Artemis Hemingway and the Science-Zombies of JCMB!
The pub interior was dark, and Dr. Judith Chalmers had to strain her eyes to see inside. She moved to the bar, ordered a half of Tennants, and looked around. The dark wood fixtures had been made to hold ashtrays; the impending smoking ban would make the pub look emptier. One table bucked the trend, sporting a prodigious collection of empty glasses. Drink in hand, she headed across to that table and the only other customer in the pub.
“Excuse me, but are you…?” She left the question hanging, her English accent standing out more than usual in the small Edinburgh pub.
The small man behind the table put down his glass of water. “I’m afraid not. I take it that you’re looking for the legendary Artemis Hemingway?”
“Yes. You’re not him?” She tried not to let the disappointment show on her face.
“Good Heavens no. He refuses to drink water, for a start. He claims that it interferes with his marvellous alcohol-fuelled brain.”
“You know him?”
“Oh, yes. I’m James Stamforth, Mr. Hemingway’s assistant. I believe that the great man is indisposed at present. He should be returning soon.”
With that, the door to the gentlemen’s toilets banged open. From within emerged a huge man, easily six and a half feet tall. A thick beard obscured much of his face, and met a wild tangle of hair. His barrel-chest strained at his shirt and his muscular arms bulged as he adjusted the belt around his prodigious gut.
“God’s bollocks, Jim! Stay away from those Australian girls, I’ve been pissing pure napalm for the past quarter-hour.” Hemingway’s booming voice matched his expansive frame. Looking around, his manner changed. “But who is this delightful young lady you’ve seen fit to introduce yourself to?”
Judith looked on in amazement, unable to speak. She recovered quickly for someone first meeting Artemis Hemingway. After all, she was a mere academic and he the man who single-handedly (with Stamforth) destroyed the Charnel Ship and fought the Jaguar-Headed God of the Congo to a standstill.
“I’m Doctor Judith Chalmers. Mister Hemingway, I need your help.”
“I’m sorry, my dear. I simply refuse to discuss business on an empty glass.” He turned his attention to the barman. “Three pints of Skullsplitter, Andrew, and whatever these lightweights are having.”
Stamforth and Judith both gestured for the same again. Seated around the table, Artemis signalled for the good Doctor to start talking as he lit a large cigar.
“It’s a strange situation, Mr. Hemingway. You are aware of the James Clerk Maxwell Building?”
The large man blew a smoke ring bigger than his head. “Artemis, please. And yes, I’ve heard of it. Out by the King’s Buildings, where the university sticks all its techies and whatnot.”
“Quite. JCMB has always been a strange place. Rumour has it that it uses more than three physical dimensions, and that it’s possible to retrace one’s steps and end up somewhere completely different.”
Stamforth nodded. “I had heard as much. But what about the building warrants our attention?”
Judith sipped her lager. “You’ve not heard the worst. Infovoric entities, ghosts in the machine, all of these are just rumours and tall tales. But two days ago, I stopped getting any e-mail from my students out there. At first, I thought that it was just a routine coding binge, but nobody has had any contact with anyone inside JCMB for the last two days.”
Artemis harrumphed mightily. “If you ask me, the dirty buggers are in the middle of a two-day internet porn binge and haven’t yet come up for air.”
“It can’t be that. We’ve been monitoring all network traffic in and out. Nothing at all.”
“Nothing.” Judith sat back. “I hope you appreciate that with all the tales of strange geometry and the like, it might be something hideous. I had to find you. Please, will you find out what’s happened inside JCMB?”
“Of course, my dear.” Artemis hefted his second pint and finished it in two mighty gulps. We shall head there tomorrow, and let you know what we find. It’ll all be nothing, you’ll see.”
They drank and talked more as the night went on. When Andrew finally saw fit to pour the three onto the street, Artemis threw his keys at Jim and departed with Judith into the night.
The next day dawned on an Edinburgh drowning in rain. Stamforth’s motor-car cleaved through the foul weather with windscreen-wipers flapping, Artemis half-awake in the passenger seat after James had collected him. The pair drove on in silence. Parking the car close to one entrance to the famed James Clerk Maxwell Building, Stamforth prodded Hemingway.
“We’re here. We should prepare.”
“It’s only a bunch of bloody students, Jim!”
“This from the man who thought that an alien attack fleet would be a pushover because they’d never heard of alcohol?”
