Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
Brigid looked up into the glowing orbs of Ullikummis's eyes. “Why am I here?” she asked. “And where are we?”
He looked back at her, his face an expressionless mask of rock, like a cliff ruined by erosion. “In time,” he replied, in that terrible voice of grinding stones. And that was all he said.
Brigid watched as Ullikummis walked past her once more, watched his retreat reflected in the mirror. The glowing veins that webbed his body faded as he disap
peared into the shadows of the cave behind her, the resounding strikes of his footsteps fading to nothingness.
Brigid watched the reflection of the blackness for a long time.
Kane struggled to order his thoughts as he stood alone in the cold-walled cavern, trying to remember how he had arrived there. It was hard to think straight. His head ached, not with a throbbing but with a tautness that felt like a clenched fist, as if somehow his hair was too tightly woven into his scalp.
His mouth was still horribly dry, and the ex-Magistrate was conscious that he was woefully dehydrated. His stomach hurt, too, hurt with emptiness.
Kane pushed past the pain in his skull, forced himself to examine more closely the space he found himself in. Pacing it out, Kane estimated it to be a rectangular shape of approximately eight feet by sixâsmall but accommodating so long as he lay on the floor the right way. The floor itself was hard, unforgiving rock, but there was an uneven carpet of sand, enough to cushion the contours of his body and so provide a little comfort while he slept.
The sand reminded Kane yet again of the dryness in his mouth, but there was nothing to drink here; it was just a cave, empty but for its lone occupantâhimself. Cold, too, since his shadow suit's regulated environment had somehow failed.
“It's a prison,” Kane muttered. “I'm in a cell.”
But who had put him here and why? No, those questions weren't important, not yet. Those were questions that Kane could address when he needed to. Right now,
he needed to find the answer to a far more fundamental questionâ
had they put him here? Because if he could figure that out he might have a chance to escape.
The room was sealed, and more than that, it was solid. The walls reached all the way around with no signs of a break, he discovered as he ran his fingers slowly along them, high and low. But his captors had managed to place him inside, so there must be a way out; there had to be.
Kane peered up then, the thought occurring to him with slow inevitability. An oublietteâthat could be it. A dungeon with its access point in the ceiling, out of reach of the prisoner. He had seen them before and admired the simplicity of the design, imprisoning a man merely by removing the ladder that led to his freedom.
But no. As far as he could see in the gloom of the cavern, there was nothing up there, just more rock running across the ceiling, like clouds on an overcast day. He reached up, found that if he stretched he could just scrape the tips of his fingers against the stone. It seemed solid enough, not a hologram or an optical illusion. Bending his knees, Kane sprang into the air, slapping his palm against the ceiling. It was solid, giving back no echo to suggest any hollowness beyond.
For the moment, at least, he was trapped.
Kane moved to a corner of the room, unzipped his fly and relieved himself, the pressure in his bladder finally insisting upon release. The stench of his own urine came to him, stronger than he expected. After he was done, he covered the puddle of urine with sand like a cat. He wondered if he was being foolish, if this was the only liquid he would get here, and that, no matter how repellent the thought, he would need to salvage it to combat dehydration.
Kane told himself.
If they wanted to kill me they
would have done so. I'm alive because someone wanted me to stay alive.
But the thought didn't ring entirely true. To end up here, he had been defeated, and it was possible that his foe, whoever that was, had such a callous disregard of his opponents that he had locked Kane here to starve, a slow ordeal that would lead to madness and death.
Kane's nose wrinkled at the acrid stench of urine, and he sat as far from the damp sand as he could, resting his back against the cold rock wall. With no way in or out, he let his thoughts drift, struggling to recall what had happened, to piece together how he had ended up in this pitiful predicament.
They had returned from Louisiana, he remembered that muchâ¦.
HE FOG AROUND THEM
was beginning to clear, and Kane, Grant and Brigid found themselves standing within the mat-trans unit in the Cerberus ops center in Montana, the familiar brown-tinted armaglass materializing behind the swirling transport mist.
“Good to be home,” Kane said, brushing back his wet hair.
Brigid Baptiste nodded as she tapped in the code that would release the lock and allow them to exit the mat-trans chamber. The Cerberus redoubt had served as the hub of teleportation research and development for over two hundred years.
