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T Minus: 015 Days 11 Hours 24 Minutes 21 Seconds
The Minus Faction Episode Five
The black lights in the dome bled the color from the room. The once-vibrant Soviet mural that filled the round wall was reduced to ashes and grays while the tiny puddle of blood that gathered on the floor turned black as tar. The dark pool widened slowly under the violet glow, fed from a single trickle that snaked down the leg of an iron chair and fell from a stray screw head. Black pearls dribbled to the ground in time with the music warbling from the horn of an old Victrola record player. A Russian baritone crooned a 1930s love song, barely audible over the crisscrossing scratches in the vinyl.
Как много девушек хороших,
Как много ласковых имён,
Но лишь одна из них тревожит,
Унося покой и сон,
By the second verse, even the cheery orchestra was obscured by the muffled screams of the man in the iron chair.
Любовь нечаянно нагрянет,
Когда её совсем не ждёшь,
И каждый вечер сразу станет
И ты поёшь.
The chair’s high back was made of cross-welded bars, like a narrow cage. Metal arms on hinges swung across the front and latched on the opposite side, holding the single occupant perfectly motionless as he bit a cracked and gouged rubber pad and struggled to free himself. Iron sleeves, worn smooth from centuries of use, kept the man’s limbs fixed while a fat needle punctured his vein near the elbow and bled him in spurts into a glass jar. A bead of runoff gathered at the wound. It grew like a ruby tumor until it was large enough to break free and tumble down the man’s skin.
And still the happy Russian crooned for his young love.
Сердце, тебе не хочется покоя,
Сердце, как хорошо на свете жить.
Сердце, как хорошо, что ты такое!
Спасибо, сердце, что ты умеешь
The song finished as the drops slowed and stopped. A single patch of static repeated over and over as the silent record spun. The metal restraints on the iron chair were loosened and the limp body slumped to the floor.
A pale, red-lipped woman in a form-fitting leather top unscrewed the blood-filled jar from the chair and sniffed it like fine wine. Her nails were manicured. Her bald head was crowned in a twirling, gold-wire headdress. A multitude of pearls swung from small hooks and dangled about as she moved her head in the dim light.
She scowled at the glass. “Needs to breathe.”
She walked past a six-foot candelabra dripping wax to a low cabinet covered in a dozen jars identical to the one in her hand. Four at the front were full. She felt each for warmth before swapping the third for the one in her hand. She swirled it like a rare vintage and watched the viscous fluid run down the side. She took a sip and walked back to the dying man. She moved his face to one side with her bare foot to get a better look at his eyes. The tips of her toes were stained with red dye. The seam at the front of her dark gown was stitched by a line of white animal teeth. An ivory-hilted dagger inside a white leather sheath hung from the sash around her hips.
“Another!” she called before taking another sip.
Metal doors, the only exit, opened with a clang. White stencils on the exterior spelled “Recreation Room” in Russian. A face-painted soldier in pilfered Soviet fatigues stood in the door and bowed silently to his lady. Then he walked to the dead man.
The ancient iron chair was bolted to the floor off-center in the round room. Candles flickered while the black lights hummed overhead and turned the red Soviet star, which filled the inside of the heavy concrete dome, into a black sun. A pair of large carrion birds, bald Asiatic condors, squawked and flapped from a T-shaped perch while water gently lapped in a lounging pool below them. As with the puddle, the violet lights turned the steaming water black. It swirled as if something large swam through it.
The carrion birds watched a smear spread across the smooth concrete floor as the drained man was dragged away. The sound of the sliding body triggered whimpering from the array of green copper cabinets on the far side of the room.
An impressive guard, well over six and a half feet with a face covered in a tanned-skin cowl, appeared in the door. At his feet was a pair of foreigners.
The pale woman raised a thin eyebrow. “Dessert? Already?” She spoke in a formal dialect of her native tongue, a rare Turkic language unknown outside of the deep holes in which her people dwelt.
“Intruders, Lady. They were caught inside the perimeter fence trying to break into our encrypted lines.”
Lady Zoya studied the prisoners as she took another sip of blood from her glass. She squinted in disgust as she swallowed. She was so sick of Chinese.
