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Authors: Robert Kroese

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Chapter Sixteen

The BOX, just outside Elko, Nevada; April 29, 2017

 

It had been only three hours since Lucifer disappeared, and the sound of helicopters had returned with a vengeance. There were no windows in the building, but the rumbling whine of rotors was all around them. Whether the helicopters belonged to the media or some governmental agency was impossible to say. All Suzy knew was that their remote desert facility had definitely drawn some attention. Occasionally an amplified voice identifying itself as “the FBI” would break through the droning of helicopters to demand that Tiamat release the hostages and come out with her hands up, but Tiamat had shown no interest in doing either of those things. The voice of the FBI called her by name, so whoever was out there had some idea what they were dealing with, although the voice seemed to be unaware of the involvement of Lucifer or any other demons.

Tiamat was agitated but trying not to show it. She had released one of the more badly wounded FBI agents to warn the authorities outside what would happen if they tried to enter the building, but she didn’t seem terribly worried about this possibility. Tiamat’s main concern seemed to be getting the portal generator working. She had assigned Balderhaz to this task, threatening to start shooting FBI agents if he tried any “funny business.” Balderhaz was busy at work on the device, although if Suzy knew Balderhaz, he was motivated more by the idea of repairing his damaged creation than by the threat of more dead FBI agents.

Meanwhile, Suzy had managed to drag a sturdy plastic storage container to the stack of boxes in front of her without being seen, and now was waiting for the right moment to climb on top of it to grab the Balderhaz cube. Unfortunately, Tiamat had taken to pacing back and forth on the other side of the boxes, barely twenty feet away, and Suzy didn’t dare move for fear of alerting the demoness of her presence. So far Tiamat had been so preoccupied—or unconcerned with Suzy’s disappearance—that she hadn’t even bothered to send a demon looking for her.

The captives sat on the concrete floor, their hands and feet tied. Only Balderhaz had been allowed to roam free, and he was under constant surveillance by the demon known as Pazusu. Balderhaz had replaced the broken screen and opened up the bullet-ridden casing to examine the device’s innards. He had made a few adjustments, closed it back up again, and was now tapping at keys and staring at the screen.

“Is it working yet?” asked Tiamat. “What’s taking so long?”

“What’s your hurry?” asked the big horned demon, who sat on a crate nearby. “Lucifer said he’d be back in—”

“I didn’t ask for your input, Azrael,” Tiamat snapped.

Azrael shrugged. He had been put in charge of watching the captives, and he was clearly bored. He had spent the past three hours sitting on the crate, holding a rifle across his lap and waiting for his numerous wounds to heal. His condition had improved, but he was still shaky and pale. Tiamat had instructed the rest of the demons to patrol the inside perimeter of the compound, in case the feds tried to sneak somebody inside.

“I think it’s working,” said Balderhaz. “But I won’t know for sure until I finish the self-test. A few more minutes.”

Tiamat nodded. “Well, get to it. I want that thing working by the time Lucifer gets back.” Then she mumbled, almost inaudibly, “That bastard better get his ass back here quick. If he double-crosses me, he’s going to find out—”

A deafening blast rang out somewhere in the building, to Suzy’s left. It was followed by shouts and automatic gunfire.

“Gurien!” Tiamat said into a walkie-talkie she had appropriated from one of the FBI agents. “What was that? What’s happening?”

The only answer was a garbled squeal of feedback. More gunfire followed.

“Damn these incompetent fools!” Tiamat snarled. “Azrael, stay here and watch the hostages. If the FBI gets in, start executing them.”

Azrael nodded and Tiamat ran off, disappearing into the maze of junk.

She had been gone for only a few seconds when Special Agent Burton got to his feet and launched himself toward Azrael. His ankles were still tied together, but somehow he had gotten his hands loose. A small piece of scrap metal lying on the floor where he had been sitting attested to his method.

Azrael tried to get his rifle pointed at Burton, but there was no time. Burton threw his arms around Azrael and slammed into him, knocking him off the crate. The demon probably had fifty pounds on Burton, but Azrael was still recovering from his wounds and Burton had both momentum and desperation on his side. Azrael yelped as he hit the concrete floor, the weight of Burton coming down on top of him.

Burton had obviously put some thought into his attack: staying on the offensive after Azrael hit the floor, he repeatedly pummeled Azrael in the chest, where the majority of his bullet wounds were clustered. Azrael howled in pain, holding up his arms in an attempt to protect himself. The two grappled on the floor, momentarily disappearing from view behind the crate. Then suddenly Burton had the rifle in his hand and was rolling away from Azrael. Azrael pulled himself onto his hands and knees, trying to get to Burton, but he was too late. Burton, still prone, aimed the gun at the demon’s head and fired. A hole appeared in Azrael’s forehead and he fell to the floor, still. Suzy knew an angel could recover even from a bullet to the brain, but it would take a while—particularly inside the radius of the Balderhaz cube.

