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Even now I tend to draw a veil across what happened for the next however many hours it took - it seemed at the time to take an eternity. It is a box that I dare not open.

I make no pretense whatsoever at being brave. I had no more choice in the matter than a frog being vivisected by a particularly cruel young boy, and I had no choice but to endure. I screamed until the pain in my throat from screaming reduced my screams to grunts and moans. I wept until my tear ducts would no longer function. The bastards gave me injections of drugs that kept me from fainting, kept my heart from stopping from the shock, basically forced me to be there to experience my mutilation which, as promised, they carried out very slowly and deliberately and in an order that ensured that the final removal of the resulting charred hamburger was almost an afterthought.

Finally they left me alone - I would guess that it was around dinner time, as the light from outside had faded.

I hung there, artificially awake, all night. They didn't return to torment me, but one of them returned after dinner to sit in the room with me and occasionally make adjustments to the drips into my arms or the apparatus set up between my legs that poked up inside of me and periodically, randomly caused me spasms of great electroshock pain - probably a catheter since I'm sure that my premature death through kidney failure was not a part of their plans.

At some point, I don't know when, my pain was replaced by a burning anger. I actually woke up then, for although I was alert before I was alert only to the pain; for the first time I was thinking, just a bit, around it. I stared at the grey cowled figure sitting at a desk on the far side of the torture chamber, going about his quotidian business as if I were just a side of meat hung up on a rack. I began to fantasize horrible, incredible revenge, wrought upon the entire sorry race. I began to wish for him to drop over dead, to go into spasms and die horribly before my very eyes. I wished for this with all my might, for hours.

Grey daylight had just begun to come in through the window when, to my great and eternal surprise, he did. Spasms and all.

I didn't dare to breathe a sigh of relief, but my hope was growing in leaps and bounds. There was a chance, a very small chance but a chance, that I might get out of here, if only to die on my feet and with a blade in my hand but that was enough. I knew that if I could but get to my blades they'd never take me alive again; even immortality won't repair a blade through the heart.

Enough time passed for the sun to make it well up into the sky when the door opened and a cautious Sharra came through it. When she saw me she blanched and I thought she was actually going to faint, but then I saw a steely expression come into her eyes and she came towards me and very efficiently began to unstrap me.

I held still - what else could I do? I lay there, exhausted, while she looked for and found surgical dressings, injected me with something that actually started to make the pain go away, smeared stuff on the raw flesh that remained where they'd skinned off my nipples and buttocks. What she did with the ruin between my legs after she managed to retract the metal screwed in where my sex used to be I don't know, but the pain reduced to a ghost of what it was before, enough to know something was wrong but not crippling. Somewhere in there I fell asleep.

I didn't sleep long - maybe an hour. Sharra was just returning to the room and it was still fairly early in the morning. She came over to me and looked at me and said, ``Can you move, Sam Foster? I need your help.''

Experimentally, I tried moving my fingers and toes, then my hands and my feet (which fortunately they had left alone). When I tried to move my legs it was as if lightning were racing up and down them as the skin around the cauterized and skinned patches was stretched, but after a few tries the pain dulled down to an achy stiffness I could live with. In the process I discovered that I could cry again - my tear ducts had refilled - and finished with tears streaming down my face.

Tears of rage. While she watched, neither helping me nor hindering me I hobbled, naked and mutilated, across the room to where my clothing and swords lay in the same heap they had doubtless dropped them in when they stripped me. I managed to get my kilt on - fortunately it didn't rub up against any of their worst work, but I found myself walking bowlegged to keep from touching my oozing inner thighs together. I shrugged on my mail vest and sheathed Julie, keeping the saber out to use as something of a cane.

Sharra came up and did something to the collar on my neck and it came open and off. Hers was already removed. She looked again at me and this time I could see tears in her eyes as well as she surveyed the wreckage of what had once been a man. ``We have to set off the EMP bomb, Sam. I don't know where it is. We have to do this before the computer manages to awaken any of the clones.''

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, and hobbled out into the hall and down the stairs, out into the light of day, with her following behind. Everywhere I looked there were the dead bodies of masters. At the bottom of the stairs to the outside was the once-again dead body of Brin, staring sightlessly up at the sky. I made doubly sure by using his chest as a convenient place to support my weight with my naked blade, skewering his foul heart in the process.