The newcomers were horribly out of place. Especially their clothes. They looked like tourists rather than mercenaries. There was an old man—European, based on his smell. His eyes were frosted and sightless, his cheeks were speckled in stubby gray, his liver-spotted scalp was bald except for several long, matted wisps that sprouted irregularly from his oblong skull. His casual clothes were simple and just as gray as the rest of him.
The pale lady took a step forward and licked the red from her upper lip. The pearls in her headdress shook and glimmered in the candlelight. The old man’s companion was female. Her head hung low. Her long, wild hair had fallen partially free of her black bandanna. It was matted, but intentionally so, almost like dreadlocks, and it obscured her face. She was also dressed casually—far too casually for the chilly steppe outside—with tight, cut-off jeans and a loose-fitting skull-print top. She looked like she’d just come back from some American mall. She was young, and the deliciously smooth skin of her arms, chest, and right leg were covered in tattoos—repeating bonelike patterns of black and deep blue that looked like they had been frozen in ice and then fractured.
Lady Zoya swirled her glass and took another drink. What to make of such a pair? “Put the woman in the chair.”
The old man would break, she figured, as soon as the girl started to scream. Lady Zoya turned to the dark water. “Grimmúr, darling. Dinner is here.”
A man’s head poked just above the surface. He squinted like an invading soldier surveying a beach. He stood straight and walked out of the pool. He was bald like his wife, and at least as pale, but with a prominent jaw, dark eyes, and bulging muscles.
The young woman’s head stayed limp as the guard fixed her to the cagelike iron chair. The squeaks of the metal restraints echoed off the concrete walls as the cowled guard locked them in place—all except the rubber-coated bite-bar.
The bald man stepped completely out of the dark pool. Water ran off his bulky arms and chest and splattered on the floor. Ritual scarring marred his chest and shoulders. Under the black lights overhead, the blood in his superficial veins and arteries fluoresced a deep violet. The light coursed through his skin like the glowing branches of a river, pulsating slightly in time with his heart. As he reached for the heavy military coat hanging from an unlit candelabra, his eyes shone green like a hunting cat’s.
He draped the dark jacket over his shoulders, leaving the rest of his body exposed. The hood and sleeves were lined with bushy fur. A red Soviet star, identical to the one on the ceiling, was sewn to the fabric just below the shoulders. The coat was too small for him, however, and barely reached the top of his knees. The left sleeve was torn in half at the elbow. Cotton batting, speckled in red, jutted from the fabric as if it had been bitten off with the previous owner still inside.
The lady swapped the records on the old Victrola by the birds’ roost, and they flapped their wings at her.
“Oh, hush,” she chided. “You can have the old one as soon as we’re done.” Then she turned to her husband. “Am I correct, darling, that you will want the woman?”
Iskhan Grimmúr took a drink from the cup his wife offered him, then licked the red from his upper lip. “Who’s the oddly-shaped one?” He motioned with a single large finger to the old man.
The impressive guard forced the intruder to his knees under the scratched and faded mural. Smiling, serene Soviet soldiers marched proudly in unison, having cast off the tyrannies of the czar depicted on the opposite side of the room.
“They were found together,” the guard explained. “Unarmed. But the woman had these in her hair.” He held out a pair of long metal pins, like knitting needles.
Grimmúr walked over and took the pins. Both were identical—three-inch silvered tips filed sharp and bent sideways at a slight angle, ends capped in tiny beetles made of blue enamel. He smiled. “Embalmer’s probes?” He examined one of the beetles closely. “Egyptian. Very expensive.” He switched to Russian and turned to his captive. “Where did you get these?”
The woman in the iron chair kept her head down. Without the pins to keep everything organized, the heavy tangles of her hair dangled loosely.
“I’m not sure she can speak, lord.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because of the mask.”
“Mask?” Grimmúr scowled. He walked to the woman, grabbed a fistful of thick hair, and yanked the woman’s head up.
An angled metal mask covered her mouth and nose and wrapped around the sides of her head. It was dark. Three slatted vents opened on each side.
“You imbecile!” Lady Zoya scolded. Her voice resounded off the round concrete walls. “That should have come off the moment she was taken.”
“We tried, m’lady.” The cowled guard bowed his head. “It appears to be attached.”
“Attached?” Grimmúr scowled. “What do you mean attached? Attached to what?”
“To her insides, lord.”
