Read Infernal Sky Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky (5 page)

“At least he's unwrapped.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was, uh, making a joke. He looked like a mummy when we rescued him from the train. When I look at him now, I think of a . . . mummy.”

“Yes, yes,” he replied. “You and Ken were worth the sacrifices the others made.”

“They were very brave.”

“Normal specimens,” he said to himself.

People who talk to themselves are overheard sometimes.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He looked up from his clipboard and blinked at me through his heavy black-rimmed glasses. “Sorry. I'm spending too much time in the lab. I only meant that if the human race is going to survive, we must harvest all of our geniuses.”

I'd been called a genius ever since I was a kid. Sometimes I got tired of it. “What's a genius?” I asked.

He had a quick answer. “Anyone who can think better than his neighbor.”

“There must be a lot of geniuses, then.”

He smiled. “Don't be a smart aleck or I won't show you my collection.”

I'd always found it hard to shut up. “How do you know who's so smart?”

He placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder. I didn't hold that against him. He had no way of knowing I wasn't looking for a dad.

“Jill, the military keeps records. Sometimes I think it's all they're really good at doing. If your military friends had unusually high IQs or other indications of special mental attributes, we'd know.”

“I thought a lot of records were lost during the invasion.”

He laughed. It didn't sound as if he was enjoying a joke. “You should be a lawyer.”

“No, thanks.”

“This base had thorough documents on military personnel of all the services before Doom Day.”

“Doom Day?”

“That's what we're calling the first day of the invasion. By the way, I notice you're trying to change the subject. You
a genius, Jill. You might find it interesting that your last name, Lovelace, is the same as that of Augusta Ada King Lovelace, an English mathematician who has been called the world's first computer programmer.”

It was amazing how much trivia Ackerman carried in his head. While we were talking, I followed him into the largest laboratory I'd ever seen: an underground warehouse they'd allowed Dr. Ackerman to turn into his private world. Clearance was a cinch: he ran the lab.

I wanted to get him off the subject of my friends. The way he talked about them made me uncomfortable. They'd been sort of ignoring me lately. At least that was how it felt. I didn't want to be disloyal to them when I was already pissed off. I wasn't a rat.

Besides, maybe they were purposely giving me time to be alone. Arlene had said I could really be a pill when I was in one of my moods.

Well, why shouldn't I be? Albert and Arlene had a thing for each other. When they were like that they didn't want anyone else around, not even Fly. But lately Arlene was spending more time with Fly. They had this really gross brother-sister kind of thing going. When I first met them, I thought there might be something else between them. I quickly learned that was no way.

'Course I thought that might open the door for me to sort of find out if Fly would see me as anything other than a dumb kid or a computer geek. That went
nowhere fast. No one can make me feel like a kid quicker than Fly Taggart.

“I don't care that civilization has almost collapsed,” he told me one time when I let him see me dressing, or undressing—I forget which. “I have my own rules,” he said. “My own personal code of conduct. A kid your age shouldn't even be thinking about such things. Now cut it out!” He said a lot more, but I tuned him out. Lucky for him that his personal code was exactly the same as that of other adults. He called it the “your actions” principle, or the YA rule for short.

Fly was just like all the other adults I'd known, except that he was a better shot. A full-grown man is telling me what I shouldn't be thinking about. Typical! At least Dr. Ackerman didn't do that to me. But I sure didn't want him to pump me about my marine friends. I didn't want to tell him that I think Fly would rather fire a plasma rifle than make love to anyone. My opinion's none of Ackerman's business.

I didn't want the doc to know that I'd rather be a scientist than a marine. That's probably no big secret. I don't want ever, ever, ever to be a marine. I hate the haircuts.


ou'll find this fascinating, Jill,” Dr. Ackerman 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 zapping 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 decompose, 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 cacodemons, 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 between 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.


“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 Godzilla, 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 comprehends.”

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 attached, then it's grown somehow. The original version 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 containment. 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 flashlights. 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 transformation.”

“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 geniuses when they were alive?”

He laughed instead of getting mad. “You
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?”

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