somewhere, but the screen of trees - oaks, maples, elms and willows - blocked their view.

“See anyone from my family there,” Steve said.

“No,” Eddy said. “And there won't be any from mine because I don't have a family. Unless it's my uncle and cousins, and they were zombies before this even happened.”

“What we're seeing makes sense in a way,” Steve said. “You likely don't see it in most zombie movies, but if you started to deteriorate the first things you'd lose would be fine motor skills like driving skills. Many of them have simply injured themselves in fender benders and falls and left the injuries untreated.”

“Man they're ugly, but I guess one of the great things about being human is that it doesn't take much to turn you into a horrible piece of shit. I would never want anyone to see me like that. Maybe I should shoot myself before it happens.”

“Oh-no,” Steve said, lurching forward. “That's my father down there by the gas station - bleeding badly from the chest. I've got to get down and rescue him.” He got up, exposing himself, and it was fortunate that no one looked up at the roof.

“You can't rescue him. Think, man - that's not your father anymore. It's something else.”

“No! There are no real zombies. Whatever he has is a disease. I can get him to Toronto and treatment before it's too late.”

“How? If you go down there they'll tear you apart. Even if you succeed I can't let you transport an infected person to a city.”

Steve looked to the square and back to Eddy. Wind whipped his hair and desperation contorted his face. His hand flew to his head, thumb and index finger to his temples. He drew back. “Don't try to stop me!” he yelled, and then he ran for the fire escape.

Eddy chased him, but he ran like a champion and was down in moments. Following him farther meant certain death. Eddy remembered the dream voice telling him to keep alive and it jogged his preservation instincts. Walking back to the edge he looked down and saw Steve running across the road toward his father. There weren't many freakos near the gas station but several had spotted him and were turning to look.

The day was so dark now the scene was nightmarish, much more like a dream than reality. The unreal shadows kept shifting, and he saw Steve reach his father and touch his shoulder. His father turned to face him and growled, loud enough that Eddy heard it up on the roof. Then he was on Steve like a rabid animal, trying to sink his teeth in his neck.

Steve yelled and struggled, managing to throw his father to the ground. An army of zombies moved toward him now, but only three were close. Deciding to take a chance, Eddy lifted the Remington, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Even from the roof the blast was powerful, it took the three zombies out and carried a spray of red with it as kicked up asphalt and went on to wound several more with a rain of gore and brain matter.

Steve was racing back now, but the sheriff and the mayor had spotted the action and were running from the theater with their rifles raised. One shot rang out then a blue Ford suddenly careered in from a side street. Tires squealed as the driver dodged some people and parked cars. Going over a curb with a bang the vehicle got on track and headed straight for the mayor and the sheriff, who turned and looked just as they were brutally mowed down.

Growling zombies converged on the car from all directions, and the driver had boxed himself in . . . he banged a couple of parked cars then reversed out, knocking several zombies down. It looked like the vehicle was going to escape the square, then blue-faced Dan Montana stepped from behind a melon truck and took the windshield out with a rifle blast.

Blood and glass flew, reversing out of control the car went off the road and through the front window of Bradshaw's candy store. Eddy saw a guy jump out the passenger door. It was John Beck, a pitcher on the high school baseball team, and no doubt he'd been obeying the Voice Steve had mentioned. His left shoulder was bleeding but John managed to fire at the approaching creeps with a pistol, killing a few before he ran out of ammo. His expression went from maniacal to grim as he threw the gun and charged. He socked the first couple of creepoids hard, knocking them down, but then big Dan Montana moved in and slugged him. John staggered back and the others were on him before he could recover.

Eddy froze, the scene sickened him. Sound bites from the growling zombies carried up to him on the wind. They tore and bit like rabid dogs. John howled, wild screams of pain, then a zombie chomped into his throat and blood jetted from the jugular as he was silenced. They took John the rest of the way down, continuing the cannibalistic attack. They started feeding on his belly, and as one zombie pulled out a gory sausage Eddy found himself going numb, getting a flashback of an old B-movie . . . faces full of ketchup, green slime in their hair, the bleeding body writhing like a loose rag doll. A grinning zombie rose, liquid fat dribbling from his lips as he held a handful of guts pulled from the corpse. Eddy came back to reality. He lifted the Remington, locked on and fired both barrels, a blast that kicked everyone flat to the ground.

Only meat pie and a blood pancake remained as Eddy ducked back. There was the flash of a head bouncing over a car. He peeked out again. The rest of the zip-brains didn't know where the shot came from, but now he could hear Steve yelling from below. “Motherfuckers!” Eddy yelled, and then he scooped up Steve's metal bar and went down the fire escape.

Steve was at the bottom, struggling with a huge sucker of a zombie. Moving in from the rear, Eddy swung the bar and crushed the guy's skull. He fell to the pavement like a heavy sandbag.

Eddy's eyes went to the blue face of the dead man.

“I'm okay,” Steve said. “Damn, we've attracted the whole gang.”

An army of zombies moved across the square.

“Let's get behind the gas station,” Eddy said. “If my plan works we'll escape by way of the rooftops.”

“Roofs are the best idea,” Steve said as they ran out. “Those freaks likely aren't well enough to climb.”

Dodging the first cluster of zombies, they raced straight out into the square and turned left, headed for the gas station. A hand snatched at Eddy's shirt as he passed a parked car. He beat it back with his gun, acutely aware of the fact that he would be a goner if any of them held him for long. He led Steve wide of the spilled gas and around back. Glancing around, he saw an alley running between two warehouses on the other side of the fence.

They jumped the fence, got to a fire escape in the alley and ran up the steps. Near the top they halted. As Eddy had hoped, they could see over the station roof. Zombies were gathering at the front and a huge crowd was heading over from the square and the park. A rifle shot pinged in the alley and they ducked.

“He's right by the pumps,” Steve said. “See if you can plug him.”

“That guy couldn't hit a barn door,” Eddy said as a second shot hit wide, then he stood and fired a shot at the pumps. It took four men down and sent a severed arm to the top of the sign, but it didn't ignite the gasoline as he had hoped and he had also missed the guy with the rifle.

More wild shots came as Eddy reloaded, he took aim again, and then a stray bullet near the pumps lit the gas. Flames leapt up silently, a hungry roar rushed with them as they grew. People near the station were instantly consumed and the conflagration reached deep into the square, making torches of most of the approaching zombies.

