Leslie Tatum's long-sleeved shirt hung heavy for a San Francisco Summer and she sweated inside it. That suited her fine so long as the messy scar on her forearm remained hidden; I'll lift my skirt and drop my pants in Market Street before I let anyone see that arm, especially this self-important bitch.
Her therapist continued, ignorant of Leslie's private disdain. “So, Leslie, you're still having dreams about your dead colleagues. That's normal. It's only been two years.”
Leslie exhaled a short frustrated breath. “They weren't just colleagues. They were my team, my responsibility.”
“Hostility won't make these sessions any easier.”
Leslie fidgeted unable to find comfort on the therapist's sumptuous couch. “My court-martial says it's you or the psych-ward.”
Her therapist smiled; in that glib way Leslie wanted to slap.
“Are you keeping up with your medication?”
Leslie struggled to contain her venom. “About that, it's been two years; you're giving me every kind of pill and yet, I still wake in the night – screaming and fucked-up.”
Leslie's inner censor chided her; Why the 'F' bomb so much? You didn't used to talk like that.
Her right hand trembled, slight but persistent. She kept it hidden, jammed tight under her right buttock; Don't let her see this either.
The therapist said, “Let's just step back. Describe your -- what you remember.”
“You wanted to say nightmares, didn't you? That's okay; tick the box and collect the Army's check. I won't rat you out; promise.”
“Humor me. Has anything changed?”
“No, still the same; my last mission -- my team's hunting me -- trying to kill me.”
“And why are they trying to kill you?”
“You can't possibly want to hear this again.” Leslie dug fingernails so hard into the hide of the couch that, were it still attached to its original owner, the animal might squeal and buck.
Then she said, “Because they were infected -- by some modified-virus.”
The therapist flipped through a sheaf of patient notes. “And this was at an Antarctic research facility operated by the Herbst Pharmaceutical Corporation.”
She angled her gaze up and over the rims of her glasses, targeting Leslie's eyes with a non-committal stare and said, “They claimed it was an accident with Anthrax spores.”
From that point Leslie zoned-out and let the session drone to its conclusion. Afterward; while strolling back to an unloved job, she cursed, dropping another 'F' bomb in her mind, and wishing for release from court-mandated therapy.
A third of the globe away, on a different hemisphere and in a different time-zone, clocks said it was 06:30 AM. Dense fog barred dawn light from the battleship-gray ocean and the 300 foot vertical face of Sydney's North Head. Inward of the massif -- at sea-level beneath the outcrop known as The Old Man's Hat -- five unlikely figures negotiated scattered sandstone. Clawing winter damp penetrated layers of clothing but they endured its punishing cold, appreciating the fog's concealment value.
The old man took frequent breathers. Abrasive rocks cared naught for the wisdom of age. Two younger men supported him over the worst patches. One carried a satchel, the other an army-disposal duffel bag. Both sacks bulged with angular paraphernalia.
The grandmother experienced less discomfort. Her grief, still raw, inured her. She refused a revenge served cold and accepted no assistance. The men kept an eye out, didn't want her to overreach; No time for twisted ankles. Injury meant water-rescue: an ambulance, paramedics -- and questions.
The fifth, a teenager, scrambled across the rocks with the ease of youth. She accompanied the old man for a decade -- longer than the others -- after he snatched her from the chilly embrace of dead parents.
Corroded mesh sealed a tall crevice, the handiwork of authorities who feared the litigant's specter. Wire-cutters gutted the barrier and underfed frames slipped inside to where feeble morning-light played but a few feet. Beams from six-volt flashlights prodded the greater darkness beyond; a passage deep beneath the Sydney Harbour National Park. The fissure offered ample headroom but they remained wary of its irregular floor. It was no Hollywood sound stage and the rule of caution still applied.
After strenuous climbing their feet planted on a level plane; man-made, concrete, part of the dense and defunct military network built during the 1930s. A patina of dust and dank knew no human traffic for years. A rat fled the terror of torchlight and scuttled away towards the Pacific. Without ascribing meaning to signs or portents they followed the rodent. Twenty minutes negotiating the honeycomb of abandoned artillery galleries put them close to ground level, somewhere beneath the Scenic Drive or the Fairfax Walking Track. Ten minutes more and the claustrophobic passage stopped hard, terminated by crude brickwork; workmanship evidence of hasty construction.
