Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
The man stared at him, eyes burning from beneath his hood. “This is the future,” he stated, his voice eerily calm. “Submit.”
Kane thrust his right fist forward, slamming it up into the stranger's gut. “Sorry, that ain't going to work for me, buckaroo,” he growled as he unleashed a burst of bullets into him.
The man keeled over as the blast took him, dropping to the floor like a discarded bag of compost even as the woman Kane had just shot clambered to a standing position behind him.
“Point-blank them,” Kane instructed, looking about
him to catch the attention of the other Cerberus personnel in the room. “It's the best way.”
Then he was back facing the woman who had tossed stones at him just a half minute before, the one he'd thought he had dispatched. Kane whipped the Sin Eater up, driving it toward her face, but she moved fast in the flickering overhead lights, slapping the muzzle of the blaster aside even as Kane squeezed the trigger.
His shots went wide and she drove a powerful fist at his jaw, connecting with such force that his ears rang. When Kane looked up, the woman's hood had dropped back and he saw her face for the first time. She was older than he had expected, with lined skin and crow's feet around her eyesâprobably in her late forties or early fifties. There was a blister dead center on her forehead, and Kane found his attention drawn to its ugliness for a distracting instant.
The woman grabbed a small lamp off the nearest desk, its cable sparking as she wrenched it from the socket and swung it at Kane's head. He regained his composure just in time, using the muzzle of his Sin Eater to deflect the projectile. Then he drove the pistol forward and blasted a stream of bullets into the woman's throat and upward, peppering her face. He did not like doing this, but there was something eerily wrong with these interlopers, who acted with such single-mindedness that they seemed to be automatons.
Somewhere behind Kane, Brigid Baptiste had found herself trapped between two of the slingshot-wielding strangers. As the one to her left flung a handful of tiny stones at her face, she dropped to her knees, feeling them pull at her hair as she managed to duck just in time. The stones struck the other attacker like buckshot, knocking him to the floor. Then Brigid kicked out, striking the first
man behind the ankle and bringing him to the ground. As he fell, Brigid whipped up her semiautomatic, blasting a stuttering burst of bullets into his torso.
Behind her, a third assailant had grabbed something from one of the debris-strewed desks, and she turned just in time to see him throw it at her head. It was a two-inch-high, circular objectâa magnetic desk tidy designed to hold paper clips and drawing pins while they weren't being used. Brigid reared back as the thing hurtled toward her, cried out as it struck her just beneath her left eye.
She fell backward, and for a moment her vision swam. She ignored that, bringing up the TP-9 and peppering her attacker with bullets as he charged at her. The man fell forward, his long robes wrapping around his legs as he tumbled. Brigid leaped over his fallen body, hurrying across the room even as another of the strangers lunged for her from his position on the floor.
Ahead of the titian-haired former archivist, another of the strange hooded figures had plucked a slingshot from his robe, and he leveled it at Brigid, preparing to shoot more grit at her. Suddenly, there was a blur of movement as Grant thrust his elbow into the interloper's back, jabbing at his kidney. Grant snarled in pain as he connected, but the hooded stranger fell, crashing into a wall.
“Either they're wearing armor,” Grant theorized as Brigid joined him at the next aisle of desks, “or they aren't human.”
“They're certainly strong,” she agreed. “Could they be some new form of Nephilim?”
“Shit knows,” Grant spit. “Let's keep moving.”
Nearby, Kane was looking around the room, with Domi at his side. Among them, the foursome had at last managed to dispatch all eight of the invaders.
Farrell lay in a pool of blood on the floor, his gold hoop earring glistening crimson. Part of the Cerberus team, Farrell sported a shaved head and a neatly trimmed goatee. Right now, his face was bruised and bloodied, and his eyes were closed.
“Farrell?” Kane demanded. “You okay?”
His teammate groaned, and Kane checked him more closely. He had a nasty cut at the back of his head where he had been coldcocked, but the wound appeared to have stopped pouring blood.
“You'll be okay,” Kane announced, since his Magistrate training extended to basic medical knowledge. Farrell wasn't listening; he was at best semiconscious.
Across the aisle, Brigid and Grant did a similar check on the prone form of Beth Delaney. There was an ugly slash across her face, but she seemed otherwise okay.
“We have to find Lakesh,” Domi insisted, hurrying toward the doors beneath the Mercator map, which covered an entire wall of the ops center. Somehow, the streams of light that usually snaked across the map had all been replaced with an eerie red glow.
Kane glanced about him. There were several other Cerberus people in the room, and he had a nasty feeling that at least two of them weren't breathing. But Domi was right. They needed to keep moving, to worry about the living first. If Lakesh was still here somewhere, and still alive, then it looked as if it was up to Kane's makeshift army to save him.
