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by Michael Hanson
The scream splashed across my mind like clear mountain water.
Distant. Cold. Sweet.
I could sense the subsonic undertones of the attack striving desperately to gain a foothold in and shred my sanity.
Fear. Terror. Excitement. Distant. Unreal.
With all the relaxed grimness of a taxidermist who has one ounce of stuffing left to squeeze into a dead animal, I paid it no heed and continued with my little hike. The echoing voice soon died down. There was no way I could gain an aural fix on it in this section of tunnel. The acoustics here were such that a noise originating from ten feet away or ten-thousand feet would sound the same.
Decision. Continue. Forward. Movement. Tracking.
I continued walking and calmly accepted the fact that I would have to depend on my other sensory organs for immediate survival. I waited for the inhabitant to appear. I knew it would show. It had smelled my flesh. It would be... hungry.
* * *
My first few months with the Family were simple enough: physical conditioning, armed and unarmed combat training, surveillance and reconnaissance techniques, interrogation-resistance psychology, etc. -- the standard indoctrination I had received in the Special Forces, the CIA, and most recently the Institute. Unknown to me, this was only the beginning. The Family was merely evaluating my present capabilities. They had much grander plans.
* * *
I left the last beam of sunlight behind as I passed another turn in this stretch of tunnel. Subvocally, I mouthed the coded phonemes which activated several seemingly vestigial glands in my forehead:
A certain rare hormone, which if isolated would easily win a Nobel Prize for any scientist, filtered its way into the various blood vessels that found their home in my corneas. I mouthed three more such codes and a simple, two-dimensional grid seemed to appear before my eyes.
"Konn." I finished the sequence with a complete syllable.
The surrounding tunnelscape sprang into view as a series of gray/green overlapping vertical and horizontal lines. It was better than wearing a pair of light-intensification goggles. The image was not unlike one of those computer-generated photographs which are so popular in local shopping malls.
Smell. Odor. Evaluation. Decision.
Its spoor was everywhere. It could be anywhere. I continued with my trek and soon became aware that the tunnel was sloping downward. This was just fine. In a few hours I would reach the heart of the catacombs. In a few hours I would
* * *
My time with the Family was not wholly without its rewards. Though it was frowned upon, and unofficially against unspoken procedure, nobody seemed to mind my tryst with Susan. Susan Parker was a Cryptography specialist with the Family. She spent four hours a day teaching raw recruits the opposing philosophies of Logic and Intuitive Reasoning.
I met her in one of the several well-equipped gymnasiums the settlement boasted. I was trying to complete a particularly difficult maneuver on the parallel bars while she was practicing a series of rather theatrical dives in the nearby pool. An awkward entry on her part, and I was quickly drenched. It wasn't the most subtle of introductions. We talked, discovered a common interest in horses, spent the afternoon riding on a pair of the Family's excellently trained mares, talked some more, had dinner, talked some more, and eventually started breakfasting together. The weeks seemed to fly by. Then I met the Wizards.
* * *
Sensing. Searching. Scanning. Patience.
For the tenth time since entering the crumbling ruins, I inventoried my Intruder gear: five mini-grenades, a Blakely machine pistol with eighty rounds of exploding pellet shells, a two-and-a-half-foot combat sword, two days' worth of concentrated food and liquid rations, and a body covered with eight square feet of the finest blackened, aluminum alloy, chain-mail mesh that the Family created. Everything in its place. I continued scanning with my eyes, ears, and nose across the surrounding terrain and evaluated potential attack scenarios.
Frontal assault, killing ground, twenty meters. Right and left flank, reaction space, three meters. Rear assault, physical contact, fifteen- to twenty-seven standard potential countermaneuvers...
I passed the remains of two skeletons three levels back. The only thing left semi-intact were the skulls. They had jagged holes, roughly ten inches in diameter, chewed into their tops...as if that which inhabited these tunnels had opened a bunch of egg shells to get at the yoke.
With that well-compartmented section of my mind maintaining Marauder status and keeping instantaneous communication with my body, my free thoughts centered on other matters.
"Leece." I mouthed the information phonemes and quickly gained rapport with another segmented clump of synapses in my head.
