A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Chapter TenI was in a small, softly-lit room with a polished floor, warm to the touch, and walls that were a jumble of ancient, varnished oak cabinet-work, gray-painted equipment housings, instrument panels, indicator lights, and controls resembling those of a Tri-D starship. Exposed wiring and conduit crisscrossed the panels; a vast wall clock with fanciful roman numerals and elaborate hands said ten minutes past ten. There was a faint hum of recycling air. I groped my way to a high-backed padded chair, moaned a few times just to let my arm know that it had my sympathy. I looked around at the fantastic room. It was like nothing I had ever seen—except for a remote resemblance to Felix's underground laboratory in Tamboula. I felt an urge to laugh hysterically as I thought of the things up above, prowling the ground now, converging on the spot from which I had miraculously disappeared. How long would it be before they started to dig? The urge to laugh died.I closed my eyes, gathered my forces, such as they were, and keened my hearing.Rustling sounds in the earth all about me; the slow grind of the earthworm, the frantic scrabble, pause, scrabble of the burrowing mole, the soft, tentative creak of the questing root . . . I tuned, reaching out.Wind moaned in the trees, and their branches creaked, complaining; dry stalks rustled, clashing dead stems; soft footfalls thump-thumped, crossing the field above me. There was the growl of a turbine, coming closer, the grate of tires in soft earth. A door slammed, feet clumped."It did not come this way," a flat voice said. Something gibbered—a sound that turned my spine to ice."It is sick and weak," the first voice said. "It is only a man. It did not come this way. It is not here."More of the breathy gobbling; I could almost see the skull-face, the grinning mouth, the rag-tongue moving as it commanded the man-shaped slave standing before it . . . "It is not here," the humanoid said. "I will return to my post in the village."Now the gabble was angry, insistent."It is not logical," the toneless voice said. "It went another way. The other units will find it."Other footsteps had come close. Someone walked across my grave . . . "There is no man here," another dull voice stated. "I am going back now."Two beast-things gibbered together."You let it escape you at the village," a lifeless voice replied. "That was not in accordance with logic."The argument went on, twenty feet above my hidden sanctuary." . . . a factor that we cannot compute," a dead voice stated. "To remain here is unintelligent." Footsteps tramped away. The car door clattered open, slammed; a turbine growled into life; tires crunched the hard earth, going away.Soft feet paced above me. Two of the creatures, possibly three, crossed and recrossed the area. I could hear them as they conferred. Then two stalked away, while the third settled down heavily to wait.* * *I took out my talking plastic rectangle and put it to my ear." . . . now in Survival Station Twelve," the precise voice was saying. "Place this token in the illuminated slot on the station monitor panel." There was a pause. "You are now in Survival Station Twelve . . ."Across the room, there was a recessed scroll-worked console dimly lit by a yellow glare strip. I wavered across to it, found the lighted slot, pressed the wafer into it, then leaned against a chair, waiting. Things clicked and hummed; a white light snapped on, giving the room a cheery, clinical look, like a Victorian parlor where a corpse was laid out. There was a preparatory buzz, matching the humming in my head; then:"This is your Station Monitor," a deep voice said. "The voice you hear is a speech-construct, capable of verbalizing computer findings. The unit is also capable of receiving programming instruction verbally. Please speak distinctly and unambiguously. Do not employ slang or unusual constructions. Avoid words having multiple connotations . . ."The room seemed to fade and brighten, swaying like a cable-car in a high wind. I was beginning to learn the signs; I would black out in a few seconds. I looked around for a soft place to fall, while the voice droned on. Abruptly it broke off. Then:"Emergency override!" it said sharply. "Sensing instruments indicate you require immediate medical attention." There was a sound behind me; I turned. As if in a dream, I saw a white-sheeted cot deploy from a wall recess, roll across the room, hunting a little, then come straight on and stop beside me."Place yourself on the cot, with your head at the equipment end." The voice echoed from far away.I made a vast effort, pushed myself clear of the chair, fell across the bed. I was struggling to get myself on it when I felt a touch, twisted to see padded, jointed arms grasp me and gently but firmly hoist me up and lay me out, face down. The sheet was smooth and cool under my face."You will undergo emergency diagnosis and treatment," the voice said. "An anesthetic will be administered if required. Do not be alarmed."I caught just one whiff of neopolyform; then I was relaxing, letting it all go, sliding down a long, smooth slope into dark sea.