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Authors: James Axler

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BOOK: Reality Echo
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Brigid’s lip curled at the mention of that name. It was what Fand, the half Tuatha de Danaan and half Annunaki daughter of Enlil, had insisted on calling Kane. She claimed that he was her destined lover, reborn in order to reunite with her. Though Brigid’s affection for Kane wasn’t of a lustful nature, the thought of Fand sinking her claws into Kane was repulsive. He wasn’t particularly interested in the long-lived demigoddess himself, a surprise considering that Fand was a statuesque being who could have been a Greek sculpture come to life.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got some kind of link to Cuchulainn,” Brigid spoke up.

“No, but you can’t begrudge me a girlish crush on such a hero, can you?” Epona asked.

Brigid clenched her eyes shut. She finally opened one eye, glancing out of the corner toward Grant, whose face was split with a broad smile.

“You’d think Kane was some kind of immature wish-fulfillment fantasy, all the women he gets,” Brigid complained.

“Maybe this time you’ll get some interest,” Grant said.

Brigid raised an eyebrow. “As good-looking as Bres the Beautiful sounds, I don’t think I want to be genetically manipulated to become a Fomorian. From what I’ve heard, my options are missing limbs, missing eyes or the head of a goat.”

Epona studied Brigid for a moment. “You would not be changed. There is nothing of the blood in you.”

“Your granny-witch sight, lady?” Grant asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I can see Cuchulainn in your friend. I can see Fomorian tendencies, or the lack of, in you two,” Epona said. “Do not fear, large one.”

Grant waved her off dismissively. “Whatever.”

Something crackled in the distance, and Brigid’s and Grant’s ears instantly picked it up as the sound of gunfire.

“Kane?” Brigid asked as the Sin Eater snapped into Grant’s grasp.

Chapter 2

When the crackle of gunfire cut through the quiet mountain air, Grant sprung to his full height, his Sin Eater deploying instantly, launched by a flex of his forearm muscles. The microelectric motors attached to the machine pistol’s holster allowed the weapon to be readied instantly, but the demanding weapon required six months of training before a Magistrate could be trusted with a loaded Sin Eater. Grant kept his trigger finger straight as the gun unfolded, grip deposited right into his grasp. Had the digit remained crooked, then the weapon would have launched a 240-grain specially loaded 9 mm bullet, a powerhouse round designed to penetrate the most durable of body armor, even the cockpit of a Deathbird assault helicopter.

To Brigid Baptiste’s credit, the woman had pulled her TP-9 pistol and was ready a heartbeat later. Grant wondered how the beautiful, flame-haired former archivist would take his amazement at how she went from a quiet, bespectacled academic to a confident, adventure-hardened explorer of a hostile world. She had never settled into the overly macho, paramilitary mind-set that
had surrounded Grant and Kane in the barracks while they were still Cobaltville Mags, but despite that, she’d forged herself into a warrior. She didn’t rely on false pride and bravado rather than genuine courage to face barbaric or powerful opponents.

Indeed, Grant often wondered at the quality of the Magistrate corps had not the hybrid barons not segregated the ville societies and allowed women to be part of the armored warrior caste that formed the core of their power. That thought evaporated as soon as it struck the light of his logic. The barons had been corrupt, and their sexist segregation had been designed to keep humankind on its knees. To combine both strength and intellect in a person, and to break the limiting bonds of a caste hierarchy, would have made humans less likely to assent to being slaves of a little seen, secretive society of hybrid beings. Grant had only one name, as did Kane and all the other Magistrates, a move calculated to strip the black-armored warriors of any individual identity. It was exceedingly rare for Magistrates to develop intense bonds of friendship and loyalty to anything other than the barons, which was probably why the two partners had so readily slipped the bonds of their orders.

Kane made Grant a little more human, and the reverse was true. That little touch of compassion, a link to another person, had given them both the strength to see the corruption of the villes and break loose. Brigid had been part of that process, as well, giving Kane another anchor of human emotion that the rulers of the baronies
had sought to crush. Grant had expanded his own worldview in the form of a friendship with the feral child of the Outlands they knew as Domi. At first, Grant and Domi had been opponents, the young outlander employed by a smuggling ring under the Pit boss Guana Teague. However, an act of compassion on Grant’s part for Domi, as she was wounded and abused by the sluglike Teague, had formed a bond between them. For a long time, Domi had acted as if it was something inspired by sexual attraction, but the bright young feral woman and Grant finally realized that their bond was more along the line of surrogate father and daughter, especially when Grant became romantically involved with Shizuka, the leader of the Tigers of Heaven. The love between Grant and Domi was as strong as ever, but it had found its true form, rather than the sexual tension that had first developed.

