This is the text of the story so far, with polls and illustrative images taken out. If you want the bare bones summary, click here.
Carter didn’t even make it through the doorway, the poor bitch. Mayes and I leapt for cover as soon as the firing started, but she had nowhere to go. Her vitals winked out before I even hit the deck. I landed behind a ratty old armchair, already unholstering my pistol as I pulled my legs in and pulled myself up into a crouch. There was a nasty, wet thump behind me as the corpse collapsed on the doorstep.
I closed my eyes for a moment, mind spinning, and tried to gather myself. The house was supposed to be empty. A few feet away, I could hear Mayes swearing bitterly. Control would have been alerted by Carter’s death, but it would have been stupid to assume help was near. The room stank of blood, death and cooked meat.
I opened my eyes, and looked across at Mayes. He was tucked in behind the end of a sofa. He nodded his head in towards the shooter, and made a ‘cover me’ gesture. I nodded reluctantly, and he turned to start crawling along behind the sofa. I swung round to the far edge of the chair, eased my gun over the arm, and fired a couple of shots. A burst of fire immediately ripped into the chair. I could smell the burnt covers, a nasty chemical stench added to the already-foul air. No pain, though. Nothing got through. I sighed with relief, and popped a couple more shots off towards the doorway ahead.
“That’s impo…” Mayes was cut off in a loud crackle of blaster fire. He winked out a moment later.
Shit. Now I was on my own with the vicious bastard. I listened frantically, but there was nothing to hear. No movement, no shots, nothing.
I quickly rolled onto my back, facing the chair, gun ready. When the bastard came for me, he was going to get a nasty shock.
A moment passed, and then another. I tried to imagine how long I’d take creeping across a room, towards a waiting enemy. Fifteen seconds? Twenty? I thought about it a bit more, and decided that I wouldn’t do anything of the sort. I’d try to circle round to a different approach, or even better, try to flush him out.
Somewhere deep in the house, I clearly heard a large piece of glass breaking.
There was always retreat too, of course.
I rolled forward again, and snapped off a couple of cautious shots from the edge of the chair, then pulled back in. Nothing. I gave it a few seconds, then peeked round for a moment. No response, no shadowy figures in the dim doorway. I took a moment, and then stood up fully, ready to dive either way. Nothing.
Gun ready, I carefully came round from behind the chair, and crossed the room as quietly as possible. The light intensifiers kicked in, and the hallway brightened to a plain bit of corridor. Cheap wooden board floor, undecorated walls, a staircase up to the next level and a door through into what would be the dining room. At the far end of the corridor, another door opened into the kitchen. A hint of foul breeze was coming from that direction.
I worked round the staircase, and then ducked into the dining room, gun ready. No occupants. It was as ratty as the living room, and it stank almost as badly. I double checked it, and then swung back into the corridor. A faint yellow glow was coming from the kitchen. Keeping low and close to the wall, I advanced. The smell was getting worse.
A moment later, I saw why. There was a fat guy on his back on the kitchen table. He was nailed to it by a large knife through his throat, and by the bloating of the corpse, he’d been there for a week or more. What the hell? I steeled myself, and spun round into the room, trying to cover all the best firing positions.
The room was clear. I relaxed fractionally. The back window was smashed through, the back door partially barricaded. It looked like our guy was making a run for it. Except that the corpse was clearly Arthur Hallet. It didn’t make sense.
The yellow glow was intensifying. I looked over at the fridge. The side had been pulled open, and the light was spilling out of that. The fuel cell… Great. Just great.
I didn’t know whether I had seconds or minutes, but I couldn’t just abandon Hallet’s corpse. Either he’d decayed impossibly in half an hour flat, or he’d been copied perfectly, which was just as impossible. I gave the corpse a prod, but it was far too soft and sticky to risk picking up. I sighed, and started yanking the table towards the hallway door, trying not to think about the fridge.
A little less than a minute later, I had the table up to the door. There was no way it was going to fit through upright, of course. If I could get the corpse onto a sheet or something, I could pull it down the hallway safely enough. The living-room curtains. I dashed back to the front room, trying to ignore Carter and Mayes, grabbed a big armful of curtain, and heaved. The rail was as crappy as everything else in the house, and it came down immediately. I put my foot through it, bundled the curtain off, and ran back into the hallway.
A giant hammered me in the chest, and everything went white.
* * *
“Taylor? Taylor!” Someone slapped me in the face, a little too enthusiastically.
“Fuck off,” I mumbled. Good god, what was that hideous stink?
I opened my eyes, and found myself staring up an unlovely nose. I jerked back reflexively, thumping my head into something hard. My body felt heavy and wet, as if I was underwater.
“Wakey wakey, Taylor.” Todd Robbins was from my office. He had a voice like burnt coffee, but he was OK really. Most of the time. He swivelled his middle finger up at me. “How many fingers?”
“Ha ha.” I tried to move my arm, but it was sluggish, unwilling to respond. I looked down nervously. Hallet was smeared all over me, but particularly across my stomach and arms. His head was lying in my lap, minus the lower jaw. Perfect.
I pulled an arm out of the mess, and shook the gore off. Robbins dodged out of the way, cursing.
“We need to get this bagged,” I said.
“I was planning on having you hosed down,” said Robbins. “I suppose I can find someone to scrape you clean, though. What the hell happened?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Someone opened up on us as we came through the door. I was lucky. Carter and Mayes… Well. Whoever the shooter was, he made a run for it. How long has it been?”
“About twenty minutes since Carter offlined.”
“I guess he’s not coming back right away, then. Someone will need to head out back, see if there’s a trail.”
“They’re already on it.”
“Ok.” I closed my eyes and lay back against the wall. “Will you get me cleaned off now, please?”
Two hours and three thorough hair-washes later, I was in the office. Someone had boxed up Carter’s stuff already, which was a relief. You never get used to losing team members. With Mayes gone, Carrie Ransom was sole lead, and naturally she wanted to go over every detail three times. It was past 8pm when I finally got to my desk.
Preliminary analysis confirmed that Hallet had been dead for twelve days. Speech and retina analysis from surveillance confirmed that he’d been fine this morning. The guys on the ground had followed the shooter’s trail for a few hundred metres — until it just vanished into thin air somehow. The footprints matched Hallet’s weight and foot size. What the hell was going on?
For the last twelve days, there had been two copies of Arthur Hallet, one live and one dead. Nothing else could fit with the facts. How the hell did you copy a middle-aged man though? Replication was still theoretical. Clones couldn’t be force-matured. Identical twins? There was no hint of a sibling in his history. It was just possible that Hallet had spent his life engaged in a very subtle, careful deception, but why? And why would one murder the other and then leave his body out on the table like that?
We’d been watching him for three days, on and off. Surveillance had put him across the city shortly before we’d gone into the house. So… maybe the shooter wasn’t the Hallet copy, but an associate. Except the footprints leading away from the house were Hallet’s, or those of someone very similar… Two similarly stocky guys with the same brand of size 9s?
I set a search running with Overlook, digging for any records of Hallet out in public in the last two weeks, and put a call through to Steve Clark in surveillance.
He answered immediately. “Clark. What’s up, Taylor?”
“Hi Steve. You’ve been tracking Arthur Hallet.”
“Yeah, three days now, on and off.”
“How did we get interested in him?”
“He wandered out of the black market operation on Beak Street. We recorded his ID and forgot about him. A couple of hours later though, we saw a surprisingly shabby guy heading into the Regency. We’re keeping an eye on Salia Moses there, so we dug a bit deeper, and it was Hallet again.”
That was odd. “What does Moses have to do with the black market?”
“Nothing, as far as we know.”
“Hallet was playing courier for her?”
“Maybe. He wasn’t carrying anything visible, but that doesn’t mean much.”
“After that, we starting looking out for him in earnest. He’s been popping up around town like a jack-in-the-box for the last couple of days. He doesn’t seem to be making any effort to stay hidden. The order to tail him came through about an hour ago.”
“Where is he?”
“Not sure. He was out north four hours ago, at the university. Next time he appears, we’ll keep eyes on him.”
“OK Steve, thanks. Let me know if you spot him.”
I closed the connection. The raid had been a little over three and a half hours ago. Hallet’s place was south-east, in Oakdale. It would take you more than an hour to do the journey by road. Sure, you could do it in five minutes in a flitter — if you didn’t mind scrambling all kinds of military response as you thundered over the city. It had to be a third man. Damn.
I checked my Overlook search. It was still rolling along happily, churning out hits. Lots and lots of hits. A nasty sinking feeling crept over me. I opened the log, and stared. The first three days of the search, he stayed local. Then eleven days ago, Hallet had been registered flitting in to San Francisco. And Boston. And Tampa. And Milwaukee, Vancouver, Columbus, Las Vegas, Austin and Detroit. All before midday.
Hell’s teeth. How many damned Hallets were there?
I needed to find out if anyone else was tracking Hallet. He might have just slipped under the radar. Hopefully one of the larger agencies had noticed his movements though. They might have some useful answers, if so.
Overlook wasn’t showing any case flags, but that only meant no-one was tracking him openly. I logged into the Washington system and pulled up Hallet’s file there. No flags there, either. Damn. It was just us, then. I flagged it myself, and tied it back to my Overlook search with a safely bland note about ‘anomalous movements’.
I had a quick skim through the Washington data. There wasn’t anything there I hadn’t already been briefed on. He was nobody, just a low-rent guy who dabbled in the odd bit of trouble.
I jumped slightly as a call came in.
“Taylor.” It was Ransom, and she sounded unhappy.
“Hey boss. Look, about…”
“Later. You need to get out to Devonshire and 8th right away. Tell me what they’ve got down there as soon as you know.”
“Uh, OK. But…”
“Right.” I closed the connection, grabbed my coat, and got going.
It took about twenty minutes to get out to the location. Local forces were being cagey; all they’d say was that there was a body. It was a fairly cheap area — cut price clothes, small grocery stores, take aways, electronics shops, that sort of thing. Lots of gaudy LED lighting.
I pulled up near the scene perimeter, flashed my badge, and got waved through. The officer pointed me to the side of a small gyros place, as if the knot of people and the flashing bulbs wouldn’t have given it away. I walked over to the group.
“Evening guys, I’m John Tay…”
The words died in my throat. It was Hallet, partly. His face, for sure. But the body was melted and stretched, like warm toffee. It flowed out from the chest, belly and thighs, horribly slick, until it melded into a second set of body parts. Ripped clothes surrounded the whole mess, and the stench was unbelievable. I stared at it for a long moment, too stunned to feel sick.
One of the officers nodded, slowly. “Yeah.”
“Is it one body?”
The guy who had nodded looked up me sharply. “Two, as best we can tell. Any ideas?”
I shook my head, and opened a comms line to Ransom. All I got was a nasty whine. What the hell was going on now? All my sensors were green, so my kit was working normally. No sign of a connection error. A glitch at her end? I tried Control, and then Clark. The same.
Shit. If we were being jammed…
I looked back to the officer. “Are you connected to your base?”
He went vacant for a moment, and then nodded. “Yep.”
“Try calling DSP, will you?”
“Sure.” Then a moment later, he frowned. “They’re off-line.”
That was definitely screwy. This whole thing made no sense. At least we weren’t being jammed, but even so, we needed to play it safe. I’d seen more than enough bodies for one day.
I nodded confidently – or tried to, at least. “We need to establish a defensive perimeter and prepare for possible attack.”
The guy blinked. “Attack?”
“Better make it at least 30 feet from this spot in both directions. Guns out and ready. Have the men warn off anyone approaching, particularly tall, chunky guys. If someone keeps coming, or reaches for a weapon, open fire.”
There must have been something in my voice. The officer grimaced, and said “Sure. What about windows and rooftops?”
I looked around. We were overlooked by scores of windows up and down the alley, and at least five different roofs. “We’ll just have to keep alert.”
“I hear you.” He started organising the rest of the squad. I heard one or two grumbles, but clearly they were all unnerved enough to take me seriously.
I bent down to have a closer look at the thing while the locals dug in. Like the guy had said, it appeared to be two separate people. One was Twisted Hallet. His flesh and bones had deformed away from his body, as if some sort of irresistible pull was tugging him towards – into – the second corpse. His clothes had just burst out of the way. The molten flesh looked the same colour and consistency as usual. I tried prodding it, and it was hard, like plastic. So was the rest of Hallet’s corpse.
From the bits I could see, the other body appeared to be clothed. The Hallet material engulfed much of it, but it seemed to be a male, average sort of height and build. He still felt fleshy, and although he was cooling, he was still warmer than Twisted Hallet. There was a fairly thin tendril at the edge of one of the engulfing spurs. I gave it an experimental tug, and then a hard yank, and then pulled out my pistol and thumped it with the butt. The tendril finally shattered. I picked up the bits in my handkerchief, and folded them away.
I looked up at the officer, who was nibbling his lip. “Yes?”
“You have to get back to DSP, sir. Urgently. There’s been an explosion.”
I stared at him.
“They told me you needed to hurry. I don’t have any details. I’m sorry.”
I shook my head. An explosion. My head felt like it was stuffed with sand. “What about this mess?”