Eddy and Steve ran to the warehouse roof and away from the heat. The firestorm nearly got them, and it was fortunate that the wind was strong and in their favor. Heat seared their faces and they ducked back farther, watching the fireworks as the pavement near the pumps rocked with a series of blasts. Flaming bodies and liquefied asphalt sailed over the station; human torches stumbled in the square. Two flatbeds and a Toyota blew up - a concatenated blast that sent flying debris ripping into several zombies and melons rocketing through what remained of the windows in Discount Mart.

There were still a lot of zombies that weren't hit full on by the blast, and they were stupefied, showing no reaction at all. Some of them were at the edge of the fire and had burned legs, hands and faces. They should have been screaming and running, but instead they strolled, feeling no pain, not even bothering to pat out the flames on their smoking clothes.

Nearby buildings were catching fire, but the warehouse had been spared. The fire was shrinking back from the square, spitting out little heaps of fried bodies as it moved. Black smoke blew steadily from the pumps and faces and windows glowed with hellish light. It was certain the wind would spread the flames, eventually destroying most of the town.

“Fire hypnotizes them,” Eddy said, turning to Steve, who was grimacing as he checked a burn and a bad bite on his arm.”

“What if I become rabid?” Steve said.

“You probably won't. They all turned at once, remember?”

“Yeah, so let's get into the park now that they're out of it. This Dweller guy is the root of this evil. We got to find out what he is.”

Eddy led the way as they climbed down on the far side. Steve started to jog toward the square and Eddy caught him and stopped him. Sharp eyes were the name of the game and he didn't want Steve dashing into a trap. Coming out of the alley they met with a crawling corpse. Its whitened tongue protruded past withered lips, enough of the face remained for them recognize it as Mayor Billy. He growled low and snatched at their legs.

Steve ducked back. “Looks like they will still attack.”

“He's blind,” Eddy said. “The flames didn't affect him. We better watch out for that.”

Zombies in the square were falling, collapsing from smoke inhalation. Cutting directly through it wasn't a good idea so they turned and went through the market. Burst melons and spilled tomatoes squished underfoot. Chin’s Theater was ahead and it would be possible to avoid the bitter smoke by walking through it to the back. The alley there was next to Hepburn Park.

Bodies were scattered out front, mostly teenagers shot by the sheriff and his mad pals. A grim Butch Landry, holding a weapon that resembled the RPG from the ancient Duke Nukem computer game looked down on the scene from a huge movie poster.

Steve covered his eyes and they walked past and toward the entrance. “I don't want to know who they are,” he said. “It's less painful that way.”

Eddy glanced back. Dark smoke, easy shadows shifting over fire, blood and wreckage. He knew who they were; they were everybody - extinction come true, and Steve thought men would be gods.

Shotguns had shattered the glass doors. They walked straight into the empty lobby. Popcorn crunched underfoot and they could hear the movie playing. Eddy swung the doors and they stepped in cautiously, seeing car-chase action on the screen and death in the seats. Bodies were draped over the rows, Eddy saw a bloody finger sticking out of a box of fries and a couple who looked like they'd been making out before a gallon of ketchup had hit them.

There was so much blood they didn't want to touch anything, and it was so unsettling they remained silent and walked to the curtains. Eddy was about to part them when light flashed on the other side. It meant someone was opening the exit door. He tapped Steve on the shoulder then parted them a sliver and peeked through. Mary was standing in the doorway, alive, and she didn't appear to be a zombie. Silky blond hair, blue eyes sparkling and that old cynical look of hers, like she'd suspected everyone might be zombies all along.

She stepped back and the wind suddenly blew the door shut. Eddy came unglued, burst through the curtains and hit the bar handle . . . but it wouldn't open, the door had locked. He pounded it with his fists then Steve pulled him away.

“You’re losing your mind! There are only zombies out there.”

“No, it's Mary! Mary's out there!”

Steve's eyes softened. “You know Mary's dead. It's just the stress, causing you to see what you want to see.”

“What I saw was too real to be a hallucination.”

“Okay, but let's not rush out there. Remember your own advice.”

Eddy tried the handle again. It squeaked but didn't catch so he began to pump it up and down and managed to open it. The wind was forcing it shut so he put his shoulder to it and it flew open and banged against the side wall. Smoke rushed in with the wind so they stepped out and covered their eyes as they jogged to the park.

Black smoke was billowing in a funnel from the roof of the old post office and the wind was whipping tentacles of the smoke down into the trees. The roar of the gusts and fire was frightening, but they were safe in the park where things weren't dry enough to burn. The freakos had cleared out of the park and were in the square staring stupidly at the conflagration. Eddy scanned the trees and flowerbeds trying to catch sight of Mary, but saw no one at all. He did notice something large at the center of the park that hadn't been there before so they headed in for a closer look.

Eddy felt lightheaded, slightly ill. Sweat and soot clung to him and his empty stomach churned. He thought of how nice it would be to go skinny-dipping with Mary down at the canal, and the memory hit him with so much power he saw it like a mirage. He shook his head. “Maybe I am seeing things,” he said.

“I must be seeing them too, because those stones weren't there before,” Steve said.

They stopped and stared. The big oak trees at the center of the park were gone and a huge pile of boulders stood there. Standing stones were at the perimeter of it, like the townspeople had been in the process of building a version of Stonehenge out of shopping-mall marble.

Moving out of the trees they circled the heap of the stones and came to a cave-like entrance. At first they saw nothing then a patch of color flashed in the darkness.

“Somebody's in there,” Steve said.

“That was part of a woman's dress I saw. Mary must be inside.”

“No. Don't go in. It's some kind of trick from this Dweller. Once you're in there he'll have your ass.”

“It doesn't matter. We're going to die anyway. I want to see Mary before it's too late.”

Stinging tears came to Eddy's smoke-reddened eyes. He wiped them away and ran to the entrance. Glancing back he saw that Steve wasn't following, and then he plunged into darkness and tripped. A rock banged his knee and he stopped, gasping. Moving slowly he headed down on a slope toward a very faint light. The tunnel took a sudden turn then the light brightened. The walls ahead glowed and the floor changed to blue, almost like carpeting. Phosphor light cast the colors, and patterned illusions on the stone.

