It’s time,” says a voice.
Thirty klicks above Earth’s surface. Thirty minutes after takeoff. A small room within a large jetcraft: Jason Marlowe opens his eyes.
He looks around. No one there.
“Prep for drop,” says the voice.
He sits up. Gets up. Goes to the washbasin. Lets water dash itself against metal and skin. He runs his hands along his face. He wonders if something has changed.
“Stop it,” says the voice. “Move it.”
He turns away. He starts to pull things onto his body: vest, pants, belt. Light boots. Redundant biomonitors around his arms. A knife strapped below his left knee. A pistol below his right. Everything else he’s going to be wearing is contained in the hardware standing in this room’s corner.
“Suit up,” says the voice.
The armor’s the standard heavy model. Too standard. It’s not even his. Marlowe climbs within, wondering as he does who else has worn it. He wishes they’d shipped his own suit as quickly as they did him.
“Power up,” says the voice.
Vibration churns through him as the suit seals. Lights come to life around his face. He turns, feels pneumatic joints dig into him. He stops to adjust them. He calibrates the suit’s cameras to ensure 360-degree vision—sets the range-finders, lets numbers chase themselves across the displays, interface with the ones within his head. He walks to the door, slides it open, walks down a corridor. He goes through into another room.
“Load up,” says the voice.
But Marlowe doesn’t need to listen to know what to do with the ammunition racked upon the walls. Or the fuel pipes that emerge from the ceiling to slot into his armor’s tanks. He watches his screens as those tanks fill. He wonders who he’s going to demolish this time. They told him while he was asleep. Told him he’ll remember when the time comes. It’s the same thing every time. He opens one more door. He looks down the corridor beyond, feels the adrenaline hit him in one pure wave.
Another ship, far higher: the Operative’s rising into space for the very first time. He can’t believe he’s never been up here before. Nor can he believe how several hundred tons of metal clank as the winds of atmosphere hit on the ascent. For one crazy moment he thinks it’s all over. That all his missions on Earth have led up to this one blaze of glory—one blast of flame to crash back into Atlantic.
But the only thing that’s falling is the burnt-out first stage. The massive engines plunge to ten thousand meters—and then switch on their own engines, turn west, hurtle back to base, and reuse while high above the Operative turns dials, prowls frequencies, listens as the pilots call out telemetry readings, watches as blue of sky becomes black of space. Ocean rolls into the window as the craft rolls onto its orbit. The last remnants of day slide over western Atlantic. Eastern Atlantic is swathed in early evening.
And Africa’s given over to pure night. But the maps on the screens within the Operative’s eyes show him all that matters anyway. He gazes at the Eurasian fortresses strewn across Sahara—watches across the minutes as their own launch routines crank and the Moon casts shadows on the sand and the immensity of desert at last gives way to Nile. And what’s left of the Middle East. The Operative was thirty-eight when it got flash-broiled. He’s fifty now. He’s starting to wonder how long he’s got before he drops below peak condition. How long the enhancers that course through his body can fight encroaching age. Surgery after surgery. Drug after drug. Training that’s ever more intense. And then this mission: to infiltrate his own side’s off-world forces and terminate irregularities with no little prejudice.
A summons he wishes had come a decade ago. The Operative has fought Jaguar insurgents in Central America. He’s iced his own side’s defectors as they tried to run the border. He’s battled the East’s agents in the neutral territories: Europe. Australia. South Africa. Argentina. He’s taken out targets all over the world.
But never in space. He doesn’t know why. Maybe up until now his handlers optimized him for gravity. Maybe their orbital brethren are territorial. No reason they shouldn’t be. Every outfit divides against itself. Bureaucracy builds in the back office while agents work the field solo or in teams. The other member of this particular team is holed up in one of the lunar bases. The Operative is supposed to meet him there.
But first he’s got to do one orbit. So that the craft can line up the angles for the translunar burn. The Operative pictures what’s left of that craft: the engines, the cargo-modules, the cockpit. He’s just aft of that cockpit, in a room where passengers sit. He’s the only one that fits that description. He got slotted on here special. He takes in the roof of the world below him. Moonlight glints across receding snowcaps. Memory gleams within the Operative’s head. India’s on his mind. A nation caught between the Eurasians and the rising oceans, its power crushed and its coastlines swamped. Everybody who could got the hell out.
And the Operative was down there once, caught up in that crunch. Tracking down a scientist on the run from Mumbai who was trying to sell her expertise in the Kuala-Lumpur markets—until the Operative caught up with her, persuaded her to give it up for free. Now she’s doing life in a laboratory in New Mexico. A comfortable life, to be sure. Far more so than the Operative’s own.
Which right now consists of sitting in a metal room and watching dawn creep across the Pacific toward China’s endless cities. Looking at that ocean reminds him of the trance he woke from just before the launch. Those swirls of sea are far more real than the swirling in his head. He remembers the way his handlers prowled his dreams—remembers the bit about SpaceCom and the bit about Lynx and the rendezvous somewhere on the nearside. And that’s about it.
Save for one other memory of the time before he boarded. A memory of the launch complex spreading out beneath him as the elevator trundled up sixty stories of rocket. He could see all the way to jungle. He could hear the tanks pressurizing for main-engine start. But that was an hour ago. Ignition’s long past. That rocket’s gone.
All that’s left is spaceship.
Claire Haskell’s coming awake. It doesn’t come easy. Her head hurts. The seat in which she sits is shaking. She’s in motion. She opens her eyes.
To find herself in the rear of what looks to be a jet-copter. A low ceiling curves above her. The straps of her seat curl over her. The cockpit door is plainly visible from where she sits. It’s shut. She feels the same way. She feels there are things she can’t recall. It’s always like this when she wakes from trance: before awareness folds in, lays bare the residue of dreams. Ostensibly, those dreams look the same as any others. But they give themselves away with telltale signs she knows too well—the green of the old man’s eyes, the soft tone of his voice, the particular ambience of a room. It seems there
But now the dreams surge in upon her. They remind her who she is. They remind her who’s been at her mind again. Those dreams: there was a time when she regarded them as her succor. There was a time when she grew to hate them worse than death. But lately it’s been both thrill and revulsion simultaneously—and with such intensity that she’s no longer sure she can even tell the difference. And what does it matter?
And now she’s waiting for that moment. But her hands aren’t waiting. They grasp the shade. Her fingers fumble with the clasp. She rips aside plastic to reveal window. She blinks. She stares.
And draws back as she realizes what she’s looking at.
Marlowe’s got two minutes. Lighted arrows show him the way, but he no longer sees them. Disembodied voices goad him on, but he no longer hears them. All he hears is the soundless noise that’s building up within him—the silent siren that accompanies the moments that play out before the run…out of that formless dark in which the word goes down, out into the events in which he writes that word across flesh. He races down another corridor. It’s getting narrower. Up ahead, a door slides aside. He runs through the opening and down a ramp.
He’s in the underbelly. The ceiling’s lower here. Technicians step in from left and right. They check his suit’s seals. They check the thrusters on his back and wrists and ankles. They make some adjustments to the minigun that’s perched on his right shoulder. They wave him onward. Marlowe moves past more ladders, closes in upon one ladder in particular. Blank screens are everywhere. He feels the stare of invisible eyes upon him. He’s going straight for the door at his feet. It seems to lead directly into a crawl space—a tiny alcove that he might have missed had the arrows not led him straight here. But it’s not an alcove. It’s not a crawl space.
It’s his ride to ground.
“Get in,” says the voice.
But Marlowe’s paying no attention. He climbs in, activates magnetic clamps. The door folds in over him, encloses him in darkness. But only for a moment—and then screens snap on inside his skull as his armor’s software syncs with that of the craft. Coordinates click into place. System specs parade past him. A vibration passes through him. The locks that hold his craft in place retract. He starts plunging toward the city stretching out below him.
One orbit almost done, and now the Andes rise toward the Operative’s ship. They don’t get very far. A few more minutes and those peaks are crumpling back into what’s left of jungle. The remnants of that green are cut through with great brown and black streaks. Amazonia’s seen better days. From up here, the cities are shrouded in smog so thick they look like little more than massive craters. If a meteor plunged into them, it’d be hard to tell the difference.
“And this is on a
The voice is coming from the speakers. It’s one of the pilots. But it may as well be a million klicks off. The Operative feels it slowly impinge upon his consciousness. He feels so high he feels he was never anything else. He waits for all eternity.
And then he speaks.
“And when it’s bad?”
“All you’ll see is junkyard.”
“Price we pay for cheap launch real estate.”
“The only people down there doing any paying are the Latins,” says the pilot. “For shortcutting their way into the modern era.”
“That’s one way to look at it.”
“It’s hard to understand anything down there without understanding that.”
“Didn’t realize you flyboys studied history.”
“Nothing we don’t study,” the pilot says languidly. “Nothing but ways of killing time.”
“So come on back here and let’s have a chat.”
A spluttering emerges from the speakers. The Operative assumes it’s a laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“No fraternization with the cargo. Cockpit door remains shut.”
“Says the ones who told us to add you to that cargo. As you well know.”
“So why are you speaking with me?”
“Because this isn’t a social call. I’m just letting you know we’ve got clearance for the burn to Moon. As soon as we hit Atlantic, we’re in the window. Which will take us within a hundred klicks of Elevator.”
“None at all.”
“Visible from this window?”
“Eventually. But visible on the screens right now.”
“Put it through.”
But the thing is, there’s no vantage that’s advantaged to frame the foremost wonder of the age. There’s no such thing as the whole thing. The joint construction of the superpowers: the Elevator is four thousand klicks long. It circles Earth twelve times each day. It stretches from the lower orbits all the way toward the mediums. Any view that takes in the entirety is too removed to register the thickness. Any view that catches that thickness can’t hope to catch the length. So now something that looks like a luminescent tendril cuts in on the screen. It rises from the horizon. It vanishes into the heavens.
“So that’s it,” says the Operative.
“Come on, man. You must have seen it before.”
“Only on the vid.”
“How’s this any different?”
“Because now I’m up here with it. Where do we hit closest proximity?”
“Where Amazon hits Atlantic,” replies the pilot.
“Belem-Macapa? That’s almost where we launched from.”
“Yeah. That window’ll give you a great view of the whole town.”
“What’s it like?”
“I’ll give you one guess.”
It’s like being underwater. The architecture of Belem-Macapa’s visible only indistinctly: buildings towering out of the smog, towering back into it. Stacks of lights shimmer through the haze. There’s no way to see the ground. There’s no way to see the sky. Haskell cycles through the optical enhancements she has at her disposal. All they show her are the other vehicles in her convoy—several other ’copters in the air about her, several crawlers roaring at speed along the skyways and ramps that twist among the buildings. And those are just the ones in sight. A quick glance at her screens reveals the real extent of it: at least forty vehicles in the immediate vicinity, several flanking formations off to either side, and—two klicks up—ships roaming through this city’s upper reaches, ready to swoop down at the first sign of any trouble. She wonders if it’s all for her. She’s tempted to feel flattered. It’s the closest she’s come to feeling anything all day.
But that’s starting to change. She shouldn’t be this close to the action. Not physically, at any rate. She’s a razor. She’s supposed to sit back and work the wires from afar. She’s not supposed to be thrust into a live war zone. As if on cue, more things surface within her. More pieces of her purpose. She marvels at the spaces they fill—marvels, too, at all the gaps they still leave. What they reveal has the feel of a plan laid hastily. It has the feel of the same old story: get them before they get us—and turns out that she was the right woman for the moment. She’s sick of it. She can’t get enough of it. Her pulse is quickening. So is her mind. The city streams past. Her destination looms on the screens ahead.
Stealth pod tumbling from the heights: and within that pod is Marlowe, watching the sun sinking to the west, watching all the readouts, watching as he drops toward Belem-Macapa’s sprawl. It’s like the swamp to end all swamps: swarms of roving jet-copters are the insects, while the city’s highest spires reach out of the murk like reeds. The levels below that waver in the gloom. The levels below that are invisible.