“Someone is sending a team to collect it.”
I tried to pull myself together. An explosion at the office had to be an attack of some sort. And there was the comms silence, too… I shook my head. After the day I#d had, it felt like absolutely anything could be going on back there. Caution seemed sensible.
“Alright,” I said. “I’m on my way. I’ll need a full report on this scene, everything from the person who called it in through to wherever the bodies end up. What’s your name, officer?”
“Mortimer. We’re based at Cadogan Place.”
“Gotcha. Good luck.”
I sprinted back to my pod, and told it take me back to the office. No sense logging a deviating route plan. I sped off down Devonshire. A pair of anonymous grey APCs thundered past, making for the Cadogan Place people. The pick-up team had obviously been sent by someone heavy. With luck, they’d just take the whole thing over.
As the pod got close to the office, I told it to pull up on the far side of James Park, and then powered it down completely. My blank glasses were in the door pocket, and I looked at them for a long moment, then pulled them on. I felt ridiculously paranoid… but I also felt safer.
I left the pod, and headed for the archway into the park. The park’s scanners tried to identify me, found the glasses, and promptly forgot I was there. I started making my way towards the gate near the office. It was getting late, but it was a mild enough night, and there were a few people around. I kept my head down and stomped along the path impatiently, but slowly enough not to attract attention. Just another tired business guy taking a short cut.
It took about five minutes to walk through the park. As I cleared the last stand of trees, I looked across at the office, and stopped dead.
It was gone.
The whole fucking building was gone.
I stared at the hole dumbly. A moment later, I realised I couldn’t hear any sirens. No flashing lights, either. No hubbub. No news skycams. Nothing.
Before I knew it, I was back in the trees, pressed against a rough trunk, the blood pounding in my ears. I peered back round the tree trunk and through the foliage, hoping crazily that I’d been mistaken somehow. The hole where the office should have been gaped back at me like a missing tooth.
I was still gazing at it dumbly a couple of minutes later when I heard a commotion start up ahead. A long moment later, a suited figure shot through the gate ahead, running flat out towards the trees. It was a bit too far to tell for sure, but it looked like a slender red-headed woman.
A couple of seconds later, she was followed by two people in peculiar environment suits. The suits were white, with odd distended rings at the wrists and neck, and near-spherical helmets. I’d never seen anything like them before. The pair stopped, raised weapons, and fired before I could even shout a warning.
Twin blaster flashes cut through her, and she collapsed, limbs flailing. I winced, crouched down instinctively, and tried not to think about Carrie Ransom being a slim red-head. The suited figures walked up to the corpse, grabbed a leg each, and casually dragged the body back the way they’d come.
This was insane. More importantly, whatever was going on, it was way above my pay grade. I needed to get hold of someone who could give me some sort of perspective. I started carefully picking my way back across the park, away from where the office used to be. A couple of tense minutes later, I was far enough away that I could relax enough to start thinking.
Ransom reported straight to Captain Browne. They were both obvious people to turn to, but I just couldn’t shake the image of that woman collapsing in a bloody heap. I had contacts in the local force, but this was surely out of their league too. Other agencies were unlikely to be much help. The press were obviously being kept out of it. I didn’t know anyone in the region’s military. That left Overlook. Chances are my buddy Don wouldn’t have any idea as to why or who, buthe ought to be able to let me know what had happened, and that had to be a start. I put a call through.
I sighed with relief. “Don, it’s John Taylor.”
“Hey, John. How are things at the DSP?”
“Uh, that’s why I’m bothering you this time of night.”
“That sounds ominous. What’s the problem?”
I hesitated, trying to think of a good way to put it. “The building has been destroyed. I saw a woman who looked a bit like my boss getting gunned down by a couple of guys in crazy hazmat suits, and I think they may want me too. I really need to know what happened. I’m sorry to dump this on you Don, but I don’t know who else to turn to.”
Don was silent for several seconds, then he took a slow breath. “Man. I don’t suppose you’re joking? Damn. Alright. I’m at home, but give me a couple of minutes and I’ll see what I can get. This is a secure line, right?”
Huh. “Personal encryption, of course.”
“Peachy, John. Just peachy.” Don sounded disgusted, but not panicky, which was something. “I’ll call you back.”
He cut the connection. He was right of course; I should have been more careful. I decided to divert away from the car, towards the far corner of the park, and tried not to feel like an idiot.
Ten minutes later, I was getting seriously jumpy. A call came in, no identifiers, no origin. I froze, but it wasn’t like I had much of an option. I opened the line, but said nothing.
“John.” It was Don. Thank fuck.
“Yeah. Good to hear you.”
“According to the beast, your office is right where it should be.”
“What? That’s impossible. I just saw…”
Don cut over me. “Relax, John. It’s not the whole story.”
“OK. Sorry. I’m just…” I trailed off.
“It’s cool. Like I said, Overlook thinks your office is fine. But raw high-bird imagery shows that it’s been demolished. Someone’s put up a smoke-screen.”
“Christ. I didn’t know that was even possible.”
“Oh, it’s possible, but it’s very, very hard. Whoever they are, they’re really good, or in very deep, or both. I’ve been through the raw files, and about forty-five minutes ago, there was a flash, and the building collapsed. Some sort of implosion, because there’s no damage to adjacent blocks. Less than a minute later, several black APCs pulled up, and a bunch of guys in those white envirosuits piled out and set up a cordon. They’re still there.”
“Any idea who they are or what they’re up to?”
“No.” I could hear Don scowling. “The vehicles are unmarked. I don’t recognise the model, or the suits. But they haven’t made any obvious attempt to search for survivors, tidy up, or do anything else you’d expect. It looks like they took some samples, though. I saw the incident with the woman, too. She arrived on foot, came through the cordon, approached the site, and then bolted.”
“What are they up to now?”
“The same,” Don said. “Poking around, mainly.”
I shook my head. “Alright. Thanks, Don. You’re a life-saver. I owe you, big time.”
“Listen, be careful, OK?”
“Yeah, I will. You too.”
“Always,” said Don. “Call if you need anything else, but do it securely.”
“Thanks. Catch you soon.”
I tried to make sense of it all.
The fact that Overlook had been hacked around was really frightening. Given the limited information that I had access to, I simply had to assume that Hallet was a lethally off-bounds. Officially, the government would never take military action against its own loyal employees. In reality though, there were more than enough sudden heart attacks, woodland wrist-slittings, mysterious car crashes and tragic gas main faults to go around. It had to be one of the deep, dark agencies cleaning up a mess we should never have stuck our noses into. The alternative was too terrifying to contemplate.
That meant my choices were to check in as ordered and go down like Ransom, or drop right off the grid and wait for the storm to pass.
It only took a bit of fiddling to cut the power on my comms unit, and my blank glasses were ID-neutral, but my appearance was a problem. Disguises had to be pretty sophisticated to convince Overlook you were someone else, and furtive behaviour threw up flags like crazy. There were a couple of basic precautions I could take, though.
I bent down, and rubbed my hands in the cold mud at the path’s edge. Then I used it to slick my hair back off my forehead, darkening it a couple of shades in the process. I smeared a thin swish of it around my mouth and chin too, giving me a semblance of a stubble goatee. It would be obvious if a human operator paid attention, but in the dark, it might help me to avoid tripping automatic facial recognition patterns. Wads of turf in the heels of my shoes added an oozy inch to my height, and a small stone in the left one gave me a tentative gait.
Next, I pulled my shirt out of my trousers, and dumped my jacket and tie under a bush. Finally, I rooted around in several bins before finding a trashy news-sheet to pretent to be absorbed in — far less suspicious than wandering around with my head down and shirt-collar up.
I left the park and started walking, feeling cold, squishy, stupid, miserable and scared, all rolled into one. The urge to head back to my car, go home, and have a hot bath was almost painfully strong. I ignored it, and limped down the road away from the office.
One of the dubious benefits of agency work was that you learnt where the city’s bad guys hung out. It took me more than an hour to walk the two and a half miles across town to Campbell Street. I wandered up the road idly, but there was no hint that anyone was staking the place out in the flesh. I decided to risk it, and went into the ugly little convenience store on the corner. I rubbed the mud off my face as best I could as I walked through the door, and just hoped my hair didn’t look to mad.
The kid at the counter shot me a suspicious glare as I entered. I nodded to him pleasantly, and headed deeper in. At the back of the shop, there was a small door with a dirty entryphone. I pressed the buzzer, and waited.
A moment later, it crackled into life. “Who the hell are you?”
“Taylor. Adam sent me.”
I lifted up my hand, and waved my watch at the camera.
“Alright,” muttered the crackly voice. The door clicked open.
I pushed through into a sterile, neon-lit little room with another door at the far end. There was a metal table in the middle of the floor, with a yellow plastic tub on it.
“Show me what you’ve got,” said the crackly voice. It was louder in here, and there was no obvious speaker grille. I took off my watch and put it in the tub, and then followed it up with my communicator unit, my DSP ID card, and two of my bank cards.
There was a pause. “Is he dead?”
I shook my head. “Not yet.”
“Good enough,” said the voice. “Four hundred.”
“That’s way too little,” I said. Even for a cheap-ass fence, the fucker was gouging me.
“Throw in the glasses, and I’ll call it 1000.”
“Whatever. Four hundred then, or fuck off.”
I sighed. “Okay.” This was going to cost me a fortune.
A couple of moments later, a knuckle-dragging, muscle-bound expendable came in through the far door. He squinted at me, scooped up the tub, glanced at the contents, and put a stack of cash down on the table. I picked it up and riffled through it, then stuffed it in my front pocket.
Knuckles left the room again, and I turned to do the same. I paused when the speaker came back on.
“Taylor, eh? Cute. Come by again, and you’ll get a better rate.”
I bit back my first reply, and nodded instead. “Ok. Thanks.”
I went back into the shop, and blew some of my cash on a pair of scissors, cheap hair dye, some cotton wool and a few candy bars. There were several cheap motels in the neighbourhood, so I left the shop and headed for the nearest, a couple of blocks away. The clerk was only too happy to give me a room for the night for cash, and handed over a key. I didn’t ask for a receipt, and in return, he didn’t even ask me to sign a fake name in the book.
I went up to my 3rd-floor room, threw myself through a blissfully hot shower, scarfed down a candy bar, and was unconscious within 30 seconds of getting into bed.
I woke up, fuzzy in the darkness, with someone rapping on the door. “Open up, Taylor.”
Shitshitshit. I didn’t know the room, and I could hardly see a thing, but even so, I didn’t remember any useful makeshift weapons. I considered the window too, but I was nearly naked and several storeys up, and besides, they’d have people on the street too. I certainly would, in their place.
I called out incoherently, trying to sound confused, and fumbled the light on. Four in the damn morning. Naturally.
“Open the bloody door, Taylor.” It was a strong voice, peaty. He sounded bored and impatient, as per regulation.
“Wrong room, friend.” I forced my voice deeper, mushed the words up a bit, tried to inject a bit of southern into them. “Fuck off and let me sleep.”
My eyes darted all over the room, but there wasn’t anything that could help disguise me even a bit.
“Don’t be ridiculous, man. Just open up.”
Maybe I could charge them. I lined up with the door, across the room. “Just a moment,” I yelled.
The door crashed in as I lowered my head and started running. I didn’t see the Jangler that they shot me with, but all of a sudden my body felt like it was on fire, and my legs collapsed. I fell flat on my face in front of the door. The fire vanished again, and I realised how much my nose and teeth hurt. Someone snorted. I tried moving, but my body was jelly. A hand grabbed my hair, and pulled my head up. Something frighteningly complex — and sharp — was shoved in my face, and everything went black.
* * *
I came round quickly. No pain, no discomfort, just soft, white comfiness. I blinked at the ceiling, and realised I was lying down. And alive. They were wonderful revelations — for a moment or two. I tried lifting my arm, then all of my limbs. Nothing happened, but a sense of increased pressure suggested that I was strapped down rather than paralysed. I tapped a finger to confirm it. That was a momentary relief as well, but I had a nasty feeling that I would regret discovering why I seemed to be unharmed.
Some time passed, then I heard some footsteps approach. A moment later, a face slid into view; a chap in his fifties, in an anonymous suit. Then he vanished again, and a metallic scrape suggested he’d sat down.
“If I unclamp your head,” said the voice I remembered from the motel, “Will you behave yourself?”
I gathered all the dignity that I could muster, and said “Just what do you expect to get from me?”
He sighed. “I’ll take that as a no, shall I? Look, Taylor, we found your car. In fact, I even retrieved your ID and communicator from that nasty little weasel you sold them to. I imagine you must have seen what happened to your office.”
“I saw what you did to Carrie Ransom too, you son of a bitch.”
“Carrie Ransom has been dead for three days.”
“We found her body stuffed into a suitcase, inside her closet.”
“Just what sort…”
“TAYLOR.” He sounded monumentally pissed off — and bloody loud, in my ear — so I shut it. “Better. Look, I understand that you’re feeling paranoid. You had the sort of day yesterday that would usually earn you several weeks of expensive, boring therapy time. Complete with group hugs and bright crayons. For Pete’s sake, man. If I was going to kill you, you would be dead.”
