by Tom Jolly

 

 

 

 

 

From Issue 16 (Dec 2011)

First, do no harm.

The interesting difference between doctors and scientists is that scientists often ignore the potentially deadly repercussions of their activities, so immersed are they in their work that they fail to see all the dark applications of it. If people die, it’s not their fault. As long as your motives are pure, no blame can be laid at your doorstep.

It’s complete crap – a suppression of reality to satisfy the ego.

I was feeding the shredder as fast as I could pull files out of my cabinets, torn between the duty of hiding my research and watching the body count rise on the TV. The images were nightmarish; bloody corpses littering the street, smears of red splayed out from their bodies as though they’d flopped around for awhile before dying. I’d lost my lunch hours ago, but still couldn’t keep from glancing at the flickering horror of the tube. It didn’t seem real to me. I couldn’t be responsible for wiping out a hundred million people. It couldn’t be my fault.

A large chunk of India had been wiped out that morning. The news came out slowly, partly because there were few left alive who could report on it. One of my research partners, Singh Sen, lived in the area. I worried about him, but as with most major disasters, people assume that everyone they know will still be alive. Death was for strangers.

The devastated area turned out to be over three hundred miles wide. It took only a few hours for authorities to determine that nearly everything living inside that area was dead. By then, I was pretty sure I was one of the people responsible for it.

I could only take a wild guess as to what must have happened to Singh. My other partner on the research project was Bernhard Teuber in Germany. I tried to link to Bernhard to see if he knew anything about Singh, but the satellites were tied up and land relays wouldn’t make it. I should have guessed. Bernhard would be even more upset than me, anyway, and probably be as busily occupied covering his tracks as I was. He treated this project like it was his own baby, much to Singh’s and my own irritation.

The hours following that announcement were rushed. I knew how bad the devastation would be. I knew that its cause would be traced to our research. While crying and berating myself for our foolishness in pursuing this line of research, I was proactively making confetti out of my research papers and packing my arcane test equipment into cardboard boxes, straddling remorse and stoic practicality. After an hour or two of high-octane panic and damage control, I realized that I hadn’t talked to my wife since the disaster hit the news. This might seem callous and forgetful, but anyone who’s known a scientist completely consumed by a project will understand exactly where my head was stuck. Getting my emotions under control, I called Melanie on my headwire.

“Hi, Mel.” Sound natural, don’t panic. She’ll hear it.

“Hey, honey. Have you seen the news?” she asked. Her voice quavered.

“Yeah. That’s why I’m calling. Get some bags packed and get as much cash together as possible. We’re going to have to leave this afternoon for a long trip.”

“What…why?”

“I can’t talk about it on the wire. Just trust me, okay? I’ll be home in an hour.”

“Is there a…a war? Do we need to bring the guns?”

Practical, as always. “It wouldn’t hurt. Food, clothes, soap. Matches. Crap, I never planned for anything like this. Should’ve listened to your brother.”

“I can call him.”

I hesitated. I thought her brother was a nutcase survivalist. Still, he knew some things I’d never dreamed about. “Okay. He’ll think it’s World War Three. But do that, he might give you some good ideas. I can stop by the bank on my way home and cash out.”

We did the usual love-yous and I tapped off. Less planning than a barbecue, but that’s what panic does to you.

It wouldn’t take long for India’s government or my own to determine the center of that giant slaughterhouse, but it wouldn’t be exact, either. Singh lived only a mile from the University of Delhi and the center of the disaster area would be ambiguous due to the variable terrain. A chunk of Pakistan and Nepal were caught up in the kill zone, too.

Cramming stuff into boxes, I let my mind wander into the empty, cold zone of self-recrimination. I stopped and stared at the wall. Christ. How the hell did we end up here?

Our team had been stuck in an ethical and philosophical quandary. There‘d been four articles published in the Journal of Physics that cumulatively painted a path to the development of the device. Any idiot with a Ph.D. could put the information together and make one of the terrible machines. The three of us had worked as a team to develop the thing for a totally benign purpose. It was to be an electronic dowsing rod, using a pulse that acted like a wave until it hit a body of water , traveling on the skin of the Earth as it propagated across the land. The water would weakly reflect the wave, but the perimeter of the water body would heat up when the wave hit it. We’d been trying to tweak it to make it penetrate deep into the land instead of acting like a surface wave. We’d succeeded only in making water vaporize when the wave hit it, unfortunately achieving only millimeters of ground penetration. A few short experiments had showed us that it would kill any water-bearing creature it hit by instantaneously boiling the water in the epidermal layer, effectively flaying it alive. The inner organs and muscles were “saved” from the effects of the wave by the fact that the wave’s energy was used up in destroying the skin.

