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Authors: James Axler

Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense

Truth Engine (9 page)

BOOK: Truth Engine
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“They have the Mantas,” Brigid stated, unable to suppress the shock in her voice.

The Mantas were sleek bronze aircraft with a wing-span of twenty yards and a body length of almost fifteen feet. They looked like the seagoing manta rays they were named for, and the beauty of their alien design was breathtaking, combining the principles of aerodynamics in a gleaming burnt-gold finish, streaking across the skies beyond the edge of the mountaintop redoubt. They appeared to be flattened wedges with graceful wings curving out from their bodies, an elongated hump in the center of the craft providing the only evidence of a cockpit. Finished in a coppery hue, the surface of each craft was decorated with curious geometric designs, elaborate cuneiform markings, swirling glyphs and cup-and-spiral
symbols that covered the entire aircraft. Transatmospheric and subspace vehicles, the Mantas were used by the Cerberus team for long-range missions. They were alien vessels that had been left discarded on Earth for millennia and were discovered by Kane and Grant during one of their exploratory missions. But the twin crafts should have been safely stored in the redoubt's hangar. No one else should have been able to access and fly them. And yet here they were.

The Cerberus teammates watched as the two ships zipped through the air past the shuddering pillars, disappearing from view before looping back a few seconds later.

“They're running a surveillance pattern,” Grant growled, watching the Mantas flit past the open door again.

“Keeping an eye out for stragglers, perhaps,” Brigid proposed.

“No escape,” Domi declared. “Stuck here.”

Kane turned to the others. “Doesn't matter,” he said, addressing Domi's point. “I was never one to run, and am not about to start now.”

“We have to stop Ullikummis,” Brigid stated, the words tumbling from her mouth in a rush. “Now. We have to do it now.”

Kane's eyes were fixed on the spectacle outside as the stone pillars locked into place around the entrance, like iron bars on a prison window. “Yeah, but how?” he spit. “Answer me that, Baptiste, and I'll kiss your big, freaky memory mind.”

“Stone, stone, stone,” Brigid muttered as she reached for the possibilities in what Kane had just called her big, freaky memory mind. “There has to be something, some way to hurt him, put him out of commission.”

“Come on, Brigid,” Domi urged. It was clear she wanted to step in, to free Lakesh. She could barely stop moving, she was so keyed up.

Brigid went through a hundred options then, thinking of all the uses of stone, all the ways it could be shaped or moved. Stone masonry, hammers, heat, force… They had tried force, had even subjected the monster's body to the incredible high temperatures of a furnace. But Ullikummis had survived, had brushed off their attacks.

“Erosion,” Brigid said. “If we could erode his body…”

Kane glared at the red-haired archivist. “Isn't that going to take—what?—a thousand years?!”

“Acid,” Brigid said, realization dawning. “If we could get to the lab, grab some hydrochloric acid…”

Kane glanced back at her. “Would that work? Explain it to me.”

“Hydrochloric acid is corrosive,” Brigid told her companions. “They used to use it in oil production, making solid rock porous so that wells could be placed and drilling could begin. In theory, it could make Ullikummis's flesh porous—full of holes,” she clarified as Domi looked at her with confusion, “eroding him so that we could potentially wound him somehow.”

Kane turned back to the redoubt entrance. The immense figure of Ullikummis still stood there, arms outstretched as he willed the colossal pillars into place around the open doorway. Kane could sense the simmering fury from Domi as she watched her lover and his dream suffer this final indignity. Kane knew he needed to keep the albino warrior, sometimes a loose cannon, busy or she'd bring trouble down on all of them.

“See what you can find in the labs, Baptiste,” Kane in
structed. “Domi—go with her. Grant and I will go to the armory and grab ourselves some serious firepower.”

Brigid knew better than to argue. She was already turning, sprinting down the corridor away from the redoubt entrance, heading for the nearest stairwell, with Domi at her heels. Domi's bare feet slapped in the pooling blood that washed over the floor of the tunnellike a scarlet lake.


out of her reverie by a low scraping noise coming from behind her in the cave. Her eyes sprang open and she automatically turned her head, momentarily forgetting that she was trapped in her chair. In annoyance, she faced front again, gazing into the mirror, eyes frantically searching the darkness behind her in the reflection. She could see nothing there.

