Authors: James Axler
“More than one,” Epona warned. “That’s why we called you for help.”
“So you’ve got mutant freaks who need 50-caliber rifles to kill them now armed with assault weapons, and you told us to send one of our own after them while he’s outnumbered and outmuscled?” Grant snapped. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
“Kane told us that he was as silent as the wind and twice as hard to capture,” Epona said. “We figured that he would be stealthy and not end up on the run from a superhuman horde with high-tech weapons!”
Grant was tempted to rip his face mask off his hood, but he needed its advanced optics to keep an eye on Kane. Luckily, his hood’s sensors picked up the chatter of more automatic weapons. “What’s Kane’s range to the tree line, Bry?”
“Now 3400 feet. He’s not making much progress, and according to the audio pickups on your hood, there are four hostiles shooting at him,” Bry informed him.
“Four,” Grant grumbled. The bark of a Sin Eater was amplified by the hood’s sensors. He shouldered his rifle, even though there was no way that someone could see through 1100 yards of tree trunks. The rifle was something solid to hold on to, a firm piece of reality that was an anchor when all he had were electronic ghost images thrown against his eyeballs. Intelligence hurled at him
was not a substitute for his personal senses. Sight, hearing, touch—he trusted those much more than some anonymous computer setup. He wanted tactile feedback.
Instead, all he could do was wait and hope for a single glimpse of Kane, if he somehow managed to fight his way past a quartet of superhuman mutants.
Brigid Baptiste glared at Granny Epona, then made a decision. She wasn’t one given to brash action, but right now she knew that something was wrong with the whole situation. Epona had gone from stating that Kane’s scouting mission was one of honor to stating that he was sent because he could move with ghostlike grace among the trees in order to determine the machinations that had been involved in the upgrade of the Fomorian raiders’ equipment. At the very least, Epona was hiding something.
Brigid swiftly went into Grant’s war bag, drew out a .45-caliber SIG-Sauer P-220 pistol and its spare magazines strapped together in a shoulder holster sized for her slender, athletic frame. The big ex-Magistrate spotted the activity, and she could imagine his eyebrow quirking underneath the opaque black hood of his shadow suit. The .45-caliber pistol had been something that Brigid had asked Grant to carry for her ever since their encounter with the mad cybergoddess Hera in New Olympus, a decision reinforced by a subsequent battle against the nanotechnologically enhanced Durga. Her
little TP-9 pistol might have been more than enough to deal with ordinary threats, but against superhuman beings, she’d developed the opinion that bigger was indeed better. Since the TP-9 couldn’t fire the same kind of superheavy slugs that the Sin Eater ate like gumdrops, the only way to deal with armor plating was to go with a bigger, more powerful gun.
“Granny Epona, you can tell your men to go piss uphill,” Brigid said, tightening the SIG’s holster straps. “Kane needs us.”
With that, she turned and began to sprint down the slope toward the tree line.
“Brigid!” Grant’s voice bellowed over her Commtact.
Brigid wished that she had the ability to talk, but at the moment, she was concentrating on keeping her balance and avoiding obstacles. She’d hoped that she would reach the tree line and that a pine tree would stop her headlong progress, but now even her intellect raced, throwing up a series of possibilities that ended up with her encountering an impact that would overwhelm the shadow suit’s protective capabilities.
“Brigid, stop now!” Grant bellowed over the Commtact.
The force of Grant’s order, transmitted through her jawbone, made it seem as if he had taken control of her body. She shot her feet out, ramrod straight, and her heels sank into the soft shale. She’d passed down the slope to a point where the ground had softened into soil and areas of mossy scrub. By extending her legs, she’d
applied the brakes and slowed enough that she could control her descent.
“Thanks,” Brigid said.
She could feel Grant’s smile, even over the radio. “Anytime, Brigid.”
Brigid stopped only twenty feet from the edge of the trees. Looking back, she could see where she’d first straightened out and the furrows her heels had cut through the slope as she’d slowed. She pulled her .45 from its holster. “I don’t see anything yet down here, Grant. Do you?”
“Not a damn thing,” Grant responded. “Nothing on the suit optics nor through the Barrett’s scope. You go into the woods too far, you’ll be on your own.”
“Not going to try my way down?” Brigid asked.
“I’ll be along,” Grant responded. “Just a little slower.”
Brigid scanned uphill and saw the big ex-Magistrate running, jumping and dodging to avoid boulders. She could see why he was reluctant to turn himself into a human avalanche, as the Barrett was not as easily portable as the heavy pistol she carried. The rifle would either serve as a brutal clothesline that would catch on something and do its best to cleave Grant in two, or the weapon would shatter important parts, leaving it useless as a firearm and left only as a clumsy, unwieldy club.
