Authors: Michael McBride
First Digital Edition
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
copyright 2009 by Michael McBride
Cover Artwork copyright 2009 by Krivosheev Vitaly
All Rights Reserved.
Copy Editors: David Marty and Steve Souza
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Leigh Haig: my invaluable First Reader,
personal editor, and cherished friend.
Special Thanks to Shane Staley, for always believing;
Larry Roberts, for lending his good name;
Drs. Gus Isuani and Robert Sherrier, for their help and encouragement; Bruce Boston; Greg Gifune; Brian Keene; Don Koish; Gene O'Neill; Steve Souza; Jeff Strand;
and my amazing family, for putting up with me.
El Mirador Ruins
North of El Petén, Guatemala
30 Years Ago
Torrential rain laid siege to the jungle, beating a discordant melody on the broad leaves of the sacred ceiba trees and tropical cedars. No celestial light penetrated the smothering black storm clouds, beneath which a damp mist rolled across the muddy ground. Somewhere in the darkness a parrot cawed from an enclave in a mahogany tree and the hooting of howler monkeys echoed from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Until abruptly the world fell silent.
Four shadows peeled from the night at a crouch and emerged from the undergrowth into a small clearing at the base of the steep hillside that had grown over the ancient Mayan temple La Danta. They converged upon a rickety aluminum shack surrounded by drilling and earthmoving equipment sinking into the detritus. One of the shadows reached the door of the flimsy building, and after a few seconds, a padlock dropped into the mud. Another shadow drew the door wide and all four disappeared inside. Wooden crates and packing material lined the wall to the left, while Middle Preclassic Era artifacts, everything from narrow-mouthed
jars to jade and obsidian figurines, were displayed in a staged jumble on the table to the right, as though someone had merely stepped away from the task of boxing and shipping. It was all for show. As were the baskets brimming with small picks and brushes, the dirty jackets hanging from nails, and the row of hardhats mounted with halogen lamps.
The rear of the shack abutting the slope had been retrofitted with a door to match the front--beaten and dirty, hinges rusted--yet it was secured by more than a simple padlock. Two of the shadows isolated the external detonators rigged to bricks of C4 and deactivated the remote triggers, while a third removed the cover of the breaker box on the wall, revealing a small black screen. The shadow produced what looked like a lollipop from an invisible pocket and held it up to the scanner. A red light projected from the screen, spotlighting an excised brown eye at the end of a short metal post.
They removed the aluminum door as the reinforced steel door behind slid back into the recessed wall, exposing a stone tunnel that reached back into the black heart of the pyramid. Merging with the darkness, they inched deeper, Steyr AUG 5.56 mm assault rifles sweeping the rocky passageway illuminated only by the pale green glare provided by the unwieldy night vision apparatuses strapped over their eyes. They advanced in silence, infiltrating what had once been a temple to a long dead god, but now led to the altar of technology, modernized to feature track lighting on the rock roof, the circulated air blowing in their faces, and the humidity controls that held the jungle at bay.
As one, the shadows flattened against the wall where the tunnel opened into a vast square chamber from which several dark passages branched. A row of gas-powered generators rumbled to the right beneath a hood that vented the fumes to the surface.
"We're too late," the first shadow said. "They knew we were coming."
"No," another said, shoving through the others into the room. "They have to be here somewhere."
Though none could see the man's eyes, the glistening green tracks of tears streaked the mud he'd rubbed on his face. He headed straight for the widest branch, passing between walls composed of great cubes of stone, decorated with seventh century hieroglyphics barely visible through layers of dust and spider webs, until he reached the terminus, from which twin tunnels forked to either side.
The man turned left and nearly barreled into a stainless steel door. Beside it was another retina scanner that granted him access thanks to the eye in his pocket. The impenetrable slab hissed back into the wall and he stepped into a small tiled room with lockers to either side and clean suits hanging by another door directly ahead. He blew through and the door opened for him into a small chamber with a pull-cord chemical bath. As soon as the door closed behind him he was buffeted by scalding hot steam from the vents surrounding him, but he didn't care. All that mattered now was finding them.
After a blistering moment, the door in front of him slid back to reveal a sterile laboratory more than thirty feet long, a recent addition with shiny steel walls that reflected his distorted black image. A series of metal drums dominated the center of the room. They were vaguely reminiscent of round horse troughs with domed lids, upon which were mounted circular pressure, temperature, and humidity gauges. Racks lined the wall to the left, brimming with chemicals, glassware, pipettes, and Petri dishes. To his right was a long counter with several workstations demarcated by powerful electron microscopes, centrifuges, and other equipment beyond his comprehension.
The caustic scent of disinfecting agents was overwhelming, but beneath it lurked a more organic stench similar to stagnant marsh water that he recognized immediately.
"God, no," he whispered, running to the back of the room where a half dozen surgical lamps were mounted to the ceiling, directed toward the same point beneath. "No, no, no."
An agonized moan wrenched loose from his chest.
