A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Chapter NineI followed secondary roads, skirting towns, driving at a carefully legal speed. At the first light of dawn I pulled into a run-down motel near the Georgia line with a wan glare sign indicating VAC NCY. From behind a screened door, an aging woman in a dirty housecoat and curlers blinked eyes like burned-out coals nested in putty-colored wrinkles."Take number six," she whined. "That's ten cees—in advance, seein's you got no luggage." A hand like a croupier's rake poked the key at me, accepted payment.I pulled the car under the overhang, as nearly out of sight from the road as possible. I crossed a cracked concrete porch, and stepped into a stifling hot room as slatternly as its owner. In the stale-smelling dark, I pulled off my coat, found the bath cubicle, splashed cold water on my face at the orange-stained china sink. I dried myself on a stiff towel the size of a place-mat.I showered and washed out my clothes, hung them on the curtain rail, and stretched out on the hard mattress. My fever was still high. I dozed fitfully for a few hours, went through a seizure of chills followed by violent nausea.Late in the afternoon I took a second shower, dressed in my stained but dry clothes, and went across the highway to the Paradise Eat, an adobe-like rectangle of peeling light-blue paint crusted with beer signs.A thin girl with hollow eyes stared at me, silently served me leathery pancakes with watered syrup and a massive mug of boiled coffee, then sat on a stool as far from me as possible and used a toothpick. Her eyes ran over me like mice.I finished and offered her a five-cee bill. "How's the road to Jackson?" I asked, more to find out if she had a voice than anything else. It didn't work. She looked at me suspiciously, handed over my change, went back to her stool.Back across the road, I started the car up, pulled across to the one-pump service station. While I filled the tank, a heavy-bellied, sly-faced man in a coverall looked the car over."Goin' far?" he inquired."Just up Bogalusa way," I said.He studied the pump gauge as I topped off and clamped the cap in place. He seemed to take a long time about it."How's 'at transmission fluid?" he asked. His eyes slipped past mine; heavy-lidded eyes, as guileless as a stud dealer with aces wired.I handed him his money, added a cee note. "Better check it."He pocketed the money, made a production of lifting the access panel, wiping the stick, squinting at it."Full up," he allowed. He replaced the stick, closed the panel. "Nice car," he said. "How long since you been in Bogalusa?""Quite a time," I said. "I've been overseas.""Plant closed down a year ago," he said. "If you was looking for work." He cocked his head, studying my arm. His expression was shrewdly complacent now, like a clever dealer about to get his price."You in one of them wars?" he inquired."I fell off a bar-stool."He shot me a look like a knife-thrust."Just tryin' to be friendly . . ." His gaze went to the call-screen inside the station. He took a tire gauge from a breast pocket. "Better check them tars," he grunted."Never mind; they're okay."He walked past me to the front of the car, lifted the inspection plate, reached in, and plucked the power fuse from its base."What are you doing?""Better check this here out, too." He went across to the station. I followed him; he was whistling uneasily, watching me from the corner of an eye. I went over to the screen, got a good grip on the power lead, and yanked it from the back of the set.He yelled, dived for the counter, came up with a tire iron. I stepped aside, caught his arm, slammed him against the wall. The iron clanged to the floor. I hauled him to a chair and threw him into it."The fuse," I snapped."Over there." He jerked his head sullenly."Don't get up." I went behind the counter, recovered the fuse."Who were you going to call?"He began to bluster. I kicked him in the shin, gently. He howled."I don't have time to waste," I snapped. "The whole story—fast!""They's a call out on you," he bleated. "I seen the tag number. You won't get far.""Why not?"He stared at me, slumped in the chair. I kicked the other leg. "Sheriff's got a road-block two, three miles north," he yelped."How good a description?""Said you had a bad arm, scar on your face; 'scribed them clothes, too." He pulled himself up. "You ain't got a chance, mister."I went over and picked up a roll of friction tape from the counter, came back and pulled him to his feet, reached for his arms. He tugged against me feebly, his mouth was suddenly loose with fear."Here, what are you gonna—""I haven't decided yet. It depends on your cooperation." I set to work taping his hands behind him. "What's the best way around the road-block?""Looky here, mister, you want to slip past that road-block, you just take your next left, half a mile up the road . . ." He was babbling in his eagerness to please. "Hell, they'll never figger you to know about that. Jist a farm road. Comes out at Reform, twelve mile west."I finished trussing him, looking around the room; there was a smudged, white-painted door marked MEN. Inside, I found soap and water on the shelf above a black-ringed bowl. I took five minutes to run the electroshave over my face.There were plastic bandages in a small box in the cabinet; I covered the cut along my jaw as well as I could, then combed my hair back. I looked better now—like someone who'd been hurriedly worked over by a bargain mortician, rather than just a corpse carelessly thrown into a ditch.I dragged the owner into the john, left him on the floor, taped and gagged; I hung the CLOSED sign on the outer door and shut it behind me.There was a mud-spattered pickup parked beside the station. The fuel gauge read full. I drove my Mercette onto the grease rack, ran it up high. There was a blue Navy weather jacket, not too dirty, hanging by the rack. I put it on, leaving the bad arm out of the sleeve. I waited a moment for the dizziness to pass, then climbed into the pickup and eased out onto the highway, ignoring the nagging feeling that hidden eyes were watching.