The first thing Brendan noticed when he opened his eyes was that it was bright. Too bright. The light was coming from behind every one of the translucent panels that made up the large square room. He groaned aloud if only to add some sound into the silence of this bright box, taking a moment longer before pushing up into a seated position. It was the strangest room he'd ever seen--consisting of four walls, a ceiling and floor, all identical in every detail, and each side of this cube-shaped room had what looked like a hatch door in the center.
Tentatively he rubbed the back of his head, hissing when his fingers found the raised bump from where someone had jumped him from behind. He let his last memory play out to see if it would clue him in on what had happened but he could recall only the play of his flashlight piercing the darkness of the seemingly abandoned warehouse.
One of Freya's mind probes had captured the location of the remote warehouse from a man who had connections to domestic terrorism.
Jarvis had come to the NSA's attention when the FBI started to investigate the disappearance of a prominent engineer and discovered a common link between him and several other missing persons. Although hired by what appeared to be different companies on the outside, all of the missing persons had worked on the same mysterious project. Following the paper trail, the FBI had determined that they had been hired by different subsidiaries of the same company, and Jarvis was the head of security for the over-branching firm. Since then more disappearances had come to light, all connected through a series of fake companies that led back to an extremist group operating outside Rapid City in the Badlands...and to this warehouse.
Normally, the NSA would have left this in the hands of the FBI but Freya had also pulled a name out of Jarvis's head--Doctor Paul Reismann. Doctor Welles knew of him, and he knew of Reismann's work in the field of psychological warfare. The NSA knew of Reismann's affiliation with the suspected leader of the extremist survival group. After that it was inevitable that the NSA would take over the investigation.
Brendan wasn't stupid though. He had called for back-up on a secure channel before entering the warehouse, giving his exact GPS location. Problem was, he had no idea if he was still at that location or if he had been moved hundreds of miles while he was unconscious. As the fog started to lift from his mind, he recalled one other extremely important detail--he had not entered the warehouse alone.
Where was Freya?
Fighting back the pain in his head, he cleared away the clutter from his mind and opened it the way Michael had taught him.
He didn't expect to hear back from her as that was not the way her talent worked but if she was anywhere close by then he hoped she would at least take comfort from knowing that he was still alive.
Slowly he climbed to his feet, only then noticing that his clothes had been replaced by a drab matching shirt and pants set that looked reminiscent of old-fashioned prison uniforms. He winced, wondering what had happened to the brand new suit that he had put on that day, and part of him decided that someone was going to pay dearly if they had damaged it in any way. Walking to the closest hatch, he turned the handle until it clicked and pulled the door until it slid downwards to reveal a crawlspace leading into another room. Small rungs built into the wall made it easy to climb up and he crawled through the hole pausing when he noticed the numbers etched into the metal on either side of a noticeable gap between the cube room and whatever lay beyond the hatchway opposite. Sitting back on his heels, he wondered at their relevance, though it seemed obvious that they had to be some form of numeric identification, like container numbers in a cargo port. He decided to leave that mystery for later and crawled forward until he could look through the hatchway. Beyond was another cube-shaped room that looked identical to the one he'd just left in every detail except that it was bathed in blue light; he stuck his head through to check it out.
Sudden movement had him pulling back sharply and he looked on it shock as a large scythe slashed across the hatchway entrance before slowly moving back into position. If his reflexes had not been honed by years as an NSA agent then it would have taken off his head. As the scythe settled back into place Brendan noticed the slight difference in the corner panel on the opposite wall of the cube and realized that there could be an identical blade tucked away over there as well. Working on a hunch, Brendan ran his finger along the outer rim of the hatch, tensing when the scythe cut through the air once more. He realized it had been activated by breaking the contact of a highly sophisticated laser passing across the open area of the hatchway, like the kind used in art galleries to protect valuable artifacts and paintings.
Brendan swallowed hard, wondering if this was some sick game and hoping that Freya was not being forced to play a part in it. Crawling back out into the 'safe' cube, he slumped to the floor only to hear a deep rumble and feel a vibration travel through his body.
It stopped as suddenly as it had begun and Brendan pushed back to his feet, staring around at the identical walls until something 'wrong' caught his eye. The hatch door had closed and on a hunch he re-opened it before clambering up the few rungs and looking through but instead of a blue room, it glowed a sickly green. Of course it could have been a simple trick using multiple colored bulbs hidden behind the panels but his curiosity was aroused. He crawled back through but stopped abruptly, finger tracing over the etched numbers as his photographic memory insisted the second number had changed, and looking through the hatch he could see the small difference from where the scythe on the other side should have been hidden.
This was a different cube, which meant the rumble must have been caused by the cube--or cubes--moving position. How many cubes, though? And more to the point, how many of them were safe and how many contained potentially lethal traps like the scythe in the other cube?
He focused his thoughts, speaking aloud just to crystallize them further. "Freya, if you can hear me then stay where you are. Some of these cube rooms are booby-trapped. I'll try to find you."
His finger smoothed across the number etched into the hatchway. It was separated into a series of three numbers and his first thought was that maybe they were coordinates--X, Y and Z axes--but if the cubes were moving then the coordinates would change too. Unless everything moved in a set sequence and this was the designated start position. He wished he'd paid more attention in his math classes now as he had no idea how to figure out how many cubes might be in this rat maze. Instead he recalled reading an article about mazes built to test the intelligence of rats and mice, and now he wondered how sophisticated the traps would be when the experimental subject was a human instead of a rat. His mind flitted back to the warehouse and he watched the mental video, feeling dismay build when he recalled canisters of toxic gases and crates of other unknown but--according to the shipping labels--dangerous parts and chemicals.
Then it occurred to Brendan that one of the first missing persons had been a mechanical engineer, and the most recent disappearance--just days earlier--had been an architect and structural engineer. Maybe this was the project Doctors Art Madrick and David Worth had been contracted to work on, and maybe that was the reason why they had disappeared--to preserve the secret of this cube maze of death. The question was should he sit tight and hope someone came for him, or should he risk moving through this deadly maze? Basic fear of both the unknown coupled with the known fact that some of these cubes were booby-trapped had him leaning towards waiting but how long could he afford to wait? If he had been transported elsewhere then he might die of thirst or hunger long before the NSA found him--and what if Freya was trapped in here too? Could he afford to wait not knowing if she was already moving through these cubes unaware of the danger?
Brendan already knew the answer. He couldn't stay in the relative safety of this particular cube when Freya could be in danger. He had to find her before she was killed by some lethal trap--or at least die trying. He slipped off his jacket, bundled it up and threw it in to the center of the sickly green room.
Taking a deep breath, he lowered himself into the room and stood still.
Letting out a ragged sigh, he picked up his jacket and chose which hatch to open next.
"Hello! Is there anyone here?"
Freya's last clear memory was of following Brendan inside a dilapidated looking warehouse in the middle of nowhere. At first it had seemed just as abandoned inside, with cracked panels letting in some of the brightness of the late afternoon sun. Dust motes had danced in those beams of sunlight, stirred up by their entrance but Brendan had spotted tracks in the dust that spoke of recent movement inside.
"Shouldn't we wait for back up?" she recalled asking.
He'd answered her with another question. "Do you sense anyone else here?"
When she admitted that although the place gave her the creeps it seemed empty, he had pressed onwards, following the tracks on the floor to a large set of doors built into the ground. There was a control panel on the closest wall, but as far as she could see that area was far too clean considering that the rest of the place seemed dirty and abandoned.
"The doors are controlled electronically like those on a ship's cargo hold," Brendan had murmured, his fingers brushing over the red button that probably activated the opening mechanism. "And it's a little modern for an old place like this." He crouched down and pointed at the ground close to the doors. "See," he had said. "The dust isn't lying here naturally. Someone scattered it to make it look like no one had used the place in years."
It was Freya who spotted the smaller hatch some distance away and Brendan who tried the handle. Brendan turned it clockwise until it clicked and raised his eyebrows when it slid aside easily with a gentle tug. "Sense anyone?"
She'd shaken her head because all she could hear was Brendan's racing thoughts and her own beating heart. She remembered following him down a spiral staircase into a darkened interior stacked high with crates and canisters. Luminous warning signs stood out on the sides, caught in the beam from her flashlight--flammable liquids, toxic gases, chemicals that needed careful handling. Dozens of panel sheets of a translucent type of glass or Plexiglas stood against a wall, reflecting back the flashlight eerily. She sensed another mind mere seconds before Brendan cried out sharply in pain, silenced immediately as his body sprawled over the pristine concrete floor of this lower level. Before she even had time to drop down beside him her senses were reeling, everything going out of focus. The flashlight dropped from her numbed fingers, rolling across the concrete floor before stopping against a crate and casting a shadow over Brendan's unmoving form. Darkness closed in around her but she never felt the impact of the floor that seemed to rise up to meet her.
She had awoken alone in a room glowing red on all sides--floor, ceiling and walls--recognizing the Plexiglas-like panels from the ones stacked in the warehouse. Her head was pounding from whatever gas they had used to subdue her.
"Hello! Brendan? Anyone?"
Glancing down at herself, she shuddered before pushing aside the creepy knowledge that someone had undressed her while she was unconscious, and then re-dressed her in strange prison-type clothing. Her name was block-printed on the jacket and she guessed they must have taken that information from the NSA consultant ID badge in her purse. The alternative, that whoever had taken her and Brendan had been prepared and waiting for them, was too disturbing to think about. It took away a little of the hope that their back-up would find them.
Freya closed her eyes and opened her mind, letting the walls within fall away. She could sense a mind close by but it was fuzzy, drifting in and out.
Moving around the cube-shaped room, she found the sensation was strongest right above her head, and she chewed her lower lip nervously as she looked at the door in the ceiling.
"Only one way to find out," she stated aloud and climbed up the rungs embedded into the wall, leaning across awkwardly for the handle. The door was similar to the one in the warehouse, turning just as easily and then sliding open smoothly. Getting to the hatch was a matter of hanging onto the bars and bending around the right angle between the ceiling and the hatchway. She cried out when her feet slipped off the rungs leaving her suspended by her hands--uncertain whether it would be better to drop back to the floor below and try again, or try to pull herself up until she could gain a foothold. After weeks of physical training at the insistence of the NSA, she had the physical arm strength so she opted for pulling herself up. Still, the muscles in her arms were shaking by the time she could place one foot on a lower rung and she stopped, letting herself rest for a moment before reaching for the edge of the door above her head. Something splashed onto her face and she brushed at the wet stickiness with her fingers before checking them.
Her heart missed a beat. "Brendan?"
A soft moan of pain floated down from above and with renewed strength brought on by an adrenaline rush of fear for Brendan, she surged upwards into what looked like a massacre. Three bodies... No. Her stomach lurched. There were two and a half bodies sprawled across the floor, lying in ever widening pools of blood. Her hands and elbows were covered, and her clothes too from where she was forced to brush against the floor above as she crawled up from the room below. Freya scooted backwards away from the carnage as soon as she was clear of the hatchway.
The amount of blood across the floor and smeared along one wall beneath the hatchway gave her a good idea of why there was only the lower half of one man's body present. The soft moan and the fuzzy thoughts returned and she remembered that one of the others must still be alive. From here she could see that the young girl's eyes were wide open and vacant in death so it had to be the other man. Carefully, she crawled back over, hating the stickiness of the blood beneath her hands and seeping through the thick material at her knees.
"Hey!" She asked softly, wiping her hands before reaching out to touch his bristle-roughened cheek. His head turned a fraction, his eyes fighting to open, revealing slivers of blue. The former white of his t-shirt and boxer shorts was soaked in fresh bright red blood that was more heavily saturated around his middle where he had a hand clasped to his abdomen. This couldn't have happened that long ago.
Pushing through the shock, Freya recalled the first aid lessons that the NSA had also insisted upon and touched his bloodied hand. "Let me see." She pried away his fingers and pulled back the shirt. A quick flick to the side revealed the weapon used to gut him--a handle from one of the doors, and yet it had not come from a door in this cube as she could see all six of them. He cried out feebly as she checked the wounds--two of them--trying to see how deep they went. One looked like it had gone sideways through the fleshy part of his waist but the second looked bad.
Pressure. She needed to put pressure on the wound even though it would hurt him, and she quickly removed her already ruined jacket--balling it up and pressing it hard against the wounds. He cried out harshly this time, weakly trying to push away her hands, and she could sense the pain sharpening his mind, bringing his thoughts back into focus.
"I don't know who Kazan is," she stated softly, but gained an impression of a man with mental problems that made him seem child-like. Autistic perhaps. She hadn't seen anyone though. "What happened here?"
The man started to struggle harder, trying to sit up but she forced him to lie still. "No. Just...just think about it. Don't try to talk."
His breath came in shallow, pain-filled gasps and at first she could read only a jumble of terrified thoughts. She needed to calm him down and direct those thoughts to give greater clarity.
"My name is Freya. What's your name?"