Even to Jason Marlowe. He has the sensors, sure. But he’s not using them. He doesn’t dare. All he’s using are the maps he’s been given. He’s got the city’s simulacrum burned into his brain. He sees the way the city looks beneath its veil. He sees what his pod’s descending into—feels the pod jettison, feels his suit’s glidewing buffeted by turbulence even as visibility drops toward nil. What’s left of the sun dissolves. Marlowe turns his attention to the buildings in his mind, drifts in among them.
The Amazon twists and turns, closing on the ocean. The Operative gazes down at the city that’s sliding into view, watches as it swallows the river in smog.
“The epicenter of the latest flare-up,” says the pilot. “That’s not just environmental meltdown. It’s scorched-earth warfare.”
“They’re burning their own buildings to blind our satellites.”
“Ah,” says the Operative.
“The latest round started up ten days ago,” says the pilot. “It now extends through half this city’s districts. They say the Jaguars view it as a test of strength. They say that if they can force us to withdraw, they’ll show the world who really rules this continent.”
“They wish,” says the Operative.
“You’re saying we have all the answers?”
“Nobody has all the answers, flyboy. All I’m saying is that all they’re doing is killing their own people.”
“Not to mention our soldiers.”
“Who are a hell of a lot cheaper than our machines.”
“Look,” says the Operative. “Hate to break it to you, but everything you see down there is
“And the economy of South America—”
“Would collapse? Already has. Doesn’t matter. Only thing that means anything is our control of the equator. Don’t you get it, man? The profit margins that gives us in vacuum turn those cities into write-off.”
“Maybe it once did,” says the pilot. He sounds testy. “Maybe. But not now. You can’t write off a whole war.”
“Jesus Christ,” the Operative mutters. “I thought you said you’d read history? I thought you thought you knew something about the way this world works? What you’re looking at isn’t a
“You wouldn’t believe what space has shown me,” the pilot hisses. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to see things your way. If what you say is true, why don’t we just withdraw from all those cities down there. Abandon them. Seal them off.”
“You probably would if you were in charge,” says the Operative. “Problem with you flyboys is that you’ve got no sense of the subtle touch. You can’t seal off a tumor. Can’t withdraw from cancer. If we left the cities to the Jaguars, they’d mobilize all urban resources against us. They’d be fanning out through the jungles and the sewers. They’d be assaulting our launch bases in nothing flat.”
“If that’s true, then why don’t we just nuke them?”
“We may yet.”
“But why haven’t we yet?”
“Because no one’s used a nuke since Tel Aviv and Riyadh.”
“So this is the era of d?tente. The second cold war ain’t that far in the rearview. The last thing anybody needs is for one of the superpowers to start frying populations wholesale. How do you think the East’s analysts are going to rate the situation’s stability if we start charbroiling the Latins?”
The pilot doesn’t reply.
“Exactly,” says the Operative. “And while you’re at it: don’t forget the East has a similar problem in Africa.”
“Lagos and Kinshasa.”
“And about twenty other cities.”
“Didn’t they once contribute to our Latin problem?”
“By supporting the insurgents? They may still.”
“And we may still be returning the favor.”
“You’re na?ve,” says the Operative. “Don’t you know what
“I’ve heard many definitions.”
“So let me give you the one that counts.”
“Same game. New phase.”
“Believe me: that’s enough.”
* * *
They’ve reached the perimeter. Haskell watches as her ’copter sweeps past skyscrapers that have been transformed into mammoth firing platforms: whole sections of walls, whole stacks of floors removed to allow scores of gun-emplacements to be situated within those scooped-out innards. Giant metal nets drape here and there, connecting other buildings. The whole area looks like the domain of some monstrous spider. The ’copter starts to weave in among those nets. It’s a complicated route. Haskell counts at least three distinct lines of defense, each one containing untold fields of fire.
Though she knows full well the real point of this place isn’t defense. It’s the reverse. It’s the way modern urban warfare gets waged. Establish bases in the city in question, use those sites to launch forays into the concrete wilderness all around. Hedgehogs, some call them. Hell on Earth might be more accurate. Haskell never thought she’d be in the middle of one.
But there’s a first time for everything. She feels her stomach lurch. The ’copter’s circling. Those circles tighten around one building in particular. The craft floats toward it, touches down on the roof.
The engines die. She hurriedly pulls her breath-mask into place, strapping it onto her chem-suit—just in time as the hatch swings back. Helmets peer inside. But Haskell’s already coming out—“Out of my way,” she snarls, and they back away quickly.
She leaps lightly to the rooftop, looks around. Two other jet-copters sit alongside hers. Soldiers in powered armor stand at attention. Barbed wire rings the rooftop’s perimeter. Buildings protrude out of the murk beyond like fingers jutting up from quicksand. The sky overhead couldn’t be more than two hundred meters up. Half-seen lights move through it.
“Get me off this roof,” says Haskell.
“Yes, ma’am,” replies one of the soldiers. He turns. She follows him toward a single-story structure set atop the center of the roof. As they reach its door, the soldier steps aside, gestures for her to enter. She steps within, finds herself on a metal-grille stairway. The door closes behind her. She hears atmospheric purifiers working as she descends.
At the bottom of the stairway she finds a room. It looks to be some kind of storage chamber. A single door’s set within the opposite wall. Two men stand before that door. One’s another power-suited soldier. The second isn’t. He’s wearing civilian chem-clothes. His face is gaunt. His eyes are pale.
“Claire Haskell,” he says.
“My name’s Morat. You can take your breath-mask off now.”
“Thanks,” she says. But she leaves it on.
“It’s clean in here,” says Morat.
“It doesn’t feel that way,” she replies.
“You get used to it,” he says.
She stares at him. She pulls her mask off, lets brown hair fall back. He grins at her naked face.
“Welcome to what’s left of Brazil.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“How was your trip?”
“So it was good.”
“Until I got here, yes.”
“A sense of humor,” says Morat. “I like that.”
She doesn’t reply.
“Come with me,” he says.
Morat turns, opens the door behind him. He starts to walk down a corridor, stops, turns back toward her.
“Come with me,” he repeats.
This time she does. The soldier steps in behind her. She realizes that she can hear his footfall. She really shouldn’t. She thought those suits were supposed to be silent. Evidently, this one’s not. Or else the pre-zone rush is rendering her all too sensitive…because she can hear everything—the slight clank of feet against the floor, the tiny hisses of gas from neck joints, the whirring of cooling motors…all of it trailing in her wake down the corridor.
At the end of the corridor’s an elevator. Its doors slide open. Morat enters. Haskell follows, turns—looks into helmeted visor. The soldier’s stopped at the elevator’s threshold. The doors slide shut. The elevator starts to drop. It’s just the two of them now.
“Can we talk freely in here?”
“Nothing’s ever free,” Morat replies, pulling out a pistol. “Particularly not talk. This is cleared terrain in theory. In reality”—he hands her the pistol, hilt first—“you’d better hang on to this.” She takes the weapon. He flips open a panel in the wall, pulls a lever. The elevator shudders to a stop.
“Where do you want to begin?” she asks.
“There’s so much I can’t recall.”
“And so much you’re about to.”
Blind man in the city: but Jason Marlowe utilizes the coordinates programmed into his heads-up as he maneuvers his glidewing amidst the buildings of this megalopolis. Occasional thinnings of the mist reveal vast grids of light, stretching out of nothing, dissolving into even less. Marlowe’s steering in toward one grid in particular. It swims toward him on the heads-up display, one column protruding past the others. He can’t allow himself to drop below its roof. He’s got to slow down: he works the flaps, sails down toward it. Suddenly it’s filling the screens. He braces himself. And then he’s striking that roof at speeds that knock the breath from him—even as he jettisons the glidewing, rolls along the roof, springs to his feet in a semicrouch.
Marlowe looks around at the buildings that tower around him. No one seems to have spotted him. He steps lightly to a trapdoor in the rooftop’s corner, wrenches it open. He finds a ladder, disappears within.
The maw of delta-city has now moved to the very center of the window. The Operative stares down at the spires that rise out of the clouds that gather more than two klicks up.
“Penthouse suite,” he says.
“The Citadel,” replies the pilot.
“Maybe I’m just testing you.”
“Test away, asshole. I’m not afraid of you.”
“Maybe you should be.”
“Maybe you don’t know shit about the biggest hedgehog of them all. Room with a view. They say the Jaguars can’t get within a kilometer of the basement.”
“A kilometer’s a pretty specific number,” replies the Operative. “Particularly when it involves classified operations. You’re merchant marine. Where are you getting all this from?”
“Information’s harder to lock down in space.”
“Give me another example.”
“What’s your business on the Moon?”
The Operative laughs. “Who says I have business on the Moon?”
“That’s where we’re supposed to drop you, isn’t it?”
“Maybe that’s just my transfer point.”
“And maybe it’s not. Come on, man. We’ve got three days together.”
“So indulge me. It’s not like I expect you to tell me the
“Then what the hell do you expect?” asks the Operative.
“How about a good story?”
“Even if it’s a lie?”
“Remember what I said about killing time?”
“I thought you said this wasn’t a social call.”
“So I’m mixing business with pleasure.”
“So put the Elevator back on that screen.”
“I never took it off,” the pilot says.
“Where is it?”
“Put it at the center.”
It’s the surest thing there is. It’s scarcely two hundred klicks distant. It’s practically a drive-by. Yet it still requires magnification to make out the workers on its side—still requires magnification to discern how they’ve jury-rigged whole series of pulleys to haul themselves along it while they lay down the maglev tracks along which the freight will someday flow. The Operative lets his gaze stray down toward the Elevator’s extremity at Nadir Station some hundred klicks below. Below that’s only atmosphere.
“Am I ever going to get to see it out that window?” he asks.
“You could if the window weren’t facing Earth.”
“I can see it’s facing Earth. What I’m asking is, is that going to change soon.”
“Man’s in luck. When we prime the burn we’ll shift our angle. You should get yourself a good view then.”
“So what’s going down on the Moon?”
But the Operative’s just noticed something going down on the screens.
I’m an envoy,” says Morat.
“I’d guessed as much,” replies Haskell.
“I’m an envoy,” he repeats, as though her words compel reiteration. “I report directly to the handlers.”
“How direct can it be when you never see them either?”
“As direct as it needs to be for me to give you your final orders. You’ve been primed across your dreams. You face me in the flesh for activation.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“You already know what’s going on,” he says. “We’re getting hammered.”
“By the Latins.”
“By the Jaguars. The Latins didn’t mean shit until the Jags gave them a voice. Five years ago, these cities were virtually pacified. Everything was locked down. Look at them now. The governments we bought and paid for don’t dare to go inside. The militias are like iron filings over which a magnet’s passing. They’re focused like they’ve never been before.”
“Which is why I’m here,” says Haskell.
“Which is why you’re here.” Morat smiles without warmth. “This city is where they’re making their latest push. It started ten days back. Now it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. I tell you, Claire—we either find a way to break them, or else one of these days it’s going to be the other way. And if we’re going to win this, it’s going to have to be CounterIntelligence Command that gets in there and does it. The other Commands won’t. Army’s a hollow shell. Space rides high and disdains dirt. Info avoids the human touch. Navy steers clear of anything that isn’t ocean. The Praetorians have their hands full safeguarding the Throne. It’s going to have to be CICom. It’s going to have to be you, Claire.”
Silence. For minutes. For hours. Is she tripping on the pre-zone rush? Maybe. A structure’s forming in her head, aggregating out of nothing—it spins before her. It’s everything they told her while she was sleeping. It’s the codes that will allow her to beat what she’s about to face. Yet it’s as blurry as the mist outside. It needs the trigger words that Morat’s about to give her to make it real. Those words don’t have to make sense on a conscious level to unearth what’s been buried further down. If they do, it’s only because Morat is choosing to bind them up in context. But context is optional.
