Inferno - Harry and Karen
Chingiz Khuv and Gustav Litve raced for their lives, for the lives of all concerned, through the serpentine bowels of the Perchorsk Projekt and toward Failsafe Control. At any moment they expected, dreaded to hear the failsafe klaxons starting up; they realized what would happen when the klaxons did sound - the panic, horror, the mad, futile scramble - and mainly the nightmare of more than one hundred people waking, staggering from their beds, opening doors to see liquid death spraying from the sprinklers, and hear the roaring of a rushing, all-consuming inferno.
For if Vasily Agursky, or the thing he had become, got to Failsafe Control before them ... it was obvious what he would do. Save himself and burn them. Burn the entire Projekt.
And yet, for all their terror, the two KGB men weren't without courage. Twice at telephone points, Khuv skidded to a halt and tried to phone ahead. On the first occasion the phone was dead, and on the second he noticed the cable sliced through, trailing its severed ends down the wall. Agursky had outmanoeuvred him. Litve, where he ran on, as he reached the scientific accommodation section, thought to re-check Agursky's room; on the way out he roared like a bull, kicked doors, screaming hoarse-voiced for everyone to 'Vacate, vacate, vacate!'
Khuv, every forty or fifty paces, would pause briefly to fire a deafening burst from his gun into the ceiling; which he continued to do until the magazine was empty and he was left with only his issue automatic. But those shells he reserved. It was as much as the two men could do, for not only the telephones were out but also the everyday corridor alarms. Agursky had taken care of everything.
Finally they climbed a spiralling ramp to the upper level, where they encountered a lot more activity. Obviously Viktor Luchov had managed to pass on something of a message, for here at least the manhunt was underway. Maybe a dozen or more soldiers searched rooms, patrolled at the double in pairs along side corridors, used walkie-talkies to keep in touch and loud-hailers to muster people from their beds or their work. This last was against Khuv's advice to Luchov, but the Major was unsure which way events had moved since then. In any case, the measures were having an effect, however disorderly. Late-shift staff were spewing out from laboratories, jamming themselves in the corridors and tunnels, on the move without really knowing what they were doing or where they were going. Khuv and Litve couldn't talk to all of them; they simply howled their warnings as they battled a way through them.
'Get out!' they yelled. 'The place is going to go up! Get out now or you'll all burn!' It worked, but only served to slow them down as the struggling crowd began to move with them, in the same direction. And it dawned on Khuv: in the crush of frightened people Agursky would be that much harder to spot. But as it happened, Agursky wasn't the one they had to worry about. Not yet.
Up ahead, with maybe only thirty metres to go to Failsafe Control, corridors converged at a bulkhead door. Khuv and other high-ranking Projekt officials had their quarters in one of these corridors; Luchov and various heads of his staff were accommodated in the other. Further into the complex, the corridors put out smaller branches which led inward and inevitably downward, but here at the end closest to the exit into the Perchorsk Ravine they came together, forming something of a bottleneck. Worse, there was the bulkhead door, of dense metal set in concrete, which when shut formed in effect an airtight seal. Ever since the introduction of Luchov's failsafe, the door had been kept permanently open, firmly clamped to the wall.
But now, as Khuv and Litve outdistanced the bulk of fleeing personnel and came round a bend where the corridors merged on the approach to the door, so automatic gunfire sounded from up ahead. Approaching a second bend more cautiously, they came in sight of the door, saw what the shooting was about and took cover in an alcove in the wall.
Leo Grenzel was at the door. He had unlocked two of the three clamps and was working on the third, which appeared to be jammed. Every time he stepped into view to put leverage on the clamp, soldiers in the alcoves closest to the door would open up with their guns, driving him back under cover. The thickness of the door itself, and an alcove directly behind it, shielded him from the worst of their fire; but even as Khuv and Litve arrived on the scene they saw him hit, saw him stagger back out of view. In another moment he reappeared cradling a machine-gun, opened up and sent a hail of lead sleeting the length of the corridor. Two soldiers toppled screaming out of their alcoves where ricochets hit them. Their comrades dragged them moaning out of sight.
'You up there,' Khuv called during the lull. 'Who's in charge?'
'I am,' a Sergeant stuck his head out, snatched it back as Grenzel opened up again. Khuv saw him briefly before he, too, ducked back: his white face and staring eyes, their glazed look. And he could well understand that look. It was unlikely that the Sergeant knew Grenzel was dead, but it must be very hard to him to understand why he wasn't! The soldiers kept hitting Grenzel but they couldn't put him down! As Grenzel appeared yet again at the door, tugging furiously at the last clamp, the damage he'd suffered was obvious.
