Authors: Scott Nicholson
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©2011 Scott Nicholson
All rights reserved.
Originally published, in a slightly different form, by Haunted Computer Books in 2011.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
The rain fell like bullets.
David Underwood blinked against the drops. Darkness pressed against both sides of his eyelids and the air smelled of burnt motor oil. The salvo of rain swept over the expanse of a lighted billboard.
“Need a lawyer?” read the emblazoned pitch, followed by an alphabet soup of advertising copy that swam in David’s vision. The sign was upside down.
He was flat on his back, looking up, his clothes soaked. He couldn’t lift his head. The rain beat tiny tattoos on his face and crawled along his skin in sinuous trickles. The surface beneath him was hard and cold. He let his head tilt toward the right and he saw a cluster of distant lights.
Buildings. A town.
But which town?
And, the bigger question: who was he this time?
He tested his fingers. None were broken, though the knuckles were sore. Maybe he’d been in a fight. Or mugged and left to leak fluids onto the pavement.
Underwood. David Underwood.
That was his name. The one he’d been born with, not the name they’d given him. Whoever “they” were.
He focused on the billboard. It featured a bland, stern face. No doubt the attorney, desperate to cash in on the misfortunes of others.
Injured in a car crash? Worker compensation claims? Product liability lawsuit?
The bottom of the ad heralded a toll-free number.
David wondered if he owned a cell phone. He usually didn’t, but sometimes they gave him one, slipped it into his jacket pocket with prepaid minutes.
Prepaid minutes. That was a laugh. “Pay as you go” was the name of this game.
The rain must have been pounding him for a while, because he lay in a puddle. And it was summer because he wasn’t shivering. A car horn blared, probably fifty feet away, and tires spat white noise across the wet asphalt.
They were coming for him again. They were always coming for him. Or else they already had him.
He moved his lips, mouthing the words “Need a lawyer?”
The car hissed onward, weaving in the gloom, its twin taillights like the eyes of a retreating dragon.
With a groan, he rolled onto his side, cheek chafing against crumbled tar. He wore no hat. A wristwatch adorned his left wrist and he snaked his arm near his face. The LED numerals flickered red.
. Nearly noon or nearly midnight, it was all the same. Constant darkness.
Unless it was time for the next dose.
The rain spattered and drummed around him in staccato fusillade. Constant war, the earth versus the sky. Us versus them. David Underwood against himself.
A nudge to his back.
He didn’t have the strength to fight them this time. No running left in those freighted legs. No direction safe. All avenues took him back to the Research Triangle Park in the heart of North Carolina.
Home—the place of no escape.
He closed his eyes and flopped to one side, hoping they would make it quick this time.
“Home, home on the range,” he sang.
The nudge again, this time to his shoulder. “Hey, get up.”
Swim, swim, swim. His head went nowhere. He tried to smile, his last act of will, his final defiance. But his lips were useless clay.
“Are you okay?”
A woman. But which one?
“I think I need a lawyer,” he said, though he wasn’t sure his mouth moved.
Hands explored him, angled his head from side to side. The fingers were strong and sure.
“Can you move your arms and legs?” the woman said.
He nodded, or at least dipped his chin.
“We have to get out of here.”
Here. Out. She must be new to the program. There was no “out” and everywhere was here. The universe was their lab, the world their maze, and the cheese was the disease.
The cheese was the disease. Probably a nursery rhyme in there somewhere, a modern retelling of “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Maybe he had a new song.
David licked his lips and they tasted of chemicals. Rain in the city got scarier every day. Why did they even bother with the program anymore?
Civilization would accomplish the mission, given time. But time was money and money was energy and energy was power. Maze opening onto maze, forever and ever, amen.
She tugged at the collar of his jacket, sopping his head into the puddle like a biscuit into weak gravy. “Sit up, David.”
She knew his name. They were getting smarter, all right. Changing the flavor of the cheese. He dared not open his eyes, but he couldn’t resist.
He could never resist.
He blinked water from his lashes. Her face was a fuzzy pale moon and her naked body was glistening. He blinked again. Squinted. Focused. Which one would it be?
Her. Who else?
