Where in the hell is this place? Russ Bullock cursed out all of Texas south of the Nueces as he circled around and headed back up US 281. There was supposed to be a side road, somewhere on the east side of 281, between Linn and Red Gate. He'd driven all over Texas before, but never had as much trouble finding a road as this one that existed somewhere in an unmarked section of his map of Hidalgo County. He had just driven into Red Gate again. He turned around and headed back north for what he swore would be the last time. If he didn't see the damn side road to Max's cabin, he would stay on 281 and head back home to San Antonio.
Back in his mind, he hoped he wouldn't see it. This was on an insanely remote stretch of road. Even though his air conditioner ran full blast, the July heat covered him with its sweat-inducing daggers. He had been driving all damn day and if that road didn't hurry up and jump right out in f-
He found it. Finally. Almost completely obscured by brush, the sign pointing to Max Stanton's property was only visible to cars heading north on 281. Explains why I missed it every damn time I was heading south… Russ continued his stream of muttered oaths as he turned his car on the dirt road. His Suburban sent up clouds of dust and pebbles in the hot summer air. Pale orange dust coated the green exterior of his SUV.
As he drove up the path, crushing rocks with loud popping sounds all the way, he kept his eyes open for anything that looked like a house. No way would he wear ruts in this track in another interminable search like the one he went through trying to find the road in the first place.
A column of vultures circled up ahead of him. There was a bunch of them. They must have found a fresh cow carcass. How bucolic. A regular country paradise. Max sure picked one hell of a busy intersection to hang his shingle… Hope he's not torturing animals again…
Russ shuddered as he remembered his med school days back in Mexico. That's where he met Max. Max was a smart, clever guy, and fun at parties, but always able to be just weird and disconcerting enough to make you wish you knew less of him than you actually did. Russ' most unsettling experience with Max happened during the last year of school, when he roomed with Max. Max always “practiced” on small animals, doing all kinds of experiments with their nervous systems. Russ thought nothing of them at first, supposing the dead cats and dogs came from a medical supplier. He wrote off the things Max did as a bunch of sophomoric pranks and mutilations. Max was just getting things out of his system that didn't belong there. As the year wore on, Russ saw less and less humor in the experiments, because Max always stayed dead serious about them.
On an unusually hot day at the end of the final term, Russ saw something he wished he'd never seen. Max had a puppy, a live puppy, in a restraining harness, twitching and writhing as Max picked at its spinal column. Russ asked Max what he was doing. Max didn't explain. He put the puppy out of its misery with a swift stroke of the scalpel. They didn't say a word to each other for a week after that.
Max didn't show any more of his line of research to Russ after that day, but Russ knew he kept running experiments and performing vivisections. Russ would catch a glimpse of Max's notebooks every now and then, seeing the terrible procedures and cruel charts of data in them.
Rather than try and force an issue about the experiments, Russ just let them slide. The term was almost over and he would be out of the apartment and back home in the USA plenty soon, so why create a stir? Max was an all right guy, otherwise, and Russ always gave Max credit for never hounding Russ for some of the stupid stuff he got into from time to time. They weren't close friends, but they liked to do stuff together and talk sports for hours, so they were close enough friends.
Max did eventually offer an explanation. Russ sort of bought into it. “The animals are just that, Russ: animals. We're their masters. They're here for us to eat, order around, and to learn from. If I can discover something about the human mind or nervous system from what I do with these strays, wouldn't you say the end justified the means?” Russ didn't entirely go along with Max's reasoning, but went ahead and agreed with it so they wouldn't start an argument over it.
After med school, they both set up practices in San Antonio and kept up with each other. Max never married, probably because he never dated anyone seriously. He later moved out to George West, then to this country place off 281 in the middle of the nowhere part of South Texas.
Russ got married and the whole thing lasted for 8 years before he managed to finalize the bitter divorce. He didn't have any kids, and was glad for that. Russ stayed in San Antonio, preferring the urban lifestyle to Max's penchant for the country. He never trusted Max's protests against the bustle of city life. Sometimes, when he found himself still awake in the small hours of the deep night, his thoughts would turn to speculation about Dr. Stanton and his country home. Why did Max move out there? Did he want the quiet, or did he need the quiet?
Max sure as hell was a crazy mother back then… Russ saw an old two-story farmhouse up ahead as he crested a small ridge. He followed the dirt road to the house and pulled up into its driveway. The house looked lived-in. It wasn't immaculate, but it was tidy, far too tidy to be the property of a normal bachelor. I see he's still a neat freak. There's even fresh paint on this dump. Wonder when he's going to do something about those vultures. Russ shook his head as he remembered how Max always kept things too clean in the apartment and figured it was probably bad enough to be considered a minor obsessive-compulsive disorder, although he never bothered to track it closely enough to make a proper diagnosis. Max looked like he felt fine, and Russ wasn't anyone to go upsetting the apple cart as long as it was rolling along smoothly.
Russ put the Suburban into park and stepped out. Damn, it's hotter than hell out here! Russ checked his watch. Only 2:30 PM, so it was bound to get even hotter during the day. The car was hot enough and the humidity outside made things worse. Russ boiled in his own sweat as he walked to Max's door. He was thankful for the meager shade the porch offered him.
Russ rang the doorbell, but didn't hear any sound inside. He waited for a while, counting quietly to 30 to allow a polite interval, like his mother taught him. Not getting any answer, he pulled open the screen door and knocked on the main door. He counted to himself again, promising himself he wouldn't wait too long outside in this heat. He had gotten to 23 when the door opened.
