AFTERNOON OF THE FOURTH MONDAY IN JANUARY 1977; THE Chateau Bronnitsy off the Serpukhov road not far out of Moscow; 2:40 P.M. middle-European time, and a telephone in the temporary Investigation Control Room ringing ... ringing ... ringing.
The Chateau Bronnitsy stood central on open, peaty ground in the middle of a densely wooded tract now white under drifted snow. A house or mansion of debased heritage and mixed architectural antecedents, several recent wings were of modern brick on old stone foundations, while others were cheap breeze blocks camouflaged in grey and green paint. A once-courtyard in the "U" of polyglot wings was now roofed over, its roof painted to match the surrounding terrain. Bedded at their bases in massive, steeply gabled end walls, twin minarets raised broken bulbous domes high over the landscape, their boarded windows glooming like hooded eyes. In keeping with the generally run-down aspect of the rest of the place, the upper sections of these towers were derelict, decayed asrotten fangs. From the air, the Chateau would seem a gaunt old ruin. But it was hardly that, even though the towers were not the only things in a state of decay.
Outside the roofed courtyard stood a canopied ten-ton Army truck, the canvas flaps at its rear thrown back and its exhaust puffing acrid blue smoke into the frosty air. A KGB man, conspicuous in his "uniform" of felt hat and dark grey overcoat, stared in across the truck's lowered tailgate at its contents and shuddered. Hands thrust deep in his pockets, he turned to a second man dressed in the white smock of a technician and grimaced. "Comrade Krakovitch," he grunted, "what the hell are they? And what are they doing here?"
Felix Krakovitch glanced at him, shook his head, said, "You wouldn't understand if I told you. And if you understood, you wouldn't believe." Like his ex-boss, Gregor Borowitz, Krakovitch considered all KGB low life-forms. He would keep information and assistance to the barest minimum--within certain limits of prudence and personal safety, of course. The KGB weren't much for forgiving and forgetting.
The blocky Special Policeman shrugged, lit a stubby brown cigarette and drew deeply on its cardboard tube. "Try me anyway," he said. 'It's cold here but I am warm enough. See, when I go to report to Comrade Andropov--and I am sure I need not remind you of his Politburo status--he will want some answers, which is why I want answers from you. So we will stand out here until--"
"Zombies!" said Krakovitch abruptly. "Mummies! Men dead for four hundred years. You can tell that from their weapons, and--" For the first time he heard the insistent ringing of the telephone, turned towards the door in the corrugated iron façade of the covered courtyard.
"Where are you going?" The KGB man came alive, took his hands out of his pockets. "Do you expect me to tell Yuri Andropov that the--the mayhem--here was doneby dead men?" He almost choked on the last two words, coughed long and loud, finally spat on the snow.
"Stand there long enough," Krakovitch said over his shoulder, "in those exhaust fumes, smoking that shredded rope, and you might as well climb in the truck with them!" He stepped through the door, let it slam shut behind him.
"Zombies?" The agent wrinkled his nose, looked again at the truckload of cadavers.
He couldn't know it but they were Crimean Tartars, butchered en masse in 1579 by Russian reinforcements hastening to a ravaged Moscow. They had died and gone down in blood and mire and bog, to lie part-preserved in the peat of a low-lying field--and to come up again two nights ago to wage war on the Chateau! They had won that war, the Tartars and their young English leader, Harry Keogh, for after the fighting only five of the Chateau's defenders still lived. Krakovitch was one of them. Five out of thirty-three, and the only enemy casualty Harry Keogh himself. Amazing odds, unless one counted the Tartars. But one could hardly count them, for they had been dead before it started ...
These were Krakovitch's thoughts as he entered what long ago had been a cobbled courtyard--now a large area of plastic-tiled floor, partitioned into airy conservatories, small apartments and laboratories--where E-Branch operatives had studied and practised their esoteric talents in comparative comfort, or whatever condition or environment best suited their work. Forty-eight hours ago the place had been immaculate; now it was a shambles, where bullet-holes patterned the partition walls and the effects of blast and fire could be seen on every hand. It was a wonder the place hadn't been burned to the ground, completely gutted.
In a mainly cleared area--the so-called Investigation Control Room--a table had been erected and supported the ringing telephone. Krakovitch made his way towards it,pausing to drag aside a large piece of utility wall which partly blocked his path. Underneath, lying half-buried in crumbled plaster, broken glass and the crushed remains of a wooden chair, a human arm and hand lay like a huge grey salted slug. Its flesh was shrivelled, the colour of leather, and the bone where it projected in a knob at the shoulder was shiny white. It was almost a fossil. There'd be many more fragments such as this yet to be discovered, scattered throughout the Chateau, but apart from their repulsive looks they'd be harmless--now. Not so on the night of the horror. Krakovitch had seen portions like this one, without heads or brains to guide them, crawling, fighting, killing!
He shuddered, moved the arm aside with his foot, went to the telephone. "Hello, Krakovitch?"
"Who?" the unknown caller snapped back. "Krakovitch? Are you in charge there?" It was a female voice, very efficient.
"I suppose I am, yes," Krakovitch answered. "What can I do for you?"
"For me, nothing. For the Party Leader, only he can say. He's been trying to contact you for the last five minutes!"