She could see the panic receding from his eyes as he locked his gaze onto her. "Worth?" She repeated the word she heard in his thoughts but it had come without meaning. Worth what? "David... Oh. You're name is Worth. David Worth." She closed her fingers more tightly around David's, offering meager reassurance when he frowned in confusion. "Yes. Yes, I can understand you." She smiled wryly. "Don't try to speak. I can read thoughts...surface thoughts." That was a small lie as she could read deeper thoughts than just what lay at the surface of his mind but she could sense the unease creeping into his thoughts and she didn't want to cause him any more pain even if it was mental rather than physical. By the look of him he had taken a beating along with the stabbing so he was already suffering enough.
"Tell me what happened here." The thoughts came too thick and fast for her to follow so she shushed him, asking him to slow down while she made sense of the way his mind leaped from one moment to another, back and forth in time. She repeated fragments of his thoughts out loud.
"Quentin? Psycho cop. He killed Holloway and Leaven." She had no idea who Holloway could be but her eyes drifted to the dead girl, knowing instinctively that this was Leaven. Even though she wasn't truly empathic, she felt all his sorrow as he described those last moments. He had tried to protect the girl from Quentin and, in return, she had tried to save him when he refused to take the escape route with Kazan, seeing nothing for him beyond the horror of the cube.
"At least...in here...I felt alive."
Freya could feel the bitterness and regret behind his words. If Leaven hadn't stopped to try to save him then she might have been safe by now, placed back in the bed in her parents' home from where she had been abducted with her mind wiped of the experience. Maybe both of them would have been safe if he had sealed the hatchway but he had left it open and Quentin had sneaked up on them, killing Leaven before David even realized the psycho was in the same cube as them.
"Kazan," he whispered. "Saved Kazan...didn't I?"
Freya lied, wanting to offer comfort. "Yes. You saved him."
In truth she had no idea where this Kazan might be, though she had a feeling that no one got out of this place alive. Many of David's jumbled thoughts had started to make sense, revealing a depth of cruelty towards others that sickened her. It occurred to her that it would be too dangerous to allow any of them to live after what they had seen and been through. Except if Kazan was autistic then he would not be capable of explaining where he had been, and even if he could describe anything, no one would believe him so maybe they would have let him live.
Stay where you are!
"Brendan?" His thoughts had barely grazed her mind but she knew him too well by now and was able to pick up his thoughts even on a crowded street. For the first time she cursed the limitations of her gift. She could read minds but she could not project her own thoughts into others. She could not warn Brendan of the dangers here--of the rooms with acid, of the rooms with wires intended to slice a person into pieces, of rooms where the slightest noise brought hundreds of sharp spikes criss-crossing the cube to skewer anyone inside.
Booby-trapped. I'll try to find you.
She had not realized she was holding her breath until his words caressed her mind but her relief was short lived. He knew about the traps but how many would he have to face to reach her--and David. It occurred to her then that she had already unwittingly blundered into what could have been a lethal trap. For all she had known, the bloodbath here might have been caused by the cube and not by a psychotic man. And what if she had not stumbled into David in this first cube? What if she had not heard his thoughts and had chosen a different hatch? How many more cubes would she have climbed into without thinking before meeting a grisly end?
As it was, she had no choice but to stay here as she couldn't leave David. He was too badly injured to move and she could not let him die alone for there was no doubt in her mind that unless they found a way out of this place soon he would not make it. She had devoured books to keep her sane while in the mental institution, and if everything she had read about stomach wounds was true then his death would not be fast and easy. It would be slow, drawn-out and filled with terrible agony that she had no means to relieve.
The rumble came again but she knew what it meant now, that the cubes were shifting position.
He squeezed her hand tighter. "Stay here...please," he implored and she would have misunderstood his need if he had not explained the significance of this particular room. Eventually it would form a bridge between the inner and outer parts of the cube, lined up with an outer door. No other cube stopped in that position. All they needed to do was wait here until it rotated back into its starting position, forming that bridge, and then they could walk out--just like Kazan. If only she had a way of letting Brendan know and her chest ached in fear for him.
"I'm sorry," he sighed gently, and her questioning frown smoothed away when he let her know it could be days before it rotated back into position--and by then she would be sharing this cube with three dead bodies.
He struggled to speak. "You should...dump other bodies. Health-risk."
Freya balked at the idea of touching them but David was right. If she had to stay in here for days then it would be better to dispose of the dead into another cube. Nodding, she opened the floor hatch, aware that the room below was no longer the same one she had left earlier and that it might be booby-trapped. It didn't matter though as the neither Leaven nor the remains of Quentin could feel pain any more. It took her a few moments to work up the courage to drag Quentin's remains to the edge and push them through but David grabbed her ankle when she moved towards Leaven.
"No. Wait until the next rotation...Please."
Beneath his struggled words were thoughts of not wanting Leaven's body dumped with her killer.
She sank back down beside him and pressed back on the stomach wound to try to staunch the flow of blood. Eventually it slowed so she took his hand, trying to offer comfort to the dying man as she waited for the next cube rotation and for some fresh sign that Brendan was still alive and working his way towards her. Silently, she wished she could turn her thoughts away from those of Brendan, terrified that he could be lying injured or dying somewhere in this Hell. He was more than a colleague, more than a partner. He was like a brother to her and she was scared that she might never see him again.
David stared up at the pretty woman, seeing the fear in her eyes and knowing that not all of it was for him. He felt almost flattered that she cared at all, especially with the carnage in the cube and what he had asked of her. He had seen the way she hesitated at touching what remained of Quentin, dragging the lower part of the man's corpse to the hatch in the floor and dropping it through. Part of him was grateful that he didn't need to explain aloud why he didn't want Joan Leaven dumped in the same cube as Quentin but the rest was terrified at what he would reveal about the rest, afraid that his thoughts might drive her away.
An hour earlier he had been determined to stay in the cube and die alone, believing he had nothing to live for on the outside but Joan had convinced him otherwise. Somehow she had shown him that it was possible to change his life. All he needed was the courage to walk out of another lethal cube--a cube that was his own claustrophobic office on the outside--and find a new path, a new life. In those few minutes she had made him believe in the future, had made him realize that none of the traps in the outside world were as terrible as the ones in here--unless he courted danger through stupidity. She made him realize that he was alone in this world only because he chose not to interact with others and that he had a choice between sitting at his computer watching porn or taking a risk with his heart and going out to find a real companion. She practically promised that he would not be alone, that she would always be there for him even though they both knew there was nothing sexual between them, no spark of interest beyond a deep friendship forged in fire.
Now she was dead and it was all his fault. If he had forced her to go with Kazan--
"Then Quentin would have killed you and got out of the cube into the corridor. And then he would have killed both of them too."
David did not bother to dispute that because by the time Quentin reached them in this cube he had lost his final grasp on sanity, reverting to a single-minded, brutal killer. The only reason why he had not finished David off immediately was because he was too intent on getting out--and getting to Kazan. Quentin knew he had fatally wounded David and, no doubt, he thought David would simply lie down and wait to die like the snivel ling coward that he had accused him of being earlier. He had never anticipated David using the last of his strength to stop him from reaching Kazan. In the end, Quentin had killed himself instead of letting go of Kazan and allowing himself be pulled back into the cube with David.
He would have been weakened by hunger and thirst but probably still alive when the cubes returned to the starting position and the corridor was accessible again.
Of course the rest of that scenario was not pleasant, being trapped in a cube with a psychotic killer looking to take out his anger on whatever living creature he could find--and there would be only David left alive, completely unable to defend himself, but at least his death would have been far quicker than this slow agony--beaten to death by Quentin's fists and kicks.
Just a kid. She didn't deserve to die, he thought, caught between self-loathing and grief. Not like me.
"You don't deserve to die either."
Pain rippled through him and he whimpered, biting back the desperate urge to scream. He small hand tightened around his, anchoring him until the pain receded for a moment, leaving him exhausted.
"Don't try to talk. Just focus your thoughts. Tell me everything you know about this place."
He started with the important part, of what he knew about the way the cube worked, and why it was so important that she stayed here if she wanted to live. Then he told her about the others--the ones who went missing over the past two months, the whispers of fear from those he'd worked with while he designed the outer shell. Between stabs of agony in his gut, he revealed everything, including the sordid details of watching porn while he waited for a call from a man called Jarvis in a company called Psi-Gen, who had promised him information.
"Jarvis? Damon Jarvis?"
David nodded, frowning when he saw the grim line of her lips. "It...was a trap...wasn't it?"
He fell back into silence, exhausted, but was unable to hold back a cry when the pain rolled over him again. Her hand tightened again, helping him through it, and once the worst was past, he heard her talking to him, filling in the silence as she tried to distract him from the knowledge that he was dying, slowly and painfully.
"Brendan is in here too. Just wish I had some way of warning him about the traps."
"Tell me...about him."
She smiled warmly, momentarily lost in memories and thoughts of her own. "He has this terrible habit of singing jingles and TV theme tunes over and over. First time I met him he almost drove me insane with renditions of Scooby-Doo."
David let her words wash over him as his body gave him a brief respite from the pain, building a picture of Brendan in his mind and wondering if either he or this Brendan would live long enough to meet in person.
Brendan paused on the edge of the next cube, sniffing cautiously because there was something in the air that was making his sixth sense kick in. The air in that cube was dry. Too dry, and beneath it was a chemical scent that most would have considered insignificant but, in this place with its lethal traps, Brendan suspected danger from anything that was even slightly out of the ordinary. He backed away, deciding to try his luck with another of the cubes instead. So far he had crossed seventeen cubes and had identified traps in three--four if he included this one. At least his photographic memory ensured that he would not end up wandering around in circles, unsure if he had crossed a particular cube before. He glanced at every identification number, slowly building a map in his head, and taking note of the changes following the deep rumble of cubes moving position.
"Freya! Can you hear me?" He yelled out loudly then listened for a response. Nothing. He projected the next words in his thoughts wanting to constantly reassure her that he was still alive just in case she could hear him. I'm still here. Stay where you are and I'll find you.
He called out to her through every open door on the off chance that she was only a cube away. He did not want her moving anywhere as not only would it put her in danger but it would make it harder for him to find her if she was also moving around the maze. Brendan opened another door and crawled through, pausing on the edge again and using his photographic memory to size up the dimensions of this next cube and look for any imperfections that could be hiding something lethal.
Spikes sprang out of the wall in all directions, each one at least two feet long. They disappeared just as fast and he could make out the tiny imperfections in the floor and walls that housed the spikes. He yelled again, watching carefully and he was strangely impressed when he realized they were telescopic--and deadly. They disappeared again but a different sound caught his attention and he watched as the handle opposite started to turn, the door sliding open without activating the spikes. Someone was in the crawlspace between the two cubes.
She shrieked as the spikes sprang out.
"Stay where you are!" After a moment, the spikes withdrew into the sides again. He pushed a finger to his lips to indicate silence and she nodded. They had not activated at the sound of the door so they had to be attuned to different frequencies that encompassed the range of a human voice. Her eyes widened when he started to climb through and she clamped a hand over her mouth to hold back any cries of fear. Slowly he dropped to the floor and began to move across. She shuffled back quietly. He was just over halfway across the floor when the rumble sounded and the cube began to slide away from Freya's cube. No longer caring, he pounded across the remaining floor and scrambled up the ladder, throwing his body through the gap of the closing hatchways. He cried out when his boot was caught, thanking any and all gods that he had removed the laces as he was now able to quickly slip his foot out before it was crushed.
Together they tumbled into Freya's cube before the door slid shut, clinging tight to one another, and only then did he notice she was covered in blood. He pushed her back to arms' length and tried to find the injury but she cupped his face in her hands.
"It's not mine."
"Not..? Then whose..?" He followed her sideways glance. "His name's David. And he knows the way out."
Brendan took one more moment to assure himself that none of the blood was Freya's before sliding across the floor to where David lay semi-conscious. It took only a moment to assess the injury and he knew without a shadow of doubt that all the surgery in the world could not save David unless they got him to a hospital soon. In fact, Brendan was surprised he was still alive judging by the amount of blood covering the floor and part of one wall.
"It's not all his," Freya stated, having read his thoughts. "I dropped two bodies in other cubes." She blinked, reaching out to reassure him when his thoughts turned to who had gutted David. "The one who did this to him...and Leaven...was one of those bodies."
"Leaven? The missing girl?"
He had glanced over the missing persons sheet this morning, taking in names and faces in case any of them fitted into the pattern of disappearances--scientists, mathematicians, architects, engineers.
Freya nodded towards David. "He called his killer Psycho Cop. Detective Quentin."
Quentin had not been on the missing persons list but when Brendan looked at the injured man's face, he recognized him immediately despite the bruises. "David Worth, the missing structural engineer and architect. Last seen working in his office late into the night four days ago." He gave Freya a wry smile. "Only reason why they started the search in his office was because his car was still parked in his space that following morning. According to the police report, there was no sign of a struggle...but his computer was still logged on, displaying videos on a gay porn site--which explained the late night working. Still, they considered it suspicious because a guy doesn't tend to leave his porn on public view, especially not the gay porn when he hasn't exactly come out to the people in the offices around him."
