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The room was dark. Just enough moonlight slanted through the broken windows for Alex Ward to make out the debris littering the floor, chunks of ceiling plaster lying in heaps amid the wrecked office furniture. He had gone from one floor to the next, until he had ascended almost to the top of this abandoned insurance building. He was looking for something--anything--that he could sell in the sewer, but the lower floors had been picked clean. His best chances were up high in these old executive suits, where he might find a bottle of liquor behind a wall painting, or a gold pen and pencil set, something he could trade for food or ammunition.
Besides, there weren't likely to be any colloids up here. He couldn't afford to waste ammunition, so it was best to hunt where attacks were infrequent ... infrequent, but not unheard of. Alex fondled the barrel of his Ingram 9mm to reassure himself.
He overturned some plaster lumps with his boot. Underneath them was something with a shiny edge that might have been glass or metal. He reached down and gently pried it loose. Dusting it off, he held it up to the moonlight.
It was a photograph in a gilt frame, showing a man and two young children smiling through the cracked glass. They were probably the husband and kids of the executive who used to inhabit this office. Most likely all four were dead by now. If they weren't, they wished they were ... that much was certain.
Alex sighed and stuffed the picture under his shirt, figuring the frame would be worth something.
He walked slowly, stepping around a yard-wide hole in the floor, and entered the adjoining room. The windows, ten feet high from floor to ceiling,had long ago been smashed, and a cool breeze stirred the dust on the floor, piling it against the wainscoting.
Hundreds of feet below, the dead city streets were a blackened labyrinth, littered with insectile wrecked cars. Few buildings stood intact. The crumbled ruin of Independence Hall aroused memories of Philadelphia as it had been, before the colloids came. The old city had been vibrant then, but those days seemed as distant as a dream.
Something flapped out of the shadows, flying straight at his face from the floor above. Its unearthly shriek echoed in the enclosed space as Alex crouched and flailed at it with the Ingram. It sailed past his head, stirring the short hairs on the back of his neck, and smacked onto the wall beside him. It clung there, pulsing in the moonlight, a four-foot-long, shapeless thing.
It would be on him again in a second if he didn't kill it. Alex fired a burst and the thing exploded in wet, stinking chunks. Hot liquid splattered onto his clothes and skin, as bits of the nonshape fell quivering to the floor.
Before he could take a breath, something snaked around his right ankle.
"Jesus!" He jerked his foot away before the pseudopod could get a purchase on him. Hopping backwards, he turned and nearly stepped into a viscous hump, its snake-like pseudopods whipping as it advanced. Behind it was a dripping coil that writhed like a worm in pain.
Time to go.
The Ingram's flash strobe-lit the room, its roar deafening as spray from the two monsters soaked his ragged clothing and burnt his skin. The acrid smell of gunpowder mingled with the colloids' stench. Before the pieces of the three things could regroup, he sprinted toward the door, skidding on the slime and nearly falling. Heart pounding, he managed to stay on his feet and get into the outer office, where he was confronted with more colloids than he had ever hoped to see in one place. Leaping, squirming, burbling, chittering, gurgling, screaming--they came at him.
He fired, muscles straining against the recoil, and backed away as the colloids were torn to pustular shreds by 9mm slugs. The monsters wailed hideously, pieces of them spinning through the dusty air and slapping against the walls and floor. More of them closed in on him through the outer door, and the quaking remains of those he'd shot were starting to come after him, too. He couldn't kill them, could hardly slow them down. There was only one way out.
Behind him was the hole in the floor. It was ten or twelve feet to the lower level, and there was no telling what was down there, but he had no choice. He jumped.
He landed on his feet and fell to his knees, rolling over in plaster, wood, and masonry. He struck a jagged board, and a nail protruding from it ripped his clothing, tearing the skin on his back. Somehow he held onto the Ingram and managed to stand. His shin struck a fallen I-beam and he groaned, but he was still able to walk.
Looking up, he saw a bloated thing pulsing on the edge of the jagged hole. He kept the Ingram trained on it as he backed out of the room. No use wasting ammo if it stayed where it was.
There was nothing moving in the corridor. He had to get to the stairwell before the colloids did. Their hesitation wouldn't last long. He had allowed them to follow him upstairs and corner him, and it was only by dint of sheer manic energy that he had escaped.
The dark maw of an open elevator door was between him and the stairwell. Alex winced as he pressed his wounded back against the wall and slid by, facing the elevator. A colloid oozed out and slithered toward him. He fired, fingers and forearms aching, and sprinted for the stairwell, adrenaline pumping as caustic spray and his own hot blood soaked into his shirt. He took several stairs at a time, leaping down to each landing with the Ingram's barrel out in front of him, in case more colloids were waiting. His footsteps echoed in the stairwell. As he glanced over his shoulder to see if they were coming after him, he nearly stepped on a flowing mass of living tissue. The thing had crawled out from its roost behind the stairs, and he had surprised it as much as it had surprised him. Sensing his presence, it recoiled like an amoeba stung by electricity. Alex pointed the Ingram at it as the colloid pooled on the landing. He squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.
He was out of ammunition.
The colloid began to rush toward him, a coughing, gelatinous stream of gray tissue. It moved faster than it had any right to, but not fast enough to catch Alex. Grasping the handrail, he vaulted onto the stairs below, unable to keep his footing. He slammed down onto the next landing painfully. Dazed, he looked up to see the colloid descending the stairs like a sickly, slow-motion waterfall.
It would be on him in a second if he didn't move. Behind it were four or five more colloids, and he heard the liquid sounds of still others, just above. Alex somehow made it to his feet and bolted, taking the stairs three at a time.