For a moment all was silent, and she wondered if she had imagined the noise, frightened herself the way one can when dropping off to sleep.

Then it came again, the sound of heavy dragging, of stone on stone. Brigid's heart beat quicker in her chest and she felt it thumping against her rib cage. There was nothing in the mirror, nothing but her face, her cloud of red hair obscuring the darkness beyond.

Then the voice rumbled in the darkness, from behind Brigid and all around her, its rumbling echo swirling through the enclosed space of the cavern.

“A picture,” Ullikummis said, “with no more depth than the surface of a blade of grass.”

Chapter 10

Alone once more in his cavern-like cell, Kane pressed himself against the place where the doorway had been, and felt for the edges that he knew must be there—but they weren't. He had seen the wall move aside with his own eyes, parting like water. There had to be a gap there, a seam, a hint of the door he had seen. There just had to be.

He peered into the darkness, struggling to make out the details of rocky surface before him. His mouth was dry, that taste of moldy food somewhere in the back of his throat.

Kane stood, running his fingers slowly across the rough surface of the rock, feeling for the tiniest seam that would prove to him where the door was located. He pressed against the wall with his fingertips, ran the edges of his nails across every tiny bump, but still there was nothing there, still the wall insisted on staying just a wall, with no evidence that a door had ever existed.

Kane continued to check systematically as he had been taught as a Magistrate. Licking his finger despite the dryness of his mouth, he ran his hand up and down, feeling for a draft. There was none. He put his palms against the wall and pushed at it, then tried with his shoulder, levering all his weight to try to achieve some kind of movement, feel the wall give just a little where he knew the door had to be. He pushed at it, gripped the rough stone
and pulled at it, punched it, kicked it. Finally, he shouted and swore at it, reason finally giving way to frustration. And every single time it remained what it had always been—a solid wall.

Finally, the ex-Mag sat down on the unforgiving rock floor and leaned his back against the wall, his breathing heavy, his frustration eating at him. And after a while, he lay down on the hard floor and slept, for there was nothing else left to do.

The horror replayed itself in his dreams, and Kane relived the moment when he had come face-to-face with the stone man, whose glowing eyes bored into him through the curtain of sleep.


against the solid wall of the redoubt's main corridor, Grant just a few feet behind him.

“That's our stone god, all right,” Grant muttered as they watched Ullikummis stride back into the redoubt through the open door, the pillars of rock sealing the great door beyond.

Kane's body yearned for action; he could feel the tension rippling through him. They had both been in a tense combat situation not five minutes before, with adrenaline pumping. Now Kane felt a wave of weariness run through him. He needed action, needed to keep going; this stop-start approach was the way that errors arose.

Kane turned, sending the Sin Eater back to its hidden holster beneath the sleeve of his jacket. “Back up,” he said to Grant, “and we'll use the emergency stairs to get to the armory.”

Grant didn't argue. The big man simply turned and paced back down the tunnel on silent feet. As they got farther from the activity, he ducked around the corner of
a service corridor and pushed at the door that led to the stairs.

The stairwell was lit in dull red emergency lighting that drew in the edges of the stairs along thin, reflective strips. Grant turned to his partner as they hurried down the steps. “You got to figure they already know we're here, Kane,” he said, keeping his voice low.

Kane cocked his head in silent query as he followed the big man.

“We've gone through eight of their number in the ops room,” Grant rationalized. “They'll know they're missing.”

“This is an assault force,” Kane reasoned, taking the stairs two at a time and grabbing the railing. “They'll expect some losses. Domi was hidden away in the vents when we got here—they must be expecting more resistance than just one albino girl.”

“Which means if they follow protocol they'll go through the redoubt with a mop-up squad pretty soon,” Grant growled.

“Magistrate protocol,” Kane reminded him. “And these sure as fuck aren't Magistrates.”

“So what the hell are they?” Grant rumbled as he came to a stop before the door to the lower level.

