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Authors: James Axler

Reality Echo (17 page)

BOOK: Reality Echo
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In the meantime, Kane brought up both feet and pistoned them into Balor’s broad chest, knocking the huge Fomorian off balance and onto his back. Blinded by mud and caught by surprise, the giant was momentarily easy prey. Kane sought to further stun the bestial titan by jumping again, driving his heels into the flat slabs of muscle over Balor’s ribs. The Fomorian grunted as breath exploded from his lungs, but a massive paw rose from his splattered face to grab at Kane. The Cerberus warrior lashed out with a decisive kick that jarred the brute’s forearm bones. It felt like kicking a tree trunk, but the blow stopped the clawing grasp from catching anything but empty air. Kane wanted to avoid gunfire, knowing that even through the flock’s valiant distraction, the chatter of an automatic weapon would still be noticeable.

Balor sat up, but Kane had already leaped off the titan’s torso. Kane grabbed Epona’s hand, and the two of them ran with all of their might into the woods.

“He can see infrared,” Epona panted as they raced in the darkness.

“We’ve still got a few seconds before he can clean the glop I threw at his eye,” Kane answered. “We need distance now.”

“The right,” Epona urged. “There’s a running stream about four hundred yards away.”

The icy waters would make the trail they left with their body heat hard to follow. It was a good idea and Kane took it. Behind them, all manner of rodents and small fauna scurried about to confuse their back trail. For a brief moment, Kane had a mental image of a jungle lord who had summoned all the beasts of his land to his aid with a single piercing howl. Epona had called out to every living animal for dozens of miles, and they had descended en masse in a desperate bid to confuse and distract the Fomorian raiders. Already, Kane heard Balor cry out in his soft, lilting wail that Kane and Epona had escaped.

“Flee,” Epona gasped as they continued to run toward the stream.

“We are,” Kane answered.

“No, the birds, lest they feel the horrors of Balor’s eye,” Epona responded.

Kane didn’t blame the witch woman. If Balor’s eye was anything as dangerous as the Silver Hand of Nadhua, then its destructive capabilities were remarkable. The hand had been utilized by Maccan, the mad Tuatha de Danaan, and it had the power to crush flesh and bone at a distance with waves of invisible force, as well as produce a solid globe of energy capable of repelling sheets of automatic-weapons fire. Only Grant’s phenomenal strength had proved sufficient to wrestle Maccan into redirecting the hand’s blast into the ceiling
of the Mars pyramid, shattering it and causing the great relic of the Tuatha de Danaan to collapse around them.

As the Silver Hand of Nadhua was from the same era, a weapon in the war between the Annunaki and the Tuatha de Danaan, it stood to reason that Balor’s eye could carve huge swathes of destruction through the great flock that Epona had summoned. A searing crackle of air hissed behind them, and Kane glanced back to see that several pine branches had been charred by some beam.

“He’s not interested in the birds right now,” Kane grumbled.

“If we stop,” Epona gasped, pausing to cough from the effort of their desperate escape, “if we stop, we are lost!”

Kane fisted his folded rifle and stopped to line up the AK’s sights on a glimmer of green bobbing through the trees. As soon as he had a clear sight, he triggered a stream of autofire that chopped through the air. Balor’s childlike voice wailed in stunned surprise, accompanied by the spark of metal on metal. Kane had managed to hit Balor in his massive eye, but the bionic nature of the organ had prevented it from being a deadly impact. Still, the green, glowing iris disappeared in the woods, and Kane turned to catch up with Epona, his legs pumping quickly.

“He will not be harmed,” Epona said with frustrated disgust.

Kane grunted. “He’s slowed down, isn’t he? I’m not looking for anything other than escape.”

They reached the stream, and Epona ran in until she
was knee deep in the icy water. Kane was on her heels and the two people stopped.

“Which way?” Kane asked.

“Upstream will be difficult, but it will bring us closer to the radio you left for us,” Epona answered. “That is your plan, correct?”

“Call for help, and hope they bring all the guns and armor the Fomorians can eat,” Kane replied.

Epona smirked. “It won’t be a pleasant feast for them.”

