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Old 05/04/2010   #56

The ash scorched at the back of his throat, causing him to choke. His brain was telling him what he ought to be smelling - charred flesh, wood smoke - but the flame was too hot to smell anything other than heat.

“Kara? Mom? Dad?” he cried. At first, there was no answer. And then, directly behind him…

“Sssssssss… burnburnburnburnburnburnburnburnburnburnburnburn--”


The sound of a silenced gunshot jerked Early awake in a heartbeat. That damned nightmare again, -who fired that gun? Who was it fired at? Am I hit?-

Early smirked and tapped the butt of the pistol against his temple.

“Idiot,” he muttered to himself. He always fell asleep with a gun in his hand, and every time he had that nightmare he always pulled the trigger in his sleep, always waking himself. A friggin good eject button, he had to say so himself.

He pulled himself into a sitting position on the couch in Smythe’s office. The doc had allowed him the use of the building for the night, on the understanding that before the morning was through, Early would be gone from town for good.

He hated that nightmare. It wasn’t how things had happened, but it captured everything Early had felt at the time, dialled up to eleven. By the time he’d returned home, the fire was long dead and the freak that had caused it was even longer gone.

…Not to mention that Kara had died the year before. Shit.

Early shook his head. He needed to focus on the job, not the past. Let’s see… First point of business: where next? There were no other former Volsung staff settled in Artolia that he knew of, which meant it was either Vanaheimr or Osea. He’d have to visit the capital sooner or later. So, was a detour to Vanaheimr worth it?

He knew Smythe was right - it was likely that any Animus that had been in Vanaheimr would have either moved along or been bagged and tagged by IRIN. But could there be any new arrivals there that he could catch… now there was a question worth asking. And the IRIN. Early knew a thing or two about organisations, and greasing the right palm could get you a few words off the record. On the other hand… approaching them in an official capacity might be worthwhile, too.

But; would an Animus go to Vanaheimr in the first place? Hmm…


“Is this safe?” he’d asked.

Doctor Hartnell nodded. “Of course it is. Nemesis works for Chulainn just as… hnn…
better than you do, Early.”

Early expected it was fact, although the senior scientist could just be showing pride in his work. Hartnell was somewhere in his sixties. Doubtlessly as a younger man he was quite tall, because now, even stooped with age, he was over five and half feet tall. His ash-white hair had receded up his forehead, leaving him with a widow’s peak. His white lab coat covered his body to his knees, where carefully creased trousers took over to the polished shoes.

“So, Nemesis… what do I need to know?”

“Nemesis is her identifier, hmm, see, at birth, each Animus was given a ‘code name’, which we call their identifier. However, when it seemed they were unlikely to see combat duty, they were also given more regular names. Nemesis is a Lykaon Animus -- you remember that term from your briefing I trust? -- and was one of the first to be repatriated after the mass escape.”

“You mean the Night of --?”

“I detest that name. The Animus are too cowed to know rage. No, it was the Hunger that caused it. Heh, gods know if I knew about the Hunger beforehand, I would have advised they be sedated more heavily.” Hartnell shook his head, perhaps in remorse.

“What can she tell me that you guys can’t?”

“The Animus think differently than you and I. This is in part due to simple genetics, in part due to their isolated rearing. And, of course, there is also the Hunger. Every single Animus we have interviewed since the escape, regardless of personality, has spoken of it.”

“Yeah,” Early said.

“Ah, of course. I had forgotten how you became aware of the Animus in the first place.” Hartnell paused. “If it makes a difference to you, most who have become aware of the Animus have had memory alteration work done on them, if not straight extermination.”

“Ain’t I lucky?” Early said, not trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

Hartnell shot him a look, well aware of the tone. Early guessed that the old man had probably had people ‘exterminated’ for the Tone.

“Ah, here we are,” Hartnell said, obviously as glad to be out of Early’s company as Early was to be out of his. “This is the interview room Nemesis will be brought to in a short while. There are cameras, so we will know what passes between you, although--”

There was an audible clack as Hartnell closed his mouth so quickly his teeth bumped together. Early knew what the sound meant, as he’d made it a couple times himself. He was biting off an utterance he might regret later.

“Anyway; wait here. A handler will bring her along shortly,” Hartnell said, opening the door.

Early went in quietly and heard the door close behind him. The room was painted off-white all over. There was a table and two folding chairs in the middle of the room. They were, depressingly, the same colour. He briefly wondered which side of the table he was supposed to sit. A quick examination suggested they were both the same.

He decided to take the seat opposite the door, as it gave a more commanding presence. If it had been sooner in his career, he would have presumed that they would have expected that of him and gone for the seat nearer the door. However, he had recently come to the conclusion that trying to second-guess anyone was like a bad comedy skit, as they’d probably try to second-guess how you would second-guess them.