A low whistle of wind in the cave caused him to shiver. He rounded a bend and came to a door. It was silver and in place of a handle it had a heavy plate with the image of a human hand stamped on it. He put his palm on the plate, heard something click and watched as it opened.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the blue lights. A cavernous room loomed beyond the door, circular with bright instrument panels, like it was the master control room of a nuclear power plant or a space ship. Awed by the discovery, Eddy stepped inside. Before he could look around, he heard the door shut behind him.

Turning back, he shoved the door, but it wouldn't budge. Pacing the room he looked for another exit. A narrow hall showed at the side of a tall instrument panel and it led to another area. Eddy headed down it and entered a huge room. Glittering cylindrical cocoons lined the walls and an embossed control panel was at the center. As he walked up to a cocoon he heard a door open behind him. Turning he saw a stocky figure walking out of a haze of blue light. The being was humanoid but not human. Its body and features were lumpy and blue, its lips black and twisted. Oval eyes brimmed with alien intelligence and strange understanding, like it was a creature that felt your pain, even if it did plan to eat you.

Eddy knew this thick-skinned creature was the Dweller, but now that he'd found him he didn't quite know what to ask. He felt only fear and mild loathing. He watched with a quivering lower lip as the Dweller grinned. Pointed teeth and a melting green mucous membrane showed. Eddy trembled as the Dweller raised a powerful arm, then when he saw that the open blue hand was lined with filaments and electrodes he raised his shotgun.

Paying no attention to the threat, the Dweller stepped forward, reaching for the weapon.

Shaking, biting his lip, Eddy pulled the trigger.

Fire licked from the barrel. Time slowed. He saw the Dweller's hand detach itself at the wrist and float to him. A powerful grip, cold electrodes and a paralyzing charge took him. Blinding light hit his eyes, then the flash faded and he saw the shotgun blast connect. The Dweller's head and shoulders vanished in a nova of blue-black blood. Deadly force threw the headless body against the door and the recoil knocked Eddy back into one of the cocoons.

Blue light shone through, cold pain making him numb. His view was from above like in a dream. He saw the shotgun going to the floor and his body banging into a cylinder. Across the room the Dweller's headless body was fizzing up yellow blood and mist as it melted to lumpy clay. The detached hand floated away from his head and touched the cocoon above his body. It was feebly trying to hold it shut, but it failed and the front swung open. Mary was inside, a metal helmet fastened to her head.

Sunlight flooded in; Eddy found himself in Hepburn Park. The day was a scorcher, people were strolling by and he saw a kite soaring above the willows. Turning, he saw Mary and looked her up and down, at the nice curve of her thighs, her red shorts and tank top. She smiled and they embraced, kissed. He held her and she whispered in his ear. “I saw people in the future,” she said. “People who wanted to see the past. Do you know how they did it?”

“No,” he said, caressing her shoulder, letting her voice touch him more than her words.

“They found that they couldn't physically enter the past. But they could enter by dreams. It's the mind that is constant. Think of it - if you could enter someone's dreams, say Plato's dreams, you could learn a lot about history just from that.”

“Whose dreams did they enter?” Eddy said.

“Your dreams,” she said.

“What?” he said, pulling away from her. His vision blurred and Mary was gone. He saw the twisted lips of the Dweller and began to struggle, but he couldn't break free. A sharp pain told him the powerful hand had a grip on his temples.

“They entered your dreams,” the Dweller said, his voice deep and distorted. “Your dreams and the dreams of some of the others. And they made a mistake. The theory didn't work as expected. They altered history, creating several holes that must be patched.”

Eddy stared into the Dweller's wide blue eyes. “My dreams. Why me?”

“Not because of who you are now, but who you will be when you're older. History is merciless. If I do not correct it, it will self-correct in ways that are too horrible and cruel for the human race to imagine. I exist because people in the future are too kind. They can't kill even one man, as they are truly emotional beings - creatures of love. Yet there was one woman who created me and I am the Dweller who is not even a dream and does not exist. Brightsville is a town that I am patching. Most of the people here should not have been born, so I am destroying them. The bodies in the cocoons are a few people who died when they should have lived. Some of the survivors will remember me and that’s why I look like a monster. When the authorities investigate the calamity here they certainly won’t believe stories of monsters and zombies because you will tell them you believe a poison of some kind got in the town's water supply. You will remember everything because we cannot risk touching your mind at all.”

“Why should I help you?”

“Because there is no other way. Because you'll have Mary again and because a being that destroys himself as part of his work does not lie.”

“Okay, I'll do it, but I find it hard to believe there couldn't have been a cleaner way. Couldn't you have teleported the people away or used some other method?”

“No. It takes energy to speak your language and it is taking incredible amounts of energy to return a few people. I had to weed out the mistakes, so I entered their dreams and changed their reality. What you must do is close the cylinder you knocked open and then run out. I wasn't allowed to read your mind, so I made a mistake. I didn't think you would shoot me. To help me finish my work you must see that all the town's records are destroyed. Burn any remaining churches and government buildings and destroy any identification found on the corpses. Do what you can.”

Eddy had one more question, but it never got out. Abruptly, the scene changed and he was on his knees beside the open cocoon. The Dweller's hand slipped from his temple and fell to the floor in front of him. As it vanished in mist, he stood up and closed the cylinder door. He took a quick look around, and then he ran to the hall and found an open passage leading up into the park.

The light blinded him, he emerged staggering, fireworks exploding in his eyes. Even the trees looked to be on fire. He shook and fell to one knee as his vision began to settle. Smoke rolled over the town. The sun was out and Mary stood under a maple tree. She was weeping, so he ran to her and embraced her.

“It's so terrible,” she said. “Nearly everyone is dead.”

He held her tighter, caressing her. Glancing up he saw Steve coming through the trees. “Yes, it is horrible,” he said, and she couldn't see that he was smiling.

---- the end -----

Vampire Alley

By Gary L Morton

Dark cumulus castles in the sky appeared as a startling new dimension on a flat slate of sky. The strength of the approaching winds could be seen in the roiling smoke of the cloudbank. Down at the bottom of the bluff frothing swells toppled in, spinning spray high over jagged rocks. If Steve was sensible he would've been in the shelter with the others, waiting for the dragon tail of hurricane Zeno to whip past. But he wasn't in command of his faculties; depression had sent him out wandering in the blow. Thoughts of Mina and Danny were on the leading edge of the inner storm.

