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Chapter 5 Missing in Action

 COMMANDER Root was sucking on a particularly noxious fungus cigar. Several of the Retrieval Squad had nearly passed out in the shuttle. Even the pong from the manacled troll seemed mild in comparison. Of course, no one said anything, their boss being touchier than a septic bum boil.

 

Foaly, on the other hand, delighted in antagonizing his superior. 'None of your rancid stogies in here, Commander!' he brayed, the moment Root made it back to Ops. 'The computers don't like smoke!'

 

Root scowled, certain that Foaly was making this up. Nevertheless, the commander was not prepared to risk a computer crash in the middle of an alert and so doused his cigar in the coffee cup of a passing gremlin.

 

'Now, Foaly, what's this so-called alert? And it better be good this time!'

 

The centaur had a tendency to go completely hyper over trivialities. He'd once gone to Defcon Two because his human satellite stations were out.

 

'It's good all right,' Foaly assured him. 'Or should I say bad? Very bad.'

 

Root felt the ulcer in his gut begin to bubble like a volcano.

 

'How bad?'

 

Foaly punched up Ireland on the Eurosat. 'We lost contact with Captain Short.'

 

'Why am I not surprised?' groaned Root, burying his face in his hands.

 

'We had her all the way over the Alps.'

 

'The Alps? She took a land route?'

 

Foaly nodded. 'Against regulations, I know. But everyone does it.'

 

The commander agreed grudgingly. Who could resist a view like that? As a rookie, he'd been placed on report himself for that exact offence.

 

'OK. Move on. When did we lose her?'

 

Foaly opened a VT box on the screen.

 

'This is the feed from Holly's helmet unit. Here we are over Disneyland Paris

 

The centaur pressed the fast-forward.

 

'Now dolphins, blah blah blah. The Irish coastline. Still no worries. Look, her locator comes into shot. Captain Short is scanning for magic hotspots. Site fifty-seven shows up red, so she heads for that one.'

 

'Why not Tara?'

 

Foaly snorted. 'Tara? Every fairy hippie in the northern hemisphere will be dancing around the Lia Fáil at the full moon. There'll be so many shields on, it'll look like the whole place is under water.'

 

'Fine,' grunted Root through gritted teeth. 'Just get on with it, will you.'

 

'All right. Don't get your ears in a knot.' Foaly skipped several minutes of tape. 'Now. Here's the interesting bit ... Nice smooth landing, hangs up the wings. Holly takes off the helmet.'

 

'Against regulations,' interjected Root. 'LEP officers must never remove -'

 

'LEP officers must never remove their headgear above ground, unless said headgear is defective,' completed Foaly. 'Yes, Commander, we all know what the handbook says. But are you trying to tell me that you never sneaked a breath of air after a few hours in the sky?'

 

'No,' admitted Root. 'What are you? Her fairy godmother or something? Get to the important bit!'

 

Foaly smirked behind his hand. Driving up Root's blood pressure was one of the few perks of the job. No one else would dare to do it. That was because everybody else was replaceable. Not Foaly. He'd built the system from scratch and if anyone else even tried to boot it up, a hidden virus would bring it crashing about their pointy ears.

 

'The important bit. Here we are. Look. Suddenly Holly drops the helmet. It must land lens down because we lose picture. We've still got sound though, so I'll bring that up.'

 

Foaly boosted the audio signal, filtering out background noise.

 

'Not great quality. The mike is in the camera. So that was nose down in the dirt too.'

 

'Nice pea-shooter,' said a voice. Definitely human. Deep too. That usually meant big.

 

Root raised an eyebrow. 'Pea-shooter?'

 

'Slang for gun.'

 

'Oh.' Then the importance of that simple statement struck him. 'She drew her weapon.'

 

'Just wait. It gets worse.'

 

'I don't suppose you would consider peaceful surrender?' said a second voice. Just listening to it gave the commander shivers. 'No,' continued the voice. 'I suppose not.'

 

'This is bad,' said Root, his face uncharacteristically pale. 'This feels like a set-up. These two goons were waiting. How is that possible?'

 

Holly's voice came through the speaker then, typically brazen in the face of danger. The commander sighed. At least she was alive. It was more bad news though as the parties exchanged threats, and the second human displayed an uncommon knowledge of fairy affairs.

 

'He knows about the Ritual!'

 

'Here's the worst bit.'

 

Root's jaw dropped. 'The worst bit?'

 

Holly's voice again. This time layered with the mesmer.

 

'Now she has them,' crowed Root.

 

But apparently not. Not only did the mesmer prove ineffective, but the mysterious pair seemed to find it amusing.

 

'That's all there is from Holly,' noted Foaly. 'One of the Mud People messes around with the camera for a bit and then we lose everything.'

