It was a slow night in Rosie's Bar and I was the only zombie in the place. Four roughnecks from the hydrogen rigs near Waco were shooting a game at one of the pool tables and getting rowdier with every round of beer. Near the door to the toilets, a fat methanol trucker sat alone in one of the booths. He shoved some coins into Rosie's ancient juke box and stared into his glass of sour mash, lost in the whining steel guitars of a country song. Everyone in the room tried not to notice me. Zombies are always such an embarrassment.
The room smelled of stale beer, tobacco smoke and disappointment. Despite the modern 3V unit behind the bar, Rosie's place hung onto that antique twentieth century atmosphere, complete with lots of chrome trim and plastic table tops. Rosie herself was tending the bar. She was a Tex-Mex woman whose husband worked the rigs before he was killed in an accident. Even the local rednecks treated her with respect.
I sat at my usual table, near the front window, where I could look out at the ocean. The moon was full and I could see the Gulf combers crash against the shoreline, just an easy rifle shot beyond the parking lot. The beautiful June night and the whiskey were giving me a nice buzz. It was my birthday and I had a special evening planned. I had a captured Chinese bayonet back in my room. When I was drunk enough to numb the pain, I was going to go back there and slit my wrists.
A pretty blonde waitress named Sandra was serving the drinks. I signaled for another round and, as she put the glass down in front of me, I caught the look of disgust on her face. I understood that look.
Two years of exposure to DU ammunition and to traces of chemical weapons had taken its toll. At first, the Army would pull us out of the line occasionally for a few days rest. Later, when the Dinks began beating us everywhere, there were no more relief periods.
My unit was captured trying to escape over the border into India. By the time we were released from the Chinese internment camps, most of us looked like old men, with atrophied muscles and chalky skin. We moved stiffly and many of us wore sunglasses, day and night, shielding eyes made sensitive by malnutrition. The good citizens for whom we fought the war showed their gratitude by calling us "zombies".
I swallowed more whiskey and I was savoring the warm numbness it delivered when the spook walked in. So many of them had debriefed me during the war that I could spot one immediately. This one had dark hair and he could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty years old. With the terrific new plastiflesh jobs available these days, who can tell? He wore the gray jump suit and matching cape favored by today's business executives.
The pool game stopped while the hydrogen riggers glared at the intruder on their turf. The ethanol trucker was too deep in bourbon and reverie to even look up. Sandra smiled at the stranger, pleased to have a customer who wasn't the usual white trash. I just watched.
The newcomer might have been a corporate manager who had stumbled into a honky tonk by mistake, but he betrayed himself by the way he surveyed the room. Noticing me, he smiled and walked over to my table.
"Good evening, Lieutenant Royce," he said.
"It's just Royce. I'm a civilian now."
"Of course. My name is Eric Hudson."
Hudson extended his hand. I ignored it.
"May I sit down?" he asked.
"Suit yourself. What are you? CIA?"
Hudson sat across the table from me and he flashed another smile. His eyes above the smile reminded me of a cobra watching a mouse.
"I don't work for the government any more," he said. "Now, I represent an organization that does the Lord's work. I've studied your military file, David. I was impressed by what you did during the battle to retake Shanghai. You were a real hero."
"Heroes win wars. We lost."
"I understand your bitterness. You veterans haven't been treated well."
I stared out through the window so Hudson wouldn't see my face as I thought about how many of my fellow grunts had killed themselves since the war. I knew about others who were reduced to stealing or selling drugs for food money. A few, like me, survived by scavenging the dirty or dangerous work nobody else wanted.
"It's the way this country usually treats losers," I said with a shrug.
"David, your army records show that strange things happened while you were in hospital in Japan. Objects near your bed were seen flying around or shattering to pieces while you slept."
"Somebody was imagining things," I said.
I hoped Hudson wouldn't notice the uneasiness in my voice. The room felt colder as I remembered those nights since my discharge when I tried to asleep, only to have nightmares about laser flashes and the screams of dying troopers. Waking up sweating and shaking, I found my belongings scattered and broken, even items I'd been careful to leave across the room.
"The army psychologists didn't think it was imaginary," Hudson said. "They reported evidence of telekinetic powers, though they're still unfocused and uncontrolled. Nobody knows why, but many other veterans have shown similar abilities. Yours were among the strongest recorded. That's why I'm here."
"I don't have any telekawhatsit powers. You've wasted a trip."
"My group needs you for something important, David. Something crucial to the moral integrity of the nation."
"You have the wrong guy," I said."I lost my integrity long ago."
"If I can't appeal to your decency, David, then what about money? You probably haven't seen much since your discharge. We'll pay you well to help us."
