KLAXONS SCREAMED as Lochlann raced through the darkened corridors, searching out the base intruders. He had a stitch in his side from the bullet wound, but Lochlann was pretty sure it was nothing serious. It just bled like a motherfucker.
It was supposed to be an undercover CIA base, disguised as a sugar-processing plant. In fact it was a working plant, but it functioned mainly as cover, in spite of the tidy profit it raked in. People loved their sugar.
Still, if anyone bothered to check, they’d discover that security for a simple factory was a bit overboard. Also the physical security was cutting-edge technology. It was there, buried within an adjunct storage room—a secret cluster of offices and hallways where the CIA did its business in this country. No, they weren’t supposed to be there, but that was a separate argument.
Lochlann had run what felt like the entire length of the base, and saw no signs of any interlopers. He was about to double back when he came up to the sealed doors that led out to the storage area and saw a small spot of blood on the floor. He was pretty sure Wilson tagged one before he was shot dead.
Lochlann tried to pass through the doors quietly, but they made some noise, and he was greeted with a hail of bullets. Lochlann shot back blindly and darted inside to duck behind a collection of crates. He was sure he was hit again as he felt a wasplike sting on his arm, but he didn’t have time to deal with it. What was an extra bullet anyway? As long as it didn’t slow him down, he didn’t care.
All Lochlann needed was a glimpse of them. He could hit anything he saw, so all he needed was a hint, a shadow in his vision. Bullets hit the crates, and splinters flew, causing him to duck. All he needed was a sliver in the eye.
The smell of gunpowder finally overpowered the strange scent of cooked sugar that permeated the entire grounds of the plant. At first Lochlann had liked it, but then he hated it. If he never had to smell it again, it’d be too soon.
Finally the men had to stop to reload, and that’s when Lochlann made his move. His Beretta in hand, Lochlann stepped out from behind the crates and scanned the room. He caught a glimpse of a shadow behind some large bags of sugar and shot once. The bullet left a puff of sugar behind as it cut through the bags and caught the man in the chest. A second man reared up behind some other crates, and Lochlann shot him in the head before he could fire a single shot.
He caught sight of a man in the shadows, and he almost hesitated, but muscle memory kicked in, and he shot him before he even realized what he’d done. Still, the man sort of looked like that guy he saw in that bar—that “special” bar he accidentally came across while walking back to his apartment a few nights earlier. Lochlann had taken a different way, because he liked to mix it up just to make sure he wasn’t followed. And seeing that bar put a jolt through him. He knew they existed—he even went to one once—but seeing one always terrified him. Like just being in the vicinity of one made him guilty, showed the world he preferred the companionship of men. Lochlann knew he’d lose his job if his superiors had any idea, so he kept to himself and never went out anywhere. But he recalled glancing inside the bar and catching the eyes of a dark-haired, dark-eyed man who was so beautiful… and so tempting.
He hadn’t been able to run away fast enough.
Lochlann wondered if it was the same man—if it was coincidence or something else—but he didn’t bother to go see if the man was indeed a match. He simply scanned the darkened room, looking for any more gunmen, but it seemed like he got them all. Score one for him.
Lochlann was halfway across the room when he realized how light-headed he was. It was almost pleasant, except it got worse, and he looked down at his arm. The bullet had passed right through it, which he sort of suspected. But then it had gone through his torso and put another hole in his side. You’d think he would have felt that, but no, somehow he hadn’t.
He collapsed to his knees on the poured-concrete floor, which hurt, but distantly, as though he were already removed from his body. Lochlann tried to avoid falling on his face, but his arm didn’t work quite right, and he did it anyway. Since he still felt removed from himself, it didn’t hurt like it should have.
Lochlann was cold and numb, but weirdly enough, it didn’t seem so bad. He was suddenly aware he wasn’t alone in the room, but he wasn’t sure what he could do about it. “Here we are again, Lochlann,” a deep, familiar voice said. “You never learn, do you?”
Lochlann looked up to see a man in an anachronistic gray robe, his face half shadowed by his hood. His eyes were like polished stones, his lips thin and taut. He could have been fifty or five hundred or any number in between. But just seeing him gave Lochlann a cold shock down his spine and through his body, as though a ghost had passed over his grave.
He didn’t understand it or what he could have been doing there. But when he went to push himself up, he found he was looking down at his body on the floor. “You’re dying,” the man said. “Are you really surprised, Brute?”
