Harry Harrison always considered himself a student of police tactics.
And his release into the Punishment Street Irregulars detail proved to be an excellent opportunity to study the police up close and personal.
“More like a kidnapping than a release,” he mused. But the LCPD officers he was working with quickly confirmed his oldest theories. “These guys are impatient and willing to use their authority any way they can to get ahead.”
They talked to the old lady who phoned in the complaint first. She lived on the second floor in an apartment she kept in remarkably clean and neat condition. Especially considering the mold and mildew infesting the rest of the building.
She assured them the screams and loud bang had been truly terrifying…but not as terrifying as the silence that followed.
They didn’t ask her much about her fellow tenants (those who didn’t call in the disturbance) but the Stainless Steel Rat figured they were the investigators, so he kept his questions to himself as well.
“Leave the detecting to the detectives.”
Harry noticed a kinda weird dynamic between Det. Hab and Det. Civitas, when the CSI officer brought out his equipment. It started when Civitas opened his briefcase the first time. Almost looked like he was surprised at the equipment he found inside.
Then, when he fumbled around with it for awhile, Det. Hab took over and did most of the CSI work.
“Looks like another veteran from the military who signed up as a cop when he mustered out.” The Rat knew a lot of guys he served with who did the same. “Probably decided the CSI spot sounded like a cushy job and worked favors to get the transfer. Doesn’t seem to have studied much. Maybe he’s planning on using his GI benefits to go to school later for the technical stuff.”
All the victims seemed to have lived on the third floor. Four victims, three apartments.
But it was the first apartment where they got their big surprise: some kind of message was scrawled on the wall. All three apartments had tiny droplets of blood on the wall, but the first had “handwriting” on top of the blood. Some kinda message from Det. Civitas.
“Either I’m a sleepwalking time-traveler…or something really weird is going on.”
A few minutes after the CSI officer uttered the immortal words for which he would become famous, Civitas realized that all that was required was that his future self would become a sleepwalking time-traveler.
And all that was needed to explain the ritual he found on the wall at Straffan Gafar 39 was the time-traveler part.
Being a sleepwalker was not necessary at all.
The blood droplets led Ambrose Hab to the stairs up to the fourth floor. But the stairs were blocked with sparking and writhing electrical cables. He knew the voltage was high because he saw some of the sparks jumping across gaps of more than a foot.
“We can hope the amperage is low,” he said aloud. “Yeah, that must be why the cables are so thick.”
They decided to climb to the fourth floor on the scaffolding outside the building. A bit rickety, but if it held up the building, it might support their weight.
The scene up there was terrifying: The interior walls of the fourth floor had been torn down. To Hab’s experienced eyes it was obvious that junkies had torn them apart long ago to get to the pipes (which might be sold for scrap). There was rubble everywhere.
And the rubble was covered with writhing, twisting cables. The choking smog was thicker up here, and everything dripped with oily moisture. The stench of burning plastic and flesh filled their nostrils.
And Ambrose could hear the Stainless Steel Rat coughing behind him.
As they climbed up, pulses of a sickly, blue-green light at the heart of the level were distantly visible. As they approached, they saw a crackling energy field surrounding the twisted body of what once might have been a man.
Det. Hab wondered if this was one of the victims. “Or maybe the perp.”
The energy field looked impervious enough to the CSI officer that he immediately opened fire on the giant antenna in the middle of the level.
The body was bloated and had been transformed.
“Musssst casssssstigate,” it whispered before convulsing with pain.
Throbbing cables pierced its body at the wrists, stomach, thighs, and elsewhere, almost convulsing like veins. He seemed dead, until his eyes snapped open and the “castigator” emitted a terrifying wail of misery.
Something had stretched and warped the body of the original host. Its grey-green skin was pierced in multiple places by rubbery cables that sparked, and dripped oily black mucus.
The face of the castigator was that of a human, but twisted into an unnatural, frozen…
“Rictus,” the detective said. “It’s always gotta be a rictus grin of death and agony.”
Powerful bony claws had erupted from the guy’s ruined fingers and toes, and his jaw had become distended and unnaturally large.
”Help me!” it cried. “The pain!”
Then it asked, "Where am I?” and “Why can’t I see?” pleading “Please, I don’t want to die!”
Later, as he fought the creature, Ambrose’s observational skills would help him understand these were nothing more than the last thoughts of the victim as he was transformed into the castigator. But at the time he heard these cries, he had not yet understood the cruelty of the entity which had taken over the body.
He could not yet conceive of something that would repeat the echoes of the dead, just to revel in the torment.
Civitas’s assault on the antenna went well.
Det. Hab had been paying attention to the newscasts of the past few days about the terraforming of Pluto. He had even been casting his vision to the portion of the sky where Pluto currently hung.
And he couldn’t help noticing that the antenna was pointed to that section of the sky through a hole which had been cut through the higher floors of the 10-story building.
“Not a coincidence,” he thought. So it probably wasn’t a bad thing when the CSI officer destroyed the support and pointed it in another direction. “That guy handles a gun better than he handles his analyzer. Must be a vet.”
The others joined in the attack on the support, but they were not able to do as much damage as the CSI guy’s armor-piercing bolter.
With a wet, ripping noise, the castigator tore free of the cables feeding it, and dropped to the floor. Then, abruptly, the energy field and the lights went out, plunging the Irregulars into darkness.
As he watched the creature drop to all fours, he was surprised at how adeptly a creature which had once been human could move like a four-legged predator. “Our knees aren’t designed to bend that way,” he observed. The knees also sprouted bony spikes and it moved like a lurker-style predator. Like a big cat.
Hab knew it was a hunter. And he knew the hunt had begun.