No sooner had he taken his seat than the door opened. A lean girl somewhere in her late teens walked -- no,
stalked -- into the room. He’d never seen a female Animus before, but as he knew what the males looked like, he couldn‘t not identify her as an Animus. Where you would expect body fat to provide definition on a normal human, the Animus lacked it. One of the scientists had explained it -- their metabolism was so severe they couldn’t sustain body fat. The head sheds were divided as to whether this was a result or cause of the Hunger. Only muscle tone prevented them looking malnourished. Although, a few of the Animus on the run looked that, too.

This girl had dark hair and dark eyes. As with all Animus, due to being raised without natural light she had what could only be described as extreme prison pallor -- and with the harsh fluorescent lighting, what little skin colour she might have had was bleached out.

The grey jumpsuit she was wearing would have emphasised her figure, had she had one. The hair was cut short, and the eyes were wary. Dog tags hung around her neck.

“You are Donovan Early?” she asked.

“Yeah. What’s your name, kid?” Early asked in response.

“I am Nemesis,” she replied.

“Cute,” Early muttered. “What’s your other name?”

Nemesis narrowed her eyes slightly, but it seemed affected. Early remembered something in the briefing about Lykaon Animus being the most loyal to their handlers. Well, Lykaon were part wolf and part human, and dogs were domesticated or ‘humanised’ wolves… Would the pup want a pat on the head?

“Lani. Lani Blaise,” she said.

‘Good girl,’ Early thought to himself. Out loud, he said, “Nice to meet you, Lani. Wanna take a seat?”

Nemesis took the seat opposite him carefully, not taking her eyes from him even as she brushed the seat with hand.

“So, Ms. Blaise. Our bosses think some of your fellow Animus may have left not just the province, but the country. They want me to go after them,” Early said, and then leaned in conspiratorially. “What can you tell me of how the Animus think?”

Nemesis tilted her head to one side and studied him, frowning. “I would try to avoid the cities at first. They’re too noisy and smelly,” she said. “But, smaller settlements would be insufficient to hide an Animus for too long. Especially if the Hunger was to overtake us. So…”

“You’d migrate to bigger towns. Then the cities. Then the biggest cities,” Early said.

“Yes,” Nemesis answered. “But I take it from your tone of voice, you had already surmised that.”

Early paused, thrown at actually hearing the word ‘surmised’ from the mouth of anyone who wasn’t involved with the law.

“Pretty much,” he said. “I’m told you could give me some insight to the Hunger?”

The frown on her face deepened. “The Hunger… It’s, well, it’s impossible to describe accurately. The Hunger is… As an Animus, I feel hungry most of the time. To say my highest priority is where my next meal is coming from wouldn’t be far wrong. But after…we change, this hunger is heightened to unbearable levels. At times, it can overcome us, leaving us barely more than berserk savages. In this state, our only focus is to gorge ourselves on meat.”

“Why meat?” Early said.

“I don’t know. Some of the scientists believe it’s due to the proteins in the meat, that immediately after the change it’s what our bodies need most. Some suggest it’s due to our DNA and our more bestial characteristics asserting themselves.” Nemesis shrugged. “If any of them do know the cause, they do not tell us.”

That made sense to Early. “So, you said gorge. Why did you choose that word?”

Nemesis shook her head, a wry smile quirking her lips. “You are Donovan Early, who brought down Achilles? Do you need to ask that?”

Achilles… He hadn’t known the monster’s code name, but he knew who she meant. A serial killer had been stalking the streets of the Hub, slaughtering without discrimination or pattern. As Early was in Chulainn’s pay, he decided he would hunt it down.

He didn’t approach the police, as he had no official weight, being a soldier of fortune. He followed the details released by the press. He talked to people who may have seen something. He talked to those who saw
‘absolutely nuffin’, honest, wait, no, don’t get like that, OK, but you don’t let anyone know I told you this’.

Eventually, he came across the man whose description had been seen around nearly every murder. The damage this man had done to those he killed was horrific. Early was prepared to bring in the corpse of a monster. And a monster was what he had got. With talons…teeth…

“An Animus in the grips of the Hunger… is nothing but a monster. Even in your own eyes. Tearing people apart to sate its guts, blind to everything else,” he said, presently.

Nemesis nodded, almost impassively. “Exactly. I have no idea how many of my friends fled in the Night of the Rage… or how many were torn apart by another Animus, perhaps even…myself.” Her voice wavered slightly on the last word.

“For myself -- and the other repatriates here -- losing ourselves to the Hunger is one of the worst fates imaginable. For those feral Animus… I can’t say. Some of them may revel in it. Others may end their own existence to try to escape it.”

She locked her eyes directly to Early’s.

“You should take care of yourself, Mr. Early.”
I work all day and I think all night
I break my body, but that's all right
Cos it'll take all my mind and all my might
To keep one step ahead of you
L.E. Modesitt, Jr wrote: Sometimes cynicism is the last refuge of the idealist.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up.
You think water moves fast? You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind. Like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder.
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Sam Vimes arrested a dragon... and carries the law with him like an Ampharos
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