Lochlann wasn’t, although he wasn’t sure why the costumed old man was there, or why he instinctively hated him. Until it felt like something snapped in his mind, a dam broke, and he suddenly remembered…
Lochlann remembered standing in the ruins of his village, up to his ankles in mud and blood, the cottages smoking ruins, the bodies already beset by flies and dogs. He was gone hardly three days on a hunt, and it didn’t seem possible that his home could be wiped out so fast. He briefly considered burying the dead before he discovered it wasn’t just some of his village that was slaughtered. It was all of them—from the oldest man trampled by horses to a baby ripped in half like a loaf of bread. The cruelty of this senseless act was bottomless.
There was a survivor—the old witch woman who lived in the forest—who told him of strangers from the sea who slaughtered everything in their path. If they had known of her, out there in her isolation, they’d have probably killed her, but they were unaware and never found her.
From then on Lochlann made it his mission to hunt the bastards down to make them pay for what they did. But he was one man—and a young, impetuous man, at that. He didn’t have the experience or the financial means to do it, no matter how hard he tried. He lurked at the seaside, hoping to take passage on a boat and travel to their lands. But his reputation preceded him, and most captains wouldn’t let him on their craft. One night, in the shadows of a tavern, he encountered a man named Moriel. “They call you the Brute, do they not?” The old man in the hooded robe seemed grimly amused, and his eyes were as hard and cold as marble.
Lochlann shrugged. He was a little drunk, but not so soused he didn’t sense what the man was going to ask him. He’d been approached by people before who wanted him to kill for them. “I’m not for hire.”
“Even if I knew where the men you are hunting were? And could take you to them?”
Lochlann glared at him and grabbed him by the collar of his rough-hewn robe. “How could you—” He got no further. The man pushed him back with more force than he ever could have anticipated, and when Lochlann hit the ground, he was someplace else. They were someplace else.
For a second Lochlann thought it was the drink. He genuinely tried to believe that, but he wasn’t drunk enough to deny the feeling of smooth stone under his hand or the smell of scented smoke in the air, replacing the gut-clenching stench of sea salt and dead fish. They’d gone from the alley behind the tavern to some sort of throne room, or perhaps a cave. He wasn’t sure; the lighting was sparse. “You’re a wizard.” Lochlann hadn’t really believed in such things. The old woman hadn’t been a witch. That was just an old wives’ tale. But there was no other explanation, was there? His mind reeled, and he desperately wished he was drunker.
“My name is Moriel, and I have a proposition for you. Swear an oath to serve me, and I will give you the revenge you desperately seek. You will never want for anything again. In this life and all others.”
“All others?” Lochlann repeated. That felt like a trap, but he couldn’t quite suss it out. “What does the oath require?”
“A signature in blood. Nothing else.”
That seemed wrong. But if he were in fact a wizard, he could give him the men who had gotten away. They would finally pay for their crimes. It wasn’t like Lochlann had anything else. His family was dead. His village was dead. He was an orphan in the world, with no one to miss him or mourn him when he was gone. He might as well be dead already. “What’s in it for you?”
Moriel smiled, but it was a nasty little smirk, as cold and sharp as a knife. “To gain the throne I require loyal knights. Once you get your revenge, I expect you to serve me.”
“And do what?”
“What you do so well, Brute. I’ve seen your work. You are an efficient killer. No wasted effort with you. That would be quite useful.”
Lochlann didn’t like that at all. If he was indeed a wizard, there was no way he was good. But Lochlann was hardly good either. He’d killed a dozen men. His hands might as well be permanently stained red. Yes, he did it for revenge, to make them pay for their crimes, but it didn’t bring back the dead. It just gave him a hollow feeling when it didn’t give him the feeling of triumph he so badly wanted. It seemed like vengeance was a hole that simply got bigger and could never be filled, no matter how many bodies you threw in it. “Is this oath forever?”
Moriel made a small noise in his throat. He was in front of a low table with a quill pen and a piece of parchment on it, lit only by a small red candle. The table hadn’t been there before, but Lochlann never saw him set it up. Were they even in the same room? “That’s up to you, isn’t it? Always there will be one person, one enemy you can spare to break the contract.”
“How will I know this person?”
“You won’t. So choose wisely.”
In his mind’s eye, Lochlann saw the pretty face of one of the invader’s sons who had been part of the raid as a “learning experience.” When Lochlann tracked him down to that dockside bar, he seemed miserable and somewhat remorseful about what he’d done. Lochlann had killed him anyway. He could see his startled face, splashed with blood, and understood that he had been the one he should have spared. But there was no way in hell that was going to happen.
This sounded insane. It was insane. But Lochlann had nothing to lose. He was barely a person—more of a nasty fairy tale told to scare bad children. He would die bloody or drunk. Possibly both. There was no way he could make his life worse.
