6




"You'll find this fascinating, Jill," Dr. Acker- man promised as he led me to a massive table covered by a gigantic plastic sheet. About the only thing missing was an electrical machine buzzing and zap- ping from one of the old movies.
"There are too many of them to be defeated by firepower!" He sounded like the president of the Council of Twelve from the Mormon compound. But he didn't go on to talk about the power of prayer. "After what your friends told us, we must face the reality of an unlimited number of these creatures. The bio-vats witnessed by Taggart and Sanders--" "That was before I met them."
"Yes, we were briefed, you know. They saw those vats in space--on Deimos, to be exact. The aliens can replace their creatures indefinitely, and they keep improving their models. So . . ." Ackerman had a great sense of the theatrical, playing for an audience that was only me. Reminding me of a stage magician, he reached out with both hands and yanked the big sheet off the thing on the table.
Large pieces of steam demon were spread out on a heavy slab. The table had to be very strong to support the weight. "It's not rotting?" I said, blurting out the first words that came into my head.
"They don't decay naturally. The zombies decom- pose, of course, because of their original human tissue." He slipped a pair of surgical gloves on and prodded the red side of the big chest lying there all by itself. It looked like the world's biggest piece of partially chewed bubble gum.
"There's no smell," I volunteered. "No odor, right. Not with a cyberdemon."
"A what?" "I forgot. You call them something else, don't you?"
"Steam demons." "Yes, well, we're standardizing the terminology for official government science. Now take the cacode- mons, for instance."
"A what?" "You call them pumpkins. I confess I like that name myself, what with the Halloween associations, but it won't do for an official name."
"Do you have any cacodemons here?" He shook his head. "They dissolve shortly after the tissues are disrupted. When we try to secure samples for analysis, we're left with only a test tube of liquid and powder. So tell me, Jill, what do you make of the cyber . . . er, the steam demon?"
"The name 'cyberdemon' makes sense," I agreed. I didn't tell him what I thought of "cacodemon." "The mechanical parts stick into the body so deep--" "They are not attachments," he corrected. "Look!" He pointed at the portion of the arm that began in flesh and ended in the metal of a rocket launcher. "Neither the arm nor the launcher is complete, but the cross section shows the point of connection be- tween the arm and the weapon. You see it, don't you, Jill? You don't need a microscope."
The only other time I'd been this close to a piece of monster was when the foot of a spider-mind almost crushed me on the train when we rescued Ken. I wondered what Ackerman called the spider-minds. Anyway, seeing a cross section of a demon was a new experience. "I don't believe it," I admitted. "Seeing is believing."
The red shaded into silver-gray. There was no dividing line. The rocket launcher grew out of the flesh.
"That's one for Ripley," he said. "Huh?"
"A little before your time. It means it's hard to believe, but the evidence is right before you. When I first started studying these creatures, I was most puzzled about their weapons. Think about it. The imps fire a weapon that's purely organic in nature." "We call them imps, too. Well, sometimes spinies." "Uh-huh. Your pumpkins do the same with their balls of concentrated acid and combustible gas. Why, then, do these larger creatures use weapons similar to the artillery used by humans?"
I'd never thought about that. If someone is trying to stab me with a switchblade, I don't wonder how he got it.
It was Dr. Ackerman's job to wonder. "All these military weapons seemed inappropriate," he went on. "If they internally create bolts of force and can project them, why develop appendages that require external ammunition?"
"I get it," I said, excited. "It's like if you're God- zilla, what do you need with a gun?"
"Perfect, Jill. You really are a smart kid." I didn't want compliments. I wanted to keep the discussion moving. "Are you sure they get their bullets and rockets from somewhere else? Maybe they grow them, too?"
Ackerman stopped what he was doing--bringing up a computer display showing the monster's autopsy report--and took his glasses off. He pointed at me with them. "Right there you prove yourself worth more than the people I've been working with. You can help me, uh, interface with Ken, too. His doctor says it will be a while before he gets back to normal, but he's been so close to the problem that he understands aspects of their biotechnology that no one else com- prehends."
I nodded. "Now I remember. Ken told us how the rockets and guns and stuff were probably first stolen from subject races. So if the gun is a separate thing, then it's not grown by a demon."
Ackerman finished my thought: "But if it's at- tached, then it's grown somehow. The original ver- sion of the weapon must have been stolen first. Then they modified it into their biotech."
He turned his back to me again and I noticed little red and yellow stains all over it. I didn't want to know what they were. Now he was excited as he said, "What we need is a living specimen of one of the big ones." He grinned. Maybe he really was a mad scientist. I had to ask the obvious question: "Would you be able to control it?"
"We already handle the living zombies we have here. That sounds funny, doesn't it? Living zombies." "You have live ones?" I nearly freaked when he said that. Being in combat had turned me into a killer . . . of the undead.
"Sure, but they're easy to control. They don't have superhuman strength. You know that from fighting them."