He was lopsided in his stance; that will be from his snapped spine, Khuv supposed. And he marvelled at his own ability to accept this impossible thing, just like that. A broken spine, and Grenzel still mobile, however awkward. But why not, for he was also dead! Nor was that the end of it. He was wearing white coveralls. They smouldered down his right side, where they hung in rags. Tatters of flesh hung with the rags, grey and red, but there was very little blood in evidence; these things didn't bleed too readily. There were three small holes in Gren-zel's right shoulder, neat as the dots on a dice, where a burst of bullets had printed full stops on his coveralls; but at the back the holes were the size of small apples, coloured a ragged, reddish-black. Grenzel hung his shoulder on that side, adding to his lopsidedness. His difficulty with the clamp was that he worked at it left-handed.
Khuv took Litve's flame-thrower, called out to the men ahead: 'Give me a burst of covering fire when I call for it - just a concentrated burst - and I'll deal with this bastard. But first of all, can one of you boys take out that light?'
'Are you sure you know what you're doing, sir?' a shout came back. 'I mean, this one hardly seems human!'
How right you are! 'Yes, just put out that light.' Above the door was a lamp in a wire basket. On instructions from the Sergeant, one of his men shot it out. There was a crack! - a tinkle of glass - and the buckled wire basket was torn from its housing. The light in the corridor was at once reduced, turning the place to a smoky tunnel.
'When I yell "now",' Khuv reminded, 'one burst and then keep your heads down.'
Grenzel had vanished for a moment, but now he reappeared, stood half-silhouetted in the doorway. He had his gun with him, which he propped against the wall before returning his attention to the clamp. Behind Khuv and Litve the converging corridors were suddenly full of milling people; their hushed yet massed voices were like the susurration of a congregation in a great sounding church. Litve called back: 'Stay still! Be quiet. Just wait where you are.'
Khuv checked that his weapon was primed and ready for action. It was still fairly heavy, indicating that there was no lack of fuel. Then he shouted: 'Now!' There came an answering burst of fire and Grenzel staggered back. Khuv crouched down, ran forward. Grenzel sensed or saw him, grabbed up his gun, fired a short burst and ran out of bullets. Khuv heard the whip and buzz of angry lead, heard voices back down the corridor cry out their agony. Then he opened up with his flame-thrower, stabbed its blade of near-solid heat right at the yellow wolf-eyes burning in Grenzel's silhouetted face.
All shadows fled as the flame-thrower roared. Grenzel was scorched, and screeched like a run-over cat. He dropped his useless gun, and in the next moment Khuv was on him. He hosed him down with fire, burned him to a blistered crisp that burst into flame and stuck itself to the metal wall. Then Grenzel slid down the wall, toppled over and lay still. Khuv stopped firing, stood back. The flames gradually died down and Grenzel's remains hissed and crackled, issuing vile black smoke.
Then Litve came forward with the Sergeant, and Khuv told the latter: 'See that all of these people get safely out of here. They're not out of the woods yet.' Without waiting, he and Litve went on to Failsafe Control.
With frightened people hurriedly filing past them, they stood in the corridor and banged on the metal door.
Luchov's voice, shrill, terrified, came through to them: 'Who is it? What's happening?'
'Viktor?' Khuv answered. 'It's me, Khuv. Open up.'
'No, I don't believe you. I know who you are. Go away!'
'What?' Khuv glanced at Litve. Then he guessed what had happened. Agursky had been here. He banged again on the door. 'Viktor, it is me!'
Then where's your key?' All of the listed Failsafe Duty Officers had keys to this room.
Litve still had Khuv's keys. He took them from a pocket and handed them over. Luckily, Khuv hadn't thrown the Failsafe key away with the others down in the mortuary. Now the Major turned the key in the lock, pushed the door open - and at once gasped and stepped back!
Luchov stood there, eyes bulging, veins pulsing in the seared half of his head, aiming the hot muzzle of a flamethrower straight into Khuv's straining face. 'God!' he gasped, lowering the weapon to point at the floor. 'It is you!' He staggered back, collapsed into his swivel chair in front of the TV screens.
He was a wreck. A trembling, panting, completely terrified wreck. Khuv carefully took the flame-thrower from him, said: 'What happened, Viktor?'
