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Austin Fargo's hand dropped to the massive revolver on his hip, his other tightened around the handle of the machete frozen in midstroke at a green branch barring his progress. It took several minutes before the explorers had recovered enough composure to breathe steadily.
Had this been sooner on their journey, Fargo would have relaxed his tightly wound nerves with a laugh, but the hard rubber checkering on his handgun dug into the pads of his fingers and his throat was so tight that he almost choked. Two days earlier, when the expedition set out, Fargo was looking for a gold mine of technology, the materials that the Millennial Consortium would need to wrest control from such adversaries as the rebels of Cerberus redoubt or the Tigers of Heaven. Stockpiles of weapons in the Kashmir region would give the consortium an edge in creating their new empire. Which was why Austin Fargo had twenty trained soldiers and twice that many technicians on hand. The hundred bearers packing their supplies were paralyzed with worry, and only Fargo's display of stern discipline kept the lot of them from deserting the human train as it crawled through the uncharted forest.
It was one thing to be cut in two by the snarl of a Calico machine pistol, and even the slash of a machete brought a quick demise. The coiled loops of leather that hung on Fargo's hip, on the other hand, peeled flesh from the body in inch-wide strips, one lash at a time. TheIndian deserter whom Fargo had singled out was a giant, six and a half feet with a barrel chest, and long arms and legs as solid as tree limbs. Fargo took his time, peeling the big Indian's skin off with the crack of tightly woven leather. After an hour and a half, Fargo's arm started to grow tired. The Indian hung by his wrists, bared ribs and shoulder blades gleaming where the whip had flayed skin and muscle away.
The deserter had been reduced to a gibbering mass, a once powerful man stripped of his strength by the cruelty of Fargo's whip. Eyeless sockets cried tears that flowed in crimson rivers down his cheeks. The bearer begged for death, for an end to the pain. Finally, well into the third hour of his exhibition, Fargo wound the whip back up, hanging it on the metal hook in his belt. Somewhere in those last few minutes of lashing leather, blood loss or shock had stilled the big man's heart.
Thoughts of rebellion were crushed. Fargo would make them pay, and the display of violence was foremost in the thoughts of the Indians laden with the expedition's supplies.
That should have been enough to keep everyone well behaved, but then the ghost sightings began. Humanoid shadows flitted in the darkness just beyond the path that the expedition carved in the forest. The soldiers fired on the ghostly forms, but no blood was spilled by the chattering weapons. Fargo hated to call the stalkers ghosts, but the only other whispered explanation came from the primitives who had borne the supplies on this arduous trek. They called the shadows Nagah, legendary snake creatures that lived beneath the surface of the world, interacting with men only when they chose to. Fargo was well acquainted with the idea of reptilian humans from his adventures in England to interactions with the Annunaki overlords and their scaled Nephilim slaves. The snake men, with their hinged and poisonous fangs, were feared by the natives of postskydark India.
The Kashmir region had for centuries been a contested territory, warred over by the nations of India and Pakistan for strategic purposes and for the vast agricultural benefits it had provided. While Fargo saw evidence of ancient combines, overgrown and now conquered by weeds and new tree growth, he couldn't imagine this land as farmland. It was too empty, too abandoned. On the other side of the forest, the remnants of Pakistan's survivors held their ground. Likewise the Indians stayed on their side of the edge of the forest. No one even went to the tree line to harvest logs to create more housing in the snarled shantytown. To leave such resources untouched nagged at Fargo.
A shadowy figure, manlike in size and shape, stepped onto the trail ahead of him. At first, the millennialist thought it was a figment of his overactive imagination. His fingers wrapped around the black rubber grips of his .45-caliber revolver as he realized it was more than just a phantom. Gleaming yellow eyes, partially obscured by a silhouetted hood, flashed as the figure's nod acknowledged Fargo's attention.
"Have you not listened to the men you have enslaved?" came a harsh, sibilant challenge.
"I come to you representing the Millennial Consortium. I am here to make contact with the keepers of a trove reported in this area. We are a peaceful group, seeking to negotiate a deal with you," Fargo answered. His thumb rested on the teardrop-shaped hammer of the big hogleg in its holster, ready for a fast draw. The challenger's golden-yellow eyes flicked down to his hand.
"You're well armed for a mission of peace," the hissing silhouette noted.
