Sympathy for the Hellhound (and the Broken Winged Bird)
Sometimes, Harold Finch thought dismally, you really do just have to sit back and evaluate your life choices.
The blessing and the curse of a high powered but meticulous mind forced on him certain obligations and responsibilities, not the least of which was to be ever aware of the risk of turning to evil; as easy to do by accident as it is by design. Finch was, therefore, a man who performed ruthless self audits with clockwork regularity, if only so he could genuinely claim that it didn’t happen out of sheer laziness or thoughtlessness.
No, if Harold Finch was going to, as they say, screw the pooch, he was going in with full awareness of the facts, nothing less.
Finch surveyed the room again through his glasses, but it did not become any less overbright with harsh fluorescents, it did not become any less damp, cold, concreted, stuffy or stale, the chair he sat on became no less roughly wooden and he, alas, remained absolutely, totally naked.
Life choices, the grim voice of his common sense cut in. Think on them.
The steel door across from his opened with a clang. Finch didn’t jump, but he smoothed his face into a bland nothing for his visitor.
She was a tall woman; over six feet barefoot, and more in the stiletto boots she wore. Long ringlet infested dark hair spilled over white silk all the way to the back of her knees and playfully wisped around sharp brown eyes and full red lips undercut by a sharp chin. Between the beauty in the white dress and boots and his nakedness, this could quite possibly be the most laughable porn scenario ever conceived and that bar is high.
“You,” the woman gave him a friendly, warm smile, quite at odds with the disdain in her eyes. “Are a hard man to find.” Her eyes raked his somewhat lacking physique. “And not much worth the wait.”
If she expected his to be rattled by the loss of his dignity, she had clearly never had major spinal surgery in a teaching hospital before. Finch sat, unbowed, unflinching and uncovered, for what would shielding himself prove, except that her tactic of humiliation was working?
He lost no ground before her. He neither sought her respect nor valued her opinion of him. So he merely raised any eyebrow and replied “Logically speaking, I should have been quite easy for you to find, madam. Anybody who sees the future can simply put themselves in the path of the future they want.”
She scowled prettily. “And what would you,” she sneered. “A man know of precognition? Let me give you a hint,” she leaned forward, eyes suddenly boiling with fury. “Only. Women. Can. Be Oracles. There, now. Is that really so difficult to grasp?”
Finch sighed, internally. It was true; precognition usually favoured women over men, with a few notable exceptions. And all precognitives joined the League of Delphi, though ‘joined’ is such a voluntary word. Theoretically they did have a choice, but the other choice was a nasty one.
And Oracles were powerful; even considering the fact that the world was populated with supernaturals, preternaturals, psychics and other extraordinary miscellanea. A seething hodge podge of myth and technology, science and magic, where phoenixes, furies and feys rubbed shoulders with seers, psychics and scientists, and often rubbed each other the wrong way, the Oracles – with little offensive capabilities compared to most – were the ones that steered the world.
Or, so they told themselves.
“I am not an Oracle, Delphi Alpha,” Finch told her patiently. “I have no desire to be one. You have no quarrel with me.”
“How are you doing it?!” She shrieked, all patience gone. The Delphi Alpha of New York was not used to this. She spoke, others acted. That was how it worked. No one defied an Oracle. “How are you saving them? Every time we have visions of people dying and every time we see a shadow of you, changing their fates.” She walked left and right, agitated. “Changing their fates. With no regard to the ripples that it causes, the consequences! You are meddling in the very fabric of destiny! You risk tearing it asunder! You cannot simply change a person’s fate on a whim, do you understand? It is inviolate, inevitable!”
And not knowing it makes you look bad, Finch added sardonically. “Madam, logically, if their fate is inviolate and inevitable, then surely it is fate that they survive? After all, that is what happened to them. I submit to you that whatever your Seers Saw in the futures of whatever people you are questioning me about, it was not inviolate, and certainly not inevitable.”
“How do you find them?” The Delphi Alpha demanded shrilly. “How? You have a pet Oracle, don’t you? Some woman or child you are keeping from her rightful home? I demand to know where she is! And be glad I’m just questioning you here! If I’d turned you over to the authorities...”
“They would have found no evidence, and therefore released me,” Finch broke in coolly. “And I would have sued you for harassment and false imprisonment. I may still, come to that.” An empty threat, really. One doesn’t sue the Mafia. They have no sense of humour.
“Do you even know who you are dealing with?”
Finch remained silent; though her records flashed in front of his eyes as his excellent memory brought them to the foreground of his mind. Nicola Ishla Darvarni, Oracle, first Foretell 1993, inducted same year, unremarkable record until the Cassiandraic Event – that is, the Towers, where, after the deaths of several prominent Oracles she forced her way to the top of the ladder by hook, crook and, allegedly, bloodshed and has made the New York chapter of the Delphi’s the first in a long time to challenge the traditional headquarters in Greece for rule of the organisation of a whole. Ruthless. Supposedly recruiting, conscripting or buying every preternatural and supernatural she could get her hands on, Seers aside. Anything to bulk the ranks, her own private army. Also involved in the most shameless land grab since colonial days; said to own a good chunk of New York real estate – city and state.
Said also to have a private collection of preternaturals that were supposedly very rare; some of them the last of their kind. Purveyor of a sentient zoo.
The Delphi Alpha smiled. “You do not, do you?” Her long red nails curled thoughtfully over her curved red mouth. “You really do not. Do you know what happens to people who displease me, little man? Do you know what happens in their futures?”
Finch remained silent, his face showing only boredom.
“Tell me where she is.”
“I cannot tell you anything about a person who does not exist, madam.”
The Delphi Alpha bent close to him, dark eyes glittering with rage. “Tell me where your Oracle is.”
“There is no human, no being with a heartbeat, no being living or dead, who is telling me how to find anyone,” Finch spoke clearly, not breaking his gaze. “I’m sure the Truth Seer you have listening in through your earpiece will tell you that is nothing more or less than the whole and complete truth.”
Her hand flew to her ear – a novice’s mistake, but she did look momentarily stymied as she listened to it. Her eyes narrowed. “You are not an Oracle.”
“I have already said I am not.”
She scowled at whatever she was listening to through her earpiece. “Then you are the purveyor of some trick, some game, that allows you to cheat fates. Woe unto you, little man. You will tell me how it is done. Everything. Or suffer the consequences. It is nothing to me if you die.”
“There is no trick,” Finch replied coldly. “This is no game.”
She laughed. “Not to you, maybe. Do you know, I think I will enjoy this chase; though it may be very short.” Her hand moved to her earpiece again. “Send up my Hound.” She slanted her hips and shoulders into a serpentine shape and grinned her bright, empty grin. “Last chance, little man. Share your secrets and join us; or die. It’s really a very simple choice, is it not? Thousands make it every day.”
Finch remained silent.
She sighed. “Then count yourself a lucky little man; before you are rent limb from limb, you will get – a very brief – look at my best dog in action. Pure pedigree, this one, and beautiful to boot.”
The door clanged open again, this time revealing a hunched over figure being dragged in by two large security men. The man seemed half insensible, staggering drunkenly in their grips, but he was well dressed in an expensive suit and leather trench coat.
He was brought to kneel before the Delphi Alpha, who carded proprietary fingers through his hair. “Isn’t he gorgeous? Shall I tell you a story, little man? About people who displease me? About people who defy me? There once was a little dog, whose mortal lover became an Oracle,” she held out her hand to one of the guards, who handed her a knife. “Did this naughty little dog and his pet human do the right and sensible thing? Of course not! This is a cautionary tale.
“They did not seek the Delphi’s out. They hid away, on the run. They made deals with the CIA, in order to escape the Delphi’s. The CIA,” she scorned as she slashed her own hand. “Always meddling. They placed her with a man who could block our gaze,” here she turned a sour look at Finch. “And off the little dog ran to be with his new masters. But he soon learned that you cannot cheat fate. His poor lover died at the hands of the man supposed to protect her. With us she would have been safe, but people try to cheat, all the time. And when his new masters turned on him the little dog came slinking back home, tail between his legs. For most, that would be enough. His suffering should be enough but you know what, little man?” she gave a happy little smile. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t enough for me. He’d defied us. He’d made fools of the Delphi’s; so, you know, we must rectify this.” She yanked the insensible man’s head back by his dark hair at a merciless angle and forced the bloodstained hand against his mouth. There was a small, almost jerking motion from the man, but he seemed incapable of escape. “Given the right...incentive, and this little dog in very loyal. You found yourself a new mistress, didn’t you darling? My little Johnny.”
She yanked her hands away from the hand and he dropped onto the floor shivering slightly, mouth smeared with red.
“And him I value,” she turned back to Finch, who had watched the whole macabre scene with his stomach turning. “He is precious to me. Do you really think I will spare you, you who mean nothing to me?”
“You don’t spare anyone, madam,” Finch said softly, eyes on the man on the floor. He was suddenly burning with rage. It was one thing to suspect a human zoo, quite another was watch another being treated the way this man was treated. Finch may not be a people person; but he never saw them as mere objects either. “No one. The good. The bad. They are all the same to you. That is why the Delphi’s are useless. All of you, useless. That is why you couldn’t stop the Towers falling.”
She slapped him, hard. “Just for that,” she snarled. “I won’t even give you the dignity of a headstart.”
She turned and kicked the suited man with those stiletto boots. “Get up, my Hound. Up!” She grabbed him, and hauled him upright. “Look at me,” she commanded him, two fingers under his chin.
The man’s eyes shot open for the first time since he’s been bought in. Even in the harsh light, there was a wrongness in them; rings of silver in the irises that betrayed his preternatural nature. Between that and the blood still smeared at his mouth, he was a suddenly fearsome thing. His eyes burned with wrath, barely contained.
“Do you see him, my Hound,” the Delphi Alpha turned the man’s face toward Finch, who felt the burning rake of his gaze. “I want you to chase him down and kill him. Make him suffer. That’s an order.” She smirked as the preternatural in her power cringed away from her fingers, teeth clenched. From his fingertips, claws as black as space were sliding out. “Oh, I could just have him kill you right here, right now,” she added to Finch as the dark haired man dragged himself away from her and slammed into the nearest wall, suddenly unsheathed claws scoring deep lines down it as he raked them slowly. “But I’m a bit of the traditionalist. Enjoy the chase, little man. I know we will.” She made to leave the room. “And remember, Hellhounds can track a man anywhere. Even through a Labyrinth.” She laughed as she walked out, hips swaying.
And then the floor opened up and swallowed them whole. The panels slid back so silent and fast, there was no time to even brace.
Finch felt the jolt of agony as he landed on the hard surface of the floor below the room he’d been in, injuries old and new screeching for surcease. Above him, the harsh light of the interrogation room vanished, as the floor – now ceiling, slid back into place.
The Hellhound had landed effortlessly on his feet some ten feet away. Finch could hear him breathing hard and fast, like he’d already been on the chase. Stretching out past either man was a tunnel, dimly lit, with many side passages branching off. A Labyrinth. A true Labyrinth; under New York.
Finch felt frantically for his glasses, which had dropped off when he’d landed. After an eternity of fumbling he managed to grasp them, while in the dim light ahead of him, a Hellhound was rising to his feet, as liquid graceful as a wave on the ocean. In the dark, the silver ring girding his irises gave off their own light, burning the dark away.
He was breathtaking.
His jaw moved, slowly; his face was set like stone and he looked to be trying to force it to be flesh again. He jerked forward, suddenly ungainly, spasming and staggering, but always, inexorably, coming closer. There was a hissing, spitting noise coming from his mouth.
Suddenly with a lurch, he was but a handbreadth from Finch’s face, eyes burning in the shorter man’s. Finch thought, if there is such a thing as being struck right to your very soul, surely this is what it feels like. The Hellhounds jaw moved again, and the little noises he was making suddenly resolved themselves into a desperate, pleading word. “Run.”
Finch gripped his glasses and forced himself to breathe. “I’m afraid that’s not really an option for me, Mr Reese.”
And then he stabbed the Hellhound in the neck with the tiny hypodermic needle he’d concealed in one earpiece of his glasses. The neurotoxin was fast acting and, for a human, would have been deadly. John Reese dropped like a stone.
Finch hurriedly felt for a pulse and duly found none. But he counted the seconds. Ten... twenty... thirty... when sixty seven rolled by, there was a slight jump against his questing fingertips. Sighing with relief, Finch repaired his glasses and withdrew. It had been a huge risk, even with every odd calculated to the bone and back. A huge risk with the life of another, something Finch had sworn to himself never to do, but circumstances kept forcing on him.
Permanently deadly for humans, but luckily not for a preternatural of John Reese’s calibre.
He limped away from the tunnel and Reese as quickly as he could. He needed to put some distance between them in order to carry out phase two. He could only be grateful that phase one had gone so perfectly.
Well, except for the nakedness. He hadn’t planned on the nakedness.
Finch could move with surprising speed when he wanted to; though he often paid for the effort later if he pushed too hard.
This was going to be a too hard day.
Traditionally, the Labyrinth was the ancient trial by ordeal the Oracles maintained as part of the ancient judiciary. Going in was a punishment, but also contained a seed of mercy. If you survived the Labyrinth and its various traps without dying and managed to find the centre without starving to death you were cleared of whatever crime sent you in there.
Of course, that was thousands of years ago. These days Oracles used lawyers like everyone else. But it was a terrible thing to be part of such a long running organisation; it forced you to be a traditionalist, no matter the practical difficulties old traditions bring. Most chapters of the Delphi’s had long abandoned their personal mazes to decay, or preserved them as museums for the tourist dollars they brought. No sensible Delhi chapter would actually put them to real use – too much to maintain for very little result and even a world swayed by the power of the Oracles would be hard pressed to forgive running people to death with no right of appeal, barely any legal proceedings. The march of civilisation proceeds ever on.
It certainly showed the New York Delphi Alpha’s unique twist of the mind. The Labyrinth – such as it was – was not quite the statement the Delhi Alpha may have hoped it would be. She probably believed that by being the only chapter currently building a Labyrinth rather than taking one apart, she was calling Oracles back to their traditional roots as wisdom seekers and justice givers to all.
But this was New York – tunnels built on drains built on lost roads built on old basements. In a sense, the trick was not to build a maze here. This Labyrinth was a half-hearted effort indeed; graffitied, pipe lined walls and every kind of archway and portico imaginable jutting and writhing in the fraught and harried space, only sparsely and poorly lit. It spoke to a certain amount laziness in the mind of the architect.
