The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.
The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.
"Skin to skin, blood and bone
You're all by yourself, but you're not alone
You wanted in, and now you're here
Driven by hate, consumed by fear"
-Bodies by Drowning Pool
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Thursday, October 14
Agent James Smythe straightened his mustache as he stared grumpily at the files spread across the inside of his glasses. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and then wiped his lenses clear with a touch to his digipad screen. With the dense walls of text and photos gone from his line of sight, Smythe could see the four people sitting across the table from him, each looking at him with a different expression on their faces.
Michael "Mack" Landon was staring at him with expectation and weariness mixed with a touch of sadness. Of the four, he had been the most cooperative, ready to give whatever information he had in his possession to help get the investigation done and out of the way as quickly as possible. Still, he - like all of them, Smythe included - was beginning to tire of the whole process.
Macks' Wife Jodie Landon had fire and steel in her eyes. If it weren't for the orange institutional clothing, Smythe felt he could almost be convinced that she was at just another business meeting with time-wasting morons, eager to get back to her real work elsewhere. When looking into that gaze, he sometimes had to remind himself that he was not a junior VP, he was not the one in trouble, and he was not about to get fired.
The other two people sat on either side of the Landons, one with a nervous, ratty face that never seemed to hold any expression save for contempt and the other with a nervous, ratty face that never seemed to hold any expression save for worry. They were the Landon's lawyers, or at least the only two of the Landons' lawyers who had been willing to try and defend them. Smythe could never remember their names, but it hardly seemed to matter. Mack told him everything and Jodie told him nothing, ignoring any and all advice the lawyers gave them.
The only reason the attorneys were even there was to ensure that the Landons' civil liberties weren't abused. The case against the two former vice presidents of Landon Enterprises was as good as shut against them. Their arraignment would be a media circus, but also a mere formality. The evidence that had come to light via carefully picking through the LE computer systems had left their guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt, and both of them had already stated that they would be pleading guilty to all of the charges.
But Smythe, the Landons, and the lawyers all had to continue the ridiculous rigmarole of question and non-answer. There were loose ends to tie up. The Department of Extra-Normal Affairs hated loose ends.
"What's the point?" Jodie snarled just as Smythe had opened his mouth to speak. "Ask just one of us or ask both of us together, it doesn't matter. How may different ways do you want us to say 'We don't know'?"
"As many different ways as it takes until you remember something, Mrs. Landon," Smythe said with a heavy sigh. "The nanobots in your memory clusters have been flushed out, and it is the hope of our specialists that this will allow your brain to reform the connections they were blocking. We just have to keep jogging them until they shake loose."
Jodie snorted and crossed her arms. Mack glanced over at her, licked his lips, and then said "Go ahead and ask, agent. I don't know if it's gonna do any good, but I guess we gotta try."
Smythe smiled mirthlessly at the other man. When Mack had first gotten to the DENA holding facility, he'd sounded just as prim and proper as his wife, but over the grinding week, his speech patterns had gotten more and more relaxed. Smythe had started to suspect that the businessman that everyone had seen in vids and at board meetings had all been an act, and for the first time in years, Mack was finally allowing himself to just be himself.
If not for the circumstances under which it were happening, Smythe felt he might be happy for the man.
"So," the agent said listlessly. "Who is the 'doctor'?"
"The doctor," Mack replied, repeating the same answer he always gave, "is this person we first met two years ago. He - or she - came to us with blueprints and little working models of some really high-tech stuff, way beyond anything we were making. He agreed to make more for us and allow us to do whatever we wanted with it if we gave him funding, space, and materials, and if we would help him test his experiments in whatever way he saw fit."
"And that included-"
"Illegal stuff, yah," Mack finished, nodding his head. "We weren't going to at first, but . . . he said he would head to some other company, and then another, and another, and eventually he'd find someone who didn't care. Someone who'd give him money and look the other way, and those people would crush LE."
"Is that exactly what he said?" Smythe asked.
Mack sighed. "Yes," he said, "more or less. It's stupid, I know, but I can remember exactly what he said, every single word, but nothing else. I can't even remember what his voice sounded like!"
"Anyway, she was right," Jodie interjected angrily. "Whoever had those plans would be able to destroy anyone at any time in any industry they chose. Whoever the doctor worked for would win everything. Someone was going to benefit from the doctor's work, and since she came to us first, it was our obligation to the company to be that someone."
"Hmm," Smythe said noncommittally. "Did you have contact with the doctor very often?"
"At least once a week for the entire two years," Mack confirmed. "We met with him just a few hours before the interview with Quinn Morgendorffer, in fact. Looking back on it, he seemed pretty agitated."
"The little bitch knew we were going down," Jodie growled. "She knew, and she didn't tell us. Some partner she turned out to be. I wish we did know who she was, just so you could arrest her and I could get my hands around her skinny little neck!"
