Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
WO FLOORS ABOVE
, Brigid vaulted over a desk and careened through the open doorway into the research room. There were four figures inside, and she raised her TP-9 instantly, choosing targets. Three of the figures were dressed in the fustian robes she recognized from the other intruders, and one had the hood down to reveal a woman's long, dark hair. Bizarrely, a midsize dog was sniffing around the room, some kind of mongrel with some coyote in it. While the dog sniffed at something spilled on the floor, the three intruders surrounded a fourth figure, a man of average build, brown hair and eyes. Right now, he was fending off the attackers with
a flat-head screwdriver, wielding it like a dagger as he rolled a swivel chair across the floor before him. The action with the chair reminded Brigid a little of an old-fashioned lion tamer, holding the beasts at bay in a near comical manner.
“Keep back,” the man ordered, panic in his voice. “I'm warning you.”
It was Daryl Morganstern, a theoretical mathematician from Cerberus who had collaborated with Brigid on a recent project to refine the operational parameters of the interphaser. Broken instruments littered the worktops beside a deconstructed replica of the interphaser.
Brigid snapped off a burst of shots even as she ran at the hooded intruders. As one, the three strangers turned, identifying Brigid as the greater threat.
“Daryl?” Brigid shouted over the sound of her gunfire. “What's happened? Are youâ?”
“Brigid? Is that you?” Daryl asked incredulously, swinging to face her.
Even as he turned, Brigid knew it was a mistake. Time seemed to slow down as the female intruder kicked out toward Morganstern, her right foot slapping against the seat of the chair, as she vaulted over it, to deliver a savage kick to the man's face. Daryl went hurtling backward, toppling over himself as he crashed into the desk behind him and smashed the replica interphaser into pieces. The dark-haired woman landed beside him, sweeping her hand out and knocking Daryl's screwdriver weapon aside.
Brigid recognized the woman, knew her for a deadly mercenary from their meeting months ago in Hope. Rosalia.
In a second, Brigid shifted her aim, spraying bullets in Rosalia's direction. Exceptionally fast, the dark-haired
woman leaped aside, ducking down to the floor even as one of her hooded companions readied a slingshot and launched a stone at Brigid's face.
Brigid dodged the hurtling missile, feeling the passage of wind as it whizzed by her face. “Come on, Daryl,” she instructed, “we're getting out of here.”
The dog barked somewhere in the room as another stone flew at Brigid from behind, too fast for her to fully avoid. As the stone struck the back of her rib cage, she gasped and stumbled forward even though her shadow suit took the brunt of the blow. A moment later she was with Daryl, the theoretical mathematician looking woozy as she grabbed him by the wrist.
“What'sâ¦?” Daryl began.
Brigid sprayed the room with bullets, forcing her opponents to duck for cover. “Cerberus is under attack,” she explained. “We just stumbled into it.”
“I was w-working alone up here,” Daryl stuttered. “Didn't hear any alarm orâ¦”
Brigid glanced across the room, searching for the slender form of Rosalia, but the woman had disappeared, finding some hiding place as bullets and stones hurtled across the room.
Awkward and disoriented, Daryl Morganstern was trying to keep up with Brigid as she hurried him out the door, spraying a burst of 9 mm bullets in their wake.
“What about the interphaser?” Morganstern asked. “I'd figured a way we might circumvent the Parallax Point system byâ”
Brigid gave him a no-nonsense look. “Not now.”
With his tousled brown hair and sweet smile, there was something of the puppy dog to Daryl, and Brigid hated seeing him in this situation. He was a mathematician, not a soldier, and he was obviously bewildered and
out of his depth. Despite the clear danger all around, the poor guy couldn't help but be enthusiastic about his latest theory. Like Brigid, he had an exceptional, near-perfect memory, and that shared trait had brought them together on recent occasions. Right now, however, Brigid knew Daryl would lose that incredible memory if he didn'tâ
Even as she gave the order, a spinning stone came whirring at Daryl's head from the main lab, cutting the air with a whine. Brigid shoved Daryl in the shoulder as she gave her command, and he toppled just out of the path of the careening hunk of rock.