Max greeted him with a broad smile, bright eyes, shaved head, and his wire-framed spectacles. “Hey, Russ, how the hell are ya?” They shook hands and Max pulled Russ into his house. Russ couldn't get in fast enough, thrilling as the cool blanket of centrally cooled air enveloped him and soothed his jangled nerves.
"Took me forever to find this place. Damn sign was hidden in the brush."
Max turned and walked into the house. "Yeah, I keep meaning to get to that, but I always get sidetracked. Come on into the kitchen, I'll get you a beer."
"You got Shiner?"
"Of course. Loaded up on it in town last week."
That sounds decent. Russ followed Max into the tidy kitchen. He sat at the table as Max popped the tops off two Shiners. Max put the beers on the table, tossed the bottle caps into the trash, and sat down.
Russ inhaled a few gulps of beer. "Good thing you answered when you did. I was ready to bail on you."
"I was in the bathroom, Russ. Sorry." Max grinned.
"Well, hope you didn't forget to wash your hands in your hurry."
"Cleanliness is next to godliness." Max held up his hands. "So how you doin', Russ? Still practicing?"
"Yeah. Same old rut. Lots quieter after I divorced Candi."
"I always thought she was a disaster."
"Yeah, she- you always thought? Why the hell didn't you stop me, then?"
"You were all over her. Like I could have stopped that. I figured you two would get tired of each other and move on. You did, and I didn't have to piss you off by badmouthing your girlfriend just before you married her."
"Hell, you're right. I wouldn't have listened." Silence as they drank their beers. "So what do you do, out... here?"
"You still practicing?"
"Nope. Gave all that up."
"What, then, you retired on your savings?"
"Hell no, Russ! I barely made enough from being a doctor to pay off my loans! I picked up a side job, and moved into that full time, the more profitable it became."
"No, Shacklee. Jeez, Russ, what do you think I got into?"
"I don't know. I had my life and you drifted. I never kept tabs on you, just in touch."
"Drugs, Russ. I ran drugs."
Russ did not believe Max one bit.
"Russ, come on, are you blind? This is a great place. I got tons of land. I'm on 281. I was involved in the drug trade."
"You? A dealer?"
"I wasn't a dealer. Never have been. I didn't even write feelgood prescriptions. I never screwed around with my practice. I got into wholesaling."
"Pot, mostly. Move a couple of tons of that stuff and you, too can be a winner."
"Where you been, Russ? There's guys like me all over the place, running fleets of trucks, making payroll, all that. So what if drugs are involved?"
"You never were one to care about how things got done."
"As long as they got done."
"So, how many trucks you got on the road right now?"
"None. I sold off my part of the business a while back. Didn't you catch my past tense? The marijuana trade's behind me. I just wanted to tell you where the money came from."
"So what do you do now?"
Oh jeez. Torturing animals again. "Researching what?"
"That's what I'm going to show you. Why I called you down. You're gonna be fascinated by what I got here."
"You're not doing those animal experiments again? Because if you are, I-"
"No, no, no, no, no... those are in the past. I'm grown out of all that stuff."
"That's a relief. I was saying, if you had all that set up, I was turning around and heading back home."
"Naw, I don't do that anymore."
"So what do you do, Max? You got me completely confused. What are you researching?"
"Some very interesting stuff. Out here, nothing bothers me or distracts me from my studies. It's great."
"You're retired, then. Living as a country squire doing nothin' but pure research in very interesting stuff. What the hell do you mean by 'interesting stuff'? How interesting?"
"I got something so interesting and amazing, it could make both of us a fortune."
"Both of us?"
"You bet. It's what I called you over for. Wanna see it?"
Russ had to think about that. He couldn't very well do anything else here without seeing what it was Max had stashed in the back or wherever that was so amazing and fantastic. Then again, he could be in for a shock. "How about after another beer?"
"Sure thing." Max got them both another Shiner.
Max led Russ to the stairs. The house wheezed and groaned with age. Russ dated it to the 40s or 50s, and admired the solid construction and craftsmanship in the home. Russ noticed how the house quickly swallowed up sounds in its walls and thick carpets. No noise got very far. The hungry carpets gave off a musty odor that nicely complemented the stale smell from the antediluvian air conditioner.
Max climbed the stairs into an upward abyss of blackness. Russ swallowed a lump of worry and followed. His eyes adjusted to the dark, catching motions on the periphery of vision. Russ attributed the shifting shades to a trick of dust and light.
"I gotta warn you, Russ."
"This is going to go in steps. It's a presentation. You need to see it all to get to the big finish, where I show you the payoff."
"Just promise me you'll stick through the whole thing."
"I'm sure. Jeez, why would I come out here just to turn around?"
"You almost left twice before."
"OK, but I'm here now. I'm going through the whole thing."
"All right. Here we go then." Max brought Russ to the top of the stairs and opened a door.
Russ entered the room and regretted his promise.
Strapped to the table in the center of the room was a pair of small dogs, joined at the spine. Hoods covered their eyes and they twitched bizarrely. Russ couldn't focus on anything else in the room. All he could see was the abomination, paying special attention to where their skins had been joined together.
Too much. Way too much. "I am leaving."
Max grabbed Russ' arm. "Wait. You promised."
"You said you were through with this." The dogs began to yelp sporadically.
Max dropped his tone to a whisper. "I am. This was the last one. Now quit being a wuss and listen to what I found out. The deed is done, and you can't undo it, so you might as well learn from it."
Russ switched his glare back and forth between the twitching dogs and Max. How could he?
"Quit judging me, Russ. You're guilty of this, too."
"I never did anything like this!" The yelping became more distressed.