“Is this building empty?” she asks. She realizes that Morat has just spoken. That her reverie’s all gone down in one moment.
“Of course not,” Morat replies. “It’s filled with our soldiers.”
“If they’re our soldiers, why are they wearing Army colors?”
“Because ArmyCom’s been divvied up by the rest of the Commands.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Shouldn’t let yourself get so out of the loop, Claire. Army did, and now it’s dead in the water. They’re keeping the name, but that’s about it. CICom got the franchise for all operations in this city. The Throne’s charged Sinclair with cleaning the place up.”
“Have these Army units been reconditioned?”
Morat looks at her like she’s stupid.
“Where are we in relation to this hedgehog’s perimeter?” she asks.
“About two or three streets from the edge. We extended the perimeter to encompass these blocks only yesterday.”
“And which floor are we heading to next?”
“The ninety-fifth,” he replies. “It’s the one we were tipped off to.”
“Who tipped us off?”
“An informant. Highly placed in what we believe to be the Jaguars’ command structure.”
“Is this informant reliable?”
“Enough for this?”
“What are you getting at?”
“That it might be a trap.”
“Of course it might be a trap. But if it’s not, we could roll them up. It’s worth the risk.”
“You mean it’s worth risking
“Well,” says Morat, “I don’t think Sinclair imagines that you’ll be sacrificed. He likes you, Claire. He tells the handlers you’ll live forever. Even if it
“I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel.”
“You’re getting pretty close to insubordination.”
“I’m not interested in your threats,” she replies. “Not interested in the old man either. Just tell me what we’ve got here.”
“What we’ve got here,” says Morat evenly, “is a tunnel back in time.”
“A tunnel back to the way things used to be.” He grins. “A tunnel straight on through to the way they still are.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“No,” says Morat, “but I know you are. I know you razors. How else do you bear the blast of zone? Can’t even say I blame you. But let me tell you this, Claire—what you’re about to enter is no ordinary zone. Or rather, it was ordinary once upon a time. Just not now. Not any longer.”
“You’re talking legacy.”
“Of course. This city used to be two. Belem and Macapa: a few decades back, they became one. Right about the time the first world-net got sundered. Right about the time the superpowers were building walls around their nets and calling them zones and the Euros were establishing theirs: this place was preoccupied with concerns that were far more local. She was the platform for the last rush to take down the Amazon. And when the bulk of green was gone, and the strip-mining of the Andes took off—once again, this was the place to be. Now she’s ours. Whether we like it or not. She’s got twenty million people. And ten million of those live outside the zone.”
“You mean they live beyond
“Many of them live beyond any net whatsoever. Many don’t. This gateway I’m about to show you—as best as we can tell, it leads to conduits that constituted the center of this city’s power grid in the year 2060. It’s been buried a long time. We thought it no longer existed. And we might still be right. It might not be active anymore. In fact…”
He keeps on talking, but Haskell’s scarcely listening. At least not consciously. It hardly matters. What matters is that his words are confirming the glidepath down which her run’s going to slot. Visions burn through her brain: images, plans,
“See, Claire,” it says. “We’re not idiots. We’ve long suspected the Jaguars have a net of their own. That they’re not just coordinating between cities by means of couriers. And we’ve long suspected that net’s physical. Our jamming mechanisms are too good for them to use wireless in any but the most tactical of situations. Which means they run that net through wires that lie beyond our maps. But the problem is that what’s beyond those maps is also out of our control. As out of control as this city. If there were more of a government here, we could clean them up comprehensively. But outside our own fortresses, law’s a product of the street. That leaves a lot of net-fragments remaining for the Jaguars to exploit. We’ve shut many down. But there are many others. Some of them are linked. Some aren’t. Some are just islands. Maybe this one is too. We don’t know. We’ve been looking for a way in from our zone. We’ve been looking for a way in from any of the fragments we know about. So far we haven’t found one. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t one. As you well know.”
“I do,” says Haskell, and she does. She knows that when a layperson says
“But we found it,” says Morat. “On the ninety-fifth floor. X marks the spot. We dug in the place where we were told, and we found it.”
“And now you want me to crawl in there.”
“And get on the trail of the Jaguars’ net. And if you find it—if there really
“Who I am coordinating with?”
“I mean what other razors? What other mechs? I’m assuming this is part of a combined operation?”
“Sure it’s a combined operation. But you can leave all that to me, Claire. The word’s come down from the old man himself. Both kinds of runners hit this city tonight. The razors work the wires and the mechanics kick in the doors. But the razors
“Or it could be a trap,” she repeats.
“Or it could be a trap. But if it’s not, we could end this war tonight.
“So would living,” she replies. “How secure is this perimeter?”
“As secure as I can make it. This place has been swept. Along with this whole block. It’s clean. If they have anything rigged, it’d be inside the zone itself.”
“Great. And if I find something?”
“Map out the physical locations of the executive nodes of that network. And then get out.”
“In that order?”
“In whatever order you can manage.”
“Right,” she says. She breathes deeply. She looks around her. “I’m ready to do this.”
“You’re acting like I have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Claire.”
“Can we get out of this shaft?”
“We can.” He turns to the wall panel, adjusts the controls. They start to descend. They gain speed, hissing down through scores of floors. They slow. They halt. The door slides open.
Nothing. There’s nothing here. It’s as if there never was. Marlowe’s making his way down ladders and stairs and through trapdoors and it’s as if they’ve all just been dormant, waiting for his presence. Yet he can feel the presence of the ones he seeks close at hand. The force they have in here probably isn’t large enough to set up watch over the whole building. They’re probably keeping as low a profile as possible. But sooner or later he’s going to reach their perimeters.
Probably sooner. For now he’s reached apartments that are inhabited. Open doors give way to living quarters—laundry hung all about tiny chambers, kids squawking, mothers screaming. Marlowe moves through them like a ghost, his suit’s camo cranked up as far as it’ll go, letting him take on the ambience of wall, of doorway, of ceiling—whatever surface he’s in front of at whatever moment. The most trouble he gets is from a dog that won’t stop barking. It knows something’s up. But Marlowe ignores it, becomes one more thing in that animal’s life that’ll never reach the lives of the humans who feed it.
He descends through several more such levels. He steps over sleepers, moves past men and women engrossed in card games, drinking, laughing—he reminds himself it’s Saturday night, wonders how much it differs from all the other nights that go down in this city. Truth to tell, the cities up north aren’t that different. They’ve just got more money to blow on this kind of thing. Not to mention a better chance of surviving to see tomorrow’s parties.
But the lower he gets, the more the ones going on around him fizzle out. Finally he finds himself moving through deserted halls once more. Most of the overhead lighting’s gone. And now Marlowe’s circuits are humming. His heads-up’s giving him the alert: there are sensors in here. There are wavelengths brushing against him like cobwebs. But his suit’s camoed in more than just the visible spectrum. It’s state-of-the-art.
Now put to the test.
Intervention on the Elevator: the Operative watches through the magnifiers as two patrol ships move in toward the construction area. They’re drifting cables—and fixing those cables to the web of scaffolding that encrusts the Elevator’s spine. Hatches open. Suits emerge, fire jets, flit in toward the workers clustered along the scaffolding.
“What’s going on?” says the Operative.
“Looks like a raid,” replies the pilot.
“Any idea why?”
“What do you know about those workers?”
The suits are going to town. They’re fanning out through the scaffolding. They’re grabbing workers, dragging them out of latticed depths. There seems to be struggling going on in several places. Several workers are being hustled into one of the ships.
“Less than I thought,” says the Operative.
“Here’s a hint—those guys aren’t drawing a salary, friend. They’re not in it to win it. They’re either soaking up the radiation on that thing or else they’re breaking rocks beneath the Mare Imbrium.”
“And usually political ones. Sentenced to life by definition. Nothing left to lose. Someone was probably doing petty sabotage. Or plotting hopeless escape. Shit, man. This kind of bust happens a lot more often than you’d think.”
But someone must be refusing to go out easy. Because now another swarm of suits is billowing from both ships. They latch on to the scaffolding, start getting in there. The Operative shakes his head.
“Look at them go.”
“This is getting good.”
It’s getting even better. Because now the jets of both ships are flaring. Those craft are still tethered. They’re turning on their axes. The KE gatlings in their tails are starting to track on something.
“Hello,” says the Operative.
“Shit,” says the pilot.
Both guns fire simultaneously.
The elevator doors give way to a room that’s really a warehouse. It cuts through at least three stories. Catwalks line the walls. Power-suited soldiers stand at intervals along the lower catwalks. Some kind of structure occupies most of the floor—sections of plastic wall partition the space into many sections.
Morat leads the way into the maze. Occasional glimpses through open entryways reveal equipment, crates, dust—sometimes all three and always at least the last. At first Haskell wonders why the partitions haven’t been removed. But then she realizes that what’s about to happen is for her eyes alone: hers, and maybe Morat’s—and now he’s leading her into one particular room. It contains a metal rack in which a console sits. Wires protrude from the floor, nest around that console like snakes. Five screens gleam atop it.
“Here we are,” says Morat, halting. “We’ve dug in, hooked up these interfaces. When you jack in, the connection goes live.”
Haskell just stares. At the screens. At the console. She walks toward it. She halts in front of it, looks it over. She turns back to Morat.
“I’ll watch your flesh,” he says.
She says nothing—just turns, adjusts the manual controls. Takes out the implants, connects them. Slots them into her head. The hooks hang heavy in her skull. She sits down on the floor. Crosses her legs. Glances up at Morat.
“The fuck you will,” she says as she jacks in.
Marlowe’s given up on the stairs. He switches to the elevator shaft. He squirts the components of an acid compound from the finger-cartridges of his glove, lets that acid activate and corrode a hole in the elevator doors. He climbs through into the shaft. The light here is very faint. He loops a tether around a beam, drops down the shaft’s length. He sees sensors positioned in its walls. He feels their emissions scrape against him, watches his suit run countermeasures. He wonders whether he’s showing up on anybody’s scopes.
That’s when something emerges from the gloom below. It’s the elevator car. It’s about twenty-five floors beneath him. It’s just gone motionless. Marlowe doesn’t know how fast it can move. He only knows that it’s time to get out of the shaft.
But before he can do that, the doors to the floor immediately above the elevator car open. He goes very still.
Two figures in light battlesuits leap into the shaft, land on the elevator’s roof. They’re looking upward. Not as high as Marlowe is. But high enough. Marlowe watches on his heads-up as the spectrums start to get crowded. He realizes that the suits are probing. That they’re about to detect him. The stealth part of this run is officially over. He lines up his targets.
No half measures: the KE gatlings triangulate, slice through scaffolding like it’s so much matchwood. Shreds of suit and meat spray out in slow motion.
“Shit,” says the Operative.
But the pilot says nothing. And now the workers are swarming in among the power-suits where the big guns can’t touch them. They’re bringing the suits down with sheer numbers. They’re grabbing weapons, turning them on their assailants.
“Shit,” says the Operative.
But all he hears is silence.
“You still there?”
There’s no answer. Now the ships are opening up on everybody in that section of the spine, friend and foe alike. It’s a total massacre. One of the ships suddenly explodes—opening up like a tin can packed with gunpowder.
It’s the same ship into which the prisoners were taken. The Operative wonders what was in those workers. The other ship fires its thrusters, swans away from the scene of the killing.
The scaffolding starts to drip. Starts to melt. Workers just disappear—or at least parts of them do. Those still alive are fleeing. It’s not helping. That whole section of the Elevator is being targeted by distant guns. The Operative can’t see them. He can’t see what they’re projecting either. Directed energy is invisible in vacuum. But he can see the precisely calibrated result. The Elevator itself is unscathed. But no one in that construction zone could have survived. The Operative is starting to wish he wasn’t so close to whatever’s going down.
The screens shut off. Leaving only wall.
