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Authors: James Axler

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BOOK: Reality Echo
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Gunfire bellowed below and Brigid whirled. “Damn it, they’ve caught up to us.”

Kane fisted the handgun that she’d lent him. “It’ll take a lot to put them down.”

Brigid shook her head. “Give me that and my magazines back. You keep climbing.”

“Damn it, Baptiste.”

“You’re injured, and you’re the brightest, shiniest target on this mountainside,” Brigid returned. “I’m in one piece, and the shadow suit makes me harder to hit. And if they do shoot me, I’ll be harder to hurt. Get moving!”

Kane glowered at her. “Just be careful. The Thrushes didn’t just give them rifles—”

“Talk later. Run now!” Brigid snapped.

Movement rustled among the pines, and she whirled to face it, bringing up the big .45. A one-armed monstrosity lurched into view, holding a SIG AMT rifle in its hand. Brigit aligned the sights and fired two shots from her pistol, aiming at the troll-like face of the Fomorian hunter, her shadow suit’s faceplate optics
enabling her to focus the handgun’s point of aim as if she had a laser targeting device on the pistol. A mass of cheekbone exploded off the Fomorian’s face with the first hit, the second round carving a ghastly furrow along the creature’s bald temple. The mutant dropped its rifle and clutched its wounded face with its sole hand. Brigid cursed the haste with which she’d fired her shots, wasting ammunition and making the man-eater suffer. It may have been a murderous beast, but unnecessary cruelty had never been part of any of the three Cerberus warriors.

As it was, she had bought herself some time, and glanced back to see Kane furiously scrambling up the hill. A large form in black leaped down by his side, and Brigid nearly whirled her pistol around to fire on it when she recognized the unmistakable bulk of Grant, hooking one hand under Kane’s shoulder.

“Move it, Brigid!” Grant bellowed, hefting his massive Barrett with one rippling arm. The .50-caliber rifle bellowed authoritatively to punctuate his command. “This slope’s going to be a no-man’s-land in a minute!”

Brigid spun back and saw that Grant had put the creature she’d shot out of its misery. Muzzle-flashes flickered among the trees, but the .30-caliber rounds found only dirt and tree trunks. Two of the Fomorian hunters were back in the forest, trying to finish the job they started. Brigid stuffed her gun into her belt and clawed at the mountainside on all fours, her lean and athletically toned limbs helping her to eat the distance
between herself and the two ex-Magistrates near the tree line. A tree root for a handhold here, a leap off the trunk of a pine there, and mad pawing at the dirt were what she needed to climb as she’d never climbed before.

Grant continued to thunder away with his mighty rifle, bolts of blazing hot lead slicing down to cover Brigid against the advance and harassing fire of the Fomorians. Like some form of obsidian storm god, Grant cut loose. A tree trunk shattered under the impact of one monster .50-caliber slug, and the pine tree crackled, groaned and toppled, crashing to the slope and skidding toward the Fomorians. One of those mutated hunters let out a wail of horror as the tree toppled toward him like a massive emerald spear. Its long limbs sprang and hurled it out of its path, branches shearing off against other tree trunks, producing deep gouges in the bark. The impact of the plummeting pine broke another apart, but one shank of wood held on tenaciously, so that the tree was only bent, its top half dangling like a pendulum in the wake of the one-log avalanche.

Brigid scurried up to Grant as he reloaded the Barrett. She could see the tree line just past him. Grenades and explosive charges were wired together, nudged against tree trunks and two large, flat masses of granite that broke up the incline of the slope, giving the trees something level to stand upon. Though she wasn’t an explosives expert, she knew that Grant had set the explosives in such a manner as to shear off this particular chunk of
forest and hurl it down the slope like a massive guillotine of stone, dirt and wood.

“We’ve got to move,” Grant said as he slung the rifle over one broad shoulder. “Take the detonator.”

