|EarthBound Angels 2,5
Author: JC Borch PM
Stand-alone series in the telling of Earth-Bound Angels, featuring the government agent John Kilburne and his dealings not only with the city he works for but also his own mysterious being and the constant threat of magic.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Sci-Fi - Chapters: 13 - Words: 111,487 - Updated: 05-14-13 - Published: 05-11-12 - id: 3021429
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
2 d, 4 m, 116 y ATG (2. of March 2202)
Amber had called him personally to her office, said it was an urgent matter. Urgent matters involved some sort of scolding so it was with apprehension and an uneasy feeling that John wandered Mattlock Industries. Official matters were Lawrence's business, so it couldn't have something to do with the recent destruction of a Prima City research lab in Thorne's Backyard (the former Alaska). John had thought this would involve him somehow, forcing him to chase the culprits down, but the past week had been silent, not even a regular old assignment.
Perhaps Lawrence had been impaired and Amber had taken over in his absence? But there wasn't anything that could bring down Lawrence, a man even tougher than John. It had to be a scolding of some sort, but what had he done wrong now? She scolded him when he put himself at great, unnecessary risk or when he neglected to take his holidays. Contrary to his promise, he had not taken even a single day off since his forced vacation five years ago. Perhaps it had something to do with that? What else could it be... perhaps he should have used the silence from his employer the last week on something constructive, like another vacation? It couldn't be because of the independent job he pulled last night. She seemed to encourage it as a healthy outlet.
He was alone in the hall with only the flickering and spitting of torches to accompany him. The walls were made of grey bricks fitting together perfectly without any need for mortar. The floors were a dark wooden colour, barely visible beneath the dull brown carpet with its diamond shapes. The most magnificent part was the fountain with trickling water installed next to Amber's office, literally. A niche had been carved into the wall and a statue of Julia, the founding member responsible for Prima City's design, stood on a small island in the middle of the upper pool and looked down dotingly on all passers-by. Water flowed down the wall to a trench where it got recycled and thus the process kept running.
It was a shame that something that beautiful had to be reserved for so few eyes, but it was essential to keep it here. Amber had the power to call upon fire, mostly inadvertently, so a source of water was good to have nearby. Her fiery powers were present in her nature as well. Usually warm and comforting, it could get out of hand and become a raging storm. John made a mental shudder, hoping he would never have to confront that side of his sister again.
The door melted away at his touch, signifying he had access to this office, a privilege few would ever have. The importance she held was reflected in how close she was to Lawrence's office, being right next to it. Barely any of the office holders would ever need to venture this deep down the hall. He stepped inside cautiously, alert to any sudden wild swings in the temperature. What awaited him inside was more of a surprise than a shock, leaving John curiously baffled.
CHAPTER 17, PART 1: QUIET SLOPES
Section 162, LIS (Limited Interior Security) Correctional Facility for the Criminally Insane, living quarters
That damn Smoulder, once again taking initiative. As the Special Agent, it was Agent Saget's job to authorise cases they would take, not him... dragging him out early morning to a correctional facility as far away from Central as you could get, what was he thinking? He would just have to endure for now; perhaps if he behaved they would find a better job for him somewhere else, somewhere higher up the hierarchy where they respected authority and rules.
"Dogface, you're late! Hope it wasn't too long a walk from the car."
Case in point. The red-haired man waved at him from the end of the hall with a big smile on his lips. They had enough cases to go through as it was, no need to begin requesting some as well.
"I hope, AGENT Smoulder, that you won't forget we have several pending cases waiting for us back at HQ."
"They've been pending for a year, Dogface; they can pend a few hours more."
Agent Saget hated these correctional facilities. Sterile and white, somehow even more so than hospitals. At least they had the illusion of freedom, in contrast the barred and reinforced cells here. Not to mention his father had died here. They were criminals, after all, why worry about ethics when their corpses can be turned to fuel.
They were in a facility for low priority criminals, people who had offended the law with drug possession, lewdness, indecency, uncontrollable anger, in other words, petty stuff. This wasn't the place for murderers or rapists, so the security was understandably lax. Not even a single robot; just armed guards plucked from the police force.
"So what is so durn important, Agent Smoulder?"
"Come take a look," he replied and motioned towards a cell whose door stood open
The large, bulky Agent Saget drew closer and was met with a grisly sight. A man, missing his head from lower jaw and up, lay in a pool of his own blood and urine. The walls were smeared with blood as some sort of instrument had repeatedly bashed at this man's head and his blue, striped pants were wet from an involuntary discharge of the bladder. He was so badly disfigured his own mother wouldn't be able to recognise him.
"What are we dealing with here, Agent Smoulder?" No more than a week ago, he had seen Agent Smoulder cringe at the sight of a corpse not much more mutilated than this, but now he was excited and smiled.
"The name of the victim is Spa "Weak Piles" Cher, a known drug peddler and occasional user. He was to be released today after three weeks of brainwashing as a new and better man. He suffered severe external trauma to the skull, most likely caused by a blunt object. The blows weren't powerful, but were repeated enough times to more or less eviscerate the victim's head. Extreme emotions are implied, but appear inconsistent with the number of similar cases. This was most likely not personal, but the act of a vigilante," Agent Smoulder said.
"I've never heard you sounding so professional, Agent Smoulder, but I'm afraid I must disagree. There is no evidence of vigilantism and it seems more likely that this was drug related. How about we leave this to Narcotics?"
"I figured you'd say that! This was found next to the body."
Agent Smoulder handed over a small green object, a rather cheap and hence disposable computer. Cost practically nothing and capable of displaying only a few pictures, a short video or a few pages of text. The latter was the case with this one. Agent Saget twisted both ends of the small circle and extracted a cloth-like substance held between the two. Another twist made a screen appear and Agent Saget read the message out loud.