Aside from being two days early and my near-crippling mutilation, we were actually dead on schedule. Sharra was, as I pointed out, a gangbusters biochemist. Furthermore, her entire, well, ``guild'' works better for me than religion - was focussed on biotechnology, as witnessed by her biocomputer implant. They'd captured a number of the little grey men long, long ago and performed an extensive study of their biology. In particular, they had studied what prions might be crafted to affect them.

Prions were not, actually, living matter. The particular prions they engineered wouldn't ever actually reproduce - they were closer to being an organic toxin than to being a virus, but they were a genetic toxin. Basically, they consisted of a head that would attach itself to nerve cells only and inject a one-time payload of DNA. This DNA would then take over certain cellular functions in such a way that a particular substance would be synthesized at a billion times or so the natural rate. Around six hours later, the first nerve cells would start to misfire and then lyse, and the process itself would then cascade to complete nervous system breakdown in less that a minute, triggered by a massive release of a particular hormone from the first cells to go.

From mid-afternoon on, all the food and drink served to the little grey men was laced with massive amounts (relative to a fatal dose) of prions, which their detectors were incapable of detecting. Sometime around midnight the first deaths occurred, unnoticed; by early morning every grey man who had eaten the day before was dead. Since they liked to eat and there weren't that many of them on site, that was all of them, or almost.

The brains and spinal columns and peripheral nerves of those affected were reduced to literally mush.

Unfortunately, their death triggered a fully automated resurrection process, run by their DEMigod node, that took roughly twelve hours to complete. The node itself Sharra had somehow put to ``sleep'' using a different kind of virus that she injected, of all possible ways, in through the transducers of her own collar, using her own body as a the peripheral interconnect to s very special code sequence contained in her bioimplant. It wasn't adequate to destroy it, but it had caused a kind of a system crash, and it would take many hours for the system to be able to reboot into a repair mode, solve the viral code, and run a scrubber program to remove it and repair the primary kernel. We had at least until noon before the first of the grey masters would be awakened, perhaps and hour or two more before the DEMigod could repair and reboot itself and basically no time at all after that, as it controlled vast resources that would kill us instantly or worse, recapture us to permit the continuation of my slow dismantling, as soon as ``it'' was self-aware enough to direct those resources. It was roughly ten o'clock.

As we limped over to a nearby truck I saw a fair number of human slaves and servants and guards wandering about. They seemed to not know what to do. I accosted one as we went past him.

``Hey, you,'' I croaked. It was somebody I knew vaguely from work crews. I struggled to recall his name. ``You. Radas.''