Grimmúr put the pins in his jacket pocket. He held the woman’s hair with one large hand, wrapped his other around the mask, and tugged. The guard was right. It wasn’t merely fastened around her skull. It extended into her mouth, down her throat, and deep into her chest. It didn’t budge.
The man held the mask with one hand and turned the woman’s head from side to side to examine it. She didn’t resist. He looked in her eyes. They were white-blue, like ice, and shone bright under the black light, like an angel’s. She stared up at her captor without fear. Indeed, she revealed no emotion at all.
Grimmúr thumbed one of the vents. A ridge of polished metal ran along the top. A micro-wire mesh covered the thin opening. “Any idea what it’s for?”
The Iskhan leaned over and looked at her skin. She was white, maybe European. Or American. He switched to a heavily accented English. “What language do you speak, woman?”
The masked prisoner stared up at her captor. Her wild bangs hung in front of her ice-bright eyes.
Grimmúr was close enough to smell her now, but he didn’t want to believe his nose. His nostrils flared as he inhaled again.
Lady Zoya noticed him admiring her scent. “Does she have a pleasing musk, darling?”
Grimmúr scowled and shook his head. “She is crisp, like the great steppe before a winter storm.” He switched to German. “Wer bist du?”
The woman tilted her head slightly to one side. Her breath was barely audible through the mask. She said nothing. Her eyes studied the large man before crimping slightly at the corners as if smiling faintly under her mask.
Back to English. “What are you doing here? Dressed like that.”
“Answer me, woman, or—”
“Oh, just drain her already.” Lady Zoya put a new record in the Victrola as the pearls in her headdress clinked against the metal frame. “Once the needle is in, she’ll tell you everything. And if she can’t stop screaming, then the old man will break.”
Grimmúr turned to the funny-shaped man. He hadn’t moved. He seemed lost. Or insane. His frosted eyes danced over the black star in the ceiling as if reading an invisible book.
Grimmúr scowled and turned back to his wife. “That is your expertise, my darling. And your true calling. I will not rob you of your great and enduring joy.”
“As you wish.” Lady Zoya was coy. She handed her husband the glass again. It was half-empty.
“You may leave us,” Grimmúr said to the guard. “Please see that any damage they have done is repaired. And inform the Supremacy we may have a new threat.”
The cowled guard bowed and left. The metal doors closed with a resounding clang, which startled the people in the copper boxes, who whimpered quietly.
The music from the record player filled the room. It was a cheery 1980s Bollywood song. Amid the scratches and bhangra beat, a woman sang in Hindi about the boy she had met that day.
Lady Zoya moved slightly with the tune. She felt the woman’s mask. She looked in her eyes. She smiled and turned the thin needle in the chair down. It punctured the woman’s elbow.
Grimmúr walked around his wife. As he moved under the black lights overhead, the blood in his superficial veins fluoresced again.
“Drink, darling. You’re glowing like a schoolgirl.” Lady Zoya saw the woman’s eyes study the photoreaction. “Porphyria,” she said in accented English. “A genetic disorder. My people cannot convert porphyrins to hemoglobin. At least, those of us of the original bloodline. So they accumulate. In our skin.” She ran her hand over her arm as the first drop of blood fell into the glass. “Porphyrins absorb light. Like heme. It’s what gives blood its dark majesty.” She took the half-emptied glass from her husband, held it up, and admired the contents—pitch black under the violet glow. Then she took a drink and handed it back. “That means our skin traps harmful rays. Sunlight . . . hurts.
“But then, the world is full of deep holes. Like this.” She motioned to the dome. “And half of every day is night. The real problem is not the sun. No. It’s finding heme.” She leaned again over her tattooed captive. She spoke softly. “Without it, we die. Slowly. Painfully. Of acute anemia.
“Over the years, we’ve tried just about everything. Cattle. Pigs. Sheep. But nothing is quite as effective as the real thing.” She removed the needle and looked for a reaction, but there was none.
“The chair you’re sitting in is over two thousand six hundred years old. It once held a great khan, a ruler of empires who thought he could—”
The old man gasped. The walls of the concrete bunker amplified the sound. He leaned back against the mural-covered wall. His gray, frosted eyes darted over the ceiling as if he were in the middle of a waking dream.
Everyone turned, but after just a moment, he stopped.
“I have it,” he said softly. The sound of his voice echoed in the quiet room. “Can we please go now?”
