Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
There was a deep vein of pain in Mariah Falk's left leg, down at the back of her ankle. A couple months ago, she had been shot there, and now the coldness of the cell was getting into the old wound.
Wincing, she opened her blue eyes and reached down, rubbing her leg to relieve the aching numbness.
Falk was a slender woman in her midforties, with short brown hair streaked with gray. Though not conventionally attractive, she had an ingratiating smile that served to put others at their ease. A highly trained geologist, Mariah was one of the brain trust of experts who had been cryogenically frozen at the end of the twentieth century and now formed a significant part of the Cerberus staff.
Right now, however, she found herself lying on the rocky floor of a cavern, where she had been brought by Ullikummis's loyal troops. Mariah remembered being transported here, and for the past two days she had waited patiently as the hooded troops had brought her basic meals of watery gruel. The food tasted foul and she suspected there was barely enough nutrition to sustain a person, but what option did she have? She was trapped in a cell with a door that appeared only at her captors' request, with no warmth, barely any light other than the faint disk in the wall that offered a dull orange glow like a sodium streetlamp.
Ullikummis. He had brought this upon her. In a roundabout way, he had been the one to cause her to get shot in the leg a few months earlier, as well, for it had been during her indoctrination into his regime in Tenth City that Mariah had sustained the wound.
But why her? She wasn't like Brigid Baptiste or Domi. They were warriors, soldiers in the war against the Annunaki. But Mariah was just a geologist. She had no place being here, locked away in a cell, treated like something inhuman. Soldiers playing soldier games, that's what this was.
But then Mariah remembered the soldier game she had become embroiled in forty-eight hours earlier, the same way she had remembered it a hundred times before while lying on this cool, unforgiving rock floor.
HE HAD BEEN SITTING
in the canteen waiting for Clem Bryant when it began. The Cerberus canteen was never a lonely place; there was always something going on, some group just coming off shift or wolfing down breakfastâbe it six in the morning or six in the eveningâprior to starting their shift.
Mariah sat at one of the tables with its shiny, wipe-down plastic top, a book propped open in her hands, watching the world go by. Now and then she would spot someone she knew stride through the swinging doors and head over to the serving area, and they would wave or nod in acknowledgment before she went back to her book.
Sometimes it was weird, Mariah reflected, living in the future. She was a freezie, a refugee from the Manitius moon base who had been woken two centuries after her own time and forced to adapt. Mariah was quite happy to chug along at her own pace, studying rocks and offering
insights into the changes in soil structure that had been wrought by the nuclear war of 2001. Still, it was a strange thing to be living in the future. The book she was reading, for instance, was a relic of another age, for the mass production of literature for entertainment had somehow fallen by the wayside during Earth's darkest days, and the barons who had risen to control America had frowned upon such frivolity. Perhaps, Mariah thought, they had been scared that people might use books to expose the truth, to encourage the free-thinking that the baronial system had almost managed to stamp out. The barons had turned out to be the chrysalis state for the Annunaki overlordsâlittle wonder they were afraid of freethinking and the sharing of ideas. Things could be hidden in books, even in the most innocuous fiction.
Mariah chuckled to herself. Perhaps not this particular fiction, she mused as she admired the cover painting of a handsome, broad-shouldered man in a doctor's white coat consulting a chart with intensity, while the pretty nurse in the foreground bit her lip and looked concerned. It was a done deal that the two of them would get together just in time before the final page, to live happily ever afterâthe novel's pink spine promised that, even if the book itself strived to add tension to the romance.
Mariah looked up, eyeing the door that led into the kitchen area. Did she and Clem have a pink spine on their book? She hoped so. She had been getting closer to him over the past six months or so, spending more time in his company.
Clem Bryant was a fascinating mixture of contradictions. On the one hand he was polite, well-spoken, sophisticated and urbane, able to verbally fence his way out of any situation. On the other, he had a spiritual side that seemed to be at odds with the image he presented to the
outside world. The first time Mariah had realized this was when Clem had taken her on a tripâa date, reallyâto the steps down to the River Ganges, where he had explained to her about washing away one's sins. Mariah had been taken aback by this, as Clem had always seemed so straight-laced. And yet it seemed to fit with his personality perfectly. He gave off the impression of having an amazing sense of inner peace. A freezie just like Mariah, Clem was an oceanographer by trade, but had found his true vocation as a cook in the Cerberus kitchen.