"Keep your money and go away."
Hudson pulled a business card from his suit and tossed it onto the table in front of me.
"This is my private videophone number," he said. "Call me if you change your mind." He stood up and turned toward the big glass door of the bar's front entrance.
"Rosie shouldn't allow no faggots in here", one of the riggers drawled to his buddies as Hudson walked by. Showing no sign of hearing the remark, Hudson stepped out into the warm night. I picked up his business card and tore it into small pieces. I was staring out through the window at the moon when the flashback hit me.
It was raining, the kind of downpour that comes from nowhere and soaks you through to your skin, whatever you're wearing. The remains of Dog Company stumbled along a shell cratered road that wound out of the ruins of Quang Chu. We'd been retreating for two days, since the Dinks overran the whole of G Sector. Like weary robots, we plodded along in our rain ponchos, dripping wet and numb with exhaustion.
Though we silently cursed the rain, it was our salvation. Without the low cloud cover, we'd be cold meat for 'copter gun ships out on that open road. Even a Chinese battle chopper's infrared gun sights had trouble penetrating murk as thick as this. Our main risk was that we'd bump into a larger force of enemy ground troops.
Chuck Porter was ahead of me as we trudged on, single file and regulation spaced. Chuck was the youngest trooper in the outfit. He often joked about staying close to me because I was the "old man" of our squad. Chuck was sure I must have learned something about survival.
On either side of the road, charred skeletons of gutted houses and factories loomed out of the rain, their shattered windows gaping like empty eye sockets. Darkness was coming soon. We could pick one of these ruins to huddle in for the night, trying for shelter against the merciless downpour.
Chuck saw the old brick warehouse before I did. He stopped and pointed at it silently. By some miracle, the place still had a roof and a few windows with glass in them. If I stretched my imagination, I could believe it might be warm and dry inside. Chuck must have been thinking the same thing. He stumbled off the road and moved toward the building's weathered front door.
An eye searing flash cut through the gloom and Chuck's head was sliced from his neck. Before his body hit the ground, the rest of us were diving for cover. I cursed to myself as I flipped my helmet's glare visor down and thumbed off the safety on my LR1. We'd walked straight into a goddamn Dink ambush.
More laser bolts flashed out from the surrounding buildings. I pressed myself into the asphalt behind a pile of rubble and tried to merge with the road. A patch of brick on a nearby wall vaporized and I felt the searing heat of a near miss. The Dinks had us zeroed and they were enjoying a real turkey shoot.
Suddenly, a Chinese trooper popped up in front of me, so close that I could see rain dripping from his helmet. He aimed his rifle at me, but I fired first. My laser bolt ripped up his torso from his crotch to his head, splitting him in two. The falling halves reformed into two Dinks, both shooting at me. I toasted both of them, but now there were four. This was the same nightmare I always had. I screamed and fired, zapping the multiplying enemy soldiers until my LR1 ran so hot it seared my hands. A mound of charred corpses smoldered in front of me. I finally ended it by jumping up onto the pile of bodies and turning my weapon onto myself.
I was back in Rosie's, watching whiskey drip into my lap from the glass I'd just knocked over. Everyone in the room was staring at me, so I knew I'd been shouting in my delirium. Getting drunk had lost its appeal for tonight. I left some money on the table to cover my bill and I lurched to my feet.
I was walking a little better these days, though my joints still ached. The drunken riggers glared at me as I passed them on my way to the door. They were torn between their desire to beat the crap out of me and their fear that my physical and mental condition might somehow be contagious.
Outside, the sultry June night felt like warm water on my skin as I shuffled across the parking lot, toward the cheap motel where I slept. Times were pretty hard these days and the few aging pickup trucks and cars on the lot were a sorry looking collection. I should have known it was strange to see a sleek black European hover car parked there.
I turned when I heard gravel crunch behind me. A huge, bald man wearing a leather jacket and jeans strode toward me. He wore the twin lightning flash tattoos of the Dysan cult on each side of his face and a cigarette dangled from his mouth.
"Got a light, Pal?" he asked.
"Sorry,but I don't smoke" I said and turned away.
Turning my back was a mistake. I felt a sharp sting in my left arm and I turned to see the giant holding a needle gun as he grinned at me. A ringing filled my ears and my mouth seemed to be stuffed with surgical cotton. The full moon was whirling around the sky while the tattooed man rode it like a rodeo horse. He was looking down at me and laughing. My knees buckled and I fell forward into blackness.