* * *Two bosomy angels with hands like perfumed flower petals were massaging my weary limbs and crooning love songs in my ears, while not far away someone was cooking all my favorite dishes, making savory smells that put just that perfect edge on my appetite.The cloud I was lying on was floating in sunshine, somewhere far from any conceivable discord, and I lay with my eyes closed, and blissfully enjoyed it. I deserved a rest, I realized vaguely, after all I'd gone through—whatever that was. It didn't seem important. I started to reach out to pat one of the angels, but it was really too much trouble . . . There was a twinge from my left arm. I almost remembered something unpleasant, but it eluded me. The arm pained again, more sharply; there seemed to be only one angel now, and she was working me over in a businesslike way, ignoring my efforts to squirm free. The music had ended and the cook had quit and gone home. I must have slept right through the meal; my stomach had a hollow, unloved feeling. That angel was getting rougher all the time; maybe she wasn't an angel after all; possibly she was a real live Swedish masseuse, one of those slender, athletic blonde ones you see in the pictonews—Ouch! Slender, hell. This one must have weighed in at a good two-fifty, and not an ounce of fat on her. What she was doing to my arm might be good for the muscle tone, but it was distinctly uncomfortable. I'd have to tell her so—just as soon as this drowsy feeling that was settling over me went away . . . It had been a long trip, and the jogging of the oxcart was getting me down. I could feel burlap against my face; probably a bag of potatoes, from the feel of the lumps. I tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but all I could find were hard floorboards and sharp corners. I had caught my arm under one of the latter; there must have been a nail in it; it caught, and scraped, and the more I pulled away the more it hurt—My eyes came open and I was staring at a low, gray-green ceiling perforated with tiny holes in rows, with glare strips set every few feet. There were sounds all around: busy hummings and clicks and clatters.I twisted my head, saw a panel speckled over with more lights than a used helilot, blinking and winking and flashing in red, green, and amber . . . I lowered my sight. I saw my arm, held out rigidly by padded metal brackets. Things like dentists' drills hovered over it, and I caught a glimpse of skin pinned back like a tent-fly, red flesh, white bone, and the glitter of clamps, set deep in a wound like the Grand Canyon."Your instructions are required," a deep, uninflected voice said from nowhere. "The prognosis computed on the basis of immediate amputation is 81 percent positive. Without amputation, the prognosis is 7 percent negative. Please indicate the course to be followed."I tried to speak, got tangled up in my tongue, made another effort."Wha's . . . that . . . mean . . . ?""The organism will not survive unless the defective limb is amputated. Mutilation of a human body requires specific operator permission.""Cu' . . . my arm . . . off . . . ?""Awaiting instructions.""Die . . . 'f you don't . . . ?""Affirmative.""Permission . . . granted . . .""Instructions acknowledged," the voice said emotionlessly. I had time to get a faint whiff of something, and then I was gone again . . . * * *This time, I came out of it with a sensation that took me a moment or two to analyze—a cold-water, gray-skies, no-nonsense sort of feeling. For the first time in days—how many I didn't know—the fine feverish threads of delirium were lacking in the ragged fabric of my thoughts.I took a breath, waited for the familiar throb of pain between my temples, the first swell of the sea-sickness in my stomach. Nothing happened.I got my eyes open and glanced over at my left arm; it was strapped to a board, swathed in bandages to the wrist, bristling with metal clips and festooned with tubing.I felt an unaccountable surge of relief. There had been a dream—a fantastic dialogue with a cold voice that had asked . . . In sudden panic, I moved the fingers of the hand projecting from the bandages. They twitched, flexed awkwardly. With an effort, I reached across with my right hand, touched the smooth skin of the knuckles of the other . . . Under my fingers, the texture was cool, inhumanly glossy—the cold gloss of polyon. I raked at the bandages, tore them back—An inch above the wrist, the pseudoskin ended; a pair of gleaming metal rods replaced the familiar curve of my forearm. A sort of animal whimper came from my throat. I clenched my lost fist—and the artificial hand complied.I fell back, feeling a numbness spread from the dead hand all through me. I was truncated, spoiled, less-than-whole. I made an effort to sit up, to tear free from the restraining straps, wild ideas of revenge boiling up inside me—I was as weak as a drowned kitten. I lay, breathing hoarsely, getting used to the idea . . . The Station Monitor's level voice broke into the silence:"Emergency override