 

Root rubbed the creases between his eyes. 'Not much to go on. No visual, not even a name. We can't really be a hundred per cent sure that we have a situation.'

 

'You want proof?' asked Foaly, rewinding the tape. 'I'll give you proof.'

 

He ran the available video.

 

'Now watch this. I'm going to slow it right down. One frame per second.'

 

Root leaned in close to the screen, close enough to see the pixels.

 

'Captain Short comes in for a landing. She takes off her helmet. Bends down, presumably to pick up an acorn, and ... there!'

 

Foaly jabbed the pause button, freezing the picture completely. 'See anything unusual?'

 

The commander felt his ulcer churn into overdrive. Something had appeared in the top right-hand corner of the frame. At first glance it seemed like a shaft of light, but light from what or reflected from what?

 

'Can you blow that up?'

 

'No problem.'

 

Foaly cut to the relevant area, increasing it by 400 per cent. The light expanded to fill the screen.

 

'Oh no,' breathed Root.

 

There on the monitor before them, in frozen suspension, was a hypodermic dart. There could be no doubt. Captain Holly Short was missing in action. Most probably dead, but at the very least held captive by a hostile force.

 

'Tell me we still have the locator.'

 

'Yep. Strong signal. Moving north at about eighty klicks an hour.'

 

Root was silent for a moment, formulating his strategy.

 

'Go to full alert, and get Retrieval out of their bunks and back down here. Prep them for a surface shot. I want full tactical and a couple of techies.You too, Foaly. We may have to stop time on this one.'

 

'Ten four, Commander. You want Recon in on this?'

 

Root nodded. 'You bet.'

 

'I'll call in Captain Vein. He's our number one.'

 

'Oh no,' said Root. 'For a job like this, we need our very best. And that's me. I'm reactivating myself.'

 

Foaly was so amazed, he couldn't even formulate a smart comment.

 

'You're ...You're ...'

 

'Yes, Foaly. Don't act so surprised. I have more successful recons under my belt than any officer in history. Plus I did my basic training in Ireland. Back in the top hat and shillelagh days.'

 

'Yes, but that was five hundred years ago, and you were no spring bud then, not to put too fine a point on it.'

 

Root smiled dangerously. 'Don't worry, Foaly. I'm still running red hot. And I'll make up for my age with a really big gun. Now get a pod ready. I'm leaving on the next flare.'

 

Foaly did what he was told without a single quip. When the commander got that glint in his eyes, you hopped to and kept your mouth shut. But there was another reason for Foaly's silent compliance. It had just hit him that Holly could be in real trouble. Centaurs don't make many friends and Foaly was worried he might lose one of the few he had.

 

Artemis had anticipated some technological advances, but nothing like the treasure trove of fairy hardware spread out on the four-wheel drive's dashboard.

 

'Impressive,' he murmured. 'We could abort this mission right now and still make a fortune in patents.'

 

Artemis ran a hand-held scanner bar over the unconscious elf's wristband. He then fed the fairy characters into his PowerBook translator.

 

'This is a locator of some kind. No doubt this leprechaun's comrades are tracking us right now.'

 

Butler swallowed. 'Right now, sir?'

 

'It would seem so. Or at any rate they're tracking the locator -'

 

Artemis stopped speaking suddenly, his eyes losing focus as the electricity in his cranium sparked off another brainwave.

 

'Butler?'

 

The manservant felt his pulse quicken. He knew that tone. Something was afoot.

 

'Yes, Artemis?'

 

'That Japanese whaler. The one seized by the port authorities. Is she still tied up at the docks?'

 

Butler nodded. 'Yes, I believe so.'

 

Artemis twirled the locator's band around his index finger.

 

'Good. Take us down there. I believe it's time to let our diminutive friends know exactly who they're dealing with.'

 

Root rubber-stamped his own reactivation with remarkable speed - very unusual for LEP upper management. Generally it took months, and several mind-crushingly dull meetings, to approve any application to the Recon Squad. Luckily, Root had a bit of influence with the commander.

 

It felt good to be back in a field uniform and Root even managed to convince himself that the jumpsuit was no tighter around the middle than it used to be. The bulge, he rationalized, was caused by all the new equipment they jammed into these things. Personally, Root had no time for gadgetry. The only items the commander was interested in were the wings on his back and the multiphase, water-cooled, tri-barrelled blaster strapped to his hip the most powerful production handgun under the world. Old, to be sure, but it had seen Root through a dozen fire fights and it made him feel like a field officer again.

 

The nearest chute to Holly's position was E1:Tara. Not exactly an ideal location for a stealth mission, but with barely two hours of moon time left there was no time for an overground jaunt. If there was to be any chance of sorting out this mess before sunrise, speed was of the essence. He commandeered the El shuttle for his team, bumping a tour group who had apparently been queuing for two years.

