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Chapter 2

James Horton apparently enjoyed the august title of Assistant Director, Operations, of the Pyramid Security Agency. Jim McKenna hadn't been aware that the PSA even had an "operations directorate." Until the Pissants showed up at Fort Campbell, he'd been under the impression that the PSA was an information gathering outfit, like the National Security Agency. A pure intelligence agency, so to speak, not one that actually did rough-and-ready field work.

He wasn't sure, but Mac had a growing suspicion that this "Operations Directorate" was even more brand spanking new than the PSA itself. That would help to explain the bizarre combination of agents throwing their weight around even with army colonels on an army base—yet seeming to have not a clue about what they were supposedly doing.

If Horton here was their boss, Mac didn't have any trouble understanding the reason. Fortunately, being paratroopers and an elite unit, the 101st generally got good officers assigned to it. But Mac had been in the U.S. Army plenty long enough to know that some officers were pure and simple goofballs. And Horton reminded him of several such goofballs he'd known in times past. Especially a certain Captain Worthington—and how the hell the man had risen beyond second lieutenant remained a mystery to the sergeant—who'd combined incompetence with a "gung ho" attitude that would have been funny except for the misery it put the grunts through.

For starters, Mac was pretty sure that Horton was the origin of this silly habit of PSA agents wearing sunglasses. The screwball was wearing them here—inside a room with no windows and only fluorescent lighting. The other agents had at least had the sense to take them off when they came indoors. Did these guys know just how much they looked like cheap movie government agents? Did they try to look like them?

Most likely, Horton had been inspired by watching the Men in Black movies—and hadn't noticed that they were comedies. And wasn't that a scary thought?

The building they were in lent credence to that theory, now that Mac thought about it. He'd noticed on the way in that it looked like some sort of power plant, located in a rural area not too far from Clarksville.

"I hear you've been treating my operatives with some disrespect," Assistant Director Horton said to the two paratroopers, in a tone of voice he apparently thought was arctic but fell a good hundred and fifty degrees short of any competent drill sergeant.

So they'd been tattling to mommy, probably about being called Pissants. Mac flicked a glance at Cruz. The sergeant had his poker face on. Well, Cruz was a lot more experienced at dealing with trouble than he was, even if McKenna was better at getting into it.

"No, sir, not yet," said Cruz. His own tone of voice made it clear that serious disrespect could start very easily. "Your operatives have obviously not been taught military protocols, and they have disgraced both you and their organization. If you want to confirm that you could try asking my commanding officer. They treated him with disrespect, in the presence of his men and their dependents. We in the military don't like that. I'd like to you to censure them, sir. Then I'd feel that mutual respect could be established."

Mac had to restrain a grin.

Horton's eyes widened. "Do you know who I am, Sergeant Cruz?" He was now striving for a voice the temperature of liquid nitrogen. It was pretty pathetic. "I answer directly to Director Garnett herself."

He said that last the way a man might say "me and Moses consult daily on such matters as parting the Red Sea."

Cruz looked at him with a completely blank expression, as if he'd never heard her name at all. Which would be quite a feat, since Helen Garnett was nothing if not a public recognition addict. Ever since she'd been put in charge of the PSA, her face had been on enough screens for everyone to know it.

"No, sir. These men are from the PSA, so I'd guess that you are also from the PSA. I'd like to know why we've been brought here, and why our families are being held hostage."

Horton slithered away from a direct answer. "You'll be told presently what your mission is—and the term 'hostage' is ridiculous, Sergeant. Your people are simply under protective custody." He leaned forward a bit, apparently striving for a menacing aura. "I just want to clarify one thing before I send you off to be briefed. Even the lowest agent here outranks you. If I hear of any more problems, or disrespect, you could just be spending several years in the stockade at Fort Leavenworth. Do you understand me?"

Cruz didn't reply. His muscles just tensed. For the first time in his military career Mac decided that it was time to bail his senior buddy out. Deflect fire. "Yes, sir. Can we send a message to our families?"

"No. You're strictly incommunicado." He waved a hand at one of the suits. "Take them to Agent Supervisor Megane."


Agent Supervisor Megane looked like a dodgy used-car salesman. In a suit, rubbing his hands as he talked. Still, it was an improvement on being in the same room as Horton. At least Megane wasn't wearing sunglasses indoors.

