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Authors: James Axler

Reality Echo (8 page)

BOOK: Reality Echo
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One error, and the secret of his existence as only a construct would be peeled away, exposing him as a monster who probably murdered the real Kane with an avalanche.

All of this cycled through the plasma matrix supercomputer between his ears, taking less than a second. The two-heartbeat pause before Brigid spoke again felt like an agonizing eternity, and Thrush-Kane felt as if he was dangling naked over a pit of hungry, carnivorous mouths.

“I’m sorry,” Brigid finally said. She gave him a slap on the shoulder. “It’s your own damn fault for making us think you could have been replaced or brainwashed or whatever Thrush wanted to do.”

“Yeah,” Thrush-Kane answered. “I put my foot in my mouth. But, hey, when is that news?”

Brigid smirked. “Be nice. Okay?”

Thrush-Kane put his hand over his heart. “I promise,
anam-chara.

“Don’t be making fun of me,” Brigid said, pointing at him.

“Listen, Grant and the others are going to be leaving in ten minutes or so,” Kane grumbled. “You can help them a lot more than watching over me talking to a math dude in the mess hall.”

Brigid looked around, as if seeking some form of support, then nodded.

One step closer, Thrush-Kane thought as she left for the command center.

Chapter 8

The Appalachians, minutes before the avalanche

Certain anatomical facts become intrinsically apparent to a person who is one of the premier adventurers in a postapocalyptic world.

Even before he opened his eyes, Kane was familiar with the effects of having been knocked out, and the unique sensation of being suspended by his ankles, upside down. The Cerberus explorer had become inured enough to no longer vomit every time he regained consciousness, though he had been struck by the frustrating queasiness that assailed his stomach. His inverted state contributed to the vertigo-induced sickness, and there was no avoiding it. Kane craned his neck and allowed the muscular spasms to empty the contents of his gut.

The purging hadn’t made him feel any better, and very little would allow him to penetrate the fog of memory that interfered with his recollection of the events that had brought him to this sorry, captive condition. On top of that, acidic bile overwhelmed his taste
buds, though he had the will and self-control to repeat his initial eruption. He blinked and tried to clear his vision, but it was dim in the forest, and whatever had rendered him unconscious colluded with his upside-down state to keep his vision blurry, at least for now. Kane was able to make out his feet above him, but not the kind of bindings that suspended him nearly four feet off the forest floor.

Kane felt a cool breeze and realized that he had been stripped to the waist. Whoever had partially disrobed him had at least given him the courtesy of a tucked-in shirt, a ragged tank top, and he could tell that he had his cargo pants on. The shirt had to have been tucked in; otherwise it would have hung down over his face. He tested his dangling arms, and they were not only restrained by a slender leather thong, but they were also sluggish and unresponsive. Straining his eyes, he saw that he had long scratches down both forearms. They weren’t deep, but they trickled blood.

In a flash of memory he remembered seeing bear tracks when they first appeared at the parallax point. The sight of the tracks had spurred a conversation with Brigid Baptiste, whose eidetic memory had produced a fact that several of the ten largest black bears shot in America had been hunted down in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Kane grimaced. That memory wasn’t lost. The only thing fuzzy was the moment immediately preceding his lapse into unconsciousness. In all likelihood, Kane
wouldn’t know who had taken him down because he had been actively attempting to avoid a stalker in the woods. The hunter had caught up and taken him down. The cuts on his forearms weren’t defensive injuries; they were precise and deliberate, meant to put the scent of blood into the air. Through the tingling numbness of his limbs, he could tell that he hadn’t been in a fight. No sensations of tender, bruised flesh or lacerations from deflecting weapons or lashing claws. His blood chilled at the idea that someone had most likely caught him unaware enough to put him in a sleeper hold. The headache currently rampaging through his brainpan wasn’t from a sudden trauma akin to a blow to the skull.

He stifled the urge to curse himself for listening to the water witch when they had rendezvoused with the Pennsylvanian mountain folk. It was difficult to tell how old Granny Epona was, even to Kane’s trained eye, but living in the rough, but relatively pristine stretch of Appalachian Mountains known as the Poconos had left her with the physique of a woman in her twenties, if a little weathered. Epona was unlike other self-appointed crones by being relatively young for such a task. Her skin was windburned and deeply tanned from her decades of wilderness life, and her eyes were a shockingly bright green that burrowed into Kane as if seeking the depths of his soul from beneath a curtain of silken black bangs.