And zone. And somewhere in that zone’s the mind’s horizon. And somewhere past that horizon’s a center that’s still unfound. But all you’ve got right now is day torn apart by night: dark sun rolls overhead, higher in an even darker sky, and the run’s on, kicking in around you, churning into your deepest recesses, making them aware of one another for the first time. Rendering inconsequential all that has come before. Dreams, ego, consensus of memories, nexus of consciousness—all these are fictions. The zone is not. You know that. You know how it goes (even though you forget it every time)—past the tipping point, and the only way out is in. The universe: nothing but momentum. The world: vanished in the face of the real one. The run: that which transcends all mundane confusions.
Claire Haskell wouldn’t have it any other way.
So she drifts deeper. This place is strange. It’s definitely alive. It’s definitely zone. And yet it’s not. It’s so old. It’s almost incomprehensible.
Which is why she’s unleashing the codes. She’s flipping through templates. She’s mating them, breeding them. Thousands of generations beget themselves and die. She keeps their genes on file, archives her data-banks with the patterns of their bones. Then she regresses back across the eons, tracing the paths of software ancestry. Logic quotients climb. They climb still farther. They converge in upon each other. They touch. It all shifts into focus.
Ever get the feeling you’re being stalked? Here’s how it works. Everywhere you look there’s nothing. Not a thing: just the hollow sound of your own breathing echoing in the darkness of your mind while you probe the spectrums for evidence of what you suspect but just can’t prove. Yet in truth it’s probably nothing. Not a thing—just the sensors overreacting again. You cast your beams this way and that. You scan the readouts from every angle. You’re coming up short. You’re ready to pack it in and get the hell out of this shaft.
And that’s the last thought of your entire life.
Marlowe opens up on the two suits at point-blank range, his wrist-guns set for flechette swarm. The armor worn by Marlowe’s targets is good. It’s nowhere near enough. Marlowe cuts through it like he’s wielding a giant buzzsaw. The figures he’s facing suddenly aren’t figures anymore. Marlowe fires his thrusters, plunges down the shaft toward what’s left of them. He lands on the roof of the elevator car. He leaps through the open doors from which the dead men emerged.
He’s in another corridor. He moves down it at speed, firing point-blank at the men who are rushing from the doors that line the passage. They’ve got their weapons out. They scarcely have the chance to use them. The barrels on Marlowe’s wrists howl. The minigun mounted atop his right shoulder chatters on automatic spray. Men duck in under his guns, grapple with him. He runs power through his armor’s skin, electrocutes them. Nozzles protrude from his helmet, spray forth gas. That gas isn’t just toxic. It’s also thick. Clouds waft up against Marlowe’s visor. He switches to thermal. Most of the heat sources are now writhing on the floor.
But now more suited figures are stepping into view at the corridor’s other end. They’re opening up on Marlowe—who fires two micromissiles from his hip-launcher in rapid succession. The first screams down the corridor toward the suits. The second’s set on a lower yield. It takes down the wall adjacent to him. He steps through that opening, feels the whole place shake as his first projectile slams home. He moves through another doorway, keeping low—almost crawling now. He’s not slackening his pace. It’s as he expected. Most of these men aren’t even Jaguars. They’re just militia conscripted into service. They’re huddling in the rooms as he passes—some of them firing at him, some of them not daring. But the shots Marlowe’s sending out on all sides don’t differentiate between those who cower and those who fight. He leaves a trail of bodies behind him.
And then he steps on a mine.
Primitive construction, not showing up on any scanner: looks like people here knew not to go any farther down this particular corridor. Nor is that mine small: walls, floor, and ceiling get torn to shreds as Marlowe’s hurled off his feet and twisted sideways, tumbling to the now-exposed level below him. He hits that lower floor with a force that almost knocks him senseless. He’s far too full of inhibitors to feel any pain. But his screens have all gone dark. His suit’s computer’s out. He can’t move.
Through a visor caked in dust he can see faces peering down at him. Men start to jump down to where he’s sprawled. They’re clearly celebrating. One of them leaps onto his chest and starts dancing. Marlowe reaches out with his tongue, hits something that’s neither flesh nor tooth. He hears a whirring as his backup systems kick in: men whirl their guns toward him but he’s already lifting his arms and firing at point-blank range. Shouts of triumph turn to screams. Marlowe hits his thrusters, blasts back to the upper level as militia units scatter. He rockets down the corridor, sparing scarcely a glance at the screens that show the damage to his armor. Primary systems gone, outer hull compromised…he tunes it out, keeps going.
And reaches his target. It’s an armored door, set within armored walls. Guns mounted within those walls triangulate upon him. He destroys them—fires his thrusters, reaches the door, slaps a hi-ex charge on it, reverses back down the corridor, detonates the charge. Pieces of debris are still falling as he pivots back toward the remnants of the door.
But whoever’s in there isn’t going to go out easy. Bullets fly past him, ricochet down the corridor. The bomb-rack on Marlowe’s left shoulder spits out grenades—the first into the room’s ceiling, the next set for one bounce to allow it to careen deeper into whatever lies within. Immediately subsequent to the first explosion—but still before the second—Marlowe’s entering the room at floor level, his rack flinging an incendiary grenade out behind him as he moves quickly along the wall. Several bodies lie about the gutted chamber. Shreds of armor and spent ammo casings are scattered everywhere.
Marlowe has no time to inspect any of it closely. He knows that the flames now licking in his wake will only hold off survivors for a short while. And he still doesn’t know how much opposition remains ahead of him. Or whether the senior Jaguar agent he’s after is here after all. The whole thing might be a trap. If it is, it’s a remarkably elaborate one. He steps over bodies on the floor and through the door opposite.
The Operative’s been trying to get the crew to talk to him. But they’re no longer up for it. His access to the cameras has been shut off. Along with his access to everything else. The whole world’s gone silent. The only frequencies in use now are the ones shrouded in code. And the Operative isn’t in on any of the secrets. He’s been left to keep his own counsel.
So he does. They’re clearly within the vicinity of a live situation. The Operative’s hoping that any moment now the ship’s engines will slam into action and leave this whole mess behind. But he knows how such situations tend to work. He’s keenly aware that those who manage these sorts of crises always respond the same way: quarantine the area in question, shut down the comlinks, contain the scene. Which means that all he can do is sit here until this gets resolved.
And kill time.
He gazes out the window. The city’s moving slowly toward its edge. Ocean’s creeping in. What’s left of the sunlight glistens all along the water save for the space occupied by the massive shadow cast by the city’s pall. Somehow, the Operative’s totally taken by that shadow—at the way the city lights bleed out through it, at the way other lights shine here and there within it, at the way its black blurs into the greater dark of deeper ocean. He feels himself drifting. He feels his brain going as blank as it did before the launch. He feels that city unfolding through him. He wonders what’s going on inside it.
But the next instant, he doesn’t have to wonder.
Ancient zone’s suddenly crystal clear. Check out those corners coming up everywhere. Check out those doorways where there weren’t even walls before. Check it out: Haskell’s perspective telescopes outward in all directions. She watches as openings take their place within larger structures.
It’s just like Morat said. She’s staring backward into time. She’s gazing at long-ago wreckage. The map of old Belem clicks into her head, along with all that city’s infrastructure—and the lines she’s in wind among that infrastructure, just a few wires among so many millions. Somehow these survived. Somehow they weren’t dug up. Somehow they got overlooked.
She sees why. They got disconnected, the ends sealed. But there’s still data swimming through these lines. An isolated network: and some of the data within looks legit—small-time enterprise trying to eke out existence amidst the urban chaos. But most of it’s small-time crime: porn, snuff, drugs—all the flavors of vice licking back and forth in search of download. And there’s a lot of download points, too—lot of illicit subscribers, paying for the right to get some kind of net.
This doesn’t surprise Haskell. Access to the main zone, the integrated zone—the
But that’s the point. That’s why she’s looking at all the data set in motion by those who pay protection to the local gangs for the use of rogue systems powered by rogue generators that squat in forgotten basements and derelict rooms. That’s why she’s trying to determine what the larger pattern used to be—intimations of supply lines that once wound inland from the sea…query grids stacked along the floor…even graffiti on the walls: taglines left by bored programmers long since buried far deeper than these wires. She cruises up and down those long-gone roads. She runs up stairways, down ramps, through shafts.
And all the while, she does her best to keep it stealthy. Because she knows her eyes may not be the only ones scanning. She knows that if they’re looking, she probably won’t know it—that if they see her, she might not even guess. She might not even feel it coming either—just one bolt from the black to smack her dream-body senseless, send her meat-body flopping on the floor of the warehouse that’s so far away that she can barely remember what it was like. But that’s the nature of the recon. That’s the nature of this probe.
Which now detects something. Two things, actually. Anomalies. Each of them concealing the other. She can’t see one without seeing both. And they’re in different places. It’s a neat trick. But she’s trickier. She strips away all the history, rips out all the nonessential. She tunes out every last fragment of peripheral traffic, regards what’s left.
These anomalies aren’t data. They’re doors. They’re white where all else is black. They’re stars in the land of void. They’re lava in the land of ice. They’re different. She takes the readings, confirms them, locks in the references. She approaches those gateways. Reaches them. Looks through.
And watches as zone-shard shifts from universe to foreground.
This is no isolated fragment. She’s looking at the Jaguar net. There’s no doubt now. The contours of it show at least some of the codes her own side has captured in the past. It shows her others she’s never seen. Not to mention an expanse she never would have dreamt of. In one direction she can see something that leaps away from the city, tunneling under jungle and through mountains, all the way to what must be Lima, where it opens up to still more networks. In another direction’s Sao-Rio. She imagines those conduits: old telephone lines, cables, comlinks run beneath the floor of jungle before it all came crashing down. She can see that the place she’s been crawling in is a nexus. That the Jaguars have been using it to link their operations elsewhere with their operations in this city. She traces those links in turn and can see all the data now. The structure’s clear enough: patchwork quilt of legacy, and this place is just one thread. Belem-Macapa is just one piece. Just one limb in a stitched-together body.
So where the fuck’s the brain?
Because once she’s mapped that, she can get out. Back to Sinclair’s people. Back to the ones who put her in here.
Something catches her eye. New data seems to be flowing. Haskell focuses on a series of lines that carry particularly heavy traffic. Each line winds through buildings. Each terminates in what looks to be a dead end. But something’s crouching at each of those ends. Something that seems to be winding up through incremental stages of activation.
Even as she takes this in, she’s noticing the same thing going down in other cities. Sao-Rio. Greater Caracas. Japura. In each city, it’s the same: communications back and forth. Things being queried. Things responding…but what does it mean? Is this a pattern she’s just now seeing? Is something changing? Is this the key to it all? Was this happening already? She can’t figure it out.
For just another moment, she lets it clarify. During which time those nodes keep brightening. To the point where she realizes it’s not just her focus getting better. It’s not just her read on this place improving. These changes are real. They’re making her current position far too dangerous. The Jaguars could be on to her. She’s got to beat a retreat. She’s got enough to go on. She starts to withdraw.
But they move first.
Marlowe looks around. The chamber he’s in is perhaps twenty meters by another fifteen. At least one level has been cut away above it to accommodate its vaulting ceiling. Yet in all this space, it’s the center of the room that really gets Marlowe’s attention.
Because that’s where the missiles are.
Five of them. All of them protruding from a cylinder-shaped launcher that sits upon a dais. Each is about three meters long, with the green cat-skull of the Jaguars painted upon its nose cone. All around lie consoles, electronic equipment, bundles of wire. Marlowe creeps in toward the launcher. Smoke from the flames behind him is beginning to waft into the room. But he pays it no heed. He reaches that center structure and leaps forward, vaulting over it, holding his arms and guns perfectly level.
Two meters in front of where Marlowe’s just landed, a man sits cross-legged, calmly gazing up at him. The man’s skin is darker than that of any of the guerrillas Marlowe has encountered thus far. Greyish-black hair falls down around his shoulders. He regards Marlowe with a strange mixture of interest and indifference. His eyes are as black as his hair must once have been.
“Yanqui.” The voice is low. It sounds almost amused. “You were too fast for us. We thought we would have had more warning. We failed to prepare for just one man.”
