by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.
They walked down the street past several street cleaning drones that were fighting a losing battle with the grey soot that threatened to cover everything.
“We are being monitored.” Qezbek said. “I am sensing several sets of eyes on us.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Parker replied. “Only the Glitches bother to live out here. If it weren’t for them, the only signs of life would be the workers coming and going from the industrial fabricators.”
Parker looked at him askance. “Oh sorry, Glitch is a not so nice word for those who choose not to live in the city proper. The city managers tried to get them to integrate years ago, but forced integration didn’t pan out. Some live out here because they want to, others because they haven’t the means to afford decent housing elsewhere. Thankfully, the crime level out here is relatively low.” He stopped at a grimy sign on a boarded up Quonset and used a handkerchief to wipe the letters legible. “Morrissey’s Place.” He stuffed the handkerchief into a pocket. “It’s not an X, but it marks the spot. Come on.” He tried the door. “It’s locked.” He banged on the door. “OPS, open up.”
“What you want, Cop?”
“We want to talk to Morrissey.” Parker pulled out his pistol. “Open it up or we’ll break the door down.”
“Morrissey no here. He go to Downtown to get stuff. You come back later.”
“Like Hell I will.” Parker moved to the side and aimed his pistol at the door. A couple of shots later, the door lock blasted free and the door swung inward. He jumped into the large room of Morrissey’s place and held his ID out. “Where’s Morrissey?”
A small old woman came from around a rickety makeshift bar counter, her hair flying in all directions as she spoke. “You broke Morrissey’s door, you gonna pay for that.”
Parker gestured for Qezbek to come in. “Fine, put it on my bill.” He pulled out a small photo display and held it up. “I’m looking for this woman. I believe she’s been here.”
The old woman squinted at the photo. “Redhead woman come and gone hours ago had business with Morrissey. They both go Downtown to get stuff.” She looked up at Qezbek. “You bring Sristi here? Oh, Morrissey won’t like that one bit. He say Sristi the reason World all gone to hell basket.”
“Your friend is mistaken.” Qezbek rumbled. “We are trying to fix your planet.” The Sristi’s ears twitched. “John, I am detecting movement in the rear of this structure.”
“Good ears.” Parker pushed past the protesting old woman and ran to a metal door at the rear of the room. “This is Inspector Parker of the OPS. Come out of there.”
Qezbek held the woman back and deftly pressed two fingers into the side of her neck. The woman crumpled to the floor. “She is only stunned, she will recover.” He joined Parker at the door. “I do not believe that your plasma weapon will be sufficient to open this particular make of door. Stand aside, please.” He adjusted his sidearm and pressed the center stud. A pencil beam of light appeared and touched the door. Dark metal glowed white hot, but refused to melt. “I do not understand why this is not working.”
Parker touched a cold part of the door. “Halloway, can you give me a scan of this door?”
“Indication of heat resistant material similar to that used on Sristi freighter hull plating. The Sristi haven’t reported any thefts so I’m at a loss to explain it. Whoever put that door up wanted to keep someone out pretty bad. The locking mechanism seems pretty standard though.”
“Thanks.” Parker said. “We can’t burn it or blast it, but I’m betting there’s a key to get in it.” He began looking behind the bar counter. “Qezbek, wake up our friend and find out where the key is.”
Qezbek bent over and pressed a finger to the old woman’s temples. She moaned and opened her eyes. “You no kill me? I still don’t know where Morrissey go.” He helped her to her feet. “Madame, I have no intention to cause you harm. If you will assist us, we will leave you as soon as possible.”
She stared into his red eyes for a long second, and then nodded. “Morrissey keep keys in small box in false panel in wall. You no tell him that I told you?”
Qezbek nodded. “You have my word.”
Parker found the panel and pulled it free, finding a small magnetic key box inside. The key reminded him of his television remote control as he pointed it at the door and pressed a white button on its face. The metal door gave a loud click and slid open. He set the key on the counter. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Not at all, Inspector.” The old woman straightened. “Boys, if you please?”
Five very large men walked out of the back room, each holding a nasty looking electric stun wand. The old woman pushed past Qezbek. “An OPS cop and a Sristi in my bar. How quaint. Dawes warned me that others would be looking for her.” She pulled off her white hair wig and tossed it aside as she removed a layer of mask. The face of the woman underneath was younger, but no more attractive. She stared at Qezbek. “It’s a shame that she is not here to greet you. Our employer wanted her elsewhere. Surrender your weapons at once.”
“I’m guessing that you’re Morrissey?” Parker asked. “Where is Dawes?”
Morrissey folded her fat arms. “You’re not in any position to ask any questions, Mr. Parker. What you should be concerning yourself with is what should we do with you?”
One of Morrissey’s henchmen, a beefy man with a bald head and bad teeth, spoke up. “Hey, why don’t we give them the test? It’s been a while since we did that.”
