CRUSADE OF ASHES
They never warned him about the dreams. Sitting in the briefing room, the whole process sounded scientific, straightforward… clean. Sit in the pod, strap down, breathe in the anesthetic, and come round – projecting – five hours later. True, the part in between was all a bit Frankenstein. More than a bit, actually. Shooting him full of drugs, replacing his blood with some cocktail of embalming fluids, sticking sensor filaments through his skull, freezing him into some sort of Popsicle, and all that flatline crap. Even so, they had reassuringly technical terms for everything, and the jargon made it sound like they actually knew what they were doing.
The worst part, of course, was that he never knew he was dreaming. Tom had no idea where that particular bit of information went to. He went under knowing what was about to come, shit-scared, but somehow the process of slipping away peeled the thought from his mind, so that when it started, everything seemed real. Afterwards, when he awoke screaming into the air above his frozen body, the knowledge was back again… Only a dream. ‘Only.’
The dreams were always the same, and always different. They were built around confinement, torment, terror and, invariably, horrendous pain. The setting always changed, though. A South American torture cell. The cancer, back again, and eating him in fast-forward. Solitary confinement. A car wreck. It didn’t take a dream-analysis genius to work out that his subconscious really didn’t much like what was going on. The techs just muttered vague reassurances when he awoke, and the project’s psych team were no better, talking endlessly about subjective time and dream encapsulation and never listening to a damn word he actually said.
Still, a job was a job, and if the projection process was horrendous, Orpheus offered some rather fantastic perks to make up for it. Remission, for one. The chance to find Jas before it was too late for her, too. Ironic, that. Tom shook off the last shreds of the dream – a particularly sadistic one, in which his own children had tied him down and were eating him a filleted slice at a time – and fought down his resentment, trying to focus on the job at hand. He was supposed to be staking out a charity director, way down south somewhere, who was suspected of some unpleasantly sordid things. The first stop was going to be downtown, to meet up with the rest of the crib. There was a little time to nose around the files before then though, if the coast was clear.
Tom looked back at the pod that held his body. He looked peaceful, as usual. Another irony. Everything appeared to be functioning normally, the techs busy with their routine. He grimaced, trying not to get wound up about the state his body was in.
A voice in his ear made him jump. “I thought you were too old to worry about your looks, Hayes.”
He whipped around, forcing a smile and a light voice. “Good afternoon, Kate. How are you doing?”
“Have you seen Forrest around today?”
“I’m fine,” said Tom irritably. “Thanks for asking.”
Kate’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I am sorry, Hayes. Didn’t mean to bruise your tender feelings. I thought we knew each other well enough to dispense with the meaningless platitudes.” She softened a little, and actually looked sympathetic. “I know exactly how you feel when you’ve just come out.”
Tom sighed. “Sorry, Kate. It was a bad one. I haven’t seen Craig anywhere today.”
Her detachment wavered. “If you do, let him know I need to see him, will you?”
“Thanks. Actually, I’m glad I caught you anyway. I wanted to warn you to keep your eyes open.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “What for?”
Kate shook her head. “There’s a… No, don’t worry about that. Look, I’ve got a bad feeling about today. A very bad feeling.”
Tom nodded unhappily. That’s worrying. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Look after yourself, Hayes.”
“You too, Kate.”
She smiled, a mirthless grimace. “Rely on it.”
He waited impatiently until she had left, then made his way out of the operations section. The nursery was unusually busy. Two other sleeper pods were occupied – he thought he could spot Johansson in one of them – and there were five skimmers stretched out on the couches in the other half of the room. Surprisingly Kate wasn’t amongst them. She must have projected in from somewhere else. She never did have much time for rules when they got in the way. He headed to the administrative section, deep in thought.
The door to the archive room was kept locked. Tom looked up and down the corridor nervously, but there was no-one around. He stopped in front of the door, forcing himself to be aware of his whole body. He then deliberately calmed his mind, clamping the flow of his mental chatter shut, and letting his emotions drift aimlessly. It was like becoming a passive observer inside his own head. A few moments later, his body followed suit, seeming to lighten, scattering like his thoughts. There was an unpleasant sensation of dissipation, and he felt a moment’s panic that he might just disintegrate totally, but his form held. He pressed his hands against the door and then they were sinking through as he inched forward, walking through the door. The reinforced wood scratched inside him as he passed through it, a peculiar sensation that left his face stinging and his insides feeling somehow wrong.