With neither pause nor speech hands felt inside the duffel bag. A few breaths later short-handled sledgehammers assaulted decades-old masonry.
Above ground a 4x4 packed with a rowdy Gen-Y crew passed the Manly Hospital and pulled onto the North Head Scenic Drive. The driver noticed the sun starting to burn off the fog and didn't pay attention when he rounded the bend before North Fort Road and the Artillery Museum. Startled, he stomped the brake-pedal down and the 4x4 fetched up eight centimeters short of a trailer hauling a tracked excavator; the rear-guard of a snaking convoy.
This snake's lead vehicles pulled into an ample clearing in the heath at the furthest extent of the drive; where it looped back on itself. The 4x4 slowed when it neared a stationary Mercedes-Benz; the convoy-snake's brain. Business suits huddled around a laptop computer opened on the Mercedes' hood.
As they decelerated to pass at cruising speed the young people in the 4x4 eyed the adults with that peculiar form of contempt only those under 25 can manifest when regarding their elders. They accelerated into the thinning fog and drove away.
Around the Mercedes all eyes tracked a blinking reticule across a sat-nav map on a laptop computer. The head suit, Nelson Dernier, cradled a satellite phone tight over his right ear. The sole female in his party, Rebecca Huston, looked out of place in glossy five-inch-heels.
Paul Turco, swarthy and mercurial, concentrated on the stationary reticule.
“It's been five minutes. They've not moved.”
His faultless English lilted with the tinge of an accent. Rebecca suspected Italian. Dernier slung the satellite phone over to the third man, Terry Lutz.
Lutz wore his special-forces background like a loud shirt and Rebecca filed him as a possible ally; Sure, I'd dig my nails into those shoulders, if required.
A tracked excavator squealed off its trailer like a recalcitrant bull herded through a stockyard gate. Lutz competed with its diesel roar and yelled into the phone.
“Approach -- but stay hidden.”
She could not hear it through meters of soil, sandstone and concrete, but beneath Rebecca's feet the sledge-hammers belted out a cacophony. Hands not busy swinging hammers protected eardrums. The five stepped back to avoid tumbling bricks, satisfied the resultant opening permitted entry.
In silence they stood like D-Day assault troops waiting for the ramp to drop. The older woman clutched a child's teddy bear. The teenager opened a locket with a picture; a happy child flanked by parents. The younger men rubbed keepsakes like talismans. The old man held a worn photograph of himself, much younger, embracing a woman. The Polaroid’s vintage didn't diminish her beauty clad in a striking red dress.
Venturing through the breach flashlights illuminated a broad chamber. Raw-brick columns supported a vaulted roof. Crumbling waste and odd-sized boxes littered the floor amid discarded bits of lumber and myriad flotsam. Drawing a first breath they recoiled from a revolting odor; sweet decay.
Spreading out they merged torchlight and walked in line-abreast, scanning for a particular shape. They soon found it off to their left, behind a column. Unremarkable rectilinear carpentry was no gilded repose of dead nobility. To other eyes it may have been be a mere shabby old packing-crate.
A propane lamp replaced flashlights which freed hands to dole out the group's arcane equipment. The five functioned like a machine. They performed their rite rarely, yet they were rehearsed -- and driven. Brachial flexors tightened when one young man gripped the box's lid. The females wielded gleaming crucifixes; held them towards the box with arms at full extension. The old man brandished the host in one hand and a hip-flask of blessed water in the other. The other young man poised a sharpened wooden stake above the box and raised a mallet ready to deliver a plunging downward blow.
Behind them a human form rose to its feet. It had lain inert and silent camouflaged by dross and darkness. It's bare feet propelled it into the man with the stake. Thudding impact threw him off-balance, compression punching the wind from his lungs. The teenager shrieked, her jarring report amplified to bell-ringing pitch by the vaulted ceiling. The man retained his grip on the stake and cudgeled his assailant's temple with its broad end. The attacker rebounded from the wild swipe, shaking off the blow.