"They drugged me," Freya stated softly. "I never saw anyone."
That seemed to be the M.O. for all the missing persons connected to this case, except for one. He reached up, wincing as his fingers brushed over the sore spot on the back of his head. David's office was not much bigger than this cube, with no windows and a single door. They could have piped gas through the vent to knock him out and that would certainly explain the lack of a struggle and the computer left unattended.
Brendan looked back down at David. "You said he knows the way out of here."
It took her only a few minutes to explain as he had already figured out they were in some sort of cube within a giant cube, and if he was right then this place was huge.
"Twenty-six by twenty-six by twenty-six. 17576 cubes." She nodded towards David. "He designed the outer shell so he knew the dimensions. Leaven figured out the rest."
"And this cube."
"The only one with a starting position outside of the internal cube block."
"So all we have to do is sit tight and wait for it to line up with the outer shell...then walk through." Brendan chewed his lip. "That could take days." And he doesn't have days, he thought, knowing Freya would pick up his unspoken words.
"I know." She reached out and took David's limp, blood-covered hand. "And he knows that too."
Brendan nodded and stripped off his jacket, folding it up and placing it under David's head. David was whimpering in pain even as he slept, exhausted by his ordeal, the injury and blood loss. Eventually the pain would bring him back to consciousness and Brendan could think of nothing he could do to alleviate that pain except for the unthinkable--ending it permanently. He was still holding out hope of rescue though, feeling more convinced than ever that they were still in the Badlands, probably four or five hundred feet beneath the seemingly abandoned warehouse as he couldn't imagine the builders finding a more remote spot that was still accessible by road for moving in any heavy equipment. Certainly the locals seemed to know nothing about the place--not even under one of Freya's mind probes--and yet that hidden cache beneath the main floor of the warehouse had been full of crates and canisters. Someone had delivered those items, and others must have been contracted to build the individual cubes and put together the entire structure according to the plans drawn up by the designers. Keeping that many people separate was impossible especially as someone must have designed and installed the lethal traps.
If Brendan had not been aware of the power and wealth behind the extremist group that owned the warehouse then he might have suspected the government. It would not be the first time the government had set up psychological experiments to investigate how people reacted under extreme pressure. Michael had told him about the LSD experiments in the 1950s, and he knew that Area51 was not a make-believe place but an experimental laboratory looking at advanced weapons systems, including biological weapons. Having a partner who could read minds was both illuminating and frightening because of all the secrets she had discovered in the minds of others and passed on to him. Of course his own ability to capture visual data and recall it with perfect clarity was just as interesting to someone like Michael Welles, and it made him and Freya a perfect partnership. In the two years since they had become partners they had garnered an excellent track record for solving cases like this one.
Brendan hoped it was not all about to end in tragedy.
An hour passed before David's whimpering grew in intensity. Freya was sleeping after Brendan insisted he could watch over the injured man. The blood-covered fingers were moving spasmodically and Brendan grabbed at one hand before David could press on his wounds, lacing their fingers. The eyes opened to slits before widening suddenly in alarm.
"It's okay. I'm Brendan. I'm with Freya."
David was confused right up until he let his head roll sideways and saw Freya asleep only a few feet away. "Freya." He rolled his head back, his face tight and pale with pain. "Reads...minds."
Brendan grimaced and looked away because he had no water to give him. He squeezed David's hand. "I'm sorry. You just need to hang on a little longer."
The rumble and vibration of moving cubes took him by surprise as he had timed them and knew that another was not due so soon after the one that almost cut him in half. He let go of David's hand and stood up.
She sat up, looking tired and puzzled. The rumble went on far longer than all the occasions before, and Brendan could feel their cube moving. When it dropped suddenly like an elevator in free fall, Brendan fell to the floor, quickly moving to brace David, who had cried out weakly in pain. Freya crawled over to David's other side, holding onto him tightly. Her dark eyes met Brendan's and he could see the fear in them.
The movement stopped abruptly and Brendan moved to the door smeared with Quentin's blood. He opened it and stared out into a void. Freya clambered up beside him and looked out too. They were on the very edge of the cube. Leaning out she could see at least two cubes above, below and to the sides, caught in the light cast through the hatchway, but after that it grew too dark to make out anything. Beside her Brendan froze, listening intently as if he could hear something moving fast--and getting closer. Brendan pulled her back sharply as a cube hurtled past the open hatch.
"What happened?" Freya asked. She had felt a momentary push of air against her face but nothing more.
"A cube in free fall." He frowned in deep concentration, licking at his lower lip before looking straight at her. "It's a knock-on effect. One cube displaces the next, which displaces the next. It's all in constant motion. We were just knocked off the edge and dropped a set distance before displacing a cube in the main block. Another cube just dropped past us. If I'm right then there are probably dozens if not hundreds of different cubes moving at any given moment. We're just not feeling the motion unless it affects one of the cubes surrounding us at that time, or affects this cube, like a few minutes ago."
"And eventually this cube is pushed to form the bridge." Freya gasped. "But if there is only one entrance and the movement of the cubes is on a set pattern taking at least a couple of days to cycle round then...then how did they put us in here when this cube must have moved on just before we arrived?" Her hand encompassed the whole cube. "According to what Joan Leaven told David, this cube is supposed to be the only key cube, the only bridge between the rest of the cubes and the outer skin." She frowned. "What if she was wrong? David said he designed a single doorway in the outer shell, but what if they changed that design? What if there are two doors? Or more!"
"Or a means of moving the cubes back into the starting position at the press of a button."
"Of course that's possible too, but neither of us started in this cube, and if this is the only bridge--"
"Then there'd be footsteps in the blood from where they carried us in." She watched as he surveyed the floor carefully but she could see only the footprints that they had made since arriving. There was nothing leading to any of the other doors--unless they had cleaned up those footsteps.
"There is another explanation." Brendan stated. "What if the outer skin has an extending bridge that can only be activated from that side. Then it could reach whatever cube was in position opposite. They dump a victim, wait for the cube to move on, then dump another in a different cube. The bridge cube could simply be there for the victims to work their way out."
"As part of the psychological testing."
"Not that it help us any. Even if David could tell us where to find the outer door, we couldn't risk traveling across hundreds of potentially lethal cubes to get there. And we couldn't guarantee staying there long enough for someone to activate that bridge before the cube movement shifted us who knows where in the main block if it's pushed off the side."
She glanced over to where David was lying curled up on his side. "And we couldn't take David with us." Freya added. "I'm not going to leave him to die alone. I promised I'd stay with him."
"I know. I'm not planning on leaving him either. Guess we'll just have to sit tight and wait it out."
Freya watched as Brendan sank back down beside David and picked up one of his hands. She moved beside Brendan and rested her hand lightly on David's shoulder. They had been trapped here for at least five, maybe six hours, and without medical help, David's chance of surviving this place was zero. It was only a matter of time before the internal bleeding and peritonitis from a perforated bowel killed him.
She rarely had the opportunity to study Brendan at rest but she watched now as he trailed gentle fingers over David's battered face, making no attempt to guard his thoughts. His trust in her often took her breath away but it had also removed any romantic possibilities that she might have entertained otherwise. She knew that he loved her--deeply and with so much affection. He loved her enough to take a bullet for her, to cross lethal cubes to reach her and keep her safe, but he wasn't in love with her. And that was okay as she needed a friend more than she needed a lover. Plus there was her growing attraction to Michael now that she was certain her emotions were no longer based on gratitude for saving her from a lifetime spent in a mental institute.
She looked at David as if through Brendan's eyes, seeing beyond the bruises and the unshaven look, beyond the sweat-matted hair and the crease of pain around his eyes that remained even as he slept. Long, light-brown lashes fanned across his cheeks and his mouth was soft--his lips parted as if waiting for a lover's kiss. He looked so small and vulnerable curled up on his side like a child, and Freya could almost feel the desperation mingled with sorrow in Brendan's thoughts as he wished he could do more for David.
Brendan raised his head suddenly, tilting as if trying to capture a distant sound. She had seen that same posture before and had realized that his hearing was sharper than most people she knew, often teasing him about his pointy elf ears. Despite the urge to ask what he could hear she remained silent, knowing he would tell her once he had figured it out.
"Gun fire," he stated softly, pushing to his feet. He crawled to the edge and looked up into the void between the outer and inner layers of the cube but she could hear his frustrated thoughts. Freya closed her eyes and concentrated hard, trying to capture any other stray thoughts but no one was close enough. She opened her eyes wide when the cube shuddered and began to move again, hearing Brendan yelp and throw himself back into their cube as the door slid shut. This time the rumbling and movement seemed to go on forever and they both dropped down beside David to hold him steady. Brendan was talking to him softly, gently, trying to reassure him that everything was going to be okay but she could read the worry in his thoughts.
"They're bringing us to the top," he stated but his concern was for who would be waiting for them when they reached the only known exit. They had no weapons, no means of defending themselves other than the torn-off handle that had been used to gut David. Brendan reached for it now, fingers flexing against the stickiness of its bloodied surface. He ordered Freya to stay with David and positioned himself between them and the hatch, determined that they would have to go through him to reach her and David. Brendan raised his hand in readiness as the handle began to turn, clicking when fully unlocked. The door began to slide open, and Freya felt a tendril of thoughts, familiar thoughts.
"Brendan! Wait!" She gasped in relief. "It's Michael!"
Michael appeared framed in the hatchway at the same moment, his intense blue gaze softening the moment he saw Brendan and, beyond him, Freya. Relief poured from his thoughts and if Freya had any doubts that her attraction to Michael was one-way only then they fled at that moment. The relief was short lived when his eyes lowered to the blood-covered floor and the man lying curled up beside Freya. He looked over his shoulder.
"Get a medic! Now!"
David could not hold back a whimper of pain as hands rolled him onto his back and pushed his knees up--the pain receding slightly, wondering why he had not thought of doing this before. His hand was pushed away from where it was pressed tight against the pain in his gut but he let them touch him because Brendan's voice reassured him that everything was going to be okay. They were saved. At least, Brendan and Freya were saved but he had doubts about his own life. He knew at least one of the wounds was bad and, most likely, they had taken too long to reach him. He barely felt the pinch of the IV, murmuring back answers automatically to questions posed: his name, date of birth, medical history.
Fingers wrapped around those of his outstretched hand and he heard Brendan telling him to hang on. David's gaydar was useless, causing him more than one beating when he had hit on someone who had only tried to be friendly, but for once he did not care. He was already dying so what did it matter if he pretended to himself that Brendan might truly care for him beyond the concern shown for an injured man. After all, David could imagine nothing sexy about a man who had not bathed in days and was covered in bruises, contusions, gut wounds and blood--not all of it his own. Still, he could dream and it would be a better way to sink into oblivion than recalling the nightmare of the past few days in this death maze that he had partially created.
Letting his head tip sideways, he looked beyond the mess of Brendan's dark hair to where Freya was standing, held close in another man's arms. Her head was half buried against the man's shoulder but her eyes remained firmly on him and on the activity surrounding him. She tried to smile reassurance but her lips trembled. A tug on his hand had him looking back to Brendan, seeing someone attempting to draw Brendan away. He tightened his hold on Brendan but his fingers felt too weak and Brendan's hand slipped away. Someone tipped his face back and he blinked up into a stranger's face right above him, trying to work out the words being spoken but everything was slipping away now, like Brendan's hand, with darkness drawing round him. As if from a great distance he heard Freya's sharp cry followed immediately by a tightness around his hand and Brendan's voice, anchoring him in what little remained of the light.
"Don't you give up now!" Brendan was snarling at him. "Stay with me! Look at me!"
His focus sharpened on Brendan's face, on the hazel eyes poised above him and he was mesmerized by the swirls of color, of green and brown and blue, of glints of gold and the black of pupil. Pretty eyes.
"Yes, look at me. Hold on to me."
Movement distracted him with a fresh flair of pain and a sense of nausea as he was lifted from the floor on a backboard but Brendan's face stayed over him even as they pulled him through the hatchway. He cried out in loss when Brendan disappeared for a moment, but then he was back on one side, still clasping his hand. Time seemed to move differently, simultaneously taking forever and yet no time at all as if the laws if the universe had changed but through it all, Brendan was his anchor right until a fog took him away.
His sense of smell returned first--clean, antiseptic, the remembered scent of a hospital from when his only brother had died following a car crash. He associated the smell with his parents and with rejection, how they had turned him away from the bedside because he was no longer family to them. They did not want a homosexual for a son. How long ago had that been? Ten years, twelve?
Sound came next and he focused on a strangely familiar woman's voice saying, "he's waking up." But who was waking up?
"You are," she said softly, spoken so close to his ear that he felt the warmth of her breath against his skin.