Great. We’d developed the ideal terrorist weapon.

I still remember losing it the first time I saw what it did to a lab rat. And now…what they were showing on TV was a million times worse.

Still, there were exceptions to the hideous deaths in India. The wave only traveled across dry surfaces, stopping when it came to a body of water of any size, even something the size of a puddle, dumping its energy into vaporization of the perimeter of the water body. Even saturated dirt would stop it.

They would discover the discrepancies in India soon enough. Birds in flight would be unaffected, as would airline flights. Standing in a rain puddle would save you, though you’d see the water around the edge flash to steam.

Stories started coming out of the kill zone. There were bizarre incidences where some people just happened to be jumping when the wave passed under them; thirty percent of a marathon inexplicably watched their running companions shed their skins. A girl jump-roping between two of her friends watched them die while she remained unscathed. There was one report of a woman swimming in a pool when the pulse came through, who got out only when she heard her kids and her dog screaming in agony.

I wanted to shut off the news-wire after the reports started coming in, but forced myself to listen, perhaps in penance for my imagined crimes against humanity. Deep inside, I knew someone would have discovered and used this device, eventually, but I had discovered it. I kept telling myself this. I had brought the demon into existence. God damn it all.

It wouldn’t take the government guys long to figure things out. I had to disappear. My research had to disappear with me.

The various governments would be left with few options once they found out about the device and what it did. Try to hush it up. Try to use it preemptively to wipe out those that they thought would use it as a weapon. Or both.

The possibility that Singh had been unable to destroy his own device after it had sent its deadly pulse out loomed heavily over me. Singh was damned smart, though. If there’d been a way to booby-trap the device against other users, Singh would have incorporated it into his design.

What could have led Singh to knowingly kill himself and millions of others? Or was it just an experimental screw-up of unimaginable proportions? The only other person in the world who could have done something like this was Bernhard, but he…well…nobody could do something like that just to lay claim to a new idea. Nobody in his right mind. I went back to packing, rerunning old conversations with Bernhard in my head.

I gathered all the boxes I’d packed and put them on a handcart.The last prototype I grabbed was the size of a deck of cards, which I dropped into my coat pocket. The thought occurred to me that building the device had taken me one month and cost me two hundred dollars in off-the-shelf parts. And in just a few years, most likely, everyone who wanted to build one would find the schematics on the net. If the net still existed.

I had no idea of the range of the thing, since it had always been tested while mounted on a platform surrounded by a pool of water, but it was refined to a point where I knew it would kill stuff. What if Singh’s device hadn’t been any bigger? I shuddered at the thought. I could destroy it after I got on the road without leaving any clues for anyone to find. Smashing it here would just leave parts all over, and there were pros in the government that could reverse-engineer a 747 just by looking at the pilot’s seat belt fastener.

I pushed the cart out of the lab area. There was nobody but students and teachers’ assistants in the hallway right now, and traffic would be light since classes were in session. No one would give me a glance. Lab guys were always hauling loads in and out, and everyone knew me.

I got to the door of the building before my heart stopped.

Approaching the exit door from the outside were two swarthy men in business coats, one in a tie and one in a turtleneck. Neither of them looked friendly.

I glanced around wildly for escape routes. One of them apparently took this as a silent request for him to hold the door open for me since my hands were on the cart, which he obligingly did. I smiled, nodded, and stepped through, and one of them clapped his hand onto my shoulder. I froze.

“Excuse me,” he said. His accent was light, but definitely not from the States. “Can you direct me to Dr. James Harroway’s office?”

My heart pounded under the lab coat. He had to be able to see my coat flapping against my chest. Pointing down the hallway, I cleared my throat of its nervous phlegm and ineffectively willed myself to not sweat. “Yeah, sure, it’s down the hall, turn left at the intersection, and three doors down on the right. You can’t miss it, his name’s on the door.”

“Thanks.”