``Ewanos? Is that you? What happened to you?'' he replied.

```They' happened to me,'' I gestured at one of the dead masters nearby. ``Listen. In a short while one of two things will happen. Either the dead will be resurrected, and come back angry. If that happens, I expect that every collar here will go off at once.'' I drew my finger across my throat in a suggestive way. His eyes widened as he saw that I no longer wore my collar.

``Or,'' I continued, ``This old volcano will come back to life and this foul place will be drowned forever in a lake of fire. It all depends on whether or not we can get a daemon awakened first. Either way, it would be a really good idea to be someplace else in less than two hours.''

``What should I do?'' Radas cried out, at the same time another acquaintance who was listening in, Gerhon, began to guffaw. This attracted the attention of a small crowd as he stomped over to stand in front of us.

Gerhon was somewhat of a bully and at one time I had thought of him as a good candidate for a broken leg at midnight, if one went in for that sort of thing. ``A lake of fire? Some joke...'' said Gerhon. ``Look you all,'' he raised his voice. ``The masters are all dead. The dead don't come back to life. All their riches are ours to loot. This one,'' here he pointed to me, ``desires to take them all for himself, so he makes up stories to scare us off. He works down inside and knows where they are. See? He is taking this truck to carry them.''

The crowd (such as it was) began to murmur a bit amongst themselves, and even Radas looked a bit confused. Gerhon was actually a really good public speaker! Who knew?

I took two steps towards him, and my sword flicked out faster than lightning. Gerhon's head tumbled to the ground. I turned back to Radas, who was now looking a bit pale.

``Believe me or not, I don't care, much.'' I turned towards the truck, moving now like the old, old man I felt like once again. ``But if you want to live, collect everybody you can find and head for the exit cave. Don't stop until you reach the other side, and if you get out the other side and they're not waiting for you, you'll see obvious reasons to keep going until you reach civilization.

Sharra helped me up into the back of the truck where I could stand, as sitting was unthinkable. I held on to the bar while she navigated according to my instructions. The elevator took us down to the maintenance level, and I guided Sharra to my little space. It was still undisturbed. They'd wasted a perfectly good torture on me. I'd have told them anything they wanted to have skipped half of what they'd done to me the night before, but they asked no questions and after a bit I was no longer capable of talking through my own screams.

I grabbed a few items out of their caches and put them in a backpack that I slung over my back, trying to keep the straps as far as I could from my raw chest. Then we started to wheel the EMP bomb down the corridor to the main ventilation shaft. I opened the access panel and tied a hundred meter long rope on to the box. I opened one end of the box (it was cleverly hinged to permit this) and carefully set its timer for thirty minutes - there was little point in delaying it, as once it went off and killed the DEMigod permanently our operation would be judged a success even if we were then killed. Sharra needed a bit of time where the electricity still worked or I would have just set it for five minutes instead.

We tied the rope off carefully on a rod outside the door, and then began to lower the box down the shaft. It took forever and hurt me more than I can begin to describe to use all of the muscles needed, including those in my groin. Blood began to seep out from the bandage there and I groaned as we lowered it foot after foot, until all the line was paid out. It was, if things went right, now dangling in front of the two main side shafts that delivered cold air to the computer room and the main control room.

I couldn't move. I just stood there, whimpering, as my blood dripped onto the floor in a steady spatter. Sharra knelt before me, lifted my kilt, and gently sprayed me with something from her backpack (that she'd apparently looted from a pharmacy or clinic at some point or another as we clearly hadn't brought it in with us) that seemed to help with the bleeding and pain alike. She then gave me another shot in the arm, doubtless from the same source. We then ``ran'' for the elevator shaft, if a hobble could be called a run.

Instead of going up, we went down to a level neither of us had ever visited. Sharra knew of its existence only because she had to help prepare food that was delivered there, and had pried the level out of the actual deliverers (old men who had worked there most of their lives) in the course of much good-natured ribbing about how easy there lives were and how short a distance they had to carry things.

The first level we tried was wrong, but it took us ten minutes to find out. We went to a different one which looked correct. We went down the hall as quickly as possible to a forbidding looking door. If we were wrong, if all the grey men weren't dead, we would be dead ourselves any second. Sharra tried the door's wheel, and it spun open easily, unlocked. Together, we pulled it open.

We found ourselves in a vast, automated arsenal. There were missiles lining both walls, each tipped with what we hoped were nuclear warheads. There were racks of ordinance of all types. There were what looked like tanks and drone jets. There were a set of a dozen work consoles with very complex interfaces in front of them, each with a dead man slumped over it.

We swung the door closed behind us, and Sharra moved quickly forward. I was no use here - I couldn't read their language, only understand it if it was spoken nearby. I didn't fully understand their weapons systems, but I did understand explosions, so I went over to a catwalk that lead to the rows of missiles. I picked a likely looking one with a nice fat warhead pointing up at a sealed circular door directly overhead - its launching door. The entire missile was on a track that wound back under the floor and looking back into the wall I saw an immense row of missiles lined up to be fired, one at a time, from just this one door, all in a fully automated fashion. There was no visible barrier between the missiles and the control desks, but knowing what I did of Brin's invisible armor, I'm sure that they didn't need a visible barrier to sit up there and fire in perfect safety.

