Authors: Norma Hinkens
stare at the note
, my mind racing through the possibilities. Did Trout hear someone moving around outside the Biotik Sektor? One of the clones? A deviation? Or did the Rogues escape? My skin crawls at the thought. I've no idea how long Trout's been gone. If the Rogues are on the loose he's in real trouble, and so is our plan if they catch him.
I pick my way back through the pod chairs to Sven and shake him awake. "Trout's gone!" I whisper, waving the note in front of him. He squints at the words, then jerks upright, suddenly alert. "How long's he been missing?"
I shrug. "No clue. I just found this."
Sven rubs his hands over his face. "Trout and I were the last ones to bed down for the night."
"So he may not have gone to sleep at all." I stare at Sven, stricken by the implications. "He could have left hours ago."
"I'll wake the military clones." Sven gets to his feet. "We'll bring Viktor too, he knows the layout of the Craniopolis better than any of us. The others can wait here until we get back."
We assemble in the main tunnel after doing one more thorough search inside the Biotik Sektor. There's no trace of Trout and no indication of which direction he went.
"Let's check Intake first and make sure the Rogues are still locked up," I say.
Sven wrinkles his brow. "There's no way they could have escaped, but if it makes you feel any better."
no sign of Trout in the Intake Sektor or any evidence that he was here. The Ghost lies motionless in the hushed shadows of the holding pen, crumpled in the same position the dart left him in. We slip by his pen and peer through the viewing monitor into the Intake Sektor's living quarters. The Rogues are scattered around the room, fast asleep in pod chairs. Their chests rise and fall, but no sound of snoring seeps through the soundproofed doors.
"Let's go," I say. "Trout didn't come this way."
Viktor frowns. "It could have been deviations he heard. They're pretty adept at slinking through the tunnels."
"So why isn't he back yet?" I ask.
"Maybe they mistook him for a Sweeper," Viktor says, a grave look on his face. "He was wearing a lab coat after all."
I throw an anxious glance Sven's way. It never even occurred to me that Trout could be in danger from the deviations.
"The deviations wouldn't be able to get out of Terminus on Jerome's watch," Sven says. "But I'll swing by there anyway and make sure everything's in order. I'll check docking and the maintenance wing on the way too. You and Viktor take some of the military clones with you and search the mechanical rooms and factory area. We'll regroup in Research."
later we congregate at Viktor's desk after searching every nook and cranny in the Craniopolis, including the Sweepers' quarters. I look at the faces of the military clones as they troop back into the room, trying to curb my desperation. "No leads?"
"Nothing," Sven says. "Maybe we should head back to the Biotik Sektor in case he's returned."
"You mean we should give up." I glare at him.
Sven flattens his lips, but he doesn't take the bait. "If the Undergrounders wake up and find us gone, they might panic."
I give a dejected nod. "I'm sorry. I'm mad at Trout for pulling a stunt like this. He knows better than to wander off alone, but he just won't quit."
Behind us the CommCenter beeps, and a sequence of lights flashes along the dashboard. Viktor jumps into action. "Incoming transmission." He flicks a series of switches and looks up, a feverish glow in his eyes. "It's the delegation. Two hours to arrival."
A cold sweat wraps around me. We're almost out of time.
Sven turns to me, a questioning look on his face.
"We need to stick to the plan from here on out," I say. "Trout's on his own. Go back to the Biotik Sektor and get the clones in position. Send the Undergrounders up to me. I'll meet you at the docking station in two hours."
Sven gives a curt nod and turns on his heel, already in full military mode.
I run my sweaty hands down the front of my lab coat. "You and the other scientists will have to do all the talking," I say to Viktor. "Your son will direct the conversation to you, so he won't be a problem. If one of the other members of the delegation asks a question, it's your job to make sure it isn't directed at an Undergrounder."
A flicker of pain crosses Viktor's face. "I'll do whatever it takes to be with my son again."
he docking station
is eerily silent, an unwitting participant in the waiting game we are playing. The two-hour arrival deadline for the delegation has come and gone. Six gleaming Hovermedes, restrained by cables, line the hangar floor like exotic insects pinned in place. Sven and his newly inaugurated Schutz Clones stand in formation, ready to salute the delegation. Tricked out in black fatigues and steel-toed boots, heavily armed, they strike fear in my heart every time I glance across at them, even though I know they are military clones loyal to Sven.