"Does the doctor have a skinny little neck?" Smythe asked, getting the expected glare for an answer. "Are there any physical traits at all that you can remember? Any scars, tattoos, peculiar items of clothing?"
Mack shook his head ruefully. "Agent Smythe, you could be the doctor for all we know!" he said, exasperated. "Hell, I could be the doctor!"
The lawyer on Mack's side came to life for the first time during the interrogation. "Er, that was not an admission of guilt and should not be construed as such!" he said quickly.
Smyth put up his hand and nodded reassuringly to placate the nervous man in the expensive suit. "Not to worry," he deadpanned, "I think if any of us were the doctor, this happy little meeting would be the last place on Earth we'd want to be."
The lawyer and Mack both chuckled, and even Jodie gave a derisive snort of laughter. The second lawyer simply sat and stared, leading Smythe to decide that he had left home without his sense of humor that morning.
"Moving on," the agent said. "Where did you meet with the doctor?"
"At our office, usually," Mack told him. "We-"
Mack, the humorless lawyer, and one of the agents standing behind Smythe all looked over to one side of the room suddenly with confused looks on their faces. Smythe himself felt a sudden call to reach into his jacket to pull out his pistol, but he couldn't immediately think of why.
"What just happened?" he asked the room in general.
"I . . . thought I saw the door open," the attorney sitting next to Jodie said.
Mack nodded. "Me, too," he said. "Like, out of the corner of my eye."
Smythe scratched at his neck and stood up to look around. The room was decently sized, but the only things in it besides the people themselves were the table and chairs. A quick search showed that there was no one and nothing new in the interrogation room, and that everyone who was supposed to be there was still there.
Confused and still feeling a strange sense of aimless dread, Smythe looked over at the two other agents. The one that had been helping him search the room shrugged. The other was sub-vocalizing, talking to the people standing on the other side of the two-way panel built into one of the room's walls. After a few seconds, he shook his head.
"Is this some new kind of interrogation technique?" Jodie demanded. "Have you pumped the room full of drugs or something? Because if that's the case, I'll tell you right now-"
"Quiet," Smythe said, the sudden authority in his voice causing her to back down in surprise. Deep down, Smythe was a pretty nice guy, or at least he thought of himself that way, and he hated having to use his agent voice. He'd resisted the temptation through the entire week no matter how surly and snarky Mrs. Landon had gotten, but the feeling of something being just slightly off was growing, and he didn't have the patience to listen to her rant.
Jodie wasn't used to being silenced so quickly and efficiently, and especially not with that much force of personality, but she quickly collected herself and was about to launch into a full verbal barrage when she felt Mack's hand on her arm. She looked over to find him looking at her with fright-filled eyes, cutting through her anger for the moment.
"I think it's him," her husband said plainly.
"No," said Smythe. He continued looking around the room even though there clearly wasn't anything else to see. "There's no way he could have gotten in here. Not without us knowing about it."
"You don't know the doctor," Jodie said as she clasped Mack's hands in her own. For the first time since Smythe had met her, he heard real fear enter her voice as she said, "She can do things. And I'm starting to think there isn't anything she can't do."
Smythe gripped the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Okay, Q&A is over," he said, then turned back to the other two agents. "Take them back to their cells and show their attorneys out."
The agents nodded and started herding the four civilians out the door. Smythe thought that he saw Mack staring back at him with something akin to pity, but shook it off as nerves. Alone in the room, he sat down and rubbed his face. Something had happened, he was sure of that. He figured the doctor might have been responsible, but he wasn't quite ready to attribute the mysterious figure with quite enough power to have done anything serious that deep within a DENA building.
Thoughts suddenly filled with the possibility that some sort of gas was indeed getting pumped into the room, Smythe stood up and stalked out into the hall. A little way down from him, he saw the two agents that the Landon case belonged to. They had almost certainly just come out of the other room, having watched the entire exchange.
"Agent Smythe," the male agent said in clipped tones. "What happened in there?"
"I'm . . . not sure," Smythe said. "Everything seemed fine, and then suddenly . . . it wasn't. Whatever it was, it seemed to cause mild hallucinations and a general feeling of unease akin to paranoia. I think it's starting to wear off now."
"You had best get yourself, the Landons, and Agents Wheeling and Parks to the infirmary to be checked out just in case," the female agent told him.
Smythe scratched and nodded. "Did either of you feel anything strange in the other room?"
The two agents glanced at each other, then looked back at him. "No," they said in unison.
With a snort and a helpless shake of his head, Smythe turned and started walking down to the infirmary. If nothing else, he could get one of the nurses to take a look at his neck. It was itching like hell all of a sudden.
"Miss Lane," said the male voice on the other end of the comm. "This is the Department of Extra-"
"Y'know, you-" she tried to interrupt, then started again when he didn't stop. "Y'know, you don't have to say the whole damn thing every time. You could always say 'Hey, Jane, it's DENA, whassup?'"
