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        Paul Moore had never been considered a kindly man. All through his life, he had a more than passive association with elements of sleaziness, laziness, greed, and pridefulness. He was always an opportunist and never above betraying a confidence or abandoning a friend if it seemed to serve his own ends.
        He wasn't a terribly bright fellow, though, and others could easily mislead him into situations made to seem like they were in his best interests. He was cunning enough, though, to soon discover situations that weren't to his advantage. Wriggling out of bad conditions wasn't always easy to do, but was something he was more than used to doing.
        His high school and college careers were dotted with incidents of cheating, plagiarism, and general sloppiness, but he was able to overcome exposures of his indiscretions one way or another. He eventually graduated from college, without distinction, but with a degree that would give him a veneer of respectability he would flog for maximum effect everywhere he went.
        When he graduated from college, though, he had no skills whatsoever with which to earn a living. Looking for a career in which he could gain impressive-looking skills rapidly with minimal effort, he entered the computer industry. He quickly garnered buzzword after buzzword of skills and certifications as he hopped from job to job, increasing his pay dramatically with each move. Before long, he had an impressive-looking resume (even though it vastly overstated his capabilities) and secured a position as a senior network administrator for a moderately sized firm.
        It was a lazy enough post and he would make the most of his days of dull routine with web surfing and online chatting. He had to work the occasional trouble ticket, but most issues were simple enough for his limited skills to handle in good time. He enjoyed his job and smirked every time he thought of how easily he had landed it.
        Then, one day, his easy fortune took a sour turn. The email administrator did not walk in the door that day. She did not call in sick. She was gone without warning or trace. The MIS director came into the staff room and approached Paul. “Paul, we need you to help us out of a bind, here.”
        “What do you mean, chief?” Paul's survival instincts had already pricked up and he was aware that his job description was about to be expanded.
        “Well, the email admin isn't coming back. I called her home and got a weird kind of message. She was a little strange that way, and, this stays in here, by the way, I'm not surprised she went off like that.”
        “Burned her bridges, huh?”
        “You could certainly say that, Paul. Anyway, we're counting on you to hold down the fort as far as email goes. We all have to pitch in when we're short-handed and you've got the most mail experience of anyone back here.”
        Paul didn't want to confess that he had never touched a mail server in his life. Of course, he nodded his head.
        “Glad you're a part of the team, Paul! Shouldn't be much longer before we get a person in that slot full-time…” and then the conversation trailed on to other areas, touching on Paul's future router training, how the search for a new manager for Paul's department was going (the former manager having left some time ago, presumably for greener pastures, although he never gave a formal resignation), and how the local sports teams were doing.
        The MIS director left the staff room and Paul immediately went into a quiet panic, searching around for whatever he could to get as much information on their email program as he could. He had no idea what to do about it, as he never really had worked with it before, even though he claimed several years' experience with the product.
        He went over to the former admin's desk and picked up all the books on email that he could find. He noticed several notes in her cubicle and saw that they had resources for email administration written on them. He took those, as well. He set the books neatly in a row on one of his cube shelves and began looking over the other resources from the notes. One of the first things to catch his eye was a mailing list for email admins.
        He went to the website that the note mentioned, and decided to sign up to be on the list, even though he thought it would be a highly technical discussion of the email program that would go completely over his head. He was desperate, and wanted to get all the help he could. Once the emails started arriving for him to read, he discovered (to his great delight) that they consisted of persons asking and answering straightforward questions. This changed his panicked state to one of sly self-confidence.
        All he would have to do, he figured, would be to keep an eye on the list for common problems and note their resolutions and then post to it when he had a problem of his own. No dry books to read, no cram sessions, nothing of the sort would be needed to learn this email system: he could relax and let the answers come to him.
        He picked up a few tricks from the list, but the list traffic was so high, he soon fell into the habit of just deleting it all when there were too many items in his inbox. If he ever had a real problem, he surmised, he would only need to consider the thread he had started, anyway: no need to fret about the other mails.
        This plan worked well enough for a few weeks, then one day someone asked him to create a distribution list and restrict the permissions on who could send to it. He had no idea how to do this. He started to say it couldn't be done, but the end-user told him that it shouldn't be too hard, as it was something the former email admin did all the time.
        Paul kept his cool and decided now was the time to post to that email admin list.
        He sent the message off, asking how to keep people from sending to the distribution list, and got back a ream of replies berating him for asking such a stupid, basic, and inane question without first consulting product documentation, reference manuals, or the vendor's online support. How did they know he hadn't done those things? Besides that, though, the letters were very insulting and curt and he decided to fight back. He replied to each one, insisting upon being treated with dignity, even though his question was of a rudimentary nature.
        This brought down a further torrent of replies, many offline, that returned the personal attacks on him with greater vitriol than he could ever hope to summon, and not one told him anything more informative than to “read the manual”, and often with additional adjectives and adverbs that would lead one to conclude that the writer was rather disgusted with Paul's line of questioning.
        In the midst of all that anger, there was one letter that offered a bit of help. The respondent offered all the help he needed and was very polite, to boot. Paul was extremely thankful to the person who wrote him back, one Donna Fenholt, from the looks of the email address. He wrote her a very pleasant thank-you note, to which she sweetly replied that she would be more than happy to help him with any other issues that came along with his email server.