Danny had always been a monster - a blond monster. Steve understood that now. Danny's human mask was an unusual one; he came disguised as a gift giver. Giving you anything; his old jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, surprise cases of beer, CDs and more expensive items. The catch being that he wasn't at all generous. Steve had thought that in the beginning, and if they weren't pals he would have always been fooled. Danny's goal was to own people. His heart was as hollow as his eyes. He was the sort of guy who'd buy a coffin to bury you in so he could feel he possessed you and your soul.

A kick of wind puffed Steve's nylon windbreaker, and he thought he understood the wish of Icarus - to escape and fly above the hordes who only wished to crawl on their bellies. People in Toronto were lacking in wishes, mainly they were too uninspired to fly. Of course everyone was into self-development these days, everything from weight lifting to New Age stuff, but only for vanity, image or financial gain. And since the inner self was granted no real value on its own it never really got developed. People were getting to be like gasoline -- all additives and no substance. Steve believed the truth was in the core of a person, in the heart, so if you had a heart the rest of life would fall into proper place. He felt he was born with an even spirit. Most people were trying to regain what they had lost, and because they didn't know it, they were going about it in the wrong way.

Danny had a totally different philosophy of life. His one great need was to do everything better than Steve. He had firmer pectorals, his eyes were bluer, his clothes sharper. You would expect his woman to be superior, but that wasn't the case. Like other men that consider themselves studs, Danny's instincts were predatory. Ultimately incapable of love, he believed himself a great lover. He was one of those guys who would explode with violence when the day of rejection forced a final confrontation with inadequacy. In the present, the predator's blood lent him the desire to possess Steve's woman, and in turn possess him through the theft of his virility.

Danny had stolen Mina, calculating his every move with the coldness of emotion only a robber planning a Brinks job could own. Bubbling conversation, flowers and gifts, he whirled her through the best social circles, took advantage of her love of dancing. He molded himself from clay to become Mina's dream lover . . . and he wasn't genuine at all. Steve saw warped desire and a faceless hunger behind the masks. The job was thorough, he'd put Steve on the bluffs, firm in his decision to end a game he could neither win nor stand to play.

Skeletal forms mixed in the shadows racing before the storm; a crowd, malformed and morphing like dark ink … the vision had grown stronger in his subconscious with every new day of failure. Inside were symbols of a life of remorse, bitter years suspended from a wish that the events of yesterday might've been different. A line of blood-red showed in a sudden cloud split, and he saw it like he saw Danny's face -- an evil god bleeding on all of the things it possessed. Then he jumped . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . and flew, the wind ballooning in his windbreaker. The upward surf of the air was incredible, but not potent enough to halt his plunge to the sand and rocks below. Steve expected his life to flash before him but it didn't happen. A black grid unfolded in his head, fine wires warping through strange dimensions; time stretched beyond the limits. Rivers of light exploding as several Steves swung down toward the rocks on a number of alternate worlds.

He saw the pocked beach blast up to meet him like stony knuckles of a new demon -- one much larger than ancient idols. A blow that was beyond feeling hit him, intense like a rose of blood bursting in a universe of dark matter. Fire in his flesh that left him scorched and numb, then the curtain of death and a dark, empty place swallowed him.

. . . . . . the roar of rushing waters, a steady and eternal sound touched his ears. A line of waves, scarlet and florescent, washed over his thoughts. By small degrees a cloud was lifting, one storm passing to make way for another. A weird duality of mind was present; he knew he had died - the Steves of several worlds had hit the rocks. There'd been a crossover of sorts and his mind was living in the body of the one Steve who had escaped death and oblivion. It was like a delusion, an unreal thing that he couldn't shake loose, and the reason for his survival loomed like a hideous shadow.

Hypothermia and blood loss had done their work; he was freezing and numb. Tendrils of unendurable pain were spreading through him. His bloodshot eyes opened; through sand-crusted lids he saw a picture worse than grim. Plastic straws were embedded in a heap of broken driftwood logs. The head of a carp stared, its gutted body dripping on a jagged rock. A car engine hung broken from the side of the sandstone bluff. Wreaths of broken pine boughs ornamented with dead gulls and crows covered the sand. Steve shuddered, but it was emotional, not physical. He wasn't capable of anything physical, not with what was left of his body. He could see his opened stomach spread before him … a dark soup of blood on the sand … red membrane of lung, the blood-rich meat of his spleen … intestines, shining and violet, erupting with a vomit of undigested food.

The most terrible fact in the universe was the fact that he wasn't dead. There was also the certain knowledge that he would live. He would heal because in this alternate world he knew he was immortal -- a vampire. He’d landed dead in all worlds, but in this world some of the dead lived.

It was deadly fusion, the predator in him resented this new more human Steve and longed to remain in control . . . and the predator was content in the knowledge that Steve would endure the agony of healing. Hissing and blood came to his lips; a rasp of anguish passed his fangs. His intestines were gathering snakelike before him in the sand. Blood was rising and pooling, lung tissue was palpitating and bits of flesh were crawling. Raging pain took him as the healing progressed. The torment became wailing that slowly melted to thoughts. He felt like a fool who'd set himself on fire, only to awaken with nerves burning with a blaze that would never end.

Although his suffering took place in a brief time period, it was more than any feeling being could withstand. A ghost sledgehammer moved in his torso, and nerves burned down to the ends like wicks into wax as his flesh warmed. His mind emerged, hatching from a womb of black thoughts, and the memory of the incident was much less vivid than the reality. He was filled with cool fire. In two ways he'd been crushed; emotionally and physically. Now the knowledge of his vampirism threatened him spiritually. Hopeless as the situation was, the awareness of having died and lived served as Novocain to deaden remorse, self-pity and the shock of changing worlds.

Sweat showered from him as he got to his knees and looked at his hands. His Save-the-Rainforest T-shirt was shredded; chest hair was flecked with blood and scar lines shifted from blue to white as they faded. The outline of his stiffening penis showed in the tightness of his jeans. The denim was torn at the knees, so that except for his moccasins and beads he resembled a frame from an Incredible Hulk comic. Powerful feelings were returning like a diamond of energy burning in his chest, growing stronger as an inner vampire resurfaced.

