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I wondered what had gotten me. Thirty-four-year-olds who didn't smoke or drink weren't supposed to drop dead. My heart was good, and my blood pressure a respectable 78/115. I shouldn't have died, and especially not on a Tuesday. I didn't even have a will. But of course, it wasn't as if I had actually needed one. There hadn't been anyone to leave anything to. My folks had died almost fifteen years earlier when a drunk in a Cadillac, who couldn't tell right from left, had made it almost a mile on the wrong side of the Santa Monica Freeway before he caught my parents' little Toyota head-on. There were no relatives. I was single, and didn't really have what one could call friends. I had acquaintances, people to say hello to while racing down the hallway, or someone to share a cafeteria bench with while trying to down a greaseburger and a Coke.
There wasn't anyone crying at my tombstone. Hell, I doubted that there even was a tombstone. I was probably planted in the far corner of a ten-acre patch of green in some place like Van Nuys or Mission Hills. I'd be right out there at the intersection of row 876 and column 239. Beneath smoggy skies, and within earshot of a freeway, a little brass marker in the overgrown grass would mark my eternal resting spot:
BORN MAY 21, 1956
DIED JULY 10, 1990
My estate, including the life insurance that the company insisted I carry, was probably worth a couple of hundred grand. Every last dime of that would go to the State. My legacy to mankind would probably be the funding of twenty yards of sewer line on the outskirts of Barstow. Thousands would be indebted to me whenever they flushed.
My lungs were congested, full of liquid.
Very strange. Dead men shouldn't be coughing, and they certainly shouldn't be worrying about congested lungs. My head pounded as if I'd just caught a speeding two-by-four above the eyes. I felt feverish and my joints throbbed. It felt an awful lot like the flu.
Being dead was certainly bad enough, but to also be subjected to the flu was adding insult to injury. My throat was dry, and I couldn't swallow past what felt like some large glob of mucus. What I really needed was a drink of water. A beer would have gone down just great.
I opened my eyes.
I was seated in a soft chair, with my elbows propped up on the table in front of me. I was in a room in which the walls were covered with walnut paneling. A mental clutch, buried somewhere deep beneath my frontal lobes, popped into first gear.
I was in the Walnut Conference Room.
I was not dead.
My joints were on fire. Bending forward, I let my head rest against the tabletop. The lacquered wood felt cool. Sweat dripped down my face, gathering at the tip of my nose in large fat drops, until they fell, splattering into the carpet.
I wasn't dead, but I was as sick as the proverbial dog. Hell, any dog that felt this bad would simply have curled up and died.
That didn't sound like such a bad idea.
I must have been hit with one of those new-and-improved mutated flu strains that had floated in from some Third World germ factory. Right now I was probably eyeball-deep in viral nucleic acids courtesy of Katmandu, or some damn swamp in southwest Cameroon. Coughing something up from deep in my lungs, I sloshed it around my mouth for a few seconds and then spit it out beneath the table. The janitors would just have to earn their money this week.
If I had been sick enough to have passed out, it made absolutely no sense that I was still in the Walnut Conference Room. My comatose butt should have been hauled down to Malibu Emergency. Right now, some beefy nurse named Gretchen should have been sternly telling me that if I didn't quiet down and keep the thermometer tucked under my tongue, she'd happily find another place to stick it.
Sitting up quickly, I watched the room tilt from side to side. I stood, and the joints in the small of my back popped. It sounded like corks exploding from champagne bottles. The conference room was dark—much darker than when I had first awakened. I glanced up, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in my neck. The fluorescents were dead, with one entire bank dangling down, having crashed through the overhead grillwork. Ceiling tiles littered the far end of the conference room table.
Someone's ass in plant facilities would fry for this.
Walking slowly, and taking shuffling steps so I wouldn't find myself facedown in the dusty shag carpet, I moved toward the window.
A bloated orange sun sat on the horizon. The ocean was gray. I leaned against the window and, shivering, listened to the buzzing insects that seemed to fill my ears. The last sliver of sun quickly vanished beneath the water.
I blinked, squeezing my eyelids tight, trying to force my pupils to dilate. It was dark, far too dark. Staring down the black coastline, I couldn't see a single light. Those multi-million-dollar beach homes, filled with movie stars and Vid preachers, usually blazed as if lit with searchlights.
A power outage.
That had to be it. No power—no lights. I nodded to myself, banging my head against the window. That was the answer. I had the flu, and there had been some sort of monstrous power outage. I could rest now. It all made sense. I stared out into the dark.
Think you moron!
The voice echoed in the back of my head.
The Pacific Coast Highway should be a sea of cars. Cars have headlights and taillights.