He was trying to sound reasonable, but that didn’t mean anything. “Yeah. You need me for something.” I couldn’t keep the sneer out of my voice.
“Yes, you stupid little prick.” Guess I’d annoyed him again. “I need you to pull get back to fucking work.”
It took me a long moment to get my voice working again. “What?”
“I don’t have time for you to go all basket-weaver on me, man. This is a crisis.”
“Wait. You’re legit? Who the hell were those freaks who blew up the office, then?”
“That was us,” he said frostily.
The penny dropped. “Oh. Oh, fuck. How many?”
“At last,” he said, the relief audible. “I was beginning to think you were going to be fucking useless. At least four. Ransom, George Cho, Martin Lucas, and one of the cleaners. For sure. No idea how many others. But not you. Although I had my suspicions, until the lab guys cleared you.”
“Who or what are they?”
“Absolutely no idea. Are you in?”
I mulled it all over for a bit, and groaned quietly. “Look, maybe you’d better spell it out for me first.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then the guy sighed in resignation. “If you insist.”
I heard a rustling, and then a couple of seconds later, a metallic clank vibrated unpleasantly through my skull. The pressure on the right side of my face vanished. I wiggled my head experimentally, then turned so I could actually see my companion properly. He was sitting in a tiny plastic chair, looking vaguely ridiculous in his bland grey suit. He had a solid chin that went with his voice, and slightly alarming eyebrows. It looked like he was in fairly good shape for a fifty-something.
“Thanks,” I said.
He grunted. “You identified ten of them heading into various cities. There were at least six more here — the one who shot up your team, the four we know of for certain at your office, and possibly whatever it was the Ransom-thing sent you to check out a few hours ago. That’s twenty. From talking to your former colleagues’ neighbours, we suspect that they all started out using the same template.”
“Quite. We were lucky. They’ve been sloppy about the bodies. If a local patrol hadn’t investigated the stench from Lucas’ apartment, we’d never have suspected a thing.”
“So you killed everyone.” I did my best to keep my voice reasonable. It didn’t really work.
“Of course not.” He sounded dismissive, rather than wounded. “We waited until outside main hours, and brought in everyone we could catch alone — off-duty or whatever. We’re working through them now, testing them. We had to take down the building, though. We had no idea whether there were any tricks waiting for us, and we couldn’t afford to risk anyone slipping away if we came in gently. Survivors will be tested too.”
“I see,” I said.
He snorted. “I hope so. We’re not fucking around with this, Taylor. We’re taking it very seriously indeed. Twenty might just be the tip of the iceberg. There may have been other templates, too.”
“And you don’t know anything about them.”
“Not a thing. The four bodies we have all seem virtually identical to their originals so far. There’s a trace chemical marker which they’re missing, apparently, which is how come we’re having this little chat.”
“You were sent on the disastrous raid, and didn’t get killed. You spotted the template’s diaspora. You are known to have been at that fucking alley. You had the sense to drop out of sight. Damn it man, you’re our pet expert.”
I frowned. “But I don’t know anything!”
“NEITHER DO WE,” the chap bellowed. He closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath. “Don’t be an obtuse shit, Taylor. We don’t know what they want. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know their numbers. We don’t even know for sure whether they’re from here or not, and frankly that should scare the crap out of you. It certainly does me. You’ve seen them, chatted to them, fought them. Who else is there?”
A thought hit me. “The finger!”
The man flushed red, and his eyes actually bulged slightly.
“No, wait,” I said quickly. “Relax. Do you have the body from the alley?”
“So there was a body. No.”
Worrying. “Well, I took a sample. It’s in my trouser pocket, in my handkerchief.”
The man’s face lit up. “Great God! Wait here.” He leapt up and dashed off somewhere before I could even reply, leaving me strapped to the bed. A couple of minutes later he was back, looking happier than before. “Marvellous work, man. Knew you’d be useful. I’m Travis. We’ll bump you up to LT; once you’re finished here, come on up and you can help us try to fix this mess. Alright?”
“Okay…” I began.
“Good choice,” said Travis. He bustled out.
Eventually, someone unstrapped me, and left me my clothes. As I finished dressing, a pleasant-looking medical guy knocked at door to my little room, and came in.
“Good morning,” he said brightly.
“Hi. Uh, what time is it?”
“Ten forty-five. How are you feeling?”
I felt fine. “Fine, thanks.”
He nodded. “Good. There won’t be any negative effects, so don’t worry.”
“The Colonel gave you your instructions, I assume?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“Yes,” I replied. I was starting to feel a little out of my depth.
“Right,” said the chap. “Well, if there’s nothing else.” He turned to leave.
“No harmful effects?”
“Yes,” the medic said, with an air of exaggerated patience. “That’s right.”
I stared at him for a long moment. “From what?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Well, the immobiliser they brought you in with, and the artifical coma. The scans will have been harmless too, most likely.”
“You’ve had me in an artifical coma?”
“Of course. Couldn’t take any risks until we were certain.”
I sighed. “How long for?”
“Oh, just a few hours. Nothing to worry about.”
“How reassuring,” I muttered.
He beamed at me. “Glad you think so. Good day.”
I watched him saunter off, and then tidied myself up as best I could. There was an unfamiliar weight in my shirt pocket, and I fished out an ID card. It bore a rather unhappy picture of me, my name, and a data block. The absence of any logo or other identifiers spoke volumes. I clipped it to the front of my shirt, and shrugged to myself.
I came out into what looked like a smallish ER ward. There were several other private rooms behind me, and half a dozen beds in the ward itself. They were all occupied, but everything seemed reasonably peaceful, and the attendents at the nursing station were chatting quietly. I walked over to them, feeling slightly woozy, and scraped up a smile from somewhere.
“Hi there,” I said. “Can you point me towards the cafeteria? Or the mess, I guess.”
One of the attendents, a blond girl, smiled at me pleasantly. The other one, a brunette, stared at me expressionlessly.
“Of course, Sir,” said the blond, her smile professionally fixed in place. “Through the doors, turn left, and follow the corridor round.”
“Thanks,” I said.
The other one kept staring. Not hostile, not vacant, not interested, just still. Very still. I was starting to wish she’d blink.
“You’ll find a pleasant selection of snacks, beverages and more substantial meals available to you Sir,” said the blond. Her smile was starting to resemble a rictus. “Including assorted fruit, yoghurts, cakes and pastries, pancakes, sandwiches, bacon, sausages, casseroles, hot entrails, and blood.”
I goggled at her. “What?”
The brunette was still staring, motionless. Waxy.
“You can’t miss it, Sir.” That horrible smile.
“No, what… I…” I closed my eyes, and pinched the bridge of my nose. Hard. Things were catching up with me, that had to be it. “Thank you,” I said, and turned away. Then I opened my eyes and made a bee-line for the door, trying to persuade myself that I couldn’t feel those staring eyes boring into the back of my neck.
When I closed the doors behind me, the feeling finally abated. I sighed, turned left and followed the corridor around for a couple of hundred yards. Eventually, a sign pointed me into the cafeteria.
Inside, there were a couple of counters with a selection of hot food, a chilled cabinet, assorted baskets of stuff, and seating for about sixty. Only a couple of other people were around. I collected a chunk of spit-roast chicken, some breadrolls, and a few other bits and pieces, swiped my new ID for it all, and sat down by the windows. It looked like a drab morning out there, grey and damp. The neighbourhood was unfamiliar, but a lot of the city looked fairly similar. I turned my attention to my food. It was surprisingly tasty.
When I’d finished and cleared up, I asked one of the cafeteria people for directions. The guy seemed perfectly normal, which was both a surprise and a relief. I thanked him and made my way towards Travis’ centre of operations.
The ops room was two floors up and took more than five minutes to get to. It was a large building, and obviously all part of the same organisation. Whoever they — we — were, they had impressive resources. A couple of armed guards stood outside the ops room door. They made no move to challenge me though. I let the door scanner get a good look at me, and swiped my card, and was rewarded by a quiet click as the lock opened.
I went through the door into a dazzling hi-tech wonderland. The lights were down low, but the various screens and displays more than made up for it. There was a large globe of light-screens in the middle of the room, with people clustered around it, both inside and out. There were at least three different work-stations, each one a nest of all sorts of gadgets and consoles. It looked like one of them even had a fully-functional air traffic control rig. From what I could tell, there was a whole bank of analysis devices at the back of the room. There had to be at least thirty people at work, and a steady mechanical grinding noise cut through the general chatter.
I stood there gawping for several long moments, before I noticed Travis bearing down on me from the direction of the light-globe. I nodded to him respectfully, and went to meet him.
“Archons,” Travis said. “Hello, Taylor.” He looked at me for a moment. “Are you alright?”
I nodded, and said “Um, Archons?”
“The nine chief magistrates of Rome, during the empire. More recently, leaders or figures of authority, and then high-ranking angels. Really can’t say that I like the symbolism, but I suppose we had to call our mystery fuckers something, and that appears to be the nom du jour, thanks to one of the chaps in the lab. All brain and no common sense. You look pale, man. Are you about to pass out?”
“No sir. It’s just been a strange morning.”
“Good,” said Travis. “I want you to get onto the trail of the corpse you retrieved that sample from. Let’s see if we can’t get ourselves a bit more to work with. I’ll show you to your desk.” He led me through the room to a disappointly normal looking work area towards the back, and waved me towards it. “You can get in with the same log-in credentials you used at the DSP. In fact, best stick with that cover for now. Your stuff is in the bag.”
“Don’t look so glum, man. I will let you play with the shiny toys once we can spare the time to train you on them.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
He nodded to me and strode off, so I sat down and had a look in the plastic bag. I was amazed to see my jacket and tie in there, along with my DSP badge and communicator, my watch, my credit cards, my blank glasses, and even the candy bars and impromptu disguise kit I’d bought the night before. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or creeped out, so I contented myself with putting on my various bits and pieces. I noticed a piece of paper in my jacket pocket when I put my glasses away; it was a parking stub, which probably meant my car was downstairs somewhere too.
I decided to settle on grateful. It seemed safer.
Once I was settled, I fired up my screen and logged in. The system looked similar to the DSP’s, so it was easy enough to navigate. I had a stack of messages waiting, all sent to my DSP ident. It took about twenty minutes to scan through them. Most of them were variations on “I heard about the office, are you OK?”
None of the messages seemed particularly pressing, so I put a call through to Cadogan Place.
A woman answered within a couple of seconds. “Cadogan Place Security Center.”
“This is John Taylor, DSP. I’d like to speak to Officer Mortimer, please.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry sir, Philip Mortimer has not reported for work this morning. Can anyone else help you?”
“Has he called in sick?”
“I’ll put you through.” The operator clicked off, and a moment later another woman came on line. She sounded deeper and wearier. “Yes?”
“My name is John Taylor, with the DSP. I understand that Officer Mortimer isn’t in work today.”
“Carole Allen. You understand correctly, Agent Taylor.”
“Do you know if he’s ill?”
She sighed. “So you don’t know anything, then.”
“Two thirds of the Centre has failed to show, Agent Taylor. I haven’t been able to contact any of them. I hoped you had some information.”
“Shit.” All sorts of nasty possibilities leapt to mind. “Can you send me a full list of today’s no-shows?”
She took a sharp breath. “Apparently I can, sir. I’ll get on it immediately.”
I broke the connection, and sat there for a moment, pondering my next move. Officer Mortimer wasn’t answering calls… Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all. I needed to check his place over, make sure he wasn’t lying there dead. Or worse.
I got up and went over to Travis. “Sir.”
He looked up at me. “Yes?”
“Something screwy is going on at Cadogan Place Station. I need to go and check something out. Do you know if there are any other agencies working on this problem?”
Travis rolled his eyes. “Most of them, in one way or another. But we’re point.”
“So no-one else should be grabbing evidence? Using unmarked APCs, for example?”
“No,” he said. “They’d bloody better not be. Hm. Should I have someone check?”
“Might be a good idea,” I said.
He frowned. “Alright. Let me know if you find anything. Parking is in the basement.”
I found my way to the parking area easily, which made a pleasant change. It was huge but packed, and my heart sank. I took out the parking stub, and looked at it. A trail of light immediately appeared at my feet. I immediately jumped back a couple of paces. The light didn’t waver, and I realised that it stretched out into the sea of pods. A pulse welled up, and blipped off down the path. I shook my head ruefully, and then followed it.
A minute or two later, I was sitting in my pod. Travis didn’t seem to have done anything to it, although he’d probably added a tracker or something. Then, of course, I realised that he could have popped a tracker into me whilst I was out. Not that it made any difference. I fired up my communicator and put it on standby, and then set my pod to take me to Mortimer’s house.
Outside, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary day; lightly overcast, but bright. I stared out of the window as the businesses and homes slipped past, wondering how everything could look so normal. After a little while, it almost looked false, as if the buildings and the people and the greenery were all just thin facades, with something dark and horrible hiding behind them. I fought hard to shake the mood off, and eventually it withdrew. Of course it looked normal. That was the whole point.