I managed to unsling my backpack and pull out a black powder mine that weighed about ten pounds. It had a timer on it that I set for just before noon. I reached up into the combustion chamber area around the main rocket exhaust and managed to get it to magnetically stick to something.

I went down the line and did the same thing with two more (fastening them onto different parts of the rockets), and my backpack was empty of mines. I hobbled back, breathing heavily but feeling strangely much better. Probably the drugs Sharra had given me were kicking in, but maybe it was just the thought that at long last, finally, maybe, it was possible that we would succeed in our goal.

If it had been just me, I might have just triggered one of the mines then and there. I didn't want to live any more right then. However, there were all the other slaves and guards to think of, and there was Sharra, so I set the full allotment of time on all three mines.

Sharra was looking as close to panicked as I'd ever seen her. She was trying desperately to get a control interface that would let her operate the weapons systems independent of the DEMigod, but they were apparently password protected and their access privileges had timed out. She sat there, trying this and that until time was up and there was a muffled pop and - door closed and everything - the lights all went out and the control board went down dead. The EMP bomb apparently had worked; now we had a short half hour to get out of there.

With a wordless cry of rage Sharra pulled out a flashlight from her own backpack and rushed down the catwalk on the other side to some of the piles of ordinance. She used a tool to pop open what we both recognized as a nuclear warhead, and inserted a mine from her own backpack. She repeated this two more times, once with what looked like a conventional bomb and once with a giant storage container that appeared to contain liquid used to service the tanks and that dripped a fluid that smelled highly volatile. Then she sprinted back to me, where I was struggling to reopen the door by the light of my own flashlight.

We finally managed it, although it hurt. The door was power assisted and quite heavy to move without it. On the other side we both pushed the door as hard as we could to slam it, and at the last possible second it I stuck a small dagger into the closing gap so that it wedged it shut. It appeared to work - not even our combined weight could pull the door open again.

The elevator door was - fortunately - open or we'd be there today. This floor had access only by elevator - there was the elevator at one end of the hall and the access door to the arsenal at the other, no doors in between. However, the elevator didn't work. Nothing worked.

We had only ourselves to work with. I lifted Sharra up on my interlaced hands to where she could reach the trapdoor in the elevator ceiling. It was locked, but she took out a gun (pilfered from the grey men themselves) and shot out its locks, fortunately without injuring either one of us with the ricochets. She pulled herself up and leaned down. I reached up and grabbed her arms and then screamed and screamed as I lifted myself up through the hole, tearing everything open once again.

The lights vanished in the darkness above and below us. There was a ladder that led up the side of the shaft. There was nothing to do but climb or wait there to die, and if Sharra was going to climb so was I. Sharra went first. I told her to hurry, since we might have to force a door open at the top and that I would come along as best I could.

From that day, I know just what it must feel like to climb out of hell, rung by rung, up a ladder that has no end. I could feel warm dampness rolling down my thighs, and my shoe soles grew slippery with my own dripping gore. Twice this caused my foot to slide off a rung and almost precipitated me down into the inviting oblivion below. My skinned chest felt like fire as it brushed against every rung. As I slowly bled out, I grew increasingly light-headed. Pretty soon I was only moving because I'd made up a silly sing-song rhyme that went something like:

Gotta climb
To my rhyme
Get out in time

Gotta go
Even slow
Up the woe

Gotta cry
Gotta live
So those goddamn bastards die

Each rhyme went with a step up. Each step up was a foot, and took me at least five seconds to accomplish. We were maybe four or five hundred feet down. I had to stop for rest, for a few minutes each time, twice on the way up. It was close to an hour later, then, when I got to where Sharra was standing, weeping, trying to push the elevator door open from the inside with no weight nor leverage.

I moved past her somehow without knocking either one of us down to where I could push on the top and she, her head gently resting against my outer thigh, on the bottom. No good. I sighed and carefully took my saber and worked it into the crack. It made it in only around an inch, but that was something. I gave it a twist, then a fairly gently pull, then a strong pull. There was a snap and the saber broke just down from the tip, which was still wedged in between the door panels.

Somehow my recoil didn't pitch me or Sharra off of the ladder, and I held onto my sword even as I swung back drunkenly supported by one bad hand. Slowly, I pulled myself back into position and tried working the snapped-off end back into the crack.

It went a bit more easily the second time, I thought, and I got a bit deeper. As I was putting the blade in the second time the shard of the tip pried free and fell into the depths, proving that I was opening the crack a trifle. Once again I pried and twisted. Once again the blade snapped. When I made it back to an equilibrium position this time the crack was now visibly the full width of the sword blade or better wide - the shard this time appeared to be stuck in the rubber door gasket or something.