"Sh! You profited from it. How do you think doctors figured out so much? Tests worse than this have been done countless times before on animals and we learn from them. They are just animals. Food. Porters. Research subjects."
"This is sick." Russ remembered to keep quiet this time.
"This is research. Are you going to listen or are you going to go home crying to mommy?"
"Don't you take that tone with me, buddy!" Russ got ready to punch Max and his voice rose with his anger. The dogs almost went berserk with their barking.
"Hey, calm down. I'm sorry. You want to go, then go, but you'll miss out on the payoff."
Through the beer and anger, Russ remembered he could use some money to cover his losses in the divorce. Candi had taken a very painful 50% of the estate and made him pay all the legal fees. "All right. What did you learn from... this?"
"Come outside and I'll tell you." Max opened the door to the dark hallway. He and Russ left the room. Max kept his voice low after he shut the door. "There is some very interesting chemistry in the body. Your perceptions and thoughts are controlled by that chemistry. You know this, of course."
"Right. Well, how familiar are you with the spinal column?"
"Everything I need to know is in a database back at my office."
"Wrong. Everything you need to know is up here in my house. You saw those dogs? I did more than graft one to the other. I spliced their spines together."
"Spliced. Like splicing rope. Cut it into strands, then wove it together."
"How did you do that?"
Max grinned as a shaft of sunlight from a boarded-up window at the end of the hall glinted off his glasses. "Wasn't easy."
"Quit playing around. It's not funny."
"Never mind how I did it, it was done. I then compared the chemical makeup in the spinal fluids after the operation."
"So what did you find?"
"A totally different composition of chemicals than what you find in a normal spine. I found stuff in there no biological or artificial process has ever made before. And it's potent."
Russ gave Max a "what the hell are you talking about" look.
"I didn't smoke them, if that's what you're thinking. I took measurements on their brains and found some wild swings all over the charts. Some of the measurements went off the scale. These dogs were seriously tripping, all from internally generated chemicals. I had to cover their eyes and keep quiet so they'd quit barking... truth be told, I didn't like the look they gave me."
The dogs were making much less noise.
"They going back down now?"
"Yeah. They prefer it quiet."
Russ looked around and tried to change the subject. "So those chemicals are the payoff?"
"Where the hell's the money in that?"
"There isn't. But it led me along my next line of research."
Russ fully expected a steel cage to drop out of the ceiling and trap him while Max opened him up to splice nylon twine with his spinal column. "Do we need to stay here? This place is making me feel weird."
"Won't take much longer. Want another beer or anything?"
How can he be so chipper like that? And is he going to poison me? What about those other beers I had? "No. And maybe I really should be going."
"Oh, come on. You have got to see what I got. This is the key to wealth, I tell you. Never mind the dogs. I know they look awful, but it was part of my research. A researcher has to steel himself to certain things if he wants to see the knowledge that lies on the other side."
"I'll be honest. This is freaking me out."
"I don't blame you, Russ. This stuff isn't easy to look at, but the net result is amazing. It won't take long at all."
"What? You figured out how to get these chemicals to work for humans and you're going to market this stuff and get rich?"
"We're going to get rich. But you're getting ahead of me. Why don't you see what I got in the next room?"
"What is it in there?"
"I can't really describe it and do it justice. You need to see it with your own eyes for this to all make sense." Max started toward the door.
Russ figured it would be best to stay as close to Max as possible and crowded up behind him. Max crossed the hall and opened the door on the other side. He made hardly any noise in opening it. The shutters on the windows in the room were closed, letting only a few cracks of sunlight touch its contents. The air was completely motionless. Two people were lying on a bed in the middle of the room, presumably asleep, probably dreaming from the quiet moans coming from them. They had electrodes attached to their heads, sending data to a bank of machines at the foot of the bed. Max motioned for Russ to be quiet. He whispered, "This is what I want to show you. Don't make any sound louder than a whisper. That's very important. They are in a state of extremely heightened sensory acuity. Like those dogs. No sound, no light, no touching. Got that?"
Russ nodded, dreading what he was about to see. I know what this is going to be...
Max pulled the sheet off the bodies very slowly, revealing how they were joined at the spine, the skin on their backs stitched together. Russ had no urge to say anything. He stood, speechless and amazed as nausea spread through his bowels. The people started having spasms once Max finished removing the sheet.
Max covered them back up. He picked up a roll of data from the machines and motioned for Russ to leave. Russ backed out into the hall and Max covered the bodies and shut the door behind him.
Russ staggered from his nausea and chills. "Why, Max? Why did you do it?"
"Downstairs. You had to see this, but I'll explain everything downstairs."
Russ went down the stairs and back to the kitchen. Max got a beer out of the fridge and leaned back against the counter.
Russ didn't sit down, in spite of his gastronomic condition. "Why did you do that? Those were people up there!"
"No they weren't. They were animals, too. They had nothing. Living on the street in Reynosa. I got them across, brought them here, and gave them an opportunity to be of some value to humanity."
"That's a load of crap. You used them like rats."
"Oh, please. If you want to be Jesus Christ and save the whole world, every soul, be my guest. You used people up, too, so don't get all on your high horse with me."
"I didn't come all this way to get insulted. Where do you get off treating me like this?"
"You remember Mexico?"
"Yes. We went to med school there. Of course I remember Mexico."
"Remember any of the women you took out while we were down there?"
"No. That was ages ago."
"After all you did, you don't remember them?"
Russ looked up to a corner in the ceiling to his right and bit his lip for a moment. "I see where this is going." He looked straight at Max. "All right, I used them, fine, you win an argument, but I didn't kill them."
"And I didn't kill those guys upstairs, either. Now will you listen to what I have to say?"