It took a lifetime to get to the bottom and out into the night air. He hobbled down Market Street until he found a grating. Lifting it, he dropped it onto the cracked pavement with a clang. He climbed down into the filthy sewer water, grateful to have the burning spray washed from his body, and made his way west, away from the building where he had been attacked. By now, the street above was swarming with colloids. It was pitch dark down in the sewer, but it was the only place the colloids wouldn't go. They avoided any place where there was a lot of water.
Half an hour later, still wading waist-deep, caked blood gluing his shirt to his back, Alex stopped to catch his breath. He climbed up on a ledge and sat gasping. When he had recovered, and was convinced that he would not bleed to death, he took the framed photograph out and looked at it again. It was dawn by now, and enough light filtered through from the grating above for him to see.
Water dripped from the end of his nose onto the cracked glass covering the picture, as he permitted himself a moment of longing for the days when families like this one had existed. He'd had his own wife and kid, Sharon and Billy. It hurt to think about them.
Alex tucked the photograph into his tattered shirt. He got up and resumed moving, remembering that sentiment served no purpose in the scheme of things. These people in the photograph, even the children, no longer existed. Some of their tissues might live on, transformed into monstrosities like those that had attacked him tonight. But it would not do to think of the colloids as being human in any way. They were his enemies, and he had to fight them.
If only it wasn't so difficult to kill them.
Splashing into the muddy water, he surged ahead, growing more and more angry as he went. It was so unfair, being able to die while your enemies could hardly be killed. You could immerse them in water and dissolve them, or completely burn them, but these things were not easy to do. No matter how many pieces you blew them into, they kept coming. They would feed, recombine, and grow, and be just as threatening in a matter of days, or even hours. All you could do was slow them down, make them a bit more manageable, but if you didn't get away from them they'd mire you down and eat you alive. He'd seen people covered with the things, colloids of all kinds, different shapes and sizes--people drowning in them.
The thought made him move faster, dirty water rolling around his churning legs. The inability to slow down, even after the crisis had passed, was symptomatic of his illness. He had been hospitalized after Sharon and Billy died, back when there still were hospitals, because he had fallen into a deep depression. Bipolar disorder was the diagnosis--meaning that he was what used to be called a manic-depressive.
Alex swung the Ingram around, forgetting that he had no bullets. A woman crouched against the wet, stone curve of the sewer.
"Don't shoot," she said. "I'm not infected."
He lowered the gun barrel, hoping that she wouldn't notice his trembling hands. "I can see that."
"What is that thing, an Uzi?"
"No, an Ingram 9mm, semi-automatic." He didn't mention that he had made it fully automatic by taping pennies under the firing mechanism. It was a trick he'd learned in the old days, from a casual conversation with an off-duty cop in a bar.
The woman moved closer, the sounds of swishing water around her. She was thin, with dark eyes and matted, curly hair. Not bad looking, but filthy ... just like him.
"Have you got ammunition for it?" she asked. Her voice was husky.
"What do you want with me?" Alex asked abruptly, not wanting to answer her question.
The woman smiled knowingly, showing that she had all her teeth. "I want to know it you've got anything to trade."
"Are you packing?" he asked.
"Just this." She reached inside her ragged coat and showed him a .32 revolver. She stuffed it back where it had been. "So, what have you got for me?"
"How do I know you have anything worth trading?" demanded Alex, glaring at her.
"Kind of high strung, aren't you?" She smiled again. "What's your name, anyway?"
He hesitated, and then said, "Alex Ward."
"Alex Ward ... I've heard of you. Everybody's heard of you."
"Yeah, right." Alex did not permit himself to exhibit pride. It was dangerous to have an inflated ego.
"No, I mean it. They say you don't hide out down in the sewer."
"So what am I doing here now?"
"Now maybe, but not all the time, not like the rest of us."
That was because he couldn't sit still for long, not once he got manic. He didn't tell her that, either.
"So what have you got to show me, Alex?"
Not sure why he was doing it, he withdrew the photograph from his clothing and handed it to her. She looked at it for a long time, and then handed it back to him.
"You don't want it?" he asked.
"I want it, but I can't afford it." She turned away, as if to leave.
"How do you know that?" he said. "I haven't named a price."
She whirled, sloshing dirty water at him. "I've only got one thing to offer," she said angrily.
The woman was surprised. "You'd give me the picture? Just for sex?"
"Been a while, huh?"
She took his tremulous hand. Hers felt warm and dry. "Want to know my name?" she asked softly.
"Jo." She began to lead him through the darkness. After a few minutes they came to a storm drain raised up about five feet above the water line. The grating had been sealed with concrete. There was a ledge just below the opening, making it easy to climb up. Inside the storm drain was a dry place with old rags and blankets piled high to make a nest. A kerosene lantern, some canned goods and a plastic jug of water were on a ledge in the back.
"They built a high-rise here, so they had to re-route the drains," Jo explained, climbing up. "Just before the colloids came."
"How do you know that?" Alex pushed himself up and joined her on the bed of rags.
"My husband was the architect, and I remember him complaining about all the trouble he was having with the city, because the building extended out over the sewer. The contractor had to dig a new drain."
How are the mighty fallen, Alex thought. This woman had once had it all, and now she lived in a sewer. Still, she had a better set-up than most of the survivors down here; and the sewer was one of the few places in the city where there were any survivors. She still looked pretty good, and sex was a commodity that was always in demand. She was doing all right, considering.
"Give me the picture," Jo said
He did as she asked.
She took off her torn clothing, revealing a slender, shapely body that immediately aroused Alex. He removed his clothes and she gently touched the raw scar on his back.
"Now I'll give you what you need," she said.
Embracing, they began to kiss. Jo showed more interest than she had to, Alex thought, becoming wildly excited. In the dripping darkness they made long, feral love until he was spent, and he was able to sleep fitfully at last.