"This man is known as Spa "Weak Piles" Cher, in rehabilitation for crimes involving possession with intent to sell. However, that is not the true crimes of this man. A mother lost two of her sons, the only family she has left in this world. There is no justice to be spared from this city so I had to step into action. Justice has been served and may God show his soul mercy in Heaven for he will find none on Earth... signed by The Bludgeoner."
"You can't tell me it's all a bunch of hooey, Dogface! I admit that chupacabra in the garden was farfetched, but this is... this is real."
Agent Saget sighed and wiped his face before answered. "Yes, Agent Smoulder, I admit that the Bludgeoner is real, BUT... but I think we have two different opinions about him."
Agent Smoulder looked at his partner curiously, before erupting into a big grin. "There we are, Dogface, my partner. I knew you were a reasonable man."
"As I said, Agent Smoulder, our opinions about this... Bludgeoner differ. Whereas you revere him as an immortal avenger rooting out crime in the city, I like to think about him as not one man, but several, working together in some form of secret communion."
"Forget what I just said, Dogface. I have heard a lot of theories in my time, but that is the one I have debunked the most times," Agent Smoulder said disappointedly.
"Regardless," Agent Saget said and went into the hall. "We shouldn't dwell on this case anymore than we have to, Agent Smoulder. We turned up no evidence and I guess all clues would lead nowhere, so we should return to the pile on our desk."
"You're right... you know more about the Bludgeoner than I thought!" Agent Smoulder said and joined his partner.
"Yeah, I attended your seminar five years ago and I know all about your interesting theories, Agent Smoulder, so save me. Now come on," he said and began walking down the corridor with Agent Smoulder right behind him.
"I'll have you know, Dogface, I have shrunk the pile significantly in the last few days. Many of the cases could easily be dismissed as overactive minds at work and the rest was mostly victims of the Bludgeoner," Agent Smoulder said, proud of himself.
"Don't let the work consume you, Agent Smoulder, or I will find you on the floor of an inn again."
"Yeah, about that," Agent Smoulder said and scratched his neck while looking away. "Could you do me a solid? I really need a voucher."
"I'm sorry, Agent Smoulder, my economy isn't bad enough for me to accept discount tickets from the city," Agent Saget said with a hint of contempt in his voice.
"What? No, no, no... no, I need you to vouch for me! I'm trying to get Rose, my daughter, back but I need someone to keep an eye on me. If I can stay sober for six months I can get my custody back!"
Agent Smoulder was visibly pleased and ran up next to Agent Saget to keep up with the large, blonde man. "I'm honoured, Agent Smoulder. Sure, why not." Agent Saget didn't sound honoured, but Agent Smoulder didn't seem like that deterred him any.
"You do know you're also supposed to check on me after the six months? If you see me drunk or high anywhere at any time, it will be up to you to report me immediately."
"I'm aware, Agent Smoulder."
"You are? Not many people know the ins and outs of the system like that, Dogface, since most don't get to a point where they lose custody of their children."
Agent Saget took a while to respond which was spend in solemn silence, the kind of silence he was famous for that choked words in people's throats. "I wasn't always a detective, Agent Smoulder, nor even a police officer."
"Ah, right... we all got to start somewhere. Heh, I knew you'd say yes so I took the liberty of signing you up instantly."
Agent Saget's struggle to keep his fists from leaving his side got harder day for day. But he was supposed to stay with this man for most of his day anyway, so it was fine, wasn't it? No, it ruddy well wasn't fine. What if he had said no? Then Agent Smoulder would have just begged and pleaded until he had said yes. He was lucky that Agent Saget had to be so compliant. If this kind of guy had taken a seat next to him, they would have to scrape him off the floor after an hour and here he was, respectable Agent Saget who had worked all his life for seniority, stuck all day with a rule-snorting fellow like this. How much longer could this partnership last without someone losing their teeth? The thought of his partner's workaholic attitude was the only thing right now that managed to keep his temper under bounds. All those cases that he would have had to go through, gone. How many had Agent Smoulder deemed worthy, he wondered. Probably too many, looking at yesterday's chupacabra case.
"So, do you like it?" Amber asked enthusiastically.
"I don't know what to say," John replied. Before him, propped up on a mannequin with the same measurements as himself, was a brand new suit. That Amber would even have a mannequin like that was a testament to her fondness of making clothes for John, but what had this woman done now? John slid a finger down the fabric and felt the softness, but also an underlying hardness. Typical of Amber, the suit must be deceptively sturdy, not to mention fire-proof.
"Well, try it on, John. I still need to see how you look, but I'm pretty sure the colours are just you."
"But... you know I'm not wearing anything underneath," John said in relation to not just the jacket and shirt, but pants and shoes as well. Did that woman really need a wooden effigy of John with a white linen over it?
"Come on, you don't have anything I haven't seen before."
That wasn't really the question here, but whatever. John just had to swallow his modesty. He knew better than to argue with Amber, it would only end with her winning, so better sooner than later. She hurried around him and took his jacket while John threw his shirt down on the white tile floor, undid his boot and finally buttoned up his jeans. It wasn't comforting that she was still smiling. Oh God, don't let Lawrence walk in me now, John thought as he with a deep breath slipped out of his pants and at last stood as God intended him in front of his sister.
"You're looking great, John. Not as handsome as Lawrence, of course."
John hurried and put on the pants first, before she could have any more of a chance to goggle at him.
"John... you got to be careful out there, you understand?"
"I'm always careful," John said and buttoned his new pants.
"I mean it. Lawrence has a new assignment for you."
"An assignment? Haven't had one of those in a while." Putting on the undershirt.
"It's not a regular assignment, John. They say magic things are afoot."
"You know me, Amber. Magic or no magic, I'll put any case to rest." Putting on the jacket and tie.
"I'm just telling you to be careful, John... you haven't even found a girlfriend yet, have yet?"