 

'Tough nuggets,' Root growled at the holiday rep. 'And what's more, I'm shutting down all non-essential flights until the present crisis is past.'

 

'And when might that be?' squeaked the irate gnome, brandishing a notebook as though she were prepared to make a complaint of some kind.

 

Root spat out the butt of his cigar, squashing it comprehensively beneath his boot heel. The symbolism was all too obvious.

 

'The chutes will be opened, madam, when I feel like it,' growled the commander. 'And if you and your fluorescent uniform don't get out of my way, I'll yank your operating licence and have you thrown into the cells for obstructing an LEP officer.'

 

The holiday rep wilted before him and slunk back into line, wishing her uniform wasn't quite so pink.

 

Foaly was waiting at the pod. Serious though the moment was, he couldn't resist an amused whinny at the sight of Root's belly wobbling ever so slightly in his clinging jumpsuit.

 

'Are you sure about this, Commander? Generally we allow only one passenger per pod.'

 

'What do you mean?' snarled Root. 'There is only one ...'

 

Then he caught Foaly's meaningful glance at his stomach.

 

'Oh. Ha ha. Very amusing. Keep it up, Foaly. I have my limit, you know.'

 

But it was a hollow threat and they both knew it. Not only had Foaly built their communications network from scratch, but he was also a pioneer in the field of flare prediction. Without him, human technology could very easily catch up with the fairy brand.

 

Root strapped himself into the pod. No half-century-old crafts for the commander. This baby was fresh off the assembly line. All silver and shiny, with the new jagged fin stabilizers that were supposed to read the magma currents automatically. Foaly's innovation, of course. For a century or so his pod designs had leaned towards the futuristic - plenty of neon and rubber. Lately, however, his sensibilities had become more retrospective, replacing the gadgetry with walnut dashes and leather upholstery. Root found this old-style decor strangely comforting.

 

He wrapped his fingers around the joysticks and suddenly realized just how long it was since he had ridden the hotshots. Foaly noticed his discomfort.

 

'Don't worry, chief,' he said without the usual cynicism. 'It's like riding a unicorn. You never forget.'

 

Root grunted, unconvinced. 'Let's get the show on the road,' he muttered. 'Before I change my mind.'

 

Foaly hauled the door across until the suction ring took hold, sealing the portal with a pneumatic hiss. Root's face took on a green hue through the quartz pane. He didn't look too scary any more. Quite the opposite in fact.

 

Artemis was performing a little field surgery on the fairy locator. It was no mean feat to alter some of the dimensions without destroying the mechanisms. The technologies were most definitely incompatible. Imagine trying to perform open-heart surgery with a sledgehammer.

 

The first problem was opening the cursed thing. The screwheads defied both flathead and Phillips screwdrivers. Even Artemis's extensive set of Alien keys were unable to find purchase in the tiny grooves. Think futuristic, Artemis told himself. Think advanced technology.

 

It came to him after a few moments' silent contemplation. Magnetic bolts. Obvious really. But how to construct a revolving magnetic field in the back of a four-wheel drive? Impossible. The only thing for it was to chase the screws around manually with a domestic magnet.

 

Artemis hunted the small magnet from its niche in the toolbox and applied both poles to the tiny screws. The negative side wiggled them slightly. It was enough to give Artemis some purchase with needlenose pliers, and he soon had the locator's panel disassembled before him.

 

The circuitry was minute. And not a sign of a solder bead. They must use another form of binder. Perhaps if he had time the principles of this device could be unravelled, but for now he would have to improvise. He would have to rely on the inattention of others. And if the People were anything like humans, they saw what they wanted to see.

 

Artemis held the locator's face up to the cab's light. It was translucent. Slightly polarized but good enough. He nudged a slew of tiny shimmering wires aside, inserting a buttonhole camera in the space. He secured the pea-sized transmitter with a dab of silicone. Crude but effective. Hopefully.

 

The magnetic screws refused to be coaxed back into their grooves without the proper tool, so Artemis was forced to glue them too. Messy, but it should suffice, provided the locator wasn't examined too closely. And if it was? Well, he would only lose an advantage that he never expected to have in the first place.

 

Butler knocked off his high beams as they entered the city limits. 'Docks coming up, Artemis,' he said over his shoulder. 'There's bound to be a Customs and Excise crew around somewhere.'

 

Artemis nodded. It made sense. The port was a thriving artery of illegal activity. Over fifty per cent of the country's contraband made it ashore somewhere along this half-mile stretch.

 

'A diversion then, Butler. Two minutes are all I need.'

 

The manservant nodded thoughtfully.

 

'The usual?'

 

'I don't see why not. Knock yourself out ... Or rather don't.'

 

Artemis blinked. That was his second joke in recent times. And his first aloud. Better take care. This was no time for frivolity.