Krakovitch was tired. He hadn't slept since the nightmare, doubted if he'd ever sleep again. He and the other four survivors, one of them a raving madman, had only come out of the security vault on Sunday morning, when the air was finished. Since then the others had made their statements, been sent home. The Chateau Bronnitsy was a High Security Establishment, so their stories wouldn't be for general consumption. In fact Krakovitch--being the only genuinely coherent member of the survivors--had demanded that the case in toto be sent direct to Leonid Brezhnev. That was Standing Orders anyway: Brezhnev was the top man, personally and directly responsible for E-Branch, despite the fact that he'd left all of it to Gregor Borowitz. But the branch had been important to the PartyLeader, and he'd seen everything that came out of it (or at least anything of any importance). Also, Borowitz must have told him quite a bit about the branch's paranormal work--literally ESPionage--so that Brezhnev should be at least part-qualified to pass judgement on what had happened here. Or so Krakovitch hoped. In any case, it had to be better than trying to explain it to Yuri Andropov!
"Krakovitch?" the phone barked at him. (Was this really the Party Leader?)
"Er, yes, sir, Felix Krakovitch. I was on Comrade Borowitz's staff."
"Felix? Why tell me your first name? You expect me to call you by your first name?" The voice had a hard edge, but it also sounded like its owner was eating something mushy. Krakovitch had heard several of Brezhnev's infrequent speeches; this could only be him.
"I ... no, of course not, Comrade Party Leader." (How the hell did one address him?) "But I--"
"Listen, are you in charge there?"
"Yes, er, Comrade Party--"
"Forget all that stuff," Brezhnev rasped. "I don't need reminding who I am, just answers. Is there no one left who is senior to you?"
"Anyone who's your equal?"
"Four of them, but one's a madman."
"He went mad when ... when it happened."
There was a pause; then, the voice went on, a little less harshly: "Do you know Borowitz is dead?"
"Yes. A neighbour found him in his dacha at Zhukovka. The neighbour was ex-KGB and got in touch with Comrade Andropov, who sent a man here. He's here now."
"I know another name," Brezhnev's thick, gurgling voice continued. "Boris Dragosani. What of him?"
"Dead," and before Krakovitch could check his tongue, "thank God!"
"Eh? You're glad one of your comrades is dead?"
"I ... yes, I'm glad." Krakovitch was too tired to answer in any way but truthfully, straight from the heart. "I think he was probably part of it; at least, I believe he brought it down on us. His body is still here. Also the bodies of our other dead--and that of Harry Keogh, a British agent, we think. And also--"
"The Tartars?" Brezhnev was quiet now.
Krakovitch sighed. The man wasn't a slave to convention after all. "Yes, but no longer ... animate," he answered.
Another pause. "Krakovitch--er, Felix, did you say? --I've read the statements of the other three. Are they true? No chance of an error, mass hypnotism or delusion or something? Was it really as bad as that?"
"They are true--no chance of an error--it was as bad as that."
"Felix, listen. Take over there. I mean you, take over. I don't want E-Branch shut down. It has been more than beneficial to our security. And Borowitz was more valuable to me personally than many of my generals would ever believe. So I want the branch rebuilt. And it looks like you've got the job."
Krakovitch felt like a swatted fly: knocked off his feet, lost for words. "I ... Comrade ... I mean--"
"Can you do it?"
Krakovitch wasn't crazy. It was the chance of a lifetime. "It will take years--but yes, I'll try to do it."
"Good! But if you take it on, you'll have to do more than just try, Felix. Let me know what you need and I'll see you get it. The first thing I want is answers. But I'm the only one who gets those answers, you understand? This one has to be screwed down. It mustn't leak. And that reminds me--did you say there was someone from the KGB with you right now?"
"He's outside, in the grounds."
"Get him," Brezhnev's voice was harsh again. "Bring him to the phone. Let me speak to him at once!"
Krakovitch started back across the floor, but at that moment the door opened to admit the man in question. He squared his shoulders, looked at Krakovitch in a surly, narrow-eyed manner, said, "We haven't finished, Comrade."
"I'm afraid we have," Krakovitch felt shored up, buoyant as a cork. It must be his fatigue beginning to work on him. "There's someone on the phone for you."
"Eh? For me?" The other pushed by him. "Who is it, someone from the office?"
"Not sure," Krakovitch lied. "Head office, I think."
The KGB man frowned at him, scowled, snatched up the phone from the table. "Yanov here. What is it? I'm busy down here, and--"
His face immediately underwent rapid changes of expression and colour. He jerked visibly and almost staggered. Only the phone seemed to be holding him up. "Yessir! Oh, yes, sir. Yes, sir! Yes, yessir! No, sir. I will, sir. Yes, sir. But I--no, sir. Yessir!" He looked sick, held out the phone for Krakovitch, glad to be rid of it.
As Krakovitch took the instrument from him, the agent hissed viciously: "Fool! That's the Party Leader!"
Krakovitch let his eyes go big and round, made an "O" with his mouth. Then he said casually into the mouthpiece, "Krakovitch here," and at once held the phone towards the KGB man, let him hear Brezhnev's voice:
"Felix? Has that prick gone yet?"
It was the Special Policeman's turn to make an "O."
"He's going now," Krakovitch answered. He nodded sharply towards the door. "Out! And do try to remember what the Party Leader told you. For your own good."
The KGB operative shook his head dazedly, licked his lips, headed for the door. He was still white-faced. At the door he turned, thrust his chin out. "I--" he began.
"Goodbye, comrade," Krakovitch dismissed him. "Nowhe's gone," he finally confirmed, after the door had slammed shut.
"Good! I don't want them interfering. They didn't fool about with Gregor, and I don't want them fooling with you. Any problems from them and you get straight back to me!"
"Now, here's what I want ... But first, tell me--have the branch records survived?"