"We've been over this, sister of mine. I don't feel like engaging in a relationship with anyone since they'll just die on me, inevitably." Slipping into the shoes while doing the tie.
"It hurts, John, I know," Amber said and shook her head. "Yes, they'll die eventually, but you're focusing on the wrong thing. You could live happily for years."
"All right already," John said and adjusted his jacket. "Done."
"Not entirely," Amber said and procured a hat and put it on top of John. He was now dressed in a black zoot suit with purple pinstripes; wide pants that narrowed by the ankles, a long coat with wide shoulders, a visible white shirt and a black, wide-brimmed hat with a red feather stuck inside a purple band. A mirror with wheels underneath it had been placed for his convenience so John took a glance into it.
"I... I like it, Amber, but what is the meaning of this?" John asked.
"You looked like a frigging Nazi skinhead," Lawrence said as he entered his assistant's office. "Several opinion polls describe your image as downright scary, so I asked Amber to make you something snappy. This, however, is the reason why I usually oversee her projects."
"You think I went a little overboard?" Amber asked teasingly.
"I don't really care," John interrupted, "but how will I fit any of my stuff into this?"
"But that's the ingenious part!" Amber said excitedly and rapidly got close to John and wheeled him around so he faced her. His previous jacket lay sprawled across her desk and from it she obtained several items, first and foremost his hammer. "Instead of using several clasps on the inside of the coat, I equipped the shirt with suspenders instead which allows for easy access to your weapon."
John took his weapon which he used very little outside of status symbol and inserted it head first down his back. He heard a little click and the sledge was now in position, feeling amazingly light. "The weight is distributed not only to your back, but all over the body. Any encumbrance problems you had before will now be gone. And as for the rest of your gear, well, there is a pocket for everything."
True enough, John found space for his sunglasses by his chest on the left inside, his vials in small holders on the right side inside and his gun by his left hip outside. Countless other pockets allowed for a substantially larger amount of stuff to disappear on his person. Whatever the coat was made of, it was soft and far from the stiff leather of his old one, but felt durable and fireproof. He was probably even better protected now than he was before, not to mention more mobile.
"Do you like it? Please tell me you do," Amber said.
"I do, very much, but you really didn't need to"
"Of course she did, didn't you hear what I told you?" Lawrence asked. "People were scarred of you, John, and you're supposed to represent the city. Can't have you sending all the wrong signals, can we?"
"Of course not. So, I hear you have an assignment for me?" John said.
"Amber told you as much, eh? Yes, a peculiar one indeed, so take care down there."
Lawrence extended a green button, the computer that would hold the information he needed for his next assignment. John twisted both ends of the small green button and extended it into a cylinder. A further twist revealed a screen, projected with light.
"But... this case is five days old," John said after a quick glance. "Why hasn't this reached my attention sooner?"
"Because the case wasn't initially anything big, despite the horrific murder," Lawrence said. "It was concluded with an investigation into Quiet Slopes Recreational and Physical Centre underneath the City which took place earlier this morning. We never heard from the five officers again and contact with the Centre was also subsequently lost. We need someone like you to investigate. Might be nothing, but it's most certainly something."
John gave the cylinder a quick stare again before folding it together and stuffing it inside his jacket again.
"I'll be on my way then," he said.
"Take care," Amber said and pecked him on the cheek. "If you get into trouble, don't be shy and call for backup."
Audio transcript from unofficial investigation into the Zero Force project, taken from a meeting between head scientist Portimmor Inguire Acknifies (HS) and project manager Russell Rowe (PM) on 20 d, 3 m, 116 y ATG (20. of February 2202).
PM: How is the project coming, Professor Portimmor?
HS: Slowly but surely, sir. We are avoiding most, if not all, of our previous failures and are currently producing successes at a nearly 100% rate.
PM: I am pleased to hear this, but do tell me, have you found a way to imbue adult humans with Zero Force yet? It would be so much better if we could use actual soldiers rather than little girls.
HS: I'm sorry, Sir, but the forces unleashed by Zero Force has torn all of our test subjects apart. Only those who have gotten it injected during the early embryonic stages stand a chance.
PM: I do not need to remind you that Project Conflagration is as far as we, perhaps even farther? Last I heard they will be field testing one of their guinea pigs soon.
HS: R-really? I suppose I could gather all the most promising of our girls from the various research centres, but it would take me at least a month of rigorous tests to see who would benefit more from staying and...
PM: I will give you a week and no more. Ten years of research is on the line here, Professor, we cannot afford to lose so close to the finishing line.
HS: Right Sir. I'll get right on it.
Quiet Slopes Recreational and Physical Centre underneath the City, main office, section 73
The only access from the city was through an elevator from the headquarters, one of only a few places that allowed direct civilian access to the grounds beneath. Most other access points were restricted to cargo and workers and connected the city with factories and farms, while the civilian ones mainly connected with smaller cities for the absolutely rich or various novelties that could not fit in the city. One of these was Quiet Slopes, a peaceful centre for recreation and physical activities, an enormous complex with tennis courts, spas, amusement rides, movie theatres, everything for older couples to enjoy their last years or young people to go wild. Being under the city also meant a practical lapse of Prima's laws and Quiet Slopes was famous, or perhaps more correctly, infamous, for the rumours about prostitution, gambling and drinking. The suspicion was only fuelled by the city's ban on promoting Quiet Slopes was illegal and it existed mostly as a rumour of a utopia.
This, coupled with the gruesome way that this fitness instructor had been killed in, led John to think about a case some five years earlier. The Butcher had put down roots on a Spanish island that had been occupied by Prima City as a tourist haven, and slowly abducted both workers on the initial project and later visitors, tortured and mutilated them and finally turned them into the walking dead. Mr Yinglaternes, however, showed no signs of zombification and the situation beneath the city had escalated violently over just one week. Besides, no matter how hard John searched, he could find no evidence of any prior mystical disappearances. Perhaps the Butcher worked in a different pattern than he had realised before, or he might not even be involved in this at all. Whatever the case was, John would get to the bottom of this, and his first destination was the offices of Quiet Slopes.