Once he was inside, he ignored the shelves of paper files, and went straight over to the computer system, hoping that they hadn’t changed the password in the three weeks since he’d been able to steal it. He thought about the kids hysterically clinging to Jas’s cold corpse, and about the smug bastard doctors at his hospital bedside telling him how they had been taken into custody, and the rage ignited within him, as always. It boiled straight up his throat like acid, searing through him. He clutched at it and wrapped it around himself like a blanket, comforting in its scalding clarity.
The computer was a pathetic obstacle, and he was going to break through it this time and find out for certain whether or not the bastards were responsible. He glared viciously at the power button, furious that such an insignificant little bit of gray plastic stood between him and the information he needed. The resentment congealed into a spike of silver that punched out from his outstretched fingertips and smacked into the button, easily forcing it in. An electronic hum started up, and the machine whirred into life.
A metallic creak grabbed Tom’s attention. He looked across the table, and realized that the flexible desk lamp was slowly turning to look at him. A chill ran down his spine. When the lamp was pointing straight at his eyes, it flicked on, dazzling him a little. There was a ripple, and then a shimmer in the air as a shape flowed up out of the lamp and took form behind it. Despite the light, Tom easily recognized the man – a fellow agent named Masterson, one of the skimmers. Tom hesitated, uncertain.
“Being a naughty boy, Tommy?”
Tom bristled, and bit back an angry reply. “No, of course not, I was… That is… Hey, what the hell are you doing in here, Hoyt?”
Masterson grinned infuriatingly, and ignored the question. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any reason to tell Control you were in here.”
“Ah, stow it,” said Masterson. “There’s no point bothering with that computer, anyway. It’s just got dull crap on it – form letters, templates, holiday notes and all that secretarial bullshit.”
Tom sighed, the anger evaporating like mist. “Damn.”
The lights crackled, and the computer monitor winked out, the hard-disk grinding to an extremely unhealthy-sounding halt. Tom looked at Masterson suspiciously. “Are you playing games, Hoyt?”
“No.” He shook his head, sounding serious for the first time.
Tom shrugged. “That’s OK then. It must have been a spike in the mains.”
Surprisingly, Masterson looked worried. “That computer is running off an uninterruptible power supply. I felt it earlier.”
“You mean it crashed?”
“They don’t crash like that. Something’s wrong.”
“Like a virus, you mean?”
“Possibly, but the machine was in the middle of booting up. Could be something screwy happening in the electrics.”
The first hints of shapeless fear started to pry at the edges of Tom’s attention, but he fought them down. He peered at Hoyt nervously. “It’s just admin though, right? The nursery is going to be OK?”
“Different circuits…” Hoyt trailed off. “Do you hear something?”
Tom listened intently for several moments, but couldn’t make out anything unusual.
“There. Did you hear that?”
He shook his head, concerned.
“It sounded like gun shots,” said Hoyt, heading quickly towards the door. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Where do you think? To find out what’s going on.”
Tom pushed through the door as quickly as possible, moaning aloud as the coarse material ripped through him painfully. Hoyt was already on the other side. The man opened his mouth to speak and suddenly the hallway was filled with the wail of alarm sirens. Tom shook his head in disbelief. The chatter of automatic gunfire came from the offices up ahead, putting an end to any doubt. Hoyt cursed savagely, and ran towards the sound. Tom hesitated for a moment, then followed him.
The main admin office was a large, open-plan area which housed more than 30 staff. Desks and computer terminals nested in little groups, punctuated by bland plants, water-coolers and filing cabinets. Today, it was a slaughterhouse. One of the clerks – a small, vaguely familiar man in a sharply-pressed suit – was stalking around the office carrying a short sub-machine gun of some kind. At least a dozen people around him were dead or dying, horribly shot up. Shrieks and moans mingled with the terrified screams and please of the uninjured. Blood still pumped from numerous wounds, soaking through clothes or even, in a couple of cases, spurting out of torn, ragged holes in faces and necks. The floor was awash with it. Tom’s head swam.