Cracked slate clouds slid across the sun and beams like shards of bronze bit at his eyes. His face was puckered by a squint but his vision was clear enough for him to see a dark shape flying down at the bluff-top. It arced out, trailing strings of light, thumped the sand with heavy boots, tumbled and rolled erect. It was Vince and he clicked his cowboy boots and grinned behind ragged wisps of dark hair. Three more figures leapt from the top and a few moments later Steve was facing four men in the sand.

Danny's fangs sparkled like he was a TV vampire; he had a halo of arrogance and his thin blond whiskers had a girlish transparency. He was the first to speak, and his tone was mocking, “Lying around on the beach in a hurricane, Steve.” His lips formed a cruel razor. “Next time you screw up my plans for Mina I'll toss you in the grid instead of on the rocks.”

“Let's drop the infighting and move,” Vince said. “If the grid's been knocked out we're headed for the big time.”

“All right, grid mission impossible here we come,” Danny said, and then he whooped like a crazy teenager, slapped his knees and flew straight up, a power of transvection carrying him to the weed-tufted bluff-top. The others weren't as able and they followed him up, leaping from hold to hold on the sheer embankment. Tagging along reluctantly, Steve wondered if the others really intended to challenge the grid.

An aggressive dash through thistle-spiked crabgrass and over piles of boulders took them to the pinnacle and a view of the territory. To the south, the gray lake was a debris-flecked carpet stretching to the city. The CN Tower stood far enough off to appear as a big needle impaling a ring of smoke. More greasy smoke clouded the scrapers of downtown Toronto. Fires were burning in the aftermath of the hurricane, but since fires were always smoldering there in the blood zone, all was normal.

A glance east should've sent their hands to their eyes, fending off light dazzles from the big lasers that fired the inner ring of the grid, but the huge silver lattice wasn't there in the sky. They saw pleasant gloom, and that meant power outages had knocked out the grid. Silence was their reaction, Steve being the only one not swallowed by amazement and animal blood dreams. When the others began to whoop and shout with joy, he followed suit, jumping up highest of all.

Right out on the edge, Danny opened his zipper. He was erect, his thighs sweating with sticky blood. The bleeding came from the permanent arousal that was part of the hunger. “Once we cross that grid we're going to screw the whole world,” he said, and then he urinated. He hissed as the fast stream of blood and urine spilled over the cliff. “We'll take the car,” he said as he zipped himself up.

Steve didn't care much for Danny's gross gesture or his apish power trip, but he said nothing as they went to get the car. It was a battered red Ford convertible and they descended to the highway in it. There was no traffic this far out, and they knew any vehicles they encountered would belong to either the military or mercenaries. The grid was the military's line of containment for the vampires. It held back a plague of vampirism that had started when the vampire blood cells escaped at a Toronto lab. Infected people became either vampires or bloodless ones -- walking corpses without red blood cells. In this world Toronto was a rubble heap populated by vampires, the bloodless ones, military and Red Cross personnel … and criminals shipped in by various governments. Undesirables from many countries were dumped in Toronto as food for the vampires. It was illegal of course, but international law meant little when corrupt military leaders could exploit the people and their fears.

Highway 401 fanned out to several new lanes ending at the grid. Danny's assessment was that the military would move in strong there to guard against the possibility of vampires breaching the checkpoint. Well before the apron they turned down a stony cutoff and headed north with scudding clouds. Gusting wind was drying the narrow highway and kicking up grit. The road shrank to two ruts in a weed bed. A farmhouse and barn stood like heaps of overgrown rot just off the roadside, driveways running up to them like paths to burial mounds. Farther on what had been modern homes and bedroom communities were now rows of splintered boxes on the hillsides.

A thin fringe of sumac, birch and deer forest was the last cover before the grid lands. They ditched the convertible there, its flaking paint giving it the appearance of a natural wreck. Green foliage swirled overhead as they set out on foot, then nature faded into the smoke of the sky. Trees were suddenly stark and shattered and the ground napalm ashen. Mutant toadstools were the survivors and their spores blew out to the fields of the grid. Pylons towered, crackling sparks across discs and a metal framework that looked like a cross between the rides at a fair and man-on-the-moon technology. A smell of ozone was in the air, the lasers had been snuffed, and chaotic sparking meant most of the other devices weren't working either. Yet even in such a degraded state, the grid loomed like the skeleton of an electric dinosaur . . . and they knew there were other things - silver mines, death rays, killer magnetic fields and acids.

It brought them to an awed halt, Vince and Jimmy spinning on their heels to face the others in the blowing dust. All of them had moon-big eyes. The grid sure looked unbeatable, like it was the king of vampires.

Steve's lips remained drawn, thin and white. Danny drew a red kerchief over his mouth and stared with a fiend's intensity into the ghosting dust. This was all a put-on, Steve was sure of it. Mina was the object of Danny's desire and she was back in Toronto, a Red Cross worker in one of the medical fortresses used to treat the bloodless ones. Once across the grid there'd be no coming back, so that meant Danny was only here to prove himself. The others wouldn't go into the grid through any courage of their own, the first laser flash and they'd retreat. All Danny was going to do was step farther into the fire, so that his position of mastery would be reaffirmed.

“We'll file in. I'll take the lead,” Danny said.

Scarlet earth resembled patches of blood under the skeletal shadows of the towers. The ground seemed more ersatz than real. In spite of the hurricane rains there were lines of dry red powder that created the dust. The air was electrified and snapping with static, crackling ran over their heads, sounding like weird guitar riffs and feedback buzz.

Steve wasn't far off Danny's heels and he saw his hair shoot up Van de Graaf stiff. He could feel it himself, a crawling mesh of electricity turning body hair to wire. Dust sheeted into him and he couldn't quite tell if his skin was on fire, frozen, acid burned or just plain numb.

Mirror-bright twinkling forced sudden yelps from all of them. At first Steve thought the lasers had come back on, and then he realized it was bits of dust exploding in his eyes. A glance at his hand showed flesh being eaten from the bone. Turning he checked Mike, who was immediately behind him - his face was ravaged, boiling fat glistened on red char. An understanding of the grid grew in Steve's mind. It was a conglomeration of disruptors that disintegrate vampiric cells. Chemical dust, acids, electric fields softened the body for vaporization by the lasers.

Danny suddenly whipped around, his eyes glazed like melting glass, his face nearly a skull behind the kerchief. “I'm melting, damn it!” he choked. “We'll have to go back or we'll be disintegrated.”

“I'm going to get through,” Steve said.

