Set your phasers to overkill and bring ensign Jimmy along as a decoy while we follow a band of fanboy survivors as they escape the horrors of GulfCon, site of the worst undead Trekkie outbreak this side of Fortune City.
The hotel's parking garage contained seven levels, six above ground and one below. The cavernous underground lot accommodated tour buses, luxury motor coaches, and anything else that needed extra space and extra security. At night, a gigantic metal gate descended over the one and only entrance, locking it up tight.
Jim stood beside K-7, awaiting the arrival of his sister.
A voice crackled over his walkie-talkie.
"Here they come," said Oscar. "Holy shit. You are not going to believe this."
"Believe what?" Jim replied.
Almost before he got the question out, his sister's ride lumbered around the corner. It was an enormous recreational vehicle-the kind that rock stars use while touring and retirees take to Yellowstone. Only Jim had never seen one like this before. It was painted a shiny, metallic bluish silver. Something resembling a satellite dish sprouted from the grill. Along the entire length of the roofline on both sides ran fat metal tubes with flickering red lights at the front.
Jim knew exactly what he was looking at: a very costly, very elaborate, very pathetic attempt to turn the RV into the USS Enterprise.
"Houston, we have a freak show," he muttered dejectedly.
The RV came to a stop with a hiss of air brakes. The side door cracked open, and out jumped Rayna. She closed the ten feet between them in three excited strides and embraced him. He hugged her back, lifting her petite frame off the floor.
"You've changed," she said as she stared up at his face. "You look more serious."
"You have no idea," Jim replied. "But you've changed, too."
"You're blue. And you have antennae sprouting out of your head."
"I'm an Andorian," Rayna said. "We're a warlike race from an M-class moon. You can call me by my proper name, Lieutenant Thellina."
"Already got your geek on, I see."
"You should be congratulating me," Rayna said. "I've just been promoted to helmsman of the USS Stockard."
"What's the ‘Stockard'?"
Rayna pointed to the RV.
"I see," Jim said. "Who gave you this rank?"
The door to the Stockard swung open again. Out stepped a tall, thin, twenty-something man wearing a gold jumpsuit with a matching gold jacket. He also had on aviator shades-the big ones that Tom Cruise sported in Top Gun.
"Hey, Lieutenant Hottie," he called. "Where'd you run off to?"
Jim watched as Mr. Ray-Bans put his left arm around his sister's neck. It wasn't a hug as much as a mock wrestling hold. For a moment he wondered if he was going to give her a noogie.
"Don't mess up my antennae," Rayna pleaded.
Jim felt his neck and shoulders stiffen. He'd only just met this guy, but he'd already disliked him for years.
"Matt, this is my brother, Jim," Rayna said.
"Matthew Stockard," he said. "Or rather, for the duration of this soiree, Commodore Stockard. Commander of the USS Stockard."
"Matt taught me how to drive this thing," Rayna chimed in.
"At first I worried she couldn't handle a big rig," Matt said. "But she's a natural. Real enthusiastic."
It occurred to Jim that he would have no problem putting Commodore Asshole on the garage's cement floor. He certainly had the means, and Matt just handed him the motive.
Rayna sensed her brother's mood. "What he means is, I drove most of the way here," she offered soothingly. "It's really not that hard."
"I'm sure it's not," Jim said. "What do you do for a living, Matt?"
"Whatever. What's your actual job?"
Rayna frowned. "Jim, during a convention it's not good form to push people for details about their mundane lives," she said. "If they want to volunteer information, that's fine. But-"
"I'm a software developer for Imp Entertainment," Matt said. "Worked on a couple of games you've probably heard of. D'you know ‘Shopping Maul'?"
As a matter of fact, Jim did. He'd played the game several times. It featured a post-apocalyptic shopping center overrun with mutants. You had to go from store to store, buying things while wiping out the bad guys with a chain gun. It was actually pretty challenging. Shooting people while pushing a shopping cart took some getting used to.
"Sorry, it doesn't ring a bell," Jim lied.