* * *
No one really knew how long these series of tunnels (or The Tombs, as they are called by the Family) had really existed, or who had built them. Since the tunnels were located directly beneath a long-abandoned Indian Burial ground, they were first assumed to be of Native American creation. Carbon 14 testing quickly showed a difference in ages that clearly separated the origins of the two.
Their re-emergence into the twentieth century occurred a mere ten years ago. First there was that lost expedition of local archeologists and sociologists. Second, a couple of missing reporters for a well-known tabloid. Many months later came the Funny Boys, or organized crime, as they're known publicly. The Tombs made a perfect dumping ground for bodies.
There was of course no chance of any remains being found, undigested. Several years later the Funny Boys stopped carting over their never-ending supply of disposable corpses. Whispered rumor was that the next landlord had government protection. Later investigation showed it to be an Alabama senator. He quietly retired when word about his little playground spread rapidly through the intelligence community. The senator was sponsoring a whole new set of victims, all volunteers, for the tombs.
A fanatical group of survivalists had come to the decision that the tunnels and the creature that inhabited it were the perfect training ground for would-be soldiers. It wasn't until their ranks became alarmingly depleted that the FBI took notice. A few weeks later a raid of the Alabama state office for the NRA revealed the bizarre game of life-and-death duels that the survivalists had been playing with the inhabitant of the Tombs. After the loss of several FBI field agents and a couple of CIA operatives, the Family was contacted. By then I was well into my new vocation.
The Wizards were Psyche boys who had been laughed out of the Pentagon after a disastrous series of failed (and well-publicized) experiments. Dan Hanson, a small, pale, mouse of a man and the director of the Family, decided to give the mind sorcerers a chance. Seven weeks after my entry into the Family, during a lazy Sunday afternoon picnic with Susan, I was notified of the matter via a small transmitter I carried in my breast pocket.
The meeting was short but sweet. Dan Hanson asked me to volunteer to undergo a new type of advanced bio-feedback training that had just been implemented. What could I say? I had chosen this profession a long time ago with open eyes. I volunteered. It wasn't until several weeks later that I got to see Susan again. By then things had changed.
* * *
I had reached a sudden drop-off several minutes ago and was forced to climb down a small but treacherous cliff. The trip-lever, diamond-tipped spikes on my leather boots found grudging purchase on the flattest and slipperiest stretches of cliff face.
Position. Placement. Contact. Friction. Pressure. Evaluation. Decision. Movement.
I felt my strength waning and spoke the opening syllables to the Metabolic Technichant.
"Midir, Haugan, Garach." The words flooded through my consciousness, subconsciousness, and dream self with rapid progress. I imagined the tiny Mitochondria in each of my body's cells kicking into high gear. A moment later a quick burst of energy filled my arms and legs and I continued with my descent. I had heard nothing from the inhabitant since the initial intrusion. It was tracking me, waiting for just the right moment. I finally reached ground level and quickly scanned the surrounding landscape.
I contemplated the endless series of crumbling stone adobes that were spread out along this mile-wide cavern. The only partially sane survivor from the survivalist expeditions who had made it this far into the Tombs had said these structures all extended out from a large, circular clearing in the center of the cavern. Even with my enhanced sight I could only discern outlines and shapes up to twenty meters away in the total darkness that surrounded me. I decided the clearing would make as good a place as any to confront the inhabitant and trod forward.
"Celthar, Cenchos!" I quickly spoke the opening words to the Combat Technichant. My respiration kicked into high gear. The Alveoli in my lungs quickly filtered out three times the normal amount of oxygen from the air and jetted it into my bloodstream. Time slowed to the number of heartbeats in an incredibly long second. IT was close. I could sense it. I pulled out my automatic.
Target ground, fifty meters and closing. Rear parameters, thirty meters and increasing. Right and left flanks...
* * *
Susan ran out of my room crying. Her outburst seemed exceedingly irrational. We had both missed each others' bodies. Our biological necessities were such that intercourse seemed most appropriate. After whispering a couple of newly mastered Technichants, I informed her of my progress in training and quickly elucidated my need for sexual release. She only stared at me, wide-eyed, my calmly spoken proposition ignored.
"What, what's wrong with you?" Susan asked in a panic. "Why are you talking so funny? What have they done to you?"
