Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

  “Erm . . . brain fluid, I think. We had a pressure leak on the last mission. But that’s plugged now. And the officer lived. Down a few IQ points, but alive, and he can still take liquids.”

  “Well, that’s all right, then,” quipped Holly, threading her way through the mass of wires.

  Foaly strapped the harness on to her, checking the restraints thoroughly.

  “All set?”

  Holly nodded.

  Foaly tapped her helmet mike. “Keep in touch,” he said, pulling the door closed behind him.

  Don’t think about it, Holly told herself. Don’t think about the white-hot magma flow that’s going to engulf this tiny craft. Don’t think about hurtling toward the surface with a MACH 2 force trying to turn you inside out. And certainly don’t think about the blood-crazed troll ready to disembowel you with his tusks. Nope. Don’t think about any of that stuff. . . . Too late.

  Foaly’s voice sounded in her earpiece. “T-minus twenty,” he said. “We’re on a secure channel in case the Mud People have started underground monitoring. You never know. An oil tanker from the Middle East intercepted a transmission one time. What a mess that was.”

  Holly adjusted her helmet mike.

  “Focus, Foaly. My life is in your hands here.”

  “Uh . . . Okay, sorry. We’re going to use the rail to drop you into E7’s main shaft, there’s a surge due any minute. That should see you past the first hundred klicks, then you’re on your own.”

  Holly nodded, curling her fingers around the twin joysticks.

  “All systems check. Fire it up.”

  There was a whoosh as the pod’s engines ignited. The tiny craft jostled in its housing, shaking Holly like a bead in a rattle. She could barely hear Foaly speaking into her ear.

  “You’re in the secondary shaft now. Get ready to fly, Short.”

  Holly pulled a rubber cylinder from the dash and slipped it between her teeth. No good having a radio if you’ve swallowed your tongue. She activated the external cameras and put the view on screen.

  The entrance to E7 was creeping toward her. The air was shimmering in the landing light glow. White-hot sparks tumbled into the secondary shaft. Holly couldn’t hear the roar, but she could imagine it. A raw skinning wind like a million trolls howling.

  Her fingers tightened around the joysticks. The pod shuddered to a halt at the lip. The chute stretched above and below. Massive. Boundless. Like dropping an ant down a drainpipe.

  “Right-o,” crackled Foaly. “Hold on to your breakfast. Roller coasters ain’t got nothing on this.”

  Holly nodded. She couldn’t speak, not with the rubber in her mouth. The centaur would be able to see her in the podcam anyway.

  “Sayonara, sweetheart,” said Foaly, and pressed the button.

  The pod’s clamp tilted, rolling Holly into the abyss. Her stomach tightened as G-force took hold, dragging her to the center of the earth. The seismology section had a million probes down here, with a ninety-nine point eight success rate at predicting the magma flares. But there was always that point two percent.

  The fall seemed to last for an eternity. And just when Holly had mentally consigned herself to the scrap heap, she felt it. That unforgettable vibration. The feeling that outside her tiny sphere, the whole world was being shaken apart. Here it comes.

  “Fins,” she said, spitting the word around the cylinder.

  Foaly may have replied, she couldn’t hear him any more. Holly couldn’t even hear herself, but she did see the stabilization fins slide out on the monitor.

  The flare caught her like a hurricane, spinning the pod at first until the fins caught. Half-melted rocks pelted the craft’s underside, jolting it toward the chute walls. Holly compensated with bursts from the joysticks.

  The heat was tremendous in the confined space, enough to fry a human. But fairy lungs are made of stronger stuff. The acceleration dragged at her body with invisible hands, stretching the flesh over her arms and face. Holly blinked salty sweat from her eyes and concentrated on the monitor. The flare had totally engulfed her pod, and it was a big one too. Force seven at the very least. A good thousand-foot girth. Orange-striped magma swirled and hissed around her, searching for a weak point in the metal casing.

  The pod groaned and complained, fifty-year-old rivets threatening to pop. Holly shook her head. The first thing she was going to do on her return was kick Foaly straight in the hairy behind. She felt like a nut inside a shell, between a gnome’s molars. Doomed.