A look of disappointment flashed across Matt's face.
"Your loss," he said. "It was only last year's hottest first-person shooter game."
Matt turned his hands into finger guns and pointed them at Jim's chest.
"Ka-pow!" he said. "Ka-pow! Ka-pow!"
Then he raised the finger guns to his mouth, blew away imaginary smoke, and pretended to holster them.
Jim tried to think of something to say. He was saved from the attempt when another one of Matt's passengers descended from the RV. She was Rayna's age and sported a bobbed black haircut and clunky rectangular glasses. Her uniform consisted of a halter top and miniskirt, plus pointed prosthetic ears and a dagger holstered on her right hip.
"Jim, this is my friend T'Poc," Rayna said. "T'Poc, Jim."
"Hey," T'Poc offered.
Jim heyed her back.
"T'Poc is a Vulcan officer from the ISS Enterprise, which exists in a mirror universe ruled by the barbaric Terran Empire," Rayna said. "You know, the inside-out dimension where all the good guys are bad guys and Spock has a goatee."
"Yeah," Matt said. "Get her drunk and she'll show you her goatee."
"If he's lucky," T'Poc smiled.
"That sounds . . . great," Jim said uncertainly. "What do you do in the real . . . "
Rayna shot him a look.
"I mean, what do you do aboard the evil, mirror-image Enterprise?"
"I'm the commanding officer's personal yeoman," T'Poc said. "I assist him in his amoral, selfish quest to claw his way to the top of the command chain. It's roughly analogous to the job belonging to my counterpart in this universe."
"And that would be?"
"She's my executive assistant," Matt said. "Keeps track of all the stuff I'm too busy to remember."
"Speaking of which," she said, "you need to get Gary off the ship. He's really stinking up the place."
Matt sighed, then pounded on the side of the RV.
"Hey Horta, get your pimply butt out here!" he shouted. "Front and center, mister, before Imp Entertainment decides to replace you!"
"Coming," called a voice from inside.
The door opened once more, and a grossly overweight young man climbed out. Unlike the others, decked out in their full convention splendor, he wore ratty jeans, faded yellow Chuck Taylors, and a threadbare shirt that read "I Stole a Bird of Prey, Resurrected Spock, and Saved the Planet, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."
He also reeked of putrescence and was spattered with vile black goo.
"Meet Gary Severin, my pet Horta," Matt said. "You know what a Horta is?"
"Not a clue," Jim lied again, when in fact he knew all about the lumpy, silica-based, acid-spewing subterranean monsters that debuted in the classic Trek episode, "Devil in the Dark." But he played dumb, forcing Matt to spend more than a minute explaining the concept.
"I call Gary a Horta because he's large and lumpy, too," Matt concluded, just in case the comparison wasn't clear.
"I also suffer from acid reflux," Gary said forlornly.
Jim frowned. "Is that why you're covered in slime?"
Matt walked over to Jim and put his arm around his shoulders. He left it there, as if they were old friends. "Gary had a run-in a few miles back with a psycho soccer mom . . . or something."
"Or something?" Jim asked.
"He can tell you all about it. As a matter of fact I guarantee he'll tell you since he hasn't shut up for one goddamn minute since it happened. But never mind all that. Right now we need to find our rooms and change our clothes, because the Klingon Feast starts at . . . T'Poc?"
"Seven o'clock in the Gweagal Room," the Vulcan said tonelessly.
"We'll be there ten minutes early," Matt decided, "so we can find a table big enough for all five of us."
Jim did the math and then shot a look at his sister, who seemed to have found something very interesting on the garage floor to observe. "You told me we were meeting for dinner at seven," he reminded her. "This was your plan?"
"I'm booked all weekend," Rayna apologized. "But I really want to see you."
"Trust me, you're going to love it," Matt said. "There's a bat'leth demonstration, barrels of blood wine, and all the gagh you can eat."
"I don't want to spoil your Trek buzz," Jim said. "You go eat your gagh and have fun."
"Please come," Rayna said. "For me?"
