Authors: Christopher Forrest
SURP Station 872
Quiz, whose given name was David Denton, had earned his moniker while living with his grandparents, Charles and Mary Whittington, in their mansion on Long Island. He was somewhat of a recluse after his parents died, and as a teen he spent years in his grandfather’s study, devouring thousands of classics representing all cultural and literary traditions. He was the quitessential encyclopedia of information and a wizard at using gadgets of all kinds. His great intelligence and skill with computers made him an invaluable asset to Catherine Caine.
His best friend was someone that the entire world knew by first name: Dante Alighieri. Quiz’s favorite work was the Divine Comedy, and after rereading the book dozens of times, Denton’s thoughts were frequently framed in the voice and diction of its fabled Italian author. One day, however, Dante began addressing Quiz’s mind without any prompting from the youth. Over a period of many years, the two had engaged in thousands of lively discussions, and Quiz took it as an inexplicable given that he and Dante shared a symbiotic relationship. Some thought Quiz brilliant but strange, but no one knew of his secret dialogues with the poet.
* You have some scientific work to do. *
It was Dante speaking.
* At the cube. Be careful, however. I sense multiple life forms in this area. *
Can you be more specific, Quiz thought to himself.
* I’m afraid not. *
“Okay. No time like the present.”
At times, Quiz forgot to keep his thoughts to himself and vocalized his responses to Dante.
“What did you say?” asked Blade.
“Um, nothing. I just need to get some biometric readings from the cube,” Quiz said as he picked up his gear.
“Tomahawk, give him an escort,” said Blade. “And make it quick.”
The two team members walked down the tunnel to the cube, which was once again shining a bright, metallic silver. Tomahawk, one-eighth Cherokee and a former Marine, stood tall at six-foot-four. He was incredibly muscular and was an exceptional marksman with any firearm, from a pistol to a modern automatic weapon.
Quiz knelt on the black rock under his feet and took out a slim laptop.
“It’s just a computer,” Tomahawk noted. “I thought you needed to gather some scientific data.”
Quiz smiled and shook his head. “It’s much more than a PC. It’s got sensors that allow me to gauge temperature, density, chemical composition, force fields, and cellular activity. Dr. Ambergris was right. This mother is definitely alive.”
“If you say so,” Tomahawk said, casually strolling around the area near the cube. He craned his head but could not see the top of the enormous metallic structure. “Never seen anything like it. Now that we’re here, I hope Titan Six can complete its mission quickly so we can all get the hell back to the Alamiranta. This thing gives me the creeps.”
Tomahawk walked several yards along the edge of the cube before turning around and heading back to his former position.
Tomahawk broke into a run. The young scientist and soldier was gone.
Beneath Mount Whitney
“What’s going on, Tomahawk?” asked Touchdown.
Quiz and I trekked down to the cube so he could collect some data. I took a few steps and when I turned around, he wasn’t there.”
“Verified,” said Touchdown. “He’s inside the cube.”
“God, I feel awful,” Tomahawk moaned. “Do you want me to go in after him, Ops?”
“Negative,” said Caine. “Return to the station and wait with the rest of Titan Four. The cube acts very erratically. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
“Okay,” Tomahawk said dejectedly as he began walking back to the vault.
“He shouldn’t have taken his eyes off of Quiz,” Touchdown said with clear annoyance in his voice while switching off his COM momentarily.
“What’s done is done,” Caine said. “Let it go.”
“Quiz, do you read?” Touchdown said, after turning his COM back on.
“Yes,” said Quiz. “A Sent pulled me in and then disappeared. I’m alone in an empty room.”
* Not completely alone. *
True. Are you sensing anything now that we’re inside?
* An overwhelming intelligence, although it’s not centralized. *
“Just hang tight,” Touchdown said. “Hopefully Titan Six can find you.”
“Roger that,” said Quiz. “I wouldn’t know where to go anyway.”
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
Shooter and Tank were the first to fire from the left and right respectively at the eight sentries. They hit their targets, and two guards dropped immediately after clean shots to the heart.
The commandos opened fire.
“I’m hit!” said Aiko. “In the left shoulder. Son of a bitch!”
“She picks up the vernacular pretty fast,” Tank said, squeezing his trigger again.
Hawkeye fired from the right as Gator pulled the trigger on his SAW from the left. The remaining commandos fell backwards against the cube as machine gun rounds tore into their skin. Blood spattered the wall of the cube behind them for a length of twenty feet, forming bright red blotches that turned into trickles running to the floor.