A little way across the room, the alabaster form of Domi acknowledged Brigid with a single raised hand, her Combat Master blazing.
“Brigid, let's get moving,” she yelled over the ferocious sounds of gunfire and hurtling stones.
Brigid saw now that three more hooded figures had entered the lab, pinning Domi down and blocking their exit. She turned to Daryl, shoving her TP-9 semiautomatic into his hands. “We came up here to grab some hydrochloric acid,” she explained. “I'm going to get a batch from that cupboard. Cover me.”
“Cover you?” Daryl replied, his voice high with astonishment. “I can'tâ¦ Brigid, I'm notâ¦”
“Just do it,” she told him firmly as she leaped out from cover and streaked across the lab toward a glass-fronted storage cupboard. As she ran, Daryl Morganstern did his best to cover her, blasting bursts of fire at her would-be attackers.
Domi tracked Brigid, too, and saw the red-haired archivist come to a halt at the cupboard, pulling at the door. “Come on, Brigid,” she urged from her position behind one of the lab benches. The bench had a built-in basin,
and the faucet pipe was spraying water into the air where one of the hurtling stone projectiles had smashed it from its housing.
Brigid pulled at the cupboard's twin handles, only to find it was locked. Behind the glass doors, she could see four tall vials of the clear liquid she was after, red rubber stoppers at their tops.
she thought as she turned back to look around at the destruction the battle had caused. Everything else was smashed, but the glass panels of this locked cupboard had somehow remained unscathed. She needed something to break the glass, she thought, bunching her fist. She knew Kane would smash it with his hand, but some instinct stopped her from doing so.
Domi was leaping across one of the desks, spinning in midair to avoid a thrown rock, picking off another of the hooded strangers with a booming blast from her pistol. “Come on, Brigid,” she urged. “I can't keep running interference!”
Brigid looked at her partner in desperation. “It's locked,” she explained. “I need to find something to open theâ”
Domi landed on one of the worktops as Daryl's bullets whizzed through the air, and she targeted the cupboard with her Detonics Combat Master. “Get back,” she advised, unleashing a single shot at the cupboard door.
Brigid ducked as, above her, Domi's bullet drilled between the double doors of the cupboard, splitting the wood and destroying the simple brass lock. Brigid winced as she heard something shatter inside. When she looked up again, the center of the cupboard where the doors met now featured a gaping hole of splintered wood, the buckled lock hanging amid the debris. She didn't see the hooded figure edging along the wall, weaving out of
the way of debris as Domi did her best to hold the other intruders at bay.
Brigid pulled at the doors as, behind her, the battle raged. Inside the cupboard, one of the four vials had shattered where Domi's bullet had cut through it, and the hydrochloric acid was smoldering, a low hiss emanating from the dripping pool that had formed on the shelf where the container had stood. The liquid looked innocuous enough, clear as water or vodka, yet this was a reminder to Brigid of just how dangerous it could be when it came into contact with any surface.
She grabbed two of the remaining containers by their tapered necks, glancing around for something to carry them with.
Across the lab, Daryl Morganstern saw Brigid struggle, in need of an extra pair of hands. Head down, he rushed as fast as he could across the lab, even as tossed stones pelted all around him. Five feet away from Brigid, he pulled himself up to his full height and smiled. “Need a hand, pretty lady?” he asked.
Relieved, Brigid began to answer just as something came flying through the air between them. In an instant, Daryl Morganstern's cheery face erupted in a wash of blood as the stone struck him, smashing a gaping hole in his left temple.
As he staggered backward and crashed to the floor, the robed figure that had been sneaking toward Brigid leaped at her, driving a brutal punch into her face.
Brigid spun on her heel, turning to face the hooded figure rushing toward her and Daryl. Dressed like the others in a heavy, shapeless robe, the tall man was running at her, launching a flat stone with a graceful flip of his wrist so that it spun through the air. Brigid dodged as the missile flew at her face and felt it cut the air just inches from her hair.
