Authors: James Axler
“That was just a show for your sake, Kane,” the doppelganger replied, the metallic nature of his voice fading until he sounded perfectly human. “I wanted you to figure things out first.”
“All right, then. Pin a medal on me, or put a bullet in my head,” Kane snarled.
The duplicate shrugged. “Why would I want to do that? I’m just delaying you.”
“For what?” Kane asked.
“Well, if I’m not able to use the resources of Cerberus to strike a fatal blow against Enlil, then I’ll certainly need you around to avenge your slaughtered friends,” the doppelganger said.
“I’ll come for you first, Thrush,” Kane growled.
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Thrush-Kane replied. “After all, you wouldn’t know how to program the mattrans or the interphaser to reach the rest of me. Not unless you somehow beat the answer out of Enlil’s relatives or our errant brother yourself.”
Kane grimaced. “Either way, to get to your freakish robot brothers, I have to do the job you want.”
Kane knew that he didn’t have the cruelty in himself to duplicate his doppelganger’s evil grin of glee. “By all means, now that you know how to come after us…”
Kane drew all the strength in his right arm and lashed out, swinging at the creature before him. Thrush-Kane simply stepped back out of the path of the punch.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I really would be remiss if I didn’t get to work hunting down that alligator-hided version of myself,” Thrush-Kane said. He turned and released a wolf howl that cut through the forest.
Hollow, haunted cries echoed back.
“I’d say you have five minutes to get down off that tree before my cannibal friends show up,” Thrush-Kane said. “If not, we might have to skip plan B to put Enlil out of our misery.”
The doppelganger disappeared into the woods and Kane twisted, clawing at the bindings around his thighs and shins.
The wolf calls of the Appalachian cannibals resounded, drawing closer as Kane’s fingers tore frantically at the ropes restraining him. He kept clawing, even as he heard the unmistakable whistle of a thrown hatchet slicing the air behind him.
Then gravity seized the lone Cerberus explorer, and he crashed to the forest floor, dazed but free. He scanned around for a weapon, anything that would give him an advantage against the deadly monstrosities stalking the valley.
Something crashed into his forehead, the impact threatening to send Kane tumbling into an endless descent into oblivion.
It had been vital that Thrush-Kane capture the Cerberus explorer he was designed to duplicate. Though his skeletal structure and genetic makeup were absolutely identical to Kane’s, thanks to the ex-Mag’s prior encounters with other iterations of the transdimensional hive mind that had assembled a large contingent on the pancasement Orb, there would be certain factors that could not be duplicated without face-to-face contact.
The cloned muscle, skin and hair that wrapped around the flat-motor enhanced polymer skeleton would only take a simulation of the human so far, the cyborg realized. His brain, a semiorganic plasma matrix with superior processing ability, could only fake so much without actual conversation and in-depth observation. The programmed speech patterns developed from recordings of Kane’s voice, taken from multiple sources, had held up to actual dialog with the captured human. The time span between the recordings and the current moment had allowed for some variation, but the plasma matrix brain adapted to the new patterns.
More importantly, Thrush-Kane was glad for the
chance to look into every detail of his counterpart’s face. There were a few new bruises, not quite healed, that could be mimicked with pigment injectors provided for perfect duplication. A set of scissors had been the most vital, yet simplest implement of the disguise kit. The Thrush Continuum would not normally have taken such extreme measures for a simple subterfuge on such a backwater, technologically deficient world, but for the presence of one of Kane’s most trusted allies, Brigid Baptiste. Her eidetic memory and highly acute senses would pick up the slightest of visual imperfections, rendering the doppelganger ruse a wasted, worthless effort.
Thrush-Kane would have to be acutely wary around Brigid. One mistake, one stray from established identity had the potential of turning an infiltration and rediversion mission into a bloody battle that he did not want to engage in. Brigid was not the only wild-card factor that Thrush-Kane had to worry about. There were the others of the Cerberus redoubt, including the brilliant Mohandas Lakesh Singh, and the ever-present and very capable Grant, the former Magistrate, mentor, friend and partner to Kane. Lakesh’s razor-sharp intellect presented as much a challenge as Brigid’s incredible analytical abilities and perfect memory, and the undeniable emotional and spiritual bond between Kane and Grant would provide unknown obstacles to overcome.
The level of familiarity of Kane’s allies to the man that the cyborg was impersonating made his chances of success far slimmer, which meant that Thrush-Kane’s
ploy required far more than identical appearance. Though the ferrous content of his body was trimmed to the bare amount available in a normal human’s makeup, his plasma matrix brain had sufficient wireless technology and image projection to render a very convincing addition to his ruse, He could project two distinct images in two types of medical examination machines. First was an X-ray machine override that would allow a highly convincing image of Kane’s fractured skull. The second was an override that could allow interpretation by a magnetic resonance imaging device to view his brain as slightly traumatized, but not seriously injured. Enough injury to explain a variance in behavior, but not so much that Thrush-Kane would be under constant examination and confinement to a sick bed.