The glass doors slid into the walls of the white marble building and allowed him passage over the threadbare red carpet that slithered over the hard, wooden floor, in other words, a typical Prima City official building. Originally designed by the Human Front during the first years of Prima City, it was now in the hands of a private investor who had continued to run the place and expanded it to make it appear legit. Not that the city could care any less for what happen outside of it or even under it. Grinning faces of previous owners greeted him from both sides of the walls of the narrow entrance hall, wallowing just outside the frame in their money.
"I'm sorry, sir, but Quiet Slopes is currently undergoing maintenance and will remain closed for now. We do not have a re-opening date yet, but do check in with our website to keep up-to-date on the progress." The young woman behind the crescent desk was eager, no doubt working here to afford a trip herself. Her message was moot to John however, but it surprised him she couldn't see who he was. After all, it was forbidden to dress as John Kilburne Jr without strict permission from the city.
"My name is John Kilburne Jr, ma'am, and I am here to investigate."
The young lady squinted. "I'm sorry, sir, may I see some ID?"
Confound it, what was wrong with her? Did he really look that different? Regardless, he had no time for this and took another green button from his coat and handed it to her. She scanned it with a little rod and her eyes widened with surprise when she saw what the confirmation. She bowed her head in shame and handed the computer back to him.
"Forgive me, Sir, I did not realise. Please, go on."
John put his pc back into the coat and strode past the desk to a set of ten doors, each of them containing an elevator to the installation far below. These were no doubt not the only ones, but any others would be service elevators for personnel and goods. Door number 7 melted away as he approached and revealed a large room filled with tables, chairs and more pc's which acted as magazines. On a normal day, the room would be filled with people waiting for their turn to ride the transparent tube, but today it was abandoned and John had instant access. He stepped inside, the doors closed behind him and the oversized see-through plastic can began to move down.
The first part of the trip went smoothly as John slid through the building and next the square it was standing on before finally moving through the distortive forcefield that kept the city floating in the sky and the ground beneath it black as tar. Everything around him went dark for a moment before the glowing bubble around Quiet Slopes illuminated the darkness beneath his feet. It was when he penetrated the protective bubble around it that things went wrong. The elevator completely lost its grip on John's car and he plummeted the rest of the way down, several hundred meters. He hit the ground with a thundering crash scant seconds later. The entire elevator structure, car and tube alike, was destroyed completely in the process and John got entangled in the twisted, thick plastic pieces. A mortal man would have surely perished from a fall like this, but John brushed it off. Of course, if he could get himself free that is.
"Good afternoon, John Kilburne. I knew you would come sooner or later. This would all have been in vain if you hadn't come."
He looked around, but saw no discernible source for the voice. It didn't sound like a speaker and there were no one around anywhere to talk to him, but he recognised the voice, though it had been more than a hundred years. "Lord Arcanum I presume?" John stated simply.
"Oh ho, oh ho ho ho ho! You remember me, Herr Kilburne? Then you must realise you are now in a world of my making, where my word is law. Abandon your feeble notions of up and down, cast aside your ideas of nature, for I, the twister of reality, scoffer of laws of physics, the one and only LORD ARCANUM, have taken this facility under my wing, AHAHAHA!"
"Sir, there is an intruder by the elevators," a new, female voice said.
"What. You dare interrupt me in the middle of my speech? Du schmutzige Dirne! ICH WEISS SCHON, ES GIBT EINEN EINDRINGLING!"
The perplexing, unseen argument was followed by several dull thuds, similar to a fist striking meat. At this point, John had already managed to get himself out of the debris and dusted himself off. "I'm sorry, Herr Kilburne, I have no more time to talk. I'll see you again somewhere if you manage to survive. Auf Wiedersehen."
John stepped out into the street and immediately felt rain dropping down on him from above. He looked up and saw only bleak darkness obscured mostly by grey clouds illuminated with thunder. The protective bubble which produced light and kept the environment safe was gone, and even if it wasn't, rain down here was impossible. They were still under the city and precipitation would be unthinkable, like snow indoors. Yet the gloomy sky wept its tears and soaked a city that had never known a sensation like this. Even John hadn't felt the rain upon his face in a while, having lived in the city for so long. He stood for a moment, taking in the delightfulness of cold water running down his cheeks. His clothes were surprisingly water-resistant and thought he should be soaked to the bone, he only felt it where it touched his skin. A woman's yell awoke him from his stupor. There were other people here? He had to investigate.
The rain was muffling other sounds and even sight and made it hard to navigate, especially for a blind man who only reluctantly opened his eyes. He had landed in the commercial district, where expecting guests would also first arrive. Their hands would be empty, their accounts brimming with money and their minds set on relaxation and adventure. They would come here and see the many store windows and temptations, free of any luggage which had been conveniently transported to the hotel, just so that they could indulge. Candy shops, toy shops, bars, tailors, souvenir stores... this was one big, outdoors mall where awnings and parasols had been a thing of the past, a curiosity from before the war that primitive cultures still used. Never would anyone have even considered installing rain guards of any kind.
John strolled down the streets, past bakeries and confectionaries and delicatessens, trying to locate the yelling. The voice was muffled, but it was a young woman. "Stay away from me, you freaks." He was getting closer, down alleys where young people would retreat to make out now empty. The splashing of feet resounded as echoes from walls, like a cry of help that she thought no one would answer. She was leading him into a dead end. Was she even aware of it herself? It was impossible to see two feet ahead through the masking rain and the surroundings blurred out into a grey mass. Even one who had life here his or her whole life would easily get lost, especially since they would never have had a chance to see their city blanketed by grey clouds.
