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“There are worse things than death, I suspected. And I was beginning to get the distinct impression that one of them had taken an interest in me.”

Whitley Strieber, Communion (William Morrow, NY: Beech Tree Books, 1987)

Standing on the ledge outside the access tunnel, Joe surveyed the lush forestlands blanketing the mountainside ridge and found them curiously compelling. Naturally twisted firs stretched eagerly above the green crest into the moist Pacific air, while here and there stands of big-leaf maple, Oregon ash and cottonwoods crowded together within the picturesque canopy. Black basalt, jutting randomly from the crag, formed countless natural lookouts on which native Indian tribes stood for hundreds of years watching the bountiful Columbia feed into the Pacific Ocean. The river’s musk was drifting up from the gorge, but the richer fragrance was of wildflowers, as if the Almighty had strewn a fresh bouquet to purify the forest of the Nephilim stench that had so recently spoiled its florid sanctuary. In stark contrast to the unrefined beauty, a metal sign on the exitway behind Joe read—U.S. MILITARY INSTALLATION: NO TRESPASSING BEYOND THIS POINT. Below that in slightly smaller print was additional indication that, although the malodor of the creatures was dissipated outside, the foul and ancient things were never really far away. IT IS UNLAWFUL TO ENTER THIS AREA WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE INSTALLATION COMMANDER. LETHAL ENFORCEMENT IS AUTHORIZED.

Every instinct Joe had rushed with urgency. He clearly remembered the night he’d scarcely made it through these woods to the river while an unmistakable malevolence pursued him every step of the way. Now a similar chill was passing through his veins when suddenly, BAMM BAMM BAMM! A terrific thud jarred the cracked platform he was standing on, rattling the ominous sign above him and nearly knocking him off his feet.


Nine hundred and sixty-two pounds of Mega-Nephilim—named after the Hindu devil of torments, Rahu—punched the titanium door again. Its uncontrollable rage sent its immense fists colliding with the closure in excess of one hundred miles per hour.


Joe caught his footing and swung the M-249 over his shoulder. He clasped the girls by the hand and pulled them off the landing toward the woods even before he had time to contemplate the trees and what might be waiting inside them.

Heading the opposite direction toward a deer trail, Stark waved at them and yelled frantically, “No no no! This way! This way!”


Joe zigzagged along the forest’s perimeter, stumbling around a short rock arch before following the admiral into the woods. Soon he found himself in a canopy of limbs that on other days would have made for a nice picnic area. The ground was softer than in the tunnel, covered with pine needles and colorful leaves that formed a mushy trail beneath the branchy overhang. Fortunately a web of fallen interlaced limbs kept the woodland floor from shifting too far beneath their feet as they rushed over the soggy covering.

“It can’t break the door down, can it!?” Katherine gasped as she ran.

Stark was slightly ahead of the others when he shouted, “Not that door, it can’t. It’s titanium…several inches thick!”



The frame around the closure budged a little. What none of the officials at Montero knew was that the subcontractors had taken short cuts on costs and that the jams were insufficiently lagged into the rock. Rahu grabbed the door by the bar and jerked it back and forth as milky white foam flew from his rabid, thrashing mouth. His testosterone was at ten thousand, driving him to the breaking point.


When the door held, Rahu jumped back angrily and rushed it again, his immense shoulder colliding with the barrier like a runaway locomotive. Two j-bolts snapped in the jamb.


Outside, through a clearing, Joe spotted a logging road. The Columbia River and the Washington side of the gorge were also visible from here. He considered the distance to the path, then continued, carefully placing each step on the safest places of the trail. On one side of the avenue was a mountain face while on the other side a wild and occasionally steep precipice carved dangerously close to their feet. Before long the course widened, leveling off onto a plateau against the logging route. He raced across the tract onto the lane, then started downhill, pulling the girls aggressively to keep up with Stark, who seemed to be back to his energetic old self.

Joe wondered how long it would take to get to the river. If Allie had followed the plan, Buck would be on the beach by now. As he looked across the fir-clogged embankment paralleling the road, the Columbia River sparkled like a rhinestone neckband above the tree line, but the Oregon beach was not visible to him yet.

Suddenly a crash-bang-clang up the hill brought the group to an immediate halt.

Sheri, limping from what could have been a stone bruise, shouted, “Shh!…listen!”

Katherine, scanning the bluff, whispered uneasily, “I-I don’t hear anything. Not n-now.”

“Exactly,” Sheri breathed gravely, clutching a ruby lock of her hair. “No birds. No frogs. Nothing!”

A preternatural hush had fallen over the woods. Insects and other critters, which moments before had filled the background with nebulous buzzing, were silent following the racket, as if nature’s volume knob had been inexplicably turned off.

Joe slid the M-249 into position and carefully traced the trees with the tip of the barrel.