Kane pushed a hand through his hair as he thought, trying to piece it all together. This wasn't something that had happened in the past few hours, he knew. It was something that had been building for months. Indeed, it had been building for centuries; what they were looking at now—the hooded warriors, or altered humans—was the culmination of some millennia-old feud between their Annunaki enemies. Ever since Ullikummis had arrived and set his claim on the Earth as his private battleground, this whole attack had been coming.

Grant pulled the heavy fire door open just a crack and peered out into the corridor beyond. The overhead lighting winked on and off erratically as Grant scanned the area. There was water pooled along one wall where a fire hose had been yanked from its housings, but other than that the corridor seemed pretty much empty. He turned back to Kane for a second, brushing his finger to his nose in the one percent salute, their personal acknowledgment that the odds were stacked heavily against them.

Then he led the way into the flickering shadows of the corridor, with Kane following a wary distance behind, checking over his shoulder to ensure they were not being followed. A few moments later, Grant had reached the security doors of the redoubt's armory. The doors were sealed and Grant tapped in the entry code on the keypad as Kane caught up to him. Together, they heard the click as the doors unlocked. But they didn't open. Grant placed his palm against the flat surface of the left door and shoved.

“Jammed,” he growled, turning to Kane with a querulous look. “Something's messed up the mechanism. We could probably bust in…. Make a bit of noise, though.”

Kane considered this for a few seconds, glancing down the length of the corridor to check again that no one had followed them. “It's not the noise, it's the time it will take.”

Then Kane engaged his Commtact. “Baptiste?” he said quietly into the hidden receiver. “How long before you guys get back?”

For a moment there was no response, then Brigid's familiar tones came through over both their receiver units, sounding breathless as it was piped directly through their mastoid bones. “Ran into a bit of…trouble,” she exclaimed. “Might be…a few minutes.”

Kane could hear the determined struggle in Brigid's voice. “Everything all right?” he asked.


, Brigid and Domi were dodging a hail of stones as they hurried through the laboratory area. All about them, glass containers were shattering, their contents spilling across the room as the stones struck them.

“Nothing we can't handle, Kane,” Brigid replied over the Commtact, even as she struggled to outrun a swarm of stones that raced through the air toward her. She slid across a cluttered desk as one of the hooded intruders lobbed a flat pebble at her, the stone skimming across the neighboring desk as it hurtled toward her. A second later, she dropped over the far side, her red hair sweeping above her like a candle flame before she disappeared behind the desk. She watched as the stone clattered onward, smashing into the far wall, where its fearsome momentum was finally spent.

Kane's voice came to her again over the Commtact. “What's going on up there?” he asked, the concern clear in his tone.

“Found us a few more playmates,” Brigid explained, reloading her TP-9 as she crouched behind the desk. “Hooded types, nothing new.”

“Damn, it's an infestation,” she heard Kane snarl before he broke radio contact.

Brigid was inclined to agree. They couldn't seem to move twenty feet without meeting another bunch of the hooded intruders.

Brigid shoved the ammunition clip home and glanced up over the edge of the desk, even as Domi drilled another of the hooded strangers in the face with a bullet from her Combat Master. The man fell, dropping a handful of stones as he crashed to the floor.

Then Domi ducked down behind a workstation beside Brigid, holding her hand over her head as a glass beaker exploded above them both. “I count two more,” she said, her voice anxious.

“Me, too,” Brigid said, and she glanced over to the doorway that led to a separate research room. Shadows flickered across the open doorway as figures moved beyond. “Maybe more—look.”

Domi followed where Brigid indicated, saw something move in the next room. “What's in there?” she asked. “You know?” Domi wasn't an intellectual and didn't frequent the research area except when she was accompanying Lakesh, Brigid knew.

“It's a self-contained research area,” Brigid explained. “Small, built for separate projects like…

Brigid was on her feet, hurrying across the room once more, even as a clutch of flying stones rattled against the walls.

Domi leaped up, about to follow her companion, when a stone smashed into the computer terminal at her back. The albino woman jumped aside, rolling out of its way as the monitor fell from the desk with the impact. “Brigid!” she called.

“Cover me,” her teammate shouted back, not bothering to turn as she timed her run around another stone whipping past her.

