The first of the massive explosions rocked the entire complex. Technicians and security personnel scattered like roaches, shouting in confusion. Red emergency lights started flashing down the corridors. Klaxons began screaming and employees in white lab coats ran toward the exits. Acrid gray smoke wafted down through the air vents. All was fire, panic and mayhem.
Tucked safely away in a dark little alcove down a utility corridor, Alex Rider raised his Casio digital wristwatch to his eyes. He counted softly: “Three. Two. One—”
A second explosion shook Reinhardt Industrial Research Laboratories to its foundation, this time from the visitor’s wing. A cloud of fire billowed up and consumed everything in its path. Fortunately, there were no visitors today.
Alex knelt down and pulled out a pair of Eliminator motorcycle goggles, strapping them on quickly. These were no ordinary goggles; apart from their shatter-proof polycarbonate lenses, combination infrared/night-vision interface, and streamlined black and silver design, they were also completely airtight, making them useful against the teargas cartridges Alex had rigged in the central ventilation system twenty minutes ago. They were set to go off at intervals, just like the plastic explosives planted all around the complex.
With the employees rushing around and trying to evacuate the facility, Alex calculated he would have enough time to slip into the main testing laboratory and extract the 1.5-kilogram ruby rod from the Apollo inertial reactor, the largest, most powerful laser ever built.
Like most advances in the field of science, there was a dark side to the Apollo Project. Apart from having the ability to create stars from hydrogen capsules, possibly solving the world’s energy crisis once and for all, it was also capable of destroying whole cities in a matter of seconds. In the hands of a sociopathic malcontent like Peter Reinhardt, who planned to sell the laser to the highest bidding terrorist once the British Isles were reduced to molecular dust, it was the deadliest weapon ever made by man.
“A thousand times deadlier than the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Reinhardt has sneered to Alex from the other side of one of the facility’s many fusion chambers. “Oh, don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing. As soon as the lasers reach full power, you will simply cease to exist. You’ll become stardust again, Alex, atoms of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen, the same elements from which you and I and everything else in the universe were born. The matter of stars. Isn’t it a beautiful end, Alex? Most people simply rot in the ground after they die, but you . . . you should consider yourself lucky.” Reinhardt chuckled. “Or should I say, you should thank your lucky stars. So long, Alex—in astrum nos mos opportunus iterum!” In the stars we shall meet again.
And then he had walked away, cheerfully whistling Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and left the fifteen-year-old spy to die.
Alex had had a difficult time getting out of that one, but in the end it was nothing that a well-aimed spitball with an aluminum foil core couldn’t take care of. When the spitball landed in the muzzle of the ceiling-mounted laser cannon and disrupted the flow of the concentrating atoms, the resulting explosion had busted the entire reactor to pieces. Alex would have been incinerated if he hadn’t been wearing that heat-resistant Puma track suit Smithers had designed. He’d escaped the chamber with only a few bruises and some cuts from glancing shrapnel—nothing a few bandages couldn’t fix.
Now, 24 hours later, Alex was on his way to stop this operation once and for all. The Apollo laser was useless without its gain source, the ruby crystal, to help the beam molecules focus from a low energy state to a high energy state. Usually, lab-created crystals worked best for lasers, but this particular rod, crafted from the world’s largest ruby that had been stolen from Russia just four months ago, was a perfect specimen of corundum, more perfect than any synthetic ruby of comparable size.
MI6 had had no idea they would be sending Alex on anything other than a simple gem heist reconnaissance. He had been working too hard lately and this was supposed to be something of a winter holiday for him in sunny Lisbon, Portugal. In less than a week he had ended up on an isolated island in Norway, pretending to be a stupid, lazy grunt working the docks of Reinhardt Industrial. With unexpected help from a dissatisfied mechanical engineer—Dr Arne Nielsen, a warm-hearted man in his late 50s who had family living in London—Alex was able to infiltrate the main facility and locate the ruby, as well as learn of its sinister use in the Apollo Project. Alex had had no intention of doing anything other than getting the gem and getting the hell out, but after Peter Reinhardt had tried to vaporize him, Alex was determined to see the man get what he deserved. But first he had to make sure that the Apollo was rendered useless.