His eyelids were heavy and another familiar voice joined the encouragement, reminding him of dark, messy hair and beautiful hazel eyes. He wanted to see those eyes again. Someone was moaning low and, with a start, he realized it was him so he stopped. There was light but it was not too bright, not like in the white cubes or like the fluorescent tube over his head in his cube of an office. He rarely put that light on as the glare it produced on his computer screen always gave him a headache while trying to work. This light was okay though so he forced his eyes open a little more, encouraged by the voice--Brendan's voice.
Cautiously he gazed around just in case his sense of smell had been lying to him, his fingers tangling in the crisp sheet when all he could recall from before was the rough material of Brendan's jacket beneath his head and a hard floor under the rest of his pain-wracked body.
"Safe?" The word came out weak and hoarse but Brendan's fingers tightened on his and, for a moment, he wondered if Brendan had let go since the Cube. It was a nice feeling.
"Yeah. Safe now." He saw Brendan's eyes flick off to the side but they returned fast enough that he did not have time to register any loss. Instead he focused on those eyes until his own grew too heavy once more.
It was easier opening his eyes the next time, and even though the place had that same antiseptic smell to it, he knew he had been moved someplace else. Sure enough, when he fully opened his eyes he was in a room that held none of the clinical detachment of the average hospital. A ray of sunlight streamed through a misaligned blind, glowing off the hint of apricot colored wall opposite and adding an additional sense of warmth to the room. Only one thing marred the moment: he was alone.
Before David could search for a call button, the door opened and a familiar looking man stopped abruptly on the threshold, looking surprised to see him.
"I wasn't expecting you to wake up so soon." He moved to the side of David's bed.
"Do I know you?"
"We met under less than pleasant circumstances so I don't expect you to remember me. Dr. Michael Welles."
The image came back suddenly, of Freya burying her head against a man's shoulder while his arms wrapped around her. This man's shoulder.
"You're at a special facility in upstate New York." The man gave an apologetic shrug. "We have a small surgical unit here but we don't usually handle trauma cases...though I have it on good authority that you're handling your recovery exceptionally well."
"I am?" It did not feel that way with the low throb of pain in his gut, though at least it was manageable pain rather than the debilitating agony that he had suffered for hours after Quentin's attack.
The man chuckled softly. "Believe or not, you are."
"Where's Freya and...and Brendan?" David hoped Doctor Welles didn't notice the slight hesitation on Brendan's name, putting two and two together and getting the right answer--that David was more than just a little interested in Brendan. Welles smiled.
"They're both fine. They're still following up leads concerning the Cube, but they'll be back here later today."
"And where exactly is here?"
Welles gave another smile but made no attempt to misunderstand the question. "Freya told you she could read minds. This is where she learned how to control that ability without driving herself insane."
"Why am I here?"
"Because you know much more than you realize about the Cube...and you survived their attempt to kill you."
David frowned because although he had been asking questions since Art Madrick's disappearance, he had not gained too many answers. Art had been his contact while he was designing the shell but they'd kept up their correspondence in the months that followed. At first it had been friendly banter but then Art started to email through secure accounts, talking of strange disappearances and whispers floating around about others involved in the project. When the emails stopped only two weeks earlier David had his suspicion that Art had joined the ranks of the missing. Now he was convinced that Art was dead, killed by one of the death traps in the Cube as he tried to find his way out.
What bothered David was that he could not see the connection between the Cube and the others who had been forced to share his particular ordeal--Joan Leaven, Helen Holloway, Rennes, Quentin--and especially Kazan. He understood why he had been taken, that it was due to his role on the project and his unwanted inquiries, but not the others. They seemed to have no connection to the Cube itself.
"I'm not sure--"
"Sometimes the answers lie in the insignificant details. We'll need your help to piece it all together." Welles leaned in and rested a hand on David's shoulder. "Rest now."
Obeying was easy as even this small exchange had exhausted him. He closed his eyes and drifted away into his dreams and nightmares.
Brendan dropped his head onto his arms that he had folded upon his desk. The last few days had not gone as well as he had hoped. Teams of NSA and FBI agents had taken days to clear the remains of twenty-six bodies out of the 17,576 individual rooms that made up the Cube. The number of bodies found fitted the data extracted from the Cube's database by agents who were technical specialists. It confirmed the experiment had been performed on groups of seven individuals at a time, with all the victims given a unique file within that grouping. The government agents had used the data held on each of the experimental subjects to determine where the bodies would be found and confirmed using the surveillance cameras hidden within each cube rather than attempt to conduct a manual sweep through each cube.
He sighed heavily having seen the carnage from the video surveillance data. Sometimes his gift was also a curse for he could not erase the images of people being slaughtered like extras in a horror movie. It was still hard to believe that four groups of frightened people had been forced into a death trap where most had met horrific deaths. They would need DNA testing to confirm the identity of some of those remains even though the video data was pretty conclusive.
With David Worth alive--but placed into a medically-induced coma to give his body a chance to heal--that left only one person still unaccounted for by Brendan's reckoning--Kazan.
While they were waiting in the cube for rescue, Freya had questioned David as much as she could and he had been convinced that Kazan had walked to safety but there had been no sign of Kazan in the underground facility. The whole complex had been abandoned by the time the NSA back-up agents had arrived on the scene with Doctor Welles--though someone must have been there earlier to knock him and Freya unconscious and dump them in the Cube. He had Michael to thank for them being saved as the other man had realized the danger as soon as the back-up team entered the underground facility and Michael saw the schematics of the Cube.
Although he did not have Brendan's photographic memory, Michael was brilliant, and he was good at recalling details in his field of expertise. Following their rescue he had re-read unpublished articles by Doctor Reismann detailing the same conditions that they had discovered in the Cube, leaving no doubt that he had been the head of research on those experiments. Michael had spent the days since then going over all the material collected from the database and Brendan knew that he was fascinated and horrified in equal measure, but none of it had led to the people financing the experiments--or given a reason why.
How had Michael described it? It was as ethical as the sick experiments performed on children by the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, at Auschwitz. According Michael the data had no more scientific weight than applying non-lethal shock therapy to measure the response to the fear of pain, or studying soldiers about to go into battle. None of the results were ground breaking, merely an exercise in cruelty with as much weight given to the physical damage from whatever lethal cube was entered as to the psychological damage caused by the stress of the victim's situation. That alone made Brendan suspect that the experiments were twofold--psychological and physiological.
Whoever had set up this sick experiment had been gathering data on both the psychological trauma and on the effectiveness of the various weapons utilized. Almost two thousand cubes had been booby trapped with various weapons ranging from chemical to biological to purely physical. The designers had covered every one of the five senses--cubes that killed with sound alone, ones filled with tasteless poison coating the walls where the victim wouldn't even realize what had killed them as they died slowly and in terrible agony. There were blinding lights that would leave the victim more vulnerable, staggering through the lethal maze in perpetual darkness; and heavy poisonous or corrosive gases that had no scent, pooling below the level of the hatchway so the victim jumped just a few feet to their death, leaving them clawing at their skin even as the corrosive gas was eating their lungs or they were asphyxiated.
He shuddered because that victim could have been him or Freya--or David.
Brendan sighed again and shifted his head slightly to look at the image on the monitor--David Worth. He saw David in his dreams. He relived the hours in that cube, caught by the vivid blue eyes that looked into his with so much need--remembering every small detail, every fleck in his eyes, every crease of pain around his slanted mouth. So vulnerable and so desperate not to die alone now that death seemed imminent. With nothing else he could do but wait, Brendan had focused on keeping David as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, talking to him softly even though it was obvious that David was not taking in even half of his words. In the end, it seemed as if his entire existence had come down to keeping this one man breathing, and now, almost a week after their rescue, he felt empty and alone even among a bullpen full of NSA Agents.
The phone rang so he picked his head up off his arms and reached for it.
"Agent Dean." Brendan recognized the voice as one of the agents in charge of extracting data from the Cube's systems, Agent Grazier. "We found an area in the database that has been wiped clean."
"And there's no way to reconstruct that missing data?"
"No. Whatever was on there, they didn't want us to find that information at any cost. It was a professional job overwriting every single byte multiple times to completely obscure any chance of recovering earlier data."
"No clues at all?"
"Well... All the weapons and psychological research data was held in another discrete area that's was left untouched so it's unlikely to be anything related to the actual experiments performed within the Cube."
That seemed to fit with Michael's perception of Paul Reismann as someone who felt little remorse for the suffering he caused in his pursuit of knowledge--someone whose ego was far larger than his compassion as he saw his work of too great a value to destroy. Brendan was surprised that they had not already located the scientist, thinking he might have wanted to brag to the scientific community about the results of his inhumane experiments. However, if Reismann had only been interested in the psychological research then someone else must have been monitoring the physical side, assessing the worth of each type of attack on the human body. The thought reminded him of the Indiana Jones movies where ancient temples were filled with lethal traps to stop grave robbers. Could that be the purpose behind those experiments? To produce advanced security systems in order to protect something?
He finished the phone call to Grazier and stared hard at the Cube file he had opened earlier that had been labeled Subject 24 Worth David J. David wasn't smiling in the photo and the downward slant of his mouth should have made it an unflattering picture but the camera had caught the intensity of his blue eyes. He forced his eyes away from the image. He had read through the file once already, committing it to memory instantly, but something about it was putting up red flags in his mind. He was missing some important fact but another read through told him no more than he already knew and he realized he had to take a step back and try to approach the information from a different angle.
With his focus so intent on the file he had not heard Freya's approach, his head whipping round too fast, causing his neck muscles to flare in pain.
"Ow!" He rubbed at the offending muscle, aware that he must have been spending too long in front of his computer, which meant... A quick glance to the digital display at the bottom corner of his monitor gave him the time and his eyes widened in realization. He was supposed to have picked up Freya from her apartment thirty minutes ago but he knew that, subconsciously, he had been avoiding this trip back out to Michael's facility. David did not need him anymore and might not even remember him once he awoke.
Freya grinned, obviously reading his thoughts. "It's lucky you're already packed." Her smile fell away a little and she walked over, perching herself on the edge of his desk. "He was asking for us...and for you in particular according to Michael."
Brendan felt the tightness ease in his chest, having not realized it was there until he no longer felt the pressure. David was awake, and he remembered them--remembered him. All he had to wonder now was if David could still want and need him now he was no longer at death's door. He flinched slightly when Freya laid a hand on his shoulder.
"There's only one way to find out," she stated softly. She pushed back to her feet and started towards the door knowing he would follow. Brendan watched her for a moment, standing when she reached the door and glanced back over her shoulder towards him. He nodded, silently telling her he was coming.
As soon as they turned into the long drive that led to Michael's facility Freya sensed something was wrong.
He glanced at her sharply as she gripped his forearm. It did not matter that she could not project her thoughts to him and he could not read hers. Months of working together had given them both an awareness of each other so he recognized her tone and slowed down the car, giving her the time she was silently requesting. Freya closed her eyes to ease her concentration, seeking out one mind within the chaos ahead that was edged in fear and shock.
"Michael," she whispered, aware that he could not hear her thoughts either but Michael had known she was on her way and he had opened his mind to her. She gasped and opened her eyes wide. "Men are attacking the facility. They have David. There's a helicopter."
Freya felt the sudden acceleration as Brendan floored the gas--the ground between them and the facility eaten up quickly. The sound of a helicopter's rotors picking up speed was barely discernible over the roar of the car's engine and she pointed as she saw it rise from behind the main building. Brendan veered towards it but she could read his thoughts and she knew they would be too late. He spun the car to a halt, kicking up gravel and adding to the dust already swirling due to the helicopter. Brendan jumped out with his gun pulled and aimed high. Freya followed and watched three bullets ricochet off the helicopter uselessly before the helicopter went beyond range.
"Damn!" He turned to her. "Stay here and call it in!"
"Brendan!" It was too late. He had jumped back behind the wheel and was already moving at breakneck speed, trying to keep the helicopter in his sight but Freya did not need to read Brendan's mind to know it was an impossible action borne out of desperation.
David was gone and their best bet now was to find out who had taken him in the hope that they could determine where he had been taken. She didn't wonder at the why because that was obvious. Fumbling for her cellphone, she made the call before rushing towards the main facility; she stepped into mayhem. People were running in all directions--frantic and scared--as smoke billowed out from several rooms. The security guard--Jeff, married with two children and an aging dog that smelled like an old rug--was sitting against a wall, legs splayed out in front of him, and red blossoming through his uniform while he looked on with eyes open and unseeing. There was nothing there. No thoughts leaking through unstable walls. Gone. Just gone.
She turned at the mental shout, hand going to her mouth as Michael lurched into the lobby from his office. His arm hung useless by his side, with blood dripping from his fingertips. A massive bruise was already darkening one side of his face and she stripped the memory that he unconsciously replayed when he saw her looking at him. Large man, cruel face...and the sharp pain of a gun striking fragile flesh and bone--pistol whipped when he refused to tell them where to find David.
