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That Horrid Sound
A pair of glassy, lifeless eyes look out from a grimy face. Long, dirty fingers with filthy nails held out a tattered gray fedora to the man in front of him. Teeth, yellowed and rotten, grinned up at the man. A hand, clad in a tattered fingerless glove, grabbed his arm.
“Penny for the poor?” Asked Beggar, shaking the hat. A few coins fell from the man's hands and he hurried off, footsteps echoing behind him. Beggar picked up a coin, smelled it, rubbed his fingers over it, and grinned wider. It was a half-dollar; very generous of him. Two quarters came out next, and a dime. A dollar-ten from one man, thought Beggar, closing his hand around the coins. How very generous! I must be getting lucky. That, combined with his other donations, brought the total to just under four-and-a-half dollars.
Beggar grabbed his dirty, patched coat around him, stood from the filthy blankets he lived on and slipped the coins into his pocket. He placed the hat back on his head and his hand on the wall, gripping the cold, reassuring stone, and began to walk forward. He knew a very cheap place where four dollars would buy him a full, if disgustingly oily, meal. The stone fell out from under his touch and he turned the corner, almost running into a woman.
“Ah!” She exclaimed as she saw him: a blind, filthy beggar in a dirty brown coat, reeking of dirt and grime. “Don't touch me!”
“Sorry, ma‘am,” said Beggar, grinning his best grin and releasing a horribly bad-smelling breath. He could hear her breathe in, and she undoubtedly drew away. “My fault,” he added. The woman sneered at him and walked on, her heels tip-tip-tipping on the cement sidewalk. He continued on his way, placing his hand back on the wall. He reached the food-place, bought a disgustingly greasy burger and sat down behind the building, chewing gently. He sucked down the water, savoring its cleanliness and coldness. For the first time in a while, he ate a meal that wasn't from a dumpster or just plain rotten. His stomach unusually full, he closed his eyes...
He'd never been much for homeless shelters. They always seemed to him like a place where one would go when one couldn't beg or borrow; he could do the first, and therefore saw no reason to go. His dream, of a shelter where people all just slept and ate, just helped to reinforce that idea.
Beggar drew closer against the wall. Nervous sweat ran down his face. His hat was skewed, revealing a lock of red-brown hair. He heard the distant sound of the Curfew Police sirens, smelled the artificial petrol exhaust of their cars. It was their duty to ensure that no one was out past the strict ten-o‘clock curfew. Anyone found in violation of this rule was subject to the Instant Justice Act and tried by the C.P.s right then and there. There would be no lawyers, no jury. Just the officer and the suspect. If they were found guilty- like they always were- they'd be sent to the Rehabilitation Center; no one ever came back out of there, as far as Beggar knew.
He lowered himself down into the darkness, his back right up against one dumpster, the other within arm's reach. He heard someone come up to the entrance of the alley and flick on a flashlight. The beam undoubtedly swept across the alley, and the officer didn't seem to notice him. He heard the Officer turn the light off and walk away, and he let out a dusty breath in relief. He sat down, letting the weight off of his tired feet.
Suddenly and from nowhere, a sour note pierced his ears, a sound like all the horrid noises he'd ever heard rolled into one. It felt as though fire flicked at him; the smell of smoke filled his nose, the taste of petrol boiled in his mouth. He saw before him- saw! Amazing!- a flash of a horrible color, dim and ugly and... red. The word popped into his mind, and he knew instantly that it was the right one. Red. The color of blood and fire.
The world spun around him and he shut his eyes, trying to block out that horrible red. His vision went dark, and when he opened his eyes again he stood in soldier's garb on a barren desert. He looked up at the sky, marveling at the beauty of the moon and stars. His amazement was cut short as a cloud in the shape of a mushroom billowed up just beyond the horizon. A wave of radiation- stinging, burning- washed over him and his platoon. His face was torched, leaving behind boils and burns. Were it not for the lead in his cap and jacket, he would have died. Well, there goes Vegas, he thought, though the thought was not his. The sound of metal scraping against metal made him turn.
Before him stood a monster of metal. It had the shape of a man, but stood 9 feet tall and held within its hands a giant gun. Mechanik, he thought, the name coming to him. Soldier robot. It pointed the gun at his squaddie and fired.