Three months later, I was back in army uniform and riding in back of the black hover car as it cruised over the heart of Washington. It was late afternoon and the city's monuments threw long shadows in the waning September sunlight. On my right, the dome of the Capitol Building gleamed where the sun caught it. Hudson sat in back with me. Leo, the tattooed goon from the parking lot, rode up front. The hover car's computer was driving while the stereo played one of Hudson's favorite pieces by Vivaldi.
On every street below us, homeless people crowded the sidewalks. Mingling with the bop addicts, alcoholics and other damned souls were my fellow zombies, some still wearing filthy remnants of their uniforms. Their faces stared up at us in sullen hatred as we passed over. People who rode in hover cars inhabited a world that street trash could only dream about.
"Look at that rabble down there," Hudson said. "They don't know how to survive. You have to find out who has the power and get onto his team, no matter what it takes."
I said nothing. During the past three months, Hudson had broken me and turned me into his trained dog. Dogs are not allowed opinions. I looked healthier now than I had in a long time, if an observer didn't notice small details, such as the fact that the nail was missing from the third finger on my left hand. Leo had ripped it out when he and Hudson were persuading me to work with them.
I closed my eyes and the memories flooded back. I was strapped naked to a table, smelling my own sweat and fear while Hudson sneered down at me.
"I know everything about you, David," he said. "Your parents are dead. Your girl married somebody else while you were in the Army. You drifted down to Texas after the war, but you have no real friends here. We can do anything we want to you and nobody will come around asking questions."
Hudson let Leo play with me until I was begging for a chance to do anything they wanted, just to stop the pain.
The training sessions that followed were almost as bad. Every day would start with Hudson reading a passage from the Bible. He was a member of a group whose collective view of religion was to seize political power and then to force everyone else to follow its version of morality.
Under bright lights in a windowless room, I spent endless hours sweating and straining as I tried to move small objects by mind power. At first, the results were erratic at best. When I succeeded, Hudson gave me extra food or a chance to take some exercise. When I failed too often, he would turn me over to Leo.
"I like you, David," Hudson told me. "I really do. But, when you don't try hard enough to use the talent that God gave you, then you're a sinner and you must be punished."
One day, after Hudson left the room, Leo leaned so close to me that I could smell his foul breath. "Some day soon, we Dysans are taking over," he said. "First, we'll snuff all the gimps like you. Then, we'll take care of Bible thumpers like Hudson."
Days and weeks ran together like melting wax. The target objects blurred before me and I saw Leo's grinning face instead. How I wanted to smash that face! One day, the adrenalin generated by my hatred made something click in my head. Chess pieces began to move where I willed them to go. Dice flipped without my hands touching them. I made a coin float an inch or so above the table for around thirty seconds. I touched those objects with my thoughts and they moved for me. That's as close as I can come to explaining what happened.
Hudson was pleased and he set harder tasks for me. I was puzzled when he made me practice causing small electronic devices to fail. Because of their tiny components, it was tough, but I learned that each circuit had a weak point. I just needed to find it. Soon, I could cause a malfunction every time. Hudson made things harder by blindfolding me, so that I could not see my targets. I had to guess where their components were.
Finally, Hudson seemed satisfied. Just before we left my underground prison for the flight to Washington, he described my assignment to me. That's when I wished that Leo had just killed me in the beginning.
"Here we are," Hudson said, jolting me back to reality. The drive computer parked the hover car gently at the curb on a downtown street lined by weathered brownstone homes from another century.
"The house is number twenty-nine, just around the corner," Hudson told me. "Get out here because I don't want you to be seen leaving this car. Remember your mission. We don't want to generate a scandal. The woman is an atheist who poisons people's minds with her Communist ideas. Her death must appear to be from natural causes. Understand?"
"I understand," I said.
"Good. You've done well in your training, David. Now, go and do your job. It's for your country. For Jesus."
I watched as the hover car lifted off and sped away. Somehow, I felt more lost and alone standing there than I did while I was a prisoner. In the gathering twilight, I turned and walked around the corner, checking the numbers on each of the houses. Number twenty-nine was on my side of the street, with a hand-printed sign taped to its gate: Poor People's Coalition Meeting Here Tonight.
The property was surrounded by a rusting wrought iron fence that stood as high as a man's head and was tipped with sharp points. A large front gate was partly open. The Coalition members had picked a house where everyone would have to enter via the front gate. It occurred to me that they might be worried about uninvited guests.
The house reminded me of Old Man Livermore's scary place at the end of our street when I was a boy. That little boy was gone. Instead, I was the old man now, one who had aged before his time. I began limping up the sidewalk that led to the house.
