Authors: James Byron Huggins
James Byron Huggins
opyright © 1995 by James Byron Huggins
This eBook is licensed for personal use only. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between characters or events in this story and
with any other person or creature, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Endless ice, measureless night was before him. And at the rim of the world, where the pale moon crested on early darkness, ice mountains floated over the deep, borne by glacial rivers, a rising night. Like frozen fangs, the ice towers rose above the sea, shredding the horizon with shadows of white.
Snow swept over freezing waves that broke heavily against the red limestone shore where he stood. And green ice slates spun slowly in the rising tide like frozen storm clouds in a gale, drifted closer, and closer, until they too broke upon the slabs, where the wind lifted frost from the heaping ice, settling it again upon the land, and the man.
Alone in the freezing sleet, the man wrapped his cloak, rough and hoary with frost, more tightly about his gigantic form, staring into the gale.
Colossal in the gloom, he towered almost eight feet above the shore. His long red beard and hair, thick and heavy and raggedly cut, were solid and white with ice. But his face was indifferent to the cold, his gaze unblinking. His arms, folded over a deeply muscled chest, were thi
ck and heavy, and he was titanically massive—the image of a Teutonic frost giant of old or a Viking Sea King loosed from the corridors of time to stand once more against the merciless gale, defying the conquering cold.
His horse, saddled and blanketed against the storm, stood close beside him; a heavy-maned Icelandic breed born for the cold, to endure the bitter North. For a long time now it had stood faithfully in the dusk, waiting beside the man as he watched the night descend. It was accustomed to the long and bitter stand. But
tonight it shuffled steadily with unusual, nervous strength, seeking to retreat from the approaching gloom.
Frowning, the red-bearded giant turned to the stallion. His voice was gentle, soothing.
“Easy, Tanngrisner.” He wrapped a huge arm around the stallion's thick neck. “What is it that you see, old friend? What is it that frightens you?”
The great stallion stomped to break free its ice-sleeved hooves, moving slightly back from the shore. Angrily it shook sleet from its mane.
A broad smile creased the man's face, causing ice to crack on the ragged beard. “Are you afraid of the storm, brother?” His tone grew jestful. “Or is it Ragnarok you fear? The last great battle between evil and good?” He laughed again, at himself. “There is nothing to fear, old friend. Ragnarok is only a story. A story told to bright-eyed children, who still have hope ...”
Smile fading, the man turned to the sea, his voice gentler.
“No, Tanngrisner, we will find no battle here. Here there is only ice, and rock, and sea. And ... dreams of what might have been.”
Tanngrisner impatiently shook its head, retreating from the shore despite the man
’s great strength. And surrendering compassionately to the stallion's uneasiness, the man went gently with it, leading by a weathered rein.
Yes, yes . . .” he said, falling in beside Tanngrisner’s gait, moving from the shore. “You are wiser than I because I stand in the ice like a fool when we could be warm. But it has always been my foolishness that I search too long... and dream too much ...”
Before them, massive and moon-white upon the shore, stood the tower. Smooth and cylindrical, it erupted like a polished ivory tusk from the shattered red stones, stretching beyond view
into the night sky. Tightly constructed from huge granite blocks, the tower was utterly impervious to the cold and ice. And a wide portal stood open, framed by light within.
Inside the thick walls, they both knew, comfortable flames would be carefully banked, repelling the outside world. And the stallion would find its place on the lower level, safe and protected from the wind to feed and sleep, while the man climbed the long
stairway to inhabit his place closer to the stars, in the upper chamber.
Come,” he muttered. “The world is cold ... and dark.”
A sudden blast shattered a slashing ice wave against the red shore and the man spun, staring. As if unexpectedly awakened from a frightful sleep, he stood scowling. Without looking again at the stallion he controlled its fearful shuffle.
“Steady, Tanngrisner ...”
But the man could not turn his eyes from the night, or from watching. And whether it was there or not, he could not be sure, but he thought he saw something on the horizon that had not been there before. He squinted, searching, but the distance was too great, the shadows too uncertain. But it seemed like, yes, like something was out there, something rising ...
Like a serpent from the sea.
His breath froze in his chest as he watched.
For where the haggard moon lay upon the sea, the night appeared to thicken, gathering, as if to mark the unnatural creation of a long and bitter darkness. And the pale circle of light, overcome by the fangs of ice, was vanishing in narrow slivers as if the moon itself were being devoured by an unstoppable, unearthly evil.
An evil that devoured
Piece by piece ...
* * *
-red warning lights blazed as the cavern's shock alarm was triggered, frantically launching wounded computer personnel into emergency stabilization procedures.
