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The Microbotic Menace
Captain Anger Adventure #1
The Microbotic Menace
To the late, great Lester Dent, with sincere gratitude and lifelong admiration.
Nobody in the diner paid any attention to the little man in the corner. The leggy blonde waitress had given him the once over when he entered. She judged the short, grey-haired man in the drab business suit to be some mid-level manager at one of the computer companies nearby, or maybe a traveling salesman come in to beat the heat. The customers gave him no notice, absorbed in their own concerns. If the little man played an important role in their lives, they showed absolutely no awareness of the fact.
He sat at the far end of the counter, took several deep breaths, and leaned against the wall to which the counter was firmly attached. In a hoarse, rasping voice, he asked the waitress for coffee. He weakly stroked a goatee surrounded by days-old stubble. The skin on his plump hands displayed an odd sheen. In the bright fluorescent lights, it palpitated to motions half-hidden beneath the flesh.
The waitress poured the coffee, eyed him again with her big blues, and moved on to another diner at the far end of the counter.
That insignificant action saved her life.
The small man suddenly looked up, intense agony burning on his face. He seized the arm of a passing customer.
“They’ve crossed the barrier!” he cried out in a terrified voice. “ They
know what we are!”
The other diners stopped eating and talking to stare at the commotion. Now they noticed the little man. Too late.
“Hey, Mac, get your damn—” The burly construction worker tried to pry the frantic man’s hand from his own sleeveless arm, then jumped back in horror.
The little man’s fingers dissolved into a wet, silvery mess.
The bigger man tried to swab the slime off his arm, watching the other man in shock. He backed into a booth by the window, grabbed a fistful of napkins, and struggled to smear the tingling, viscous fluid off him.
The crumbling man stared at the stump where his wrist ended. He watched the sleeve of his limp jacket bend downward in a sickeningly wet way. Wrist, forearm, elbow softened and liquefied. He looked wildly around him for someone who would comprehend.
“They know what we are!” he shouted again, bits of glistening spittle erupting from his mouth. His wild eyes clouded over. The right arm melted entirely, the sleeve wet and dripping silver liquid on the yellow and grey linoleum squares.
He abruptly sat straight up on the stool, trembling. Suddenly, from somewhere deep inside him, his voice arose resonant and terrifying.
“I am the Angel of Death!”
The voice silenced instantly as the body of the old man collapsed in on itself. With a stomach-churning hiss of gasses, his chest collapsed and his head softened and grew shapeless, like a wax mask melting. The silver liquid gushed to the floor. His suit fell limp, draping wetly over the stool. Then, seconds later, it too disintegrated as if eaten by acid.
The customers ran from the diner in terror.
Some—overcome by nausea—fell to the sidewalk, sick at the curb. The black, muscular cook ran out of the kitchen, mystified at the empty diner until the waitress pointed in mute terror at the gruesome scene.
The silvery liquid drenched the far end of the diner. Worse, the stool on which the man once sat leaned perilously to one side, the chromed steel shaft softening like taffy in the sun. With a squish, the stool fell over into the glimmering slush.
“What the hell happened?” the husky cook demanded.
The waitress, breathless, whispered, “The Angel of Death.”
The barricade went up around the diner as soon as the police arrived. The supervising detective put a rookie patrolman in charge of cordoning off the area with the yellow tape that declared
Police Line—Do Not Cross.
Los Gatos was a sleepy suburb of San Jose, California, some of its inhabitants wealthy executives in the Silicon Valley computer industry. Most lived comfortably; a few hung on in desperate straits. Detective R. J. Fleming figured that the victim came from the last group. He ran a hand through his blonde hair and peered in through the door.
“Looks like silver paint, don’t it?” the slender, carrot-topped rookie asked.
“You got that thing tied off?” Fleming demanded, nodding toward the roll of tape in the kid’s hand.
“Wrap it once more around your mouth.” Fleming’s gaze turned to the service counter. The section coated in silver appeared withered and sunken. “Baggerly!” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Get the HazMat team rolling. Tell ‘em we’ve got one dead and another one contaminated.”
“Any idea what it is?”
Fleming shook his head. Turning away from the diner entrance, he observed the two paramedics hovering around the construction worker.
He was a big man, black oily hair and brooding black eyes. He sat on the curb with his left arm in a brace holding it up and out so that the paramedics could examine it easily.
“What do you make of it?” Fleming asked the male medic.
The woman answered. “We can’t figure out if it’s a liquid or a very finely divided powder. Whatever it is, it seems to have penetrated his skin. We can’t wipe it off.”
Fleming lit a cigarette. “Then I’d suggest cutting his arm off before it hits his bloodstream.”
The woman looked at him in professional disgust. “I don’t think we have to be that drastic.”
“Oh, yeah?” The detective jerked his thumb toward the diner. “Did you take a look in there?”
The paramedics shook their heads.
“I didn’t think so.” Fleming looked at their patient. “You want to tell them what happened?”
Terror suddenly filled the huge man’s eyes. He turned toward the woman. “I want you to cut it off. Right now. He touched me. Just like that.” He slapped his hand against the male paramedic’s arm. “And then he melted. Just melted.” He stared up at Fleming, imploring. “You gotta tell them to.”