In a moment, the man was upon her, driving a flat-palmed strike at Brigid's cheek. She dodged once more, taking the glancing blow and forcing her attacker to over-reach. As he did so he stumbled forward, misjudging his balance with Brigid's rapid, evasive step.
Unarmed, she drove down with both hands, powering her fists into the man's reaching arm and knocking it against the nearest worktop. The man made no noise as he struck the desk, simply turned to Brigid and fixed her with a haughty look.
“I am stone,” the hooded figure stated, his other arm swinging up to slap Brigid away.
She felt the blow to her chest, grunted as she stumbled backward across the lab and crashed into the ruined door of the cupboard.
Across the room, Domi was ducking and weaving as three of the hooded figures tried to pin her down, and her Combat Master boomed repeatedly as she fought to get free.
“Get away from me,” the albino girl snarled, jabbing the barrel of her pistol into her nearest attacker and unleashing a burst of bullets into his face. The assailant dropped to the floor, knocking over a display of filtration equipment as he fell.
At the cupboard, disorientation gripped Brigid for an instant and she struggled to find her bearings as her own attacker ran toward her. The man had pulled another flat stone, roughly the size of a saucer, from somewhere beneath his voluminous robes, and his hand swept in an arc as he launched it. The disk-shaped missile cleaved the air, rushing toward Brigid Baptiste.
Unable to get out of its path at such close range, she turned away, letting the flat stone strike against her back, where the remarkable weave of her shadow suit could take the brunt of the impact. Then she reached out, grabbing the remaining flask of acid from its shelf. She felt the weight of the wide-bottomed glass beaker as she turned back to face her onrushing attacker. Then she hurled it, watching as it flipped end over end at her approaching foe. Brigid turned away as the hydrochloric acid struck the man, the glass shattering as the beaker slammed into him.
The sharp stench was immediate, searing Brigid's eyes and irritating her tear ducts. Then the man began to scream, and Brigid looked up to see him dancing in place, his robe smoldering with the burning effect of the acid. She felt a wave of nausea as he clawed at his hood, pushing it backward to reveal the terrible damage that the acid was inflicting to his face.
Brigid ignored his pained cries, turning her attention instead to the figure lying on the floor at her feetâDaryl Morganstern. Another wave of stones rattled against the
wall behind her as, tenderly, Brigid leaned down and stroked a hand through the man's hair.
“Daryl?” she asked. “Daryl, are youâ?”
Daryl Morganstern lay there, blood seeping from the thick cut at his skull. As Brigid brushed the matted hair away from the terrible gash in his head, she saw his eyes flicker, and he looked up at her, his dimples showing as he broke into a smile.
“I think something hit me,” he said, stating the obvious, “but I don't remember what.”
“It's okay,” Brigid murmured soothingly. “We'll get you out of here in a minute. Just relax.”
Reaching over Daryl's fallen body, she grabbed the TP-9, taking the weapon from his limp grasp. Then she was crouching, looking about her at the shattered remains of equipment that littered the lab, until she found what she wanted. A glass cabinet stood on the wall by the door, firefighting equipment inside in compliance with the standard safety precautions for any U.S. government laboratory dating back to the twentieth century, when this redoubt had been constructed. Brigid hurried across to it with a swift clatter of her heeled boots, ignoring the clutch of hurtling stones that peppered the walls before her like bullets.
Then she was at the cabinet, and swiftly reversed the TP-9, using the base of the grip to break the glass. Careful to avoid cutting her hand on the shards that remained, she reached inside and snagged the fire blanket that was stored within. It was made of some heavy gray weave and was clipped to the back of the cabinet next to the familiar red cylinder of a fire extinguisher. As she snagged the blanket, one of the two remaining attackersâfor Domi appeared to have dispatched the others in her own inimitable wayâstaggered toward Brigid, arms outstretched.
