About the Author
Mark Walden spent a decade as a video game designer and producer before becoming a fulltime writer and father. He has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Twentieth Century Literature, Film, and Television, both from Newcastle University. He lives with his family in the United Kingdom.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Zero Hour chapter one
A thin, elderly-looking man sat in a darkened office, facing an array of screens. At first glance a casual observer might have thought that he was ill, but closer inspection would have revealed the fine black veins covering his skin. Nothing was left of the man who had once inhabited this shell. All that mattered now was that it belonged to Overlord.
Overlord watched as the screens lit up one by one with the digitally distorted faces of his most loyal followers: men and women who had honored his legacy and continued the work he had begun while imprisoned inside the body of another. His Disciples.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I have called this meeting to discuss a very important matter. I have reviewed the plans that you initiated during my enforced absence, and while many are impractical, one has true potential. Its code name is Tabula Rasa, and although its scope is currently rather limited I believe that with some simple modifications it can be made . . . effective.”
“Master,” one of the faces said, “what can we do to assist?”
“The facility that contains the substance we require is quite secure,” Overlord replied. “I believe that Furan can provide the manpower necessary to handle that side of the plan, but we will also need to address the greatest threat to our success, G.L.O.V.E.”
G.L.O.V.E., the Global League of Villainous Enterprise, was an organization that had once been entirely under his control. That had been, quite literally, in a previous lifetime. Now it was under the control of Maximilian Nero, a man who had been a thorn in Overlord’s side for far too long.
“We can eliminate that threat,” Overlord continued, “but I shall need your assistance. I am sending you the details of a number of key G.L.O.V.E. facilities around the world. When I give the signal, you are to attack and destroy them. I, meanwhile, will put into action a plan to eliminate G.L.O.V.E.’s leaders in one fell swoop. I will transmit the details of your targets to all of you shortly so that you may make your preparations. Our time is coming, ladies and gentlemen. Soon we shall remake the Earth in our image and there will be no one to stand against us.”
The screens went blank again, and Pietor Furan stepped forward out of the shadows.
“I do not mean to question you,” Furan said, “but Tabula Rasa was one of our more extreme initiatives. I take it that you have an idea for how we can modulate its destructive power?”
“Of course I do,” Overlord replied, “but to do it we need one last piece of the puzzle. We need Otto Malpense, and I know exactly how we’re going to get him.
Otto ducked behind the low wall, trying to control his breathing, his ears straining for any sign of his pursuers. He knew that they were out there, but all he could hear was the slow drip of water from a leaking pipe nearby. Raising himself up just far enough to look over the wall, he scanned the wide-open concrete floor of the abandoned warehouse. The only illumination was provided by the dirty cracked skylights far overhead. He crept out, moving as quickly and quietly as possible from one area of shadow to the next. Suddenly he heard the crunch of someone stepping on loose gravel, and he flattened himself against the wall, raising his silenced pistol to shoulder level, ready to fire.
A shadowy figure rounded the corner and just had time to grunt with surprise as Otto’s pistol coughed twice, the shots catching his target square in the chest. The hunter slumped to the floor with a thud, and Otto broke into a run. He knew that in the silence of the deserted building even the suppressed sound of his shots would have given away his position. He was halfway toward the other side of the open area when a bullet buzzed past his head and hit the wall twenty yards away, with a puff of ancient plaster dust. He dived and rolled behind a wooden crate, knowing full well that the shelter it provided was temporary at best. As if to hammer that message home, another bullet passed through the crate in an explosion of splinters just inches from his head and struck the ground nearby. He looked desperately for anything that would provide him with more substantial cover and spotted a concrete support column about ten yards away. To reach it he would have to cross open ground.
Time seemed to slow down as he glanced at the splintered hole in the crate and the tiny crater in the concrete floor where the bullet had ricocheted away. He subconsciously calculated the trajectory of the bullet, his mind drawing a line back from the crater and through the crate. Springing up from behind the crate, he sighted his pistol and fired three times. There was a scream of pain from somewhere off in the darkness, and Otto sprinted for the comparative safety of the column. He pressed his back against the pillar, listening for signs of pursuit but hearing nothing. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement from off to his right, and he spun round, raising his weapon. He gasped as he felt a sudden sharp pain in his chest, and looking down, he saw the silver hilt of a throwing knife protruding from the center of his chest. He collapsed to his knees, his pistol falling from his numb fingers, and as the darkness swallowed him, he saw a familiar figure detach itself from the shadows nearby and walk toward him.