        Paul was thrilled. He had a personal connection to this person, and could drain her for all she was worth in fixing his email servers. Paul laughed as he realized that his sweet-talking had paid off and hope he never came face to face with this person. “She must look like an ugly dog,” he figured. He imagined a homely, mouse-like person, bespectacled and hair drawn tightly back, trying to meet men by fixing their email servers. Paul decided to be very predatory and feed off whatever needs she had in this regard.
        His predatory thoughts turned to desperation about two weeks later, though, when it seemed apparent that someone was using his company's mail server to forward spam to the Internet at large. A number of other email admins at other companies had called his department to complain, and he had to put an end to it. Rather than post to the email lists and face another aggravating round of flames, he went straight to his source, Donna.
        Donna was quick to respond. She indicated that this issue was very delicate and required rather a high level of security access to resolve, from the way Paul described the symptoms to her. Paul said that security would be no problem, whatsoever. Donna then asked if she could call Paul and work the issue over the phone with him.
        Paul wasn't so sure at first, but figured it was something of the price he had to pay for getting the “free” help. “There's no free lunch,” he muttered under his breath as he sent out his phone number.
        Shortly thereafter, his phone rang.
        “This is Paul.” He never said his company's name when he answered the phone.
        “Hello, Paul, this is Donna.” The voice he heard took him completely by surprise. It entered his ear and tied itself around his mind and did not let go. He had never heard anything like it in his life. It wasn't a pretty or cute voice. It was an enrapturing sound, a mysterious sound, growling low and mean at times with secrets he would never know leaping about the consonants and vowels it used to cast its spells.
        He came to, some time later, and realized he was already heavy into the issue with Donna. He had no idea of what he had been saying, other than it must have somehow gotten him to this particular point in the problem. All he could recall of what Donna said were the colors and scents her vocal instrument evoked. He wanted the problem to take forever to resolve, so he could remain on the phone with the entity that used that voice. His mental image of Donna was exploded: all he could visualize of her now was as a disembodied pair of lips, speaking to his deeper mental recesses, heard not in his cerebrum, but elsewhere in his mind.
        When she asked for him to create an admin-level account for her and grant her dial-in access, he gladly acceded. Whatever other secrets she requested, he gladly provided for. Hers was a voice he did not want to displease or disobey.
        Finally, after the security hole was closed on his email system, she started to wrap up the call. Frantically, he tried to make more small talk to keep the conversation going: he had to have more of the voice.
        Jokingly, he asked her, “What do I owe you for all this?”
        Donna paused on the other end. “Well, there is a certain favor you might be able to do for me.”
        Paul could hardly breathe. His skin became chilled. His stomach tightened and made him giddily nauseous. Something in his mind, something deep down and almost animal in its primordialness, was very afraid of whatever it was that Donna would ask him to do. The rest of him, however, could not resist that voice: “Uh, sure, what is it?”
        The voice presented a case he found compelling and intriguing: Donna had an acquaintance that required a place to “put his things on the web,” as she put it. He wasn't particular about where it was, just that it be in a certain spot and he could be assured of relative freedom in accessing it and being able to keep others out of it. He needed server space and would pay Donna for it as long as she kept it provided for him. Paul could provide a corner of his servers to Donna and it would be all squared away after that.
        Paul felt it was quite reasonable and agreed to it.
        Donna then expressed her pleasure with him. Paul closed his eyes and bit his lip as somehow her voice became even more powerful and overwhelmingly transcendent. He did not breathe as she told him how things were to be arranged: he would need to visit this person himself and work with him verbally, as this guy didn't want any record of any of his conversations to be made. Paul didn't even think to ask why as he wrote down the address of the contact and noted a time that Donna said he would be expected at.
        All too suddenly, she ended the call and he was alone and drained. He was very tired, almost asleep, and only remembering the conversation he just had with very hazy details.
        He slowly came to and in the process of reviving he remembered his promise. Checking the time and place of the appointment, he realized it was to be across town and later that very evening. He wondered how Donna knew what city he was in, but thinking back to that unearthly voice only impressed him with the colors and scents of her words and he did not care what she knew or how she had come to know it.
        When it came time to head out to see this guy about “a place for his stuff,” he did so without the slightest hesitation.
        As he drove that night, the clouded-over darkness gave way to a torrential downpour and Paul grumbled as he had to drive slower than usual do to the terrible conditions on the road. He arrived at his destination some time later than had been planned upon, and felt rather badly about it, as he knew the voice that spoke to him would discover his tardiness.
        He surveyed his surroundings: a complex of severely run-down apartments, with vermin barely visible in the furtive hollows of the shadows, scattering from unseen place to unseen place. The rains drove hard and the periodic flashes of lightning revealed that the rains had broken through the scabrous roof in places, making the apartments that much more miserable.
        Paul walked toward one of the buildings and came into a central area that was covered over reasonably well enough, and saw several persons engaging in rather animated conversation with another person perched quietly on the steps nearby, not really seeming to pay much attention to the discussion about him. The men were standing in front of a set of doors to ground-floor apartments just opposite the stairwell, which ascended into blackness above. A bare light bulb hung over the small group, lending an unflattering illumination to the assembly.
        As Paul approached, the men who were talking turned to regard him and greet him rather amicably: the stair-sitter remained fixed on nothing in particular. Paul noted that these people seemed mildly amused at some sort of local commotion: the three began asking him what he thought of a guy who spent his time always in his apartment, never went out by day, and who smelled of blood on a few of his periodic sojourns into the benighted world.
