Artifact: A Joe Ledger Story
by Jonathan Maberry
I hung upside down inside the laser network of a bioweapons lab. Tripping the laser would trigger a hard containment, which would effectively turn the small subterranean lab on the picturesque little island in the south Pacific into my tomb.
I wish I could say this was the first time I’d been in this kind of situation.
Wish I could say –with real honesty—that it would be my last.
I was, as we say in the super spy business, resource light.
All I had was a bug in me ear, a Snellig Model A19 gas dart pistol in a nylon shoulder rig, and the few prayers I still remembered from Sunday school. Sweat ran in vertical lines from chin to hairline, and one fat drop hung pendulously from the tip of my nose. The watch on my wrist told me that there was nineteen minutes left on the mission clock. I needed fifteen of those to do this job.
I needed another twenty to get out. It wasn’t the heat that was making me sweat.
The earbud in my ear buzzed.
“The laser grid is off,” said a voice. Male, slightly nasal, young.
I composed myself before I replied. Barking at my support team like a cross dog would probably not yield useful results. So, I said, very calmly, “Actually, Bug, the laser grid is still on.”
“It’s off, Cowboy. All of the systems mark it as in shutdown mode.”
The network of red lasers suddenly throbbed. The crosshatch pattern, once comfortably large enough for my body to slip through, abruptly narrowed to a grid with only scant inches to spare on all sides.
“It’s on and it’s getting cranky.”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything, Bug. I’m still hanging here like a frigging bat. The floor is thirty feet below me and the laser net is getting smaller. So…really, anything you could do to shut it down would be super. Very much appreciated. Might be a bonus in it for you.”
“Um. Okay. Maybe there’s a redundancy system….”
“If you don’t stop humming the fucking Mission: Impossible theme song while you’re working…I will kill you.”
“My whole body is a weapon.”
“I know…you could kill me more ways than I know how to die, blah, blah, blah.”
The laser grid throbbed again.
I knew that the lasers couldn’t hurt me. This wasn’t a science fiction movie. Passing through them wouldn’t result in an arm falling off or my body being neatly diced into bloody cubes. However they would trigger the alarms; and for the last hour and sixteen minutes I’d been very, very careful not to let that happen.
Very bad things would occur if that happened.
Our best intel gave a conservative estimate of sixty security personnel on site, not one of who was bound by international treaties, human rights agreements, or basic human decency. This place recruited from groups like Blackwater and Blue Diamond Security. The kind of contractors who give mercenaries a bad name.
They would shoot me. A lot.
Bug knew there was no reset button on the mission. It was a matter of getting it right the first time, which made the learning curve was more like a straight line.
“Oh, wait,” said Bug. “Looks like they have a ghost program hiding the real operations menu. You need to input a set of false commands –which work as a faux password—in order to reach the–.”
“Long story short,” he said, “voila.”
The laser grid switched off.
I exhaled a breath I think I’d been holding for an hour and dropped the rest of the way down the main venting shaft to the concrete floor sixty yards below.
No alarms went off. No bells, no whistles.
No army of guards storming through the hatch to do bad things to Mama Ledger’s firstborn son.
“Down,” I said. I unclipped from the drop hardness and stood back as the cables whipped up out of sight.
“Lasers are going back on in three, two…”
The burning grid reappeared above me.
“Good job, Bug.”
“Sorry for the delay,” he said. “These guys are pretty tricky.”
“Copy that. Sending the floor plan to Karnak.”
Karnak was the nickname of the portable MindReader computer tablet strapped to my left forearm. It’s a couple of generations snazzier than anything currently on the market, but my boss, Mr. Church, always makes sure his people have the best toys. It’s dual hardwired and wireless connected to a whole series of geegaws and doodads built into my combat suit. I had everything in the James Bond catalog, from miniature explosives to a small –EDS–explosive detection system– and even a miniature BAMS -bio-aerosol mass spectrometer typically which sniffed the air for dangerous particles like viruses and bacteria. Dr. Hu, the head of our science division has several times told me that the collective value of those gadgets was worth ten of me. Considering that the rig I wore had a three million dollar price tag it was tough to build a convincing argument.
One-man army is the idea. Or, in this case, one man high-tech infiltration team.
The thing that really tickled Hu is that if I happened to be killed during the mission, the suit would continue to transmit useful information. So…the next guy would know what killed me and maybe not get killed himself. And then, when all useful info had been uploaded, small thermal charges built into the fabric would detonate and turn all of the electronics –and the body inside the suit—into so much carbon dust.
Hu thinks that’s hilarious.
He and I have not worked up much of a sweat trying to be nice to one another. If he stepped in front of a bullet train and got smeared along half a mile of tracks, I would –believe me—find some way to struggle on with my life. Sadly he doesn’t play on the train tracks as much as I’d like.
So, there I was a mile below the April sunshine, wearing my science fiction get-up, all alone, looking for something that none of us understood.
This is not an unusual day for me.
It might be an unusual day for the world, though.
Hence the reason for my being here.
Hence the reason why our best intel suggested that I might be the only cockroach in the walls. A lot of teams were scrambling around looking for the same thing. Good guys, bad guys, some unaffiliated guys, and maybe some nutjobs guys. Last time there was this much of a scramble was when a set of four man-portable mini-nukes went missing from the inventory of former Soviet play toys supposedly under guard in Kazakhstan. I’d been hunting for those, too, but they were scooped up by Colonel Samson Riggs. He’s the most senior of the DMS field team leaders. Kind of an action-figure demi-super hero. Even has a lantern jaw, crinkles around his piercing blue eyes, and an inflexible moral compass. We all geek out around Colonel Riggs. He’s the closest this planet will probably ever get to a real-life Captain America.