I put the blade in the third time and got it all the way through. I pried while Sharra pushed and the door actually began to push open. Then the blade snapped the third time and this time I had to let go or follow it into the depths. Thus passed my saber, broken not in battle but in flight. For all that, a worthy end.

The gap was almost six inches wide - too narrow for either one of us, but now we could get a purchase and with only a bit more effort we had it open, at least open enough to pass through it although it squeezed most painfully across my ruined front and rear. Still, Sharra wouldn't let go of my hand and let me quit; she pulled me through the gap in spite of the groans the gut-wrenching pain pulled involuntarily from my lips.

Fortunately the outer door was open. We hobbled down the halls and out of the building as fast as I could move, although I kept telling Sharra to go on without me.

Outdoors we took the truck off to what we hoped was the airfield, and spent what seemed like an eternity (but was probably only a few minutes) trying to get a flying machine of one sort or another to work. Apparently they needed control transfer of some sort or another from the control computer, but it seemed that it was dead. This was a triumph, of course - killing the DEMigod was as important as killing off the grey fiends and destroying the facility proper - but it meant serious trouble. According to my watch (smuggled in with all the other hardware with its batteries pulled so as to not give off a detectable electromagnetic signal), as we had to be able to tell at least time intervals fairly accurately) we had only about twenty five minutes left, tops, when we gave up.

There were still people milling about, and we yelled to everybody we passed to run towards the cavern as fast as they could, and enough obeyed that a sort of lemming-motion in that direction began. We slowed enough to take on a load of the eight or nine people the truck would carry - a couple of Sharra's acquaintances from the kitchen, three guard friends of mine, two harem slaves (both spectacularly scarred and bruised), and a couple of people that were in no class we could easily identify. Then we took off as fast as we could for the cavern ourselves.

The switchbacks were deadly. We couldn't drive fast and the motor labored some carrying everybody up the steep curves, so I asked people to get out and push until we were clear and then hop back on. We reached the top with (according to my watch) only minutes to spare. Fortunately the truck itself fit inside and could navigate the same track that accommodated wagons and people moving in and out to trade. It is also fortunate that the truck was equipped with both lights and a horn. We lit the former and used the latter liberally and drove the first five minutes into the cave at maybe twenty miles per hour, winding around the many arcing curves and ignoring the bats above and the screams from in front of and beside us as people had to jump to get out of our way.

Then there was a flash in the darkness so bright that we all cried out and covered out eyes, almost blinded by the light. The light kept right on growing (with us at this point more than a mile underground) then began to die back just a bit.

Then there was the loudest noise in the world, so loud that it blew the flying bats down the shaft like so many flittering leaves, a sound that sucked your breath right out of your chest and slammed you too the floor. The truck lights flickered and the motor labored, but it didn't quite die.

Dead bats showered in around us (mixed with a very few live ones). The light behind abruptly cut off as the cave mouth collapsed, if indeed that was the rumbling noise we heard - really felt - across the subsonic bass line of the loudest noise itself. Then our hearing was gone, and we couldn't hear our own screams.

The rumblings and subsonics didn't quite finish, but they calmed enough to where we could continue our journey. Sharra drove slowly now, cautiously, waiting for each small group of stragglers to fall into our wake as we passed them, as there were no torches or lamps among them and the dangers were many. We led a human chain of slaves joined not by metal but by the bondage of human touch, each grasping the hand, the arm, the clothing, of the one before, each doing their best to not trip and be trampled and left behind, each helping those that did fall up again if they could be helped. I felt proud, overwhelmed, sad - almost enough to be glad that I wasn't dead yet, that I had lived to see this day and had helped to make it happen.

Almost being the operative word - I couldn't sit and couldn't lie down, and to let go of the roll bar that kept me up would be to fall, to be trampled to death. I stayed alive only because that was too painful a road to travel to get to that place that I was certain was my only remaining destination.

Several hours later a filthy crew indeed emerged onto the thighs of the mountainside. It should have been daytime, late afternoon. Yet it was as dark as night - so dark that it we only found the cave's mouth by stumbling out of it into a darkness no less profound. We turned and went back into the cave, back a full kilometer or so past the corpses of the many bats that had dropped dead on this end, turned off the lights and motor, and waited in the sudden silence. A silence that still was punctuated, every five or ten minutes with a deep earth shaking rumble, as if God himself were restless and turning in his sleep.

When the rustling noise (wham) of hundreds of people finding some comfortable place to sit (wham, wham) and sleep in the complete blackness (wham!) ceased, Sharra's light came on, and I under her direction I found myself being lowered by many hands onto my side. There was a pinprick in one arm, and then, oblivion.

next up previous contents
Next: A New Doorway Up: dark_brotherhood Previous: Brin Returns   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29