Maze Master: New Excerpt
New York Times-bestselling author Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s new apocalyptic thriller, Maze Master, shows the world ending not in fire nor in ice but in science.
LucentB is a retrovirus that’s inevitable, unstoppable, and utterly catastrophic for humanity. The US government believes the only person who can find the cure is the geneticist who tried to warn them about it and then disappeared: James Hakari. They assign the task of finding him to his former student Anna Asher, who in turn recruits paleographer and religious studies scholar Dr. Martin Nadai.
The brilliant but insane geneticist is leaving clues for Anna and Martin to follow, showing he’s truly earned his students’ nickname for him: the Maze Master. The search takes Anna and Martin around the world and into a war zone they never imagined.
THE F1RST DAY OF … OF MAY? IT MUST BE MAY.
“… Two, three, four, turn.”
I think I hear rain shishing against the walls of my prison. I halt to listen to it tapping on a roof I know does not exist. I remember walking down three flights of stone stairs to get to this chamber. I’m far below ground. I can’t be hearing rain. Nonetheless, the rain has been coming down hard all night, driving itself between the massive stones before trickling onto the floor. Already puddles fill the low spots. If the storm doesn’t ease soon, by dawn I will be wading barefoot in a moat, as I have so many times.
I pull my filthy air force jacket more tightly about my shoulders, and continue my journey. Four paces. The length of each wall is exactly four paces. The limestone blocks are pewter and dove, streaked with old blood. Unconsciously, I touch the stains as I pass.
“Who were you? Why did they hurt you?”
How many helpless men and women have lain upon this floor and watched their lives drain away into the cracks?
A flash of lightning penetrates the windowless chamber and throws faint shadows across the walls. I study them too intently for a sane person.
“Th-there’s nothing there. No lightning. No storm. I’m underground. Just keep walking. Don’t think about it. That’s what they want. Turn. One, two…”
I fight to suppress the cry that tightens my throat. My Russian captors keep telling me I am mad. “Wouldn’t any woman be mad if she’d seen what I have seen?”
I rub my eyes, but the images continue to afflict me … the glitter of lightless mazes that spiral down forever, brilliance so vast and dark it swallows the soul. Always, always, the maze echoes with what sounds like the last breath of a dying scream. “D-doesn’t matter. Three, four. Start again.”
As I cross the stones, I avoid the sharper edges that, after months of walking over them, I know with the intimacy of a lover’s body. The dark stone always bruises my heel; the gray one slashes my bare toes.
“Turn. One, two…”
A gust of freezing wind penetrates the chamber. Not possible, of course, but still there. When it fades, a strange dusty radiance surrounds me, and hope bursts in my chest.
“I’m here!” I cry. “I’m here, Hakari. Right here!”
I wave my arms at nothing, and soft sounds rise, bewitching sounds of a world outside: the rhythms of someone chopping firewood, the far-off whinny of a horse. Are they real? My ears strain for more, praying to hear a voice calling my name. Once, a long time ago, I was blinded by a voice.
They tell me Hakari is dead. I don’t believe it. He was too brilliant. Too mad. They just don’t understand. He’s leaving clues around the world like a serial murderer, shouting, Catch me if you can. On the opposite side of the chamber, something hisses, and the shadows twist and convulse. My heart jams sickeningly until hundreds of half-transparent faces coalesce. Silver hoods frame their pale features like halos, and faint cries seep from their mouths, “Liar, liar…”
“I did not lie! How could I know where it is? He would never have told me!”
The serpentine voices whisper, “But you were one of his chosen. One of The Ten.”
The hovering faces roam the prison like vapors.
“I tell you I know nothing. Go away!”
I clamp my hands hard over my ears and concentrate on memories of the small Wyoming town where I was born. A trembling smile comes to my lips when I hear buffalo calling to each other across the distances. Birdsong fills the warm summer air. Somewhere close by a woman sings a lullaby to a crying baby, and the lilting strains are almost too beautiful to endure.
