Kease knew he had to ease up on the throttle but he could no longer think clearly. The street rippled before his eyes. The sound of his cycle, once as familiar as his own breath, screamed beneath him like a banshee. His head pulsed against his helmet, his body ran with sweat. After hundreds of successful runs, countless medals and commendations, Kease had finally taken his last tour of Ritzville.
One of the Modos had bitten him.
The street rushed beneath him like black liquid, bare centimeters from the tips of his boots. Smoke boiled from the cycle’s engine. Calibrated to an absurd 300 kilometers an hour, the cycle had never seen such speeds outside of a test track. Kease tried to find sanity, the voice of reason that spoke to him in times of stress.
The Modos’ inhuman whoops and laughter filled his ears, erasing thoughts of everything but flight. If he could escape Ritzville, he’d be safe. He certainly wouldn’t live but he could die with dignity, without the sick fear burning inside him. He neared the turn that would take him to the expressway, from there to the Station and safety, but still he couldn’t ease down. If he tried a turn at this speed, he’d succeed only in flipping the cycle and throwing himself messily against one of the abandoned buildings. When the Modos finally caught him he’d be little more than a stain for them to lick from the bricks.
This image did nothing to stay his panic; Kease shot past the turn without even slowing. As numbness crept into his bitten hand, it locked forward, throttling up and up. The cycle’s engine developed an unhealthy whine. Finally the voice in his head spoke.
Easy, Kease, it cautioned. You blow your engine and you’ll die here. You’ll be dragging yourself away from a bad spill, if you can still move, and when those things catch you they’ll have you for a midnight snack. Count on it.
Finally his panic loosened. The cycle slowed. Just as he began to contemplate his next move, the engine started to hitch. A little at first, then great coughs that set the cycle lurching and bucking beneath him. He’d slowed in time to save it from a meltdown, but not soon enough to keep it from overheating.
Kease steered into a dead-end alley. Always the fighter, he turned the cycle around so the guns faced the alley’s narrow mouth. If the end game played here, it would last until the poison inside Kease made it impossible for him to fire. He’d fry scores of the filthy creatures before they ever touched him.
Once he’d killed the engine the night seemed very still. It wasn’t the actual Modos he’d heard behind him but the echoes of their cries reverberating through the deserted streets. He’d put more distance between them than he’d first thought.
If he kept his head, if the engine didn’t need too much time to cool, he might escape them yet.
Before he’d actually gone into Ritzville, Kease believed the job would be easy. The simplicity of it, combined with the pay, the power and prestige… why wouldn’t he want the job?
It was Company, of course, but these days all the real jobs were Company in one way or another. The only jobs guys like Kease cared about, at any rate. To travel anywhere with impunity and earn more money than he’d ever need, to make women swoon and make men quake, he needed a Company job. Or so went the picture Kease had created in his mind. During training he realized the women doing the swooning were mostly shallow, looking for the security a Company man could provide. The men in question turned out to be the same ones who’d feared him before, those easily intimidated by Kease’s size and strength. There was no real power, and no glory. He told himself he didn’t care, even though it had been beyond where his caring might make a difference. He’d signed his contract. Once you got in the Company you were in, for life.
Years ago he’d been a cop. He climbed slowly but with determination, all the way to the Federal Building. The broader scope of government work allowed Kease’s abilities to bloom, and the Company took notice of him sooner than he’d dared to hope. Their building towered into the sky, floor after floor, secrets built on secrets. Only a select few knew all those secrets. The executives, industrialists, and financial experts on the top levels liked to pretend they were the company’s driving force and not just the public face, but the real power lay in the sub-levels. Some talk had the sub-levels delving into the earth as deep as the tower was high, others said company tunnels were bigger than cities.
People like Kease worked somewhere in the middle. He was basically a baby-sitter. The Company was the parent; the Modos were its children.
Kease’s headache steadily worsened. What had started as a bare throb at the base of his skull now gripped his entire head. Every scuttling rat thundered like a herd, the Modos’ whoops were the howling of demons.
Kease sat against the alley wall, the bricks rough against his shaking body. He eased the glove from his wounded hand. The numbness had spread to his elbow. He closed his eyes, flinching when the torn vinyl dropped to the pavement with a sound like the report of a pistol. Several deep breaths later, he opened his eyes to survey the damage.
A small moan escaped his lips. If asked, his fellow runners would have called Kease incapable of such a moan. His veins bulged, the nails looked purple and corpse-like against his whitened skin. Between his wrist and his pinky, the bite glared red in angry contrast. Bloodless, the skin around it raised and humped out of shape, it looked more like a lump of wax than flesh. His hand still moved normally, but the skin around the wound felt like the hard edge that forms on poorly wrapped meat. Curious, he pressed down.
