“I can live a normal life,” Jordan said, and then he pulled the trigger.
Man. Husband. Father. It didn’t matter.
It ended in a bang and the sooty smell of gunpowder.
The bullet struck; blood spattered across his Kevlar vest. Before he could squeeze off another, the man grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm violently to the left. Jordan spun around and hit him in the side of the head with the heel of one shoe. Blood smeared red across the sole of his sneaker.
Things became surreal; time slowed down. The second hand on his watch stopped.
Where was I ten minutes earlier?
They say life can change in a flash.
I was talking about college? And now… I’m committing murder.
His life went into rewind while he stood, eyes unblinking. He heard gunfire around him, but he felt as if he watched himself from afar.
His body engaged on autopilot.
His ears rang. Bodies dropped.
Ten minutes ago, Kolin had asked him a question in the quiet of the woods….
“You sure that going off to college to play hockey and study physics is the best way to go about this whole quest of yours?” His British boyfriend’s voice had hovered above a whisper; above the music of crickets in the glade.
“It’s the only way,” Jordan had replied. “Cornell’s the university that’s got everything I need. Hockey’s my ticket. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten in.”
“So you’ve said.”
Dressed in black tactical fatigues, Kolin propped his elbows on a tree trunk almost four-feet wide that had long ago crashed to the forest floor. He peered through a pair of night vision binoculars. The buzz of nocturnal insects and the babble of a brook nearby filled Jordan’s ears. He rested his head against the moss at his back and stared at the stars.
He could no longer hear the crickets.
But the guns got louder and louder. The second hand on his watch started moving again.
Dylan can track the monsters better than anyone. He calls them azghuls.
Jordan finally blinked, but he didn’t see a monster. He saw a man. Blood pulsed from his neck in a thin stream. The pistol shook in Jordan’s hand as he realized what he’d done. With tears clinging to his eyelashes, he came about and fired, blowing the man’s brains out the back of his head. The filthy corpse dropped into the mud and twitched for several minutes; the white eyes darkened.
Six feet behind him, Robbie cried out. The teen fell onto his back with a loud plop. However, Rob still managed to get off a couple of shots. Two bright flashes and his attacker fell down, kneecaps blown and bloody.
Why am I here? Jordan thought, loosely holding his gun. The stars…I was looking at the stars.
Jordan turned his face to the sky.
Where are the crickets? Why is this happening?
He was back at the tree.
Kolin interrupted his thoughts by waving four fingers in front of his face. He understood that Kolin had counted four men. No—correction. He had counted four things that used to be men. It seemed easy now to say that, more so since he had killed one.
Kolin lowered his head to talk with him. “Their meat’s still alive on a chain, but that could change at any time.”
Jordan felt sick. “She’s not meat.”
Kolin gnashed his teeth. “Sorry. That was a bit parky, wasn’t it?”
“This is all new to me,” Kolin continued. “I’ve killed two of these things now. If you need to think of them as beasts to bring yourself to kill them, then do it. I need you to understand that whatever bug that’s wormed its way into their gray matter has changed them. The last one that we came across in Colorado went specifically after you, even though Kat was closer. I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. I think they absorb a bloke’s memories, and your face has been on the NBC Nightly News as well as that other show…” He put finger to chin trying to think of the name.
“Ellen?” Jordan clarified. “That’s the name of the other show.”
Kolin stared at him in silence. “Yes, that one…she dresses like a man. But my point is that there’s plenty of people that know who you are.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wearing pants,” Jordan whispered. “Lots of women do.”
“Listen,” Kolin said, and then paused to make certain he had Jordan’s full attention, “the last one of these things that I killed three days ago even knew your first name. How do you explain that? You know what else he said?”
Jordan shook his head.
“‘Give us the boy who can hear the cry of heaven.’—the fuck that means. At first, I dismissed their language as incoherent babble. But now I think it’s Czech. That suggests this isn’t random if they’re speaking the same tongue, right? The azghuls originate from a specific group of supporters. That means the Horcus has help. But answer me this: where are they coming from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Exactly. And I think that’s something that we should know.” Kolin swung the binoculars from in front of his eyes. They depended from a hinge attached to a head harness. He placed a gloved hand upon Jordan’s right shoulder. “You have a gentle heart, but these aren’t men. Do you understand?”
