by C. D. Lee
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"We speak of friends and their fortunes,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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"We can't stay here," I told Kohler. "I'll bust you out if you want to start living away from home, but don't try anything cute. I'm feeling a little jumpy and I can kill with a thought." This was an exaggeration of course, but I'm pretty damned lethal when all is said and done.
Though doubt crossed her schoolgirl features, Kohler nodded resignedly. At that point, I stood back and permitted the girl to glide out of the minuscule cell, her motions eerily serpentine. I watched her skeletal structure stiffening right before my eyes, an effect reminiscent of a blow-up toy.
"These cells are uncomfortable for my kind," she said with a sigh, "but they're sheer torture for yours."
I knew that from first-hand experience, but didn't care to comment. Instead, I asked, "What's a good way out?"
"Thereís only the front exit and it'll be well-guarded."
"In that case we'll go out the back way."
She shot me a quizzical glance. "I'm trying to say that there is no back way!"
"There is for me!"
Like it or not, I have to hold a passenger close to make him phantasmal, but I first bound the alien female with magical bands -- not feeling entirely comfortable taking a creature so strange to my bosom. We came out through the rear wall a few seconds later, amid lichen-encrusted outcroppings and scraggly pines. We flew past these and through a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest, alighting a minute or so later atop a basaltic knoll about a mile away. I dissolved Kohler's occult bindings, still eyeing her warily.
"You've got some explaining to do," I informed her sternly.
She shifted uneasily under my gaze like a guilty teenager, but I knew there was a lot more to her than met the eye. I studied her face and build, trying to figure out how she could move the way she did. "By the way," I belatedly inquired, "what sort of joints do you people have?"
Looking weary, she eased back against a rock. "We have no real joints. We counterfeit other shapes by means of stolen genetic patterns and automatically form bone-like inner supports to carry out the masquerade, but these can be collapsed at will."
"Is that a stolen shape you're wearing now?"
"Y-Yes," she replied hesitantly, as if confessing to a crime.
Despite the urgency of the situation, my curiosity was getting the better of me. "What exactly is your natural form?"
She grimaced. "You wouldn't like it."
I folded my arms. "I've already seen a lot of things I haven't liked, girl. I want to know what the compeer has against the campers. Did you say that your kind actually eats people?"
She nodded again. "Itís more like a melding. We need only a small sample of genetic material, less than a pint of blood, for example, but if the process is performed in the traditional way it destroys the victim."
"If you want to steal important peoples' identities, why manipulate the situation to bring in so many useless children?"
"Theyíre not useless. Sometimes a child makes the best type of infiltrator," she replied gravely. "But the most important reason is that, like human children, our young require a long period of learning and acculturation. In olden times such children were often considered fairy changelings, but normally we replace whole families at once."
I was amazed by what her kind considered "normal." "What's been the purpose of those stunts that your bosses have been pulling on the campers all morning?"
"A matter of taste," she explained. "The body chemicals of prolonged fear and suffering are like drugs for our species. When we ruled in the old Soviet gulags, the Elite tortured and tormented their victims for months on end."
Like allowing wine to age, I thought. These people were making Boneyard come across like a kindly uncle. It set me to wondering how many atrocities Kohler herself had been a consenting party to.
"So you're called the Elite?"
"We've used many different names: Illuminati, Hyksos, Assyrians. Wherever your history records a crushing tyranny and sadistic ruling class, my race was probably its guiding cadre. But the Elite have never have been competent builders or managers. We soon degrade and destroy what we rule -- most recently the Soviet Union itself. You humans have a gift for creating beauty, civilization, and prosperity -- one that we lack.
"Since the 1960's our leaders have been sending many of us into the United States. We don't have the numbers to seize power by force, so we must build our armies out of deluded human beings. Whenever possible, we conquer by demoralizing a people and convincing them to accept dictatorship in exchange for security. We are always ready to recruit human traitors and dupes. It would astonish you know which famous Americans are at this very moment, either wittingly or unwittingly, working to establish slave labor camps in the United States."