In the diffuse propane light they made out the shape of a woman; feral, bound in ill-fitting gray skin. Her claggy teeth dangled from black gums. Clear liquid trickled from the fresh wound above her eye. Dark matted hair hadn't looked stylish for decades. Remnants of a dress hung in weathered tatters. Its stained browns and grays might once have been red. The garment failed to conceal a scored body riven with abrasions. Her dead eyes scanned the five living intruders.
Crucifixes came to bear but the old man intervened.
“They won't work. She's a reanimant.”
The gray woman tilted her head when he spoke. Some remnant of personality found his voice familiar. He recognized her even as she snarled. He shied from eye contact. He needed her memory intact; as she had been forty years before, the day his faded Polaroid was snapped.
She focused on the old man; didn't notice a younger one's careful step to her flank. She paid no heed when a different implement was withdrawn from the duffel bag.
Jacking up her rage she lunged for the old man but before she covered half the intervening distance something glinted; whispered through the air. A decade's Ninjutsu training culminated in an effortless sword strike; the cut so clean through her neck it didn't interrupt forward momentum.
Her body continued into the old man before collapsing in spastic jerks. The head bounced once. A shortened Katana hung motionless in the young man's follow-through combat stance. Sticky ooze, from the woman's sheared neck, pooled around the old man's shoes.
Staring at the fleshy ruin his despair found vent in a mournful wail. Tremulous fingers extended towards the woman. But the remains shriveled to a husk while he watched. His companions enclosed him with comforting arms. Through strength of will, he regained his composure and bade them resume their business with the innocuous crate.
They took a single step, almost in unison, when their propane lamp erupted with a glassy pop. A skillful shot extinguished it without threat to its pressurized fuel can.
They heard an unfamiliar masculine timbre.
“Please remain still. We have weapons trained on you.”
The eyes of the five struggled in the darkness. They blinked when laser-sights flashed. Tight clusters of triple red dots -- incandescent sprites -- danced about their chests.
“My name's Doctor Callum. We know why you're here.”
Callum was in notional command but he was a scientist. The fifteen security operatives providing his muscle took their true instructions from Number Two; Jamal Edison, and he reported to the head of Tiryns security, Eric Lutz who commanded from the surface, a few feet above them. The woman's decapitation masked their entrance and night-vision visors gave them the advantage.
Fingers tightened over safety catches when the old man spoke.
“Whoever you are; you won't believe why we're here.”
Callum said, “We know. You want to kill this specimen. But we need it for research.”
The grandmother butted in, unable to contain her rage.
“Research, fuck you! These things murdered my --”
“Can I just stop you for a second,” Callum said, then he listened to his headset. “Yes, I see, okay.”
He gave a curt nod to Edison who then barked.
The teenager's keen ears heard safety catches click from safe, through semi-automatic, to automatic.
She swiveled to flee but fifteen MP9s opened a shredding hail of nine-millimeter exposed steel core. The grandmother died trying to pry the box open: the first bullet exploded an eye before pulverizing her brain. The man with the short Katana stood his ground, a burst stitched across his chest. He was dead before he fell to his knees. His final thought – bliss, emotions at last silenced. The other young man fled but a bullet hit the base of his skull. He died as paralyzed limbs jellied beneath him. The teenager covered the most ground; four meters, before a tight burst left her prostrate, in shock and bleeding. The old man took 23 rounds in the chest before he dropped. He expired staring at the leathery face of his decapitated woman.
Operatives advanced, aiming their MP9s forward, according to strict, tactical doctrine. The teenager twitched, then shuddered for a final time when a burped ten rounds finished her. Edison picked up the old man's Polaroid photo.
Doctor Callum positioned a camera on a tripod; a USB cable ran from it to a computer. Night-vision visors were lifted to foreheads when the crate was blasted by a blistering halogen lamp atop a wobbly stand.
At ground level a new video window opened on the executive computer. Paul Turco saw the fresh bodies of the five.
“Was that necessary?”
“Religious fanatics; they were never gonna' see reason.” Rebecca took perverse pleasure in the bluntness of her answer.
“But to murder them; it's not like they could go to the police.”
“Police we can handle. I didn't want them going to Herbst.”
Callum's face filled the tiny streaming window and his voice sounded tinny from the laptop computer's speaker.
“I'm gonna' check this out. I hope it's what we came for.”
He trotted away from the camera and grabbed the crate's lid.