I clenched my teeth in what I hoped was interpreted as a friendly smile and watched them walk away. One glanced over his shoulder at me, eyebrow raised. I took that as a cue to turn around and continue my trip to the car, trying very hard to walk casually.

Who were these guys, and how did they figure out where I was so quickly? Was I just being paranoid? They had to be tapping into the Wire. Their government had to be monitoring our messages and put two and two together. Or maybe these guys were just students looking for me. Yeah, sure.

I made it to my Moleman Electric, used my headwire to unlock it as soon as I was in range, opened it up and started cramming the boxes into the little vehicle. I engaged the fuel cells and tickled the front and rear cameras into life, which pivoted to watch the doors to the building, feeding the images to my inner eye. I hopped into the Moleman, just in time to catch the two men on camera coming out of the research building. They scanned the area, then chose to come my direction. Coincidence? I backed up quickly, pulled out of the parking lot and hit the grid.

Giving the database a mental image of my bank, I sat back and gathered my thoughts, letting the car decide the best route.

It started to rain. Staring through the windshield of the car at one of the natural defenses against the device, I wondered how many people in India had the great fortune to be nestled away in a monsoon when the device went off. It reminded me of the old joke about the man in a spacesuit, adrift in the vacuum with his air running low, when he sees Earth getting smacked by a giant asteroid. “Boy, am I lucky,” he thinks.

It suddenly occurred to me that if the mystery men knew I worked at the University, then they, whoever they were, would know where I lived. Melanie would be in danger. I called her again. “Hey, Mel, grab whatever you have ready and get out of there. I think some…uh…guys are after me.”

“There are some men out front!” she said. “One of them is going around to the back of the house.” I could hear her feet pounding as she ran to the back door to lock it, and the click of the sliding glass door latch as she ran by it.

“Honey, get one of the guns. Don’t let them in. If they try to force their way in…”

“Jim, the guns, they’re…”

I heard a blast of static, then the wire went dead. I grabbed the steering wheel of the car for manual control and headed for my house. Bastards! If her headwire was down, it meant she was unconscious or an interference wave was being broadcast. Even unconscious she should still be transmitting unless one of us cut the link.

The car slid on the slick, wet pavement as I came around a corner. The house was still a mile away, and it would do no good if I arrived dead. Taking deep breaths and slowing down, I tried to plan something intelligent prior to my arrival.

Clearly they expected me to show up. And I had a carload of deadly goodies. I took a deep breath, knuckles crunched white on the steering wheel. Despite the intense urgency to go rescue my wife, I had to get rid of this crap. Hell, what was I thinking? They’d be happy to get a hold of me even without the equipment. Yet here I was ready to deliver myself. I sighed and kept driving. I just had to make sure I didn’t screw up.

I parked the car two blocks from the house. The rain pattered down continuously, shading everything in a shiny gray coat. For winter in San Jose, this wasn’t too unusual. From the looks of the clouds, it would keep raining for hours. Getting out of the car, I walked down the street to the house on the opposite side of the block from my own. Checking to see if anyone was watching me, I hopped over Charlie Hamilton’s fence. I stayed low and moved rapidly to my back fence, peeking through the cracks to see my own house.

The house was not lit. It was now early evening, and I expected to see some lights. It was too quiet. I wished I had a gun, then I remembered her last words to me, “Jim, the guns, they’re…” I took a guess: “…they’re already packed. They’re in the car.” Okay. I could see the back of the car. I wired the car and got a response, popping the trunk from where I crouched twenty feet away. No reaction from the house. Good. I could probably start the car remotely, but I couldn’t move it; remote driving had been outlawed sometime around 2020, so I couldn’t back it through the fence.

I positioned myself behind a tall bougainvillea from my own yard and climbed over the fence with barely a creak to betray my presence. The bougie needed trimming, and let me know this with its gentle caress of two-inch thorns, but for now I forgave it as it was providing substantial cover for me. I got on my hands and toes and spider-crawled to the trunk of my car, slowly lifted the trunk lid and stuck my head inside. Sure enough, there were my gun cases. I pulled out my old nine-millimeter Sig-Sauer and located a full magazine nearby, wincing at the sound as it snicked into place. My heart was pounding. I’d never shot at anybody in my life, and had never expected to. Guns were for shooting tin cans, and if you were into graphic violence then you used milk jugs filled with water. It occurred to me that I should have called the police to deal with something like this, but I brushed aside the idea as soon as it presented itself, realizing how much was at stake. But running into a house with unknown enemies and a possibly unconscious wife wasn’t an attractive thought either. I sat in the rain behind my wife’s car, getting saturated, and thought about it.