"Our mission is one of utmost gravity and sensitivity," he said. "You're probably not aware of it, but a senior government man from the National Security Council was snatched in the early phase of the alien pyramid attack. A man by the name of Tom Harkness."

Mac remembered the name. That cop, Salinas, had wanted to tell Major Gervase about it. And Professor Tremelo had said he'd seen him get snatched. "Yeah, I heard it reported," he said.

"In the press?" demanded Megane. "That would be a serious breach of—"

"To my field commander. Major Gervase."

The agent looked taken aback. "Oh."

"We were there, remember?" said Cruz. "We were there just after it happened."

"Oh, yes," said the agent again. "I was told you that you would be our military advisors on . . . on matters inside the pyramid. Gentlemen, this is a Matter of National Security."

He looked like he'd been waiting to say that line for a long time, capital letters and all.

"Yeah?" said Mac, because Megane seemed to expect some sort of response.

Megane nodded gravely. "Mr. Harkness has not returned. He is too valuable a man to be left in enemy hands. Dead or alive, we need him back. He knows far too much to be left there to be interrogated."

Mac looked at Cruz. Cruz looked back at him. Cruz took a deep breath. "I don't want to rain on your parade, Mr. Megane. But the Krim never showed the least inclination to interrogate any of us. I don't think it cares."

"How the alien treats ordinary soldiers, and how it deals with a high-ranking official, is logically going to be different," said the agent condescendingly. "Your knowledge and importance in the scheme of things is pretty unimportant compared to a man like Tom Harkness."

Cruz shrugged. "I don't think that this is the sort of military-type problem you guys think it is. But I don't suppose you're listening."

"Anyway," said Mac, "I hate to break this to you, Agent Megane—"

"Agent Supervisor Megane," the PSA man said brusquely.

"Ah, right. Agent Supervisor Megane. But my point is that if your Harkness person is still inside there . . . well, that's just too bad. There is no way to get to him. He'll be spat out old and dead soon enough. Even if nothing in the Mythworlds kills him, time moves about five times as fast in there."

Megane blinked at him. "It just seemed that way to you, soldier. Anyway, the point is that we actually do have a way in to the pyramid. And we're arranging transport back. We need you to help us brief the snatch team, and then to guide us."

Mac looked down at his feet. The floor hadn't suddenly turned to quicksand and wasn't swallowing him up. But it felt like it.

Cruz spoke first. "With respect, Agent Supervisor Megane, I don't think you guys have done your homework. Time really does move at a different rate inside the Mythworlds, for starters. Ask the scientists."

It looked like with or without respect, this was the first time that Megane had been told that he hadn't done his homework. Mac fended off the explosion with a calming gesture. "If you read the debriefing reports, you'd know that we had to be guided around there ourselves. And if we hadn't had an expert and local help and lot more luck on our side, we'd have got ourselves killed, PDQ."

"Expert?" asked Megane.

"Dr. Lukacs," said Cruz. "He's an expert in mythology."

Megane raised his eyebrows. "He's also a civilian with a dubious security record."

Mac wondered how Jerry Lukacs had managed to get a "dubious" security record. He'd probably made a pun in the presence of an overly serious FBI agent. Or simply used too many multisyllable words in front of a PSA agent. "He's still the guy who kept us alive and beat the Krim."

"He hasn't been cleared by the PSA. He's also currently consorting with a citizen of a country that cannot be considered wholly friendly." If reading up on the technical reports was too much for this Megane fellow, checking out on people's private lives was apparently right up his alley. "You will have a team of skilled professionals to back you up this time, boys."

"Swordsmen and expert survivalists who can do magic?" rumbled Cruz. "The sort of people who can out-think gods by knowing a lot about them?"

Megane gave a lopsided smile, intended to tell them how tough he was. He slapped his chest. "Top agents. Profiled to be selected by the pyramid. I think we better go through and meet them. Then you can be properly briefed and equipped. Follow me."

He led them out of his office. Mac had a chance to say, quietly, "We're up shit-creek, Sarge."