        Paul had no idea what to make of this. As he stood, puzzled, a mostly-toothless black man of indeterminate, but old, age began to laugh and took a pull from his bottle in a brown bag. He passed it along to a huge blond man with disconcerting eyes who offered it, in turn, to the final of the three upstanding citizens, a lanky fellow with a walrus moustache. The lanky fellow offered an elucidation to Paul: “Look, man, there's a guy, we're not saying who, or why, but there's a guy who never leaves his place hardly ever and he smells like blood half the time he comes out here. I say he's a vampire, but these two idiots (here he turned to grin teasingly at the other two) say otherwise.”
        The fat Viking piped in. “He's a murderer, dope! A human butcher like that Dahmer guy! How else does the bastard eat?” He then descended into a pit of profanity with the lanky guy as to who was more right due to the other's ancestry being more festooned with base animals and near-humans of drastically low morals and even lower standards of personal hygiene.
        The wizened black man started to speak and the other two gave him heed. “Yall ain't talkin' nothin' but trash! None o' yall ain't seen him do nothin', so why you all jammerin' away 'bout nothin' you know about?”
        At this point, the man on the stairs ran up to the darkened landing above and entered his apartment.
        The fat Viking offered a rather obscene comment about how the old black man might know about this alleged vampire/ cannibal, but the old man shut him up with a snap of his fingers.
        “Hush up there, fat boy!” The Viking was rather flustered, but obeyed. The man who had been sitting on the steps returned to his spot. Paul noted that he slid a book under his left leg. There was some kind of odd symbol on its cover, but Paul couldn't make out what it was. The guy on the stairs looked around, like he was expecting someone who was late.
        Paul didn't think that this was the guy he was supposed to meet. He wanted to ask for directions to the apartment he sought, but didn't want to interrupt this particular discourse, at least not yet.
        The old man with the bottle continued. “You two sit down in your first-floor apartments and all and you don't see nothin'. You hear plenty, but none of yall see nothin'! I got the top floor across the way there, and I see it all! They ain't no vampirin' or cuttin' of nobody! It ain't none of that. It's voodoo, like what they got down south, in the swamps!”
        At this, the other two shook their heads incredulously, in spite of the old man's protestations of accuracy. The big blond guy turned to Paul and asked him if he wanted a taste of the communal bottle. Paul said no, that he was actually looking for a certain apartment and gave out the number.
        The three talkers looked at each other in an amused fashion and smirked. The lanky guy said, “That's the apartment at the top of the stairs, there, where Mr. Quiet lives,” motioning toward the quiet guy sitting on the stairs.
        “Hey, rat-man!” The fat Viking was incredibly subtle in his attempt to attract the attention of the stair-sitter. “Hey, rat-man, you got you some comp'ny!” Paul noted that, indeed, the guy did look a little rodent-y, in a malevolent sort of way, too, that made him feel quite uncomfortable after discovering that he was, indeed, tonight's contact. “Hey, rat-man, you in there, or you still spacin' out?”
        The guy on the steps kept looking around, oblivious to the world around him.
        “He don't hear so good all the time,” grinned the fat guy, revealing gaps in his dental regimen. “Watch this, though.” He went inside his apartment and fetched an old beer bottle and hurled it at the base of the wall opposite him, quite close to the guy on the stairs. It flew apart in a shattering explosion and the stair-sitter seemed to come out of his trance.
        “Hey, rat-man, you got comp'ny, pal! Show some hospitality!” The other two guys started chuckling as the guy on the stairs looked around, confused. “Over here, dummy!” The Viking motioned toward Paul.
        The man who used to sit on the stairs now noticed Paul and acknowledged him with a bob of his head. He had no expressions on his face, and motioned Paul to follow him up the stairs. He rose and started up the stairs, taking care to keep his book close to his chest, so the odd symbol on the front could not be seen. Paul hesitated a moment, but somehow a memory of Donna's voice drove him upward into Rat-man's warren. The other three watched as he went up the stairs.
        Rat-man opened the door to his apartment and revealed a squalor of unprecedented proportions. Paul had never seen anything like it in his life. Strewn all about the floor were shards of pornographic magazines, no longer held together with staples, but spread all around the place, pushed to this side or that to make way for this footpath or that pile of soiled clothing. Paul tried not to look at the pictures, as they were exceedingly nauseating and totally revolting to him, even though he thought himself a man of the world. He kept his eyes on the walls. The walls weren't very inviting, though. The most sane thing was a gargantuan version of the periodic table above the kitchen table directly ahead of him in the shadows. In the living room, though, the walls were covered with bizarre pictures of strange creatures and associated chants written out in clear, but unpronounceable letters. From floor to ceiling, the walls were covered with this stuff, and it scared Paul. He figured he would be even more afraid if he knew the meaning of the chants on the walls.
        What scared him most, though, was the thing in the middle of the living room. It was an odd sort of arrangement of stereo equipment, a television, and some computers. Paul saw the back of the whole thing from the doorway. It seemed as though the television was turned on, but the sound was muted. Right next to it, to Paul's right, was a stereo system with an old vinyl turntable. On the left was a computer monitor with a main box underneath. On the far sides of the table were two tall stereo speakers, which were complemented by three other speakers of like size, arranged about the central television in some sort of pentagram-like fashion.