I looked askance. "Thousands of people already know about you?"
Kohler shook her head. "Very few of our human agents know whom they're dealing with. Most believe they're serving human conspirators -- the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Internationalist Bankers, or even...."
"Where do you come from?" I asked, my mouth feeling increasingly dry.
I snorted disapprovingly. "I mean, where did your race originate?"
She shrugged. "It's hard to explain. TV writers would call it an `alternate dimension.'"
"You watch television?"
"Sure, but I always thought it was a human vice."
"But I think of myself as human!" Kohler declared with apparent earnestness. Then, sighing, she added, "Except when I can't."
What was this girl? I mused. An assimilated alien? Weird.
"Are your people invading Earth?" I asked.
"Not like you probably mean. As I've said, we've dwelled here for thousands of years. This planet was chosen for our ancestors' banishment."
"Do you mean to say that Earth is being used as a prison?"
"It's more like an asylum. Those sent here were afflicted with a hereditary insanity. It's rare that a sane Elitist is born from the random combinations in such a corrupt gene pool but my parents were sane. That's why the leaders executed them."
"What exactly is wrong with your race? Homicidal psychopathology?"
"Not quite. It's more of an uncontrollable compulsion to...dominate."
I couldn't waste any more time debriefing the alien girl. "One more thing," I said, "why did you try to free m -- that camper lady?"
Again, Kohler dropped her gaze. "She had a nice face. And I thought that if she came from the camp she must have children, too. I don't hate humans; it's the Elite that I despise. Killing humans is almost like -- murder."
"Yeah, that's my opinion, too," I agreed stiffly, "but right now I've got to fly. Hide around here until I get back; then we'll try to find you a safe place to live!"
"No!" she protested. "I can help! It's time I started fighting back!"
I shook my head. "No way, kid. You'll only get yourself hurt in the cross
That said, I took off at top speed before she could object.
I think the most important thing about what Kohler had told me was the way it helped to explain several strange incidences that occurred during my career as a knight of Archimage.
Back during the "Babylonian Captivity" of the medieval Papacy, my late friend Yaron got himself thrown into an Avignon prison. While being put to death was never any great disaster for an immortal knight of Archimage, medieval jailers usually administered tortured before beheading. I couldnít let a comrade go through that, even though getting caught had been his own boneheaded fault. It wasnít the first time that a girl in a tavern had plunged my boon companion into serious trouble.
"Thank God youíre here!" Yaron exclaimed as I pulled the mildew-stained door open. "I donít know who you had to kill for those keys, but I sure hope it was that bastard with the hot irons!"
"Save it for later!" I told him. "We canít go out the same way I came in. A horse troop of guards dismounted in the courtyard right after I sneaked in under a load of hay."
"The old knight-in-the-hay-cart trick, eh? Wonít they ever learn?"
"I hope not! Anyway, itís a lot easier to break into a prison than to break out of one. Letís move; I donít want to end up with a cell next to yours!"
"Is that a subtle reference to my snoring?" he quipped, his buoyant spirit returning quickly.
"Move it!" I grunted grumpily.
Wanting to avoid the main exit, we worked our way to what we hoped was the far side of the prison. All seemed deserted, except for an occasional moan from one of the cells. All of a sudden, we espied a blue-cloaked man scuttling down a torch-lit corridor. He neither looked like a jailor nor a prisoner and his frequent head turning, as if making sure his passage remained unobserved, drew our attention. Guessing that the stranger might be heading for an alternate exit, one that he did not want others to know about, we shadowed him for a distance. Soon we observed the man fussing with a rigged torch sconce, one that opened a concealed tunnel by means of a hidden counterweight.
