Authors: Christopher Forrest
SURP Station 872
Touchdown exited the maglev car and, carrying the aluminum case of meds for Quiz, hustled down the corridor to the cube. At the end of the hall, as he stepped into the cavern housing the tall metallic structure, he was confronted by a Somali pirate.
The pirate attacked, a rifle slung over his back, a knife in his belt, and a broadsword in his hands. His clothes were rags, his grizzly face dirty and unshaven.
Touchdown reported his status as he began to fire his assault rifle at the disheveled rogue.
“There’s nobody there,” DJ said. “I read no energy signature anywhere outside the cube.”
“Easy for you to say, DJ. I’m definitely under attack, although my bullets are having no effect at all on this SOB.”
Touchdown dodged the swift sword thrusts, firing at the Somali foe repeatedly.
“He’s an illusion,” Ambergris informed him. “Ignore it. His weapons can’t hurt you, just as your bullets can’t hurt him. He’s not real.”
“But — ”
“Follow orders,” Caine said sternly. “We’re running out of time. Enter the cube by pressing the hydrogen symbol with the correct prime number code.”
“I’m hyperventilating,” Touchdown said. “I don’t know if I can.”
“I’m increasing your O2 sats,” Grace said. “Breathe slowly and deeply. You’ll be fine.”
The Somali slashed Touchdown with his blade, but it passed straight through the soldier’s body.
“Interesting,” Touchdown said. He moved to the hydrogen symbol on the face of the cube as the pirate began firing his rifle. The bullets passed harmlessly through his body.
“Get the hell out of here!” Touchdown yelled at his ethereal enemy with authority. “Enough!”
The pirate dissolved like neon trickles fading from the midway of a carnival late at night.
“Okay, Ops,” Touchdown reported. “I’m inside this son of a bitch. What do I do next so that — ”
Touchdown raised his assault rifle and shot two Serbian soldiers who had appeared from nowhere. They most definitely were not illusions.
“Find an elevator,” DJ said. “Quiz is on Level 27.”
* * *
In the Ops Center, DJ turned towards Caine. “We’re in over our heads,” she said. “We’re out of contact with T6, T4 is going to meet heavy resistance, Quiz is isolated, and Touchdown is one man against God knows how many commandos and sentinels.”
“Monitor them as best you can,” Caine said, “and leave the rest to Fate. We always sink or swim based on the training we provide these soldiers.”
Caine turned to Ambergris. “Joshua, I want you to contact the Offices of the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense. I’ll vouch for both of them. Send them a copy of the Senex file. This renegade government isn’t going to be happy that we’ve uncovered its existence. The legitimate government needs a heads-up in case Senex attempts a coup.”
“Calling now,” Ambergris said.
Caine folded her arms. She felt in her gut that Titan troops would prevail, but not without serious casualties.
Central Intelligence Agency
Gwen was groggy, confused, listless. Her eyelids were heavy, like lead weights, and her head ached, as if it had been rudely assaulted with a large object, such as a glass paperweight.
She raised her head and looked to her left. Everything was a blur. A bright light shone on her from the right, and she perceived two figures standing in front of her, although they resembled vertical objects, like trees or planks of wood, more than humans.
“You’ll feel better in a few moments,” said an unfamiliar voice. “The drug was short-acting.”
Gwen looked to her right and saw that Chief Hackett was also regaining consciousness.
Her eyes came back into focus. She was tied to a chair, as was Hackett, and Admiral McManus stood before her next to a man in a suit, one of the infamous men in black. She couldn’t identify anything else in the room because the light produced glare rather than clear illumination. She could have been in a vast warehouse or a tiny closet — she couldn’t tell — but all that mattered was that she and Hackett had been apprehended and brought to a “place” where she was certain bad things were about to transpire.
“You have both betrayed me,” McManus said sternly. “And your country as well. The consequences will be severe. Permanent, in fact.”
“Go ahead and get it over with,” Gwen said. “Quick and painless, if you don’t mind. Consider that my last request.”
