God couldn’t die. Not yet. Not when there was still so much to be done. And so James Corbotch fled through the coniferous forest, blinded by smoke, flames licking at his heels.
His arms pumped like pistons and he kicked his speed up a notch. His heart pounded against his chest. He could smell the burning wood, the acrid smoke. He could feel tremendous heat as well as tiny vibrations in the soil. Crackling flames, splintering tree trunks, and massive ground impacts pounded at his eardrums, rendering him nearly deaf.
He darted up a short hill. Momentarily free of the fire’s grasping tentacles, he shot a glimpse over his shoulder. The inferno stretched as far as he could see. It assailed the forest—his forest—with frightening, unrelenting strength.
And in the midst of that fire, he saw it. A pulsing, quaking shadow of enormous proportions. Its shoulders stood some thirty feet above ground and its body, supported by tree-like legs, covered a distance twice that length. Its jaws featured a pair of sharp, curving canine teeth. Its eyes, lava orange, blazed brighter than the inferno.
He swiveled toward the voice. A woman, dressed in expensive, lavish attire, ran past his position. Her face was tough to see in all the smoke, but he recognized her voice. It was Deborah Keifer, president of the Vallerio Foundation and one of his most trusted confidantes.
A blur of smoky, frenzied movements crested up the wooded hillside in fast pursuit. Growling, the blur chased Deborah down. It smashed into her legs and upended her. Her body landed hard and before she could get up, it stepped atop her torso. As it clawed at her stomach, her horrified shouts turned to whimpers, then to silence.
Emotions—anger, sadness, fear—flooded through him. But he didn’t waste time processing them. Instead, he used them as fuel. Sprinting forward, he reached the top of the hill and entered a thick grove of pine trees.
A shriek rang out nearby, followed by screams for help. These new screams belonged to Alex Eichel, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and long-time supporter of the Apex Predator project. A sudden thump filled the smoke-choked air. Eichel’s screams reached an agonizing pitch. Then they died off completely.
The forest erupted with bellows, growls, and bloodthirsty roars. These were the voices of his creations. Of animals who’d died out thousands of years ago. Animals who, thanks to him, would now retake Earth. But although he’d breathed life into them, he knew they’d give him no quarter. They’d kill him just as quickly as they were now killing the last remnants of his inner circle.
Can’t run forever, he thought. You’ve got to hide. Regroup.
His family had owned the Vallerio Forest for generations. He’d walked nearly every inch of it over the years. So he knew it well, knew its many strange secrets.
He looked around, got his bearings. Then he turned right and hustled into a patch of dense thicket. Prickly branches, sharp as daggers, tugged at his clothes and sliced at his skin. Blood began to trickle down his stinging arms and legs.
He ran out of the thicket and darted across a gurgling creek, his feet splashing in the cold water. He was tired and felt every year of his old age. But fear kept him going. Fear of death, of course. But also fear he would die before he could set Stage Two in motion.
That massive creature back in the forest, as well as the others like it, was indeed a key component of Stage One. But its growth spurt had occurred weeks ahead of schedule. Which presented a problem. It wouldn’t be long before the U.S. military took notice of the giant creatures. And that could very well spell doom for the Apex Predator project.
There was only one way to fix things. He needed to accelerate the timetable. And to do that, he required a working phone. Unfortunately, the Blare had rendered his satphone useless. And he’d never reach the corded phones in the Vallerio’s main facility, Hatcher Station, in time. That left him with just one option.
Flames roared in his ears with renewed strength. Gray smoke flooded his eyeballs. Fierce heat caused sweat to bubble up all over his body. Squinting, he saw a short, craggy mountain covered with thick vegetation. The Vault was close.
But so was the fire.
He crashed through the underbrush and clambered up the mountain. Scanning the rocky boulders, he spotted the Vault’s entrance. He tried to go faster, but his legs felt rubbery, weak.
The fire grew almost unbearably bright, illuminating the usually dark forest. Scalding heat touched his legs. His teeth gritted. A quick glimpse downward confirmed his clothing had caught fire. Searing pain racked his body as flames crept up his sides.
He pulled himself onto a ledge. His whole body was now on fire and the awful pain drove him to the edge of unconsciousness. Somehow he managed to stumble into a short tunnel, to insert a key into an old padlock.
A sturdy metal door cracked open, revealing a dark, cavernous space. He flung himself into it and rolled back and forth. The flames winked out.
He flopped onto his back. And then he lay there, his mind numb with pain. He was unable to move, unable to even close the door.
A faint, chopping noise caused his ears to perk. With much effort, he lifted his head off the ground. In the distance, he saw an object cross the sky. It was a helicopter. His helicopter. His lip curled with fury as he thought about the people who’d stolen it from him.
His skin tore and bled as he rose to his knees. In utter agony, he crawled to the door and closed it. Rooting around a small dresser, he located a flashlight. He pressed a button and it came to life, casting a ray of light across the floor.
Painfully, Corbotch pulled himself to his feet. His clothing, as well as an entire layer of flesh, had melted away. Dark red marks, tinged with blackness, now covered much of his charred body.
He shifted his beam. For a moment, he stared at the elaborate cavern-like space with dazed, bloodshot eyes. It was designed in the style of an elaborate sitting room, complete with handmade carpets, hard-backed chairs, and wooden dressers. An array of screens and equipment, tastefully positioned, allowed the space to double as a monitoring room. Only the most elite members of his inner circle had ever set foot inside the Vault and even then, only at invitation.
The Vault dated back to the late 1800s. He’d first discovered its existence in the papers and maps of a distant relative, Miles Spencer Corbotch. From there, it was a simple matter of surveying and matching landmarks.
He still recalled the day he’d entered the exterior tunnel and first laid eyes upon that old iron door. It had taken his team several hours to remove the heavy, well-rusted obstruction. Afterward, he’d walked into the open space. Casting his torch from side to side, he’d seen crates full of lost art, gold bars, and precious jewels along with rows and rows of filing cabinets. The cabinets had contained a treasure trove of letters, maps, and documents. Those papers were now stored in a separate, climate-controlled facility, looked after by a team of researchers in his employ.
He stumbled to a corded telephone. It ran off of direct current and thus, had likely survived the Blare. He’d had it installed many years ago while he was renovating the place. He’d rarely used it in the past. But now, he was grateful for it.
His fingers ached as he pulled the phone from its cradle and dialed a number. Holding the device to his ear, he tried to ignore a sudden onslaught of chills. He wanted to lay down, to sleep. But the thought of his skin touching something, anything, was unthinkable.
“This is James.” His tongue felt too big for his parched mouth. “James Corbotch.”
“James?” The voice was soft, familiar. “Thank God you’re okay. We’re getting all these reports about—”
“I’m hurt. Can’t talk long. So, just listen.” He swallowed. It hurt to swallow. “I need you to initiate Stage Two.”
“Let me help you, James. Where—?”
“I’m in the Vault. But that can wait. Your orders are to initiate Stage Two. Please confirm.”
A brief pause. “Confirmed.”
He glanced upward, at the ceiling. He thought about the fire, about the pain. None of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for him. “And one more thing. Someone stole my helicopter. His name is Zach Caplan. Find him.” His eyes burned with fury. “And bring him to me.”