"Have you fought them?" "Well, no, but I've studied them."
"Trust me on this, Doctor--they're dangerous." "But manageable. That's all I'm saying. If we had a live cyberdemon, then we'd have a problem of con- tainment. The same as if our mancubus was living. I know you call them fatties."
"You have a whole fatty?" "Fortunately it's dead. Unlike the specimen here, he seems to be slowly decaying."
I laughed. "They smell so bad alive I don't see how they could get any worse."
"The stench reminds me of rotting fish, sour grapes, and old locker-room sweat. Come on. I'll show you." He didn't need to take my arm, but I let him. He was like a friendly uncle who wanted to show off his chamber of horrors. We went past sections of flying skulls laid out like bikers' helmets. I'd always wanted a motorcycle.
"What do you call the Clydes?" "We don't," he answered quickly. "We think your friends were wrong to think they might be the product of genetic engineering. They're probably the human traitors who were given some kind of treatment to make them tractable."
The fatty was behind glass and made me think of a gigantic meat loaf that had been left out in the sun. The metal guns it used for arms had been removed and stacked up next to the monster like giant flash- lights. He looked sort of pathetic without them. "You can't smell it from here, but if you want to step into the room ..."
"No, thanks." I turned him down, unsure if he was kidding me. "Let's see the zombies."
I wish I hadn't asked. He led me to the end of the warehouse, where I finally saw some other people in white lab coats. For a moment it had seemed as if the whole place belonged to Ackerman and his monsters. We went out into a corridor. I figured the zombies had been given a special place of their own.
Like I said, what's great about scientists is the way they refuse to talk down to kids. Ackerman started to lecture, and it was fine with me:
"The most interesting part about studying zombies is the residual speech pattern. We have recorded many hours of zombie dialogue. Some of them fixate on the invasion, speaking cryptically about gateways and greater forces that lie behind them. Others pick up a pattern from their own lives, repeating phrases that tell us something about them. A final test group doesn't speak at all. We are attempting to find out if they retain any capacity to reason after the transfor- mation."
"No," I said as strongly as I could. "The human part of them is dead."
"I understand how you must feel," he said. "It's easier for all of us if we assume we're not killing anyone human on the other end of the gun barrel." I shook my head. "You don't understand," I told him. "I'll kill any skag who betrayed us. The traitors are still human. I wouldn't have any problem pulling the trigger on those creeps in the government who helped the demons."
"All right, calm down," he said in a completely different tone of voice. "I was really talking about myself just then. It's easier for me to work on these, er, zombies, if I think there's no humanity left." Arlene keeps saying I can be a real pill, so I decided to be that way on purpose. I asked, "What difference does that make to you, Doctor, if they weren't gen- iuses when they were alive?"
He laughed instead of getting mad. "You are smart, Jill. I need to watch my step around you. I hope we'll enjoy working together. We can start now. What's your theory of why a few of the big monsters seem able to reason?"
"You mean like the spider-minds?" I didn't need to tell him what that word meant. "Apparently all of them. Then there was the loqua- cious imp whom Corporal Taggart reported encoun- tering on Phobos."
He was on one of my favorite subjects. "We won- dered about the smart ones when we were doing the L.A. mission."
"What were your conclusions?" I suddenly noticed how long we'd been walking. "How much farther before we reach the zombies?" "Not long. Just don't ask if we're there yet! It'll make me think of you as a kid again."
"Is there a rest room I can use?" "Just a few feet beyond the zombie pen." He
sounded impatient. "So what did all of you con- clude?"
"Whenever a normal, stupid one talks, there must be a smarter one somewhere, sending the words." "Like broadcasting a radio signal. We've been working along the same lines. Do you think the spider-minds do their own thinking?"
"Search me." "They could be on the receiving end as well." "So tell me about your zombies." I was truly interested. We'd walked a good distance and still no sight of the corpse-creeps.
"Well, we have a total of thirteen. We've run identity checks. You know how impossible it is to destroy information today."
"Yeah, the monsters can't rip a big hole in the Net, even with their fat asses."
"They've slowed us down, but they can't stop us cold."
"We'll stop them cold." "Attagirl! Anyway, one of the zombies was once an editor named Anders Monsen. He repeats phrases from his profession. At least, that's what we think he's doing. One of the women is Michelle DeLude, a blonde. She keeps repeating how she must get to Las Vegas in time for her wedding. Mark Stephens ran a bookstore. Butler Shaffer was a law professor. Tina Karos was a paralegal. She's the brunette. Both the ladies were very attractive in life. Shame to see them monsterized. The other eight were seamen stationed right here in Hawaii. One was a huge man his friends called Big Lee. Don't remember the names of the others."
Ackerman could have been a teacher. He made me want to meet his special class of dead people. I was looking forward to it ... until the door marked Maxi- mum Security swung open and a large shape filled the doorway, swinging a meat cleaver with which it hacked off Dr. Ackerman's head.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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