"Actually . . . "
"Did I mention that Matt has been hitting on me nonstop for the last three hours?"
"I'll be there," Jim decided. He retrieved a trio of room keys from his pocket and distributed them to Matt, Rayna, and T'Poc. "You're all checked in," he explained. "Just take the elevators over there. Gary and I will take the freight elevator way over there, so he won't scare off the paying guests."
"Where are the elevators?" Matt asked, his head swiveling around. "I don't see them."
"Lose the shades," T'Poc said.
Matt, with great reluctance, finally took off his Ray-Bans.
"Ah, target acquired," he said. "See you later, Jim, Brother of Rayna. And here's something for your college fund."
He slipped a ten-dollar bill into the breast pocket of Jim's jacket.
Jim felt a flash of true anger. He was about to suggest someplace else where Matt could slip his money when, once again, he caught a glimpse of his sister. And he refrained. Instead, he grabbed Gary's duffel bag from inside the RV and then led him across the dimly lit garage toward the service elevators.
"Hey, Oscar," he said into his radio. "I've got my sister and her friends. Thanks for letting me know they were coming."
"Can't talk now, buddy," came the static-filled reply. "I got some knuckleheads causing trouble out here. Standing in the street. Harassing cars. Drunk frat boys, I'm guessing."
"You need help?" Jim asked.
"Go have fun with your sister," Oscar told him. "I've got this situation under control."
Jim clicked off his radio and turned his attention to Gary. "I don't mean for this to come out the wrong way," he said, "but is your buddy Matt as big of an asshole as he seems?"
"You ain't seen nothing yet," Gary promised. "Once he settles down at the Klingon Feast and has a few drinks, his douche-bag powers will go to full strength. He'll crank it all the way up to warp 9.95."
Jim assumed this was bad. Very bad.
The two plodded the rest of the way to the elevator in silence. Jim mused that there was an excellent chance, a truly excellent chance, that Matt wouldn't get out of the Botany Bay Hotel alive.
The service elevator was big and poorly lit. Some of the hotel staff used it for cigarette breaks, so it normally reeked of smoke. But today all Jim could smell was Gary. Or, rather, the black viscous goo on Gary's T-shirt.
The elevator's doors slid shut. It slowly rumbled up toward the seventh floor.
"You'll have to forgive me for asking," Jim said, "but what the hell happened to you?"
"Crazy shit is what happened," Gary explained. "We were heading down 249 and were just inside Beltway 8 when the Commodore stopped for gas. You can probably guess who had to pump."
Jim pointed at Gary.
"Affirmative. Now the only other car in the gas station is a Volvo station wagon. And while I'm standing there waiting for the RV to tank up, I realize the driver of the Volvo isn't moving. She's slumped over the steering wheel. Her window's down maybe six inches. The stink coming out of this car is unbelievable."
"What did you do?" Jim asked.
"I tap on the glass and there's no response. So I figure she's dead. I've found a dead body. I call out for Matt to come look, and in that split second the woman is suddenly grabbing me. Her hand's through the open window and she looks nuts. Her face is smashed up against the glass and her mouth is snapping like a crocodile's. That's about all I remember. Matt says I did some crazy, girly-looking dance until she let go."
"He didn't get out and help?
"Nah. He said he felt obligated to stay clear, because he'd heard on a National Geographic special that you're not supposed to screw around with nature's rhythms. So he just sat there watching me while I fought off that crazy bitch."
"But the stuff on your shirt-"
"It was all over her hands. Actually, I'd swear it was coming out of her hands. Like blisters or lesions or something. They were all over her face, too."
Jim studied Gary's face for a moment. Then he let out a long sigh.
"That sounds like Dawn of the Freaking Dead," he said. "You sure you aren't jerking my chain?"
Now it was Gary's turn to study Jim.
"You got me," he said. "It's all a joke. I rolled in roadkill, just so I could get you to believe my story about being attacked by an insane milf in a Volvo. Because even though we've only just met, I live to jerk your chain. I fantasize about it."