Luchov gulped, started to talk. As he proceeded some of the wild, frightened look went out of his eyes. 'After you left, I ... I started to phone. Half the lines were out. But I got the guards on the entrance, in the ravine, and told them about Agursky. Then I got through to half-a-dozen other numbers, too, and passed on the message. I said everyone should evacuate, but as quietly as possible. Then it dawned on me how crazy that was. Agursky was out there somewhere and he'd see them leaving. He'd know the game was up and God only knows what he'd do! I managed to raise the military and told them to see to the evacuation, also to hunt Agursky down. I said the phones were out of order and that they should alert all the people I couldn't reach. I spoke to everyone I could, but so far I haven't been able to reach the core.'
Khuv and Litve glanced at the screens. All looked normal down there; faces were strained and nervous, but there was no sign of any unusual activity. 'What about Agursky?' Khuv asked. 'Did he come here?'
Again Luchov gulped. 'God, yes! He came, knocked on the door, said he had to speak to me. I told him I couldn't let him in. He said he knew I knew about him and he could explain. He said if I didn't let him in he would do something terrible. I said if I did I knew he'd kill me. Then he said that he knew we planned to burn him, but that he was going to burn us - all of us! In the end he went away; but I thought: if he kills any one of the Failsafe Duty Officers, and takes his key...
'I had an automatic, but I knew that those two dead soldiers hadn't been able to stop him with their guns. So I waited a little while, sneaked out and took the nearest flame-thrower. I came back and just as I was letting myself in...oh, Jesus..''
'He showed up?' Khuv took the other's elbow.
'Yes,' Luchov nodded, gulped. 'But you should see him, Khuv! It's not Agursky. 1 don't know what it is, but it isn't him!'
All three men exchanged glances. 'How do you mean, "not him"?' Litve asked, sure that he wouldn't like the answer.
'His face!' Luchov's lips trembled and he shook his head disbelievingly. 'It's all wrong; and his head, the wrong shape. The way he moves - like a great sly animal. Anyway, he came at me at the run, loping toward me. He didn't have his dark glasses on and his eyes were red as blood, 1 swear it! I got inside, slammed the door and somehow managed to turn the key. And outside ... he was a madman! He raved and threatened, hammered on the door. But eventually he went away again.'
Khuv shuddered. The whole thing was like a nightmare, getting worse all the time. Then Luchov's phone rang, causing all three men to start violently. Khuv reached the phone first, snatched it from its cradle. 'Yes?'
'Corporal Grudov, at the entrance, sir,' an excited, tinny voice sounded. 'Agursky, he was here!'
'What?' Khuv crouched over the phone. 'Did you see him? Have you killed him?'
'We shot at him, sir, but kill him? I'm sure we must have hit him, but he seemed to ignore us! So we went after him with a flame-thrower.'
'But you didn't get him? Where is he now, outside?' Khuv held his breath. He knew that Agursky mustn't escape.
'No, he ducked back inside. We burned him a little, I think.'
'It all happened so very quickly, sir.'
Khuv thought fast. 'Are the people out yet?'
'Most of them, but they're still coming. I've called up trucks from the barracks, else they'd all freeze out here.'
'Good man!' Khuv sighed his relief. 'Now listen: let everyone out except Agursky. If he shows up again give him all you've got. Kill him, burn him, destroy him utterly! Have you got that?'
Khuv put the phone down, turned to the others. 'He's still in here. Him and us, and maybe a few stragglers.- Oh, and the soldiers at the core, and whoever else is down there with them.' He turned to Luchov. 'The first button sounds the klaxons, right?'
Luchov nodded. 'You know it does - if they're still working.'
Khuv reached across and pressed button number one. He gave Luchov no time to think or to argue, simply did it. The alarms were still working: their monotonous yet nerve-wrenching howling started up at once. It was like the crying of some vast, wounded prehistoric beast.
'But what are you doing?' Luchov gasped.
'Getting those soldiers out of it,' Khuv nodded at the screens. Down at the core all such niceties as orders went to the wall. Those men down there knew what the klaxons meant. And they'd had enough. Nerves could stand just so much, and then no more. In a matter of moments it was chaos, a panic-flight. The staircase was packed with fleeing men; the Katushev teams were scrambling out of their kit, running for it. A Sergeant-Major fired his pistol into the air once, twice, then holstered it and joined the rush.
Khuv laughed, slapped his thigh, punched Litve's shoulder. 'Agursky can't get out,' he said. 'He's in here, probably wounded, and those men - heavily armed men - are coming up from below. And we're going down from the top!'
