Authors: Robert Storey
Samson appeared satisfied with the answer, but Riley could tell Locke had been riled.
‘We break camp at zero one hundred,’ Samson said, scrubbing out the map with a foot. ‘Tell your men.’
The colonel went to leave, but Locke moved to block his way. ‘Zero one hundred? Are you trying to get my people killed?’
‘If my men can keep going,’ Samson said, ‘so can yours.’
‘I don’t give a damn about your soldiers,’ Locke said, ‘and clearly neither do you. But if you think I’m going to tell my teams to keep going without at least a few hours’ sleep, you’ve got another thing coming.’
Samson’s eyes narrowed and Locke held his ground before the colonel’s lip contorted into displeasure and a growl escaped his lips. The animalistic sound coupled with the man’s ferocious glare made Locke take an involuntary step back.
‘SED Commander Locke’s position is valid,’ Ophion said, in his stone cold baritone. ‘Dead men do not make good time.’
‘We’ve already lost over thirty souls—’ Locke said, his tone placating.
‘Forty,’ Riley said, ‘we just had another collapse.’
Locke looked at him in alarm. ‘SED personnel?’
Riley shook his head.
‘How many more need to die, Colonel?’ Locke said. ‘Another forty, sixty maybe, a thousand?’
‘As many as it takes.’
‘Then you go on alone,’ Locke said. ‘I won’t help a madman.’
Samson’s face blanched and he grasped the front of Locke’s uniform. ‘What did you just call me?’
Riley, sensing imminent bloodshed, stepped forward to intervene and Samson’s manic eyes homed in on the movement, his expression stopping Riley in his tracks.
The sound of laughter made Riley turn to see one of Ophion’s lieutenants had removed her sculpted helmet. The Chinese woman was stunningly beautiful and she moved past her leader to trail a beguiling finger up Samson’s bulging arm.
‘Maybe the colonel fears lost time,’ she said, her Asian accent soft. ‘Maybe he’s afraid to stop.’
‘Unhand me, woman,’ Samson said, ‘or lose the hand.’
The S.I.L.V.E.R. operative gave a throaty chuckle and let the colonel be, while giving Riley the once-over as she passed.
Riley followed the woman’s seductive walk as she moved away, before turning his attention back to Samson to see the situation defused.
Samson pushed Locke aside. ‘You’ve got three hours,’ he said, and stalked off.
Locke shook his head in relief, gave Riley an amiable slap on the shoulder, then walked away without another word.
Meanwhile Ophion spoke quietly with the two women, before also taking his leave.
Three hours is better than nothing
, he decided and made to follow Locke back to his SED colleagues.
‘Riley Orton,’ the Chinese woman said, making him pause, ‘we hear you were involved with this Sarah Morgan.’
Riley didn’t know what to say to this armoured assassin, so he decided to stay quiet.
The woman approached. ‘Your colonel is a dangerous man, is he not?’
‘Much like you, I expect,’ Riley said, looking into the woman’s dark eyes.
She smiled, the effect dazzling. ‘Forgive me. My name’s Zhang Bai. I am merely interested in the man who can hold the attention of such a woman as Sarah Morgan.’
‘Such a woman?’
Zhang ran her eyes over Riley’s bare chest and then glanced down at the tattoos on his arm. ‘You were in the military?’
‘For a while.’
She moved closer. ‘And you’re a believer?’ She touched the depiction of the crucifix over his heart with soft fingers.
Riley felt confused by her attention. ‘I—’
Zhang smiled again, disarming him. ‘You don’t believe your Sarah is special?’
, and why such an interest?’
‘Not many can afford our services.’ Zhang touched the emblem on her armour that spelt out the word S.I.L.V.E.R.. ‘And fewer still can afford our whole order.’ She ran a hand through her jet–black locks. ‘I’ve read Sarah Morgan’s dossier, she is quite the woman. Beautiful, athletic, intelligent, but …’
‘But flawed. Her psychological profile indicates mental instability.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Have I offended you, Riley?’ She tilted her head. ‘May I call you that?’
Riley was too tired for games. ‘Call me what you like.’
As he went to move past her she grasped his arm, her grip surprising in its power. ‘Strong women need strong men, Riley Orton; be careful where you tread, the darkness is full of peril.’