The elevator bell rang for the seventh floor and the doors slid open. Jim stepped out first to make sure the hall was clear.
"All right," he said. "Let's go."
"I wouldn't worry about scaring the guests," Gary told him as he emerged from the elevator and followed Jim down the hall. "I won't be the weirdest sight at a Star Trek convention."
"Maybe not," Jim said as he stopped in front of room 744. "But you're definitely the weirdest smell."
He passed the room card over the door, unlocking it. The accommodations included two queen-size beds, a small bathroom, and windows overlooking the Botany Bay's vast atrium. Over each bed hung a painting-the same paintings that could be found in the majority of the Botany Bay's guest lodgings. One showed Captain Cook landing for the first time on the Australian coast-at a place he'd soon name Botany Bay. The other showed his sailing ship, HMS Endeavour, in storm-tossed seas. The paintings were the hotel's most obvious-and pretty much only-attempt to explain its name to patrons.
Though why a hotel in Houston would choose for its theme the adventures of an eighteenth-century British sea captain was beyond Jim.
"Thank Surak!" Gary exclaimed. "All I want to do is lose these clothes, grab a shower, and have a long, long nap."
"The first two are on the agenda, but not the third," Jim said as he dropped his companion's big, green duffle bag on the bed. "We're due downstairs for the Klingon Feast."
Gary looked at him wearily and then unzipped his duffle bag, fished out a large, cardboard shirt box and a shaving kit, and disappeared with them into the bathroom. A few moments later the toilet flushed. Then the shower kicked on.
Jim flopped into a tiny upholstered chair near the windows. He made a mental note to ask Gary to put his funky clothes in a plastic sack, so they didn't stink up the place. He contemplated stepping out into the hallway and mooching a garbage bag from a housekeeping cart.
Then he pushed the idea from his mind. Why should he give a damn if one of the hotel's rooms smelled? Or, for that matter, if a Klingon battle-cruiser cake was delivered? Or if the catering staff abandoned their posts?
None of it was life or death.
But that business with the woman in the Volvo. That was life and death. It added to Jim's general sense of unease. People bitten. People sick. A woman moaning and biting and reeking of death, just like Dawn of the . . .
Gary emerged from the bathroom wearing a stupendously ill-fitting blue-and-black jumpsuit. The sight utterly derailed Jim's train of thought.
"First-season Next Generation," Gary said. "My mom made it for me. What do you think?"
It looked to Jim like the Starfleet recruiters were really scraping the bottom of the barrel, but he tried to frame his appraisal more diplomatically. "I'm probably the wrong person to ask," he said. "I feel like I outgrew Star Trek a few years ago." Then he gestured at Gary's crotch. "But your sack is, like, right there."
Gary tugged resolutely at the suit's inseam.
"Better?" he asked.
"You might want to do that every few minutes. Just to be safe."
Gary sat down on the corner of the bed.
"I'm whupped," he said.
"Maybe the zombie milf infected you," Jim suggested.
"Dude, I never said she was a zombie. That's you talking."
"But think about it. She tried to bite you," he mused. "She was obviously out of her mind. And at least some of that slime on your shirt is blood. I've seen enough to know the look. And the smell."
"Now you're freaking me out," Gary said.
"I'm freaking myself out," Jim said. "But I know two people who were bitten today. One of them developed a really strange rash on her shoulder. And a lot of my coworkers are calling in sick. Isn't this how zombie movies always start? With lots of minor, seemingly unrelated incidents?"
"There's just one problem with your theory," Gary said. "Zombies don't exist. Those movies are fiction."
"I know," Jim said, "but the data all points to the same conclusion."
"The same highly illogical conclusion," Gary clarified. "Speaking as someone with a really tenuous hold on reality, I think you might want to take yourself offline and undergo a full diagnostic, if you get my drift."
I'm not the one in a form-fitting jumpsuit, Jim thought, but he didn't see the point in debating it further. He didn't really believe that the world was being overrun with walking dead-he just knew that his instincts were buzzing, and he was desperate to understand why.