“Cease fire!” ordered Hawkeye, standing. “One of them is still moving. Maybe we can get some intel.”
Hawkeye approached the dying soldier, who was attempting to speak. Blood bubbled from his mouth.
Hawkeye leaned close to the soldier’s face. “Sounds like some eastern European language,” Tank said, kneeling next to his brother.
“It’s Serbian,” Hawkeye said. “Go figure.”
The soldier closed his eyes, his head lolling to the side as he died.
“Look at the wall!” Shooter exclaimed. “It’s absorbing the blood!”
“Damn,” muttered Hawkeye. “Never saw anything like it.”
“Just like Ambergris explained,” said Tank. “The thing’s alive. I guess the wall’s DNA structure recognizes the blood and is assimilating it.”
“Releasing anticoagulant and anti-inflammatory agents into Aiko’s bloodstream,” said Touchdown. “Also boosting autoimmune factors to prevent infection.”
“I’m okay,” Aiko said. “A little sore, but it could have been worse.”
Shooter removed a bandage from her backpack and applied it gently across Aiko’s red wound. “A small hole,” said Shooter, winking. “You’re good to go.”
“Let’s get inside the room and see what’s so important that it merits eight guards,” Hawkeye said.
Titan Six passed through the portal.
“Largest room yet,” Hawkeye said. “Big as a museum gallery.”
“Holy crap,” Tank said. “This place must have a hundred rows of crystals and glass disks. What is this stuff?”
Ambergris broke in from the Ops Center: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve just entered what I believe is a library containing the history and culture of the Ancients.”
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
Quiz took readings on his laptop and then walked about the empty room. Whenever he touched a metallic wall, it turned blue and semi-transparent.
I get a mild static shock every time I touch the cube.
* Then don’t touch the cube. *
Very amusing, but I’m here to investigate.
* Your metabolism is falling. Ops will be picking it up any minute now. *
Ten minutes later, Quiz sank to his knees, weak and perspiring.
“I feel terrible,” he said. “Like I’ve been awake two days straight. Little energy. Confused.”
“Your temperature’s rising,” Touchdown said. “One hundred and two. Your body’s immune system is also kicking into high gear. Just lie down and rest. Hydrate yourself with an electrolyte drink from your backpack.”
“Okay,” Quiz said, “but black lines are appearing on my hands.”
“I copy,” Touchdown said. “We’re working on it.”
* * *
“Oh my God,” Grace said.
“What is it?” asked Caine.
“We didn’t anticipate sending Quiz on any mission to the cube. He didn’t get the BioMEMS injection that is protecting Titan Six from infection. My team back on the Alamiranta has found a med composed of DNA sequences that are restoring cell structure to our engineers. They’re recovering slowly. The cell disintegration is very similar to gangrene inasmuch as it kills living tissue. The soldiers and their human superiors inside the cube obviously have some kind of immunity, just like T6.”
“Have the med flown here immediately,” Caine said to Nguyen, “and we’ll send it through the SURP system.”
“If there’s time,” Nguyen said. “If there’s time.”
The Cube beneath Mount Elbert
“Watch out!” Shooter called.
Titan Six spun around, weapons raised, as four Sents entered the library through a different portal, their tubes raised and glowing.
Gator put a fresh clip in his SAW and took aim. “I’ll dispatch these little mothers!”
“Wait!” said Hawkeye. “Hold your fire!”
The Sents were motionless, their photon tubes no longer glowing.
“What’s going on?” asked Tank.
Ambergris spoke from the Ops Center.
“I believe they’re programmed not to fire inside the library,” he said. “The energy bursts from their tubes could damage thousands of the glass and crystal volumes, erasing valuable history of the Ancients. I suspect they’re in communication with the cube or its human operators, awaiting instructions.”
“Make use of the time,” Caine said. “Exit the library.”
“Move out,” Hawkeye said, pointing to the portal through which the Sents had entered.
“Another empty room,” said Aiko as they stepped through the portal. “Except for more of those cylindrical elevator tubes in the far wall.”
“And six balls of light dancing around in the air to our right,” Tank added.
“Where do the cylinders lead, Ops?” asked Hawkeye.
“Seven pneumatic tubes,” Touchdown said. “The last one on the left will take you three levels up, where you’ll find the three human life forms you saw in the broadcast.”
Hawkeye advanced to the tube. “It’s closed. How do we get the curved door to slide open?”