Dull thuds reverberated like small beacons. Sounded like she might have a weapon, and was forced to use it. The fact he could hear it clearly meant he was getting closer. What kind of opponent would he face here? Dinosaurs perhaps? Strangely, though, he only heard the sound of shuffling feet, not that of keratin claws against stone pavement. Prehistoric creatures were the henchmen of the Lord Arcanum, whereas the walking dead where the servants of the Butcher. Could he possibly be facing two enemies this time? Could it be even Phantom Lord was here?
He passed several dumpsters as he wandered leisurely down the alley. He sensed that the woman was in no danger, and if she were, he would have measures to stall her death. Hopefully he wouldn't have to use those scary techniques.
One of the undead suddenly went flying, out of the rain, barely missing him and landing with a sickening splat behind him. Seems like she would be okay, even without him. That was his thought at least until she saw the swarm around her. The unthinking dead were exceptionally unintelligent and rather slow. They were mashed against each other in the bottleneck alley in their attempt to be the first at her delicate meat. People who had once been tourists, clerks, bellboys, guards and shop owners had lost not only their life, but their sanity as well. Bereft of their mind and soul, their flesh was left with an insatiable hunger. They would even devour each other if left without supervision. Nothing more than mindless drones, walking flesh and bone that could only think of killing and someone was trapped underneath the pile of zombies that would sooner choke her than eat her.
John raised his gun with alarming calmness. He no longer considered these things human, he had gone through that whole thought process so many years ago when he was last faced with these fiends. He needed to do something fast, not necessarily powerful. He carefully rolled the drum to the fourth setting and allowed the energy within him to get channelled through the plastic Colt Python replica. To anyone but him, it would be a harmless knockoff, a toy without even a trigger. But for John, it was his most prized possession that could turn any situation in his favour with its wide variety of functions. It had been a long time since he had had any use for the machinegun, but today was time for just such an occasion.
Yellow orbs the size of small pearls shot out in rapid succession and showered the decaying mob. They were fragile creatures and they would be eternally rotting until someone put them out of their misery. Heads disappeared in fine red mists with fragments of skull and teeth spraying everywhere. It would be insane to fire such an imprecise weapon into a crowd when you knew someone innocent was inside, but John was more than a mortal man, much more. He carefully made constant calculations and adjusted the line of fire accordingly. The barrage didn't stop until they all lay dead, again, on the ground.
"Thank you kindly, sir," the woman said and stepped forward. She was tall with strong legs and a freckled face and wore brown leather boots, blue jeans with the legs ripped from the knees and a yellow and orange plaid shirt. Her long hair was neatly held back in a long ponytail, drenched from the torrential rain cascading down from the heavens. "Ah swear, you have the finest gun-toting skills this side of the Mississippi. It ain't safe though, we should get out of here. Come on."
She darted past John, through the rain and down the alley. He wasn't sure if he could trust her to find shelter on her own, considering how she had got herself cornered. But perhaps it had just been the stress? He shook his head slightly and caught up with her. She was clutching a large plastic bag under her right arm, filled with all kinds of food and other stuff to survive with, like antiseptics and bandages. She must have been getting supplies when the storm caught her.
It still wasn't easy navigating the maze of small alleyways, but they eventually broke free and entered the main street again. She looked up and down before deciding on down. John followed her into a diner, the door jingling as it opened and a little girl in a yellow dress and with a red bow in her red hair immediately embraced the survivor he had found.
"Sis! You were gone so long, Ah was starting to worry," the little girl said.
"It's all right, Penny, just a lil' ol' storm is all," the survivor said.
"Did you get the painkillers?" another voice said. John hadn't had time to get a good look around the dimly lit room before a man's voice called out as well. He sat in the far corner, wearing worn jeans and a red lumberjack shirt. He looked a bit like Lawrence with a powerful jaw, but his chins had blonde stubbles and his hair was short and blonde.
"Right here, Bob," she answered, rummaged through the bag and tossed a small white bottle at him. He grabbed it with his right hand, opened it and took a few.
"Why did you take so long, Muddy?" he asked.
"Ah told you not to call me that when we got company. Everyone, I'd like you to meet mah saviour, Mr... uhm... Ah'm afraid Ah didn't catch your name, stranger?"
Only then did everyone in the room realise John was here as well. He felt a lot of pressure on him, but knew he couldn't stall his answer for long. "The name is John Kilburne." As he said the words, a fork of lightning illuminated the room and the terror on their faces was like cast in stone. He knew what they feared, and he had to assuage them quickly. "Do not fear, citizens, I am a combat/detective android built in the likeness of the hero from the Great War. I have been sent to investigate the weird goings-on down here. Your claim to citizenship does not interest me the least."
He knew what they were. They couldn't survive the harsh conditions down south. The east coast was a mountainous desert, and the west coast was a humid jungle. They had hoped to gain entry to Prima City, but for some reason were denied. Most likely a stubborn unwillingness to give up their creed. They had drifted to Quiet Slopes instead, probably hearing a rumour somewhere. They might be considered slaves, but they were paid and fed, although still living in squalor. They were illegal immigrants and had no rights. Prima City couldn't care less for them, but the prospect of being tossed out weighed heavily on their minds each and every day.
"Your kind ain't welcome here, robot," Bob said.
John was, of course, not a robot at all, but it was the best lie he had come up with yet. He should have thought of it sooner! Now people didn't have to question why he didn't seem to be breathing, or why he never slept or ate, especially during prolonged stays around others. Hopefully no one would realise, in their awe or fear of the city, that the production of a machine with such likeness to a human was utterly farfetched, at least if it should look good enough to infiltrate mankind. John turned to leave, but Penny clung to his leg before he could leave.
"You helped mah sis, didn't you?"