'You're right,' Luchov gasped. 'But me, I'm staying right here. If he comes back this way I'll make sure he doesn't get in here; also, I'm not chancing meeting him between here and the exit!'
'Good,' said Khuv. 'But we'll need your flame-thrower. Here - ' He brought out his automatic and handed it over. 'It's not much but better than nothing.'
Luchov let them out into the corridor. 'Good luck,' he said, simply.
'You too,' Khuv nodded. Then Luchov quickly closed the door and locked it ...
Half-way between Failsafe Control and the magmass levels, they met the soldiers coming up. They came at the stampede, until Khuv called out: 'It's OK, you men. There's no problem. We have a maniac running loose, that's all. The scientist, Vasily Agursky. Has anyone seen him?'
'No, sir,' the Sergeant-Major who had fired his pistol down at the core came to attention, saluted. 'I'm afraid we all panicked, sir, and - '
'Forget it,' Khuv said. 'You were supposed to panic. That way I could be sure you'd get out of there fast, that's all.'
'You see, sir,' the other was at pains to explain, 'the phones have been out for some time, so we guessed there was a problem. Then, when those klaxons started up - '
'I said forget it!' Khuv snapped. 'Now get your men out of here - I mean right out of it. Out of the Projekt.'
Litve grabbed his arm. 'But they could be of assistance,' he protested.
Khuv shook his head. 'With them out of the way, anything else that moves has to be Agursky. And anything that moves dies! Let's go.'
They proceeded to the magmass levels, checking rooms and laboratories as they went. And all the while the klaxons sounding, sounding, sounding, and their flesh crawling on them like they were covered in cockroaches ...
Up in Failsafe Control, Viktor Luchov heard the pounding of booted feet as the core's military units vacated the Projekt. Well, at least they were out of it now. That left Khuv and Litve, and whatever else was down there waiting for them. Luchov glanced again at the silent, now motionless screens - especially the centre screen, which showed the core and the Gate - then returned to his private thoughts. Thoughts about Khuv. He had never much cared for the man; the KGB were a brutal lot. And yet now...
Luchov's thoughts froze right there. Gooseflesh crept on his neck. Something he had seen? He looked at the centre screen again. He strained his eyes, rubbed at them... but no, there was nothing wrong with his eyes.
On the centre screen a pale, gelatinous mass was visible on the curve of the sphere's dome, a slow-motion picture of something within. It hadn't been there ten or fifteen minutes ago - or maybe it had, and with so much going on he simply hadn't noticed it. Crazy! It was exactly what he was here to notice!
He stared harder, and yes - in a minute the thing had grown larger, starting to bloat up huge on the great curved screen which was the Gate. It was like... like Encounter One. But bigger. Much bigger! And it was moving faster than anything had ever moved in there before. If it was the same sort of creature as Encounter One, and if it should break loose from the Gate -
'God!' Luchov gritted his teeth, slammed a balled fist into his palm. At a time like this!
Khuv and Litve were still down there somewhere. They had thought to trap Agursky between themselves and the soldiers. And now who was trapped? At least Luchov could try to warn them. Khuv's own novel method should suffice.
He reached out a trembling hand and pressed button number two...
Down on the fringe of the eerie magmass levels, Khuv and Litve stayed close together, moving very slowly. There was darkness here, where even the well-illuminated areas were dark with implication. Even above the blaring, maddening klaxons, whose row was fading a little behind them, the heart of the Perchorsk beast could be heard thudding more loudly, seemed that much closer.
They moved cautiously down the wide timber stairway, Khuv's eyes raking the magmass on the right, and Litve's on the left. The pilot-lights of their flame-throwers threw weird, blue-flickering shadows, making faces and threatening figures of the disturbing magmass fusions.
Khuv adjusted the strap of his flame-thrower across his right shoulder, and metal parts chinked together. The sound was amplified by the magmass, and despite the incessant klaxons came echoing back seemingly from all directions. Another sound, having its origin elsewhere and rising to drown it out, came back with it: stuttering, almost chattering laughter!
'Behind us?' Khuv whirled to look back, eyes wide so as to miss nothing.
'No,' Litve's voice was a whisper where he crouched, 'in front of us - I think.'
'It's hard to tell,' said Khuv, beginning to breathe a little faster. 'He could be anywhere.'
'But he's just one,' Litve was starting to shake, his voice, too, 'and there are two of us. For God's sake don't get separated from me, Major!'