The cloaked man disappeared into its mouth, but Yaron and I waited several minutes before making use of the bolt hole ourselves. After a little fumbling, we triggered it correctly and we were able to step sidewise through a narrow opening. Just within, stairs ascended steeply between thick granite walls. We had only just begun to climb when we heard a woman's shriek echoing from above. The cry of distress summoned us forward with even greater urgency and, at the end of the flight, we reached a landing that opened into a stone gallery. The latter had a row of peepholes drilled one side and a quick check revealed that each hole spied upon a different sleeping room. No doubt, this was where the lords of Avignon lodged their special guests -- guests whom they wanted to keep under secret surveillance.
Through one of the drilled holes, I saw what looked like two naked people struggling in the half-light of a dim lamp. Both were women -- one abnormally tall, muscular, and coarse-featured, and the other younger and of much slimmer build.
Horror contorted the small woman's features, while the larger one's face leered with conceit and lustful fulfillment. I could see that both of them were befouled by a syrup-like ichor, which I at first took for blood. Though I didn't know what was going on, every decent instinct I possessed told me I ought to put a stop to it. I therefore looked for some sort of access into the chamber, but saw nothing. When I glanced back, I realized that it was too late for a rescue.
The two women appeared to be merging, their bodies flowing together like pieces of warm candy! Though the younger one had by now gone mute, she continued to struggle wildly, creating streams of taffy-like flesh in her attempt to pull away. As I stood by helplessly, I noticed the incredible fact that the pair's right and left legs had merged into a single one, and that under a shared foot the foul crimson excrescence was puddling. As the struggling pair's bodies shifted, I saw that they also shared a right arm -- an arm which flowed out of the shoulder of one and continued into the shoulder of the other -- as if a clasp of hands had given rise to a single appendage with neither end nor beginning.
Doubting my own eyes, I muttered to Yaron: "Take a look! What do you see?!"
He said nothing at first and only his astonished stare told me that I had not been hallucinating. What was going on? I could only suppose that an unknown species of demon had seized upon some innocent and was working its murderous will.
It could hardly have been two minutes before Yaron shrank away and I resumed my place at the spy hole. Already the scene had changed markedly. Where there had been two women, I now saw only one and supposed that the attacker had abandoned the small woman. But I could make no sense of the lump of dripping flesh that she was holding between her hands -- a lump that shrank even as I watched. Only then did I notice a discarded blue cloak -- a cloak like the one that the mysterious wayfarer had been wearing. And next to the telltale cloak slumped the same sort conical hat that I had seen on his head. Now that I had grasped the loathsome meaning of the scene, a nauseous chill ran through me.
"We can't do anything! Let's get out of here!" Yaron whispered hoarsely. I agreed with a grunt and we retreated down the long gallery. Before long, we found an open window large enough to accommodate us.
As soon as I could, I reported to Archimage all that we had witnessed. His only reply was, "This planet holds many strange secrets, Lukasz. I doubt that what you saw has anything to do with Boneyard's scheming. Put it from your mind. We have neither the time nor the resources to remedy all the world's ills." A day later, he ordered us on the road again and I didn't return to Avignon for many years. It all seemed so normal then; if anything was still going on behind its gloom-laden walls, I had no way of knowing.
And I had no way of understanding the strange thing I had seen -- until now.
Not long after Eden Blake had vanished down the gravel road, the nervous campground was alarmed by a little girl's terrified wail. Some of the campers froze in place, but most of the parents and children dashed away in the direction of the cry, toward the Daschle family cabin.
As others fell away with anxious second thoughts, Erica Shelton suddenly found herself at the head of the pack. When she pushed open the lodge door and looked inside, she gasped to see Mr. Daschle crumpled on the floor while his wife sprawled lifelessly nearby. Both were so covered in blood that Erica automatically assumed they were dead.
A whimper drew Mrs. Shelton's attention to the shadows. There Debbie Daschle crouched in fetal position wearing a dark dress. Erica cried out in dismay, realizing that the dress wasn't dark at all, but was the same light-colored frock that the little girl had on all morning.