The scientists are dressed in their usual garb, but their faces betray the weight of the task at hand. We are all a part of the deception, but the scientists will be the front-line perpetrators. One slip from them and everything unravels.
A sound like metal grinding on stone jerks my attention to the roof of the steel-framed hangar. A pneumatic whirring follows, and the entire top section slowly swivels off its base, revealing a quartz-veined, stony sky. Icy gusts lash through the hangar, rattling aluminum sheets in the parts carts lining the back wall.
A short distance away, the low, sleek profile of a Hovermedes emerges from the clouds. A familiar shot of fear throws me back on my heels and I fight the instinct to run. Blood beats in my temples. The years I spent evading extraction have carved a well-worn flight response circuit in my brain.
I throw a quick glance around at the others. The Undergrounders huddle together, spellbound at the sight of the ship bearing a delegation of Sweepers. I try to push Trout out of my mind and stay focused. Every time my thoughts drift to him, a wave of panic courses through me. He's supposed to be here by my side, an essential part of our smokescreen. I can't help worrying that something unthinkable has happened to him.
I take a deep breath and straighten my stance as the Hovermedes begins its approach. The ship slows its speed and moves into position above the hangar. I stare up at it with loathing--an enemy so silent it's impossible to detect its treacherous presence.
The Hovermedes drops in staggered intervals. I hold my breath when the landing gear touches down and the ship stabilizes.
The pneumatic door on the side of the Hovermedes slides open. Viktor steps forward with his team of scientists to greet the delegation. I fall in behind with the other Undergrounders. Sven doesn't flinch a muscle when I pass by him. My heart is shaking like a maraca inside, but I keep my eyes down and press on toward the ship.
A tall, olive-skinned man appears in the ship's doorway. He moves down the steps with poise and walks straight up to Viktor. They engage in a curt, professional handshake, and then the man turns and introduces the rest of the Sweepers who follow him out of the ship, trailed by a squadron of Schutz Clones.
A bookish-looking, moon-faced Sweeper with thick-rimmed glasses steps forward, greets Viktor and immediately wanders off from the main group. He throws a beady eye over Sven and the military clones and runs a hand down the side of the closest Hovermedes. He studies the tips of his fingers, his peaked brows squeezed into a nearsighted squint.
I drop my gaze when he stares in my direction. He's going to be trouble. No matter how well we've rehearsed our script, he's figured out that we haven't run the Hovermedes in the past few days. "We've got a hound dog in the group," I whisper to the Undergrounder standing next to me. "Keep an eye on him, but whatever you do don't let him engage you."
The tall, olive-skinned man snaps his fingers and gestures to the Schutz Clones to take up positions alongside the ship. Sven and his men match their silent stance.
Viktor turns to us and introduces the tall man. "This is Doctor Dimitri Petrov, head of the delegation."
I suck in a breath.
We murmur a greeting and fall in behind Viktor as he leads the delegation out of the docking station. "Regretfully, MagLev transport is still down, so we'll be conducting a walking tour of the facility," Viktor explains.
The moon-faced Sweeper's eyes sharpen. "Restoration of power should have been the first priority."
Viktor gives a nod of acknowledgment. "Indeed. However, the deviations have been hit with a virus. Most of them are unfit for work." He sighs. "After suffering such heavy casualties in the coup, my colleagues and I are severely understaffed. We barely have the manpower to restore the Research Sektor to full operational capacity, let alone address transportation or maintenance."
"Is the cloning program stable?" Dimitri asks.
"Affirmative," Viktor replies. "The Intake Sektor is still processing extractees."
The moon-faced Sweeper steps into Viktor's personal space, a cunning gleam in his eyes. "You have extractees and yet the Hovermedes have not been run recently."
Viktor hesitates. A moment too long.
I step forward. "We saw no need. Shortly before the coup, we conducted a mass extraction from a Rogue camp a short distance from the Craniopolis. The Intake Sektor is already at maximum capacity which allows us to focus our efforts on repairing the damage to the Craniopolis."
Dark beetle-like eyes rake me over through thick-rimmed glasses. "And you are?"
"Doctor Connolly." I wrinkle my brow. "I don't believe I caught your name either."