  A bow plate buckled, popped in as though punched by a giant fist. The pressure light blinked on. Holly could feel her head being squeezed. The eyes would be first to go— popping like ripe berries.

  She checked the dials. Twenty more seconds before she rode out the flare and was running on thermals. Those twenty seconds seemed like an age. Holly sealed the helmet to protect her eyes, riding out the final barrage of rocks.

  And suddenly they were clear, sailing upward on the comparatively gentle spirals of hot air. Holly added her own thrusters to the upward force. No time to waste floating around on the wind.

  Above her, a circle of neon lights marked the docking zone. Holly swiveled horizontal and pointed the docking nodes at the lights. This was delicate. Many Recon pilots had made it this far, only to miss the port and lose valuable time. Not Holly. She was a natural. First in the academy.

  She gave the thrusters one final squeeze and coasted the last hundred feet. Using the rudders beneath her feet, she teased the pod through the circle of light and into its clamp on the landing pad. The nodes revolved, settling into their grooves. Safe.

  Holly smacked herself on the chest, releasing the safety harness. Once the door seal was opened, sweet surface air flooded the cabin. There was nothing like that first breath after a ride in the chutes. She breathed deeply, purging the stale pod air from her lungs. How had the People ever left the surface? Sometimes she wished that her ancestors had stayed to fight it out with the Mud People. But there were too many of them. Unlike fairies who could produce only a single child every twenty years, Mud People bred like rodents. Numbers would subdue even magic.

  Although she was enjoying the night air, Holly could taste traces of pollutants. The Mud People destroyed everything they came into contact with. Of course they didn’t live in the mud anymore. Not in this country, at least. Oh no. Big fancy dwellings with rooms for everything—rooms for sleeping, rooms for eating, even a room to go to the toilet! Indoors! Holly shuddered. Imagine going to the toilet inside your own house. Disgusting! The only good thing about going to the toilet was the minerals being returned to the earth, but the Mud People had even managed to botch that up by treating the . . . stuff . . . with bottles of blue chemicals. If anyone had told her a hundred years ago that humans would be taking the fertile out of fertilizer, she would have told them to get some air holes drilled in their skull.

  Holly unhooked a set of wings from their bracket. They were double ovals, with a clunky motor. She moaned. Dragonflies. She hated that model. Gas engine, if you believe it. And heavier than a pig dipped in mud. Now the Hummingbird Z7, that was transport. Whisper silent, with a satellite-bounced solar battery that would fly you twice around the world. But there were budget cuts again.

  On her wrist, the locator began to beep. She was in range. Holly stepped out of the pod and on to the landing bay. She was inside a camouflaged mound of earth, commonly known as a fairy fort. Indeed, the People used to live in these until they were driven deeper underground. There wasn’t much technology. Just a few external monitors, and a self-destruct device should the bay be discovered.

  There was nothing on the screens. All clear. The pneumatic doors were slightly askew where the troll had barged through, but otherwise everything seemed operational. Holly strapped on the wings, stepping into the outside world.

  The Italian night sky was crisp and brisk, infused with olives and vine. Crickets clicked in the rough grass, and moths fluttered in the starlight. Holly couldn’t stop herself smilin
g. It was worth the risk, every bit of it.

  Speaking of risk . . . She checked the locator. The bip was much stronger now. The troll was almost at the town walls! She could appreciate nature after the mission was over. Now it was time for action.

  Holly primed the wings’ motor, pulling the starter cord over her shoulder. Nothing. She fumed silently. Every spoiled kid in Haven had a Hummingbird for their wilderness holidays, and here were the LEP with wings that were junk when they were new. She yanked the cord again, and then again. On the third wrench it caught, spewing a stream of smoke and fumes into the night. “About time,” she grunted, flicking the throttle wide open. The wings flapped their way up to a steady beat and, with not a little effort, lifted Captain Holly Short into the night sky.