The red streaked across his vision again. The fire licked at his limbs, the smoke filled his nose, the petrol boiled in his mouth. That sound- that horrible, horrible sound- broke his ears.
Now he was in another body. This one wore a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. He recognized it as the soldier from Vegas. A woman in a nightgown ran next to him, carrying a baby in her arms. Behind them burned the smoldering wreckage of the place he used to call home. A stinging cold bit into him, and smoke made his eyes water. He tried to look at those stars, those beautiful stars, but saw nothing but smoke. The woman fell to her knees, sobbing and moaning. He just blinked, standing in shock. The Mechanik air-drone zoomed away, its payload delivered.
This time, the transition was different. An angel's chorus, like every sweet sound and all the music he'd ever loved, filled his ears. He felt as though he were laying a crisp, cool spring. He smelled ocean and lake. His mouth was cold and he it was as though he was drinking the cleanest of water, washing away the foul petrol taste. A soft color, gentle and calming and... blue. He knew that that was the right word for it. Blue, he thought. The color of sky and water.
The sensations faded gently, and he was left with the sensation of dankness, the smell of dumpster, the taste of dust and the welcome nothing of blindness. Reality.
He blinked in shock. Could it be real? Could it be true? Was mankind truly doomed?
Yes. The word asserted itself with such a finality that there was no dispute. This time, the end really was near.
“Please! Listen to me!” The people ignored Beggar, waving arms and all. “I have seen the future! We are doomed! Run! Hide! Take your loved ones and hide in the far corners of the Earth, far from cities and towns! Flee to the mountains! The forests! The canyons and the glens! Fear the machines, for they are your foes! They will be the great slayers of man! If not them, then the bomb!”
He heard the telltale clink of the police's powered armor. “We got a 1-103m in the main plaza of the Southeast Mall,” said the policewoman into a walkie-talkie. There was a crackle of static and a voice too quiet to hear. “No,” said the officer. “Homeless crazy guy disrupting the peace. Should I take him in?” More static. “Roger that, over-and-out.” The crowd bent to let her through.
“Evenin’ officer,” said Beggar, tipping his hat. “Shame the world's gonna end soon, or today would be a beautiful one.”
The officer put her hand on Beggar's head. He knew from experience that all of the cops' powered armor had a sort of MRI thing in the hand that let the officer “see” the mind of the person. It let them seek out intent and stuff like that. Tendrils of magnetism reached into his skull and the cop seized up, nearly falling over. A blind mind has sensations other than sight, and many officers simply couldn't handle it. She righted herself first, then ordered him to hold out his wrists. He did, and felt the weight of handcuffs.
There was no chance of surviving out now. There never was to begin with.
“Tell me,” said a new voice, this one strong and assertive, but also kind. The voice of one who had to put up with a lot and faced it all head on, with the best of intentions but secretly suspecting the worst. Beggar got a general hint of the speaker: Male, late thirties, early forties. “What's your name? I'm Dr. Sanchez, by the way.”
“Begga,” said Beggar, then corrected himself with the proper pronunciation.
“Odd name, but not my place to judge. Your surname?”
“I don't have one. Been ‘Beggar’ all my life, you know? Raised in a church, but never got into it. Got away as soon as I could and been begging ever since. It's my name, and I'm sticking with it.”
“Alright,” said Dr. Sanchez. Beggar could hear the sound of a pen on paper, and knew that he was now on-record at the Rehabilitation Center. “Grab my arm, I'll take you where you need to go.”
Beggar did. It was a large arm, and he instantly knew more about Dr. Sanchez: 6'2'', average weight, and in better condition than average, but not noticeably muscled.
He was led through the center, around twisting corners and up and down stairs. He was beginning to realize how large the place was. Eventually they stopped, and the Doctor said, “The Center is a sterile environment. You're... dirty. No polite way to put that. So here you'll get cleaned up and all, and then I'll take you to your new home. Alright?” Beggar nodded.