Brigid took the box, and Grant scooped up Kane as if he were a rag doll. She followed Grant as he charged uphill, cradling his injured partner and held off pressing the trigger for the mass of charges planted at the tree line. Once they were a safe distance from the blast area, Grant would know. Brigid didn’t want to make that guess. If she fired the detonator too soon, they would be swept up in the torrent. If she waited too long, more Fomorians would scurry into rifle range and dozens of rifles would chop them to ribbons.

“Do it!” Grant ordered.

Brigid thumbed the stud, and the whole mountainside heaved violently. Behind her white-hot fire faded instantly into a plume of blackened smoke and airborne ash and dust. The air crackled with the sound of rock and soil peeling off the slope under a sharp wave of energy released by Grant’s explosive setup. The crackle deepened into an all-pervasive rumble, the thick clouds sucked down along with the avalanche as the rapidly descending mass of the mountainside created a vacuum. Trees snapped and exploded under the shock wave, but as much as Brigid focused on the receding landslide, even with the telescopic optics in her shadow suit, trees she knew to be four and five feet in diameter resembled nothing more than twigs and pencils as they toppled and
pinwheeled through the turgid mass. The avalanche’s height was not the only thing that grew. It widened, spreading like a fan of rocky devastation. The rumble became less of a constant storm of sound engulfing them as the mass tumbled down to the valley below, but Brigid could still feel it vibrating up through her legs.

“Was that good enough?” Grant asked Kane.

Brigid turned and looked at her partner. His steely eyes held a cold rage in them that she had rarely seen before. Whatever evil they had inflicted upon him, it had inspired a similar fury in him. The rage faded as the landslide crashed to the bottom of the valley, settling a thick fog of debris over the floor. He nodded slowly, tentatively so as not to aggravate the pain of his head injury.

“For now,” Kane said. “Now put me down. I can walk the rest of the way back.”

Grant sighed and let Kane stand on his own two feet. Brigid could see traces of his earlier wobble, but the brief respite had steeled the man’s determination to walk on his own power.

Epona and the scouts waited in a line, just farther up the slope. Epona remained silent, the shadow suit’s telescopic vision showing her features cast in dread awe of the power that Grant had unleashed, carving a horrendous scar along the side of a mountain. The scouts, on the other hand, had their rifles raised in the air, cheers for the thunderous blow struck against their Fomorian enemies echoing from on high.

“For now?” Brigid asked.

“I said these things are incredibly tough,” Kane answered, his voice taut and brittle with annoyance and pain. “We might have killed some of them and wrecked whatever equipment the Thrush Continuum provided for them, but this isn’t over yet.”

Grant sneered. “Shit. If a black hole couldn’t kill that android freak, dropping a mountain on him won’t be more than a minor inconvenience.”

“Something’s really eating at you, Kane. What’s the big worry?” Brigid asked.

Kane grimaced. “Because the Thrush that’s down there, working with Bres and Balor and the rest of those monsters, he’s wearing my face.”

Grant and Brigid shared a glance, then stared at their wounded comrade.

Kane held out both hands to Grant, a near universal symbol of surrendering himself into restraints. “And just so we’re sure that I’m not some kind of preprogrammed fake that just thinks I’m the real deal, I want you two to bind me up and make damn certain I’m not some android infiltrator sent to murder everyone in Cerberus.”

Standing on a silent, gouged mountainside, watching Grant seize Kane’s wrists roughly to put a plastic cable tie around them, Brigid Baptiste felt as if the avalanche were just a rug, pulling her whole world out from underneath her.

Chapter 4

Reba DeFore looked over Kane in the observation room of the Cerberus redoubt sick bay. In silence and darkness, Mohandas Lakesh Singh, Domi, Brigid Baptiste and Grant sat on the other side of one-way glass. No one wanted to speak as DeFore took blood samples, fingerprints, retinal scans and cheek swabs with practiced precision.