The others had already been turning away. They looked to Steve, and then to Danny, who was stuck without an option. If Steve proved more daring he'd lose the respect of his men. In a pack of predators that meant they'd turn on him and do a ritual killing. Maybe cut off his head and stuff his mouth with silver.

A sudden ear-popping thrum gave Danny an out.

“Silver mine!” Vince yelled as lifting silver closed over Mike like the petals of a molten flower. The liquid hit with a scorching hiss and Mike lifted his arms, throwing up a plume of fire and distortion. Razor ribbons of silver twisted on his body and when he screamed, spritzing blood, the flesh of his throat and lips and silver steam arced high, spattering the dust with color.

An eyeful was enough, Danny and the others fled, looking like a collection of grim reapers trying to save themselves from the death they already were. The voltage of fear hit Steve so hard he was sure he'd been scalped by lightning. He leapt to Mike and threw him over his shoulder in one fluid motion, and the touch of the silver froze him in his tracks. Gummy flesh dripped. The smell was as putrid as it was acrid. He wanted to run with the body but he couldn't when his legs were disintegrating. Drawing on a reserve of vampire strength, he transvected, and they both flew, arcing through the billowing dust, trailing greasy melt that sizzled and smoked like snuffed candles. They came clear of the grid, going right into a wall of agony that was the beginning of healing.

A fuzzed glow of sun hung like a red badge in the colored haze of the west, and another fire was fading in Steve's brain. Darkness was arriving as a comforter, cooling sweat to dew. Steve sat up, finding himself buck-naked on the flatbed of a pickup. Mike lay beside him, still far from healed; burn tissue was bubbling, blood coagulating. A webbing of deep scars pulsed. Steve's own body was covered with patches of flaking skin but doing well. Someone had thrown clean clothes in beside them so he dressed - jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt.

He popped down to the street and the unmistakable death stink of Toronto filled his nostrils. A huge rat scurried at his feet, so he booted it, sending it away in a hissing hurry. He was out front of The Saloon, a C&W bar that his gang controlled. Rodeo Boys was the band on the faded bill. As he turned to go in, he saw a bony blond woman coming up the street. She was pale with a blade-sharp nose and eyes sunken into shadow. Her look was that of a vampire, but blood instinct told him she was an uninfected addict, just dumped in by the military.

Her hollow cheeks were a turn-off, but his erection still ground painfully into his jeans. She didn't appear frightened by his garish complexion, which was amazing.

“I was told to come here,” she said. “You know what I need.”

Steve knew what she'd get too. He nodded and she followed as he went inside. A number of bribed soldiers and mercenaries sent them fresh convicts, mainly because fed vampires were easier to control. The only protected people were medical personnel and officials.

It was a barnlike room, beer tags and banner ads festooning the high polished beams. Bright light poured down from an empty stage and a number of patrons sat in the smoky haze. The jukebox was playing a country version of STAND BY ME. It was too early for a crowd.

Steve's gang was farthest from the lights. They were the boys with the nuclear acne, their animate and burned faces demonically radiant. Danny was alone at the end of a long shuffleboard bar, head cast down, chewing on his failure. Steve was unable to suppress a satisfied grin. Danny couldn't accept his own lack of balls, and fear of losing Mina and power was likely eating at him. No one could have sympathy for Danny. His motives stank. He wanted Mina because he thought it would be nice to have a gal helping him slaughter and rape. It was something that Steve wouldn't consider for himself. He'd lost Mina in this world too. At the very least, he wanted to know he hadn't lost her to Danny again.

Mina, maybe he could save her by killing Danny and his fixation, but this burned-out lady he couldn't help. She was in the lion's den and the fiery furnace. Two big black cowboys rose from a table near the stage, putting the fade on Steve's grin. Since they were visitors here at The Saloon, it was out of order for them to move in on the blood supply. Especially when Steve was her escort. It meant a fight.

Vince turned suddenly, wearing an unreal face of scorch and stubble. A sixth sense woke Danny and he spun around on his stool, sizing-up the situation with blood-glazed eyes. Danny didn't like what he saw. He swept his glass of beer off the bar and it smashed on the floor. The black vampires halted, halfway to Steve, their eyes flaring beneath their hat brims, and they didn't back off. Their lips twisted to snarls that meant they were hungry enough to fight.

Danny looked to Vince and Rico. “Our hospitality has been abused. Kill them!”

The moment was tenuous as Vince clearly didn't want to obey Danny, but in the end the drift had to go Danny's way. The turf had to be defended.

Rico unsheathed a Trail Master knife and Vince drew out the Intruder Bowie he kept on a magnet under the table. Momentarily off balance, the blacks glanced to Steve and then back to Vince who was flying to his feet. Overhanding his chair with cruel speed, Vince busted it to pieces across the empty table beside him.

Faced with the possibility of all of them rushing to fight over the woman, Steve seized her and sent her flying marionette-style across the floor. She went stumbling into a dim corridor that dead-ended at the men's room and fell against the wall.

At the same time, Vince leapt up; doing a high flip that put him on thundering heels directly in front of the black vampires. The violators moved into defensive posture, knives at ready, and the cooling fire in their eyes said they knew they'd made a very big mistake.

A close knife fight began with Vince managing to parry them back while Rico moved up. No one was faster with a blade than Vince, and he countered a lunge by severing a hand clean at the wrist and throwing a solid boot to the groin. Vince also knew enough to duck, a move that left Rico with blood seltzering into his face.

Steve wasn't needed so he kept back. Tables crashed over, flesh ripped and blood splashed up to inkblot the ceiling; the battle was turning into a dance of dismemberment and blood loss. Since the trespassers were well under heel, their fate would be to dangle from a rope and spar outside The Saloon, minus their arms and legs.

Danny had kept back, and with no one looking, he made a hunched dash for the dazed girl. Steve caught the action from the corner of his eye. She was up and looking for a way out, but Danny raced out of the shadows before she had a chance to move. He swung the blade so fast it glinted sickle-like in the air. It connected, cut into her throat, and the strain showed on Danny's face as he threw his weight behind it and opened a deep wound. An expression of surprise was frozen on her face as her head lolled back, almost severed. There was a fountain of blood and drops rained on Danny's face as he leaned over and sank his fangs into the wound.