Jordan trembled. But he remained silent.
These aren’t men….
It bore repeating.
Jordan opened his eyes. In one blink, the present had murdered the past.
He swung the barrel of his gun and shot, emptying what remained in his clip from almost point blank range into Robbie’s attacker. He blew off an ear and a nose. Chunks of flesh sprayed outward mixed with a few pieces of bone. The azghul dropped with a howl, shuddered once, and died. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit.
Do monsters wear suits?
Robbie stared at Jordan from his prone position on the forest floor, face twisted in horror. Jordan couldn’t move; tears streamed down his cheeks. He just stared at all the blood. He squeezed his eyes shut.
I’ve worn a suit. Does that make me a monster?
Ten minutes. My life changed in ten minutes.
Jordan sank to his knees, and warm human blood soaked into his jeans.
Unable to take it anymore, he screamed and covered his face with his hands.
My life changed in ten minutes….
His thoughts fled to the serenity of the fallen tree.
Kolin exhaled through his nose, nostrils flaring. The muscles along his jaw tightened. At last he pointed into the woods. “Circle ’round to where your sister and Robbie are and come at them once you spot me. We can’t have things turn squiffy. They’re stronger and faster than us so remember your training. It’s their mindlessness that’s got me lost. I think there’s something about the people from this world which pose a difficulty for the Horcus.”
“It’s the Black Tower,” Jordan said. “The Light’s stronger here because the Tower’s still whole. I can feel it deep inside me. Sometimes it hurts.”
Kolin stared at him through the night, eyes sober. “If it’s an ache that’s bothering you I guarantee it’s Los Angeles you’re feeling and nothing else.” Jordan knew Kolin simply wanted to remind him of the great time they had during the invitation-only NHL entry draft hosted by the Los Angeles Kings. But it had the opposite effect. That life now seemed a fantasy…like something reserved for normal people.
Jordan had been one of two eligible 18-year-olds picked by the Chicago Blackhawks. In the hockey meat market, competition was fierce. Being picked by the Blackhawks simply meant that Jordan had been optioned; they had two years to sign him. In the meantime, they’d evaluate his performance to the highest standard.
That single honor might have been the biggest influence for his acceptance at the Ivy League school. Of course, he would never know for sure.
It also didn’t change the facts.
Jordan had told Kolin no lie. He could not find the Black Tower without Cornell. True, they had six openings on their team. But they turned down thousands of submissions each semester from people who outscored him on the S.A.T. Literally hundreds of men with dreams of playing NCAA division I ice hockey vied for positions on the Big Red. Some had more experience than Jordan. Others had better records. Jordan would need to prove himself every day, or he wouldn’t be able to look himself in the mirror. Sometimes the stress became so great, it made him throw up.
So far he had managed to keep it all a secret. Even the part where Jordan felt he would die young. Maybe one of the monsters would kill him, maybe something else.
I don’t want to die.
“It seems far away, doesn’t it?” Kolin asked him.
Jordan nodded. “I have to remind myself it happened only eight weeks ago, because I feel as if more than a year has passed.”
“Why do the happy times always fly by so fast?” Kolin asked.
Are there happy times?
“You still see the Black Tower in your dreams don’t you?” Kolin asked him. Jordan stared forward with a blank face; he looked like a kid holding a toy gun. He gave Kolin the briefest of nods. “I suppose it’s possible that it’s doing something,” Kolin said.
“If by ‘possible’ you mean that it’s definitely happening, then sure.”
“But how can you be so certain?” Kolin asked him. “You don’t know anything about how it works.”
“Have you heard of Occam’s razor?”
Kolin clenched his teeth. “No. And spare me some rambling physics explanation. I’m not in the mood.”
“It’s the idea that the simplest solution is going to be the correct one.”
“So you think because you’re not dead that it has to be the Black Tower that’s responsible?”
“It makes the most sense,” Jordan said. “The Horcus is here on Earth. I know that for a fact. That I’m still alive suggests he’s either afraid of me or is unable to find me. Answer truthfully, would you be afraid of me?”
“Precisely my point.”