McManus nodded. “Painless? It always is in matters such as these,” he declared. “Messy doesn’t suit our purposes. As soon as our Exterminator arrives, you’ll both receive a single, precise shot to your brainpans. Death will be instantaneous.”
“Can you tell Ben and the kids that I love them?” Gwen asked.
“I’m afraid that’s one request I can’t grant,” McManus replied. “It would be at odds with that automobile accident that I told you would be inevitable if you didn’t cooperate. People never send farewell messages in cases where they don’t expect to be killed. Sorry, my dear.”
Gwen cringed at the Admiral’s term of endearment.
McManus turned to his associate.
“He’ll be here in about thirty minutes,” the man in black said. “Maybe less.”
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
Because of Dante’s heightened sensory abilities and a perfect recollection of the cube’s architecture that he had assimilated thus far, he was able to guide Quiz directly to the Library of the Ancients.
* I will direct you as to which crystals to put in your pack. There are probably a hundred thousand glass disks and crystals to choose from, but I can tell you which contain the most valuable information that can, through analysis, tell us about the culture of the Ancients. First, I will try to effect another energy transfer to stabilize your condition. *
Dante once more stood several feet from Quiz, his arms extended. Closing his eyes, he inhaled and then dropped his limbs.
What’s the matter, Dante?
* I’m not sure. My energy is very low. Like the holographic Ancient we encountered, I obviously cannot stay away from my host, namely you, for a very long time. I draw my energy from the electrical energy within your brain. I don’t think I’ve had time to re-energize my consciousness since the last time we separated. Fortunately, Touchdown is already here and has your meds. I suggest you start collecting crystals now. *
Okay. I’ll try to hurry.
For the next several minutes, Quiz removed glass disks and crystals from their slots in the vast library. Dante claimed they had information on the Ancients’ daily lives, belief systems, values, art, science, and, most importantly, the complete history of their culture, which had lasted hundreds of thousands of years. Such data would be invaluable to Joshua Ambergris and his scientific colleagues.
He also scraped a piece of the wall into a “samples bag.” The cube turned red and purple at the site where Quiz made the incision, as if it were displaying a bruise.
Quiz was nearly finished when Dante spoke next.
* Something strange is happening. I don’t seem to have the strength to enter your body again. The energy from these crystals is creating confusion in my mind. I feel drawn to . . . something. I’m not at all sure what it is. *
Try, Dante! Think of what it’s like to be inside my thoughts. Return to your host! Please!
* I’m trying, my old friend, but — *
Dante’s body was turning into pure light energy.
The outline of his body was clear, but his features were no longer discernible.
“Dante!” Quiz said aloud.
The Italian poet was now a swirling mass of energy, its nebulous form entering a nearby crystal ten inches long.
And then he was gone.
Quiz had not been completely alone with his thoughts for as long as he could remember. Even when Dante was silent for long periods of time, Quiz had the unusual but not unpleasant sensation of knowing that he was never totally alone, that he could summon the poet anytime he wanted.
Quiz was growing weaker. Perhaps from the shock of the unnatural silence — he felt that part of his consciousness was missing — or perhaps from not having Dante’s own energy to combine with his own, he staggered towards the crystal.
Or maybe the infection was spreading much faster now. His arms were nearly black, the hideous spider veins having usurped his healthy tissue as it rewrote its DNA.
Quiz grabbed the crystal housing Dante’s energy and put it into his backpack with the others.
He then fell to the floor and passed out.
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
The amber liquid was running into the veins of Titan Six as Dr. Beemler monitored the Sentient Assimilation.
“I feel awful,” said Gator.
“I’d forgotten what life was like without the enhancements,” Tank said in a weak voice.
“It’s like withdrawal,” said Aiko. “Every inch of my body aches.”