The foursome hurried through the doors, emerging into the redoubt's central corridor. The hallway appeared to be carved through the rock of the mountain, its high ceiling held in place by a network of thick metal girders.
Nothing could have prepared them for what was waiting out there now, on the other side of the door.
ANE OPENED HIS EYES
, his breath coming with a suddenness that seemed to snap him out of his reverie. He was sitting on the floor of the cavern that had become his cell, his back pressed against the coolness of the rock wall, and for a moment he wondered just what it was that had shocked him so.
Then he heard it again.
There was a noise off to his left, coming from the wall itself. He strained, trying to make out what the sound was. It seemed to be some kind of scraping or grinding, as if two great rocks were being forced together.
A few months back, Kane had been involved in an escapade that had featured a subterrene, a kind of boring machine that could cut tunnels through rock. Although it was muffled, the noise he heard now reminded him of the subterrene's underground approach.
He got up from the floor, easing himself further into the darkness, as far away from that scraping sound as he could get. He was suddenly very conscious of the fact that he was trapped here in an eight-by-six cell, and if something was coming through that wall, he had no realistic way to avoid it.
Grant was ready when the hidden door slid open. There, framed by the light that spilled into his cavelike cell, stood a man carrying a tray of food. The meals were bland and simple, a pitiful scoop of some kind of watery gruel or porridge, with barely any taste, each portion little more than a mouthful. Grant had been slipping in and out of consciousness for an indeterminate time, but they had left the food for him. He had forced himself to choke it down as he tried to recover his ebbing strength. When they last came, just a few hours earlier, to clear the trays, Grant had feigned sleep, listening for the sounds of movement and pinpointing the hidden door's location in the rock wall.
Now, as the door opened and the person he thought of as his captor entered, Grant pounced from the shadows like a jungle cat. His meaty paw raced through the air, deflecting the plastic tray of food even as he drove his shoulder at the man's rib cage with a low follow-through. The tray clattered aside, smacking against one of the solid rock walls even as the man in the doorway was knocked backward, losing his footing in a graceless tangle of limbs. As he fell backward, Grant dropped with him, driving a savage punch into his captor's jaw. His fist connected with a loud crack, and the man's head bopped backward, his skull knocking against the rocky floor.
Poised over his captor, Grant drew back his arm for
another blow, watching as the man's eyes lost focus and his head rolled from side to side. He was a young man, probably still in his teens, dressed in a simple robe, with a dusting of bristle on his chin where he was encouraging a tidy growth of beard. For a moment, the youth's head seemed to sway, then his eyes focused on Grant's and the alarm in them was clear. As the youth opened his mouth, Grant struck him in the face, slapping his head back into the hard flooring once again, striking with the force of a hammer blow. With a pained grunt, the man stopped struggling and slipped into the warm embrace of unconsciousness.
Swiftly, Grant patted down the now-still form. He himself had been stripped of his weapons along with his Kevlar-weave coat when he had been placed in this strange, cavelike cell, just the straps of the wrist holster still in place around his right arm where his Sin Eater handgun had once rested. He had been left in his boots and shadow suit, the latter torn along both arms and his left leg, its armor-like weave damaged but still durable. There was a bump on the back of his head, too, a swelling just below the crown where he had taken a hard knock.
The unconscious body lay motionless as Grant patted the youth down. He held no obvious weapons, just a little pouch tied simply to his waist on a cord. Grant opened it and peered at its contents in the orange-hued light that spilled in from the corridor. The pouch contained a handful of stones, most so small they were little more than grains of sand. Grant had seen these people use the stones as weapons, throwing them from their hands or via little slingshots, but he could locate no slingshot on the guard's person.
Grant remained there for a moment longer, resting his weight on his foe's body as he looked warily around him.
He peeked outside the cell, and saw that he appeared to be in a dim tunnel carved out of the same rocks as his cell. The ceiling was low, and it arched to a peak in an asymmetrical way, the rough walls scaling down to form a narrow width that could just barely accommodate two men walking abreast. To his left, the tunnel ended abruptly in a wall, while it continued on down to his right, the walls apparently solid, with no signs of any other caves. That didn't mean spit, Grant knewâhe had observed the way they opened the door to his own cell. It was like some kind of flowing rock that slotted perfectly over the entry to the cave, masking its presence with remarkably precise engineering.
The tunnel was lit indifferently by indented patches on the wall that flickered like burning embers. Keeping his movements appreciably silent, Grant rose on tiptoe to examine the nearest of these glowing indentations. The patch appeared to be a clear stone with a sliver of magma burning at its core. Its appearance reminded him of a child's marble, the way a streak of paint is held in place within the glass.