Fleming looked at the doubting faces, then shrugged. “I’d do it if I were you.”
The female paramedic snorted. “Well, you’re not, lucky for this guy.”
“HazMat on the line,” Officer Baggerly shouted. “They’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
Fleming looked from the worker to the diner to the TV news vans pulling up.
“Twenty minutes,” he muttered.
Leila Weir sat at the computer terminal. Nearly six feet tall, raven-haired with skin the color of fine ivory, and a figure—clad now in a deep navy jump suit—that haunted men forever, her god looks caused a plurality of the automotive damage claims in Southern California.
The screen she watched displayed a false-color image of a man. A riot of carnelian, azure, umber, and violet hues enveloped the body. Around it, loops and spirals of light spun in a crazy rhythm, alternating from red through orange to yellow.
“No ill effects yet,” she noted in the recorder mounted at eye level. She threw a set of switches. A humming sound pervaded the room, electrifying it with an eerie, almost palpable energy. The image on the screen began to throw off points of white light like a child’s sparkler.
“Bozhe moi! Get me out of here!” a muffled voice shouted over the comm set. “Suit is on fire!”
Weir threw a bank of switches, cutting all power to the system. The humming cycled down to nothing. The colors around the figure on the screen descended the spectral scale into darkness.
To her left, a hatchway slammed open with an ear-splitting hiss. Smoke and steam belched outward like fumes from a mine explosion. With a deep breath, the woman leapt from her console to the crimson cylinder on the nearby wall. With practiced skill, she activated the fire extinguisher and blasted her way into the chamber. The white cloud of carbon dioxide and Halon mingled with the smoke and steam to create a dank, thick billowing fog that permeated the room.
Inside the chamber she could see nothing but darkness and a faint flicker of orange flame. Aiming for that, she continued to blast away. She used up the breath she took before entering and dropped the extinguisher with a loud clank to reach for the still-smoldering form ahead of her. Its own arms extended, the hellish figure staggered toward her, pushing her to the exit.
They burst from the chamber into the marginally fresher air, Weir first, the other second. In the light of the control room, he made for a monstrous vision indeed.
Burnt black all over, the suit he wore consisted of a knobby assemblage of spheres, half-spheres, and short cylinders designed in such a way as to provide freedom of movement in all possible angles of rotation that the human body could achieve. A thick layer of char encrusted the spherical helmet.
Leila dropped to her knees, savoring the fresh air nearer the floor. Clumsily, and with the unsteady creak of roasted rotational surfaces, the suited man eased down to a similar position, struggling to undo his helmet. Weir reached up to help him and after a moment, the sphere rotated counter-clockwise one quarter turn. With a slight pop, it came loose. They lifted it off and stared at each other.
“Safety note,” the man said in a gravelly voice that grated his English through a Russian sieve. “Cavorite Mark Two is flammable under high positron flux.”
“Yes,” Weir said, sitting on the floor inspecting the helmet. “But it works.”
She rose to walk over to the console. Flipping a few switches activated
the smoke blowers. With a whine, they sucked the cloud of blackish-grey haze out through the air-conditioning vents and into the pollution scrubber. There, a series of traps and increasingly finer filters removed every particle of pollutant and molecule of unnatural gas before recycling the purified air into the building. The chemicals and elements trapped in the system accumulated in an array of catalytic converters where an ingenious collection of molecules built toxins into more useful chemicals, or stripped them down to their component elements for future use. The system, powered by the huge solar array outside, operated almost without human attention, guided by the silent decision-making of a portion of the mighty parallel processing computer housed in the complex.
The man in the blackened suit stood and stretched. The flame-singed metal joints creaked with each movement. He disassembled the outfit, beginning with the knobby gloves. He was short, stocky, and powerfully built. He looked not unlike a sumo wrestler—trimmer, though, and more obviously muscled. His skin was deeply tanned, the flesh of his face roughened by years in sun that shone over all parts of the world, from steaming tropics to arid deserts to the frigid polar antipodes. His eyes, buried in a perpetual frown, were black as pools of crude oil, a color that matched his crop of hair. Almost as an anachronism, his hair lay straight back on his head, slicked down by hair oil until it resembled a shiny lacquer skullcap.
Clad in nothing but a pair of bright orange Kevlar boating trunks, Pete “The Rock” Kompantzeff gazed at the pile of charred metal and shook his head. “Going to cost bundle to mix up more Cavorite.”
“Rock,” Leila said, “anti-gravity is worth whatever we—”
A buzzing filled the air around them.
Leila quickly punched at the intercom button.
“Better get over here,” a sharp voice crackled. “We’ve got a big problem.”
Rock and Leila glanced at each other. The speaker, Flash, was not one to utter such extensive and alarmist pronouncements. It must really be something.
Leila powered the system down, shut off the computers, and rushed to the door, a dark bolt of blue under the fluorescent lights. Rock—a thumping blur of brown and orange, pounded behind her on thickly muscled legs. The man and woman made a strange duo.