The muscular man squinted at him, then at the woman in the chair. “You will not go anywhere, old man. Surely you realize this place is your tomb.”
“I know you believe that, sir. I can see it in your mind. And I know to be afraid of you. I can see that as well. But I believe the young lady has other plans.”
“Is that so?” Grimmúr took a step toward the old man, but his wife stopped him with a gentle hand. She had unscrewed the glass from the chair with the first taste of blood inside. She held it by the lip and handed it to her husband. “Tell me what nationality she is. So we know where to find her family. And her friends. And everything she loves and holds dear.” She held up a finger. “But no cheating.”
“I never cheat,” Grimmúr corrected in his native tongue. “You only think I do because you don’t share my refined palate.” He wrapped his finger around the glass, then looked at it in surprise. “It’s cold.”
Zoya squinted. “What?”
Grimmúr peered in. “Her blood. It’s already chilled.”
“Perhaps she’s cold-blooded.” The lord smirked at his wife in the dark light.
Zoya turned to the woman in the chair. Her captive’s eyes were shining with pleasure. “Darling, on second thought, maybe you shouldn’t.” The lady turned back to her husband, but the man had already tilted the glass and swallowed.
He looked at the container again as he cleared his throat. “It’s like ice.” He choked. He dropped the glass, which shattered on the concrete. He clutched at his throat, then his stomach.
“Grimmúr? What’s wrong?” The lady reached for her husband just as he collapsed to the ground, shaking violently.
No, it wasn’t shaking, Zoya realized. It was shivering. Her husband was shivering uncontrollably, as if he’d just been rescued from the wastes of winter. His eyes couldn’t focus. His pale skin turned clammy. He was freezing. From the inside out.
And just like that, he was still.
Lady Zoya pulled her helpless hands back slowly.
“Witch!” She lunged to her feet and her headdress fell to the floor. She stood over the woman, staring down, directly under a violet light. Her eyes reflected green. Her hands quivered like the aftershock of an earthquake. Her accent dripped acid. “Tell me your name, witch, so I may erase all who bear it from the earth.”
The woman in the iron chair spoke for the first time. Her voice was calm but guttural, altered not by the mask but by the mechanism that reached down her throat to her lungs. She said one word.
Lady Zoya’s pulse quickened. Her superficial veins fluoresced in a flash. She drew the serrated stone blade from the sheath at her side and grabbed her captive’s hair. A tiny drop of clear venom dangled from the knife’s tip directly over the woman’s bright-sky eyes.
“This is the venom of the crizth, a creature unknown to the surface. One drop, absorbed through the eyes, will drive you mad. Now. Tell me your real name.”
Scarab didn’t look at the blade in Zoya’s rage-filled hand or the drop of venom that bobbled at its tip. She didn’t move her ice-white eyes from her captor. Her fingers simply clenched the arm of the iron chair. The air grew cold. The little drop of venom grew pale and froze stiff. Lady Zoya saw her own breath.
And still the cold spread. Filaments of ice grew over the metal restraints. The thin puddles of bloody water on the floor turned white and shiny. Lady Zoya felt a chill reach her stained feet and creep up her spine. She shivered as she looked around her.
The entire room had started to freeze.
Then it stopped.
And the woman in the chair whispered a second name.
“Death . . .”
In one long blast from the heat sink in her lungs, she ejected everything she had absorbed. It erupted from the vents on her mask and superheated the air, which shimmered like a desert mirage. Zoya’s eyeballs boiled and popped before she could take a step. She screamed as her scalp melted like wax under a blowtorch. The bones of her cranium turned porous and evaporated, leaving nothing but a hollow, bubbling crater in place of a face.
Lady Zoya fell backward, dead. As her body hit the floor, the slaves whimpered louder in their frosted copper larders.
A warm breeze whipped around the room as hot and cold air fought for control of every open space. It made the carrion birds squawk and tussled the wisps of the old man’s hair, who turned his head to the large doors.
He could run, he thought. But it would have to be now, while the woman was still bound to the chair and the guards had yet to discover what happened.
But then, he had wisped his location from the minds around him. The black-lit recreation room was eight floors underground. He could see it clearly. And there were so many minds inside the compound, like a bustling hive. And buried in all those angry, violent, bloodthirsty minds was their treasure. A name. They had come to the bottom of this pit to find it. And now, trapped at the bottom, he knew he’d never get out alive.