John peered into the watery eyes of the little girl and wished he could feel something. Sorrow, love, joy, melancholy, anything, anything but nothing. "Well, she had it pretty much under control when I arrived. I just helped her get out of the rain quicker."
"What you did for me... Ah can't thank ya enough," Muddy said and bowed her head. "Ah'll help you in the only way Ah can. Ya said ya here ta help, so let me make it easier fer ya. Ah don't suppose you have a map of this here facility?"
John reached into his pocket and retrieved the green cylinder he had received from Lawrence. He opened it and called forth the map while locking the other functions. He didn't want her to see the gruesome details of this mission. She took it in her hand and began to play around with the screen.
"Now, Ah'm afraid you're map is mite outdated. Ever since things began falling to pieces, the layout of Quiet Slopes has changed somewhat. Paths have gotten blocked while others have opened up. Giants holes in the road, trees falling down, rubble, cars... Why, it can be a maze out there, but fortunately, Bob and I spent a lot of time scouting around."
"He wasn't... bitten, was he?" John asked, trying his best to sound nervous which apparently worked as Muddy started chuckling.
"Nah, clumsy oaf just fell off a ladder and landed on a cinder block." She handed the computer back and it didn't take John many seconds to see a pattern forming.
"If I read this correct, there's only one place to go. Sports Centre 01?" The map had become a horrible mess of doodles, but his amazing analytic skills quickly allowed him to process even incomprehensible data. Then again, this wasn't exactly a formula for rocket fuel.
"Mmm. But you won't be able to enter, Ah'm afraid. Someone put up new locks and Ah have no idea where the keys could be."
"Yeah, there are three locks on the darn thing. Someone really don't want us to go there."
"Then that is where I should go. Thank you for the map and try to stay inside if at all possible. It's just not safe out there anymore."
"And thank you for saving my sister," Bob said. "We owe you one, so let me just tell you. Although you won't have to fear for the undead inside, there are still things inside with claws and teeth."
"I'll remember that. Perhaps I'll see you again when all this is over."
John left the diner and the door jingled almost imperceptibly over the rain. The drops fell like hail and splattered with angry force all over the already wet streets. John's computer, and any other's for that matter, was completely rainproof. He studied his map again, memorised the data he knew so he wouldn't have to be distracted and look at it constantly and put it back into his pocket.
The broken elevators was somewhere behind him on the main street and he would be able to advance forward for a while, but he would eventually have to stray right, towards the sports centre. He pondered as he walked... three locks must mean three keys. He knew that Lord Arcanum was a showman from their previous encounter so entering would not be impossible, just difficult. It seemed almost obvious that he would have hid the keys somewhere along the path.
There were three odd dead ends on the map, places where the path diverged only to suddenly stop. If this was just a singular way to the sports centre, what would he want with three dead ends? Three dead ends and three keys. It couldn't be a coincidence, but what would be awaiting him at the end of the dead ends? He would have to find out only by investigating.
The rain came down without any seeming incentive to stop and monsters lurked just outside of the field of vision; their moans drowned out by the drumming of water on stone. The first key, if keys were indeed hidden where he surmised, would be just ahead of him. He realised at this point that he had not studied his map well enough. While he knew in intimate details the shape of the market district, he had not taken the time to see what the different buildings were used for. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to see a small waste management plant at the end of his path.
While all sections of the upper city were powered by human waste, bodily as well as plain trash, he had not expected the lower parts to be as well. The building was large and green and had two towers, one on each side, so there could be no mistaking it, especially as the gate forbade all entrance for non-employees. Fortunately, it didn't pose much of a hindrance. It was clearly unlocked and swung open with a slight creak at John's touch.
He stepped into the courtyard surrounding the building itself and looked around. Would he have to venture inside? The doors wouldn't budge; locked, so obviously not. So what then? What else could he do? Was he wrong? He had only theorised that the keys would be hidden like this, but where else could they be. John turned around and was met with a growl. Dogs, like all pets, were forbidden in Prima City and people only ever saw animals in books and the few zoological gardens, and he had certainly not seen a dog in a long time. Making matters worse, the skin was peeling off of this mutt and it wasn't clear at first this was supposed to be black, the species... probably a Doberman in life.
Once, this dog had alerted its personnel to stranger during the day and patrolled the premises at night, viciously biting tourists who ignored the warning signs and the barbed wire strewn out generously across the brick walls. Now, it simply guarded a key tied to its collar. Anyone who would wish to continue had to first wrestle with this undead hound. Fortunately, such a task was a relatively minor one for John who was able to shoot it with an air of calmness around him. His ineptitude to feel most emotions also precluded him from fear, making him dangerously reckless at time where his analytical skills were slower than his actions. Against a simple guard dog however, no problem. The head of his adversary disappeared in a mist of blood and brains and the collar rolled off the neck, allowing him to quickly snatch the key off the body. One down, two to go.
The next odd dead-end was off the main street. A massive truck blocked the way further ahead and he could just make out the bungalows and hotels in the distance. He was forced to take a little detour then and disappeared down a side street with more shops around him. There were no way ahead from here, it simply lead to what he presumed would be a hole in the ground. More undead enemies awaited him, posing no challenges with their fragile heads. The rain mingled with their cursed blood and coloured the paved street red with watercolours.
Jewellers, bakers, clerks, all of them once having respectable jobs, had been reduced to slobbering beasts, driven by impulse and desire, capable of speaking only in gargled moans. They no longer had any interest in mortal whims and thus, necklaces were left in their display cases, food was left to rot and no illegal withdrawals had been made. The dead had become guardians of a dead city. Here, everyone was equal; young and old, rich and poor, united in their thirst for blood and hunger for meat. They roamed the streets, searching for prey. Unable to feast, they had resorted to devour each other, but now John was here. They were confused as he didn't smell of food, but he was definitely alive.