By the time I got to Mortimer’s block, I was almost feeling back to normal. According to the records, Phil Mortimer shared an apartment with a colleague from the Cadogan Place Security Station, who was also on the no-show list. The building was an ugly, sprawling affair, not quite slum grade, but only a couple of levels above it. It looked like it held several hundred apartments over ten floors, with concrete walkways and enclosed stairwells providing access. A dour place.
I directed the pod to a parking spot, and fished my holstered pistol out from its locker. I wasn’t about to go in there unarmed. I strapped the gun on, and after a moment, I decided to put on my blank glasses as well.
I could feel eyes on me as I got out of the pod. I ignored the feeling, and made a show of striding confidently to the nearest stairway. Mortimer lived four levels up, towards the left end of the building, and I made it to his door without seeing another soul. The feeling of being watched didn’t fade, though. I rang the door buzzer, stepped slightly to one side, and waited.
No answer, no stirring, nothing. Damn.
I took a closer look at the door. It had a fairly modern-looking scanner on it, the sort of thing you normally saw on town-houses rather than housing blocks. It made sense that a security officer would have better locks, though. I could get through it, but not quickly, and not without some tools from the pod. There were curtained windows to either side of the door. From the other apartments, it looked like one was in small lounge, and the other in the kitchen.
The windows had effective-looking locks, too. The hinges were a very different matter, though. Partially recessed, they were only locked in by a simple dead-bolt. It took a bit of digging around with my pocket knife to loosen the wood around them, but once that was done, it only took a moment for me to knock the bolts through. The window sagged as I did, and I got a good grip on the internal framework. A quick wrench, and it popped straight out with only a soft noise.
I ducked and waited for half a minute. There didn’t appear to be any reaction from inside, so I reached in with my knife, and carefully eased the edge of the curtain to one side. A quick glance suggested that the room was empty. I ducked down again, and then after a moment, reached up and slowly pulled the curtain across as much as I could.
By now, I wasn’t expecting any reaction. None came. Slowly, I stood up, and looked into the room. It looked tidy and uncluttered, with few obviously personal touches. I listened carefully for a moment, and then grabbed the window frame and squeezed myself into the apartment.
Immediately, something put me on edge. I drew my pistol and stood silent for several seconds, watching the doorway carefully. There was no hint of life, but the sense of wrongness remained.
Slowly and quietly, I started to make an initial sweep of the house. The lounge led into a stubby hallway; the kitchen was immediately opposite. Nothing. A bit further down, behind the kitchen, was a bathroom, the door open. I poked in just far enough to see inside. Nothing.
That left the two bedrooms. Both doors were closed. I went up to the nearer, pressed my ear against the door, and listened carefully. There was a soft ticking, but nothing else. No suggestion of breathing. I moved to the other door, and listened again. Still silence. I stepped aside slightly, slowly turned the door know, and gently opened the door, gun ready. Nothing happened again, so I looked in. It, too, was clear. I turned to the last room, and repeated the procedure.
Damn it. The whole place was empty.
I opened the front door, picked up the window, and propped it back in its hole. Then I had a second look around the apartment. There were no hints of a struggle, no obvious signs of preparation for a journey, nothing to suggest anything particularly out of the ordinary had happened. I went back into the lounge, and sat down.
I had several options. I didn’t really want to go back to the office empty-handed, but there didn’t seem to be anything going on here apart from a strange atmosphere, some funny ticking and a couple of security guys with fairly spartan lifestyles. I couldn’t see any point in talking to neighbours — no-one ever ’saw anything’ in a rat-nest like this, whatever they actually saw — and Cadogan Place obviously had absolutely no clue what was going on.
That left the alley at Devonshire and 8th, where I’d left Mortimer the evening before. I spent a few minutes re-hanging the window properly so that the place wouldn’t be picked clean, and left the estate. The feeling of being watched had subsided, which was nice. I got back to my pod, and told it to take me back to the alley. Then I closed my eyes, and settled myself down to try working a burr of unease out from the back of my mind.
When the pod pulled up a few minutes later, I was starting to feel calmer, if no more enlightened. I stretched, shook some circulation back into my hands and feet, and got out of the pod.
Well. I got half-way out, before settling back into my seat.
The first thing I did was get the pod to call up a locator display. I looked at it for a moment, looked out of the open door again, and frowned. Next, I opened a channel to Control, and was reassured when they answered immediately.
I looked out of the window again thoughfully. “Control, do you have a fix on my pod’s current location?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Taylor.” The woman sounded totally neutral. “You’re sitting in it.”
I ground my teeth together. “Yes. Do you know its street location?”
“The east side of Devonshire Road, 50 yards south of the junction with 8th Avenue.”
“Has my pod been at this location before in the last 24 hours?”
She paused for a long moment before replying, and when she did, there was a hint of patient concern in her voice. “Yes, Lieutenant. You were within 3 yards of that spot approximately 17 hours ago.”
“Thank you, Control. Hold one moment, please.” I closed my eyes, pinched the bridge of my nose, and tried not to sigh.
Last night, I’d pushed through the milling people and made my way to the mouth of the alley that ran down between a Gyros take-away on one side a cheap electronics mart on the other. This afternoon, the entire area was fully occupied by what looked like the offices of a bland finance corporation.
“Control, can you please verify the presence of an alleyway on the west side of Devonshire for me, 10 yards closer to the 8th Avenue junction?”
The pause this time was unmistakable. Eventually, she said “Very well, Lieutenant.” There was another pause, and then, “Unable to verify that, Lieutenant. Location you describe is on record as the area headquarters of Associated Banking Group.”
“I see,” I lied. “How long has ABG been at that location?”
“I understand. Thank you, Control.”
“Lieutenant, please report to a registered medical centre for screening within 180 minutes.”
“As you wish, Control.”
The connection closed. I glared at the banking group’s office for several seconds. Nothing changed. I swore bitterly.
I swore bitterly, and seriously considered the possibility that I was actually going insane. Control was obviously satisfied that the street was as it should be. Were my memories of last night false? But Mortimer and a bunch of other officers were missing, and the woman at Cadogan Place was clearly concerned. Clear evidence that both my memory and current perception were valid.
Provided that I wasn’t imagining either of the calls, of course.
Still, it was better than nothing. I closed the pod door, and told it to take me back to Travis’s offices as swiftly as possible. Then I shut my eyes again, telling myself that I was just tired, and not scared of discovering the city was suddenly a strange place.
When I got back to the office, I made a beeline for my desk. I thought I heard Travis call out from across the room, but I ignored him. As soon as I got to my desk, I sat down and called up Overlook footage for the area I’d just been in. It took me a couple of tries to get a feed with a good viewpoint of the ABG building, but once I had it, I set the image running backwards at high speed. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Travis bearing down.
It took about ten seconds to spool back through the day and into the night before. Midnight. 11pm.
“Taylor,” Travis said irritably.
9pm. I flinched, and paused the feed. “What do you see there?”
“On the Overlook feed, sir. What do you see?” I didn’t know what I wanted him to reply.
“It appears to be an utterly disinteresting office building.”
I sagged. “Yes. That’s from 9pm last night, just a few minutes before I met up with the crowd of Cadogan Place officers there, and picked up that finger.”
He frowned. “I thought you said that happened in an alley.”
“Yes,” I said. “With a gyros shack on one side and a cheap electronics store on the other. Right about… there.” I pointed to one of the windows. I looked up at Travis. He looked surprisingly haggard.
“You’re saying someone has tampered with Overlook?”
“According to Control, that office building has been there for four years. I can believe it, looking at the external weathering.”
“So what are you saying, man? I don’t have time for fucking games.”
“Control verified that my pod was at that spot last night, whilst I was meeting with the Cadogan Place boys. It’s the right place. Half of the Cadogan Place officers are missing today, including the guy I spoke to last night. His home is empty, too.”
“Christ on a bloody stick.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“No offence old chap,” said Travis, “but I want to get all of this verified. Control sent through a B-notice on you a few minutes ago. Why don’t you go and let the headhunters give you the once over whilst someone pieces your recent movements together. You know where medical is.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
“Good”, said Travis. “Off you toddle. We’ll see what sense we can make of things whilst you’re gone.”
I nodded, and made my way down to the medical centre. I tried to prevent myself fidgeting in the lift, but it wasn’t easy. Less than two minutes later, I was standing in front of the doors to the medical area. I took a couple of deep breaths to make sure I didn’t appear stressed, adjusted my tie so that I looked as neat as possible, checked under my fingernails for dirt, growled at myself for being stupid, and went in.
There was a tall, dark, unfamiliar man at the attendant’s station. I went over to him.
“Can I help you?” He had a soothing voice.
“John Taylor,” I said. “I’ve been asked to report for psych screening.”
The attendant nodded. “This way.” He led me across the deserted ER to a small interview room. “If you’d just wait here, Lieutenant.”
I nodded amiably, and fought the almost-overwhelming urge to ask about the two women I’d encountered before. The last thing I needed right then was to add to doubts regarding my sanity. The attendant shot me a quizzical look, and then left.
A few minutes later, the pleasant-looking medic who had discharged me turned up, carrying a black medical bag. He smiled at me professionally, and closed the door behind us.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
I tried to smile back. “Hi.”
He nodded. “What can I do for you today, Mr. Taylor?”
“Control want me to have a psych screen.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice expectant.
I shrugged. “I suppose that she didn’t feel comfortable with my line of questioning.”
“Control is there to help, Mr. Taylor. They have your best interests at heart. Being difficult is never productive.”
“I wasn’t being difficult,” I protested.
“I see. You feel put upon.”
I knew the response to that statement, at least. “Of course not. I’m working on an enigmatic problem, and I’m sure my questions seemed nonsensical.”
“Yes,” the medic said. “Very well.”
He opened his bag, and withdrew an ugly metallic helmet. It was a boxy-looking thing, with a heavy visor, and a number of switches and dials. He handed it over to me, and I obediently put it on.
“Now, just try to relax,” he said.
There was a click, a sudden smell of violets, and then suddenly I appeared to be floating in the blackness of space. Stars surrounded me in the distance. I looked at one particularly bright one up ahead, and then it was a large sheep’s head just a few inches from me, gazing at me placidly. I jerked backwards with a surprised croak, and it was a star again.
I blinked, and realised that each of the stars hid a vision. I started looking at them, one after another, curious. A procession of images leapt out at me: a pot of blue flowers, a cork, the number eight, damp grass, and on, and on. Eventually, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and the stars winked out. A moment later, the helmet was lifted off.
I stared at him for a long moment, whilst my mind refused to play along. “Striking,” I finally managed.
He looked at me impassively. I tried to look back in a pleasant sort of way, without seeming like I was either being evasive or trying to stare him down. My eyes started to prickle slightly.
“Noun,” he suddenly barked.
“Plaster,” I said immediately, and then wondered where the hell it had come from.
He eyed me suspiciously. “Very well. Now, describe, in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about your mother. ”
“Um,” I managed. “Generous. Protective. Blonde.”
“Alright, that’s sufficient. I’m a little concerned about you, Mr. Taylor. You don’t appear to be delusional, but your responses do seem a little… eccentric. That sheep’s head, for one. And according to FUNG, ‘plaster’ only occurs as an image within six standard deviations. Combined with other factors, it’s assessed you as having a 63% factor of sublimated violence, along with hightened narcissistic paranoia and marked tendency for fantasisation. If you were in a customer-focussed role, we’d have to take you in for treatment.”
“Oh,” I said uncertainly.
“However, it shouldn’t impair your current functionality too much.”
“Well, no. The chances are that implausible things really are out to get you, from what I understand, and wanting to hit something seems like a reasonable response. Just try to make sure that you are not losing your grip on reality, eh?”
I frowned. “Thanks. I’ll try.”
“So are we done?”
The medic nodded. “Yes, yes, off you go.”
I left the room, and headed back to Travis’ suite. He was waiting by my desk when I got there. He had a couple of grim-faced guys with him, also wearing suits. I hesitated for a moment, and then forced myself to cross over to them. One of the guys was wearing a lapel pin that looked like a golden heron.
Travis saw me approaching. “Get over here, Taylor.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I’ve had Johnson looking into this little oddness of yours. You do realise that it’s utterly impossible, I take it?”
My heart sank. “Well, yes…”
“I mean,” continued Travis, “I can clearly place you at that location at the time you said, from the pod’s logs. But it’s harder for the Cadogan Place people. How, would you think, can I possibly verify what you’re suggesting?”
I thought frantically. “Licenses or inspections for the Gyros restaurant.”
Travis smirked, and the guy with the heron lapel-pin next to him sighed heavily. I looked from one to the other. Heron-pin was tall and well-muscled, with close-cropped gunmetal hair and a heavy, beaky nose. He glared at me sourly. The guy on Travis’ far side — younger and slimmer, with a dimpled chin — looked amused. Travis held his hand out, and arched an eyebrow at heron-pin.The man sighed again, then dug a tight roll of cash out of his pocket, and gave it to Travis.
“Thank you Adams,” Travis said, pocketing the cash. “Well done, Taylor. Spot on. Your nasty little Gyros take-away had a food safety inspection seven months ago. That’s obviously problematic, given that the bank has genuinely been there for the last four years, as far as we can tell.”