Something sped up his arm and burst at the shoulder, coursing throughout his body. It wasn’t pain, exactly, but an atavistic feeling of wrong. He slumped to the alley floor as spasms wracked his body.
When the worst of it stopped, Kease dragged himself back into a sitting position. Foam dried to a cracked glaze on his lips. His eyes narrowed into slits. He heard the laughter and garbled madness that passed for the Modos’ language echoing off the burned-out buildings. They’d gotten much closer.
“All right,” Kease croaked. “Come for me, then. See what you get.”
Kease pulled the semiautomatic from the holster at his hip. It fired hollow-point ammo from twin barrels at a staggering rate. The clips hung from his belt, some with a yellow stripe, some blue. The yellow ones contained gas; the blue, acid. A Company exclusive, just one of the endless toys cooked up in their labs.
Next he slung the automatic rifle from his back. The rifle operated silently save for the fan inside which kept it from overheating. The explosive rounds it fired had been known to cut grown men in half. The clips for this instrument crisscrossed Kease’s broad chest.
“Come on,” he whispered to the screaming, gibbering voices. In the darkness he smiled, his face barely human.
Kease never had reason to doubt his talents before the Company found him, but parts of their training program made him feel amateurish. The Accuracy and Aim targets were minuscule, the distances unrealistic. He still remembered his instructor as though he’d seen her only yesterday.
Doctor Jacob told the trainees they would start simply. One “simple” exercise involved shooting at a target less than ten centimeters across from more than seven meters away with a common handgun. After five straight misses, none of them close, Kease threw his gun down in disgust.
“One wonders how you intend to hit the target with that method, Mr. Kease.” Doctor Jacob’s voice sounded dry on the surface, but a hint of condescension lurked underneath. The others in the class, nine in all, stopped to watch.
“That’s supposed to be funny?” Kease barked. He stepped close, looming over her, using his size to intimidate. A cheap trick but Jacob’s tone had touched a nerve. Unaccustomed to failure, Kease hated and feared it above all else.
“With shooting like that you hardly need me to provide the humor.” Jacob appeared unmoved by Kease’s display. The other trainees tittered.
“Shut up and shoot!” she yelled at them. The dry hum of gun fire quickly resumed. Doctor Jacob turned to Kease, her eyes cool and unafraid. She bent down and picked up the gun where Kease had dropped it, never taking her eyes from his. With a casual glance at the target she raised the gun to shoulder level, then trained her dark, brown eyes on Kease’s blue ones.
She emptied the entire clip, the fifteen shots which remained, into the target. Her gaze, still fixed on Kease, never flinched. With the gun empty she inclined her head slightly toward the target. Kease, still bristling, turned to read the results on the screen above.
The targets and guns operated electronically. The screen, a blown-up image of the target itself, displayed the number of shots fired and the number of hits. Red dots indicated where the bullets would have struck if the gun fired solid rounds.
Kease couldn’t hide his shock. A fine spray of red, all within the center circle, covered the bull’s-eye. She’d fired fifteen times and hit fifteen times, all without looking.
His anger dissipated in a swirl of emotion. He felt humbled and elated at the same time. Could he learn what she knew? Unable to look at her, he locked his gaze on the screen. His mouth worked but no sound came out.
“How did you do that?” he finally managed.
“The weapon doesn’t shoot the target, Mr. Kease. You do.” She pulled the clip out and slapped it back home, erasing the screen and breaking Kease from his daze. “Try it.”
For the first time he took the gun from her with a sense of respect. He leveled off, took careful aim, and fired. The screen recorded one shot, but the target remained unmarked. Kease closed his eyes and sighed.
“You’re beating yourself, Mr. Kease.” Jacob’s smooth, flat voice sounded almost robotic. “Yesterday you hit the bull’s-eye four out of five with the target only three meters closer. The target was bigger but not the bull’s-eye. That never changes, even though it looks smaller. Trust yourself, trust your weapon. You both want the same things; work together.”
The soft, emotionless quality of her voice was like hypnosis. This time when Kease leveled off he felt neither confidence nor a lack of it, just the need to aim true.
“That’s it, relax,” Jacob told him. “Don’t hope – aim. Concentrate on the center, focus until that’s all you see. Breathe. Breathe out everything that isn’t the center of the target. Feel the gun as part of your hands. You aren’t holding a weapon, you are the weapon.”
Kease hit the target sixteen times, most of them in the center ring. The first seven hit the bull’s eye dead center. After that, when he felt some exercise getting the best of him, Doctor Jacob’s voice filled his head. He listened more and more, growing calmer as the exercises grew more challenging. That interior voice, always cool when the work became perilous, solid when his emotions raged in a thousand directions, made him the best. More than speed, strategy, or aim, Kease’s ability to keep his head made him a survivor at a job where death never forgave those who faltered.