"I'm afraid I couldn't, ma'am," he replied. "We require your assistance at the DENA building."
Jane scrunched up her face and looked in the back seat of Daria's car. "No can do, chief. We're hauling a paycheck at the moment, but we'd be happy to stop by and chat after we're done. How does an hour sound?"
"Unacceptable. Your presence is needed immediately. We are invoking the emergency clause of your contract."
"What's going on?" Daria asked from the driver's seat.
Jane put her hand over the receiver and said, "They're being dicks again. Pulling the emergency card."
"We get paid extra for that, don't we?"
Jane's eyebrows shot up as she thought it over. "Yes," she finally said as she removed her hand from the commlink. "Yes, we do. Okay, boss, we're headed that way. What are we gonna do about our package in the meanwhile?"
"We will keep him in our own lockup for the moment," the male agent said, "and then transfer him to the police department ourselves later."
"And the extra paperwork?"
"Consider it taken care of. Please hurry."
Jane snapped her comm shut and turned around in her seat. "Hear that, sunshine?" she said to the vehicle's third occupant. "You're gonna get to cool your heels in one of those upscale federal pens for a while. Better enjoy the three course meals and padded toilet seats while you can!"
The woman in the back seat simply stared back, completely impassive.
"Now don't you give me that face," Jane admonished her. "You could have sat at home, smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo, but no, you decided to indulge in your little hobby instead. I hope you learned a valuable lesson!"
"Hrn," the other woman grunted, the first sound she'd made since getting in the car. "Yeh. Request different bondsman next time."
Jane got a funny look on her face, then laughed as she turned back around. "I like her," she said. "Doesn't say much, but makes it count."
"Hrn," Daria grunted as she turned onto the nearest off-ramp headed toward DENA HQ.
The trip was short and silent for the most part, and the colony structure containing several of the local federal buildings quickly came into sight. Daria decelerated as she did a fly-by first, then slowly turned the corner at the next intersection.
"Problems?" Jane asked.
"Maybe," Daria said. "Look at the landing pads."
Jane frowned and squinted out the window. Like every other colony structure in the city, landing areas for various grav-vehicles dotted the sides, each sitting in front of the entrance to its respective building. Since the structure they were circling was government affiliated, it had a decent number of people parked outside.
The problem that Daria had spotted was that many of those people were also standing outside the doors and looking very unhappy. Every once in a while, Jane could see one of them reach out and try to slide the automatic doors by hand and less often someone trying the manual doors, but neither seemed to be allowing access.
"Is it a holiday or something?"
Daria shook her head. "Columbus Day was earlier this week, but nothing today," she said. "Not unless they declared a new one without telling anyone. Something's wrong."
"Well, I'd assume that's why our agent buddies called us about an emergency," Jane said with a shrug.
"Yes," Daria conceded, "but I think we should take this slowly."
"I think we should still take it sometime today," Jane grumbled. "Can we at least land so I can stretch my legs?"
Daria glared at the building outside her window for a moment, then nodded. "Fine," she said as she sped the car up, taking it all the way back around to the DENA landing pad.
The first thing the women noticed as they got out of the vehicle was the absence of people standing outside the doors. Unlike the rest of the structure, the only cars parked out front seemed to be the sleek black sedans belonging to the organization's agents. Jane helped their passenger out of the back seat, then peered around curiously.
"Wow," she said. "Where are all the nutjobs?"
Daria didn't answer as she, too, scanned the area. On the few occasions they had stopped by the DENA building, its front lot and much of its main lobby had been taken up with every imaginable form of delusional mental case that inhabited Lawndale City. The agents, Daria and Jane had come to understand, tried to deal with as many of them as they could, but the flood of crank cases and people who truly believed they had seen things they really hadn't seen continued unabated every single day.
Daria was heartened by the fact that DENA at least seemed to hold a healthy amount of skepticism concerning the masses that assaulted their doors daily. Once, one of the agents had even told her, "Just because they give an excruciatingly detailed report, have dozens of pictures and vids as evidence, and can even supply working parts taken directly from a spaceship, that doesn't mean they actually saw a spaceship."
But the UFO chasers were gone for the day, it seemed. Daria, Jane, and their latest ward were all alone on the pad, and the only noises they could hear were those of traffic and the muted sounds of angry shouting drifting over from other lots.
"Let's go," Daria said, starting toward the doors.
Jane grabbed their prisoner's arm and pulled her forward gently. "And if the doors are closed here, too?"
"Then we open them."
The trio stopped short as the doors opened for them. Darkness lay just beyond, ameliorated only by the midday light streaming through the thick glass of the doors and windows.
"Trap," Jane said, her features clouding up.
"Trap," Daria agreed as she pulled her pistol from its holster.
"We're still going in?" Jane asked.
"We're still going in," Daria confirmed. She then turned to the third woman and said, "What we're about to do is very, very dangerous. We've got experience dealing with these things, but we can't promise you any protection once we've crossed these doors, even if we leave you out here in the car. In fact, it may be even more dangerous to wait out here. So we're going to leave it up to you . . . in or out?"