The remaining staff were cowering behind any cover they could find – desks, chairs, cabinets, even each other. The gunman was closing in on a small knot of people off to one side. Suddenly the alarms whined and died, and the lights went out, replaced with dim red emergency lighting. Hoyt growled, and wordlessly headed towards a couple of people hiding behind a desk off to one side. He seemed to ignite mid-step, blue wreaths of flame bursting out of him.
Tom left Hoyt to it. He didn’t need to think to summon his fury; sheer outrage at the senseless carnage electrified him. His disgust at the gun was almost tangible. The weapon was a cold, hard, ugly thing in his mind, an unwanted intrusion. He nurtured his loathing for it, savoring the emotion until it consumed him utterly, and there was nothing in the world but the gun and his hatred for it. There was a surge, and the malice ripped out of him in a twisting rope of silver shards that burst across the room and latched onto different parts of the vile thing, pulling and bending in different directions. There was a loud screech of metal, and the gun twisted into a useless heap of junk. The gunman screamed shrilly as the metal mangled his fingers and crushed round his wrists.
Tom staggered, drained by the intensity of his emotions. He fought to keep his balance, and then crashed forward as a furious wall of noise smashed into him from behind, driven painfully to his knees. The sound was concentrated insanity, a whirlwind of howling, snarling pain. It tore into him as if it had fangs, shredding his essence. It was the dream again, Nate and Sarah carving bloody scraps off him to feed to their brother in an impossible frenzy of cannibalistic gluttony.
Thought fled; there was just agony as the mad shriek ate into him. Tom could feel himself eroding, mote by agonizing mote, blown away on the wailing storm like a handful of ash. He tried to lash out, to draw strength from his anger, but there was only pain, and, deep, deep down, a peculiar sense of relief.
The world flashed blue, and then the wailing suddenly stopped, replaced by a hoarse – and harmless – scream. Tom collapsed forward onto all fours, fighting for breath that he didn’t need. There was another flash, and he realized that it was exactly the same color as Hoyt’s blue flame. Some time later – seconds, minutes, days – Hoyt was there, kneeling beside him.
“Are you OK, buddy?” He sounded concerned.
Tom shook his head wearily. “Not really. I’ll live, though. What happened?”
“There were two of them. I got the drop on the first one, but by that time the second one had you. I blasted him while he was concentrating on you, but he split. They must have been with Laughing Boy there.”
Tom looked up and across the room. The gunman had been restrained by the furious administrators, who had him pinned down on the bloody floor. They weren’t ripping him to shreds yet, but they were playing with the impromptu cuffs that Tom had given him, and by the noises he was making, it hurt. A lot. The dim red lighting and cordite smoke made it look exactly like a scene from some modern hell. If so, it was nothing less than the scum deserved.
“Thanks, Hoyt. You saved my ass.”
“So that’s two you owe me then.” He grinned cheekily.
Tom started to make some reply, but pulled up short as a nasty thought hit him. “Do you think that they were alone?”
“I don’t see anyone else popping out of the woodwork.”
“Not here. In the rest of the compound. Look at the lights.”
Hoyt flinched, startled. “We better go check out the nursery. Quickly. Can you walk?”
Tom got up carefully. After a few moments of unsteadiness, the world seemed to become slightly firmer again. “I think so.”
“Good.” There was a dull thump from somewhere else in the building, a low, heavy sound that made the walls shake. Hoyt got even paler. “Can you run?”
Tom eyed him uncertainly.
“That was an explosion.”
A freezing void opened up in the pit of Tom’s stomach, and he swayed, suddenly dizzy. “Well what are we waiting for?”
They dashed for the door. Tom was wobbly, but the fury was back, hotter and harder than ever, and this time it was seasoned with a big pinch of pure fear too. He looked over at Hoyt as they sprinted down the corridor past the archive room, irritated by the man’s determined expression. Why couldn’t he be even a little scared? “It’s OK for you. You can just pop back in. It’s going to take them five hours to thaw me out.”
Hoyt grinned mirthlessly. “Yeah? I’m not the one whose body is shielded by several inches of reinforced steel. We’re all in deep shit, Tommy. Way I see it, if they were in the nursery, we’d both be dead already, so there’s still a chance, right? We’ve just got to make sure that the place is properly defended.”