She ducked as the man grasped for her, and she threw the blanket at him. The dense cloth fell over the man's face, momentarily blinding him. Brigid didn't hesitate. Her free hand was already inside the cabinet, grabbing the fire extinguisher and half swinging, half tossing it at her opponent. The heavy extinguisher smacked against the man's head beneath the gray blanket, striking with a hollow clang.
Brigid watched as he fell backward, crashing to the floor. Then she reached down, unleashing a burst from her semiautomatic into the man's gut even as she pulled the blanket from him like some perverse mockery of the magician with the tablecloth. Beneath the blanket, the man's eyes had lost their focus, the savage blow to his head rendering him a simpleton.
Nearby, Domi had one arm hooked over a hanging light fixture, a strip lamp dangling from twin chains. From that vantage point she picked off the last of their attackers, her pistol blazing as she peppered the woman with bullets. With a flurry of her robes, the intruder finally fell, smashing to the ground with all the grace of a tranquilized rhino.
“Brigid,” Domi called, “we need to get moving before they start waking up.”
Brigid acknowledged that with a silent nod as she hurried back to Daryl, the fire blanket in her left hand. She skidded to a stop before him, then, leaning down, placed the blanket over his chest, turning it upward until it curled around his head like a wisp of smoke.
“Press here,” she instructed, pushing one corner of the blanket against the deep gash that marred his forehead.
“Christ, that hurts,” Daryl screeched as he held the blanket as he had been instructed.
Brigid fixed him with a sympathetic look. “We have
to go. Keep warm and try to get somewhere safe,” she instructed.
“Like where?” Daryl asked, wincing at the pain in his head.
Brigid leaned down and kissed him tenderly on the mouth, her lips barely brushing against his. “Daryl, I always admired you because you could think for yourself,” she reminded him in a whisper, feeling the stubble of his barely forming beard against her face. “Now's not the best time to lose that trait.”
Then she straightened up, grasping one of the two remaining flasks of hydrochloric acid, while Domi picked up the other. In a moment, the two women were gone from the lab.
EVERAL FLOORS BELOW
, Kane was hurrying from the armory, making his way back to the door that Grant had forced open. In the light of the flickering overhead bulbs, Kane could see aisles lined with shelves, each filled with a multitude of ordnance, everything from combat knives to antitank missiles and dragon launchers. Kane had considered the heavier equipment, his hands playing over a pair of dragon launchers for a moment before he remembered Lakesh and the others being held captive close to the redoubt exit. While it was tempting to employ the most powerful weaponry against Ullikummis, the risk of a stray shot was too great, and the damage it could bring if used inside was beyond comprehension. Instead, Kane had plucked two Copperhead assault rifles from the shelves, grumbling under his breath about lousy half-baked measures.
A favored weapon of Grant, the Copperhead subgun was almost two feet in length, with its grip and trigger placed in front of the breech in the bullpup design,
allowing the gun to be used single-handedly. The weapon featured an image-intensified optical scope coupled with a laser autotargeter mounted atop the frame. The Copperhead possessed a 700-round-per-minute rate of fire and was equipped with an extended magazine holding thirty-five 4.85 mm steel-jacketed rounds. Grant preferred the Copperhead as a field weapon thanks to its ease of use and the sheer amount of destruction it could create in short measure. It seemed to Kane that creating a high level of destruction was pretty much the order of the day if they were to face down the maleficent would-be god.
Taking one last regretful look back at the armory's contents, Kane turned sideways and pushed himself back out into the corridor, through the tight gap of the jammed door.
“Here,” he said, handing one of the subguns to Grant, along with several cases of spare ammunition that he had picked up at the same time. “An old favorite.”
Grant took the Copperhead, checking the breech with practiced ease. “Thanks,” he said. “Nothing bigger in there?”
“Plenty bigger,” Kane admitted, “but nothing I want to use in such close quarters to our friends. These are plenty powerful, and if they should find themselves in the wrong hands, at least it won't end with the whole redoubt falling down around our ears.”
Grant nodded in agreement. “Makes sense, but don't expect me to be happy about it,” he growled as Kane led the way back down the corridor.