* * *The night was a bad dream without an end; hour after hour of droning tires, the whine of the turbine, the highway unwinding out of darkness while I clung to the wheel, fighting off the cycle of fever blackout, nausea, chills, and fever again.Just before dawn, ten miles south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border, a police cruiser pulled in alongside me as I swung the wide curve of an intermix. A cop with coldly handsome features and soot-black eyes looked me over expressionlessly. I gave him a foolish grin, waved, then slowed; the cruiser gunned ahead, swung off onto the expressway.I reduced speed, turned off on the first single-lane track I saw, bumped along past decaying farmhouses and collapsed barns for six miles, then pulled back onto my route at a town called Cherokee Farm. There were lights on in the Transport Café. I parked, went in, and took a corner table with a view of the door, and ordered hot cereal. I ate it slowly, concentrating on keeping it down. My head was getting bad again, and the pain in my swollen arm made my teeth ache. I was traveling on raw nerve-power and drugs now; without the artificial reservoir of strength that my PAPA gear gave me, I would have collapsed hours before.As it was, I was able to peer through the film of gray that hung before my eyes, swallow the food mechanically, walk to the cashier without excessive wavering, pay up, and go back out into the icy night to my pickup, with no more inconvenience than a sensation of deathly illness and a nagging fear that I was dreaming everything.* * *An hour later, I steered the pickup to the curb on a snow-frosted side street of sagging, cavernous houses that had been the culminating achievements of rich farmers a century before. Now they looked as bleak and empty as abandoned funeral homes.I got out of the car, waited until the pavement settled down, then walked back two blocks to a structure in red-brick Gothic bearing the legend: RAILROAD MENS YMCA
Coffeyville, Kansas, 1965 Inside, a bored-looking youngish man with thinning hair and a pursed mouth watched me from behind the peeling veneer of a kidney-shaped desk with a faded sign reading: WELCOME BROTHER, and another, hand-lettered, announcing: SHOWER—FIFTY DOLLARS.I ignored the sea of gray jello in which his face seemed to float, got a hand on the desk, leaned more or less upright, and heard somebody say, "I'd like a room for tonight."His mouth was moving. It was hot in the room. I pulled at my collar. The jello had closed over the clerk now, but a voice with an edge like a meat-saw went on:" . . . drunks in the place. You'll have to clear out of here. This is a Christian organization.""Unfortunately, I'm not drunk." I heard myself pronouncing the words quite distinctly. "I'm a bit off my feed; touch of an old malaria, possibly . . ."He was swimming back into focus. My feet seemed to be swinging in a slow arc over my head. I kept both hands on the counter and tried to convince myself that I was standing solidly on the rubber mat that covered the worn place in the rug. I let go long enough to get out my wallet, put money on the counter."Well . . ." His hand covered the bill. "You do look a little flushed. Chinese flu, maybe. Maybe you'd better see a doctor. And that's a nasty cut on your face.""Not used to these new-fangled razors," I said. "I'll be all right." The floor was sliding back to where it belonged. The jello had thinned out sufficiently to show me the registration book and a finger with a hangnail indicating where I should sign.My stomach felt like a flush tank on the verge of starting its cycle. I grabbed the stylus, scrawled something, waded through knee-deep fog to the lift. I rode up, walked past a few miles of wallpaper that was someone's revenge for life's disappointments. I found my room, got the door open, took a step toward the bed, and passed out cold.* * *A crew of little red men was working at my arm with saws and hatchets, while another played a blowtorch over my face. I tried to yell to scare them away, and managed a weak croak. I got my eyes open, discovered that my face was against a dusty rug with a pattern of faded fruits and flowers.I crawled as far as the wall-mounted lavatory, pulled myself up, got the cold water on, and splashed it over my head. I could hear myself moaning, like a dog begging to be let in on a cold night; it didn't seem important.There was yellow light outside the dirt-scaled window when I tottered across to the bed. The next time I looked, it was deep twilight. Time seemed to be slipping by in large pieces, like an ice-floe breaking up. I got up on the third try, went back, and used some more cold water, then braced my feet and risked a look in the mirror. A gray-white mask with a quarter-inch beard stared