now concluded. Resuming normal briefing procedure." There was a pause; then the voice went on in its tone of imperturbable calm:"Indicate whether full status briefing is required; if other, state details of requirement.""How long have I been unconscious?" I croaked. My voice was weak but clear."Question requires a value assessment of nonobjective factors; authorization requested.""Never mind. How long have I been here?""Eighteen hours, twenty-two minutes, six seconds, mark. Eighteen hours, twe—""Close enough," I cut in. "What's been happening?""On the basis of the initial encephalogrammatic pattern, a preliminary diagnosis of massive anaphylactic shock coupled with acute stage-four metabolic—""Cancel. I don't need the gruesome details. You've hacked off my arm, replaced it with a hook, cleared out the infection, and gotten the fever down. I guess I'm grateful. But what are the dog-things doing up above?"There was a long silence, with just the hum of an out-of-kilter carrier. Then: "Question implies assumption at variance with previously acquired two-valued data.""Can't you give me a simple answer?" I barked. "Have they started to dig?""Question implies acceptance at objective physical level of existence and activities of phenomenon classified as subjective. Closed area. Question cannot be answered.""Wait a minute—you're telling me that the four-handed monsters and the fake humans that work with them are imaginary?""To avoid delays in responses, do not employ slang or unusual constructions. All data impinging on subject area both directly and indirectly, including instrument-acquired statistical material, photographic and transmitted images, audio-direct pickup, amplification, and replay, and other, have (a) been systemically rejected by Operators as incorrect, illusory, or nonobjective; (b) produced negative hallucinatory reactions resulting in inability of Operators to perceive readouts; or, (c) been followed by mental breakdown, unconsciousness, or death of Operators.""In other words, whenever you've reported anything on the demons, the listeners either didn't believe you, couldn't see or hear your report, or went insane or died.""Affirmative. In view of previously learned inhibition on reports of data in this sector, question cannot be answered.""Has—ah—anything started to dig? Are there any evidences of excavation work up above?""Negative.""Can the presence of this station be detected using a mass-discontinuity-type detector?""Negative; the station is probe-neutral."I let out a long breath. "What is this place? Who built it? And when?""Station Twelve was completed in 1926. It has been periodically added to since that time. It is one of the complex of fifty survival stations prepared by the Ultimax Group.""What's the Ultimax Group?""An elite inner circle organization, international in scope, privately financed, comprising one hundred and fourteen individuals selected on the basis of superior intellectual endowment, advanced specialist training, emotional stability, and other factors.""For what purpose?""To monitor trends in the Basic Survival Factors, and to take such steps as may be required to maintain a favorable societal survival ratio.""I never heard of them. How long have they been operating?""Two hundred and seventy-one years.""My God! Who started it?""The original Committee included Benjamin Franklin, George Loffitt, Danilo Moncredi, and Cyril St. Claire.""And Felix Severance was a member?""Affirmative.""And they don't know about—the nonobjective things up above?""Question indeterminate, as it requires an assumption at variance with—""Okay—cancel. You said there are other stations. How can I get in touch with them?""State the number of the station with which you desire to communicate.""What's the nearest one to Jacksonville?""Station Nineteen, Talisman, Florida.""Call it."One of the previously blank panels opposite me glowed into life, showed me a view of a room similar in many particulars to Station Twelve, except that its basic décor was a trifle more modern—the stainless steel of the early Atomic Era."Anybody home?" I called.There was no reply. I tried the other stations one after another. None answered."That's that," I said. "Tell me more about this Ultimax Group. What's it been doing these past couple of hundred years?""It contributed materially to the success of the American War of Independence, the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire, the consolidation of the Italian and German nations, the emergence of Nippon, the defeat of the Central Powers in the First Engagement of the European War, and of the Axis Powers in the Second Engagement, and the establishment of the State of Israel. It supported the space effort . . ."I was beginning to feel a little ragged now; the first fine glow was fading. I listened to the voice for another half-hour, while it told me all about the little-known facts of history; then I dismissed it and took another nap.