“I’ll stay in touch,” Brigid said, and she charged into the trees, relying on the heads-up optics in her faceplate to plot Kane’s last known positions by the sound of his Sin Eater.
“Just remember, that .45 is nowhere nearly as potent as the rifles the scouts and I are carrying,” Grant said. “If you have to shoot, aim for the face, not the forehead. The area around the nose—”
“Yes. The area around the nose has the weakest maxillofacial bone structure, enabling the surest incapacitation on a head shot,” Brigid replied. “You act like I don’t have a photographic memory.”
“Well, it’s not as if I’m feeling particularly useful jogging down a mountainside five hundred feet behind you,” Grant growled. “Leave me something to feel worthwhile.”
“Sorry,” Brigid said. She remembered that Kane’s Commtact wasn’t activated. Calling out loud might draw Kane’s attention, but that might serve as a distraction that would allow the Fomorians to fall upon him and crush the life out of him. Furthermore, a shout would just as likely turn Kane’s attention from survival to concern for her.
Brigid had spent years forging herself from an academic into an equal partner to her two warrior allies. She refused to put herself in the position of a walking disaster, the role of someone whose presence only served to expose the team to more dangers. She operated a control interface on the forearm of her shadow suit, and the black polymer suddenly shimmered and took on the pattern of the surrounding forest floor. The real-time, adaptive camouflage, while it wouldn’t offer true invisibility, would turn the Cerberus explorer into a
shadow among the trees. If Kane was in trouble, her sudden arrival wouldn’t break his concentration, and she’d have the element of surprise against any creature endeavoring to tear the man limb from limb.
“I’ve gone camouflage, Grant,” she said over her Commtact.
“Remember to stay out of the cross fire,” Grant offered. “And don’t forget, your shoulder harness isn’t camouflaged.”
Brigid looked down at her shoulder, seeing the nylon-and-leather holster strap visible against her optic digital camouflage. She wrinkled her nose. “Noted. Thank you.”
She padded off into the pine trees, heading toward where she’d last heard the sounds of battle.
Brigid scrambled through the woods, keeping herself close to the trees but avoiding branches so that she minimized the commotion of her passage. There were more factors at moving unnoticed than having an electronically enhanced fabric adapt like a chameleon to its background, and she was fortunate to have a teacher in Kane who had schooled her in the arts of stealth. Up ahead in a clearing she spotted Kane, stripped naked to the waist and battling a tall, gangly monstrosity. The cyclopean beast screeched in untamed fury as it struggled with the half-naked Cerberus warrior in its arms.
Brigid considered taking a shot at the Fomorian warrior, but Kane thrashed violently, twisting to keep the deadly bear hug around his torso from tightening. The deceptively slender hunter’s forearms were cabled
masses of muscle and sinew that looked to have the strength of anacondas, and the moment his adversary had a solid grasp, Kane’s ribs and spine would be subjected to a lethal crushing force. With the two opponents wrestling fiercely, there was no way that Brigid could take a clean shot without the possibility of hitting Kane.
She stuffed the handgun back into its holster and scanned around for something that would be more useful. She spotted a thick branch on the ground and scooped it up. Still practically invisible as anything other than a blurred wraith, she lunged toward the Fomorian, swinging her wooden club at the back of the its knees. The creature’s long, strong legs buckled in instantaneous reaction to the impact. Despite the superhuman physique and size of the mutant, it still had basic human anatomy, and Brigid had reasoned that it also had basic human reflex. The crash of the branch across the back of its knees inspired an automatic bending of the creature’s legs. That, combined with Kane’s struggles on top of it, forced the Fomorian to crash to the ground.
The Cerberus warrior hammered his fist violently into the monstrosity’s throat, punching again and again with every ounce of his strength. Kane’s physique had placed the bulk of his muscle mass in his upper chest and shoulders, and now, as if he were some beast-reared jungle lord, he unleashed that power. His back and shoulders flexed and rippled with each downward stroke, the smack of his fist on the mutant’s vulnerable face and throat cracking through the forest. There was
no grace, no art in this beating; the time for unarmed combat finesse had disappeared the moment Kane had been stripped of weaponry and forced to fight tooth and claw. The Fomorian hunter’s nose was a bloody pit in the center of his skull, and twisted lips coughed up a torrent of gore from where Kane’s fist had crushed its windpipe. Its arms flailed helplessly, trying to block the maddened assault, but in the end, it was useless.
Brigid knew that Kane would never die easily, and this day, he’d fought off the hounds of death seeking his soul.
“Baptiste?” Kane asked, bursting from his opponent’s grasp.
“Yes,” she said. She tapped her forearm, canceling the camouflage effect. Brigid looked the man over and saw that his forehead had been split open, a ragged gash that seeped blood into his eyes. His legs had a wobble to them, but he fought against the urge to collapse, shoulders rising and falling as he breathed deeply to regain his composure. “What happened?”