Artemis’ voice held just a hint of petulance. “They were, once I’d got my guns.”
“Exactly. Get your guns now. Better safe than sorry.”
Hemingway removed his brace of Hell-pistols from the back seat, along with a thin jacket holding his most-needed accessories. Stamforth extracted a large backpack from the car boot that made a glassy clanking noise when he set it on the ground, and followed that up with his trusty omni-rifle. The rain soaking them to the skin the pair headed into the darkened halls of JCMB.
No living thing moved within. No receptionist or students, and no sounds of keyboards rattling or coffee machines buzzing. The whole place was as quiet as the grave. Artemis gripped one of his pistols warily as he advanced on the reception desk. A half-cup of cold coffee was the only sign of life. He sniffed it experimentally before heading for the lifts.
The pair took a careful left, then a right, then another right. By the time they heard a door open, they were already lost. A student slouched through and turned towards them. His skin was pale even for a computer science student, his complexion strangely waxy. His NTK t-shirt was grimy and streaked with blood.
“I say,” called Hemingway. “What’s going on here?”
The student didn’t respond, shuffling closer. Stamforth swore he could see the gleam of malevolence in its dead eyes.
“Artemis, I don’t think he’s alive.”
“We’ll see about that!”
But before Hemingway could do anything, the student was upon him. Teeth worn from too much coffee and junk food tried to find purchase on the great man’s expansive arm. Stamforth raised his omni-rifle and loosed off a concussion round, knocking the student off Hemingway and to the floor.
Hemingway was at the student’s side in an instant, though this time the wretch didn’t try to eat him. “Pulse is low, skin is cold… pass me a drink, Jim. I need to think about this.”
Stamforth handed over a bottle of Oban, wincing as Hemingway consumed the single malt whisky by the mouthful. “I’ll check out the computers while you’re thinking. I know what you’re like with electronics.”
There was a subtle shift in Hemingway’s voice as he spoke. “No pulse, no real reactions, lethargic, craving human flesh… tell me if the internet is still here.”
James knew better than to question Artemis, and quickly checked. “Nothing. No connection to the outside world at all.”
“The poor bastards.”
“What is it, Artemis? What’s happened?”
“They’ve been here for three days without an internet connection. No news, no coding websites, no free porn. And some bastard switched all the coffee in the building for decaffeinated!”
“My God. What sick intellect could conceive of such a thing?”
“I don’t know, Jim. But we must rid the building of these science-zombies before their lust for the flesh of real people overwhelms them.” Hemingway checked his guns.
“You don’t mean?”
“I’m afraid so, Jim. It’s been three days. There’s no hope for them. Hand me another, this one’s dead.”
Stamforth handed over a bottle of Smirnoff before loading his rifle with explosive rounds.
The next lab held four science-zombies, feasting upon the torn meat of a fifth. Five heads turned as Hemingway and Stamforth entered, though none had a chance to do more. A hail of bullets from Hemingway’s Hell-pistols tore through them, and Stamforth made sure that none were whole enough to get back up.
The pair progressed from room to room, fighting their way through masses of things that were once students. The ranks of the undead thinned before their onslaught, Stamforth immobilizing the science-zombies explosives in quick-setting aerogel when he ran out of explosives. Every few rooms, Hemingway would call for more spirits, and James would hand over another bottle from his amazing bar-pack.
“We have to be near the end now.” Stamforth was running low on all manner of supplies, including ammunition. “We have to be. How many more can there be?”
The hallway stretched on before our heroes, far longer than the building could possibly hold. Artemis Hemingway raised one Hell-pistol warily. The four-barreled marvel could turn a man into red mist at fifty paces, but nothing moved apart from the incredible man and his assistant.
Artemis’ barrel-chest rose and fell with ragged breathing. He’d been shooting science-zombies-ex-students deprived of caffeine and internet porn, turning them into mindless automata hungry for life-for the past four hours, and the strain was obvious. A door opened further down, causing Stamforth to jump.
“Stay calm, man. And pass me some booze.”
Ten figures shambled through the door, glazed eyes ignoring the world. Tattered ThinkGeek t-shirts flapped around sallow flesh. The scent of warm, living meat drew them towards Hemingway and Stamforth like teachers to a free bar.
“Are you sure, Artemis? You’ve consumed almost everything already.”
“You expect me to shoot these things when I’m sober?” Hemingway roared. “Hand me the damn booze and be quick about it!”