“I am sorry, my friend,” Wing said, looking down at him as Otto lost consciousness.
There was a sudden flash of white light, and the warehouse seemed to melt away, to be replaced by a brightly lit cave with a smooth metal floor.
“Exercise terminated,” H.I.V.E.mind said calmly. “Holographic projectors and variable geometry force fields offline.”
Otto rose groggily to his feet, feeling his strength gradually returning.
“There is such a thing as too realistic, you know,” he said, rubbing at his sternum and trying to forget the pain and shock that he had felt just a few moments before.
“That’s the whole point, Mr. Malpense,” Colonel Francisco said, striding across the empty cavern as Wing helped Otto to his feet. “The neural feedback suit allows you to feel all of the pain without suffering any of the physical injury. It ensures that you take these training sessions seriously.”
That may have been the proper name for the bodysuit that Otto was wearing, but he definitely preferred the nickname that it had earned among the students of H.I.V.E.—the Agonizer.
“Good work, Mr. Fanchu,” Francisco said. “You took your target down without hesitation, but I would still rather see you using your sidearms.”
“It was not necessary,” Wing replied with a slight shake of the head.
“Well, one day it might be,” Francisco replied with a frown. “Let’s hope you won’t hesitate then. The end result is the same, after all.”
Wing gave a small nod. Otto understood very well why his friend had not used his gun. The first and only time that Wing had shot somebody, it had been his own father. Wing had saved Otto’s life but still had not forgiven himself for killing Cypher and breaking the solemn vow he had once made to his mother never to take a life.
“Thanks a lot, Otto,” Shelby said as she walked toward them, rubbing her shoulder. “When the heck did you become such a good shot?”
“Beginner’s luck,” Otto replied with a shrug.
“And did you really have to shoot me twice?” Laura asked, still looking slightly groggy from being rendered temporarily unconscious by the neural shock administered by her own Agonizer suit.
“You gave away your position, Miss Brand,” Francisco said with a slight shake of his head. “How many times do I have to tell you about watching where you’re walking?”
“Sorry, Colonel,” Laura sighed. “I’ll do better next time.”
“Let’s hope you do,” Francisco replied. “Out in the real world there won’t be a next time. H.I.V.E.mind, please upload the result of today’s exercise to the central academic server.”
“Upload complete,” H.I.V.E.mind replied.
“Good. That’s all for now, ladies and gentlemen,” the Colonel said. “We’ll be moving on to wilderness environments next week, so please review the tactical briefings on your terminals. Dismissed.”
Otto, Wing, Laura, and Shelby met in the assembly area five minutes later after changing out of the neural feedback suits and into their black Alpha stream jumpsuits. They were just about to head back to their accommodation block when the doors on the other side of the room hissed open and Lucy, Franz, and Nigel walked toward them.
“How did it go?” Laura asked Lucy, noting the slight scowl on the other girl’s face.
“Don’t ask,” Lucy said with a sigh.
“I am thinking that you will be wanting to tell the others of my glorious victory,” Franz said with a huge, beaming smile.
“Okay, okay.” Lucy winced.
“Franz won?” Shelby asked, trying hard to not sound too astonished.
“Yes,” Franz replied proudly. “I am being like the shadow in the night. They can run but they cannot hide.”
“You got lucky,” Nigel said, sounding slightly irritated.
“Luck is not being the factor,” Franz said, shaking his head. “I am just being too good for you.”
“Well,” Otto said with a grin, “I for one want to hear all about it.”
“It does indeed sound like a glorious victory,” Wing said. Even he was struggling to keep a straight face.
“I’m not going to be allowed to forget about this in a hurry, am I?” Lucy said as Franz walked out of the room with Otto and Wing, explaining in great detail how his extraordinary stealth and cunning had been instrumental in defeating his opponents.
“Don’t worry. There’s no shame in losing,” Shelby replied.
“Really?” Lucy asked hopefully.
Shelby burst out laughing, setting Laura off too.
“I think this is going to be a very long day,” Nigel said to Lucy with a sigh.
Three men sat in a crowded bar in Colorado, a frosted half-full pitcher of beer on the table between them. The first man raised his glass.