Tom nodded reluctantly, a little breathless, turning a corner as fast as his still-shaky legs would allow. “Yeah, I guess so.” He made a conscious effort to stiffen his resolve, thinking about how much he owed Jas, and felt fresh strength flood into him as he pulled himself together. “Yeah,” he repeated, much more decisively.
“Good man. With a little bit of l…” Hoyt fell silent. This passage led to Operations, and the doors were a fifty yards ahead, up the corridor – or at least, they would have been, had they not been lying broken and twisted in the doorway. The two men looked at each other. “We’re not dead yet,” said Hoyt grimly.
Tom nodded, and they moved towards the ruined doors, trying to balance speed with stealth. They slowed down as they approached the doorway, walking close to the wall for extra concealment.
Hoyt slipped into the doorway, and checked up and down the main Operations corridor before waving Tom up, and heading towards the nursery. Tom followed on unhappily, frequently glancing back towards the Rec area. The doors back there were intact, and he couldn’t make anything decisive out through the inset panels, but there was a faint hint of smoke behind the glass. If a gunman had gone up there… He shuddered at the thought, and the skin between his shoulder blades prickled.
Hoyt slowed as he approached the archway to the nursery, and peered in cautiously. He sucked in a deep breath he didn’t need, then sighed heavily and stepped into the room openly, shaking his head. Tom followed unhappily, steeling himself as he looked in.
It was bad. Much less spectacular than the devastation in admin, but no less effective. Two of the skimmers would have nowhere to return to – gaping second smiles where throats had been neatly slit made sure of that – and Hoyt’s physical neck was bleeding too, where someone had started the job but been interrupted. One of his legs was bent up sideways at a very bad angle, too. The other two were untouched. The medical and technical staff were all dead, neatly-placed bullet-wounds making it look as if they had been executed.
“You stupid bastards.” Forest rose smoothly to his feet from behind a chair. Even washed-out and pale, he looked angry, upset and dangerous. “Quiet never automatically means safe. Never. I could have had you both before you’d even known what had happened.”
“What did happen, Craig?” Tom kept his voice patient and sympathetic.
“She’d already killed the support teams when I got here, and taken out Martinez and Jabewski. She was just about to slot you too, Hoyt. I managed to drag her off, but she had backup, and by the time I’d got my bearings again, she was gone. At least I stopped her from killing you, Foss and Carruthers.”
“Who?” asked Hoyt, his voice rough.
Hoyt blinked. “Jess Allingham? From Training?”
“But she’s a sweet girl. I even took her on a couple of dates…” He sounded stunned.
Tom thought furiously. “Passengers.”
Hoyt turned to look at him. “What?”
“I recognized that guy up in admin,” said Tom. “He’s one of us too. They must have passengers. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Forest looked horrified. “Please God, don’t tell me this is happening in admin too.”
Tom nodded unhappily. “Sorry, Craig. It’s like a slaughterhouse up there.”
“Holy shit. I’ve got to get…” He paused, indecision washing over his colorless face.
A pool of flickering dirty light appeared on the floor beside the beds. All three men sprang back warily. A thin line oozed impossibly upwards out of the pool and then bulged outwards, sucking the light up into itself. Tom braced himself, and he could see that Forest was suddenly wrapped in a sheath of silver flame. The light blazed once, and then resolved into Blink Carruthers.
Tom felt tension he hadn’t even been aware of drain away, and he sighed. “Jesus, Blink. You scared the hell out of me.”
Blink ignored the comment, and looked at the three of them. “It’s over. We’ve got to get out of here now.”
Tom narrowed his eyes, puzzled. “If it’s over, why the rush?”
“Not the attack. Orpheus. The board is dead. Security has been totally destroyed. There are corpses everywhere. I’m telling you, it’s over. We have to get out of here. They’re on their way.”
Forest started growling, while Tom just stared at Blink in disbelief. “Who?”
“You mean ‘what,’” said Blink. “Specters. A whole heap of the fucking things. Real ugly ones, made out of knotted bundles of slimy rope, with these horrible funnel mouths on the ends of long trunks. Claws everywhere, and Lost Boys for backup. There’s dozens of them, dragging off any spirit that doesn’t resist, and ripping everyone else to shreds. We have to evac, and we have to do it now.”
“My body,” said Tom, feebly.
