Authors: Brian Evenson
Tags: #Horror, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Media Tie-In, #Action & Adventure
“Tail of the devil,” he whispered, not realizing he’d said anything aloud until he saw Hammond’s startled expression.
He clicked the holopod off, handed it back to Hammond.
“I got that off the com system before they tore it out,” Hammond said. “According to the message appended to it, they cross-indexed all the information they had—worked with the pulse and the anomaly and probably some other things that neither you nor I are aware of yet. And this is what they came up with. This is what’s at the heart of the crater.”
They sat in silence awhile, staring at their glasses. “So, a pulse starts up,” said Altman finally. “Maybe a signal of some sort. Something at the center of the crater, something that appears to be not a natural geological formation but a man-made one.”
“Constructed, yes,” said Hammond, “but who’s to say man-made?”
“If not man-made, then . . . ,” said Altman. And then suddenly he got it. “Shit,” he said, “you think it’s something inhuman, something alien?”
“I don’t know what I think,” said Hammond. “But yes, that’s what some of the folks at DredgerCorp thought.”
Altman shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. He looked nervously around the bar. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked. “Why me?”
Hammond jabbed his chest again with his finger. “Because you were asking. This stuff has been going on for a while,” he said. “Others must have noticed it. But you’re the only one who contacted everyone you thought might have the answer. You know what that tells me? That you don’t work for anyone. That you want to know for yourself.”
“Surely other people are thinking about it, too.”
“Let me put it this way,” said Hammond. “Someone is trying
to suppress this. Maybe DredgerCorp, maybe someone bigger than that. A lot of people know what’s happening, but nobody’s talking about it. Why? Because they’ve been bought. Why did I talk to you? Because I don’t think you’ve been bought.” He drained his bottle dry, then gave Altman a steady stare. “At least not yet,” he said.
It was only once he was walking the
back to her shanty that things really stopped making sense. One moment she was there, walking beside him, talking softly to him, and then the next she was gone. Not only was she gone, but as he looked back, the only tracks in the sand were his own.
He went on, ahead to her shanty. Perhaps she had left him and gone there. Perhaps he had simply not been paying attention.
When he arrived, he rapped lightly on the crumpled sheet of tin that served in lieu of a door. Nobody answered. He knocked again, harder this time. Still no answer.
He knocked again. And again. Still no answer.
In the end, curiosity won out over fear. He took a deep breath and carefully pulled the sheet of tin aside far enough for him to duck inside.
It was dark. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust.
At first, he couldn’t see anything except the shaft of light entering through the crack of the door. But he smelled something, a rich and pungent smell, almost metallic—he couldn’t quite place it. Then slowly he began to make out dim shapes. A table, scattered with indistinct objects. A basin, turned over on the packed earth floor. There, at the far end of the room, he saw a
straw-and-grass pallet, and on it, under a tattered blanket, the shape of a body.
He called out to her.
The form in the bed didn’t move.
He moved slowly across the room until he stood just over the bed. Cautiously he reached out and touched the form through the blanket, shook it slightly.
“It’s me,” he said. “Chava.”
She was on her side. He tugged her over, flipped her onto her back, and the blanket slipped down to reveal the
’s wide staring eyes and her slit throat.
He found a box of matches and with shaking fingers lit the lamp on the floor beside the bed. He pulled the blanket off, saw the knife she held in her death-clenched fist. The blade was brown with her blood. He carefully tugged the knife free and laid it flat on the bed beside her. Her other hand, he saw, was badly cut, long gashes on each of the fingers.
He picked up the lamp and held it close to her face. The cut was jagged and incomplete, the bluish white of her trachea jutting out. She had been dead for some time, hours at least, maybe days. The smell in the room, he realized, was the smell of her blood. How was this possible? He’d just been with her. Or thought he had.
Shaking his head, he turned and made for the door, then suddenly stopped. In the lamplight, he saw something else. The walls were covered with crude symbols, like nothing he’d ever seen, odd twisting shapes, inscribed in blood.