Riley gazed into her sultry eyes. She released her hold and let him continue on his way, while leaving him at a loss to what the she was going on about.
And she says Sarah’s unstable. Was she propositioning me or threatening me?
Rejoining his teammates, Riley settled down for some much-needed sleep and his last vision before he closed his eyes was that of the S.I.L.V.E.R. woman, Zhang Bai, who remained looking in his direction as her masked female companion returned to her side. As he drifted off to sleep, for once his thoughts weren’t dominated by the mesmeric, blue eyes of Sarah Morgan … the woman in the eye of a storm.
Colonel Samson sat staring out into the darkness. He hadn’t slept for days; whatever Joiner and his pet agent had pumped into him, it kept his mind whirring away like a never-ending nightmare. Pain lanced through his head forcing him to clench his teeth. His pills still had an effect, but it was like he wasn’t there, didn’t exist. The thought – the feeling – of not being, of not existing, terrified him.
Am I real?
he wondered. He clenched an armoured fist. It felt real.
I feel real
I just don’t feel … here
. He concentrated on the task at hand.
Find Sarah Morgan, retrieve the pendant. Kill Ophion. Kill Joiner. Kill them all, every last one
. Another thought wormed its way into his mind. He had something else far more important to do.
, he told himself,
find your daughter
And that went so well last time, didn’t it, Colonel?
He shifted his position.
That was Steiner’s fault. This time will be different. We’ll do things our way, my way. Time’s running out. The meteors are coming, or had you forgotten? Of course I haven’t forgotten!
Samson looked up at a Special Forces officer.
‘Sir,’ the man said again, ‘a communication’s come through from the SED.’
Samson stared at the soldier, waiting for him to get to the point.
The officer grimaced in discomfort. ‘You wanted to know if S.I.L.V.E.R. received any encrypted messages? One’s just come through and they’ve sent an operative to access it.’
Samson stood up. ‘Nexus?’
‘No, sir, it’s a woman, one of the two that follow him around.’
Samson donned his helmet and collected his rifle. ‘Take me there.’
The soldier moved to the top of the cliff, connected himself to a line and dropped over the edge. Samson did likewise, abseiling down to the ground two hundred feet below.
At the bottom, the two men worked their way through the sleeping bodies of Terra Force and SED personnel to travel back the way they’d come hours before. Climbing up a steep incline, they passed by more weary troops who continued to filter in from the rear of the two mile long procession.
‘You men,’ Samson said, gesturing to a unit of five commandos with a sweep of his hand, ‘with me.’
The soldiers fell in behind, with weapons drawn on their colonel’s command.
Ten minutes later they entered a narrow ravine and the lights of the portable communication terminus came into view. Numerous cables snaked into its specially designed receiver, which filtered out the unwanted interference created by Sanctuary’s foundations, the curious substrate the Anakim had manipulated in order to build the supporting structure of their underground world.
A chrome-clad figure stood next to the coms station, her slim form a sliver of light in the gloom. On the left a deep drop fell away below, while on either side high rock faces continued up into the distant darkness. A small contingent from the U.S. Army Signal Corps worked nearby, using robotics to un-snag the long lengths of cable that served as their lifeline back to base and the SED within.
The woman, her face concealed behind her mirrored visor, looked up as Samson and his small company approached.
‘I hear we’ve been contacted,’ Samson said, slowing to a halt some feet away.
The S.I.L.V.E.R. operative’s mask shimmered into transparency to reveal the grey eyes of the Chinese woman within. ‘We have. It is quite interesting. Would you care to listen?’
‘With my sister, Zhang.’ She reached up and pressed a button on the side of her helmet.
‘If you’re trying to send a transmission,’ Samson said, motioning at the walls around them, ‘you should know … this is a dead zone.’
The woman let her arm drop back down, but Samson noticed her other hand had slipped behind her back.
‘What did it say?’ Samson said when she failed to respond.
‘It said S.I.L.V.E.R. is to resume command.’
‘On whose orders?’
She hesitated, then said, ‘Malcolm Joiner’s.’
Samson gave a hollow laugh. ‘I doubt that.’
The woman didn’t reply, her eyes remaining fixed on Samson.
‘Your precious Committee thinks it can control me,’ Samson said, preparing himself, ‘but they made one big mistake.’