The Jaguar’s stalling for time is transparent. But Marlowe needs information. This is almost certainly the man he’s charged with bringing back—but the missiles have changed the nature of the mission automatically. The man opens his mouth to speak again, but Marlowe cuts him off: “Where’d you get the missiles?”
“Missiles?” The man rises to his feet. He smiles. Marlowe’s wrists flex upon the edge of trigger. “I see no missiles. All I see are the teeth of the Great Cat.”
“You defile its name even as you speak it, Yanqui. Just as you defile our land. Do you not recognize these weapons? When the gate to their cage is lifted, they will go faster than the wind, and they have more cunning than do mere men.”
“You’re saying that these missiles are hypersonic?” Marlowe doesn’t dare turn and inspect the engines to confirm the claim. “Tell me where you got them, or I am going to kill you.”
“Shoot me if you like, then, Yanqui—” Accepting the invitation, Marlowe lowers his left arm and switches to regular ammo, blowing the man’s right kneecap into splinters. Blood and flesh spray through the air. The man goes down—and then rolls over and looks up at Marlowe. Blood’s pouring from his shattered leg. He’s still smiling. And still speaking as calmly as before.
“My soul has already gone to join my ancestors, Jason Marlowe. But I left my body behind to tell you that the Jaguar of all our souls is even now among us. Ready to purge this land of all who oppress us. Ready to lick clean your bones. Are you listening now, Yanqui?”
“How do you know who I am?” says Jason Marlowe, and thrusts one of his guns into the man’s smiling face. “So help me God, man, you’d better tell me what you’re saying.”
“But I’m saying nothing you can understand.” Spittle flicks onto the barrel of Marlowe’s weapon. “Except for the fact that your people are about to be dealt retribution in full. As for how I know your name—Paynal, He Who Walks Upon the Wind and Carries Their Decrees, has imparted much to me. He has informed me that They have decided that if you can pass Their servant’s test of quickness, then you are worthy to play your part in the final drama.”
“If you keep talking, the next bullet’s going straight through your teeth.” Marlowe knows he shouldn’t even bother to make the threat. He knows that he should kill this man right now. But he also knows that he won’t. Now he’s wondering if he’ll be able to shoot him at all. Somehow this crippled man bleeding on the floor has gained the upper hand.
As if sensing his advantage, the man laughs. “The test of quickness, Yanqui. In your language they call it ‘beating the bullet,’ do they not? But no matter—you’ve already failed it, as you sit here prattling with me. For behold, my spirit-guardians have crossed the threshold and are here to join us—and in mere seconds so will my mortal sentinels.” As the man speaks, Marlowe suddenly senses a presence moving up behind him, creeping in between the blind spots of his sensors. He can even
Whirling, Marlowe confronts only air—and then instinct saves his life, for instead of drawing up dumbfounded, he keeps moving, diving as his adversary’s knife (replete with powered saw-edges to shear through even heavy armor) flies through the space where his head had been a moment before. Dive seamlessly switches to somersault, leaving him on the floor, firing backward over his head, riddling the man with bullets. The whole action has taken less than two seconds. Whoever he was, this man is now dead.
His comrades, however, are clearly still alive. Marlowe can hear shouts drawing closer—the blaze-battling operation reclaiming this piece of the building. Marlowe leaps to his feet, turns his attention to rigging a hi-ex charge onto the missiles—and discovers that the situation is even worse than he’d thought. Not only are the missiles hypersonic, but so are the payloads: each nose cone contains ten tactical warheads, each one fixed to its own hypersonic motor and capable of acting as an autonomous missile anytime after firing. How many more such missiles might there be in this city, sitting inside a continental defense perimeter that encompasses three-fifths of the U.S. launch infrastructure, each base crouched within its own defenses—defenses that would be hard-pressed to withstand an assault with this kind of weapon from this kind of range…the implications keep on stacking up in Marlowe’s mind, and each is but one pulse in the staccato blast of signals that he’s sending out toward the jet-copters and zeppelins overhead, toward the satellites an instant beyond—but none of them can hear him: Marlowe’s signals are bouncing back upon him. The room’s walls must be lined with something—anything to prevent those outside from probing to discover its contents.
Then two men race into the room. Marlowe scarcely looks up to shoot them down. His bomb-rack tosses more grenades through the doorway through which they’ve come. Then he sets the missile controls to manual, starts the ignition sequence. He starts racing forward, extends the fins on his armor. He sees the walls in front of him begin to slide away, just as he’d hoped they would. Fragments of cityscape glimmer through the heaped mountains of the chem-smoke. He hears thunder roar to life behind him—feels himself seized by his thrusters, hurled forward, out into the city.
He watches the ’scraper falling away behind him, sees a sudden flash blossom behind him as his charge detonates. None of that explosion’s nuclear. The charge was set to destroy those warheads. But the blast must have touched off a Jaguar ammunition cache: because now the walls around the floor where he just was rupture, blast outward, tumble downward even as the whole building totters—and then collapses. It comes down like a house of cards, debris flying up in great chunks as it disappears into the murk below—and Marlowe refuses to think about the innocents he’s just killed, because there might have been still more missiles in that building, and what in God’s name does
This time everyone hears. But no one has time to do a thing about it.
* * *
Like rain falling in reverse: the Operative watches through widened eyes as thousands of missiles rise out of the gloom that swathes Belem-Macapa. The def-grids swing into action: satellites start raining countermeasures down upon those weapons—and upon the city beneath. The Operative winds his vision up and down the scale of magnification, takes in a blaze of lights, takes in the clouds of missiles climbing up the gravity well. Many are winking out of existence. Many are arcing back toward the Earth. Many just keep climbing. The Operative stares transfixed as they move toward him. He can’t see if they’re going to plunge down upon the planet or try to make it all the way to vacuum.
But what he can see is that the city from which they launched is writhing under the def-grids’ barrage. If it was burning before, it’s positively incandescent now. The glow shining through the smoke is visible from space. The Operative can see it without amplification.
Until a shutter slides across the window. The Operative tries to disconnect it. Nothing doing. He curses—and stops cursing as he feels the ship start to rumble. The attitudinal jets are firing. The Antares is turning on its axis. He braces himself for the burn that will send the ship hurtling toward the Moon and as far away from this mess as possible. He waits for it. But the seconds keep on ticking by.
It’s all happening around Haskell. But not in the way she expected. Suddenly the Jaguar net’s diminished: nearly all the terminal nodes vanish. Information flows behind in their wakes—shows the trail of exhaust that’s splattering over the naked faces of the instruments that sit in the physical world, shows Haskell ghost-images of things fast receding, swimming out into the sky that can’t even begin to match the one she’s in. She stares.
She gets it.
Even as they almost get her. They spot her for real. She doesn’t know how. Maybe it was some random check. Maybe it was their sudden shift to full war footing. Maybe they’ve been stalking her the whole time. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the long, scaled tongue that suddenly flicks toward her from out of the inky depths. She dodges. It misses. She retracts. It comes after her. She takes evasive action, takes herself in among all that data, does her best to blend in. All she needs is a moment. But it needs far less than that to nail her. It sails in toward her. She sees it as it really is: a grinning cat-skull that’s nothing but jaws enclosing her. She scatters herself into pieces, confuses it for a moment. But not nearly long enough. It looms before her eyes. She meets its eyes.
But suddenly it’s reeling. It flails. She flails with it. What else can she do? This net is under attack. It’s being pummeled. It’s cauterizing whole sections of itself in the name of survival. Whole portions of existence are getting sheared off. The links to all those cities disappear. They’re gone. The lines through which she’s racing are buckling. Yet all the while the scattered fragments of her body are converging upon the light. She sees it now: the square that denotes transition. The door to salvation. The way out. She sails toward it. And still that tongue follows her. It reaches for her heart. It winds about her leg. She dissolves that leg. She raises her arms. She shouts.
And jacks out.
Smoke is streaming in front of her eyes. Sparks are coming off the cluster of screens. The room’s shaking—just as she’s being shaken by Morat. He pulls the jacks straight off her. Pieces of her skin go with them. She blinks. She bleeds. She looks at him. He looks at her. Smoke pours between them.
“We have to leave right now,” he says quietly.
“No shit,” she says.
That’s when soldiers on thrusters land amidst them, haul them out of the room without a ceiling, over the maze that’s not a maze, back out into the warehouse. Back out to the elevator. The room’s on fire. Smoke’s pouring down the catwalks. Noise is everywhere. The soldiers cluster around them.
Morat turns to one. “Lieutenant—what’s the status outside?”
“They’re attacking in strength all along the perimeter, sir.”
“How close are they to this building?”
“Sir, we think they’re inside, sir.”
“We’ve lost contact with everybody beneath level forty.”
Morat shoves Haskell forward, sending her stumbling toward the lieutenant.
“Take the razor,” he says. “Save the razor. Take her up the shaft right now. Do it yourself. What’s left of your platoon can get in there and be the shields. I don’t care who gets hit. I don’t care who dies. Just
“Yes, sir,” replies the lieutenant. “What about you?”
“Leave one squad with me. We’ll dismantle this equipment and follow you.”
“Sir: if they’re inside the building, you won’t make it.”
“Don’t tell me what I will or won’t make,” says Morat. “Just go.”
They’re going. And Haskell knows why he’s staying. To gather the equipment—or make sure it’s properly destroyed. So he won’t have to tell Matthew Sinclair that he let the Jaguars root through everything CICom knows about their net. The soldiers are blasting the elevator doors down, adding to the smoke inside the room. They don’t take Morat’s instructions literally, though. The lieutenant’s got the most guns. So he hands her to one of the sergeants. Soldiers scramble into the elevator, ignite their thrusters. Some go up the shaft, some go down. The elevator car’s well below them. They rain explosives down upon it, send it crashing down for good. The sergeant grabs Haskell with both arms—“Sorry about this, ma’am,” she says, and steps forward, leaps. Haskell feels the heat of the jets on her face. She’s being hauled upward. Floors whiz past. Cables streak by. All of it’s wreathed in flame and shadow. Haskell feels the distance between her and sky narrowing.
Something slams against her. She hears an explosion. She hears a scream. She feels something wet hit her face. She feels her escort’s grip loosening. She tumbles from that dead grasp. She starts to fall down the shaft.
Something grabs her. “Got ya”—and she’s pressed into his arms: “for fuck’s sake protect her head,” someone shouts, and someone else is screaming that the Jags are in the shaft, and she finds herself thinking it must have been a trap after all. But she’s just clinging on to this arm, on to both arms, and her face is pressed up against the side of the soldier’s visor, and through it she can see distorted eyes peering intently past her at what’s reflected in that same visor: the ceiling shooting down toward her like she’s in a needle and it’s the plunger—and then the soldiers open fire and blast it away and they all blast straight through onto the roof.
Which is a shambles. As is everything beyond it. Buildings are burning, collapsing. Beams from heaven stab here and there, shimmer in the fog. The thunder of detonations rolls across the city. Belem-Macapa’s entered a new stage of its agony. The soldiers on the roof are firing in all directions. Haskell’s escorts shove her through a jet-copter’s open hatch. They’re screaming at the pilot to gun it. He needs no such urging: the ’copter rises. Haskell’s being strapped in by its gunner. She’s about to pull on her breath-mask: but now the doors slide shut and the craft switches over to its own recycled air as its motors switch into overdrive. She’s watching the rooftop fall away. Everything turns to cloud.
Suddenly there’s another explosion, and way too close—the rumbling of the engines shreds away into a high-pitched whining. The ’copter staggers. For a moment, it continues on its course.
But only for a moment.
“What the fuck’s happening?” yells the gunner.
“We’re going to crash,” the pilot says matter-of-factly.
