Authors: Roderick Gordon,Brian Williams
Having sprouted two pairs of legs and a muscular tail, its appearance bore more than a passing resemblance to a tadpole making the transition into a frog. Only no lily pad could have supported this brute’s weight; measuring more than three feet from tip to tail, it was more on a par with an overgrown Gila monster.
And as the Warrior larva had grown, building up reserves of protein for its impending pupation, food was all it thought about. It slept only sporadically, nearly every minute of its day spent trying to satisfy its insatiable hunger.
So when the Warrior larva chanced upon a pool of warm blood that had seeped under the doors to the warehouse, it began to lap at it energetically with its gray, darting tongue. The regular meat deliveries were all well and good, but not a touch on living or freshly killed quarry. Having licked the concrete floor clean, it began to investigate the source of the blood.
Like a dog outside a pantry, it scampered up and down as it probed the gap under the doors with its tongue. As the larva’s olfactory receptors picked up traces of the body on the other side, blood-flecked drool leaked from its maw. It snorted in frustration. It didn’t know how to get at the juicy meal and had begun to scuttle up and down again when it bumped into one of the doors. It observed how the unlocked door hinged open a fraction.
The Warrior larva paused for a moment, its slitted black pupils considering the barrier in its way. Then it began to ram its head against the door. The larva battered it harder and harder, until there was finally enough room for it to squeeze through. And it couldn’t believe its luck as it surveyed the dead Limiter stretched out on the floor. The door had swung shut again behind it, but the Warrior larva didn’t care — it had no intention of communicating its find to its sibling brothers. Keeping the whole body to itself was far too tempting.
It began to gorge itself on the delicious corpse. It was oblivious to its surroundings while it nipped off strips of flesh from the Limiter’s face with its needle-like teeth and gulped them down.
The minibuses parked at the rear of the two-story building, and everyone clambered out and followed Parry inside. Eddie and one of his men were waiting for them in a room filled with cardboard boxes. Will looked for Elliott, but there was no sign of her.
“Your Old Guard have the factory surrounded. We haven’t seen anything to suggest that anyone inside is aware of our presence yet,” Eddie reported to Parry. “And we’re ready to lock down the whole estate.”
“Perfect,” Parry said. “Go ahead and seal the place. From now on, nothing goes in or out.”
Eddie spoke to his man in Styx. After he’d hurried off, Eddie addressed Drake and the rest of the party. “The floor below is a half basement used for storage. I’ve established it as one of four Objective Rally Points for the Old Guard. You can see the target location from there, but don’t venture too close to the windows.” He turned back to Parry. “And my surveillance team is waiting for you on the roof, Commander.”
“Excellent — I’ll come and take a dekko. But first I want to hear from Celia,” Parry said, swiveling to Mrs. Burrows. “That thing you do — can you do it from here? Because I need you to tell me what’s over the road.”
Mrs. Burrows nodded, then tipped her head back. Will heard Stephanie’s sharp intake of breath as his mother’s eyeballs rotated upward so that only the whites were showing.
“People . . . humans . . . maybe five hundred and fifty . . . no, more, I think. Maybe six hundred — I can’t tell precisely,” Mrs. Burrows said.
“And Styx?” Parry asked.
“Yes . . . but not many. I don’t know . . . three dozen or more?”
“It would be helpful to know the exact number,” Parry pressed her.
A bead of sweat broke from Mrs. Burrows’s hairline and trickled down the center of her forehead. “It’s no good — I’m getting jumbled signals,” she whispered. Then a shudder ran through her as her eyes suddenly righted themselves. For a moment she seemed to be in a daze, then she turned to Parry. “This is strange — it’s as though I can’t tune in.”
Parry stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Don’t worry — you’ve given me enough of a confirmation. All those people must have been bused in for the breeding program. What else would they be doing there?” He started toward Eddie. “Even if there’s a full regiment of Limiters inside, we’ve got to get the job done.”
“No, wait!” Mrs. Burrows said sharply. “You don’t understand — there’s something in there that doesn’t
me to find it. Something more than Styx. Something dark.”
Parry merely nodded.
“OK, everybody downstairs with me,” Drake said to Will and the others.
Eddie held up a hand. “Before you go . . . Elliott’s in the rooftop Observation Post, and if it’s all right with you, she’s made a request.”
“What’s that?” Drake said as Will and Chester exchanged glances. They both began to move toward Eddie, believing that Elliott would want them with her.
“She’s asked that Stephanie join her up there,” Eddie said.
Will froze as he heard Chester whisper, “Wha —?”
Once up on the flat roof, Stephanie and Parry kept low as they approached the parapet with Eddie. The former Limiters were there in force and had strung a light blue camo net a few feet above the parapet so that their silhouettes wouldn’t be outlined against the sky.
“Commander,” Harry Handscombe said when Parry ducked under the camo net, and they shook hands vigorously. “Piece of luck, wasn’t it — me locating the target so early in the running?”