The woman shifted her stance. ‘And what was that?’
‘Threatening my daughter.’
The woman frowned and Samson shouted, ‘Take her!’ to his men, and unleashed his rifle.
The assassin dived to her left, her arms a blur of motion and something whizzed past Samson’s head, killing a soldier behind.
Suppressed gunfire echoed out and then the woman was among them, a flash of light in each hand whirring through the air as she leapt and spun in a dance of death. Samson fired and missed and fired again, his shots killing his own men. The woman’s weapon licked out, cleaving his rifle in two. Rolling to the ground, Samson sprang up and seized her arm, and with a mighty heave propelled her into the cliff. Her body slammed to a stop with a jarring crunch and Samson picked up a dead man’s gun and blasted the rock above her head as she staggered to her feet. Another soldier fired. The shots bounced off her armour and she sent a tiny drone exploding into his face, felling him where he stood. A great, cracking groan made her look up. The wall collapsed and the S.I.L.V.E.R. operative disappeared in a cloud of dust and debris. When the area cleared, all that was left was a mound of rock.
Samson looked around at the scene of carnage. Body parts lay scattered everywhere. She’d killed five of the men who’d been with him. Samson himself had killed one with friendly fire, along with three from the Signal Corps. Only one other person was left standing; the operator of the coms receiver. The man stood in stunned shock while Samson went about hiding evidence of the brief battle. After he’d dropped the final body into the ravine, Samson yanked the receiver from its stand and, along with everything else, tossed it into the deep rift.
‘What are you doing?!’ The operator said, staring down into the blackness.
Samson moved alongside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘There can be no more messages.’
‘But we have a spare receiver,’ the man said, looking up at him.
‘And you’re the only one who knows how to work it?’
The man nodded dumbly.
Samson grasped his arm and pushed him over the edge.
The screams of the operator’s life-defying descent echoed through the chasm before ending in sudden silence.
Samson scoured the area with his visor and then climbed the landslip that had crushed the S.I.L.V.E.R. assassin. Removing a device from his armour, he ejected its spike and slammed it into the rock face. Moving back two hundred yards, he detonated it and a massive section of the ravine collapsed with an earth shattering roar. With the air filled with the mist of pulverised stone, Samson turned and moved back the way he’d come, satisfied with a job well done.
‘No one’s taking my command,’ he said, wiping blood from his mask, ‘no one.’
Deep in the lower reaches of Sanctuary Proper, a river of glowing magma wound its way around the base of a subterranean mountain. Clouds of toxic steam drifted across its wide expanse, rock melted and the air itself burned as the scorching flow continued its unstoppable advance.
Close by this seething, oozing flood, scattered amongst the fiery pools of gas and flame, the remains of an all-terrain vehicle lay crushed and twisted. For so long this machine had provided those who utilised it with a vital lifeline in the dangerous depths of beyond, but now all that was left was a broken shell – the salvation it represented wilted and dead.
A large section of the mangled wreckage sank further into a molten tributary, its bright yellow carcass melting into a pool of liquid metal under the intense heat before disappearing beneath the silken surface. An instant later a jet of fire erupted into the air, propelling before it a cluster of sparks which travelled on an updraft into the dark. These floating sprites flared and died until only one remained. Up and up this lone wayfarer went, swirling past the jagged sides of the towering chasm and the giant peak at its centre. Feet after thousands of feet swept by, while bridges and aqueducts crisscrossed the expanse in the dark. Nearing the mountainous summit, a steady gush of glowing lava spewed forth, sending waves of heat rushing up the cliff face to the three companions who struggled for survival on the precipice above. Finally, the single spark passed the lone man at the cliff’s ragged edge, its light flickering out as it turned to a blackened carcass of ash.
Jason Reece gritted his teeth in agony. Someone screamed at him to pull and he lent back with all his might. The rope cut deeper into his lacerated hands and tears of anguish rolled down his cheeks. He inched back, but the weight below dragged him back to the edge. The pain increased and he held on. Seconds passed like hours before a despairing scream penetrated his mind and the pull on the rope halved. He stared down into the abyss, inches from death and saw the woman he loved fall burning into the darkness. Wracked with grief, Jason stood, transfixed in time, the streak of fire seared into his soul. Trish was gone and his world collapsed with her.