The gunner’s lost it. He’s screaming. But Haskell’s saying nothing. She’s just lying back as the craft plummets downward. The plummet’s not total. The pilot’s still got some kind of control. But only just. They churn through smog. Buildings whip by. She hears the gunner praying. She hears the pilot cursing. He’s working the controls with more than just his hands—twisting his whole body this way and that, as though he could pull the craft out of its descent through sheer muscle. But to no avail. They scream in above a rooftop, just miss a pylon. She catches a glimpse of water. She catches a glimpse of ships. She thinks she must be dreaming. She braces herself.
Marlowe can’t do anything but keep moving. His camos are turned up to the full. He’s stealing through the city like a wraith. He’s staying indoors whenever he can—hurtling down corridors, rising up shafts. He leaves his thrusters offline whenever he’s outside. He doesn’t want to make himself any more of a target than he already is. All he wants to do is get out of here.
Which is going to be tough. He’s glad his suit still has atmosphere despite the battering it’s taken. Because oxygen’s become a major factor. As has heat. The temperature’s at least twenty degrees warmer than when he made his entrance. It’s not hard to understand why. The flames off to the south are as tall as the buildings around which they lick. Their light brings a new kind of shadow to this dark. He’s intent on getting as far away from it as possible.
Nor is he the only one with that idea. The mob’s afoot at every level of the town. They’re swarming over the skyways, doing their utmost to escape. Marlowe’s trying to take the road less traveled. He’s trying to avoid the stampede.
Not to mention the fighting. Which is everywhere. Machines swarm like insects. The local militias are giving everything they’ve got. Before tonight, most of them would never have dared to take on the United States directly. Now they’ve got the inspiration. Or maybe just the insanity. And wherever the Americans aren’t in range, old scores are being settled. Local rivalries are being carried through to culmination. Artillery’s going to work from the rooftops, even as those rooftops get sheared off. Vehicles are exchanging fire with one another as they move along those bridges. Hi-ex is going off like it’s going out of style. The further out of control this gets the more Marlowe recalls being told how smooth it was all going to be. He can see the faces of his handlers all too clearly—those honeyed words, those knowing smiles. It’s all he can do to stop himself from smiling now.
But he restrains himself.
The Operative is having difficulty keeping himself in check. He’s cut off, with no way to tell what’s going on outside. There may still be trouble on the Elevator. There’s definitely still trouble going on below. He envisions all strategic reserves being rushed into the Latin cities: troops dropping down from orbit, buildings getting smashed, whole blocks laid to waste.
But all that’s only retaliation. It can’t turn back the clock. Nor can it tell him what’s going on. Is there a connection between the mutiny on the Elevator and the missiles from the city? Could some of those missiles have been aimed at the Elevator? The Operative doesn’t know. Nor does he know the extent to which he’s already caught up in it. He’d love to just ride this one out. He’d be happy to just slip right on by. He doubts that’s going to happen.
So now he’s thinking furiously. The Elevator. The Earth. This ship: in theory, crew of two. But in practice, God only knows how many they’ve got in that cockpit. And if they end up turning out to be hostile, that’s not the only place they might be. Adjacent to his feet are hatches leading to the cargo-modules. There’s a lot of volume that way. The Operative pictures all those chambers. He pictures all that cargo. He thinks of how easy it would be to hide in there….
With an effort, he draws himself back from his own mind’s edge. There’s a reason they sent him. It may be the reason he’s in this right now. He can’t make any assumptions. Least of all about the nature of the mission. Missions have a way of changing. They also have a way of only revealing their true nature once they’ve started. Besides—if there really
Haskell becomes aware that something’s wrong. She’s cold. She’s wet. She doesn’t know where she is. All she knows is she’s tilting on her side. There’s a noise coming from somewhere. A voice.
“Ma’am. Can you hear me, ma’am?”
“I can,” she mumbles.
“You’ve got to wake up.”
It all comes back in one awful rush. They’ve crashed. This is aftermath. She opens her eyes. She’s still strapped into the cabin of the jet-copter. It’s mostly dark. It’s leaning toward one side at a nasty angle. It’s half-filled with water. The gunner’s lying in that water, body contorted at unnatural angles. The upside-down face of the pilot is peering into her own. He’s leaning down from the hatch that’s now become the ceiling.
“Where are we?”
“We’re in the drink,” he says. “And you’ll be in your grave if you don’t take those straps off and climb up here. Can you do it?”
“I don’t know,” she replies.
So she does. She undoes the straps. She hauls herself up them to where the man’s hands are waiting. She ignores those hands—instead grasps the edge of the hatch. Everything hurts. But it seems like it’s all still functional. She pulls herself up onto the top of the stricken jet-copter. She crouches there, takes in the river. The water’s lit up by the flames licking from buildings on either side of shore. A mirror image of those flames looms within the water, torn through with ships. Cranes tower over Haskell’s head. Tracers and lasers whip through the smog. It looks like a total free-for-all.
“This isn’t good,” she says.
“No,” he says. “It really isn’t.”
“Is your gunner dead?”
“He isn’t the only one.”
She looks at him. He seems very young. He doesn’t seem scared. He crouches there with her.
“You’re beautiful,” he murmurs.
“We’re not going to die,” she replies.
She pulls on her breath-mask. There’s a whining in the air close at hand. The pilot looks at her in surprise. His eyes cease to focus—he tumbles off the ’copter and into the water. Haskell throws herself back inside the craft as more bullets strike its hull. She hangs from the door’s edge, her feet dangling in the water that’s flooding the craft. She pulls her head up through the doorway.
To find herself gazing at figures on the far shore. They’re sweeping her position with fire. They’re cramming themselves into ships that line the docks—ships that now float out into the water, start their motors. Shots smash in around Haskell. Shouts carry across the water. The words that shouting contains aren’t coherent. They don’t need to be. Haskell’s never heard such venom. She’s beaming out the emergency evac codes. She’s praying. She’s getting no response from either. She resolves to do the only logical thing before they get their hands on her. She takes out the pistol Morat gave her, checks it over. She starts counting off the final seconds.
Marlowe’s picking up steam. He’s out of the worst trouble spots. He’s got his thrusters going. He’s more than halfway through the city. He’s going straight on through till he gets out into country. It’s a simple plan. It doesn’t need to get complex. Nothing’s touching him. Nothing’s seeing him. He’s got it made.
It’s then he gets the call.
“Marlowe,” says the voice.
“We need you to take a little detour.”
“We’ve got an asset down near you.”
“So we need it picked up.”
“This suit’s taken a beating. You’ve got no one else who can do it?”
“If we did, I wouldn’t be calling. We’re coming apart at the seams, Marlowe. We’ve got a grade-A disaster on our hands.”
“Which I’m almost clear of.”
“And you’ll get clear again. You’re hell on wheels, Marlowe. You’ve got to make all speed. Over and out.”
Even as the last words are reaching Marlowe’s ears, coordinates flare before him. They show city. They show river. They show the point where he needs to be. They show his own position—now rapidly changing direction.
Listen,” says the Operative.
The one word hangs in the chamber with him. His is the only voice that’s sounding. He’s the only one who definitely hears it. He doesn’t let that stop him.
“I know you’re watching. I know you’re listening. I’m not on your manifest. But here I am anyway.”
There’s no reply. The Operative regards the door to the cockpit. It’s heavy. It’s sealed. He unstraps himself. He floats away from the window and pulls himself toward that door.
“You were told to take me aboard and run me to the rock. You were told to ask no questions while you did it. Not like you need to. You know all that matters already.”
He reaches the door. He runs his hand along its edges. They’re absolutely airtight. In the event of hull breach, ships go modular. The Operative lets his fingers slide down its metal grooves. He smiles. He keeps on talking.
“You were hoping you weren’t going to get any closer to me. You were hoping not to breathe the air that I’m inhaling. So was I. No reason I’d want to make this complicated.”
He stops the movement of his fingers, pulls his hand away from the door. He holds on to the walls on either side. He turns his body slowly in the zero-G. He looks directly into one of the cameras. The smile broadens on his face.
“But now it’s very simple. You’re going to open this door or I’m going to open it for you. Might not be much of a door left by that point. Might not be much left of my patience. But it’s up to you. Long as you make up your minds right now. I’m going to count to three.”
He’s at two when the door slides open.
Marlowe’s one klick out. He’s got his thrusters flaming. He’s got his full fins extended. He’s burning in between the burning buildings. He cuts in above the river. He races just above its waters, rounds the bend beyond which his target lies. He opens fire.
The target’s in a downed ’copter floating in the middle of this channel of the Amazon. Hydrofoils are closing in upon it. But Marlowe’s not shooting at the ships. He’s taking aim at the cranes that tower above them with his micromissiles, letting explosives strike home at points precisely calibrated. He watches the cranes start to topple.
Most of the militia never see it coming. They’re smacked dead amidships by metal. They’re knocked in pieces beneath the water. Those who aren’t hit are taking hi-ex from Marlowe’s second barrage. Detonations roll along the river. Heavy guns on the shore open fire. But he’s accelerating in toward them, using the last of his micros to nail the buildings that loom above them. Debris buries the guns and all who man them.
Marlowe changes course once more, streaks in above tangled metal and shattered ships. He cuts in toward the craft that’s the cause of all the commotion. He alights upon it. Looks down.
Bullets smash into his helmet, bounce off. He leaps down to his assailant.
“I’m on your side,” he says. “I’m CICom.”
“Says my codes,” he replies. He beams them to her.
Her contours show her for a woman. Her breath-mask prevents him from seeing her face. Which is fine by him. Faces are currency. No sense in giving them up for free. And yet there’s something about this woman that grips him immediately. Maybe it’s because she just tried to kill him. Maybe it’s because she’s still got that razorwire dangling from her head.
“Hold on to me,” he says.
She doesn’t want to. He can see that. But she does it anyway: steps toward him, embraces him, clasps her arms around his back, looks out over his left shoulder.
“I’m blocking your shoulder rack,” she says.
“I’m shutting it down,” he says. “Careful of the main motors.”
“This isn’t going to work,” she replies. “You’re going to be dodging left and right up there and you’re going to shake me off.”
“You’re right,” he says. “Get down.”
She does. A hatch opens on one of his arms. He starts pulling something out.
“A tether,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I figure this is a better use for it than going up a wall. Get back up here.”
She does, grabs the tether from him, starts lashing it about the two of them. He starts tying knots. A few loops and it’s done.
“Is that too tight?” he asks.
“Not for what we’re about to do,” she says. She reaches down, pulls out her boot knife, slices off the excess tether.
“Can you see?”
“Absolutely,” he replies.
And reignites his suit’s engines.
Face impassive, the Operative pulls himself through the doorway and into the cockpit. Two men sit within its cramped confines. One wears a cap. The other doesn’t. On all sides are clustered all manner of instrument-banks. Narrow windows cut through those banks. Space flickers in those windows.
“So here he is,” says the man with the cap. Beneath his headpiece sits a pair of bushy eyebrows connected by a scar. The contours of his nose and cheekbones are angled in a way that makes his default expression a sardonic one.
“Yes,” says the Operative.
“The man himself,” says the hatless man, whose head is shaved clean like that of the Operative. This man’s older. He looks at the Operative like he’s gazing at a talking horse.
“I’m Riley,” he says. He gestures at his colleague. “He’s Maschler.”
“You’re the one I was speaking with,” says the Operative.
“That’s right,” says Riley.
“You’re the one who cut me off,” says the Operative.
“Started you up too,” says Riley. “Let’s not forget that.”
“We’re the ones who hauled you from the bottom of the well,” says Maschler. “We’re the ones who broke your surly bonds. Without us you’d still be eating dirt. Surely that counts for something?”
“Oh,” says the Operative, “it does.”
They look at him. They’re hanging on his every word. They don’t want him to see that. But to him it’s clear how on edge they are. He’s never felt more relaxed.
“It’s the reason I knocked,” he adds.
“Ah,” says Riley.
“And now you’re going to tell me what’s going on.”
“Who says we know?” says Maschler.