Lochlann pulled out his short sword and ran it across his left forearm, opening a cut. He put the sword on the table, picked up the quill, dipped it in his wound, and made a mark on the paper. At first it didn’t look like anything was written on the paper, but as soon as his blood touched it, the parchment filled with words and runes, arcane symbols that might mean something to men much smarter than him. By the time he put the pen down, Lochlann felt a tingling in his left arm. He looked down to find the wound had not only healed, but there appeared to be a red mark in its place that looked for all the world like a broken sword.
“Wise choice, Lochlann,” Moriel said.
But even though he felt powerful, Lochlann was sure it was a mistake. But too late.
“WHAT THE hell…?” Lochlann, suddenly back in the storage area of the sugar plant, watched himself bleeding out on the floor. That couldn’t have been real, right? Except it was. He remembered everything, including dying a dozen times, maybe more. Each time killing for a cause, whether it be as high-minded as protecting a nation’s political interest or as basic as want of money. It was a cruel joke, repeated over and over again until it became nothing but a rote tragedy. “I killed him?”
Moriel pointed to the dead body in the shadows. “You always do.”
“Stop this,” Lochlann demanded. “You got what you wanted. Free me from my oath.”
Moriel folded his hands in front of him like a peaceful monk. “The power to break this contract is yours alone. Make better choices and free yourself.”
Lochlann snarled at the wizard and lunged for him, but it was pointless. He was not physically there. In fact maybe it was all some bizarre hallucination kicked up by his dying, desperate brain.
Except Lochlann knew it wasn’t. And even though he knew he would live again, he didn’t want to.
But no matter what Moriel claimed, that power was out of Lochlann’s hands.
LOCHLANN KNEW the mission had gone bad the second before Anze came over his earpiece and said, “We’ve been comp—” The rest of the sentence disappeared in a burst of static.
Not that it mattered. He knew what Anze was trying to say. And yet he barely quickened his pace as the emergency siren ripped through the building. Hoping security hadn’t been shut down yet, he ran Dr. Waters’s ID keycard through the door scanner. It beeped, and the light turned green as the lock released with a faint clunk. He opened the door and ducked inside as lights pulsed on the walls.
He was in the lowest level of the Kishigawa Pharmaceuticals building in Prague, which was actually a needless detail, as the building could have been any one of the two dozen or so Kishigawa Pharmaceutical buildings across the globe. The layouts were cookie cutter, exactly the same, which made it easy to find points of entrance and egress. But getting into the building was never the hard part of any operation. Getting what they came for and leaving were the issues.
He was on the second sublevel, which, according to the official records, was an empty storage area but was actually a secret lab, cooking up a biological weapon that made sarin gas seem like hot sauce. Alpha wanted to get the formula before Dr. Laska put it on the open market. That was Lochlann’s job—to neutralize the creator and retrieve the only known sample of the finished product. And get out alive, which was the biggest challenge.
A lab assistant wearing thick glasses ran up to him. “Dr. Waters, do you know what’s going on?”
He was supposed to neutralize any witnesses. He had his Glock 30SF and his tactical knife, or he could simply punch the assistant in the larynx and kill him with a single blow. He would be neither the first nor the last innocent bystander Lochlann had killed.
So why didn’t he?
“Fire,” he said, jerking his head back toward the door. “Evacuate immediately.”
The assistant looked confused as Lochlann continued down the corridor. “Sir, what about you?”
“I’ll be right there. I have to get Dr. Laska. Go outside.” The comms were off. That burst of static that cut off Anze sounded like a jamming signal. If you couldn’t receive, you couldn’t send either. So officially none of it ever happened.
Laska’s lab was at the end of the hall. It was an airtight room with its own filtration system and its own inner airlock. No one ever asked why Dr. Laska needed those precautious. It was an idiosyncrasy everyone tolerated without knowing the reason behind it.
Dr. Laska’s assistant, Tinordi, turned to face him as Lochlann entered the room. “Dr. Waters, you’re not—”
Lochlann punched Tinordi square in the throat, crushing his larynx and windpipe. He crumpled to the floor and made terrible rasping sounds in lieu of breathing. He had to die—he worked on the project—but at least he’d die fast.
Laska was in his inner lab with his back turned to the outer chamber. That allowed Lochlann to cycle the airlock without being noticed. In there he couldn’t hear the emergency alert siren, which seemed like a tragic oversight. Laska would never know.
Once the airlock irised open, Laska, without turning around, said, “Bring me a number three flask, would you?” Laska assumed Lochlann was Tinordi. He didn’t know his assistant was dead in the adjoining room.
Lochlann didn’t answer immediately. He pulled out his Glock first. “I’m not your assistant.”