  Even without the locator, the troll would have been easy to follow. It had left a trail of destruction wider than a tunnel excavator. Holly flew low, skipping between mist hazes and trees, matching the troll’s course. The crazed creature had cut a swathe through the middle of a vineyard, turned a stone wall to rubble, and left a guard dog gibbering under a hedge. Then she flew over the cows. It was not a pretty sight. Without going into details, let’s just say that there wasn’t much left besides horns and hooves.

  The red bip was louder now. Louder meant closer. She could see the town below her, nestled on top of a low hill, surrounded by a crenellated wall from the Middle Ages. Lights still burned in most windows. Time for a little magic.

  A lot of the magic attributed to the People is just superstition. But they do have certain powers. Healing, the mesmer, and shielding among them. Shielding is really a misnomer. What fairies actually do is to vibrate at such a high frequency that they are never in one place long enough to be seen. Humans may notice a slight shimmer in the air if they are paying close attention—which they rarely are. And even then the shimmer is generally attributed to evaporation. Typical of Mud People to invent a complicated explanation for a simple phenomenon.

  Holly switched on her shield. It took a bit more out of her than usual. She could feel the strain in the beads of sweat on her forehead. I really should complete the Ritual, she thought. The sooner the better.

  Some commotion below broke into her thoughts. Something that didn’t gel with the nighttime noises. Holly adjusted the trim on her backpack and flew in for a closer look. Look only, she reminded herself, that was her job. A Recon officer was sent up the chutes to pinpoint the target, while the Retrieval boys took a nice cushy shuttle.

  The troll was directly below her, pounding against the town’s outer wall, which was coming away in chunks beneath his powerful fingers. Holly sucked in a startled gasp. This guy was a monster! Big as an elephant and ten times as mean. But this particular beast was worse than mean, he was scared.

  “Control,” said Holly into her mike. “Runner located. Situation critical topside.”

  Root himself was on the other end of the comlink.

  “Clarify, Captain.”

  Holly pointed her video link at the troll.

  “Runner is going through the town wall. Contact imminent. How far away is Retrieval?”

  “ETA five minutes minimum. We’re still in the shuttle.”

  Holly bit her lip. Root was in the shuttle?

  “That’s too long, Commander. This whole town is going to explode in ten seconds . . . I’m going in.”

  “Negative, Holly . . . Captain Short. You don’t have an invite. You know the law. Hold your position.”

  “But, Commander—”

  Root cut her off. “No! No buts, Captain. Hang back. That’s an order!”

  Holly’s entire body felt like a heartbeat. Gasoline fumes were addling her brain. What could she do? What was the right decision to make? Lives or orders?

  Then the troll broke through the wall and a child’s voice split the night.

  “Aiuto!” it screamed.

  Help. An invitation. At a stretch.

  “Sorry, Commander. The troll is light-crazy and there are children in there.”

  She could imagine Root’s face, purple with rage as he spat into the mike.

  “I’ll have your stripes, Short! You’ll spend the next hundred years on drain duty!”

  But it was no use. Holly had disconnected her mike and swooped in after the troll.

  Streamlining her body, Captain Short ducked into the hole. She appeared to be in a restaurant. A packed restaurant. The troll had been temporarily blinded by the electric light and was thrashing about in the center of the floor.

  The patrons were stunned. Even the child’s plea had petered out. They sat gaping, party hats perched comically on their heads. Waiters froze, huge trays of pasta quivering on their splayed fingers. Chubby Italian infants covered their eyes with chubby fingers. It was always like this in the beginning: the shocked silence. Then came the screaming.

  A wine bottle crashed to the floor. It broke the spell. The pandemonium started. Holly winced. Trolls hated noise almost as much as light.

  The troll lifted massive shaggy shoulders, its retractable claws sliding out with an ominous schiiick. Classic predator behavior. The beast was about to strike.

  Holly drew her weapon and flicked it up to the second setting. She couldn’t kill the troll under any circumstances. Not to save humans. But she could certainly put him out until Retrieval arrived.

  Aiming for the weak point at the base of the skull, she let the troll have a long burst of the concentrated ion ray. The beast staggered, stumbled a few steps, then got very angry.

  It’s okay, thought Holly, I’m shielded. Invisible. To any onlookers it would seem as though the pulsing blue beam emanated from thin air.