Realizing she wasn’t going to get a better opportunity, Suzy climbed on top of the plastic container, grabbed the cube, and jumped down to the floor. She had intended to run with it to the far side of the building to give Mercury and the others a chance to escape, but she wasn’t sure the angels could sense the cube’s absence—and it wouldn’t do any good to give them a chance to escape if they didn’t
know
they had a chance to escape. Since the captives were momentarily unguarded, she decided to leave the matter up to Mercury. She went around the stack of boxes, emerging into the open area.

Burton had gotten a large knife from Azrael and had removed his gag and the zip-ties on his hands and feet. He saw Suzy approach but he ignored her. Burton went to the nearest of the FBI agents, who had gone ashen from blood loss. He cut the man’s bonds and then cut the hands free of another man nearby. Handing the knife to the man, he said, “Get everybody free. Be quick about it.” Burton then turned his attention back to the wounded man.

Suzy crouched down next to Mercury. “Are you okay?” she asked.

In the distance, automatic gunfire erupted again.

“I haven’t felt this bad since I sat through the director’s cut of
Avatar
,” Mercury said, “but I’ll survive.” He glanced at Burton, who was still busy attending to his own men. “Go find a knife.”

Suzy nodded, getting to her feet. Burton was too preoccupied to worry about them now, but she wasn’t going to count on his help to escape. She found a box cutter on a workbench not far away, and returned to Mercury. She cut Mercury’s hands loose and then handed him the Balderhaz cube. ““I thought you might want this.”

“Good thinking,” Mercury said. He took the cube and bent down to cut the zip-tie on his feet. “Balderhaz, turn the portal generator back on.”

“What?” asked Suzy. “Why?”

“I’m going to get us some reinforcements.”

Balderhaz frowned. “But I haven’t tested it yet. There’s no telling what might happen to you if you try to go through the portal now.”

“I know it’s risky,” said Mercury. “But we’ve got no choice. The FBI doesn’t have a chance against demons. Like Burton said, they aren’t going to stop. They’ll keep sending men, and the demons will keep slaughtering them. We need help.” As he spoke, he cut Eddie’s hands apart and handed him the box cutter.

Balderhaz nodded and stepped toward the device.

“Hold on,” said Burton, stepping between Balderhaz and the portal generator, rifle in hand. “Nobody’s going through that thing. You saw what happened last time.”

“You’re out of your league, FBI dude,” Mercury said, taking the Balderhaz cube from Suzy. “Get your men out of here while you can.”

“That isn’t going to happen,” said Burton, pointing his rifle at Mercury. “As far as I’m concerned, you and your friends are still potential threats. I’m not leaving here without you.”

Suzy glanced at the other FBI agents, who stood watching this exchange. They were unarmed and in pretty rough shape; several of them could barely stand. However much loyalty they might have to Burton, she didn’t think there was much chance of them getting involved in a fight between Burton and Mercury—particularly now that they had seen what angels could do.

“You’re adorable, Special Agent Burton,” said Mercury. “But you’re powerless as long as I’m holding this.” He held the Balderhaz cube in the air, a few inches above his shoulder.

Burton frowned. “That isn’t how the cube works,” he said. “It doesn’t have any effect on—”

Mercury hurled the cube at Burton, smacking him hard right between the eyes. Burton took two steps backward and then collapsed on the floor. The Balderhaz cube landed at Mercury’s feet and he picked it up. “They’re also pretty good paperweights,” Mercury said. “Eddie, take his gun.”

Eddie, who had just gotten his feet loose, scrambled over to the unconscious Special Agent Burton and grabbed the rifle. He spun to face the other agents, but needn’t have been concerned. None of them had moved.

“Balderhaz, get that thing fired up,” said Mercury.

Balderhaz stepped up to the portal generator and began tapping keys. “I’m going to reset the destination parameters,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee this is going to work. The portal could shut down halfway through the transfer, stranding you in the void, or you could be torn in half, or—”

“None of this is helping my mood,” said Mercury, wincing and holding a hand to his belly. “Just do it. Tiamat could be back any second.”

Balderhaz bit his lip and went back to work. Soon, a faint blue-white ellipse glowed on the floor in front of them.

“Mercury, you’re insane,” said Eddie. “You can’t go through that thing. Just look at it!” As he spoke, the glowing pattern went fuzzy around the edges, flickered, disappeared momentarily, and then reappeared.

“No choice,” said Mercury, handing Eddie the cube. “Balderhaz, is it ready?”