 

The dockers were rolling cigarettes. It wasn't easy with fingers the size of lead bars, but they managed. And if a few strands of brown tobacco dropped to the rough flagstones, what of it? The pouches were available by the carton from a little man who didn't bother adding government tax to his prices.

 

Butler strolled over to the men, his eyes shadowed beneath the brim of a watch cap.

 

'Cold night,' he said to the assembled group.

 

No one replied. Policemen came in all shapes and sizes.

 

The big stranger persevered. 'Even work is better than standing around on a frosty one like tonight.'

 

One of the workmen, a bit soft in the head, couldn't help nodding in agreement. A comrade drove an elbow into his ribs.

 

'Still though,' continued the newcomer, 'I don't suppose you girls ever did a decent day's work in your lives.'

 

Again there was no reply. But this time it was because the dockers' mouths were hanging open in amazement.

 

'Yep, you're a pathetic-looking bunch, right enough,' went on Butler blithely. 'Oh, I've no doubt you would have passed as men during the famine. But by today's standards you're little more than a pack of blouse-wearing weaklings.'

 

'Arrrrgh,' said one of the dock hands. It was all he could manage.

 

Butler raised an eyebrow. 'Argh? Pathetic and inarticulate. Nice combination. Your mothers must be so proud.'

 

The stranger had crossed a sacred line. He had mentioned the men's mothers. Nothing could get him out of a beating now, even the fact that he was obviously a simpleton. Albeit a simpleton with a good vocabulary.

 

The men stamped out their cigarettes and spread slowly into a semi-circle. It was six against one. You had to feel sorry for them. Butler wasn't finished yet.

 

'Now before we get into anything, ladies, no scratching, no spitting and no tattling to mummy.'

 

It was the last straw. The men howled and attacked as one. If they had been paying any attention to their adversary in that moment before contact, they might have noticed that he shifted his weight to lower his centre of gravity. They might also have seen that the hands he drew out of his pockets were the size and approximate shape of spades. But no one was paying attention to Butler - too busy watching their comrades, making sure they weren't alone in the assault.

 

The thing about a diversion is that it has to be diverting. Big. Crude. Not Butler's style at all. He would have preferred to take these gentlemen out from 500 metres with a dart rifle. Failing that, if contact was absolutely necessary, a series of thumb jabs to the nerve cluster at the base of the neck would be his chosen modus operandi - quiet as a whisper. But that would be defeating the purpose of the exercise.

 

And so Butler went against his training, screaming like a demon and utilizing the most vulgar combat actions. Vulgar they may have been, but that's not to say they weren't effective. Perhaps a Shao Lin priest could have anticipated some of the more exaggerated movements, but these men were hardly trained adversaries. In fairness, they weren't even completely sober.

 

Butler dropped the first with a roundhouse punch. Two more had their heads clapped together, cartoon style. The fourth was, to Butler's eternal shame, dispatched with a spinning kick. But the most ostentatious was saved for the last pair. The manservant rolled on to his back, caught them by the collars of their donkey jackets and flipped them into Dublin harbour. Big splashes, plenty of wailing. Perfect.

 

Two headlights poked from the black shadow of a cargo container and a government saloon screeched along the quay. As anticipated, a Customs and Excise team on stakeout. Butler grinned with grim satisfaction and ducked around the corner. He was long gone before the agents had flipped their badges or begun inquiries. Not that their interrogations would yield much. 'Big as a house' was hardly an adequate description to track him down.

 

By the time Butler reached the car, Artemis had already returned from his mission.

 

'Well done, old friend,' he commented. 'Although I'm certain your martial-arts sensei is turning in his grave. A spinning kick? How could you?'

 

Butler bit his tongue, reversing the four-wheel drive off the wooden works. As they crossed the overpass, he couldn't resist glancing down at the chaos he had created. The government men were hauling a sodden docker from the polluted waters.

 

Artemis had needed this diversion for something. But Butler knew there was no point in asking what. His employer did not share his plans with anyone until he thought the time was right. And if Artemis Fowl thought the time was right, then it usually was.

 

Root emerged shaking from the pod. He didn't remember it being like this in his time. Although truth be told, it had probably been an awful lot worse. Back in the shillelagh days, there were no fancy polymer harnesses, no auto thrusters and certainly no external monitors. It was just gut instinct and a touch of enchantment. In some ways Root preferred it like that. Science was taking the magic out of everything.

 

He stumbled down the tunnel into the terminal. As the number-one preferred destination, Tara had a fully fledged passenger lounge. Six shuttles a week came in from Haven City alone. Not on the flares, of course. Paying tourists didn't like to be jostled around quite that much, unless of course they were on an illegal jaunt to Disneyland.

 

The fairy fort was crammed with full-moon overnighters complaining about the shuttle suspensions. A beleaguered sprite was sheltering behind her ticket desk, besieged by angry gremlins.