They turned right and followed the wooden path - an artificial and entirely familiar road through this alien landscape - into the heart of a magmass cavern, where the echoes of their footsteps resounded louder yet... and that was when the pitch and frequency of the alarms increased from a repetitive, mindless blaring to a definite cry of warning!
'What the hell - ?' Litve gasped.
That was Luchov,' said Khuv, 'telling us that something isn't right. Shit - we know that already!'
The laughter came again, and this time there was no mistaking its source: behind them. Also, Khuv recognized the voice as Agursky's beyond any shadow of doubt. So did Litve, apparently. 'He's tracking us,' he whispered.
'Let's find a vantage point,' Khuv moved faster, heading for the stairwell through to the core. That was the only way to go now, down to the core itself. But with still thirty or so paces to go to the final descent, Litve grabbed Khuv's elbow. '
'Look!' he croaked.
Khuv looked back. From behind a leaning magmass nodule, a shadow had fallen on the walkway. One that moved. Closer still, there was more movement: Khuv's and Litve's startled eyes went together to a heavy-duty cable where it snaked along the mad flow of the magmass wall. The cable jerked; its loops between staples contracted as something hauled on it. Almost before the meaning of this could dawn, there came a cry of combined pain and frustration from behind the same magmass nodule. The shadow on the walkway was highlighted, emboldened by flaring blue illumination and a shower of sputtering sparks. And it was a monstrous shadow!
Incapable as yet of movement, the two watched. The shadow - a single shadow - began to split in two. There came a rending sound, like sailcloth tearing, as the two halves of the shadow struggled to break apart - struggled and succeeded. Two of them now: one of which seemed human, and the other the size and roughly the shape of a dog, except it was not a dog. Then both of them moving back a little, merging with the shadow of the nodule, and a further moment of struggling with the power cable. There was more electrical sputtering and a second shower of sparks...
And the lights went out!
The two men backed toward the shaft going down to the core. Their legs were jelly but they forced movement out of them. A faint wash of light came from behind them, over their shoulders: residual light from the sphere-gate, shining up through the shaft. But along the walkway where they'd been, all was now night.
'If he - it - they are going to come,' Litve stuttered, 'then it has to be along this walkway.'
Khuv's throat was too dry and tight to answer, but he thought: that's right. They were both wrong. The thing from the tank, or rather metamorphic vampire material from the core of the thing in the tank - not dead but subsumed into Agursky, and now released to even up the score, two against two - didn't have to come that way at all. It came under the walkway!
Almost at the mouth of the shaft, where the walkway turned sharply to the left and once more descended as stairs, the thing struck. Something coiled up over the handrail, wrapped itself clingingly around Litve's waist, dragged him screaming through the shattering rail. He was there, beside Khuv, and he was gone. His flamethrower put forth a single blast of flame, and looking down Khuv saw what had him. The thing from the tank, yes: a great flat tentacled leech now, which smothered Litve's face and the upper half of his body like a mass of leprous dough, while its many-jointed 'limbs' wrapped him and crushed his body like so many pythons! And eyes in the surging filth of the thing, staring up unblinking at Khuv where he choked and gurgled on the walkway.
Litve's flame-thrower went clattering; Khuv knew that was the end of him; he aimed his own weapon and sent searing flame blasting into the heaving obscenity where it threshed on the magmass floor. Screaming his rage and terror, he burned it - burned it - burned it. Until the white heart of his torch turned yellow, hissed, crackled into silence, until the pilot-light itself went out. Then came Agursky's chuckle again, and through the reek and the smoke Khuv saw him coming. He saw him closing with him, his hands elongating, reaching...
He dropped his empty weapon, ran, stumbled, went flailing down the stairwell into the heart of the place; and down the stairs from the landing onto the boards of the Saturn's-rings perimeter. Agursky came close behind, chuckling, flowing, inexorably pursuing. Khuv looked back and saw him: the impossible gape of his jaws, the nightmare of his bone dagger teeth meshing like a mincer in the cavern of his mouth. He screamed and raced for the nearest Katushev cannon.
'Shit, shit!' he screamed, and: 'Oh, God! Oh mother of - ' He leaped up onto the Katushev's platform, slid into the gunner's chair, traversed the assembly to face Agursky where he loped after him. But ... he had no idea how to fire the thing!