        When Paul shut the door behind him, he swore he could hear the three yokels at the foot of the stairs start to laugh. In spite of the thundering rain, he knew he heard them laugh.
        Rat-man took a seat scant inches away from the television and monitor screens and motioned for Paul to sit nearby, to his left side. When Paul came around to the front of the multimedia shrine, he noted that the television was tuned to a local cable access community bulletin board, that did nothing more than show topics of local interest on a gaudily-colored background that flashed and changed quickly. Paul felt very confused and alien in this environment.
        The rat-man then took out an old LP and put it on the turntable. Paul expected to hear some kind of horrendous heavy metal or industrial music, but instead noticed that it was a recognizable tune. He couldn't remember where he had heard it before, but he knew it was familiar. He saw the album cover, but it didn't ring any bells for him.
        When he remembered that he had heard it before in the movie The Exorcist, he decided to forgo further commentary on the music, as it made the disheveled nightmare of the apartment that much more bizarre and creepy. He did his best to put as much of what his eyes took in far, far, back in the recesses of his mind.
        Rat-man wiggled his mouse and revived his computer's blank screen. “What's your RAS number?” he asked Paul without looking at him directly. Rat-man's voice was raspy and shaky, and Paul noticed now that Rat-man's body was wracked with almost constant tiny tremors, here in the leg, there in the eye, barely noticeable, but suggestive of an inexperienced spirit animating the fleshy frame. Epilepsy or drugs, probably, Paul hoped.
        Rat-man repeated himself and Paul snapped out of the state of mind he had drifted into. He was caught a little off-guard, but responded with the phone number needed to dial into his company's network.
        “User Name?” Paul gave his answer to Rat-man's raspy question.
        “Password.” That, too.
        Rat-man had several other staccato prompts, but Paul dutifully supplied him with the right answers, partly out of fear of his surroundings and partly out of an intense desire to obey and please that voice his ears coveted so.
        The blunt questions decreased in frequency the more Rat-man typed away at his console. Rat-man did not say much else as he worked away in the flashing colors from the television, trembling all the time and muttering strange things under his breath. Paul did not say much else, either, as he feared more and more what a misplaced word could do to his network or, indirectly, to his person. He did all he could to focus on the television screen, as it was the closest thing to sanity in the apartment, avoiding all other sights as best he could.
        The music continued to both irritate and terrify Paul, especially when it got to a part that sounded like a terrible old shaman calling up things that were best left to the spaces they came from. Paul half-wished he was dead, just to get away from the apartment. Only memories of Donna's captivating voice, the voice of clear and awesome power, kept him from bolting down the stairs like a madman.
        Although less frequent now, Rat-man's questions asked for things that were successively more restricted, such as router passwords, the path to the firewall server's log files, and where servers that performed certain functions were located. Paul gave all that information out, but felt progressively more uneasy about it all. Still, the voice in his memory reminded him to do his bit to pay off the help he had received.
        Paul accidentally started to listen to the music after Rat-man changed the album over to something that sounded almost exactly like the first one. It turned from music into experiment and back, with grotesque interludes dividing more serious and dreamlike portions of the composition. As the music wore on, it became absolutely clear to Paul that this guy hacking away on Paul's network was not exactly a sane fellow. Paul wondered if the guy worshipped the devil or something like that and imagined him using this wild and unconventional music as some background for summoning demons to do his bidding in, say, finishing a graduate school project in chemistry or abducting some hapless person for some unspeakable act. Paul couldn't make any sense of what Rat-man was doing to his network, but figured it must be illegal. During a lull in Rat-man's questioning, Paul asked if there was any chance they could get caught for what they were doing. Rat-man said nothing at first, but 10 minutes later said, “No,” and nothing more. Paul decided not to press for any more details.
        Rat-man typed away for almost an hour more in dread near-silence as the music shrieked and howled and then declared that he was done. His stuff was in a good place, he said. He also said, quite plainly, that Paul's debt to Donna was squared away. Paul thanked him, asked no questions, and nearly fell over himself on his hurried way out.
        The three guys at the bottom of the stairs were gone by this time, and Paul began to head for his car alone. When he got to the base of the stairs, though, the lanky guy stepped out of his apartment and hailed Paul.
        “Hey, man, did the rat guy eat you? Guess not if you're still here, huh?” He seemed slightly concerned about Paul, and a little relieved to see him exit that place in one piece.
        “Yeah, I'm here. No problems. Gotta get home, now.” And with that, Paul made his break for his car and a trip home. As he fired up the engine, he swore he could smell blood on his clothes, but put that out of his mind and determined to drink heavily until he couldn't imagine anything more that night.
        He thought nothing of what the Rat-man had put on his servers until, several days later, his good friend Jason, who also worked at the same company, got fired for having pornographic materials in his network directory. Paul caught a glimpse of some of those pictures and gagged with familiarity as he recognized where he had tried to avoid seeing them before. Jason protested his dismissal loudly, but was sent home permanently nonetheless. Paul wondered why Rat-man had stashed his porn in a good friend's home directory, but said nothing of it to anyone in order to protect himself from being fired for opening up the whole network to an outsider.
        Paul thought of Rat-man's exorcist music and the terrible sights of the apartment and wondered what Rat-man had put on the network, and where exactly it was, but knew that the guy had probably edited the log files to cover his tracks. The more Paul thought of those things, the more scared he became and the more he wanted to do anything but think of that music and what Rat-man was capable of. That Rat-man may have even been the dark character those three men made such awful speculations about.