Cruz hadn't needed Mac tell him that. It was more than obvious that these spooks had two things. The first was delusions and the second was no fricking idea what the hell they were heading for. Besides, if Cruz understood it right, then what they planned to do to get the Krim to take them, was to select the sort of guys that that Chicago police lieutenant Salinas had been. People who were credulous, among other things. Salinas himself was still somewhere in Mythological Greece, as happy as a pig in shit, because Circe had turned him into one.

But Cruz wasn't particularly worried. The trick was simply not to be in physical contact with these losers when it all happened. He just had to get the word through to Mac. He wasn't keen on explaining to the spider-girl that he'd lost the kid.

When he met the "team" and saw their equipment, he began to realize that Mac hadn't even started to guess just how far up the creek they were.

Megane held up the horse-hair plumed helmets. "The radio units are hidden inside the helmet crest. They have a transmission radius of about eight miles and we've got you about sixty hours battery life. The breastplate is high-density Kevlar. Now, handguns. We're issuing you with .40 caliber pistols. The agents carry various other weapons, but there is no time to train you to proficiency in them."

"Like what?" said Cruz, who was curious about weapons of any description.

"Well, the spear disassembles into a hollow shaft—that's the rifle barrel—and the sword hilt covers and hides the trigger mechanism, revealed by twisting the pommel. It also holds the magazine. The block is the upper section of the blade. The stock is a folding one, fitted inside the shield as a brace. Fortunately, these Greek swords are chunky—apparently they had to be to stop them bending—but it still puts some limits on caliber. We're using the new .177 HM rounds. Ammunition is the biggest problem, of course. So we've settled on these authentic looking packs, which have the actual fabric lined with loose rounds."

Cruz snorted.

"You guys just don't really understand what you'll be dealing with, do you?" said Mac. The boy was still trying to get through to them. Maybe he just didn't want to wear that kilt-skirt thing that the PSA had decided was the right outfit for this lot.

Agent Bott just looked offended. Agent Sternal at least tried to explain. He looked like a lot of people had explained things to him. Mostly jokes. "We've had the best historical research teams working on this, and based on what you and others have reported, we should be nicely inconspicuous."

"Let's start with getting this clear to you," said Mac. "When you get over there, none of this gear is gonna work. Our M16s didn't. And all the modern stuff that did work had converted itself into Greek-era goods. Only things which would have worked then, worked. Our water bottles became leather. A lighter became mothball-stuff."

"Your gear was examined, microscopically, when you got back," said Agent Bott, with a sniff. "It was some kind of hallucination, or maybe a switch. But we should deceive the aliens with the correct gear."

Mac sighed. "Listen. To. Me. It isn't gonna work. This isn't some covert op where you have to sneak things past the locals. Things change. They. Actually. Change."

"And trust me," said Cruz, leaning against the wall. "None of us could pass for locals anyway."

That got their attention. "So the kit is not quite authentic? What's wrong with it?" asked Megane.

"You guys are," said Cruz. "However, if you like we can fix it." He smiled nastily.

"Talk. ETD is set for the day after tomorrow, at eleven hundred hours."

"Well, you better get yourselves hair jobs. And beards. And fleas. And you need at least a week of no baths, and local food, to smell right. Then you get rubbed with olive oil and scraped with, what was that thing called, Mac? Oh yeah, a strigil. You've got to smell of old sweat and rancid olive oil."

"You're kidding, right?" demanded Bott.

Cruz shrugged. "Check it out with your pet historians."

"Get onto Maritz," said Megane. "The hair and beards will have to be glued on."

Mac shook his head. "You guys won't pass anyway. You're all too tall. And too pale."

"Skin dye. Anything else?"

Cruz took a deep breath. "Good knives. Whetstones. Fire-making stuff. A good tent, a decent sleeping bag. Maybe some decent composite bows and the skill to use them. A sword that doesn't have a detachable handle and a shield that isn't made of aluminum. A crash course in how to speak Greek. Unless you end up like we did for a bit, in Egypt."

"Megane and Bott speak Greek. I speak Arabic," said Sternal.

Cruz shook his head. "That's not the same as ancient Egyptian, or, from what Jerry said, classical Greek."

Megane bit his lip. "Well, I guess our cover just can't be perfect then. This mission had to put together in a hurry. I gather that not all the locals are hostile."

"Nope," said Mac cheerfully. "What do you reckon, Sarge? Seventy-five percent hostile?"