 

'There's no point hexing me,' squealed the sprite, 'there's the elf you want right there.'

 

She pointed a quivering green finger at the approaching commander. The gremlin mob turned on Root, and when they saw the triple-barrelled blaster on his hip, they kept right on turning.

 

Root grabbed the PA stand from behind the desk, and hauled it out to the extent of its cable.

 

'Now hear this,' he growled, his gravelly tones echoing around the terminal. 'This is Commander Root of the LEP. We have a serious situation above ground and I would appreciate cooperation from all you civilians. First, I would like you all to stop your yapping so I can hear myself think!'

 

Root paused to make certain his wishes were being respected. They were.

 

'Secondly, I would like every single one of you, including those squawling infants, to sit down on the courtesy benches until I have gone on my way. Then you can get back to griping or stuffing your faces. Or whatever else it is civilians do.'

 

No one had ever accused Root of political correctness. No one was ever likely to either.

 

'And I want whoever's in charge to get over here. Now!'

 

Root tossed the stand on to the desk. A blare of whistling feedback grated on every eardrum in the building. Within fractions of a second, an out-of-breath elf/goblin hybrid was bobbing at his elbow.

 

'Anything we can do, Commander?'

 

Root nodded, twisting a thick cigar into the hole beneath his nose.

 

'I want you to open a tunnel straight through this place. I don't want to be bothered by Customs or Immigration. Start moving everybody below after my boys get here.'

 

The shuttle port director swallowed. 'Everybody?'

 

'Yes. That includes terminal personnel. And take everything you can carry. Full evacuation.' He stopped and glared into the director's mauve eyes. 'This is not a drill.'

 

'You mean -'

 

'Yes,' said Root, continuing down the access ramp. 'The Mud People have committed an overtly hostile act. Who knows where this is going?'

 

The elf/goblin combo watched as Root disappeared in a cloud of cigar smoke. An overtly hostile act? It could mean war. He punched in his accountant's number on his mobile.

 

'Bark? Yes. This is Nimbus. I want you to sell all my shares in the shuttle port. Yes, all of them. I have a hunch the price is about to take a severe dive.'

 

Captain Holly Short felt as though a sucker slug was drawing her brain out through her earhole. She tried to figure out what could possibly have caused such agony, but her faculties didn't stretch to memory just yet. Breathing and lying down were about all she could manage.

 

Time to attempt a word. Something short and pertinent. Help, she decided, would be the one to go for. She took a trembling breath and opened her mouth.

 

'Mummlp,' said her treacherous lips. No good. Incomprehensible even by a drunken gnome's standards.

 

What was going on here? She was flat on her back with no more strength in her body than a damp tunnel root. What could have done this to her? Holly concentrated, skirting the edge of blinding pain.

 

The troll? Was that it? Had the troll mauled her in that restaurant? That would explain a lot. But no. She seemed to remember something about the old country. And the Ritual. And there was something digging into her ankle.

 

'Hello?'

 

A voice. Not hers. Not even elfin.

 

'You awake then?'

 

One of the European languages. Latin. No, English. She was in England?

 

'I thought the dart might have killed you. Aliens' insides are different from ours. I saw that on television.'

 

Gibberish. Aliens, insides? What was the creature talking about?

 

'You look fit. Like Muchacho Maria, she's a Mexican midget wrestler.'

 

Holly groaned. Her gift of tongues must be on the blink. Time to see exactly what kind of craziness she was dealing with here. Focusing all her strength at the front of her head, Holly cracked open one eye. She closed it again almost immediately. There appeared to be a giant blonde fly staring down at her.

 

'Don't be scared,' said the fly. 'Just sunglasses.'

 

Holly opened both eyes this time. The creature was tapping a silver eye. No, not an eye. A lens. A mirrored lens. Like the lenses worn by the other two ... It all came back in a jolt, rushing to fill the hole in her memory like a combination lock clicking into place. She had been abducted by two humans during the Ritual. Two humans with an extraordinary knowledge of fairy affairs.

 

Holly tried speaking again. 'Where ... where am I?'

 

The human giggled delightedly, clapping her hands together. Holly noticed her nails, long and painted.

 

'You can speak English. What sort of accent is that? Sounds like a little bit of everything.'

 

Holly frowned. The girl's voice was corkscrewing right to the middle of her headache. She lifted her arm. No locator.

 

'Where are my things?'

 

The girl wagged her finger, as one might at a naughty child.

 

'Artemis had to take your little gun away, and all those other toys. Couldn't have you hurting yourself.'

 

'Artemis?'

 

'Artemis Fowl. This was all his idea. Everything is always his idea.'

 

Holly frowned. Artemis Fowl. For some reason, even the name made her shiver. It was a bad omen. Fairy intuition was never wrong.