  The troll rounded on her, its muddy dreadlocks swinging like candles.

  No panic. It can’t see me.

  The troll picked up a table.

  Invisible. Totally invisible.

  He pulled back a shaggy arm and let fly.

  Just a slight shimmer in the air.

  The table tumbled straight toward her head.

  Holly moved. A second too late. The table clipped her backpack, knocking the gas tank clean off. It spun through the air, trailing flammable fluid.

  Italian restaurants—wouldn’t you know it—full of candles. The tank twirled right through an elaborate candelabrum and burst into flames like some deadly firework. Most of the gas landed on the troll. So did Holly.

  The troll could see her. There was no doubt about it. It squinted at her through the hated light, its brow a rictus of pain and fear. Her shield was off. Her magic was gone.

  Holly twisted in the troll’s grip, but it was useless. The creature’s fingers were the size of bananas, but nowhere near as pliant. They were squashing the breath from her rib cage with savage ease. Needlelike claws were scraping at the toughened material of her uniform. Any second now, they would punch through, and that would be that.

  Holly couldn’t think. The restaurant was a carousel of chaos. The troll was gnashing its tusks, greasy molars trying to grip her helmet. Holly could smell its fetid breath through her filters. She could smell the odor of burning fur too, as the fire spread along the troll’s back.

  The beast’s green tongue rasped across her visor, sliming the lower section. The visor! That was it. Her only chance. Holly wormed her free hand to the helmet controls. The tunnel lights. High beams.

  She depressed the sunken button, and eight hundred watts of unfiltered light blasted from the twin spotlights above her eyes.

  The troll reared back, a penetrating scream exploding from between rows of teeth. Dozens of glasses and bottles shattered where they stood. It was too much for the poor beast. Stunned, set on fire, and now blinded. The shock and pain made their way through to its tiny brain, ordering it to shut down. The troll complied, keeling over with almost comical stiffness. Holly rolled to avoid a scything tusk.

  There was complete silence, but for tinkling glass, crackling fur, and the sudden release of breath. Holly climbed shakily to her feet. There were a lo
t of eyes following her—human eyes. She was one hundred percent visible. And these humans wouldn’t stay complacent for long. This breed never did. Containment was the issue.

  She raised her empty palms. A gesture of peace.

  “Scusatemi tutti,” she said, the language flowing easily from her tongue.

  The Italians, ever graceful, muttered that it was nothing.

  Holly reached slowly into her pocket and withdrew a small sphere. She placed it in the middle of the floor.

  “Guardate,” she said. Look.

  The restaurant’s patrons complied, leaning in to see the small silver ball. It was ticking, faster and faster, almost like a countdown. Holly turned her back to the sphere. Three, two, one . . .

  Boom! Flash! Mass unconsciousness. Nothing fatal, but headaches all around in about forty minutes. Holly sighed. Safe. For the moment. She ran to the door and slid the latch across. Nobody was going in or out. Except through the big gaping hole in the wall. Next she doused the smouldering troll with the contents of the restaurant’s fire extinguisher, hoping the icy powder wouldn’t revive the sleeping behemoth.

  Holly surveyed the mess she had created. There was no doubt, it was a shambles. Worse than Hamburg. Root would skin her alive. She’d rather face the troll any day. This was the end of her career for sure, but suddenly that didn’t seem so important because her ribs were aching, and she had a blinder of a pressure headache coming on. Perhaps a rest, just for a second, so she could pull herself together before Retrieval showed up.

  Holly didn’t even bother looking for a chair. She simply allowed her legs to buckle beneath her, sinking to the chessboard linoleum floor.

  Waking up to Commander Root’s bulging features is the stuff of nightmares. Holly’s eyes flickered open, and for a second she could have sworn that there was concern in those eyes. But then it was gone, replaced by the customary vein-popping fury.

  “Captain Short!” he roared, mindless of her headache. “What in the name of sanity happened here?”

  Holly rose shakily to her feet.

  “I . . . That is . . . There was . . .” The sentences just wouldn’t come.

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