As I climbed the front steps, two men stepped out of the shadows. One was blonde and wore a nose ring; the other was a black man. Both were bulked up like professional wrestlers and I didn't need to be told they were security guards. The blonde held out his hand and I gave him the identification papers Hudson had supplied to me. My uniform and credentials said I was Captain Thomas Baker of Fairness For Veterans, a zombie activist group allied with the Poor People's Coalition.
Blondie nodded to his partner who moved forward and ran a scanner over me to check whether I had any weapons or explosives strapped to my body. He found nothing. My weapon was embedded in my brain. Finally, the blonde man handed my papers back to me.
"Don't you guys want a blood sample?", I asked.
"Don't be like that, Bro," the black man said. "We can't be too careful. The Feds send troublemakers to disrupt our meetings all the time, never mind them right wing crazies. You go on inside now. Meeting's gonna start in just a few minutes."
I walked into the foyer and followed a long hall into a large room that must have been a library once. Two of the walls were lined with walnut bookshelves, but the books were gone. Crystal chandeliers overhead added a touch of elegance. The house had obviously fallen upon harder times. Paint peeled from the wall plaster in places and there were frayed spots in the faded burgundy carpets.
About thirty people were there already, talking in small groups. There were slightly more women than men and the crowd was mixed in age and ethnic origin. Most wore the cheap synthetic clothing of the underclass. I was relieved to see no military uniforms. Civilians were less likely to ask awkward questions about Captain Baker's background.
A few of the other guests looked at me as I entered the room. I tried talking to a lovely young woman who reminded me of Helen, my former girlfriend. She looked uncomfortable and she excused herself to go and greet somebody else. Next, I spoke to a white haired man wearing a clergyman's collar. He found an excuse to move away also. So, even these self righteous social activists didn't want to associate with veterans. No, I realized it was more than that.
I felt jumpy and it must be showing. My nervousness was probably contagious. I decided to be more discreet, no matter how much I hated the reason why I was here. Moving to the edge of the crowd, I stood alone, trying to look casual.
Minutes later, a portly man walked into the library from an adjoining room. He was followed by a tall, regal woman whose silver hair was plaited into a single braid. I recognized both of them from the photographs that Hudson had shown to me. He was Konrad Zaleski, a senior organizer for The Poor People's Coalition. She was Sharon Lindros who was on the government's list of dangerous subversives.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Zaleski announced in a rumbling voice, "I'm pleased to present tonight's speaker, Sharon Lindros."
While the group applauded, I moved to within a few feet of where Lindros was standing. As she waited for the clapping to subside, her expression showed such serenity and quiet intelligence that I began to understand her significance to the people in the Coalition. The years she had already served in federal prisons for her political dissent had made her an icon. These days, only outlaws like Lindros spoke out against the powerful few who ran the country.
Not that the political stuff meant much to me. I was here because of something that the silver haired woman's admirers could not see. Lindros had no heart. Three years previously, her natural heart had become so diseased that it had been surgically removed and a Samtron Mark IV was implanted in her chest. That artificial heart was now pumping the blood needed to keep Lindros alive. My assignment was to make the Samtron stop.
Hudson told me that he knew Lindros was an inspiration to the Poor People's Coalition. He hoped that the organization would die when she did. The masses would then know their place, stop agitating against the government and learn to obey orders from the new theocracy that was poised to seize power. The group behind Hudson would make sure that everyone would obey God's commandments, as they interpreted them, or else face the consequences.
Unless I followed Hudson's orders, I was marked for death too. I remembered his warning that I would be watched. I had no choice. I focused my attention on the left side of the woman's chest, remembering the design diagrams that Hudson forced me to study during my training.
Inside a casing on one side of the Samtron was a tiny oscillator that regulated the frequency of the pumping action. The control crystal was connected to its power source by two gold circuit links that were finer than human hairs. I tried to touch these tiny wires with my mind, willing them to snap.
Unaware of what I was doing, Lindros began speaking simply and sincerely. She talked about why the poor and the homeless must organize for a better life. I'd heard such talk from politicians before and I sneered at it. The rich always screwed the poor. It was Nature's way. Still, the words sounded less like rhetoric when Sharon Lindros said them.
Somehow, what she was saying cut through my concentration. I realized that I was nothing more than Hudson's tool, trained by the people who always ran the wars. I was trying to kill a woman who was only trying to help people like me. I felt a scalding sense of shame at what I had become. Judas. I turned away and stumbled toward the door.
Behind me, there were shouts and gasps. I turned to see Lindros lying on the floor while several people knelt to help her. Could I have done that? No, I hadn't made her artificial heart stop, but I'd be blamed for sure if I got caught. I walked quickly along the hall toward the door to the street.
The two muscular security guards were still on duty and they watched me suspiciously as I approached.