Jennifer "Burnout" Burns mulled the situation over for a few moments, her thoughts visible in the one green eye that wasn't covered by her pale blonde hair, but nowhere else on her face. She looked back at the virtually empty parking lot, in at the dark building, then made a one-shoulder shrug.
"In," she said in her raspy, high-pitched voice. "No telling if I'd ever be found if you didn't come back out. Cuffs?"
"Stay on," Jane said sternly. She pulled out one of her own pistols and checked its charge. "Just in case all that's wrong is a local power problem. Don't worry, when the scary crap starts happening, we'll set you loose. Unless it's more convenient to feed you to whatever's chasing us."
"Cops?" Burnout asked.
Jane snorted and shook her head. Daria said, "If what we think is going on is really going on, then the police who don't just mess up and get killed will probably try to actively stop us. We're not exactly on the best terms with most of the LCPD at the moment."
Burnout frowned slightly but didn't say anything else. Daria and Jane finished checking their equipment, then steeled themselves.
"Here we go," Jane breathed as they stepped into the building and the darkness within.
As soon as they were inside, heavy shutters slammed down across the doors, causing the lobby to descend into pure black. Burnout spun around in surprise, blinking rapidly in a futile attempt to pierce the veil. Two soft clicks sounded behind her, causing her to spin around again to glare at the bounty hunters. Small beams of light projected from the lapels of their coats, and they looked back at her with eyebrows arched.
"What?" Jane said. "You weren't expecting that?"
"No," Burnout said tersely, then held out her hands. "Cuffs?"
Jane rolled her eyes. "That wasn't scary," she said. "We'll let you know when something scary happens."
Proceeding deeper into the room, Daria and Jane held their pistols out, which caused the lights on their lapels to turn off and the flashes attached to their weapons to turn on almost seamlessly. The DENA lobby jumped and weaved with shadows as the wide, bright beams rapidly swept back and forth, but the hunters expertly ignored the illusions and watched carefully for any real movement among them.
Burnout followed close behind them, her eyebrows scrunching almost close enough to touch as she looked at the overturned furniture that dotted the room. Several plants had once sat in a neat row along the entranceway, but they now sat on the floor, trails of dirt leading back to the pots that had once housed them. She couldn't be sure without a closer look, but it seemed as if the slender trunks of the small trees had some kind of damage running along the bark, roughly circular chunks that had been removed by force.
Jane was the first to reach the security desk sitting in the back near the elevator bank. After pointing her pistol's light over at the other side and making sure nothing was going to jump out at her, she reached over, picked up the deskcomm, and held it to her ear.
"Dead," she said, placing it back on its cradle. "So are the screens."
"The shutters weren't closed manually, so there's power in the building somewhere," Daria reasoned.
"That somewhere isn't here," Jane said with certainty as she methodically pressed the power studs under each security screen. They all remained unlit. "But either way, I guess that puts us on the stairs if we want to go to any of the other floors. Whoever's got control of the shutters probably has control of the elevators, if they even work."
As if speaking about it made it happen, one of the nearby lifts dinged softly. Daria and Jane swung their weapons around at the sound while Burnout shifted away from it. The screen next to the elevator's doors had come alive, and a small graphic showed the lift's relative position in the shaft as it moved down through the building. The bounty hunters switched off their lights and turned on their nightvision to take advantage of the dim light cast by the screen.
"Hey," Burnout said as she was once again nearly blinded by the darkness. Then, "Hey," more insistently when she was ignored.
Daria shushed her quietly but forcefully and then whispered for her to get down behind the desk. Jane, meanwhile, moved to the left to get a clearer shot, then they both waited until the doors slid open with a soft woosh.
At first it didn't seem as if anything was going to happen. Jane was just about to start circling around further so she could actually see inside the elevator car when a hand popped out and grabbed the edge of the wall. With an infuriating slowness, the person inside the lift seemed to be almost having to physically pull themselves forward, the shuffling of their feet against the carpet just barely audible.
The man that gradually stepped out into the lobby did not look remotely happy. His long face was drawn down in a deep look of misery, and his eyes stared into the darkness with a dull sheen that could be seen even through the low-light filters.
The most important thing to Daria and Jane, however, was that he was wearing the black three-piece suit particular to DENA agents, which included a lapel comm and a badge identifying him as Agent Matherson. Giving twin sighs of relief, the women flipped back to their lights and started to lower their weapons.
"Hey, Agent Matherson? Shit!" Jane cursed as she and Daria immediately pulled their pistols back into position.
As soon as the beams had hit Matherson, his head snapped toward them and he bared his teeth, causing blood to slop over his lips and drool down his chin. The dullness that had been over his eyes was revealed to be the beginning of milky cataracts, and the side of his pale, greyish face that had been hidden from the bounty hunters before had massive gashes running down it. The look of misery had been replaced by one of unreasoning hatred as he advanced on them.