Morrissey scratched her chin. “That’s an inspired idea, Rube.” She touched Qezbek on the chest and shoved him toward her partners. “We can’t do it to the Sristi because their blood emits a toxic gas when exposed to our atmosphere.” She walked over to Parker. “Now, Mr. Parker, here is another story. He’ll do for the test. I’ll give you a choice, Parker, die right here or take our test and if you survive, we might tell you where Dawes went.” She leaned close and pulled off his headset. She dropped it to the floor and crushed the device with a heavy boot as she took his weapon. Behind them, her henchmen were disarming Qezbek. “I’d go for the second option if I were you.”
“Not much of a choice.” Parker said. “When is this test?”
“It’s already started, Mr. Parker.”
Parker felt the jolt of a stun wand before blackness filled his mind.
When Parker awoke, he found himself surrounded on three sides by thick sheets of armored glass in a large dimly lit room. He reached into his pockets to discover that they were bare.
“I apologize for cleaning out your person, Mr. Parker, but we couldn’t take the risk of you building a MacGuffin and cheating your way out of our little test.”
He rubbed his eyes until they cleared. Qezbek was no where to be seen. “Where’s my partner? Where’s Qezbek?”
The dim lights grew brighter. “The Sristi is our guest up here while we observe the test. You should be honored, Mr. Parker, we don’t usually bring outsiders into our rituals.”
“I’m not exactly a voluntary participant.” Parker spat as he searched for a way out. “My people will be looking for me since you smashed my comm set.”
Morrissey looked down, dressed in a purple cloth robe that made her look almost regal. “The walls are coated with a special material that absorbs electromagnetic signals. Of course, if your people do come looking for you, all they will find is poor old Morrissey who know nothing ’bout two OPS cops.” She smiled.
“Damn it,” Parker muttered. He looked up at his captors. “You just can’t do this.”
Morrissey’s voice boomed across the room. “You’re in my world, Mr. Parker, and you are about to find out at some great cost that I can pretty much do what I want here.” She tossed two small metal wands down to him. “Catch these, Mr. Parker, you will need them.”
He caught the two metal wands and studied them. They were metallic, cold to the touch and at their ends were attached two glass bulbs, one painted red and the other blue. “What do I do with these?”
“Where is your curiosity?” Morrissey asked. “Very well, Mr. Parker, you are to take those wands and insert them in the receptacle at the other side of the room.”
“Sounds easy enough.” Parker said. “What’s the catch?”
Morrissey pressed the button on a small control panel in front of her. Sections of the floor began to move and shake, making Parker fight to keep from falling. “The catch is that not only do you have to contend with my moving floors, but also this.” She pressed another button.
Parker jumped as a concealed bank of strobe lights began to flash as the ceiling lights dimmed. “Qezbek, if you have any suggestions, I’m listening!”
Qezbek worked at the ropes tying him to his chair. “I recommend that you don’t drop the wands. The end bulbs contain explosive chemicals. I can’t say what kind without a detail analysis but...”
“No more hints!” Morrissey stood. “Move!”
Parker took a step toward the two glowing receptacle ports when he felt something brush his arm. He turned his head to look when he felt himself get struck on the back of the neck. He dropped to his knees and tightened his grip on the wands. His knuckles skinned themselves on the rough floor as he tried to roll out of the fall. “Invisible assassins, wonderful.” Above him, his captors howled with glee.
Then he smelled it again, that sweet aroma from the Flat Trap Cafe. He swung outward with the red wand and felt it impact something hard. He heard glass break and brought the blue wand around to strike. He was flung to the ground as the red and blue liquids mixed and exploded. He crawled to the receptacle and plunged both wands into it.
He spied the transparent outline of a figure in the center of the room as the floor stopped shaking. A liquid purple residue coated the figure and though it made no sound, the figure thrashed about before disappearing in a bright flash. Wiping the perspiration from his forehead, Parker scrambled to his feet. “I’ve passed your test; now tell me what I want to know.”
The lights came up with Qezbek standing over the bodies of Morrissey and her team. The Sristi rubbed his wrists of the remains of his bonds and jumped to the floor. “I apologize for not acting sooner, Parker, but I had to make sure that our captors were completely absorbed in your dilemma.”
Parker accepted his gun belt and checked his plasma pistol. He looked up at the carnage Qezbek had left behind. “Did you have to kill all of them? At this point, they were our only clue to where Dawes was taken.”
Qezbek reached to the floor and picked up a small metal object and handed it to Parker. “Perhaps this is a clue?”
Parker turned the object over in his hands. “It reminds me of a Hyperhockey puck. It’s still warm from being held.” His fingers found a seam in the metal and pushed. The top popped off the tin, covering his hands in sand. “Sand?” He handed the tin to Qezbek. “Why would someone carry around sand in a metal tin?” He turned his back and studied the nearby wall. “Things down here are not what they appear.” When that sweet smell reappeared, he turned to see Qezbek eating the sand from the tin. “Dear God, Qezbek, what are you doing?”