“You know a hell of lot more than I do.” The faintest edge is starting to creep into the Operative’s voice. “You’re in the cockpit of an Antares. You’re hauling a few hundred tons of cargo. Your communications are supposed to be continual throughout the initial ramp. You’ve got cameras pointed in every direction. You’ve cut me off from the outside world because you thought I might be involved with what’s going down. And I am. But only in the same way you are. So help me out here, gentlemen. Because it’s the only way I can help you.”
“You can’t help,” says Riley. “I wish you could.”
“What’s going on out there has nothing to do with us,” says Maschler.
“It does now,” replies the Operative softly.
“We just want to run our freight,” says Riley. “We never looked for trouble.”
“We should have shut off those cameras,” says Maschler.
“It’s okay,” says the Operative. His voice is soothing. “It’ll be okay.”
Maschler and Riley look at each other. “You tell him,” says Maschler.
“No you,” says Riley.
“You start,” says Maschler.
And Riley does.
* * *
The journey upriver. Once you start along that winding road you don’t stop. You just keep on rushing toward that distant source.
“You’ve set the water on fire.”
“Like I had a choice.”
He didn’t want to. But there was too much floating hardware chasing them. So Marlowe’s hit downstream with jets of flame. The fact that there’s more pollution than water in that river means it’s burning merrily. Now the only thing they have to outrace is fire. Smoke is wafting everywhere. The temperature’s starting to rise.
“How you feeling?”
“But still breathing.”
“I’ll let you know when that starts to be an issue.”
Marlowe figures that will be soon. The tolerance of a breath-mask is far lower than a suit’s. The people out there must be dying in the thousands. And that’s just in this district. He doesn’t even want to think about the rest of it. The rising that the Jaguars had sought to bring about is finally underway. The city’s final demise has finally begun. The canopy of smoke is growing ever thicker. The topography’s getting ever more complex. The river keeps on forking—into channels that diverge, converge, intersect with one another. But Marlowe steers his way through them with the confidence of one who’s got nothing save the latest maps.
“Complicated,” says the razor.
“It’s Amazon,” he replies.
Roof closes in above this channel of the river. The smoke in here’s too dense for anyone lacking masks to breathe. But through that smoke they can see the combat all around them. Looks like this is the day of reckoning among the river-pirates. Shantytowns along the shore are in the throes of combustion. The combatants spare scarcely a shot for the ones now streaking past them and back into the open. Though open’s a relative concept. The smoke’s almost thicker than it was within that enclosure. The heat is overwhelming. Marlowe’s temperature readouts are climbing inexorably.
“We’re not going to make it,” he says.
Not that it’s not obvious now. The fires sweeping the buildings on both shores are merging, covering the river ahead. They’re blocking the way forward. There’s nothing but smoke and flame in front of them. Oxygen’s being sucked up to heaven, taking God knows how many souls with it.
“One choice,” he says.
“Right,” she replies.
They streak upward.
Somewhere in that sky two men regard a third. They’re not accustomed to having their cargo crash their party. They’re not down with the notion of taking orders from their freight. They’re used to being firmly in control.
They’re making a rapid adjustment all the same.
“We don’t know the whole story,” says Riley.
“We don’t know what the hell’s going on,” says Maschler.
“No one’s told us a goddamn thing. We’ve been cut off.”
“We only know what we can see.”
“That’s all I want,” says the Operative.
“Yes,” replies the Operative.
“They weren’t just from Belem-Macapa.”
“They came from all the Latin cities.”
“The damage is near total.”
“Damage where?” says the Operative.
“They wiped out Cabo Norte.”
“And three other major bases.”
“Must have been quite a sight,” says the Operative.
“But that was only half of them,” says Riley.
“The other half were pointed upward,” says Maschler.
“Pointed where?” asks the Operative.
Maschler and Riley look at one another. They look back at the Operative.
“At the Elevator.”
“And did they hit?”
“Of course not.”
“They were climbing the whole way. They were sitting ducks.”
“But they were just the first wave.”
“The first wave,” repeats the Operative.
“Yes,” says Riley.
“And the second?”
“Was fired by the neutral satellites,” says Riley.
“Seventeen of them,” adds Maschler.
“All in close proximity to the Elevator.”
“They unleashed space-to-spacers.”
“At point-blank range.”
“But the def-grids rallied.”
“They turned those weapons into powder.”
“They did the same to the satellites.”
“Sure wish you guys had let me catch this live,” says the Operative.
“What else could we do?” says Maschler. “This way, we have no records of it. We never have to admit we saw it.”
“You and a hundred thousand other people,” laughs the Operative. “Earth-to-spacers try to nail the Elevator? Space-to-spacers rigged on neutral satellites try to finish the job? Are you kidding me? It’s not like this is going to be much of a fucking secret.”
But he knows he’s wrong even as he speaks the words. Secrets aren’t a function of who knows them. They’re a function of who doesn’t. The sky’s been classified for fifty years now. Civilians can neither write nor film what it contains. Those who wear uniforms have more leeway. But they know when to be discreet.
Especially when they’re seeing things they’ve never imagined seeing.
“Besides,” says Maschler, “we didn’t know what your role in all this was.”
“My role,” replies the Operative. One eyebrow arches.
“You could be a plant.”
“You could be a sleeper.”
“A sleeper for who,” says the Operative.
“For the Jaguars,” says Maschler.
“This is much bigger than the Jaguars,” objects Riley.
“This is the devil’s night,” says Maschler.
“Because of those missiles,” says the Operative.
“Never mind those missiles.”
“The missiles don’t matter.”
“Then what does?” says the Operative.
“This,” says Riley.
He hits a switch. The lights in the cockpit fade. The stars intensify. Riley gestures at the left-hand window—points toward a strand of luminescence strung among the stars.
“That’s the Elevator,” he says.
“Yeah,” says the Operative.
“Listen to me. She’s got forty main motors. One every hundred klicks. She’s firing them all on full-retro. She’s been doing that for the last five minutes. At the rate she’s going, her lowest point is going to hit atmosphere in five more.”
Maschler’s hands play over the keyboards. One of the display screens lights up. A complicated pattern floats atop it. Green lights drift toward a larger strand of blue.
“That’s the space around this section of the Elevator,” he says. “At least a hundred ships are moving in from all directions. A lot of those ships are ours. But we think some of them belong to the East. It looks to be a coordinated operation.”
“Is this going on at other levels of the Elevator?” asks the Operative.
“Yes,” says Riley.
“And no one’s signaled to you what’s going on,” says the Operative.
“What the hell would they signal?” asks Riley.
“What else is there to say?” asks Maschler.
“The Elevator’s been jacked.”
“But at least,” says the Operative, “you had the good sense to tell me all about it.”
They have the good sense to speed up as they climb. They roar out of smoke that’s drifting up from city-cellars. They roar into smoke that’s drifting down from the city’s middle layers. They race through patches of smog even thicker than that smoke.
“How are we doing?” the razor asks.
“I can’t tell.”
“Makes two of us.”
Wind tears against them. It’s all Marlowe can do to keep control. Particularly given how much damage his suit’s sustained. He adjusts his main jets, compensates with steering thrusts from his wrists and ankles, adjusts again.
“You strapped in okay?” he says.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I’m not.”
Buildings tower above them. They rise past more fires. They start to draw fire of their own. Lasers flare past. Bullets hum by. Marlowe starts to take evasive action.
“This is getting tight.”
“Militia hotbeds,” says Marlowe.
“So why are we going through them?”
“Because they’ve got to peter out eventually.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because we’ve almost reached the Citadel.”
From whose confines the U.S. props up one part of the fiction that’s called Brazil. Toward whose shelter Marlowe and his passenger are now racing. But now Marlowe’s picking up something on his screens. Something that he’s less than happy to see.
To put it mildly.
“Pursuit,” he says.
“How far back?”
And closing. Suited Jaguars: there are several of them. Rising from the depths of city. Spread out in a wide formation. He can see their suits’ jets flaring. He can see rocket-propelled grenades streaking from their arms. He veers off at an angle, starts to weave in amidst the buildings.
“Full-strength strike squad,” he says.
“They must have tracked me,” says the razor.
“They must have tracked
“Sounds like we’ve both given them reasons to hate us.”
“God I hope so.”
“We need more speed.”
Marlowe’s trying. He’s pouring it on. But he has to keep taking evasive action to avoid getting hit by the warring militias. He has to keep dodging. Which means he can’t go hell for leather on the straight. Which means they’re being overhauled.
“Feed me your data,” says the razor.
“So I can help you help us.”
If there’s something she can pull, he’s all for it. He sends her his armor’s signals. He senses her somehow reversing those signals. Suddenly she’s tapping into his comps. She’s right inside his head.
“What the fuck!” He almost loses control, finds his gyros steadied by a mind that’s not his own.
“I feel so close to you,” she replies. Her voice is emanating from in between his ears. It sounds amused.
“Who asked you?” he says.
“You,” she replies.
“What are you doing?”
“Using your brains,” she replies. “Or rather, your suit’s.”
And she is. She’s commanding that processing power while Marlowe sends them flying ever farther upward. Her mind is meshed with his. And both minds can see that now the Jaguars are getting out on their flanks. Classic pincer movement. In a few more moments they’re going to close the noose.
“One chance,” says Marlowe.
“Agreed,” she says.
They move together in the moment.
Three men in a room that’s no ordinary room. Lights of controls play upon their faces. Lights of space play upon their minds. These three men know they should never have met. They know they shouldn’t be here. They know they should be well past the edifice that lurks outside.
But there it is in the window anyway.
“What do you think we should do?” asks Riley.
“Who says we have to do anything?” replies the Operative.
“Because that’s a military operation going on out there,” says Maschler. “Because we’re right in its vicinity.”
“Precisely why we’re doing nothing that’ll call attention to ourselves,” says the Operative.
“But it’s not like they can’t see us,” protests Maschler.
“Exactly. We’re just one more piece of freight.”
“If we wait ten more minutes, we’ll leave the window,” says Riley.
“We’ll have to make our way around the planet again,” adds Maschler.
“I don’t think you understand,” says the Operative. “Break for the Moon now, and those ships will break you into pieces.”
“Are you sure?” says Riley.
“How do you know?” says Maschler.
“It’s what I’d do,” says the Operative simply.
“But we have to do
There’s a flash in the window. All three men shift, pivot—do whatever they have to do to turn in the zero-G toward it. They see the problem immediately. Something’s just exploded nearby. The screens show beams of light stabbing forth from the Elevator. Another ship detonates even as they watch. The telescoping cameras take it all in—take in ships maneuvering across space, taking evasive action, doing whatever they have to do to render themselves more difficult to hit. From points elsewhere, directed energy lashes back at the Elevator. The cannonade stops.
The maneuvering continues.
“Yeah,” says the Operative. “I guess staying here’s a little problematic.”
“That’s what we’ve been telling you,” says Riley.
“Current orbit’s not going to get us out of here quick enough,” says the Operative, as though Riley hadn’t spoken.
“Shall I hit the gas?” asks Riley.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” says the Operative.
“What do you mean?” says Riley.
“What the hell are you on?” asks Maschler.
“All sorts of things,” says the Operative evenly. “But what I said a moment ago still applies. Start this bitch up, and our boys will finish you forever.”
“Then what the fuck are you suggesting we do?”
“But as for me,” he adds, “I’m going to make a call.”
The mech changes course while Haskell starts raising hell with the suits of the strike squad. She slots herself in along now-familiar code-routes. She starts running interference on the pursuers’ comlinks. And while she does, she and the mech are veering toward a building that’s been subjected to heavy shelling. They streak through a hole in the building’s side and into shattered halls. They burn through corridors, take down doors. They brake, turn, charge on up into elevator shafts, climbing as fast as his motors will let them. Haskell clings tight. She feels minds out there writhing, feels walls surging past her. They brake to a halt in front of more doors, smash them down, break out of the shaft—hurtle down more corridors, find another opening, race back out into the city.