A moment passed…then a rumbling…muffled at first…then limbs cracking…stones dislodging…small trees shattering off at the stump…something big plowing down the mountainside toward them…





Admiral Stark understood the gravity of this situation more than the others did. He’d seen the beasts in action, both on video and in a controlled environment. Once during a live demonstration, he’d actually witnessed a fully-grown lion being ripped apart like tender-fried chicken. The Nephilim hadn’t broken a sweat.

He also knew a command decision was necessary, and that it was up to him to do it.

In a flash he was at the edge of the road near a particularly steep portion of the cliffside. A plan was unfolding as he moved.


Joe tugged Sheri while she held Katherine, and they joined Stark at the ridge.

Heavy footsteps were approaching through the woods.

“What are you doing?” Joe whispered to Stark, looking out over the precipice. His boot dislodged a small handful of stones that rolled over the cliff in a jittery downhill race.

Stark held the embryo container above the embankment as if threatening to drop it. “It’s called a standoff.”

Placing the girls on the ground between them, Joe assumed a classic combat position. He understood Stark’s plan, but compared to what was coming, he felt like a toy soldier, a Kmart G.I. Joe.

“You still have the laser?” Stark asked softly.

“Yes, but it’s nearly depleted.”

“Then I’d stick with the machine gun.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Something huge crunched to a stop in the thicket nearby.

Joe sucked in a deep breath and held it. The watcher in the woods was somewhere beyond the tree line, panting like a racehorse after a strenuous run. He carefully scanned with the weapon’s scope looking for it. He wouldn’t fire until he was certain he could hit a vital organ. He needed to kill the beast, not wound it; that would be a mistake. He’d aim for the heart and lungs, or maybe the guts if he had no other choice. He remembered what his dad told him years ago about grizzly’s having a thick skull. “A bullet can ricochet off their head and fail to bring them down,” he’d warned. “When hunting bear, always aim for the heart and lungs.”

Of course the thing in the brush was no ordinary animal. It was something much worse. It brought a wrongness to the forest, a throbbing, terrifying, trembling aberrance that burned against the edge of his nerves. The animals must have sensed it too, raccoons, owls, elk scared to silence by something pushing at them from deep inside the earth, a relentless disorder on the fabric of reality, an imminent doomsday driving up from the evergreen boughs and down from the air above them, pushing, pushing—


Douglas firs up the mountain thrashed, and something dawned on Joe. The nonbear was stationary because it was waiting for someone. Something?

“Crrria ank! Ni bada ayanth!” the dark creature across the road abruptly shrieked. It was the same bird-speak he’d heard on Level Twenty, so creepy it stopped his breath in his throat.

Further away, something responded with a strangely imperial voice. “Sssgratha! Sssri poct! Caw saalish! Ank cotta sssatania!”

Sheri stood, her face flush with fear, her eyes sparkling with unspent tears. “J-Joe,” she said, trembling.

“Shh,” he said. “Listen…”

Then they heard it. Slithering toward them.

“Here he comes,” Stark whispered. “Get ready….”

Undulating, a dismal figure uttering a concatomy of unknown jargon emerged from the woods forty feet away, serpentlike, swaying, the archdemon behind the Apol mask more visible now than before, the malignant details and sickening minutiae of its malformed structure pressing larvaelike against the underside of Apol’s fleshy membrane.


As secretary of defense in 1987, Major General William H. Layton had been rushed to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base the first night the alien bodies and the ETV, later code-named “Reindeer,” were brought in for study. That’s where he’d first met Special Agent Apol Leon, whom he’d later appointed project director of the research arm at Montero. He’d never regretted that decision. Although eccentric, Leon had proven to be proficient at interpreting the Dropa discs and at keeping the various aspects of the all-black project on target.

That was, until last night, when gremlins got into the machinery and the AngelStar system malfunctioned, reducing the giant army to automatons under alien control. Moments later, all contact with the Mars colony had been lost, and the Air Force’s Satellite Control Facility had recorded unclassifiable blips within the anomalous rift. To make matters worse, at 8:05 this morning, Admiral John Stark had been identified as Phobos—the leader of the mole mercenary group, Operation Gadfly.

Now as he rode the elevator to the Dungeon, General Layton couldn’t help but smile as he reflected on the potentially explosive situation. He understood what a magnitude-one catastrophe in the Reindeer Project could do to his professional life. Yet he believed this day would ultimately be remembered with mirth. Years from now, he told himself, he’d sip beer with his colleagues and laugh about that crazy time when everything went wrong, when he’d been forced to visit Montero to straighten things out. The future would vindicate the Reindeer Project and exalt him as a last-minute savior, a defining personality within an esteemed career.

Yet, the odd thing about the future is, you never really know what it holds. It could hold laughter, or terror, absolute terror, like the kind he’d found just inside the Dungeon…where Chemosh and the others had been waiting…to eat him.