They had found David anyway by sticking the gun to Michael's head and making his assistant, Amanda, take them to David by threatening to kill Michael if she didn't cooperate. Freya liked Michael's assistant. She was an older woman who had stood firm against government officials from various three-lettered agencies without flinching, but then again they had never held a gun to Michael's head before they made their demands.
"Block!" Michael yelled, and his words seemed to cut through the panic. One-by-one the cacophony of voices fell silent except for a few who were too shocked or in pain to understand his order.
One of those voices still crying out in fear was familiar from all those months spent here learning to control. "Amanda's fine. Shaken but...fine."
"He's not here. They took him."
"Do you know where?"
Freya shook her head. There had been too many voices and she had expended all of her energy and focus on separating out the most important one to her--Michael's. He staggered towards her, galvanizing her into moving until she was half supporting him. Carefully, she helped lower him into one of the seats in the open lobby. She knelt in front of him, reaching up to brush across the swelling bruise. He hissed and flinched as she turned her attention to his arm. Michael gripped her shoulder with his good hand.
"It can wait." He looked hard at her, though the stare lost much of its power when all she could see was the massive bruise that stretched across his eye socket to his temple. "Think about the helicopter." He spoke with difficulty, trying not to move his face muscles too much. "Separate out the pilot's thoughts."
"YES. Yes you can," he insisted. "Think. Close your eyes and think about... only him."
It felt like second nature to obey because she trusted Michael. Loved Michael. She closed her eyes and pushed away all the panicked thoughts from earlier, seeking out her memory of unfamiliar minds--the others. Two words floated out of the gray and she spoke them aloud.
"Rapid City. The pilot had been thinking of Rapid City."
Michael looked perplexed. "They must have another installation close to the Cube. It would explain how they managed to disappear so quickly." He glanced over her shoulder but Freya already knew who had come through the door behind her. She looked her shoulder at Brendan.
"Rapid City," she stated again for his benefit and Brendan nodded tightly, his thoughts already turning towards ordering an agency helicopter to get them there as quickly as possible. He saw him pull out his cellphone to make that call.
Freya felt torn between the two men with part of her wanting to remain with Michael while the rest of her wanted to look out for her partner. Michael must have read her indecision because he tightened his grip on her shoulder to gain her full attention.
"Go with him. Get David back. I'll be fine."
His hand moved from her shoulder to caress her cheek and without thinking she leaned into the cup of his palm and saw the warmth of his response in the one eye not swollen shut.
I'll be waiting for you, he projected, and she caught the thought and held it close to her heart, nodding as he released his light hold on her. She started to pull away but then leaned in quickly and brushed his unharmed cheek with her lips in a gentle kiss, wishing she could stay to bask in his stunned delight at having his feelings for her returned in full.
"I'll be back so you'd better be waiting," she stated and saw him wince as he tried to smile.
An FBI helicopter arrived on the scene but Brendan had no trouble commandeering it as the NSA had already made the necessary calls for assistance on Brendan's behalf. The only condition was that they pick up two FBI agents on route as back up.
Within fifteen minutes they were in the air, heading west towards Rapid City--and the Badlands.
The door slammed inwards, snapping David out of a light sleep, and he blinked in confusion as an older woman came stumbling into his recovery room. A man in a black ski mask followed and David gasped softly as the masked man shoved the woman aside with unnecessary force. David caught a glimpse of her terrified expression before she fell heavily to the floor beside his bed. In that moment as he saw her fear, he knew it was not just for her own predicament but for his too. Commotion by the door drew his attention.
"You can't take him! He's too weak to--"
The soft thud seemed to startle the white-coated doctor who had rushed into the room but the crimson red soaking through the white coat told its own story as the man dropped lifelessly to the floor. The woman started crying loudly.
"Shut up or you're next!"
She choked off her cries but David could still hear her low sobs of fear as another masked man began detaching David from the monitoring equipment with confidence that spoke of experience. David was lifted and strapped into an emergency evacuation chair before being wheeled through the smoke-filled corridors. Frightened people were ducked low, trying to hide behind whatever cover was available but it was a security guard in the lobby who locked eyes with him as David's abductors pushed him along at a fast pace. The guard was slumped against a wall, and David saw the life go out of the man's eyes, vividly reminding him of the last moments of Joan's life and the way her wide, shocked eyes had become fixed in death.
The memory shook him out of his own state of shock and he began to struggle. The force of a fist to the side of his head unbalanced the chair until the man pushing it could compensate but it stunned him enough to keep him still until they reached a helicopter powering up outside.
The rotor blades on the helicopter began to turn as he was manhandled into the cabin and strapped in. Within seconds they were lifting off the ground and David moaned in pain as the helicopter immediately banked hard. He heard three cracks against the outside and knew instinctively that it was gunfire but the helicopter carried on without even the slightest dip or sway.
Above him the vicious man had pulled off his mask and now he was grinning madly, hyped up on adrenaline, with his eyes holding that same glint of insanity that David had seen shining in Quentin's eyes. Everything had happened so fast that David's mind was still reeling in confusion. The manic man leaned over David and patted his cheek.
"Good boy. Might be a bonus in this for us seeing's how we got you out alive."
David tried to move but the straps held him firm--his fear rising as the bonds seemed to tighten. He froze when he saw a glint of metal above him, watching in morbid fascination as the needle slid into his inner arm.
"No," he murmured but the medically experienced attacker smiled down at him.
"Just a sedative. We don't want you to aggravate your injuries any further."
"No," he repeated but the world was already growing fuzzy around the edges. As he slipped away into unconsciousness with the steady beat of the rotor vibrating through him, his last thought was of Brendan Dean and a desperate hope that Brendan would save him--again--because no one else would ever come for him.
Brendan resented the small delay in picking up the additional agents even though he would need the back up not only to help find David but to protect Freya. That they were FBI rather than NSA was immaterial. They all had the same field training. They could all handle a gun and had authority to act across state lines. Agents Lawson and Knight nodded tightly as they strapped in, the helicopter already back in the air by the time they sat back.
"We've been told to defer to your command, so what's the deal?" Lawson asked.
"A man, David Worth, was just abducted by force from a government facility. The abductors left behind several casualties and two confirmed dead. We're going to get our guy back."
"Our guy? He's an agent?"
"No. But he's important to m--us." Brendan hoped the agents would ignore the slip. "He has vital information of national security regarding a home terrorist group."
"Where they headed?"
"Towards Rapid City," Freya answered.
Knight frowned. "If they're heading into the Badlands then that's a lot of ground to cover without an exact destination in mind. I suspect a lot of bodies are buried out there, and I don't just mean of the dinosaur variety."
Brendan tightened his lips and looked away. They had yet to find a trace of another facility hidden out in the Badlands but he would bet it had to be close enough to the one hiding the Cube to make the disappearance of the Cube's personnel so quick and easy. Perhaps within a fifty mile radius. An idea struck him.
"Hey, is this equipped with computer access?" he referred to the helicopter and gained an affirmative as a panel opened to reveal a screen. Typing quickly, Brendan pulled up the satellite images taken over that stretch of the Badlands in the past couple of years. Once more his photographic memory helped him discern small differences that might not have been noticeable to others but only in the one spot around the seemingly abandoned warehouse. He sighed and leaned back, aware that he was quickly running out of time. Ground agents would be monitoring the air for the missing helicopter but it would be flying under the radar and in very low-density population areas. The chances of it being spotted were fairly remote.
His thoughts went back to the Cube, thinking about the outer skin that David had designed without being aware or caring how that design would be used, how it would hide the inside from--
"FUCK!" He sat up straight and saw Freya's eyes widening as she read his thoughts. "I need to get hold of Grazier, now," Brendan ordered over the radio and he was patched through within a minute of making his demand.
"Agent Grazier. Tell me about the cubes at the center? How do they move?"
"Sir, I'll need to check. If you hold on I can run the simulation." Brendan chewed on his lower lip impatiently, aware of time passing too quickly. He straightened when the crackle on the radio heralded Grazier's return. "Sir? Twenty-seven cubes just off-center never shift position."
Brendan stared hard at Freya. "The bastards never left the area. They're inside the Cube. And that's where they're taking David."
It took Freya a little time to make sense of the rapid-fire thoughts and images filling Brendan's mind before it all fell into place. The control room beneath the warehouse, the database with its wiped-clean areas, and the ease with which they recovered the bodies of the Cube's victims using the experiment research data left behind--all of it had been a ruse. There had to be a second entrance and a means of accessing the stationary twenty-seven cubes from that point. She could see Brendan concentrating hard on the image on the monitor; could see the image reflected from his mind into her own. It took her a moment to make sense of what he was visualizing, but then she recalled that her long-ago boyfriend--whom she'd dated for only one semester--had loved to play with a 3x3x3 puzzle cube, sliding the cubes around until the colored pieces matched up on all sides. Strange but she had not thought of Ryan since the night of her high school prom when her mind had suddenly opened to all the thoughts surrounding her, overwhelming her, and leaving her fighting for her sanity. She wondered what had become of him but quickly dismissed that from her mind. Perhaps she would ask her sister, June, once this current crisis had passed.
Brendan sighed. "Yeah, it looks like a Rubik's cube, so let's call it that to avoid confusion." Brendan continued his talk with Grazier. "They would need a fast and safe passage from the outer skin to the Rubik Cube, possibly a single special cube making the whole journey as I can't see them hauling equipment through dozens of potentially lethal cubes, especially with those narrow hatchways. What we need to do is identify that cube so we can locate the second entrance."
There was a limit on how easily she could read minds, and distance was part of that. Someone standing a few hundred feet away in plain sight? Easy. Someone standing out of sight a few hundred feet away...not so easy but possible. Grazier was many miles away in an office in New York, far beyond her reach, but she did not need to read minds to recognize the frustration in his hard sigh.
"There is at least one cube in the gap between the inner and outer walls at any time," Grazier stated slowly. "We are talking over four thousand possible sites for a second entrance. It could take days to follow the path of every single cube that touches the surface of the Rubik Cube and then figure out which of them is this special cube. It would probably be quicker to send someone in to inspect every inch of the inner surface of that outer shell as at least then we'd have two points of reference."
Brendan pursed his lips, displaying a little annoyance. "We haven't got days."
Freya leaned over Brendan's shoulder. "So we look for the second entrance from this side."
Freya sensed both acceptance and defeat in his mind, and saw the visible manifestation in the slump of his shoulders. "Grazier, look for a pattern of a cube starting at the Rubik Cube and ending on the outer edge, and then returning on a fairly direct route. Focus on the sidewalls rather than the top and bottom. In fact, start with the edges closest to the Rubik Cube. In the meantime, I'll go back over the satellite images from the past few years and see if I can spot anything that might show us a possible second entrance because our guys tore that warehouse apart. There's nothing else in there."
Brendan ended the radio call and Freya watched him for a moment, seeing him shake his head when nothing stood out on the images. She knew his photographic memory would have picked out any anomalies the first time round and she hated that he felt defeated enough to distrust his own special gift. Lawson and Knight were accessing data on cargo movements in the area, and she could feel the pressure building as the helicopter ate up the miles to Rapid City. The clock was ticking and they only had fifteen more minutes before the trail went completely cold.
"Strange," Lawson stated. "You don't see many archaeological digs ordering mining drill bits." He laughed softly. "Always imagine those guys on their bellies with little bitty hammers and toothbrushes."
Brendan seized on it. "What if it wasn't for them?"
Freya gripped Brendan's arm to gain his attention. "What if they used an old mine tunnel to reach the outer skin of the Cube? The entrance could be miles away."
He stared at her hard before pulling up the satellite images again, this time drawing further out until he found unusual activity around what should have been an abandoned coal-mining operation, ten miles away from the hidden Cube in a remote area. Brendan grinned and radioed the coordinates to the pilot before contacting Grazier.
"We have an idea where we can find that second entrance. I need back up to that location immediately."
The helicopter banked towards the new coordinates and they spent the final few minutes going over a plan. Freya smiled when they dropped over a rise and saw the other helicopter nestled in the valley below, fairly well camouflaged. If they had not known where to find it, or hadn't been flying in low, then they would have missed it entirely. The splatter of bullets ricocheting off the fuselage had the pilot banking even harder, throwing Freya sideways against Brendan. He caught her and held on tight, his face a mask of determination and fear combined. She could hear Brendan mentally berating himself--even as he congratulated himself on finding the second entrance--as he should have anticipated it would be better protected than the warehouse.
"We're going to have to wait for back-up!" Lawson shouted. They needed a SWAT team at the very least in case this turned into a battle zone, but Brendan had another idea. He looked to Freya and she nodded her agreement. Their back up was probably only twenty minutes away and they would be able to keep the extremist group busy while he and Freya slipped into the mine, using Freya's special ability to keep out of sight.
"Set us down just over that rise," he ordered. Quickly, he filled in the two FBI agents without mentioning Freya's mind-reading. They weren't fully convinced but this was Brendan's show and they had their orders to keep the extremists busy and off-balance.