The strange voice made Laska spin on his heels, and he froze the second he saw the gun. His small eyes narrowed until they almost disappeared into the soft, white moon of his face. “Who do you work for? The Russians? The Chinese?”
Lochlann didn’t answer. Instead he fired, put a neat hole in Laska’s forehead, and blew his brains over the white wall behind him. Crimson bloomed messily and dripped down the wall, while grisly chunks splattered to the ground. Laska crumpled like a marionette that just had its strings cut. Lochlann stepped over the body and made his way to the wall safe, where the sample dubbed “formula X213” was stored.
Alpha had infiltrated Laska’s home and business computers a while before. The tech team had stolen all data on the formula and destroyed it, damaging the research from the inside out. They knew the safe code and all Laska’s other codes, because when Alpha targeted you, you were as good as dead in every sense of the word.
The safe opened with a pneumatic hiss, as it was temperature controlled, and Lochlann found the formula inside a vacuum-sealed thermos. He held it in his hand as he scanned the room and saw the incinerator in the corner.
A huge metal box, plastered with warning stickers, it used microwaves and intense heat not just to bake an object, but essentially to vaporize it and leave barely even a char mark. That was how Laska got rid of his previous failed formulas and kept industrial spies from taking even the tiniest samples of his work. Nothing survived that incinerator, not even clues.
Why did Alpha want formula X213? At the briefing, Number One instructed them to wipe out all records of it, along with the scientist who created it. It was too deadly. A teaspoon of the stuff could kill everyone in a crowded mall, and in the open it could contaminate soil, air, and water for decades. But they wanted the sample. Yes, they had the formula, so they could make it themselves, but there was something tricky about the mixture. He didn’t know what. He didn’t need to. He was a field operative, not a tech.
The operation had never felt right to him. Alpha had plans for it, and he didn’t trust Alpha. They were supposed to be the good guys, but questions had been eating at him since the Rome incident. Alpha worked in deception. Could anything that relied on obfuscation be exactly what it seemed?
Before he could think about what he was doing, he went to the incinerator, dropped the thermos in, and activated it. He had to step back because the heat it shed was impressive, and the noise it made, while brief, was incredibly loud… which might have explained why Laska’s lab was soundproofed.
He had no idea what he was going to say to Number One, but he’d figure it out. Working for Alpha had made him an excellent liar.
He planted the explosive charge and shed his lab coat and fake Dr. Waters ID. Then he grabbed Dr. Laska’s security badge from his bloodied corpse and left the lab. Lochlann kept up his normal stride, as though he were leaving at the end of a shift, but he still had his gun out, held casually down at his side in his left hand. According to his trainer, he was one of the rarest of people—a truly ambidextrous shooter. He could use either hand with virtually the same results.
Lochlann met no one on his way to the exit. He’d have to kill anyone he encountered. The exit door had a security lock, and there was a chance that, if they’d locked the entire system down, it wouldn’t open even for Laska’s high-clearance badge. Hopefully the interruption to the comms hadn’t completely locked Alpha out of the building’s systems.
The first time he ran the badge through the lock, it made a negative noise and the light stayed red. He ran it again and got the same response. Lochlann counted down in his head the time remaining to detonation as he ran the badge a third time and it worked. The light flashed green, and the lock released with a clunk. He flung it open and was out in the subterranean parking lot within five seconds. And despite the low lighting, he knew he wasn’t alone.
Lochlann ducked behind an SUV as the first shots rang out. Then he pulled himself beneath the vehicle to get a better look at his assailants. They seemed like building security, standard rent-a-cops, but he knew the look, and the price of the hardware they were using. The fact that most of them seemed to be former mercenaries suggested they were on a much bigger payroll. In all he guessed five, with more probably on the way.
He saw one with a bald pate that glowed in the security lighting rise up from behind a Jeep, and from upside down on his back, Lochlann shot him. He wasn’t sure if he’d get him from that distance, but the guy’s head exploded into gore, and angry shots from his friends followed. Lochlann shoved himself out from under the SUV as it rocked under the hail of bullets that punched through its side and shattered its windows.
He was already on the move, crawling behind a van as he tried to get a bearing on the other shooters by sound. Everything echoed crazily in the parking garage, and loud gun reports helped no one, but they were making other noises as well—loud cursing, spent casings bouncing on the asphalt, static crackles and hisses from radios. They were still firing at where he had been, but he was long gone. Were they trying to make the SUV explode? Despite what action movies wanted people to believe, that was close to impossible. There were too many safety features and fail-safes in current car manufacturing. But he appreciated them wasting their ammo and giving away their positions so casually.