"Almost everything's intact, except for our agents. There's damage, a lot. But records, installations, the Chateau itself--in decent order, I think. Manpower's a different story. I'll tell you what we have left. There's myself and three other survivors, six more on holiday in various parts, three fairly good telepaths on permanent duty in connection with the British, American and French embassies, and another four or five field agents out in the world. With twenty-eight dead, we've lost almost two-thirds of our staff. Most of the best men are gone."
"Yes, yes," Brezhnev was impatient. "Manpower is important, that's why I asked about records. Recruitment! That's your first task. It will take a long time, I know, but get on it. Old Gregor once told me that you have special sorts who can spot others with the talent, right?"
"I've still got one good spotter, yes," Krakovitch answered, giving an unconscious nod. "I'll start using him at once. And I'll commence studying Comrade Borowitz's records, of course."
"Good! Now then, see how quickly you can get that place cleaned up. Those Tartar corpses: burn 'em! And don't let anyone see them. I don't care how that's done, but do it. Then put in a comprehensive works chit for repairs on the Chateau. I'll have it actioned at once. In fact, I'll have a man here, on this number or another number he'll give you, who you can contact at any time for anything. That's from right now, You'll keep him informed and he'll keep me informed. He'll be your onlyboss, except he'll deny you nothing. See how highly I prize you, Felix? Right, that should get things started. As for the rest: Felix Krakovitch, I want to know how this happened! Are they that far ahead, the British, the Americans, the Chinese? I mean, how could one man, this Harry Keogh, do so much damage?"
"Comrade," Krakovitch answered, "you mentioned Boris Dragosani. I once watched him work. He was a necromancer. He sniffed out the secrets of dead men. I've seem him do things to corpses that gave me nightmares for months! You ask how Harry Keogh could do so much damage? From what little I've so far been able to discover, it seems he was capable of almost anything. Telepathy, teleportation, even Dragosani's own necromancy. He was their best. But I think Keogh was many steps ahead of Dragosani. It's one thing to torture dead men and drain their secrets from their blood and brains and guts, but it's quite another to call them up out of their graves and make them fight for you!"
"Teleportation?" For a moment the Party Leader was thoughtful, then came on impatient: "You know, the more I hear the less I'm inclined to believe. I wouldn't believe, except I saw Borowitz's results. And how else am I to explain a couple of hundred Tartar corpses, eh? But right now ... I've spent enough time with you on this. I have other things to do. In five more minutes I'll have your go-between on this line. Think about it and tell him what you want done, anything you need. If he can come up with something he will. He's had this kind of assignment before. Well, not exactly this kind! One last thing ..."
"Yes?" Krakovitch's head was whirling.
"Let me make it quite clear: I want the answers. As soon as possible. But there has to be a limit, and that limit's a year. By then the branch will be working at 100 percent efficiency, and you and I will know everything. And we'll understand everything. You see, when we haveall the answers, Felix, then we'll be as smart as the people who did this. Right?"
"That seems logical, Party Leader."
"It is, so get to it. Good luck ..." The phone emitted a continuous buzzing tone.
Krakovitch replaced it carefully in its cradle, stared at it for a moment, then started for the door. In his head he made lists--in loose order of precedence--of things to be done. In the western world such a massive tragedy could never be covered up, but here in the USSR it wouldn't be nearly so difficult. Krakovitch wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not.
1. The dead men had families. They would now have to be told some sort of story--maybe there had been a "castastrophic accident." That must be his go-between's responsibility.
2. All E-Branch personnel must be recalled at once, including the three who knew what had happened here. They were in their homes right now, but they knew enough to say nothing.
3. The bodies of twenty-eight E-Branch colleagues would have to be gathered up, coffined, prepared as best as possible for burial. And that would have to be done here, by the survivors and those returning from leave of absence.
4. Recruitment must be started at once.
5. A Second in Command must be appointed, so that Krakovitch could begin a proper, complete investigation from scratch. That was something he must do himself, just as Brezhnev had ordered it.
And, 6 ... he would think of 6 when the first 5 were working! But before any of that--
Outside he found the driver of the Army truck, a young Sergeant in uniform. "What's your name?" he asked, listlessly. He must get some sleep soon.
"Sergeant Gulharov, sir!" he slammed to attention.
"Sergei, call me Felix. Tell me, did you ever hear of Felix the Cat?"
The other shook his head.
"I have a friend who collects old films, cartoons," Krakovitch told him, shrugging. "He has connections. Anyway, there's a funny American cartoon character called Felix the Cat. He's a very wary fellow, this Felix. Cats usually are, you know? In the British Army, they call bomb disposal officers Felix, too--they have to tread so very warily. Ah! Maybe my mother should have called me Sergei, eh?"
The Sergeant scratched his head. "Sir?"
"Never mind," said Krakovitch. "Tell me: do you carry spare fuel?"
"Only what's in the tank, sir. About fifty litres."
Krakovitch nodded. "Right, let's get in the cab and I'll tell you where to drive." He directed him around the Chateau to a bunker near the helicopter landing area, where they kept the Avgas. It was very close, but better to take the truck to the Avgas than bring the Avgas to the truck. On their way, bumping over the rough ground, the Sergeant asked, "Sir, what happened here?"
For the first time Krakovitch noticed that his eyes had a glazed look. He had helped load his truck's awful cargo. "Never ask that sort of question," Krakovitch told him. "In fact as long as you're here--which will probably be a long, long time--don't ask any questions. Just do as you're told."
They loaded the cans of Avgas just inside the truck's tailgate and drove to a wooded corner of the Châtea's grounds where the earth was very boggy. Sergei Gulharov protested, but Krakovitch made him drive on until the truck was quite bogged down in churned up snow and mud. When they could go no farther, Krakovitch said, "This will do."
