Elian’s device was contained within a small, plain box made of the same polymer as the Tower itself. “Don’t open it until you’re within 10 yards of the portal,” he’d told Ajax, with more than a little anxiety. “It might help if Jehane is present.”
“It’ll be cool,” Ajax told Elian. The kid clearly needed some encouragement. But now that he was wandering the edges of the barricaded zone, that wasn’t as clear.
He didn’t have much trouble understanding the language; his mother and grandmother had both spoken Spanish with him regularly. And, eavesdropping on conversations, he was starting to understand just how hostile the ‘Hellgate’ was. There were multiple levels of barricades. Scientists and soldiers filled the space between the outer barricade, which kept the afflicted region mostly isolated from the rest of the city, and the inner barricade, which was an attempt to slow down the monsters steadily disgorged by the Hellgate. They seemed incapable of completely stopping the monsters at that point, because Ajax watched a patrol between the middle and outer barricade shoot down a rhinoceros-like creature.
Technically, only approved personnel were allowed beyond the outer barricade, but there were too many alleys and back streets, and too many people who weren’t willing to give up what little they had just because monsters had moved in. So in practice the area around the outer barricade, both in front and behind, was a gradation of inhabitants rather than a clear line.
“At least the monsters look like monsters,” Ajax overheard one soldier tell another. “At least there’s that small mercy.”
But the number of Awakened in the area had skyrocketed, too, and the men with guns were tense and very frightened. Most of them didn’t have the Awakened guardians he’d seen on the squads in Detroit and Ajax had to resist the desire to help them out. His giant scythe was ridiculously conspicuous. He was avoiding attention so far, partially by keeping his head down and walking like he knew where he was going, but mostly by not being an alien.
Unfortunately, after a few hours of this, he was pretty sure it was nearly impossible for him to get anywhere near the big portal. The outer edges of the problem zone were fluid, but the middle barricade and beyond was full of lights and scientists and big machines and even bigger guns. If he could steal a uniform— but none of the soldiers wandered around alone and unarmed. That was inconvenient.
He hadn’t seen Hatherly or any of Hatherly’s allies. Ajax wondered if they were blending in just like he was. He could see Hatherly doing that, but probably not the others. And yet— Hatherly was the one who mattered; Hatherly and his weaponized cambion, that walking field generator. It was like Hatherly was walking around with a bomb, and nobody knew it.
Ajax stood in the upper floor window of an abandoned building within the outer barricade and watched the activity beyond the middle barricade. They were trying to communicate with the Hellgate, as far as Ajax could pick up. It seemed crazy. Troops and scientists from many different nations were arriving constantly, and he wondered how long they had before the military started to expand the Absolutely No Civilians zone just to have room for the official people.
They were getting better at managing the wildlife projected by the portal, at least. Bullets worked, if they used a lot of them, and there was quite a pile of corpses under a tarp. They’d tried communicating with the wildlife at first, too, Ajax had heard, but after four savaged scientists they’d given that up as a lost cause. The entities created by the remains of Tower Effa were frightening, and Ajax found the thought of them as troops directed by a non-broken mind both terrifying and exhilarating.
His stomach growled. It was probably time to head back to one of the meet-up points they’d established, away from the poorly camouflaged gate right outside the third barricade. He could find out if Seth had encountered Natalie or Jehane, and if anybody else had found Hatherly.
But as soon as he stepped outside the building, he realized he was in trouble. Two long-barreled guns pointed at him, and a uniformed figure leaning against the side of the building straightened up. “And there he is. I knew it was him.” It was the leader of the fireteam he’d briefly worked with in Detroit.
Ajax glanced at the two soldiers pointing guns at him. He thought he recognized one of them, but the other was new. A fourth member of the team was facing outward, weapon readied but not pointed at anything in particular.
Raising his hands slowly, Ajax turned toward the speaker. Definitely the same guy. “Hey, Corporal. I never caught your name before, which is hardly fair, because I bet you know mine.”
The corporal snorted. “Yeah. Martin. So. Can’t say that I’m surprised that you’re here. What do you know about that?” He hooked a thumb at the portal.
“Should you be asking me these questions? I mean, shouldn’t you be hauling me into your superiors or something?”
“Well, you know, I’ll probably do that. But as soon as I do, there’s going to be a dogpile over who gets to actually ask you those questions, what with this being an international operation. Plus,” a chilly smile passed over Martin’s face, “We were brought in ‘cause last time we got results. So it doesn’t hurt to get ahead of the game. You can put your hands down, by the way. We know what you can do.”
Ajax did so. “I know a little about the portal,” he admitted. “But it isn’t the biggest thing I’m worried about. It was opened by the same guy we faced before, and he opened it so he could do something much worse than what he did to Detroit.”
“Some of the troops have spotted him,” said Martin. “He’s been impossible to approach. He’s still got that… thing he had last time. The weapon that made us all feel like blowing our brains out, when we could even concentrate enough to think. As far as we know, he’s staying close to the portal.”
Ajax thought about that. “For protection, I guess, if the monsters aren’t attacking him. Damn. That’s going to make it even harder to get to the portal.”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you want to get to the portal?”
“Uh.” Elian’s box was nestled in Ajax’s pocket, and he was suddenly pretty sure it’d be confiscated if he mentioned it. “I want to go through it.”
“You know what’s on the other side?”
“Basically. Maybe you and your guys could get me close?” he suggested, without much hope.
“Not a chance. Ask again after we’ve dealt with the real target.”
“What, when I’m in the middle of the dogpile you mentioned?”
Martin stalked closer. “The thing I don’t think you understand, kid, is that this is it for your secret organization. We survive the latest threat, your group has to come out of hiding. This,” he waved a hand at the soldiers pointing guns, “is friendly in comparison to what you’ll get if you don’t.”
Ajax threw up his hands. “Fine. I’ll wave my magic wand and make it so.” Then Martin caught his hand and snapped something around his wrist. Almost before Ajax was aware of what happened, Martin was stepping away again, and the guns were suddenly very focused. “What the hell is this?”
“GPS tracker. You duck out on us again, like you did in Detroit, we’ll find you. In fact, please try. It’ll be nice to see where you call home.”
Ajax would have snickered, if he wasn’t so annoyed. Somehow he didn’t think a GPS would track him back to the Tower. But it would track him back to the poorly hidden gate, which had so far escaped notice. It’d track him back to the meet-up points and the others.
“I can see you’re thinking it over.” Martin pulled out another silver ring, this one a bit larger. “Look, I want to be on the same side. I don’t want to use any of these other toys. So why don’t you stick with us for now and we’ll go see what the status of our common enemy is, eh?”
“Fine,” Ajax snapped. If they could get him close enough to the portal— or close enough to Hatherly’s biomechanical cambion— that could be enough.