He clawed at the concrete, digging to bury himself alive in the wet, filthy soil of the city. Back to the nothingness of the womb. A tomb of cool, welcoming clay, not of hot, harboring flesh.
He had rolled and scrabbled about five feet across the abrasive surface when she called again. “David.”
The word was an echo of childhood scolding. He wanted to cover his ears, but that would slow his crawling escape. The buildings slid into focus now, the lawyer gazing down from the billboard with poisonous solicitude.
Against the foggy sheen of silver-gray that lay across the night air, the windows of a waffle house projected a beacon of cigarette smoke, cholesterol, and safety in numbers. His soaked jacket pressed against his back, water streaming from his hair. It was long, past his collar, in a style and length he hadn’t worn in years. Not since college, which was the last stretch of his life he clearly recalled.
He crawled toward the smell of fryer oil and coffee. A bare foot appeared beneath his chin, the burgundy nail polish chipped, a raw scar along the arch.
“David, it’s me.”
Craning the cinder-block weight of his head, his gaze went up the plump calf and higher. Did he know that skin? Or was all skin a stranger, even the skin he now wore as David Underwood?
“You don’t remember me, do you?” The words fell from above, as brittle and bracing as the rain.
Of course he remembered her. His eyes traveled higher, up her young, plump legs to the dark patch of hair between her legs, then up to her belly where the blood ran in a thick rivulet.
He couldn’t bear to see her face, which was haunted by the ghost of all abandoned fears. Traffic hissed in the distance, like rows of long reptiles entwining in venomous ecstasy.
He raised himself to his knees, head spinning, distant buildings the ancient cliffs of an alien planet.
Waffle house. Its squares of smeared yellow light promised some sort of security. Normality. Greasy reality. But first he had to get past her.
“They’re coming for us.” She reached her hand toward him, fingers pale and slick as maggots.
His stomach lurched. Dry, acidic air rushed up and abraded his throat. He had nothing to vomit. The hand touched his shoulder, and David found himself reaching up to her, surrendering. His arm was like a roll of sodden newspapers.
They’ll get you anyway. They always get you.
Or maybe they had you from the start.
She helped him to his feet and he swayed, blinking against the rain. Car headlights swept over them. Two giant shadows loomed on the brick wall at his back.
He jerked free of the woman’s grasp and ran blindly away from the swollen and indistinct shapes. His legs were limp, disobedient ropes but still he fled.
Rubber squealed on pavement, the shriek of a hungry leopard. Car doors opened, rain ticked off the metal roof, and the engine mewled.
“David!” the woman screamed.
They had her, but David didn’t care. That was exactly what they would expect: for him to play hero again.
He hadn’t saved her last time, and Susan was going to die again, but it wasn’t his fault.
He plunged toward the dark, wet wedge between buildings, willing his legs forward. His heart knocked mallets against his temples. Sharp-toothed things would be waiting in the darkness, but they would be the lesser of two thousand evils.
A kinder, gentler evisceration, because those monsters would do it from the outside in.
Not from the inside out, like the people from the car would.
Her shriek rose against the oppressive sky and shoe soles spanked the asphalt.
“Stop!” someone shouted. Were they really dumb enough to think he’d obey them at this point? After all they’d done to him, all they had taught him?
After what they had made him
He ran into the alley, assaulted by the odors of rot, bum piss, and motor oil. A chain-link fence, ripped and curling away from its support posts, blocked his escape.
David clutched the links, praying for the strength to climb. He dug the tip of one shoe into the fence and launched himself up. He slipped and hung as though crucified for a few seconds, time enough for one deep breath before collapsing.
He lay with his face against the fence, the links imprinting blue geometry against his cheek. He listened, waiting.
tick tick tick
No footsteps, no shouts. No car engine.
They had taken her. And spared him.
No. That’s just what they wanted him to think. That he was safe, so the next game would be even more disturbing.
Or maybe they wanted him to cower, to doubt, to face his monsters alone.
With them, you could never be sure.
Fear was their tool and his drug.
He whimpered for his next pill and the blissful fog of amnesia.
This was who he was.
Whoever he was.
And he was home, home on the range.
He kissed the fence, and it kissed back.