Choose your enemies carefully

Robert N. Charrette


We All Wear Masks

Three days ago, the pain had seemed unbearable.

But as time passed, the constant discomfort lessened the burden by dulling her senses. As late as this mornling, she thought that she had grown used to it. Then cramps had started. The crippling agony had racked her with increasingly frequent spasms all day. Now, it was almost dark. She didn't dare cry out.

A new spasm tore at her intestines and clawed its way up her torso, firing her insides with blazing agony. Despite her best intentions, she screamed as her musknotted in the brutal grip of the convulsion. As the wave of pain ebbed, she lay panting, certain that she had betrayed herself. Slowly, painfully, she dragged herself deeper into the gloom of her chosen shelter. The inhabitants of this rundown building, if there were any, remained hidden. Her only company was her misery. Moaning at the pain accompanying her every movement, she forced her legs to carry her up the stairs. If she could get far enough away, they might not find her tonight. The ravening fire in her belly threatened to overwhelm her, but she hugged one arm across her stomach and continued, bracing herself against the stairwell wall with the other.

She only made it up two flights before she collapsed, whimpering. Silently she cursed her waning strength. Orks were supposed to be tough. The physical power she had known for the last year had been the only compensation for her change, and now that strength had abandoned her. Just like Hugh. And Ken before him. Even her brother had left her to be disposed of with the rest of the unsightly trash. They could all rot in hell.

The blaze inside her had died to coals, a hot pain but bearable. In the recession of the pain, she became aware of a bone-numbing ache in her limbs. Her muscles, exhausted from her climb, trembled. Her skin was clammy with sweat and itched unbearably. She wanted to puke.

Her position on the landing offered her a view into one of the derelict apartments. The darkening sky was framed in the room's window. Outside, the lights of Hong Kong sparkled awake, forming constellations of sublime and taunting beauty. The thin, seesaw wail of a police siren drifted in through the open aperture. It offered no hope of rescue. None of the corporate police ever came to the Walled City. Not even the Enclave Police Agency, money-grubbing hirelings that they were, could be easily bribed to appear in the Walled City after dark. Gangs ruled the Walled City, and many of them hunted the changed for fun,

A scuffing sound came from the bottom of the stairwell and she froze. Her physical torment vanished in a rush of fear. Praying all the while, she strained to hear anything further. The noise began again, and she recognized the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

She pushed off with her arms, forcing herself upright. The world spun around, but she managed to stay on her feet and stagger up another flight. This landing was as littered with trash as the last, but several of the rooms on this floor still had doors. That meant someone still lived here. Hoping the hunters wouldn't press the search into occupied areas, she chose an open doorway and headed for it. As she attempted to pass through the doorway, her head slammed against the lintel. The shock forced an involuntary grunt of pain.

In the distant lower darkness, there was a sudden lence.

She listened, but there was no sound. The hunters would be listening, too.

Minutes crawled by.

Her eyes were good in the dark. If she stood by the railing and looked down, she might be able to see who was on the stairs. She didn't dare try. Even if she managed to suppress the vertigo, she would be exposing herself. There were others who could see in the dark : even better than she.

Her legs began to tremble again, and she felt her tfear-induced strength fading. She wouldn't be able to fremain standing for long. Ducking her head, she, slipped through the doorway. She stretched out an arm [and gripped the door, swinging it slowly closed. It Lmade no sound that she could detect. That was good. |If she couldn't hear it, they probably couldn't either.

The locks on the door were gonea151only splintered |wood marked their former presence. Not that it matftered; if the hunters tracked her here, a locked door I wouldn't stop them. Her only hope was that they would [pass by.

The room was a sty, a haven for drifters and the ameless. From the discarded chip casings scattered about she knew that it had seen its share of BetterfThan-Life parties. It would take a simsense world to I make this dump vaguely resemble a place to spend any time at all. Any time at all? She might be spending rest of her life here.

She could see nothing that might conceivably be 3d as a weapon. That really didn't matter as she barely ad the strength to stand; she would be useless in a fight. She staggered across the debris-strewn floor, barely reaching the far wall before her limbs failed her. She found herself on the floor, not knowing whether she had made any noise in falling. There was no sound of eager ork-bashers rushing up the stairs. Maybe her collapse had been silent. Maybe they would not think to look in this room. Maybe she could go back to her old life.

This squat was an awful place to die. Huddled and heartsick, she waited. If she had had the strength, she would have cried.

From the other side of the door she heard the soft scuff of a cloth sole. Someone had found her hiding place. Faintly, she heard the sound of the lurker sniffing the air. It was an animal sound, like that of a hound on a scent. After a moment the noise stopped, then she heard a brief scrape of clawlike fingernails scratching the wood near the top of the door. There was a brief return of the sniffing sound, then all was quiet again.

There was no reason to believe that the lurker had left. Perhaps he was patiently listening at the door, waiting for her to make the movement that would betray her. If she'd had the strength, she would have crawled out the window and taken her chances on the crumbling facade. A week ago she would have been strong enough to scale the wall to safety. Now, her muscles were too weak. Only her fear was strong.

She knew she had not fooled them when she saw the doorknob begin to move. It turned slowly, as if the lurker himself was afraid. Afraid of sudden movement that might frighten his prey. Predators moved that way; slowly and with deliberate care.

She began to think that she had guessed wrong about the nature of her hunters. Gangs made a show of their kills. This sneaking caution wasn't their style. They wouldn't be worried about disturbing any squatters in the building. They would just barge in and, if they had picked the wrong apartment, barge right out again. This stealthy approach argued a hunter who did not wish to disturb any residents. Deciding that she was not being stalked by ork-bashers gave her no relief; there were worse, far worse, hunters that stalked the night in the Awakened World.

The catch disengaged, the door swung open. Moving languidly, it yawned wider, until she could see the landing. There was nothing there.

Helpless before whatever was stalking her, she stared at the opening. There was a movement low on the left side of the frame, and a face appeared there. The angle of the head suggested that the face's owner had crouched before peering around the framea151a simple precaution to avoid offering an immediate target.

Her stalker's face was long and drawn. Sallow skin stretched tightly over prominent bones, and dark, dark i eyes were pools of night under slanted lids. Nostrils distended, and she heard the sniffing sound again. j. The lurker straightened, head twisting as he took in the |room and its contents. As he focused on her, he grinned. His mouth was overfull of sharp, pointed teeth.

Lord almighty, you have delivered me to ghouls!

A second face appeared on the other side of the doorway. It too was almost skeletal in its thinness. [Unlike the first, his dark eyes were not slanted, but this skin was as pallid. The flesh of both ghouls was |tinted a sickly yellow.

The second one mimicked the actions of the first, fturning his head with sharp motions as it surveyed the :›m.

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