        Things started getting worse at work for Paul. Little things kept going wrong on the network. Things he thought he had fixed turned out to be unfixed. Things he thought couldn't break, did. Worst of all, things he had no idea how to repair, broke down.
        Paul was scrambling for answers he couldn't find every day of his job. He became tired and haggard. He would have applied to another, easier company if only he had time to put his resume back together.
        What distressed him most was that every time he sent a message to Donna Fenholt, she wasn't there. The messages came back as undeliverable because the “recipient name was not recognized.” She had effectively vanished without a trace and his anticipated lifeline to easy street was severed.
        In desperation, he posted to the various admin lists. Some of his pleas received bland answers that were of little help, but most brought down a hail of flame mail, berating him for not knowing this simple fact or another or for not having done any research whatsoever. Feeling angered and with an attitude that he had nothing to lose, he began to flame back with ferocity and rage unbridled, getting himself actually kicked off one of the lists he was particularly vile on.
        From out of nowhere, in his time of greatest despair, he received the blessing he sought. From a totally different email address, he got his mail from Donna.
        “From the looks of things, you seem to be doing rather poorly at work. You holding up OK?”
        In his reply, he poured out his heart to Donna, confessing his utter uselessness as an administrator, begging her to call him and help him out with his network. He wanted to hear her again, to hear that voice, that soothing narcotic that gave him the confidence in the future he so desperately wanted to have.
        He was to be denied that boon. “Sorry, Paul, but I can't call right now for a number of reasons.” Things were not totally bleak, though: “I know a guy nearby, though, that can help you out.”
Although his situation was not totally bleak, he wasn't entirely thrilled about this helper. Was it Rat-man? No, she wrote back that it was someone totally different, who lived very close to where he worked. That was a relief for Paul. He got the address and phone number for this networking genius person from Donna and phoned him immediately.
        A very surly and coarse voice answered. “Yeah?”
“Is this Clyde?”
         “Who are you?”
         “I'm Paul Moore. Donna said you could help me.”
         “Donna, huh?”
         “Yeah. Donna. She said you could help out a guy like me. I got some big problems. My –“
         “Shut up, OK? If Donna sent you, that's cool with me, but you're already getting on my nerves. Paul Moore did you say?”
         “Yeah, that's right.”
         “Where do you work?”
         “Waverly Appliances.”
         “Aw, HELL no!” Clyde began to curse the air blue over having to help a lamer such as Paul. Apparently, Clyde subbed to several of the lists Paul had made a fool of himself on.
         Paul endured. Eventually, it ended.
         “All right, lamer. Get over here now and shut up when I tell you to shut up and do not whine and don't piss me off and I will help you. You got that, lamer?”
         “Yeah, I—“ Paul was starting to shake a little in the face of Clyde's increasingly belligerent tone.
         “Good. Shut the hell up and get over here and smile when I answer the door or I'll kick your ass and make your network worse than it was before. Oh, yeah, better make the check out to cash.” Clyde hung up.
         Paul was extremely nervous, but what choice did he have? He drove the short distance to Clyde's house and walked to the door.
         Oddly enough, the lawn there was immaculate. The shrubs and trees were well-trimmed and the grass was lush and rich. The house was in pristine condition in a good neighborhood, as well. Paul had expected squalor similar to Rat-man's place, but this home was tastefully maintained. That reassured Paul to some degree.
         All reassurances vaporized when Clyde answered the door. Paul was smiling, but it was almost impossible to keep it from turning into a mouth agape-type position. Clyde was close to seven feet tall, almost as broad at the shoulders, very powerfully built, had dark hair and beard covering most of his face, a tattoo of some Tlingit totem on his right arm, a pair of Nordic intertwined dragons on his left arm, and he stank.
         He stank powerfully.
         He stank like a man that had not bathed his body in slightly more than two weeks would smell after constantly exercising and doing weight training in the same two-week period.
         This was in stark contrast to the perfectly kept interior. Paul dutifully kept his mouth shut about the whole ironic situation and was rewarded with a trip inside to Clyde's home office.
         When Paul saw what Clyde called his office, he was stunned: there were almost as many systems there as in his company's data center, and all of them in much better order than his own. Clyde obviously knew his stuff. Clyde also seemed to be a bit of a perfectionist, in spite of his appearance and odor.
         There were machines that Paul had never seen in his life, with brand names that carried a weight of respect and awe behind them, even to the novice of the computer and networking industry. Clyde had tape libraries, routers, high-speed switches, was that thing over there a mainframe? Paul wasn't sure, but it was big and made a loud humming noise. The racks were lined up perfectly with each other and properly anchored: the raised flooring was free of nuts and bolts and plastic bits that always seemed to fall down there when Paul was struggling with an equipment installation.
         Clyde beamed proudly at the installation. “Built it all myself and it hums beautifully, without error. I love this stuff.” He then turned to Paul and growled out, “You lay a single finger on the air within 3 inches of any of that stuff and I'll pulverize you. Got that? Better still, don't even look at it: I don't want you to interact with anything I value.”
         Paul recoiled in fear and tried to not look at anything in particular.
