Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 8

    The sky seemed darker than it had been two days before, the sun's feeble light somehow weaker. Outlines were indistinct and fuzzy. Deserted buildings with gaping windows, cars abandoned along the street, out-of-use mailboxes - all possessed physical boundaries that weaved in and out of Steven's vision. Each object melted into the one beside it.
    Some buildings were beginning to fade from the ground up.
    Out of habit, he crossed at the corner, at a nonfunctioning traffic light, his route taking him along an avenue that had once sported street signs on every corner. The signs were gone now, and he found it annoying that he could not recall any of their names. There was simply nothing in his mind where that information should have been.
    There was something horribly wrong with his sense of direction as well. For a moment he thought the direction he followed was south. The next instant it felt like west. Then he was no longer sure. Here, in this strange world at the end of time, direction no longer had meaning.
    As he passed the remains of a building that had once housed a camera shop, he heard a noise behind him: the sharp tap of claws on cement. He spun about, crouching into a defensive stance, his hands working awkwardly before him without the ax handle.
    Ten yards down the sidewalk came the same pack of dogs he had encountered two days before, the pincher/pit bull now the leader. They advanced slowly, their massive heads swinging from side to side, scanning the street for prey.
    Amazingly, they hadn't seen him.
    But that couldn't be! They were certainly near enough. Could this be some new tactic they had learned to confuse their prey? Were they trying to lull him into a false sense of security? Could they be that smart?
    Panic took hold of him, and he turned and sprinted down the sidewalk. He lunged into a looted drugstore and crouched behind a door sagging on broken hinges, then peered out from behind its chipped and peeling frame. Holding his breath, he waited for the pack to enter his field of view.
    His armpits were suddenly moist with perspiration, and the hair at the back of his neck bristled. A rivulet of sweat ran between his shoulder blades as the tapping of the dogs' claws on the pavement became louder.
    He crouched lower behind the door as the dogs went by in a tight group. They should have seen him. They should have smelled his fear, heard his heart pounding or the harsh rasp of his breathing.
    Gradually, the staccato tapping of the claws faded. He remained huddled behind the door, trying to calm the fear rising in him, trying to understand what had happened. He could do neither.
    When he finally did leave the store, the cloud-shrouded sun hung low in the sky. He was sure he had been hiding in the drugstore only a few minutes, yet now it was nearly dusk. And that filled him with sudden dread.