Not without the woman in the chair.
The old man scurried to the doors and locked them tight. “This wasn’t the plan,” he said to her. “None of this was the plan. You were just supposed to get me close. Those were Psyphire’s orders. Another minute and they would have killed you.”
Scarab didn’t move. She just watched, the corners of her eyes revealing the half smile that her mask obscured. Then she spoke her guttural voice. “Wisper, Wisper . . . Come whisper in my ear.”
The blind man scowled at the rhyme and shuffled to her. He felt over her restraints, frosted eyes raised to the ceiling. Scarab’s body jerked back and forth as he struggled to remove her shackles.
“How I will die?” she asked softly.
“Oh.” The old man’s face went flat as he wrestled a metal pin free. “I see.”
“How?” she insisted.
The old man’s frosted eyes didn’t stop dancing. “It’s not that simple.” He opened the shackle around Scarab’s left hand and stepped back to let her do the rest. He didn’t care to be close to her. The air around her was chilled. Like a tomb.
With one hand still restrained, she stood and gripped the frail man’s arm. She pulled him close. “I thought you were clairvoyant,” she whispered, her angled mask close to the gray hairs of the old man’s ear.
“Only with great effort,” he said softly. “And anyway, time is not a vine. It is a bramble.”
“Meaning it erupts from the present like tangled string. I can’t recall the future like the past. The probability function has yet to collapse. And now is really not—”
“Try.” She gripped him tighter. She ran her icy gaze down his exposed neck. “For me.”
Wisper’s frosted eyes moved over the black star in the ceiling. “Is that why you volunteered for this mission?” His voice was quiet. “So we would have this tender moment together? Alone. Away from the others. To discuss death. Or is it because you wanted to tempt yours at the hands of the Vorgýrim?” He pressed his lips together. “I see. Perhaps both.”
Scarab reached with her free hand and caressed the old man’s throat with the tip of a single finger. Wisper felt frigid cold course down his carotid and right into his heart. It was an odd, indescribable feeling to have his insides colder than his outsides. His heart fluttered, and that made him cough. He stepped away and doubled over.
Scarab loosed her final restraint. She waited for him to catch his breath.
The gray man composed himself. “You’re not afraid of what waits out there?”
“Should I be?”
He reached for the young woman, who took his hand. He felt hers as if it were the strangest object in the world. He scowled. He held his breath and strained, as if birthing live young from his skull. His face flushed. He let go of the woman and gripped his head. He let out one swift, short scream. He bent down and clutched at his scalp. His hands were shaking, as if pressing his head to keep it from exploding.
Scarab watched in awe. She wondered if the wisps of gray were all that was left of his hair because he had torn the rest of it out. She wondered if his cranium had deformed and his eyes turned sightless and gray because of the pressure inside his skull. From wisping.
And just like that, it stopped. The old man shuffled to the wall in shaking steps and braced himself against the chipped and faded mural. He took several deep breaths. A single drop of blood fell like a tear from his left eye. He wiped it away.
“All I see is a name.” He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Lando. That is all.”
“Lando,” Scarab repeated. “When?”
Wisper took a deep breath. “I’m not sure.” He hesitated. “But soon.”
“Well, then.” Scarab walked to the copper boxes as the carrion birds squawked. Her deep, guttural voice echoed off the walls. “I will have to find this Lando and pull the last of the heat from his body.”
Wisper didn’t move. His eyes were raised to the sky. “There is no need.” He was panting, trying to catch his breath. “He will die shortly after you.”
Scarab opened the boxes, one after the other, but the hunched people inside didn’t dare move.
“Go.” Scarab waved to the door. “You are free.” She walked to the dead man on the floor, frozen from the inside by her blood.
But no one moved.
“GO!” Scarab turned and ejected a blast of heat from her mask. Everyone in the round room felt it.
The slaves jumped. The condors flapped and squawked and tried to fly away, but they were held fast by the straps on their legs.
The gaunt, barely clothed captives ran to the door, opened it, and ran through as Scarab pressed Grimmúr’s hand flat with her boot. Then she knelt and caressed it. It stiffened. After several moments, she stomped hard and shattered it at the wrist.
Guards yelled in the hall. An alarm sounded.