Echoing through the underground facility like a nuclear blast, the fantastic heat-concussion still trembled the steel-plated walls of the reinforced Observation Room.
Terrified beyond rational thought, shocked scientists abandoned their stations to charge explosively into nearby corridors while others desperately held their place in the flame-tinted chamber. Unintelligible commands bellowed as workers tore extinguishers from walls and blindly emptied foam onto electronic panels that smoldered and arced with sparks, shattered by the stress.
Noxious gray smoke clouded the room, the remains of seared steel paneling and insulation. Then emergency ventilation units, activated automatically by the alarm, kicked in and a strained wind rushed through the room, clearing the fumes as fresh air flooded through connecting ducts. In moments the choking gray-ness dissipated, leaving those who had held their stations to stare dumbly at the Plexiglas shield. Fire extinguishers hung forgotten in their hands.
Writhing and swirling in superheated flame on the far side, the six-foot-thick Plexiglas shield continued to disintegrate, inch by inch, before their eyes. Spirals of serpentine flame twisted slowly, hypnotically, mesmerizing with blue-white circles that had already begun to radiate heat into the monitoring chamber, consuming, devouring ...
On the floor of the Observation Room, Dr. Peter Frank groaned and rolled awkwardly to his side, trying painfully to reorient himself. Stunned, he remembered nothing for a moment, only volcanic white light filling the room in an electric eruption, blinding thunder with human bodies flung like rags at the unbelievable power surge ...
Wiping a smear of blood from his eyes, Frank found conscious control, numbly shaking his head. Then with a supreme effort of will he struggled to his knees. Unsteadily he gained his feet.
Wide-eyed, he stared at the spiraling flames on the Plexiglas before tearing his attention from the glowing aftermath of the holocaust. With rapidly gathering control he gazed down at the smoldering panels, youthful eyes darting with increasing speed along the flashing red lights, searching until he found a small microphone. Instantly he shouted into the computer—
“Shut the heat shield!”
Frank grabbed the computer's microphone. “GEO! This is Dr. Frank! Shut the heat shield now!”
Behind him a handful of personnel screamed and broke, running.
Without any expression on his sweating face, Frank rapidly ran his hands over the control
panel to override auditory command. He repeated the same procedure three times, glancing up wildly as globs of melting Plexiglas fell away, flames consuming a vengeful path into the Observation Room.
No response from the computer; flames writhed on the other side of the Plexiglas ...
Stunned by the sight, Frank gripped the sides of the computer's optical sensor matrix, glaring at the fast-approaching holocaust, his breath thin and panicked.
We've lost contact with GEO,” he whispered, breathless, watching the blue spirals on the Plexiglas. “We've lost contact with the computer. We can't lower the heat shield ...”
No one moved—disbelief, shock all that remained.
Desperately Frank snatched a portable computer access unit from his belt and immediately jammed the connector into the panel. In seconds he hit an override command to circumvent the shattering hardware. The control panel's fiber-optic matrix blinked erratically; the heat shield failed to descend.
Disintegrating sheets of Plexiglas slid away.
The Observation Room began to overheat.
Nothing works,” Frank muttered, unable to hide his emotion, hands flying over commands. “We don't have anything that can stop the fire. Nothing! This is unbelievable ... unbelievable ...”
Frantically he hit one command after another, his face aglow with the crimson light, sweat visible on his forehead as the thinning plastic in front of him melted away. Then, abruptly and unexpectedly, the control panel's
sub processing unit locked in light, backup power somehow finding a path through the shattered circuits. Frank hit commands as quickly as he could, commanding, commanding...
Come on,” he whispered, unable to contain himself even though voice control was gone. His fingers flew over the unit. “Come on, GEO! Listen to me! Shut the heat shield!”
Suddenly there was a harsh thundering on the burning side of the Plexiglas, a continuous gray mist filling their view. Flames vanished instantly beneath the fog.
“We've got pheromones!” Frank shouted with no lack of raw emotion. “We've got nitrogen pheromones! It still works!”
Moving his hands over the portable access unit, he quick-programmed a new routine to lower the heat shield and in seconds a grating sound released itself
in the wall above them, the niobium-titanium wall descending to seal the void where the Plexiglas fell away.
A vault lock reverberated through the room.
With trembling hands and whitened face, Frank stepped slowly, unsteadily back from the alloy shield. He stared at the wall for a moment as if he couldn't remember where he was, what he was doing. Red emergency lights in the monitor room continued to glow, backup modes functioning despite the impact of the phenomenal blast on the electrical system. Finally, glassy-eyed, he turned to the Observation Room. Only two of the dozen staff scientists remained.
It didn't get out,” he said, pale with sweat.
