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Authors: James Axler

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BOOK: Reality Echo
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Sinclair swallowed hard, and Domi grimaced as she realized that stress had crept into her voice again, her speech having devolved once more.

“So who’s babysitting our hurt little friend?” Edwards asked. Domi had to applaud the normally undiplomatic Magistrate’s choice of words.

“Brigid,” Domi answered. Her Commtact plate hummed to life.

“Did someone just say my name?” Brigid’s voice came over the unit.

“We were just talking about you,” Domi said. “How’s everything?”

“Except for a breakdown in the mess hall, everything’s simply glowing,” Brigid answered. She sounded a little perturbed.

“So what’s gotten under your skin?” Domi asked.

“Kane’s needling,” Brigid said. “He just met the guy I’m dating.”

“Oh, the nerd? Daryl?” Domi asked.

“He’s a scientist,” Brigid countered. “He’s smart.”

“I’m dating a nerd, too, if you haven’t noticed,” Domi said. That elicited a chuckle from Baptiste and her teammates. “So Kane’s busting your chops over that?”

“A little,” Brigid answered.

“Honestly. All the women he’s been with, and he’s begrudging your relationship with Daryl?” Domi asked. “Remind me to kick him in the balls next sparring session.”

There was a moment of silence as Edwards and Sinclair picked up on a certain unreality of the conversation they were listening in to over the Commtact. Brigid’s perceptions, coupled with an infallible memory and a magnificent intellect, tended to be sharper than most people’s. And when they’d reached that point of the conversation, there was enough of a shade of doubt in Brigid’s voice to make them suspicious that things weren’t quite right.

“You do that,” Brigid stated. She’d regained her composure, but that could have been because Kane—or his impostor—was now watching her. “Just checking on how you guys were doing, actually. You about ready to leave?”

“We’ll be jumping out in about fifteen minutes,” Domi answered.

“I’m sorry I won’t be joining you guys, but DeFore
says I should heal up a bit,” they heard Kane’s voice say over the Commtact.

“You already went a few rounds with the Fomorians. Why would you want to hog more of the fun?” Edwards asked. “Let the second-stringers get their chance to shine.”

Kane’s laughter met their ears. “Be careful, okay?”

“Will do,” Sinclair said. She cast a glance toward Domi, who frowned. Sinclair was only a recent addition to the Cerberus staff, so she and Edwards were not familiar with the same Kane that Domi was.


You
behave and heal up, Kane,” Domi said, smiling to avoid having her glum mood darken her tone of voice.

“I will, thanks,” Kane responded.

Domi was glad that the Commtact only transmitted audio and not video. The sound of the impostor was just too good, his concern too genuine. It was torture trying to keep a cap on her doubts and suspicions, even if he’d passed every test put to him.

So far, both Grant and Brigid had pointed out that though they got the wrong vibe from Kane, the man’s behavior was above suspicion. As far as anyone knew, he was the real Kane. Even the note of worry he had for the people that, as an intruder, he should have been fooling, felt right. All Domi had to go on were the instincts of Grant and Brigid, people who should have known conclusively whether or not they were dealing with an imposter. The doubt that Domi sensed was not just to Kane’s existence, but to their own perceptions.
Were they amplifying little tics that they simply had ignored and avoided scrutinizing before? Were they giving in to paranoia?

Domi thought back to Sela Sinclair’s “mirror universe” scenario. What if this was Kane, right down to the smallest particle, but simply from elsewhere? It seemed far-fetched, but Domi had traveled to other casements, parallel dimensions, and her psyche deposited into the bodies of her counterparts there. It wasn’t farfetched; it was simply an easier means of traveling across universal divides. The story of an exact duplicate in the field could have been a ruse, as the real Kane
was
the impostor.

“You okay?” Sinclair asked.

Domi shook her head. A knot of pain pulsed behind her ruby-red eyes. “I’m really no fucking good at this.”

“You’ve kept us alive every mission so far,” Edwards said. “What, so you’re trying to wrap your brain about exactly what we’re dealing with, right? Even Brigid doesn’t sound sure.”

“Thanks, you two,” Domi said.

“Anytime, boss,” Edwards told her.

Domi settled one glaring red eye on him. “Did I tell you to remind me to kick your ass in sparring practice earlier?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny, ma’am,” Edwards replied with a grin.

Domi snorted. “I’d say you’re not as stupid as you look, but that’d be impossible.”

Edwards elbowed Sinclair, gently. “Victory is mine!”