With the softness of evaporating fog, the hideous cries of “Liar!” dissolve, and I lower my hands and clench them at my sides.
“Start again. Do it!”
One, two, carefully sidestep the dark stone, three. Plod toward the door. Moonlight briefly breaks through a gap in the clouds; the door appears gilded with pewter.
… Stop it. There’s no moonlight. No clouds.
When I reach the door, I cannot help myself. For the thousandth time, I throw myself upon it, clawing at the hinges, screaming, “Let me go home! I want to go home! Please, please, I’m telling the truth. I don’t know where it is.”
I lean my forehead against the icy metal and stare at the tiny pools of water that glisten across the floor like disembodied eyes.
Not water. Something else.
Voices murmur outside.
Are they real?
I leap away from the door as the hinges shriek, and it begins to open.
Twelve soldiers stand in the hall, including General Garusovsky and his personal aide, Lieutenant Borodino. Their protective clothing is always the first thing I notice. The tight-fitting garments resemble shiny second skins. Protective silver hoods obscure their faces, but I see their hard eyes glaring at me. I instinctively count their weapons: ten AK-74s, twelve holstered sidearms. General Vladimir Garusovsky is a national hero, an extreme Russian nationalist who fancies himself the new Stalin, the savior of the Motherland. If he could, he would march across the face of the world killing everything in his path to expand the new Russian Empire.
Borodino’s expression is pained as he looks at me, and maybe slightly panicked. Beads of sweat glisten across his forehead. Why? Is this my last day? I try not to look at him.
General Garusovsky stands in the very rear, almost invisible, his elderly face frozen in a hateful visage. Around fifty, he has seen many great battles. The most awful moments sculpt the deep lines across his forehead and around his wide mouth.
“H-have you found Hakari?” I beg. “He’s the only one who knows.”
“General,” Borodino says in Russian. “This is useless. We’ve tried everything, and she will tell us nothing about the Marham-i-Isa.”
Garusovsky lifts his chin to stare at me with ice-blue eyes. In accented English, he replies, “You’re wrong, Borodino. She will. Won’t you, Anna?”
I’m shaking to pieces, but no one but me can see it.
I face Garusovsky with as much dignity as I can. “General, why would he have told me? I was just a student, and that was years ago.”
“You were more than his student, Anna. You were his lover and the person he hoped would continue his work.”
“That was before Hakari went mad! I’ve had no contact with him since he escaped the psychiatric prison.”
“You’re a liar. We’ve been tracking your movements for months. We knew you were trying to find the Marham-i-Isa. And you did, didn’t you?”
I swallow hard before I weakly say, “You … you’ve been tracking me?”
Garusovsky’s lips purse as though the entire discussion is beneath contempt. “We both know that Hakari was a mad genius, a wizard with computers who believed the End of the World was at hand. What is the Marham-i-Isa, Anna?”
“I don’t know. I don’t! At the end, he was completely insane. That’s why he tried to break into the nuclear bunker at Foxtrot-01 in Nebraska. He was just running wild spouting nonsense! He’d lost all sense of reality!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, of course I am!”
A few of his soldiers instinctively lower their hands to their holstered sidearms, as though just the mention of a nuclear bunker sets them on edge.
“Bring her.” Garusovsky walks away.
Borodino casts a glance back at me before he follows Garusovsky. He’s trying to tell me something that I do not understand. What?
Soldiers file in and take my arms in the hard grips of strangers.
It’s pointless to resist. I allow them to drag me silently down the long hallway toward the torture chamber. I’ve been drowned over one hundred times, not allowed to sleep for days, had my flesh punctured with needles so often that my body looks diseased.
… Seven, eight, nine.
Keep count. Order the chaos.
Down a flight of stairs. Twenty, twenty-one. Don’t stop. Hit bottom at eighty-nine.