Finch knew he had to be careful, though. Labyrinths were meant to be a trial and the Delphi Alpha had a good measure of cruel cunning. She’d wanted to see him suffer.
A loose piece of concrete jabbed at his food. There was an ominous clunk.
And then came the water.
In the entertainment room, the Delphi Alpha laughed and laughed at his attempts to backpedal the way he’d come, only to have the grates slam down behind him, forcing him forwards into the torrent, falling from above.
The first few minutes had been vexing – she’d been cheated of blood, cheated of the torment of both men. But then she’d been pleased; why make the evening so short? The little nameless man was surprisingly resourceful; such a shame as a physical specimen he was so very subpar. Now had he been a magnificent creature like her Hound, she wouldn’t have hesitated to add the man to her collection.
But no, she could never do that. Even had he not been interfering, no Oracle could see the man’s fate; try though they might to look. And people like that could not be allowed to live. The Delphi’s saw to it readily enough. No one was allowed outside their gaze. Whatever supernatural gift he had that allowed him to block a Seer’s gaze, that gift had doomed him as it had done all others it had visited. Like her Hound’s former lover. And his lover’s husband.
And now, the nameless man as well. He was not destined to walk out of the Labyrinth alive. No fate, but a certainty.
She was not concerned with his attempts to escape. She knew by the monitors that her Hound lived still. Eventually he would rise and, by her blood in his body, he could not escape the loyalty bond. It would compel him to chase the man down. To make him suffer. And then, to kill. The only way to escape the compulsion would be for the Hound to die first. And he hadn’t managed it yet.
Soon, she watched gleefully. Soon the real show would begin. She gestured a hand to one of the Labyrinth systems operators. Why spoil the fun with a drowning? This song of death should be a duet.
Finch woke, gagged up filthy water, hacked and sputtered his way to an unwelcome consciousness. He lay still, taking stock. The water had filled the locked in space, rising, rising, until it had carried him to the ceiling, where he had struggled for breathing space as water gushed from above and churned from below. It had happened so fast he hadn’t even been able to formulate any kind of strategy past his next breath and that, too, had failed. And just as blackness rose to meet him, the gates of one passage had opened and the water had flooded to escape, taking it’s piece of human detritus with it. Finch had been banged and smashed against several walls and passages as he helplessly went with the flow, until the currents finally receded and the water dropped into whatever drainage there was to be had.
The floor was muddy with silt, choked in New York garbage, and Finch’s body throbbed with the ordeal it had just been subjected to. Perhaps, he thought to himself, half-hearted was not the best descriptor of this hellish maze after all.
Slowly, slowly, Finch managed to sit himself up. He ignored the white hot agony of his old wounds though ease of practise and not a little adrenaline. Pain is just pain, he repeated the mantra in his head. Pain is just pain.
Who knows how long he sat there? Finch didn’t. Long enough to go numb in the legs, long enough to start shivering from the cold damp. But eventually an eternity of breathing exercises brought him back to himself.
You might as well do it now, he told himself. The numbness will help. The water might have helped mask your scent. The odds are you won’t get a better opportunity.
His glasses. He’d snatched them off and clutched at them when the water had started to come down. His hand cradled them still. With some ceremony, Finch folded out the other earpiece – the one that wasn’t a needle.
The one that was a very small scalpel.
Barely able to discern it’s gleam in the low light, Finch carefully probed the flesh at the crest of his bare hip, fingertips questing the pale skin until he found it. A hard, regular lump.
Pain is just pain, he thought, as he sliced as efficiently as he could half blind in the dark. He got his fingers around it and extracted it.
A bead-like shape, about the size of a rosary.
Finch sighed in relief. Weeks of suturing and itching had not been in vain.
Tucking the bead into his palm he raised the scalpel again, wishing to his fastidious soul that he had some antiseptic to wash the filth away before he did this. Finch started probing the fleshy part of his shin.
One down. Fifteen to go.
Phase two was coming along nicely.
In the dark of the tunnels, back at the entrance to the Labyrinth, two silver rings lit up the darkness.
The Hellhound was awake.
“What is he doing?” The Delphi Alpha watched the macabre self surgery with a kind of bewildered horror. The cameras showed him now carefully, carefully slicing at the back of one ear. “He’s not trying to kill himself, it he? He’ll spoil all the fun! My Hound won’t be able to chase a dead rabbit.”
One of the monitors – the room was all but lined with them - had it’s own webcam. The red power light started to blink.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Had any been watching it, it would have seemed far more menacing than it should have. But all eyes in the room were on the little man who was carefully mutilating himself, and, eventually, on the rising form of the Hellhound.
“Oh look! Look who’s decided to join the party!”
Reese rose slowly, cautious as only a predator that has been in a cage can be. There was not a tremor in his hands, not a wobble in his knees, but that was down to sheer force of will. Three years of imprisonment, three years of slavery to that mad Oracle, had taught Reese both endurance and patience; something he’d already been thoroughly educated in beforehand but was now at a masters level of skill.
“Stop playing dead, my Hound,” the voice came through the speakers lining this place – what was the point of having such a place if you could not torment its victims? – smug and amused. “Fetch, boy, fetch!”
He ignored the ringing laughter with long practice. He focused exposing and retracting his claws experimentally, growing them out, shrinking them back. Always check the status of your weapons first. He took stock of the rest of his body, too, for much the same reason. He felt like he’d had a sudden snap of the flu, sluggish and sickly, but otherwise strong. He could say this much for her, she kept him healthy. She liked her Hound sleek.
There was still laughter and chatter ringing overhead. Weary of it, Reese unsheathed his claws, as black as space, and made to escape the quickest way he knew.
Hellhounds – now nearly extinct as far as species go. On a preternatural power chart they ranked up there with werewolves, vampires, phoenixes and other old bloods, preternaturals of high calibre abilities and longevity, if that could be called a gift. Hellhounds were immensely strong, incredibly fast, healed quickly and had enhanced senses as well; but that was par for the course for many preternatural creatures and the Hellhound did not necessarily stand above their brethren in that regard.
What set Hellhounds apart was the way they could travel. Hellhound claws – well, a physicist would probably bandy about works like intra-dimensional phasing and sub space transpositioning but what Hellhounds could do, in laymans terms, was tear temporary rifts through the fabric of matter with their black as space claws – because the claws were, in fact, not just black as space, but were, in a sense, hardened holes in reality, that could make such tears big enough to travel though a kind of limbo space, and out the other side. The slices they made were not deep – they couldn’t say, cut a tunnel and end up a hundred miles away. But they could phase their way through a wall, leaving no hole or cut, just a faint char stain where the two dimensions – mundane and limbo – met at the edges.
They could also phase their hands through a person’s chests, and render their hearts or other organs a shredded lump of flash fried meat, leaving no mark on the skin. That was what made them some of history’s greatest assassins.
They also had an uncanny ability to track people; partially due to enhanced senses, but mostly due to instincts which bordered on the psychic. The word Hellhound didn’t mean what people thought it did. A Hellhound was a predator so loyal to it’s master, so unrelenting in it’s tracking, so unstoppable in its hunt, that there was literally no where it’s prey could escape from it. They would literally walk through the gates of Hell to capture what they were sent for.
If they met you once, anywhere, it was said, then they could find you again. Anywhere, anytime.
Time had muddled the truth the story of the three headed dog. The Cerberus – the Hellhound – was a being of three forms. The first was the everyday mortal skin, the man on the street. The second came into play when they jumped and leaped through walls in limbo; claws out, eyes glowing, teeth sharpened to a diamond deadly point, skin laced with black tattoo-like marks swirling across the skin as the phasing energy wrapped around them. The third form was rare. Hellhounds may go their entire lives and never expose their third head to the light of day; just as well, as it was rumoured to be a fearsome, rabid mad thing, stronger than the other two combined.
Of course, there was a flaw in every design; Hellhounds were vulnerable to coercions where other preternaturals weren’t. They were incredibly loyal; at heart they were protectors, destined to hunt down any threats to their chosen family. Unlike werewolves they were loners and, also unlike werewolves, they chose to protect others outside their own species and pack. But the loyalty bonds they could give, which granted them stability and grounded as well as focused their abilities could be turned on them. When that woman had forced her blood down Reese’s throat, as she had so many times in the last three years, she had forced on him a bond that only ran one way – had compelled him to serve her and given him none of the power of objecting or breaking it, as was his right.
Three years in the power mad Oracle’s thrall, helpless to stop himself killing any she wanted dead, going to whatever bedchamber pleased her, performing whatever acts amused her. Had he the strength, he would have rent his own chest with his claws; but no, she had prevented that early on. She enjoyed his suffering too much.
Claws out, black marks rising on his skin like ink, Reese slashed the wall in front him, clawed hands passed through the solid stone like was smoke. He blurred and then stepped through, with a faint, orange fiery flash and the smell of char following in his wake.
He passed through a half a dozen walls and obstacles in such a fashion, hardly thinking about what he was doing. He was waiting, simmering with impotent wrath, for the compulsion to rise in his mind again, to force him to hunt down the man she wanted dead. After three years, he had tried everything, he had begged, he had writhed and fought not to kill any of the helpless victims she deemed unworthy and oh, hadn’t she enjoyed every second of his powerlessness.
The memory of her laughter struck a spark off the flint of his temper and he stopped midway in a random tunnel, snarling. He raked his claws across his chest, knowing one of the many orders she had given him would keep him from actually making contact.
He was surprised by the sudden pain.
Grunting, he looked down. Across his once pristine white silk shirt, four clean lines had neatly parted the material, leaving smouldering edges from the heat. It had also cut cleanly into the skin on his chest, the scratches deep but cauterised as they were made.
He stared. He stared some more.
Then, hardly daring to let himself hope, he unsheathed one claw, rending it as long as he could make it, long enough to pierce a torso all the way through, and slid the claw expertly between his fourth and fifth ribs, up and in, until the tip of the claw was suddenly, rhythmically brushed by something moving in his chest. He was so astonished he didn’t even notice the pain.
The bond was gone.
It had been there so long he had simply started to ignore its presence; he’d gotten so good at ignoring it, he had not noticed its absence. He searched his mind, heart unfurling and trip hammering as the realisation of his freedom struck. Free. He was free. There was no way he’d even be able to hurt himself a tenth of this much if any of her orders still held sway over him.
He unsheathed all ten claws and arched them towards his chest. How he had dreamed of this moment, what he would do with even one second of freedom from her. How he had hoped, how he had prayed, had begged....
Reese froze. The man, tortured and despairing, howled for release, for surcease of pain and sorrow. The soldier in him, on other hand was falling back on his training, and that training was for survival.
The bond is gone. You can only form that bond once. Loyalty bonds with Hellhounds were absolute, all or nothing. And the nothing was forever. Once broken, there is no repairing it, no remaking it.
Reese had nothing to fear from her, not anymore.
She had everything to fear from him.
He sheathed his claws. He straightened his jacket, his trench coat and did the best he could with the ruined shirt. His lips curled into a small, genuine smile of one who finally gets the joke.
Suddenly, he frowned. The man he’d been sent to hunt – the one who had looked so helpless in the face of a Hellhound, body crippled and hobbled... but nevertheless the one who had bought him down, so there was clearly more there than met the eye.
The man had called him by name. Not even the Oracle had known that name, not fully. He’d just been John to her.
Mr Reese. The man had known who he was. He’d come prepared to face him. He’d....
Reese sucked in a breath.
He’d killed Reese.
Temporarily, maybe; but he had to have been dead because the only way to break a loyalty bond forged in blood was death.
Reese took another breath. Time to find some answers.
He looked up into the shadows of the ceiling, where the cameras were, and smiled.
The Delphi Alpha looked at the smiling Hound and suddenly felt a faint stirring of unease. He’d never smiled like that before. The bond was only one way; she had never felt its presence and was therefore unaware of its absence.
Being an Oracle did not make you all-seeing.
“Where...” she faltered as he walked off – confidently and calmly, not stalking and tense with his futile anger. It was more unnerving than his most violent outbursts had ever been. “Where is he going?”
The operator checked the data on the screens. “Toward the prisoner, ma’am.”
“Well...good,” The Delphi Alpha replied, trying to mask her sudden worry. “That’s good.”
Finch was almost finished his ministrations. It had taken longer than he’d thought it would to recover them all. He cursed the paranoia that had let him to place them in so many different spots, though he knew that was the way most likely to work. Being risk averse could be hell on the body sometimes. Over a dozen small cuts bled freely, all over.
Finally, finally he dug free the last bead from the meat of a bicep. Pain is just pain. Pain is just pain.
The last few were rendered even more difficult by the fact that one hand was now full of beads; he’d been loath to place them on the ground; he couldn’t afford to lose even one of them. And he was also still bereft of pockets.
Sighing, he gratefully returned his tiny scalpel to its place as an ear piece and returned his glasses to his face. There, he though sardonically. Dressed.
Now for the hard part. He forced himself to stand, bad leg screeching like a Banshee and better leg not really as better as advertised. He staggered against a wall, unable to stand and balance at the same time, both hands cupped around the precious beads. He very nearly slid down the rough cinderblock thing but, wonder of wonders, his good knee finally cooperated and locked under him.
Finch panted like he was running a race and waited for the white hot agony to subside, even a little.
There was a hissing sound, like a rush of sudden air and a flash just past the corner of Finch’s field of vision. He turned, too slowly, and squinted into the darkness there.
Click. One bead’s magnetic connector met with another bead. Rough alternating with smooth, Finch told himself, his heart suddenly hammering. Somewhere in that impenetrable dark, there was the sound of feet, shifting against the sand. Of waiting.
Click. There was a susurration of shifting sand against stone ahead. Getting closer. Click. Click. Click, Click. Rough bead, smooth bead, rough, smooth. It was hard to tell in the dark, the beads all uniformly tacky with his blood. Click. Click-Click, Click.
Was that a shape in the gloom he could see now? Finch started backing away – a futile gesture really. Even if he’d been in the shape to run, this wasn’t a creature one outran. His hands worked frantically, terrified he would drop a bead as he joined them together. Click, Click, Click-Click, Cl-
Twin silver circles suddenly appeared.
Two feet in from of him.
A freight train of momentum lifted Finch off his bare feet and through the air towards the end of the tunnel. Finch tried to brace for the blow, but a hand shot past his face and behind his head and there was a complicated moment of manoeuvring....