Sinclair rolled her eyes. “Come on. Grant’s probably wondering what’s keeping us.”

Domi sighed. “If that’s the only thing he’s worrying about, then I’m happy for him.”

The members of Cerberus Away Team Beta made their way to the mat-trans chamber for their jump to the Appalachians.

Chapter 7

Thrush-Kane was surprised when he saw that Brigid Baptiste had an interest in someone other than the being he was duplicating. Sure, he acted the smart-ass, ribbing her about the nature of the young man she’d chosen as her “date.” It was what Kane would have done, wouldn’t it? But his chiding was directed toward her, not the man he should have been jealous of.

That was what perplexed at least one section of the plasma matrix brain that housed his enhanced consciousness. While Brigid was busy talking with Domi about the albino woman’s upcoming trek to the Poconos with Grant, the cybernetic intruder was conducting his own preparations for war. The redoubt had been cutting-edge technology, powered by a nuclear reactor and utilizing a remarkable computer system that had been modified for wireless computer connection capabilities. It was something that the current tenants had much use for, other than operating portable tablet PCs to run inventory. Thrush-Kane, however, had seen a similar Wi-Fi in a dozen realities where it was used to connect to a global intercomputer network resource that had made
research and communication much easier. Without an Internet to run on, at least not since January 2001, such wireless technology was purely a business application, not a time waster as Thrush had seen. However, the plasma matrix brain he had was powerful, and it had a wireless modem built into it, capable of transmitting and receiving.

Thrush-Kane gently prodded the system, looking for infiltration prevention protocols. The designer of the system, presumably Donald Bry, had assembled a powerful blockade of “black ice,” nearly invisible hacking countermeasures designed to keep the mainframe safe. Thrush-Kane’s canny cybervision picked up new constructs, countersurveillance bots that patrolled the system searching for interlopers. The infiltrator cyborg saw the footsteps of other, previous intruders, which were being tended to by blocks of assembly code, repairing old injuries to the mainframe. This changed a few of the cyborg’s plans, but the obstacles were not insurmountable. Utilizing computer hacking lessons from several realities, the Thrush Continuum had designed Thrush-Kane’s plasma matrix brain to be able to defeat any human-designed countermeasure. Still, the doppelganger had to admit some respect for the brilliance of the humans involved in setting up their cybernetic defenses. He could see the fingerprints of several geniuses, including a tiny bit of code identifying Daryl Morganstern—Brigid’s boyfriend—as one of the mathematicians who had created the encryption algorithm.

Thrush-Kane looked at the algorithm, attempting to decipher it, and realized that the human had to have been operating on mathematical principles that lay outside even the Thrush Continuum’s conceptual capabilities.

“No wonder she’s interested in him,” Thrush-Kane muttered to himself as Brigid was speaking over her Commtact to Domi.

The flame-haired beauty glanced at him, wondering at Thrush-Kane’s mouthing. However, it was only a momentary awareness as she returned to speaking with them. The secondary team was hooked up with Grant, dividing the remnants of CAT Alpha.

It had been Thrush-Kane’s plan to split up the two remaining Cerberus defenders, Grant and Baptiste. The pandimensional entity knew from earlier encounters that dealing with them together was too much of a risk. The separation of the team, and casting the shadow of doubt into their minds, was calculated to undo whatever odds-defying equation the trio had assembled. His ploy at causing them to doubt, ever so slightly, his veracity, gave Thrush-Kane an added advantage.

The three people who had worked so closely together were suddenly no longer a cohesive unit. The emotional and spiritual core of the group, Kane, was the key to their effectiveness. Taking out their heart, suddenly the Three Musketeers template of Cerberus had been erased. By his introduction of doubt into their equation, Thrush-Kane had altered their dynamic. Now, no matter how capable
they were, they had been effectively sundered from the unit that had been much more than the sum of its parts. The god-defying, world-beating trio no longer existed, shattered completely by a brazen act of impersonation.

The situation would not last long, especially if Grant managed to come across the real Kane back in the Appalachians, but that was why Thrush-Kane was hard at work, trying to penetrate the mainframe’s command structure. There was simply one barrier between him and control of the system, and that was a single mathematical equation that befuddled the android mind resting within its polymer-reinforced skull.

All this was going on in a higher plane of thought and consciousness, and Thrush heard “Kane’s” genuine love and concern for Domi and her team spoken aloud. He’d withdrawn just a little too much from his external disguise after his momentary faux pas, but that wasn’t a problem. The normal conversational mode he’d established for Kane worked perfectly. He could see in Brigid Baptiste’s face the torment of her doubts.