"Chen Fu. Head of Genetics. I specialize in mutations." He pulls his lips into thin bands that retract so quickly I can't be sure if he smiled or sneered. "And
specialty is?" he prods.
"Fu!" Dimitri Petrov elbows past me. "Your expertise is needed here to evaluate Dr. Kozlov's progress."
Before Fu has a chance to protest, Dimitri escorts him to the front of the group. Viktor raises his brows briefly in my direction, before returning his attention to the delegation.
I close my eyes, and let out a silent breath. Sweat pools beneath the collar of my lab coat. The delegation is surprisingly small, four men and three women, but the Sweepers have unleashed a relentless investigator on us. If we detain Fu here with bogus orders from the outpost like we planned, we run the risk of him sticking his nose into everything and asking all sorts of dangerous questions. I've got to do something about him. Sven can't leave the docking station as long as Dimitri has ordered the Schutz Clones to remain there, and Trout's AWOL, so I'm going to have to figure this out on my own.
When we arrive at the Research Sektor, Viktor busies himself showing off his extensive collection of fabricated reports. Dimitri plays along, expressing approval at our efforts to stabilize the facility and research programs.
Just when I'm beginning to breathe a little easier, Fu announces that he needs to collect some samples from Terminus to determine the strain of virus the deviations have contracted.
I bite my tongue and wait for Viktor to speak.
"That would be inadvisable under the circumstances," he says, after a moment. "The virus is highly contagious. Everyone inside Terminus is under quarantine."
"Nonsense!" Fu replies. "Our bio-hazard suits offer more than adequate protection. It's my role to report back on any new strains of virus detected at the outposts."
Viktor gives a guarded smile. "Very well. Let's finish up in Research first. We'll need to discuss our plans for Sektor Sieben now that our Head of Cybernetics is deceased."
Viktor's eyes flash a distress signal to me.
"I'll arrange for a bio-hazard suit for Doctor Fu," I say, stepping forward.
"Excellent," Viktor replies. He turns and escorts the group into the corridor that leads to Sektor Sieben. I wait until I'm alone, and then dash over to the CommCenter and set up a link to Terminus.
A moment later, Jerome's hologram floats into view. I grip the edge of the desk in front of me. "We have a problem," I say. "A Doctor Fu, head of genetics. He wants to go down to Terminus and test for our non-existent virus."
Jerome balls his hand into a fist. "Don't let him come down here under any–" His voice cuts off. Shock ripples across his face.
I suck in an ice cold breath when I realize he's looking over my shoulder at someone.
on the back of my neck prickles. I spin around. Fu is standing in the entryway, his eyes skewering me with a mixture of rage and satisfaction.
"Your bio-hazard suit is being brought up from the supply room," I say. "Is there something else I can help you with?" I throw a hasty glance over my shoulder, but Jerome has faded from sight.
Fu struts across the room and stops in front of the CommCenter, hands clasped behind his back. The blinking lights signaling the end of the transmission reflect off his yellow skin.
"No virus?" He says. "And yet the deviations are not at their workstations." He raises his brows at me.
"They were traumatized by the coup. We thought it would be in their best interest to protect them from the additional stress of an audit. You know how agitated they get."
"You seem a little agitated yourself." Fu laughs, a hard, stinging laugh that tells me he's enjoying watching me dig myself in deeper. His eyes narrow to dark dashes in his face. "I knew something was off as soon as I got here. Your little coup anecdote is fascinating, but it doesn't add up."
He takes a step toward me, his face contorting. "What really happened to Won?"
"He died in the coup like Dr. Kozlov told you."
I think about reaching for my gun, but I don't want to show our cards if there's a chance I can talk my way out of this.
Fu slams his fist down on a desk. "Won didn't try to overthrow Lyong."
I take a step closer making it clear he can't intimidate me. "You don't know what happened."
about what goes on here," Fu shouts, his yellow teeth gnashing up and down in his face. "Won wasn't staging a coup, he was planning his escape. We had him under surveillance, but he gave us the slip."
My breath dries up. That explains why Fu started sniffing around as soon as he disembarked from the Hovermedes. If Fu tells the delegation that the virus is a hoax, we'll never get out of this alive. I have to find a way to contain him until I can figure out what to do about him. I slip my hand beneath my coat, but before I can pull out my Glock, Fu sticks a gun to my temple. "Don't even think about it!" he shrieks in my ear. "Who are you anyway? You never did tell me what you specialize in,
I scrunch my eyes shut, berating myself for not making a move sooner. My only way out of this now is to lull Fu into complacency and use my speed. "Please don't hurt me." I squeeze out a few crocodile tears. "I was forced into this."