I nodded slowly. “Okay.”
“Exactly,” said Travis. “Bit of a puzzler, isn’t it?”
“Wait a moment,” I said. “Does the inspection identify the shop’s owner?”
“Excellent,” said Travis, beaming at me fondly. “Lucas Paz. He’s a junior trader for the bank. They took him on three years ago. He’d been a small trader before then, according to his records. Food safety confirms that’s about the same time that he opened the Gyros place.”
Adams nodded. “I’m assuming that there are others. You mentioned an electronics shop. We don’t have any easy way to pick them out, though.” His voice was surprisingly syrupy.
“The question is whether this is actually significant,” Travis said. “Don’t misunderstand me, it’s extremely worrying. But is it more worrying than the diaspora of the Archons? Or discovering who spirited away your mystery corpse, along with swathes of Cadogan Place’s finest? What about the possibility that Hallet was just one template of many? It’s proving to be a rather trying day.”
“If reality can be edited at some level…” I trailed off.
Travis nodded. “I agree. But we are having this conversation. You are not suddenly a window cleaner. Your former colleagues yesterday morning were shot, not turned into mustachioed plumbers.”
“Yes,” I said. “I see what you mean.”
“Taylor old chap, your instincts seem reasonably sound so far, as Adams will grudgingly attest. What strikes you as a valuable use of your time at this juncture?”
I considered the matter. “I’d like to talk to Paz. It might give me a bit more of a handle on what the hell is going on.”
“Alright,” said Travis. “Fingers crossed you find something useful. Let me know if anything eccentric happens, hmm?”
Travis nodded at me, his eyes already distant. I fished around in my draw for a couple of candy bars, and then made my way back down to parking. I was wandering towards my pod, and chewing on a mouthful of sicky-sweet gunk, when I remembered the sight of Hallet’s corpse lying on the kitchen table. It seemed impossible that it had been little more than 24 hours earlier. Why Hallet?
I finished the bar and sank into my pod, my teeth grumbling from the sugar. If you wanted a criminal, why pick a hopeless small-time loser? If you wanted obscurity, why pick someone already on the radar? I told the pod to take me back to Devonshire again, and sighed. Could it really be just random happenstance? The wrong schmuck in the wrong place? Possibly, but it felt like an unsatisfying answer. Some contact or skill Hallet alone possessed? Nigh-on impossible. Come to think of it, why ‘Archons’? I didn’t like that at all.
I groaned, rested my face in my palm, and decided to pick up a coffee and a sandwich when the opportunity arose.
Eventually, the pod returned me to Devonshire and 8th. I clambered out, and crossed the road to the ABG office building. I went inside, and found myself in a spacious, lavishly bland atrium. Marble flooring, white walls with copper highlights, thick hand-woven red rugs, and an art display that looked like a team of short psychopaths had attempted to murder a vast sheet of wet cardboard with a range of farmyard implements. All carefully designed to convey the twin impressions of vast wealth and reliably safe boredom.
I went over to the security station, where a bored-looking guy was watching me with the sort of mild disgust usually reserved for pond scum.I pulled out my badge, and showed it to him. “John Taylor, DSP. I need to speak to one of your employees. Lucas Paz.”
The security guy nodded, and gestured at a book on the desk in front of him. “Sign in there.”
I glared at him for several seconds, before giving up and scrawling my name in the ledger.
“Third floor,” he said, and tipped his head in the direction of the glaringly obvious lifts.
I turned my back on him and went over to the lifts. One was waiting, so I went up. The lift opened onto a modern-looking reception area, complete with uncomfortable-looking couches, a table full of pointless financial magazines, and a couple of implausibly pretty girls sitting behind a counter.
I approached the girls, brandishing my badge. “Agent Taylor, Department of Security and Protection. I need to speak to Lucas Paz right away.”
One of the girls smiled. “Of course, Agent Taylor. Please take a seat. I’ll call Lucas for you now.”
“Thanks,” I said. I decided against the couches, and wandered over to stare aimlessly at the corporate information plaque hanging on the wall. A couple of minutes later, the girl rescued me, and took me down a suspiciously tidy corridor to an anaesthetic meeting room. Paz was a sharp, clean-shaven man with slightly receding curls and an expensive-looking smile.
I dredged up a smile for him. “Thank you for meeting me.”
“It’s a pleasure, Agent Taylor,” said Paz. How may I assist the DSP?”
“I just have some questions for you, Mr. Paz. We’re investigating one or two irregularities involving the history of this immediate area. Some of my queries might seem a little unusual, but I can assure you that this matter is extremely serious, and I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to just bear with me and answer as best you can. I can assure you that you are in no way implicated in any wrong-doings.”
Paz thought about that for a moment, and then nodded, looking a little puzzled. “Of course, Agent. I’ll do the best I can.”
“Thank you, sir. To start with, could you tell me if you have ever heard of Arthur Hallet?”
“Hallet.” Paz frowned, and thought about it for a bit. “I regret that it doesn’t seem familiar, Agent.”
A thought struck me. “This is the man.”
I called up Hallet’s image, and transferred it to Paz. He nodded, and a moment later, the picture flashed up on one of the meeting room’s screens. It was an Overlook image of Hallet going around town on one of his seemingly pointless trips. He looked shabby, and slightly furtive — the kind of shot which got news people all hot and bothered. Paz stared at the picture, looking confused.
“I know this man. His name is Bran Timmins.”
“Where do you know him from?” It was tricky keeping my voice calm.
Paz shot me an odd look. “I suppose he works here.” He sounded uncertain.
“You know his name, though.”
“Yes,” said Paz, more confidently. “He must be from here.”
“Can you check your staff database?”
He nodded, and then a moment later said, “I have him. He works in maintenance.”
“I see,” I said, carefully. “How long has he been here?”
Paz’s face fell a little. “Just ten days.”
I considered various options. “Could you call maintenance and see if he is in the office today?”
“Of course.” I waited a minute as he focussed on his call. Then he looked up at me curiously. “It seems that he has not been in the office for two days.”
Two days fitted with the diaspora, and it meant that I wouldn’t need back-up before approaching his work area. “Okay,” I said. “Would you be so kind as to tell me where I’d find his supervisor?”
“It would be a pleasure,” Paz said. “Would you like me to show you?”
“No thanks, that’s fine.”
“Very well,” he said. “Maintenance have their office area in the basement. You’ll find them all there. It’s right by the lifts.”
“Thank you Mr. Paz,” I said. “You’ve been a great help.”
He obviously wanted to ask questions, but he managed a smile. “It is a pleasure to be of assistance,” he said.
We left the meeting room, and I followed him back to the lifts, and made my way down to the basement. To my surprise, the maintenance area was surprisingly pleasant. Extensive natural-effect lighting made up for the lack of windows, and gave the attractive wooden flooring a pleasant glow. There was a reception desk near the lifts, and I could see some handsome-looking offices running off behind it. It was a far cry from the modern troll-cave I’d been anticipating.
The chap behind the reception desk pointed me to the office of Hallet’s — Timmins’ — supervisor. Bob Sallis was in his forties, and surprisingly cheery-looking for an aging middle-manager working in a basement. I knocked on his open door and walked in.
He looked up and smiled at me pleasantly. “Afternoon. How can I help?”
“Hello Mr. Sallis,” I said. “My name is John Taylor. I work with the DSP. I’d like to ask a couple of questions about one of your team-members.”
“Of course, Agent Taylor. Grab a seat.”
“Thanks,” I said, and sat in one of the chairs by his desk. “It’s about Bran Timmins.”
Sallis sighed. “I thought it might be. Is he… dead?”
I blinked. How the hell did I answer that? “Um…” Two Hallets were dead, at least. Three, counting Carrie Ransom. My brain whinged at me about counting Carrie as Hallet, but I brushed the objection aside. In fact, it was six dead; Travis had mentioned four infiltrators at the DSP office. Out of at least twenty. So this guy’s Hallet was up to 30% likely to be dead. But a day ago, none of this had been here, so had Timmins ever actually existed? I groaned.
“Are you alright?” Sallis sounded concerned, and slightly upset. “How bad was it?”
I pulled myself together. “We’re not sure about Mr. Timmins’ fate, Mr. Salis. We’re investigating the matter.”
“Oh,” said Sallis. “I see. Please, call me Bob.”
I nodded. “Can you tell me what Mr. Timmins has been doing?”
“Of course,” said Sallis. “He was working on repairs to the sub-basement level. We’re planning to convert it to extra storage.”
Something about that made my spine prickle. “Could I have a look at it?”
“Certainly,” he said. “I’ll have to ask you to wear a hard hat, though. You won’t be covered by our insurance, otherwise. I’m sure you understand.”
I nodded, and he ferreted around in a cardboard box beside his desk for a moment before surfacing with a pair of ugly yellow plastic helmets. He passed one to me, and I put it on. It didn’t fit.
Sallis shot me a sympathetic smile, and led me through to a rough flight of of concrete stairs. It was a sharp contrast to the rest of the office, and made me feel slightly claustrophobic.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Sallis said as we started down. “Not all that convenient, storage with staircase access.”
I uhmmed politely.
“Quite right,” he said, beaming. “We’re putting in a service elevator at the moment.”
A half-formed thought was lurking in the back of my mind. I tried to give it space to breathe. “That’s what he was working on, I presume.”
“Yes,” said Sallis. “That’s right.”
We came out into a big, dimly-lit concrete cellar. The ceiling was surprisingly high. Bits of machinery and other equipment were half-visible in the darkness, and I could see several wires snaking across the floor. I looked up, thinking about the hat, but there didn’t appear to be anything going on at roof level.
Sallis took me down the side of the cellar, to the bottom of a freshly-excavated rectangular shaft which opened up on the floor above. Light spilled down into the well, revealing a slightly deeper section in the centre of the shaft.
“As you can see, we’re ready to concrete now. Then the machinery will go in, and finally the platform.”
I nodded, and glanced into the hole. There appeared to be a sweep of something green and glittery at the bottom. I peered at it more closely, and realised that it seemed to be part of a half-buried design of some sort.
“Is that supposed to be there, Mr. Sallis?” I pointed at the design.
He came up beside me and frowned. “No. I don’t know what that is.”
I knelt down, and jumped into the hole. It was only about waist-deep. I leaned forward to look at the design more closely. The shape was obscured by the earth half-covering it, but even where it was exposed, it was hard to tell what the material was. My first thought had been metal, because of the glitter, but closer up I wasn’t so sure. It was wafer-thin, whatever it was, but too even to be paint.
Something about the material made me reluctant to touch it. It was difficult to make out the design, so I knelt on the ground beside it, and did my best to clear as much of it as possible by blowing the dust and crap off. It took a little while, but finally I was able get most of it reasonably clear — enough to see the shape, anyway.
Up close, the material appeared to shimmer a little. It was a soft, creamy green colour, with a hint of a regular, hexagonal underlying structure. Flecks and shards sparkled within it, seeming almost mobile. The surface was completely flat, suggesting a greater strength and weight than you’d expect.
I pulled away and stood back up, to get a decent view of the design as a whole.
“That’s odd,” said Sallis quietly, up above me.
I nodded. At first glance, the design looked like some sort of abstract maze. It was mostly enclosed by a long, sweeping curve, which led deep into the pattern. It then descended into a bewildering complex of sharp corners, blocks, spirals, switchbacks, loops, knots and more, on and on. Most of the pathways were less than finger-width. It was a long moment before I started suspecting that in fact it was one long, hyper-complex track; a minute more before I felt confident that was indeed the case.
Eventually, I identified one point where the track seemed to terminate, and decided to see if I could trace the path through to the other end. From the end spot, it led down a short, straight stretch to a tightly acute angle, and then into and back out of a hexagonal spiral pattern. This took me to a whirling curve, and along a sudden sloping straight that ran for most of the design’s length.
I shot down the straight as fast I could. There was a definite sense of rising threat, and the idea of being in such an open stretch was extremely unpleasant. I was panting by the time I got to the end. I threw myself round the corner, very relieved to see just a short corkscrew curve ahead. I leaned back against the labyrinth wall, painfully out of breath. It was revoltingly warm and spongy, but I tried again to put the thought of green, sparkling flesh out of my mind.
It occurred to me that I’d forgotten something. Odd… It felt important. Was it something to do with the void? Spiralling blackness… I worried at the memory for a little, while I caught my breath again and the hot ache in my legs faded. There was a hydra, I seemed to remember. And possibly a martinet.
Gradually, I realised that there was a foul stench building in the air. It had the tang of acid, and the heavy feel of copper, as well as a dark hint of putrid filth. The hairs on my arms prickled unpleasantly as I became fully aware of it. I’d waited here too long.
I ripped myself away from the wall, and set off into the corkscrew turn ahead, not quite running. There was a long moment of disorientation, where up and down lost meaning, and I couldn’t tell if I was walking or plummeting, and then I was out the other side, looking down the throat of a jagged row of short, sharp switchbacks. My heart was racing, and my skin felt taut, but the stench was fainter. I set off again at a slightly slower, more sustainable pace.