“I hope not,” Kane said. He took Epona’s hand and they splashed upstream, grateful for their cloaks as the chilling waters soaked their feet and calves.

Cold feet were far superior to the icy stillness of the grave.

Chapter 17

Cerberus

Clem Bryant rubbed the dark brush of his goatee as he listened to Daryl Morganstern’s hurried but hushed dissertation of a conundrum. Bryant, even though he currently worked in the cafeteria of the Cerberus redoubt, was a gifted oceanographer before he was placed in cryogenic stasis in the Manitius moon base. With the bold new world he had been awakened to, Bryant’s knowledge of deep-sea conditions, marine biology and other fields was mostly academic in nature. The closest he got to work with marine biology was when he baked fish sticks on Fridays.

Still, that hadn’t stopped Bryant from seeking mental stimulation elsewhere. The man had one of the finest minds among the Manitius staff, which normally made for a cunning chess opponent for the young mathematician Morganstern. Indeed, Bryant was a particularly frustrating opponent since his mind wasn’t constrained by the limits of mathematical proof, enabling him to utilize more organic and chaotic approaches to dealing
with things. Now, in a cafeteria illuminated only by the harsh orange glow of emergency lights, Bryant had been given a problem that Morganstern was worried about.

Bryant had listed the brief facts that Morganstern had related.

Point one—doubt that Kane was who he was.

Point two—medical tests inconclusive and without anomaly.

Point three—interest in Morganstern in midst of crisis.

Point four—sudden nosebleed coinciding with the crash of Cerberus environmental controls.

Point five—too readily agreed to a plausible sounding solution imagined off the cuff.

Point six—potential involvement with a transdimensional being, Colonel Thrush.

To Bryant, the puzzle defied the available scientific evidence. Genetically and chemically, this Kane was identical to the one who had gone out to the Appalachians. That could be inferred from conversations with Brigid Baptiste, and this particular being had been given a leave of duty due to the head trauma he’d suffered before arrival. According to DeFore, he’d only suffered a concussion, as well as a large laceration.

From Brigid’s prior appearance, even Bryant had noticed that she was in a distracted state. How would that influence her assessment of Kane? Bryant wondered.

“Kane’s working with Wynan to get the doors open,”
Morganstern said. “But right now, I don’t think it’s wise to let him out of here.”

“Is Wynan aware of your suspicions?” Bryant asked.

“A semisentient mathematical construct inserted in a communications device was one of Wynan’s first science-fiction stories,” Morganstern said. “I’d been rather merciless in that Wynan didn’t realize that an equation just can’t be conscious.”

“In this dimension,” Bryant corrected. “Remember, Colonel Thrush is an artificial intelligence that has sought out alternate-universe counterparts of himself.”

Morganstern took a deep breath. “So there could be a renegade math problem on the loose in Cerberus?”

“Doubtful, but if you see a train leaving Cleveland at 110 miles per hour, head for the surface—”

“Clem!”

Bryant smirked. “Sorry.”

“What do we do?” Morganstern asked. “Am I just grasping at straws because Kane is at a loss for a logical explanation? Or is he fake?”

“How was Kane’s demeanor once you offered him a logical explanation for the sudden breakdown in the environmental controls?” Bryant asked. “We have several possibilities for how Kane could be a counterfeit, since we’re dealing with clones, androids, cyborgs and multiple dimensions. Add in the fact that Kane returned with a concussion, which makes any missteps in behavior readily excusable, and we have strong probability that we’re dealing with a perfect duplicate.”

“But no proof, since they ran him through the wringer medically and forensically,” Morganstern replied. “I’d been working on some figures on a napkin earlier when Kane came to talk to me.”

“What figures?” Bryant asked.

“Well, Lakesh is always looking to improve the capabilities of the interphaser. We were working on hyperspatial potential for the Mantas, utilizing a variation of interphaser technology,” Morganstern answered.

“What other projects had you worked on for Lakesh recently?” Bryant asked.

“Remember back when you helped Lakesh decipher the location of an old Soviet antialien weapon?” Morganstern asked.

Bryant nodded. “We had been spied upon by another party, hackers who had penetrated our mainframe via the old ARPA network that was the groundwork of the Internet.”