Stamforth passed across a bottle of vodka as the first shots rang out. Hemingway opened it with his mighty beard and drank deep.
“Pwah! What muck? Glens? I asked for booze, you feckless dog. Instead you give me this poor excuse for bleach. There’s only one thing that this piss is good for.”
So saying, Hemingway stuffed a filthy handkerchief in the top of the bottle and shook, saturating the cloth with imitation vodka. He flicked the Cigarette Lighter of Justice, touched the rag to the flame, and flung his improvised Molotov at the advancing science-zombies. The bottle burst, spilling flaming spirits over the poor souls condemned to wander the halls of JCMB after some evil genius had turned off the internet connection and swapped the coffee for decaff.
“Fire in the hole!” Hemingway chuckled heartily before fixing Stamforth with his powerful gaze. “Now pass me some real booze and be quick about it.”
“This is the last bottle.” James handed over a bottle of a surprisingly drinkable blend. “If there’s many more, we’re doomed.”
“Relax, man. My incredible brain has been tracking our progress through the five-dimensional geography of this building. We’ve only this last lecture theatre to go through.”
The doors opened on a hideous sight.
Ahead of them was a room full of science-zombies, all sat with pads and pens in front of them. At the front, below the projector screen, a female figure pronounced the intricacies of the halting problem to their unhearing ears. She didn’t have the look of a lecturer, sporting a collection of black PVC panels and straps better suited to a fetish club, with a wicked-looking gun hanging nonchalantly at one hip. It took both Hemingway and Stamforth a moment before they recognised who they were looking at.
“Doctor Chalmers! I should have known.” Stamforth raised his rifle, covering the science-zombies.
“So should I,” said Hemingway as he raised both pistols to face her. “Last night would have been even more fun if you’d worn that.”
“It’s people like you that made me the way I am!” Judith shrieked. “Sexist phallocentric scum like you who denied my funding and provided the pornography that so distracted my students. But now, now they listen to me. They worship me, they pay attention in lectures. Yes, they occasionally eat one another, but that’s no harm. And now you’ve killed them!
“That’s why I sent you here, Artemis Hemingway. Not to solve the mystery or rid JCMB of its science-zombies.” She raised her gun. “I sent you here to die!”
The science-zombies charged. Unable to feel pain, they didn’t need weapons. Our heroes did their best, but both were perilously low on ammunition.
“There’s too many targets, Jim.”
“I know. And we’re out of alcohol. If we don’t get out of here you’ll never see a pub again!”
“God’s bollocks!” Hemingway stopped shooting, instead using his incredible pistols to beat the once-human things to their final death. A roaring juggernaut, nothing could stop him once he was started. His legs bled from a hundred cuts and bite marks, but still he didn’t stop. Wading on through a sea of corpses, Doctor Chalmers turned to leave.
Stamforth raised his gun, standing in front of the exit. “I wouldn’t, Doctor. You see, Hemingway enjoys a good punch-up after a few drinks. I’m a rather more sober person. You wrecked hundreds, thousands of lives through your own selfishness.”
“I had to do it!” Judith gestured with her weapon.
“No. No, you didn’t. You could have filtered out the porn, you could have tried making your lectures interesting. But instead, you had to make it about your gender.”
“You’re mad, Doctor Chalmers. Hemingway will survive, but I’m afraid you’re far too dangerous-and far too intelligent-to leave in prison.”
Before she could respond, Stamforth pulled the trigger. Doctor Chalmers fell backwards, a single hole in her head from the high-powered round he’d been saving.
“Oh, dear. This is almost an anticlimax.”
Hemingway joined him at the front of the lecture theatre, stepping over the bodies of his foes. “What happened?”
“She tried to escape. I couldn’t let her.”
“I understand, Jim. You did what you had to. After all, she tried to kill both of us.”
“Indeed she did.”
But as Artemis looked down at the body, a chill spread through his mighty testicles. “That isn’t her.”
“What?” James’ rifle was up and scanning the room already.
“It’s another science-zombie, this one programmed to act like her. Its roots are showing, she was a natural redhead.”
“So Doctor Chalmers is still out there, somewhere?”
Hemingway shrugged. “And like as not will want her revenge.” He holstered his pistols. “But for now, that doesn’t matter. Beating those bastards to death worked up a Hell of a thirst. Last one to the pub buys a round.”