After some time — and a horribly protracted spiral that had me glancing nervously at the walls — I found myself heading down a long, gently-curving corridor. I was disturbed to realise that it was getting narrower. I tried not to worry about it, but after a few minutes the walls were brushing my elbows. Shortly after that, they were brushing my shoulders. I glanced back, but retreat was unthinkable. I pulled myself in tighter, rolling my shoulders into my chest as much as I could, but not much later, I had to turn my torso at an angle. A few more steps after that, and I was shuffling along sideways as quickly as I dared.
Less than a minute later, I felt the first brush of the wall against my chest. I stopped despite myself, hopelessly bleak. I sighed, and realised that the air was slightly tainted. Already. I immediately started shuffling forward again. The walls were hugging me within a couple more steps, and then they were closing around me. I could hardly see or breathe. I pushed on, blindly desperate. Even being crushed was better than…
There was an audible shlup, and the walls were gone. I tottered forward into a big, square chamber, wild-eyed and panting. Looking back at where I’d just come from, I could have sworn that for a second, I could see the edges of the walls quiver. There was a crumbling archway in the far wall, leading out of the room, and I made my way towards it as swiftly as my shaky legs would allow. The corridor beyond was considerably dimmer, and when I stepped into it, I realised that it was cooler, too. The far end was actually shadowed, although it was impossible to tell why.
As I walked into the shadowy patch, I discovered that the corridor opened up into a dingy bell-shaped chamber. The floor looked patchy and uneven. Amazingly, there were several exits. One was framed with garishly-bright green and red stripes. Another appeared to have a shimmering ghost-blue light coming from somewhere inside. A third looked like a regular corridor, except that it was even darker than bell chamber. I took a couple of uncertain steps into the room.
“Please,” said a high, nervous voice. “Don’t leave the folly.”
I looked around, and saw a young, dark-haired girl huddled in the corner. She was wearing a curious mustard-coloured jumpsuit, and holding a small stuffed bear. The bear was angled away from me, and I was surprised that I was incredibly grateful that I couldn’t see its face.
“I can’t stay,” I told her gravely. “I’m being hunted. It’s not safe.”
She frowned unhappily. “Don’t leave. The shade is much more dangerous. Go back. It really is safer for you.”
“There is no route back,” I said.
“The ways change. Maybe it’s different now. There are bad things in the shade. They won’t let you get beyond. You’ll never find the truth.”
I thought about that for a moment. “What about those doors?”
“Unpredictable,” she said. The bear seemed to twitch slightly in her arms, and she glanced down at it. “I have to go.” She ran past me, and back up the way I had come.
I watched her run off, and then looked around the chamber. The one thing that certainly didn’t make sense was just staying in here and eventually dying of thirst. The corridors behind me were just as stark, and the darkness ahead felt oppressive. I decided to try one of the doorways, eventually settling on the one which had the witch-light spilling from it.
I walked up to the doorway, and looked through. It was impossible to make anything out; it looked as if blue, glowing mists were churning on the other side. I glanced behind myself, uncertain, but the red and green doorway seemed to have a shimmering curtain just inside. I took a deep breath, braced myself, and stepped forward.
Cold wind was blowing into my face. The street ahead looked sad, for reasons I couldn’t immediately place. The sky was sullen, heavy with grey clouds.
There was a hard tug at the base of my spine, and I fell backwards, landing painfully in a foolish seated position.
“Have you lost your mind, man?”
The voice was just behind my ear, a furious whisper. It sounded familiar. I thought about the question, and then shrugged. “Maybe.” My ass stung.
“Quietly, man! Great God.”
“Sorry,” I said, softly.
“What the devil is wrong with you, Taylor?”
I heard various soft rustles behind me, the sounds of small motions. Everything went very still for a moment, and then hands grabbed my shoulders and pulled me down. It looked as if it was going to rain. Travis’ head blotted out the sky.
“Hello, sir,” I said. “I’m not sure. There was a little girl, and a bear, and blue, swirling mists…”
“What?” Travis looked confused, and slightly alarmed.
I put some effort into pulling my thoughts together. “I went to the ABG, to talk to that Paz guy. There was something in the basement. A crazy pattern. Then, I dunno, I must have blacked out or something; I remember a nightmare about tunnels, and a little girl with a bear, and a blue, swirling door. And then you were telling me to get down.”
“Bloody marvellous,” Travis said. “What charming timing. So you don’t remember anything about the last three weeks?”
“Lucky bastard,” said a different voice, off to the left.
Travis sighed. “Alright. Look, it’s bad, but we’re not out of the game yet. Follow my lead, and we can talk about this later. Sit up, but remember that this is a hostile situation. Stay low and quiet. Got it?”
“Okay,” I said, “but…”
“What?” Travis sounded annoyed. “Make it quick.”
“Who are we up against?”
Someone out of view laughed bitterly. Travis just shook his head wearily. “Just stay with us, and assume that anyone not in uniform is a threat.”
He withdrew, and I sat up, making sure to keep low and quiet. The air tasted damp, and had a peculiar hint of salt to it. I looked looked over my shoulder. We were clustered around the base of a stairwell, in the shadows. Travis was with half a dozen others, all dressed in urban fatigues. I recognised half of them from his office, but I wasn’t sure of the names. The other three were unfamiliar. I glanced down, and was unsurprised to note that I was wearing fatigues too.
There was a crackle of quiet radio chatter, and then someone — Adams? — was moving past me in a cautious crouch. Travis tapped me on the shoulder, and nodded me to get moving. I stood up, keeping low, and fell into the middle of the line. Hugging the walls on the more shadowed side, we started making our way along the street. There wasn’t much trash underfoot, but the concrete slabs looked surprisingly weather-stained. There seemed to be something wrong with my hearing, because although we were being careful, our steps seemed oddly loud.
It was then, of course, that I finally realised there wasn’t any background noise. No traffic, no voices, no snatches of music or TV… nothing. How far would you have to be before a pod was totally inaudible, with no other noise to interfere? Quarter of a mile? Possibly more — especially for big transports and older vehicles. What the hell was going on?
I found myself listening intently, trying to hear anything beyond the group. After half a minute or so, I noticed a very faint sighing on the cold wind. It seemed to rise and fall in pitch, almost a lament. It didn’t sound anything like the breeze through leaves or wires. It was odder than that. Sploshier, somehow.
“Taylor.” Travis’ voice in my ear was a sudden nasty shock.
I managed not to make any noise, but I couldn’t stop myself from convulsing a little. “Sir?”
“Adams is taking your team. You’re with me.”
I had a team? I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Come along.” Travis nodded to a couple of the others, and then turned to face across the road. A moment later, he set off in a quick crouching dash. The other two he’d nodded to followed, so I did as well. We all plastered ourselves against wall on the other side, and unholstered guns. Nothing happened in response. Then we started inching our way down the wall towards the slightly recessed front door of a cheap-looking residential building.
When Travis got to the edge of the door, he nodded to the woman immediately behind him. She dashed round him and past the door, giving it a quick shove as she did so, and then flattened herself against the far side. The door must have been ajar, because it swung open. After a long, tense moment, she swung back round to face the doorway, gun ready, and then started advancing into the building. We all shuffled after her.
The building was dingy, and the air smelt unpleasant. We appeared to be in a broad, lino-floored hallway. There were several doors. Travis looked at the woman and nodded towards one, then crooked a finger at me and set off towards another. I followed him cautiously, keeping an eye out behind us as he tried the door slowly, and then carefully pushed it open.
We advanced into a bedroom that had either been burgled, inhabited by a messy student, or both. Travis indicated the bed to me, and moved towards a large wardrobe. I went over to it, senses tingling.
There was a mighty roar, the world spun and went dark, and something smashed into my back and legs. A long, dazed moment, and I realised I was coughing fiercely, and that I was lying on my back again. Dim light was filtering from above me, and I hurt all over. I swore, before remembering I was supposed to keep quiet. Something was digging into my calf. I shifted my leg, and looked about as best I could, waving my gun wildly, but I couldn’t make out anything through the dust.
The floor had obviously collapsed. At least part of it. I groaned, and then froze at a furtive rustling from off in the darkness. I forced myself to ignore my leg, and stood up as quietly as possible, gun ready. There was another rustle, and then a quiet, frightened sobbing. I blinked. It sounded like a child.
I picked my way towards the crying, slowly and carefully. The dust was starting to settle, and my eyes were beginning to adjust, and I could make out a small figure cowering in the corner of the basement. As I advanced, the child peeked up at me, and let out a hopeless little moan.
I really didn’t have any choice.
I backed away and started yelling for assistance. The child uncovered his face, and looked up at me.
“There’s no need to shout.” His voice was soft and calm, with overtones which made me think of musicians playing in a dusky park. His eyes were beseeching me to understand.
I nodded, slowly. He couldn’t have been more than eight. Whatever Travis had said, he couldn’t have meant this poor kid.
“That’s better,” said the boy. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
“Of course,” I said. It was, too; I was very aware of just how discordant my yelling had been. “The floor fell in.”
“It was rotten. Lots of things are rotten, now.”
“Yes.” There was so much unfairness. So much pain. We were so flawed.
The boy nodded. “You can see it, can’t you. I knew you were better. It’s time to clean the Earth. You’ve been allowed free reign for thousands of years, but it was never yours. You understand that, right? We never died. We just… slept, for a while. So it’s time for one last party. You like parties, don’t you?”
I smiled. “I love parties.” How long had it been since my last party? Years. Too long.
“So will you help us arrange our last party for mankind?”
“TAYLOR! Great God, man! SHOOT IT!”
Travis? I looked up, through the hole in the ceiling. Travis was kneeling there, looking dazed and bloody. Travis…
I lifted my gun almost without thought, and shot the boy. He smiled, an angelic expression of blood-drenched love, and then collapsed bonelessly. I watched his body for a little while, thinking about puppets. I was tempted to go and have another look at his face, see if that expression was still there.
I shook myself, fought down a shudder, and holstered my gun. Then I turned my back on the corpse, and sighed. Infected, Travis has called them. Poor little bastard.
“Taylor.” Travis’s voice was tight. I glanced up through the hole in the roof, and was unsurprised to see that he had a bead on my forehead.
“Sir. Do you have to kill me now?” Exhaustion washed over me, and I found myself thinking that it didn’t sound too bad an option.
Travis stared at me, then shook his head wearily, and lowered his gun. “I don’t think so. Just open fire straight away next time though, will you? Surely you can’t still imagine that there are any humans left here.”
“No, sir. I think I understand now.”
“What happened to you earlier, Taylor?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think I was somewhere else for those weeks. Whoever you had here, he wasn’t me. Not… this me.”
He stared at me, and then grimaced. “I’d keep that to yourself, man. People are a bit twitchy about mystical crap at the moment.”
“I’ll remember that. Thanks.”
“Good. Now get your arse up here, and if you see any other civvies, for God’s sake just shoot them.”
I picked my way upstairs, limping slightly, and rejoined Travis. The two others were with him again, too. Over the course of the next couple of hours, the four of us swept three buildings. They were all broadly similar, ratty places with plenty of bedrooms. Low-rent living. We saw Adams’s team twice; the second time, they were a man down. The set of Travis’s mouth told me everything I needed to know.
There was a guy apparently watching a broken television set in the fourth building. I put a bullet into him reflexively before noticing that he was already dead. He slumped over on the couch, and then slipped to the floor. As he settled, his head turned towards me, and I yelped. All the flesh had been removed from the front of his face, but the rest of him was untouched. His hair, ears, the underside of his chin were all perfectly normal, bordered by a strip of open flesh which surrounded a ghastly expanse of gleaming skull. I shuddered, and got the hell out of the room. Travis didn’t seem interested in taking it with us, happily.
Apart from that, it was the usual blend of boredom and terror.
There were dorms set up at Travis’s building. No-one was going home any more, it seemed; some neighbourhoods were considered compromised, but people were staying on-site anyway, at Travis’s order. I ate in the canteen, and was assigned a surprisingly sturdy bed in a hall with fifteen others. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see the man’s fleshless face leering at me, and I was sure I’d be awake all night.
The next thing I knew, I was floating in darkness. I couldn’t see — or feel — anything, but I knew it was juddering, and I had the strangest impression that it was hairy. There was an unpleasant background hum that made my teeth ache, and every so often, a little burst of uncomfortable static zapped through me.
After some time, it occurred to me that the static bursts were screaming something. I felt certain that if I concentrated, I would be able to hear what it was. The prospect unnerved me, but it filled me with a wild wonder at the same time.
I resolved to listen to the bursts, and tried to concentrate on the sensation of the static zapping through me. It made my teeth tingle, and seemed to make waves of energy ripple up and down my body. When I noticed that the onset of each burst seemed to be heralded with a tiny pinging feeling, it became easier to get hold of the sensations. As I did so, I started becoming aware of the sounds within them. The impression that the entire realm was quivering grew sharply stronger.
Then, suddenly, I could hear.
The void was alive with sound. From all directions, there seemed to be a steady thrumming pulse, slow and oddly irregular. It was accompanied by a dizzying whirl of what might have been wordless song, if there were creatures with throats that reverberated and span. The song rose and fell, and hinted at strange mathematical secrets in its variations. And above all else, there was a swarm of individual voices, diving and whirling around me, laughing, screaming and gibbering.