I wired my next-door neighbor, Cob Murcheson. “Yeah?” he answered. Brusque and rude, like always. I needed that right now. Plus, I needed a distraction.

“Hi, Cob. This is Jim. Look, I was talking to my wife a while ago and she just stopped talking, but the wire was still live. She’s not responding. I’m worried something might have happened to her. I’m still at the University, could you pop over there and check up on her?”

“Man, have you seen the news?”

“Yeah, Cob. Look, I’m really worried about Mel, could you check on her now?”

He grumbled a bit. I could hear the news about India blaring in the background. “Yeah, okay, just a minute.”

I waited. He was probably programming a redirect to his own headwire so he could monitor the news while he came over. I heard his front door slam, then peered around the corner of the car, watching him pass by the driveway at the front of the house, splashing through puddles as he went across. Waiting until he knocked on the front door, I sprinted for the back door, key in one hand, gun in the other.

Unlocking the door, I opened it up a crack to peek inside. Cob was banging on the front door again. “Melanie?” he shouted. “You okay?” The men inside, if indeed they were still there, would have to answer the front door or expect Cob to try to come inside. It would be clear that Cob knew something was wrong. The front door opened and I heard voices, my cue to slip inside. I entered and froze; Mel was lying on the kitchen floor just inside the back door. I stuck the gun in my belt and picked her up by the shoulders, dragging her out the back door into the rain. There was no quiet way to do this. As I got her out the door, another man, his shape nearly indistinguishable in the unlit house, appeared at the door. “Doctor Harroway?” he asked. I grabbed my gun from my belt as he pointed something at me. A jolt of high voltage electricity jerked my body spasmodically and I dropped Mel in the water. So that’s what had fried her headwire. I fell heavily, the gun flying wide from my hand, but found that the pain was bearable and I could still move. Of course. I still had my lab coat on. Besides being covered with rainwater, it was also made out of a high-strength conductive anti-acid polymer fabric that the University had bitched about buying until it had saved a student’s life. And now mine. Lucky me.

Something skidded out of my pocket as I fell, and I instinctively grabbed at it, finding my hand wrapped around the killing machine, the flayer, the dealer of uncountable deaths, no bigger than a deck of cards. Now I’d put it within easy reach of these strangers. With my wife unconscious on the ground beside me, millions dead in India, and the grinning man in front of me holding the Taser in his hand, the decision to use the device only took a second’s consideration. Water flowed steadily around me as it poured off the eaves and saturated the ground. Standing pools and rivulets isolated sections of my yard into islands of grass and dirt. My neighbor Cob would be wet, standing in a pool of rainwater on my porch, but they would send him away with an excuse and never let him set foot in the house. I hoped. Let it be, let it be.

A set of buttons on the device armed or disarmed it, codes I could enter without looking at the device, a sequence complicated enough that it would take weeks for a novice to crack. To actually activate it would take an encrypted code from my headwire. I tapped the buttons on the case to arm it, watching the momentary look of astonishment on my attacker as I stood up and approached him, unscathed from his attack. He stared at me and squeezed the trigger on the Taser again and again, pointed it at me as though a death ray should come out of the end of it anytime. My labcoat sizzled and sparked, and I shuddered and clenched my teeth as each pulse leaked through my defense. “What…” he said, just as I straight-armed him back into the kitchen, where he landed heavily on his back, dropping his Taser. His raincoat separated as he fell, exposing a holstered gun. He reached for it.

The flayer tumbled forward from my hand toward the kitchen floor, a green LED flickering into life as the enabling code was sent. I stepped back into the gloom of the protecting rain as he grabbed his gun, slid it from its holster, and pointed it at me. The flayer touched the ground. The pulse vaporized my wet footprints in the kitchen into puffs of steam with a staccato firecracker noise, then hit the stranger. I was vaguely aware that the water at the doorsill crackled and rose in a small cloud before me, inches from my toes. The stranger screamed and his gun went off, missing me by a whisper. His whole body made a sound like crackling bubble wrap as steam blasted out from every pore. He was suddenly engulfed in a fine, reddish-gray mist, but his scream didn’t stop. He stood and fell forward out of the mist, his eyes hollow, dripping portals, strips of hair and boiled skin slipping off of him like red snakes, leaving the exposed raw mass of oozing muscles, twisted in agony. His clothes somehow remained intact, bulging in odd ways as they collected the slippery skin in folds at the bottom of sleeves and cuffs.