But first, they had a feast to attend.
Jim and Gary left the room and headed down the hallway toward the elevators. Gary quickened his step when he realized it was almost seven o'clock. "I don't need any shit from Matt for being late," he said.
"Relax," Jim said. "Why do you put up with him?"
"Matt can be a real jerk, but he's already a legend in gaming. You'll see tomorrow at the autographing session. He'll have fans lined up for hours. I guess it goes to his head sometimes."
The elevator arrived and they stepped inside. "Being talented is no excuse for treating your employees like dog shit," Jim said.
Gary sighed. "He's actually my employee. I'm his boss."
"It's like this," he explained. "Thinking up a fresh, hugely popular game is hard. Designing one is even harder. Matt thought of one and also designed it. That means he's valuable and has to be tolerated. My job-one of my biggest jobs-is keeping the talent in my company happy."
The elevator descended smoothly and quickly. Its glass walls offered a panoramic view of the Botany Bay's vast lobby.
"You're a professional punching bag," Jim said.
"An extremely well-paid professional punching bag," Gary said. "But I'll give Matt some credit: at least he doesn't make stuff up. He says I'm fat, and I am. He says I can't get a date, and I can't. He says I live with my mother, and I do."
"If you're so well paid, why don't you get your own place?"
Gary's face suddenly grew serious.
"Look, Mom's sixty-seven years old and she's been confined to a wheelchair since I was in high school. Ever since . . . the accident. She tells me I should get my own place, live my own life, but I can't just dump her in a rest home and walk away. I want to take care of her, the way she used to take care of me. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," Jim said. "Actually, I do."
"Awesome. Because I just made all that shit up. My mom is healthy as hell. I live with her because I'm a social cripple."
"And I thought Matt was a jerk," he said.
The elevator dinged, announcing their arrival on the lobby floor. Gary started to exit, but Jim stopped him with an arm across the chest.
"Sack," he said.
Gary adjusted himself once more, and then they were on their way.
Jim pointed Gary toward the Gweagal Room and then detoured to the Botany Bay's front desk. He found Janice at the counter, all by herself.
And none too happy about it.
"Why are you still here?" he asked.
"Dwayne hasn't come in," Janice said. "And his phone's out of service, or something. I can't reach him."
"Isn't there anyone else?"
"Would I be standing here if there was?"
Janice gave Jim a long, appraising look. He thought he could hear the wheels in her head turning.
"I suppose you could fill in," she finally said.
"Can't," Jim said. "I have a thing."
"Oh, a thing," Janice repeated testily. "What's her name?"
"It's not like that. My sister is here for GulfCon. I'm meeting her at the Festival of Klingons, or whatever it's called. I can't get out of it."
He backed his way down the hall before she could press him further.
"Way to take one for the team," she called after him.
Jim had no idea what took place at a Klingon feast, but he had assumed it would be a little livelier than the scene he discovered in the Gweagal Room. It was in one of the Botany Bay's smaller meeting areas and seated 150 guests for receptions, banquets, and corporate functions. Tonight, Jim pegged the head count at fifty, sixty tops. Most were either huddled around the bar or clustered in tight groups at tables. A few wore various iterations of Starfleet crew uniforms. The rest were done up in leather or faux leather and carrying fake blades.
In one corner, several Klingons were engaged in a head-butting contest, slamming their cranial crests together like rutting mountain goats. And over by the bar, someone pounded out a monotonous Klingon opera on a synthesizer keyboard. A few onlookers sang the libretto in guttural, artificially low baritones. Jim's understanding of the Klingon language was sketchy, but he recognized the words "fight," "kill," and "death" in the lyrics.
He surveyed the banquet table, laden with Terran approximations of various Klingon delicacies. The sights and smells ranged from exotic to flat-out disgusting. Among the more palatable items were krada legs (smoked turkey), pipius claw (conventional crab), and heart of targ (a quivering, livid, red Jell-O mold).
Two men in full Klingon drag bellied up to the buffet. One grabbed a mock krada leg and took a hearty bite.