One of the voices veered towards me, and then burst through me with the now-familiar zap of static. As it did so, I heard it call out to me in a horrible, mocking voice, “Taylor, Taylor.”
I felt it recede, and then another was buzzing me. “Oh, John Taylor.”
Then it was as if I was at the centre of a whirlwind, with spark after spark diving through me, so that I was suddenly afire, every nerve thrumming. The static blurred into a long, dark howl, and then I was being spoken to by a voice like nails scraping down my spinal cord.
“Here, to the darkness, you have come. The stars, oh the fleshy stars, they sing, after so long they sing, and you have come to hear, come to the darkness. That which was and may and shall, and the old and new are joined in the fleshy singing, and you, John Taylor, have come.”
I tried to scream, to howl “No!”, but I had no self, no voice, to scream with.
“No?” The amused word was like needles. “Yet here you are, and you hear the song, and the old is new and now. And now, John Taylor, would you join the song? Would you hear?”
I tried to scream, to howl “No!”, but I had no self, no voice, to scream with.
“No?” The amused word was like needles. “Yet here you are, and you hear the song, and the old is new and now. And now, John Taylor, would you join the song? Would you hear?”
I shuddered. “No.”
“You will.” The words burned through me. They were bloated and slick with utter confidence, dripping with disdain. I would have screamed, if I had possessed a throat, if I had been able to think or breathe. Then, mercifully, there was a sense of withdrawal. The sparks whirled away, dancing off towards the shuddering stars.
A moment of peace, and then, impossibly, I realised that I was moving. Nothing changed in the void, there was no sense of physical action of any sort, but I was drifting anyway, as if caught in a current. Perhaps I was gathering speed, because after a time, it did seem as if the song around me was growing fainter. I flew through the darkness for an impossible amount of time; it could have been instants or decades.
Light exploded around me. It began as a series of cracks, a dazzling blue-green. They seethed with energy, and swept out to form junctions, patterns… walls. Almost before I knew it, I was diving through an outlined canyon, all black planes and brilliant edges. It was uneven, shot through with seams and whorls, and it appeared to stretch to infinity above and below me. Occasionally, I whipped past other seemingly separate things, clots and vapours and misshapen bubbles. At such times, the gibbering and cackling swelled, overpowering the rotting song. I soon came to loathe those moments.
I became aware of another presence pacing me. I turned my attention on it. It was my face, flying alongside me. It wasn’t quite right, but it was definitely me. It stared at me impassively, and I could feel that it was exerting a pull on me. Despite the totally blank, mindless expression, I knew that it was boiling with passions that were just out of reach.
The pull was strengthening as the distance between us slowly eroded. I thought about trying to evade it, but the prospect seemed infinitely exhausting. Allowing myself to be drawn into the face was so much easier. Even as I started to accept that, the face lit up, my features twisting with hungry glee. I knew I ought to be alarmed, but somehow I couldn’t summon the energy to become genuinely concerned. Horrible, sickly laughter echoed around me, and it took me several seconds to realize that it was coming from me.
I curved in towards the face, speeding up fiercely, and found myself whipping along in front of it and round the far side. Oddly, it seemed to always be looking towards me, no matter how dizzily I whirled. I circled closer and closer, whirling and looping as I went, and as I approached, I gradually realized that in fact the face was vast, and I was miniscule. Then I was darting in towards the left eye, a sparkling pit lined with eerie, pale flame that sank down into oblivion.
I felt the pit pull me in, stretching me thinner and longer and longer and thinner, and desperately tried to scream…
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” The noise was deafeningly loud, and seemed to be pealing from all around me. The pitch was wrong too, multi-layered and almost throbbing. It seemed impossible that it could be coming from my throat. I – it – trailed off, and bright lights flicked on. I was in the dorm room, sitting bolt upright on the uncomfortable cot, mouth grimacing open.
As was everyone else in the room.
We shared nervous glances. One of the guys down the far end cleared his throat. “What the hell?”
His only answer was collective confusion and growing alarm.
After a long, uncomfortable moment, I said “There was a canyon… A nightmare. Anyone else?”
Blank stares and shaken heads.
“Oh,” I said.
The door opened, and I jumped slightly. Travis stormed in, looking rumpled and unhappy. “What the devil is going on?’
The woman next to me pointed over at me. “Ask him.”
Travis sighed. “Alright Taylor, come with me.” He pushed the door open and looked at me pointedly.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I hauled myself out of the cot, and padded out into the hallway, slightly nervous.
Travis closed the door behind us, and led me a few steps down the hall. “So?” He kept his voice low, but he sounded weary.
I took a slow, deep breath, and tried to figure out where to start. “I had a really crazy dream, sir. I woke up bolt upright in bed, screaming. Uh, so did everyone else in the room. At the same moment. The others looked blank when I mentioned the dream.”
“Right,” said Travis, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What was the dream?”
I steeled myself. “I was in a black abyss, sir. I couldn’t see anything, but it was unimaginably vast, and it felt… Uh. Every so often, a blip of static would shoot through me, and I thought maybe I could hear something. Then everything expanded into this ocean of groaning, gibbering, throbbing noise, with song, and mathematics, and…”
Travis was staring at me.
I blinked at him. “Right. So, I could hear these ins… uh, voices spiralling around me. Then the static was zapping through me continually, and a horrible voice spoke, and called me by name. It told me that the old was new again, and that the, um, fleshy stars were singing.”
“Fleshy stars,” said Travis dully.
“And it asked if I wanted to hear,” I said. “I told it no.”
“How reassuring,” Travis muttered. “Is that it?”
“Not quite. I moved through the void for an unimaginable time, and then suddenly I was in this canyon of light, and a sort of monstrous version of my own face was floating beside me.”
“I see,” said Travis.
“So, uh, I decided to dive into it.”
“Yeah. But it was incredibly large. I ended up diving into the centre of its pupil, which turned into a horrible vortex. And then I woke up.”
“The voice you mentioned,” Travis said. “Do you remember exactly what it said?”
“Not really. It was rambling. ‘The old and new and before and will and was are all in the song and oh the fleshy stars in the darkness,’ that sort of thing.”
“I was thinking I might shoot you,” said Travis. “I would have done, if you’d tried to hold out on me. There’s nothing natural about a whole room of people sitting up and screaming. But now it occurs to me that it might be wiser to just toss you straight into an incinerator.”
“Oh, stop it,” Travis said, irritably. “Go find the duty doctor, and get a bottle of stims. I don’t want you going back to sleep.”
“I don’t think I could sleep at the moment anyway,” I said.
“I don’t mean tonight, you bloody fool. I mean ever.”
“If I ever discover you have slept again Lieutenant, I will have you slung directly into the nearest blast furnace. Do I make myself clear?”
“Sir.” Fear and resentment flared up, hard. I fought to keep my face neutral.
Travis sighed. “I suspect that they can work on you through your dreams, man. You had a very close call this afternoon, and this babble sounds right up their alley. If you go to sleep again, they might be able take you. I’m trying to bloody save you. Long days and a minor addiction would seem like a pleasant alternative to soul-death and a quick roasting.”
“Oh. Right. Thank you, sir. I think.”
“Just do it,” Travis said. “Then you might as well get back to your desk. You won’t be the only one up there.”
He stumped off. I went and got my first course of stims — “You may experience some mild psychological effects with extended use,” lied the doctor blandly — and headed back up to the office. There were half a dozen people around, but I really wasn’t feeling chatty, so I nodded to them pleasantly and sat myself down at my desk. My eyes felt dry and achy, so I reluctantly shook out a stim and took it. Then I stared at my terminal for several minutes.
Eventually, I shook myself out of it, and started catching up on the events of the last three weeks. It did not make comfortable reading.
Initially, official responses to the diaspora had been highly secretive. Massive intelligence operations were put in place, and although they didn’t seem to be getting any instant results, they appeared to make steady progress. There were some polite queries and other mild probes from foreign agencies, but we characterised our efforts as preventing domestic terrorism.
Then things started to get a little odd. There were mentions of reports of hysteria in some cities, and communications problems in a few more isolated areas. Tensions started to rise in poorer segments of the populace, particularly ones with a strong religious ethic. Intelligence coming in from overseas suggested possible parallels in other areas.
The first significant anomaly was the sudden and inexplicable abandonment of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in LA. On the evening of the Saturday after I vanished, it was the largest jail in the world, and the biggest psychiatric facility in the USA. Sunday morning, it was completely empty. Almost 8,000 prisoners and support staff — including well over a thousand mentally disturbed prisoners — had vanished. Overlook hadn’t seen them leave; internal security footage showed only static. Twelve cells, in a line, were covered top to bottom in utterly unfamiliar writing.
From there, things started getting hairy. A number of peculiar riots broke out spontaneously across the country. They were small, and lacked the usual group mayhem, but what they lacked in sheer destruction they more than made up in weirdness. Some people were trashing things or burning stuff down, sure, but individually rather than in packs. Others were wandering around aimlessly, or just staying put, or dashing back and forth screaming, or… well. Or just about anything else, it seemed. The National Guard tried to assist the police in regaining control, but the situation was so chaotic — and varied — that it proved extremely hard to suppress.
It was more frightening to discover that Overlook failed inside the rioting territories. All of them. It didn’t just switch off, or go to static; it appeared to show normal daily life inside the affected areas. It wasn’t old footage. It was as if the system was observing events that just weren’t actually happening.
Sometimes, the riots subsided naturally. When they did, invariably large swathes of the population would be missing. Many of those left behind were… changed. Contagious. The Infected, as they became known, caused massive damage in the first few days, subverting entire units. The disturbances kept cropping up, seemingly at random, and it took a while to confirm that Infected appeared to seed them.
By this time of course — the following Thursday — it was perfectly obvious that the problem was global. We had already lost several millions of people. The vast majority had just vanished.
Containment became the primary objective. If a street, or block, or neighbourhood became erratic, the military cordoned it off, and if possible, created fire-breaks of demolished building. Any attempts to leave were met with lethal force. It did slow the spread of the disturbance, but it didn’t entirely stop new Infection. Even with reserves called up, and every force pitching in, control was very thinly spread.
Two weeks later, large chunks of the country had ground to a halt. Martial law was in place, as srongly as available manpower would allow. Food, power and vital supplies were still being produced, and even shipped around, but anything non-essential was simply not happening. Hysteria was rampant.
Travis hadn’t lied when he’d said that things were grim.
Something was nagging at the back of my mind, though. Something about Overlook. I sat there for a moment, and tried to give the thought room to develop. Operating mainly on instinct, I called up Overlook feeds for some of the now-abandoned former riot zones. Unsurprisingly, they were deserted. Alright, it was the middle of the night, but there was enough trash blown over the streets to make it all look quite eerie. I saw a cat run through shot in one of them, but there didn’t appear to be any people.
Then I switched to the block we’d raided the previous afternoon, and spooled back to the raid. There we all were. I watched us staging, and even slow-mo’ed through the moment when I broke cover by standing up, and then started looking all dazed and confused. I frowned, and jumped back day by day, until the normal bustle of city life reappeared. Eight days ago, everything looked normal — although I could see from the notes attached that the area had been seeing severe disturbances for two days by that point. The next day, it was trashed and empty.
There had to be a moment when the feed switched. I told Overlook to search for non-contiguity, and a little while later, it bumped me forward to the small hours of the morning. The footage was disturbing. A few seconds after 2:12am, it went from being a normal night-time street to something out of a half-assed war zone. Something felt out of place, though. I played it back again, very slowly this time.
There. Five frames of static divided the two states.
I then repeated the examination on a couple more riot sites, in other cities. Each time, there was a short burst of static on Overlook at the point where the incorrect images gave way to accurate ones. The length of the burst varied, but it was always there.
Was it a suggestion of tampering? I went back to the local riot, and ran another contiguity search, this time for either side of when the disturbances were reported to have started. Overlook chewed over it for a long time, but couldn’t find anything. I told it to look from earlier, and then from earlier still.
Finally, after several hours of sitting around, I found something. Six hours before the reported start of the riot, there was a single frame out of place. The image had a flat-colour background, as red as fresh blood. It bore a gold-lettered inscription, a dense passage of writing in characters that I had never seen. I stared at it, utterly perplexed, and flagged the frame up with an ‘Urgent’ note.
It took a couple more hours to get searches to confirm that other events were also preceded by similar — but not identical — passages of writing. I used the time to grab an early breakfast / very late midnight snack, and to freshen up a bit. Travis put in an appearance shortly before 8am, and I immediately called him over.
He looked at the passages of text, and the bursts of static, and sighed heavily. “I don’t suppose you have a theory,” he said.
I shook my head. “Not yet, sir. It would help to know if these anomalies were being inserted into Overlook, or if they were merely being observed.”
“My God, man. Are you suggesting that a street could turn into… into that writing for an instant?”
I shuddered. “No. I’m definitely not suggesting that.” Although… “No. But do we know if there’s any sort of electrical static that matches the static as the signal reverts to true?”
He arched an eyebrow. “No, Taylor. The men on the ground have been a bit busy to be running signal analyses during riots.”