Hawkeye was feverish and sweating profusely. He knew that Titan Four was probably inside the cube, searching for his team, but he wasn’t going to give the others verbal encouragement in front of Beemler so that the scientist could alert more of the foreign commandos. Things were out of his hands. Powerlessness was not a feeling Michael Hawke was accustomed to. All Titan teams were masters at executing the impossible, of extricating themselves from almost any problem that confronted them.
“Be brave,” Hawkeye muttered.
It was the only thing he could think of to say.
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
Titan Four had ridden the elevator thirty-six levels higher. They were fired upon as soon as they stepped from the cylindrical transportation.
Machine guns roared to life on both sides. Commandos fell quickly, blood splashing onto the cube’s metallic walls amid the raucous gunfire.
Eagle Eye clenched his teeth, eyes shut, and doubled over. His body was a study in pain and shock. He tumbled forward to the floor with a groan.
“Eagle is down!” Blade yelled, still firing his laser rifle at Sents.
“His life signs are falling rapidly!” DJ said. “Activating BioMEMS.”
“Where is Titan Six?” Blade asked, breathing hard.
“Ninety degrees to your right,” DJ answered.
“Got it,” Blade said.
It was the voice of Grace Nguyen on the COM.
“Eagle Eye is flatlining. Get some epi from your med kit and give him a dose. Stat!”
“Epinephrine,” Blade said, retrieving the preloaded syringe from his kit. He administered the dose in the side of Eagle Eye’s neck directly below the ear.
The fallen soldier opened his eyes as he attempted to speak, but he could produce no words. His neck muscles were rigid.
“Massive trauma to his chest,” Demon reported.
“Do you want me to administer another dose, Ops?” asked Blade. “We’re losing him!”
A long moment of silence ensued.
“We’ve already lost him,” Grace said with resignation. “He’s dead.”
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
Touchdown exited the elevator and stopped, unsure where to go.
“Quiz is one hundred meters to your left,” DJ said, “but there are about fifteen soldiers heading towards the library.”
“Roger that,” Touchdown said.
Touchdown stepped through several portals and entered a hallway. After moving twenty paces, he craned his neck around the corner and saw the fifteen commandos standing outside the Library of the Ancients. He wasn’t going to take them on, even with a machine gun. He was hopelessly outnumbered.
“Ops,” said Touchdown, “the commandos appear to be using some kind of particle beam to seal off the library. There’s a portal there, but it’s shrinking. They seem to be ionizing the wall to make it impermeable. I guess they figure they need to protect the most important place in the cube given Titan’s multiple breaches in their underground secret.”
“You know what to do,” Caine said.
“Yes, ma’am. I certainly do.”
Touchdown reached into his backpack and removed three canisters of nerve gas. Activating them, he leaned over and tossed them at the soldiers.
A sickly green gas quickly spread throughout the area. A few soldiers tried to cover their noses and mouths or simply flee, but the gas was fast-acting. All commandos were on the floor within seconds, bodies contorted in strange positions.
“They’re alive but paralyzed,” Touchdown reported. “Now — to get into the library.”
Touchdown again reached into his backpack and plucked out a concussion grenade. He pulled the pin and hurled it at the wall.
The explosion knocked Touchdown to the floor. The walls shimmered, turned transparent, and then blew outward.
“Good God!” Touchdown exclaimed. “What’s left of the wall is bleeding. The metallic surface is literally leaking liquids of every color.”
“Spare the description,” Caine ordered. “Just find Quiz.”
Touchdown ran through the jagged opening created by the grenade. He found Quiz on the floor, unconscious between two tall rows of crystals carefully stored in latticework structures that extended far into the distance.
Kneeling next to Quiz’s prostrate body, Touchdown opened the aluminum case and retrieved three syringes, which were labeled 1, 2, and 3.
“They’re DNA proteins,” Grace said. “The Genesis Code provided us with the key to counteracting the cellular degradation. Administer them in order. They’ll take a while to work.”
“Already doing it,” Touchdown said.
After the third injection, Touchdown picked up Quiz’s body and gear and slung them over his back. “Come on, little buddy. You’re coming with me.”