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Authors: Brian Herbert,Marie Landis

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure

Memorymakers (6 page)

BOOK: Memorymakers
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As Squick gazed upon the boy, he felt a familiar sensation coming over him—the hoary yearning that could not be denied. The boy’s eyelids were heavy, and he appeared ready to fall asleep. Squick shuddered, touched the tear duct of his own eye with a forefinger and felt icy fluid flow from the duct to the tip of the finger.

Nebulons!
he thought, unable to restrain his joy. It was always like this, a feeling of rampant ecstasy at the accomplishment. Squick couldn’t imagine his life without the ability, and feared the mundane existence suffered by so many impotent Ch’Vars.

I am fortunate indeed,
he thought.

He dabbed the boy’s right eyelid with a cold, wet fingertip. An ancient iciness of Nebulonia leaped from the fieldman to the boy, linking Squick with the glory and dimming hopes of the Ch’Var race. The subject shuddered as Nebulons slid around the eyelid into his eye, following labyrinthine passageways to the brain. Squick almost whispered the explanation—
Nebulons, clever viruses seeking memory cells, embracing them and vacuuming them away.

Squick’s fingertip was warm now, and for a moment he looked away, toward the girl. Her eyelids were as leaded as her brother’s, and she struggled to keep her head upright.

The Ch’Var fieldman withdrew his fingertip, then held a glass container beneath the boy’s eyes and caught the flow of luminous purple and yellow fluid. When the flow stopped, Squick sealed the container and slipped it into his pocket.

He felt extinction beckoning, wondered if his Nebulon count would hold, if like the great ones he would keep it through very old age. Some lost it in their early or middle years, fading away or dropping off suddenly. Some never had it. There was no identifiable pattern. Sometimes people lived almost an entire lifetime without a solitary Nebulon, and inexplicably developed high counts in later years. So for brief periods the very old became teetering fieldman, taking extractions from Gweenchildren.

Flames before death.

“Mr. Squick?” A boy’s voice.

Squick came to awareness, saw the boy gazing up at him. A little unwiped fluid remained on the boy’s cheeks, which he wiped away himself with one hand.

“You okay, Mr. Squick?” Thomas asked.

Damn!
Squick thought with a visceral sinking sensation.
I produced Nebulons, took an embidium, and this boy should be in a coma
. . .
without his memories!

Perplexed and terrified, Squick removed the glass container from his jacket pocket. The container was full of swirling purple and yellow fluid, and he flipped open its lid, immersing his wet finger in the tepid liquid.

The solution clouded momentarily, indicating positively that the extraction had been made. But the boy continued to look at him. How? The girl stared, too, though she should have remained hypnotized from the words that filled all voids.

“Your name?” Squick asked, looking intensely at the boy.

“Thomas Harvey, sir. But you already know that. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, fine.”

Squick fumbled with the glass container, closed it and slipped it into a padded briefcase slot beside similar containers, some of which were empty and some of which had fluid in them.

“What are you doing?” Emily asked.

Squick thought quickly. “Special things.”

He brought forth a large piece of white tissue, and with it removed from another briefcase slot what looked like a piece of unwrapped red candy.

“Ver-r-ry special stuff,” Squick purred. “This candy is so special and so delicate, I don’t want to alter the flavor or aroma with chemicals from my skin.”

He extended the candy toward Thomas. “Smell this, Tom-Tom, and see if you want it at your party. It’s called scent-candy. You don’t eat it, you smell it. The nose and taste buds have a close affinity, as you must know from reading science. Lose one sense and you can lose another. This treat provides more joys than candy taken into the body the conventional way.”

He held it under Thomas’s nose.

“It’s different,” Thomas said. “I like it. Lots of flavor.”

“And you?” Before Emily could react, Squick knelt over her and let her smell the fullness of the candy, the most intensely sweet and delicious odor of ripe strawberries in her experience. Squick’s eyes became the red of the berries as they stared into hers, invading her, almost caressing her.

Emily could not tell hours from minutes. Somewhere she lay in deepest sleep, and something touched her heavily on one shoulder. She woke, feeling grumpy, with an unseen prodding and nudging against her. The air in the room thickened like gelatin, pushed in upon her and enveloped her. “Thomas!” she cried. “Are you doing that?” No answer came. She reached for the bedside lamp and flipped on the switch: it made a dull, discordant sound and red darkness overwhelmed her. “Thomas,” she cried again. “Quit teasing.” A thin, reedy sound returned to her from faraway. “I don’t know where I am,” Thomas answered. “Emily . . . Emily?”