A gray-haired man, decades older than Frank himself but centuries behind his understanding of the project, collapsed heavily into a chair. He raised a white, trembling hand to smooth back sweat-plastered hair and leaned forward, head hanging low, clearly exhausted. The other remaining scientist, a raven-haired woman in her early twenties, the sleeve of her lab coat still smoldering where flames had erupted from the computer panel, turned away, trembling quietly. Without even acknowledging that she had heard the comment, she leaned her head against the wall, breathing deeply, firmly grasping a steel support beam, regaining control.
It didn't get out,” Frank repeated, almost apologetic. “It's still locked in the Containment Cavern. And I'm flooding the cavern with nitrogen to put it to sleep. It didn't... it didn't get out.”
What happened in here!”
The irate voice had erupted from the military figure
that appeared suddenly in the doorway.
Wearing green utility fatigues swirling with smoke from the corridor beyond, the lean presence in the entry dominated the room. The man glared at the foam-covered computer terminals and the overturned printouts, coffee cups, fire extinguishers, and chairs. Then through the fading vapors he nervously centered on Frank, repeating the question with impatient authority.
“Doctor! I asked you a question! What happened?”
Frank pointed to the niobium-titanium wall. Said nothing.
For the first time since he had entered, Colonel Carl Chesterton switched his glare to the alloy shield. Hesitant, he slowly walked into the room, his right hand settling on the .45-caliber semiautomatic on his belt. He froze in front of the optical control panel, staring with silent fear before he turned toward Frank. His voice was low, harsh.
No,” Frank answered, a thin, dark-haired man who looked too young for the position. “It didn't get out.”
As if from reflex, Colonel Chesterton's gaze wandered between the scientist and the reinforced wall. Then with a conscious effort he seemed to collect himself, solidifying into a more commanding bearing. He focused again on Frank, locked into a calmness.
“Did it cause all this?” he asked, frowning uneasily.
Controlled rage hardened Chesterton's voice.
“Well ... is it still locked in the Containment Cavern, Doctor? Or did it melt one of the doors?” He stared. “Maybe you should let me know before we discover that we're in a world of hurt.”
Without missing a beat Frank reached out and switched on a screen that had somehow escaped the chaotic foaming. The monitor blinked unsteadily in red, then orange, flickering.
“The viewing camera inside the Containment Cavern is shielded from heat,” he said. “It should have survived the blast. If it's still working, we'll be able to see it on the monitor.”
Unsteadily the monitor conti
nued to flicker, hazy and uncertain, before it honed into a gray clarity. Then, as the image cleared, Frank released a dismal laugh, disoriented or stunned.
Yeah, it's in there,” he said, amazement fading into cold observation. “See for yourself.”
Chesterton was already leaning in front of the screen, staring intently into the haze. Sweat beaded his forehead, his neck. He squinted as he studied the blurred image.
“Where?” he muttered. “Where is it?”
It's right in front of you.”
No, Doctor. It's not in there.”
Chesterton leaned toward the screen, his eyes roaming from one side to the other, searching. Then he suddenly stepped back, a startled curse catching in his throat. A grim hate passed over his face as he lifted a trembling hand, pointing to the screen.
“All right,” he said. “Shut it off. It's in there.”
Frank continued to stare at the screen.
“I never saw it coming,” he said, scientific discipline entering to make his voice almost emotionless. “I guess it was a mistake, but I just never saw it coming. None of us did.” A long pause. “I mean, we all knew it had some kind of potential for this. But this was just ... just unreal.”
Silent, Chesterton stared coldly at the screen.
“That blast was at least ten thousand degrees,” Frank said, a confused expression. “And the whole attack came from nowhere. It hadn't made any threatening movements. It didn't uncoil. There was no increase in heart rate. One minute it was just sitting at the far end of the cavern. Staring at us. And then it just charged forward—” He raised his hands to describe a terrific image. “—and then fire! Everywhere! Nothing but fire!”
Lowering his hands, Frank quietly joined Chesterton in staring at the screen once more, watching the horrific bestial face hatefully and purposefully poised
directly in front of the camera.
Captured on the monitor, a pair of glowing green eyes glared at them, unable to see through but somehow sensing th
eir presence and blinking with a dark, malicious intelligence—soulless, unmerciful, calculating. A thick row of armored scales, black and green on the sloping forehead, bled off the top half of the screen, the lower half of the screen glinting in jagged white jaws that hung distended, smiling ...
“It was testing the strength of the Containment Cell,” Frank commented, continuing to stare.
Chesterton was grim.
“And why is that, Doctor?”
The scientist dismally shook his head, as if the answer were obvious.
* * *