Before Agursky could reach him, he leaped out of his seat, fled across the rings and onto the gantry bridging the gap to the sphere. The power was off and the gate in the electrical fence open; Khuv ran through it, reached the spot where the boards were scorched and blackened. The Gate was the only route open to him now, but better that than -
He skidded to a halt, threw up his hands before him to ward off... something he couldn't believe, something from the mind of a raving lunatic! He stared at the sphere and his eyes bulged, popped in his white mask of a face. Agursky had seen it, too, and he was likewise brought up short. And a third pair of eyes had seen it, had indeed been watching it for some time.
Up in Failsafe Control, Viktor Luchov waited no longer but threw the failsafe switch. He opened the floodgates to hell - because he had to, and for Khuv. For Khuv, yes, who even now turned his face to the closed circuit TV monitor and pleaded with him, begged him to do it. 'Do it!' the Major's face screamed silently at Luchov from the centre screen. 'For God's sake, Viktor, if you know the meaning of mercy - do it!"
Volatile liquids rushed and sprinklers commenced spraying all through the Projekt; plastic pipes began to blister as the liquid flowed faster; thousands of litres of the stuff flowed into the heart of Perchorsk, becoming vapour where it was exposed to air. Forced by the weight of fuel in the huge tanker, dragged downwards by gravity, it quickly saturated the complex, began to gush from an outlet into the core itself.
The core: where now Agursky knew he was finished and closed with Khuv, reaching for him. But the Major was no longer concerned with Agursky, only with the thing that was breaking through the screen of the sphere, only with the heaving, pulsating monstrosity of hooks and teeth and claws which wore the vast, bloated, nightmare distortion of ... of Karl Vyotsky's face!
But this was not, could not be, the Vyotsky who had gone into that other world; it was so radically different that its passage through the gate in the reverse direction had not been forbidden. It half-emerged, saw and fell upon the figures on the gantry and devoured them, and in the next moment was itself devoured. Somewhere, the deadly vapours had reached a naked flame. Incendiary fires raced through the Projekt in an unstoppable chain-reaction. The entire place detonated - exploded - like a vast bomb!
Viktor Luchov, gasping and almost fainting from his exertions, was hauled through the wicket-gate onto the marshalling area in the ravine under the cold night stars. They hurried him away from the giant doors, which in a little while were blown off their rollers like so much scrap metal. A shaft of fire roared out, bending like a waterfall to strike the dammed waters, sending clouds of steam boiling upwards.
Perchorsk was no more...
From the time of his early childhood, when he was maybe eight or nine years old, Harry Keogh remembered one especially bad dream. It had been repetitive, bothering him through many long nights, and even now - especially now - was not forgotten.
Where the idea had originated, he couldn't say. It might have come from some ancient medical book, or from the mind of one of his long-dead friends, may even have stemmed from a flash of precognition. But he could still remember it in detail. The long hall, brick walls, and the heavy wooden tables set end to end; the starving man stretched out on his back, lashed to the end table; his head firmly fixed between blocks of wood, a leather strap across his forehead to keep it tilted back, and his jaws propped wide open.
He lay there, conscious, skeletal, chest heaving and arms and legs straining where they, too, were lashed, and men in long white coats and a woman with a long-bladed hatchet watching him and nodding among themselves, tight-lipped. Then the men (doctors, maybe?) standing well back, and the woman with the hatchet laying her weapon down on the table farthest from the wretched man. Her departure through an arched doorway, and her return with a large plate of rancid fish.
The pictures were very vivid: the way she carefully took a piece of putrid fish and smeared it from directly in front of the man's face, all the way along the centre of the joined-up tables to the last one, before dropping it on the plate with the other stinking remnants. There was a screen at that end, where now she took her position, seated there with her cleaver in her hand, patience itself as she looked through a peephole in the screen and waited for it to happen. The way her eyes fixed upon the gaping mouth of the racked man.
Then the worst part of the dream, when the cestode came out of him, its segmented, ribbonlike body inching laboriously from his convulsing throat, writhing where it followed the fish-stink in its search for food. Blind, the tapeworm, but not without senses of its own, and not without hunger; its head flat on the table but swaying this way and that, creeping forward, and the hooked segments coming into view from the man's choking throat, one by one, releasing their hooks within him and venturing forth into daylight. For while the man was starving because of his worm, it was starving because of the doctors who hadn't fed him for five or six days!
Harry remembered it so well, that dream:
The length of the thing, covering first one six-foot table, then two, three, until it had been feared that six tables would not be enough. Twenty-five feet of it when at last the forked, scorpion tail appeared, trailing mucus and blood behind it. And at that one of the doctors had tensed, started to inch silently forward.