Kane grimaced as he fought to sort out his jumbled memories. Granny Epona had peered into the depths
of his reincarnated spirit on the first meeting months before when the explorers were seeking out allies in the mountain range. The Appalachians in Pennsylvania had rebuffed the initial offer of allegiance with Cerberus, seeing their independence threatened by such outside contact. The mountain folk said that they had their own internal problems, which could only become complicated with the addition of Kane and his allies’ war with the beings seeking to control all of humanity.

Months later, however, the mountain folk had made use of the communication equipment left behind on the off chance that they would change their mind. The electronic summons to meet had been accompanied by dread news, the results that the Cerberus rebels had feared when they first came. Someone or something had been improving the ability of the cannibals to conduct their raids against the mountain folk’s settlements.

Granny Epona and her cadre led the three explorers to one settlement that had been attacked by the cannibals. There was evidence of rocket-propelled grenades as well as automatic rifles, more than matching the centuries-old weapons production of the Appalachians.

“This kind of brute force is what we did not want to deal with,” Granny Epona had said. “You told us of the Annunaki and their ilk, but we wanted to avoid their notice.”

Kane remembered picking up wreckage of a rocket shell, turning it over and sighing in disgust. “It may not
be Enlil. There are other factions at work in what used to be America.”

“Yes, you had mentioned the Millennial Consortium,” Granny Epona said. “But the cannibals would see mere men as food, not benefactor. This is why I am erring on the side of accusing the aliens.”

Kane threw the shard of rocket to the dirt. “That crossed my mind, as well.”

“You have a destiny, Kane,” Granny Epona said. “I see it draped over your spirit like a cloak. Perhaps it was inevitable that we would need your aid against the beasts who threaten us.”

Kane had quirked an eyebrow at that statement. “Destiny. In other words, I don’t have a choice. I don’t enjoy having things ordained about my future.”

“When you are such a nexus individual as yourself, such things are common, Kane,” Granny Epona replied.

“Just what kind of people are these cannibals?” Kane asked.

“Some say they are the Fomorians, the children of Balor of the Baleful Eye. Indeed, one prides himself on his cyclopean visage,” Epona explained. “He calls himself the new Balor. They have long sought out the descendants of their enemies.”

“Those who still follow the old ways, even across the great ocean,” Kane said, gesturing toward the east and the Atlantic. “When did they first appear?”

“A hundred years back,” Granny Epona replied. “And they’ve been relentless, if somewhat simple.”

“That’s a long time,” Kane said.

Granny Epona smiled. “You are a chosen hero. But you are also destined to have a long and storied life ahead of you, Kane. Fear not.”

“Long life ahead,” Kane grumbled. He tried to flex his body again. Aches racked his lean, muscular frame and he cursed his weakness. If only he could reach the bindings around his thighs and shins, he could wriggle out of his restraints before whoever had hung him up like a side of beef came back with carving utensils. He tried to bend at the waist, but sore abdominal muscles failed him for now. His skull throbbed as if it had its own pulse that pushed acid through nerve centers.

“You have a destiny this day,” Granny Epona had explained to the three explorers. “It is to seek out the man-monsters infesting our land. If he is successful, then my people will speak more openly to the outlanders from your caverns.”

Kane had been tempted to tell the old broad to stuff the offer sideways up her craw when Brigid reminded him of the fertile expanse of hiding spots along the great Appalachian mountain ranges. Considering the Tuatha blood that was strong within the water witches, the mountain folk would be an invaluable asset in locating the scattered overlords should any of them choose the coast-spanning valley as a hiding spot.

“Just me?” Kane had asked Granny Epona.

“Indeed. We are not expecting you to win a war on
your own. But if you can survive a trek into their lands, then you have proved that you are a worthy ally.”

Kane couldn’t resist the logic. The mountain folk had been pressed hard of late. Somehow, the mutant man-eaters had gotten hold of improved technology, specifically in the form of communications.

It had been so easy looking back to see that Kane had been led into a trap. He swore that if he had seen Granny Epona again, he’d put his fist through her tanned face. The flash of anger preceded a splitting headache that left his eyesight blurry once again.

His vision cleared further and he saw, in the shadows, a pair of legs.

“Looks as if you’ve gone and made a mess,” a mocking, metallically hollow voice spoke.

Though the inflection behind the robotic speech was new, Kane recognized the mechanical rumble itself.

“Thrush?” Kane asked, croaking. His throat was still raw from vomiting. “I thought we’d seen the last of you when little Sam grew up and became Enlil.”