at me with red, crusted eyes buried in blue-black hollows. The scars across my nose and beside my mouth from Felix's plastic surgery were vivid slashes of red. Under the curled plastic tapes, the cut along my jaw showed deep and ragged.I made it back to the bed and fumbled out my wallet; I still had plenty of money. Now was the time to use some. I punched the screen's audio circuit, signaled the desk. The clerk came on, sounding irritated."Is there an all-night autoshop in town?" I asked, trying to sound sober, sincere, and financially reliable."Certainly. Two of them.""Good. I'll pay someone five cees to pick up a few things for me."In two minutes he was at my door. I handed through the list I had scribbled, along with a bundle of money."Yes, sir!" he said. "Won't take half an hour. Ah . . . sure you don't want me to fetch a doctor?""Christian Scientist," I mumbled. He went away, and I sprawled out on the bed to wait.* * *An hour later, with half a dozen assorted antipyretics, cortical stimulants, metabolic catalyzers, and happy pills in my stomach, I took a hot shower, shaved, put a clean tape on my jaw, and worked my arm into my new olive-drab one-piece suit. I pocketed my other supplies and went downstairs. I didn't feel much better, but the clerk nodded happily when I came up to the desk; I gathered that I now looked more like what you'd expect to find in a Christian organization."Ah—the nut-hammer," he said, not quite looking at me. "Was it what you had in mind?""Ideal," I said. "They just don't taste the same unless you crack 'em yourself, the old-fashioned way."He used his worried look on me."Maybe you hadn't ought to go out, sir," he suggested. "All those medicines you had me buy—they're just pain-killers—""My pains aren't dead—just wounded," I assured him. He gave me the blank look my kind of wisecrack usually nets. "By the way," I ploughed on, "where's Franklin Street?"He gave me directions, and I went out into the chill of the late autumn night. I considered calling a cab, but decided against it. My experiences had made me wary of sharing confined spaces with strangers. Using the pickup was out, too; a hot car might attract just the attention I didn't want at the moment.I started off at a wobbling gait that steadied as the chemicals in my bloodstream started to work. My breath was freezing into ice-crystals in the bitter air. The route the clerk had given me led me gradually toward brighter-lit streets. I scanned the people on the sidewalks for signs of interest in me; they seemed normal enough.I spotted the post office from half a block away; it had a low, yellowish armorplast front with a glass door flanked on one side by a code-punch panel, and on the other by colorful exhortations to 'Enlist Now in the Peace Brigade and Fight for the Way of Life of Your Choice.'I strolled on past to get the lay of the land, went on as far as the corner, then turned and came back at a medium-brisk pace. My medication was doing its job; I felt like something specially snipped out of sheet metal for the occasion: bright, and with plenty of sharp edges, but not too hard to punch a hole through.I stopped in front of the panel, punched keys one, seven, four, and two. Machinery whirred. A box popped into view. Through the quarter-inch armorplast, I could see a thick manila envelope. The proper code would cause the transparent panel to slide up—but unfortunately Felix hadn't had time to give it to me.I took another look both ways, lifted the nut-hammer from my pocket, and slammed it against the plastic. It made a hell of a loud noise; a faint mark appeared on the panel. I set myself, hit it again as hard as I could. The plastic shattered. I poked the sharp fragments in, got my fingers on the envelope, pulled it out through the jagged opening. I could hear a bell starting up inside the building. Nearer at hand, a red light above the door blinked furiously. It was unfortunate—but a risk I had had to take. I tucked the envelope away, turned, took two steps—A loping dog-shape rounded the corner, galloped silently toward me. I turned; a second was angling across the street at a dead run. Far down the street, two pedestrians sauntered on their ways, oblivious of what was happening. There was no one else in sight. A third demon appeared at an alley mouth across the street, trotted directly toward me, sharp ears erect, skull-face smiling.There was a dark delivery-van at the curb. I leaped to it, tried the door—locked. I doubled my fist, smashed the glass, got the door open. The nearest demon broke into an awkward gallop.I slid into the seat, twisted the key, accelerated from the curb as the thing leaped. It struck just behind the door, clung for a moment, and fell off. I steered for the one in the street ahead, saw it dodge aside at the last instant—just too late. There was a heavy shock; the car veered. I caught it, rounded a corner on two wheels, steering awkwardly with one hand. The gyros screeched their protest as I zigzagged, missed another dog-thing coming up fast, then straightened out and roared off along the street, past stores, a service station, houses, then open fields. Blood was running from my knuckles, trickling under my sleeve.There was a clump of dark trees ahead, growing down almost to the edge of the road. A little farther on, the polyarcs of a major expressway intermix gleamed across the dark prairie. I caught a glimpse of a roadside sign:* * *CAUTION—KANSAS 199—1/4 MI.