“Well, that might be a place to start.”
“Good chap,” said Travis cheerfully. “Why don’t you get on it?”
“Top notch. We’ve got a few disturbances in striking distance.” He called up a list of trouble spots. “Take your pick.”
I fought back a groan, and said “How about that inner city neighbourhood?”
“Splendid”, said Travis. “Jot me down a list of the thingummies you need, and then grab your kit and get over there. I’ll have them sent over to the command post, and let them know you’re coming.”
Travis sighed. “Body armour, weapons, earplugs, ECM, candles, lighter, and goose fat.”
I stared at him. “Goose fat?”
“Just bloody get on with it.”
He stalked off across the room. I went back down to the dorm they’d put us in, and investigated my pack. Sure enough, in with my glasses, some candy bars, a sheaf of notes and other operational bits and pieces were a tub of rendered goose lard, some ecclesiastical-looking candles, and a brightly-coloured pair of workman’s earplugs. I fished out the tub of lard and studied it. The words ‘Rendered Goose Lard’ had been stencilled onto a label, and that was it.
I shrugged, and dropped the tub back into my bag. After I’d been to the armoury to get suited up and grab some guns, I made my way to my pod. The ECM undersuit was unpleasantly clammy, and I could already feel myself starting to sweat. I squeezed myself into the pod, but once it adjusted the seat to allow for the body armour, it became less uncomfortable.
The Infected riot area was in the south of the city, a low-income district that had been in steady decline since advanced mechanisation blasted the blue-collar sector. There were worse areas, but Milton certainly had its share of problems. It only took half an hour to get down there — the streets were eerily quiet, and I realised that I had hunched up tensely, as if expecting attack. I forced my shoulders to relax, but I couldn’t do anything about the creepiness.
Cities are just not meant to be silent and empty.
Milton looked even crappier than I remembered. The pod took me round to the Eastern command post, which was where the Op Centre had been placed. I climbed out of the damn thing, stretched painfully, and then wandered over towards all the fun. It was quieter than I expected; riots normally sound like a furious, deafening roar. This was more like a big, wild frat-party.
A young security guy wandered over. “Lieutenant Taylor, Sir. I’ve been told to take you to your equipment.”
“Is it easy to find?”
He pointed to a couple of crates twenty yards away, in front of a small, empty tent. “Right there, Sir.”
“Fine,” I said. “Thanks. So, officer. Goose fat? Really?”
“Oh yes,” said the guy. “Always, Sir. It, um, Provides complicating organic correspondences that can assist in avoiding the substantiation of presumptive sentience, Sir.”
“Right. And you apply it…?”
“Smeared over the eyelids, nostrils, mouth, ears, heart, nipples and navels, Sir. Nowhere lower to ensure the avoidance of untoward and ill-timed distractions. Sir.”
He cracked a pleased smile for a whole quarter-second, then nodded formally and left. I rolled my eyes at his back, and then wandered over to the crates. I unpacked them inside the tent, and plugged everything together. I’d asked for an ultrabroad realtime EMF recorder, but he’d gone one better, and included a visualisation dome and several auxialliary receptors, including a gravitometer, a particulates analyser, a Geiger bubble, and even something that claimed to be a colour force reader, although I couldn’t see the point.
I decided to grease up before going out to find places for the receptors. It sounded insane, but Travis had seemed insistent.
Yes, I included both openings below the belt.
Yes, it was disgusting.
I slimed back into my clothing and body armour, gathered up the assorted receptor units, and slipped out of the tent. It took me a few minutes to find someone authorised to clear me to go up onto the barricades, and a few minutes more for them to scrounge up a suitable escort. Travis had clearly told them to make sure I wasn’t shot. Fine by me.
In the end, I settled for spreading the receptors out along the barricade, which was a couple of hundred yards long. There was a chance some jarhead might kick one, even with bright chalk semicircles around them, but I wasn’t too worried. They didn’t look particularly delicate, and I had multiples of each type. The barricade was topped with wire mesh, so as long as the crazies didn’t suddenly produce guns and start shooting, the receptors would be fine.
Once everything was in place, I allowed myself to actually have a proper look at the riot zone. We were in Milton 3, the sort of place that they would house the concentration-camp guards if they suddenly decided to round up the entire East Coast. Nasty little boxes fought their way out of squat concrete towers and wrestled with their neighbours for air and sunlight. You could practically taste the misery and loathing — and that was on a normal day.
A demented artist had reached down from the heavens and splattered the estate with gore and chaos. Blood. Fire. Destruction. Chunks of corpse. Goya would have wept. And the people… they swarmed through it all like flies. Some angry, buzzing and howling, running this way and that. Some lazy, hovering or swirling or meandering back and forth, wailing, weeping, laughing. Some static, resting or weeping or fucking or doing unspeakable things. Some oblivious, as if that were possible.
“It gets to you, Sir,” said the officer who’d met me earlier. “Doesn’t seem right.”
I stared at him.
“Look,” someone else said. Several people flinched, myself included, but we looked.
People — no, Infected — were gathering in a pack fifty yards away, facing us. They abandoned their madnesses, and came to clump together and stare at us. I fought down a shiver, as more and more of them joined the group. Forty, fifty, more, all of them standing there and gazing. All the officers around me were shouldering weapons, and I wished I’d thought to at least bring a pistol up.
“JOHN LEMUEL TAYLOR,” they said, in a voice that would level mountains.
“Fuck. Me.” I tried to force my fists to unclench.
“JOHN LEMUEL TAYLOR,” they groaned again. “YOU WILL BE UNTOUCHED. UNHARMED. COME.”
I stared at them. It. Whatever. A bow was fluttering in a pretty brunette’s hair, her left hand a mangled wreck of torn flesh, her eyes as empty as midnight. A tall guy a couple of places behind her was missing half his teeth.
“JOIN THE PARTY, JOHN TAYLOR. JOIN THE DANCE.”
I flinched, and the temperature seemed to drop five degrees. “They have to be joking,” I said, to no-one in particular. I flipped them the bird. “You have to be fucking joking,” I yelled.
“AHHHHHHHH.” The sigh trailed off slowly into silence, and then the pack went insane. Several vicious maulings immediately broke out, whilst other members giggled or wailed or started dancing or just wandered off. Within moments, the group were little more than a slightly denser knot in the riot.
I smoothed my hair back, and grimaced. “Fuck. That was odd.” I looked round at the security officers, and discovered that they were in a loose ring around me, guns pointed straight at my face. I blinked. “Guys?”
“Shut up,” said the tall one. “Come with us, and do exactly what we say.”
I nodded carefully, and moved my arms away from my sides. One of them plucked my gun from me quickly, and tucked it into her belt.
The tall guy grimaced. “OK, listen up lieutenant. Maybe you’re all fine and dandy. But until someone tells me that officially, you’re looking a lot like a candidate for Infection right about now. Say a word — just one — and we’ll shoot. Make any quick, jerky moves, and we’ll shoot. Get any closer to any of us than this, and we’ll shoot. Fiddle around with any gadgets, and we’ll shoot. Nod once if you understand this.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t quite prevent myself from rolling my eyes a little.
“We’ll see,” said the tall guy. “Now, we’re going to get you down from here and into somewhere nice and secure, and pass you up the chain so that you’re someone else’s problem. We’ll move out carefully, two of us down the ladder first, then you, then the rest of us. Don’t slip up.”
I nodded again. A call indicator started flashing in the corner of my HUD. I ignored it.
We started shuffling along the barricade, back towards the ladder. A low rumbling started, deep enough to make the soles of my feet tingle. Something about the acoustics made it hard to tell where it was coming from. The officers glanced at each other unhappily, and then at me. I scowled at them, and shrugged exagerratedly. The air felt greasy, and for a moment, I thought I could see flecks of shimmering blue across my vision.
A vast word tore across my consciousness. Thick and cold and foul, it pummelled me, slipping from my mind even as it unfolded. The world seemed to shimmer with its passing, and for an instant I was sure that it was ripping holes in my stomach.
There was a sigh, and the officers around me dropped like broken puppets, their faces wiped clean of expression.
Definitely not good. But this was exactly the sort of thing that might leave some of the sensor-traces I’d been looking for. I took my gun back from the depressingly still security officer who had claimed it, and made my way over to the ladder.
There was a rush of wind, a loud thump, and a shower of splinters struck the back of my neck. I froze for an instant, and then dropped. Someone was shooting at me! I looked around wildly. There was a raised tower past the edge of the barricade, an observation post for deeper into the riot zone. A sniper was in there, sighting on me again. Fuck. I glanced down the ladder, and saw more officers starting to mobilise down there. Double fuck.
“HEY!” I scrabbled backwards as I yelled, and more splinters burst from beside me. “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!”
I backpedalled as quickly and erratically as the barricade would allow. It was starting to curve away from the shooter’s line of sight, but how long would it be before people came up the ladder? A shot zinged past my leg, and I yelped.
A flurry of motion on the riot side of the barricade caught my attention. I glanced over there hurriedly, scrabbling backwards as I did. A group of infected were hurrying a mattress over towards my general position. Bloody wonderful. A flaming missile flew out of the riot zone, and splashed on the side of the observation post. My sniper ducked out of sight, but the hubbub down by ladder was swiftly intensifying. I used the breather to hunker at the far end of the barricade. I glanced down at the riot zone, and was unsurprised to see the mattress precisely below me.
I groaned. None of my options were exactly enticing. By the sounds of it, every bloody officer in the place was getting ready to storm up the barricade. Maybe Travis would be able to call them off. I put a top-priority call through to Travis. Whilst I was at it, I carefully tossed my gun towards the ladder, and lay down on my front with my hands laced over the lack of my neck. If the goons swarmed me, they might hold of shooting long enough to fix the situation.
The call connecting indicator blipped at me a couple of times, and then it connected.
“Travis,” said Travis.
“They’re going to shoot me! Help!”
“… Leave a message,” continued Travis’ recorder.
A gun barrel popped up from the ladder, and fired some wild shots. A moment later, a nervous-looking security officer appeared. I closed my mouth, and tried to look simultaneously irritated, pitiful and harmless. I suspect I only managed ‘constipated’. The woman whipped her gun up as soon as she saw me, and then hesitated. I had a go at grimacing reassuringly. She squinted at me for a moment, and then ducked back down.
A few moments later, an older officer appeared, gun trained on me even as he rose up through the ladder hole. He looked at me dispassionately for several eternal seconds, and then held up a horrifying-looking gag. I nodded microscopically, and he threw it at my face with impressive, if stinging, accuracy. I very slowly lifted a hand off my neck, picked the gag up, and slipped the thick rubber bit into my mouth. It took both hands to fasten it round my head, and felt like having a can of soup jammed between my teeth. When it was securely in place, I laced my hands behind my neck again.
The officer’s gun never wavered from my forehead throughout.
When I’d settled down again, he came up the ladder fully, and slowly advanced on me. I made damn sure not to move even a muscle. As soon as he was in range, he lifted a jangler in his off-hand. I blinked.
My body ignited. I couldn’t even scream. The world started spinning, and everything went away.
There was an empty eye, the hollow iris lined with frost, and the sensation of being pummelled, and a dizzying sense of wrongness…
I realised that I was lying down. My face, wrists and ankles all hurt abominably, and the rest of my body felt like it had been sculpted out of mush. It occurred to me that I was on my back. I lay there for a while, largely because I couldn’t even be bothered to open my eyes. Eventually I got bored, hauled my eyelids up, and looked around.
It looked like I was in a tent. Fading daylight visible through the top of the door indicated that the evening was drawing in. I tried to crane my head, but it was tied down. I could feel the rope against my forehead when I moved. I gave my arms, legs and torso experimental tries, but it seemed that I was trussed up like a Christmas Goose, and it felt as if my hands and feet were both cuffed together to boot.
With the gag in place, the best I could manage was a muffled MMMMM noise. No-one came. Great.
So I waited.
I must have dozed off, because I woke up to a flashlight beam flicking around.
“Taylor? You still with us?” It was Travis.
“Mmmff,” I said.
“Ah.” He unhooked the gag, and pulled it free. I groaned, and cleared my throat. “What happened here?”
“Well sir, the short version is that whilst I was setting up my equipment, the rioters got, uh, weird, and invited me in. Then they somehow killed a bunch of security people who were getting fierce with me. The rest couldn’t take the risk that I wasn’t involved.”
“I see,” said Travis, his voice neutral. “Were you?”
“No! Of course not. The Infected were calling me to go have a look around, ‘join the party’. It wasn’t exactly a tempting offer.”
“I suppose not. Odd, but still. What happened next?”
I shrugged. “They gagged me and then hit me with a jangler.”
“And you came to here?”
“Yes. It was heading towards evening. There was no-one around. I dozed off again waiting for someone to check in.” I blinked. Flashlight? “Is there some problem with the power?”
“You dozed off.”
“Oh. Fuck. Look, it wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t get to my stims, and even if I could have, the jangler left me semi-conscious at best. Please.”
“They’re dead, Taylor.”
My mind reeled. “But…”
“The camp. The riot zone. The other security post. Everyone. We sent scanners through. You’re the only living thing in the entire area.”