         Clyde pointed to where Paul was to sit and yelled out “SIT HERE!” to enforce the point. Paul jumped out of his skin and slinked into the chair. Clyde seemed to sense Paul's confusion with the paradox he presented and gave a short explanation for it. “Just so you know, I work hard at what I do. I do what I like. I like computers, pumping iron, and smelling like I do. Do you have any problem with that, lamer?”
         Paul shook his head.
         “Didn't think you would. Do you know I don't always smell like this? I knew you were coming, so I did this special for you. Now I give my smell to you.”
         Clyde stared directly into Paul's helpless eyes and screamed at the top of his lungs. Paul could see Clyde's jagged, crooked teeth, wolf-like and savage. Paul almost began to cry.
         The yelling stopped and Clyde laughed quietly. “The smell is yours, now. Hope you like it.” He laughed malevolently. “Now, lamer, can you talk loudly?”
         Paul didn't know what to say, so he just let his face become perplexed.
         Clyde grinned a perfectly malicious feline grin as he flipped the switch on his stereo system. Paul braced himself.
         Nothing happened. Paul relaxed somewhat as Clyde logged into his main workstation and grinned even more broadly.
         Paul didn't notice the broadened grin.
         Paul did notice the sounds that suddenly came out of the speakers with a force equivalent to 17 kilotons of TNT, screaming and hammering away at his ears with metallic frenzy. The sound came from nowhere and slammed his body, the treble notes raking his ears and the bass notes pummeling his bowels and kidneys. The initial punch alone was enough to make Paul slump and cower in his chair.
         Clyde laughed, but Paul could hear no sound. Clyde then turned the noise down enough so that a high-volume scream could be heard above the roar and clash.
         “You like this, lamer boy? This is Sepultura.”
         Paul just had a dazed look on his face.
         “Thought so. What's your firewall's IP address and the config password?”
         Paul looked dumbly at Clyde. Clyde got madder and yelled louder than the sonic fury behind him. Paul came out of his near-cataleptic state to respond to Clyde. He screamed the information out as best he could. It must have been heard or Clyde could read lips, for Clyde was soon into Paul's network and had somehow opened up a remote control session on one of Paul's main servers.
         Clyde then began hollering out questions and Paul did his best to supply the answers necessary for Clyde to fix his problems. Many times, Clyde would ask for something Paul had no clue about how to answer and then Clyde would insult Paul endlessly as he figured it out for himself and yelled the answers back to Paul and demanded that he remember that kind of stuff from now on if he wanted to live.
         Paul began to cry a little as he started to crack under the strain of the noise, the screaming, the abuse, and the strain. Clyde noted the crying and laughed. “I can't pity you because you don't deserve pity. You deserve to be fired and worse, you worthless lamer.” Clyde then spent several minutes more battering Paul's feelings and then told him to quit blubbing or he would hit Paul and give him something to really cry about. Clyde laughed after saying that. Paul just reverted to quiet whimpering and meeping.
         The noise, screaming, abuse and strain continued to pile on Paul, but he could not leave. He needed this Clyde person to bail him out and the pain would eventually be over. He just wished he had morphine to comfort him through the night.
         Finally, Clyde finished cleaning up Paul's mess and turned off the noise. Paul slumped down in his chair and wiped the drool from his left cheek. Clyde asked for the blank check and Paul numbly handed it over. Clyde smiled as he filled out the numbers on the check and kept Paul's pen, to boot.
         Clyde had one more price to extract from Paul, though. “OK, lamer. Listen and listen good. If you EVER post again without reading the FAQ or doing preliminary research or if you EVER flame a guy that flamed you for being a lamer, I will make sure that not only does every list know how you begged for help tonight, but every employer I can find in the city, state, and nation. I will follow you wherever you go with this threat: you will not escape it. My advice to you is to keep your lying mouth shut and your hands off the keyboard and to get a job in some other profession. You are a loser boy and do not belong in the same league with the he-men mountain troopers. You got that?”
         Paul nodded meekly and sobbed his way toward the door. Clyde cranked his stereo one last time just to make Paul jump and almost have a coronary. Clyde laughed until Paul left, and then probably laughed some more thereafter.
         Paul slunk into his car and realized that he couldn't shake off the awful stench of Clyde's place. When he got home, he could not sleep for the smell. The shower could not wash it off. Paul was reduced to further tears and decided to call in sick the next day and every day thereafter until the smell wore off.
         Five working days later, Paul returned to work with the horrid stench somewhat subdued, but not enough to be something beneath casual notice. The sweaty effluvium had taken on the additional olfactory characteristics of decay and iron, giving Paul the added curse of smelling a bit dead.
         He was not long at work, however, when disaster struck. It started simply enough. A help desk person called Paul and said that a number of people were complaining that they couldn't get into email. Paul checked his email. He tried getting new mail and his client timed out connecting to the server and gave him an error message.
         Paul tried it again, and it failed again. He asked the rest of the guys in the admin room if they could get email. They tried and failed. A consultant tried to ping the email server and reported that it was down. Nobody could reach it over the network.
         Paul decided to reboot the server manually and walked into the server room. To his shock and horror, he discovered the true reason why the server was unreachable: federal marshals were confiscating the email server and had already boxed it up and several other servers that contained information such as the payroll system, the central databases, and general file servers.
         The marshals ordered Paul to stay put and to not interfere with anything they were doing. One of them presented the warrant to seize the various assets there and advised Paul to not say anything about this case to anybody.