Even the police officers Prima City had dispatched had fallen before the undead. Their corpses desecrated by necromantic magic, they were now guarding the second key. They were unable to use even simple tools and the guns they had taken with them had not been enough. They had once again been resurrected, still wearing their uniforms and helmets, designed to withstand all types of shock guns. John's weapon was, as a consequence, ineffectual and he could not risk upping the charge lest he should pulverise the key in turn. He had no choice but to test out Amber's spring-loaded sheath.
John reached behind him and true enough, the handle of his hammer slid into his waiting fist. He withdrew the sledge from its place on his back and brought the majestic weapon down.
He had five opponents, a typical squad, consisting of four officers and a captain. They were dressed in the usual garb; black boots, dark blue/green pants, a black bullet-resistant shirt, a shock-absorbent white coat, dark blue/green gloves and helmet with visor. Four of them had "Officer of the Law" emblazoned on their coat by the left chest, while the last had "Squad Captain" in its place.
Their uniform was designed to withstand energy weapons, projectile weapons and melee weapons, both edged and blunt. Now they had to see if they could withstand the impact of a 13.5 kg silver-coated hammerhead. John disliked using this weapon, ordinarily reserving it to send a message. He was a strong man, but he wasn't exceeding any human limits in that department. He furthermore had little training or skills with it and his attacks depended wholly on his own astonishing ability to take a good beating.
The cops approached him from their hideout in front of the hole. They were as sentient as the other creatures around here, that is to say not at all, and pounced him like they were ferocious beasts, devoid of any training on group formation and hand-to-hand combat. They weren't fast either, but they clawed and scratched and screamed and snapped at him. He swung the hammer in a wide circle and the beasts were too dumb to dodge. He caught two of them with this attack, pounding out any remaining life in them.
The other three came at him from different sides and latched on to him, trying to get at his neck. He sent out a small yellow pulse wave to repel them, scattering them away from him. He carefully calculated their numbers before decided who to approach. One of them got up quickly again and snarled at him as it advanced, but John's hammer was there quickly to make the skull splinter. The other two attacked again, but he was ready for them as well.
His hammer quickly found its targets, aiming expertly at the heads, their weakest point. You could tear off their limbs and rip their torso in twine; as long as they had a head they would continue to attack. And it was over. He stood, bathed in the blood of his enemies, but he was now a key closer to opening the doors. If the key was even here. He searched the pockets of the various officers he had killed, but his search turned up nothing. He looked up into the sky and felt the rain drip into his sockets, a refreshing moment to wash off the blood. If not here, perhaps a little further ahead.
This street would have led directly to the sports centre and John could see it in the distance, a big square yellow building, but a hole had opened in the road. It spanned from side to side and allowed no passage, being too big to jump across and unable to navigate around with buildings on both sides. A blue car was parked precariously at the edge, its front wheels grasping for the eternal darkness of the abyss while its rear wheels clung on to the pavement for the dear life. Its trunk was broken open and the hatch lost, gone. A key had been placed here along with the guns of the police officers, standard issue shock guns. One blast from these bad boys could penetrate clothing and most civil defence armour and neutralise any opponent, rendering them immobile with an added side effect of complete loss over one's bodily function. Non-lethal weapons that had been discarded and forgotten by their wielders.
John took the key and pocketed it along with the other one. No longer serving any purpose, the car now gave up its will to live and plummeted into the hole. He stepped back so as not to follow it and watched it as the darkness swallowed it. He stared at it for a while, but he never heard the crash. It could have been deafened by the rain, but just as likely with the Lord Arcanum involved, the pit was truly bottomless. No need to dwell on it any further, so John backtracked.
With the direct route blocked, the only way forward was through the maze of back alleys where he had found the girl. This was mostly homes for the shop keepers and various personnel working here, but just to be confusing, the layout had changed quite significantly. Many of the buildings had crumbled and blocked the way ahead, while others had apparently disappeared into thin air. What had once been a crisscross of intersecting streets was now a labyrinth filled with the shuffling dead in pouring rain. Somewhere inside here was the last key and also the way to the sports hall. He would play this game, for the moment, for what other choice did he have? His way back had been irrevocably destroyed and he needed to secure the safety of any others caught in this web. The Lord Arcanum would probably have left them all alive to torment them, but the Butcher had almost certainly been here, so the prospect of more survivors was slim, but not exactly non-existent.
John stood before the entrance with the map before his vision, remembering down to the last detail how this place had been laid out. Hopefully Muddy's corrections were still applicable and nothing had been changed any further. Then again, she did lose herself in here, but was that because of the rain? John walked in determinedly, taking a left, another left and then straightforward, shooting the various undead that approached him. Once you knew the design of this confusing mess, it was actually a fairly straight forward road out of here. But without the keys, of course he wouldn't be able to advance. Locks wouldn't normally pose a problem since he could essentially blow them up, alternatively taking the whole door with it, but he was no longer in a world of sense or order. This was the realm of the Lord Arcanum. There would be no shortcuts here under and the guy tended to be extremely pernickety about finding any holes in his design.
Had John wandered in here without an updated map, this large square of houses and alleys would have taken up most of his time, but that was not an issue to him. Not even the rain could manage to dampen his already morose spirit. The last trial to get the key was one of morals.
The path ended in a large courtyard, the only one that had survived. A swingset, a seesaw, a playhouse and other assorted entertainment for children was scattered about. The undead here were no longer employees or men or guards or police of any kind. It was women and children, all of them with a deranged look in their eyes, blood gurgling out of infected holes that had once been mouths. They didn't moan, they shrieked. The woman screamed like banshees in despair which would clutch at mortal hearts and fill it with hopelessness, while the children wailed without tears, filling anyone coming here for the key with discouragement.