"How is it?" Jim asked.
"Bland," the Klingon replied. "Needs more crapok sauce."
Jim grabbed what he hoped was an ordinary cheeseburger and then set off for the large, round table where Matt, Rayna, Gary, and T'Poc were already eating. Sitting across from them were a knot of Klingons.
As soon as Matt caught sight of Jim, he glared at him.
"Dude, what kind of shithole is this place?" he asked.
"Excuse me?" Jim said.
"This is the worst Klingon Feast in five years of GulfCon. Look at all the empty chairs. You can't even get a plate of gagh."
Now that was strange, Jim thought. Sarah Cornell had seemed determined to pick up those gummy worms, but apparently she had never made it back from the warehouse club.
"We were expecting up to three thousand walk-ins," Jim said.
"Three thousand, my ass," Matt said.
Jim surveyed the room. The gathering didn't look very festive. From what he could tell, there were only two distracted-looking servers. Ordinarily, for a dinner banquet in a hall this large, there would be seven.
"Maybe everyone has con plague," said Rayna. "Too many people, too many germs, too much alcohol, and not enough sleep. I had it pretty bad in San Diego last year. I spent the last two days of that show flat on my back, fighting a virus."
"Or maybe," Gary said, delaying his response for maximum dramatic impact, "it's the zombies."
"What?" Rayna and T'Poc exclaimed simultaneously.
"Jim was talking about it earlier," Gary said. "He thinks Houston's been overrun by zombies."
"I didn't say that," Jim corrected. "I just said a zombie outbreak would explain some of the strange things that I've seen today. Two of my coworkers were bitten. The cops have been crazy busy. Some psycho lady smeared blood all over Gary's shirt. This is not a normal day."
"You know zombies don't exist, right?" Rayna asked.
"I'm not the one with antennae sticking out of my head," he reminded her. "Don't accuse me of having an overactive imagination."
It was a slightly awkward moment, but T'Poc jumped in to defuse the tension.
"Bring on the braaaaains!" she cheered. "I'd rather deal with the undead than a bunch of Babylon 5 fans!"
Everyone at the table, Klingons included, voiced their hearty approval.
"Most sci-fi conventions cover all the bases these days," T'Poc told Jim. "But GulfCon's just for Trekkers."
"Now that's something I've never understood," Jim said. "Is there really any difference between a Trekker and a Trekkie?"
The table erupted in conversation. Several people tried to answer at once, but Rayna's voice won out.
"Everybody's got their own opinion about this," she said. "Some people consider ‘Trekkie' to be a derogatory term coined by those who don't understand the scene. They think it denotes someone without social skills who gloms onto Star Trek as a sort of substitute life."
"Trekkie," Matt shouted, pointing at Gary.
"Asshole," Gary responded, pointing back at Matt.
"I get it," Jim said. "So what's a Trekker?"
"A Trekker is someone who tries to live by the philosophy and ideals espoused in the Star Trek universe," Rayna said.
"Like what?" Jim said. "Paint yourself blue? Wear shiny clothes?"
"Like, believe in the perfectibility of the human race," Rayna countered.
"Or that tomorrow will be better than today," one of the Klingons added.
"Or that by working hard, we can bring real and lasting change," Gary said.
Jim resisted the urge to laugh at their naïveté. There were times when he felt compelled to describe the horrors he'd witnessed in Afghanistan. Decimated villages. Shattered limbs and burned bodies. Little children who looked as broken and shell-shocked as grizzled combat veterans. These sights didn't fill him with confidence about the future of the human race. But as usual, he kept his mouth shut, and the conversation turned to other subjects: Gamma Quadrant, the Voyager, Leonard Nimoy's career as a director. He decided to get up and walk to the bar. The two servers working the room were running themselves ragged, and Jim knew he'd get a drink quicker if he ordered it himself.
"You want a Klingon martini?" the harassed-looking bartender asked him. "They're gin and vermouth with a shot of bloodwine."
"What's in the bloodwine?"