She picked up the frozen hand and tossed it to Wisper. “Hold this.”
It was cold and he bobbled it twice before netting it in his shirt. “Those people. They’ll be killed.”
“I gave them a chance.” Scarab recovered her embalmer’s probes from Grimmúr’s stolen jacket. Then she strode into the hall. “And they will occupy the guards.”
A guard came around the corner, but he froze in shock at the sight of his dead lord and lady. He screamed in anger as Scarab stuck him through the chest with her embalmer’s probes, one in each hand. In seconds, the man’s interior organs froze solid, right down to his heart, and he fell dead. The masked woman returned the probes to her dreadlocked hair, retrieved the dead man’s side arm, and stuffed it in the rear waist of her denim shorts.
It was only then, when he wisped from the soldier’s dying mind the sheer ridiculousness of the young woman’s outfit, that the old man realized why she dressed so. Cold was no threat to her. And she wanted as much surface area as possible. For heat exchange.
Wisper cocked his head. There was a flurry of images. So many minds. So much space. The compound was huge and entirely underground. “What is this place?”
At a T-intersection of tubular halls, Scarab turned down a dead end capped in a sealed hatch. The simple metal walls had been marked in fluorescent paint of several different colors. Letters from an ancient language filled the space in overlapping bouts, as if the call and response of a gospel choir were encoded in neon latex.
“We can’t get out that way.”
More gunfire. And close. They would be discovered at any moment.
The masked woman took the frozen hand from the old man’s shirt and pressed the palm to a glass-topped reader by the round hatch, painted green and stenciled in Russian. A blue light scanned down and turned yellow. The hatch opened with a loud click and the pair stepped through.
The old man stopped. He was standing on the metal grate of a catwalk. He could tell that much from the sound. And there was open air around him. That meant space. Lots of space. It was a big room, bigger than the recreation hall. And tall.
He wisped his surroundings from his companion’s mind.
His legs seized. He couldn’t move.
He was inside a wide central tunnel cut through the center of the underground complex. The old man’s neck craned up as his sightless eyes moved slowly to the top. The shaft was filled, all twelve stories, with an intercontinental ballistic missile. The exterior was painted Soviet green. There was a large red star on the side near the tapered tip, coated black for atmospheric reentry. Metal plates on hinges extended from the walls of the shaft and held the missile in place at key points. Retractable scaffolding, such as what he stood on, zigzagged down the side of the shaft, formed of interlocking concrete plates.
His voice was quiet. “Oh dear . . .”
Another alarm sounded and people were yelling as they clambered down the scaffolding toward them.
Scarab was already scurrying toward the bottom.
Wisper followed. “Isn’t this the wrong way?” The old man cringed as hundreds of thoughts and impressions bombarded him. The compound had come alive. He could feel it. A horde of angry barbarians—an ancient people, part clan, part cult, part militia—were swirling about like frenzied wasps. They were scouring the neon-painted halls and spiraling down the shaft toward the intruders. Word of the murders had spread. The lord and lady of the manor had been killed and their clan would take no captives. Anyone foreign would be executed on sight.
Wisper got goosebumps as he felt their anger. He trundled after his keeper. There were hundreds of Vorgýrim. Maybe thousands. It was small consolation, he decided, that none of them would dare open fire inside a missile shaft. But they had swords. And knives. They meant to hack the pair to pieces. And . . .
Wisper stopped as he reached the last step.
There was something else.
He turned to face a long ventilation shaft, meant to absorb the fire from the launching rocket. At the far end, the side of the compound had been breached. The metal was torn inward, as if whatever ruptured it had broken in from solid earth. Wisper couldn’t actually see the jagged opening, like the yawning mouth of a sharp-toothed monster, but he could wisp it from countless fragments and images inside the minds that swarmed all around him—an overlapping puzzle of colors and textures, a mental map stitched together like an old quilt from dozens of distinct impressions and moving memories.
Something was down there. In that hole. Something big.
He shivered. “What are we doing?”
“You’re clairvoyant. You tell me.” Scarab choked her words through the mechanism in her throat.
“I told you. It doesn’t work like that.” The old man cocked his head. “Wisping a sense of space is one thing. Space is solid. The future is not.”
Scarab had led him to a wheeled metal cage on a vertical track. It was some kind of elevator, probably for repairing or maintaining the missile. It went straight up the side of the shaft, all the way to the top.