The tapping against Emily’s shoulder grew agitated. Then it seized her sweater and pulled. Emily slid across the bed, through the thick darkness. With frantic hands she reached out to hold the bed post. But the thing that tugged was persistent and toppled her to the floor. She lay on the carpet for a moment, stunned, frightened and angry. Her emotions bubbled and boiled, and the Chalk Man appeared. His white hands moved quickly across the darkness, and she saw that he drew what appeared to be a gargantuan bottle with stubby wings. He touched the outline and it blazed into a line of fire that crackled and spat. For a brief instant Emily thought she could see a thing imprisoned within the fire, an object shaped like its firey-edge. A thing that opened its jaws, growled and snorted and extinguished the flames.

“It can’t be real!” she shouted, and as quickly as the Chalk Man had appeared, he began to fade. She reached out to detain him, but he vanished, and she wished he were back. Emily no longer feared him.

She was tugged again. She twisted, kicked and tried to free herself; she dug her heels into the carpet and felt the material beneath her feet grow thick and spongy. Then suddenly she felt no floor beneath her, and her body seemed to elongate, to stretch out into a thin string of her former self. Whatever held her was smooth and metallic and pulled her along at a tremendous speed.

“Let me go!” she screamed as she raced through the reddish darkness.

“It’s time to go, Emily,” said a soft male voice that sounded vaguely familiar. “Time to go.”

Chapter 6

This Squick is an obstreperous one. He shows inadequate respect, and at times I think I’d feel better not dealing with him at all. But his Nebulon counts are unsurpassed—higher even than my own. If our race is to survive, his type must lead. But he refuses to marry and sire offspring, damn him!

—“The Frozen Journal of Jabu”

She was only a filament, a golden thread ten thousand light-years long that trailed across the heavens and remembered its name. “I am Emily,” it whispered within the cells it called Brain, as though it wished to remind her of something she had long forgotten. Sight existed, though her other senses seemed to have disappeared or gone to sleep. As she floated, she could see the great star systems move like jewels across the universe. One of the jewels flared and died. Fourth of July, she told herself, Fourth of July, a time for the night sky to explode with beauty, bits and pieces of fire flashing through the darkness like a molten snowfall. And what was the Fourth of July? She couldn’t remember.

She drifted thus, lazily, without fear or sorrow. Memories crept into her thinking part and she dreamed soft dreams filled with the faces of those she loved and places she’d been. A particular face swam in front of her: Thomas. Where was he? On the surface of her tranquility a tiny crack appeared, just enough to alter the pattern of her being. Things clicked into place, opened and closed and revealed themselves.

Above her head the sky was a cool gray dome. Where had the red darkness gone?

She felt something and realized it was the fabric of her clothing against her hand. Only it wasn’t her hand. Her hand ought to have been small, almost square. This one was long-fingered and slender. She searched for the rest of herself and discovered that her legs had stretched and her feet were larger.

Disoriented, she raised herself to a seated position and saw that she rested upon grass. Ordinary, everyday, sweet-smelling grass that stretched outward in a never ending carpet and finally disappeared beneath the edge of a high concrete wall. Nothing marred this expanse of grass except a dark shape sprawled a few meters away. She thought she might be in a park, but noted an absence of swings or trees or flowers.

Emily stood, somewhat shaky, and walked to the edge of the wall to see what lay beyond. Its height obstructed her view, but there was a planter box filled with dirt beside it, and she used this to climb upward. On the other side of the wall there was nothing she could immediately identify, but for a few moments she thought about her geometry class. The scene before her was all planes and angles and vertical and horizontal lines. She focused, but it didn’t hold and she had to remember what she’d seen. Buildings, lots of them, a sensation of altitude . . . rooftops visible. Tall, modern structures in the distance, and nearby more buildings—squat, ugly, gray, separated by narrow alleyways filled with refuse.

I’m on top of a building,
she thought, and dismissed the idea at once as impossible.

The shape on the grass stirred and groaned, rolled over and faced her.

“Thomas,” Emily mumbled. She ran on unfamiliar legs toward an unfamiliar Thomas, an older Thomas.

He gazed at her, and after a blur before her eyes he was as he had been before—green eyes, brown hair, tall and slightly chubby. She looked down at her own body and saw that it was as it always had been—a slender torso attached to short, slim legs. Emily sighed with relief.

Her brother stared at her with widened eyes. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know. Outside somewhere.” Her answer sounded feeble, and she tried once more. “Looks like a park.”

Thomas shook his head as though he wished to dislodge something clinging to his scalp. He flailed his arms about and tried to explain his dream. “I flew through the sky . . . past the stars.”