Returning to Brigid, Grant realized that though he and Kane often joked about Brigid’s predilection to launch into an educational lecture, her relentless pursuit and sharing of knowledge was infectious. Both Kane and Grant had been spurred to learn about the world before civilization was burned to ashes in nuclear fire, and to seek out lore that extended far beyond their old worldview as dictated by the barons. Where Brigid became physically adept and skilled in the arts of war, Kane and Grant saw their intellectual horizons broadened.

Rounding out the three aspects of mind, body and soul, it didn’t escape Grant’s notice that Kane’s presence
in their lives had been an escape from a single-minded existence. Brigid Baptiste could have spent her entire life poring over historical artifacts and records without seeking human companionship, and Grant could have been condemned to a life where he relentlessly soldiered for Cobaltville until he died. The compassion and friendship that Kane had added to their lives was the agent of change that made everything possible.

It was Kane who had the curiosity to seek out the strange matter-transfer device utilized by Teague’s smugglers. It was Kane who questioned the authority that told him to look away. It was Kane who saw that there was something more than just what was in front of their eyes. Certainly, Kane himself was a physically adept and capable warrior, and he had a keen perception that at times bordered on psychic sensitivity, but the man who had gone alone into the valley at Epona’s request was not just a warrior or a seeker of knowledge. He sought out what was right; he was a man with a moral core that had chafed under orders to kill and crush rebellion, who felt more at home being a defender of those who couldn’t fight back, or helping those in need. Kane’s strength and intellect were slaves to a spirit that was driven to the service of others.

The smart thing for Kane to have done would have been to turn his back on Epona so the Cerberus explorers could have returned to the redoubt without a second thought of risking themselves. The
right
thing, however, was what Kane chose. The Appalachian mountain folk
were under siege by a cruel and implacable enemy that had been given an edge by a mysterious foe. Allowing the Fomorians to continue unabated would result in suffering and unchecked evil.

In his readings, Grant came across a line by Edmund Burke. “For evil to succeed, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.”

Grant wondered, with all those women who saw Kane’s “soul,” if any had ever read those words tattooed across his heart, because there was never a more defining quote for his friend and partner.

It was five hundred feet downslope to the edge of the pine forest that clung tenaciously to the mountainside, which was just outside of the range of his Sin Eater’s normal deployment parameters. With another flex of his forearm, the electric motors retracted the machine pistol, folding it from its active thirteen-inch length to only six inches, lying flatly against his forearm. The motorized holster clicked as the Sin Eater returned to its resting spot. It was time to make use of something more appropriate for the situation.

Grant opened his rifle bag and drew out one of his favorite pieces of equipment, the five-and-a-half-foot-long Barrett M-85 .50-caliber rifle. Designed in the twentieth century as a means of allowing a ground soldier to stave off armored fighting vehicles short of a tank, the Barrett could hurl its missiles over two miles. Though it was only a single shot, it utilized .50-caliber Browning machine gun ammunition and held eleven
rounds when fully loaded. A smaller man would have had trouble hauling around the thirty-pound rifle, but it fit comfortably in Grant’s massive hands.

Grant had wondered if it had been overkill to bring such a handheld cannon to this mission, but when he saw that the Appalachian scouts had their own .50-caliber long rifles, he knew that he hadn’t overreacted. Whoever the Fomorians were, they were creatures of impressive strength and durability, requiring more than standard small-arms fire to stop conclusively.

All of that information only served to worry Grant more about Kane and his fate. The Sin Eaters were powerful side arms, having proved their worth against heavily armored foes such as the Nephilhim drones in the service of the Annunaki, or Magistrate stormtroopers in their black, impregnable polycarbonate shells, but as the mountain folk had all manner of calibers at their disposal to deploy against the man-eating mutants that tormented them, their choice of arm was telling. The riflelike power of the Sin Eater might wound, but only the steel-smashing force of a .50-caliber round was sufficient for the Appalachians to trust against the Fomorians.

“You cannot move until Kane is in plain sight!” Epona said.

Grant glared at the witch woman, his rage only barely under control. “Do I look like I’m getting off this fucking rock?”

“Mind yourself, stranger,” Epona warned.

Grant turned away, pushing the aggravating witch out of his thoughts. It was time to do everything he could to watch over his best friend in the world. That meant pulling up the hood folded into the collar of his shadow suit. The fabric sheathed the big man’s head, conforming to it snugly as if it had been grown as a second skin for him. In truth, the high-tech polymers of the shadow suit were pliant enough to fit anyone who wore one, stretching or contracting, yet giving up none of its environmental protection capabilities.