Finch was suddenly immersed in hot, dry heat. It was too hot to breathe...
Then the air went normal again, although Finch was suddenly dizzy and disorientated, his inner ear doing strange loop-de-loops that made the floor seem to heave this way and that, but that ceased to be a problem because the full body slam Finch had braced for before they went though the wall suddenly occurred against another. Finch cried out at the fresh pain.
“Who are you?” Reese growled in his ear, fangs beared, eyes glowing with barely concealed temper.
Click. Finch was good at thinking through pain. He had to be.
A bracelet of metal beads now dangled around one of Reese’s arms, still sticky with blood. Reese snarled to look it. He braced one arm across Finch’s neck, holding his full weight with insulting ease, and slammed his hand into Finch’s chest, claws extended.
They sank though his skin like it was water, strange ripples congealing in the air. “Take. It. Off!” Reese roared, spectral hand curling around Finch’s heart like a vice.
“I...will...if you...want,” Finch choked out. His chest felt too tight, like he was having a heart attack, and burning like a fever. “But... it’s s-shielding... us...from...her.”
Reese’s eyes narrowed. His spectral grip loosened, but did not leave. “Say that again.”
Finch sucked in a breath. Then another. His lungs felt awful, like they were congested and scratchy. He could feel membranes sliding against things that should not be there. “It’s...not what... you...think. It’s.... keeping... them... from... seeing... us... in...here...” Finch hands started scrabbling at the arm holding him desperate. He felt like he was dying. “Ah...Mr... Reese... please... please...”
Finch dropped to the floor, wheezing and choking. Reese loomed over him, claws still out.
“You were telling the truth,” the Hellhound observed.
Finch coughed, trying to lever himself up again. That’s what he was doing, Finch realised in shock. He was checking my heart rate. The world’s most invasive polygraph. He saved his breath for standing, but nodded in answer.
Reese ran a thumb over the beads, unconcerned about the blood. “Talismans don’t work on Oracles.”
Finch snorted, rubbing his chest to try to relieve the truly creepy sensation of a phantom clawed hand. “Talismans don’t work, period, Mr Reese. However, if you want to block security cameras and microphones, GPS chips, cell phones and any other miscellanea that may be being used to track you, multi-frequency microprocessor signal jammers wired together with miniature wireless battery chargers will do the trick, every time.”
“What happened? Where are they?” The Delphi Alpha shrieked. Around her, the monitors had all gone blank or distorted. The Labyrinth was beyond their gaze.
“We’re trying to fix it!” Operators were working frantically.
The Oracle’s unease had morphed into full blown panic. Something was coming, her precognition told her. Something bad. “Find them! Find them now!” She demanded shrilly. “And you!” she jabbed a finger at a security guard. “Go to my collection and bring me my strongest. Understand?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Reese spoke after several seconds of silence as they both contemplated each other.
“In my defence,” Finch replied, brittle. “You were holding me up against a wall at the time.” He took off his glasses, and reached out for the Hellhounds arm.
In one smooth motion, Reese had Finch’s wrist locked in grip just shy of breaking bone.
“Really, Mr Reese,” Finch gritted out through clenched teeth.
“I have a quota,” Reese’s voice was smooth as silk, cold as ice. “One death per day. I don’t feel like going over it today.” The fingers didn’t tighten. They didn’t need to.
“I can’t imagine why,” Finch snapped back. “It clearly didn’t take. Ah! Mr Reese, I am merely trying to charge my glasses with the extremely expensive wireless chargers you are now wearing so we can find out way out of here! Really Mr Reese, it’s a bit late in the game to pull the same trick twice!”
“You killed me.”
Reese released him, but took custody of the glasses. His silver ringed, glowing eyes pinned Finch in place against the wall.
“I am sorry,” Finch spoke at a normal volume this time. “It was the only way. If I hadn’t, what would you have done to me?”
Reese was forced to acknowledge self defence as a viable argument, considering the circumstances. “How did you know it would work?”
Reese smirked cynically. “Ah.”
“If it helps,” Finch muttered. “There was every possibility you might have woken up and still been compelled to hunt, in which case there would have been nothing I could do to save myself. The risk was by no means yours alone.”
Reese inclined his head. Fair enough. “You seem to know a lot about me.”
“I may very well, yes.”
“And I know nothing about you.”
Reese grinned to himself. It had been a long time since he’d had a chance to exercise his mind, to be anything more that a beast. It was exhilarating. He was being stymied by a naked man in the middle of a Labyrinth while a mad Oracle plotted their deaths.
Reese hadn’t felt this alive in years.
“True, but not necessarily helpful,” Reese replied. He carefully looked the man over, noting musculature, vital spots, weaknesses. He didn’t look much like a rescue party. But then, he hadn’t looked like someone who could take out a Hellhound, either.
Underestimation, Reese though. That was this man’s key strategy.
The silence stretched, both men playing a game of wills.
Reese waved the glasses. “You are not getting these back unless you tell me something.”
Finch sighed. “The glasses contain a filter, triggered by an electrical current that should be sent through the lenses. Like smart glass. Once charged the filter will activate, and I should be able to navigate through the maze. The tradespeople who built it blogged extensively about the process; mostly the poor pay and working conditions, but also complaints about finding their way when each team was forbidden to know what other teams were doing, so no one had a complete map. The builders would spray marks on the walls with phosphoric paint; invisible unless shown under the right light, so they could map their way through sections. The filter will allow me to see the marks, and thus allow me to get through the maze.”
Reese raised his eyebrows. “You wanted to get into the Labyrinth.”
“No. But it was the only way to get to where I did want to go.”
Reese waited patiently and silence once again reigned. He held up the glasses. “I can crush these into dust with one finger.”
Finch rolled his eyes. “Please don’t. They were very expensive. You know about the Hive?”
Reese did. Every Delphi chapter had a Hive; a cluster of precogs all linked to one another to form a hive mind; that is where most of their prophecies and visions came from. Individual Seers were too erratic, their visions too objective to be helpful. But the Hive, many minds working in tandem, gave more accurate result for a wider variety of timeframes. Indeed, each ‘chapter’ was built around the Hive, with only a few lone Oracles outside of it; the rest was taken up by support staff.
Rumour had it being linked to the Hive was not exactly voluntary. Rumour had it, the more powerful Oracle you were, the more you had to despair because you may never get to leave the Hive. In the Hive, you had no identity anymore, no self.
He’d wanted to spare Jessica that, once.
“It takes time to build the Hive, to render it stable,” Finch continued. “They used to use communal living and dancing and singing to render the necessary mental harmony, but nowadays they merely hook the Hive members up to machines that force their brainwaves onto the same frequency. Much faster connection and more stable than the other way, if but for the minor drawback of having the Oracles chosen for the hive in comas.” Finch grimaced with distaste. “The centre of the Labyrinth is right underneath the headquarters for the Hive. The Oracles are so very traditional in that respect.”
Reese stared at him. “You are going to take out the Hive.”
“Did you think I was here to save you?” Finch replied sardonically. “At the risk of disappointing you, Mr Reese, I am here to help me, not you. But,” Finch shrugged. “I have no objection to you being helped in course of the process. The Oracles are interfering with my work. They will continue to interfere, as long as the Hive functions. I’m not planning on killing anyone. Location and layout of the Hive chambers is a closely guarded secret but the server rooms of the Oracle’s headquarters are a matter of public record, or near enough. They are just a single floor over the centre of the Labyrinth. The Hive’s brainwave technology is linked up through that system. The system is a closed one, unhackable from the outside; but at the centre of the Labyrinth I should be close enough physically to tap into their Wifi network. The glasses also contain a microtransmitter; a virus to be slipped into the system. The bracelet is the power source, as well as a router and to boost the signal. Between the two, the virus should be able to be uploaded. It will – well, the actual process is complicated, but it should quietly interfere with the Hive’s forced harmony. Every time they reach a...a resonance, the virus will instruct the brainwave machines to disrupt it, ever so slightly. Not enough for the systems operators to see, not unless they are very conscientious. But enough so – I hope – the Hive members will be able to do the rest.”
“You’re setting them free,” Reese breathed.
“Not exactly,” Finch grimaced. “They will still be in comas. But they should get a sense of awareness back. I’m good at predicting the odds, Mr Reese. And I’d wager they’re no happier with their forced servitude to that dreadful woman than you were with yours. You’re welcome, by the way,” he added sourly, rubbing his wrist. “The mundane entrances to their headquarters is too well guarded to enter via street level. They have better security than the White House. However; there’s no security protocols in the Labyrinth, despite the fact that the centre is right under the building itself. What would be the point? It’s designed to keep people from reaching the centre.”
Reese was suddenly grinning unstoppably. “So in order to get to the servers...”
“I have to get to the Centre. In order to get to the Centre, I had to get into the Labyrinth. And in order to get into the Labyrinth, I had to draw the attention of the Delphi Alpha.” Finch’s face screwed up in distaste.
“And get past me.”
Finch shrugged. “And get past you.”
Reese came forward, planting his hands on either side of Finch, crowding him against the wall with ease. “You planned to do this naked?” Once again, laughable pornography scenarios reigned.
Finch scowled at the amusement on the other man’s face. “No; I planned to be strip searched and have things confiscated, which is why I hid them under my skin. I couldn’t risk them scanning metal buttons or some such; they would have found something. I didn’t plan on being naked, but, well, the best laid plans floundered in the face of that woman.”
Being naked before John Reese was, abruptly, humiliating. He was suddenly so very aware of John Reese and all his physical perfection as he loomed, clothed and confident, over Finch’s scarred, misshapen and lily-white and muck coated body, able to parse every flaw, see every secret. Finch was never a vain man, but it was difficult not to be galled by so obvious a difference, even in the dim half-light. He glared at the Hellhound, wishing he could push him away.
“All very interesting,” Reese summarised silkily. He bent forward, so that they were nose to nose, eye to silver ringed eye. “But you still didn’t answer my question. Who are you?”
Finch met that burning gaze, unflinching. “Finch. Harold Finch.”
The reaction was not what Finch expected. Reese’s eyes widened in genuine shock, but before Finch could even begin to wonder what caused it, Reese had pushed away from the wall and retreated up the passage a way. Finch heard him suck in a breath. “Mr Reese?” he called, uncertain.
“Finch,” Reese breathed in the dark. “Your name is...Finch.”
Bewildered by this reaction, Finch frowned. “Yes? Is that a problem?” He was baffled to why his alias would be an issue for the Hellhound.
Another breath. “No. No problem.” But the voice was flat, indicating this was a lie. Reese held up the glasses. “So how to you charge these?”
A neat deflection. “Press them to the bracelet, hold them there until it vibrates. The wireless chargers are quite powerful, for all that they are small. It should take a few minutes.”
Reese pressed the glasses against the bracelet, holding them in place with one hand. With the other he peeled off his coat, switching hands with consummate grace when he reached the final sleeve. He wordlessly tossed the garment to Finch, who snatched it up gratefully. “Take a seat,” the Hellhound rumbled. “We’re not safer here than we will be anywhere else.” He wasn’t looking at Finch. He was scanning what little there was to be seen in their surroundings.
Suspicious of this sudden solicitude but not really having the words to point it out, Finch looked for a clear spot to limp to; unfortunately, this meant moving closer to Reese, who stood sentry at a cross section of three doorways, shoulders as taunt as suspension cable. Try though he might, Finch could see no reason behind the man’s sudden shift in mood.
Uneasy silence descended, cloying. Finch scrubbed at his face with the sleeves of his borrowed attire, trying at least to get some of the muck off. It wouldn’t help much, but it did make him feel better. Eventually, Reese came back, still holding the high tech glasses over the charger, and crouched opposite him, ever ready to move.
“They can’t see you.”
Finch stared back at him, blandly.
“The Oracles,” Reese persisted. “They can’t see you.”
“Speculation,” Finch said.
“Fact,” Reese lips curled into a half smile. “They talked around me like I was furniture...Finch. All talking and complaining about the space they couldn’t see into. They had the whole Hive focusing on nothing but you for a month. They supposedly reached further into the future than ever had been reliably seen before. Years. Decades. Multiple futures, multiple outcomes. Not so much of a trace of you. Even the best Shadows I knew couldn’t block the entire Hive focusing on them at once.”
“Like Peter Arndt.”
Reese cocked his head. “You know a lot about me, Finch.”
“John Reese, alias,” Finch listed, idly scrubbing his fingers. “Ex special forces, Green Beret, multiple citations, multiple mission specialities. Honourably discharged 2001, re-enlisted 2001 in September, tapped for CIA work after covert ops throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, linked to one of the CIA wolf packs until 2010; after that, you vanished from the map. Of course I knew about you, Mr Reese. I had to get past you.”
The silver rings around the Hellhound’s eyes flared. “You need me to get through the Labyrinth.”
Reese scoffed. “You think the trick is to have a map?” he rasped. “You think she won’t be sending some of her creatures in here to hunt you down? She probably sent them in the minute she lost visuals. You may not have thought this through.”
“I have, Mr Reese. Believe me, I have,” Finch replied coldly. “And I didn’t come here for a pet. Or a slave. As far as I am concerned, you may give my things back to me and you are free to go.”
“Just like that.”
“Just like that, Mr Reese.”
Reese smiled at him, a hint of fang flashing. “But they can see me, Finch. Where will I go that the Hive can’t find me? Unless it’s taken down.”
Finch shrugged. “There is that, I suppose.”
Reese didn’t get angry over this rather blatant no-choice choice. He was used to this sort of thing. “If I leave, can I take the coat?” He grinned as Finch scowled at him, huddling down in the coat as if Reese was threatening to take it right this minute. “It is mine after all.”
“I’ll pay for a new one,” Finch muttered back to him.
“So, what about you, Harold?” Reese gave his most engaging smile. “Since we’re about to take on the hands of Fate themselves on their own ground, we should probably get to know one another.”
“Should we, now,” Finch murmured.
“I already know quite a lot. Rich. Seven, eight figures minimum; not on the CIA’s fundraiser list though, so... High level coder, high level hacker. Good enough to erase your own records. You work around old books as well as computers. No pets, not much human contact going by scent traces. C-2, C-3 spinal dislocation, traumatic, recent, within the last five years going by the serial numbers on your equipment. Same with the hip and leg.”
Finch stared at him. Of course he could feel the serial numbers on his pins with his phasing hands, of course he could. Privacy was so problematic when you added enhanced senses and preternaturals into the mix.