"Debbie!" Erica cried, sickened by the odor of blood.
"Daddy stabbed mommy," the child bleated, "and then -- then he cut himself!"
Some of the braver campers had pushed in behind Erica by now and she whirled to face them, her tone shrill: "Stay back! Keep the children away! Don't let them see!"
The campers tumbled backwards as if pushed. Left alone, Erica drew back a curtain to let in the morning light and then opened the window. The mountain draft that wafted in cleared her head somewhat. Now she surveyed the bodies of the Daschles more carefully, stooping to probe Mr. Daschle's still-warm, pulse-less wrist and wishing that she were anywhere else but that blood-drenched room of slaughter and suicide. Then Erica shifted her attention to Mrs. Daschle. She felt no beat in the womanís limbs and hadn't expected to.
Feeling a sudden rush of gorge, Erica dashed outside and shoved her way through the crowd, barely in time to vomit in the clear.
But though the effort left her breathless, it was dry retch only; Erica had had nothing to eat since supper. Scarcely retaining the power to speak, she whispered to those nearest, "Leave the cabin for the police. But -- But we need a blanket. Debbie's all covered with blood and she has to get those clothes off!"
One of Gus' friends darted away and came back a moment later with a brown sheet. Clutching this in tight, nerveless hands, Erica returned to the threshold and called out to the terrified orphan, "Debbie, take off that dirty dress and wrap yourself in this. You'll have to wash in the lake right away. I'll come along to help you."
The child's blood-streaked face still stared uncomprehendingly from the shadows. "I don't want to leave Mommy and Daddy! They're hurt!"
"Let them rest, Debbie," Erica coaxed, trying hard to keep her tortured voice from breaking. "There's nothing anybody can do -- I mean, n-not until the doctor comes."
Later, while Debbie rested in the care of another helpful parent, a mob gathered around Erica, as if by some undefined process they had elected her their new group-leader.
"There must be some pollution in the water that's driving people crazy," someone was yammering into her ears as she rested, trying to recover her composure. "Something made the teachers wander away -- now this. . . ."
"Don't frighten the children," Erica warned, forcing herself to speak. "This could impact upon them for the rest of their lives."
"We can't stay here!" declared Mr. Hertz, the lawyer. "Let's walk to Braddock like Mrs. Blake did."
Erica shook her weary head. "It's forty miles; we don't even know if there's water along the way."
"We have some bottles to carry water in," a parent volunteered.
Erica remained adamant. "We might get strung out and some of the children could get lost. Itís horrible, but we have to remain calm. There's no reason to expect more violence. I know we're all hungry, that we're all scared, but the best thing is to stay put until Eden brings help."
"We never should have let that headstrong woman go it alone," admonished Hertz. "If something happens to her on the way we'll be starving here for days. Let's at least send another group out for backup. Remember, we have a civic duty to report this to the police. Mrs. Blake won't even know that it's happened."
Erica sighed. "I think Eden will be all right. The sheriff or his deputies are sure to come as soon as she reports in, and once they arrive they'll radio for a forensic team."
"What could have possessed Mr. Daschle?" Mrs. Arnold mused out loud. "He seemed such a decent man, so worried about the environment and all. . . ."
Erica rested her forehead on the picnic table before her, trying to blank out the images of blood and death. Just then, Gus came up, trailed by two of his buddies and several younger children. When the adults saw the thing he was carrying, they stepped back in revulsion.
"Throw that away!" Mrs. Arnold shouted at the boy.
"No! That's evidence!" said Hertz, his voice even louder than hers. "Take it back where you found it, lad, and don't get any fingerprints on it."
Gus shook his tawny head. He had been holding a hunting knife by its tip, just like he'd seen the detectives on television do. Dark rust-brown streaks of drying blood covered the blade and everyone guessed that it was the murder weapon.
"No! You've got to look!" Gus urged. "Look close! Don't you see what I see?!"
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