She was most likely asking herself if she was truly too paranoid, dismissing the potential that the man standing before her was the real deal. It was a cleverly played ruse, one designed to strike at the woman’s intellectual core. Logic and hard facts were her strength, and right now, they all seemed to be in Thrush-Kane’s favor. He’d verbally expressed doubts about his own reality, and inspired a long session of medical tests that were useless in the wake of the efforts the doppelganger
had taken. A laser scalpel had duplicated every minor laceration that still remained as scar tissue on the original Kane’s naked body, every imperfection. A needle filled with saline had created minor skin tags that had formed due to friction with clothing. A heating element built up calluses exactly where they had formed on Kane’s hands and feet from hours of martial-arts training, hiking and marksmanship refreshment.

Thrush-Kane had gone over the original with far more than a fine-tooth comb, and utilized all manner of tools to create the exact likeness, down to the diameter of a hardened shell of shin on Kane’s left toe, or the precise dimensions of his fingernails, trimmed to perfection by the laser scalpel, measured to the micron. Nothing physical had been left to chance, and mentally, Thrush-Kane’s “concussion” allowed for any oddities and variations in behavior, even after hours of watching Kane with Grant and Brigid.

Observations of every subtle vocal inflection and facial tic Kane made as he spoke had been burned into the deep terrabyte memory core set side for duplicating his behavior. It would never be forgotten, and any energy force that could erase the plasma matrix brain cells would incinerate Thrush-Kane, or rend him asunder due to magnetic pressures that would turn the iron in a normal human’s blood into an explosive, anyway.

A second and third memory core had been dedicated to wireless computer operations, and these two cores were working in coordination, yet independently. The
two-pronged mental assault on the redoubt’s defenses was intended to break through the antiviral defenses without setting off intrusion alarms. Through the development of diversions and feints, they were keeping the defensive programming busy, but not enough to send an alert to Bry or any of the computer technicians running the mainframe. As it was, there was still the problem of the encryption algorithm, which would make everything easier for Thrush-Kane.

There was one way that he could get to Morganstern, but it would involve making Brigid Baptiste much more paranoid about his motives.

Or would it? For all of his chiding, as Kane, wouldn’t it be in the man’s character to make amends and to just talk with Daryl in order to prove to Brigid that he was all right with their relationship, regardless of how intimate it was?

In doing that, Thrush-Kane would be able to find a way to speak with Morganstern in his office, or quarters, or wherever, and perhaps by getting a glimpse of the man’s lifestyle, he’d find insight into the mathematical inspirations for the genius’s concepts. Then, it would only take his plasma matrix a few million cycles and calculations to actually decode and decipher. Barring that, there was always the option of breaking the schmuck’s neck after torturing the information out of him.

Thrush-Kane wondered where that thought came from, and he realized that those were Kane’s actual emotions. If the real man wasn’t jealous of Morgan
stern, then something had to have been wrong with him. Brigid Baptiste was a beautiful, vivacious, athletic woman. Though he was derived from an artificial being, the basic concept of carnal relations was still tied into the Thrush Continuum. Having her body against his, long, strong limbs embracing his hips and shoulders, the heat of her sex as she slid onto him—

Thrush-Kane blinked the continuation of that thought away. How much of that was from his observation? None of it, really. Kane had acted professionally, aloof even, toward Baptiste. There was a conspiratorial moment where they had made fun of Grant for some triviality, a bonding.

I want Baptiste, the android brain realized.

Here was a woman who actually was on an intellectual level with him, and he was wrapped in the flesh of a handsome, powerful figure who regularly had his pick of the most beautiful women in the solar system. Unbidden, an analogy bubbled to the surface. Kane had the tree of knowledge in his very own private garden, with the most delicious, nourishing and enlightening fruit in the whole universe, and yet he rooted around in distant orchards, looking for something nearly as tasty, but available only through increased risk and torment.

“Fucking idiot,” he said aloud.

Brigid turned and looked at him. “Who is?”

“I am—” Thrush-Kane quickly covered for himself “—I’m an idiot because I’m not making an effort to be nice to someone you care about.”

“Calling yourself an idiot is also insulting someone I care about, Kane,” Brigid countered.

The android tilted his head, stricken by the curious turn of words. “A little self-deprecation never killed anyone, but Daryl looked as if he were going to pull his head into his own chest like some kind of human turtle.”