Reese’s smirk meant he knew he’d scored an unexpected hit. “Non smoker. No coffee. Sencha green tea and eggs Benedict. A favourite last meal? You already admitted there was a good chance you wouldn’t survive me.”
Finch remained silent.
“Good enough to find out I’m a Hellhound, though, and that wasn’t on any electronic record, anywhere. Genius. Not just any garden variety kind; the kind that gets put on watchlists with two or three names on them. The one-guy-in-the-world-can-do-this lists. Supernatural or psychic, most definitely. Full of fear,” Reese added softly. “Always, full of fear. A fugitive. Hiding in plain sight.”
“As suave as your attempts to interrogate me are, Mr Reese,” Finch said wearily. “I’ve shared all I intend to share with you today. Help me, don’t help me; none of my history will help you with that.”
“I’m not helping you, Mr Finch,” Reese smirked at the other man’s suddenly raised eyebrows, and added. “I’m helping me. But, I have no objection to you being helped in course of the process.”
Finch rolled his eyes, but relaxed slightly.
Reese looked down at his hands. “Looks like we’re ready to go.”
He held up the glasses to Finch, who took them.
“Have you sent them down? Are they all down there?”
“They’re in position, ma’am.”
The Delphi Alpha scowled at the fritzing screens. It was ruined. The whole thing was just ruined! But underneath the anger, the stirrings of fear remained.
“Then get them moving!” she thundered. “Now! Right now!”
It wasn’t quite as simple as following arrows; the tradespeople had written in code signs and block numbers for reference points, but the teams couldn’t talk to one another so they each had their own codes and points of reference.
“Section E-3, we’ve passed F-6,” Finch had a meticulous mind, he was logging away reference points, trying to build a mental map of sorts. It was hard going; the builders all seemed to be working at cross purposes. “Well, the skull and crossbones are clear enough, at least.”
Reese held a hand out and peered through the proffered glasses, which had tinted green. On the wall the symbols suddenly appeared, neon green. There was indeed a prominent danger sign, wreathed in flames for emphasis, and a very clear arrow pointing to the left. He let out a frustrated breath. “We’re going to have to step through some of the traps eventually Finch. Circling around them all will take too much time.” He sniffed the air. No oil. Gas, without the tell tale stink the gas companies add to make it apparent? Maybe. “I can probably get us through them.”
Finch’s mouth twisted downwards, showing what he thought of the ‘probably’ in that sentence. But Reese did have a point. The Labyrinth wouldn’t allow you to skip the traps; eventually, inevitably, you would have to face at least a few. His recent adventure with the water had left him wary of trying again.
Reese was scowling as he breathed, as if he was trying to parse something out. We wandered a few feet into one of the other tunnels, scanning relentlessly.
“Well, there is a path past this one; perhaps we can save ‘probably’ for later, Mr Reese.”
“Mr Reese?” Finch turned in surprise; darkness and silence returned his stare. “Mr Reese?” Finch’s stomach suddenly lurched. For all his assertion that he was willing to go on alone, he was aware his odds of survival were significantly reduced without the Hellhound.
He heard a shifting, grunting noise behind him. His stomach sank further. That didn’t sound like a Hellhound. Hellhounds, in fact, didn’t make a sound.
There was a huge, hulking silhouette emerging from behind him. Gleaming green eyes cast a sickly glow into the darkness. Finch backed away, but the beast was on him as fast as a blink.
His bad leg, ironically, saved him the initial blow. It crumpled under an ill judged twist, sending Finch staggering sideways and out of the path roaring, snarling preternatural that Delphi Alpha had sent in after him. He had a confused vision of fangs and a thick jaw, burning green eyes under spiky hair.
And the electric collar, that too.
The...well, Finch wasn’t sure what kind of preternatural it was, but it blurred past him and slammed into the wall ahead, smashing a new hole in it without apparent effort or harm. Finch heard it staggering to a halt in the darkness beyond, letting out another of the grunting, snarling roars.
He was dead if he stayed here.
Finch darted into the nearest tunnel. The one on the left.
He couldn’t run. His leg had been through too much for that. He limped desperately, trying to reach the end of the tunnel. The concrete shifted under his feet again.
Air gushed up from the floor; sand sprayed in all directions in the wake. Finch blinked. Air?
No, he thought as he started to choke on it. Not air.
A snarling roar from behind had him turning.
There was a hiss of air and orange light like flame.
Reese came through wall, claws extended, skin etched in black lines, silver eyes flared like beacons. Finch couldn’t deny it was an impressive sight.
He was on the interloper in a blink, slashing with his claws at the blur of green eyed speed that was the other. There was meaty collision, filled with grunts and growls and clawing. The interloper was clearly very strong and seemed impervious to harm, big and broad shouldered.
But not a trained fighter. Not like Reese, who spun and moved like a dancer, who went after eyes and nerve clusters with unnerving accuracy. Finch felt his heart hammer in his chest as he watched the fight. He now knew how lucky he was that Reese had still been fighting the Oracle’s control tooth and nail when he had first confronted him; if Reese had given up, if he had just attacked like he was ordered to, Finch would never had been quick enough to bring him down. He wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Reese got the other into an arm lock and sent him to his knees with a well placed kick, free arm raised for the killing blow through the neck.
“No,” Finch coughed out, still choking on the foulness shooting up from the floor. “No, don’t kill him! Don’t kill him, John!”
Reese looked up, eyes still flaring.
“It’s not his fault,” Finch pleaded. “It’s not his fault. The c-collar...”
Reese looked back down at it, at the loathsome thing locked around the other preternatural’s neck. The claws came down.
The collar sheared off, broken ends glowing orange where it landed in the dust. Reese dropped the other to writhe in pain on the floor.
They looked up. From above, narrow pipes were descending. At the tips, sparks arced with little popping snaps. Snap-snap-snap...
Reese slammed into Finch, rushed him to the nearest wall, rushed him in a breathless hot burst through the wall...
Finch felt the ground shake underneath as the sparks finally lit the gas jets in the tunnel over from theirs. In cross passages ahead and behind the light suddenly blazed as bright as daylight, blue and orange flames stampeding past.
Finch was huddled on his knees in the tunnel. Reese was wrapped around him, pressed along his back. They were both breathing like they’d been running for hours.
“The next time I am the bait, Mr Reese,” Finch gritted out. “Do let me know in advance.”
Reese uncurled from his protective body block, but didn’t abandon his sentry spot. “No time. But hey, if you want to be the one to tackle them...”
“No, thank you,” Finch muttered as Reese helped him to his feet.
“Then we’re stuck with the status quo as is, Finch.”
Finch gave up. It wasn’t like he could argue with facts. “The poor man....”
“An Erymanthius,” Reese shrugged. “They’re tough. Their skin is impervious to harm, burns included. He’s probably alive. Hairless, but alive.”
“Erymanthius,” Finch breathed. The legendary boar-like creature famed in myths of old. “Very rare.”
“Hopefully, not rarer now.” Reese reached down to pick up the glasses where they’d dropped off in all the confusion. “Where to next?”
They walked onwards.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?!”
“The tracker was removed with the collar, ma’am,” the operator stuttered. “He just walked out. Well, he knocked down some walls until he found the subway.”
“Filthy, ungrateful swine,” The Delphi Alpha snarled. “And the others? You’re telling me the Hive still can’t find them? That’s impossible!”
“They’re getting readings....” the operator hesitated. “But they’re all over the place. Every time they start to get a read, they start seeing something else; somewhere far away or years ahead. We’ve predicted lottery numbers for the next decade alone.”
The Oracle stared at him, aghast. This wasn’t possible. “I. Want. Them. DEAD. Do you hear me? Dead! Send my other in! And the rest of the dogs. All of them!”
They stared at her, sweating and grey. Usually you could bend a horseshoe around her poise, but she wasn’t a picture of sensuous majesty, not anymore.
Her precognition fired and fired. Bad, bad, bad.
In the corner, the webcam blinked.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
It was three various traps later.
The weighted lances that dropped from ceiling were a matter of speed and a judicious use of phasing by Reese, the path through the booby trapped stepping stones was a child’s game to solve for Finch.
And the quicksand?
“Was it really necessary to carry me?” Finch muttered as they limped toward yet another cross section. This one had pillars and alcoves attached to the walls. Part of a defunct subway station, maybe?
“You’re welcome,” Reese replied smoothly. He went into the cross section first, as he always did, scanning the area before allowing Finch to enter.
“We could have gone around,” Finch added. “There was a clear path.”
“Careful, Finch. You’ll hurt my feelings.” Reese was far too amused by his discomfiture with being carried like a bride and leapt over the trap.
“I’ll weather the storm of your tears as best I can, Mr Reese,” was the acid riposte.
Reese laughed silently. “Take a seat,” he chivvied his charge towards one of the alcoves, where there was a jutting bit of alcove at about the right height for sitting.
Finch looked over the proffered spot wearily. “My leg won’t be any better for the resting, Mr Reese.”
Reese seized one of Finch’s hands. “Your head might be, though.” He held the appendage up, showing the fine tremors that shook it. “Give the adrenaline time to subside a little. Besides, you and I need to discuss exit strategies.”
Finch sighed. “Very well.” He sat in a clear space, between bits of exposed rebar.
Reese casually yanked out a long piece of rebar like a carrot, before sitting next to him. He also handed him the piece of rebar. He shrugged in a face of Finch’s look. “Every little bit helps.”
Finch took the weapon gingerly, severely doubting it would do him much good. He smoothed the sand with one bare foot. Using the rebar at a stylus, he started to draw lines.
“So,” Reese began when it became clear Finch was not going to open the conversation. “What is your exit strategy? The Delphi Alpha is not planning on congratulating us and sending us on our merry way once we reach the centre.”
Finch frowned at the marks he was making, erasing a few and adding more. In his head, the Labyrinth unfolded like a flower. “Most people think of the Labyrinth as squares built of squares. But it was designed to the Greek aesthetic of the golden ratio and the golden ratio is ultimately a spiral; and so is the Labyrinth. In a way, you are always travelling to it’s centre. That is the trick of it. In order to get out of it, you must, in fact, go in to it. At the centre, you can access the Oracle’s headquarters, and presumably walk out the front door of the building above.”
“We’re not getting out that way Finch,” Reese shook his head.
“Of course we aren’t,” Finch rolled his eyes. “That’s why I paid an obscene amount of money several years ago to one of the builders of this place to add a trap door near to the centre of it. A second exit to the outside world, just in case.”
Reese raised his eyebrows. “You play a long con, Finch.”
Finch shrugged. “There was no intention for use. It just seemed prudent to be...prepared, when I heard they were building this place.” He looked down at his drawing.
So did Reese. Twisting, crisscrossing lines of passages marked the sand in all directions. He shot a sideways glance at the man who was now walking the maze with him.
Smart. Wealthy. Strange. Secretive. A perfect mind bolted to an imperfect body.
Apparently able to extrapolate a layout for a Labyrinth with only one section used for reference, from memory and skill alone.
What have I found here? Reese wondered to himself.
One thing he did know; this broken winged bird was getting out of this maze alive. Reese would ensure at least that. He’d made a promise to the one he loved, long ago. Those were the promises he intended to keep.
“They used to call Ciphers ‘Keymasters’, way back in the day, pre-electronics” Reese commented idly. “Able to logic up ways to open any door, unlock any unlock, answer any riddle, map any quagmire, solve any code.”
The rebar stylus hesitated ever so slightly on the final strokes. “That’s as may be,” Finch said softly. “But...knowing the answer and executing it are two different things.”
Reese’s eyes narrowed. It was a masterful deflection, but the very fact he’d admitted to it so easily told Reese there was more to it than that. Yes, Harold Finch was a Cipher, a codemaker of supernatural skill. But a Cipher wouldn’t be able to hide from an Oracle’s gaze. There was clearly something else, some other gift he had; the admission of Cipher was a sacrificial lamb, meant to sate the appetite of his interrogator.
Reese didn’t press. At this point it would do no good. He looked over the rough map; incomplete in places, but clear enough.
“Around the centre, there are the nine Anterooms, in a square,” Finch circled the grid he’d drawn. “That at least everyone knows; tradition. In one of those chambers,” Finch stabbed at one square. “There is a crush trap. Step in, the floor ascends and doesn’t stop until it reaches the ceiling, which would be unfortunate for anyone in between the two. But, underneath one of the ceiling panels there should be a hole; a way up into the street level above. From below it will look like all the other ceiling panels. From above, it will look like a manhole cover. That will be our exit strategy. There is, of course, a potential catch.”
“Of course,” Reese murmured, still watching the fascinating man from the corner of his eye. “Which is?”
“I don’t know if the exit was completed.”
Reese swivelled around to stare at him.
Finch sighed. “The man I paid to build it died before he could confirm to me it was completed. They all died,” here there was a tinge of bitterness. “All accidents. Terribly accidental accidents. Had I known she would have gone that far, I would have paid for plane tickets too.” Finch glared at nothing on the far wall, his mouth twisted with old regrets.
“So the exit may not be there,” Reese summarised grimly.
“It also may,” Finch argued. “It was at least partially built, I do know that. It should have been completed; the timeframe was right for it. But I could not confirm it absolutely. I did, however, have a contingency plan.”
“That would be me,” Reese nodded. “Phasing on street level is not going to go unnoticed, Finch.”
“I am aware,” Finch replied levelly. “But as a choice between that and dying horribly goes, I think even I might take my chances with exposure, Mr Reese.”
“A sacrifice indeed.”
Finch shot him a look, but Reese had phased abruptly through the wall behind.
“I’m about to be the bait again, aren’t I?” Finch said to himself. “Marvellous.”
There was a pounding sound of heavy boots trudging up the passage towards them.
Forget one exit, there must be dozens of little trapdoors and shortcuts into this place, Finch realised abruptly. How else could she get her minions in here so fast?
The Erymanthian Boar had been a massive but squat figure. This man was so tall he’d have to bend to get into a regulation door. His skin was so dark as to be almost night black, he shoulders wide enough to brush the edges of each archway as he shouldered through this. There was a puff of a breath, that seemed to explode from the man’s nose.
His eyes glowed...no, they burned an incandescent red.
A Minotaur? Finch blinked in surprise. An actual Minotaur? Finch thought they were extinct.
“My goodness, she really is traditional, isn’t she?” the words came out unbidden.
Minotaurs were seriously dangerous opponents. Immensely strong, even by preternatural standards, their strength was augmented by an ability to focus kinetic energy at close range. Around the bull, all china shops broke. Around the bull, the ground itself could crack apart.