And the man on the table gurgling and gagging; the cestode worm creeping warily forward, but more avidly as the fish-stink thickened; the woman with her cleaver poised, waiting, her teeth drawn back from her lips in almost savage anticipation...
The parasite reaching the plate and its leech-head gorging... the cleaver flashing silver in those practiced female hands, shearing through the soft chitin and primitive guts of the thing... the doctor slapping his hand over the man's mouth, as the frantically writhing rear sections of the worm tried to wriggle back into him.
Which was always the point where Harry used to come yelping awake.
He came awake now, to the Lady Karen's voice asking some questions of him where they sat facing each other across her table; and he hoped he'd been able to keep the canvas of his mind shielded from her, so that she had not read the vivid thoughts painted there. 'I'm sorry? My mind was wandering.'
'I said,' she repeated herself, smiling, 'that you've been my guest through three sundowns, with another on its way soon, and still you haven't told me why you came -came willingly, of your own volition, into my aerie.'
For my son. 'Because you were a friend to The Dweller in a time of need,' he lied, keeping his mind-voice to himself, 'and because I'm curious and desired to see your aerie.' Also, because if I can find a cure for you I might be able to cure him.
She shrugged. 'But you've seen my aerie, Harry. Almost all of it. There are some things I have not shown you because you would find them... unpleasant. But you have seen the rest of it. So what keeps you here? You won't eat my food or even drink my water; there's really nothing here for you - except maybe danger.'
'Your vampire?' he raised an eyebrow. Your cestode, with its hooks in your heart and your guts and your brain?
'Of course - except I no longer think of it as "my vampire". We are one.' She laughed, but not gaily - and a snake's tongue flickered behind her gleaming teeth. And her eyes were of a uniform, very deep scarlet. 'Oh, I fought it for a long time, but uselessly in the end. The battle in The Dweller's garden was the turning point, when I knew it was over and accepted that I am what I am. It was the battle and the power and the blood. Waiting, watchful, quiescent until then, that's what woke it up and brought it to ascendancy. But I mustn't think of it that way, for now we're the same creature. And I am Wamphyri!'
'You are warning me?' he said.
She looked away, gave an impatient toss of her head, looked back. 'I am telling you it were better if you went. The Dweller's father you may be, but you are innocent, Harry Keogh. And this is no place for innocence.'
Me, innocent? 'When I fell asleep in my room,' he said, ' - when I sat by my window and watched the gold fading on the distant peaks, before the last sundown - and woke up with a start, I dreamed you were standing over me.'
'I was, or had been,' she sighed. 'Harry, I have lusted after you.'
After me? Or after my blood? 'How?' 'In every way. My host is a woman, with a woman's needs. But I am Wamphyri, with the needs of a vampire.' 'You don't have to draw blood.' 'Wrong. The blood is the life.'
'Then by now you must be starved of life, for you haven't eaten. Not while I have been here.' He had taken his meals in the garden, travelling to and fro via the Mobius Continuum. But they'd been more snacks than meals proper, for he had not wanted to leave her alone too long, had not wanted to miss... anything.
When she spoke again her voice was cold. 'Harry, if you insist on staying ... I cannot be held responsible.' Before he could answer she stood up, swept out of the great hall, disappeared from view in that regal way of hers. Harry had not followed her before, had not spied on her in any depth. But the time had come and he knew it.
'Where is she going?' he asked the long-dead cartilage creatures where their corpses fashioned the stack's decor. A carved bone handrail following stairs between the upper levels answered him:
She descends, Harry, to her larder. Her hand falls on me even now.
Where like Drama! Doombody before her, she keeps a number of trogs in store, hibernating.
'She told me she had set her trogs free, sent them home.'
But not these, the handrail, once a trog itself, answered. These are for fashioning, and in times of siege for eating!
Harry went there, two levels down, saw Karen flow in through a dark niche doorway and followed her. A trog had been activated, brought out of its cocoon. Harry stayed in the shadows, guarded his thoughts. He watched Karen lead the trog to the table. The creature, shambling, only half-awake, enthralled, lay down, bent back its ugly prehistoric head for her.
Her mouth opened, opened - gaped! Blood dripped from her gums where scythe-teeth sprouted to poise over the creature's sluggishly pulsing jugular. Her nose wrinkled, flattened back on itself, and her eyes were crimson jewels in the twilight room.
"Karen.r Harry shouted.
She snapped upright, hissed at him, cursed him long and loud - then swept by him in a fury and was gone. There was no putting it off any longer; knowing what he must do, Harry went again to the garden...