He no longer spoke of it to Kolin, but Jordan descended steps carved into prehistoric ice every time he closed his eyes. The basalt walls that lay enshrouded somewhere in the bitter wasteland of the world beckoned with chilling whispers. The tower stood in a place where cold forced the mercury in a thermometer to stay at that odd temperature where Celsius and Fahrenheit became the same. Find me, it said and Jordan knew the fate of two worlds depended on his efforts.
Kolin pulled the black mask down over Jordan’s face. The youth practically disappeared into the darkness, save for the pale sheen of irises that stared back at him. Enlarged pupils nearly swallowed those pools of spring blue.
Jordan started off at a crawl. The weight of the silencer made the Glock he carried top-heavy. He propelled himself through the grass on his elbows and knees. He kept his blade-thin body off of the undergrowth and stayed silent as a Navy Seal would have done in ‘Operation Geronimo’ mode.
He circled around the camp. Up ahead, he saw Robbie and Kathy at their post. His friend signaled with a free hand. They all wore identical equipment; Robbie removed his knitted cap once Jordan got closer….
“JORDAN!” Robbie yelled.
Jordan blinked. Gunshots echoed in the wood.
Robbie still lay on his back. He had blood drops and pieces of brain stuck to parts of his face. Blood pooled around Rob’s shoes from the man Jordan had killed.
Jordan’s fingers felt sticky.
“What’s wrong with you?” Robbie sobbed. “Are you okay?”
Jordan didn’t know how to answer that question. Am I okay?
Dylan raced into the clearing with Kathy and said, “I dropped the last one a few hundred feet to the east.” Jordan turned and watched the Nahual as it crept toward the frightened girl. She started to scream as the cat approached. “No,” Dylan commanded. The cat stopped in its tracks. It turned and started to sniff at one of the corpses and then lapped at pooling blood. Jordan vomited to one side as the awful scent of the dead men and their relaxed bowels overcame his sense of smell.
How did I get here? I was talking to Rob ten minutes ago. Jordan closed his eyes and threw up again, feeling the awful tightening in his guts.
Ten minutes ago….
“We’re to move in when Kolin gives the signal.” Jordan whispered.
Kathy swallowed some water from a bottle she wore on her hip. Next to her, Dylan’s Nahual listened. The cat had found the camp and led them to it. The ears on its head pressed flat against the skull.
“Where’s D?” Jordan asked.
“He’s back at the road. He’ll kill any that run from us,” she said.
“Running is unlikely,” Jordan said. “They don’t feel fear like we do.”
Robbie shook his head. He had helmet hair, and it remained pasted in place. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“You asked for this,” Jordan reminded him. Despite the stress on the word in his last statement, he managed to keep his voice low. “I told you everything right after we got back, and it was at your insistence. I trusted you.”
Robbie’s hand quaked. “And I believed you. But J.P., honestly, I was expecting something else. I thought you’d been kidnapped. That’s what you told the authorities—”
“The police wouldn’t have believed us,” Kathy interjected. “This whole thing’s a nightmare.” She wiped her eyes. “First there’s Dustin; now Jess. I’m not going to insult his memory by having people snicker behind our backs. If we’d come clean, they would’ve thought we were on drugs. And there’s no way we could have passed a test to disprove that notion. Not one bit,” she said. Jordan saw her eyes mist over. He never knew what to say when she spoke about Dustin. “They had her committed, you know?”
“Yes,” Robbie answered. “You guys really couldn’t have passed a drug test?”
“Oh hell no,” she said. “Jordy snorted so much coke that I doubt he even has nose hair.”
Jordan glared at her.
“You did coke?” Robbie asked him.
Jordan ignored the question. “Look, I’m sorry, Rob. If I could have sent a message, I would have. But I can’t keep apologizing for this. You know I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Robbie’s eyes fell to his muddy hands. “I’m supposed to be on my way to Boston University…Not killing monsters.”
“And we’ll get you there. Kathy and I are headed in the same direction. But we needed to deal with this first.”
“Where are they coming from?” Robbie asked.
Jordan shrugged and said nothing. He could see Robbie trembling.
“I’m scared,” Robbie whispered.
“I am too.” Jordan reached out and hugged his friend, and Robbie quieted down at the feel of Jordan’s fingertips on his hair. Soon, his heartbeat slowed, and he wiped his runny nose off on a corner of a shirt sleeve.