The deeper we go, the more alien it seems. This is new construction, very modern. We pass wind vents and pipes. Tiny camera eyes in the ceiling and along the floors watch our every step. Massive polished doors appear and disappear. There are no people. No windows. No sounds. How deep are we now? The ceilings continue to flicker, illuminating the stairway.
My mind sharpens. I’ve never seen this corridor. What is this place?
As Garusovsky approaches each closed door, he places his hand over the small squares on the wall. The doors slip open with barely a hiss, and we continue on. When the last door opens, an astringent smell washes over me. The unknown corridor took fifty-five steps. Fifty-five. I must remember.
“Go in,” he orders.
I walk through the door. Garusovsky and Borodino enter behind me. The soldiers remain outside. Apparently, only Garusovsky and Borodino are allowed to hear the conversation that is about to take place.
As the door slips closed, I tip my head back to gaze upward, stunned by the gigantic monster that lives here. The ceiling rises forty feet over my head and is sheathed in dim blue light that breathes. Its lungs blow air upon me. Strange blinking eyes flash in boxes that are stacked to the ceiling. It speaks in shishes and taps … the rainstorm I’ve been hearing? How many computer rooms like this are there in Russia? Am I in Russia? I was blindfolded when they brought me here.
My captors listen quietly to the monster’s tittering instructions. Occasionally, the creature pings as it correlates the metadata of metadata of metadata.
General Garusovsky taps a keyboard, and one of computer screens flares to life. “Just tap out the sequence, Anna,” he says. “And you can go.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, General? Hakari told me nothing!”
“Is it numeric or alphabetic, Anna?”
“I can’t answer that,” I say helplessly.
“Listen to me. Listen carefully. Give it to me, and I will personally put you on a jet and send you home to Wyoming. I’ll save your entire family and even your friends.”
Dear God, the longing to go home is so overpowering … my fist resolutely closes on air. “I don’t know it!” I shout. “I never have!”
He pauses before he softly says, “It’s already started. Has anyone told you? The first victim was discovered in France last week. Thank God our leaders believed Hakari. Unlike you foolish Americans, we knew the disease was coming. Gave us time to prepare.”
My breathless sobs make it difficult to form a sentence. “Disease?”
Borodino quietly speaks to Garusovsky in Russian: “You know as well as I that, despite their caution, the Americans are expecting the worst. Our sources on the inside say that their contingency plan is called Operation Mount of Olives. If we don’t find the Marham-i-Isa first, they will authorize it.”
“And if we find the Marham-i-Isa, Russia controls the future of the world.”
Garusovsky glares at the blinking computer. He stands so still that his eyes catch the pulses of light and reflect them like mirrors. Angrily, he says, “Very well. It seems we have no choice. Proceed. But if the U.S. ever discovers that we subjected one of its officers—”
“There will be no evidence, General.”
“Good, then I’m off to supervise the opening of the new gulag in Belgorod.” Garusovsky pivots and marches from the room.
When we are alone, Borodino grabs my arm, and whispers in English, “Anna, do everything I say.” His sleeve pulls up, and I see the ornately carved Egyptian bracelet he wears. A bracelet I know very well. It coils around his wrist twice. I keep mine in a locked vault.
“Was Garusovsky telling the truth? Has it started?”
After an agonizing ten heartbeats, he leads me toward the door. Outside, the silver-suited soldiers take their time falling into formation ahead and behind me.
When Garusovsky and his guards disappear around a corner ahead of us, Borodino leans very close to me to whisper, “If we both live through this day, Anna, you must find the Marham-i-Isa. He’s terrified and in hiding, but he wants one of us to find it.”
“Do you know where Hakari is?” I twist to look up at him.
He tips his head to one of the guards. The man nods and speaks softly to the soldier next to him. They seem to be readying themselves …
Borodino orders, “Now!”
Copyright © 2018 Kathleen O’Neal Gear.