Twelve scientists in comas. Each of them working on the frontiers of medicine, chemistry, biology, that sort of thing. Each found sitting upright in bed by wives, roommates, children. Each otherwise healthy -- but their souls took one-way flights out of town. Twelve of the best and brightest gone for good, and I'm trying to figure out why.
There are two common threads. The first is the faces. Usually, when you see a soul-suck, you're looking at a vacancy. There's a glassy stare, limp body, and lots of drool. But these scientists had faces twisted with spite and hate. Their eyes didn't move -- didn't respond to stimulus -- but shone with hate that was almost palpable. I got the sensation that each one was about to say, "Shining a light in my eyes? How dare you!"
Ten bucks says there's something from the badness of the Great Beyond hatching in those skulls. But that's not my problem. I want to know where the souls went.
The second thread is the timing. They were all found June 15th. Twenty bucks says twelve souls departed our tidy little corner of the universe at precisely midnight on the 14th.
And now I've got a line on a thirteenth scientist -- one that vanished without a trace on the night of the 14th. And that's why I'm waiting for nightfall to subdue a guard and use his keycard to get into the east stairwell.
She wasn't one of the best and brightest -- yet. Bauer-comma-Kristen had perfect SATs, played varsity soccer, and assisted on some pretty significant neurobiological papers as an undergraduate. Lots of awards, loving family, the usual "small-town-girl-makes-good" stuff. I heard the word "potential" a lot whenever I mentioned her name.
Surreptitious interviews with friends, lab partners, and so on filled in that outline with some interesting colors, though: a boyfriend straight out of the Thug Hall of Fame and a shared interest in the recreational side of pharmaceutical research. Bauer's friends hinted that she was slipping. She wasn't sleeping much, the boyfriend started disappearing for days on end, and she started to make mistakes in her lab work.
I'm hidden near the entrance of that lab right now. According to the security computer, no one has permission to access the east stairwell. It doesn't even appear on the fire-escape maps. That's the investigational equivalent of a big red arrow, I figure.
The guard comes around the corner, and I do my pain thing. He accepts the mercy of unconsciousness, I've got his key card, and now I'm in the stairwell. There's a door to the roof, the ground-floor door I just came through, and a squared-off spiral staircase going down.
I assumed there'd be cameras, so I'm glad when the power goes off, right on schedule. I also assume there's something passive on the stair landings (ten bucks says vibration sensors), so I attach a line to the stair rail and ride the rope down into the darkness.
I'm at the bottom, through a locked door, and choking another guard into unconsciousness when the emergency lights come on. So the lab is bathed in red light -- and this lab doesn't need weird lighting to look creepy.
It's got everything you'd expect from a cutting-edge lab; there are exam tables, an MRI unit, computers, and all the chemistry glassware you'd expect: neat rows of test tubes and cabinets of carefully labeled vials. But it's got everything that people like me expect from an occult high priest: channels on the floor for blood collection, chalkboards with ancient Sumerian death-odes written on them, and winged fetuses pinned to boards on the wall. Candles are everywhere, and there's even an astronomical calendar on the wall -- how clichéd is that?
You are an intruder, but I welcome you, says the voice in my head. It doesn't really sound like anything, but it feels somehow oily -- like I've got something slippery that's squirming in my ear.
I scan the room, and I see a glass canister atop a desk. Suspended in fluid within the case, I see a dark shadow.
Nothing wrong with gambling at this point. And if you're gambling, you might as well bluff. "Whose brain am I speaking to?"
The fluid swirls, and a human brain swims near the front of the case, propelled by tentacles dangling where its spinal nerves should be. I am Vanaakath the Red Seer. You have a healthy body. Together we could achieve a great deal. . . .
How dumb does it think I am? "I'll pass. And your master wouldn't approve of you cutting a deal with me."
Gilman is blind to the power I offer! But you are no fanatic. Think of the earthly pleasures that could be ours. . . .
Ten seconds talking to the brain canister, and I've already got a name. This is easier than I thought.
But then it gets hard. The brain starts bombarding me with dark, pornographic images. It starts with run-of-the-mill slave girl stuff -- which explains the Sumerian on the blackboard -- but then it starts getting twisted. The brain shifts the images so I get a first-person view, and naked flesh now surrounds me. It's an orgy of disembodied organs, blank-eyed corpses, and pulsating cyst-creatures I've never seen before.
Then the brain canister activates the pleasure centers in my head. My whole body starts to tingle. It's trying to get me to enjoy myself, and that's where I draw the line.
My pistol comes out of the shoulder holster. The first two rounds shatter the canister, and at least the next six hit the brain itself. I'm on the floor after that, trying to keep my own mind intact. But my hand keeps shooting until the gun is empty and I've got my head together.
I stand up and walk over -- I want to watch this thing flail around and die. And sure enough, it's thrashing weakly on the laboratory floor.
You're a fool, Agnar, just like Gilman. You fear the future . . . so much that you want to destroy everything . . . you could have had . . . a future of limitless power. . . .
"I'm no endbringer, brain. You were in my head, so you should know that."
I know a lot. I know how old you are, Agnar. And I know what you possess, but will not use. . . .
Then it thrashes once more and is still. I get the urge to kick it across the room, but I resist. You don't trust your own instincts for a while after something's been in your head. Instead, I begin the laborious part of my job. I start searching computer records, looking for anything about this "Gilman."
I'm adding you to the list, Dr. Gilman. Mark my words: Agnar likes the world just fine, and you don't get to end it all.
To be continued...
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