"All right. Go ahead."
"Well, have a chair."
To hell with that. I might have to run. "I prefer to stand."
"Suit yourself." Max sat down and opened the beer. He took a long pull on it and set it down. He unrolled the data sheet and motioned Russ over. Russ stood behind Max.
"You see that alpha wave activity? Off the charts. Wild."
"What did you do to them?"
"Opened up a conduit to higher sentience, near as I reckon."
"What do you mean? That they're so high, they're terminal?"
"No. I mean, they no longer see the world the same way."
"So they're schizophrenic."
"Partially, yes. They have a pronounced amount of DMT in their spinal fluid, but that's not the main ingredient in their neural cocktail. They cooked up something else in there that the body doesn't manufacture in its normal state."
"Just like the dogs did."
"Right. Just like the dogs. But this time, the chemicals were ones that had a pronounced effect on humans."
"And that's what you're going to harvest and sell."
"You got it. If I can synthesize it, it'll be absolutely amazing. I figure it wouldn't have any permanent effects on someone not creating it on his own. Drop it, get high, come down, buy it again for the next high."
"What if it's habit forming?"
"Forget about it. Habit forming or not, junkies are going to get high. This'll be something new, it'll make a hit, and I'll make a fortune. They'll take drugs no matter what, so I might as well get a piece of the action."
"You can't do this on your own. Is that where you need me? Why not some of your former associates in the trade?"
"I'll be contacting the guys still in the business for the distribution and manufacture piece, but I need you to help look over my data and work with me on some trials."
"The deed is done, Russ. You can't change the past. I've made a discovery, I've got tons of data that convinces me it'll be a money-maker, but I want another pair of eyes to take a look at it before I go out and push this stuff."
"No more tests like up there?"
"No more, Russ. I got all the data I need."
"How many did you run? How many people?"
"You don't want to know."
"I do. How many."
"No. You really don't want to know. Drop it."
"I don't know if I can. Were those test subjects what's drawing the buzzards to your back forty?"
"Could you forget about it all for $300,000?"
"Cash on the barrelhead. Got it in a suitcase and everything. One hundred percent US legal tender, unmarked, non-consecutive, well-laundered bills fresh from a vacation in the Caymans."
That can go a long way toward healing the wounds Candi caused. Hell, why not? The deed is done, like he says. He's right about the junkies. Why not skim a little off the top? "I won't be in the dealing part or any new trials, though. I'm just looking over the existing data, all right?"
"Of course. You don't even have to remember anything you've seen here. In fact, it would be better for you to forget as much as possible. I got another half million to help you forget once the analysis is done, and a steady paycheck to remind you to forget after you've retired to your own private island."
"Ranch. I've always wanted a ranch out west by Brownwood."
"Ranch. Whatever. It's yours if you just help me run some numbers."
Russ went to the fridge to get another Shiner. "It's a deal."
"All those damned biochemistry classes came in handy, after all." Russ plopped down his latest report on the neural chemicals. "Near as I can figure, those chemicals are very active on the pineal gland, pituitary, and hippocampus. Those are all bingo areas for getting high and seeing stuff. You got any idea what your subjects saw or experienced?"
"Not as such. Nothing much to go on."
"What? You forgot Spanish? I'm sure some of them blathered on during a trip."
"They did. They all did. Most of the initial stuff was, 'Oh my God'-type stuff. Useless. Then came the clicking and choking sounds."
"Huh? They couldn't breathe?"
"No, they were breathing fine. They just made really weird noises. They sounded like bugs. Choking bugs."
"But their speech centers didn't go into arrest. Nothing failed in the brains. If anything, they were more aware than ever before."
"I know, I know. That's why I wanted you to look it over, to see if you came to the same conclusion I did."
"I think this is something more than what we can understand at this point."
Max rubbed his scalp. "Well, I got something that might shed some light on this." He took a swig from his beer. "See, there was one guy, I guess he had more education than the others, one guy who did make some sense before he went off into the choking bug phase and the spasms? I transcribed what he said. You wanna see it?"
"Why didn't you tell me about it sooner? I'd like to see it."
"It's not all that much to go on, but all right." Max got up and went back to his room. Russ got some bottled water and sat down at the table.
Damn. Two weeks of this. Who would have ever thought? Russ squinted out the window over the sink at a line of Mesquite trees amid the scrub. As long as he stayed out of the upstairs rooms and didn't look at the vultures, he had an OK time at Stanton's place. If he ever got intolerably lonely, McAllen and Reynosa were one way, San Antonio the other. The women would get their money, and he would be a kid in college for a night.
And it was nice and quiet out in the middle of the desolate stretch of 281 in South Texas. Nobody ever bothered him, nobody ever visited, nobody ever yelled at him for being too absorbed in his work and not spending enough time with her and not being the same man he was when he got married.
Damn that Candi. It would have been cheaper to kill her off. Until the murder trial. Then the lawyers get you again. At least there were no lawyers at Max's place. That made it heaven, for all Russ cared. That and the air conditioning made it heaven.
Max returned with the transcript. He gave it to Russ.
"Why didn't you type this thing?"
"It's not that bad."
"It's chicken scratch."
"Let me see that..." Russ handed the papers back to Max. "Crap. I must have been drunk when I wrote this. I still got the tape. Come on."
Russ and Max went into the den. Max owned a huge home entertainment system and was the only one who messed with it. Russ had tried running it once before and wound up screwing everything up completely. Max found the right tape and put it in the stereo.
The poor acoustics of the lab room upstairs had been captured with perfect fidelity as the tape scratched along. Russ listened carefully to the tape, anxious to hear any clues that bespoke of the beyond Max's test subjects had discovered.