A body was draped across a steel table. The gutters to either side were sloppy with congealed blood and bone chips. Its abdomen had been opened and all the viscera removed, revealing the exposed spine framed by ribs that had been cracked open and drawn apart like a clamshell. The legs and arms were untouched, though they had turned a marbled shade of gray, the digits dark from necrosis. But her face...her beautiful face...
He leaned forward and gently caressed her waxy cheek, glancing only briefly into the hollow sockets where her blue eyes had once been. Sobbing, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him. He lowered his chin to her forehead and stroked her tangled blonde hair, now crusted with blood.
Bellowing his sorrow, he had to look away, finally catching sight of the message they'd left for him, smeared in blood on the wall.
She died slowly.
The man roared, grief and rage forcing aside rational thought. He whirled and punched the nearest metal drum. The hatch of the dome opened and a gust of what looked like steam billowed out. Within was a liquid nitrogen-cooled system filled with organs in numbered containers. Before he could turn away, he saw a liver, kidneys, a heart, and two long, coiled ropes that he wished had been intestines. Deep down, he knew exactly what they were and collapsed to his knees.
"Get up, Colonel," a firm voice said from behind him. Fists knotted into his jacket and he was pulled to his feet. "We're registering heat signatures down the hall."
And with that, the Colonel was running, through the lab and the decontamination chamber, through the locker room into the corridor where two men stood before the other door with a thermographic infrared camera directed at the steel slab. The eye was in his hand before he shoved them aside and thrust it up to the scanner. He slid through sideways as the door opened, welcomed into the darkness by a cacophonous riot of crying.
There were plastic incubators to the left, rows of bassinettes to the right. Toward the back were clear plastic cribs with cage lids. The screaming was all around him.
"Jesus Christ," one of his men said from behind him, but he was already dashing toward the incubators. The heating elements over two of the incubators provided a faint green glow through the goggles. The first unit was empty. Beneath the second was a squirming infant, arms stretched stiffly from beneath a blanket, tiny fists clenched and trembling. Its mouth framed a scream, its eyes pinched closed. A tuft of light hair capped its wrinkled, round head.
The Colonel reached in and gently lifted the child from the incubator, cradled it to his chest, and sobbed anew.
There had been two umbilical cords in the cryogenic freezer, two heat lamps over the incubators.
"Where's the other one?" he shouted.
"There are more over here," one of the men called from his right. Children swaddled in blankets, none of them newborn, all crying. He passed them by, noting that only every other bassinette was occupied.
"More back here!" another man yelled.
The Colonel ran toward the voice, but there were only toddlers and small children wailing behind the vented plastic walls of their cages. He spun in a circle. There were no more infants.
Only the terrified cries.
"Where's my child?" he screamed, his voice echoing into the dark stone corridors beneath the temple.
The communication of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.
20 Miles Southwest of
The words of the dying man haunted him in whispers.
You'll never find her in time.
Special Agent Paxton Carver cranked the wheel to the right. The black Caprice Classic fishtailed on the gravel road in a cloud of dust before the tires finally caught and launched the sedan down the long, rutted dirt drive toward the distant farmhouse. Fallen barbed wire fences blew past to either side, tangled with tumbleweeds and overgrown by wild grasses and sunflowers, the fields beyond a riot of vegetation, prematurely browning from dehydration.
He could barely hear the distant cry of sirens behind him over the pinging of rocks against the undercarriage.
The crows were already waiting when he reached the house and jammed the brakes. They lined the steepled roof of the white clapboard house, the aluminum outbuilding, and the thick black wires stretching back to the telephone poles. The setting sun beyond cast a scarlet glare over everything, limning the feathers of the raucously cawing birds as though they'd bathed in blood.
The transmission had been well masked, bouncing from one satellite to another. They had finally isolated the source, but it had taken so long...Too long.
Twenty-two hours and nineteen minutes.
Carver leapt from the car and hit the front steps at a sprint, tightening the Kevlar vest over his torso, his official windbreaker still on the passenger seat. He drew his M9 Beretta 9mm from his shoulder holster and pointed it at the front door. The porch planks were bowed and gray, pulling the nails from their moorings; the siding of the house sandblasted, white paint peeling in curls. Two rusted chains dangled from the overhang to his left where a porch swing had once been suspended, the window behind covered from within by dusty drapes and cobwebs. He threw back the screen door, hammering the wall with a bang, tried the front door, then kicked it in.
"FBI!" he shouted, shoving past the shivering door through the cracked and splintered threshold and into the living room, arms tensed in front of him, taking in the room along the sightline of the Beretta.
Single level; no stairs. Dusty sheets draped over a couch and chair to the right. Twin framed oil landscapes flanking a single window guarded by floor-length maroon drapes. Older television on a stand. Magazines on an end table, glossy covers dulled by dust. Open bedroom door to the left. Stripped, stained mattress. The mirror on the inside of the open closet door reflected a rack of empty hangers, nothing beneath. A bathroom door stood ajar beside the bedroom. Shower curtain missing, the toilet and rim of the tub stained by rust. Mirror on the medicine chest spider-webbed.