"Agent!" Daria yelled as he stalked slowly toward her. "Agent! If you do not stop I will be forced to put you down! Agent Matherson!"
Ignoring her completely, the man continued bearing down. With no other choice than to let him do whatever he was going to do - which wasn't much of a choice at all - she fired three stun rounds into his chest, right over his heart. His shoulder jerked back and his arm spasmed for a second, but he didn't stop or even make a sound.
The closer he got, the more Matherson seemed to be determined to do her bodily harm. Diplomacy had failed, so more stringent negotiation tactics were called for. Gritting her teeth, Daria switched the setting to kill and drilled coherent light into the same triple pattern as before.
The agent stopped that time, his forward momentum halted by the concussive element of the shots. He registered no shock, no horror, nor any other reaction he should have had from getting shot three times in the chest. At most, a mild mixture of annoyance and desire could be seen passing through the anger on his face before he started lurching forward again.
"My turn," Jane said with a snarl as she dialed up the output on her own pistol.
The sound made by most laser pistols was similar to a small firecracker with an underlying sizzle and whine. Jane's, however, blew like an M80 taking out a heavy metal spring. The thick bolt of compressed energy flew through the air and pierced Matherson's brain pan, leaving behind a wide, bloodless hole.
The agent dropped to the ground, his limbs flailing helplessly as his body seemed to try and right itself. The movements slowed as the women watched, then finally stopped, leaving him in a very undignified position. Lifeless eyes stared at the ceiling as blood slowly pooled out of his ears.
Daria and Jane moved in carefully, keeping their weapons aimed at the prone figure the entire time. Jane reached out and tapped one of his arms with her boot but got no reaction. As Daria crouched down to examine the body, Jane grinned and lifted her gun up to her face.
"Who loves her new guns?" she said in a babying voice. "I do! Yes, that's right, mommy loves yo-sonofawhore!"
Daria snapped her head up to see Jane rubbing her cheek with one hand, the other holding her pistol as far from her body as possible. "You okay?"
"Yah," said Jane. "But I think mommy's gonna have to buy her babies some better heat sinks. How's the patient?"
"Definitely dead," Daria said as she looked back down. "So's his commlink." She put the barrel of her pistol against the side of the dead man's head and turned it to the side. "Look here, though. It looks like his jugular was torn out. The whole right side of his suit is covered in blood, probably from the wound."
She looked back up and squinted at Jane. "I think," she said, "he should have already been dead."
The bounty hunters looked over at Burnout, who had emerged from her hiding spot. She stared down at the body with steely eyes.
"I don't think we should be jumping to any conclusions," Daria told her with a frown, "but . . . maybe. We need more information."
As Daria and Jane turned to head for the stairs, they were stopped by Burnout's insistent voice yet again. The blonde held out her wrists and growled a single word.
With a long suffering sigh and an exaggerated gait, Jane clomped over and deftly removed the restraints. Burnout rubbed her wrists, then held out one of her hands expectantly.
"You've got to be kidding," Jane said flatly. She looked back at Daria, who tilted her head to the side thoughtfully before throwing a hand up in the air. "Okay," Jane said, turning back. "But if you make either of us regret this, it will become our new mission in life to make you regret it. Capiche?"
Burnout nodded solemnly. With a deep breath and a this-is-not-a-good-idea expression, Jane pulled a large plastic bag from one of her longcoat's inside pockets and unzipped the top. With deliberate care, she reached into the container and transferred several items from it to Burnout, who quickly sorted everything into her own voluminous denim jacket.
The last of Burnout's personal belongings to be given out was an ancient-looking black lighter. She flipped it open, flicked the wheel, and gave a half-smile at the dancing golden flame before shutting it and slipping it into her pocket.
"I should keep that one," Jane said, pointing her finger in the other woman's face. "Just keep your gun out and that antique holstered."
The blonde casually checked the charge in her slimline hold-out pistol, deliberately ignoring the bounty hunter. With one last disapproving look, Jane walked back over to Daria.
"Gosh, it's Little Miss Hardass," the shorter woman deadpanned. "Can I have your autograph?"
"It's bad enough we're going to have to deal with undead monstrosities," Jane groused. "We shouldn't have to do it while simultaneously being on fire. So, we were going to the stairs, weren't we? Where to?"
Daria waited until Burnout had finished situating her gear and joined them before saying, "Up. Our personal agents have their offices on the fifth floor, and I figure it's as good a place as any to start looking for people. Living people, anyway."
The door to the emergency stairwell was manual and unlocked, allowing easy access even with the spotty power. The stairs themselves twisted up and up as far as Daria's light could reach, but went down only as far as the building's basement. Jane shined her light down onto a closed access hatch that would allow entry into the utility level between the DENA headquarters and the building below it.
"Wonder if it's open," the raven-haired woman mused.