DeFore was a stocky woman with tanned skin and ash-blond hair, which she usually wore in braids. This day it was pulled back into a bun beneath her surgeon’s cap. She had served as the redoubt’s chief physician ever since its inception by Lakesh. Her knowledge of anatomy had been bolstered by years of all manner of practical application, from meatball surgery to delivering the half-human spawn of a Quad Vee hybrid in mid-transformation. While the redoubt’s personnel had all been trained in first aid, DeFore’s scientific knowledge of the human body and how it worked was remarkable. Of course, if DeFore’s talents hadn’t been impressive, Lakesh wouldn’t have recruited her for his rebellion against the tyranny of the baronies.

Kane rested on the table, poked and prodded, subjected to all manner of probes in DeFore’s collection of equipment. Lakesh and the others sat on the other side of the glass, not speaking, barely even breathing loudly as they awaited word on whether or not the man on the table was or some transdimensional construct sent to infiltrate their base.

“You know, there is the possibility that Thrush could have mentally reprogrammed a Kane from a different casement,” Brigid spoke up at the end of the second hour of examinations.

DeFore had been consistently handing off samples to her staff, Manitius base medical experts who had been upgrading and redesigning technology since relocating from their station on the moon. Where in the late twentieth century processing genetic markers could be measured in months, the new machinery they had developed pared the analysis to hours. She’d called up a readout on the screen, and the preliminary testing showed identical matches for several gene pairs, though the process had only been forty percent complete. “They’d be identical down to a genetic scale, but—”

“We know what we’re dealing with when it comes to Thrush, dearest Brigid,” Lakesh said, cutting her off. Lakesh rested his chin on the knuckles of his fist. Though born on the Indian subcontinent, the scientist had entered his third century of life with blue eyes, replacements for his original orbs, which had failed due to their advanced years and the rigors of the cryogenic
sleep that had extended his existence. More than 250 years old chronologically, the brilliant scientist had been restored to the relatively youthful age of his early forties, thanks to the incredible technology of the Thrush Continuum, wielded by Sam the Imperator. With a touch and an infusion of nanotechnology robots into his physical system, the ravages of age, countless surgeries to replace failing organs with harvested or cybernetic replacements, and the stresses of surviving under the iron rule of the hybrid barons had been erased.

The one thing that hadn’t been returned to “normal” as he’d seen it, was the fact that his eyes were still blue. It was because they had their own genetic code from an unknown donor. The cataracts that had started to develop, however, had been eaten away, nanites transforming the damaged tissues into healthy, vital, young tissues.

If Sam had the power to undo two centuries of aging with a touch, constructing a living man, an exact duplicate with memories and behavior patterns to match the original, wasn’t outside of his capabilities. DNA, blood testing, fingerprinting, all of that would only prove that the Kane they were looking at was biologically human, not a cleverly built android duplicate.

Lakesh turned to Grant. In the darkness, his dark bronzed features looked particularly grim, illuminated by the light filtering through the window. Grant’s brow was wrinkled with the same worries that Brigid had just voiced. Of all the people in the room, though, Grant had
known Kane the longest. The two men were as close to brothers as could possibly be without sharing a single parent.

Grant was probably riddled with worry over not being able to tell if his closest friend on the planet had been subverted by a doppelganger. Sure, as they came through the mat-trans chamber, Bry had stated that the three signatures were nonanomalous, but that was merely a machine. Grant had been a Magistrate, and he lived his life dependent on senses and instincts that weren’t susceptible to the whims of electronic failure or alteration of computer code. Being told by Kane that he himself doubted the veracity of his existence had cast the same shadow over Grant’s observational abilities.

“All right, Kane. I’ve checked everything in our medical file on you,” DeFore said. “There are no artificial constructs within your body, except for the Commtact implant on your mastoid. Your retinas and fingerprints are identical. I checked with Brigid, and your hair and beard growth are identical to what they were when you first headed off into the woods. Your bones are normal. Your reflexes are suboptimal, but that’s to be expected with a concussion. Blood chemistry shows no variants from before.”

