by Joe Zabel

Chapter 9

Hidden microphones picked up the voices of Kathy and Sally in Kathy's apartment. 'I bet you usually sleep in on Saturday,' said Sally. 'I'm really imposing on you!'

'Nonsense,' said Kathy. 'This may not be the best time of the year to go apartment-hunting; but I think it's gonna be fun! And when we get tired of it, we can shop for clothes. The perfect way for a couple of girls to spend a Saturday afternoon!'

'Well, keep tabs of the gas milage-- I wanna make sure I pay you back.'

Soon after, Kathy's car pulled out of the driveway and proceeded up the street. The two women could be seen in the front seat.

The apartment was now quiet.

The man in the van jotted down on his notepad, '10:00 AM-- K.S. and J.M. depart for apartment hunting, shopping trip.'

The man looked at his partner and nodded.

The two men got out of the van. The taller man, whose name was Walter, carried a satchel with equipment in it.

They walked up the sidewalk to the front door of the apartment building. They entered, and Walter used a key to get through the lobby door into the stairs.

They climbed the stairs to Kathy's apartment. Halfway up, they encountered a black man descending the steps. 'How you doin', man?' asked the neighbor casually. They nodded and he passed them by.

Using another key, Walter opened the door to Kathy's apartment.

Walter's younger companion didn't share his neat, clean-cut appearance. He wore a wrinkled T-shirt and jeans, and had a rough, hardened look on his thin face.

Walter went about the apartment, checking the bugging devices. There was a small mike in a living room lamp; another was attached to the cooling mesh of the refrigerator in the kitchen, and a third was embedded in the inner workings of the telephone.

Meanwhile, the thin-faced youth was leafing through the books on the living room shelf. He took one book down and looked through it. Walter came over and took the book out of his hands and put it back on the shelf, giving him an impatient look.

Walter carried the satchel into Kathy's bedroom.

He removed an instamatic camera and pointed it at Kathy's made-up bed. He snapped pictures of it from different angles, and then waited for them to develop. He compared the photographs with the actual scene.

Then he went over the bed and ran his hand over the bedspread.

He pulled the bedspread off, and began stripping the bed down to its bare mattress.

He bent back the mattress until he had access to the narrow top edge. He took out a switchblade knife and began slitting the mattress open along this edge, working from the left upper corner to the right.

The thin-faced youth watched him for a while. Then he went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He took out a container, opened it and sniffed. Then he put it back on the shelf and picked another container, and sampled its contents.

Meanwhile, Walter was tucking several pieces of electronic equipment through the slit in the end of the mattress. When he got them in place, he lay the mattress flat and took a monitoring device from the satchel. He set the device at the top center of the mattress, where presumably the sleeper's head rested.

Walter pressed a button on a radio controller, activating the electronics embedded in the mattress. The monitor sitting on the bed picked up the activity, and its needle moved accordingly.

Walter poked his fingers into the slit and adjusted the equipment slightly. Then he tested it again.

When he was satisfied, he put away the monitor and took a tube of quick-drying fabric glue. He used it to close up the slit in the mattress, pressing the edges with a folded handkerchief. Then he put the glue and the rest of the equipment away, and went around the bed putting the sheet and bedspread back on the mattress the way he'd found it.

When he was done, he compared the bed with the photographs he'd taken, and nodded in satisfaction.

He found the thin-faced youth in the kitchen, munching on an apple. He snatched it away from him with an angry look. He took the half-eaten apple to the kitchen trash container, lifted up some of the wrappers in the trash, and hid the apple underneath.

Then he pointed, indicating to the other that they were leaving.

From the door, Walter gave the apartment one last look around. Then he shut the door.

That evening, Sally again resolved to sleep on the couch, and Kathy bade her good night. She retired to her bedroom, stripped down to her underwear, pulled back the bedspread and puffed the pillows.

Kathy adjusted the nightcap device on her head, and stuck the tiny pads of piezoelectric film to the corners of her eyelids. Then she clicked off the table lamp and lay down to sleep.

She inhabited a futuristic, antiseptic world, an oppressive environment more suited to machines than humankind.