A third explosion rattled doors and cracked glass, right on schedule. As he jogged down the deserted corridor that led to the main testing lab, Alex glanced at his watch again. He had two minutes before the fourth and final diversion blast went off, and exactly fifteen minutes to grab the ruby, plant the 9-kilogram C-4 bomb that would take out the Apollo, and meet Dr Nielsen on the helipad. The Norwegian had insisted that nobody be injured in the process of dismantling Reinhardt’s murderous scheme, and had volunteered to assist in evacuating the facility. He had also pulled some strings on the mainland and hired a private pilot to pick them up. If all went according to plan, Alex and Nielsen would be watching Reinhardt Industrial go up in flames from the safety of a departing helicopter. Alex would return to MI6 with the ruby, Peter Reinhardt would go to prison, and Arne Nielsen would be able to go back to his wife and daughters in London. A happy end for those who deserved one.
Alex shouldered his way through a pair of stainless steel swinging doors and found himself in a room the size of an Olympic gymnasium. The roof was at least three storeys high, with a bulging glass dome in the center. Polished gray concrete gleamed under a field of fluorescent lights mounted on the ceiling. It looked more like an observatory than a laboratory.
A bank of high-tech computer consoles curved around a large platform in the center of the room. Desks and drafting tables and scale models were tucked into several cubicles on the far end. But Alex was staring at the column of scaffolding surrounding the towering, 7-meter long cannon that was the Apollo laser, his skin prickling with awe.
He pushed his goggles back onto his forehead and blinked. He could see why they had named it Apollo. It was like the finger of a god, capable of untold death and destruction. Though its titanium-white hull was still under construction, it looked poised and ready to go—the deadliest gun on Earth.
Well, thought Alex, time to disarm it.
He pulled off his pack and took out the blocks of plastique, tucked them into his jacket, and began to climb the scaffolding. He needed to reach the laser’s optical resonator, the innermost chamber that comprised the largest part of the weapon. Alex located it immediately and set about removing the panels that covered the compartment.
He spared a glance at his watch. His sense of timing was perfect. The fourth blast went off, rumbling through the laboratory like thunder. Alex waited until the shockwaves subsided before getting back to work. Fifteen minutes to rendezvous. He was okay, doing good so far.
He folded back the last panel, revealing the cavity resonator, a hollow glass cylinder with large mirrors at either end. There, carefully mounted in the middle, was the ruby rod. Following Nielsen’s instructions, Alex pulled the glass-cutter from his pocket and set to work. He cut a jagged circle into the tube, tossed the piece of glass to the floor, and delicately removed the precious gem. Or what was left of it after Reinhardt had turned it into a component for death. No doubt the Russians would have some strong words concerning the recent cosmetic alterations.
Alex tucked the heavy rod in the inside pocket of his jacket and zipped it closed, then wrapped his arm around a scaffolding beam and pulled out the C-4. He placed the putty blocks inside the resonator, taking a few seconds to mold them in place and uncoil the wires connected to the digital timing device. Though Nielsen had told him there was no way the bomb could go off without first running through the programmed time setting, Alex still felt a bit dazed to be working with such potentially destructive materials. Although, he realized, the Apollo was a much bigger threat than a few kilos of plastic explosive.
After making sure everything was situated properly, Alex took a deep breath and hit the red initiation button. The time flashed on the digital display—00:07:00—and began counting down. Mission complete.
Alex scrambled down the scaffolding and onto the floor, turned around, and was suddenly face to face with Peter Reinhardt. The 32-year-old American physicist looked unkempt and completely insane. His glasses—the right lens cracked—sat crookedly on his face, which glistened with sweat. His clothes looked partially singed, as if he might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the preliminary blasts went off. He stood in front of Alex, arms hanging at his sides, staring at the boy with a kind of detached fascination. Other than that, his pasty white face was utterly emotionless.