Shocked, he stared at them. Slowly voices crept into his head, the
’s among them. He turned and fled.
After Altman had left, Hammond stayed on drinking. His head ached. Had it been wise to tell Altman? Had he been right about him? Maybe he was a free agent, but then again, if he were someone fishing for information, wouldn’t that be exactly what they’d want him to think, that he was talking to someone who was safe? But you couldn’t be sure that anybody was safe. You couldn’t be sure that someone wasn’t watching you right at that moment. They were always watching, always looking, and the moment you felt safest was probably the moment when they were watching you most closely, most sneakily, the moment when they’d figured out how to worm into your skull. That’s what they must have done—they must have implanted a recorder in his skull. His head hurt, had been hurting for several days now. Why hadn’t he seen it before? They were recording his brain waves; then they transmitted them to some super-secret high-tech neurolab somewhere and plugged them into someone else’s head and then knew everything he was thinking. The only thing to do was not think. If he stopped thinking, maybe he could keep one step ahead of them.
Someone was coming across the room toward him. A large man with a bushy mustache and a wrinkled, liver-spotted face.
It must be one of them. He tensed his body but remained motionless. Was there time to get to the knife in his pocket and flick it open and stab the guy? No, probably not. But he had the beer bottle in his hand. Maybe he could throw it at the man’s head. If he threw it hard enough and just right, it might knock him out. Or no, wait, he could grab the bottle by the neck and break it off. Then he’d have a real weapon. They’d never take him alive.
“Señor?” the man said, a concerned look on his face. “Is anything the matter?”
What was that voice? It was familiar: the owner of the bar. What was his name? Mendez or something. He relaxed. What was wrong with him? It was just the bartender. He shook his head. Why was he so paranoid? He didn’t usually get like that, did he?
“I’m all right,” he said. “I’d like another beer.”
“I’m sorry,” said the owner. “We are closing.”
And indeed, when he looked around he saw that he was almost the last one in the bar. Everyone was gone except for one villager, the nameless town drunk who was sunk in the corner of the room, wrapped in a dark shawl, watching him.
Hammond nodded. He stood and made for the door. The drunk followed him with his eyes.
Don’t pay any attention to him,
He’s not one of them, he’s just a drunk. They haven’t gotten to him yet. Probably. Take a deep breath. You’re going to be okay.
He made it out into the dusty street okay. He could hear the surf against the shore, could smell the salt as well.
And then he thought:
He was about halfway back to the complex he lived in, walking down a deserted street, when he heard something. At first, he
wasn’t sure he’d heard anything meaningful at all. It was just a clattering sound and might have been caused by an animal. When he stopped, he didn’t hear it. But when he started up again, there it was, little traces of it, like a voice he couldn’t quite hear in his head. After half a block more he was sure: someone was dogging his footsteps.
He turned around but didn’t see anyone. He quickened his step a little. There seemed to be whispers coming from the shadows in front of him, but as he approached them they faded, continuing on farther along the road. He shook his head.
I’m going crazy
. He heard again a noise behind him and wheeled around again, this time seeing someone, a dark form, a little distance away.
He stopped, stared at it. It had stopped moving, and then as suddenly as it had appeared, it stepped back into the shadows and was gone.
“Hello?” he couldn’t stop himself from saying. “Is anyone there?”
His heart had begun to thud in his throat. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his knife, opened the blade. It looked absurdly small, almost useless, in his hand. He started back toward the shadows where the figure had disappeared, then realized that that was probably exactly what they wanted him to do. He turned quickly around to continue the way he had been going.
Except when he turned around, he found the street in front of him wasn’t empty anymore. There were three men, two of them quite large, all faces he recognized from the DredgerCorp facility.
“Hammond?” said the smallest one, the only one of them wearing glasses. “Charles Hammond?”
“Who wants to know?” asked Hammond.