Qezbek’s skin pulsated between yellow and nothingness. “John, there is something that you should know. It’s not something that we like to talk about, even among ourselves, but when we consume silicon from your world, it has an effect on us.”
“Like a drug.”
Qezbek nodded, handing the tin to Parker. “I suppose you could make the comparison. When we eat this substance, it gives us an increased mental capacity beyond what we would consider normal. Many of our people have taken to dosing themselves with it on a regular basis. There are a growing number of us who consider it a failing of our species are working to stop the import of this substance.”
“Great, I’m partnered with an alien with a substance abuse problem.” Pocketing the tin, Parker tapped a section of the wall with the butt of his pistol before firing a shot into it. A section of stone rose to reveal a passageway. “And the smell?”
“That is a byproduct of the consumption process.” Qezbek said. He adjusted his uniform. “One of my duties on Srista was to find out how the silicon shipments were being diverted from legitimate use to the Sristi Crime Guilds. My counterpart in this investigation was Madelyne Dawes.”
“Dawes? But both our governments have been after her for acts of terrorism.” Parker said. “This can’t be true.” He took a step into the passageway. “This passage must run for miles under Nullsville.” He turned back. “You coming?”
Qezbek shook off the effects of the silicon high. “You are not averse to continuing with me as your partner?”
Parker jumped as the passageway door fell behind them with a crash. He checked his gun belt and found the flashlight he had stored in an empty ammunition pouch. He switched it on and ran the beam in front of them as they walked. The beam stopped on a sign that warned in faded red letters about tunnel instability. “We must be under The Strip.”
“I am not familiar with that landmark.”
“Not surprising since it’s not on any map.” Parker explained. “When the Commercial and Residential Districts were built, this whole area became a virtual ghost town. Those who stayed created a Downtown of sorts in the middle of the area. Not a very fun place to visit if you aren’t a Glitch.” He pointed to the darkness ahead. “These tunnels make up the original transport system. They stretch all the way to the original surface access point.” He focused the beam on a set of footprints on the dusty floor. “They’re supposed to be deserted after a structural collapse five years ago.”
“You seem very well acquainted with them.”
Parker shuddered. “I’ve been here before.” He looked at Qezbek. “I don’t like confined spaces.”
“Then it is best that we reach an exit point soon.”
Parker stopped and stared at an ancient security camera mounted in the tunnel’s ceiling. “Did you see that thing move?”
Qezbek looked up. “I did not. Given its apparent age, could it still function?”
Parker checked the charge in his pistol. He always carried spare ionized gas cartridges, but at the rate he was going, he’d be throwing rocks by nightfall. “Let’s rest a minute. The fighting back there took some out of me.”
Qezbek studied the door behind them. “Without the proper tools, I doubt we will be able to dig through a barrier of this thickness.”
Parker leaned against the tunnel’s sloping wall and fought to catch his breath. “So, we’re forced to move forward. Wonderful.”
Qezbek turned around. “Are you all right, Parker? Your color is unusual, even for a human.”
Parker wiped his face. “I’m fine; I’m just not fond of closed spaces.” He straightened up and tried to ignore the tightness spreading in his chest. “I thought I’d overcome this problem long ago.”
“Ah, claustrophobia.” Qezbek said. “I’ve studied this disorder.”
“Will you stop doing that? You sound like an old Science Fiction television show.” Parker slapped the wall. “Damn it, I was supposed to be on vacation.”
“My apologies.” Qezbek replied. “I was merely attempting to express some empathy for your condition. I meant no offense.”
Parker waved the words away as a low rumble shook the tunnel, dislodging a torrent of dust. “Forget about it, we have larger problems.” He fished around in his gun belt. “Damn, I forgot it.”
“My automapper.” Parker said. “It has the layout of the tunnel system under Nullsville. I must have left it back at my place.” He raised his flashlight. “We better hurry before this thing comes down around our ears.”
They made their way down the tunnel until the path split into two. Parker peered around the corner. “There’s a light up ahead. It might be a surface access point.” The tunnel rumbled again, unleashing more dust and debris.
The new tunnel opened up into a medium sized chamber with four exit passageways. A loud roar filled the air as the tunnel system convulsed, blocking the exits with rubble. Parker grabbed Qezbek and ducked under a metal overhang on the right wall. The tremor continued for several minutes.
“Is this area prone to tectonic instability?” Qezbek asked. He looked down at Parker. “You are bleeding.”
Parker raised a shaky hand to his forehead and mouth and wiped away blood. He nodded, shuddering as a wave of nausea washed over him. “I think I have a concussion.” He winced. “I probably have a sprained rib or two.” He coughed and noticed a thin spot of blood on his hand. “I know I have some internal bleeding.”
Qezbek reached down and helped Parker to his feet. The chamber was flooded with dirt and debris with the exception of their hiding place. “We appear to be in a most sensitive situation.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.