Kane turned back to him. “Baptiste's is the main show, just now,” he reminded his partner. “We're just the backup for once she's done her thing.”
“Yeah, but what kind of backup are we going to provide?” Grant grumbled as he followed Kane along the tunnel toward the stairwell.
“Whatever we can,” he answered. “We're all that's left now.”
Striding along with Kane, Grant picked up where they had left off before his partner had disappeared into the armory. “So, you think there's more to all this? Ullikummis's attacking here, I mean. How much more?” he asked as he ducked back into the stairwell, the Copperhead ready in his hands.
“Perhaps Ullikummis is manipulating us, too,” Kane said uncertainly. “I can't see why he'd break in here otherwise.”
“And this is a big operation,” Grant agreed with a nod. “He's here for something, all right. That armory didn't seal itself up, and you saw the shit he was bringing down outside.”
“The only thing Cerberus has that this wannabe god would need is people,” Kane said. “He's recruited his army, and they'reâ¦well,
is too strong a word, but they're damn tough.”
“What about our satellites?” Grant suggested. “Our tech?”
“His people smashed up the control room,” Kane reminded his partner. “Not the actions of a salvage crew. Even the Millennialists have the sense to leave that kind of stuff intact,” he added, referring to their on-off competitors, the Millennial Consortium.
Grant nodded, feeling his gut tighten as he followed Kane's reasoning. “So, what do our people have that the big man couldn't get elsewhere?”
“Knowledge,” Kane stated. “We've fought Enlil to a standstill before now andâ¦
“What is it?” Grant asked as frustration crossed Kane's face.
“Ninlil,” he said, realization finally dawning.
“Enlil's wife?” Grant blurted, keeping his voice low as he hurried after Kane up the stairs, the red emergency lights casting their eerie glow.
“Ullikummis's mother,” Kane stated solemnly, “Ninlil.”
Kane slowed as he reached the turn in the stairwell, glancing ahead to check for enemies before he continued up to the next level. “Ninlil was reborn as a hybrid child,” he mused as Grant followed him up the tight service stairs. “She was taken by Balam for safekeeping, hidden where she could not be disturbed by the Annunaki.”
“Or us,” Grant reminded his partner.
Kane nodded slowly. “That's not quite true, though, is it?” he said. “Balam trusts us, at least more so than he does Ullikummis's father or the other overlords. So, if it came down to it, he'd hand the child over to Cerberus.”
“Ullikummis is here for his reborn motherâ¦?” Grant asked, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“It's just speculation,” Kane said, “but it's the only thing I can think of that we've got that he'd want.”
“Hmm. What do you get for the god who has everything?” Grant muttered rhetorically as they reached the next level of the stairwell.
“Even if Ullikummis knew where she was,” Kane speculated, “Balam would never hand her over, not willingly. He'd kill her before that could happen. But for Cerberusâ¦he just might bend the rules.”
“Yeah, he just might,” Grant agreed as the two ex
Magistrates eased their way out onto the ground level of the redoubt, where the rollback doors waited at the end of the corridor. “And you think that's why he's attacked us? To get to Balam?”
“To take control of the operation,” Kane said, stopping in the feeder corridor, where a survival locker sat in a recess, metal door glinting beneath the flickering overhead lights. Similar lockers were dotted all about the redoubt, and they featured a simple first-aid kit, signal flares and a foghorn-style alarm that functioned via a canister of pressurized air to let out a shriek until such time as the gas ran out. It was typical military thinking, health and safety insisting the kits be uniform in their contents. The horn was ideal for attracting attention if your lost ship got lost in a storm, but useless for much else, especially in the middle of an underground redoubt. Still, some bright spark had decided all the lockers would be fitted with them, so there they were, gathering dust.
“The Annunaki,” Kane continued, “control people. Their whole shtick is the subjugation of others. They never cared about material thingsâit's always people's emotions they want. They fight for territories just so they can brag about how many people bow down to worship them.