MAX: Operation 17 complete. Subjects gaining consciousness.*
VOICE ONE: DIOS MIO! DIOS MIO! (screaming persists through conversation... it is not loud, but pained and full of terror)
VOICE TWO: Colores! Ay! Colores del diablo!
MAX: Describa los colores.
VOICE TWO: Dios! Los colores toman mi esperanza! Caigo en ellos! Qué usted ha hecho? Qué usted ha hecho a mí?
MAX: Describa su caida. Describa los colores.
VOICE TWO: Un monstruo! Está dando vuelta hacia mí!
MAX: Describa al monstruo.
VOICE TWO: Madre... Madre de... (shrieks)
VOICE ONE: (screaming goes to a higher, more anxious pitch)
MAX: DESCRIBA AL MONSTRUO!
VOICE TWO: Los ojos! Los ojos me consumen! Me pierden! (screams again)
VOICE ONE: (screaming stops suddenly)
MAX: Dígame lo que usted ve!
VOICE TWO: (very quiet, almost completely inaudible) Está dentro de mí.
MAX: Cuál es?
VOICE TWO: El monstruo. Me está comiendo desde adentro. El gusano roe.
MAX: Está usted en dolor?
VOICE TWO: No. Me estoy cayendo. Me estoy cayendo. Los colores del diablo me llevan al infierno.
MAX: Usted está en infierno?
VOICE TWO: Estoy en infierno. Estoy muriendo en infierno.
VOICE ONE: (rattling) CTHTKKECHIKKAQISHITHIKK... CHIK CHIK... KHOKKKKKKKKKKGGGGLLKK...
VOICE TWO: (screams) NO! NO! NOOOOO!
MAX: Qué? QUÉ USTED VE?
VOICE TWO: NO! DIOS MIO! DI- (falls silent)
VOICE ONE: (Continues to make the "choking insect" noises)
VOICE TWO: (Commences making "choking insect" noises)*
Max switched off the tape. "What do you think, Russ?"
"Operation, what, 17? How many of these did you tape?"
"This is the only one worth anything."
"I don't believe you."
"This is the only good one. Trust me."
He's not going to let me hear the others. "Let's just move on from this."
"So what do you think of it? Pretty weird, huh?"
"I think it's a bad trip. Colors, monsters, being devoured, nothing a guy going through detox doesn't already experience." Russ sat down on the sofa. "I mean, yeah, it's freaky with all the screaming, but the heightened levels of DMT in the spinal fluid could explain everything they're experiencing."
Max sat down on the other side of the sofa. "Yeah, but the monitors showed the guy was totally lucid. The DMT hadn't started producing in his system. These were all results of the first rush of chemicals from the spliced spine."
"So? They could certainly be hallucinogenic. That's no 'other world' they got opened up to. They're just having an awful trip. I don't see anyone paying for that."
"I disagree, Russ. The tone of voice wasn't like any junkie I ever heard."
"OK, so it's a new plane of existence you found. Sounds like a total hell we're blissfully unaware of. Either way, hallucination or reality, it's terrifying. Who the hell wants that when they can float away with heroin?"
"Well, maybe it doesn't have the same effect in an unspliced spine. Maybe it's more pleasant."
"Have you tried this yourself, Max?"
"Hell no! I'm just guessing from what I've seen."
"You already tried this on others?"
"Of course. They didn't complain."
"Well, what did they say about it?"
Max looked at the floor.
"You killed them, right?"
"I'm still working on the dosages."
"How many people are you going to burn through for this? I know I don't want to know, but you can't just keep snuffing Mexican nationals because you think you got a hot little drug here. This has got to stop. You don't need the money and I know you don't want to keep vultures as pets. Just give it up."
Max looked at the ceiling. "Russ, I do need the money. Let's just say I'd like to move to a new neighborhood and I need to be able to afford the property there."
Is there anything he tells the truth about first time through? "You could get to a remote location with the cash you're offering me. Why isn't that enough?"
"For the kind of people that are after me, it isn't. I was just farting around with this project until I got word this group was closing in. I'd like to make a quick profit and get the hell out of here. With some security, you understand."
"So why not go back to other stuff you know will sell? Makes a lot more sense to me."
"I need the money a little faster than what I could get with regular drugs."
"If you spent this time dealing coke, you'd have your money by now."
Max looked directly at Russ. "I don't mess with coke dealers. They're crazy. I stick with dope or this stuff."
"Well, this stuff is nowhere. I don't see anyone trying it once word gets out you go through sheer hell and slip into catatonia or die."
Max looked back down at the floor. "Aw, hell."
Russ waited for Max to speak again.
"You're right, I guess. I got too heavy into my research to see the flaws in it."
"I'm sorry, Max. I have no idea why you were always fascinated with spines, but you let it get way too far. All those people."
"Well, I'm sorry I brought you down here all this way for nothing."
Russ stared at Max a while as Max stared at a spot on the floor.
"What?" Max looked up.
"Why did you call me down here, anyway? This is pretty sick stuff. Why me?"
"I knew you would come. And you would go along with it."
"How did you know that?"
"You hate admitting it, but you're like me. You believe the end can justify the means."
Russ went to bed that night feeling uneasy about himself. I'm like a damned Nazi doctor. I don't like the experiments, but I'll do them for the sake of science. I'm not the executioner, but I'm still involved in the "special treatment" process. I've bought into Max's definitions of classes of existence. Once I let him convince me they were subhumans, everything was OK.
I'm Klaus Mengele.