"Everclear and red food coloring. It's really popular tonight."
"I think I'll just have a Bud," Jim decided. "Make it a pitcher."
He returned to the table and offered the beer to the group. His new friends cheered-all except Matt, who appeared preoccupied with watching the entrance to the Gweagal Room. After everyone had a glass, Jim asked Matt if he was looking for someone in particular.
"I'm supposed to meet a Klingon," Matt explained. "He makes edged weapons. I ordered a bat'leth from him. All custom work. Made a fifteen-hundred-dollar down payment."
"I know that guy," Jim said. "I think I met him right before you showed up."
"Well, he was supposed to be here ten minutes ago," Matt said. "If he stole my down payment I'm going to kick his ass."
T'Poc answered with an amused snort.
"Have you seen Martock? He's, like, seven feet tall. The guy's muscled up like an Augment."
"And he's got enough knives and swords to arm an entire boarding party," Jim added. "He'll carve you up like a serving of Bregit lung."
Laughter rippled around the table.
"Screw you guys," Matt said. "I'm a central character. Nothing bad is going to happen to me."
"You're a what?" Jim asked.
"I'm the star of this show," Matt explained. "Flag personnel in the various Star Trek series never get killed."
"What about me?" Gary said. "Can I get killed?"
"Much as I hate to admit it, you're probably safe, too," Matt said. "You're the comic foil. The funny characters always live to see another episode."
"And me?" Rayna asked.
Matt furrowed his brow.
"It doesn't look good," he said. "The commander's romantic interests are always transitory. You're slated to die in a horrifying final plot twist."
Matt moved on so quickly that he didn't notice the irritated look on Rayna's face.
"I know where I stand," T'Poc said. "I'm a semiregular character, like Guinan on Next Gen. I don't even have to die. I could vanish tomorrow and things would go on without me."
"That about sums it up," Matt said.
Jim took a swig of his beer. "Think about this," he proposed. "What if you're all extras? Do you know how many starships, with their captains and their yeomen and their crusty doctors and their comic relief guys, got blown to bits during various Star Trek episodes? Maybe you're one of those crews. Maybe you're all just phaser fodder for some other set of characters that truly matter to the story."
Jim took another drink and let the Trekkies mull it over.
"Dude, that's deep," Gary finally said. "We go around thinking we're the big dogs, but maybe we're all just crewmen on the USS Constellation or the USS Bellerephon or the USS Yamato. We exist simply to die. We make some minor plot point, then get dispatched."
"Heavy," T'Poc said.
"Bullshit," Matt said. "I'm not an extra. I'm in the goddamn opening credits."
Jim was still formulating a response when a female Klingon returned to the table from the bar, cursing under her breath.
"Party's over," she said. "They just ran out of bloodwine and they aren't getting any more."
"What?" Matt said.
He directed a glare at Jim, as if he were personally responsible.
"Fine with me," Gary shrugged. "I need some sleep."
"You can sleep when you're dead," Matt said. "Let's go up to my room and par-tay."
Jim couldn't believe that anyone was still using the word "par-tay" to describe an experience that was supposed to be enjoyable. Even the Klingons at the table seemed skeptical. They looked at each other, then at their watches.
"We're just going to call it a night," one of them said. "We were supposed to do the bat'leth demonstration, but two of our guys got caught up in a riot. Down by the train station, I guess. They wanted me to pick them up, but no way am I driving in this traffic."
"Did you say riot?" Jim asked.
"They said riot. It sounded like a riot."
"Maybe it's the zombies," T'Poc laughed. "Or wait-maybe it's vampires! The sun's set and now they're finally making their move!"
Gary and Rayna laughed. Jim didn't.
He knew people didn't toss out the word "riot" in idle conversation. Cell phone reception was bad, but it wasn't that bad. The kid with the toy phaser had complained that his television didn't work. There was no signal. Just static.
Jim's instincts were screaming. He still couldn't grasp the threat's true nature, but he sensed its silhouette. And it was enormous.
He told Rayna that he was going to swing by the front desk to check with the manager.