By the time he completed training and the Company assigned him to Sector Five, he’d become more a weapon than a man. Once he’d mastered the cycle, his superiors very rightly considered Kease the deadliest man they’d ever created.
Still, his first day surprised him.
He needed all his will just to drag himself the few feet to the cycle, and once there it took several attempts to mount. A far cry from the fine tool which had started this run, his body jerked like a puppet controlled by some idiot master. Kease couldn’t tell if his limbs no longer worked or if he’d forgotten how to talk to them. To his whirling senses, the alley seemed less an innocent brick throat than a coffin, filled with the Modos’ shrieks.
Fear, no longer content to nibble at the edges of him, feasted on huge chunks of his resolve and his courage. Their footsteps, he could actually hear their footsteps. If he went to the mouth of the alley they would spot him, charge him in a writhing mass of corrupted bodies and reeking flesh, they’d clutch at him, they’d bite him, and just before they clawed him to bloody pieces he’d smell their rotten breath, hear their mad laughter mix with his screams . . .
Kease jammed his gun back into its holster and slung the rifle over his shoulder. His shaking limbs, blotchy and swollen, jittered around the cycle’s grips. The cycle still emanated almost enough heat to burn. He gunned the engine anyway, thinking only of escape.
The engine revved once and died.
An inhuman chorus responded. The sound it pulled Kease’s stomach into his throat. He heard thick, misshapen feet slapping against pavement. Sweat dripping into his eyes, his mouth set in a feral sneer, he gunned the engine again. Again it revved and died.
Too soon, too soon, too soon, his rational mind yammered. He gunned the engine again and again like an automaton. Something inside the cycle squealed in protest, whipping the grotesque mob just outside the alley into a frenzy.
As the first hunched, monstrous shadow hit the alley wall, Kease readied his weapons once more.
Kease’s first run consisted of five; three women, two men. The men’s girth and mass gave them advantage in close encounters but they usually had shorter careers. Generally, the women’s hand-eye coordination and greater agility made them ideal runners. A grizzled veteran named Ray Noonan, who everyone called “Noon,” led the team. The sleeveless Captain’s uniform she wore displayed numerous scars. Gouges on the left side of her face pulled her mouth into a permanent sneer.
“Today, one pass.” Her cultured voice clashed with the roughness of her face. “Don’t try to impress anybody, just do your job and get out of there.”
Some time ago in Sector Five there had been what the Company called an “incident.” No one working the Company Building’s ground floors knew exactly what had happened, but there were plenty of rumors to chose from. Some believed the Company had captured aliens, that the aliens had escaped and killed the residents of the glamourous area. Others swore the Modos had once been human, that they’d been infected by some germ the Company labs cooked up and they were the residents. Still others maintained the labs grew the Modos for slave labor, but they’d gotten sly and broken loose. New rumors arose from time to time but these particular stories refused to die.
Whatever their origins, the Modos grew more violent and hideous with each generation. The Company had tried gas, bombs, fire, and chemical sprays. They first poisoned the water and finally shut it off completely. Somehow, the Modos thrived. The Company decided it was forced to live with the Modos. Containment and thinning on a more intimate scale became the new order.
The Modos confined themselves to Ritzville, in the heart of Sector Five, leaving kilometers of abandoned, burned-out buildings between themselves and the rest of the city. When the first runners attacked (or “initiated population control procedures,” if you subscribed to Company-speak) the company broadcast music to cover the sound of the approaching cycles. It worked well the first week.
The Company lost three teams straight before they realized the music alerted the Modos. The company tried playing music at random intervals that had no relation to population control procedures, but the Modos went on alert every time. Finally, the Company broadcast music throughout Sector Five, twenty-four hours a day, making one prosperous Ritzville into an open-air nightlub.
The first attack of any given team usually took the Modos by surprise. Sometimes dozens of them were cut down before they even reacted. But when they realized they were under attack they never ran; they fought. Rarely one or two had mind enough to pick up a weapon. More often, the Modos just swarmed the cycles barehanded, overwhelming by sheer numbers. The runners sped off before it ever reached that point. Most of the time.
Kease had thought himself ready. They trailed Noon like a small flock of geese, two on both sides. Like the other three newbies, Kease jerked in revulsion at the sight of them, so much so that his cycle briefly swayed. The Modos, naked and hairless, skin mottled with white and blue and grey, gaping mouths from which any number of tongues might swing. None looked exactly alike, but each radiated the same aura of abomination and mindless murder.
After that first flinch, Kease broke away. As the Modos capered madly to the music, pus-like drool spilling from their chins, twisted limbs flailing in mindless joy, Kease opened fire. The cannons mounted on his cycle cut their loathsome bodies to pieces. Brackish blood sprayed across Kease’s wind guard.