Scarab pressed the button marked with an up arrow.
Wisper shook his head. “They’ve locked it. And they’ve sealed the exit at the top. We’re trapped.”
The face-painted barbarian horde was almost on top of them. The screams and hollers echoed through the giant, concrete-lined hole. Half of them were high on some kind of ritual narcotic. They were hurling insults in a dozen different languages.
Flashes of a potential near-future bit into Wisper’s mind. He shuddered at the stabbing images. “Please hurry.”
Scarab knelt and caressed the thick metal latches that held the floor of the elevator in place, one on each side. After a moment, she stood and drew the guard’s gun. She shot twice and the frozen metal on the right side snapped. The elevator platform shook from the pull of the cross-weight, but the second lock held fast.
Scarab turned and emptied the clip. The second lock shattered and the elevator rocketed up as the screeching, snarling swarm reached out for them.
The pair flew ten stories, straight up, following the side of the missile, metal grate under their feet vibrating from the force of the uncontrolled ascent.
“Hold on,” Scarab advised as they passed the red star painted near the warhead.
The elevator hit the upper cradle with a clang, knocking both occupants down. Scarab pulled the shaking old man to his feet and led him to a wide, girder-lined exhaust gantry. A retractable, hook-tipped crane was built into one side. The hollering horde was coming for them from all directions now, from both the missile shaft and the surrounding compound. All paths converged on the loading bay, and the sounds echoed off the high walls.
Scarab led Wisper to the heavy blast door that sealed them in. It was huge. She ran her hands over the thin layer of rust on its surface. Tiny ice crystals formed in her wake.
Wisper hobbled up behind. “According to the minds of the men about to kill us, this is made of a tungsten alloy. We cannot break it.”
“We won’t have to.”
“Then how will we get it open?”
“We won’t. MODUS will.”
Wisper bowed his head and shut his eyes. Even though he was blind and didn’t need to, it was still habit.
Yes. Yes, she was right.
The others. Just on the other side of the enormous door. They had come when the alarm sounded.
The old man let out a sigh of relief.
The heavy door shuddered and began to retract into the floor. As it dropped, Wisper could sense them better.
Artemis Killjoy. Mercenary. Cyborg. Asset Code: Barricade. He wore dark fatigues with a colorful hood, like an African tapestry. In place of his face, there was only a hexagonal steel plate that came to a point near the center. Wisper didn’t know how the man could see, but the tip of the plate was gouged and scarred and the pale gold coloring had worn away as if it had been repeatedly used as a hammer. Or a battering ram.
Next to him was Megan Stagmar. Asset Code: Malady. A walking plague. She was heavyset and wrapped in charcoal muslin. Only her eyes and mouth were visible. Two small tanks of bubbling green fluid jutted from her back. Her fingers were capped in long metal nails which she held out like claws.
Behind her, Heinrich and Tobias Sorenson. Part of the hive mind known as MODUS. They wore heavy brown overalls, thick gloves, and heavy boots. Dark goggles with interior screens covered their eyes. They were clearly related. Brothers. But not twins. One was slightly taller while the other had a rounder face. Their heads were completely bare. In place of hair, a mass of coiled black wires hung, like a dreadlock ponytail, from the back of one man’s skull to the ground and back up to the other’s. Tiny lights under their scalps blinked irregularly.
And then their leader, his captor. Veronika Molotov. Psyphire. The huntress.
The old man was actually glad to wisp her.
As the first Vorgýrim soldiers erupted into the angular gantry, Barricade threw three grenades. They flashed with light and smoke but made no explosion. Orange-white tear gas, with trace amounts of a nerve agent, billowed and filled the open space before them.
A metal servo jutted from the cyborg’s back just below his left shoulder. It held a long segmented rifle on a swivel. The barrel nearly reached to the man’s knees.
A tall woman wearing a bear skull cap broke through the cloud and screamed, her eyes red and twitching as she raised a long blade.
Malady spat a mist of green acid. Hundreds of tiny droplets hit the woman’s skin and burned holes as millions of caustic, corrosive microorganisms fed and multiplied and ate away her flesh. And as they devoured her, they released more acid, the by-product of their accelerated growth. The tiny holes doubled in size every second as the organisms ate through her flesh and bone. The woman shrieked and collapsed, first to her knees, then to the floor.