"Yeah. And most of the other twenty-five will kill you for the loot you're carrying." Cruz sighed. If he and Mac ended up going, despite his best intentions, they might as well be kitted out as well as possible. "Look. If you can't look perfect, why not settle for camo? If you won't, and want to go along with all this stuff, well, we're paratroopers, not experts in covert ops. We don't know how to pass ourselves off as anything else. You guys do. Do you mind if the two of us choose our own gear? We'll pretend to be foreigners or something."

"Cruz and I could pretend to be prisoners, groaning under the weight of our stuff," put in Mac brightly. "It'd make you guys look really tough."

Cruz wished that Mac would ease off a bit. They weren't that dumb, surely.

"I'll ask," said Megane, proving, like the man said, that you can never overestimate the power of human stupidity.

"There is just one question I really have to ask," said Cruz, mentally compiling a list of things he'd love to have had with him the last time. "Just how do you plan to get back?"

"We've arranged to take along the mutant animal that you brought back with you. By all reports that's how you got home."

Mac gaped. "Throttler? The Greek sphinx?"

"I believe that's the term applied to it," said Megane. "We're arranging to bring the creature here from Las Vegas. That's what the delay is about."

Mac was about to say something when Cruz kicked him. Throttler could get them back, all right. If she wanted to, she could get them there too, without the dangers of going via the pyramid. But that wasn't something Cruz wanted to point out, or the fact that the Greek sphinx—with the head and breasts of a woman and the body of lion with huge eagle wings—was pretty bad tempered and very deadly. Someone—or probably all of them—were going to end up coming back from the Mythworlds a lot sooner than even Cruz anticipated. He and Mac were definitely, come hell or high water, going to masquerade as prisoners. And remember their riddles. If humans didn't get them right, Throttler would kill them.


Medea might not have brought her magical command of spirits and sprites with her from mythological Greece to modern America, but she had lost none of her skills at making potions. Arachne didn't even have to fake looking unwell, and throwing up was easy. The PSA agent did accompany her to the base doctor, though.

At the door of the office, Arachne looked the agent straight in the eye. "There are certain things . . . certain . . . female problems, that I do not discuss in front of strange men. So you will wait out here."

He looked as if he might argue, but just at that point a very large corporal, with his arm in a sling, cleared his throat and got up. Arachne recognized him. His name was Dale Thompson and he was one of Anibal and Mac's friends. "I'd let the lady see the doctor in private, mister."

The PSA agent looked incredulously at him. "You want time in Leavenworth, boy?"

Thompson grinned. "I got a concussion. I have these blackouts when I don't remember anything. I'm feeling real faint right now, in fact."

Arachne took the opportunity to slip into the doctor's room. She'd been extremely embarrassed by the examination he had given her a few weeks before, and had no real intention of repeating the experience.

"I'm not sick," she said hastily. "I just need know something from the war-captain . . . Colonel. Who is 'Harkness'? Mac and Cruz have been taken to fetch him. Ask him, and arrange to bring me a potion and tell me."

"Uh . . ." said the doctor.

"Medea said if you do not do it she will bring Priones to visit you again," said Arachne.

The doctor's eyes bulged slightly. He nodded. "All right. You do look rather pale though, Ms. Arachne."

"You may bring me something to help with nausea. And to help me sleep," she said as a sudden afterthought. A sleeping potion could be useful, if Medea couldn't provide.

She went out into the doctor's waiting room to find her minder furiously trying to extricate himself from the embrace of a lolling Corporal Thompson, who, for a man who was struggling to stay upright, gave her a very nice wink before collapsing onto the floor—and dragging the agent down with him.

"Perhaps you should render some assistance," said Arachne, coolly, to the furious agent, after he extricated himself. "The doctor will bring my medication later, and I am feeling faint myself. I shall go out and take some air."

"He hasn't fainted. Wait until I get onto headquarters about this," he snarled. Arachne smiled at the rest of the waiting-room crowd, who all seemed very tense—and furious with the PSA agent. "I wouldn't do that," she said. "All these people saw the poor man faint." The roomful of people nodded like marionettes having their strings pulled. "I think one of you should call the doctor to look at him," she added, as she walked out, leaving the PSA agent to scurry after her.