This was nothing compared to the demons he had to run around with it. Anyone coming here would fall to their knees and be taken by darkness amidst the tears and cries and be torn apart by small hands that had once clutched toys, that had once loved. John hated to involve innocents into his fights, but these people died a long time ago. Although their flesh was still here, haunting the ruins of their demise, their souls were long gone. John did what he had to and remorselessly killed every last one of them. The soggy corpses fell before him and his gun and left were only their bodies. John snatched they key off of a woman in a blood-stained blue dress and turned his back on this massacre without a second thought. Was this the way that they all had went, all the people down here? Was this all that awaited him, soulless corpses wandering around like epitaphs to the revelry that had occurred here? Were there really people left like Muddy and her family or where they just ghosts?
With all three keys in his possession he could now enter the sports hall, but what horrors still awaited him? He emerged from the back alleys and into a parking lot where empty cars intermingled with more zombies. This place covered a lot of ground and tourists were advised to rent a car to get around. Even those that had never tried it before could, it was a simple matter of just telling it where you wanted to go. The bubble system above was way more practical, but perhaps not as applicable down here. Or perhaps they just used cars for that exotic feeling, since so few people were allowed to use cars up above. Understandably enough. If anything went wrong, the driver would have to take over but with no training, catastrophe would ensue.
The sports hall was even bigger up close and probably the oldest building here. If memory served him right, this building was erected many years ago for the enjoyment of the small population here until the Human Front bought up everything and converted it to a sinner's paradise for exclusive members. After their downfall and the return of the area to civilian hands, the building was still standing and converted back to its original purpose, having served most likely as a casino or some other thing forbidden in the city.
The large red double doors had been outfitted with a new lock, or rather, three of them in the ornate nature of the Lord Arcanum. Keys had long been outdated by humans, at least in the more advanced cultures. Ordinarily, doors were a solid mass of force set in some recognisable shape, programmed only to admit certain people. Those with administrative powers could additionally override the door and allow others to enter. This meant that civilians could simply leave their house without worrying about locking the door, since they and perhaps family and friends were the only ones with authority to enter.
But the door in front of John was solid, not because it was a force field beyond which he had no business, but because it was a physical barrier of red-painted steel. Despite having been put into place no more than a week ago, it was already severely weathered and the paint was dropping off in large flecks. A heavy chain had been wound around the bars used as door handles and a single, massive padlock swung from its midst in which three holes had been set. One hole had been encircled with red, another with blue and a third with green, corresponding to the colours of the three keys in his possession. It was a simple puzzle, but one that could easily have meant doom for any unwary adventurers.
The keys slid easily into to their nooks but could neither be retracted nor turned. Once all three had been placed appropriately, the keys, as well as the chain and even the doors, vanished. They had been real, but in an unreal world, the real can vanish quite quickly. Would that be the fate of John as well or was he perhaps unreal enough to survive here?
He stepped forward into the entrance hall where a greeter would normally sit and direct people towards their physical entertainment of choice. A place as big as this must have everything from bowling lanes to tennis courts, all accessible from the halls that went in all directions from here with doors to the left and right and two in front and stairs up and down. But the woman who sat behind the desk was not a greeter. She was called Krankenfrau, the feather-brained assistant of the Lord Arcanum, and she was, as always, dressed in a Florence Nightingale nurse outfit with her feet rudely planted up on the desk, smiling and waving at John.
She was a demon for sure, with a long tail wagging behind her, fleshy of colour with a little tuft of hair as black as the shoulder-length hair on her head, cut into two curtains on either side of her face. Wherever she was, the Lord Arcanum was never far away. Indeed, he was here in person, hovering defiantly not too far from ceiling at a slanted angle. He still dressed like he had a century ago, in other words, like a rainbow typhoon had hit an outdated clothing store. His shoes were of worn red leather, his pants of holed orange silk, his waistcoat a coarse yellow material, his green jacket covered in grime, his blue travelling cloak frayed at the hems, a cracked indigo monocle on his left eye and a violet bicorne hat with barely visible strands of brown hair escaping out underneath. He was tall and handsome with an indigo moustache and his smile was equal parts arrogance of smugness. His glance was assertive and yet also almost chuckling.
"So, you couldn't come this far without cheating," he said, his accent strongly influenced by German, his voice threatening and bored.
"I'm not playing your games, and if you didn't want me to cheat, you should've killed those people at the entrance."
"Hmph!" he said and smiled. "Yes, truly it's my own fault, but there's something you're forgetting here. You've been playing my game, John, from the moment you set foot in my world."
"So why don't you just kill me? You're oh so powerful; it must be easy to just do away with me."
"Indeed, I could crush you with little effort, but that is the difference between men who possess no power and those who do. Weaklings will try any method at hand, even resorting to backstabbing and ad hominem, to achieve their goals. Men like me, on the other hand, can exert their power at any moment they want, so while I have you in my control, why don't I have some fun? After all, it wouldn't be fair to you."
"Nyahaha!" His assistant gave out a sickeningly girlish laughter behind him. "You're so cute when you try to be serious," she said and pressed her hands against her face.
"SILENCE! JUST SHUT UP!" he screamed, turning from cool to livid in a matter of seconds. He turned around and sent a bolt of lightning her way, but she merely vanished so that the furniture she had been occupying splintered into a thousand pieces. "I believe we're done here, Mr Kilburne." The Magical looked back at John and adjusted his hat, before slowly hovering upwards. "Come to my hideout if you can, but be wary of the dangers you'll meet underway"
"Wait!" John exclaimed. "Tell me, is the Butcher here as well?"
"Goodbye, John," and with that, the Lord Arcanum vanished in a cloud of smoke. The chapter ends here, but John's adventures in Quiet Slopes continue in Chapter 17 part 2. Follow him then as he tries to reach the lair of the Lord Arcanum, possibly his most dangerous foe for his hands-on approach and superior attitude.