Balderhaz held up his hands helplessly.

“I’m going to go ahead and take that as a yes,” said Mercury.

“Don’t do this, Mercury,” Suzy pleaded. “It isn’t safe.”

“True,” said Mercury, with a grin. “But it’s certainly not boring.” He stepped onto the glowing ellipse and disappeared.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Florence Administrative Maximum Facility (Supermax), Fremont County, Colorado; April 29, 2017

 

Lying in bed, Chris Finlan heard footsteps in the hall and he frowned. Visiting hours were over and the footsteps were too soft and light, not the rhythmic thud of the guards’ thick rubber soles. A lawyer, maybe? But lawyers didn’t usually come to the prison this late, and everyone in this cell block had exhausted all of their appeals. Death row was one cell block over; Finlan’s lawyer had cut him a deal for life.

Some deal, he thought as the footsteps grew louder.

Chris Finlan wondered how long it would take them to figure it out—and what they would do when they did. Would they really keep him in prison forever? The Florence Administrative Maximum Facility—affectionately known as “the Alcatraz of the Rockies”—was only twenty years old; he figured a building like this would probably stand for another hundred years or so. Eventually, though, it would be decommissioned and he’d be moved to some new, higher-tech facility—maybe something like those cool glowing hula hoop rings from the old
Superman
movie. Or would the United States itself fall first? Then what? What would happen to the millions imprisoned by that corrupt empire in institutions such as this one? As much as he wanted to hope for revolution, a storming of the Bastille, it was a fool’s hope. In all likelihood, a violent overthrow of the federal government would result in all the inmates of this facility slowly starving to death.

All except one, at least. Chris Finlan wasn’t sure he
could
starve to death. He knew he could get very, very hungry: he’d had a run of bad luck during the Great Depression, occasionally not eating for weeks at a time. But no matter how hungry he got, his body just kept going, as if subsisting on some mysterious energy drawn from the aether. He supposed even his body might eventually succumb to hunger, but he wasn’t eager to find out. If it looked like that was the way things were going, he’d have to find some other way to end himself. But then, that meant getting rid of
it
.

No, he said to himself. It won’t come to that. There had to be some other way out.

As the footsteps continued to get louder, Chris Finlan sat up in bed. He was somehow certain that the mysterious visitor was coming to see him. Most of the other prisoners were asleep, their snores echoing in the concrete hall. Occasionally he would hear one of them wake up and offer some sort of challenge—ranging from guardedly friendly to blatantly hostile—to the visitor, but the visitor quieted each man in turn with a few words. Chris Finlan couldn’t make out what the visitor was saying, but he sensed an eerie power in the man’s tone. It was a mode of speaking mastered by some of the Victorian spiritualists he had met, similar to hypnotism—a way of exerting one’s will over others through simple voice commands. He’d never heard anyone use it to such astonishing effect, though.

“Hey, who—” started the man in the cell next to him.

“Go back to sleep,” said the visitor.

Seconds later, the man was snoring again.

A few more steps and the visitor was standing in front of Chris Finlan’s cell, a svelte silhouette with blond hair ablaze in the fluorescent illumination behind him.

“Chris Finlan,” said the visitor.

“That’s me, chief,” said Chris Finlan, attempting to affect an air of nonchalance, but his voice cracked in the middle of the last word. He cleared his throat. “Who the devil are you?”

“You know,” said the visitor, “I was planning on giving you an alias, but I expect you’re the sort of man who appreciates the truth. Chris—may I call you that?”

Chris Finlan shrugged.

“Good,” said the visitor. “I… hold on.” The visitor put his hands on the bars in front of him and slowly pulled them apart, until there was just enough room for him to squeeze through. He did so, and was soon standing in front of Chris. “There, that’s better,” he said. “I don’t like talking through bars. Bad memories.”

Chris Finlan nodded, still staring at the gap in the bars. Was this actually happening? Was he dreaming?

The visitor held out his hand and Chris Finlan shook it. He sure felt real.

“As I was saying,” the visitor said, “My name is Lucifer. And before you ask: yes,
the
Lucifer. Satan himself.”

Chris Finlan swallowed hard. “Do you… want my soul?”

Lucifer burst into laughter. “Your soul!” he barked, then clapped his hand over his mouth, remembering where he was. “You mortals and your souls. What would I want with your soul, for Pete’s sake? Do you people think I wear them on a necklace? No, Chris, I have no interest in your soul. In fact, I suspect you know exactly what I want. Where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris said, backing away slightly.