As he examined the strange light fixture, Grant heard a noise from the end of the tunnel, and immediately recognized the sound of approaching footsteps. He stepped back from the weird light source, his ebony skin and shadow suit helping him blend with the thick shadows of the corridor. The body of the man who had come to feed him was obvious enough if they were looking for it, but it might take them a few seconds to notice it in the semidarkness of the tunnel, half sticking out of the open cell.
Grant watched as two figures appeared at the far end of the tunnel, like dark shadows moving across the volcanic magma lights. They were talking, and while Grant
couldn't hear every word they said, they appeared to be discussing the forthcoming relocation of their captives.
Captivesâplural, Grant realized. Then he wasn't the only one. He had no idea who these people were, but they acted as some kind of prison guards for him and the other captives; that much was obvious. He watched as they came closer, stilling his breathing as they came within earshot.
“Life Camp Zero will welcome them all in time,” the warden figure to the left was saying. “Some of them are beginning to understand already.”
“They all will in time,” the other replied, his voice hoarse, as if he was suffering from a sore throat. “The future's opening up to us, my brother. It's all just a matter of tâ”
Abruptly, the man stopped talking, and Grant watched warily as he trotted the next few steps forward, having spotted his comrade lying on the rocky floor of the tunnel.
“What the heck's going on here?” the guard demanded, pressing his fingers to the man's neck and feeling for a pulse.
Behind him, his companion seemed stunned by the sudden change in tone, and he took a moment to gather his wits, peering into the empty cell where Grant had been held. “That's Lance, isn't it?” he said. “He was on food detailâ¦.”
“Someone didn't appreciate dinner,” the first man said, and he looked up along the tunnel, gazing frantically into the darkness.
Grant came at them both then like a runaway train, the reinforced soles of his booted feet slamming against the rock floor as he charged. His hands reached down and grabbed at the one who had checked for his fallen
companion's pulse, wrenching him off the floor even as he struggled to stand up of his own volition. In an instant, Grant had tossed him up against the low ceiling, where his skull smashed with a loud crack. There was something eerily familiar about the move, the thought nagging at Grant for a fraction of a second, like a single flash of lightning, unexpected and bewildering. Then he watched in satisfaction as the guard flew through the air against his partner, both of them crashing to the floor like falling skittles.
Like the one who had come to feed Grant, the two men were dressed in simple clothes, hooded robes with nothing out of the ordinary about them, their dirty uniformity the sole indicator that they shared an allegiance.
“Where am I?” Grant snarled as he loomed over the two struggling guards.
Though physically capable, neither of them appeared to be any great challenge to the huge figure Grant cut. But to his surprise, the second of themâthe one at whom he had thrown the firstâreared back and launched himself forward, springing from the floor in a flash.
Grant shifted his weight subtly, falling just a little backward as the man lunged at him, swinging a balled fist at his face. Grant dodged, letting the fist swish through the air past him before he reached out and snagged his wrist. With a crack, he snapped the bones, and the guard hissed in pain.
Grant bounced lightly on his heels, readying himself for the next attack. “You want, we can keep this up till I've broken both your arms,” he warned. “Or you can just answer my question.”
In response, the man smiled, his dark eyes meeting Grant's. “I am stone,” he replied.
And then he was upon Grant again, his left arm
swinging through the air with phenomenal speed. Grant batted the punch aside, taking a step back as he did so. The man's first attack may have been of poor quality, but he seemed to be getting into it nowâdeflecting that second punch had felt like batting aside an iron bar. Furthermore, Grant wanted to finish this quickly before the noise of the scuffle attracted any further attention.
His opponent was hindered by the broken wrist, and his right hand flopped at an uncomfortable angle as he struggled. Still, he seemed incredibly powerful and single-minded in his attack now, fighting more like a machine than a wounded man. Grant ducked, avoiding the arc of the next swinging punch, and drove his hand up and forward, connecting with the man's jaw with a ram's-head blow. The guard's teeth clamped shut with a horrible clack and he staggered back a half step. Grant was already following through, thrusting his left knee into his solar plexus with such swiftness that the man folded in two like a snapped twig. Grant stepped back as his opponent smacked into the wall behind him, then keeled over, a wave of disorientation obviously overwhelming him.
Grant moved swiftly, dismissing his struggling foe as he hurried down the tunnel, leaping over the other one, who was still recovering from being thrown against the ceiling. Boots striking against the hard stone, Grant rushed past the glowing pods of light winking eerily within the wall cavities.