Around the bull, people could literally be torn to shreds by a storm of energy the creature could unleash.
Finch didn’t think he’d even make it to stand, let alone run; the Minotaur was an intimidating creature up close and personal.
There was a fiery flash and Reese blurred in from one of the walls, tucking and rolling as he landed. He claws scythed out, slashing the ground between the Minotaur’s feet.
The Minotaur sank into the ground up to the waist.
But Reese didn’t slow down. His momentum took him gracefully to his feet and he dove for Finch, taking him through the wall as a roar of rage echoed through the tunnels.
“On my back,” Reese rasped, skin still etched in lines, teeth sharpened to a fang.
“Now!” The imperious snap was hardly necessary. He had the billionaire on his back before Finch could find the words to protest, and was through layers of walls in quick succession, each a breathless punch of dry heat, one after the other, after the other, after the other.
“Stop.... Stop!” Finch gasped, choking and coughing. Reese’s headlong sprint-and-slash slowed and they came to rest in yet another anonymous tunnel.
“What?” Reese was sweating and heaving. Finch was but a slight weight on his back, but phasing took a look of energy. He’d done more phasing in the last few hours than he’d done in the last few years and it was beginning to show.
“I think I left my stomach about four walls ago,” Finch moaned.
“Not far enough yet,” Reese rasped out.
The blast hit them from behind, and only a swift twist and slash into the nearest wall by Reese saved them. Dry heat enveloped them. Finch waited for the snap back to normal temperature which would herald their passage out the other side of the wall.
He waited. And waited. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel anything except the heat and the dryness. Limbo was sensory deprivation to an extreme. Finch panicked as he realised he couldn’t breathe, he still couldn’t breathe....
Then they exploded out into air, tossed asunder with violent force. Finch lay on the rubble coated ground, drawing dizzying breaths of relief.
We used the wall as a shield, he realised. We phased in and remained in limbo as the Minotaur’s deadly kinetic blow struck. The wall took the brunt.
Actually, Finch noticed as he levered himself partially up and finally took in the dust covered surroundings, several walls had taken the brunt. A gaping hole you could drive a car through and been gouged through layers of walls, even past where they stood. Even in phase the blast had managed to reach them, knock them both from the wall like so much shrapnel.
Large hands were turning him over from his face down sprawl. Reese was covered with dust and concrete, still breathing hard. “Are you alright?” he demanded harshly, patting him down. “Are you hurt?”
“I...” Taken aback by sheer fierceness of the question, Finch took a moment of gather his thoughts. “Yes. I’m fine, relatively speaking.” Finch hesitated a moment before adding. “And you?” He felt for his glasses; one lens was cracked, but they were still useable.
Reese breathed out. “Peachy. Relatively speaking,” he peered into the utter black where the hole was. The lights were flickering and dimming all over the place. The Minotaur must have taken out a chunk of the wiring, on top of everything else. “Come on. It’ll take him a minute or two to recover from that. We’ll need every second.”
This time, Finch didn’t protest being carried on the Hellhound’s back.
“How do you know so much about the Minotaur?” Finch asked as Reese set a steady pace though the tunnels, carrying him like a backpack. He was avoiding phasing, Finch noticed. Trying to conserve his rapidly diminishing strength. “As far as I knew, they no longer existed. And what is known about them is all but myth and stories. Right here.” He added at another cross section. “Then left again.”
Reese grunted and ran along steadily. “The Oracle used to pit us in fights against one another when she was bored. No dying, unless one of her creatures displeased her. Just almost to death.”
Finch sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry.”
Reese made a noncommittal sound. “It was better than the bedroom nights.”
Puzzled, Finch frowned as his carriers back. “Bedroom...?”
“When the nights were cold she needed a bed warmer, Finch,” came the sardonic explanation. “And she was sensitive to the cold, let me tell you. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this out for you.”
Finch felt his stomach turn over. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, because there were some acts that deserved an apology from the human race in general.
Reese sighted around the corner cautiously before moving ahead. “It okay, Finch. I liked the fight nights because they were interesting. The bedroom nights were just boring. For a lady with wears boots like that, her tastes are surprisingly vanilla. Not the kind of woman you leave lights on for.”
Finch blushed furiously. “More than I ever needed to know, Mr Reese.”
Reese just chuckled quietly.
Finch sighted the marks on the walls, adding to his mental map of the Labyrinth. “We’re getting close to the centre now,” he murmured. “The Anterooms are just past here.”
“Then we should be worried,” Reese replied grimly. “We should have found more traps by now. If she’s disabled them, then she’s sent a lot more than the Minotaur after us, and he’s bad enough. He’s following us now.” Reese took a deep breath, trying to get awareness on what lay ahead. “He’s territorial. He won’t stop until we’re out of his space, or dead. He’s been in captivity too long; years, maybe decades. It’s never occurred to him that he could escape.”
Suddenly, Reese cocked his head to the side, and then phased them through a wall as the first shots rang out. After so much myth and folklore, the gunfire felt shockingly anachronistic; though it was thoroughly effective as well.
They phased out of the wall and into more gunfire, but Reese kept right on going at a dead run, slashing his way past two figures waiting in ambush, armed with big guns and glowing yellow eyes.
“Fucking Lycanthropes,” Reese snarled as he slashed his way through another wall, heading up the passage at a sprint. From behind there was laughter, merry laughter and yells echoing back and forth through the tunnels.
“Werewolves?” Finch gasped, still feeling the hammer blow of phasing.
Reese backed into a corner that was pitch dark and couched down, listening intently. “No; not exactly. Sort of like werewolves, but without any of the shifting ability. They have the pack hierarchy and enhanced senses, but that’s about it. They also have a kind of...hive mind, I guess. They’re linked mentally. Good pack hunters. Every one knows what every other one is doing, all the time. Werewolves won’t work with the Oracle, they know crazy when they smell it. The Lycanthropes are crazy already. Too much mental cross wiring. They’re also a vicious pack of thugs.”
“Wonderful,” Finch panted. “How many?”
“Too many,” Reese snarled. They could both hear the movement in the Labyrinth now, running feet, laughter like hyenas. “They have our scent.”
Finch clambered down off Reese’s back, standing on still shaking feet. He closed his eyes, seeing the Labyrinth in his minds eye, adding, subtracting, twisting and turning his way through it. “We have theirs too,” Finch said suddenly. The answer had come to him.
The answers always came to him.
Reese turned to face him.
“We have their scent. Or, more accurately, you do,” Finch explained. “You can backtrack to the shortcuts they used to get in here, the Oracle’s little backdoors. If you can breech security, the Delphi Alpha will send the Lycanthropes after you. She won’t have a choice, they’re the only forces she has close by.”
“The Minotaur won’t follow me, Finch,” Reese growled. “He saw you first. The Labyrinth is his territory for now. He won’t rest until you are out of it, or dead.” He was glaring at Finch, eyes alight.
“I can’t outrun the Lycanthropes, Mr Reese,” Finch glared back. “But I can outsmart the Minotaur. In fact,” Finch’s eyes narrowed as the clockwork of his mind threw out another algorithm of survival. “I may already see a way.”
Reese’s fist slammed into the wall next to Finch head, leaving a spider web of cracks. “I’m not leaving you here.” Came the snarl, sharpened with rage.
“You have no choice!” Finch return volley was a shout. “You can’t attack from two sides at once, Mr Reese.” He added, quieter. In the distance, the Lycanthropes were laughing and chuckling back and forth, moving ever closer. “You can’t take on the Lycanthropes and the Minotaur and not fail; you’re already half exhausted. We are outnumbered. Splitting their forces – and their focus – is the only way.” He tapped the high tech beads still adorning Reese’s wrist. “I’ll take these. Once you are out of range of the jammers and on camera, you will be their focus. They won’t see me. They won’t even know what happened to me. We’re next to the Anterooms now; I will get into the Centre.”
“And take on the Minotaur,” Reese added, voice hard. “He’s too much for me, Finch. He’s too much for you.”
Finch sagged against the wall where Reese had somehow managed to crowd him. “So were you, Mr Reese. But I managed. Remember, I unlock any lock, open any door, crack any code and solve any problem. I’m trusting you, Mr Reese,” he looked Reese dead in the eye, his own burning with conviction. “I do not do so lightly. I am trusting you to survive, to disrupt operations in the headquarters enough to sufficiently distract the gaze of the Delphi Alpha and her support staff, and then, Mr Reese, I am trusting you to come back for me once my virus is uploaded, because without you I may not have an exit, understand? Just a messy, messy death. I am trusting you, and it would be... helpful, if you would grant the same courtesy to me!”
They held each other gaze for what seemed like an eternity. “You could have escaped at any time,” Finch said in a low voice. “Any time in the last three years. Don’t tell me a man like you couldn’t have found a loophole in the Delphi Alpha’s commands; she may be an Oracle but that doesn’t mean she has two brain cells to rub together.”
Reese barked out a laugh at the sudden levity.
“I don’t know what kind of arithmetic of penance you are tallying up, Mr Reese,” Finch declared, voice still whisper soft. “I don’t know how you calculate the weight versus the counterweight. But from my perspective, you’ve paid your dues. It’s time for the Hellhound to rise out of limbo, and start living again.” Tentatively, Finch reached out a hand to grasp Reese by the shoulder. Contact was not easy for him. “And I would appreciate it you would remember to take me with you when you go.”
“And if you die?” Reese rasped.
“Then you will be free, and the Hive will be free,” Finch shrugged philosophically. “And...my work will continue without me. It won’t all be for nothing.”
Reese was staring at him, or through him, at some vista only he could really see. Much to Finch’s amazement, a large hand unexpectedly folded around Finch’s, where he gripped Reese’s shoulder.
Reese’s eyes bored into Finch. “We do this my way, then.” His claws came out and slashed down Finch’s palm.
Finch blinked, and then hissed as the Hellhounds claws parted the skin on his gripped hand, neat and clean. “What...?” The sensation was both a sting and burn, but not as painful as such a wound should have been. Those claws were deadly sharp.
His demand for explanations was suddenly drowned in the sensation of heat of Reese’s mouth and the tongue sliding across the wound and across his suddenly hypersensitive palm, lapping and suckling the flow of red blood that had welled there.
Shocked beyond words, all Finch could do was ride out the sudden influx of sensory data as best he could. One downside to being a Cipher is that the mind analysed everything, down to it’s last iota. All of his multitude of neurons were firing away, parsing and inspecting and categorising every last bit of it, leaving him no space for actual thought.
Reese suddenly leaned upwards, pressed his full body length against the smaller man and for one wild, unbalanced moment Finch thought Reese – John Reese, former Hellhound assassin – was about to kiss him and, even more bewildering, didn’t know whether to categorise his feelings as relieved or disappointed when he tilted his head in to get his mouth close to his ear instead.
“Now I can find you, anywhere,” Reese growled softly. “Stay alive, little bird. I’m coming for you.”
“What have you done?” Finch asked unsteadily as Reese pulled away. “What have you done?”
But Reese was moving up the passage and a dead run, and slalomed into the two Lycanthropes coming in from the opposite direction. There was a confusion of grunts and growls and flashing lights from the Lycanthropes flashlights. Power was erratic in the Labyrinth now.
Finch looked down at his hand, still shaking. There were four neat black lines on his palm, now sealed shut, rivulets of drying blood down the wrist and arm the only real evidence they’d been free flowing only moments ago. There wasn’t even a sting.
Beneath his hand, around his wrist, the beads now dangled.
The Delphi Alpha had destroyed her pristine manicure over the last hour, chewing on her nails. Eventually her precognitive warning became too much to bear, and she left the operations room and journeyed up into the most secured area in the building.
It was a Hive; people probably through there was some majesty to the rooms, the chosen Oracles arranged together with ceremony, surrounded by the trapping of a church or the altar. The reality was somewhat stark, women and girls arranged in rows of hospital gurneys like any other vegetative ward, drips, respirators and various other tubes taking care of their physical needs while their trapped minds were forced to look upon the future, which didn’t include them in it. It was a rather depressing place, really.
She looked upon the grand jewel of her collection, just to be sure she was still there. “He won’t succeed, you know. We would have seen that coming.”
Only silence answered her, which was fine. That was all that could answer her now.
Ha! She suddenly felt more confident. The little dog and the little man thought they could outplay her? The Delphi Alpha of New York? Whatever they thought they could do, whatever tricks they could play, she held all the trump cards. All of them.
The poor little dog, she smirked to himself. He thinks I’ve already broken him. He has no idea, no idea what breaking is....
But he will, after tonight. He will. She left the Hive, the locks dropping down with finality behind her, leaving only the glowing biometric screen active.
A call came in; she answered her phone.
“Ma’am, the Hellhound has reappeared on the cameras.”
She frowned. “Alone?”
Huh. Maybe it had all turned out right, after all.
“Ma’am,” the voice was suddenly frantic. “He’s accessed one of the beta doors ma’am. He has breached the building!”
Above her, alarms started to wail.
At the locked doors, the biometric screen’s indicator lights began to flash.
Flash. Flash. Flash.
Reese didn’t waste much time on the Lycanthropes. They were a threat to him in numbers, but they had split up too wide inside the tunnels to be of much use. One or two together weren’t much of a threat to him, though dodging bullets was never easy or fun.
Finch had been right; there were hidden trapdoors and access panels all over the maze. He followed the scent trail of the Lycanthropes as it thickened and thickened. They’d all come in as a group, so the nexus point of all the scent trails told him where he needed to go. Following the scent trail was child’s play, taking out random Lycanthropes was just muscle memory.
Reese was free to turn some things over in his mind.
He could still taste Finch’s blood in his mouth. It hadn’t been like this, not with the Delphi Alpha. Reese was currently buzzing with energy; he was running and phasing easily, like he hadn’t been doing it half the night. Most would look upon this unexpected second wind as thing of serendipity but years of covert work had left Reese somewhat suspicious and cynical of unexpected good fortune.
This wasn’t right. Something in Finch’s blood was... was augmenting him. Cipher’s didn’t do that.
Or.... Reese hesitated at a corner, before plunging on toward the end of the scent trail he followed, momentarily pulled up short by the enormity of the thought that occurred to him.
Or.... do they?