"You do that," Matt replied. "Tell them that the VIP in room 754 is having a meltdown about the shitty service. Use those exact words, okay?"
"Got it," Jim sighed. "Meltdown. Shitty service."
They rose from the table en masse. Their move triggered a general evacuation of the banquet, with everyone heading somewhat listlessly toward the doors.
"You will come by, right?" Rayna said.
"Count on it," Jim said. "Watch yourself until I get there."
"Watch myself? What am I watching for?"
"Are you okay? You're acting kind of paranoid."
"Something's going on. I'm not saying it's zombies, but it's something. I've felt it all day. Now, suddenly, it's worse. So keep your head on a swivel."
He watched as the group started down the hallway to the lobby. He hung around for a minute, waiting to see if anyone would appear to clean up the mess. No one did. Even the two servers seemed to have vanished.
Finally he stepped out into the hallway, turned out the lights and locked the door behind him. Jim closed his eyes and then slowly rolled his neck from right to left.
He opened them just in time to see Martock running out of the men's room and heading toward the lobby. He was still in full armor and full makeup but moved with an urgency that didn't look like play-acting. Jim was about to call out to him when he noticed something on the carpeted floor.
Jim followed them to the door of the restroom. It was located halfway down the long hallway that linked the lobby to the Endeavour Room. He stepped cautiously up to the door and, not knowing what else to do, knocked. No one answered.
He took a deep breath and pushed it open. It resisted slightly. He heard something metallic scrape across the floor.
"Hello?" he called as he entered. "Everything okay in here?"
A quick glance downward revealed that everything was, in fact, not okay. The scraping sound had come from a bat'leth lying on the floor. Jim figured Martock had dropped it on his way out.
The blade was covered with blood.
Jim stepped over it and entered the room, backtracking over the Klingon's crimson footprints.
"Anybody in here?" he called.
A bank of toilet stalls to his right prevented him from gaining a full view of the room. Jim stepped around them cautiously until he reached the row of sinks and urinals in the back.
A blood-drenched body lay in a thick, red-black pool of rapidly congealing blood.
"Hotel security," Jim said, inching closer. "Are you okay?"
He realized the body wore the same dirty athletic shoes he'd spotted on the woman sleeping in Martock's booth.
Then he realized the body was missing a head.
Jim reeled back toward the sinks, managing to catch one to balance himself. Fighting nausea, he tried to put everything together in his mind. The Klingon had decapitated her with his bat'leth, then dropped it at the door and ran away.
He turned around and stared at the mirror. There was a large, crimson smear in the middle of the glass. Jim looked into the sink beneath it.
The bloody face of a young woman stared up at him.
The rational part of his mind told him that the force of the decapitation must have bounced the head off the mirror and plunked it into the basin. The primal part shouted for him to get the hell out of there. Now.
For a moment, reason kept control. Jim gazed down at the face. There was an odd, purplish growth right in the middle of her forehead-just like the welt he'd seen on Sarah's shoulder only larger, roughly two inches in diameter. Otherwise he could swear it was the exact same mark.
Jim leaned closer to study it.
Suddenly the growth popped open, revealing a glaring, fully developed eye. It peered directly at him.
All pretense of reason fled. Jim leapt away, caromed off the bathroom stall behind him and ran out the door as fast as his unsteady legs could carry him. He didn't stop running until he reached the front desk.
Kevin David Anderson lives and writes speculative fiction in Southern California. His fiction has appeared in the pages of Dark Animus, Dark Wisdom, Darkness Rising, and a bunch of other publications with the word dark in the title. His stories are also available in audio on podcasts like Pseudopod and the Drabblecast.
Sam Stall has written or co-written almost 20 books, including two novels and two novellas; pop culture non-fiction ranging from an examination of as-seen-on-TV products to a chronicle of bizarre suburban crimes; and a highly successful series of books about dogs and cats. Sam lives in Indianapolis with his wife Jami and their son, James.
Night of the Living Trekkies can be found at Amazon.