by Stewart Wilson
The Edison machine deposited Jack in Hemel Hempstead, the closest town to the Zone that was still standing. He hated the infernal device, but it was the only means of travelling which the Zone couldn't track. For all their advanced technology, there were still some ways in which human ingenuity was superior. He smoothed the creases in his suit and took one of the motorcycles that had been left by the civilian population. The sky was grey overhead, looked like rain. Dull end to a shitty world.
Jack straightened up and breezed past the guards without opposition. He had no actual authority, but didn't feel the need to let the soldiers and their guns know that. Radiographc monitors lined the walls of the concrete bunker, soldiers adjusting dials and flipping switches to no obvious effect. The colonel he had displaced in the extra-Euclidian space of the Edison's transport beam would have known, but he was nothing more than spare molecules settling over a ten-mile area. Murder without evidence.
The colonel deserved it. He was another scab -- another slave to the Zone. Whitehall was in the thrall of the invaders, more and more government figures refusing to be seen in public as their bodies adapted to the alien infection. Word was that they were trying to clandestinely infect the royal family. If Charlie was infected then even if his wife-to-be wasn't, the kids would still be some kind of foul hybrid. And if that happened, there goes the country. Something Jack had a vested interest in stopping.
"What's the expansion rate up to?" It was a pointless question, but helped cement the sense that he should be there.
"Two feet every hour now, sir."
"Anything unusual?" Or more unusual than a bacterial infection from another reality?
"The surface seems to be bulging up, best as we can see, sir. Soon as you like it'll burst and we'll all be in for it."
"Right. Prepare to mount an offensive."
"Sir? All the other commands we've got have instructed us to keep monitoring."
"I know that, Corporal."
Jack was barely out of the room as the siren sounded, same as the old air-raid warnings. He saw a couple of jeeps being loaded up with ammo as he made his way to the gates. A part of him wanted to hope, but he knew the outcome already. If he was lucky, Alex would have made it to a working Edison machine and be waiting for him back in the town centre.
Sure enough, there she was. Dressed conservatively for a change, which was a shame. Jack would have wanted to see her at her best for this one last time. Also waiting was a balding man Jack didn't recognise, who spoke up as Jack parked the motorcycle.
"Are you the agent we've got?"
"Maxwell Bond. I'm the biologist."
"Right. Jack Carter. I shoot people and save worlds. This is Alex Crow, the magician."
"Why do we need a conjurer?"
Alex spoke up before Jack could intervene. "Not conjurer. Magician."
"The Zone is growing two feet an hour now, Mr. Bond. I'm sure we have more things to worry about than job titles." Jack heaved a sigh, starting the bike. Alex never had played well with scientists. The others found transport and rode off with him.
They knew they had reached their destination easily enough. The woodland ahead of them was sickly red in colour, with some of the vegetation already turned, the pus-yellow of an organic being infected by the things in the Zone. The army had taken to shooting any animal that escaped after the first group of rabbits to leave had started breeding. Now there were tracks of the army going the other way.Shell casings on the ground from the rifles and machine-guns, the smashed plants where the jeeps had driven straight in. There was no sound at all, no guns or screams. Jack had been proven right. The Army units had had no noticeable effect at all.
"The things in there can think around my psychic defences without any trouble." Jack withdrew a pair of pistols from his suit jacket. "Once I get inside, you'll just have to hope that you've done things right."
Bond -- it was hard to think of the scientist as just Max, Jack noted -- rummaged in his briefcase for whatever he had brought. Jack busied himself with Alex, instead.
"What, no candles and chanting?"
"Not even a rabbit out of a top hat?"
"Nice try, Jack. Magic's just a case of effecting physical change through psychological change. None of that wooga-wooga stuff."
"Right. So much I don't know."
"Yeah. Promise me one thing, though?"
"Sure, go for it."
"If I'm to maintain the charge on that bomb through the mindstorm going on in there it's going to take all my concentration. Don't look back."
Jack answered slightly too quickly. "Right." He'd known Alex was sweet on him, but this was a bit too much. He checked his guns and hefted the shoulder bag with the bomb. Bond was ready, with filter masks and antitoxins.
The line was almost upon them, the edge of the Zone. Jack stepped forwards, and didn't look back.
The outskirts weren't too bad. Red soil, and a red spore-mist in the air, surrounding pus-yellow trees. Occasionally the corpse of some animal or other, covered in what Jack guessed was the results of inhaling the spores. The air was still, the whole place was silent. He just had to keep walking forwards, ducking around branches which seemed to grasp for him. It was only a couple of minutes in that he saw the first soldier.
It had been a soldier, but wasn't any more. The skin was turning the same yellow and beginning to run, open sores breaking out over the man's flesh. Advanced stages of being a scab. Only one hand remained, with three fingers missing. The other was a spur of bone. Three bullets spat from Jack's pistol, dropping the creature in it's tracks. Only as he stepped over the body did Jack realise that it was the corporal he had spoken to earlier.
Apparently the creatures didn't hear very well. Only a few more soldiers got in Jack's way and even then more by co-incidence than any kind of strategy. Each time his pistols spat death, each time they fell, added to the mounting pile of dead biomass underfoot. Promptly, Jack found why the ground had appeared to bulge up. A pile of the yellow stuff, bonded together by spore-corpses and other liquids he didn't want to think about. Easily twenty yards high and four times that wide at the base, there was no mistaking it. The abscess at the heart of the Zone, where the inhabitants' Overmind seeped into this reality through their bacterial agents. Judging by the structure, it was growing.
As he ascended, Jack had been on his guard for a last minute defence. Some kind of last attack, something he could punch and kick and shoot. Nothing. The whole Zone was quiet.
Their minds may be too alien to take him over but Jack reeled under the sudden psychic lash, dropping to his knees.
This was primitive. Jack knew a hundred defensive thought-katas but couldn't remember one under the brute force of the attack.
Some part of him realised that the Overmind was adapting to his thought-patterns. Another part was busy trying not to blow his own brains out.
Jack's vision misted red, hemorrhaging from eyes already streaming tears. Each facet of his personality was flayed free and dissected into worthless parts. His tenth birthday. The first time he fired a gun. His first kiss.
There was one thing left. The burning urge. The need to blow things up, tear them down, see what happened. The living revolution. His right arm snapped under the force of his own muscles even as Jack reached out and pressed the switch on the reality bomb.