Turco leaned in to the screen.
“Is that wise?”
“Isn't it supposed to be sleeping?” Asked Callum.
“Wouldn't that much noise wake you?”
“Here.” 30 meters distant Lutz yelled to compete with the excavator's flatulent engine and squealing caterpillar-tracks. He stamped the ground and pointed downwards. A flatbed crane-truck approached carrying a substantial brushed-metal case on its rear tray. The case, four meters long, two wide and as many high, bore the Tiryns corporate logo and looked too glossy and precise for the dreamtime rock and shrubs of North Head.
Callum bent both knees and lifted the lid. Rusted hinges groaned before it flopped open throwing up a curl of dust. He squinted and stared into the dark interior of the crate.
“Hello.” Before his brain could decipher the data his eyes were importing a sooty shadow billowed up from within and encircled him.
Edison watched the doctor's throat open, as if slashed by an invisible blade. He expected a gush of arterial spray but the swirling form absorbed the blood like a grotesque sponge. Edison aimed but held fire; couldn't shoot without hitting the doctor. Callum quivered in the malicious embrace of the dark mini-tornado. He looked comical, like the Tasmanian Devil from a Bugs-Bunny cartoon.
Engorged with the doctor's blood the cloud morphed from fine mist to a glistening sludge; a black chamois soaked in oil. It leaped away from Callum to splash against the nearest wall with a wet slap. Edison riddled the thing with nine-millimeter. Other operatives followed his lead. Blood and dust erupted from the wall.
The nebulous form snapped past their eyes as if a giant rubber band was pulled taut, then released. It obliterated the halogen lamp.
From India-ink black Edison howled a command.
He jerked his down and scanned for a threat axis. Coursing adrenalin spiked his pulse rate as he caught a shutter-speed glimpse of feet and legs lifted into the air; the operative's screams choked out by the loudness of grinding bone. A cut-string puppet body flopped onto the floor. Somebody fired at the ceiling. Edison tried to track the elusive form as it bounded from pillar to pillar.
It dropped onto an operative's head; twisted it off like a spinning top. A depressed trigger finger kept firing. Rounds, sprayed everyhwere; missing the thing but hitting Edison. His Dragon-Skin body armor absorbed all but one bullet. The stray blew out his esophagus and a carotid artery.
The shape latched onto another operative; draining him fast. In less time than one could blink it bounced from operative to operative. It ceased absorbing blood; contenting itself with snapping spines and necks. Panicked survivors abandoned fire-discipline shooting at attacker and victim.
From the ceiling a probing needle of sunlight pierced the darkness, like a spotlight switched on. Night-vision lenses flared out and momentary blindness reigned. A chunk of vaulted ceiling thudded onto the floor. The steel teeth of an excavator took another bite at the roof. Operatives dived clear of dropping debris. Spears of sunlight widened into a phalanx.
Ra caught the slippery cloud. It screeched; burned like match-lit kerosene on water, then fled to its box. The lid whirled up and slammed shut.
The excavator's engine idled while its scoop hovered above the rude opening; an industrial raptor. The four executives stood at the edge peering down. Only three operatives remained alive; one wounded, all in shock. They staggered over a carpet of disjointed corpses. Callum's resembled a well-dressed Egyptian mummy.
Rebecca thought Callum clumsy and impatient; All this for a body in a box.
A containment team in hazmat suits rappelled through the jagged hole. Lutz orchestrated their actions while giving the crane-truck's driver directions via its rear-vision mirror.
“Okay fellas, sweeper teams can clean this up. You just get that crate squared away while there's sunlight.”
The glossy, metal case folded open ready to receive the wooden crate. The hazmat team bound it's planks in chains and hooked it up to the crane.
Nelson Dernier communed with the satellite phone.
“Yes, it's secure but, Callum's dead.“ He listened for eleven more seconds then said, “Got it. I'm on it.”
Dernier hung up and, without lifting his gaze above Rebecca's high-heels, said to her, “Time for plan B. You're off to San Francisco. Recruit that woman; from the Antarctic.”
Dernier spun the phone in his hand and offered it to her.
“You want to argue with the old man?”
Rebecca tapped an impatient shoe then shook her head.
Dernier said, “Her name's Tatum, Captain Leslie Tatum.”