“Oh shit, you’re a sleeper, aren’t you. I’m sorry, Tom. Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll leave the pods alone. If you stay here though… well, there are worse things than discarnation. We must get out now. I can take you and Craig to the perimeter fence. You’ll have a chance. Hoyt, you and I are going to be safer trying to walk out in the flesh.” He looked at Hoyt’s leg. “I can pull that straight, immobilize it or something. It’ll hurt like hell, but it’s your only shot at keeping intact, buddy. Or I can take you with Tom and Craig. Your call.”
Hoyt’s face looked like it was carved from stone. “Get them out of here. Quick.”
It seemed to Tom as if the world rolled up away, like a Venetian blind opening onto glittering darkness. It was cold, and he felt a shiver beginning at the base of his spine. Then the world unfurled again, and they were outside, near to the fence. It was late evening. He shuddered, chilled raw.
Blink didn’t even pause. As Tom got his bearings, the man was already vanishing again.
Craig shook himself like a dog. He opened his mouth to say something, and then a huge flying monstrosity crashed down onto him from above. It was part snake, part wasp, part crab; a gigantic abomination which glistened like an oil slick and seemed to seethe internally as it moved.
It was the last straw for Tom. Disgust and hatred overwhelmed him, driving out everything else. He seized the emotions greedily, feeling their sheer strength renew his energy and bitterness. His body convulsed painfully, a whirlwind of sensation that was over as quickly as it started. His arms were suddenly twice their original length, and tipped with ugly steel-gray spikes. They were impossibly thin and frail-looking, but he knew from past experience that they were as strong as ever – and that his face would have stretched too, thinning and graying, his mouth filling with distorted fangs.
He leapt on the revolting thing coiled around Craig and tore at it like a wild animal. The specter shrieked, and tried to twist and turn to face this new attacker. It bought several spindly claws up, and Tom snapped at one, feeling his teeth slice straight through it. It was the worst thing he had ever tasted, a mad jumble of decay and putrescence, but he grinned as the thing screamed again, savoring its pain.
It lashed out at him, driving its bony tail spike into the center of his back, and his whole body flared with agony. He reared up and howled, then seized the pain for himself, turning the movement into a savage bite downwards, his teeth sinking into the thing’s disgusting head. At the same time, he reached down quickly with both hands and grabbed the base of its tail, stabbing his needle-like fingers through the joint and twisting as hard as he could.
The creature moaned in pain, and then the tail spike ripped away with a wet squelch. It pushed at him with all of its assorted limbs, and despite his best efforts to keep hold of it, knocked him back. Then it was away, fluttering weakly up into the dark sky and keening miserably.
Craig looked at him appraisingly. “Thanks.” He hesitated for a moment. “We’d better get away from here before it comes back with friends.”
Tom nodded, and looked back thoughtfully at the Orpheus building, battered and scorched. It seemed to shimmer, and then, suddenly, impossibly, the admin block erupted in a huge gout of flame. A ball of fire rolled up out of the wreckage, wrapped in greasy black smoke. “Fuck.” He couldn’t keep the awe or horror from his voice.
Moments later, a second explosion ripped through the torn building, and then… There was a brief sensation of falling, gone as soon as he was aware of it, and a snap, and then something hard, fast and invisible smashed brutally into his forehead. He fell backwards, suddenly icy-cold. The world swam, seemed to fade to background color and sound, and the freezing cold gradually started to become peaceful. The pain and suffering and striving didn’t seem to matter quite so much any more. Maybe he wouldn’t get the chance to find Jas after all.
Oh no you fucking don’t, he snarled, clutching stubbornly for the hate that he knew was there. You don’t get me that fucking easily. I don’t give up. Tom Hayes will not be beaten. His iron-hard resolve caught at the tiniest hint of his resentment, and he felt it flicker and grow. I want my own back first, you bastards. He grabbed at the bitterness, and suddenly it was there, washing over him, and the world crashed back into full color.
Forest was bending over him, clearly concerned.
Tom sprang to his feet, feeling lighter somehow. “They got me, Craig, but I’m not finished with them yet. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Forest nodded, and the pair of them hurried away from the burning wreckage behind them. “Do you think the other two made it out?”
“Who knows? Time will tell.”
As they slipped out of the compound, a spiraling flock of twisted specters dropped down towards the rubble.