“A toast, guys, to the MWP-X1 and the brave, intelligent, and handsome men that are gonna show the world what it can do tomorrow.”
“I’ll drink to that,” the second man said, raising his glass.
“It’s going to take more than one glass of beer for me to find either one of you two freaks handsome, but ah, what the heck!” the third man said, raising his glass.
“Let’s just hope that the General doesn’t find out that we’re not all tucked up in our bunks,” the second man said with a grin. “I’m not sure that this is what he meant by a good night’s rest.”
“Well, he can’t throw us in the brig till after the demonstration,” the first man said, “so I guess we’ll be okay for the next twenty-four hours.”
“After twelve months of living in the desert with him barking orders at us every day, I figure that’s the least he owes us,” the third man replied.
“You better not be complaining, son,” the first man said, putting on a gruff Southern accent, “because you should be proud—proud to be a part of the future of this great nation’s armed forces.”
“Sir. Yes sir,” the second man said, saluting the other man with a grin.
The three of them sat chatting and laughing for another half hour. None of the other people in the bar would have guessed by looking at them that they were the test pilots for one of the most confidential advanced military research projects on the planet.
“We should get going,” the third man said eventually, finishing his beer. “It’s gonna be an early start in the morning.”
“It’s an early start every morning,” the first man said with a sigh as he too finished his drink, “but yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“We better get some R & R after the demo tomorrow,” the second man said. “I’ve had enough desert to last me a lifetime.”
The three men got up from the table and left the bar, walking out into the cool night air and crossing the parking lot.
“What the heck—” the first man said angrily as they rounded the corner of the building. A shadowy figure was standing beside his truck, working a long thin bar down between the rubber seal and the glass of the driver’s side window. “Hey! Get away from my truck!” he yelled.
The thief’s head snapped around, and he saw the three men sprinting toward him. Abandoning his attempt to break into the vehicle, he ran into the darkness beyond the edge of the lot, with the others in close pursuit. They gained on him quickly as they sprinted across the dusty scrubland, and when the first of them got to within a couple of feet, the pilot dived forward, hitting his target in the small of the back with his shoulder and bringing him to the ground with a crunching thud. He rolled the thief onto his back and put one knee on the struggling man’s chest.
“You picked the wrong truck to steal, buddy,” the first man said as his two companions pinned the thief’s arms to the ground.
“Actually,” the other man said with a smile, “it was precisely the right truck.”
There were three small coughing sounds from somewhere behind the men, and each of them felt a sudden sharp sting on the back of his neck. The thief caught the first man by the shoulders as he fell forward, unconscious, and his two companions collapsed to the desert floor beside him. The thief stood up, brushing the dust from his jeans as three figures wearing black combat fatigues and night vision goggles appeared from the darkness, lowering their tranquilizer dart guns and walking toward the unconscious men on the ground.
“Good work,” Pietor Furan said as he pushed the goggles up onto the top of his head. The smiling thief gave a small nod.
“Get them onto the truck,” Furan said to the two men beside him. “We don’t have much time.”
“Ahhh, Lieutenant Barton. I’m glad to see that you’re awake,” a voice said from somewhere in the darkness that surrounded him.
Barton tried to sit up but was stopped by the straps that bound him firmly to the bed.
“Who are you?” Barton asked, an edge of panic to his voice. “How do you know my name?”
“Perfectly reasonable questions under the circumstances,” the voice replied, “but I’m afraid that we don’t have time for a full explanation. Let’s just say that I am someone who is eager to ensure your full cooperation.”
“You can go to hell,” Barton said angrily.
“Your two friends had a similar reaction,” the voice replied with a sinister chuckle, “but they soon started to see things my way.”
“What do you mean?” Barton said, feeling sudden fear for the safety of his friends. “What have you done to them?”
“Exactly what I’m going to do to you,” the voice replied.
There was a whirring sound, and a metal arm with a syringe mounted on the end moved into position next to Barton’s neck. With a hiss it slid forward, plunging the needle into the struggling man’s artery. Barton felt a burning sensation spread across his skull as the contents of the syringe were injected.
“You have just been injected with the latest generation of a substance called Animus,” the voice explained calmly. “You should consider yourself lucky. Previous generations would have killed you instantly, but this will just make you more . . . cooperative.”
Barton thrashed on the bed for a few more seconds, and then his struggling subsided and he lay still, his eyes staring blankly into ...
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