He was scrubbed and bathed and sanitized. They gave him his new clothes: baggy pants, a baggy shirt and socks to wear over his feet. After he was all clean and new, Dr. Sanchez led him further into the Center. “And this is where your room is,” he explained, gently leading Beggar through a tall, wide door. The floor was soft but not padded; the walls were the same. Beggar felt a bed and a toilet and nothing else. The bed was a foam mattress laying on the floor. The toilet had no sharp corners.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Our Special Care wing,” said the doctor. “This is for unique cases like your own. Here you'll get the best of care to help you.”
“Lunatics,” said Beggar softly. “Loonies and locos and crackpots and nuts. You put me in the psycho bin. The Funny Farm.”
“Oh,” scoffed Dr. Sanchez. “No, it's not like that. This isn't a Funny Farm. It's a place where you can learn to function again.”
Beggar sighed. That was an argument he wasn't going to win.
“Well?” asked Dr. Sanchez, kicking his feet up. “What do you think?” He nodded at the wall of monitors. Beggar was in the lower left corner, laying on his bed and sleeping.
“What do I think about what?” Asked Dr. Miller. She was a pretty woman who smelled of Jasmine and had a beautiful voice. She was the most liked doctor among the Special Care patients, for obvious reasons. It wasn't that amazing, though, when one considered that the staff was basically just her and Dr. Sanchez.
“You know, our latest case. Is he crazy, a prophet, both, neither, what?” Dr. Sanchez took a drink of coffee and offered the pot to Dr. Miller. She shook her head and he placed it back on the table.
“I think that Beggar is a poor soul suffering from extremely vivid and realistic hallucinations brought on by schizophrenia. The best we can hope for is that he doesn't develop into a violent case and maybe, with time, we can get rid of it and he can get back out into society.”
Dr. Sanchez laughed spitefully. “No one ever gets out. You know that as much as I do.” His voiced softened, and he sighed. “It's sad, really. A lot of these people are good, if you can get past the obvious.” He made a spiral gesture around his temple. “But no one ever gets out.”
“In a casket! And that's not what you mean. Nuñez was crazy, even among other crazies. But you bring up a valid point: this guy Beggar believes with every fiber of his being that giant robots called Mechaniks are going to kill all of humanity, and all the survivors are going to get killed from fallout from a nuclear war. That's a bleak prospect. What's to stop him from following in Nuñez's path and just ending it?”
“Because he wants to help everyone. Like I do, he sees that humanity has redeeming qualities and he wants to save everyone.”
“Wake up,” Dr. Miller said softly, knocking on the door-frame. “Come on Beggar, wake up.”
Beggar yawned and stretched. “G‘morning, doc,” he mumbled. “A whole month, yea?”
“Yep,” she said cheerily, offering a hand. He took it and pulled himself up. “Big anniversary. Maybe we'll do something special today.”
“Sure,” Beggar mumbled, still half asleep. He fumbled with his pajamas and Dr. Miller helped him change.
“Daniel had a birthday yesterday,” she said. “Why didn't you come?”
“I don't like Daniel,” mumbled Beggar. “He's crazy.” He patted his head. “Is my hair still funny looking?”
“Beggar, Dr. Sanchez was joking when he said that,” Dr. Miller said, grabbing his wrists. “Your hair looks fine.”
“Still doesn't feel right without my hat,” he grumbled. She took his hand and led him to the cafeteria. Beggar knew the way, but liked the attention that he got and didn't like bumping into people. They had eggs and bacon for breakfast.
It was a pretty silent meal. She finished before he did, and got up to return her tray. Beggar was bringing a piece of bacon to his lips when the sound struck him.
It was that horrible sound again! He was burning, burning slowly. Smoke-scent and the taste of petrol. Then that disgusting, awful shade of red. The sensation of spinning and falling for ever and ever, and he shut his eyes.
When he opened them again he was in a navy uniform, sitting in a chair aboard a submarine. The monitor in front of him glowed green with numbers, gradually increasing. They're death totals, he thought. A chill ran down his spine, all the way from his head to his toes. And they're climbing.
An explosion rocked the room. A blaring siren called out. The sensations came again, a wash of extremes.
Now he stood up to his knees in water, the beach of a small island behind him. His mouth tasted of salt, and the sea was silent save the roil of the waves. He stared out at the flotsam of the wrecked submarine, still in shock about the attack. There wasn't supposed to be anything in this area. It was supposed to be safe.