“Certainly was,” Parry said, smiling at his old friend. “But not so lucky that you almost got yourself slotted by those Darklit troops. I never asked you to stick your neck that far out, you know.”
Harry would have shaken his head if he’d been able, but instead gave Parry a wry grin. “Enough of the neck jokes, you old reprobate!”
Parry moved to the edge of the roof, his binoculars in hand. He checked the position of the pale sun to make sure there’d be no telltale reflection from his lenses before he began to scrutinize the factory opposite. “Ah, yes, there they are,” he said under his breath when he located the Limiters and New Germanian guards patrolling the parking area.
Stephanie had been standing back from the parapet, not sure what she was meant to be doing, when Elliott beckoned her over. As she crept to Elliott’s side, Stephanie eyed all the former Limiters with some trepidation.
“Don’t mind them. They may look pretty spooky, but they’re on our side,” Elliott confided in her.
“Cool,” Stephanie swallowed, then frowned at Elliott. “But why do you want me here? Your two boyfriends are, like, gagging to be with you.”
“Back in the Complex you told me that you could deal with anything. So here’s your chance to prove it.” Elliott wasn’t being confrontational, and Stephanie recognized this as the girl continued to speak. “In a moment, we’re going to neutralize every single living thing outside that building opposite.”
“Neutralize?” Stephanie said.
Elliott inclined her head. “We’re going to snipe all those men as quickly and as cleanly as we can. Will you help me?”
“Is this some sort of sisters’ thing?”
“If you want to call it that.” Elliott shrugged. “I never had a sister.”
“You want me to shoot people, too?” Stephanie asked, glancing at Elliott’s long rifle, which she’d camouflaged with white tape and now had a chunky silencer affixed to the end of the barrel.
“No, I want you to spot for me,” Elliott said, indicating the scope beside her. “I’m relying on you to get a fix on the guards’ positions, because when we open fire from up here, we can’t afford any slipups. If one of them raises the alarm, we lose the element of surprise.”
“OK, I suppose I could do that,” Stephanie said, going over to the scope.
Will was surprised by the sheer number of Old Guard present in the dimly lit basement. Although their faces were obscured by ski masks, he sensed the nervous expectation that hung over them as they chatted quietly among themselves.
“Shotguns?” he asked as he noticed what some of them were carrying.
“We don’t know what’s waiting for us across the road,” Drake explained. “For close-quarters combat, a semiauto twelve-bore is right on the money.”
“And what are those tanks they’ve got?” Chester asked, observing that a number of men had twin cylinders on their backs.
“Flamethrowers, for the final stage of the offensive,” Drake replied. “You see, simply leveling the target building doesn’t cut the mustard. Things have a way of surviving in air pockets under the rubble. We really don’t want any of the Warrior grubs — if they’re actually in there — to crawl out after we’ve left the scene. If a single one were to get loose, it could find more humans and . . . we’d be back where we started.”
“I see,” Chester said, while Will and the others listened.
“There’s no alternative but to get inside and do the job up close and personal. We have to make sure nothing is left alive,” Drake continued.
“You mean kill
?” Mrs. Burrows interjected. “What about the humans I sensed in there — they could be Colonists or innocent Topsoilers who through no fault of their own have got caught up in this. Can’t we decondition them with Danforth’s Purger, then take th —?”
“Not going to happen,” Drake cut her short, his face grim. “We don’t have that luxury. This operation is all or nothing — we have to stop the Phase in its tracks, whatever it takes.”
Mrs. Burrows started to object, but Drake had moved away to speak to Parry over a private frequency on his radio headset. Once the conversation was finished, Drake returned. “Everybody’s in position around the target building, and we’re on the final countdown.” He swung his Bergen from his back. “I want you all to strip down to tactical kit — weapons and ammo only. Stow everything else here. Then you can watch the first stage from the windows.”
Armed with their Stens, Will and Chester went to the front of the basement and stood on tiptoe to peer through the dusty windows.
“Bloody Limiters,” Will growled as he saw a pair of them at the gates. “They look like they own the place.”
“Those other men — do you reckon they’re New Germanians?” Chester said.
Will gave Colonel Bismarck a glance as the man watched from another window. Some of the soldiers over the road were his troops from the inner world, and Will wondered what the Colonel thought about Drake’s no-prisoner policy. Will also knew that if the Colonel hadn’t been shocked from his Dark Light programming by the explosion in the city, right now he could be one of those brainwashed soldiers patrolling the factory.
His thoughts were interrupted by Parry’s voice coming over the headsets. “Alpha, I say, Alpha,” he enunciated clearly, initiating the first stage of the operation. “Remove the designated targets on my mark.” He paused for a beat, then began to count down. “Five — four — three — two — one — FIRE!”
There wasn’t a sound, but the men Will could see in the parking lot simply dropped from sight.