“Do you think you’ll find it there?” Robbie asked. “It” in this case was a euphemism for “Black Tower.” Jordan knew by the way Robbie inflected the word.
“I don’t know anything for certain,” Jordan admitted. “All I do know is that it’s in a place that’s as cold as a deep freeze. When you look at the planet Earth, there are a lot of places that fit that description—too many miles really. I could search a lifetime and not find it.”
“I wish I could’ve gotten into Cornell. I think you cheated on your S.A.T. No one gets a perfect score on the math section and plays hockey like you do. It isn’t fair.”
“I didn’t cheat,” Jordan snapped. He looked through the trees to see if Kolin had moved from his position yet. The clank of chains emanated from the clearing they had on stakeout. Even if the girl were to escape, the azghuls would only just run her down. “I scored average on the other two sections. My overall score was 500 points lower than Kat’s, and Cornell would have never looked twice at me if it wasn’t for hockey.”
“Why can’t you come to BU? Its reputation’s about equal,” Robbie said.
“Even if I wanted to I can’t change now. I’ve been given a need-based scholarship to an Ivy League school. Do you have any idea what an honor it is for a poor person like me to attend Cornell?”
“It won’t cover all your bills,” Robbie countered.
“It has to,” Jordan said. “Kat’s in the same boat.”
“I don’t mind asking for help, unlike you,” Kathy said. “Dylan worked all summer to help me out, and he’s getting a job in Ithaca. You could ask Kolin.”
Robbie’s expression soured. “I hate him. You’re just fucking him for his money.”
“Stop it.” Jordan leveled a single finger at Robbie’s nose when he said that. “I’m paying my own way with my own money.”
Kathy just shook her head.
If Jordan had one crippling vice, it was pride. In addition, he felt that this quest was his to bear alone. He’d never borrow money if he couldn’t pay it back.
Dead men can’t pay back loans.
Robbie dropped his eyes to his lap. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He paused, obviously weighing his next question carefully. “What’s the Big Red like?”
“They picked me from a lot of other folks so I guess they’re okay. I’ve got a chance to play as a starting forward. Aren’t you at least proud of me? We used to talk about this stuff in middle school.”
“We used to talk about a lot of things,” he muttered.
Jordan had chosen Cornell with care. They owned a particle collider called C.H.E.S.S.—the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source—located under the Upper Alumni Athletic Field. This machine could hurl oppositely charged electrons around counter–rotating paths at a velocity that approached the speed of light.
Jordan intended to use it to find the Black Tower.
In 2003, Dr. Roderick MacKinnon won the Nobel Prize for chemistry using the C.H.E.S.S. for groundbreaking work in explaining how a class of proteins helped to generate nerve impulses—the electrical activity that underlies all movement, sensation, and perhaps even thought. It was impossible to gauge the impact Dr. MacKinnon’s discovery would have on the world of medicine. But Dr. MacKinnon’s research gave Jordan a great idea.
MacKinnon’s use of the C.H.E.S.S. led Jordan to a project overseen by a Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson. This obscure professor had been mapping isotopic signatures contained within millions of years of Antarctic ice cores to create the world’s first comprehensive climate-change model.
On Avalon, Jordan had observed that Kolin’s Geiger counter detected radiation that resulted from the fission of uranium-235. When uranium broke apart, there were many elements formed in the catch all term “nuclear waste.” One of these in particular was a rare earth element called neodymium. Its atomic number was 60 on the periodic table of the elements. All that Jordan had to do was connect the dots. First, he needed ice cores. Well, these had already been gathered by scientists for years, so what he really needed was access to them. Second, Jordan needed a means of detecting an element invisible to a Geiger counter that also had the ability to do so in a relatively short amount of time. C.H.E.S.S. could do this.
It all came together for Jordan once he had time to think about what he had observed.
When Jordan first noted the silver light that emanated from the tiny glass spiders, he had an idea. From Maxwell’s equations, all electronics depended upon the interaction of opposing charges—in a word—magnets. Neodymium magnets were the strongest of their kind, and they could be found in every electronic device from smart phones to digital computers. More importantly, neodymium magnets were also silver in color.