They got out and unloaded the Avgas and, still protesting, the Sergeant helped Krakovitch pour the aviation fuelall around and into the truck. When they were through, Krakovitch asked, "Anything in the cab that you want?"
"No, sir." Gulharov was agitated. "Sir, er, Felix--you can't do this. We must not do this! I'll be court-martialled, shot even! When I get back to barracks, they'll--"
"Are you married or single?" Krakovitch poured a thin trail of Avgas from the truck well back into the trees. It cut a dark groove in the snow.
"Me too. Good! Well, you're not going back to barracks, Sergei. From now on you work with me, always."
"No buts. The Party Leader has ordered it. You should feel honoured!"
"But my Sergeant-Major, and the Colonel, they--"
"Believe me," Krakovitch again interrupted, "they'll be proud of you. Do you smoke, Sergei?" He patted the pockets of his now less than white smock, found cigarettes.
"Yes, sir, sometimes."
Krakovitch offered him a cigarette and put one in his own mouth. "I seem to have forgotten my matches."
"Matches," Krakovitch repeated, holding out his hand.
Gulharov surrendered, began to reach into a deep pocket. If Krakovitch was crazy, it would work out all right in the end. They'd lock him away and Sergeant Sergei Gulharov would be exonerated. Of course, he could always assume that he was mad and jump on him right here and now. That way, if he was mad, he'd be a hero. He readied himself.
Krakovitch saw it coming, only seconds away. That was his talent: precognition, to see in advance. In situations like this it was as good as telepathy; he could almost feel the young Sergeant's muscles bunching. "If you do that," he said very quickly and earnestly, staring straight into the other's eyes, "then they really will court-martial you!"
Gulharov bit his lip, clenched and unclenched a fist, shook his head and backed off a pace.
"Well?" Krakovitch was patient. "Do you really think I'd take the Party Leader's name in vain?"
The Sergeant took out a box of matches and handed them over. They moved away from the Avgas trail. Then Krakovitch lit their cigarettes, cupped his hand over the flame until the entire match was burning, and finally tossed it towards the lethally scarred snow.
Blue, near-invisible flames leaped back towards the truck thirty yards away. The snow along the groove collapsed in upon itself under the sudden intense heat. And the truck ignited in a blinding flash of fire and brilliant blue light.
The two men backed off, watched the flames roar higher. They could hear the crackling, hissing and popping of its ancient corpse cargo, which seemed to be burning nicely. Back where you came from, lads, thought Krakovitch, and no way anyone can ever disturb you again! "Come on," he said out loud. "Let's get away before the truck's fuel tank goes up."
They ran clumsily through the snow, back towards the Chateau. Oddly, it wasn't until they were in the shade of the Chateau itself that the tank did go, and by then the truck was a blazing shell anyway. Hearing the thunderous roar and feeling something of its concussion, they looked back. Cab and chassis and superstructure had all flown apart; bits of blazing debris were falling in the snow; a mushroom of smoke shot with flame was uncurling itself high over the trees. It was done ...
Krakovitch spoke for some time on the telephone to his go-between, an anonymous voice which seemed hardly interested in what he was saying, yet precise and cutting as a razor when its owner required more information. He finished off by saying: "Oh, and I've a new assistant here, a Sergeant Sergei Gulharov, from the supply and transport barracks in Serpukhov. I'm keeping him on. Can you gethim permanently posted to the Chateau, as of now? He's young and strong and I'll have plenty of work for him."
"Yes, I'll do that," came the cool, clear answer. "He'll be your odd-job man, you say?"
"And my bodyguard," said Krakovitch, "eventually. I'm not much physically."
"Very well. I'll check out the chances of getting him on a military close protection course. Weapons, too, if he's not up to scratch. Of course, we could take a shortcut and get you a professional ..."
"No," Krakovitch was firm. "No professionals. This one will do. He's fairly innocent and I like that. It's refreshing."
"Krakovitch," said the voice on the other end, "I need to know this. Are you a homosexual?"
"Of course not! Oh! I see. No, I need him genuinely--and he looks about as gay as a shipyard welder! I'll tell you why I want him right now--because I'm alone here. And if you were here you'd know what I mean."
"Yes, I'm told you've had to weather quite a lot. Very well, leave it with me."
"Thank you," said Krakovitch. He broke the connection.
Gulharov was impressed. "Just like that," he said. "You have a lot of power, sir."
"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Krakovitch smiled tiredly. "Listen, I'm dead on my feet. But there's one more thing to do before I can sleep. And let me tell you, if you think what you've seen so far is unpleasant, what you're about to see is far worse! Come with me."
He led the way through the chaos of shattered rooms and piled rubble, from the covered-in courtyard area into the main, original building, then up two flights of time-hollowed stone stairs into one of the twin towers. This was where Gregor Borowitz had had his office, which Dragosani had turned into his control room on the night of the horror.
The stairwell was scarred and blackened, with tiny fragments of shrapnel, flattened lead bullets and copper caseslying everywhere. The stink of cordite was still heavy in the air. That would be from blast grenades, tossed down here from above when the tower came under attack. But none of this had stopped Harry Keogh and his Tartars. On the second floor landing the door to a tiny anteroom stood open. The room had served as an office for Borowitz's secretary, Yul Galenski. Krakovitch had known him personally: a generally timid man, a clerk with no extrasensory talent. Just staff.
Between the open door and the stairwell's safety rail, face down on the landing, lay a corpse in the Château's duty uniform: grey coveralls with a single diagonal yellow stripe across the heart. Not Galenski (he had been a "civvies only" man) but the Duty Officer. The corpse's face lay quite flat on the floor in a pool of blood. Flatter than it should. That was because there was very little of actual face left, just a raw flat mess.