Malady snorted and swallowed. She took Wisper from Scarab and led him to the armored troop transport parked at the end of the wide gantry. Dead soldiers littered the ground.
MODUS had broken into a panel near the tungsten blast door. Clouds rolled overhead and a slight rain pitter-pattered over them as the two men worked in perfect unison attaching wires to a military-grade, bullet-proof computer. The blast door shuddered again and began to close upward.
A few Vorgýrim soldiers strong enough to push through the orange teargas cloud leapt over the closing door. Scarab drew her embalmer’s probes and held one in each hand as the enemy attacked.
“How long?” Psyphire asked in a Russian accent.
“Twenty-seven seconds.” MODUS’s twin units spoke with one voice in perfect unison.
Barricade deflected a blow and gripped a Vorgýrim soldier’s shaved head between his prosthetic hands. The heavy rubber tread on his fingers held his prey firm. He looked into the man’s brown eyes and spoke with the vibrating hum of a deep synthetic voice. “Master Sun Tzu said the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” He rammed the Vorgýrim’s skull with the tip of his gold hexagonal faceplate, crushing it with a splatter. “But where’s the fun in that?”
The gantry grew cold as Scarab engaged two more of the enemy just as another appeared. The impressive leather-cowled guard who had captured her leapt over the closing door, rolled on his back, and stood, holding a six-foot hammer.
Psyphire looked at the man’s clothing. “Is that tanned skin?” She smiled. “How deliciously flammable.” The woman with the blue-tipped hair shut her eyes and concentrated as the snarling guard bore down on her and raised the hammer high.
It would crush her completely.
His outfit burst into blue flame, which quickly turned yellow as the flames engulfed him. He dropped the hammer and shrieked and spun and turned in confusion as his flesh charred and burned. He ran into the girdered side of the gantry with such force that bits of his own burning flesh flew about. Then he collapsed.
A loud clang resounded over the flat, open ground of the missile complex as the secondary locks on the round silo hatch shuddered into place. Red warning lights strobed. Klaxons warned of an impending launch.
MODUS turned to Psyphire. The two men spoke in unison and without inflection. “I’ve sealed the silo hatch and begun the countdown.”
“Countdown?” Barricade spun to face the firestarter. “You’re going to detonate? There’s no way that APC can get us clear in time!”
“Don’t be stupid.” Psyphire walked to the rear of the high-wheeled vehicle. “They emptied the warhead long ago. But the rocket still has enough fuel to reach orbit. With the hatch sealed, the missile will explode and incinerate this compound and leave no trace of our incursion. The last thing we need on the eve of ultimate victory is to start a war with the Vorgýrim Supremacy.” Psyphire hopped onto the back of the truck and looked at Wisper, whom Malady was strapping into a seat. “Are you certain you have it?”
The old man nodded. “I saw it quite clear. In multiple minds. They sell all their plutonium, everything they scavenge, to a compatriot of yours, a Russian named Yushenkin. Evgeny Yushenkin. He will know the people you are looking for.”
Something enormous struck the tungsten blast door with such force that the metal bent half a meter outward. Everyone froze as the sound reverberated off the gantry walls and echoed up to the sky.
A guttural sound, like the underwater rumble of a fifty-foot crocodile, reverberated through the metal.
Barricade reached for his railgun as the rain intensified. The servo on his shoulder turned and brought the weapon up. It whined as he primed the capacitors. “What the hell was that?”
Psyphire walked to the cab, her hair drooping in the rain. “Just as in the ocean trenches, there are creatures in the deep pits of the world that even we should fear. These people worship them as gods. We need to go. Now.”
“Amen to that.” Barricade stood on the side step and held on to the driver’s side door as MODUS climbed in the opposite side. The mercenary kept his railgun pointed at the door as Psyphire backed the heavy APC up the ramp.
In moments, as the invaders rolled over the smashed and smoking front gate, the ground shook. The silo filled with the heat of the trapped rocket, and the pressurized fuel ignited. There was a deafening blast as the foot-thick silo cover blew a thousand feet into the air straight up, trailing white-hot fire.
As the APC broke through the tree line and crested a nearby hill, a plume of black smoke billowed from the open silo. But nothing moved.
In all directions, the lonely steppe stretched to the horizon.