“Any buttons or symbols on the wall?” asked Touchdown.
“Negative,” Hawkeye replied.
“Notice the colors of the floating balls,” Aiko said.
“Here we go again,” said Gator. “Should we start chanting ‘om’?”
“The colors represent the wavelengths of the visible spectrum,” Aiko continued. “We need to mentally put them in the right sequence, assuming they’re thought responsive. I imagine they are, or no one would be able to use the elevators.”
“Okay, what do we do?” said Hawkeye.
“Everybody imagine the balls lining up in a straight line in the following order,” Aiko explained. “Violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.”
The balls continued to tumble through the air in an almost playful manner for several seconds.
“Just use your imaginations,” Aiko instructed. “No willpower.”
The violet ball moved to a stationary position four feet above the floor. The blue light came to rest to its immediate right. A minute later, all six balls were hovering motionless and silent in a straight line, from violet through red.
Hawkeye touched the cylinder on the far left. The door slid open quickly.
“Everybody inside,” the team leader ordered. “Maybe we’ll finally get some answers.”
Titan Six entered the pneumatic tube, which soundlessly and rapidly ascended. They were on their way to meet the keepers of the cube.
Central Intelligence Agency
Gwen knew that she had to get out of the interrogation room before McManus showed up. After that, she’d have to play things by ear.
“Hey,” she called out, knowing that the room was being monitored. “I need to go to the Ladies Room. Can I get an escort?”
There was no answer.
“My bladder isn’t interested in security protocols,” she said. “I gotta go!”
“One moment, please,” came a male voice from a speaker below the video screen.
Gwen hung her head for several agonizing seconds. She thought of how worried Ben must be.
The door slid open to reveal a female security guard dressed in a smart blue uniform. The guard ushered Gwen down the hall to the Ladies Room.
“Make it fast,” the guard said tersely. “I’ll be right here the entire time. And there’s no way out, like in the movies. No climbing through air shafts or panels in the ceiling.”
Gwen made no reply as she entered.
Gwen went into a stall, put the seat down, and stood on the toilet, the stall door open by an inch.
Another woman entered and stood in front of the vanity, peering into the mirror as she applied lipstick.
Good, thought Gwen. She’ll do nicely.
Gwen exited the stall and stood next to the woman, smiling. As the young woman bowed her head to return the lipstick to her purse, Gwen administered a chop to the back of the her neck, rendering her unconscious. Titan martial arts training was still serving her well.
The door to the Ladies Room opened partially.
“Let’s move it along,” said the guard.
“Hardly any toilet paper left in here,” Gwen said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
The swap had to be nearly perfect. The unconscious woman’s build was almost identical to Gwen’s, although her hair was cut very short. Gwen searched the woman’s purse and found a small pair of scissors. She began to cut her own hair quickly, silky brown clumps falling onto the vanity and floor.
She then applied the woman’s lipstick to her own lips and began to swap clothes. Her final act was to put on the woman’s glasses and appropriate her ID badge.
“I’m counting to ten and then coming in,” said the guard outside.
Gwen dragged the woman into a stall and sat her on the toilet, feet visible beneath the door. She then grabbed the woman’s purse from the vanity, took a deep breath, and walked out of the bathroom past the guard.
“Okay, I’m coming in,” said Gwen’s uniformed escort as Gwen walked leisurely down the hall.
Gwen boarded the first elevator she came to.
“Hi, Dorothy,” said a heavyset woman standing next to Gwen. “Wanna catch a movie this weekend?”
Gwen cleared her throat and uttered a terse “uh-huh.”
The heavyset woman turned towards Gwen. “Hey, you’re not Dorothy! What’s going on here?”
Gwen jabbed her index finger at the elevator button for the next floor up. The elevator came to a halt, and Gwen bolted down a wide corridor, not sure where she was headed.
The heavyset woman called for security, but the elevator door closed before her cry could echo through the hallway.
It doesn’t make any difference, Gwen thought. Security cameras are rolling. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be spotted, plus the heavyset woman and the uniformed guard upstairs will surely be reporting what has transpired.
Gwen ducked into the first room she came to. It was a security monitoring station.
The Sector Monitoring Chief, tall and dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, motioned for Gwen to sit in an empty chair at one of the stations. The room was dark except for the eerie glow radiating from a dozen computer screens.
“Be on the lookout for Gwendolyn Moss,” the tall man said. “She’s a runner.”
Gwen nodded, trying to slow the rapid breathing that was making her chest heave. She was trapped.