As Mariah watched idly, the staff door to the kitchen swung open and he came striding toward her, carrying a plate of something in his hand. In his late thirties, Clem was tall and slender, with dark hair swept back from an expanse of forehead, a carefully groomed goatee on his chin. Though he looked typically well-kempt, Clem's white apron was speckled with cocoa powder. He greeted Mariah with a broad smile as he took the seat opposite hers.
Mariah glanced down at the plate, which he'd placed between them, and saw it contained a little stack of brownies dusted with icing sugar. “Chocolate brownies, Clem?” she asked. “I've never seen these on the canteen menu.”
Clem gazed at her, his intelligent blue eyes peering into hers. “Well, one has to shake up the menu now and then or become stale,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “But I require a guinea pig to test the first batch. Any suggestions?”
Mariah held one hand above her head excitedly. “Ooh, pick me, pick me!” she trilled.
He laughed, pushing the plate toward her. As he did so, the doors to the canteen crashed open and one
of the Cerberus security detailâa woman called Sela Sinclairâcame running into the large room.
“We're under attack,” she shouted, her eyes wide with fear.
“What thâ?” Mariah muttered. But before she or anyone else in the room could respond any further, the doors slammed open on their hinges and seven mysterious figures in hooded robes spread out into the room. The strangers launched small stones out of something held in their palms, and the stones seemed to race through the air, picking up speed as they hurtled toward their victims. Two struck a diner in the back before he could even react, and his head exploded as a third stone smashed through his skull.
Sela Sinclair dropped and spun, raising the M-16 she held and blasting off a half dozen shots in quick succession. The weapon had an underbarrel grenade launcher, a little bulky, but designed for maximum damage. Sela herself was a wiry, lean-muscled, dark-skinned woman with a perpetually fierce expression. A noble warrior and efficient combatant, she was ex-USAF and had been part of the Cerberus Away Teams since their formation.
The woman's shots struck the lead pair of hooded figures, and the one to her left fell, his robe sweeping up like a sail catching the wind. Then incrediblyâimpossiblyâthe figure sat up and pulled himself back to a standing position as if nothing had happened. Mariah felt a lump in her throat as she tried to swallow, watching the scene unfold before her.
Another of the hooded figures swept his hand through the air, unleashing more of the small, sharp stones. They whistled slightly as they whizzed through the air, shattering drinking glasses and embedding themselves in the
walls even as quick-thinking Cerberus personnel dived for cover.
Sela rattled off a swift volley of shots, scampering beneath a table even as the hurtling stones hit their next victims. She cursed as she watched several of the diners drop as the pebbles struck them, falling facefirst into their meals or tumbling from their chairs, their eyes wide in shock. The stones were traveling at the speed of bullets, somehow picking up velocity once they had left their wielder's hand. There was no time for Sela to worry about the victims now; she had to deal with these interlopers who had followed her up the stairs, had to defend as many people as she could.
A number of the Cerberus personnel were battle hardened, and all of them had been trained in basic combat techniques. Immediately, the two-man team closest to Sela were on their feet, asking what they could do.
“Are you armed?” she asked as she leaped between tables, her bullets ripping through the hooded shrouds of the interlopers.
Several people in the room said that they were, producing four pistols and a combat knife between them. As Mariah and Clem watched from the far table, Sela's shots struck another of the intrudersâonly for the man in question to continue walking forward, brushing the shells aside like raindrops.
“Come on, Mariah,” Clem urged, leaping from his seat.
“Where are we going?” she asked as the battle raged behind them.
“Kitchen,” he told her, grabbing her wrist.
Mariah hurried to keep up, her feet slipping on the tiled floor of the canteen. “What the heck's going on?” she asked, glancing back as Clem pulled her through the
swinging door into the cooking area. Something else was following the hooded strangers through the door, something tall and bulky, its footsteps shaking the room.