I looked for my gun in the wet grass and picked it up, pointing it at the screaming man, unable for a moment to pull the trigger. I had to tell myself that this was mercy, this was a kindness, and the bastard deserved it anyway for zapping my wife. I took a deep breath and shot him in the head. I wanted to stop and breath, just stop everything and let the rain wash my life away, wash the guilt away, but there was more screaming at the front of the house where another man…men?…writhed and choked. I picked up the spent flayer from the kitchen floor and pocketed it once more and went to the front room of the house. Cob was still at the door, staring at the writhing, fleshless man. I never thought I would be so happy to see him standing at my front door.

“Go home, Cob.”

He looked at me as though I were a ghost, then threw up, adding to the horror that the living room carpet had become. He turned and ran.

I did what needed to be done, again, then loaded Melanie into the car, and left San Jose forever.

It’d been twenty years, and I hadn’t heard from Bernhard or Singh. I assumed Singh was dead. I hadn’t dared call Bernhard or anyone else I used to know for fear that I would be traced through the wire. And I was no longer sure that I trusted Bernhard. Once I’d decided that Singh would never have done the deed, it left me wondering who else had the motive and means to do it. I had to wonder if I was next on his – or someone’s – agenda.

Four billion people had been killed since the invention of the Flayer, fewer than I had feared would be taken by it. Thousands of plant and animal species had gone the way of the dinosaurs. Much of China had become a wasteland, and parts of the Middle East had been attacked eight or nine times, survivors clinging to their holy land despite the danger and attrition. Dry areas were the worst hit, so most people avoided those parched kill-zones. Washington DC got nailed twice, but by then moats had become enormously popular, even around whole city blocks, and the Southern Coalition states were left with most of their government intact.

Melanie and I stopped running when we reached Seattle. She left me shortly after she found out about my involvement with the Flayer, and I came to terms with the idea that I’d be in hiding for the rest of my life, sporting a false identity that her survivalist brother had set up for me. I no longer think of him as a nutcase.

Seattle had become crowded, as most wet areas had. It rained a lot there, which made people feel safe. The island communities in the Sound were enormously popular. In Florida, I heard that they’d dredged and ‘dozed the state into thousands of canal-separated islands. Much of the Coalition’s government is located there now, and they meet by wire to keep from congregating in one vulnerable place. The population there has gone up ten-fold. Boat businesses are booming.

New York City has had a similar rework. It now looks much like Venice but with much taller buildings.

Once the various governments figured out that the Flayer could be used to tactically deny an area of dry-farmed food, wet-farmed rice and fish became foods of necessity.

I kept my own Flayer so I could keep experimenting with preventive measures, though my neighbors and friends would kill me if they knew I had it, or knew any of my hidden past. Over the years I’d built up a business making early-warning devices that sent out radio signals when a Flayer wave was detected, something that very few people actually knew how to detect. Communities posted them miles from town, and when the detector transmitted, a number of safety devices kicked in. Water tanks dumped into channels, moats flooded, personal alarms went off, headwires signaled you, all sorts of things. The Flayer pulse moved at less than a third the speed of sound, so a decent warning system gave a person quite a few seconds of response time. A few seconds, to someone prepared, is all you need.

My neighbor, Jered McCarthy, had no clue about what I used to do. I didn’t talk about it. He and I had gone hunting together, though, since food was pretty scarce for many years, unless you liked fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We got into the habit of foraging for warmer-blooded meals. We worked out a lot of tricks for when we went hunting outside Seattle, just to keep from getting fried by a Flayer. We only had to use those tricks once.

That day, we took his sailboat around to the south part of Hood Canal and found a tributary, stowing the sails and motoring up. Olympic National Park and most of the surrounding wild areas had only been hit twice in the last twenty years, without very widespread effects. Rivers and rainstorms kept an amazing amount of wildlife there alive.