As he ran toward the junction in the tunnel, confused thoughts rattled his mind. Who were these people and how had they trapped himâan ex-Magistrate, of all people? His memory of how he had come to be here was blurry at best, but the torn shadow suit and the evidence of his being stripped of his weapons suggested that he had come here as part of a Cerberus field mission.
He struggled to remember how it had happened. Had he been with Kane? With Brigid? His memory was a closed book to him just now; he couldn't seem to pinpoint anything at all.
Grant was an ex-Magistrate, trained in the arts of combat. His captors, though fast, appeared to be normal enough. He should not find himself like this, trapped in a cell, with no memory of how he had come to be here. It seemed ludicrous.
At the end of the tunnel, he found himself with two options, left or right. He looked back and forth for just a moment, trying to discern any difference between the choices presented to him. Bland rock walls ill-lit by magma lamps on either sideâno choice to speak of.
He was trapped like a rat in a maze, he realized, with no idea which way to turn.
He glanced behind him, saw his foes rolling on the floor. Then he made a decision on instinct, turning right and hurrying down the tunnel, while keeping his movements as quiet as he could. He needed to put as much space as possible between himself and the three people he'd left outside his featureless cell, and the more turns he took, the more difficult he would be to track down.
Right, then left, then another right, keeping up a zigzag pattern, boots slapping against the floor of the empty tunnels carved from rock. An open doorway led him to a stone stairwell, eerily lit by the same magma pods.
Here and there, Grant found low walls, some barely reaching to his knee, and he leaped over these, wondering at their purpose. It seemed that the labyrinthine cavern was a natural feature, adapted for use as a prison block, yet the shifting walls gave him the distinct impression there was more to it than that.
Grant ran on, frequently peering over his shoulder to check that he wasn't being pursued. Turning a corner, he found himself in a wider tunnel, its ceiling stretching approximately twenty feet above him. He peered up into the gloom, seeing the stalactites that lined the ceiling, scarcely visible in the dull glow of the magma pods lining the walls at irregular intervals. This tunnel stretched a long way, and Grant saw two of the now-familiar hooded figures moving toward him, some distance away. He pulled back, pressing his flank to the wall of the tunnel he had emerged from.
The hooded figures walked toward him, talking in low mumbles. Hidden in the gloomy shadows, Grant prepared himself, bunching his hands into fists. It was hard to think clearly for some reason; he felt as though he was recovering from a hangover. Was it the lack of food, perhaps? Or was something else affecting him here?
Grant was about to pounce upon the robed figures when they turned off the main tunnel, into a side corridor in the opposite wall. The entrance was almost hidden in shadow, the lighting here was so poor.
Grant reached over, tapping his finger against the nearest glowing orb of magma. Close up, it seemed to flicker, as if it were alive. The light became brighter for a moment as the lava within the pod was drawn to his hand, then it ebbed back to its dull glow as he moved away.
“Weird,” he muttered.
Carefully, Grant made his way out into the main tunnel once more, looking all around him. Jutting rock walls were place here and there like hurdles on a race course, low to the stone floor. At one end, perhaps a dozen paces from where he now stood, there was an open archway, the low rocks overhanging in a jagged pattern.
From beyond that arch, the eerie orange glow of lava seemed brighter.
With as much stealth as he could muster in his tired body, Grant padded toward the archway. Edging up to it, he put one hand on the wall there and peered at the scene beyond.
Beyond the opening was a large cave, where several more of the hooded figures were moving about. Waist-high ridges of rock cut across the space in two curved lines, with breaks in them here and there. Grant's attention was drawn to something over in the far left corner of the room. Lightning bolts seemed to flash there, behind a screen of misted glass, and he recognized with a start that it was a mat-trans unit, with fingers of rough stone cladding branching across the armaglass like a creeping vine.
“Where the hell am I?” Grant muttered.
A mat-trans, he thought, turning the fact over in his head. If these people had a mat-trans, then here was a chance for him to escape, to bring help. If he could access that device, he could return to Cerberus and bring his allies to shut down this hellhole. Or he could take a quantum jump to New Edo, call upon his lover, Shizuka, and her fearsome Tigers of Heaven, to back him up as he closed down this perverse prison. He wouldn't need to program in the correct coordinates for the mat-trans unitâhe could take a random leap, then recover at that destination, once he was out of the vipers' nest. But to access that unit in the first place would mean somehow crossing this room without getting caught. He could wait it out, maybe, skulk in the shadows until such time as an opportunity arose. The prison guards were all dressed in shapeless hooded robes, and if Grant could snag one of these, he could likely pass unchallenged for a short while
at least, until word of his escape from his cell became widespread. Or he could fight it out now, take on the eight figures in this cavern, but in his hungry, weakened state that could be suicidal.