“What about the contents of my stomach?” Kane asked.

“There aren’t any, but I looked at your throat, and you had vomited earlier today,” DeFore said.

Kane grimaced.

“You got hit on the head hard enough to be knocked
out. And you stated that the Thrush duplicate and the Fomorian had taken you captive after rendering you unconscious,” DeFore said. “When you woke up, you puked, emptying your stomach.”

“Yes,” Kane added, annoyed. “You get knocked out, you wake up and vomit. It’s happened enough times to me…I think.”

“What I can tell is that you suffered a mild concussion. Your skull, thick wonder that it is, hasn’t been fractured,” DeFore said. “You’re not a cyborg. You’re not an android. You’re as real as can possibly be.”

Kane touched his forehead, feeling the nylon sutures that had closed up the gash. “Another scar.”

“If there is, I’ll be disappointed,” DeFore told him. “That should heal up nicely.”

Kane looked at the one-way glass, as if trying to see past the mirrored surface on his side and look into the faces of his friends. “So, I’m me. I’m Kane, right?”

“You tell us,” Grant spoke said into the microphone in the observation room.

Lakesh felt his gut tighten at the pronouncement. Yes, they were dealing with a pandimensional being with access to technologies that even the brilliant scientific knowledge amassed at Cerberus couldn’t even dream of. But would Thrush go so far as to make an unwitting duplicate that actively voiced doubts of its own veracity? Or would the fiendish hive mind be so crass and subtle as to engage in a series of obfuscating maneuvers to plant a cunning and savage entity in their midst?

Lakesh’s brilliant mind went over every single iteration of the ruse that had seemingly thrown their friend into such paranoia that he had had himself taken prisoner and subjected to a wide suite of physical, chemical and genetic scans. He tried to apply Occam’s razor to each of these plots, but realized that, given the history of their brutal encounters with Colonel Thrush and his continuum of alternate selves, carving away the improbable was impossible. Which ended up with another potential outcome that the pandimensional menace could have sought. By inserting a poisonous doubt into Cerberus, a doubt affecting the man who, essentially, was the heart of the entire war against the Annunaki overlords and all others who would enslave Earth and humanity, had Thrush taken the wind out of their sails? The android multiverse traveler had just made it so that they couldn’t trust one-third of the triumvirate of heroes who had formed such a confluence that they could accomplish the impossible.

Without that perfect team at the core of Cerberus, savagely undercut by doubt, the whole of the rebellion against Enlil and his kind, and by proxy, all the other superpowers seeking Earth’s domination, had been instantly defanged.

“Friend Kane?” Lakesh asked. “You’re the one who brought this crisis to our attention. What do you feel?”

Kane closed his eyes, concentrating. When he finally opened them, he sighed. “I feel bruises all over my carcass, a splitting headache and I’m getting nauseous
from lack of food and drink. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s damn guess.”

Grant studied his friend’s face as he spoke. He turned to the others. “Sounds as authentic as ever to me.”

“No variations from Kane’s normal form of speech,” Brigid added. “Right now, we’ve got one hundred percent verification on retinal and fingerprint analysis, dental records are identical right down to the wear factor and, after forty percent of the data has been analyzed on his genetics, there is not a single variation. Healed scars match photographic record of prior wound recovery, as well, except for the new injuries he picked up in the battle with the Fomorians.”

Kane looked at the mirrored glass separating him from the rest of the leadership of the Cerberus base. “So does that mean I can have a cup of coffee and a pot roast sandwich? Or just crackers and water?”

Grant leaned to the intercom. “Edwards, give Kane his damn lunch before he starves to death.”

The hulking ex-Magistrate under Domi’s command in Cerberus Away Team Beta strode into the operating room carrying a tray. Edwards was almost the same size as Grant, and Lakesh marveled at the rippling power emanating from the ex-Mag as he handed the meal to Kane.

“Edwards,” Domi spoke up, “you couldn’t intimidate the real Kane. You can unclench your muscles now.”