I smiled. Of course. The answer was obvious. The road must be closed. There had probably been another damn rock slide that had shut down all four lanes. Suddenly all the pieces came together. There must have been an earthquake. Just as the flu had nailed me and I had passed out, an earthquake had hit. It had knocked the power out and rock slides had closed the highway. It even explained the state of the conference room.
What timing. I never got sick. But the day some killer flu snuck up on me and kicked me square in the ass had to be the same day that "the big one" hit.
Carefully walking back to the table, I dropped into a chair. I would wait until someone returned for me. Wrapping my arms around my chest, and trying not to cough, I closed my eyes.
Reflexes tossed me out of the chair and threw me onto the floor. Rolling on my shoulder, and feeling no pain, I came to my feet. My body was crouched low, my hands reaching forward, and my fingers flexing. I felt the wall at my back.
Lights were on.
Sparks shot out from the wiring of the dangling bank of fluorescents. The arcing and hissing wiring had been what had startled me.
Standing, I could feel that my head was almost clear. For the first time since waking, I was able to take a deep breath without my lungs burning. Smoke began to drift down from somewhere in the ceiling. Trotting over, totally amazed at how well I was feeling, I went toward the door and ran my hand along the wall in the direction of the light switch. If I killed the power, it might just stop whatever was smoking in the ceiling.
The light switch by the door was gone.
Every Tuesday morning for the past three years I had flicked on that light switch.
I suddenly felt dizzy.
"Where's the goddamned light switch?" I leaned against the wall, feeling hot and flushed. The fever was on me again.
"Light request?" asked a sweet, feminine-sounding voice.
I turned, still leaning against the wall. The room was empty. That was a bad sign, a hell of a bad sign. I was hearing voices.
"Light request?" asked the voice again.
I then realized that the voice was coming from somewhere above me. I looked up, peering through the thickening smoke that was drifting down. A speaker grille. Someone from the Central Security Station must have been listening in on the conference room. She might have control over the power.
"Kill the lights!" I shouted.
The room was thrown into darkness.
The door was practically at my back. Fumbling, I searched for the doorknob, grabbed it, and pushed the door open.
I stumbled out and leaned against a wall in a hallway that I'd never seen before. The wall at my back was soft and warm, nothing like the hard steel-sheet walls that should have been there.
Obviously, I had not been in the Walnut Conference Room. The missing light switch should have told me that, but this flu was scrambling my brain. After I had passed out they must have taken me to some other room.
I stared down the long hallway.
The labs were not all that large. I had never seen this hallway, or come across anything that even resembled these strange walls. I turned my head, looking down the opposite direction. It was identical, and just as featureless as the other end of the hallway had been.
Almost sunk into the wall, and colored in the same cream color, was what looked like a phone. Hugging the wall, and dragging my cheek along its warm surface, I worked my way toward it. Grabbing it, I popped it from the wall. A remote. No cord. I looked at it closely. No buttons, no dial, no nothing. Desperate, I put the receiver up to my ear. It was dead. There was no dial tone—not even a hiss.
"Shit!" I said into the phone.
"No one of that name is listed in the directory," said the same voice that I had heard in the conference room. "Are you trying to reach an outside party?" she asked.
I took a deep breath, that is, as deeply as someone could breathe who felt like they had a quart of slime filling each lung.
"What's happened around here?" I asked. I leaned my forehead against the wall and closed my eyes.
"Can you be more specific?" she asked.
In that instant, I realized that she had to be one of the many morons from the Plant Facilities Department. We had just had an earthquake that had probably flattened Los Angeles and she didn't seem to have noticed it.
"The big quake," I said cynically. "Can you remember back to a few hours ago, when your ass was being bounced around your office?"
"Define big?" she asked.
I reopened my eyes, pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it, then pushed it back up against the side of my face. "Larger than 5.0 on the Richter scale," I said with a surprising degree of calmness.
"The last quake of that magnitude or larger occurred 854 days ago, measuring 5.8, and was centered on the Paso Robles fault."
I just shook my head. Then I realized that she must be in shock. A ceiling tile had probably smacked her on the head and she was still woozy. That had to be it. She was suffering from a concussion.
"Let me speak to someone else," I said.
"There is no one else," she answered.
I was getting mad now. I needed a doctor, and didn't have time to play games with a delirious woman. "Am I supposed to believe that there is no one else in this entire building?"
"The man responsible for the reactivation of system lighting has just entered the building."
Now I was getting somewhere. The damn building must have been evacuated and somehow, in all the confusion, I had gotten left behind. I'd be tearing someone a new asshole when I found the idiot responsible for that slipup.