"I'm sure we'll have a good chance to check when we're running for our lives later," Daria said, then started up the stairs.
The march up the steps went uneventfully, but the trio still remained on their guard as Jane pushed the door to the fifth floor open and slipped out into the hallway. Daria and Jane stood nearly back to back as they traced their lights back and forth in opposite directions down the corridor.
"Clear," Jane pronounced.
"Got something this way."
Jane turned to look down the hall, following Daria's light as she slowly moved it across the wall, where a jagged line marred the blue-grey paint. The line was dark red, smeared for the most part, and disappeared in a few places to show back up a little further along.
The three women approached the oddity slowly. Most of what they could see was at about waist height to them, but there was one point a few meters ahead where it briefly spiked up onto a slightly discolored part of the wall. Laying on the floor underneath this spike was a flatscreen, broken and leaking gel onto the carpet.
Burnout leaned past Daria and sniffed slightly at the discoloration on the wall. "Blood," she said.
"I'd say it might belong to our friend Agent Matherson," said Daria, "but it looks like it's heading away from the elevators instead of toward. We should probably follow it, in case whoever left it is still alive."
"If a zombie got 'em," Burnout said as they continued down the corridor, "they won't be alive long. They'll turn into a zombie."
Daria stopped and lowered her pistol, her shoulders squaring up as she slowly turned around to glare at the criminal.
"Oh, Burn baby, why'd you have to go and say that?" Jane asked pleadingly. "Now we have to listen to-"
"First off," Daria snarled, "we still don't know what they are exactly, or even if there is a 'they'. It could be that the guy down in the lobby was the only one and there's something else going on here.
"Second," she continued, getting more and more vehement as she talked, "what you are trying to describe is a ghoul, an undead creature that eats the flesh of the living and creates other ghouls by transmitting their condition to those that they wound. A zombie is a creature that is risen from the dead through some outside means and act only on the orders of a controlling force, usually their creator.
"And I don't care what all those stupid vids say," she said quickly as she cut a hand through the air before Burnout could interrupt, "because they are wrong. I don't care that people have been calling them zombie vids for almost two centuries, because no number of centuries of insipid pop culture can erase the real culture behind the concepts that they so ineptly mishandle.
Burnout blinked at Daria a few times, then shrugged and said, "Okay."
"See?" Jane said, crossing her arms. "Every single time, she has t-"
A dark shape suddenly pushed the door behind Jane to the side and launched itself at her back. With a shout of surprise, she spun around and started grappling with it, dropping her pistol in the process. Daria and Burnout jumped out of the way as the figure carried the bounty hunter all the way to the opposite wall and pinned her down.
"Holy shit!" Jane screamed as she tried to push her attacker away. "Get this fucking zombie off me!"
The thing that used to be a woman pressed in on its intended victim. Jane grabbed its arms at the wrists, but it leaned in, mouth slavering, and bit down on Jane's collarbone. Jane growled through her teeth, then yelled, "Shoot it! Shoot it! Somebody shoot it!"
Burnout was the first to recover from the suddenness of the attack. She stepped in, put the barrel of her pistol against the attacking woman's ribs, and fired off several shots. The bolts burned in one side of the creature's torso and out the other, but the only reaction it gave was to release Jane's collarbone so it could bare its teeth at Burnout.
"In the head!" Jane shouted at her. "In the head!"
By that time, Daria had moved in as well. She and Burnout put their guns on either side of the monster's head and tore an X through its brain. Jane pushed the lifeless corpse down to the ground, shuddered violently, and started wiping herself off.
"What the hell?" she said, her eyes still wide behind her sunglasses. "What happened to slow and steady? I liked slow and steady! This one came at me like a freight train!"
While Burnout kept her weapon trained on the body just in case, Daria moved over to Jane and started checking her over. The other woman waved her off impatiently.
"I'm fine," she said. "She bit right through another perfectly good coat trying to get to my chewy center, but she couldn't get through my hard candy shell. See?" Jane pulled the shredded shoulder of her long coat back to show that the body armor underneath was still intact. A disgusting string of drool oozed down from a large wet spot where the thing had clamped down. "I'm gonna have bruises to show for it, though . . . she wasn't just fast, she was strong as a mule! What the hell is going on here?"
"Don't know," Daria said unhappily. "Let's see."
The corpse was that of a middle-aged woman wearing a blue dress and a single shoe from a pair of flats. An ID badge hanging over her left breast held the picture of a smiling, healthy version of the rapidly paling face several decimeters above it and identified her as Barbara Tallman, a DENA file clerk and systems manager.
"So, how does a desk jockey go from rocking a deck to trying to chew my head off?" Jane asked.
Daria held up the woman's left arm to reveal a half-circle of small puncture wounds running across her forearm, close to the wrist. "Besides the laser holes, this is the only wound I can find. Bite marks," she told Burnout, who was looking at them with a confused look. "From their size and the fact that she herself was all bitey, I'd guess that they're human bite marks. They broke the skin, but it doesn't look like it bled too much. Maybe she was faster because she still had most of her blood."