 

'They'll come for me, you know,' she said, her voice rasping through dry lips. 'You don't know what you've done.'

 

The girl frowned. 'You're absolutely right. I have no clue what's going on. So there's no future in trying to psych me out.'

 

Holly frowned. It was obviously pointless playing mind games with this human. The mesmer was her only hope, but that couldn't penetrate reflective surfaces. How the devil did these humans know that? That could be worked out later. For now she had to figure a way to separate this vacuous girl from her mirrored sunglasses.

 

'You are a pretty human,' she said, voice dripping with honeyed flattery.

 

'Why, thank you ...?'

 

'Holly.'

 

'Why, thank you, Holly. I was in the local paper once. I won a competition. Miss Sugar Beet Fair Nineteen-Ninety-Nine.'

 

'I knew it. Natural beauty. I'll bet your eyes are spectacular.'

 

'So everyone tells me.' Juliet nodded. 'Lashes like clock springs.'

 

Holly sighed. 'If only I could see them.'

 

'Whyever not.'

 

Juliet's fingers curled around the glasses' arm. Then she hesitated.

 

'Maybe I shouldn't.'

 

'Why not? Just for a second.'

 

'I don't know. Artemis told me never to take these off.'

 

'He'd never know.'

 

Juliet pointed to a viewcam mounted on the wall.

 

'Oh, he'd find out. Artemis finds out about everything.' She leaned in close to the fairy. 'Sometimes I think he can see inside my head too.'

 

Holly frowned. Foiled again by this Artemis creature.

 

'Come on. One second. What harm could it do?'

 

Juliet pretended to think about it. 'None, I suppose. Unless of course you're hoping to nail me with the mesmer. Just how stupid do you think I am?'

 

'I have another idea,' said Holly, her tone altogether more serious. 'Why don't I get up, knock you out and take those stupid glasses off.'

 

Juliet laughed delightedly, as if this was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.

 

'Good one, fairy girl.'

 

'I'm deadly serious, human.'

 

'Well, if you're serious,' sighed Juliet, reaching a delicate finger behind her lenses to wipe away a tear, 'two reasons. One, Artemis said that while you're in a human dwelling, you have to do what we want. And I want you to stay on that cot.'

 

Holly closed her eyes. Right again. Where did this group get their information?

 

'And two.' Juliet smiled again, but this time there was a hint of her brother in those teeth. 'Two, because I went through the same training as Butler, and I've been dying for somebody to practise my piledriver on.'

 

We'll see about that, human, thought Holly. Captain Short wasn't a hundred per cent yet, and there was also the small matter of the thing digging into her ankle. She thought she knew what it could be, and if she was right, then it could be the beginnings of a plan.

 

Commander Root had Holly's locator frequency keyed into his helmet face screen. It took Root longer than expected to reach Dublin. The modern wing rigs were more complicated than he was used to, plus he'd neglected to take refresher courses. At the right altitude, he could almost superimpose the luminous map on his visor over the actual Dublin streets below him. Almost.

 

'Foaly, you pompous centaur,' he barked into his mouthpiece.

 

'Problem, bossman?' came the tinny reply.

 

'Problem? You can say that again. When was the last time you updated the Dublin files?'

 

Root could hear sucking noises in his ear. It sounded as though Foaly was having lunch.

 

'Sorry, Commander. Just finishing off this carrot. Ahm ... Dublin, let's see. Seventy-five ... Eighteen seventy-five.'

 

'I thought so! This place is completely different. The humans have even managed to change the shape of the coastline.'

 

Foaly was silent for a moment. Root could just imagine him wrestling with the problem. The centaur did not like to be told that any part of his system was out of date.

 

'OK,' he said at last. 'Here's what I'm going to do. We have a Scope on a satellite TV bird with a footprint in Ireland.'

 

'I see,' muttered Root, which was basically a lie.

 

'I'm going to e-mail last week's sweep direct to your visor. Luckily there's a video card in all the new helmets.'

 

'Luckily.'

 

'The tricky bit will be to coordinate your flight pattern with the video feed ...'

 

Root had had enough. 'How long, Foaly?'

 

'Ahm ... Two minutes, give or take.'

 

'Give or take what?'

 

'About ten years if my calculations are off.'

 

'They'd better not be off then. I'll hover until we know.'

 

One hundred and twenty-four seconds later, Root's black and white blueprints faded out, to be replaced by full-colour daylight imaging. When Root moved it moved, and Holly's locator beacon dot moved too.

 

'Impressive,' said Root.

 

'What was that, Commander?'

 

'I said impressive,' shouted Root. 'No need to get a swollen head.'

 

The commander heard the sound of a roomful of laughter, and realized that Foaly had him on the speakers. Everyone had heard him complimenting the centaur's work. There'd be no talking to him for at least a month. But it was worth it. The video he was receiving now was bang up to date. If Captain Short was being held in a building, the computer would be able to give him 3D blueprints instantaneously. It was foolproof. Except ...