Riggs was gone, now, though. Swept away by recent events the way so many other top operatives are who maybe spend one day too long in the path of the storm. Leaving guys like me to take the next job. And the next.
This was the next job.
So far there had been fourteen separate attempts to recover the package.
Those fourteen attempts have resulted in sixty-three deaths and over a hundred severe injuries. That butcher’s bill is shared pretty evenly between all of the teams in this game. There are six DMS agents in the morgue. Five more who will never stand in the line of battle.
And all for something that nobody really understands.
We call it the package or the football when we’re on an open mike.
Between ourselves, off the radio, we call it ‘that thing’ or maybe ‘that fucking thing’.
Its designation in all official documents is simpler.
The artifact. Just that. It’s as precise a label as is possible to give, at least for now.
Why? Simple. No one –no fucking body—knows what it is. Or what it does. Or where it came from. Or who made it. Or why.
All we know is that twenty-nine days ago a team in Egypt ran the thing through an X-ray machine at what was the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology in Alexandria.
Yeah. You read about Alexandria.
The news services said that it was a terrorist device. Some new kind of nuke. The authorities and the U.N. aid teams keep adding more numbers to the count. So far it stands at seven thousand and four. Everyone who was at the University. Everyone who lived within a two-block radius. Not that the aid workers are counting bodies. There aren’t any. All that’s there is a big, round hole. Everything –every brick, every pane of glass, every mote of dust and every person—is simply gone.
And the ball buster is that there is no dust, no blast debris, and no radiation.
There’s just a hole in the world where all those people worked, studied, and lived.
All that was left, sitting there at the bottom of the crater, was the artifact.
One meter long. Silver and green. Probably made of metal. Nearly weightless.
Unscratched and untouched.
We saw it on a satellite photo and in photos by helicopters doing flyovers.
The Egyptian government sent in a team.
The artifact was collected.
Then their team was hit by another team. Mercs this time. Multinational badasses. They hit the Egyptians like the wrath of God and wiped out.
The artifact was taken.
And the games began. The multinational hunt. The accusations. The political pissing contests. The media shit-storm.
Seventeen days later everyone is still yelling. Everyone’s pointing fingers. But nobody really sure who was responsible for the blast. Not that it mattered. Something like that makes a great excuse for settling old debts, starting new fights, and generally proving to the world that you swing a big dick. Even if you don’t. If there hadn’t been such a price tag on it in terms of human life and suffering it would be funny.
We left funny behind a long way back.
From about one millisecond after the team of mercs hit the Egyptians every police agency and intelligence service in the world was looking for the package. Everyone wanted it. Even though nobody understood what it was, everyone wanted it.
The official stance –the one they gave to budget committees—was that the device was clearly some kind of renewable energy source. A super battery. Something like that. Analysis of the blast suggested that the X-ray machine triggered some kind of energetic discharge. What kind was unknown and, for the purposes of the budget discussions, irrelevant. The thing blew the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology off the world and didn’t destroy itself in the process.
If there was even the slightest chance the process could be duplicated, then that it had to be obtained. Had to. No question.
That was real power.
That was world-changing power.
For two really big reasons.
The first was obvious. Any energetic discharge, once studied, could be quantified and captured. You just need to build a battery capable of absorbing and storing the charge. Conservative estimates by guys like Dr. Hu tell me that such a storage battery would be, give or take a few square feet, the size of Detroit. There were already physicists and engineers working out how to relay that captured energy into a new power grid that could, if the explosion could be endlessly repeated under controlled circumstances, power…everything.
Everything that needed power.
People have killed each other over a gallon of gas.
What would they do to obtain perfect, endlessly renewable and absolutely clean energy?
Yeah. They’d kill a lot of people. They’d wipe whole countries off the map. Don’t believe it, go read a book about the history of the Middle East oil wars.
Then there was the second reason teams were scrambled from six of the seven continents.
Something like that was the world’s only perfect weapon.
Who would dare go to war with anyone who owned and could deploy such a weapon?
For seven and a half days no one knew where it was. Everyone held their breath. The U.S. military went to its highest state of alert and parked itself there. Everyone else did, too. We all expected something important to go boom. Like New York City. Or Washington D.C.
When that didn’t happen no one breathed any sighs of relief.
It meant that someone was keeping it. Studying it. Getting to know it.
That is very, very scary.
Sure as hell scared me.
Scared my boss, Mr. Church, too, and he does not spook easily.
Halfway through the eighth day there was a mass slaughter at a research facility in Turkey. Less than a day later a Russian freighter was attacked with a total loss of life.
And on and on.
Now it was twenty-nine days later and a very shaky network of spies, paid informants and traitors provided enough reliable intel to have me sliding down a wire into a deep, deep hole in North Korea.
If the artifact was here, then any action I took could be justified because even his allies know that Kim Jong-un is a fucking psycho. Basically you don’t let your idiot nephew play with hand grenades. Not when the rest of the family is in the potential blast radius.
On the other hand, if the North Koreans didn’t have it, then I was committing an act of war and espionage. Being shot would be the very least –and probably best—I could expect.
Which is why I had no I.D. on me. Nothing I wore or carried could be traced to an American manufacturer. My fingerprints and DNA have been erased from all searchable databases. Ditto for my photos. I didn’t exist. I was a ghost.
A ghost can’t be used as a lever against the American government.
I even had a suicide pill in a molar in case the North Koreans captured me and proved how creative they were in their domestic version of enhanced interrogation. I tried not to think about how far I’d let things go before I decided that was a good option.
I ran down a featureless concrete tunnel that was badly lit with small bulbs in wire cages. All alone. Too much risk and too little mission confidence to send in the whole team.
Alone. Racing the clock. Scared out of my mind. Hurrying as fast as I could into the unknown.
My life kind of sucks.
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