Domi propped herself up on the floor, keeping low as she pumped shot after shot at the two savage intruders. She might not be able to drop them, but she sure as hell could slow them down.


to Earth to kill his father,” Kane recalled as he and Grant stood in the lower corridor of the Cerberus redoubt.

“Overlord Enlil,” Grant clarified bitterly, striking his fist against the sealed door of the armory. “Remind me why we'd stand in the way of that.”

“The Annunaki have always used the tools around them to wage their wars,” Kane said. “Sure, they'll get their claws dirty for the endgame, but these pseudogods like to play all the pieces before that happens.”

Grant looked up from the door impatiently as the strip lights flickered overhead.

“The pieces being us,” Kane clarified. “Humans.”

“And the stone tossers?” Grant queried.

“Somehow, Ullikummis has drafted his army from the human stock here on Earth,” Kane said. “Those were people once. Normal people, with normal lives. You remember the farmers out in Saskatchewan?”

Grant nodded, recalling the strange stone construction called Tenth City by its founder, Ullikummis.

“They acted like they were possessed,” Kane said. “They did their master's bidding, killed each other and themselves at his whim.”

“I thought we established that that was the architecture,” Grant said, “making them do shit they didn't want to. A'sigil'—isn't that what Lakesh had called the design? Some kind of magical symbol capable of influencing a person's mood and willpower.”

Kane rested his back against the hard wall of the corridor, sighing loudly as the lights flickered and buzzed overhead. “The Annunaki never play just one trick,” he said. “They've always kept ten plates spinning in the air at the same time, for as long as we've been in this hidden war with them.”

“You're talking about Enlil, though,” Grant said.

“Enlil, Marduk, Lilitu…” Kane reeled off the names of the overlords like curse words. “They've all been
doing it, every last one of those snake-faces has demonstrated two backup schemes to every one that we've rumbled. And Ullikummis—the crown prince of the whole accursed line—he's inherited all those traits. He's followed in his father's footsteps, taking every devious trick of his daddy's and twisting it one turn more in an effort to ensure his victory.”

“So, these people aren't being controlled by sigils?” Grant asked, starting to see Kane's point. As he spoke, he worked at the doors, pressing the heel of his hand at the seal to try to make the lock give.

Kane shrugged. “Maybe they are and maybe they're not, but I'll bet you there's more to it,” he said.

Grant stepped away from the armory door and shook his head. “We need tools to get in here, Kane,” he admitted gravely. “Or I can try to force it.”

Kane nodded, his brow furrowed in vexation. “Dammit, everything's stacked against us today.”

With a frustrated moan, Grant struck the edge of one door with his fist, denting it with a single brutal blow. “Then let's provide our people with the best backup we can,” he growled.

The door had buckled just slightly, adjacent to the lock, but it was enough that Grant could get a small hand-hold and pull. He jammed his hand into that buckled spot and yanked hard. In a moment, the door slid back on its track, rocking along about six inches before coming to an abrupt halt.

Grant peered at the top of the door frame, where the tracks to the door were located, narrowing his eyes as the overhead lights flickered on and off. “There's some crap blocking the door,” he growled, reaching up and running a finger along the inset track. “Looks like…silt?”

Kane stepped closer, peering at the track and running
his index finger along the track just as Grant had. A powdery dust dropped from the track, and Kane saw that some of it had caught under his fingernail. He cursed. “That's silt, all right,” he agreed. “What the hell is happening here?”

Leaning down, Grant put both hands against the door and shoved, forcing it another four inches along its clogged track. “It's all connected,” he growled. “That much is obvious.”

Beyond Grant, lights flickered on in the armory as the doorway became wider. The gap was now almost a foot across, and Kane judged he could just about edge through it, even if his wide-shouldered partner might struggle.

“Stay here,” Kane instructed, pushing himself through the doorway. “And keep watch,” he added solemnly, as he made his way into the armory. “Lots of stuff going on here we don't have a handle on yet, and I don't want any of it sneaking the heck up on me.”

Grant nodded. “Me, either,” he muttered, reaching for the Sin Eater as he scanned the empty corridor beneath the flickering lights.

BOOK: Truth Engine
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