Brigid's hair clung to her face, still damp from her encounter with the queen of all things dead in the Louisiana redoubt. “I need a shower,” she told Kane as the door slid open before her. “A warm one this time, with soap.”
“Sounds good,” Grant agreed as he rubbed his aching shoulder.
A few years older than Kane, Grant was a behemoth of a man, tall with wide shoulders and ebony skin. His muscles strained at the weave of his shadow suit. A Kevlar trench coat hugged his shoulders and draped down like a bat's wings over his legs. His dark hair was cropped close to his scalp and he wore a gunslinger's drooping mustache over his top lip. Like Kane, Grant was an ex-Magistrate from Cobaltville. In fact, he had been Kane's partner in the Magistrate Division, and over the years the two had fallen into an uncanny simpatico relationship during combat. Grant had been recruited into the Cerberus operation along with Kane when the two of them had gone rogue from the barony, after learning it threatened the well-being and natural progression of humankind. They seemed to be somehow closer than just combat partners or friendsâthey were more like brothers.
Grant rolled his shoulder as he followed Kane and Brigid from the mat-trans chamber and out into the familiar ops room with its huge Mercator map dominating the far wall. What confronted the three Cerberus warriors was a scene of carnage.
Something had paid Cerberus a visit.
The room was a mess. The overhead lighting flickered and flashed. The two neat aisles of computer terminals were wrecked, and Kane saw the glass of monitor screens littering the floor as he dodged beneath a hail of bullets launched at him and his companions. No, not bullets, he realized as they rattled against the desk he had dodged behindâthey were tiny chips of rock flying through the air.
Already Kane was moving, his hand preparing to receive the Sin Eater pistol he wore in a wrist rig on his
right arm. The fabled sidearm of the Magistrate Division, the compact pistol elongated to its full length of eighteen inches as it was powered into his waiting palm. Once it was there, Kane's index finger met the gun's guardless trigger, reeling off a swift burst of fire at the hooded interlopers in the room. A storm of 9 mm titanium-coated bullets sped across the ops room as Kane darted for cover, trusting his colleagues to do the same. His attack was met with another hail of stones.
When the rain of tiny rocks ceased, he popped his head up over the side of the desk and began assessing his targets systematically. Kane counted eight strangers in an eye blink, all of them dressed in dirty cowls that covered their heads like a monk's habit. They were hurrying through the room, striking out at the last few Cerberus personnel who opposed them as they smashed the remaining computer terminals, using clubs or just their fists. Even as Kane watched, the blond-haired comms op, Beth Delaney, was knocked to the floor by a savage, backhanded slap from one of the strangers. She toppled over with a loud crack of breaking bones.
Through the chaos, Kane spotted his colleague Domi leaping for cover, her agile, alabaster form flying through the air like some crazed jack-in-the-box.
“Domi, what's going on?” he demanded.
Ten feet ahead of him, the albino girl looked down the aisle, pinpointing Kane by his voice. A true child of the Outlands, she was a strange-looking individual, barely five feet tall with chalk-white skin and bone-white hair. Her tiny frame was more like a teenage girl's than a woman's, her small, pert breasts pushing against her maroon crop top. Besides the top, Domi had on a pair of abbreviated shorts pulled high at the hip and leaving the full length of her dazzling white legs exposed.
As was her habit, she was barefoot. The albino woman's weird, crimson eyes flashed as they met Kane's down the length of the computer aisle. “Took your sweet time getting here, Kane,” she shouted. “We're under attack! They took Lakesh.”
“Dammit!” Kane spit.
Dr. Mohandas Lakesh Singh, known to his friends as Lakesh, was Domi's lover, and the founder of the Cerberus operation. A fabled physicist and cyberneticist, Lakesh was a freezieâwhich was to say, he had been born over two hundred years ago, in the twentieth century, bringing his incredible knowledge of the mat-trans system, along with a sense of freedom almost forgotten by humankind, here to the twenty-third century. Lakesh had helped establish the Cerberus operation, and had been there with Kane at the start. While their relationship had not always been one of absolute trust, Kane respected the man and knew they needed to have him in command. Moreover, Lakesh's exceptional knowledge could prove to be a weapon in enemy hands. Leaving him hostage to the machinations of these mysterious interlopers could very well prove the end of the Cerberus facility as Kane knew it.
He became aware of other gunshots behind him, and he turned to see Grant vaulting over a nearby desk and meeting one of the hooded strangers with both feet, knocking the creep backward.