Thrush-Kane closed with the Fomorians, and the bestial men looked at him. He smelled the same to them, so they didn’t immediately reach for the weapons he’d supplied them.
Calling them bestial was an understatement. Due to the ancient genetics that their leader had awakened within them, they were powerfully built, with rangy, apelike arms fully as long as their legs. Thick brows melted from sloped foreheads, only extending so far as necessary to protect the one or two eyes that they possessed. Some were truly cyclopean, with a centrally placed orb, while others had one side of their face seemingly fused over.
Those with two working eyes were hampered either
by one hand fused into a gnarled protuberance that could only be used as a club, or were missing an arm altogether. The one-armed Fomorians’ loss of symmetry was made up for by a far thicker remaining limb, just as those with only one eye were gifted with a larger, engorged version of the optic organ.
Their skin was thick and leathery, though only good enough to protect against blunt trauma and lacerations caused by the smaller nails and teeth of less ferocious mountain predators. Against bears, modern blades or the primitive firearms of the Appalachian mountain folk, they were still mortal and vulnerable.
Only one among the Fomorians bore a resemblance to a normal human, and where the others were malformed and terrifying, Bres was tall, graceful and nearly angelic. Thrush-Kane knew this was due to the blend of genetic structures within his being. Bres the Beautiful either took his name from his mythological forebear, or was indeed the ancient Tuatha and Annunaki hybrid being reincarnated or kept young and vital by unknown means. Thrush was aware that Enlil had at least one daughter, a living goddess named Fand who at times assisted Kane and his fellow outlanders. Thrush-Kane wasn’t certain of the mechanics of her existence, and refused to speculate, as he did with Bres.
The golden-haired, muscular Bres smiled broadly as Thrush-Kane approached.
“You have captured him?” Bres asked.
Thrush-Kane nodded, glancing over toward the
woman held within a primitive cage. “You’ve left their witch alive?”
Bres chuckled, following the cyborg’s line of sight. “She’s of the true blood, meaning that she will be as useful to my followers as the rifles you’ve brought us.”
“To the Fomorians, or to you directly?” Thrush-Kane inquired.
“You’re thinking that I would mix my perfect DNA with her diluted blood, creating something a little more powerful than my beloved warriors?” Bres countered.
“More powerful, or more capable of blending in with your prey,” Thrush-Kane stated.
Bres’s smile was bright and gleaming, though the malice behind his nearly golden eyes didn’t match the warmth of the expression. “You have your task, false man. I have my future to forge here.”
“Fair enough,” Thrush-Kane said. “You need do only one more thing, and my business with you is complete.”
Bres held out his hand, and one of his Fomorian warriors handed over a rifle to the master raider. Bres reversed the weapon and struck Thrush-Kane in the forehead hard. The ceramic-and-crystal reinforcement of the cyborg’s skeletal structure was sorely tested by the powerful blow, backed up by the three-hundred-pound frame of the tall god among beasts. The impact hurled Thrush-Kane to the dirt as even his reinforced musculature and bones weren’t enough to withstand the incredible strength of the golden-haired hybrid.
“Was that sufficient?” Bres asked.
Thrush-Kane reached up to the split flesh of his forehead, and his fingers came away, wet and slick with blood. He blinked in surprise, more than actual pain, as his plasma matrix brain had shut off pain sensations. The semiorganic mass under the nearly unbreakable skull ran through a rapid self-diagnostic check, and the infiltrator managed a sigh of genuine relief as he was still in perfect operating condition.
“More than enough,” the cyborg informed Bres. “I’ll take my leave.”
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” Bres asked.
Thrush-Kane’s plasma matrix mind raced for a moment, then he regarded the weapon on his wrist. “Thank you.”
“The weakest of my Fomorians must be tested to earn their place at our table,” Bres said. “Their deaths will provide you with evidence of the battle that produced the head laceration.”
Thrush-Kane regarded Bres’s minions. Four of them stepped forward, armed with sample assault rifles that had been the impetus for the Appalachians to summon the Cerberus warriors to this mountain range. The four Fomorians were powerful-looking creatures. Two could wield an automatic rifle as if it was a pistol, a necessity formed by their off-limb being nothing more than a boney club. Those with both hands were one-eyed monstrosities, whose wide, visorlike single eyes twitched oddly, but could focus on the sights of their weapon with remarkable clarity.
Bres the Beautiful had awakened ancient blood within the Fomorians, but certain laws of thermodynamics had to be respected. The beings sacrificed limbs or eyes in order to gain superhuman physical strength. The ones who possessed cyclopean eyes had originally been unusually large and powerful humans, so when their bodies compressed, they retained all four of their limbs but their facial structures changed as the mark of their newfound identity. Those who had been normal sized lost the symmetry of their arms and a measure of mass from their off leg. This freed up muscle tissue and bone to bulk up the Fomorians to match the general size of their fellow mutants.