Emily hugged her body to keep from shivering. “I did, too!” she exclaimed. “And the Chalk Man came for an instant. I think he tried to save us from . . . this, whatever it is.”

“You really think so?”

“I’m sure of it. This time he was a friend.” She sucked in her breath. “It’s funny, like I was on the edge of communicating with him. Closer than ever. If Victoria ever heard me say this . . .”

Thomas’s forehead creased in a frown, and he shook his round, baby face from side to side. “I always thought you made the Chalk Man happen,” he said. “Not on purpose, but because you needed him. I don’t know exactly why. What if . . . ” He cleared his throat. “What if our minds did this one together, kind of reinforced each other and transported us somewhere, like right here?”

“You always make me feel better about things. Even when I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

She tried to review the events of her dream, seeking a point where it broke off, where this cold, hard reality came into being. She needed to grasp some sense in their predicament. Emily wished her grandparents, with all their wisdom, were here to help.

Thomas hugged his knees close to his chest and rocked back and forth.

It was a language of fear that he spoke with his body, Emily sensed, though he didn’t speak it. She and her brother possessed a kinship that went beyond an ordinary brother-sister relationship. They communicated their needs to each other in effortless ways. Since the day Thomas was born, Emily had felt a particular affinity for him, as though he held a part of her she could never share with another human. They had never discussed their relationship; there seemed no reason to do so. It existed, and that was sufficient.

A motherly streak arose in Emily, and she wanted to comfort her brother. But she knew he would resent such behavior, for while younger, he was almost an inch taller than she and professed a fear of nothing . . . usually. After all, it was she—Emily—who still worried about monsters in her closet and Thomas who chased them from her mind.

Emily studied her brother’s worried expression. She didn’t know how to help him.

“This is odd-to-the-nth,” Thomas said.

She agreed. Unusual events occurred in the world on a daily basis, Emily knew. Television and grocery-store tabloids told the tales. Like the one about the man who disappeared in a flash of lightning. One moment he was alive and talking, and the next he was engulfed in a fireball. Photographers took pictures and the photos revealed only a smudge of black on the ground where the man had stood. Where had he gone? To a place like this?

Fragments of Emily’s dream lingered at the back of her thoughts, but made no sense. A great longing engulfed her and hung heavily upon her spirit. All inner joy seemed to have fled, replaced by an unfillable emptiness. She felt. . . what? Older. Unquestionably so, in a flood of sensations. She held out her hands and turned them this way and that, as though they held the secret to everything. She ran them across the grass and felt its coarse texture. It wasn’t real grass after all, but an artificial variety made to look and smell authentic. Yards of artificial grass.

“Fake grass,” she said, and she saw that it extended in every direction, up to the edge of a high cement wall that went all around.

An object sped toward them across the grassy plain, a rectangular box suspended a short distance off the ground. As it drew closer, Emily made out decorations along its sides: stars and moons and complicated designs that wound and twisted and appeared to be not only part of the box but part of the air that surrounded it, one melding with the other.

The box came to an abrupt stop a few meters away and settled softly upon the ground. It was large, much taller than Emily, and for a long time it sat there without movement or noise. It was an intimidating presence, and she found the wavy designs bore a dim resemblance to eyes and mouths and teeth.

Then tendrils crept a short distance from the surface of the box, snaked around and retreated quickly, rearranging themselves once more into designs—different designs than before.

Thomas pointed. “Look what it’s doing.”

The box lid lifted in a quick, jerking motion. A creature came up, with a smiling goat face and a tall fur hat that writhed like a living thing. The goat face bobbed from side to side, and a pink tongue lolled from its mouth.

“Jack-in-the-box,” Thomas said, and his face glowed with interest.

“More like a monster-in-the-box,” observed Emily, fascinated and frightened at the same time.

The creature held its smile and doffed its hat, then zipped away its face and became Mr. Squick.

Thomas, mouth agape, asked, “How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“The goat face.”

“Endomine is playing tricks on your mind, child. How do you feel? Nice sleep? Endomine is a great tranquilizer.”

“What do you mean?” Emily demanded.

“I drugged you. Had to, you see. You slept here all night.”

Squick shrugged. “Didn’t hurt you, did it?”

“I saw a goat face, too,” Emily said. “How is that possible?”

“An unusual effect of the drug,” Squick said.

“Where are we?” Thomas asked. “And what’s that funny-looking box you’re in?”

