Book No. 3 in the Denver Moon series
Written by Warren Hammond & Joshua Viola
Art by Aaron Lovett and Matt Hubel
It’s been more than two years since Denver Moon discovered that alien shapeshifters infiltrated Mars Colony. Their attempts at human mind-control have failed, but when Denver opens a vault beneath a terraforming facility, she discovers what they really want: to exterminate all inhabitants of the Red Planet. Tatsuo Moon — Denver’s grandfather and the co-founder of Mars City — has been gravely injured. To save him, Denver will need the help not only of her friends, Smith, Nigel and Navya, but also of humanity’s archenemy, Doctor Werner. To save Mars, she’ll need a miracle.
[Excerpt — Published in Issue 106, October 2022]
I pushed the heavy metal door open, wincing at the squeak of its hinges. We didn’t want to be heard. Not yet. Not until I had Smith’s muzzle placed against the doctor’s temple. Then I’d have plenty to say.
Holding Smith out front, I stepped through. Navya and Nigel fanned out beside me. Before us was a room the size of a warehouse or a shipyard hangar. The door behind us slammed shut, and the locking mechanism clanged into place. Another half dozen doors all around us did the same. In the center of the room was a glassed-in facility that was so brightly lit, it stung my eyes.
A voice came from a speaker up high on the wall. “Denver,” said the unmistakable voice of Doctor Werner. “Finally, I have you where I want you.”
<Shit,> Smith said.
<Glad you’re still paying attention,> I subvocalized.
“What just happened?” asked Navya.
“We’re locked in,” said Nigel.
“Welcome,” said the doctor through the speaker. “I’ve never known Denver to take no for an answer, so I figured you’d be breaking in at some point. Kudos to you taking the stealthy underwater route. I thought shooting your way through the security forces guarding one of the access tunnels would be more your style.”
I smelled something burning. The odor was unpleasant but somehow familiar. “What is that smell?” I asked.
Nigel, Navya and I approached the glassed-in structure at the center of the room. Its walls stood twelve feet high but it had no ceiling. Instead, it was topped by an intricate latticework of tracks and rails busy with dozens of long-armed robotic machines zipping from position to position.
Standing just outside the glass, we could see gurneys inside, dozens of them lined up in neat rows. On each gurney was a person covered by a white sheet pulled up to bared shoulders. The robots moved from person to person, red lasers drilling into their heads.
“My god,” said Navya.
“Hair,” I said. That was the smell. Burning hair.
I turned away, rage welling inside. Next to me was a bin filled with clothes and other personal effects. Near the top was a purple plastic bracelet.
“The refugees,” I said. “This is what happens to them.”
“No wonder they have so many security guards around,” said Nigel.
I thought of the mayor shaming me over Mars not embracing more refugees like her people did here, and I found my fingers squeezing Smith’s handle so tight my hand hurt. I hadn’t felt such a sting of betrayal since I learned of my grandfather’s traitorous deal with the same son-of-a-bitch doctor over twenty years ago.
But I’d learned from that experience that my purest rage must always be directed at the doctor. Towing the moral line was never easy for those in desperate circumstances, and it was the doctor who so expertly victimized them. As on Mars, he’d only been here for a few months before he’d already perverted this rare oasis into something disgusting and self-serving.
“What are you doing to them?” I asked. When there was no response, I tried asking again, this time louder so the audio system could pick me up.
“I’m just about done perfecting them,” he said. “This is why I was sent to this system decades ago. To take control of the human mind. Although most of my kind has given up, I’ve made great strides since I severed ties with them and came here to Earth.”
“You’ve gone rogue?”
“As you already know from the first wave of attacks on Mars City, the Alvearu have decided on a policy of extermination, but when I prove human mind control is indeed possible, they’ll change their position. You should be thanking me, Denver. I’m saving your pathetic kind from extinction.”
“Who is this Alvearu?” asked Nigel. “We need to talk to them. We need to negotiate.”
“For such an intelligent machine, you stun me by how little you seem to understand your situation. First, as I’ve told you before, the Alvearu do not negotiate. Second, when this conversation is over, I’m going to ask you to remove your chip, which I will then destroy before dumping the pulverized remains into the ocean. The rest of you will share the same fate as the refugees. Your minds are mine.”
I waved Smith for the camera. “We’re still armed, asshole. Good luck coming in here and taking my gun.”
He let out one of his beetle-like snickers. “That’s not going to be enough, I can assure you of that.”
I pressed my back against the glass and inched to the right to be in position to see most of this space’s entry points. “Nigel, cover the entrance to our rear.”