He held the quivering corpse with a firm hand, sucking blood and making noises like he was pulling bubbles through a straw. His other hand was at work forcing down her jeans, and he took the body to the floor as his pitted and burned erection was freed. His hissing grew more and more animal-like as he prepared to seed the corpse; he wanted this one to rise again, infected with the vampire madness.

The job was almost finished on the trespassers, they were down in pools of their own blood and Vince was busting heads open with a chair leg, just for fun. Steve went over behind the bar and got two coils of rope for the hanging. He wasn't worried about Danny, not any more. Once the others found out he'd spoiled their fun with a quick greedy kill they'd probably hang him too.

A yellow apron spread from the bright electric sign out front of The Saloon. Farther down, the street trickled with sewer water and shadows crept with other repulsive things in the gutters. Danny's face was garish, puffed with bruises and boils that moved under the skin as they healed. Sweat glistened on his forehead, his lips were lime-white behind dirty stubble and his eyes burned faintly in a flares-at-the-bottom-of-the-river way. If his thoughts weren't under water, they were underworld.

Steve puffed on a counterfeit Lucky Strike, watching Danny dangle on the rope. Steve thoughts grew ugly, his brow stormy. He was considering Danny's fixation on Mina and what he'd have to do about it.

Wind moaned and wood creaked as a gust rocked the black vampires on their pole. The raw meat of their faces was neon-enhanced like steak under a counter. They were minus limbs but still had their hats propped on above eyes gone lifeless and milky from the silver dust filling their bellies.

A midnight church bell tolled mournfully at the heart of the city, carrying a painful image of a cross. Scattered panes of light twinkled, some high up so that the buildings seemed to be floating in the sky. Deep black squares made-up the skyline, defining it in the same way missing teeth define a mouth. Toronto was a city of darkness with a few blazing areas of military and medical activity.

It was a setting that went well with vengeful thoughts, and Steve could feel his mind sinking into an evil quagmire. The rot would be inside him soon, he'd lose his human qualities and surrender to beastliness. Tonight was the only night he had. He flicked his smoke away and went over to cut Danny down.

Steve had a flask of blood and he poured it down Danny's throat. It brought about swift and vile healing and soon he was glancing around … somewhat hunted, somewhat bitter. A drummer was warming up and a raucous din was rising in the bar. Danny's mouth twisted, it was arson-ugly as he studied the doors. Like a revelation, his mental focus suddenly returned and he stood up, resembling a cross between Billy the Kid and a sick puppy as confusion and anger welled in his eyes.

The time was right for Steve to follow through with his plan; he went ahead and Danny swallowed it. By one a.m., they were near the waterfront.

A narrow makeshift road showed on the other side of a tumbled expressway. Walled by twelve-foot heaps of broken concrete and rusty metal and scattered with skeletons it was called Vampire Alley. The name rooted in the fact that convicts and other exiles traveled it into the city after being dumped from the boats. Usually they were slaughtered by the hungry vampires before they got out of the alley.

It was empty tonight, no victims; atop the rubble heap, they looked over at the medical buildings. The entire waterfront strip was a blistering of light, a belt of life at the foot of a fallen city. A solid wall of laser tanks and armored vehicles guarded the area and specially armed soldiers were streaming on the access roads. Fresh-blood civilians were also out, they could hear piano notes and a sax, strains of a jazz band playing in the waterfront square. A smoke-blackened CN Tower soared above them and the scene. Cut out of darkness by the spotlights, the tower was a sleeping monster in a city of devils -- the only being big enough to sleep at night when the vampires had full powers. Steve figured the vampires could defeat the military if they used weapons. It was a good thing that vampire machismo worked the way it did -- a vampire with a gun was considered to be a coward.

“It's that small squat compound,” Danny said. “My sources say Mina's been working there for a while.”

“How well guarded is it?”

“A couple of mercenaries and a security system. Mina and a few other medical people are the only fresh blood there. No vampires will go near the place; the doctors are treating bloodless ones in the last stages of the disease -- that's the point where they can only live on by devouring vampire cells. They're horrible, mindless zombies, but they can still suck the life out you.”

“Have you tried to get in before?”

“No. I didn't want to go it alone, not with those bloodless zombies in there.”

At the end of Vampire Alley, the rubble heaps bristled with sharpened stakes. A booby-trapped field was on the other side. Silver razor wire ran through it like tinsel, there were pits lined with punji sticks, laser traps, dismemberment bombs and other nightmarish things. Spying from behind the rocks, they could see soldiers moving in the moonlight on the far side of the field. They were wearing protective gear that resembled decontamination suits and knew how to pick their way through the hazards.

A bad odor was on the lake breeze. It touched their lungs like fingers of moist clay, and it was a toss-up as to what caused it. Maybe dead fish or bloated corpses floating out on the waves like schools of whales. Blood fragrances, smoke and some of the fine odors of the old life were woven in with the stench, so that both Steve and Danny stared at the shifting crowd in the square with longing in their eyes. They felt like nasty boys who could never get back into the dance of life, and because of it, rage was growing inside.

They had one option - the sewer, and they followed the dark hole underground with great reluctance. Although they could see in the dark, they wished they couldn't. Poisoned rats were chattering madly as they dashed about in the sludge, their fur spotted by running sores. They retreated at the scent of the vampires, hordes of them snarling and spitting from ledges. The water foamed and deepened, carrying filth over their boot-tops, and the wisps of gas thickened until the air was greenish and poisonous. Ordinary mortals would die just from the crawling of their flesh, but vampires couldn't die so they pressed through as swiftly as possible.

When they were at what they hoped was the right place they used night strength to pop off a welded metal cap and emerged in a field of thistles and goldenrod. Dripping with noodles and slime and steaming they looked more like swamp things than vampires. Yet they felt good, being suddenly exhilarated by the fresh air. Big military spotlights flashing nearby put a damper on their enthusiasm. Keeping low, they moved into wind-slithering grass and got past a guard tower. Finding cover in some brush, they stayed out of view as they leapfrogged along a ditch to the medical compound.

Wetting his finger, Danny stuck it into the wind.

“Wind's off the lake. Can't you smell?” Steve said.

“I want to be sure those bloodless things aren't catching our scent.”

More like a prison than a hospital, the concrete building stood before them. The front was grassy and there were willows and flowerbeds. The entrance was security gated. A gravel lot filled with military and medical supply trucks surrounded the rest of the structure. A few lights were on in windows that resembled the gun slits in the tanks. A blinding spotlight was rotating on the roof, the beam following a programmed pattern over the grounds.