"What's going on in there?" the blonde one asked me.
"It's Sharon Lindros," I told him. "She had a heart attack. Better call an ambulance."
He ran down the hall toward the library. His partner punched an emergency call number into his wrist phone and was talking to an ambulance dispatcher as I walked outside.
The city streets were dark now. It was moonless night and a cold wind was blowing. Shivering, I walked quickly, without knowing where to go. Every time a vehicle passed, I tensed, expecting Leo to be coming after me. I turned onto a street lined by lighted shop windows and saw a young couple walking toward me, laughing and safe in their own little world.
I didn't know exactly where I was, but I guessed that I was just off Embassy Row, a few blocks away from the White House. Hearing a noise behind me, I turned to see Hudson's black hover car following me, cruising just above ground level.
Out on the street, I had no chance. Breaking into a limping run, I ducked into a garbage littered alley, hoping I could disappear into the narrow lanes between buildings. Too late, I saw that the alley was a dead end passage. Behind me, the black hover car settled to the ground, blocking the alley mouth, and sat there with its engine whining softly. The glare from the vehicle's halogen headlights made me shield my eyes as Leo and Hudson stepped out onto the pavement. I caught a glimpse of Hudson's face and his expression told me he already knew what happened back at the Coalition meeting.
"After all your training, you failed me, David," he said. "We had a radio frequency chip sewn into your clothes, so we've been tracking you every second. You disobeyed orders, but it doesn't matter. Lindros is dead. We had a second agent there tonight, just in case you lost your nerve. Unlike you, he didn't fail.
You're such a fool, David. Do you think I really believe all of that religious rant that my group spouts? They don't believe it themselves. What they really want is power and we're on the threshold of getting it. You could have been part of that, but you threw away your chance. Kill him, Leo."
The tattooed man grinned as he pulled a pistol from his jacket and screwed a silencer into the barrel.
"Sorry, Gimp," he said. "I was almost starting to like you.
At least I'll make it quick. You'll hardly feel a thing."
Leo aimed his gun at me carefully, taking his time as he savored the enjoyment of killing. I saw my death in his cruel gray eyes and I realized what would be my only chance.
Hudson stood next to the car, glancing at his watch while he waited for Leo to finish disposing of me. He looked up just as the muzzle of Leo's pistol swiveled in his direction. Hudson's face twisted into an expression of amazement.
"Leo, you fool, what are you doing? "
Leo's gun coughed twice. Hudson was slammed back against the hover car by the impact of the bullets, his eyes still staring in disbelief as he crumpled to the dirty pavement.
Like a man caught in a bad dream, Leo stared down at Hudson's body, then he kicked the corpse savagely and turned to face me again.
"How the hell did you make me do that?" he demanded.
"What's the difference? You wanted to get rid of him."
"Sure, but not until the Dysan Nation was ready to rise up.
"Now, I'll have to vanish, but not before I take care of you." Leo was pointing the gun at me again. His powerful arm began to tremble as he struggled to steady his aim. Despite his big muscles, he was not so strong mentally. This time, he guessed what was happening and I saw his eyes widen in surprise. We were both sweating and trembling with intense concentration while he tried to squeeze the trigger. For a few moments, I thought Leo would win, but then I felt rage rise within me for all he'd done to me. God might forgive, but I wasn't so easy. Finally, his arm lifted and his elbow bent until the gun's muzzle was pressed against his own forehead.
For the first time, I saw fear in his eyes.
"Please..." he begged in a hoarse whisper.
The gun fired and the tension in my head ended instantly as the bullet blew apart Leo's skull.
Hudson and Leo should have known. If I could be trained to move inanimate objects, why not control living muscles and nerves? That made two killings for me tonight. Shivering, I leaned against the brick wall of a nearby building and vomited.
When I felt calm enough, I backed the hover car out into the street. I kept the vehicle under manual control because the drive computer might be programmed to return the car to Hudson's base. If I was lucky, the bodies would not be found for a couple of hours. Hudson's organization would send someone to hunt me, but I planned to abandon the car as soon as I was safely out of the city. Rolling the driver's window down, I inhaled some of the cool night air as I drove away.
I remembered that Hudson told me there were many other veterans who had mental abilities like mine. All they needed was the right training. And a leader. Hudson's masters might not know it yet, but the real war was just beginning.
Bio: George J. Condon works as a computer security specialist for a major Canadian bank and lives in Toronto, where he and his Belizean wife enjoy the music and art that the city offers. Writing science fiction offers George relief from a career field that emphasises detailed facts. During those long Canadian winters, he finds the notion of travel to a distant star appealing, provided that the system will have only warm planets.
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