         Paul watched helplessly as the servers were boxed up and rolled out of the server room. When they were gone, he turned to regard all the free-hanging cables that made the room look that much more like a bowl of blue spaghetti. It always had that appearance when one went into the back area where all the cables were run sloppily into the network devices, but with them hanging out of server racks and dangling from the ceiling and scattered across the floor, just that much more so.
         There was no more work for him to do that day, so he went home and slumped, defeated and stinking of death, into his bed and stared at the ceiling. Why had all this happened to him? He was tired, haggard, and disheveled. He was beaten and drained, painfully aware of his own uselessness and inability to overcome this latest challenge to his shark-like rise to the top.
         He could still go to another company, but he didn't have his resume ready and, quite frankly, he was just tired of it all. Waverly Appliances was closing its doors, that was for sure. There had always been rumors that the top brass were engaging in heavy insider trading to make up for the fact that the stock never made any dramatic moves up or down. Others had made accusations of penny-rounding tricks and other classical maneuvers of creative accounting. The place was rife with rumors of criminals, money-launderers, and other cheats, both high and low. Paul wasn't all that surprised that the computers were seized.
         What got to him most was the futility of all his sufferings and toils. He didn't really dwell on the fact that he didn't really do much of anything there, but fell into deep wells of self-pity over having to endure the pains of Rat-man and Clyde.
         His thoughts then turned to Donna. That voice! He needed it now, more than at any other time before. Gone were his plans to dominate her; he was completely under her control, a slave to her voice's every word.
         He moaned and rolled over on the bed and took a nap to escape his pain.
         He woke up a few hours later with a headache and feeling cranky as hell. He turned on the local news and saw the raid on Waverly Appliances as the lead story. He turned off the news and decided to try to contact Donna somehow. He just had to get her on the phone again.
         He turned on his computer and started on an email to Donna telling her of all that had befallen Waverly Appliances. He asked her if she had any leads on jobs. He wrote that he should be able to get a pretty good position because of his resume, which he did take some time to update, to add another year or two to each of his key skill areas, emphasizing his email administration experience.
         He ended with a pathetic plea for her to call him. He needed to talk to someone that he could trust and confide in, he wrote, and begged her to call. He typed his home phone number, added his auto signature, and sent it off.
         Several minutes later, his other line rang. Paul lunged for the phone and desperately rasped, “Hello?” into the receiver.
         “Paul?” It was Donna. Joy and elation.
         “Donna! Thank you so much for calling! I can't say how good this makes me feel!”
         The two then talked for a while, the multiple tones and textures of Donna's voice swirling through Paul's mind, lulling him into a safer, kinder, sweeter place. And then the lightning bolt: “Paul, why don't you come swing by my place and we can talk about your future and a few other things, as well?”
         Of course, Paul jumped at the chance to see her. Gladly, he noted her address and said he'd be right there after freshening up.
         Donna agreed to meet him in a while and said she'd be waiting for him.
         Paul dashed madly through his apartment, showering, shaving, dressing and making himself look as sharp as possible. He intended to be with Donna as closely as possible that night and wanted to do everything possible to make that wish a reality. He had to really overdo it on the cologne to overcome the smell of death, but he was fairly sure he had that tamed. When he was finally ready and at the top of his emotional game, he got in his overpriced car and headed over to Donna's place, wine bottle at his side as a gift to her.
         When he got there, he boldly strode up the sidewalk to her door and rang the bell. It was a nice, quiet-looking place, a restored house in an old neighborhood. There were huge trees all up and down the street, with branches so long and old, they extended into trees across the street and in other yards, leaving the street darkened like a deep forest.
         A woman answered the door. She was stunning. Her appearance was beautiful beyond anything Paul had ever imagined Donna to look like. She smiled and motioned for him to come on inside. Paul followed behind her obediently and anticipating a night of bliss.
         She waved her hand toward a chair in the living room and stepped out of the room and went down the hall. To her bedroom, Paul presumed and grinned. He sat down and waited.
         A few minutes later, he heard a noise that set his mind on edge and got his heart racing: a loud, unbearable metallic shriek, like a pair of huge, thick, and rough iron plates scraping across each other. The sky darkened somewhat and he began to perspire, bringing his death-smell to the fore once again.
         Before he could leap to his feet in terror, though, he felt a hand restraining him from behind. Then another. Then several more. Then a host of them. Each was grasping him or his clothes and felt inhuman enough for him to not want to turn and see what it was behind him, holding him down.
         The beautiful woman returned and stood in front of Paul. She laughed as she looked at the puny mortal, held by a thousand unseen hands. The laugh was cruel, but had all the tones of Donna's voice in it. “Paul, I am Donna. Goodbye.”
         With that, Donna began to dissolve in front of his eyes, bubbling down into a pool of acrid, greenish-brown muck that quickly vaporized into the air, increasing the now-omnipresent smell of death.
         Paul could not scream, he was so terrified. He sat, agape, nearly mad from what he saw. The grasping hands behind him now held his feet and hair, restraining him further. At this point, though, restraint was quite unnecessary to hold him in the seat: he could not move because of his petrifying fear.
         And then his shock worsened a hundred fold with his next sight: the old email admin from Waverly Appliances entered the room. She regarded Paul with a contemptuous glare.
         “Hello, Paul. I'm not really glad to see you, but you deserve everything that's about to happen to you, so, in a way, I'm glad you're here.”