As they scrambled over the rock and sand, Freya was thankful that she'd put on casual clothing for her visit to Michael's facility. Her jeans saved her from a number of scrapes, and her boots gripped the rock surface well. Brendan was not so lucky, still dressed in a suit and loafers. She heard him curse under his breath as the expensive suit material snagged and tore. It was a new suit, and he called it his birthday suit whenever anyone was near just to wind her up. The words invoked all sorts of images in the minds of those around them and if Freya wasn't being vigilant then she got a mind-full of other people's fantasies either visualizing Brendan naked--or wishing it was her in her birthday suit.
She choked back a laugh as Brendan tore the backside, revealing white boxers underneath. At this rate he would end up in his birthday suit for real.
"Glad you're finding this funny," he stated as he tried to pull the torn edges together and failed.
Once they were in position only a hundred feet from the entrance, Brendan gave the signal for Lawson and Knight to start their distraction.
"Are they falling for it?" he asked, and Freya concentrated on the panicked minds ahead of them.
"Then let's go!"
Twice Freya had to grab Brendan and pull him back as they made their way towards the entrance, and both times the guards missed them, running past whatever rock they'd quickly used for cover.
"All clear," she stated and they were moving again, slipping inside the entrance and into the shadows. She had anticipated some sort of military camp just inside, perhaps a large base carved out of the rock, and was surprised that it was just a normal mine shaft. Keeping to the shadows they eventually came to a far more modern rail track leading deeper inside. A powered sled stood waiting and they clambered on-board. Brendan was chewing on his lower lip nervously as he fired up the engine but Freya heard no thoughts directed at them. She nodded and he set the sled in motion.
"What's the plan when we reach the other end?" she asked.
Brendan shifted uncomfortably. "Take out the bad guys, rescue David, and go home."
She raised an eyebrow because he was telling the truth. All he had was a list of what he wanted to do but no idea how any of it would be accomplished. His plan was to take events as they came, to work with whatever they were given using his photographic memory and her mind-reading ability to see them through. He was fully aware that he should have waited for the back-up units and allowed them to clear a path to the Cube, and she wondered if he was even aware of how his strong feelings for David had colored his judgment. But she could not find it in her heart to blame him as she would have been just as reckless if it had been Brendan or Michael who had been abducted and taken into that death trap.
Her memory turned back to the day Brendan had asked about June, and how Freya had told him straight up that June wasn't his type. She had been reading his mind all day so she knew he liked men as well as women. She had also seen his reaction to both sexes. Slim, pretty girls like her and her sister gave him a few lustful thoughts but David's light-brown hair, blue eyes and strong shoulders froze his mind. Yes, she and June were pretty in his eyes, and he adored their intelligence but to him, David was beautiful in both mind and body. Perfect. And if she had to smack him around the head a few times before he would admit that he'd fallen for David then she was fully prepared to do it. As for David, he was gay. He had no lustful thoughts about women at all except for surface ones cultured to blend in with the people he worked with. Why he felt the need to hide that important part of him was an enigma but Freya knew all about keeping secrets just to fit in. David had latched onto Brendan from the moment they met in the Cube, anchoring himself to life through the touch of Brendan's hand holding his.
She made a silent promise that once they got out of this then she was going to knock their heads together until they admitted how they felt about each other. In the meantime, she had to keep her mind open to any threats until Brendan came up with a real plan--or until they took out the bad guys, saved David and went home.
"Stop the sled," she yelled. The end of the line was around the next slow curve and she could hear the bewildered thoughts of a single man ahead as he wondered what was happening at the mine entrance. Timing it to perfection, she watched as Brendan took out the single guard, knocking the man unconscious and tying him up securely.
Ahead of them was a brightly lit corridor and at the end of it was a single large door; Brendan opened it. Together they stared across the void, mesmerized as the cube opposite displaced another, continuing a chain reaction of cubes in motion. Looking around she could see cubes in all directions until the shapes were lost in the darkness beyond the spill of light through the doorway.
"Is there an extending bridge?" she asked and Brendan shook his head.
"No. Guess we'll just have to wait for my special cube." He offered her a weak smile. "Wonder if I can get a signal down here?" he quipped softly as he pulled out his cellphone. His eyebrows rose when Grazier answered. "We're at the second entrance but the hell if I know where that is." His eyebrows rose even higher. "You're tracking this phone?"
Freya smiled, listening in on the conversation as Brendan repeated the other agent's words in his head. Now that Grazier had two reference points he was busy looking for Brendan's special cube. When a cube slid into place less than ten minutes later, Brendan frowned because it wasn't what he was expecting. He moved to open the hatch just as the cellphone trilled.
He answered and pulled back from the cube as the words lethal trap reverberating around his mind. He turned to Freya. "Guess we wait for the next one."
David opened his eyes slowly, fighting the heaviness of sedation. He stared up and froze in shock at the terrible familiarity of the ceiling above him, recognizing the pattern as something he had hoped never to seen again. He couldn't hold back a sob of despair.
A dream. It was all a dream. Freya. The hospital...Brendan. Beautiful Brendan was just a dream cooked up in a dying mind except he had awoken before falling into that forever darkness. He was back in the cube with his life's blood pooling beneath him, mingling with Joan's and the monster's--Quentin.
"Mr. Worth. Or may I call you David?"
The sound of a voice shocked him from his despair and he let his heavy head roll to the side as a man in a white doctor's coat approached him, only then realizing that he was high off the floor on some sort of medical table. David tried to move his arm but even if he had the energy he knew it would be a useless attempt as he could feel something biting into his flesh. He was strapped to the table. Glancing down his body he was relieved to see that he was at least half dressed in a t-shirt and boxers. The thought of lying here naked and vulnerable was too frightening a prospect for words even though the addition of clothes had not changed his predicament. Memories returned, of being taken by force from the small hospital and loaded onto a helicopter.
"You have been such a troublesome experiment, David. I thought I had your character completely pegged and I must say that you fulfilled my initial expectations of a coward perfectly...until I introduced Kazan."
"You have more important things to worry about than the whereabouts of Mr. Kazan."
The doctor sat down and stared hard at David, steepling his fingers as if David was a particularly interesting laboratory specimen. "Hmm. Cowardly, timid David Worth, hiding his sexual preference in case anyone took offense or tried to hurt him. Living his lonely pathetic life between his tiny box of an apartment and his even smaller cube of an office with only second-rate pornography and his own hand to keep him company through the long days and nights. Too scared to make friends in case they realized he liked cock instead of breasts...in case someone told his father that his boy was an abomination."
"Who are you?" David demanded weakly.
"Ah. Introductions are really not necessary but I will make an exception this one time. Doctor Paul Reismann."
"What do you want?"
"What do I want?" Reismann mused aloud. "Hmmm. I want a lot of things but I'm certain you are referring to your own predicament." He frowned down at David, his eyes hardening. "I want you to die."
David swallowed hard because he was in no position to stop Reismann from carrying out that threat.
"Not in here," he gestured to the cube surrounding them. "Out there." He hummed again. "It was quite exciting watching your little group. Poor Quentin, already on the edge of breaking, filled with paranoia, with a broken marriage behind him and an accusation of being a little too friendly with an underage prostitute hanging over his career. All he needed was that final push. Fear and a pretty young girl who, for a while, held all your lives in her small hands. And Quentin did like the pretty young things. So predicable to the very end."
Reismann smiled though it never touched his cold eyes.
"You never got to meet Alderton but some of my subjects had to fulfill the other part of the experiment, to see how clever they were at avoiding the traps. To think Alderton designed several of the more exotic traps, the clever ones, only to fall to pieces--quite literally--in a simple mechanical trap. And Rennes. So impressive but far too confident in his own abilities, and that was his undoing just as I predicted."
Reismann leaned back with a smug smile.
"Of course the greatest pleasure was seeing Helen in the Cube. She should never have attacked my published theories and questioned my methods, belittling me and setting me up for public ridicule. Strange to think but if that charlatan had not been available then my next choice was another eminent psychologist of your recent acquaintance--Dr. Michael Welles. It was interesting to watch her jump from one erroneous conclusion to another, and completely miss the psychopathic tendencies of the man who would eventually murder her."
The doctor laughed and David felt a shiver down his spine because it was obvious that Reismann was insane.
"And then there was poor little Joanie the math genius, with such a life to look forward to. So full of promise that she couldn't believe she could possibly die so young with so much unfulfilled potential. A waste really. They begged me to spare her so they could make use of her amazing talent for numbers but she was an integral part of the experiment. She was the key to snapping Quentin, though I never expected her to gamble away her chance to live in order to save others...especially someone as seemingly worthless as you."
Reismann leaned back in. "Which brings me back to you and Kazan." He tilted his head to study David. "How did I manage to miss the shining hero complex hiding beneath the cowardly exterior? The man who would take a beating, and a double stabbing, and yet still carry on fighting to save a nobody."
"Was a nobody. A one-trick brain that could never survive outside of an institution, and yet you protected him to the bitter end. Why?"
"He had a right to live."
"Sadly, no." Reismann raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh, you never really expected me to allow any of you to live, did you? The whole point of the experiment was to see how you each faced death....and dying is an important part of that. Poor Kazan never really understood even after we put him back inside. I'm afraid he didn't last long without your protection."
David choked back a sob. "Bastard," he cried through gritted teeth, struggling weakly against the straps holding him down. "You bastard."
"There, that's the anger I wanted to see again. That core of steel that I missed during the initial assessment. So embarrassing but easily corrected now you're back where you belong. Of course it is unfortunate that my initial evaluation of you is part of public record, and has no doubt been read by Doctor Welles and others."
Reismann stood up and David followed him with his eyes as the man walked to a small table. He picked up a hypodermic and carefully measured out a dose of whatever liquid it contained before walking back to David. David tensed as the needle slid into his arm and, almost immediately, the world began to fade as the sedative took hold. Reismann's words followed him down into unconsciousness.
"Time to die, David."
He had no idea how long he had remained unconscious this time around but he had a feeling it was minutes rather than hours because Reismann had seemed eager to set his experiment back in motion. The brightness of the cube only added to his pounding headache and he wished he'd been placed in one of the blue or green cubes.
He choked back another sob as he thought of Kazan and of his own gullibility in believing the ones who put them in this place would ever let them walk away. He and Joan, Helen and Kazan--they had been nothing to Reismann but laboratory rats in a maze, to be discarded once the experiment was complete. They had never stood a chance and were dead from the moment they had been snatched from their lives outside of the Cube and brought to this place.
He closed his eyes and relaxed back against the hard floor. If Reismann was looking for a show then he'd have to make do with watching David lying here because David had no intention of moving anywhere within this maze of death traps. Brendan was real, and though he had no tangible reason to believe it, he knew Brendan would come for him, and that Brendan would tear this place apart to find him. All he had to do was stay alive until then, and the only way to guarantee that he might be alive when Brendan came for him was to stay in one safe place--here.
It took a moment before the changing smell in the air penetrated the fog of his mind, along with the terrible realization that Reismann had already guessed how he would initially react to his situation by doing nothing. This cube was one of the traps and if he didn't move soon then he would be dead within minutes--asphyxiated. Frantically he glanced around. Six hatchways and not enough time for more than a basic test and a leap of faith. He had to choose now, or never give Brendan a chance to save him.
Pushing himself to his knees he started to cough as the density of the gas increased. He staggered to his feet and headed in whatever direction his legs carried him, crying out weakly as the small climb to the hatchway pulled on his still healing abdominal wounds. Opening it, he climbed the rest of the way, flopping onto his belly with a sharp cry of pain below gathering his hands and knees below him and crawling to the other cube. It was blue. Kazan had liked the blue rooms best. His head was swimming from lack of oxygen and he made that leap of faith knowing he was a dead man anyway if he remained a moment longer inside the other cube. His feet missed a rung and he fell hard, crying out again before lying still as the hatch closed, cutting off the toxic fumes of the unknown gas.
It occurred to him then that maybe none of the cubes were safe, and that it would only be a matter of time before Reismann forced him to move on again in his twisted belief that David's life and death struggle would provide some scientific breakthrough. Part of David still wanted to simply lay down and let it happen but another part of him had heard Joan's words telling him that if his life sucked then he had the strength to change it, that she would be there to help him--except for the part where she died moments later at Quentin's hand, he thought. Yet she was still with him. He could feel the strength of her conviction embodied in the handsome form of Brendan Dean--a man he would never have met if he had not held on to life rather than let himself slip away. He needed to find out if Brendan could ever feel the same way about him.
He had a reason to live now.
Reismann's overconfidence turned out to be his undoing as Brendan and Freya walked into the Rubik Cube without meeting any opposition. They made their way towards the center, avoiding the few security guards patrolling the area, and moving to where Freya could sense a concentration of voices. She tried singling them out but she could not tell Brendan if David was among them. They stopped just outside the control room and Brendan watched Freya as she concentrated harder, trying to make sense of the overlapping jumble of thoughts. When Brendan first learned of Freya's gift he had felt angry and violated, knowing she had been reading his thoughts all day long but Michael had showed him what it had been like for Freya for the first three years--before she learned to block out the voices by reading books. It had been like living inside a packed football stadium--permanently. He still wondered how she had kept sane with all the insanity surrounding her in the mental institution, hearing their neuroses, their screams both audible and internal. Now he wondered at her strength, at being able to open her mind to the madness before blocking out one set of thoughts after another in order to pinpoint an individual.