* * *I ate, slept, and waited. After fourteen hours, the straps holding my arm down released themselves; after that, I practiced tottering up and down my prison, testing my new arm, and now and then tuning in on what went on overhead. For the most part, there was silence, broken only by the sounds of nature and the slap and thump of pacing feet. I heard a few gobbled conversations, and once an exchange between a humanoid and a demon:"It has means of escaping pursuit," the flat voice was saying as I picked it up. "This is the same one that eluded our units at location totter-pohl."Angry sounds from a demon."That is not my area of surveillance," the first voice said coldly. "My work is among the men."Another alien tongue-lashing."All reports are negative; the instruments indicate nothing—"An excited interruption."When the star has set, then. I must call in more units . . ." The voice faded, going away."Monitor, it's time for me to start making plans. They're getting restless up above. I'm going to need a few things; clothes, money, weapons, transportation. Can you help me?""State your requirements in detail.""I need an inconspicuous civilian-type suit, preferably heated. I'll also need underwear, boots, and a good hand-gun; one of those Borgia Specials Felix gave me would do nicely. About ten thousand cees in cash—some small bills, the rest in hundreds. I want a useful ID—and a good map. I don't suppose you could get me an OE suit and a lift-belt, but a radar-negative car would be very useful—a high-speed, armored job.""The garments will be ready momentarily. The funds must be facsimile-reproduced from a sample. Those on hand are of last year's issue and thus invalid. The Borgia Special is unknown; further data required. You will be given directions to the nearest Ultimax garage, where you may make a selection of helis and ground effect cars."I got out my wallet, now nearly flat; I picked out five and ten cee notes and a lone hundred."Here are your patterns; I hope you can vary the serial numbers.""Affirmative. Please supply data on Borgia Special.""That's a 2mm needler, with a special venom. It's effective on these nonexistent phenomena up above.""A Browning 2mm will be supplied; the darts will be charged with UG formula nine twenty-three toxin. Please place currency samples in slot G on the main console."I followed instructions. Within half an hour the delivery bin had disgorged a complete wardrobe, including a warm, sturdy, and conservatively cut suit with a special underarm pocket in which the needler nestled snugly; my wallet bulged with nicely aged bills. I had a late-model compass-map strapped to my wrist, a card identifying me as a Treasury man, and a special key tucked in an inner pocket that would open the door to a concealed Ultimax motor depot near Independence, less than thirty miles away. I was equipped to leave now—as soon as I was strong enough.More hours passed. At regular intervals, the Station Monitor gave instructions for treatment, keeping tabs on my condition by means of an array of remote-sensing instruments buried in the walls. My strength was returning slowly; I had lost a lot of weight, but the diet of nourishing concentrates the station supplied was replacing some of that, too.The arm was a marvel of bioprosthetics. The sight of the stark, functional chromalloy radius and ulna still gave me a strange, unpleasant sensation every time I saw it, but I was learning to use it; as the nerve-connections healed, I was even developing tactile sensitivity in the fingertips.When the chronometer on the wall showed that I had been in the underground station for forty-nine hours, I made another routine inquiry about conditions up above."How about it, Monitor?" I called. "Any signs of excavation work going on up there?"There was a long pause—as there was every time I asked questions around the edges of the Forbidden Topic."Negative," the voice said at last."They've had time enough now to discover I'm not hiding under the rug in some nearby motel. I wonder what they're waiting for?"There was no answer. But then I hadn't really asked a question."Make another try to raise one of the other stations," I ordered. I watched the screen as one equipment-crowded room after another flashed into view. None answered my call."What about those other Station Monitors?" I asked. "Can I talk to them?""Station Monitors are aspects of the Central Coordinating Monitor," the voice said casually. "All inquiries may be addressed directly to any local station unit.""You don't volunteer much, do you?" I inquired rhetorically."Negative," the voice replied solemnly."Can you get a message out to somebody for me?""Affirmative, assuming—""Skip the assumptions. He's somewhere in Jacksonville, Florida—if the demons didn't kill him just to keep in practice—and if he followed my instructions to stay in town. His name's Joel—last name unknown, even to him. Address unknown. As of a week ago, he was crewman aboard a sub-tanker called the Excalibur, out of New Hartford. Find him, and tell him to meet me at the main branch of the YMNA in . . . where's the nearest diplomatic post?""The British Consulate at Chicago.""All right. I want Joel to meet me in the lobby of the main Y in Chicago, as soon as he can get there. Do you think you can reach him with what I've given you?""Indeterminate. Telephone connections can be made with—"There was a loud, dull-toned thump! that shook the station. The Monitor's voice wavered and went on: "—all points on—" Another thud.I was on my feet, watching microscopic dust particles shaken out of crevices by the impact, settling to the floor. There was another blow, more severe than the others. "What the hell was that?" I asked—yelled—but it was rhetorical.The demons were at my door.* * *"Al