Krakovitch and Gulharov stepped carefully over the body, entered the little office. Behind a desk, crumpled in one corner, Galenski sat clutching a rusty curved sword where it stuck out of his chest. It had been driven home with such force that he was pinned to the wall. His eyes were still open, but no longer terrified. From some people, death steals all emotion.
"Mother in heaven!" Gulharov whispered. He'd never seen anything like this. He wasn't even a combat soldier, not yet.
They went through a second door into what had been Borowitz's office.
It was spacious, with great bullet-proof bay windows looking out and down from the tower's curving stone wall toward distant woodland. The carpet was burned and stained here and there. A massive block of a desk in solid oak stood in one corner, receiving light from the windows and protection from the stone wall at its back. As for the rest of the room: it was a shambles--and a nightmare!
A shattered radio spilled its guts onto the floor; wallswere pockmarked and the door splintered from the impact of sprayed bullets; the body of a young man in Western styled clothes lay where it had fallen, ripped by machine gun fire, almost in two pieces behind the door. It was glued to the floor with its own blood. This was Harry Keogh's body: nothing much to look at, but there was no fear or pain on his white, unmarked face.
As for the nightmare: that lay propped against the wall on the other side of the room.
"Boris Dragosani," said Krakovitch, pointing. "The thing pinned to his chest is what controlled him, I think." He stepped carefully across the room to stand gazing down on what was left of Dragosani and his parasite creature; Gulharov was right behind him, not wanting to get too close.
Both of Dragosani's legs were broken and lay at weird angles. His arms hung slack down the wall to the skirting, elbows just off the floor, forearms at ninety degrees and hands projecting well beyond the cuffs of his jacket. They were hands like claws, big, powerful and grasping, frozen in Dragosani's final spasm. His face was a rictus of agony, made worse by the fact that it was hardly a human face at all, and worse still by the gash that split his skull ear to ear.
But his face!
Dragosani's jaws were long as some great hound's, gaping open to display curving needle teeth. His skull was misshapen, and his ears were pointed where they curved forward and lay flat against his temples. His eyes were ruptured red pits above a nose long and wrinkled and flattened to show gaping nostrils, like the convoluted snout of some great bat. That was how he looked: part man, part wolf, part bat. And the thing pinned to his chest was worse.
"What ... what is that?" Gulharov gasped out the question.
"God help me," Krakovitch shook his head, "I don'tknow! But it lived in him. I mean, inside him. It only came out at the end."
The trunk of the thing had the form of a great leech some eighteen inches long, but tapering to a tail. There were no limbs; it seemed to cling to Dragosani's chest by suction, and was held there by a sharp stake formed of the splintered hardwood stock of a heavy-duty machine gun; its skin was grey-green, corrugated. Gulharov saw that its head, flat and cobra-like--but eyeless, blind--lay on the carpet a little apart.
"Like ... like some gigantic tapeworm?" Gulharov's horror was plain on his face.
"Something like that," Krakovitch nodded grimly. "But intelligent, evil, and deadly."
"Why have we come up here?" Gulharov's Adam's apple bobbed. "There are fifty million better places to be."
Krakovitch's face was white, pinched. He could fully appreciate Gulharov's feelings. "We've come up here because we have to burn this, that's why." His talent again, warning him that both Dragosani and his symbiont must be destroyed, utterly. He looked around, saw a tall steel filing cabinet standing against the wall to one side of the door. He and Gulharov tore out the shelving, turning the cabinet into a metal coffin. They lowered it onto its back and dragged it across the floor to Dragosani.
"You take his shoulders, I'll take his thighs," said Krakovitch. "Once we've got him in here we can close the door and slide the cabinet down the steps. Frankly, I don't fancy touching him. I'll touch him as little as possible. This way has to be best."
They gingerly lifted the corpse, strained to get it over the rim of the cabinet, lowered it inside. Gulharov went to close the door and the projecting stake got in the way. He grasped the splintered stock in both hands--and the mental warning hit Krakovitch like a fist in his heart!
"Don't touch that!" he yelled, but too late.
As Gulharov wrenched the stake free, so the leech-thing--headless as it was--came alive. Its hideous slug-like body began to lash in a frenzy, so that it almost ejected itself from the cabinet. At the same time its leathery skin broke open in a dozen places, putting out protoplasmic tentacles that writhed and vibrated in a sort of mindless agony. These pseudopods whipped out, struck the sides of the cabinet and recoiled, settled on Dragosani's body. They passed through clothing and dead flesh and burrowed into him. More of them sprouted from the main body; they formed barbs, hooked themselves into Dragosani's flesh. One of the tentacles found his chest cavity; it thickened rapidly to the diameter of a man's wrist; the rest dissolved their barbs, released their holds, withdrew and followed the main branch into him. With a final sucking plop the entire organism drew itself down into Dragosani's body. His trunk began to heave and throb where it lay in the cabinet.
While all of this occurred, Gulharov had danced away and clambered up onto the desk. He was mouthing half-inarticulate obscenities, shrieking like a woman. And he was pointing at something. Krakovitch, almost numb with shock and horror, saw the leech-creature's flat cobra head vibrating on the floor, flipping and flopping like a stranded flatfish. He gave a cry of loathing, began to panic, then gripped himself tight and drove the panic out. Finally he slammed the cabinet door shut and shot the bolt.
He grabbed a metal drawer from the cabinet's scattered guts, yelled: "Well, help me!"