Brigid raised one eyebrow. “So?”

“He’s probably not with the game plan of how we are,” Thrush-Kane said.

“And just how are we?”

Thrush-Kane paused, measuring his response. This was walking a razor’s edge, and while he had gigabytes of data on hand, nearly all of it was useless in terms of emotional context. “We’re us.”

Thrush-Kane reached out a hand for her. Brigid haltingly took it, and he gave her a gentle squeeze. “I’m pretty much a brute. You’re a genius. And while we complement each other, we care about each other, we would die for each other, we’ve had years together to make some kind of move toward intimacy. And we haven’t. Why?”

Brigid shrugged. “Because for you, it’d be the end of your line. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy a girl in every port.”

“Or, you’re right about us being soul friends. Partners and equals,” Thrush-Kane continued. “And when we’ve got that going for us, putting sexual intimacy into that equation just ends up diminishing one or the other of us. And it alters things dramatically in Grant’s and my relationship.”

Brigid rolled her eyes. “Grant’s been with Shizuka for how many years?”

“Yeah, but Grant and I have never had sex,” Thrush-Kane replied. “And neither have we.”

“So where is this all going?” Brigid asked.

“I’d like to make amends for my crudeness toward Daryl earlier,” he explained.

Brigid frowned. “Like how?”

Thrush-Kane shrugged. “I’ll give him the little speech. Yes, I love you, but like a brother. And as your big brother, if he hurts you, I’ll beat him silly. Outside of him messing with your heart, I’m fine. We’re family, like Domi keeps saying.”

Brigid bit her upper lip, and for a moment, Thrush-Kane wondered if he’d overplayed his hand.

“Bonus to this, while I’m chatting with Daryl, you’ll be free to help Lakesh and Bry support Grant and Domi in the field,” he added. “I know that you’re just keeping me out of trouble, whether I’d been brainwashed, or just knocked goofy with head trauma, or replaced. What kind of harm could I do just talking to a theoretical mathematician?”

Brigid’s eyes were alight with thousands of thoughts. Thrush-Kane knew that her perfect memory would spot one glaring reason why talking to Daryl Morganstern would be problematic, and he picked up just when she remembered that the mathematician had programmed the algorithm for the supplemental encryption defenses for Cerberus. While that would have been common
knowledge for her, as well as the real Kane, would a doppelganger know that? It was an offhand piece of information that otherwise would be buried in terms of telepathic probes, and an evil Kane from another universe would, if he was some kind of lover for another world’s Brigid Baptiste, simply have killed anyone looking to mate with his flame-haired goddess. Right here and now, Baptiste had no knowledge of the wireless modem that allowed Thrush-Kane to penetrate the mainframe’s defenses, nor the powerful semiorganic computer that nestled in his reinforced skull.

After all, those medical tests had recognized him as truly human.

“Hurt Daryl, and there will be no place in the universe safe for you, got that?” Brigid asked.

It was a harsh threat, but said in a mocking manner. The plasma matrix ran calculations on her mood in an effort to determine how serious she was, and how much she was trying to undercut her potential rage with an injection of humor into her tone.

Thrush-Kane lifted his hands in mock surrender. “I’m just going to talk. I don’t even have my weapons with me.”

“That wouldn’t stop you,” Brigid said. “You were bare-handed fighting a Fomorian to the death.”

The odds that Brigid was deathly serious rose considerably. Thrush-Kane put on his best hurt expression in hopes of disarming her suspicions.

“I’m not going to ever hurt you,” he told her. “And
if that means protecting Daryl, then I will literally take a bullet for the guy. What kind of a monster do you think I am?”

Brigid’s features flickered between several emotions. The chess-game turmoil of doubt running through her mind had been upset, the table jarred, shifting all of the pieces. The infiltrator’s cold strategy left her reeling over a myriad of possibilities as to who he truly was, and what his true intentions were. In the end, however, this was a wild gamble. Women were wild, unpredictable forces, no matter how logical their intellect held them. Emotions and perceptions would seem to be clear-cut and cast in stone for a male point of view, and Thrush-Kane realized that he was indeed truly masculine, given his reaction to the woman’s subdued sexuality. For a female mind, however, things could be seen in whole new levels. They saw everything in layers of subtext and hidden meaning, which meant that right now, the multifaceted game Thrush-Kane played with his impersonation had to be perfect, or else everything was lost.

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