SW. AUTODRIVE 100 YDS.
MANDATORY ABOVE 100 MPHI braked quickly, passed the blue glare sign that indicated the pickup point for the state autodrive system, squealed to a stop fifty yards beyond it. I switched the drive lever to AUTO, set the cruise control on MAXLEG, jumped out, reached back in to flick the van into gear. It started off, came quickly up to speed, jerkily corrected course as it crossed the system monitor line. I watched it as it swung off into the banked curve ahead, accelerating rapidly; then I climbed an ancient wire fence, stumbled across a snow-scattered ploughed field and into the shelter of the trees.* * *Excitement, I was discovering, wasn't good for my ailment. I had another attack of nausea that left me pale, trembling, empty as a looted house, and easily strong enough to sort out a stamp collection. I swayed on all fours, smelling leaf-mold and frozen bark, hearing a distant croak of tree-frogs, the faraway wail of a horn.The demons had laid a neat trap for me. They had watched, followed my movements—probably from the time I left the ship—waiting for the time to close in. For the moment, I had confused them. For all their power, they seemed to lack the ability to counter the unexpected—the human ability to improvise in an emergency, to act on impulse.My trick with the van had gained me a few minutes' respite—but nothing more. Alerted police would bring the empty vehicle to a halt within a mile or two; then a cordon would close in, beating every thicket, until they found me.Meanwhile, I had time enough to take a look at whatever it was that I had come five thousand miles to collect—the thing Felix had guarded with the last fragment of his will. I took the envelope from an inner pocket, tore off one end. A two-inch-square wafer of translucent polyon slipped into my hand. In the faint starlight, I could see a pattern of fine wires and vari-colored beads embedded in the material. I turned it over, smelled it, shook it, held it to my ear—"Identify yourself," a tiny voice said.I jumped, held the thing on my palm to stare at it, then cautiously put it to my ear again."You now have sixty seconds in which to identify yourself," the voice said. "Fifty-eight seconds and counting . . ." I held the rectangle to my mouth."Bravais," I said. "John Bravais, CBI SA-0654."I listened again:" . . . fifty-two; fifty-one; fifty . . ."I talked to it some more." . . . forty-four; forty-three; forty-two . . ."Talking to it wasn't getting me anywhere. How the hell did you identify yourself to a piece of plastic the size of a book of matches? Fingerprints? A National Geographic Society membership card?I pulled out my CBI card, held it to the plastic, then listened again:" . . . thirty-one; thirty . . ." There was a pause. "In the absence of proper identification within thirty seconds, this plaque will detonate. Unauthorized personnel are warned to withdraw to fifty yards . . .  Twenty seconds and counting. Nineteen; eighteen . . ."I had my arm back, ready to throw. I checked the motion. The blast would attract everything within a mile, from flying saucer watchers to red-eyed beast-shapes that loped on hands like a man's, and I would have lost my one ace in a game where the stakes were more than life and death . . . I hesitated, looked at the ticking bomb in my hand. "Thinking caps, children," I whispered aloud. "Thinking caps, thinking caps . . ."Talking to it was no good. ID cards with built-in molecular patterns for special scanners meant nothing to it. It had to be something simple, something Felix hadn't had time to tell me . . . A signal had to be transmitted. I had nothing—except an array of gimmicks built into my teeth by Felix—There was a spy-eye detector that would set up a sharp twinge in my left upper canine under any radiation on the spy band; the right lower incisor housed a CBI emergency band receiver; in my right lower third molar, there was a miniature radar pulser—A transmitter. Just possibly—if there was still time. I jammed the plague to my ear:" . . . ten seconds and counting. Nine—"With my tongue, I pushed aside the protective cap on the tooth, bit down. There was a sour taste of galvanic action as the contacts closed, a tingle as an echo bounced back from metal somewhere out across the night. I pulsed again; if that hadn't done it, nothing would.I cocked my arm to throw the thing—But if I did—and it failed to explode—I would never find it again in the dark, not in time. And it was too late to drop it and run . . . not that I had anything left to run with. I gritted my teeth, held the thing to my head . . . " . . . two . . ." The pause seemed to go on and on. "You are recognized," the voice said crisply. "You are now seven hundred and thirty-two yards north-northeast of the station."I felt a pang of emotion in which relief and regret mingled. Now the chase would go on; there would be no rest for me. Not yet . . . I got to my feet, took a bearing on the north star, and set off through the trees.