The girls screamed in horror at the sight of Apol Leon. Pine needles and limb debris hung from his ruffled hair, and wriggling maggots oozed from deep lacerations on his mottled skin as he slither-walked to the middle of the logging road and screeched what sounded like an anguished warning to the nonbear. On either side of him, his malformed fingers snapped open and closed as if clawing at invisible pests. Behind his ripped and rotting tissues, glimpses of moving bone gave him the appearance of an exoskeleton, an outdated Terminator struggling for one more opportunity to kill. He froze, glaring through his empty black eyes at Stark dangling the embryo above the ledge. In heavy modulation more dragonlike than human, as if each gurgling syllable began deep in his belly and passed through boiling magma on its way to his mouth, he groaned, “Give me the zygote…and I’ll let you live. Rrrefuse me…and I promissse…you’ll die on this lonely road.”

Stark was evidently so startled by Apol’s rapid decomposition, the tangled mass of ragged skin, worms entwined around inner alien mass, black and oily, writhing—no—mutating inside him, that he didn’t wait for the rest of the speech.

“Listen up, Apol, or whoever the heck you are,” he grunted. “I’m one millisecond from tossing this container with its cargo back into the Hell it came from. Once my friends are safely on the other side of the river, then and only then will we discuss the embryo. Got it?”

Joe shot a glance at Stark. What was he doing?

Apol made a rumbling sound and looked into the woods. A portion of the thing clutching his clavicles slithered out of his stomach, crusty and wart covered like a lizard’s hide, then frenziedly withdrew behind a reeking flap of skin, as if scorched by the clean mountain air or in hiding from the Believers in God. Shifting wind blew an all-pervasive stench from the appendage that distended through the open air like vile water rolling off a rotting corpse on the beach. The rancid odor of decaying flesh carried an undertone that felt quaverous against the skin of Joe’s arms.



Seeing the mobility of the callused thing hiding inside Apol, Stark said, “Disagree with my terms, and you and your dog Spot will suffer Heaven’s fury!”

Stark had no idea what “Heaven’s fury” meant; it simply felt like the appropriate thing to say. If the comment served to confuse the creatures, to bluff them into thinking he had an ace in the hole, it might buy the kids the time they needed to make it to the river. He was sure the only reason the giant in the woods hadn’t attacked already was fear of harming the embryo. The squawking demonese spoken earlier between the two beings had no doubt included orders to protect the incipient mutation.


Apol’s eyes flared elliptically and his teeth clinched in rage. He had once been opposed by another military officer—Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Ryback—and had wasted him as easily as he would John Stark. The moment the Master’s embryo was secure, he’d summon the flying horde to do it.


With the memory of his father’s death still fresh in his mind and the knowledge that John Stark knew more about the mountain path than he did, Joe tethered what he believed was the only hope the others had for survival. He summoned his father’s face from memory, the thinning black hair and the hazel green eyes he had inherited, and wondered if he would ever see his mom and the girls again. Then, surprised at his grit, he turned and boldly demanded that Stark give him the container.

When the admiral didn’t move, he gripped the M-249 with one hand and reached around with the other.

“The embryo, John. Give it to me. Now.”


“Sorry, Joe, no can do,” Stark said flatly. He assumed Joe intended to replace him as hostage. He appreciated the heroism, but couldn’t allow it. It was one thing to bravely resign oneself to the possibility of sacrifice, and another altogether to negotiate a stand against the Devil.

Joe narrowed his eyes and replied firmly, “I’m afraid I really must insist.”

“Use your head, son.”

“I am,” Joe growled.

“Then you know we don’t have time for this.”

“Right, time is of the essence, so give me the damnable thing, now!”

“Can’t do it, Joe.”

“Sure you can, John.”

In the middle of the road, Apol looked amused.

Stark kept his eyes on Apol as he whispered to Joe, “You’re sister and Katherine need you now.”

“At the moment, they’d be safer with you.”

“How do you figure?”

“You’re the only one who knows the quickest route to the river.”

Stark blinked as it dawned on him that Joe was right. As the most informed among them, he was the logical person to lead the girls to safety. He also realized Joe was correct about time being of the essence. Given the SAMM’s imminent implosion, there was no grace remaining to debate the issue, and apparently no other alternative. With time running out, he moved as robotically as a tank barrel as he brought the container slowly around toward Joe.

Sheri grabbed Joe’s shirt and tugged frantically from behind him. “Whoa, wait, Joe…you can’t!”


Katherine’s mouth fell open as Joe clasped the embryo container and looked at her and Sheri. Was the biggest hero she’d ever seen going to die!? Would he sacrifice himself for them!?


Joe smiled at Katherine, then met Sheri’s frightened, deep blue gaze. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be with you in a minute, I promise.”

But he knew it wasn’t the truth.


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