"If he's there at all then he's deeply unconscious," she answered solemnly. "The people inside are monitoring an experiment." Her eyes narrowed in concentrations. "One man in particular is focused completely on..." She gasped and turned wide, fear-filled eyes on Brendan. "David! They sent him back into the Cube...alone."
Before he could even think, Brendan found himself inside the room with a gun leveled at the occupants, shouting orders to the stunned so-called scientists. They all huddled together into a corner--all except one. Brendan turned on him, recognizing him immediately from photographs.
"Reismann," he snarled. "The experiments over. Get David Worth out of there."
Reismann raised his hands. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Agent Dean. The experiment has been set in motion and he has to see it through to the very end."
Brendan got right into Reismann's face and threatened him softly, "Get. Him. Out. Of. There. NOW! Or so help me I'll throw you in there after him."
Reismann's eyes widened in fear when he realized Brendan was deadly serious. He started to stutter. "No...no...I can't. Once it's set in motion...I can't stop it."
"He's telling the truth," Freya stated softly, touching Brendan's arm.
"No. I'm not accepting that. Someone here knows how to reset the cubes."
A man stepped out from the wall, hands still raised above his head, voice trembling as he spoke up. "It won't do any good. He's moved cubes three times already." Brendan glared because David wouldn't have been so stupid. He would have waited. He had told them on that first meeting as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood that all they had to do was wait and the cube would eventually rotate back to the beginning of the cycle.
"He had no choice," Freya added, reading the man's mind. "They've driven him out with gas twice now. Forced him to make the decision of dying where he was or risking another cube."
Furious, Brendan turned back to the scientist. "Then stop it. Stop releasing the gas and stop the cubes from moving."
The man shook his head. "That won't disarm any of the traps."
"He'll stop moving if he isn't getting gassed."
Reismann stepped forward, looking smug. "My little rat in the maze has already learned not to stay too long in one cube. Our clever boy is checking the attached cubes immediately, hoping to give himself a greater chance of avoiding a trap. Good thing too or the experiment would have ended in the last cube. Instead all he lost was a shoe."
Brendan rushed the man, shoving him backwards across a console with his forearm pressed hard against the doctor's throat. "This is not a game for your amusement." Brendan looked over his shoulder. "Stop the goddamned cubes from moving," he snarled and watched as the other scientist started tapping commands into another console. "Freya, call Grazier." Brendan straightened, bringing Reismann up with him with a hand wrapped in the front of the man's white coat. He shoved Reismann hard, uncaring as the doctor stumbled against his colleagues in the corner of the control cube. Brendan handed his gun over to Freya. "If one of them even thinks about moving, shoot 'em."
The scientist sitting at the console made to join the others but Brendan grabbed him. "Not you. You get to stay here and help me save David."
"How? I can't..."
"First, show me where he is on the grid." An image of the whole cube began to rotate on the screen and one of the 17576 cubes turned blue and began to blink. Brendan cursed under his breath when he realized how far the cubes had taken David from either exit. It was little wonder that Freya had not heard his thoughts. "Can you determine which of the surrounding cubes are lethal?" The man nodded and Brendan cursed when three of the cubes turned red. "Lock all the hatches. Lock it down then restart the cubes and eventually..."
"Lock? I can't lock them all," he exclaimed. "And even if I could then you'd never to be able to get him out. That cube never moves close to an edge or to here. It rotates through the center section only."
Brendan focused hard on the man's words. "If you can't lock them all...can you lock individual cubes?"
"Only five at any time."
"Then lock down those three red cubes!"
The man started tapping immediately. "I can't lock the third one. The hatch is already open."
Brendan felt his heart stop cold, and whispered, "David."
Freya felt the shock of realization ripple through not just Brendan's thoughts but through the scientists too. Only one seemed pleased with the result and her finger tightened on the gun trigger as she faced Reismann. This man had murdered so many people in his mad pursuit of knowledge, feeling no remorse for the lives he had destroyed, and for the fear that had filled those people before they met their horrific deaths. He didn't deserve to live, didn't deserve to stand their breathing while David was being sliced or suffocated or drenched in acid.
"He didn't go in!" the scientist exclaimed, and Freya mirrored Brendan by sucking in a deep breath greedily, unaware that she'd stopped breathing too.
"Lock it down! Wait! Can you show me all the ones between here and David's cube that are not lethal?" He studied the image and Freya could see him working out a safe passage. "Okay. He pointed to two of the green cubes surrounding David's blue marker. "Lock down those."
"He's attempting another hatch--a locked one."
Brendan's thoughts were images rather than words, mapping out the path over and over that would lead David to safety at the closest entrance--the one already covered by NSA and FBI agents at the warehouse. They would have to figure out a way to get him across without using the bridge cube but she knew from Brendan's thoughts that his greatest concern was that David would not have the energy to cross through the convoluted path of twenty-two cubes to reach safety. There had to be a simpler way.
"Can't we move the cubes in reverse?" she asked. "Make him retrace his steps?"
The scientist--Madrick--shook his head sorrowfully and she read the remorse for his part in all of this. He had never wanted to be a part of this insanity but walking away would have sealed his own fate. The man was all too aware that he would have been snatched in the middle of the night, like David and the others, and he would have ended up as one of Reismann's laboratory specimens. She sensed his relief that he could at least try to save this one man in particular from the hell surrounding them, and realized with a shock that Madrick had known David on the outside. He had tried to warn David about the cube but, in the end, had merely sealed David's fate.
She felt his mind spark with an idea.
"Wait." He ran a simulation "If we get him to move into this cube," he pointed at the screen, "Then I could restart the cubes. It'll take a while to filter along and it will move the cube further away from Control at first but within forty minutes it'll swing back towards here, ending up only seven cubes away." His fingers flew over the controls and the cubes turned red and green. Brendan was already working through the three-dimensional maze, head shaking in frustration.
Brendan looked away. "There's no easier safe passage through from there."
"What about one of the other safe cubes? Where would they go next?" Freya asked, taking her attention off the other cowering scientists for a second but keeping her mind open to their thoughts. She snapped back, raising the gun menacingly at one of them who debated rushing her while her attention seemed elsewhere.
Brendan looked at Madrick hard, willing him to work faster. Freya listened in on Madrick's thoughts as he re-ran the simulation. She could hear him turning it over in his mind, weighing the advantages and disadvantages but he did not have Brendan's gift of seeing everything.
"That one," he pointed at the screen. "We get David to go in there." He frowned. "Can you open the hatchways from here, individually?"
Madrick was thrown by the question. "I'm...I think so."
"Then lock them all down but open this one. Once he's inside, lock down the hatches until the cube has moved to here. Open the bottom hatch only and then wait until he's moved into it before locking them all down again. This one will move to here. That's only two cubes away from here."
Madrick keyed in the data, slumping back. "One of those cubes is red."
"What kind of trap?"
"Can the trap be circumvented?"
Madrick brought up the individual cube data and allowed Brendan to see the trap in action. "Pressure pads beneath the floor. Step on one and it activates the trap. Only problem is they're impossible to see." He brought up the pattern and Freya felt the fear grow within her when she realized what Brendan was thinking. He was committing the pattern to memory, locking it tight inside his mind with the intention of carrying David through that trap to safety.
Freya spoke up. "Brendan, we can keep moving the cubes until there's a better option."
He swallowed and nodded, accepting her fear but David was still recovering from his injuries. He didn't have a lot of time so there might not be a better option. He saw Freya nod as she realized this was a gamble he had to take. "Do it. Just make sure you lock all the cubes the moment David's comes to rest. I don't want him wandering off in the wrong direction," he quipped.
Reismann began to laugh as Madrick nodded and started tapping away on the keyboard again. "Oh, this is amazing. I should have considered this as part of my experiment. See how far into danger one person would place himself in order to save a loved one. Perhaps a parent and child next time."
Brendan was across the cube in seconds, his fist slamming into Reismann's face. Reismann's head snapped back from the force of the blow and he went down hard, fortunately unconscious rather than dead--though only for Brendan's sake. Personally, she wished they could carry out Brendan's earlier threat to throw Reismann into his own death trap of an experiment. If anyone deserved to meet a grisly end then it was this psychopath.
David doubled over with one arm pressed hard against his stomach. He was tired and scared, driven from one cube to the next with little time to determine if it was safe but knowing he had no choice if he wanted to live just a little longer. It appeared that Reismann didn't want to sit around twiddling his thumbs while David sat down and waited for rescue. The mad doctor wanted to see David's fear, and he wanted to measure David's reaction to each life and death situation forced upon him. If David had never met Brendan then he might have deprived Reismann of his sadistic pleasure by letting the gas take him into oblivion, but instead he kept moving. All he could do was hope his luck held out until Brendan found him but he had already used up more than some people gained in a far longer lifetime, almost falling into a trap that had a liquid chemical--like napalm--ignited and firing out from over a dozen jets placed around the whole of the cube. His shoe was little more than a blackened, melted heap in the center of that cube, and the release of gas in his formerly safe cube had him taking a gamble on the cube beyond the next hatchway.
He clambered through quickly as his eyes began to tear from the gas.
Safe--for a few minutes at least--except he did not have time to rest. Instead he tried the next hatch and it opened smoothly to reveal an orange room, but the air was dry. Too dry. And he recalled Rennes saying something about that being a bad sign so he pulled back, deciding to move onto the next hatchway.
Climbing up one rung on the next hatchway, he reached for the handle, turning it until it clicked but the hatch stayed closed rather than sliding open. David pulled a little harder but it wouldn't give. A feeling of dread mingled with hope as he wondered why the hatchway was locked. Had Brendan found him and was protecting him, or was Reismann upping the ante by reducing the number of safe cubes for him to choose from this time?
Checking around he realized he had only three remaining choices--the ceiling, floor and one wall. He tried the floor as it was closest but the hatch refused to open. Gazing upwards, he considered climbing but he doubted he could pull himself up due to his abdominal injuries so he moved to the remaining wall. The hatch slid open and David took a deep, shuddering breath as he climbed through. He paused on the threshold, closing his eyes and bringing an image of Brendan to the forefront of his mind, allowing himself a moment to pretend he was running his fingers through Brendan's messy dark hair, drawing his full lips down to meet his own in a first kiss. He could almost feel the tingle against his lips and, with a small sob he climbed down into the cube, knowing he might never experience that kiss for real. David stood at the center for a moment, eyes still closed, and almost sagged to the floor in relief when nothing happened to him.
He snapped open his eyes when he heard the small clicking sound of a hatch opening. Quentin was dead but the fear of another psychotic killer running loose in this death maze had him breathing raggedly. He turned slowly but the cube was empty and the hatchway stood open, waiting for him. He took a tentative step towards it, uncertain if this was just another part of the sadistic game or if someone was trying to show him the way out. He realized that if it was Reismann then he had obviously outlived his usefulness to the experiment and he was going to die anyway--either here in this cube when Reismann released the gas, or beyond that open hatchway. But if it was someone trying to help him then that way lay his hope of being reunited with Brendan.
"I'm going to believe it's you," he stated softly though his words seemed overly loud as they echoed around the cube.
Having made the decision, he crawled through the hatch and dropped to the floor without even bothering to check for lethal traps, slowly letting out the breath that he'd been unaware of holding when he didn't die. The hatch closed and he waited to see what would happen next but no hatches opened. Aware of the passing minutes and still not totally convinced that he was being rescued, David tried the hatch on the floor but it was locked. He tried one of the wall hatches but found that was locked too. Starting to worry, he tried the next one--also locked--but as he debated internally on whether he should risk climbing up to the ceiling hatch, he felt a shudder go through the cube as it started to move. It stopped after a few minutes but nothing else changed. Methodically trying all the easily accessible hatches again, he found them locked, leaving only the ceiling untested.
Once more he felt he had no choice so he climbed as far as he could, hissing in pain as he stretched out to reach the rungs running across the ceiling to the center hatch. He couldn't do it. He wasn't unfit despite his sedentary lifestyle but he knew he would need greater upper arm and body strength than he possessed if he was going to support his weight without using his abdominal muscles. Defeated and exhausted, he climbed back down and sank to the floor, curling up into a fetal position to take some of the strain off his stomach muscles. If this was where he was meant to die then let it come. Within seconds he was asleep.
David awoke abruptly to the sound of the floor hatch opening. Blinking away his exhaustion and confusion, he looked down through the hatch to a blue-colored cube below. Someone wanted him to go down and he decided not to question why. The first part of the climb was easy and at least coming down he had a chance to get his legs wrapped around the rungs on the ceiling of the lower cube to take the strain rather than cause further injury to his abdomen. It was slow going but eventually he dropped to the floor. Nothing happened. No other hatches opened and no lethal traps tore away his life so he curled back up again and closed his eyes, deciding to conserve his energy until he needed it. This time he let himself hope a little, letting his thoughts dwell on his memory of Brendan as he slipped back into sleep.