“I was jumped,” Kane murmured. “Everything since then’s been kind of blurry. I don’t even know where my weapons went.”
Brigid slid out of her shoulder harness. “Take this, then.”
Kane blinked, looking at the pistol and spare magazines in their holster. He looked confused for a moment, but slid his arms through the shoulder loops and drew the handgun. “When did you start carrying this?”
“I’ve had Grant keep a spare gun for me in his war
bag,” Brigid said as she knelt by the dead Fomorian. She quickly took a strip of its ragged vest and tore it free, creating a long bandage. “No reason why you’d know anything about it. Come over here.”
Kane obeyed her command without fuss, so Brigid could tell that something wasn’t completely right with him. Her best guess, given the minimal blood loss and his uncertain stance, was that he’d suffered a concussion when he’d been struck in the head. Kane was fortunate that the heavy curved bone of the skull had made his forehead one of the most difficult structures to break on the human body. Still, with the blood seeping from the wound and pouring down over his brow, he’d have a hard time seeing. She tied the bandage around his head, but didn’t knot it too tightly. Too much pressure would only aggravate any head trauma that she couldn’t see right now.
“Thanks, Baptiste,” Kane muttered. Brigid offered her shoulder to allow him to stand back up.
“You’re going to be freezing to death in a few minutes unless we get you to shelter,” Brigid said.
Kane grimaced. “I can deal with the cold for now. It’s not as bad as it is higher up on the mountain. But we should be able to borrow a blanket or some furs from Epona’s scouts, shouldn’t we?”
“I’m not sure we can trust her,” Brigid began. “Even if she is on the up and up, I broke the rules and came into the forest after you.”
Kane smirked through the pain. “I’m a bad influence on you. Big guns, and wrecking diplomacy…”
“Cut the criticism,” Brigid admonished, “and activate your Commtact.”
Kane nodded and reached behind his ear to activate his comm device. “Grant, we’re trying to concentrate here. Shut it!”
“Well, it’s about damn time!” Grant cursed. “If I hadn’t shaved my head bald, I’d be a mass of gray hair by now.”
“Listen…my head’s a little fuzzy right now and I’m trying to climb a steep mountainside while half-naked,” Kane complained. “You throwing a fit on your side of things is not making my skull ache any less, got it?”
Brigid kept an eye on Kane’s progress. His body was already shiny with a sheen of sweat, gleaming off his rippling muscles as he fought against the incline. The steep slope was an effort for her, as well, her legs burning with each push. Brigid at least had the shadow suit to regulate her perspiration and body temperature as they climbed. Once they hit the open slope, which was at six thousand feet more or less, Kane’s wet skin would be exposed to a freezing wind. Hypothermia would be inevitable, and frostbite a distinct possibility.
“All right. Did you find out anything?” Grant asked.
“Yeah. I found out that the Fomorians have some old friends of ours working with them,” Kane said. “The Thrush Continuum.”
“What?” Grant grimaced.
“I’ll explain later,” Kane answered. “Right now, I can barely make heads or tails out of anything. What kind of explosives did you bring along?”
“The usual assortment of grens and plastic explosives,” Grant replied. “You got anything special in your war bag?”
“No, but I’m thinking that we can at least drop an avalanche on the Fomorian camp on this mountainside,” Kane said. “It’s not going to be a long-term solution, but we can retreat and regroup while they’re digging themselves out of the rubble.”
Brigid and Kane continued ascending, both of them thankful for the pine tree trunks that allowed them good handholds as they fought their way uphill. Kane’s knee buckled, and he slumped against the bark of a pine, eyes clenched in momentary pain.
“Let me help,” Brigid said.
“I’ll be all right,” Kane answered breathlessly. He rummaged around in the cargo pants that he and Grant took to wearing over the lower halves of their shadow suits. Finally he ripped open a pocket and found a foil envelope within. His fingers trembled as he tore into the packet, withdrawing a rustling mass of shiny metallic sheeting. Taking the corners of the thermal blanket, he wrapped them around his neck, tying the blanket into an improvised cloak that draped around his shoulders.
“Allow me?” Brigid asked.
Kane blinked, his eyes unfocused. “Better idea?”
“Somewhat,” Brigid answered. She untied the thermal blanket and pulled a utility knife from her belt. She sliced a slit in the center large enough to fit Kane’s head through. Then she patted through his pockets until
she found a roll of cord. Gathering the blanket at Kane’s waist, she left plenty of room for his arms to move freely, but cinched the blanket so that he now possessed a shiny metallic parka to shield him. “You forgot that you had this?”
“I took a whack to the head, damn it,” Kane reminded her. “Plus, I thought I could last a little longer against the cold.”