Burnout frowned and said, "Undead don't need blood," then thought about it. "Except vampires."
"I don't think they're dead or undead," Daria proclaimed. "I don't know if they're exactly alive, either, but they're being kept in a state of animation by something even when they should be dead. The track record so far says nanobots, which would need the bloodstream to be in good condition so they can continue to circulate throughout the body and keep it running."
"She was breathing," said Jane. "She didn't make any sound - which was creepy as hell, by the way - but I could feel her breath on my neck."
"Their muscles would eventually seize up without oxygen. Dead or alive, the nanos would want to keep the lungs pumping to keep the body moving." Daria reached down and pushed open one of the dead woman's eyelids. "I'm not sure what the cataracts are all about. Nor am I certain why shooting them in the head shuts them down. I'd think the nanos could manipulate the nerve endings directly, but . . . I don't know. High school biology I can figure, but sophisticated nanoengineering is a little beyond me."
"So they're not undead?" Burnout asked.
Daria sighed in frustration. "I still don't know what they really are exactly," she said, "but it seems they're supposed to resemble undead. A while back I said something about us having to fight werewolves the next time. I didn't think the universe was crazy enough to take the suggestion of pitting us against vid monsters seriously, but here we are."
The blonde tilted her head to the side. "Second time you've mentioned something about doing this before," she said. "Who are you?"
"Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, fugitive recovery agents for Slow Loan Bail Bonds," Daria said, "just like we told you when we picked you up. We just also happen to be embroiled in a steamy plot of intrigue, action, suspense, and science-fiction monstrosities."
"That's messed up," Burnout said, frowning slightly.
"Tell us about it," Jane huffed.
Burnout shook her head. "No," she said, "I mean how you dragged me into this."
"Seems to me you were told you could go wait out in the car," Jane reminded her. "We woulda cracked the window for ya. And in a couple hours, a nice big hunky firefighter might've gotten you out, and you woulda had a great story to tell your kids about how you met daddy."
Burnout's scowl went deeper. "Right."
"Am I going to have to sit you two in opposite corners?" Daria asked sternly as she stood up and looked back and forth between them. "We have a blood trail to follow. Let's get back to it, but let's go at it a little smarter. We don't need any more surprises coming up on us."
Reaching into the pouches hanging from her belt, Daria pulled out a pair of her spare glasses and a thin strip of plastic, then tossed them to the criminal element of their trio. Burnout tuned the glasses to the digipad in her jacket pocket, then pressed the bit of plastic to the side of her pistol. She pressed the strip's internal stud, causing a beam of light to project from one end and giving her an instant flashlight like those built into the bounty hunters' weapons.
With that, they proceeded down the hallway in formation, each woman moving to the next doorway along and checking it before motioning the next forward. They stepped around the broken display screen as they passed it, leaving bootprints in the gel that had smeared across the carpet from its broken facing.
Door after door remained clear as they followed the red stain on the wall. Several of them, in fact, wouldn't open at all, leading them to speculate that the doors had either been fitted with manual locks or otherwise tampered with to remain sealed even without power. Those that the trio could get into and check were in various states of disarray. Some were completely fine, looking as if the occupant had merely stepped out for the day, but most had at least one chair turned over or a few items knocked off a desk and onto the floor.
"I think we have to start considering the possibility that the person we're trailing is pretty damn dead," Jane said through her teeth several minutes later. "No way a normal person could have lost this much blood and kept on going."
Daria grunted her agreement. "We might as well keep following it," she said. "Our agents' office is coming up soon, and it seems to be headed that direction anyway."
"Well, that's not ominous at all," Jane returned sarcastically.
"Hey," Burnout called back to them, motioning them to the door she was pointing her pistol through.
The bounty hunters moved up and looked in around her shoulders to see what looked like the aftermath of a tornado. What had originally been a series of straight, organized cubicles had become a scattered mess of broken plasboard, metal, and cushioned walls, all torn apart and strewn about in a haphazard fashion amongst busted desks, dented shelves, and trashed computer decks. As bad as some of the other rooms had been, Daria and Jane still found themselves impressed at the sheer amount of carnage that had been wrought there.
"Some of this here looks like it used to be a barricade," Daria said, pointing at the debris right by the door. "I think we're looking at former safe spot that the creatures broke through."
"I see some blood here and there, but no bodies," Jane said as she craned her neck around. "Even if these things are contagious, you'd think the kind of concentrated attack needed to make this much of a mess would've left a few bodies that the nanos couldn't latch on to."
"Maybe they did all get infected. Or maybe the survivors managed to drag the bodies away."
"Maybe the zombies dragged 'em off," Burnout added. "To eat."
"Okay," Daria said, trying to keep a hold on her temper. "Why?"