We filled our waterbelts in the stream and strapped them on, checking to make sure the quick-release was handy to dump the water at our feet. One didn’t need waterbelts while walking around town, since there were jump-pools every fifty feet or so, and little moats around every building.

We waded upstream, hidden in the shadows of the firs and spruce looming overhead, our movement masked by the burbling of the creek. We went for about a half-mile before seeing any wildlife, spying the sudden motion of a black-tailed buck a few hundred meters inland, grazing in a small meadow. Neither one of us was good enough with a gun to make that shot, so we moved onto land. The soft carpet of pine needles hushed our footsteps as we slowly moved through the forest, closing the gap between ourselves and the black-tail.

I lifted my gun and aimed carefully. The buck’s head jerked up suddenly and my aim faltered. I glanced over at Jered to see if he’d spooked the deer somehow. He stared at the horizon. “Shit,” he said. A rumbling, crackling sound finally reached us, a tidal wave of death.

The deer was running straight toward us as fast as it could. Behind it, we could finally see the cloud of debris and dust rising from the forest as a Flayer pulse decimated the trees, an invisible Godzilla coming for us. The deer flew past us toward the creek. The pulse raged closer.

Jered tried to scuff out a bare spot on the ground amidst the thick carpet of needles in the few seconds we had to react. We both unleashed our waterbelts as we scuffled and watched the water disappear as the needle-carpet sucked it up. “Oh, man.” I glanced around to find a low branch. “There!”

We both ran and jumped up to grab the branch, knowing we’d never make it to the creek on time. The pulse roared toward us, clouds of needles and bark explosively spraying into the air as the trees screamed in agony, a billion firecrackers tearing at our eardrums as the blinding cloud of dust rushed toward us.

Despite the intense sensory overload, we both kept our eyes wide open as the pulse closed on us. The pulse traveled up the trees as it peeled and stripped them, moving quickly, but not so quickly that we didn’t have a tenth of a second to react. The pulse passed harmlessly below us, and hit the base of the tree. We dropped from the limb. A fraction of a second later, the debris from the destroyed limb rained down on us. Timing is, as they say, everything.

Coughing in the haze of green steam, dust, falling bark and needles, we ran for the creek. The show wasn’t over yet.

A few short years after India had been decimated, some creative death-merchant figured out that a Flayer could be set to send out repeating pulses. So, even if you had a little pool of water surrounding you, a repeater could eat away at that pool until there was nothing left to protect you. You’d be left standing on your tip-toes in a thimble of water, counting the seconds left in your life. The upside was that the pulses, somehow deriving their power from the thermal gradient of the environment through which they traveled, could only repeat about once every half-minute. Any faster, and they became too weak to kill anything. It was like the environment had to ’recharge’.

The downside for folks running away was that the second and third and continuing pulses didn’t have as much moist environment to destroy. As we ran through the dust cloud, there was no warning explosion from the trees behind us, only a soft hiss as the next wave of energy ate a little deeper into the glistening bare skins of the skeletal trees and shrubs.

“It’s a repeater! And we’re not going to make the creek!”

Jered was thinking more clearly than I was. He had his canteen out and was pouring it onto the ground as we ran. He pointed at another promising branch as we neared it. He dropped the emptied canteen onto the ground and jumped, grabbing the branch with me like a tandem choreographed flying trapeze act. The branch was still startlingly hot from the last pulse. I heard Jered gasp at the sudden pain. One of his hands slipped off and he dangled by the fingertips of his right hand. I winced and clenched harder.

One of the agreements we had before we went hunting is that if one of us didn’t make it through a Flayer pulse, the other would have to shoot him. Not a hunting trophy that I wanted to take home.

The canteen water signaled us when the pulse arrived, blasting into steam as the pulse hit it. We dropped from the already-peeled limb and started running for the creek again.

We ran by the black-tailed buck; screaming, dying, and flayed. It was shy of the creek by no more than ten feet.

Getting into the creek, we watched as the pulse slammed angrily against the creekside again and again, just short of its next meal, the edge of the creek throwing off clouds of mist as it protected us. I stared at the dying deer as it squirmed amid hanging tatters of flesh. Jered lifted his rifle and carefully put a bullet in its head. The third pulse just pumped more steam out of the blacktail’s carcass.