“Wishful thinking on your part, Kane,” the figure standing before him said. The feet moved, and Kane tried to focus on Thrush’s face. Instead, his vision swam, nausea welling in his stomach.

Kane ground his back teeth in concern. Kane and his fellow outlanders had encountered Thrush in his various incarnations on multiple occasions. Chronologically, their first encounter with him came January 20, 2001, when Thrush, posing as a member of the KGB, ignited
the nuclear bomb that sparked the megacull nuclear war that drove humanity to the brink of extinction. The cybernetic being had no concern for the destruction of one body, as it had been evidenced that it was a pantemporal, pandimensional being. If anything, there was a continuum of Thrushes, hundreds of whom had been based on a reality-spanning Orb craft that had served as a central base. The “leader” of this horde of dimensional travelers had been swallowed by a singularity, an event that had presumably left the rest of the continuum without an individual motivator. Kane and the rest of the Cerberus rebels felt that they could rest easier with one less enemy to hound them as they sought to retake the Earth for humanity.

Unfortunately, Erica van Sloan had been restored to youth and vitality and impregnated by unknown means. She’d soon given birth to a being who would become the new imperator of the baronies, Sam. Eventually Kane and his allies had learned that Sam was the embodiment of Thrush’s intellect. When the time came where the fragile, alien-like barons transformed into the overlords, Sam had evolved into Enlil, the original leader of the Dragon Kings on Earth. Only the greed of the Annunaki’s dark goddess Lilitu had shattered the unified threat of the secret masters of the world and removed their powerful, living starship
Tiamat
from the equation of battle between Enlil’s forces and the Cerberus warriors. While Enlil and the other overlords had withdrawn in recent months, their absence from the battlefield could not be considered permanent.

And now, here was a being identifying itself as Thrush once more.

Kane winced as another wave of nausea rocked him. “You’re from another casement?”

That elicited a chuckle. “I am part of an infinite consciousness, Kane. It is more likely that I will see your end than you would see mine.”

“Especially since mine is hanging in the air,” Kane grumbled. He spit in a futile effort to clear his mouth of the sharp, bitter tang of bile.

“You look a little uncomfortable there, Kane,” the metallic drone noted with a hint of glee.

A bubble of sour gas burped up into Kane’s mouth. He winced at the empty heave’s foul trespass. “I’d offer to put you in a sleeper hold then dangle you upside down, but I don’t think you have a stomach to upset.”

“Not all of us are composed of simple polymers, hydraulics and circuits, Kane,” the thing said. “If you prick me, I will bleed.”

Kane couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity in the enemy’s voice. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. “Great. A prick who bleeds. Would you like to demonstrate?”

“Oh, I wish, Kane. I would love nothing more, but you see, I’m not here to kill you. I don’t even want to hurt you seriously, because my real contention is with the errant young Sam.”

“He likes to call himself Enlil now,” Kane corrected.

A metallic sigh hissed. “A rose by any other name still needs to be cut if it’s the wrong color.”

Kane struggled to focus his eyes, but a shove of a warm, human-feeling hand, left him swinging. “You want Enlil, so you do what…lure us out here to hang us up like beef?”

“The enemy of my enemy is…”

“Could you fucking stuff the stupid clichés and maybe keep me from swinging? Because I swear, I will aim for your boots the next time I spew,” Kane growled.

“Sorry.” Powerful fingers hooked Kane’s belt, and his swaying halted. Thrush was too close for Kane to see anything but a powerfully muscled chest layered in the dark, synthetic fabric of a shadow suit.

“Oh, no,” Kane groaned.

“What’s wrong?” the familiar-sounding voice asked. “Oh, you’re finally becoming aware of the situation.”

“Let me see your damn face!” Kane growled.

“Touchy, touchy,” Thrush-Kane replied. He stepped back, and finally, Kane’s vision was clear enough for him to see that the metallic-toned voice had come from his own face. Hard, predator-sharp gray-blue eyes glinted to match the cruel smile on the doppelganger Kane’s lips. It was identical to him, right down to the amount of scruffy beard growth on his jaw and the faint scar on his cheek.

Build-wise, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the Thrush Continuum could easily replicate Kane’s height and build. Kane had seen enough of both robotics and cloning to realize that his double was a hybrid of both technologies. It was also no wonder the voice sounded
familiar, but so hard to place. Through the filter of Kane’s own head, he only really had a chance to hear what he sounded like when listening to recordings of himself. The resonance of his eardrums and his skull had been enough of a filter to make instant recognition impossible.

“They’re not going to fall for you if you sound like you’re talking through a tin can,” Kane snarled.

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