He half awoke when the cube moved but sank back down into a fitful sleep quickly
David smiled at the well-remembered voice. "Brendan," he whispered. It was a good dream, so good that he could feel the warmth of Brendan's hand against his cheek. He sighed softly and turned his face into the palm, kissing it softly. A warm huff of pleasure warmed his face before he felt soft lips pressing against his temple.
"Come on. Open those baby blues."
Baby blues? He didn't want to open his eyes, didn't want to leave this peaceful moment.
"David," Brendan called softly again and this time David forced his eyes open to find Brendan looking down at him, only inches away--close enough for David to simply stretch up a little and...Brendan's lips felt as warm and pliable as he imagined, softening further as if melting against him as they kissed. Brendan pulled back a fraction, his breath warm as he murmured, "David," so reverently. "Come on. We have to get you out of here."
Out of here? Everything came crashing down and he remembered where he was--his eyes taking in the familiar and hated walls of the cube. Worse still, Brendan was with him, forced back into the death trap and even as part of him rejoiced at seeing Brendan, the other part wailed in despair because he wanted Brendan to live. He clung onto Brendan, sobbing into his shoulder like a bawling baby and hating himself for his weakness.
"Ssh! It's okay. We just have a couple of cubes to cross and then we'll be safe."
"Never safe. Won't ever let us leave here alive."
"Reismann doesn't have a say in this anymore. Come on. I'm going to get you out of here."
Ten minutes earlier:
The sight of Lawson, Knight and half a dozen other NSA and FBI agents entering the control cube took away some of the tightness in Brendan's chest. Stopping the cubes from moving temporarily had given the other agents a chance to work their way across, with both Grazier and Madrick ensuring they didn't enter any lethal cubes. However, it meant leaving David out there all alone for a lot longer than Brendan had originally intended. He had finally caved in and asked Madrick to reinstate the visual feed so he could see what was happening to David, and he reached out to caress the sleeping figure with a finger, adding this vulnerable image to the many he had already locked into his head permanently.
Brendan realized that perhaps the additional wait was for the best. He was no longer faced with the dilemma of leaving Freya on her own in the control cube with seven technicians and Reismann, all of whom would be worrying about the part they had played in this death trap and looking to make their escape before the authorities could catch up with them. At least, all except Reismann who was exactly where he wanted to be, monitoring his sadistic experiment. Plus there were the security guards who would stumble upon them eventually. Now they were being taken care of by trained agents, leaving Brendan free to focus on the most important man he had ever met--David.
By the time all the scientists except Madrick and Reismann were handcuffed and led away to a holding area within the Rubik Cube, David's cube had reached its final position, two cubes away from the outer edge of the Rubik Cube.
"What about him?" Lawson pointed to a restrained Reismann.
"I'm about to go rescue David Worth...and he doesn't get to witness it, or make notes."
"No! This is my experiment. My research is important and the results will radically change the way we study the human mind. You cannot depr--" Reismann's shouts were cut off as Knight and another agent dragged him away by force to a holding area and the large hatchway closed behind him.
Lawson stared at the screen displaying the lethal trap in one of the cubes standing between Brendan and David. "You really want to do this?"
Brendan started heading for the outer edge of the Rubik Cube with Lawson and Freya following, leaving another agent standing over Madrick. "He's already bleeding out again. He doesn't have the strength to move on alone and take instruction on how to cross that cube, and it would take hours to dismantle the trap or cycle the cube to a safer position. Time he doesn't have."
Lawson reached out and grasped Brendan's arm as he began turning the hatch door. "It's a death trap."
"But I know where the pressure points are. No one else can do this." The hatch slid open and Brendan pulled off his jacket and tie, dropping them to the floor before turning to Freya. He did not need to speak aloud because she could hear his thoughts as clear as day.
"I know," she whispered. "I know you have to try."
As he turned to climb up she wrapped her arms around him, resting her head on his back for a moment.
"Your pants are torn," she half-laughed, half-sobbed. "I can see your Scooby-Doo boxers." He twisted in her arms and hugged her tightly; silently telling her how special she was to him.
"I'll be back with David before you know it."
He climbed through and gingerly lowered himself onto the floor, visualizing the pattern of pressure points and placing his feet carefully to avoid them. It took a few minutes and he sighed in relief when he reached the other side safely even though he knew it wasn't over yet. He still had the return journey to make under far more difficult circumstances. The second cube posed no threat at all so he raced across it, opening the hatch and clambering through on his hands and knees. He paused at the threshold, looking down into blue-colored cube to where David lay curled up on the floor. Blood had already seeped through the thick dressing over his wounds, forming a dark patch beneath the blue lighting--like a malignant shadow falling across the lower half of the white t-shirt.
Brendan dropped down beside David, unable to resist the urge to reach out and touch the pale face as he gently called his name. Although the monitors had told him David was still alive, the warm puff of air and the press of dry lips against the palm of his hand forced out the breath he had been holding. Softly cajoling David into waking up, Brendan leaned in and was rewarded by a kiss so sweet and tender that he wanted to stay pressed against those lips forever but he pulled back only to feel David break apart in his hands as the emotions of the last few days caught up with the man. Brendan held him tight, making promises he intended to keep, that he would get David out of there alive.
"Come on, we have to go now. Can you stand on your own?"
He pretended to ignore the way David scrubbed a hand across his tear-dampened face and helped David to his feet, holding him close for a moment just to feel his warm, living presence against him. "Come on. The first cube is safe. Just need to get you up then I'll go through and help you down the other side."
It took a little maneuvering but they managed to get into the next cube. However, David was weakening fast with unsteady legs as Brendan supported him to the next hatch. Brendan helped him find the rung, boosting him up into the hatchway before clambering up and over him. He eased himself over the edge carefully, taking care with his footing when he touched the floor below. Now came the hard part. Somehow he had to get both of them across the dangerous cube and though a fireman's lift would have been easiest to distribute David's weight over his back and shoulders, he wasn't sure he could risk holding him like that with the already bleeding abdominal wound. The only other option was piggyback style but that relied on David holding on tight to him.
Brendan turned and nodded at Lawson, who had positioned himself in the hatchway ready to assist Brendan in pulling David up to safety. He turned back to where David was staring down at him.
"I'll have to carry you but that means you have to climb on my back and hold on tight. You have to trust me."
"I trust you."
"Can you climb partway down this ladder and get on my back?"
David nodded but Brendan could see how much energy it took him for such a simple feat, but he must have drawn reserves up from somewhere because David turned himself around to come down feet first. His limbs were shaking with the effort and Brendan staggered forward when he finally took David's weight, freezing when he realized he was barely an inch from the first pressure point and had no idea of how sensitive it might be. He sighed when nothing happened. He waited until David was settled with his hands around Brendan's neck and legs wrapped around his waist, supported by Brendan's arms. David dropped his head forward so his rough cheek and soft hair brushed against Brendan's face.
David gave a tiny nod.
"Whatever you do, don't move. Don't shift your weight or you'll unbalance me."
David nodded again and Brendan took the first unbalanced step. By the time he was over halfway across, the sweat was freely trickling down his face and his arms were growing numb with the strain of supporting David's weight. He took another step, keeping his eyes firmly glued to the floor and his mind picturing the position of each pressure point ahead of him. A final step brought him to the hatchway and he let out a ragged breath as Lawson grabbed hold of David and started to pull him to safety. Brendan climbed the first rung, helping to boost David up, eyes widening as David's remaining shoe snagged on the edge and dropped from his foot to hit the floor. Instinctively, Brendan crushed himself against the side of the ladder in the only safe spot he could visualize as spikes erupted from the floor, walls and ceiling, crying out as one scraped across his outer thigh and a second along his side under his arm. He heard Freya's anguished cry.
After a moment the spikes retracted and Brendan used the last of his strength to climb up, scrabbling to safety and dropping down into the Rubik Cube, his injured leg giving way instantly. Freya was beside him in seconds and he looked down at the gash across his outer thigh.
"Tore my pants again," he quipped but Freya's only response was to bury her head against his shoulder, her smaller body shaking from laughing sobs of relief.
It took a construction crew six months to dismantle every trap within the Cube though the government would not agree to destroying the whole thing, believing that it would serve a purpose eventually. The cube-by-cube sweep uncovered all sorts of hidden caches of weapons and valuables including surface-to-air missiles that could take out armored helicopters and nuclear warheads. Freya shuddered to think what might have happened if the extremist group had ever launched a major attack on the country. Arrests had been made, though she knew the NSA and FBI were still relying on their respective white-collar teams to follow the paperwork trail to those higher up in the organization. Eventually those shadowy figures would be found and she hoped they would not prove too powerful to be taken down.
Any chance of using Jarvis to get to his masters was lost when he was killed in a shoot out between him and NSA agents, and her interrogation of Reismann had revealed nothing of use. He'd had no interest in who was running the show, only that he got to play with his experiments in the Cube. The U.S. Attorneys' Office insisted that Reismann was tried in the state of South Dakota, where he was held fully responsible for the murder of twenty-seven individuals and for the attempted murder of David Worth and two Federal employees--her and Brendan. His trial lasted less than a month with too much damning evidence to draw it out any longer even with his defense attempting to plead insanity on his behalf. But Reismann had shown he was fully capable of understanding his actions and he had shown no remorse for any of his victims, seeing them as little more than laboratory rats thrown into a deadly maze.
He was handed the death penalty, and though it shamed her to admit it, Freya hoped that he would be executed before South Dakota voted on abolishing the death penalty once more. She did not want his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment, knowing he would spend the years writing up his notes and publishing his theories, gaining professional accolades that he did not deserve. Yet, at the same time, she hoped that someone would make respectful use of the research data so all those deaths would not be completely in vain; that someone, somewhere might benefit.
Although she had not known any of the victims who had died in the Cube, Freya found herself accompanying David and Brendan to most of the funerals and memorial services in those early weeks and, except for three in particular, they mostly stayed at the back unnoticed. She knew part of it was survivor's guilt, wanting to acknowledge those who hadn't made it out alive, and that David especially had found that hard to deal with at first. Fortunately he and Brendan had each other to hold onto through the nightmares, and she had Michael.
The hardest funeral had been Joan Leaven's. Even though Reismann would never have let them live--with Kazan's murder as ample proof of that--David had still blamed himself for her death. Perhaps it was fortunate that even in the depths of their grief her parents had recognized this and had refused to hold him to blame, seeing him as just as much a victim as their daughter. Their compassion, and the way they shared their grief with David, hugging him so tight as they all cried, had set David firmly on the road to recovery.
It allowed him to forgive himself.
Michael had helped too, willingly listening to David's fears and talking him through them, but she knew that it was Brendan's love that helped him most of all.
When they were not actively working on a case, she and Brendan spent most of their time at Michael's facility in upstate New York, bringing David with them. Michael was always happy to lend Brendan and David the small cottage set apart from the rest of the buildings while she stayed with Michael in another. It was peaceful here, giving them all a chance to heal away from the frantic pace of the city.
She was watching Brendan and David now, lying on a blanket in the sunshine with sweet meadow grass partially concealing them from view. David's thoughts were light with happiness as Brendan leaned over and kissed him, and Brendan's were focused so tightly on his lover's pleasure in turn, memorizing every line and curve, every smile that lifted the corners of David's slanted mouth. She knew Brendan treasured every image of David, playing them over and over whenever he and David were apart to the point where she had to tune him out or see far more of their relationship than she intended. The fact that neither of them ever felt uneasy in her presence always filled her with the warmth of acceptance.
Brendan's thoughts deepened now and she felt a little embarrassed at the images slipping through his mind from last night, always so crystal clear compared to the memories viewed from others. In his memory David was spread out beneath him on the large bed within the cottage, his pale skin glistening with a sheen of sweat as they moved together, kissing and caressing hungrily. She could almost feel the roughness of the scar beneath Brendan's lips as he kissed his way down David's belly, could almost smell the arousal filling the air, aware that it was growing between them now as they touched and kissed within the meadow grass, with hands sliding beneath clothing to caress sun-warmed skin.
Hands slid around her waist, drawing her back against Michael, who was one of the few people who had enough control over his thoughts to sneak up behind her. He glanced over her shoulder at the partially hidden men and let her read his warm, happy thoughts.
"I think the picnic can wait another half an hour," she murmured and he laughed softly. She smiled mischievously. "We can always spend the time rolling around on a blanket too."
"Have I ever told you that you have the most incredible mind?"
"Oh, maybe once or twice," she replied smugly as she turned in his arms. She let him kiss her deeply before she drew back, grasping his hand and leading him away from the two lovers so she could leave them with their privacy. After all, with her own sexy thoughts now filling her mind, she wanted to find a little privacy too.