Navya said, “Denver?”
“Stay close to me,” I told her. “Smith has a full charge. When Werner sends in those kids playing security guard, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.”
She tugged on my sleeve. “Denver?” I looked at my friend. Her face was a pale mask. “Look.”
I turned around to look through the glass. The refugees had sat up, their eyes blank, their mouths hanging open like I’d only seen on the dead. Their skulls had been drilled through in several places, the wounds weeping with dark, thick fluid. Probes had been inserted and riveted in place. In unison, they stood like a well-disciplined army platoon.
I saw the girl from the cafeteria. She’d looked beaten and defeated then, but every little bit of humanity was now stripped completely out. Now she was a robot. A zombified corpse of living flesh.
With a startling clank, the glass walls separating us from them lifted. Navya, Nigel and I backed up.
I didn’t want to shoot any of them. They were all so, so young, but I’d do what I had to do to protect myself and my friends. They gathered into groups, their overall number seemingly doubling, then tripling before I noticed many more were feeding up a staircase near the back of the formerly glassed-in area.
“What are they doing?” asked Navya, her voice registering yet another new level of shock as some of the refugees laid down or sat and interlocked arms and legs. Muscles flexed and squeezed, and I swear I heard bones snap as they hugged themselves into a tightly packed column. Speedily, they piled themselves into several more stacks, and then these stacks bent as if jointed, and they merged with others. More refugees climbed up, using their fellow victims as ladder rungs and formed a segmented body atop its legs.
Frozen in shock, we stared at a six-legged bug-like creature made of an unthinkable tangle of dozens of living human bodies. It moved, legs tensing like a spring, and it leapt in our direction.
We ran, and though we had nowhere to go, we sped away from the monster.
The creature turned. The people forming its feet were already crushed and bloody, yet they still clamped on tight. I fired. The pulse blasted one of the legs apart, but the other five legs were pumping in our direction. Navya fired, too, but already the bodies that were detached by my blast were regenerating.
Gods, more people-bugs were forming. At least a half dozen of them.
“The staircase!” I shouted. We sprinted through gurneys, dodging low-hanging equipment, and hustled down the stairs into another vast space where another half-dozen giant people-bugs awaited. Behind, the upstairs people-bugs disassembled to come down the stairs and snappily reassembled.
I took more shots as I ran, none of them hitting their mark. Smith lobbed a few more to make up for my misses. Combined with Nigel and Navya, we obliterated one entire creature, but it was becoming obvious we only had the firepower to take out a small fraction of what we faced.
Navya was knocked to the ground, her weapon skidding across the blood-slicked floor. One of the people-bug’s legs lifted to stomp her into a paste but a diving Nigel managed to knock her out of the way and the leg slammed the decking with a sickening wet slap of pulped bodies.
Another people-bug pounded its way toward Nigel and Navya.
I held up my hands in surrender. “You win! I give up.” I shouted at one of the cameras mounted on the wall. The bug stopped with one leg hovering over my friends.
“Put the weapons down,” said the doctor over the intercom, “and get back upstairs and lie down on one of the gurneys. The botsie too.”
<Smith, what should we do?>
<I don’t know, Denver. None of my simulations are showing a way out that doesn’t end with all of you in body bags. I suggest cooperating.>
I dropped Smith to the floor.
“I promise I’ll make it quick,” said the doctor. “After I drill the first hole into your skulls, you won’t feel much at all.”
We headed for the stairs. One of the people-bugs blocked the staircase, and we had to pick our way between its legs. I saw the people close up, their faces wrenched in agony. Squeezed so tight together they struggled for air, their skin discolored with oxygen deprivation. Many, it was obvious, had died. Their bones broken, their lungs and hearts pressed to death, yet their limbs and muscles were still controlled by the probes inserted in their heads. Held together by fingers dug deep like meat hooks into twitching flesh, the people-bug moved in coordinated fashion to unblock the staircase.
The doctor was deluding himself if he thought he’d successfully cracked the human mind. This was body control. Not mind control. Whatever he was doing to their brains was destroying everything these people were. They were empty. The doctor might’ve finally beaten me, but I took heart in the fact that once again, the doctor was a failure. His kind could kill every last one of us, but they’d never own us. Never.
We marched up the stairs and we each chose a gurney.
“Hand straps,” said the doctor, who stepped out of the shadows cast by the bug-people. “Denver, I want you to secure everybody’s hands.”
He was this close, but I couldn’t do a thing about it. His mind-slave goons were all around him, ready to strike at any moment.