Lochlann twisted a side mirror around until he could get a glimpse of the shooters or at least of their muzzle flashes. One got brave and decided to dash out from his hiding place behind a Range Rover and get closer to him. Just using the mirror as his guide, Lochlann aimed his gun over the hood, fired, and caught him high left-side torso. He went face-first to the ground, and his gun spun away beneath another car. He didn’t move again.
Lochlann heard the thrum of a motor, a car driving at a reckless speed, and he hardly had time to wonder if it was friend or foe before new shots pinged off the support pillars and slammed into the cars near the mercenaries, driving them back to shelter. From his vantage point, Lochlann could see a deathly pale Anze—who was never used to field work—with a death grip on the steering wheel, and Inga hanging out the passenger side as she sprayed their opponents with a semiautomatic machine gun. “Come on, asshole,” she shouted. Lochlann had no idea if she were yelling at the mercenaries, him, or Anze. Could have been all of them. Inga was that type of person.
Lochlann had lost track of the countdown, but he was sure it wouldn’t be long. The explosive was enough to take out the sublevel and no more, but it was unclear what kind of blowback they’d get in the underground garage. There’d be a shock wave, and it would be lethal at a certain distance, not even counting shrapnel.
Lochlann strolled to the car, taking shots at the gunmen who shot back randomly as they did their damnedest to avoid Inga’s wild spray of bullets. She wasn’t aiming carefully, and she didn’t have to. If those men were still there when the bomb went off, they were likely dead anyway.
As soon as he got in the backseat, he said, “Punch it.”
Anze threw the car so violently into reverse Lochlann thought the transmission might fall out, and the tires smoked and squealed. He whipped around so hard and so fast that he rear-ended a sedan and set off its car alarm, but Anze didn’t even glance back as he wrenched the steering wheel like it was fighting him and took off like a shot, back the way they’d come.
“When did you set the charge?” Anze shouted. Lochlann ducked as bullets shattered the rear windshield and covered him with broken glass. He didn’t bother to shoot back. No point.
Anze whipped them around the curve so hard and so fast the car fishtailed slightly, and they could hear what amounted to a muffled whump behind them, but more importantly, they could feel it, like the world shuddered. Explosions were either very loud, or surprisingly much quieter than one would ever think. It wasn’t the sound waves that were the problem. It was the shock wave.
They screamed through the parking garage as fast as the stolen, late-model European car could go, and behind them, what looked like a growing dragon of smoke, a wall of black that started far away, grew distressingly closer.
Inga beat on the dashboard, like that would help. “C’mon,” she screamed as she looked out the back.
It was probably the curves that saved them. The shock wave traveled in straight lines, but the garage didn’t move, and the wave blasted through objects and filtered down the road behind them. They had just about reached the exit when what was left of the blast hit the car, slammed it out of the garage, and sent it into a spin on the connecting road. Somehow the car stayed on its tires, and while they crashed into a parked car on the opposite side of the street, they weren’t hit by any other cars. Perhaps because it was two thirty in the goddamn morning.
As soon as the car stopped rocking, Inga laughed. Anze still gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. Lochlann sat up and looked out the shattered back window at the garage. The serpent of black smoke poured out of the garage entrance, where the security gate hung twisted off to one side. He couldn’t even recall them hitting it, but they must have.
“Thanks for the lift.” Lochlann brushed shattered glass out of his hair, which made Inga laugh harder.
“Would you stop that?” Anze snapped. “We almost got killed.”
“Horseshoes and hand grenades,” Lochlann said. Once you were in Alpha, you didn’t even need to fill in the whole cliché. The main points would do.
He opened the back door as a heavily armored black car pulled up—a genuine Alpha extraction vehicle. The passenger door opened, and the big, burly form of Braddock scowled down at them. “You cut that close.”
“Things went five-oh,” Lochlann said. Five-oh was slang for cops, sure, but it was also code in Alpha for things becoming a shitshow. “What happened?”
Braddock shrugged, which meant he didn’t know or didn’t care. “Got a jet waiting for us. Let’s move.”
Lochlann got in the back of the vehicle without comment. Inga did too. She squeezed herself in the passenger seat up front and carried the submachine gun, even though she’d already emptied it. Anze got out last and joined him in the back, whispering something under his breath over and over again. Lochlann eventually made it out. “I’m a tech. I’m a tech.” As if that were enough to protect him from death. He wondered how Inga had convinced him to drive. Lochlann patted Anze on the back and made him jump. “Good job.”
Anze gave him a queasy smile, and Lochlann wondered if Anze was going to lose his lunch all over the backseat. He hoped he cranked open the window first. He’d dealt with enough toxic substances for one day.