Could Oracles be blocked by a Cipher? Had anyone ever actually tested it? Ciphers tended to be rare, and they tended to be relegated to ‘on occasion, useful’ status within society. The niche-level workmen. People who solved little problems and, in this computer age, wrote incredible unique programming that could only be truly understood by the Cipher who made it, but they generally weren’t movers or shakers. No one looked at them. Their abilities carried no flash, no tangible effect. It was entirely possible that people just assumed they were under an Oracles gaze and no Oracle ever really looked their way. It happened. That was how Shadows usually survived.
But... every time the Oracles focused on Finch, they started having visions of everything but him. Good, clear, long term visions. Like they were looking through....
Reese stopped dead at a blank expanse of wall. The scent trail had ended.
What if being a Cipher wasn’t about having the power of a calculating mind? What if it was...
No wonder the Oracles couldn’t see him, Reese realised in shock. Of course they couldn’t.
Behind him, a pack of Lycanthropes were charging up, guns raised.
Reese phased through the wall and into the secret tunnel on the other side. Unlike the Labyrinth, this one had clear signage. He shredded the ID card reader on the inside of the door, but that wouldn’t keep for long.
He took off down the tunnel, and the stairs at the end.
At the end of the tunnel there was a camera, it’s red light blinking away.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Finch picked up a torch, dropped by one of the Lycanthropes in the struggle with Reese. It was one of those heavy metal ones that could double as a baton. It wasn’t much, but he’d take what he could get.
He resolutely ignored the still forms, still dressed in their security uniforms. He didn’t know if they were alive or dead; finding out would not change anything he had to do next. He also ignored their guns. They wouldn’t help him. He limped into the passage way; the final one. The one that girded the Anterooms, arguably the most deadly traps yet.
The builders had marked all of these too; just as well. He needed to find one in particular. As he limped around the ring passage, he heard the roar of the Minotaur, making his ponderous but unstoppable way towards the intruder he sensed.
Not much time.
Thankfully, the third door was the one he wanted. Some builder with a sense of humour had christened it ‘The Funhouse’. Finch opened the door.
An infinity of Finches looked back at him.
The room was lined, pillared and shot through with mirrors. It was impossible to parse the edges, the centre, or the end of the room. Even the floor and ceiling were mirror lined. Trying to get a grip on the shape and expanse of the room was near to impossible, with reflected images distorting every sight line.
The trick was you had to find the door on the other side. But hidden in the blind, and indeed, mirrored corners of this space were pits; some deep, some shallow. If you were going to fall, the deep ones could be considered the merciful kind. The length of the fall would kill you.
In the shallow ones, you could watch yourself in the mirrors even down there, dehydrating to death.
Bright lights were interspersed at random intervals, turning the room into a complex interplay of blazing white light and pitch dark shadow. The pits were hidden by the mirrors, by the optical illusions and blind corners. It was a maze within the maze.
Behind Finch, the Minotaur roared.
Finch looked at his own face, pale and mud smeared, in a coat too big for him and barefoot, armed with a torch.
Against a Minotaur.
Against a Minotaur whom Finch would only make stronger the closer he came.
Breathing out, he stepped into the Funhouse.
Local intelligence gathering was something Reese did automatically now; he couldn’t remember the last time had been to a place where he hadn’t fully done recognisance, had not fully understood the space and all the forces acting on it. In the espionage business it was common sense survival. Every little factoid may one day prove to be pivotal.
For example, even though his movement were restricted to his cramped dorm-like room and wherever the Delphi Alpha Oracle had chose to take him – ‘on walks’, so she had laughed – Reese had had three years to catalogue his surroundings. Which is why he knew the little secret things, like most of the security guards would use their yellow-stripe passes to get up to the executive floor whenever possible; that was because on the executive floor you could sign out a red-stripe master pass to get into the executive and the extremely expensive executive coffee from the executive break room.
He also knew that because the Hive housed both inpatients and staff twenty-four and seven, it needed amenities – like wide garbage chutes and dumbwaiters from the cafeteria, that may have made the building look tidier for not having food service staff running around, but were every infiltrators dream.
These observations had served no actual purpose at the time, but Reese had been extremely good at his job, once upon a time; intelligence and it’s application.
After breaching the building and dispatching the first wave of security – private security, human, Reese had tried to leave as many as possible alive – Reese headed for the cafeteria. Alarms were shrilling around him; he’d have to be fast. The Lycanthropes were coming, and in this more enclosed hunting ground they would gain advantages they hadn’t had in the Labyrinth.
There was no staff in the cafeteria, or in the kitchens beyond. Once the breech had been identified the building had been evacuated and indeed was still being evacuated; since this cafeteria was on the ground floor, it would have been one of the first emptied. Pots and grills still sizzled as they cooled.
Reese had to work quickly. A few quick slashes removed cameras from the walls. He stripped of his jacket and the shirt underneath, unblinkingly sliced one of his arms and bled on both until they were well stained. He opened one chute door; trash chute, and dropped his jacket down it. He found another tube; this one had electronic controls; a dumbwaiter. He stuck his shirt into that and sent it up to the highest level it could go in the building.
Then, dressed only in his undershirt, he crouched at the swinging steel door of the kitchen, and waited by the stoves.
Four Lycanthropes eventually came in. They had their guns drawn, and the memory of what Reese had done to some of their colleagues had at last rendered them wary. That’s the problem with the hive consciousness. One person’s adrenaline rush becomes the entire pack’s in short order; and down the intelligence quotient went. Lycanthropes weren’t actually that stupid if they had a strong Alpha who knew how to adequately channel and focus the psychic link; but the Delphi Alpha Oracle had kept this pack’s Alpha weak with booze and drugs and celebrity, on the not totally unreasonable supposition that it was wise to make sure your mercenaries couldn’t turn on you.
Their eyes glowed yellow. They didn’t wear radios; they didn’t need to. Their experiences, sights, smells and sounds were all being broadcast telepathically to the rest of the pack. Reese would have to be quick.
Fortunately, they noticed the smell of the gas he’d turned on before they managed to turn away from the scent trail of the fresh blood; one going up, one going down. One spun around towards the hiss of the gas, but Reese was on her faster that she could move, and she was down with one blow.
The next sequence of events happened within a few seconds; Reese leapt at a likely looking target behind the one he’d just felled and managed to wrestle the gun up and away before the man could squeeze the trigger. The man yowled in pain as his arm snapped like a twig, which didn’t quite cover the sound of guns being raised from the other two.
One Lycanthrope was older, more experienced. That was why when the broken armed one was still transmitting his desire to pull a trigger, he was still able to hesitate and pull together the facts of gas, closed space and spark inside his brain. Outside the doors there were cries of ‘don’t! Don’t fire!’ coming from other pack members, who had been drawn towards the assault.
But the other Lycanthrope was younger – just a kid really – too young to have learned how not to listen to his instincts.
The Delphi Alpha entered here enormous private office at almost a run. After fielding calls from operations and security and had irritably snapped at them to handle it, goddamnit! and had retreated to her office. Any moment now calls would be flooding in. The building evacuation, even at this time of night, would not go unnoticed. The Delphi Alpha would have to answer them, reassure the public – that the Oracles could come under fire at all would be humiliating enough. They were supposed to see the future, after all.
There was a box on her desk. She stared at it blankly until she remembered; she’d asked for the little limping man’s things to be brought to her so many she could find out who he was. They had literally stumbled over him trying to help a man escape hitman; something the Hive had predicted as an imminent event. Usually they wouldn’t alter the man’s fate unless they were paid to do it, but the image had suddenly gone so fuzzy and uncertain, they knew whatever was interfering with their readings would be involved, somehow. They had waited, and pounced, and the nakedness that followed was just sheer spite to the Delphi Alpha’s part. The unassuming little man had been an enormous thorn in her side for too long. She’d promised... certain people certain futures; it looked extremely bad for the Delphi Alpha and the Delphi chapter of New York if she couldn’t deliver as promised.
Dropping onto her leather chair, she pulled the box toward her. She discarded the nondescript suit; it was good quality, but nothing astounding. The rest of the clothing held no interest. There were no business cards, no wallet, no tickets stubs or car keys. Nothing but... she dug in the jacket pockets and unearthed a cell phone. Ha!
It was switched off, but she depressed the power button and it still carried a charge. It was a rather cheap looking smart phone; hardly impressive. The screen lit up and flashed a bright blue.
Flash. Flash. Flash.
The Delphi Alpha’s own computer terminal began to boot up. She swivelled around in her chair to stare at it as the logon screen appeared. The phone screen went black, and then lines of code in ominous white began to scroll up it, faster than they eye could follow.
Her computer suddenly logged on.
She blinked, gaping like a fish. Bad, her precognition warned her. Bad, bad, bad.
Suddenly, the phone read ‘uploading’, with the holding circle rolling underneath it. On her computer screen, photos and files began to flash by. Familiar faces.
There had been so many; so many obstacles to the path she had found herself on. So many whining, ignorant policy makers and lawyers and social workers and doctors, so many protesters and bloggers whose fates should never have been allowed to interfere with hers. They hadn’t, in the end. She hadn’t let them.
Here they all were, flashing past on her screen, steadily, without pause. The last Delphi Alpha, her mentor, she’d regretted that one. The doctor who had been too thorough in his autopsy. The senator who had protested presence of Oracles at bill voting, thinks their subtle gestures might hold sway over conscience. The activist who had gathered and collated too many whispers and rumours, and had been too good at sifting out the facts; his wife, of course, too. Workers who had built the Labyrinth, lawyers who had covered the tracks, accountants who had buried the bodies... not one had been missed.
She stared at the macabre slideshow of her guilt in horror, shaking as more and more faces were added. Finally, she could stand no more – screaming with fury she heaved the computer, off the desk and smashed it to pieces against the floor, kicking and screaming in wild abandon, before destroying the phone with one satisfactory stomp of her stiletto boots.
Hair askew, face wet with sweat and panting, she kicked the wreckage impotently one more time before forcing herself to be calm. It didn’t matter. They would never leave the Labyrinth alive. Her Hound would return to her. Once she showed him the truth, he would stay voluntarily. He’d never want to leave. He’d do anything she asked.
Her breathing evened out. This might have made her appear calmer, until you looked into those dark eyes. There was a glitter there that was no longer entirely... sane.
One thing she would have to do, though, is take care of the little man herself. No one must know; he should never have the chance to speak to anyone at all. Well, that should be simple enough. She remembered the pathetic figure from the interrogation room. He should be easy enough to break.
Bits of light fitting and fluorescent bulb fell scattershot on the mirrored floor, reflections flashing across walls, pillars and floors like a galaxy.
Finch had to pick his way carefully. The mirror maze itself wasn’t hard o map; compared to the Labyrinth itself, it was a much simpler maze. But the Delphi Oracle didn’t play fair even on her best day, so Finch hade to proceed with as much caution as could be spared in the circumstances.
There went another light.
Finch froze half a second, but didn’t look back. What would be the point?
The Minotaur had entered the Funhouse.
Finch gritted his teeth. He didn’t have much time.
It was no night to spend in the vents. Reese got in them and out of them as quickly as he could while the lycanthropes all howled and snarled throughout the building. He’d only needed to get up one level, to the upper security desk and those red stripe master passes.
He remained relatively free to do so. The Lycanthropes were all horribly confused; when they weren’t half hysterical over the sudden deaths of the comrades, they were trying to figure out there were two red-hot scent trails going in two different directions. Eventually they’d sort themselves out; they’d send scouts to the end of the chute and to the final stop of the dumbwaiter, and find where the fresh scent of prey blood was coming from. Right now, Reese had the advantage of time.
He got to the security station and liberated a red stripe pass from the safe there. Then he used it to get further into the building, into the master control centre for the building. He met no resistance on the way. Everyone had been evacuated and the Lycanthropes were chasing their metaphorical tails.
He could have just phased his way there; but the red stripe pass gave him just enough legitimacy to get to the master control room without being shot at. After all, the security guys still manning the cameras were looking for a creature phasing through walls, not a battered security guy using a pass. Subtlety was the key.
Subtlety and surprise – he used the red stripe on the master control door and then darted as it slid open; just as well, as he would have taken a shotgun blast from the security guard who had been tasked with defending it above all else.
Reese dropped the pass, and unsheathed his claws instead. He phased through the wall beside the door and punched the shotgun bearer lights out. He went for the other two occupants of the room before they could blink and as they were both human, they were down for the count before they could rise or even blink. He dragged their unconscious bodies away from the master terminal.
Three years of bedroom nights – the moment when Reese entered the Delphi Alpha’s master admin password made up for every one of them. The system was his.
Distraction? Reese grinned to himself, and accessed to the cameras in what – on the paperwork – was called ‘the barracks’ but everyone who’d actually stayed there called the cages.
There were dozens of them. Tiny, cramped little cells, each with an inmate. Detained at the Delphi Alpha’s pleasure. Reese had gotten to know quite a few of them over the last few years.
He hit the emergency door release and saw various inmates from various angles start in surprise as the doors all opened. Reese twisted a mike on a thin stem towards him and initiated the internal PA system. “Joan,” he rasped to the woman, a woman to whom he owed much kindness. “You know who this is. All the doors are open. Most of the security is disabled. Get them out. And cause lots of mayhem on the way.”
Joan’s smile was darkly satisfied. “No problem John.” Her hands were suddenly ablaze with fire. In one sharp burst, a fireball took out the camera.
John nodded. Joan would get them out. They were mostly street folk and runaways, taken in the same raid he’d been enslaved in, or sold to the Delphi Alpha through less than savoury means. They were all itching for the chance to be free. Thankfully the Oracle hadn’t thought to collar them unless they stepped outside the cells.
There, John had his distraction. Merry hell was about to fill the corridors of this places, and security was spread too thin or in the wrong place to contain it. Time to get down to the Labyrinth. He could still feel the strong pull of Finch’s presence. The man wasn’t dead yet.
The phone rang.
Reese hesitated; but he picked it up.
“Contingency... blue...level...access...Thirteenth...Floor... Ward...three...one...two... Bed...seven...” the voice was computerised.
“Who is this?” Reese scowled. All the monitors had suddenly flickered off and reset to blank. Words on repeat suddenly started flying scrod the screen. BROKEN WINGED BIRD. YOU PROMISED. BROKEN WINGED BIRD. YOU PROMISED. BROKEN WINGED BIRD. YOU PROMISED.
Reese felt a chill run up his spine. Behind him, an electronic safe clicked and opened. He spun around.
Inside was a blue pass. He’d only ever seen the Delphi Alpha use one. It was the skeleton key for everywhere in the building.