“I developed an encryption algorithm to make such penetration difficult, if not impossible,” Morganstern said.

“Kane saw the napkin?” Bryant asked.

Morganstern nodded. “Could another dimensional version of the man understand that kind of math, and extrapolate my thought processes in designing equations?”

“You’re assuming that this is just Kane,” Bryant said.

“They checked every part of him,” Morganstern countered.

Bryant frowned. “Not every part that would have not
been visible except through electronic means, such as an MRI or X-ray.”

“A computer brain? The weight variation would have been noticeable,” Morganstern said.

“You’re assuming human brain and human computer technology,” Bryant said. “The octopus has a brain fully as complex as a human’s, capable of full emotional range and problem solving. However, it’s of a different type than a human brain, so we automatically assume it’s inferior in intellect and capacity, despite the often artistic talents these creatures show. That’s just a variation of intelligence in our own dimension, on our own planet.”

“A computer that doesn’t utilize our own technology, and would be indecipherable from a normal brain on an X-ray and could alter the imagery of an MRI, despite being subjected to an intense magnetic field,” Morganstern said.

Bryant nodded. “So we’re dealing with an organic or semiorganic brain, capable of transmitting and receiving signals enough to engage in wireless hacking of our system. Kane suffered a nosebleed?”

“After he’d taken a look at the equations on my napkin,” Morganstern mused.

The two scientists spoke at the same time. “He over-clocked his brain processes in order to crunch the numbers of the algorithm.”

“So he’s fake?” Morganstern asked. “Because we haven’t developed anything other than theoretical proof that he’s anything but Kane.”

“Circumstantial evidence is all we have,” Bryant explained. “But I’d bring this up to Brigid. She’s distracted and worried. Perhaps this will make her doubts all the more founded. With the confirmation we’ve developed, she’ll be the one capable of dealing with the impostor.”

“And that means we have to open the cafeteria,” Morganstern replied.

Bryant shrugged. “I’d like to be back online for the midnight snack rush.”

“Save me some Swiss rolls,” Morganstern said.

“If you want to live to taste them, you’d better figure out a way to tell Brigid without letting the Kane impostor know what you’re saying,” Bryant warned.

Morganstern thought for a few moments, then a smile crossed his face.

“Remember that last game you played with me?”

Bryant chuckled. “Where I spelled out ‘touché’ in chess moves?”

“You’re my hero,” Morganstern said, clapping the oceanographer on the shoulder.

Bryant shrugged as Morganstern went off to assist Wynan and the false Kane.

 

B
RIGID
B
APTISTE HAD
pretended to leave Kane alone with Daryl Morganstern, but she had stayed just outside the cafeteria doors in order to keep an eye on him. She had been hoping to continue her observations while the man was no longer under the pressure of scrutiny. Brigid knew that her eidetic memory had made her the most
difficult of problems for an impersonator, as she would be able to detect the smallest of differences. As she had hung back, listening to Kane and Morganstern talk, she still had not heard anything that would be a proved break of personality from the man she knew.

That didn’t particularly mean anything, though, as Colonel Thrush not only had access to technology that could build an identical being, down to the clothing and scar tissue, but also be able to gather information from other universe’s counterparts in order to model behavior and background data. It was a frustrating deal, made all the more difficult by a line she remembered regarding conspiracies: “The lack of proof of a conspiracy is, in itself, proof of the effectiveness of a conspiracy.”

She knew that the line referred to how delusional theorists could rationalize outlandish acts of covert mind control and other menaces without a shred of proof. It had been mathematically impossible to prove a negative, in her experience, and she doubted that Morganstern would have found much more luck in terms of a solution.

Then the blackout hit, and the cafeteria doors slid shut, protective baffles jammed into place. Brigid had keyed her Commtact, but there was no signal. The central communications hub that carried the frequency that the Commtact operated on had been locked down, as well. If she could have seen in the pitch darkness, she would have stumbled toward a trans-comm, but she already suspected that there was nothing happening on
the wall panels. She heard disconcerted whimpers and cries as the absolute blackness engulfed everyone.