Overhead, I heard a new sound. A Rapid Response Unit flew over us, zipping toward the source of the pulse. It was probably carrying one of the sensors I’d designed to detect the pulses. A few seconds later, there was the thump of an explosion, and the pulses stopped. The RRU’s carried some nice artillery. Jered and I were bent over, hands on our knees, breathing heavily.

“All those dumb-ass ideas we talked about worked.”

“One of them, anyway,” I said.

He grinned foolishly at me, the I-just-escaped-death-and-I’m-giddy-as-hell kind of grin. It scared me. “We’re alive. Let’s dress out what’s left of that buck and get the hell out of here.”

We heard the staccato report of machine-gun fire not far away. “What the hell?” Jered said.

“I guess they found the guy that put it there.”

“Shithead should have used a timer and got the hell out of here.”

I scratched my head. “Maybe he was in a hurry. Why would somebody want to use a Flayer way out here anyway? It’s just animals and trees.”

“And us,” Jered said. “Somebody hate you a bunch?”

“I hope not.” I stared thoughtfully in the direction of the gunfire, which had stopped as suddenly as it had started.

We cleaned the buck, wrapped the meat, and went home, both quiet and reserved after escaping death so closely. I kept checking the sky for the Rapid Response guys as the boat puttered along, but didn’t catch sight of them again, and wondered if they had been shot down. If they had, whoever had set up the Flayer really had some heavy guns. Not someone we wanted to meet.

The news was all over when we got back, and we had a lot of heartfelt welcome-backs when our friends saw that we had escaped the pulse with our skins intact. We heard that the RRU had killed someone in the area and brought him back, but they hadn’t identified him. I tapped into my headwire to scan the story, and found an aged and bullet-riddled Bernhard staring at me. Crapflakes.

I packed my bags and left that night. Once they identified Bernhard, it was a few short steps for someone to figure out who I was. I had had the foresight many years before to get a second fake ID from Melanie’s brother, and I still kept in touch with him in case something like this happened.

Bernhard’s actions remain a mystery to me. I have no idea why he’d want to track me down and kill me, or how he knew where I’d gone that day. There’d been a lot of boats out on the Sound; there always were, nowadays. Any one of them could have had Bernhard in it, following us. I’m curious, but not curious enough to put my face on someone’s radar screen by researching it. He’s dead and I’m…safe, somewhat. Is that all I ever wanted out of life? Or was my research a path to glory and fame?

I settled in Vancouver and kept my head low, doing electrical work on the side for cash. I kept away from anything to do with Flayers, although I stayed on top of the news about it. I heard that one guy tried to start a bug extermination business using Flayers; you moat the house and toss a Flayer inside. No more bugs. He was murdered before he ever got a chance to try out his idea, and no one has proposed something so stupid since.

Yet others have tried to come up with a solid that’s immune to the Flayer wave. It’s the Holy Grail of anti-Flayer technology, the alchemist’s dream, the shoe-sole of the future. Nobody’s come close to a solution yet.

Oddly enough, a variation on the Flayer has been independently developed into a device to effectively find underground water sources, without my involvement at all. Someone in Australia figured out a way to make a friendly version that projected a vertical, ground-penetrating wave, the very thing our own team was pursuing. It’d still blow the skin off a man, but only if he happened to be underground. Not too healthy for the gophers, though. Supposedly, it’s helped out a couple of countries during drought and actually saved some lives here and there. I’m humbled and pleased, but I still have nightmares every night.

Can the small good that’s come out of it even begin to balance the terrors that I unleashed? Can I ever really forgive myself?

For mankind, there’s still hope. But for me? Perhaps, perhaps not. Time doesn’t really heal all wounds.

Copyright © 2011 by Tom Jolly

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Tom Jolly

Tom Jolly has published short stories in Daily Science Fiction, and now Something Wicked. He’s had a number of game and puzzle-related articles published in Games, Knucklebones, and Cubism for Fun, and is best known for designing an assortment of board games, including Wiz-War, Drakon, Vortex, and Diskwars. He collects and designs fiendishly difficult mechanical puzzles, and pretends to be an electrical engineer as his day job so the bills will be paid on time. He lives in the hills above Santa Maria, California, with his wife, horses, mule, cats, dog, chickens and a broad assortment of wild animals that visit on occasion.

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