The hallway they rushed into thundered with people headed this way
and that. The Anger Institute For Advanced Science served as research center, university, and light industrial facility for hundreds of people. It also served as base of operations for Kompantzeff, Weir, and four others under the guidance of their skipper, mentor, and comrade-at-arms, Richard Anger III.
Dodging the solar electric cars used to reach more distant parts of the sprawling campus, they trotted toward a pair of fire doors a hundred yards down at the end of the corridor. Leila activated a transponder on her wristcomm and the doors slid aside on swift, nearly silent runners, then closed behind them with a slam instants after they sped through. A few more yards of running brought them to an opening in the corridor wall. This part of the Institute possessed no doors. The Captain found them unnecessary and obstructive.
“What’s the deal, Flash?” Kompantzeff bellowed upon entering. “I’m still smolderin’ here and Lei—”
“Listen to this.” The man seated at the computer terminal threw a switch. From a SurroundSound speaker system, the crackley noise of radio communication issued with a hiss of static.
“Don’t know what it is,” a voice said, “but eyewitnesses say a customer just dissolved. Touched a Latino male age fifty on the arm, smeared some of the substance on him. Paramedics can’t get it off. EPA HazMat team threw absorbents on the puddle, but they sank into it without a trace. And it’s spreading. Call Bill Harrison over at Lawrence Livermore and have him send a chemical weapons expert if he has one. This doesn’t look like pollution to me. And try Ames Research Cent—”
Flash was a lean young man, thin almost to the point of looking frail.
His sparse, dark hair already betrayed the beginnings of baldness. Pale blue eyes gazed out from a face that looked youthful nonetheless. His slenderness made him seem taller than he actually was, but it also made him seem far less strong than he could be when situations demanded.
“It sounds as if we have something serious here.” Flash was usually far more understated. Right now, he looked grave.
Kompantzeff glanced at the computer screen. It read
Transmission Origin: Police Band Radio Path: EPA.HazMat.gov/Local Wavelength: 79.330 MHz Location: 121° 57’ 50" W; 38° 34’ 30" N City:
Los Gatos, California
The graphic window displayed a map of the area. Los Gatos was just south of San Jose.
“Half an hour from here,” Rock said. “Should we check it out?”
“Where’s Cap?” Leila asked, reaching past Flash to change screens on the terminal. He slapped her wrist away lightly.
“I’ve already tried. He’s undercover and switched off the homer. We’re on our own.”
Leila looked at Rock with a grim expression. “Scramble the jets.”
The grizzled old man shuffled along the smog-drenched boulevard, muttering to himself and the world at large. His tattered tweed jacket hung loosely over faded and worn-through denim jeans, held up by a length of dirty clothesline. A torn and repulsively-stained shirt that had at one time been white oxford cloth fitted him poorly. Running shoes—no doubt pulled from a trash bin—slid along the crumbling pavement on feet without socks. Salt and pepper matted greying hair stuck out from under a grimy baseball cap worn backward on his head. A beard crusted with a week’s worth of soup-kitchen overflow looked as stiff as steel wool. His face bore the scars of years of neglect and unremitting exposure to the elements.
The most striking feature about the man was his nose. Bright red and scabby, it seemed to spread over nearly half his face. Pitted, large-pored, and covered with broken capillaries, it had obviously been the recipient of too much sun, too much liquor, and too many fists.
He dragged his feet in a scuffing manner as he pushed the shopping cart full of dirty beer cans and squashed plastic bottles. He stank, but his cargo stank worse. A hideous liquid dribbled continuously from the mess to leave a dotted trail on the sidewalk.
“Damn’ foreign investors,” he muttered loudly. “Damn’ greenmailin’ leveraged buyoutin’ bank slimeballs!” He ambled slowly toward the corner where a young man stood handing out pamphlets.
“Stinkin’ banksters stole my job!” he cried to the pamphleteer.
The young man, dressed in tan slacks and white long-sleeved business shirt, glanced at the street dweller with a short look of contempt, then
turned his attention to other passersby. The little booklets he handed out were printed on crisp white paper with red and black illustrations on the cover.
The bum stopped his shopping cart in front of the man. “Gimme one,” he said, looking everywhere but directly at the man he addressed.
The proselytizer—short haired, clean, and trim—gazed again at the scrungy piece of scarcely human debris before him. “Butt out,” he said sharply in a voice higher than one might expect. He cleared his throat and it lowered an octave. “Get lost.”
“Gimme one!” The old man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a thick wad of grimy, crumpled bills. Peeling a single off slowly, he offered it to the younger man. “Fer a donation?”
It being the first proffer of money he had received all morning, the young man swapped a pamphlet for the dollar. It stuck to the old man’s fingers for a second. The other gingerly slid it into his pocket, then wiped his hand against his pants before passing his propaganda to the bum. He eyed the wad of money as it disappeared back into the stained tweed jacket.
“Thankee, boy,” the geezer said, then stopped to gaze at the cover. It read
The Banker’s Conspiracy to Loot America!How Easy Credit Enslaves Us AH. And What YOU Can Do To Fight Back!