He trapped her at sunup while she slept in her windowless room. He put silver chains on her door, which he left open no more than four or five inches, and arranged potted kneblasch plants whose stink sickened even him. Their smell woke her up and she cried: 'Harry, what have you done?'
'Be calm,' he told her from outside, 'for there's nothing you can do about it.'
'Oh?' she raged, rushing all about her room. 'Is it so?'
She sent commands to her warrior: Come, free me! But there was no answer.
'Burned,' Harry told her. 'And the trogs in your larder activated, all fled. And your siphoneer - that pitiful, monstrous thing - dead from the water which I poisoned in your wells. Your gas-beasts, too, themselves poisoned with unbreathable gasses. Now there's just you.'
She wept and pleaded with him then. 'What will you do with me? Will you burn me, too?'
He made no answer but went away...
He checked on her, every three or four hours returning to test the chains on her door, or water the kneblasch plants, but never letting her see him. Sometimes she was asleep, moaning in her red dreams, and at others she was awake, raving and cursing. Harry slept in the aerie only once at that time - and on that occasion woke up to find himself at her door, called there by Karen! It strengthened his resolve.
Another time: she was quite naked, telling him how she loved him, wanted him, needed him. But he knew what she needed. He ignored her lustful, luscious writhings and went away.
Five more sunups came and went, and Karen sank into delirium. And when it was sundown again she slept and could not be brought awake. It was time.
Harry cleared away the kneblasch but kept the chains on the door; as before, he left only a small gap. Then he went to the garden and fetched a piglet, which he slaughtered into a golden bowl. He made a thin trail of blood from the door of Karen's room, into the great hall, where he laid the bowl on the floor in the centre of the room. The poor creature lay there, stiff in an inch of its own blood.
And then Harry waited, sitting in the shadows, quiet as never before and guarding his thoughts. And it was just like his dream, but worse. For this time he was there, and he was the one with the cleaver. Except it wasn't a cleaver.
Eventually the vampire left Karen (how, by what route, Harry neither knew nor wanted to know) and began to follow the bloody trail. Swaying its head this way and that, it entered the hall, inched forward towards the bowl. It was a long leech, corrugated, cobra-headed, blind, with many hooks. And it had pointed udders, a great many of them, along its grey, pulsating underbelly.
It sensed the blood, came on faster - then sensed Harry! It began a hasty retreat, curled back on itself and wriggled like a blindworm. Harry stepped into the Mobius Continuum, stepped out again at the door of Karen's room. The vampire came crawling, saw him, but too late. He aimed his flame-thrower and burned it. Dying, it issued eggs, a great many of them, which rolled and skittered, vibrating across the floor toward him. Sweating, but cold inside, Harry burned them all. Until all that was left was the awful smell, and the screaming.
Karen's screaming ...
Exhausted, Harry slept. He slept in the aerie, because there was no longer anything there to fear. He dreamed that Karen stood over him in her white gown - that gown she had worn so revealingly for the Wamphyri Lords -and explained why he was the most miserable of all men. His victory was ashes. She had been Wamphyri, and now she was a shell. He thought he had won, but he had lost. When one has known the power, the freedom, the magnified emotions of the vampire... what is there after that? She told him she pitied him, for she knew why he had done what he had done - and he had failed. And then she said goodbye. He woke up, looked for her. No longer Wamphyri, she had taken the chains from her door, escaped. He searched the stack top to bottom, came and went through the Mobius Continuum until he was dizzy, but he couldn't find her. Eventually he went out onto her high balcony and looked down. Karen's white dress lay crumpled on the scree more than a kilometer below, no longer entirely white but red, too.
And Karen was inside it ...
In the garden, the damage done in the fighting had been very nearly put to rights. Travellers worked at it during sunups, and trogs through the dark sundowns. And meanwhile the message had gone out: the Wamphyri are no more! Streams of Travellers, entire tribes, were en route even now, coming to celebrate and worship at the feet of their saviour. Jazz and Zek, and Wolf, too, had gone home, conveyed to that distant place by The Dweller, who had then returned.
And all in all, The Dweller was well satisfied with his work.
But... feeling a burning on his neck, Harry Jnr turned from where he supervised the rebuilding of the wall, turned to glance at a rising hummock of ground a little way apart. Someone stood there, someone who watched him intently, silently. Someone whose mind was sealed tight as a limpet to its rock. Harry Jnr frowned, peered for a moment through the holes in his golden mask, then smiled. It was only his father.
He waved and went back to work...