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PART FIVE: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT

CHAPTER 17

The explosion ripped through the lab. Dom was thrown against the back wall of the cell, and chunks of rock and metal pelted the bars. A cloud of greasy grey smoke swarmed toward him, and Dom turned his face toward the floor. His ears were ringing, and when he touched his face, his fingers came away with blood. His stomach churned as a stench of burned plastic, hair, and flesh rolled over him.

He had been in the trenches during the First World War. There were nights when the Germans shelled the line relentlessly. After the first few weeks, you got used to the constant crump! of shells being hurled from more than a kilometer away. Followed by the bone-rattling roar of the shell exploding along the ridge. A shower of dirt and mud and occasionally bits of someone you might have known. You didn’t panic. You didn’t scream or flinch or shit yourself. Those days were behind you. You tucked your chin and hugged the wall of the trench. This was your spot. The Germans weren’t going to move you, no matter how many shells they threw.

Sometimes you fell asleep. And why not? You weren’t going over the line tonight. Not with all that ordinance falling. Hold fast. Stay in your spot. You wouldn’t see the shell that killed you anyway. No point in worrying about it. No point in worrying about anything at all.

Dom wormed around on his belly until his back was against the wall. The floor of his cell was streaked with parallel lines of dust. The air was still choked with dust and smoke, but he could make out a huddled shape against the bars. There was a fire burning somewhere, and its flames lent a reddish tinge to the dust-laden air.

He gradually became aware of a shrieking noise, and he realized it was an alarm. It’s undulating wail was punctuated by staccato bursts of gunfire. Shapes darted through the haze, and his hearing recovered enough that he could distinguish shouts and screams in the cacophony.

Using his elbows and knees, he crawled to the bars. The body outside his cell was one of the technicians who had approached Elze’s cell, and Dom felt a pang of panic in his gut. Was she all right? There’s only one way to find out, he thought grimly as he riffled the corpse. His determination faltered briefly when he found nothing useful in the man’s pockets, but then he spotted the slender tube the man had been carrying. It had rolled against the base of the frame of the cell.

One end of the tube was covered with glass, and it appeared to have a confusion of mirrors and reflective surfaces inside it. Pointing it away from him, Dom pressed one of the two buttons. Nothing happened, and being the methodical sort, he pushed the other button. He was rewarded with a buzzing noise from the lock on his cell, and with a shivering rattle, the door of his cell started to move.

As soon as the gap was wide enough, Dom squeezed through. The smoke was thicker outside his cell, and he coughed savagely as he inhaled a lungful of the foul smoke. As he was trying to clear his chest, something exploded nearby, and he instinctively ducked as metal shrapnel whizzed around him.

In the sudden illumination of the blast, he caught sight of several figures. They were dressed in uniforms that were a mix of browns and greys, and like the beetle-men, they wore helmets that covered their entire heads. Unlike the beetle-men though, these helmets had long snouts that curled down to packs strapped to each figure’s chest. Their goggles were lit from within, glowing with a lurid luminescence.

And speaking of the beetle-men, Dom spotted some of them as well. A beetle-man spotted Dom, and he raised his PDR menacingly. There was a burst of gunfire, and Dom flinched, but the beetle-man was the target. The soldier side-stepped like he was trying to remember a dance step, and then he fell down. Dom only had eyes for the man’s weapon, which he quickly scooped up, and when another beetle-man materialized out of the haze, he fired a quick burst at the approaching soldier.

When the beetle-man fell, Dom ducked into Elze’s open cell. There was a single body, and it wasn’t Elze’s. Dom quickly scanned the floor, and didn’t spot the technician’s baton, and he concluded that the struggle he had heard shortly before the assault by the snouted ones hadn’t gone well for the technician. He returned to the door of her cell, his thoughts in a jumble. Where was she?

The lab was a mess. Many of the machines along the wall were clearly damaged. One was spinning a reel of fiery tape, like a demonic pinwheel. One of the desks had been shattered by the blast, and the other had been knocked out of the wall. The explosion had made a large hole in the wall, and smoke was drifted into it. Dom marked it as a potential escape route, but first he had to find Elze. There were bodies strewn about the room: techs, beetle-men, and a few of the snouted assault troops. The only figures still upright were two men, locked in hand-to-hand combat near the circular platform.

As Dom approached the pair, the beetle-man knocked the snout-soldier down. He loomed over the squirming snouter, a black-bladed knife in his hands. Dom, assuming the old truism about friends and enemies still applied, shot the beetle-man before he could perforate the snouter. The snouter, momentarily unaware of what Dom had done, figured the beetle-man had stumbled, and he scrambled for the dropped knife. He stabbed the beetle-man more than necessary, but Dom wasn’t going to interfere. Even with a gun, you interrupted a knife fight at your own peril.

The snouter, sensing Dom’s presence, whirled, the knife held ready, and Dom put up a hand, indicating he meant no harm. “I think we’re on the same side,” he said.

“Motainee,” the snouter buzzed. His voice was like a distant radio transmission, filled with static and space.

“I don’t know what that means,” Dom said.

“Motainee,” the snouter buzzed again. He jabbed the knife at Dom—not in an aggressive way, but as if he was excited and had forgotten what he was holding. He jabbed the knife toward the back of the lab, where the smoke drifted into the ragged hole in the wall. “Elkbarh roobess roobess.”

“I need to find my friend,” Dom said. He glanced at the remaining bodies in the room, making sure none of them was Elze.

The snouter continued to jabber, and Dom ignored him. He had to find Elze. He went to the platform and discovered it was a pool, filled with a shiny liquid that was strangely opaque. A white-robed technician floated in the pool, and Dom didn’t like the way the liquid grasped and licked at the corpse.

“Doom kheetal,” the snouter said. He shook his head. “Nah nah.”

Dom nodded. “Nah nah,” he said, agreeing with the masked soldier. Whatever was in the pool wasn’t right, and he had no intention of getting any closer.

Something howled in the hall outside the lab, a roaring noise like a hundred lions coughing, and a bright light seared the shadows. Dom smelled burning things again—cloth, flesh, plastic—and a plume of black smoke rolled into the lab. A figure staggered into the doorway. It was one of the snouters, but his helmet was misshapen and his uniform was dark. Dom realized it was because the man had been horribly burned. His helmet and gear had been melted, searing through flesh and bone.

“Motainee,” the snouter with the knife cooed. He plucked at Dom’s arm, tugging him toward the back of the lab.

The burned snouter tottered into the room and then collapsed. The smell of cooking meat grew stronger, and Dom’s stomach tried to tie itself into a knot. The lions roared again, and this time, Dom saw tongues of angry flame lick the wall and floor of the hall. A flamethrower, he thought. They’ve got a flamethrower.

The snouter’s tugs became more insistent.

“But . . .” Dom began, but then he heard that sound again. That tacky-ticky-tack-tack sound of time being torn, and he understood the snouter’s apprehension.

A shadow filled the hallway, and that was enough for Dom. He turned and hurried after the snouter, who was already more than halfway to the hole in the wall. He heard—no, he felt—an inhalation behind him, and he quickened his pace. The snouter was picking his way over the rocky rupture of the hole when Dom reached him. Unceremoniously, Dom shoved the smaller man ahead of him, and banging his knees against the ragged edge, he hurled himself into the dark hole. Elze! he thought. I’ll find you. I will.

Behind him, lions roared, and the lab filled with fire.

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