He had a rough time getting to sleep, but was able to drift off after he resolved to leave the next day. He wasn't going to be party to this horror any more.
A sharp pain in his back woke him up.
He tried to move up, swinging out at the air around him with his right hand and reaching around to nurse the pain in his back with his left. His motions were weak and his arms refused to obey him beyond a pitiful flailing about. A further flare of pain in his back rewarded him for his efforts.
He hadn't opened his eyes yet, but he began to see flashes of colors. Painful flashes, stabbing him violently. Shrieking, noisome colors that mocked and tore at him.
Russ opened his eyes and realized he now saw much more than he had ever seen before. He saw inside everything around him and where it had been before. Every object snaked some path through time relative to where he was. The insides of everything were now exposed to his plain sight and his mind raced to take in all the information and catalog it. He realized the sounds and smells behaved the same way, moving through times and spaces, hurtling and shrieking at him from everywhere at once.
His senses were alive. Entirely new dimensions that dwarfed the world he had once known forced their secrets on his countless senses. He could learn them if only he could focus for a moment on just one thing besides the excruciating pain he felt racking his entire body.
Russ screamed out in agony. When he screamed, he felt the cry go out from many mouths, surrounding him, screaming outward to the colored volumes around his newly-opened mind.
Terror grabbed his heart and chilled his chest cavity to an unhealthy extent when he heard the scream returned.
The returning voices echoed his misery through the maelstrom of horrifying colors. They sang dissonantly, a cacophonous choir of the damned, welcoming him to a newly-found hell.
Russ felt the bites. The hungry, ravenous jaws tearing into his... body? Was this his body that felt the new cuts and slashes from his unseen attackers? If it was, it was no body he had before. How it hurt! Who was killing him? Why? What was-? How did-?
Never mind that! KILL!
With an instinct crying out from deep within his consciousness, Russ roared his defiance. He lurched in the direction of the biting and scratching and struck at it with all his might, pounding and beating and slashing at it with every appendage at his disposal. These were not arms or legs he was using. He struck with something... limbs for the world of the violent colors. Powerful limbs. Killing limbs, equal to what attacked him.
His body on earth did not move. His body in the new spaces of colors and shrieks fought for its life. Tentacles and mouths swam in the bizarre world as he focused on the objects of his pain and rage. There it was! His attacker! With rediscovered primordial ferocity, he fell upward upon it and bit the main body of his attacker. A thousand times with a thousand mouths he bit that thing as he strangled the life out of it.
It ceased to move.
He continued to hold it tightly and bite it.
He hungered deeply. This was his kill, and his to devour, by right. He was now the master of this world and the pain subsided as he gorged upon the strange-tasting attacker. He became aware of his victim's strange flesh entering parts of his body Heretofore unimagined.
He looked around the world he came from. He saw the guest bedroom in Max's house and all the contents in it. He saw the syringe behind him, hidden under some papers in the trash can. He saw the path Max had taken up to his back to administer the shot, and then how he disposed of the needle. He looked back in other parts of the house and saw Max preparing the shot and noting in his lab book how he was attempting a lesser dosage of the spinal chemicals.
Russ stopped looking in the past at that point and searched for Max in the present. He found him, cowering in the upstairs lab where the spliced men were. The spliced men made no more noise or twitching motions, even though they were screaming and positively epileptic in their motions just a few moments before.
Never mind them. I am going to kill Max.
If I can stand up, that is...
Russ struggled to make his muscles move the way they were supposed to. They felt incomplete. They felt weak and atrophied, even though they felt normal to his mundane senses. To his new awareness, they were not fully operational. He would attend to that. Ciliated tentacles moved from the world of the violent colors to intersect the space that had formerly been the only one he knew. They joined in with his limbs, providing them with the life they needed. The power felt glorious.
NOW I will kill Max.
He will be delicious.
Russ rose from his bed, hovering in the air. He did not turn his head or body. Why should he? He already saw everything, whether it was on or beneath a surface or now or in the past. He moved through the air into the corridor, and then into the living room on his way to the stairs.
He heard with many ears the sound of a car door opening. Casting his gaze outside, Russ saw a dozen men getting out of three all-black Suburbans. They were heavily armed.
The reasons Max has to move on are here. They will kill me if given the chance. I shall have to kill them first. Russ moved into the shadows of the upper part of the stairwell.
Leo Marchello stood behind the men with the battering ram. Others had gone around the sides of the house to secure the exits, but the main force of eight concentrated at the front. Leo nodded.
The men swung the ram and took the front door down in one blow. They poured in, everyone shouting, "DEA! FREEZE! NOBODY MOVE!" Within moments, they had secured the bottom floor.
"He's upstairs. Get ready." Leo got his men to deploy at the base of the stairs. One of them thought there was movement at the top. Leo decided it would be safer to talk instead of rushing the stairs.
"Max! Max Stanton! You up there? It's your old buddy, Leo."
"I'll have the money soon. Tell your boss I'll have his money, soon."
"You said that a month ago, Max! Nothing happened, so we're here to collect."
One of Leo's men started to cough a little.
Leo glared at him to keep it down. He tried harder to suppress his coughs.
"Come on out Max, and it won't hurt much at all."
"You're making this difficult, Max. Come out now and we bring you back dead. Make us come up and get you and we bring you back alive, and you know what that-" Leo was cut off by the cougher going into convulsions.
The others were caught by surprise as the man writhed, his eyes bulging in terror as he began to cough up blood. Someone shouted and pointed at the cougher's chest: it was caving in. The bones were bending inwardly, and the cougher's chest took on the appearance of a crushed aluminum can.