         These next words she said in the voice of Donna: “I'm sure you remember this voice and I know you had fun with it, but I had much more fun using it to get you to meet my friends. I'm quite pleased with what you were willing to let them do and how you completely trusted them. You are a good servant in that limited respect.”
         She now dropped back to her own voice, ending a bit of comfortable numbness for Paul. “You are so stupid, you know that. I hate stupid people and I hate you in particular. You have no idea of what you allowed to happen and haven't made any connection between one event or another, have you?”
         Paul struggled a reaction of shaking his head. If he had more energy or will, he would have fought back to cover his reputation, but he was too shattered to lie at this point.
         “Would you like a full explanation of how you were the key to the downfall of the pigs at Waverly Appliances?”
         Paul nodded, almost imperceptibly.
         “Too bad. Grand expositions are things of trite arch-villains in comic-book epics. You want every little thing spoon-fed to you and you'll get no such pleasure. Your first hell is to live in stupidity, but you're used to that, so it's not like I'm punishing you any the worse with that.
         “Your second hell is to know that, for a change, you were used and that you were used by someone you once regarded as inferior to you.
         “Your third hell is to witness this and to experience what follows.
         “I understand you don't like certain types of music. I'm sure you won't like this one, either. It's Prokofiev's “They are Seven”, and it's quite appropriate for what is about to happen. Prokofiev based his lyrics on the work of one Konstantin Balmont, who used an old Akkadian chant as his basis. None of them knew of the effectiveness of this chant with that particular music…”
         She turned on her stereo and stood still in the middle of the room, in front of Paul. Paul felt certain things force his eyes open wide, holding his lids apart against his every remaining shred of will. As the music began and filled the room with sounds as strange to Paul as they were to the world in 1917, she began to spin and leap in ways describable only as unearthly.
         She chanted along with the music, but in English:
         “In the deep abyss
         Their number is seven;
         In the azure sky,
         Seven, they are seven.
         When they arise in the west,
         They are seven.
         When they loom in the east,
         They are seven!
         Sitting enthroned, in the deep shadow,
         'Tis their voice that rises, mutters, and roars
         And 'tis their shape that fills immensity from heaven to earth.
         Seven, they are seven! Seven, they are seven!”
And then the chants of “Syemero Ikh! Syemero Ikh!” began: They are seven! They are seven! Her form began to diverge into different versions of her same body, each moving on its own in the unholy ballet. One, two, three… each sprang forth and leapt anew from the main body until there were seven women, and then they began to transform as they danced.
         All but the central body devolved or evolved into a strange mass of something – Paul had no idea what. First to appear were the tentacles, then the papillae. Then the bubbles, or were they wings? He could not tell. The humanity left the forms and they became so much chaotic, writhing substance to the eyes of Paul.
         They all leaped, en masse in front of Paul, but somehow all but the central figure disappeared. The former email admin stood in front of him, grinning terribly, and then began to whirl about in the center of the room. Paul tried to get up and bolt for the door, but the unearthly hands were still holding him down, holding his eyes wide open.
         Then, somehow, he saw something new, but not with his eyes. His mind literally opened up and saw six tremendous forms surrounding him, screaming at him, cutting and bruising him, finally blinding him. He saw that vision no more, but it remained forever burned in his mind and he knew of his pitiful smallness. He had seen the seven-woman remove parts of him he had never known, but now felt their painful absence. He was somehow shorn of a part of him he knew nothing about, and was now cold and empty. He no longer had a will to live, and not even a will to take his own life. He was a shattered man, completely shattered, and bereft of hope or desire.
         The music died down and the seven-woman ended her dance of extraspatial surgery. A rainstorm began outside. She spoke quietly, “There's one other song I've always liked, that I'm sure you and your Kenny G mind will hate, but too bad. You've got no will left, so you won't resist as I play it out one more time… I'll just hum it as I work and finish it off for you. You'll never speak again and will be lucky if you slip into a coma, Paul…”
         And she took his wallet and removed his bankroll and credit cards. She took a scalpel and carved several scars on his face and removed a few shallow layers of skin. She laughed coldly and heartlessly and gave him a kiss on the lips, a kiss full of hate and evil. She then produced a hypodermic needle and injected its contents into his carotid artery. He stiffened for only a moment and then fell limp within the grasp of the hands he dared not to look at. His eyes were wide open, but he saw nothing.
         He could still hear, but barely. The last thing he heard before he slipped into unconsciousness was the woman, singing, “I choose to steal what you choose to show… and you know… I will not apologize… you were mine for the taking… I'm making a career of evil…” and then she muttered, “If only you read the stupid manuals, you moron…” and then he slipped under.
         Paul awoke, sitting on his knees, somewhere in a dirty city street, rain pouring down on him. His tongue was so badly swollen, he could not speak: his body so weak, he could not move a muscle. Tears rolled down his cheeks and were lost in the storm. Distant lightning flashed and illuminated the pathetic figure for no one to see, as no one was watching.
         No one cared about Paul any more. No one missed him. No one wondered what had happened to him. Not even Paul cared about whoever Paul Moore once was.
         The sad, nameless, speechless, identity-less man, knelt catatonically in the rain, dumbly awaiting the arrival of paramedics and policemen that would eventually remove him to the state hospital, where he would live out his days in raging emptiness.