"I'd be a fool to come unarmed into a nation filled with tribal feuds and bandits," Fargo stated. "And in the south, there are violent cultists."
"They call themselves the Nagas," the shadowy sentinel added. "They believe themselves to be like unto us."
The jungle grew silent around them, as quiet as a tomb as birds and insects became too frightened to chirp. The shadowed, amber-eyed stranger was not alone. Odds were that the expedition was surrounded. Fargo glanced back to the Calico-toting millennialist enforcers and nodded.
Safety catches clicked off with the chatter of a sudden metallic rainstorm.
"This can either be peaceful or painful." Fargo's words punctuated the chatter of twenty machine pistols going from rest to wakeful readiness. "Your choice, stranger."
"Please, we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot," the tall figure said. He stepped into a shaft of sunlight piercing down from the forest canopy. "My name is Durga, prince of the true-blooded Nagah."
Fargo watched Durga flip back the hood of his long, formless black cloak. Rising from his shoulders like a trapezoidal Central American pyramid, Durga's head and slender neck were blended into a flat, powerful sheet of muscle that instantly solidified the truth of the legendary cobra men of India. Save for the folds of the cloak that clung to broad, powerful shoulders, Durga was naked to the waist, his chest laden with large segmented plates in a paler hue than the scales that adorned his arms, face and ribs. The belly armor was the color of age-stained bone, while the smaller, finer scales glimmered metallic blue and green, shimmering almost like silk. The cobra man's yellow eyes remained locked on Fargo, and his thin, scaled lips were turned up at the corners in bemusement.
"Brothers, step out and introduce yourselves. Slowly and politely," Durga added as an afterthought.
Perhaps as many as thirty similarly cloaked figures strode from the shadows of the trees.
Like their self-proclaimed true-blooded prince, they were lean, slender figures. All were hairless, though not all of them had the perfect sheens of snakelike armor that their leader sported. On the Nagah men who weren't completely reptilian, bared patches of human flesh seemed like swollen, discolored rashes rather than normal sunburned flesh. Scales twinkled like dew-wet grass amid the untransformed flesh.
Fargo thought back to the semireptilian guardsmen in England, men genetically augmented to be more than human. The Englishmen so transformed looked pathetic in comparison to the powerful, graceful, cobra-hooded Nagah that Fargo looked upon now. The explorer wondered if the treatments of Lord Strongbow were clumsily copied from whatever procedure created the snake men he now encountered.
"Make your weapons friendly, lads," Fargo called out. "Muzzles down but triggers hot."
Fargo nodded to Durga. "Just a precaution."
Durga shrugged. His lean, powerful shoulders flexed, making his segmented chest plates ripple over tight pectoral and abdominal muscles. "Understandable. We are strangers. Indeed, we are obscenely alien to your mammal eyes."
Fargo shook his head. "Not completely. I have met others who have transformed themselves, but not as well as you have."
Durga nodded. "Ah, yes. The Englanders. Strongbow had sent scouts to seek a refinement of his crude process. We greeted them as brothers, but sadly, our lost relatives once more were lost. It is no wonder that our appearance does not panic you."
Fargo glanced back to his millennialist allies. He could hear the hushed whispers of Indians speaking among themselves in Hindi. "No. Not completely."
Durga's thin lips pursed in frustration. "Such a shame."
Fargo read the disappointment in the cobra man's words. Where the rest of his party displayed confusion, the millennial explorer's muscles tensed in anticipation of hell unleashed.
Durga took one step forward, but by then, Fargo had sidestepped, barely avoiding the slashing rake of unhinging fangs in the Nagah's mouth. A spray of fluid issued from Durga's venom sacks as they squeezed themselves out, disgorging their deadly payloads.
Fargo cracked his whip across Durga's flat face, a blow that would have lacerated any normal man down to the gleaming, bloody white bone beneath. It was a fast-draw slash that had split faces open from forehead to chin in the past. Instead, one yellow eye was clamped shut and Durga stumbled off balance.
The whip crack preceded the discharge of a half-dozen Calicos, but dozens of other men screamed in agony as venom seared into tear ducts and mucus membranes, burning like acid. Fargo whirled and bolted into the foliage, realizing that the poison-blinded guards and bearers had been neutralized.