The cougher collapsed. The others backed away. Max called out from his hiding spot. "I'll have the money. Just give me a few weeks. I'm almost on the verge of an incredible discovery that can make Morelos rich."
Leo didn't respond. Something was inside his neck, strangling his flow of air and cutting his jugular from inside. Before he slipped into the blackness, he felt sharp, small bites in his leg muscles.
Even though the room was cool for the sake of its primary occupants, Max was sweating bullets. It was terrible luck for Marchello and his lackeys to come by when he was testing a dose of the stuff. Good thing he was already upstairs to wait out the drug trial.
It was entirely too quiet, though. There hadn't been any noise from downstairs for at least half an hour. Not like Marchello's boys to be so quiet, especially when they were collecting a debt for Oscar Morelos. And the thing on the table wasn't even moving. Not even breathing.
Was it dead?
Max did not want to check that out. He crept over to a window and peeked through a crack in the shutters. He saw vultures on the ground, milling around.
What died? Max shifted his angle, but couldn't see anything else. He took a risk on stirring the thing on the table and opened the shutter enough to get a better view.
A shaft of light fell directly across the thing on the table and it didn't move at all. Max became very nervous about what that implied, but turned to look out the window, opening the shutter all the way now.
He saw a body on the ground... Looked like Salinas. His eyes were open and bulging and his body was doubled over. He was in an eternal, painful hell, judging from appearances. The vultures stayed maybe 15 or 20 feet away from Salinas' body. They wanted to get closer, but did not. Either something kept them back or their survival instinct was stronger than their hunger.
Max didn't need to see any more. He took a guess about why it was so quiet downstairs.
It was time to run. Whatever was killing people in his house could stay there. Max moved to put miles and miles of Texas between himself and his home. He stood up and opened the window.
Steaming, soupy air poured in. The gray-green sky bulged with rain-filled clouds, anticipating anxiously a drop in pressure so it could let its underside burst and turn the world below into slime.
Max clambered over the windowsill and on to the roof. If he could make it to the trellis on the far end, he'd have a fairly easy descent. He made his way carefully across the shingles, his heart beating faster at every step. His breath quickened. A chill shot through his skin. His stomach contracted. His mouth went dry. Desperately trying to control his panic, Max moved a little faster to get to the trellis.
He landed hard on his left side as his feet flew upwards from where they stepped on an oily patch. After he landed, Max skidded down the roof. The rough shingles scraped his skin where his shirt rode up: like a thousand insect mouths, biting and sucking blood.
Seven feet of sliding ended in atmosphere. Thick as the air was with moisture, it refused to catch Max as he fell. Max managed to grab hold of his gutter, cutting his hands on its sharp, unfinished edges. The gutter tore away from the house under his weight, breaking away in a burst of fragmenting splinters. Max cried out as the earth shot up at him.
He hit the ground and fell on himself. He forgot the blood on his hands and ribcage and the pains screaming through his legs as he desperately crawled on the ground, searching for his wire-rimmed glasses.
Something groaned inside the house. It sounded like metal straining under an extremely heavy weight, almost about to give, but with human qualities in the sound. Max squinted and stared into the house, trying to see what was in there. He heard the noise again and thought he caught the glimpse of something long and rope-like moving toward the window.
Max yalped involuntarily and dashed off across his property, heading for a trail in the brush. His visual world teemed with taunting blurs, mocking his helpless eyes and the lifeless glasses. Briars and burrs he usually avoided now lashed at him, punishing every wrong step he took. They slashed at his face and bloody hands. They stabbed his sore legs and unsure feet.
The sky boiled to a climax and nature fell silent. No insect or bird dared speak in the presence of these terrible, unholy thunderheads. Max ran on, panting every breath of thick air.
He came to a fork in the trail. He knew enough to take the branch heading sharply to the left instead of the gentle curve to the right. The right-hand curve had more of his scent and would throw off anything following him by a sense of smell. The left-hand path had some of his scent, but it was mingled with other odors from other bodies and wasn't as strong.
Max wished he could have gone down the right trail, his daily jogging path. He didn't take the left path all that often and his feet stumbled over every weed that now strangled the trail. A few fat drops started to pelt Max and his unfocused world.
Branches struck him at every turn and twist of the trail. More weeds and briar-vines sought revenge on Max for disturbing their green vegetable dreams. The sky became more belligerent and its attacks increased in frequency.
Max burst out into the middle of a blackened field. The stink of death surrounded him as he slowed to a halt in the center of his first landmark and tried to pick the right path from the charnel ground. Below were filthy black rots, covering the ground where Max's victims worked their way into the dust. No vultures circled overhead as they usually did: no birds fly when the sky is about to open.
The first wave of rain smashed into Max without mercy, let alone warning. Hailstones struck him about the head and shoulders, stinging him with their evil impacts. Within moments, the ground turned to churned mud, becoming one with the sky in the orgy of the storm.
Max dug his way through the torrent, squinting in vain to see any sort of guide for his path. He made his best guess and agonized into the brush, hail sniping at him all the time.
Back in the brush, the briars and tree-limbs continued their guerrilla campaign against Max's body while the rain and hail ate away at his soul. Max wanted to lie down and quit until the storm had passed. He searched for a bush he could crawl into and hide. To his nearsighted eyes, everything appeared flat and green or brown, a mottled skin stretched out across the earth around him. Patches of flat ground became deep puddles when his feet exploded the illusions of his eyes.
Max felt something getting closer to him. It was coming from behind, from the place of the decaying corpses.
For an agonizing eternity of a second, Max stood dead. A peal of too-close thunder ripped him from inaction and sent his feet leaping forward, plunging deeper into the rainy hell. Max wanted to leave that spot as far behind as he could.