    He walked quickly down the middle of the street, a stiff wind at his back. He had to find the grocery he had been hunting for several days before. No, matter what, he still had to eat. But he had forgotten where it was.
    Far ahead, also in the middle of the street, he spotted something. It was a human figure - harsh, angular, bathed in a cone of strange, blue-green light. The lines of the stationary figure grew softer as he drew near, gradually rounding into the form of a woman.
    There was something familiar about her even from a distance. Steven knew her. He knew only too well that stance of one hip thrust slightly forward. This time there was no doubt. The figure ahead in the middle of the street was no manikin, no phantom dredged up from the depths of his tormented subconscious by the crystal chip buried in his brain.
    It was Pamela!
    Stumblingly, he ran. Twice he fell, tearing his trousers and scraping his knees and the palms of his hands. Both times he got up immediately and ran on, inarticulate moans escaping from his throat. He feared she would disappear before he could reach her.
    Soon he stood before her, his body numb and shaking, his heart pounding in his chest like a jackhammer. His breath came in harsh gasps, and he felt a slick film of perspiration over his entire body.
    Pamela stood as still as a statue. Her body was draped in a long, flowing gown covering everything below her neck except her hands.
    Suddenly, Steven knew this wasn't his Pamela. She was somehow different, but he couldn't quite....
    Then he knew what it was. This girl's eyes were green instead of blue, and her hair was cut short. It was platinum blonde, not the color of honey. And there was a softness around her eyes and the corners of her mouth he had never seen in the Pamela he had known.
    Still, there was enough familiar about her that he knew she was Pamela. A Pamela.
    He watched her chest, but he could not detect the steady rise and fall of breath. Her face was frozen in a quiet, smiling expression very much out of character for the Pamela he had known. Her piercing green eyes stared straight ahead, seeming to look right through him. Even her hair did not stir in the cold wind.
    Calming himself with an effort, he forced his tremors to stop and his breathing to become more regular. Then he reached out for her hand where it lay against her out thrust thigh.
    His hand passed through hers without the slightest resistance and entered her leg. He watched in horror as his fingers clutched and wriggled inside her.
    Withdrawing his hand, he stumbled back a step. He bit his lip hard and tasted blood. Suddenly, he was aware of the steel skeletons of partially vanished buildings visible through her body. But somehow it would no longer register; he knew what he was seeing and how he should react, yet his numbed mind merely found it amusing, some strangely curious phenomenon that neither touched nor moved him.
    His legs became suddenly weak, and he sat, drawing his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on them. He hugged his legs tightly against the cold, hard wind and rocked silently back and forth as he watched the phantom Pamela in the fading light. It soon became dark, and still she did not move. Still she remained bathed in the strange blue-green light.
    Closing his eyes, Steven again concentrated on the microcomputer in his head. With difficulty, he reconstructed its image in his mind as he had seen it in the electron micro-graphs months before. Then he again tampered with its structure, as he had before in his hospital bed, altering the molecular circuitry in his imagination.
    I might be doing nothing at all, he thought. I might be fighting something I simply can't hope to win against.
    But Pamela was there before him. He opened his eyes and looked at her. She wasn't the Pamela he had known, but somehow she was a Pamela. Maybe he had done that. Maybe he had brought her here.
    He closed his eyes again and concentrated on altering the computer embedded in his brain.
    Soon, he fell asleep.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chapter 7

    When Steven opened his eyes, the light in the room was different than it had been before he had fallen asleep, somehow more diffused. The strange light gave everything in the room a feeling of unreality.
    The room was clean, white, antiseptic. It contained two other hospital beds: one neatly made, the other recently slept in. This was obviously one of the university's first-aid clinics. Hansen had taken it over.
    Steven got out of bed, found his clothes hanging neatly in the closet, and quickly dressed. He fumbled in the drawer of the cart until he found the cigarettes he'd had when he left his apartment.
    How long has it been? he wondered. He stepped to the mirror beside the bed and studied his reflection. His beard showed no more than three days' growth.
    Taking a cigarette from the crumpled pack, he placed it in his mount and lit it. The first lungful of smoke seemed to take the edge off, calming his nerves. Somehow, it brought a bit of sanity back into his world.
    Suddenly, he realized what was making him feel so strange. He felt much better than he should be feeling. The fever was gone, and his wounds no longer hurt. There was only a touch of headache behind his eyes.
    He brought his right hand up and examined his wrist in the strange light. The gash was gone; there was not even the merest trace of a scar. He tore the crude bandages from his arm. That wound, too, was no longer visible. It was as if he had never received those injuries, as if the last few days had not happened.
    But he knew they had. At least, he thought they had. He searched his mind for the events of the past few days and found he could remember only gross generalities. The fine details and the sharpness that marked the computer-generated memories were missing. It was as if someone had told him about what had happened, instead of his actually having lived it.
    Or, like he had dreamed it.
    Still, the bandages - and he did remember some of it.
    The feeling of unreality became suddenly stronger, a heavy mix of both old and new. Had those things really happened? Had he actually met the dog pack? Had Hansen....
    Too many questions, and far too few answers.
    Again he thought about Hansen. Should he try to find him before leaving?
    No, he decided. He had to get out of this room, out of this building. And he had to do it now.
    He shuffled to a low counter on the far side of the room. A piece of hard bread only partly wrapped in aluminum foil lay beside a brown-stained hot plate. He picked the bread up, unwrapped it, stuffed it in his mouth. It crumbled dry and powdery on his tongue and scratched the roof of his mouth. He was tempted to spit it out, but he needed its nourishment.