But Grant hadn’t donned the hood to keep out a chill. Instead, he drew the face piece of the shadow suit, a rolled-up mask kept in a flat pocket, and affixed it to the edges of the hood. An electrostatic charge gave an inaudible crackle before the unit was sealed to his skull. Though the mask was opaque to outside viewers, as soon as the charge hooked the mask in place, Grant was able to see through the circuitry laden fabric.

Though Grant had hated squeezing into old Magistrate armor suits, he had enjoyed the advanced optics and communications abilities built into the Mag helmets. It had taken months of experimentation with the shadow suits to convince the veteran Grant that they offered the same sensory enhancements as the Mag helmets, except in a far more compact and portable form. As well, with the hood tucked into the collar and the face piece folded away, the shadow suits were far less imposing than the ominous black helmets and polycarbonate armor shells of old. Grant still pulled a jacket
and pants over the shadow suit sometimes, to give himself some pockets and a modicum of modesty. The skintight uniform conformed to every contour of his body, so while he might have been able to walk through an Antarctic blizzard without feeling a single chill, he wore pants to keep his sense of decency.

Grant focused his eyes, and the remarkable technology built into the mask interpreted his eye movements and magnified his vision. Suddenly, it was as if he was only five feet away from the tree line, and Grant swept the forest, looking for signs of Kane. Gunshots cracked, and the magnification dropped back to zero, a green heads-up circle showing in Grant’s vision. He adjusted his gaze to that spot where the suit had picked up the sound. All he could see were trees, but now Grant had at least an idea where Kane was on the slope.

“Can you see anything?” Brigid asked, unfurling her own hood and drawing out her face mask.

“No, but apparently the suits can pick up the origin points of loud sounds,” Grant said.

Brigid nodded, affixing her face mask into place. “Like that last gunshot.”

The former archivist turned to Epona. “This isn’t violating the letter of your law, is it?”

Grant smirked behind the safety and anonymity of his faceplate. Though environmentally he wouldn’t even feel the iciest breeze, a chill ran through him at the sound of Brigid’s question to Epona. Diplomacy and courtesy were all fine, but right now, Kane was shooting
at something, and from the sound of things, he wasn’t having an easy time.

Epona shook her head in response to the barbed question. “Just remember, you can only go to Kane’s aid when he is in
plain
sight to us. Who knows how far you can see into the forest with your technology, but we are not gifted like you.”

Grant’s fist clenched around his Barrett, tendons creaking under his polymer glove. “Trust me, witch. If I could see him right now, I’d tell you hillbillies to go piss uphill.”

“Behave,” Brigid admonished, though this time her heart wasn’t in the warning. She gripped the handles of her Copperhead submachine gun with as much tension as Grant felt. He couldn’t see her knuckles through the black polymer of her gloves, but he knew that she was as white-knuckled with concern for Kane as he was.

Grant stared, as if trying to command the shadow suit to spontaneously develop the power of X-ray vision to peer through tree trunks and other foliage as if they were made of glass. He rested the Barrett’s steel-girder-like stock on his thick, powerful thigh, because even his powerful shoulders couldn’t hold the heavy rifle aloft forever. Crouched deeply, resting on his haunches, Grant was poised to explode, but the fuse burned far too slowly for his taste.

He activated his Commtact, opening a connection back to Cerberus redoubt, where Lakesh, Bry and others
were watching the events of this mission as closely as they could.

“Bry, you there?” Grant asked.

“Nah. I’m in the middle of a Three Stooges marathon and eating bonbons,” the computer expert replied with his typical, laid-back sarcasm.

Grant rolled his eyes. “Do you have anything that could make this wait a little more bearable?”

“There’s only so much I can do with a virtual reality girlfriend for you,” Bry answered, but Grant could hear the clatter of his fingertips across a keyboard as he commanded the network of satellites from his computer console. Bry’s acerbic, bored tone was the young genius’s armor against a world of panic and emergency.

“Kane,” Brigid said over the communications link. “Where is he now?”

All the Cerberus personnel had been fitted with subcutaneous biolink transponders that, among other things, allowed Cerberus redoubt to monitor their whereabouts.

“Range?” Grant asked, rising off his haunches. “Bry, give me—”

“He’s 4200 feet from your position, which means 3700 from the tree line,” Bry answered. “He’s getting closer.”

“But still not in plain sight,” Grant growled.

“Where is he?” Epona asked. Anxiety and concern had crept into her voice. Whether it was genuine worry for Kane and the people standing watch for him, or it was fear of reprisal from an angry Grant, it was a disarming change.

“Still a long run from the tree line,” Grant told her. “It’s a two-way shooting match now, so that means one of the Fomorians has an assault rifle.”

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