I told her that all was... fine, correct, appropriate, satisfactory... and that I found her presence... good, acceptable, necessary.
She commenced to cry then. I mentioned her response was...unnecessary, that intercourse was... unnecessary.
She left. The situation was puzzling and somewhat disturbing. Why was she unhappy with me? Why was she angry and hurt? I had merely applied the basic constraints of the Confrontation Technichant I'd learned last week to our conversation. The parameters of this new ability were supposed to let me deal with people on a non-hysterical and logical plane of reasoning. I thought it would help us. I could not understand her...displeasure, upset, reaction.
I had a long talk with Dan Hanson after that incident. He assured me that everything was proper and according to schedule. He said he would find another female to fulfill my biological necessities. I never saw Susan again. My present...mate... is called Danielle.
* * *
Three meters. Two meters. One. Destination. Ground Zero.
I dropped behind a partially crumbled wall of stone on the edge of the central clearing.
"Sssccraaaaaaaaaasssss!" the scream flooded the air. The alien subsonics were more intense than ever. For a moment it was like a thousand calloused hands were gripping my body and pulling it in several different directions. I mouthed a few of those early, simplistic BattleChants I'd first been trained in:
"Crom, Bran, Vidar." The words seemed to make the pressure disappear. I waited.
Patience. Expectation. Ready.
At the completion of my training I was introduced by Dan Hanson to several unnamed dignitaries. Dan mentioned that a highly sophisticated ballistic computer had recently come up with my name in regards to an upcoming mission. I nodded my head.
Purpose. Acceptance. Listen. Evaluate.
I requested further information. Dan smiled.
* * *
I snapped off the safety on my weapon. The sound of the inhabitant's breathing was very loud. It instantly appeared on the far side of the clearing. It looked more like a fleshy, seven-foot-tall skeleton than anything else.
We charged simultaneously.
It was moving inhumanly fast, like some comic character in one of those old Keystone Cops films. I raised my weapon. I fired off forty rounds before it struck me. One of its claws easily ripped through my armor and scored a series of superficial lacerations across my chest. My pistol flew out of my hand and into the depths of the cavern.
We collided off each other and onto the ground. The creature regained its footing and spun around. Gore spurted from the stump where its right arm used to be. The Blakely's short burst of exploding pellets had found their mark.
For a moment we stared at each other. The inhabitant was more man than beast.
Torso, head, arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, mouth, genitalia -- all greatly out of proportion.
"What is it?" some long-ignored voice whispered in my mind, "where did it come from? Is it...human?"
"Scraaaaaassssssssstaaaahhhh!" it screamed in rage and pain.
I mouthed the single syllable of the Death Technichant:
Several recent Adrenal grafts in my midsection kicked into high gear and flooded my bloodstream with rage. My senses seemed to expand and I was suddenly aware of...
Everything. Every rock, stone, smell, sound, movement, heat, cold, air, breeze, sight, molecule...
...within a hundred-meter radius of myself. I trembled with power and instantly pulled out my combat sword -- a multilayered, double-edged blade of deadly hone and tensile strength. Only ten of its kind existed.
I leaped. My nemesis lurched forward. I slashed outwards and sideways in a tight but oblique arc with my blade as we passed each other. It raked its remaining claw through open air that I had occupied less than a second before. We stopped and spun around for the last time. I had cut it nearly in half. Gore flooded from its side. It fell to its knees. Its face twisted into a horrible mask of pain and fright and it raised its remaining hand in supplication.
Ignoring its pig-like squeal of terror, I raised the sword high into the air and cleaved the gibbering head from its offending shoulders.
* * *
I exited the Tombs a couple of hours later. Dan was waiting with an old station wagon and a big smile.
"So," the Family's director said as he patted me on the back, "you look like hell. I'll send the team in later for clean-up. The lab boys'll want to run a few tests on our bogeyman, if I know them."
I nodded. Dan knew best. Perhaps he would feed me soon. I was getting hungry.
Dan ran his hand possessively over the wound on my ribs.
"We'll get this taken care of," he purred. "That must've been one hell of a monster?"
Query. Evaluation. Decision.
"Yes" I replied automatically, "a... monster."
Story © 2003 by Michael Hanson firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2003 by Ehrad THUNDERSHUMA@aol.com
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