Ducking the beam, they moved around the compound and decided to break in at a back door they believed led to the kitchen and mess hall. Quicker than any cat burglars, they ran up and pounced on the door, prying the hinges out of the concrete with their fingers. They tried to throw it down gently, but the heavy metal door slipped and crashed in the gravel. No alarm sounded so they went in and down a narrow hall, coming to a room stacked with drums of the gross mush the bloodless ones ate. They knew they had to go up a floor to get to the staff area and Mina, so they took the stairs. Danny cursed and spat when he found the only exit to be three flights up. The damn place was a security maze, designed to keep the bloodless ones inside.

A positively eerie feeling took them as they began to move down a shockingly bright fourth floor hall. A huge door was at the end where the hall took a ninety-degree turn. It was metal and rivets and had a small window of mesh and Plexiglas.

Marching into the lead, Steve halted and gazed through the window. Unclean figures moved in the dim light, their motion aimless and zombielike. A head turned, a gross caricature of the living dead, oozing pus and milky slime from a skinless but whiskered face. Splintered bone made a crude nose below eyes that were black with paranoid horror.

Danny had gladly stayed back, but now he was edging over for a look. “Get back!” Steve suddenly whispered, pulling Danny away before he could get a glimpse at the monsters.

They crouched a ways back from the door. “There's a guard near the window. I don't want to tip him off. Mina is the only other person inside. I saw her working at a medical desk by the window.”

“Has the guard got a laser?”

“No, he appears to be one of the goons they use for strong-arming the bloodless ones. Guess he's off duty right now. He probably has a weapon in there somewhere. What we can do is rush him before he gets it. I'll take another peek and if it's clear I'll tear open the door so you can leap in and overpower him.”

“Sounds good to me,” Danny said, lusty-eyed with thoughts of things he might do to Mina. “Let's do it.”

Easing the door back a crack, Steve began to work at the bolt and its casing. Concrete broke away and he tore some flesh off his fingers before he managed to bend the metal. Gripping the handle, he signaled Danny with his left hand. One finger, two fingers, then a wave that meant go. The bolt whammed and snapped free of the casing as Steve jerked the door wide. And Danny sprang, whooping Indian-style as he flew into the room. Then the door slammed behind him and Steve bent the bolt and casing back together as he held the door shut with his shoulder.

Danny's whooping died in a gag of silence and came back up as a scream. A maniacal mix of fright and loathing was in its tones. The low moaning of the bloodless ones began, wanton and hideous. Hissing with stark terror, Danny threw himself against the door. He hit it with hinge-shaking force, but Steve held it fast, glancing through the window at Danny's clawing hands. The Plexiglas was smeared with blood and perhaps Danny was seeing the face of his death in the pattern. It would be immortality melting to bodily fluids, because immortality had always been make-believe. The fates hadn't surrendered their role as executioner at all.

There was no need to look again; Steve could picture it well enough. As Danny screeched and struggled, the bloodless ones were on him like vile leeches, using a gruesome power of osmosis to suck the red blood cells right out of his body. In the end immortality would be splintered, marrow-less bones and rot on the floor.

Steve ground his teeth, but his blood refused to boil. Revenge was no pleasure at all. Instead, he felt cold and hollow inside. It wasn't really like being a killer; it was more like being Father Time, exterminating vermin that had been crawling around too long.

Danny was getting drained fast, his blows against the door grew feeble, and finally he slid to the floor. He smacked the tiles with the sound of sweet meat and looked like a huge smear of blood. Then he was buried under the vile sexual moaning and gross sucking of the bloodless zombies.

No amount of feeding could warm the dead flesh of the bloodless ones. And Steve felt somewhat cold and dead himself. The sounds sickened him. Drawing away from the door, he began to wonder what to do next. He hadn't expected the trap to swallow Danny so easily and so quickly. His plans had been of a more romantic nature; he'd hoped they'd get to Mina first so she could see him finish Danny and know he'd saved her.

Footsteps rang in the hall. Steve spun around. Once again, he found fate to be ahead of him. It was an orderly dressed in white, and Mina, who was wearing a nurse's smock. They weren't armed and must have assumed the noise typical of the disturbances created by the bloodless ones.

Catching sight of Steve, they froze in their tracks. Steve also went rigid, awed by Mina. Her golden curls were beautiful, her face open and rosy. The scent of her blood and perfume was an aphrodisiac he wouldn't be able to resist for long. He felt the pain of lost love sinking in his heart, and he wanted to speak -- just to say something human. Anything at all, but he couldn't, so he just stood there with trembling hands.

The orderly acted first. Showing despicable cowardice, he turned and fled, banging through a stairwell door.

A tear formed in the corner of Mina's eye, and he could see her knees weakening. Perhaps she was weeping because she had loved him; his heart leapt at the thought. Then he saw the lines deepen on her face, the depths of her fear, and the truth was obvious. Mina didn't even recognize him, he was a hideous creature from some slimy underworld, and she was weeping at the thought of the fate she was sure was upon her.

Mina's lips quivered, she was too scared to scream. And she didn't have to; Steve walked up, turned and went into the stairwell. He hoped she hadn't noticed the tears in his eyes. That way she would never guess his identity. This was another world and another Mina, and he'd been hiding, refusing to admit that he'd died. The game had ended on home Earth when he'd followed through on his decision to jump. Death was the only answer he could ever have.

Laser beams sliced the night over the alley, and from the top of the rubble heap Steve could see the vampires running in the shadows below. The alley was a tunnel of night, fear, ecstasy. A huge vein channeling creatures of evil and lust. The last figure to fade was Vince, and then he saw the bloodless ones, a crowd of them, driven by hunger and the soldiers at their rear. With their crumbling flesh and hollow bones, they belonged to the alley. Steve felt he belonged too, he was a proper citizen of death row, and he felt the rage take him as he hissed and leapt down among the soulless zombies.

He went wild, ripping them apart, tearing rotted arms from their sockets, and he wasn't cowering or weakening as they'd expected. The soldiers retreated, leaving him with the creatures and it got so he was afraid he wouldn't die as he'd hoped. Then he grinned madly as he remembered there was always the grid … and certain death.

---- the end -----

Cannibal Run

By Gary L Morton

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 gettin