“Oh, come now, Chris. You know better than to play this game. You’ve been around a long time. A
very
long time, by human standards.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

Lucifer sighed. “It’s your own fault, you know. You should have kept a low profile. As good as my surveillance network was at its peak, I never would have found you if you’d have just kept your head down. In fact, until a few months ago I was still under the impression the shard was still in Heaven, attached to the Sword of Eden. But when—after months of plotting, mind you—that turned out not to be the case, I spent some time pondering where the shard might be. Clearly Heaven didn’t have it, and if another demon had gotten his hands on it, I would have heard about it. So presumably it was in the hands of a mortal.”

“Please,” said Chris Finlan, “I don’t know anything about a shard. I’m just a guy who got fed up and—”

“Knowing something about the properties of ubiquium,” Lucifer continued undeterred, “it occurred to me that a person who had been exposed to it for a long period of time would have developed some… eccentricities. Not just longevity, of course, although that’s a given. How old are you, by the way? Two hundred? Three?”

Chris Finlan regarded Lucifer for a moment, unsure what to say.

“Drop the coy act, Chris. It’ll do you no good to withhold details from me. I know all the important stuff anyway. I’m just curious.”

“I was born on January sixth, 1823.”

“Almost two hundred, then,” said Lucifer. “Yes, that’s when the ennui starts to set in. The ennui turns to anger, and that coupled with the introversion and obsessiveness… well, here you are.”

“I wrote a manifesto,” said Chris Finlan tentatively.

“Of course you did. You thought you had it all figured out. The solution to all mankind’s problems. You wanted to tell everyone.”

“But nobody would listen.”

“They never do. So you started sending bombs in the mail.”

Chris Finlan nodded.

“And you wound up here. Made the news, which is how I heard about you. I had actually been planning on getting in touch before I… well, I had a bit of a setback. Of course, back then I thought you were a just a garden-variety psychopath. I didn’t realize your psychosis had a supernatural cause. But after my failed attempt at acquiring the shard, I did some thinking and came up with a profile for a person suffering from UOD.”

“UOD?”

“Ubiquium Obsessive Disorder. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that you had the shard.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Please, Chris. Let’s not waste time. You’ve had a good run, but surely you can see it’s over. You don’t want to rot in here for the next thousand years, do you?”

Chris Finlan shook his head. Then hope momentarily surged inside him. “You could break me out! Together we could—”

“No, Chris. Understand that it’s not personal, but I simply have no need for you. If you’d come by your psychosis honestly, there might have been a time when I could have found a place for you in my organization, but these days things are tight. And to be honest, you’re just a guy who stumbled upon a magic gem. Without it, you’re nothing. Useless.”

“I’m not useless!” Chris Finlan shrieked. “I’ve figured it out! If I just could have gotten them to listen to me, I could have changed things!”

“Enough!” Lucifer growled, and Chris Finlan cowered from him. “I’ve wasted enough time here. Give me the shard.”

Chris Finlan shook his head.

“Give. Me. The. Shard.”

“I… can’t,” said Chris Finlan.

“You think you can’t, because you’ve grown attached to it, but it’s a delusion. It will hurt for a while, being without it, but eventually you’ll be fine. And then you can slowly die of natural causes in your cell, like the rest of the losers in here.”

“No,” said Chris Finlan. “I mean, I
can’t
. They wouldn’t let me have it in here, so I…”

Lucifer groaned. “You swallowed it, didn’t you?”

Chris Finlan nodded.

“But don’t they check your cell? How do you… I mean, when it comes out…?”

“I have to swallow it again every couple of days.”

Lucifer grimaced. “How long ago did you last swallow it?”

“Um. This afternoon, I think.”

“Good,” said Lucifer, taking a step toward Chris Finlan, who was now backed against the wall of his cell.

“What are you—” Chris Finlan started. And then he screamed. Lucifer had reached into his belly, and was now rooting around inside of him with his fingers, a mildly disgusted look on his face. Chris Finlan could do nothing but stare at him in horror. After a moment, Lucifer pulled his hand back and held up something small and hard. His arm was covered with blood halfway to his elbow.

“There!” Lucifer cried triumphantly. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Chris Finlan slumped to his knees, his eyes still fixed in horror.

“I want you to know how much I appreciate this,” said Lucifer. “And I also wanted to tell you… Chris! Pay attention, this is important.”

Chris’ eyes had gone glassy, but were now once again fixed on Lucifer’s face.

“Good. Chris, I want you to know that you didn’t figure anything out. You’re delusional, Chris. There’s no meaning for you to find, in two hundred years or two thousand. Everything is pointless.”

Chris Finlan fell face-first to the cell floor, dead.

“Good talk,” said Lucifer, wiping his arm on Chris’ bedsheet. He put the shard in his pocket and slipped out of the cell.

BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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