“What are you doing to my baby?” he asked in an eerie, unhinged voice. “What did you do to Apollo?”
Alex didn’t have time for this. Nielsen was waiting for him on the helipad, and Alex didn’t really care if this genocidal sociopath wanted to stay behind and get blown to Kingdom Come. All the better, actually.
Alex darted past Reinhardt and was breaking into a run when he felt something hot slice along the side of his thigh. He gasped and stumbled, sprawling to the ground.
His thigh felt like it was on fire. Pulling himself upright, Alex looked down at his leg and saw a perfect, pencil-thin tear in his jeans. Blood was suddenly soaking through the denim. It was as if he’d been cut with a scalpel. But how? He hadn’t seen Reinhardt carrying any weapons . . .
A shadow fell over Alex and he looked up to see Reinhardt glaring down at him, holding what looked like a silver fountain pen in his hand. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked in a low, threatening tone.
A red light shot out of the end of the device and burned a line across Alex’s shin, eating through cloth and skin. He cried out in pain and jerked his leg out of the beam’s path. A smell like singed hair permeated the air, and blood began to trickle from the freshly-cut skin.
Reinhardt turned off the miniature laser and smiled enthusiastically, his demeanor now delighted. “Like it?” he asked eagerly. “I call it the Razor Laser, my own design. First handheld lethal-grade laser weapon for personal defense.”
He was rambling now, caught up in the manic rush that is a hallmark of untreated sufferers of bipolar disorder.
“Small, light, easily concealed, no need for bullets. The ammo supply is essentially unlimited. It emits either a pulse or a continuous beam that cuts through wood, steel, granite . . . even flesh, see?”
To demonstrate, Reinhardt pressed a button on the side of the device. A thin shaft of red light shot out and slashed across Alex’s chest, opening a diagonal line through his t-shirt and the first two millimeters of his flesh.
It was like getting whipped with a red-hot wire, followed by a raging stinging sensation and—God!—more blood. Alex watched the front of his shirt blossom red stains and knew that Reinhardt was never going to let him leave this place alive.
“I should have done this from the start,” Reinhardt said, twisting the end of the laser. “Taken you apart piece by piece, just like what you did to all my plans. Let’s try a higher setting, shall we?”
Alex clambered backward as fast as he could, but not fast enough. He threw himself to the side, dodging the beam aimed at his neck. The laser fell to his exposed left arm, cutting a ferociously deep swipe down the length of it.
Alex screamed in agony as the pain shredded into him like a knife, accompanied by wisps of smoke rising from his scorched jacket. Dark red blood was suddenly running down his arm, spilling out onto the floor from his lacerated flesh. Alex pulled his arm close to his side and gritted his teeth, tears rolling down his face. All he could think about was the pain . . . and how much longer he had to live if any of his veins had been sliced.
“‘Bloody mess’, as you Brits say,” Reinhardt clucked, then aimed the laser at Alex’s head. “Let’s see what happens when I remove what you need to survi—”
A sudden noise came from behind Alex, followed by the deafening bang of a gunshot. Reinhardt jumped, startled by a bullet whizzing over his shoulder, and dropped the laser. A second shot rang out and flecks of blood leaped out of his chest. Alex threw himself face down on the floor and covered his head.
Another shot. And another, and another. Gunfire roared through the laboratory, resonating off of the bare metal walls. Finally the racket ceased and the echoes faded. There came the heavy thump of a body collapsing onto the floor, then nothing. Alex lifted his head.
Peter Reinhardt lay dead, his eyes staring blankly through his cracked glasses. His face was speckled with his own blood, the front of his body wracked with bullet holes.
“Alex, are you all right?” Arne Nielsen was suddenly crouching at Alex’s side with a 9mm CZ-75 pistol, staring at the blood with disbelief. “Herregud, what was he doing to you?”
“Cutting up,” Alex grunted. “But it looks like I’ll have the last laugh.”
“Did you get the ruby?”