“Who is this?” Reese demanded again, this time in a snarl.
“Contingency... blue...level...access...Thirteenth...Floor... Ward...three...one...two... Bed...seven.”
Then there was a dial tone.
Reese surveyed the screens. They were all still scrolling the chilling words over and over and over.
Suddenly in uncertain territory, Reese grabbed the blue pass and headed out into the chaos of revenge taking over the building.
Finch had done all he could, everything he could possibly do. There was no way forward and no time to make it in any case. He stood in the dark, and waited.
With every step the Minotaur took into this funhouse from hell, hairline cracks would appear in every direction, floor, pillars, walls, ceiling. The beast was angry, his kinetic energy barely controlled. One image became two, four, eight, two hundred, three thousand. The cracks were sometimes slow, running across the glass as slowly and menacingly as crack in thin ice. Sometimes the mirror in question would just shatter, as if it was deep under water and just couldn’t take the pressure.
The Minotaur looked alarmingly human, but for the red glow of its eyes; enormous, but human like. It followed the trail of broken lights for the hated intruder, punctuated by the occasional shatter of glass. He growled and huffed his breath.
He all but snarled as the click of a flashlight caused Finch to come into view; the hated intruder now appeared to have infinite doppelgangers spreading out in every direction. What a sight they all looked; bruised and barefoot and barely dressed, glasses hopelessly askew. The original was in the centre, though, holding the flashlight and haloed in light. He met the Minotaur’s burning gaze.
“You don’t have to do this,” Finch told him softly, pleading for understanding. “You don’t have to bow to her commands. By the time this night is over she wouldn’t command the Delphi’s anymore. You will be free. You deserve to be free.”
The Minotaur didn’t heed him. It saw the intruder; in it’s broken mind the only space for thought was that the intruder must be eliminated.
With a mighty bellow it charged, gathering the kinetic energy around itself. He would end the creature that dared step into his territory.
Finch held his ground. There was nowhere to go. The flashlight bean didn’t shake, even though he trembled.
The Minotaur struck Finch, and Finch shattered into a million silvery pieces.
The Minotaur had charged a mirror, where Finch had jammed the flashlight into a smashed light socket and stood in it’s beam with his hands seemingly around it.
Around which he’d delicately wound the wiring from the light fitting.
The wiring which he’d hooked up to his scalpel-eyepiece, now missing from his glasses.
The tiny blade was but a pin prick through the preternaturals skin.
The 600 volts of alternating current certainly wasn’t.
Finch ducked and covered behind the pillar he’d leaned on while the Minotaur screamed and convulsed.
The then loosed the pent up kinetic energy.
Around them, the entire world seemed to shatter into more pieces than could ever be counted.
Reese cursed the machinations that had delayed him getting to the thirteenth floor. For one, the elector didn’t have a thirteenth floor, despite the building going up a good thirty.
Reese took the lift to the twelfth floor, after which he raced for the stairs. He was racing up the concrete risers when a door at one of the landing turnings appeared where no door should be. He took in the ‘Authorised Personnel Only’, and gamely swiped the blue pass across the reader.
The door unlocked.
Reese steeped carefully inside.
Once through, it was like he’d stepped into a new world. Gone were the sleek executive offices and cubicle farms. This was a vinyl lined hospital ward, glaringly white.
There was a security desk, currently unmanned. At the end of the hall he found himself in, there was a door with more locks, bolts and bars than could possibly be necessary.
The Hive, he realised, the knowledge punching him in the gut. No one ever got to see this.
There was a screen installed in the steel door. A steel bar lock remained firmly engaged, proof against anything but explosives, but the screen was blinking.
Blink. Blink. Blink. YOU PROMISED. Blink.
Chilled, Reese hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep going. He hated acting without information; this was by far nothing like what he’d expected.
Steeling himself, Reese phased through the door.
There were... there were so many of them. So many, all female, all hooked up to machines, all bald headed and capped with silvery nets. All still as death.
It was sickening.
Ward 312. Bed 7. Reese, edging with extreme caution, he found the right room.
He looked inside and nearly fell to his knees.
“I’m so glad I caught you John,” Jessica’s voice was warn, but there was a fraught edge that Reese picked up on immediately.
“Are you okay?”
“I am. I am John,” Jessica insisted to his sceptical silence. “But I’m glad I can talk to you all the same. It’s nice to have a friend to talk to.”
Yeah, a friend. That’s all they were now.
“Listen to me, John. I don’t have much time now, but I need you to do something for me. You need to promise me, John.”
Alarmed, Reese pressed the burner phone closer to his ear, trying to parse the noises in the background. Was she in trouble? In danger? Reese knew her voice, he heard the desperation in it she’d buried deep. “What’s wrong? It’ll take me at least a day to reach you...”
“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare, John; you won’t do any good that way. Listen to me, okay? This is really important and I need you to promise me something.”
“When you are lost; when you are wandering the abyss, you need to find the broken winged bird and get him out alive. Alright? I know that makes no sense, John, but I promise you, so many lives are going to depend to you getting that bird out.”
Reese scrubbed his face. “I don’t understand. This is a prophecy?”
“Yes. Life or death,” Jessica’s voice was grim. “You know how hard it is to get a prophecy to work? I can’t just go up and tell people, you know? They either don’t believe me, or panic and flail themselves right into it. Either way, they shoot the messenger,” Jessica’s voice was so frustrated. “I can’t tell you all the details John, but it’s very, very important that that bird gets out alive. For the Oracles if nothing else. For you too. John,” Jessica’s voice was wretched. “Promise me, John. Please.”
“Okay,” Reese breathed. “I promise. I’ll get the bird out. Any idea on a timeframe?”
Jessica sighed. “A lifetime. An eternity. Who knows? Time feels different than it actually runs.”
“Doesn’t it always,” Reese tried to inject some lightness to his tone. Jessica was upset.
“Yeah. You’re going to hate the next bit John,” she was soft voiced. “You’re going to hate it, which is why I’m not going to ask you to promise for this one; just a request, okay?”
Reese braced himself. “Okay.”
“When you see me next – really see me – you need to let me go.”
Reese felt like the earth had opened up and dropped him into the dark. “Jessica,” he hissed so he wouldn’t yell. “If you need... you’re in trouble, let me help you!”
“You can’t charge in and save the day every time, John,” she said levelly. “And even if you can, I don’t need any white knight charging in and taking over. Look at that! The skinny blonde bitch can think for herself!”
He laughed before he could stop himself. Jessica was always extremely clear about being able to handle whatever life threw at her.
“This is my choice John,” she insisted, which sobered him. “You remember that. And remember that I’m alive, and I’m going to be fine. I won’t be alone. You need to get on with your life. I know I can’t make you promise that, John, but you need to try for me okay? Trust that I know what I’m doing, that I got along fine without you before and I’ll get along fine after you too, just as I hope you would for me. Respect my choices, John; that’s one of the reasons I love you.”
Reese felt his stomach twist up. “You know I’d go as far as needed to help you, right?”
“I know. That’s the other reason. I know what I’m doing, John. It’s always been my choice.”
She was still Jessica, still her, even though they’d robbed her of her beautiful hair and jammed that terrible tube through the hole in her throat.
God, Jessica. He’d thought she was dead; he’d known in his bones she was dead.
No wonder the Delphi Alpha had always seemed so smug around him. She must have been saving this surprise for a special day.
“This is what you meant, isn’t it?” he said into the silence hoarsely. “When I saw you next, I needed to let you go. You saw this, you saw everything.”
He wished she could talk to him; the others had normal nasal cannulas but that tube rigged up to her throat meant Jessica wasn’t going to wake up anytime soon. She may not, ever.
I’m alive and I’m going to be fine. I won’t be alone.
Reese blew out a breath. Jessica had asked him to respect her choices. If she had seen all of this, she must have known that this would be where she ended up. He wondered what she had seen to make this future seem like the best option.
I won’t be alone.
If her coma was the incurable kind, then the Hive was her only contact to the outside world now. The others in the Hive would be connected to her, they would be able to speak to her, to lend her eyes and ears to the outside.
How could he... but he could, he had to. He’d promised.
“If you get the chance,” he whispered to her. “Drop in to my dreams for a coffee some time.”
He kissed her forehead, mindful of the neural cap.
Squaring his shoulders, he went to get the broken winged bird.
And rise again.
Finch was naked again, though only temporarily. He had to use the only article of clothing he had to sweep aside mirror shards for his bare feet. It was near pitch dark in the Funhouse now; not many lights had survived and certainly no mirrors had. Stripped of it’s eye twisting infinity, the room was now depressingly ordinary, barring the deep holes.
Finch had swept a path to the prone Minotaur, but there was little to be done there; the preternatural was unconscious, not dead, but it was a near enough thing. He was studded with shards and bleeding from thousands of cuts. Even if Finch could do anything about these things, there was nothing he could do about old scar ravaging one edge of the creature’s skull.
Finch shook his head. “She lobotomised you, you poor man. Every new thing I learn sinks her deeper still.”
Finch was forced to leave the mentally crippled man where he was and spend precious minutes sweeping a path to the door.
The door to the Centre.
He checked his glasses; still intact, though missing a piece. He still had the beads. He was ready.
The sudden luxury of the room was jarring after the hardship of the maze. Carpet soothed his bare feet, normal light filled the space. In the middle was an elevator which Finch would not be making use of. He slipped the bracelet off and took of his glasses.
The blow to his bad leg left him sprawling, keening in pain as his glasses and the beads skittered from his hands. He took another blow to the ribs before he could grasp what was happening.
The Delphi Alpha withdrew her booted foot as he gasped and wheezed, giggling softly. “God, you thought...you actually thought you’d...you’d leave here alive.” Her red lips stretched in a jester’s grin. “How stupid are you?”
She lashed out again. Finch was able to twist so the blow to his face was glancing; a direct one would have knocked out teeth. The inside of his mouth filled with blood from his teeth cutting his cheek.
“It’s unbelievable that I have to sully myself with this. I bet you thought your slideshow was so damn clever, didn’t you? That I’d somehow be frightened enough to, what, spare you? You. Are. Nothing. To. Me!” Each word was punctuated with a kick. Finch was forced to curl to protect himself. “You stupid, ugly, worthless...!”
“Do you want to know?” Finch mumbled, bloody to the teeth.
“I know everything!” she screamed the words in futile rage.
“You don’t.” Finch clawed himself upright, making the gesture seems as casual as he could without seemly like he was crawling towards his lost goods. They weren’t far. “You don’t know how I find them.”
The Delphi Oracle was panting, her dark hair a frazzled rats nest, her eyes as shattered as the mirrors Finch had left behind him.
“I was in New York when the Towers fell,” he hauled himself backwards again, seeming to escape the stomp of her boot. She laughed at his helplessness as it crunched into his knee and made him scream. “I w-was...there when the Oracles...failed. S-so my friend and I,” he saw Nathan in his head and tried to keep his vision from greying out. “We thought there must be a better way. A more reliable way. So...I built one. A Machine. Your Seers can only see one thread, one future for one person. My Machine sees everything. Every e-mail, every phone call, every download, every bit of information, everywhere. It watches through a thousand eyes. And do you want to know the difference,” he spat the words to her gaping mouth. “Between a human Oracle and a Machine? The Machine is right every time.”
The Delphi Oracle snarled at him. “I’m going to kill you,” she promised him. “Then I will find your machine and have it destroyed. You won’t even be named in history!”
Finch laughed at her, and almost hysterical chuckle. “Too late,” he gasped out. “I’ve already sold it. Or haven’t you noticed the government isn’t coming to you for predictions so much anymore?”
“You’re lying!” She shrieked, kicking out at him again, driving him back. “Lying. The Delphi’s will not be replaced by a...a calculator!” She punched him, hard enough for a spray of blood to leave his mouth. Her chewed red nails grasped a handful of his hair, other hand producing a knife still covered in Reese’s blood.
“They...already...have,” His fumbling hand had captured his glasses, and swept up the beads in one of his flails. He wrapped them together and squeezed hard.
“Guess your future, little man,” she hissed in his face, spraying him with spittle, pressing the knife to his jugular.
In Finch’s hands, the beads vibrated.
The upload was complete.
Wh...what? What the hell?
Hello? Hi! Can you hear me?
I hear you honey...actually, I hear...
All of us, yeah.
A babble of silent voices rose.
Everyone. A voice stronger than the rest rose above the confused storm. Everyone listen. Here’s what we need to do.
A look of total consternation suddenly crossed her face, as if a bewildering thought just popped into her mind. Her mouth opened in an aborted scream as she was bodily lifted and hauled back by a menacing figure.
Reese’s silver circled irises blazed, even in the light.
He was lifting her by her spine.
“Let me go!” She shrilled, white faced. “I order you...”
“No. No, no,” Reese tapped her playfully on the nose, like she was a child. “You don’t do that anymore.”
A noise of pure, visceral terror clawed up from her throat.
Reese cocked his head at her, almost playful. Then he dropped her. He landed in an ungainly heap, legs splayed and bent like a frogs. She made to stand and flee but she couldn’t.
She couldn’t feel her legs.
Reese ignored her screaming and darted over to Finch. “Finch?” Gently, he reached around the man’s head to gauge his head wounds. “Can you hear me? Finch?”
“Minotaurs, Lycanthropes and Erymathia,” Finch mumbled, mushy mouthed with bruises and exhaustion. “And it was the boots that nearly got me.”
“What can I say, Finch? You have a way with people.” Reese huffed a soft laugh, even as he pinned Finch with a gentle hand to the shoulder. “Stay still. Let me check you over.”
Finch tried to fight the hold, no small task given his state. “No time. We have to go.” He fumbled for his glasses.
Reese’s jaw tightened, but he grudgingly helped the battered smaller man to his feet. Or foot, as it were. His bad leg was no longer up to sustaining weight.
The Delphi Alpha had stopped shrieking wordlessly and started using her words. “You can’t leave Johnny,” she panted. “If you do, I’ll kill Jessica. She’s still alive, I can prove it! I’ll kill her!”
Reese had paused in the act of supporting Finch to the door to the crush trap. “I’ve already seen her,” he answered softly. He added to The Delphi Alpha’s shocked gasp. “I’ve made my peace with it. Jessica doesn’t need a white knight to save her. She didn’t then, and she doesn’t now. Besides, holding people against their will is the plan of a fool. They make an awful amount of noise when you let them out.” He smirked at her.