“Where are you?” Mr. Squick chuckled. “Why, you’re here, of course. I came in this carrier”—he pointed to the box—”in order to entertain you. One of the qualities I understand about children is their sense of humor. Humor: It’s more than a quality, it seems almost a need. I’ve tried to accommodate that need. But apparently it’s wasted effort.” He shook his head. “Can’t change the past, but can change the future. Come along with me now.” He gestured toward the carrier. “Come on. Come on.”

“We’re not getting in that thing,” Emily said, but she was unsure of her brother’s feelings. He seemed deeply interested in the vehicle.

To Emily this plain of false grass might not be home, but it had become familiar and in a peculiar way comforting. It was, she believed, a path home, a rope that held her in place. Nonna or Panona or their father might find the clues that led here, might rescue them.

Nonna’s words came back, from a hike they’d been on:
“If you’re lost in the woods, remain in one place and await rescue.
” In Emily’s fertile imagination the blades of artificial grass became a great forest of trees.

She heard a noise, an indeterminate, hostile sound, and Squick’s mouth became a ridge of anger. His body hunched over, twitched in an alarming manner, and seemed to expand taller and wider until he loomed over them like a great, furious cloud. Fright squeezed Emily, almost made her whimper. But she made no sound. She watched his eyes blink furiously, and was sure she could hear that strange little grating sound she had heard before.

“Get in the damned box,” Squick ordered. “I’ve had enough of this game.”

Robot arms reached out from the box, grasped the children tightly in rubber grippers and stuffed them into the warm, dark box interior.

Squick’s voice, heavy with anger, crackled through the darkness. “Get this through your brains. Here you’ll do things exactly as I say.” The voice softened. “If you cooperate, it won’t be so bad.”

Emily lay beside her brother at the bottom of the box on something that had the texture of cool glass to her finger touch, though to the rest of her body it felt soft and yielding and warm. She couldn’t arrange the sensations logically in her mind, but they persisted nonetheless.

Overhead, Squick sat on a small platform and stared straight ahead, grim-jawed. He breathed loudly several times, a wheezing, and called down to them, “Here we go.”

There was a faint rumble of sound and then nothing. No vibration or jiggling or clattering or any impression of movement.

“Are we moving?” Emily asked Thomas. “I can’t feel anything.”

“I don’t know.”

“I hear his eyeballs when they move. Can you hear them?”

“Heck no.” And Thomas’s face took on a peculiar, disbelieving expression reminiscent of Victoria’s.

Squick’s malevolent laughter ricocheted against the walls of the box. Then, as though he’d experienced a change of heart, he looked down upon the helpless children, smiled benevolently and said, “I want you to consider yourselves my invited guests, to be cherished and treated politely. Sorry if I frightened you back there. I’m a little tired, and my tolerance for children gets low at times. Just doing my job like always, day in and day out.”

An exit door opened on the vehicle’s side, and Emily felt herself propelled outside by rubber grippers onto a ramp that dropped her to the artificial grass. Thomas came close behind, the same way.

Emily’s legs no longer seemed like regular legs, but more the way she imagined a doll’s might feel, made of plastic or fabric and useless for locomotion. She took a few tentative steps. Artificial grass still lay beneath her feet, but now a number of live plants in boxes and pots were apparent nearby that she hadn’t seen before, and a small, shedlike structure stood in their midst.

“Come, little one,” said Squick. He seized her hand and squeezed it until she almost cried out. “I’ve things to show the two of you.” He pulled her toward the structure, which had a peaked roof and two swinging doors.

With his other hand he held Thomas, and they bumped through the swinging doors into the interior of the shed, a small, bare room. Squick touched something on his belt, and the wall before them opened like a mouth. “Slide into the mole tube,” Squick commanded. “Down we go!”

And he leaped onto a wide, dark slide, still holding onto the children. The slide was slick and smooth under Emily’s bottom, and she sped into darkness. Around and around they spiraled, traveling steeply downward. Emily felt warm, clammy air against her face.

A terrible sense of fear and foreboding came over her, and she wished she hadn’t been forced to take this ride.
Mole tube?
she thought.
What is a mole tube?

“Ooh!” Thomas squealed. “This is fun!”

“Coming up to a landing,” Squick said presently. “Stay on your feet!”

Emily’s feet hit the floor before she could think, and though she stumbled, Squick kept her from falling over. She couldn’t see anything.

“Now walk,” Squick commanded. “Onto the ramp.”

The ramp went down steeply but not as much as the slide, and around and around they walked. Emily became afraid of bumping into something and pulled back. She groped ahead and to the side with her free hand, touched nothing. It was pitch black in the tunnel, and Emily could no longer see the man who held her hand. Nor could she see Thomas.

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