She was sprinting down a hall, with a crowd of future-citizens. They were fleeing in panic, but she was compelled to stop and turn back, to learn what they were trying to escape from.

She soon discovered the answer. A clutch of terrified humans were being corralled into a corner. The antagonists surrounding them were non-humans, otherworldly beings with grotesque, many-limbed bodies.

Kathy crouched at the edge of wall to witness what happened next.

A low hum preceded the appearance of a shadow across the hall, and then the massive device that had cast the shadow. It was an energy cannon, floating across the floor on a self-generated magnetic field. The leader of the unearthly creatures seemed to be operating it, and showed no feeling while in the act of aiming the weapon at the cowering humans.

With heartless deliberation, the creature activated the device. The cannon's radiation appeared to be nothing more than a bright colored light, but it had a horrific effect on it's target-- the men and women screamed and clawed at the walls to escape, as their skin blackened. Presently tiny funnels of grey vapor erupted from their flesh as they were slowly disintegrated. Within seconds, there was nothing left of them but a spreading lake of clear fluid.

She turned away, only to discover that another of the many-limbed monstrosities was ambulating towards her. It's stalk-like body encased a single enormous eye that fixed her with its gaze. And she found that, under its hateful contemplation, she was incapable of moving...

Kathy awoke with a start. She was sweating, the sheets and blankets twisted all about her. It was 3:30 AM. She picked up her dream-diary, noted the time, and began writing hastily to capture the details of the terrifying nightmare.

Her eyes were adjusted to the darkness, and she had no trouble seeing the page as she scribbled with her pen. And in the early morning gloom she could trace the lines and angles of her room, and opposite her, the bedroom door.

The door was partly opened, and there was a dark strip between the doorframe and the edge of the door where she could see beyond the door. Staring, she began to make out a shape framed in that space, one half of an oval.

As she focused on the half-oval shape she realized she was looking at a face, one half of which was covered by the door.

She identified the face-- it belonged to Sally. But the person didn't behave as Sally would. She merely poised there, motionless, staring at Kathy with the single, exposed eye. Staring with no expression, neither love nor hate. Kathy could see the person breathing, she could see the moistness of the eye and its silky long lashes. The eye blinked, but didn't leave her, and betrayed no feelings towards her.

Kathy called out to it. She couldn't quite grasp the words coming from her own lips, but she was aware of the rising panic in her voice, as she pleaded with the face in the door, and called again and again.

She finally began screaming. But the face didn't move, and the eye revealed no compassion...

It was like drowning or being put on fire. Like falling out of an airplane without a parachute.

She knew she was in bed, and recognized Sally leaning over her and calling to her with concern and solicitude. But she was out of her mind with uncontrollable fear, and couldn't help moaning and lashing out wildly. Even as she tried to focus on her surroundings, the walls of the room seemed to be simultaneously curving in on her and dropping away into a painful and frightening infinity.

The next time she awakened, she was calmer. Her consciousness struggled to the surface of a great fatigue, and she realized that a hand was gently stroking her hair. She opened her eyes and saw that she was in the living room, and her head was being cradled in Sally's lap. 'Shh... just go back to sleep, dear,' said Sally.

She was next roused by the aroma of food, and the familiar and friendly sounds of plates rattling. Opening her eyes, she saw that Sally was laying out a breakfast tray next to her. The coffee, toast, and eggs smelled inviting. Sally lifted the coffee cup and held it out to Kathy, who accepted it with a smile.

She took a small sip. 'Mmmm...'

'Feeling any better?'

Kathy sat up on the sofa, still drowsy. She carefully held the cup in both hands and took another sip. 'What happened?' she asked.

'You had a bad night. I kept trying to calm you. And I eventually walked you out here and held you for a while until you settled down and went back to sleep. You've been out like a light since-- it's almost noon, now.'

Kathy was corralling the eggs with her fork. 'It sounds like night terrors. It's a sleep disorder they study at the institute... mostly just happens with little kids, though...' She thoughtfully chewed on her eggs.

She looked up at Sally. 'Thanks!' she said with a smile. Sally smiled back.


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