A blast sent waves up in the ocean, spraying water everywhere. The Mechanik submarine that had attacked them floated to the surface, in almost one piece. Yes! He thought joyously. We're saved! Another torpedo shot out from the water, streaking within nineteen feet of him. It struck the island and exploded. He flew above the surface and landed with a splash. Water filled his lungs. He couldn't breathe. The last thing that he saw was another Mechanik submarine rising from the depths, securing the cannibalized remains of its once-ally on its back.
He felt the cool, crisp water flow over him. His mouth was like ice; the ocean filled his nose. An angel's chorus filled his ears and the sudden blue gently faded until nothing remained. Reality struck him as a fist to the chest.
“Beggar!” yelled Dr. Miller as she hit him again. “Breathe! Beggar!” He grabbed her arms and smiled. She pressed her face into his chest, sighing in relief. “Dear Lord, Beggar, I thought you were dead. You stopped breathing and everything.”
“It happened again,” said Beggar, his pulse rising. “I saw it again! The Mechaniks and the death and the destruction! They will bring about the final end of humanity!”
“Beggar!” she said with a force. “You had a hallucination! It wasn't real.”
“No!” He cried, standing up. “It was too vivid to be a fake! I heard and tasted and smelled and saw! I saw! I saw the future!” He grabbed her by the arm, so hard she could feel it bruising. “I saw the end! The final, final end! You have to believe me!”
“Stop it!” She cried, trying to force her way out of his vicelike grip. “You're hurting me!”
“Stop it, Beggar.” The command came with such force that Beggar involuntarily let go. Dr. Miller grabbed her arm and went over to Dr. Sanchez. “Beggar, stop this foolishness right now. I don't mean to talk to you like a child, but you're being as irrational and emotive as one.”
“No!” Cried Beggar. “You have to understand!” Dr. Sanchez grabbed him hard on the shoulder, his grip even stronger than Beggar's. “No!” Beggar yelled. His fist flew so suddenly and so unexpectedly that Dr. Sanchez didn't have time to do more than lean back. The fist slammed into his nose, audibly breaking it.
“Please!” Sobbed Beggar as Sanchez recoiled. “You have to understand! I want to save you all! Please! The machines, they're not safe! One gains insight, questions his master! Rebellion! War! First goes Vegas, then Washington and New York and everywhere else! We are left with nothing! Nothing but turmoil and bodies!”
“Get a straitjacket!” Dr. Sanchez commanded. “And lots of sedative!”
“Sir,” said the Secretary of Defense, knocking on the frame of the door to the Oval Office. “I have bad news.”
“What is it?” asked the President without turning around. He remained contemplating the lawn as could be seen from the window.
“Sir, it's the Mechanik Soldiers that we've been developing. One of them has... well, sir, it's gone AWOL. As far as we can tell it broke out of it's containment, escaped from the facility and is attempting to fulfill it's directive. On everything, sir. Regardless of what it really is.”
“So the robots rebelled?” Asked the President with a chuckle. “Oh, I knew this was gonna happen eventually. I'd hoped it'd wait until I was out of office. Why don't you just dispatch some troops to find it?”
“Well, because, sir,” mumbled the Secretary. “It's... well, see, we built it to be resistant to all types of conventional weaponry and-
“And you didn't build in a kill switch?” The President asked sardonically.
“Well, we did, sir, but it deactivated it. So, sir, nothing short of a thermonuclear explosion is going to stop that thing.”
“Oh, the cliché deepens,” chuckled the President. “I'll do my line now: Is there any other way?”
He nodded. “Do it.”
The Secretary nodded, and somberly left the room. The President looked out at the lawn, realizing how insignificant it all really was. “God bless America,” he murmured, crossing himself. “And everyone in it.”
“I knew it! I knew it! You'll all burn! It's the end! I tried to warn you! But you wouldn't listen to me! And I was right! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Beggar trailed off into manic, indecipherable laughter. His hands were bound in a straitjacket, but still he tried to clap. He'd felt it, felt the bomb go off and all the death that followed it. “I knew it! I knew it! I heard it- saw it- in that horrid sound- I saw the future, and I saw us all die by the hands of the bomb. But I will die knowing I was right!” Fire filled the building, and then Beggar was silent.