Colonel McNamara had a serious problem on his hands. He was constrained by some of the more outlandish provisions of the Alien Pyramid Security Act. Like all security legislation passed by Congress in a fit of hysteria, APSA was riddled with idiotic clauses that gave a sufficiently ambitious and unscrupulous security official the ability to ride roughshod over common sense as well as other people. He was also constrained by a duty to his men, and a growing suspicion that this PSA action was at least a semi-rogue one. That would explain why the agent-in-charge had backed down when he'd finally gotten mad enough to risk his career.

The colonel had talked to Professor Tremelo, and he understood the implications of pyramid expansion with each human that it had snatched, and the increasing snatch radius. He also knew just who Tom Harkness was, and when he had disappeared. The only way to get him back was to ask his men to do what they'd been the only survivors of doing before—get snatched again, and go inside a world which shouldn't really be able to exist. An impossible world that spat out a lot of dead people.

There was a specific presidential directive forbidding anyone who was at risk of becoming a snatchee from entering the safety perimeter. Overriding that directive had to be approved by the Pyramid Scientific Research Group as well as the PSA. That meant that Tremelo must know about this. It was a pity. He'd seemed a sensible man, for a civilian and a scientist.

This all seemed more than enough reason to call General Brasno. Unofficially. And damn the PSA. It all smelled, and it wouldn't be the first time that secret service agencies had used secrecy to provide cover for their own agendas.

"I need advice, sir. And I didn't call you. Or rather I called you about different matter altogether."

While the colonel was officially not talking, the base medical officer was arming himself with a generous ration of candy in case he met up with a certain small boy again. Who would have thought one child could yell and bite so much?


In a remote corner of a wildlife reservation, some distance away, a winged dragon sighed gustily and licked his new white little teeth with a long red snaky tongue. They helped his speech as well as his chewing. "I feel as if my life is lacking something."

His sibling, Bitar, licked his chops too. "Something of the flavor of life."

"Could be ketchup?" said Smitar, after serious thought, and then concentrated on trying to reach an annoying itch between his shoulder blades.

"Or it could be hot sauce. Who would have thought that American maidens would be in such short supply that they'd have to be protected game?"

"Over hunted," said Smitar righteously. "Should have introduced a permit system. Or reservations. Or a minimum size limit."

Bitar shook his vast armored head at the iniquity. "A bag limit." He paused. "It wasn't you, was it?"

"Not unless I'm sleep-eating again," said Smitar. "If it wasn't me, was it you? And can you scratch this spot for me?"

"We need Cruz," said Bitar, obliging. "He can give a decent scratch with an oar. Do you think we're molting again?"

"Could be. It's this foreign food. Very greasy. Fattening." Smitar patted his midriff.

"You haven't been eating these foreigners again?" demanded Bitar accusingly. "You know Medea told us not to. Anyway, you could have shared!"

"Phttt," said Smitar. "He was barely a snack. And Cruz said that anyone from the INS was fair game. I still feel something's missing in my life. I've got this sort of inner itch too."

"Could be indigestion. But I have it as well. And I never even got a bite of the INS official." Bitar sniffed dolefully. "Could use a good scratch with a pole from Cruz."

Smitar wrinkled his scaly forehead in thought. "I think it is that time of life when a young dragon's thoughts turn to love."

"Could be. What time is that?" asked Bitar, tasting the idea.

"This century, I think."

"Hmm. In that case I think we need some male advice on how to draw chicks."

Smitar looked a bit puzzled. "I thought you just grabbed them and dragged?"

"Doesn't that lack finesse?"

"Probably. It could work though."

"We need to ask Cruz," said Bitar, rubbing his back against a rock and shattering it. "It's time he sat us down and gave us a little talk about the birds and the bees."

Smitar tasted a piece of the rock. Chewed it thoughtfully and then asked, "Why?"

"I think it's what you have to talk to girls about," said Bitar knowledgeably. "Cruz will know."

Smitar spat out rock fragments. "And he could give us a good scratch."

As they took off and began searching for thermals, Smitar asked, "So what's this finesse stuff? Some kind of sauce? Or a lubricant to help with the dragging?"

Bitar nodded. "Both. It's got chocolate in it, too."


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