Fu relaxes his arm and takes a step backward. "Pass me your weapon, slowly."
I nod and fumble inside my coat. The instant his lips relax in a smirk I dive to his left, roll, and take aim, but before I pull the trigger Fu slumps to the floor in front of me, the loud crack of his skull echoing around the room. I stare in disbelief as Rummy comes into view, gripping the barrel of his Glock in his right hand.
My jaw drops. "What ... are you doing here?"
"You're welcome, Butterface," he says, holstering his gun. He jerks his chin at Fu. "Who is he?"
I throw a nervous glance over my shoulder. "A Sweeper. They're conducting an audit. Why are you here?"
"I followed the Rogues here. Still tryin' to find my brother, remember?"
"He's not with them anymore," I say. "The Ghost said he slipped away during the storm. I thought he was with you."
Rummy stares at me for a minute before his face splits in a grin. "So my little brother has half a brain after all."
I cast another glance toward the door. "Have you seen Trout anywhere?"
Rummy wipes a hand across his jaw. "Yeah, about that kid. He heard me climbing out of the tunnel and came to take a gander. I knocked him out before I got a good gander at who I was slugging."
I ball my hands into fists. "Where is he now?"
"I tied him up and threw him down in the tunnel. Didn't want him stirring up trouble for me."
The sound of footsteps approaching startles us both. "Quick!" I gesture behind me. "Hide in the storage area. Take him with you."
Rummy reaches for Fu and drags him by the arms across the tile floor. I shove the door closed on them just as the delegation returns.
Viktor raises his brows at me, a fearful look in his eyes.
I give him a reassuring smile, before turning to Dimitri. "Everything in order, I trust?"
"Yes." Dimitri rubs his hands together. "We've agreed to keep Sektor Sieben closed for the time being, at least until the other projects are back up to full capacity." He glances around the room. "Where is Doctor Fu?"
"He went down to Terminus," I say, my pulse hammering in my head. "He seemed eager to start on his work."
Dimitri eyes me curiously. "He's very dedicated to his research. A new virus is a gift to a geneticist."
The other Sweepers appear satisfied with my explanation and chat casually among themselves, but I can tell Dimitri knows something's amiss. It's reassuring that even though Fu disappearing wasn't part of our original plan, Dimitri is working with the script I'm feeding him.
"Excellent," Viktor says, visibly relieved. "Shall we proceed to Intake and inspect the extractees?"
"I'll meet you down there," I say. "I have to pull a couple of reports for Dr. Fu first."
When the delegation leaves, I dart over to the storage area and yank open the door. "You need to get out of here right away."
Rummy throws me a look of disdain and steps over Fu's motionless body. "I just got here, who said anything about leaving?"
"You can't be seen by the delegation." I rub a hand across my brow. "Or the Rogues either. They're in the Intake Sektor and The Ghost's out for your blood."
Rummy narrows his eyes at me. "You got them boys chained up?" He reaches for his gun and loads a round in the chamber.
A wave of panic rolls up from my gut. "Rummy! Listen to me! Forget The Ghost. Blade's not with him anymore. Now's your chance to go look for him while the Rogues can't touch you."
Rummy curls his lip at me. "How'd you lock 'em up? Them boys is edgy around pens."
"Sven took them into the Intake Sektor living quarters and slipped out a side door. The locks are computerized."
Rummy hikes an eyebrow. "What about their weapons?"
"They're armed, but the doors are bulletproof. They've only got each other to shoot at."
Rummy grins. "It's time an old friend paid them a visit. Speaking of friends, you might wanna untie Trout. I ain't going that way just yet."
I pull out my Glock and point it at him. "I can't let you do that. You don't understand what's at stake. If you blow our cover this place will be overrun with Schutz Clones in a matter of hours, and then we'll all be dead, or worse, we'll end up in the lab."
"Take that gun out of my face unless you're gonna use it." Rummy scowls. "When are them lowlife Sweepers leaving?"