Max felt something following him. Now Max stumbled across the sky-swamp with desperate, shrieking speed born of mania. He no longer sought escape from a mere place. An unseen pursuer gave him reason to leap like an animal through the storm-wracked scrubland.
Max broke out into an open area just as the rain lessened its pace somewhat. His mind driven beyond concepts of pain or fatigue, Max sprinted across the flat space, passing within 30 feet of the lone tree on his left.
Lightning judged the tree, consuming it completely in a belch of a searing flare. The fire of heaven threw Max over his head, hurling him madly into the ground.
Twisted and smashed, the bloody pains caught up with Max as he fought to roll over and sit up. Covered in mud and grass blood, he heaved a cough and attempted to get to his feet.
While he struggled to rise, he looked up to get his bearings. The remains of the tree were now on his right side, so he knew he was turned around. Turned around, he beheld his pursuer.
Max saw a dark smudge against the fierce sky. He could tell it moved toward him. Within the smudge, his weak eyes detected some kind of motion, although they could not make it out clearly.
The smudge grew as Max watched. Max managed to rise from the weedy muck and turned away from the burgeoning thing. Aching legs obeyed unwillingly as Max fled for survival, dashing in the direction he hoped led to the car he kept for emergency flight. Max's lungs strained under the demands placed on them and he began to taste blood in his breath.
The rage of the storm returned, pummeling Max with constant hail and heavy rain. Everything became a thick, gray blur. Max walked through water and tried to breathe through the liquid dirt. In the midst of the loss of any visual clues to his surroundings, Max saw one thing clearly.
He did not see with his natural eyes. In the mists of spaces he had never seen before, he saw a writhing horror of fleshy ropes, reaching for him, closing in on him.
All this was behind him and getting closer.
Max ran. His vision of the thousand snakes opened wider, revealing more of the misty world beyond normal spaces.
Max ran. Brief flashes of colors invaded his vision.
Max ran. The colors sliced at his mind.
Max fled. Tears ran down his cheeks from pain and desperation.
Max fled. The snakes had no eyes, only maws gaping wide with endless teeth!
Max fled. Briars and thorns tore his outsides. Something brushed his insides.
Max bounded insanely. He felt more touches inside his body.
Max bounded insanely. Something had taken hold of his intestines!
Max leapt like a crazed deer. He felt his bowels exit his mortal frame, yet they were still connected as they unraveled in the spaces surrounding his mind.
Max crashed to earth, landing on a patch of blackened bones, nearly drowning in the thick, noisome ooze. The death mingled with the blood of his wounds. Now something had taken hold of his lungs. He felt the tugs from within his ribs. Something was in there, pulling out his lungs.
Max flailed among his victims. He got to his knees in spite of the pain, then managed to arise to a semi-erect posture.
Covered in death and full of pain, Max tried to close his mind to avoid knowing the greatest horror of all.
He could not avoid the writhing tentacles with mouths. Each one fastened itself to a part of Max's innards and gnawed. A thousand worms burrowed through his body, biting like snakes, squeaking like rats.
Max's mortal body fell to the earth, collapsing in the dead bones and wasted tissues. Spider legs from the outside spaces forced his eyes open as the life ebbed out of his body.
Overhead, he made out a dark blur. Maybe two feet away, his eyes could focus on it.
In the midst of the cilia constantly moving around and through the blur, Max thought he saw Russ' face.
It was smiling.
It spoke to Max.
Max cleared the blood from his throat. "Yes?"
"You know what you did was wrong."
"I'm sorry, Russ." Max wanted to live. He wanted to beg for his life.
"You could have killed me, you know."
"I cut the dosage way back, I thought it was safe."
"Still, it could have been fatal. I don't appreciate that."
Max wanted the pain to end. He wanted to beg for his death. "I'm sorry, Russ."
"Well, at least you're saying you're sorry." Russ paused. "You ever try that stuff?"
"You have no idea, then, do you?"
"No." Max couldn't say much more through the pain and terror. He wanted to close his eyes, but the spider legs held them open. Their cruel spindles stood firm against Max's urge to blind himself.
"I'll tell you what it's like, Max. Hell, but with a twist."
Max sobbed, his tears lost in the laughing rain.
"Want to thank me for not killing you yet? You're welcome. I had to deal with the things upstairs and those visitors first. They were delicious, by the way. You weren't there after I had finished and I wanted to see you with my own eyes again. I followed you. Once I found you, I brought you back here."
"You don't mean that, Max. You're just trying to get some mercy."
"Russ, please..." The pain seared Max's mind.
Max felt a tightening inside his chest, like some tentacles were weaving themselves in and around his ribcage.
"Max." Russ' voice had taken on unworldly characteristics. Max could hear it inside his mind. Max began to feel colors swimming past him. "Max, do you know what is happening?"
Max could barely choke out a "No."
"You're going to see some more of what I will see forever more. And then, I will kill you."
Max's eyes widened in shock as his inner eyes were opened to the sight of a thousand streaming tentacles entering his body from the dimensions beyond his previous ability to comprehend. He was surrounded, unable to move at all, shot through with pains from the rainbow of violent colors.
Max plunged through infinite spaces, twisting and writhing in the midst of the tentacles devouring him from within. His physical body already gone, now they consumed his soul.
The last things he saw were a thousand mouths, each with a thousand needle-like teeth, screaming hungrily as they plunged into the eyes of his mind.
Bastard deserved it. He won't put anyone else through this ever again.
Which is good.
I prefer to hunt without any competition.
Russ wondered what his ex-wife was doing...