I went to Navya. “I don’t want to die,” she said, her eyes pooling with tears. I clutched at my own heart which was strangled with guilt as deep and dark as the ocean bottom.
I pressed my forehead against hers. Tears streaming down my cheeks. “I know. You’ve been such a good friend. I’m so sorry I brought you here.”
“I knew what I was getting into,” she said. She tried to smile but the grin was instantly swallowed up by fear.
Nigel was next. I strapped in one wrist then the next. “I didn’t think it would end like this,” I said.
“Others live on,” he said. “It may only be a flicker, but hope survives.”
“This is all my fault for bringing you here.”
“Don’t worry yourself with that, love. We’re all mates and this is what mates do for each other.”
“Thank you,” I told him.
I bit my lip and took a deep breath before subvocalizing to Smith.
<Smith, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m so sorry. I failed.>
He didn’t respond. Too far out of range, probably. I sure hoped that was why. Maybe he’d pick up an echo of my transmission later, when he was closer to my body. I just didn’t want him to go on assuming he wasn’t on my mind before the doctor turned it to sludge.
I laid down and used my right hand to strap in the left. The refugees, many battered and bloodied, were all around me now. They secured my other hand as well as my ankles and placed a brace over my forehead, tightening the cinch until my head was totally immobilized. A crisp sheet was flung over me.
The machines above us started to move. Long laser-tipped arms stretched and contracted, taunting us with their deadly power.
My right hand was tugged on. I turned my head as far as it would go. One of the refugees was fumbling with the binding around my wrist. I felt something inserted into my hand and immediately recognized what it was.
<Yes, it’s me.>
I clutched him tight and moved my arm an inch or two under the sheet to find that my right hand was no longer secured. Hope surged from deep inside and every last nerve began to tingle.
I looked at the young girl who had removed the restraint. She appeared to be just as blank-stared as the rest of them. The probes protruding from under her hair blinked green, but she must’ve still been in some control of herself. I tried to make eye contact though I could barely move my head. She turned away and one of the machines centered itself over my forehead.
My eyes darted in every direction in an effort to locate the doctor. I needed him to come close. Simultaneously, ten separate arms on the machine overhead reached for my skull. Lasers engaged, and I smelled the burn of my own flesh and hair.
My skull began to vibrate as the lasers dug into bone. Unable to move my head, I searched for the doctor, startled when he showed up right next to me. “It will all be over soon, my little puppet.”
I lifted Smith, and the sheet fell from my wrist. Whipping the barrel in his direction, I squeezed the trigger as far as it would go.
Denver Moon Book III: The Thirteen of Mars is available October 11. More info.
Warren Hammond is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. By taking the best of classic detective noir, and reinventing it on a destitute colony world, Hammond has created these uniquely dark tales of murder, corruption and redemption. KOP Killer won the 2012 Colorado Book Award for best mystery. His last novel, Tides of Maritinia, was released in December of 2014. His first book independent of the KOP series, Tides is a spy novel set in a science fictional world.
Joshua Viola is a 2021 Splatterpunk Award nominee, Colorado Book Award winner, and editor of the StokerCon™ 2021 Souvenir Anthology. He is the co-author of the Denver Moon series with Warren Hammond. Their graphic novel, Denver Moon: Metamorphosis, was included on the 2018 Bram Stoker Award™ Preliminary Ballot. Viola edited the Denver Post #1 bestselling horror anthology Nightmares Unhinged, and co-edited Cyber World — named one of the best science fiction anthologies of 2016 by Barnes & Noble. His first novel, The Bane of Yoto, won the USA Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, International Book Awards, and Independent Publishers Book Awards. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, including DOA III: Extreme Horror Anthology, Doorbells at Dusk and Classic Monsters Unleashed. In 2022, he became the creative director of comics and novelizations for Random Games’ videogame franchise, Unioverse, a new series from the creators of Grand Theft Auto and Donkey Kong Country, and the writers of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Halo 4. When he isn’t writing and editing, Viola dabbles in art. In 2020, he collaborated with his husband, Aaron Lovett, on AfterShock Comics’ Miskatonic #1 Cover Alpha Comics variant. As a video game artist, he worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: Call of the Kraken, Smurfs’ Grabber and TARGET: Terror. Viola is the owner and chief editor of Hex Publishers in Denver, Colorado.
Check out Viola’s other published work in Birdy, most recently The Disciples of Many Faces and Flashpoints, or head to our Explore section to see more interviews and work by this talented creative.
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