“Kease, get in formation!” Rage and fear powered Noon’s voice over the roar of her guns as she began to fire. The others followed suit. Then the Modos surrounded them, making Kease the least of Noon’s worries. For each Modo that fell two took its place.
A lust for destruction Kease had never suspected stirred to life inside him. Even the might of the cycle’s weaponry couldn’t sate it. He steered one handed, adding his pistol to the cycle’s assault. The Modos incited more than repulsion in Kease; they offended him. They clashed with something he felt inside, some fundamental picture of what he believed to be right and good. He answered their death cries with senseless curses of his own.
Against procedure and training, Kease slowed the cycle as they attacked him, lingering so he could kill even more. He only realized his team had left him behind when he heard Noon screaming.
“Cut a path, Kease! Now, now!”
Kease saw the team pulling away, his concentration momentarily broken. Instantly the Modos swarmed him. What happened next became the stuff of Company legend. Kease stopped his cycle completely, whipped the rifle from his back with one hand, and, with the other still holding the pistol, blew the Modos back. It was close. Kease soaked himself with their blood. Bits of their flesh peppered his uniform. They clawed toward him, unaffected by the death of their brethren, but Kease had bought enough time. Firing his rifle across the cycle’s grips and using the cycle’s cannons simultaneously, he cut a path through the hoard of bodies. He gunned the throttle and sped through the gap just before it closed, finding his team once more.
Kease, uniform stained black with the Modos’ ichor, returned to the Station on the Company Building’s bottom floor without so much as a scratch.
He developed into a master. A few runners, the more experienced or the foolhardy trying to build a reputation, sometimes looped around Sector Five for a second pass. After the first attack, the Modos’ murderous appetites became frenzied, and a runner counted himself lucky to escape a second time. Whether skill or foolish bravado led the runner, it always took some time and many very successful runs before they attempted the stunt again.
Predictably enough after what happened his first day, Kease tried a second pass within the week. Unlike others before him, Kease enjoyed it so much he made another the next day. Soon the runners called him “Deuce” because he always made a second pass. They breathed the nickname with a respect which bordered on awe, but their eyes betrayed fear of his recklessness. Behind his back, many speculated that Kease had a death wish.
A few months later, Kease grew bored with making two passes on his nightly runs and began to make three. No one would ride with him. Kease, heedless of the Company’s reprimands, toured Ritzville alone. He turned in such incredible numbers that the Company left him in the field.
Kease would never have enough. In his deepest dreams he looped through Sector Five all night, randomly mowing the Modos down like the scythe of Death, until the first light of morning struck only empty buildings. When he awoke, the high of killing those subhuman beasts pounding in his head, he swore he’d risk everything – his job, his life – to make those dreams come true. Finally an obsession greater than power, greater than money or sex, had consumed him.
Of course the third runs became routine, easy, even when he didn’t allow the Modos to cool off in between. The rush slowly grew stale. Kease made plans for a fourth run. That rational voice kept him from it for quite a long time, but in the end the killing high’s siren call won him over. Four passes in rapid succession and they swarmed on him like maggots, more than he’d ever seen, scratching, clawing . . . biting.
The first Modo rounded the corner and Kease put its lopsided head directly in the cross hairs of his rifle. The Modo stopped, its lamp-like eyes glowing in the darkness. One side of its mouth was so swollen with teeth it couldn’t close its lips. The other side was a bare slit. It moved this grotesque orifice in the rough approximation of a smile.
It shouldn’t have had time to grin, or even to stop, for that matter. The instant it came into view, Kease should have disappeared its deformed head in a spray of blood and bone chips; yet he hadn’t.
His finger fell away from the trigger. For the first time since the Modo’s teeth sank into the back of his hand, his fear disappeared. Kease couldn’t imagine a reason why he’d want to kill the figure before him. In the perfect brightness of the alley he looked directly into its luminescent eyes and returned the grin. Other Modos tumbled into the alley, stopping when they saw the grinning pair.
Whispers filled the air, almost like laughing words. With wonder Kease realized he understood one word, repeated in a litany.
“Keez, Keez, Keez, Keez.”
Their voices doubled in his ears, gibbering and tittering like water bubbling down a drain, yet his mind heard their collective voice clearly. The urge to join it pulled strongly and pleasantly at his gut.
He swung off his bike to meet his brethren with open arms. They fell on him, not with hooked claws and tearing mouths but with caresses and drooling kisses. He opened his mind to their whispering voices.
The cycle’s engine finally cooled. It roared to life and he gunned it with satisfaction. Hands plucked tenderly at him, wishing him luck, safe passage, bidding him goodbye. He looked at his pistol, the Company’s instrument of death. The faint light glowing from his eyes glinted across its surface. With a grunt he holstered the weapon and sped off, a roar of killing rage splitting his lips.
The Company that had made him wasn’t far. Keez figured he’d start at the ground floor and work his way down.