"They're not," I say, "but they don't know that yet. We faked an incoming transmission ordering them to remain here until the Craniopolis has been restored to full capacity." I gesture at the door with my gun. "They may not be leaving, but you are. Go, before someone sees you."
He stares at me intently as if trying to decide if I've toughened up enough to shoot him at point blank range. Something in my expression convinces him. He fishes his black beanie out of his pocket and pulls it low over his eyes. "If I don't find Blade alive, I'll be back for The Ghost."
"Untie Trout on your way out and tell him to meet me at Intake," I call after him as he disappears through the door.
I yank open and shut several heavy metal drawers before I find some plastic ties I can use to secure Fu's hands with. For good measure, I stuff a rag into his mouth, half-hoping it's got some chemical clinging to it that will finish him off. I drag a pushcart over to the storage area and haul Fu's limp body onto it and heap a pile of dirty lab linens over him. It's a slipshod arrangement, but there isn't time to finesse it. I need to take him someplace where I can contain him before the Sweepers return. I ram the cart out into the corridor and throw a quick glance in both directions. The wheels make loud squeaking sounds that echo off the tile floors as I roll the cart down the main feeder tunnel. The only place I can think to hide Fu until I figure out what to do with him is Terminus. The delegation won't go near the deviations as long as the quarantine is in effect. I grit my teeth and pick up my pace as I race along the corridor.
Outside the entry doors to Terminus, the Optika module zooms in on me and transmits a hologram inside. Seconds later, the doors retract and Jerome sticks his head out. He glances up and down the corridor, then pulls the cart inside. He tosses the lab linens aside and stares at Fu's motionless body. "How'd you pull it off?" he asks. "It didn't look like you had the upper hand last time I saw you."
"I was about to shoot him," I say, "but it turns out Rummy was hiding in there. He clocked Fu on the side of the head and saved me a bullet. He says he tracked the Rogues here looking for Blade."
Jerome's eye twitches. "Where's Rummy now?"
"Gone. I told him to leave. He's going after his brother."
"You believe him?"
I shrug. "He made it clear he'll be back if he doesn't find Blade alive."
Jerome runs his hands over his face. "
I believe. Rummy and The Ghost are gonna take this to the grave. It's only a matter of who goes first."
"Let's get Fu contained before he comes to," I say.
Jerome grabs the bar handle of the cart. "This way."
He wheels the cart back to a small windowless room with a steel door at the far end of Terminus and unloads Fu onto a mattress in the middle of the floor. "This is our cooling off station," Jerome explains. He slams the door shut and keys something into the computerized wall pad. "And he's going to need it when he comes around."
I shoot Jerome a grateful smile. "Thanks for hiding him. I need to get back to the delegation and figure out what I'm going to tell them when Fu doesn't reappear. They think he's down here collecting samples."
"Tell them the bio-hazard suit was defective and he got exposed," Jerome says. "It's a mandatory quarantine. They won't question it."
"Thanks," I say with a wink. "I was hoping you'd offer to put him up a little longer, but I would never impose a Sweeper on you."
A smile pulls at his lips. "Keep me posted on how the delegation reacts to their new assignment to stay here and oversee the rehab operation."
"It will only buy us a few more days at best. It won't take long for the delegation to start asking questions."
"Let's focus on buying a day at a time for now," Jerome says quietly. "It's all we have."
I nod, wondering if he senses his time is near.
the doors to the Intake Sektor just as Trout comes round the corner. A huge wave of relief rolls over me. He's safe, and that means Rummy's gone. We embrace briefly and I punch him playfully on the upper arm. "Don't ever do that to me again," I say.
"It was a stupid risk to take," he says, sheepishly. "But everyone was asleep and I didn't want us getting ambushed. I was only gonna take a quick look, then
! The last thing I was expecting was Rummy's fist in the back of my head." Trout lets out a snort. "At least he didn't carve me up on his way back out. Good riddance to him."
"We searched all over for you," I say. "It never occurred to me to try the tunnel."
"Where's the delegation?" Trout asks.
I motion to the Intake Sektor. "Inside. They're taking the tour. Come on, I'll introduce you."
"How am I going to explain not being there when they arrived?"
I grab his sleeve and pull him toward the door. "If anyone asks, you fell asleep in the Biotik Sektor after working a double shift preparing for their arrival."
I activate the keypad to open the door and step inside. It takes me a second to process the fact that all the holding pens are empty.