* * *I came out of the woods onto an unsurfaced track, went through a ditch choked with stiff, waist-high weeds, scraped myself getting over a rotting wire fence. There were headlights on the highway now, swinging off onto the side road, and other lights coming out from Coffeyville. The patch of woods would be the obvious first place to search. In another five minutes, the hunters would be emerging on the spot where I now stood ankle-deep in the clods of a stubbled cornfield. I couldn't tell what was on the far side; my night vision was long gone. I broke into a shambling run, across the frozen furrows, tripping at every third step, falling often. The thudding of my heart was almost drowned by the roaring in my head.Something low and dark lay across my path—the ruins of a row of sheds. I angled off to skirt them, and slammed full-tilt into a fence, sending fragments of rotted wood flying as I sprawled. I sat up, put the wafer to my ear." . . . six hundred twenty-two yards, bearing two-oh-seven," the calm voice said. I struggled up, picked my way past the rusted hulk of a tractor abandoned under the crabbed branches of a dead apple tree. I came back into the open, broke into a run across a grassy stretch that had probably been a pasture forty years earlier. Faint light fell across the ground ahead; my shadow bobbed, swung aside, and disappeared. Cars were maneuvering, closing in on the woodlot behind me. Fence posts loomed up ahead; I slowed, jumped a tangle of fallen wires, ran on across another field, plowed by the auto-tillers months before but never planted.The suffocating sensation of oxygen starvation burned in my chest; I hadn't thought to charge my storage units. I drew a long painful breath, brought the plastic rectangle up to my head as I ran." . . . yards, bearing two one two . . . four hundred and fifty-four yards, bearing two one three . . ."I corrected course to the right, plunged down a slight slope, crashed through a dense growth of brush, went knee-deep into half-frozen muck, sending skim-ice tinkling. Dry stalks broke under my hand as I clawed my way up an embankment; then I was up again, running with feet that seemed to be cased in concrete.A dirt road crossed my path ahead at a slight angle. I leaped a ditch, followed the track as it curved, and crossed another. A grove of massive dark trees came into view well off to my right—century-old patriarchs, standing alone. I came to a gasping halt, listened to check my position: " . . . one hundred eighteen yards, bearing two seven five . . ." I left the road, ran for the distant trees.A tall frame house with a collapsed roof leaned in the shelter of the grove. Vacant windows looked blindly out across the dark field. I went past it, past a fallen barn, the remains of outbuildings. " . . . one yard, bearing two five two . . ."And there was nothing; not so much as a marker stone or a dry bush. Standing alone in the frozen field, shivering now with the bitter cold, I could hear the approaching feet clearly now—more than one set of them.I turned to face them, taking deep breaths to charge my air banks. I tried to blink the fog from my eyes. It would be over in another minute; I would try to kill at least one more of them before those bony snouts found my throat . . . I started to toss the useless plaque aside, but on impulse put it to my ear instead."—rectly above the entry; please re-identify. . . .  You are now directly above the entry; please re-identify. . . .  You are now—"I groped with my tongue, bit down on the tooth. Nothing happened. Through the darkness, I saw a movement among the scattered trees. Near at hand, there was a soft hum, a grating sound. Directly before me, dirt stirred; a polished cylinder a yard across, dirt-topped, emerged from the earth, rose swiftly to a height of six feet. With a click! a panel slid back, exposing an unlighted and featureless interior. I stepped inside. The panel slid shut. I felt the cylinder start down. It sank, sank, slowed, halted. I leaned against the curving wall, fighting off the dizziness. The panel slid aside; and I stumbled out into warmth and silence. 
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