“It’s right here.” Alex patted his jacket with his good arm, wincing a little as he touched the cut across his chest. “What are you doing down here? I thought you were going to meet me on the roof.”
“Yes, well . . . I’m afraid there has been a change of plan,” Nielsen sighed, then leveled his gun at Alex’s chest. “I will be taking that ruby now, if you don’t mind.”
Alex stared dumbly. Either he was losing too much blood or this sudden turn of events was too much for him to comprehend. His mind spun dizzily as he tried to make sense of it. “Wh-what?”
“Don’t make me shoot you, Alex. You’re a good kid. I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have to.”
It had all been a trick, Alex slowly realized. He had been double-crossed by the person he least expected. Kind old Dr Nielsen, so eager to assist, so willing and helpful. A little too helpful, it seemed.
A surge of anger flared up in Alex—mainly at himself for putting his trust in someone else. All this time, Nielsen had been pretending to help him just so he could get his hands on that ruby. It had to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, even whittled down to its current shape.
Alex hugged his bleeding arm to his body. “So you don’t want to shoot me, but you’ll leave me here to get blown up? That makes absolutely no sense.”
“I don’t have time to argue with you, Alex, now give me the ruby!”
Alex swallowed his contempt, knowing he had no choice. He reached into his jacket, removing the precious gem and handing it to Nielsen. The man stood and slipped the crystal into his coat pocket, then looked down at Alex pityingly. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
“Not as sorry as I am,” Alex muttered.
Nielsen sighed, lifted the gun, and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet tore through Alex’s already injured thigh and out the other side, narrowly missing his femur and smashing into the concrete beneath. Muscle and tissue seemed to swell in the bullet’s wake, painting the world in red and white shades of excruciating, mind-blowing pain. Alex gasped as his breath was taken away, then fell back on the floor, curling up into a fetal ball. It was all his body was capable of doing at this point.
Nielsen tossed the empty gun to the floor—getting rid of the evidence—and looked at his watch. He had been here long enough. It was time to go.
“Sorry, Alex,” he repeated. “I couldn’t risk you following me. Don’t worry, the pain won’t last long. Soon it will all be over.”
With one final look at the suffering boy at his feet, Nielsen hurried out of the lab, his footsteps merging with the screeching noise of the evacuation sirens.
Alex lay on the cold concrete floor, shot, cut, and slowly bleeding to death, feeling the world around him start to fade in and out. He thought about Jack, visiting her family in Washington DC right now. He thought about his parents and wondered if he’d see them on the other side. He thought about what it was going to be like to get blown apart, if he would feel anything, if there would be anything left for the world to bury.
It couldn’t end like this. It wasn’t fair. He had been tricked. Nielsen had to pay. Somebody had to stop him.
Alex pulled himself into a sitting position. His cheek was sticky. He’d been lying in a pool of his own blood.
He took a breath and tried to ignore the searing pain in his arm and leg. He needed medical attention. But first he needed to get out of this place before it was blown to pieces. He still had one good leg. He could limp on it.
Alex crawled up and put his left leg under him, his shoes squeaking on the blood that covered the floor. God, there was so much of it. He felt sick, as if he would faint at any second. If he stood, he was certain to fall.
He gulped down his nausea. Fine. If he couldn’t walk out of here, then he was just going to have to drag himself out.
Pushing with his left leg and pulling with his right arm, Alex scooted toward the doors just as the numbers on the timing device read 00:04:30.
00:04:28 . . .
Arne Nielsen stepped out onto the cold, windy roof just as the helicopter—a sleek black-and-silver AS350 B3—was landing. He stood back and waited for the aircraft to touch down before ducking his head and trotting over. He opened the door and slid into the empty seat up front. The pilot, wearing a black cap and darkly-tinted aviator glasses, turned to look at him.
“Where is the boy?”
“He didn’t make it.”
“I said he didn’t fucking make it! Now get this fucking thing off the ground before we all die!”