 

'Foaly, the beacon's gone off shore. What's going on?'

 

'Boat or ship, sir, I'd say at a guess.'

 

Root cursed himself for not thinking of it. They'd be having a right old giggle in the situation room. Of course it was a ship. Root dropped down a few hundred metres until its shadowy outline loomed through the mist. A whaler by the looks of it. Technology may have changed over the centuries, but there was still nothing like a harpoon to slaughter the world's largest mammal.

 

'Captain Short is in there somewhere, Foaly. Below decks. What can you give me?'

 

'Nothing, sir. It's not a permanent fixture. By the time we've run down her registration, it'd be way too late.'

 

'What about thermal imaging?'

 

'No, Commander. That hull must be at least fifty years old. Very high lead content. We can't even penetrate the first layer. I'm afraid you're on your own.'

 

Root shook his head. 'After all the billions we've poured into your department. Remind me to slash your budget when I get back.'

 

'Yes, sir,' came the reply, sullen for once. Foaly did not like budget jokes.

 

'Just have the Retrieval Squad on full alert. I may need them at a moment's notice.'

 

'I will, sir.'

 

'You'd better. Over and out.'

 

Root was on his own. Truth be told, that was the way he liked it. No science. No uppity centaur whinnying in his ear. Just a fairy, his wits and maybe a touch of magic.

 

Root tilted his polymer wings, hugging the underside of a fogbank. There was no need to be careful. With his shield activated, he was invisible to the human eye. Even on stealth-sensitive radar he would be no more than a barely perceptible distortion. The commander swooped low to the gunwales. It was an ugly craft, this one. The smell of death and pain lingered in the blood-swabbed decks. Many noble creatures had died here, died and been dissected for a few bars of soap and some heating oil. Root shook his head. Humans were such barbarians.

 

Holly's beeper was flashing urgently now. She was close by. Very close. Somewhere within a 200-metre radius was the hopefully still-breathing form of Captain Short. But without blueprints he would have to navigate the belly of this ship unaided.

 

Root alighted gently on the deck, his boots adhering slightly to the mixture of dried soap and blubber coating the steel surface. The craft appeared to be deserted. No sentry on the gangplank, no bosun on the bridge, not a light anywhere. Still, no reason to abandon caution. Root knew from bitter experience that humans popped up when you least expected them. Once, when he was helping the Retrieval boys scrape some pod wreckage off a tunnel wall, they were spotted by a group of potholing humans. What a mess that had been. Mass hysteria, high-speed chases, group mind-wipes. The whole nine yards. Root shuddered. Nights like that could put decades on a fairy.

 

Keeping himself fully shielded, the commander stowed his wings in their sheath, advancing on foot across the deck. There were no other life forms showing up on his screen but, like Foaly said, the hull had a high lead content; even the paint was lead-based! The entire boat was a floating eco-hazard. The point being that there could be an entire battalion of stormtroopers concealed below decks and his helmetcam would never pick them up. Very reassuring. Even Holly's beacon was a few shades below par, and that had a micro nuclear battery sending out the pulses. Root didn't like this. Not one bit. Keep calm, he derided himself. You're shielded. There's not a human alive that can see you now.

 

Root hauled open the first hatch. It swung easily enough. The commander sniffed. The Mud People had greased the hinges with whale blubber. Was there no end to their depravity?

 

The corridor was steeped in viscous darkness, so Root flicked down his infrared filter. OK, so sometimes technology did come in handy, but he wouldn't be telling Foaly that. The maze of pipes and grilling before him was immediately illuminated with an unnatural red light. Minutes later, he was regretting even thinking something nice about the centaur's technology. The infrared filter was messing with his depth perception and he'd whacked his head on two protruding U-bends so far.

 

Still no sign of life - human or fairy. Plenty of animal. Mostly rodents. And when you're just topping a metre in height yourself, a good-sized rat can be a real threat, especially since rats are one of the few breeds that can see straight through a fairy shield. Root unstrapped his blaster and set it to level three, or medium rare, as the elves in the locker room called it. He sent one of the rats scurrying away with a smoking behind as a warning to the rest. Nothing fatal, just enough to teach him not to look sideways at a fairy again in a hurry.

 

Root picked up his pace. This place was ideal for an ambush. He was virtually blind with his back to the only exit. A Recon nightmare. If one of his own men had pulled a stunt like this, he'd have their stripes for it. But desperate times required judicious risk-taking. That was the essence of command.

 

He ignored several doors to either side, following the beacon. Ten metres now. A steel hatch sealed the corridor, and Captain Short, or her corpse, lay on the other side of it.