Gulharov got down off the desk. He still had the stake, was hanging on to it like grim death. Prodding the flopping head, and cursing all the time under his breath, finally he juggled the thing into Krakovitch's drawer. Krakovitch slammed a section of shelving down on top of it, and Gulharov brought a pair of heavy ledgers to put on top of that. Both cabinet and drawer shuddered and shook for a few seconds more, then were still.
Like a pair of ghosts Krakovitch and Gulharov faced each other, both of them panting, white as sheets and round-eyed. Then Krakovitch snarled, reached out and slapped the other's face. "Bodyguard?" he shouted. "Bloody bodyguard?" He slapped him again, hard. "Bloody hell!"
"I ... I'm sorry. I didn't know what to ..." Gulharov was trembling like a leaf, looked like he was going to faint.
Krakovitch calmed down. He could hardly blame him. "It's all right," he said. "It's all right. Now listen: we'll burn the head up here. We'll do that first, right now. Go quickly, fetch Avgas."
Staggering a little, Gulharov went.
He was back in record time, carrying a jerrycan. They slid the shelving over the drawer open a crack, poured Avgas. There was no movement from inside the drawer. "Enough!" said Krakovitch. "Any more and there'll be one hell of an explosion. Now then, help me drag the cabinet through into the other room." In a moment they were back, and Krakovitch tipped out the drawers of Borowitz's desk. He found what he was looking for: a small ball of string. He snapped off a ten foot length, soaked it in Avgas, carefully dangled one end through the crack into the drawer. Then he laid the string out on the floor in a straight line towards the door and took out Gulharov's matches. They shielded their eyes as he lit the fuse.
Blue fire raced across the floor, leaped into the drawer. There was a dull thump and shelving, ledgers and all hit the ceiling, then fell back to the floor. The metal drawer was an inferno, in which the flat snake-head danced and skittered--but not for long. As the drawer began to buckle under the heat and the carpet about it blackened and burst into flames, so the thing in the drawer puffed up, split open and quickly became liquescent. And then it, too,burned. But Krakovitch and Gulharov waited a full minute more before they put out the fire.
Krakovitch gave a curt nod. "Well, at least we know the thing bums!" he said. "It was probably dead anyway, but by my books when a thing's dead it lies still!"
They bumped the cabinet downstairs, two flights to the ground floor, then out through the battle-torn building into the grounds. Krakovitch stood guard on it while Gulharov went back for the Avgas. When he returned, Krakovitch said, "This will be the tricky bit. First we pour some of this stuff around the cabinet. That way, when we open it, if what's inside is--active--we just jump back out of range and toss a match. Until it's quiet. And so on ..."
Gulharov seemed uncertain, but he was far more alert now.
They poured Avgas on to and around the cabinet, and then Gulharov got well back out of it. Krakovitch slid back the bolt, threw the door clangingly open. Inside, Dragosani stared into the sky. His chest stirred a little, but that was all. As Krakovitch began to pour Avgas carefully into the cabinet near Dragosani's feet, Gulharov came forward. "Don't use too much," it was the Sergeant's turn to caution. "Or it will go off like a bomb!"
When the fuel swirled almost an inch deep around Dragosani's prone form, evaporating furiously, the dead man's chest gave another sudden lurch. Krakovitch stopped pouring, stared, backed off a little. Outside the circle of danger, Gulharov stood with a match ready to strike. A slickly shining, grey-green tendril sprouted upwards from Dragosani's chest. Its tip formed a knob as big as a fist, which in turn formed an eye. Just seeing that orb, Krakovitch knew there was no thought behind it, no sentience. It was vacant, staring, made no connections and carried no emotions. Krakovitch doubted if it even saw. Certainly there was no longer any brain for it to relay its message to. The eye melted back into protoflesh, was replaced by smalljaws which clashed mindlessly. Then it sank down again out of sight.
"Felix, get out of there!" Gulharov was nervous.
Krakovitch backed out of the circle; Gulharov struck a match, tossed it; in a moment the cabinet was an inferno. Like the oblong mouth of a jet engine on test, the cabinet hurled a pale blue sheet of fire roaring into the cold air, a shimmering column of intense heat. And then Dragosani sat up!
Gulharov clutched Krakovitch, clung to him. "Oh God! Oh, mother--he's alive!" he croaked.
"No," Krakovitch denied, tearing himself free. "The thing in him is alive, but mindless. It's all instinct with no brain to govern it. It would flee but doesn't know how to, or even what it's fleeing from. If you spear a sea-cucumber it reacts, spills out its guts. No mind, just reaction. Look, look! It's melting!"
And indeed it seemed that Dragosani was melting. Smoke curled upward from his blackened shell; layers of skin peeled away, bursting into flame; the fats of his body ran like candle wax, and were consumed by the fire. The thing inside him felt the heat, reacted. Dragosani's trunk shuddered, vibrated, convulsed. His arms shot out straight, then fell to dangle over the sides of the blazing cabinet, where all the while they jerked and twitched. His clothing was completely burned away by now, and as Krakovitch and Gulharov watched and shuddered, so his crisped flesh burst open here and there, putting out frantic, whipping tendrils that melted and slopped down into the furnace.
In a very little while he fell back and was still, and the two men stood in the snow and watched the fire until it burned itself out. It took all of twenty minutes, but they stood there anyway ...
3:00 P.M., 27 August 1977.
The big London hotel, within easy walking distance of Whitehall, contained rather more than its exterior mightsuggest. In fact the entire top floor was given over to a company of "international financial entrepreneurs," which was the sum total of the hotel manager's knowledge about it. The company had its own elevator at the rear of the building, private stairs, even its own fire escape. Indeed the company owned the top floor, which was therefore entirely outside the hotel's sphere of control and operation.