The pilot said nothing, unruffled by Nielsen’s outburst. He calmly took hold of the controls and the helicopter slowly began to lift into the air.
Nielsen heaved a heavy sigh and slumped in his seat, scrubbing his face with one hand. He felt badly about leaving Alex like that, but he just didn’t have the heart to murder a kid in cold blood, no matter how much of a pretentious little snot he was. His worries would be over in a matter of minutes anyway, and then Nielsen could go retire on a tropical island somewhere and not have to work another day in his life. With that ruby he could probably buy his own island and divorce that nagging wife of his, marry a Brazilian supermodel or something. What was one human life when compared with all that?
Still, something was bothering him. Something wasn’t making sense, a little alarm chiming softly somewhere in the back of his mind. It took just a second’s consideration for him to realize what it was.
Nielsen turned to the pilot. “I never said anything about my partner being a boy. How do you—”
“What is that?” the pilot interrupted, pointing at the helipad below.
A young man had emerged from the doorway on the roof. His clothes were covered in blood and he was limping badly. His jacket, stained bright red, was wrapped tightly around his left arm. His face was pale and colorless, anemic from hemorrhage. He lurched toward the helicopter, waving his right arm and shouting.
It was Alex. Barely alive, barely standing, but still fighting. He had managed to crawl to his feet after leaving the laboratory and stumble through the corridors of Reinhardt Industrial until he had found the stairs to the roof. Leaving behind a trail of bloody prints on the floor and wall, he had gritted his teeth and hauled himself up the stairs one by one.
After almost two years of escaping from some of the worst situations imaginable, Alex Rider had forgotten what it was like to give up.
“Never mind,” Nielsen muttered to the pilot. “It’s too late. Pull up, we can’t save him, this facility is going to ex—”
Nielsen was cut off by the business end of an MP-443 Grach cocking on the end of his nose. Behind it, the pilot gazed at his passenger with an expression as cold and emotionless as black ice. Nielsen saw his terrified face reflecting back at him in those dark sunglasses. He opened his mouth to beg for his life, but he never got the chance.
There was a bang, a splash of blood against the Plexiglas window, and Nielsen slumped lifelessly in his seat.
Alex stopped waving his arm when the helicopter began to descend. Thank God, they were coming back for him. He might make it after all.
He sighed. He felt so tired, so heavy. His battle up the stairs had wiped him out. How much time was left? Minutes? Seconds? It felt like too little. How much blood had he lost? Two pints? Three? It felt like too much.
The clothes on his left side were drenched in blood—jeans, shirt, jacket. Even his shoe was soaked. He didn’t know how he had managed to stay standing. The pain in his thigh alone should have put him on his back. But getting blown apart would hurt worse, he had rationalized. Even though it wouldn’t have lasted long, it would undoubtedly be the worst pain of his life.
Every second seemed like it was passing in slow motion now: the helicopter coming down, each blade of the propeller scything slowly through the frigid winter air; the clouds drifting above, looking down from their quiet, lofty heights. It was like a dream dragging itself through an underwater world that seemed to be growing dimmer and dimmer and dimmer . . .
Alex’s blood-deprived brain had finally had all it could take. He closed his eyes felt himself topple, but he didn’t remember hitting the rooftop. He was sure he had, though. Everything was sideways now. He was so numb, so sleepy . . .
Oh, the helicopter had landed. When had that happened? What time was it? Wasn’t something going to happen here soon?
Someone was lifting him up, pushing him into the back seat of the helicopter. Was it Nielsen? No, it couldn’t be. Nielsen was sitting right over there with a red spot on his forehead, very still and quiet. Maybe he had fallen asleep, too.
Alex felt like he was flying now, gently soaring up and down. Everything was gray, all of the colors in the world running together to form a dull, muddy hue. He saw water stretching out below him. He was flying over the ocean. Maybe he had turned into a bird and was flying to Heaven. Or whatever happened to a human being when all metabolic functions ceased.
He was so tired. So, so tired.
Alex drew in one last, slow breath, then gently, mercifully, passed into darkness.
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