“We were out in the field,” Kane explained. “No one alerted us toâ”
Domi cut him off with a gesture of her hand. “There was no time,” she explained. “These weirdos seemed to come from nowhere. Screwed with the power, screwed with our comms.”
“How did they get in?” Kane asked, mystified. The
mountaintop redoubt was well protected from intruders, so a force the size Domi's words implied should not have been able to waltz in easily.
She glared back at him, a snarl appearing on her alabaster lips. “What am I, the answer girl?”
“Hold that thought,” Kane instructed as he spotted one of the strange robed figures scrambling toward him from the other side of the desk. Kane leaped from cover, blasting off a stream of shots at the approaching intruder, felling him. The stranger toppled as the bullets struck, crashing over a desk before landing in a heap. A little way along, Kane saw Domi reappear from her own hiding spot and snap off three quick shots at another of their foes, while behind them both, Brigid Baptiste was putting up her own defense with her TP-9 semiautomatic.
“Any idea who they are?” Kane asked.
“No, no and no,” Domi snapped, as if guessing his next questions. Then she did the strangest thingâleaped over the desk before her, the Detonics Combat Master spitting fire at her target even as he fell.
“He's down,” Kane called as he ran to join her, leaping over the fallen body of a Cerberus tech. “No need to expose yourself.”
“No, Kane, you not know,” Domi explained, slipping into her strange, clipped Outlander patois as she glared at him over her shoulder.
But he did. In that moment, he saw the man Domi had felled in a volley of bullets get up, and brush himself off as if her shots had meant nothing. Instantly, a feeling of dread gripping him, Kane turned to see his own foeâthe one he had shot and presumably killedâstruggle back up off the desk, return to a standing position, the spent bullets dropping from his robe like snowflakes.
“What are theyâarmored or undead?” Kane asked as he drilled the figure again with 9 mm bullets. “'Cause I have had my fill of undead for one day.”
“Not undead,” Domi told him. “But dead inside. Nothing hurts them.”
Kane spun as another shower of stones hurtled toward him, and he saw now that their enemies were using simple slingshots to launch the projectiles at exceptional speed. It was almost as if the stones themselves could gather speed as they cut through the air. Sharp edges slapped at the protective weave of the shadow suit Kane wore beneath his torn denim jacket as he held his arm up to protect his face. The stones ripped his sleeve, sending pale blue threads flying like seeds blown from a dandelion. Kane pulled the remains away, tossing them aside. When he drew his arm back, he saw that the superstrong fiber of the shadow suit beneath it was torn, and needle-thin streaks of blood ran through it where his bare skin had been exposed. The weave of his suit was akin to armor, so whatever these people were throwing was exceptionally tough.
Kane ran at the hooded stranger who had just thrown the wad of stones at him, vaulting over a desk and bringing his Sin Eater to bear on the woman as she reloaded her catapult from a small pouch tied to her belt. He snapped off another shot as she placed the ammunition in the sling she held poised, and her own shot went wide.
Across the room, Grant was involved in his own scrap with one of the intruders, shoving the hooded man's fist aside before blasting him in the face with his Sin Eater. His opponent collapsed, a plume of dark smoke pouring from beneath his hood.
“You hit them close enough,” Grant announced, “and they'll go down.” He didn't need to shout. Instead, he had
automatically engaged the hidden subdermal Commtact unit that was connected to his mastoid bone.
Commtacts were top-of-the-line communication devices that had been discovered among the artifacts in Redoubt Yankee several years before. The Commtacts featured sensor circuitry incorporating an analog-to-digital voice encoder that was embedded in a subject's mastoid. Once the pintles made contact, transmissions were picked up by the wearer's auditory canals, and dermal sensors transmitted the electronic signals directly through the skull casing, vibrating the ear canal. In theory, if a user went completely deaf he or she would still be able to hear normally, in a fashion, using the Commtact. Grant, Kane and the other members of the Cerberus field teams had Commtacts surgically embedded beneath their skin, a relatively minor operation that allowed them to keep in real-time contact in any given situation.
Kane picked up on Grant's advice, jumping over the nearest desk as another volley of stones whizzed across the room at him. He was on the slingshot bearer in an instant, high kicking the guy in the face. It felt like kicking a wall, and Kane staggered back with a grunt.