The Dephi Alpha went, if possible, even whiter. “I’ll kill you! I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll find you and kill you!”
Reese sighed, and gently deposited Finch against one wall, before casually walking back up to her. He didn’t stalk or growl, he didn’t need to. The glowing silver circles around his irises held more than enough menace. She impotently tried to claw backward using only her hands.
He crouched down and, almost gently, grasped her by the chin. “No you won’t,” he promised her silkily. “You won’t look for us. You won’t ask after us. You are going to be as silent and as still as the grave. You know why?” He traced one clawed finger down her quivering neck, and took a hold of her hand, turning it palm up and tracing the bandage there. Her eyes were wide in mortal terror. “If you don’t, I’ll know where to find you.” He leaned in close enough for his lips to brush her ear. “Anywhere.”
She made a terrified rasping squeak and he rose and strode back to Finch, curling up and sobbing with fear. Reese ignored her.
Finch gave him a bleary eyed look, one eye already starting to swell under the glasses. They were barely any use anymore, cracked and misshapen, but he wore them, nevertheless. “Time to go.”
Reese wordlessly hauled him up and half carried, half supported him through the door. Behind them came the rumbling on the wakening Minotaur. What would happen when the creature fully woke and was left alone with the currently immobilised Delphi Alpha would remain unknown to them.
The crush trap was a deceptively cruel thing. Setting it off was the easiest thing imaginable; they hadn’t designed it in such a way as that could be avoided. There was a pillar in the middle, a fake version of the elevator shaft at the actual Centre. How many people had wandered in here, so relieved to think they had found the end of the Labyrinth... and then the floor would start to slowly rise.
And then there were the doors; doors lining the walls at different heights, each one disappearing at the moving floor rose above it. All fake, of course, but the false hope it offered must have given the Delphi Alpha great entertainment, watching panicking inmate sprint from door to door. The room was huge, they couldn’t all be tried in time. Assuming, of course, that anyone actually made it this far.
The floor was one huge pressure sensor. The floor started to lift the instant they entered.
Reese already had his claws out. “Well?” He watched warily as the false doors started disappearing and the ceiling inched closer.
Finch sighed at his cracked glasses. “The filter is useless now; if there were marks, I have no ability to find them.”
Reese growled under his breath. That was a less than ideal scenario. Phasing upwards wasn’t impossible, but you couldn’t gain any momentum in limbo and gravity would be fighting you. It was by no means a sure bet. “You do. Just not with the glasses.”
Finch peered around blearily. “We’ll go on cold logic, then. Find the highest door, the one closest to the ceiling.”
Reese scanned until he saw it (of course, given their luck, way on the other side of the room). He hauled Finch over as fast as his wounds would allow and reached it just as the ceiling started entering their normal line of sight. “Door?” He asked brusquely.
“Ceiling,” Finch replied. “Pray I’m right.”
Reese was not a man who prayed. Even if he was, his faith in Finch wouldn’t require one. He slammed his palms against the ceiling; it was apparently concrete panels. His first blow he could barely reach the panels but his second and third were frighteningly within reach.
One felt different. Reese hit it again, but nothing happened.
Scowling, Reese was about to put his fist through and be done with it when Finch reached up and hooked his fingers into one corner that appeared to be missing, a glitch in the design. There was a click just as Reese began to bend at the knees so avoid hitting his head.
Reese pushed at the door; it folded neatly up into the shaft; it was pitch black up there, but in the dim light of the shrinking chamber Reese could see the first rung of a ladder.
There was no time for anything elaborate. Finch disengaged from Reese’s grip and crumpled to the floor; Reese went upwards and hauled himself up the first few rungs before reached down and yanking Finch up behind him, no finesse and no care. If he hadn’t Finch would have lost something to the crush. The ominous sound of the two slabs coming together echoed up into the tight squeeze of the shaft. Finch was pretty much dangling from Reese’s arms while the bigger man had effectively wedged himself against the ladder rungs and the walls either side.
“Alright?” he rasped harshly in the pitch dark of the tunnel.
“I’ve had better evenings,” Finch breathed against his chest.
“I’ve had worse,” Reese smiled as he shifted position and prepared to get up the shaft one handed. His eyes glowed in the dark.“At least I can’t complain about the company.”
Finch scoffed at him tiredly as they stared to climb. He was in no shape to be of much help.
It thankfully didn’t take long to reach the end of the shaft. With careful fingers, Reese found the heavy metal cover and pushed it up and sideways.
The night was clear. There were even stars.
The Hellhound and a broken-winged bird rose from the Labyrinth.
A man sat alone on a bench in the park, pale like he didn’t see the sun much, lingering bruises and a cane for a wounded leg indicating he lived a life full of interesting times. The effect coupled with the impeccably tailored suit was jarring.
He was feeding the birds; they massed around him, ever aware of a generous patron.
Speaking of ever aware...
“Sencha green,” said the voice of the figure looming over his shoulder.
Finch sighed. “There really is no need to loom. I am well aware of your skillset.” He took the hot tea, because it was slightly chilly and knowing John Reese’s attention to detail, it was likely from a place Finch liked.
Reese flowed gracefully onto the bench next to Finch like he owned whatever space was ten feet around him. Thieves that had been sizing up the smaller man as a potential target abruptly decided they had better things to do with their lives.
Live them, for a start.
Finch let the silence draw out. It had been a long couple of weeks.
Once they had reached a level with sky, Finch had led them to a discreetly parked car not far from the monster that was the Oracles headquarters. Given what lay beneath it, the building itself was shockingly mundane. Reese would have had concerns about being so close to it, but the entire courtyard and most of the surrounding street was blockaded with cars luridly flashing blue and red lights. The Oracles support staff had far better things to do than to turn their eyes on the two battered men coming up from the sewers.
Too exhausted for anything more than a bare bones plan at that point, they had found the nearest upmarket hotel. Finch had equipped the car with a first aid kit and one of his black platinum credit cards so space had been relatively easy to acquire (“The honeymoon suite, Mr Reese? Really?” “Private, soundproofed and out of the way. You can even dictate staff and housekeeping access without seeming suspicious.” It sounded so plausible until you saw the shit eating grin Reese sported). Finch hadn’t the chance to do more than take some much needed painkillers and collapse into the staggeringly large bed. Sneaking in through the service entrance had taken up whatever fumes had been left in his reserve.
Reese had slept on the floor, at the foot of the bed. When Finch had slurred out the question, Reese had mere replied “Tradition. Go to sleep Finch.”
When he had woken, Finch had woken alone, most of the day gone and Reese nowhere to be found.
He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the ex CIA agent until this very moment, though he was aware, at certain times, of a shadow flickering out of the corner of his eye, a presence ghosting his footsteps. It wasn’t like he could hide from Reese. The man had tasted his blood. He could track Finch all the way to hell and back now.
There were four neat, black lines on Finch’s palm. The marks wouldn’t come off.
He drank the tea, marked hand warmed through the paper cup.
“Did you know?” Reese asked him abruptly.
Finch stared out over the ocean of sparrows churning at his feet. “Why would you think I would?”
“You seem to know everything else.” Reese turned to look at Finch, silver ringed irises no less disconcerting in daylight than they were in full dark.
Finch sighed. “No. I didn’t know she was still alive. There was an irregularity in the burial paperwork, but it was such a minor one that... even the most extreme paranoid would have been hard pressed to make a conspiracy of it. Given the traumatic injuries she suffered at the hands of her husband, her chances of survival were too low to calculate.”
“She’s not going to wake up, is she?”
Finch closed his eyes, and re-opened them. “I’m sorry, but no. The brain injury is far too severe. Her consciousness can only be expressed through the Hive now. They are her eyes and ears.”
“And voice,” Reese added, a note of irony in his voice. Some of the Hive members had been awoken by order of some politicos very high up the food chain. Oh, the tales they had told.
“She was... is an exceptional woman, Mr Reese. An Oracle of no small talent; they only one to successfully and fully predict the Towers and everything else she focused on.”
“Including you,” Reese’s eyes searched the other man’s profile. “She saw this. She saw everything. No Oracle had ever managed to see you before.”
“She was probably meant to be the Delphi Alpha herself; and indeed, might still become one. The realm of the consciousness is still a mystery. She will have a life, Mister Reese. Perhaps only by proxy, but she will have it. I envy her the ability to leave her body,” Finch’s lips almost curled into a smile. “I’m sure that if you forged a bond with her, you could become one of strongest agents.”
Reese shook his head. “She asked two things of me when I spoke to her last, Finch. One, get the broken winged bird out of limbo.” That finally made Finch’s eyebrows go up and his body turn towards Reese. “Two, to let her go. I promised her; I failed her in a lot of ways but I never broke my word to her. She saved herself; she saw you and what you were going to do and made sure I was there to help you do it. It may not fix everything, the world’s not so neat. But I’ve made my peace with it. Besides,” he added casually. “Loyalty bonds are a one-to-one deal and I’m currently spoken for.”
Finch grimaced. “About that...”
“I’m not flat lining, Finch,” Reese informed him cheerfully. “I’ve had about enough dying, thanks.”
Finch opened his mouth.
“You’re not flat lining either.”
Finch closed his mouth, looking disgruntled. He opened it again to say “I told you I didn’t want a slave, or a pet.”
“You don’t want to act as a living battery, either,” Reese watched the other man’s eyes – bullseye. The flinch was microscopic, but there. “I’ve had time to think about it. About what a Cipher actually is. They’re officially listed as low-level cognitively enhanced supernaturals, but that’s not right. I think they’re more of the telepathic spectrum.”
Finch looked away from him.
“After I drank your blood I was charged to the max and beyond. I know my limits too well to believe in luck, Finch. You augment people. You augment them subconscious to subconscious so that you can borrow the processing power of their minds. The admin consciousness of a subconscious telepathic supercomputer on minds. No one ever notices, do they? They become more powerful around you but you... you’re in the background, practically part of the woodwork. No one ever makes the connection.” Reese got up and manoeuvred around, grouching in front of the hunched up smaller man. Finch had to face this. Face him. “The Oracles couldn’t see you because when you use glasses to see, you don’t see the lenses. You see through them.”
“The Oracles never saw anything worthy, Mister Reese. Nothing that could be changed,” Finch’s voice was level.
“Is that why you built it? The Machine?”
Finch looked him in the eye.
“Come on, Harold. I heard you tell her.”
“For an entity that owns nearly everything and everyone, it was clear the Oracles were of no practical use when they should have been. I wondered if there wasn’t a way to use pattern recognition as a more reliable predictor mechanism than temporal telepathy, which is erratic and subjective at best. Thus, the Machine. I intended it to predict terrorist attacks but it’s gaze was far wider than I anticipated. It began predicting everything, violent crimes between one civilian and another. As long as it was premeditated, the Machine would pick it up.”
“That’s how you found people the Oracles had been paid to ensure died, and save them,” Reese nodded. “The Machine tells you.”
“Not everything,” Finch shook his head. “I’d already sold the Machine to the NSA; we were no longer supposed to have access. The NSA wanted to track terrorists. They weren’t interested in random acts of murder; they were... irrelevant. I did build a back door into the Machine, for safety’s sake. The Machine sends me a social security number if violent crime becomes a certainty; it could be the victim, or the perpetrator. Nine numbers are all the information on offer. The rest must be extrapolated without knowing the causal chain or having access to the information the Machine uses to predict whatever the event is.”
Reese slid the still warm tea from Finch’s hand. “I can help you.”
“I don’t need...”
“Unless you’re planning to beat would-be murderers into submission with that,” Reese indicated the cane. “You’re going to need help. Your ingenuity might not have equal, Finch, but it can only help you so much in the field. Eventually, someone is going to have to pull a trigger.”
“That,” Finch eyed the cane with distaste. “Is temporary. Not all of us can heal like a Hellhound.”
Silver ringed eyes locked with his. “You could, though. Not quite as fast, but faster than normal,” Reese offered softly, twisting the cap of the tea cup. He discreetly grew out the blacker-than-black talons on one hand and punctured his own palm with one quick clench of a fist. Blood dripped through the circle of his fingers into the cup. “You could.” He offered the cup to Finch, who stared at like it was a live snake.
“Not interested,” he said flatly.
Reese sighed internally. Some part of him just wanted to shake the man; to try to get him to understand that he could trust Reese. They walked a Labyrinth together. What more test of faith could be required?
“I drank your blood; the bond is already halfway done. We either break it, or seal it. And flat lining is off the table, Finch,” Reese rasped firmly.
Finch gave him an unimpressed eyebrow. “I really am a very private person, Mr Reese.”
Reese grinned at him. “I won’t gain the ability to read your mind, Finch.”
“Who was it?”
Finch blinked at the non sequitur. “What?”
“Who put a collar on you?” Reese persisted. That had been on his mind too, ever since Finch had begged for the life of the hapless Erymanthius which had tried to kill him. “Someone did; I know that look in your eye. I had it myself, once.”
“I got out.”
“Who was it?” Reese persisted.
“It doesn’t matter. I got out,” Finch’s tone was as final as death. Reese could play his games and try out all his interrogation techniques, it said, but this was a line no one crossed.
Reese held his gaze for an eternity of minutes before nodding. He reached for Finch’s marked palm. “These mean I can never turn on you, Finch, ever,” he traced a still out and bloodstained talon across the marks, ignoring the shiver this provoked. “The bond would rip my mind apart if I tried. No matter what I. Won’t. Turn on you. This,” he held up the bloody spiked tea. “Is to make sure you won’t turn on me. Plus, some of my power will flow into you, just like your power is flowing through me. Quid pro quo. You will never, ever have a better guarantee of safety than you will with me.”
Finch hesitated, finally, eyes flickering as he calculated odds as rapidly as any computer. “Reese... John,” he corrected. “The bond is for life. And sooner rather than later, we’re likely to end up dead if we do this. The government is watching, so are the Oracles, so are the terrorists and so are the criminals. We will be surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned and in enemy territory a hundred percent of the time.”
Reese shrugged. “Just another day at the office, then. If it helps,” he added to Finch’s scathing look. “I intend to live a long, long time. And as long as I do,” he cupped Finch’s face with one hand. “So will you.”
Finch held his gaze, before nodding slowly. He drank the tea.
Grinning delightedly, Reese retook his seat on the bench, sprawling out lazily. “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Finch rolled his eyes. “I regret this already.”
Already, in his head, Reese could feel the bond starting to settle in. “What now?”
Finch drew out a phone. “We have a number.”