“I don't know,” Clem answered, hurrying over to the stove and grabbing a bubbling saucepan by its handle. Other cooks were hurrying about the area, wondering what was going on as they heard the gunshots and the barrage of stones pelting the walls.
The word went out immediatelyâCerberus was under attack. Several of the kitchen personnel grabbed cooking items, wielding them like weapons as they hurried outside, determined to help. A kitchen hand beside Mariah grabbed a vicious-looking meat cleaver and hurried through the door.
“We should have heard the alarm,” Mariah complained. “Why wasn't there an alert?”
Clem looked at her anxiously as he adjusted the heat on the hob. “Perhaps these visitors hit the PA system first,” he suggested.
“But there areâ” Mariah began, pitching her voice loud over the sound of a grenade being launched outside.
Clem cut her off. “Mariah, I need sugar. Top cupboard.”
She stood there helplessly for a moment, trying to make sense of his request. Outside, the tarantella of bullets and stones rattled against hard surfaces.
“Sugar,” Clem repeated, raising his voice but never sounding angry or rushed.
Mariah opened the cupboard he had indicated, pulled out a large container marked Sugar.
“What are you making?” she asked as she handed it to Bryant. “I don't think this is really the time to start baking a sweet, Clem.”
“You saw those people,” he reasoned. “They brushed aside Sela's bullets.” On the stove, the saucepan of boiling water bubbled as he poured sugar into it. “In prison, they call this napalm. Boiling water and sugarâsticks to the skin and burns, just like its namesake.”
Clem dipped a Pyrex mixing jug into the bubbling saucepan and filled it before reaching for a nearby mug with his other hand. “Come on, Mariah. Time to sound the horn and get in the hunt.”
As if caught up in a whirlwind, she grabbed the steaming cup he passed her, and followed him back into the canteen. “Clem, I think you should know somethingâ¦” she began.
Clem was already through the door to the eatery, the steaming contents of the mixing jug slopping against its sides as he ran. His shoes slid on the tiled floor as he skidded to an abrupt halt, hardly able to believe his eyes. There, striding across the room like some animated cliff face, came Ullikummis, rogue scion of the Annunaki. He was bent down, his misshapen head ducked so as not to scrape against the ceiling, which seemed suddenly low in his presence. The rock lord's feet slammed against the floor, cracking tiles and leaving dents with each mighty step. Even as Clem watched, a Cerberus staffer called Watts, who had joined Sela's makeshift army, was cast aside, the Beretta in his hand blasting shots into the ceiling as he was tossed feet over head by a mighty backhand slap from the stone giant.
“Oh, my goodness gracious,” Clem exclaimed, the words coming in an abrupt tumble like a thunder strike.
“That's what I was about to tell you,” Mariah said as she stood at his elbow. “Ullikummis is here.”
Both Clem and Mariah had encountered the stone-clad Annunaki before. Her unfortunate meeting had
occurred in Tenth City and resulted in her being very nearly indoctrinated into Ullikummis's war cult. Clem had met the rock monstrosity later, during the exploration of the undersea Ontic Library, which housed all history and knowledge. Now they faced him once again, as his hooded troops rushed about him, clearing aside Cerberus personnel in swiftly fought battles.
Suddenly, the overhead lights flickered and died, and for a moment the cafeteria was plunged into darkness, the only light coming from the horizontal slit windows located high in one wall. In the darkness, Ullikummis became a glowing network of lava, the streams outlining his body like some ghostly stick man, his eyes two fiercely glowing orbs.
Mariah watched the would-be god's mouth open, a shimmering orange in the darkness like the heart of the sun, as he spoke one word: “Submit.”
Mariah heard Clem respond automatically, and she felt a strange sense of pride. “Never.”
Then, with a plinking sound, the fluorescent tube lighting flickered back on as the emergency generator kicked in. But the light kept dimming, threatening to shut down again.
Close to the far wall, Sela Sinclair was fending off two of the robed figures. She had lost her M-16 in the scuffle and was now wielding the Beretta 9 mm that she habitually wore at her belt, holding it in a two-handed grip as she pumped bullet after bullet into the torso of the one of the strangely garbed figures. The stranger slowed, knocked sideways by the impacts, but would not go down.