In short, the top floor was the headquarters of the most secret of all British secret services: namely INTESP, the British equivalent of that Russian organization housed just outside Moscow at the Chateau Bronnitsy. But the hotel was only the headquarters; there were also two "factories," one in Dorset and the other in Norfolk, direct-linked to each other and to the HQ by telephone, radio-telephone and computer. Such links, though top-security screened, were open to sophisticated abuse, of course; a clever hacker might get in one day. Hopefully before that happened the branch would have developed its telepaths to such an extent that all of this technological junk would be unnecessary. Radio waves travel at a mere 186,000 miles per second, but human thought is instantaneous and carries a far more vivid and finished picture.
Such were Alec Kyle's own thoughts as he sat at his desk and formulated Security Standing Orders for the six Special Branch officers whose sole task in life was the personal security of an infant boy just one month old, a child called Harry Keogh. Harry Jr.--the future head of INTESP.
"Harry," said Kyle out loud, to no one in particular, "you can have the job right now, if you still want it."
No, came the answer at once, startlingly clear in Kyle's mind. Not now, maybe not ever!
Kyle's mouth fell open and he started upright in his swivel chair. He knew what this was, had known something very much similar at a time some eight months ago. It was telepathy, yes, but it was more than telepathy. It was the "infant" he'd just been thinking about, the childwhose mind housed all that was left of the greatest ESP talent in the world: Harry Keogh.
"Christ!" Kyle whispered. And now he knew what it had been about, "it" being the dream or nightmare he'd had last night--when he'd been covered with leeches as big as kittens, whose mouths had fastened on him to drain his blood, while he had leaped and gibbered in a glade of stirless trees, until he'd been too weak to fight any longer. Then he'd fallen on the earth amidst the pine needles, and the leeches had clung to him, and he'd known that he was becoming a leech!
And that, mercifully, had scared him wide awake. As for the dream's meaning: Kyle had long since given up trying to read meanings into such precognitive glimpses. That was the trouble with them: they were usually cryptic, rarely self-elucidating. But certainly he'd known that the dream was one of those dreams, and now he guessed that this had something to do with it, too.
"Harry?" he breathed the query into the suddenly frigid atmosphere of the room. His breath actually plumed in the air; in the space of mere seconds the temperature had taken a plunge. Just like last time.
Something was forming in the middle of the room, in front of Kyle's desk. The smoke of his cigarette trembled there and the air seemed to waver. He got up, crossed quickly to the window and adjusted the blinds. The room grew dim, and the figure in front of his desk took on more form.
Kyle's intercom buzzed urgently and he jumped six inches. He leaped to his desk, hit the receive button, and a breathless voice said, "Alec, there's something here!" It was Carl Quint, a top-rank psychic sensitive, a "spotter."
Kyle pressed the send button, held it down. "I know. It's with me now. But it's OK, I've been half-expecting it." Now he pressed the command button, spoke to the entire HQ. "Kyle here. I don't want to talk to anybody for--for as long as it takes. No messages, no incomingcalls, and no questions. Listen in if you like, but don't try to interfere. I'll get back to you." He pressed the secure button on his desk computer keyboard, and door and window locks audibly snapped shut. And now he and Harry Keogh were completely alone.
Kyle forced himself to relax, stared at the--ghost?--of Keogh where it confronted him across his desk. And he thought an old thought, one which had never been far away, not since the first day he'd come here to work for INTESP:
Funny bloody outfit. Robots and romantics. Super science and the supernatural. Telemetry and telepathy. Computerized probability patterns and precognition. Gadgets ... and ghosts!
No ghost, Alec, Keogh answered with a wan, immaterial smile. I thought we went into all of that last time?
Kyle thought about pinching himself but didn't brother. He'd gone through all of that last time, too. "Last time?" he spoke out loud, because that was easier for him. "But that was eight months ago, Harry. I had started to think we'd never hear from you again."
Maybe you wouldn't have, said the other, his lips moving not at all, for believe me I've plenty to keep me occupied. But ... something's come up.
Kyle's awe was ebbing, his pulse gradually slowing to its norm. He leaned forward in his chair, looked the other up and down. Oh, it was Keogh, all right. But not exactly the same as the last time. Last time Kyle's first thought had been that the--apparition--was supernatural. Not merely paranormal or ESP-engendered but actually supernatural, extra-mundane, not of this world. Just like now, the office scanners had failed to detect it; it had come and told Kyle a fantastic true story, and gone without leaving a trace. No, not quite, for he'd written down all that had been said. Even thinking about that, his wrist ached. But you couldn't photograph the thing, couldn't record its voice, couldn't harm or interfere with it in any way. Theentire HQ was now listening in on Kyle's conversation with this, this ... with Harry Keogh--and yet they'd hear only Kyle's voice. But Keogh was here: at least the central heating's thermostat knew it. The heating had just come on, turning itself up several notches to compensate for the sudden drop in temperature. Yes, and Carl Quint knew it, too.
The figure seemed etched in pale blue light: insubstantial as a moonbeam, less than a puff of smoke. Incorporeal, yet there was a power in it. An unbelievable power.
Taking into account the fact that his neon-limned feet weren't quite touching the floor, Keogh must be about five-ten in height. If his flesh were real instead of luminous filament, he would weigh maybe nine and a half to ten stone. Everything about him was now vaguely fluorescent, as if shining with some faint inner light, so Kyle couldn't be sure about colouring. His hair, an untidy mop, might be sandy, his face slightly freckled. He would be twenty-one, twenty-two years old.