"How can I get to him?" I asked.
"Simply follow the red arrow," she said.
Red arrow. She was a certifiable loon. This hallway was one unbroken, cream-colored tunnel. "What red arrow?" I snapped at her.
"The one below your left foot," she said.
Like an idiot, I looked down at my feet. Like an even bigger idiot, I lifted up my left foot.
I damn near dropped the phone.
Where my foot had just been there was now a red arrow. It was somehow beneath the floor, or possibly even within it. It pulsed on and off in about one-second intervals.
I felt sick. Things gurgled deep in my gut.
Somehow the phone was back up to my ear. "I don't understand," I said in an almost inarticulate mumble.
"When you hang up the phone the arrow will lead you to the man who has just entered the building. I suggest that you do this while the lights remain on. As a result of the large power drain from systems activation earlier this day, there has not been sufficient time to recharge. I estimate less than five minutes of lighting remain."
I nodded stupidly at the phone for a second, then hung it up. The instant it hit its cradle the arrow flitted across the floor and pulsed its way down the hallway. It got about six feet in front of me and then halted.
I shuffled a few steps in its direction, then stopped.
It pulsed a few more feet down the hallway, then stopped.
When I caught up with it, it made a turn at the first corridor intersection it encountered. I followed. It traveled down another long, featureless hallway, then turned a corner and led me into a dead-ended hallway. The arrow pulsed momentarily at a blank wall, then vanished.
The wall I faced hissed, and then detached itself, quickly sliding into the section of wall next to it. I looked down at the floor, beyond where the wall had been, expecting to see the arrow, but it was still gone.
I looked up, saw something, and then looked right back down at the floor. My fever must have been a lot higher than I had imagined. There was no doubt about it, I was delirious.
I looked back up. What I had thought I had seen was still there. He stood at the end of this new hallway. I had hoped that he would have vanished in a puff of smoke, or perhaps dribbled into the floor. No such luck. It was amazing what my delirious brain was capable of generating. The guy was completely decked out in a space suit. However, it was not one of those form-fitting white NASA jobs, but an aluminum-foil special that sprouted a wild array of coat-hanger antennas. His left arm had been replaced with some sort of manipulator that looked a hell of a lot like a lobster claw. He wore a leather belt with two holsters, one of which held a pearl-handled pistol and the other what had to be his ray gun. This guy looked like a refugee from a fifties sci-fi flick that had been shot over a weekend in someone's basement. All that was missing to make him the perfect alien invader was the bubble space helmet. Instead, he wore a red beret.
I watched him reach his right hand over his shoulder and tug at something that must have been strapped to his back. Moving so quickly that he seemed to blur, that something was now in his hand. Colored a dull gray, it looked like a toaster—two slices. He pointed it at my head.
Something finally leaked through to my brain. That voice that had earlier echoed in the back of my head now told me that I was about to receive something much more lethal than a faceful of toasted raisin bread.
His fingers seemed to have melted into the toaster's dull aluminum sides.
"Good night!" he screamed in a screechy voice.
I wanted to jump, to find cover, but there was no place to hide. The corridor at my back didn't turn a corner for at least fifty feet.
I just stood there. If killed in this nightmare, I hoped that I'd simply wake up.
The tendons flexed in the exposed parts of his hands.
I squinted, gritted my teeth, then closed my eyes. I wondered if I'd feel anything when my brain was splattered against the cream-colored walls. For just an instant, an image of someone from Plant Facilities wiping down the red-stained walls filled my head.
Something tickled deep inside of my head.
I opened my eyes.
His hands were flexing convulsively.
"Crash hard!" he screamed. "The Supreme wills it!"
Every time his hands flexed that same something tickled inside of my head.
"Shielded," he said, while sneering at me. He re-slung the toaster across his back and pulled his ray gun from its holster. The gun's tip shimmered a deep purple.
It was one thing to take it like a man, and accept your fate when faced with the prospect of being raisin-breaded to death by a toaster, but it's something totally different when you're threatened by a loon in a space-suit who's waving a ray gun. Blind instinct finally took over.
I turned and ran.
"Stop!" he screamed.
Once I started moving it was going to take a hell of a lot more than the screech of a NASA-induced nightmare to slow me down. I seemed to eat up the hallway. Never had I run so fast. My head cleared, my lungs sucked down air, and before I would have thought it possible I'd started my turn into the hallway corner, dropping down to all fours as I did in order to increase traction.
Hot air fanned the side of my face.
With the added incentive of ray-gun blasts I was certain that I'd practically fly down the next hallway.
Excerpted from Quad World by Robert A. Metzger. Copyright © 1991 Robert Metzger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 19, 2010
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