Brigid keyed the glow dial on her wrist chron and had something to see by. To her amazement, several other Cerberus staff had their own forms of illumination in their pockets. Veterans of the Manitius base would have had the sense to prepare for a power failure, or have a light handy to conserve energy reserves. The blue-green glow of her watch gave others a means to see her, which made her feel a little better.

Finally, after a few moments, the emergency lights kicked in. Brigid turned and saw that the blast shutters had lowered over the automatic sliding doors.

“That’s all wrong,” Brigid muttered. She checked her watch again and realized that in only a few minutes, Grant and CAT Beta would have been transmitted back to the Appalachians on their errand of ending the Fomorian menace. The timing of the shutdown was far too suspicious to disregard, even though she still only had circumstantial evidence.

Brigid paced outside of the cafeteria, running through the time line of events, trying to place the reason why someone would want to grind Cerberus operations to a halt. The only logical reason was that there was something back in the Appalachians that would be discovered on a renewed sortie. Even if power was restored quickly, the sudden shutdown would require extensive investigation, especially in the field of computer security. A simple power glitch would not have dropped blast doors, segre
gating the sections of the redoubt. The recent hacking of the system had inspired a new round of security protocols, and Brigid frowned as she realized that the mathematician, Morganstern, was one of the brains behind the encryption that shielded their mainframe.

She reviewed the series of events that had preceded the sudden shutdown, filtering out the very convincing conversation between Kane and Morganstern and concentrating on nonverbal cues of what was going on. There was movement on the table. It was Morganstern passing off a much-scribbled napkin to Wynan. She knew that the two young men were working together in an effort to replicate the process by which the mat-trans had been reprogrammed to engage in interplanetary teleportation. While wormhole-based transmission of matter across vast distances was feasible, especially with the discovery of parallax points, redoubt staff was exploring the technology to make space travel easier.

Brigid rewound her mental image again. Kane saw the napkin being moved. It was upside down, and slid so quickly you’d need a photographic memory to recall what had been written on it. But Kane watched the napkin for a moment, anyway. She focused on his eyes, and he was paying close attention to the little scrap of tissue paper passed between the scientists.

As if Kane was able to read what was written on the napkin, and read it so quickly that he somehow comprehended it. Brigid had the leisure of her intellect to freeze the memory, invert it and delve into the equations that
had been scrawled on the napkin. Kane would have needed a supercomputer in his brain to do the same thing, which wasn’t possible. Electronics would have shown up in an X-ray of the man’s skull.

“Electronics aren’t the only means of computation,” Brigid said to herself. “I’m so used to the prevalent digital technology we use that I’ve disregarded other forms.”

“Excuse me?” someone asked, shining a flashlight toward her. It was Brewster Philboyd, the blond, middle-aged astrophysicist from Manitius.

“I was talking to myself, trying to deal with a problem,” Brigid confessed. “Sorry.”

“I talk to myself all the time. Only way to get some decent conversation sometimes,” Philboyd answered. “Well, what kind of technology are you thinking about?”

Brigid frowned. “For one thing, the most efficient information-processing device we have to date is the human brain, properly trained. It can decipher equations, translate languages and store massive amounts of data. Not an ounce of electronics is involved in that, simply biochemically produced electricity.”

“Though input and subsequent programming is still merely on-off, binary programming on a sublime level,” Philboyd replied. “Some theories of artificial intelligence have been able to determine that with sufficient stimulus, a computer would be able to develop its own emotional responses independent of actual programming, the same way a human being does by having six
senses. Still, how would that kind of a computer be able to hook up with a computer wirelessly?”

“I’ve encountered cloned central nervous system material that had been utilized to telepathically hijack the original user. Indeed, there is evidence that all human minds have the ability to transmit information over long distances—it simply needs the proper ‘switches’ flipped,” Brigid said.

“All right,” Philboyd said, looking at the shuttered door. His brow wrinkled as he looked it over. “I assume we’re talking about someone here who might have been replaced by an artificial life-form, correct?”

“We think that Colonel Thrush might have infiltrated Cerberus utilizing a manufactured life-form,” Brigid confessed.

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