His eyes were interesting. They looked at Kyle and yet seemed to lock right through him, as if he were the apparition and not the other way about. They were blue, those eyes--a startling, almost colourless blue neon--but more than this, there was that in those eyes which said they knew more than any twenty-two year old had any right to know. The wisdom of ages seemed locked in them, the knowledge of centuries lying just beneath the shimmer of blue haze which covered them.
Apart from that: his features would be fine, like blue porcelain and seemingly equally fragile; his hands slim, tapering; his shoulders drooped a little; his skin in general, apart from the freckles, pale and unblemished. But for those eyes, you probably wouldn't look twice at him on the street. He was just ... a young man. Or had been.
And now? Now he was something more. Harry Keogh's body had no real, physical existence now, but his mind went on. And his mind was housed in a new--quite literallynew--body. Kyle found himself starting to examine that part of the apparition, quickly checked himself. What was there to examine? In any case it could wait, wasn't important. All that mattered was that Keogh was here, and that he had something important to say.
"Something's come up?" Kyle repeated the Keogh projection's statement, made it a question. "What sort of something, Harry?"
Something monstrous! Right now I can give you only the barest outline--I simply don't know enough about it, not yet. But do you remember what I told you about the Russian E-Branch? And about Dragosani? I know there was no way you could check it all out, but have you looked into it at all? Do you believe what I told you about Dragosani?
While Keogh spoke to him, so Kyle had stared fascinated at that facet of him which was different, that addition to him since the last time he'd seen or sensed him. For now, superimposed over the apparition's abdomen--suspended in midair and slowly spinning on its own axis, turning in the space that Keogh's body occupied--there floated a naked male baby, or the ghost of one, just as insubstantial as Keogh himself. The child was curled like a foetus floating in some invisible, churning fluid, like some strange biological exhibit, like a hologram. But it was a real baby, and alive; and Kyle knew that it, too, was Harry Keogh.
"About Dragosani?" Kyle came back to earth. "Yes, I believe you. I have to believe you. I checked out as much as I could and it was all exactly as you said. And as for Borowitz's branch--whatever you did there, it was devastating! They contacted us a week later, the Russians, and asked us if we wanted you ... I mean--"
"--if we wanted it back, yes. They contacted us, you understand. Direct. It didn't come through diplomatic chan-nels. They weren't ready to admit that they existed, and didn't expect us to admit that we existed. Therefore youdidn't exist, but they asked us if we wanted you back anyway. With Borowitz gone they have a new boss, Felix Krakovitch. He said we could have you, if we'd tell them how. How you did what you did to them. What, exactly, you'd done to them. I'm sorry, Harry, but we had to deny you, tell them we didn't know you. Actually, we didn't know you! Only I knew you, and Sir Keenan before me. But if we'd admitted you were one of ours, what you'd done might be construed as warfare."
Actually, it was mayhem! said Keogh. Listen, Alec, this can't be like the last time we talked. I may not have the time. On the metaphysical plane I have comparative freedom. In the Möbius continuum I'm a free agent. But here in the physical now I'm a virtual prisoner in little Harry. Right now he's asleep and I can use his subconscious mind as my own. But when he's awake his mind's his own, and like a magnet I'm drawn back to it. The stronger he gets--the more his mind learns--the less freedom for me. Eventually I'll be forced to leave him entirely for an existence along the Möbius way. If I get the chance I'll explain all of that later, but for now we don't know how long he'll sleep and so we have to use our time wisely. And what I have to say can't wait.
"And it somehow concerns Dragosani?" Kyle frowned. "But Dragosani's dead. You told me that yourself."
Keogh's face--the face of his apparition--was grave now. Do you remember what he was, this Dragosani?
"He was a necromancer," said Kyle at once, no shadow of doubt in his mind. "Much like you." He saw his mistake immediately and could have bitten his tongue.
Unlike me! Keogh corrected him. I was, I am, a necroscope, not a necromancer. Dragosani stole the secrets of the dead like ... like an insane dentist yanking healthy teeth--without an anaesthetic. Me: I talk to the dead and respect them. And they respect me. But very well, I know that was a slip of the tongue. I know you didn't mean that. So yes, he was a necromancer. Butbecause of what the old Thing in the ground did to him, he was more than that. He was worse than that.
Of course. Now Kyle remembered. "You mean he was also a vampire."
Keogh's shimmering image nodded. That's exactly what I mean. And that's why I'm here now. You see, you're the only one in the world who can do anything about it. You and your branch, and maybe your Russian counterparts. And when you know what I'm talking about, then you'll have to do something about it.
Such was Keogh's intensity, such the warning in his mental voice, that gooseflesh crept on Kyle's spine. "Do something about what, Harry?"
About the rest of them, the apparition answered. You see, Alec, Dragosani and Thibor Ferenczy weren't the only ones. And God only knows how many more there are!
"Vampires?" Kyle thrilled with horror. He remembered only too well that story Keogh had told him some eight months ago. "You're sure?"
Oh yes. In the Möbius continuum--looking out through the doors of time past and time to come--I've seen their scarlet threads. I wouldn't have known them, might never have come across them, but they cross young Harry's blue life thread. Yes, and they cross yours, too!
Hearing that, it was as if the cold blade of a psychic knife lanced into Kyle's heart. "Harry," he said stumblingly, "you'd ... you'd better tell me all you know, and then what I must do."
I'll tell you as much as I can, and then we'll try to decide what's to be done. As to how I know what I'm about to tell you ... The apparition shrugged. I'm a necroscope, remember? I've talked to Thibor Ferenczy himself, as I once promised him I would, and I've talked to one other. A recent victim. More of him later. But mainly the story is Thibor's ...