Thrush-Kane had also observed that the mutants were able to don and doff their enhanced appearance, though the effort was undoubtedly painful to go through as muscle and bone twisted and realigned. Bres could ease the agony of the change with a touch, and Bres had intimated that Balor, whom Thrush-Kane had never personally encountered, could do the same. Thrush-Kane wondered why such mercurial transformations were required, but he never asked. It had, however, made it useful to transform one of his followers into a duplicate of the water witch Granny Epona. Bres crafted a fused-skinned mutant into an attractive woman of indeterminate age, which indicated to Thrush-Kane that the Fomorians already had their own cache of incredible technology, but it was wielded only by a select few.
It became clear to the infiltrator that the matter of
man-eating among the Fomorians was not so much a form of cannibalism, but rather a means by which the monstrosities increased their size and power. They killed prey, and Bres transferred biomass from the corpse to the hunters. It was why the victims of the raiders had never been discovered. The cyborg, realizing that his skeleton was nonbiological, knew why he was not considered viable prey. His vat-grown flesh might contribute to their bodies, but his bones were wrought from plastic, nonferrous metals and other materials that could not be altered by whichever cellular manipulation Bres controlled.
“Weakest?” Thrush-Kane asked, not disguising the irony in his voice.
“They have failed the most often,” Bres said. “They are hungry and eager, however, to prove themselves in combat with you. Do not take anything for granted in combat with them.”
“How much of a head start do I have?” Thrush-Kane inquired.
“It is I who will be leaving,” Bres informed him. “Then my warriors will count until fifty, and then proceed to remove as much flesh from your body as possible.”
“And what if I don’t care to wait?”
“Then you’ll get at least one free kill with the element of surprise,” Bres commented. “And you’ll have three furious man-beasts attacking you with all of their might.”
“Joy,” Thrush-Kane said, approximating his human counterpart’s sarcasm.
“Good luck,” Bres said, striding off with the remainder of his cadre, back to the caves where Thrush-Kane had first encountered the godling and his monstrous progeny. “You’ll need it.”
Thrush-Kane looked at the quartet of man-beasts who were left behind to provide him with his alibi. They glared at him hungrily, but not with their usual lust for human flesh. His vat-grown skin and muscle didn’t smell right; he wasn’t an appetizing morsel to them.
How he enticed them was in the form of a human challenge. Clad in a shadow suit and armed with the powerful Magistrate side arm that he’d taken from the true Kane, the cybernetic doppelganger was a magnificent conquest. The Fomorians lived for conflict, and the more capable the opponent, the more glorious the victory.
Bres had not set up the creatures to fail. They had been promised the highest of honors among their tribe should they kill him, and given the brief time Thrush-Kane had observed these beings, he knew that they could damage even his artificial, high-tensile skeleton with their formidable strength.
It was a logical progression of events. Bres and Balor no longer required the gifts of Thrush-Kane, and thus they had no need to keep him alive and healthy. They had a baptism of fire with which to certify the worth of their disgraced allies, and if the
Fomorian warriors failed, then they were culled from the herd. If they succeeded, the Fomorians didn’t burn any bridges with the transdimensional hive-mind entity.
Thrush-Kane looked over the quartet of creatures who chanted their count to fifty in low tones. They had gotten to nine, and the cyborg doppelganger whirled and raced up the slope.
A low chuckle escaped the throat of one of the Fomorians, the tempo of the count increasing.
The hunt was on, and Thrush-Kane was the prime target.
with the impact that split open his forehead, instinct taking over where conscious thought would have only slowed him. With an agility born of a lifetime of conflict, he tumbled down the slope, letting gravity haul him away from the menace that tried to rip his skull from his shoulders. Through the splash of blood that had gotten into his eyes, the Cerberus explorer realized that his attacker was a wounded black bear, a hatchet embedded in its shoulder.
Whoever had hunted the creature had done Kane a favor, because if the bear had retained the full strength of that limb, the swipe of its claws would have been too fast to dodge and too strong to resist. Still, the bear bellowed in rage, spinning. Kane rolled to a halt, digging in his heels in order to regain his footing. Rising into a three-point stance, his right arm free to
deploy his Sin Eater, Kane cursed himself for forgetting that he had been disarmed by the half-human impostor.
A pair of slender-limbed hunters burst into the open, each of them wielding throwing hatchets and howling with joy. Upon seeing them, Kane could feel a moment of déjà vu. Somewhere deep within the corridors of time, memories bubbled to the surface of the same kind of creatures. Kane saw himself clad in furs and wearing blue paint upon his face, wielding a sword fully seven feet in length and engaging in mortal combat with such foes. The name for them shot to the front of his mind.