The explorer trusted only two things to get him out of harm's way—his booted feet. They stomped through leaves, breaking saplings and low branches, putting distance between himself and the savage hisses behind him. Out of his peripheral vision, he could see the sinewy Nagah lunging at blinded, agonized humans, curved knives and distended jaws slashing into pink and brown flesh alike. Dagger and fang carved through human skin, cutting agonized wails short.
"Him!" Durga bellowed. "Get that miserable ape and drag him before me!"
Fargo noticed one millennialist unaffected by the gushing clouds of vision-destroying venom. His machine pistol hammered loudly, bullets chopping one snake man who staggered but still continued to advance. Mere handgun rounds deflected off the tough chest plate armor of the Nagah, though hits to the finer scales of the arms and thighs betrayed bloody swathes where copper-jacketed lead tore the weaker reptilian armor. Fargo left the fool to stand his ground, charging toward the frontier. The millennial gunman stopped firing, and the guard's fate was broadcast by a strangled death cry as hinged jaws and folding fangs stretched into a face-piercing lethal bite.
Other guns chattered sporadically, but were quickly overwhelmed by the coordinated assaults of the Nagah's ambush force.
Behind him, Fargo could hear the snap of branches and rustle of leaves. That could only mean that others were rushing through the thickets after him. As no bullets speared through the foliage, it had to be the knife- and fang-armed Nagah. The cobra-hooded warriors were in hot pursuit of the fleeing archaeologist.
Move, he commanded himself, legs pumping. Vaulting over roots, rocks and ruts with the ease of a man who'd run for his life across six continents, Fargo avoided tripping and stumbling. The Nagah hunters behind him snagged their feet on vines or stepped into open space where they expected solid ground. The snake men's yellow eyes had been focused on Fargo, not the ground before them. For a moment, the archaeologist was elated that, despite their venom and tough scales, they were as fallible and clumsy as any human. The crack of a rifle, accompanied by the eruption of a tree trunk, informed Fargo that the Nagah were perfectly willing to make use of modern tools to slay their foes.
Fargo changed course and allowed gravity to drag him down a muddy hillside. He rocketed to the bottom of the slope and sprang into a dead run through a copse of trees. Rifles chattered behind him, but Fargo kept up his frantic pace. Soon the single shots changed to fully automatic fire as machine guns were added to the mix.
Fargo plowed on, ricochets pinging and whining all around him. Trunks thumped as they caught the storm of bullets meant for him. He remembered his mental map, visualizing a steep cliff bordering off into a turgid river. It had forced the expedition to change its course by five miles, slowing the trek to a tedious crawl. He remembered that the height of the drop-off was around forty feet.
Boots filled with sloshing mud, wet pant legs clinging to his calves and thighs, Fargo knew his pace would rapidly slow off from constriction and lack of sure footing. One misstep would be the end of Fargo's explorations of the Kashmir region. While he would consider himself likely to catch an instantly fatal bullet, the ideal outcome was a splash in the river, its powerful current carrying him south and away from the serpentine assassins on his tail.
On foot, the Nagah warriors would not be able to keep up and shoot at Fargo at the same time, he suspected. The trees thinned out and the ground began to slope. Fargo's mud-caked boots turned into wet slicks, his footing dissolving into an arm-windmilling effort at balance as gravity whipped him into a wild slide. The rattle and crack of bullets around him faded as the slope pulled him below the arc of fire laid out by the cobra men. The skid downhill came to a sudden end as Forgo rocketed out into the air over the roiling waters beneath.
There was an odd, queasy moment of weightlessness as Fargo sailed to the waters. The surface of the river shimmered like ribbons of living, writhing glass. The world had gone silent around him, an envelope of calm providing him with a respite from the frantic race for his life. The snake men had stopped firing, it seemed, and in his peripheral vision, the millennialist trespasser knew why. Just before he knifed into the river, he had caught sight of a helicopter hanging over the tree line like a bloated, mechanical bee.
Fargo plunged under the surface of the roiling river, momentum pushing him nearly to the bottom as the water exerted its braking force on him. The current shoved hard, toppling him into a spin that he kicked out of, arms and legs dragging him toward the silty bottom.
With a twist, he looked up through the surface of the river, seeing the warped image of the sky and ledge hanging over him. Fargo knew that he had barely a minute before his lungs forced him to surface, but cold dread of that helicopter stilled his urge to swim upward.
Posted April 13, 2009
No text was provided for this review.