Edwards looked down at Kane, then snorted. “If you’re just a fake, I’ll take your head off.”

Kane rubbed the crown of his head, as touching his forehead would obviously unleash whole new waves of pain. He glanced up to the physical monster in the room with him and sighed. “You know, you’d actually be doing me a favor.”

DeFore put a small cup on the tray before Kane. “You step off the mat-trans all grim and determined not to show an ounce of human weakness, but after a few hours, you’re bitching that I’m not giving you some ibuprofen. If that’s not a sign he’s the real Kane, then I’ll eat my thermometer.”

Lakesh cupped his hand over his mouth. He wanted to tell DeFore not to make promises she might have to keep, but for now, he didn’t want to cause any conflict. He fought down the doubt from his voice and spoke up. “So now what are we going to do regarding the Thrush presence in the Poconos and their mutant assistants?”

“I dropped a mountainside onto them,” Grant said. “So for now, they’ll be off balance. Epona has moved her people to an older settlement before their expansion closer to the valley we hit with the avalanche. It will give the Appalachians some room and leave the Fomorian raiders nothing to attack.”

“Why couldn’t they just stay in the older valley?” Domi asked.

“Pride. The fact that the Fomorians would eventually track them down,” Brigid said. “As well, the hunting and water supplies are plentiful in that area, not exhausted like the area they’d abandoned. Right now, all Epona’s
people have only a few days of supplies that they were able to move into the older shelters.”

“We could transport extra stuff to them,” Domi suggested.

“Really? Because we’ve got a redoubt full of people here,” Lakesh interjected. “I’m all for a little bit of charity, but we have our own needs to take care of, and the Appalachians don’t strike me as the type of people to willingly resort to welfare from people they barely trust.”

“It’s a temporary solution,” Grant concluded. “But between Cerberus Away Teams Alpha and Beta, we’ll be able to deal with whatever the Fomorians and Thrush can recover from the avalanche.”

“And if not, we can always request assistance from Shizuka and Aristotle,” Brigid said, mentioning the respective leaders of the Tigers of Heaven in New Edo and the Pantheon operating out of New Olympus. “Between a force of samurai and a squad of gear skeletons, we can hit the Fomorians with a lot of fighting skill and technology.”

Lakesh frowned. “Or give Thrush information about the extent of our allies. He knew about the Tigers of Heaven, we assume, since it was around the time he returned to Earth as the Imperator Sam that we first encountered them. Whether Thrush retains the knowledge of Enlil and the related technology is unknown for now.”

“And who’s to say that Thrush, being a robot himself, really would worry about the relatively primitive combat suits of the Olympians?” Grant asked. “It’d be like throwing a Deathbird after one of Enlil’s scout ships.”

Kane rapped his knuckles on the mirror. Lakesh sighed and turned on the lights in the meeting room, then retracted the one-way glass. “Yes, friend Kane?”

Kane swallowed his mouthful of sandwich. “I’d like to point out that while we know one form of Thrush, native to our planet, became Enlil, I don’t think that they share all the same technology. The Orb is as different from an Annunaki scout ship as you can get. Otherwise, Thrush would be sending his android copies after us in squadrons of craft, and the Orb would be parked in orbit, throwing down as much firepower as
Tiamat
could have brought to bear.”

Lakesh looked to Brigid for confirmation.

“He’s got a point, and this time it’s not the one at the top of his head,” Brigid said.

Kane winked at her, then chomped another bite out of his pot roast sandwich. DeFore gave him a mock slap on the shoulder.

“This isn’t your personal dining room,” she grumbled.

Kane nodded in agreement and rose to join his colleagues in the meeting room. DeFore handed him the rest of his meal tray, then barked orders for her interns to clean up and sterilize the observation room.

For the moment, things had returned to normal, but Lakesh kept his eye on Kane throughout the strategy meeting.

And from what he could tell about Grant and Brigid, their suspicions remained, hidden just below the surface.

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