At its heart, Z.E.R.O. was nothing more than a living computer and just like everything else, subject to the laws of the universe. If energy was life, then these magnets were blood. Jordan could use a neodymium footprint in the ice cores to isolate the Black Tower’s location.
No structure, no matter how sound, could survive completely intact buried in miles of glacial ice and not sustain damage. If even microscopic fissures developed, then it’s possible that neodymium could have leaked into the Antarctic water table. Jordan bet everything that once he examined some of the ice samples stored at the Cornell laboratory he would find a few with unusually high concentrations. When bombarded by the confocal x-ray fluorescent microscope, the neodymium contained therein would luminesce in a known frequency that could be tracked and catalogued. All that remained for Jordan to do was impress Professor Wolfson at the head of the climate-change project. If he succeeded, she would more than likely allow him to work as her research assistant….
The sound of Robbie voice recalled him back to the present.
He blinked, suddenly aware he was on all fours and staring at his own puke. Robbie prodded him with his left foot. “Jordan, you’re scaring the shit out of me. Don’t have a nervous breakdown. I need you.”
Jordan turned his head and watched Kolin walk over to the girl.
The Brit stepped over the bodies as if death didn’t bother him.
Jordan wiped his mouth off and pulled his mask down. Then, he reached over and did the same for Robbie using the clean side of his glove. He covered Rob’s face by tugging on the knitted cap. That caused him to stir. “Come on,” he urged, standing up, and Robbie followed.
The girl couldn’t see them. Only Jordan could see in this light without the aid of night vision.
“Don’t kill me…please,” the girl begged—eyes wide and hand stretched out in the darkness. She could see the outline of Kolin’s body and moved to the maximum limit that the chain on her leg would allow.
Kolin took out a flashlight and shone it on her. Jordan turned his head away as the light seared his eyes. The girl covered her face with her hands. She had open sores on her skin, claw marks, and bloody scrapes. Her clothes had been torn, and her face had been bruised and battered.
Kolin aimed his gun at the lock and shot twice, blowing it apart. The girl fell to the ground and sobbed. Kathy stepped forward, face covered, and took the metal restraint from off the girl’s ankle. “You’re safe,” she said.
“I know you feel like shite, but I have questions, and I need answers. Where are you from?” Kolin asked her, his accent thick on his lips. He changed the clip in his gun. The sound of him loading one in the chamber echoed in the silent wood.
“St. Louis,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just want to go home.”
“We’ll drop you off in the nearest town,” Kolin reassured her. “Did the men that held you say owt you might recall?”
“I don’t know,” she said through sobs. “They spoke in a language I didn’t understand.”
Kolin shook his head and grimaced at Dylan. “Bugger this.”
The girl sniffed. “What?”
“He means you know nothing,” Kathy said.
“W-Wait,” the girl stammered. “There’s one thing. They kept saying ‘oculus.’”
Kathy, Dylan, and Kolin looked at Jordan. It was obvious they expected him to say something.
“What?” he asked.
Kolin tapped the Glock against his slender thigh. “What does it mean, mate?” Kolin asked Jordan.
“It’s Latin. It means eye. It could refer to any number of things or even places. It’s too non-specific for me to be sure.”
Kolin cursed. He flicked on the safety and tucked the gun in his pants. “No use pissing around with her anymore. Cover her head and let’s get her back to the truck. She needs medical care.”
Dylan stepped forward and dropped a black hood over the girl’s head. She didn’t resist him at all. The fight had long ago been beaten out of her. “Where’re you taking me?” she asked. Her voice quaked with desperation.
“Home,” Dylan replied. “But most of that journey will be up to you.” He lifted the girl to her feet. Kolin took lead through the wood, and Jordan trailed behind them with Robbie close on the right. Jordan knelt and closed the eyes of one of the men with his fingers.
The Horcus frightened Jordan. As far as he knew, it stole light, color, and life from all things in the world. The servants that they encountered had all been marked like this. For them, all light had failed. They had been left without a soul and lost within complete darkness. And someday soon, Jordan knew it would be coming for him.
He closed his eyes and said, “I can live a normal life.”And then he grabbed the gun he’d used to murder two men and tucked it into his pants.