 

Root put his shoulder to the door. It swung open without protest. Bad news. If a live creature was being held captive, the hatch would be locked. The commander flicked the blaster's power level to five and advanced through the hole. His weapon hummed softly. There was enough power on tap now to vaporize a bull elephant with a single blast.

 

No sign of Holly. No sign of anything much. He was in a refrigerated storage bay. Glittering stalactites hung from a maze of piping. Root's breath fanned before him in icy clouds. How would that look to a human? Disembodied breathing.

 

'Ah,' said a familiar voice. 'We have a visitor.'

 

Root dropped to one knee, levelling the handgun at the voice's source.

 

'Come to rescue your missing officer, no doubt.'

 

The commander blinked a bead of sweat from his eye. Sweat? At this temperature?

 

'Well, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place.'

 

The voice was tinny. Artificial. Amplified. Root checked his locator for life signs. There were none. Not in this chamber at any rate. He was being monitored somehow. Was there a camera here somewhere, concealed in the maze of overhead plumbing, that could penetrate the fairy shield?

 

'Where are you? Show yourself!'

 

The human chuckled. It echoed unnaturally around the vast hold.

 

'Oh no. Not yet, my fairy friend. But soon enough. And believe me, when I do, you'll wish I hadn't.'

 

Root followed the voice. Keep the human talking.

 

'What do you want?'

 

'Hmm. What do I want? Again, you will know soon enough.'

 

There was a low crate in the centre of the hold. On it sat an attaché case. The case was open.

 

'Why bring me here at all?'

 

Root poked the case with his pistol. Nothing happened.

 

'I brought you here for a demonstration.'

 

The commander leaned over the open container. Inside, in snug foam packing, were a flat vacuum-packed package and a triple-band VHP transmitter. Resting on top was Holly's locator. Root groaned. Holly wouldn't willingly give up her equipment; no LEP officer would.

 

'What sort of demonstration, you demented freak?'

 

Again that cold chuckle.

 

'A demonstration of my utter commitment to my goals.'

 

Root should have started to worry about his own health then, but he was too busy worrying about Holly's.

 

'If you've harmed one tip of my officer's pointy ears ...'

 

'Your officer? Oh, we have management. How privileged. All the better to make my point.'

 

Alarm bells went off in Root's head.

 

'Your point?'

 

The voice emanating from the aluminium speaker grid was as serious as nuclear winter.

 

'My point, little fairy man, is that I am not someone to be trifled with. Now, if you would please observe the package.'

 

The commander duly observed. It was a nondescript enough shape. Flat, like a slab of putty, or ... Oh no.

 

Beneath the sealant, a red light flicked on.

 

'Fly, little fairy,' said the voice. 'And tell your friends Artemis Fowl the Second says hello.'

 

Beside the red light, green symbols began to click through a routine. Root recognized them from his human studies class back in the Academy. They were ... numbers. Going backwards. A countdown!

 

'D'Arvit!' growled Root.(There is no point translating that word as it would have to be censored.)

 

He turned and fled up the corridor, Artemis Fowl's mocking tones carrying down the metal funnel.

 

'Three,' said the human. 'Two ...'

 

'D'Arvit,' repeated Root.

 

The corridor seemed much longer now. A sliver of starry sky peeked through a wedge of open door. Root activated his wings. This would take some fancy flying. The Hummingbird's span was barely narrower than the ship's corridor.

 

'One.'

 

Sparks flew as the electronic wings scraped a protruding pipe. Root cartwheeled, righting himself at MACH 1.

 

'Zero ...' said the voice. 'Boom!'

 

Inside the vacuum-packed package, a detonator sparked, igniting a kilogram of pure Semtex. The white-hot reaction devoured the surrounding oxygen in a nanosecond and surged down the path of least resistance, which was, of course, immediately after LEP Commander Root.

 

Root dropped his visor, opening the throttle to maximum. The door was metres away now. It was just a matter of what reached it first - the fairy or the fireball.

 

He made it. Barely. He could feel the explosion rattling his torso as he threw himself into a reverse loop. Flames latched on to his jumpsuit, licking along his legs. Root continued his manoeuvre, crashing directly into the icy water. He broke the surface swearing.

 

Above him, the whaler had been totally consumed by noxious flames.

 

'Commander,' came a voice in his earpiece. It was Foaly. He was back in range.

 

'Commander. What's your status?'

 

Root lifted free of the water's grip.

 

'My status, Foaly, is extremely annoyed. Get on your computers. I want to know everything there is to know about one Artemis Fowl, and I want to know it before I get back to base.'

 

'Yessir, Commander. Right away.'

 

No wisecrack. Even Foaly realized that this was not the time.

 

Root hovered at 300 metres. Below him the blazing whaler drew emergency vehicles like moths to a light. He dusted charred threads from his elbows. There will be a reckoning for this Artemis Fowl, he vowed. Count on it.



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