Burnout shrugged. "It's what they do. If these things are supposed to resemble undead, then they're probably programmed to eat people whether they need to or not."
The bounty hunters blinked in surprise. "Well," Jane said, "that sounds strangely reasonable. Not to mention absolutely disgusting. So, should we go in and check it out or keep moving on?"
Daria mulled it over then said, "Move on. The office we're looking is just around the next corner."
The corner in question was part of a T-intersection in the hallways. The trail continued until the edge of the wall on their right, then reappeared on the wall they were walking toward as a large splotch before continuing off to the left. Though Burnout didn't know exactly where they were going, she could sense Daria and Jane's unease as they passed by her, making it easy to guess which direction they would be taking.
Daria put her back against the left wall, exhaled sharply, and quickly twirled around to point her pistol down the new hallway. Jane came up right behind her, covering the other direction, then they both declared it clear. Burnout moved up and, conscious that danger might still pop out of anywhere, double-checked it for herself.
"Not clear," she pointed out, shining her light on the pile of furniture clogging up the right-hand corridor all the way to the ceiling.
"Not monster infested, either," Jane said testily.
The blood trail ended at a doorway a few meters away. The sign sitting next to it listed a room number, but the spot where names could be seen on similar signs further down was blank. The door itself was mostly closed, showing only a sliver opening.
"Call out, you think?" Jane whispered.
"We get shot or munched if we don't, we might only get munched if we do," Daria whispered back, then raised her voice. "Agents, this is Daria Morgendorffer, fugitive recovery license 334-A! I have two others with me, so please do not shoot! And if whatever is in there isn't an agent anymore," she added sternly, "prepare to have your brain blasted straight out of your skull!"
She reached out and slid the door open as quickly as its mechanisms would allow, then all three women pointed their guns in through the empty frame. Their lights illuminated five figures standing in the middle of a room with walls that glistened and a ceiling that dripped with red, looking as if someone had set off a bomb filled with blood. The figures themselves were covered in the substance, and they looked up as one to bare their teeth and glare at the trio with eyes clouded by a milky film.
The smell coming from the room was like that of a slaughterhouse. Burnout, who had moved to stand in between Daria and Jane, retched and gagged as she backed away from the door, shooting randomly. The bounty hunters dodged to either side to avoid her blindfire while the creatures inside ran into it heedlessly.
The former human that led the pack absorbed the brunt of Burnout's attack, most of the shots passing through his chest and barely slowing him down. As soon as he reached the door, Jane slipped one booted foot out and caught him across his legs, causing him to tumble to the ground. The creatures following him trampled over his prone body - and almost over Jane's leg as she hastily yanked it back - in their mad dash toward Burnout, who Daria tackled from the side to drive her out of the way.
The last of the creatures tripped over his fallen comrade, but the other three plowed into the wall opposite the door like actors in a slapstick comedy. Jane leaned over the topmost of the two creatures and fired twice into its skull, then retreated as the bottom one knocked her hands back and dislodged himself from the fresh corpse with preternatural speed.
The other three were already picking themselves up as well. Daria fired into the head of one of them while she flicked open her left armblade, but the shot went slightly wide, burning through just over and to the side of one of the creature's eyes. It wasn't enough to fell the rabid woman, but she seemed dazed from the blow as the remaining two rushed toward Daria.
Daria fired again, but once more her shot went wide, that time missing completely. The creatures closed in too quickly for a third shot, so she dropped her gun completely and made the move to unsheathe her right blade while slashing with the left. One of the creatures caught the edge across the face and spun off to the side, leaving Daria open to strike at the other. Her right fist came up and she realized too late that there wasn't a blade sitting over it.
None of her bones cracked as her knuckles slammed into the unyielding skull of the woman running at her, but from the pain that tore up through her forearm, they might as well have. The creature came to a full stop with the blow, but unhesitatingly reached up and gripped Daria's arm with both hands, smearing gore all over her sleeve.
The monster's teeth felt like jagged razor blades as they started cutting through the flesh on Daria's fingers. She could feel each and every tooth as it sliced in and scraped against the bone underneath. She could feel wet liquid flow down her fist and wondered while she screamed in torturous pain if that liquid was her own blood or drool oozing out of the undead woman's mouth.
Before she could collect her thoughts enough to reach up with her other hand to try and free herself, the teeth were gone. The pain remained, but at least it wasn't escalating. She curled up around her wound and tried to stop screaming in pain, even though she knew it would just be replaced by screams of terror.
She had broken bones, broken cartilage, dislocated joints, been burnt, stabbed, shot, and had even had a lung punctured once, but nothing she had ever been through seemed to compare to the pain washing across her hand like wildfire.
Hands patted around her waist, but she didn't care. If it was one of the zombies or ghouls or whatever, she just hoped that they would go ahead and chew off her whole damn hand. Dimly she was aware that one of her pouches was being opened, then there was a pressure on the side of her neck and suddenly everything went black.