right, talk fast, Monitor," I barked. I pulled on my new clothes, checked the gun as I talked. "Is there any other route out of here?""The secondary exit route leads from the point now indicated by the amber light," the voice said imperturbably. Across the room, I saw an indicator blink on, off, on. "However," the Monitor went on, "departure from the Station at this time is not advised. You have not yet recovered full normal function. Optimum recovery rate will be obtained by continued bed rest, controlled diet, proper medication, and minimal exertion""You're developing a nagging tone," I told it. "Get that door open. Where does it lead?""The tunnel extends seventeen hundred yards on a bearing of two-one-nine debouching within a structure formerly employed for the storage of ensilage.""Good old Ultimax; they don't miss a bet." Another blow racked the station.I buttoned up my pin-stripe weather suit, adjusted the thermostat, settled the gun under my arm."Monitor, I'm feeling pretty good, but you'd better give me an extra shot of vitamins to get me through the next few hours. It's a long walk to that garage.""The use of massive stimulants at this time—""That's the idea: massive stimulants—" There was another heavy blow against the station walls. "Hurry up; your counseling will have to wait for a more leisurely phase in my career. How about that shot?"With much verbal clucking, the cybernetic circuits complied. I held my good arm in the place indicated, and took an old-fashioned needle injection that the Monitor assured me would keep me ticking over like a le Mans speedster for at least forty-eight hours. It started to tell me what would happen then, but I cut it off."I'm tougher than you think. Now, how can I contact you—or the Central Monitor—from outside?"The level voice gave me a long triple code. "Dial on any public communication screen," it added. "The circuits will respond to patterns inherent in your vocalization characteristics. This service is to be employed only in the event of severe emergency involving a major Ultimax program."I took a moment to run through a simple mnemonic exercise. Then:"Monitor, I assume you're mined for destruction?""Affirmative.""Wait until the last minute—until there's a nice crowd of curious zombies and other nonexistent phenomena around; then blow. Understand?""Affirmative," the voice said calmly.I went to the narrow exit panel, paused. "Monitor, how do you feel about blasting yourself out of existence? I mean do you care?""Question requires value-judgment outside the scope of installed circuitry," the voice said."Yours not to reason why, eh? I guess you're lucky at that. It's not dying that hurts—it's living." I took a last look back at the station. It wasn't homey, but it had saved my life."So long," I called.There was no answer. I stepped through into the narrow corridor.* * *I reached the ascending staircase at the end of the mile-long, tile-walled tunnel. I fumbled, found an electro-latch of unfamiliar design. With a whining of gears, a heavy trap door lifted. I emerged into icy-cold, dusty-smelling darkness, felt my way across to a collapsing metal door. As I pushed it aside, the metal crumpled under my hand like tinfoil. I still felt weak, but I had my old grip back.Out on the pot-holed blacktop drive under a black sky, an arctic wind slashed at me. After the days underground, the fresh air smelled good. I turned up my thermostat and started off across the open field to the north.I had gone perhaps a hundred yards, when a sudden glare erupted into the sky from over the brow of the low ridge to my right, followed almost instantly by a tremor underfoot. A mile away, a column of red-lit smoke boiled upward.Nearer at hand, there was a rumble from the ancient silo; I turned in time to see the door leap from its fastenings and whirl away, driven by the concussion that had traveled along the tunnel. A cloud of dust rolled across toward me. Then I heard the belated sound of the blast; a deep carrumph! that rolled across like thunder from the site of Survival Station Twelve. I threw myself flat, hearing bits of debris from the silo thump around me.Other debris was raining around me now—new arrivals from the main blast. Clods thumped off my back. Something heavier fell with a bone-cracking thump, bounced high over me, struck again, and rolled.All was silent now; the ruddy cloud rose higher, fading; I got to my feet and went over to the heavy object that had fallen. It was a major fragment of the body of one of the dog-things. 
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