“Someone would like to have a word with you,” he said. “Come with us.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” the man said.
“I’m not on the clock,” Hammond claimed. “Business hours are long over.”
“You’re on the clock for this,” said another of the men.
He nodded. He pretended to relax, beginning to move toward them, then suddenly spun on a heel and ran as quickly as he could in the other direction.
Shouts rang out behind him. He ducked into an alley and ran down it, a ragged dog barking at his heels for half the length of it. He leapt over a makeshift fence and crashed through a pile of trash. Up and running again, he left the streets of the town proper and entered the shantytown.
His head was throbbing. He looked back—they were still behind him, gaining. He kept running, a stitch starting up in his side. Slower now, but still running.
By the time he reached the edge of the shantytown, they were close enough that he could hear the sound of their labored breathing.
They’re going to catch me,
there’s nothing I can do.
He stopped suddenly, whirled around, holding the small knife in front of him.
The three men quickly fanned out, forming a triangle around him. Hammond, panting, kept moving the knife back and forth from one hand to the other. The others kept their distance, their hands up.
“There’s no need for that,” said the man with the glasses. “They just want to talk to you.”
“Who’s they?” asked Hammond.
“Come on,” said the man with the glasses. “Be a good boy and put down the knife.”
“What’s wrong with him, Tom?” asked the first of the other two.
“He’s scared, Tim,” said the second, said Tom.
“I’d be scared if I was him, too,” said Tim. “Nobody likes a thief.”
“Thief? Can you really steal secrets?” said Tom.
“Now, boys,” said the man with the glasses. “You’re not helping the situation.”
There they were again, the voices in his head. But why did they need to send voices into his head if they were there in front of him? And then a terrible thought occurred to Hammond: What if there were two groups out to get him? DredgerCorp and another one as well? Or maybe even three. Or four. What did they want with him? Would they beat him? Would they kill him? Would it be even worse than that?
“Now just calm down,” said the man with the glasses, looking a little nervous now.
Someone, Hammond realized, was making a noise, a high-pitched squealing. It was a terrible thing to hear. It took him a long moment to realize that that someone was himself.
“I told you something was wrong with him,” he heard Tim say behind him.
“You’re right about that, Tim,” said Tom.
They were still there, the three of them, standing in a way that made it impossible for him to see all of them at once. He could turn and turn, but he couldn’t see them all at the same time no matter what he did. And then there were the ones in his head, too, slowly extracting things from it. God, his head hurt. He had to stop them, had to get them out of his head.
“Put the knife down, friend,” said the man with the glasses.
But that was the last thing Hammond was going to do. Instead he lunged forward and flashed his knife at the man with glasses. The man jumped nimbly back, but not nimbly enough; the knife opened a gash just below his wrist. He stood holding it, blood dripping through his fingers, his face suddenly pale in the dim light.
But Hammond had forgotten about the others. He turned and there they were, still a little way away, but moving closer. They stepped quickly back when they realized they’d been noticed.
He was still surrounded, both inside his head and outside it. There was no getting out of it. He would never get away.
And so, realizing this, heart thudding in his mouth, he did the only thing he could think to do.
“I didn’t expect that, Tim,” said Tom.
“I didn’t either,” said Tim. “This one was full of surprises. What’d they want him for, anyway?” he asked the man with the glasses.
“A few questions,” said the man with the glasses. “Nothing serious. Just a few questions.” He had wrapped his wrist in one of his shirttails. It was slowly soaking through with blood.
“Never seen anything quite like that,” said Tom. “And I hope I never do again.”
“Same here,” said Tim, shaking his head.
He took a step back to avoid the puddle of blood that was spreading from Hammond’s slit neck. He’d never seen anyone cut themselves quite so deep and so quickly. There was a lot of blood and it was still coming. He had to step back again.
How could anyone do that to himself? Tim wondered. He
must have been very frightened. Or simply crazy. Or both. He squinted, massaged his temple.