Catching the flank of the strike squad unprepared. Two suits, both within a quarter-klick: the mech’s firing out along a broad front. He blasts one with armor-piercing rounds from his wrist-guns. He shreds the other’s helmet with his minigun. He flies on past the tumbling bodies, pours on the speed. And while he does so, Haskell’s putting pressure on the rest.
“How’s it looking?”
“Fucked two more of their suits,” she says. “The rest have disabled their links.”
“But they’re still intact.”
“That would be a safe assumption.”
Or at least the working one. They keep on burning upward. They figure they’ve bought themselves a few more seconds. And they’re pretty much within the Citadel’s outer perimeter now, moving in between the lesser hedgehogs. They should be safe.
Only they clearly aren’t. There are still militia all around. And disconcertingly little combat. In fact, most of the militia don’t even really seem to be fighting. They just seem to be moving. In the exact same direction that Haskell and the mech are going. They’re driving their vehicles along the ramped skyways. They’re flying their ’copters at full tilt. Haskell and the mech are weaving in and out of the really dense areas, using the smoke to provide all the cover it’s worth.
But now the space around them is beginning to broaden and the smoke up ahead’s clearing. The sky itself is coming into view.
So is the Citadel.
“Oh Jesus,” says Haskell.
“Doesn’t matter,” replies the mech. “We’re not stopping.”
They streak in toward it.
The Elevator’s center is more than two thousand klicks above the Earth. Which means it orbits at a slower rate than do ships at the level of the Antares. Now that it’s got all its brakes on maximum, that delta’s increased even further. It’s moving out of the cockpit window, falling behind.
But as far as the Operative is concerned, it’s still way too close for comfort.
“Don’t bother calling,” says Maschler. “Communications are fucked.”
“When did you lose them?” asks the Operative.
“We never did,” says Riley.
“Stop talking riddles,” snaps the Operative.
Maschler shrugs. “All we’ve got is mission control on automatic feed. It’s not like we’re in touch with anything that’s up for conversation. All we’ve got is just updates every minute confirming our position.”
“And the order to stand by for translunar injection,” says Riley.
“But no order to initiate the burn,” says Maschler.
“We’ve tried to raise the emergency channels,” adds Riley. “They’re not responding. No one is. We’ve asked for clarification of the situation. We’ve received nothing.”
“Let me try,” says the Operative. “Key in whatever codes you need to give me access.”
He couldn’t pick up shit earlier. But that was when he was back in the bowels of the ship. Now he can pipe directly into the ship’s own lines. He can commandeer the main comlinks. He can raise Earth directly.
So he does. Wireless signals dart out from within his skull, words wrapped within codes that vector through the ship’s mainframe before streaking out into vacuum. The Operative plays with the frequencies, fine-tunes the direction of the dishes on the hull.
Somewhere on the planet something hears him.
“Get off this line,” says a voice. It echoes in the Operative’s head: a growl shot through with static. The weight of atmosphere hangs heavy on the words.
“I’m using the channel I’ve been instructed to use in case of contingency,” replies the Operative. He chooses his words carefully. His lips aren’t moving. Neural implants are doing all the work. “I’m following my orders. You can see my position.”
“I can,” says the voice. “What do you want?”
“I want confirmation of this ship’s original flight plan to be relayed to its pilots.”
“We can’t do that,” says the voice.
“Why not?” says the Operative.
“Because it’s out of our hands. You’ve got a real knack for timing, Carson. The place is in lockdown up there. You’re smack-dab in the middle of the largest joint U.S.-Eurasian operation ever conducted.”
“So the East really is involved.”
“What did you expect? The Elevator’s joint property, isn’t it?”
“What’s happened to it?” asks the Operative.
“Hostiles have seized it,” says the voice.
“No kidding,” says the Operative dryly. He pauses. Then: “Who are we talking about here?”
“That,” says the voice, “is the question that I’m going to have to cut you off to get back to.”
“So it’s not the Jaguars,” says the Operative.
“Whoever it is is coordinating with them,” says the voice. “That’s the operating assumption. But we’re having a hard time believing they’re the ones who’ve managed to get aboard that thing. We recommend you hold tight for now. If the situation deteriorates, take whatever measures you have to in order to preserve the mission. But as long as the situation’s stable, stay put.”
“You’ve got a funny definition of the word
But the presence in his head has disappeared. The voice is gone. The Operative’s eyes refocus on the cockpit. He takes in the faces of Maschler and Riley.
“You okay?” says Maschler.
“Sure,” says the Operative.
“Did you get through?”
“Sure,” says the Operative.
“Nothing,” says Maschler.
“Nothing?” asks Riley.
“You get used to it,” says the Operative.
But what you don’t get used to is what these third-world cities are like in their rafters. It’s all dilapidated towers. It’s all smog all the time. But get high enough, and you might shake that smog yet. You might see the clouds burn red with the light of the dying sun. You might see them burn still redder with the flames from the dying Citadel.
“Fuck,” says Marlowe.
Half of the Citadel’s towers are no longer visible. Its ramps hang askew in air. All too many of its platforms are shattered.
“So much for refuge,” says the razor.
Yet as they rise past it, long sticks of light stab down from somewhere far overhead, shoot past them, and strike the complex below. Explosions flash out into the gathering dark. Towers topple into the murk that laps around them.
“Those are our guns.”
“Yes,” says Marlowe.
“We’re killing our own side.”
“Our own side’s already been killed. That place has been taken.”
“So keep on climbing.”
He accelerates. They leave the Citadel behind, rush upward toward sky and sanctuary.
* * *
The Elevator’s barely visible from the window anymore. But the cameras make up for everything the window lacks. The Elevator’s lowermost point is starting to glow. It’s hitting atmosphere. Far above, swarms of ships are closing.
“How long before we leave the launch window?” asks the Operative.
“Eleven minutes,” says Riley.
The first ship touches. The telescoping lenses show power-suits clustering along that ship’s sides, pulling open doors, entering the Elevator. The cameras indicate that this is happening at fifty-klick intervals all along the structure. Half the ships involved show the Stars and Stripes. The others show different sets of stars. Marines from both superpowers: they’re going in.
“They’ve done it,” says Riley.
“They’re there,” says Maschler.
“Prime the engines,” says the Operative.
“I thought you said we weren’t going anywhere,” says Riley.
“Never say never,” replies the Operative.
Besides: priming isn’t the same as firing. The one enables the other. It doesn’t compel it. So now Maschler and Riley are swinging into action. They’re cycling fuel through the tanks, readying the trajectory, prepping everything they can. It gets their minds off the waiting.
But not for long.
“Who are they facing in there?” says Riley.
“Have they issued demands?” says Maschler.
“Now what would make you think I’d know a thing like that,” replies the Operative.
“Well,” says Riley, “do you?”
“I’d be guessing,” says the Operative.
“Well,” says Maschler, “what’s your guess?”
“My guess,” says the Operative, “is that there’s only one demand.”
Maschler and Riley look at him.
“Eat shit,” he says.
Suddenly the cockpit lights up as though someone’s stuck a blowtorch right outside it. The cameras show nothing save flash. The screens go haywire. Half of them show critical malfunctions. The other half are blank.
“We’ve got a problem,” says Riley calmly.
“The Elevator’s gone,” says the Operative. “Give me heavy blast.”
“Got it,” says Maschler. He’s back in his seat, wrestling with the controls. So is Riley. Who looks up with consternation on his face.
“Circuitry’s been fried,” he says.
“EMP,” says the Operative.
“EMP,” confirms Riley. “We’ve been swamped with fission.”
“Fission,” mutters Maschler.
“Shut up,” snarls the Operative. “Switch to redundant systems.”
“They’d be burned too,” says Maschler.
“Better pray that’s not so,” says the Operative.
“Surely it’s safer if we just hold course,” says Maschler. “The blast’s already hit us.”
“He’s right,” says Riley. “The radiation’s already soaked us. It’s already done whatever damage it can. So what the fuck does it matter if we move now?”
“You’re failing to take into account one thing,” says the Operative.
He gestures at the window, at the space where the Elevator was. At the space where more explosions are appearing. Explosions of ships out there: ships getting struck by something that’s getting nearer.
* * *
Twilight’s shredded by an overwhelming light. It blossoms through the eastern heavens. It’s turning what’s overhead into nothing save red. It’s turning the mech’s screens into nothing save static.
“Fuck,” he says.
“What are we
What they’re in is armor that just got fucked. It’s sliding back down toward the city. The mech is fighting with the controls. So’s Haskell.
“Allow me,” she says.
“Have it your way,” he replies.
Her way’s tough. The EMP penetrated the damaged armor in several places. Nine-tenths of its circuits have been knocked out. Haskell’s throwing together a network out of what’s left. She’s improvising. She’s firing thrusters. She’s clinging to the suit. She’s not stopping its fall.
Just altering its direction.
“The Citadel,” says the mech.
“Only chance,” says Haskell.
“It’s swarming with militia,” he says.
“Who were being shelled by our space-to-grounders.”
Meaning that maybe that militia isn’t crowding the topmost floors. Though what the story is with those space-to-grounders now is anybody’s guess. Because the sky itself is burning.
“Keep your eyes on the ground,” yells Haskell. “I’m going to give this suit back to you in a second.”
She’s not kidding. Though when she says
The mech doesn’t.
“Give me back control,” he says.
“There’s no control to give,” she replies.
“Great,” he says.
He hits the manual release and the armor comes open at the back like corn being shucked. He pulls himself out, pulls a breath-mask from a compartment as he does so, yanks it over his face. He gets to his feet.
And stares upward.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he says.
“He’s not here,” says Haskell.
But maybe He’s coming. A line of silver is stitching across the sky. Liquid light running up and down the heavens: it’s making mockery of darkness. It’s breaking into pieces before their eyes.
“The Elevator,” breathes Haskell.
“Must be,” says the mech. “Get down.”
Shots are whizzing above their heads. They’re kissing ramp. They’re crawling along it. They reach the door to the tower that it abuts and scramble inside. Bullets whine around them.
“Don’t stop,” says the mech.
Nor do they. They race up a stairwell. It’s littered with bodies in and out of armor. Some of those bodies are still smoking. The mech gets in front of Haskell. They keep on climbing stairs.
They reach the topmost floor. The room’s heaped with consoles and chairs and bodies. The air’s still thick with the fumes from the firefight that went down here scant minutes ago. Through the windows they can see remnants of the Citadel still protruding above the clouds. One window’s missing altogether—along with part of the wall around it. The whole scene shines with unearthly light.
“Stay away from the windows,” says the mech.
“To the roof.”
Haskell pulls open one last door, sprints up one last set of stairs. These are narrower. They end at a trapdoor on the ceiling. She pulls it open. The sky that’s revealed isn’t really sky anymore. It’s just something twisting through all manners of colors.
“Now what?” says the mech. He’s still standing at the bottom of the staircase, trying to cover the control room and trapdoor simultaneously.
“Now we get help,” says Haskell.
“Can you raise anyone?”
“I can’t even signal.”
The EMP pulse fucked her head almost as much as his armor. Half her thoughts have faded into blur. Half her eye-screens are gone. She can still function. But her zone capability is gone.
“So how are you going to get us out of here?”
“Let me get back to you on that,” she replies.
Fuck,” says Maschler.
“No luck on the redundants,” says Riley.
“Reboot,” says the Operative.
“Already tried that,” says Maschler.
“So do it again.”
They shut the whole thing down, slot new batteries in, start it back up again. The batteries work. The screens flare back to life. But there’s no life in them. They’re spewing gibberish.
“Fuck,” says Riley.
“Maybe all that shit’s going to miss,” says Maschler.
“Care to stake your life on it?” asks the Operative.
“What would you have us do?” asks Riley.
“I’d have you start the engines,” says the Operative.
“Thanks,” says Maschler.
“Let me clarify,” says the Operative. “You’ve already lined us up. We don’t need to steer. All we need to do is fire the burners.”
“Huh,” says Riley.
“So?” asks Maschler.
“So how do I get to the motors?”
“Go outside,” says Riley.
“Great,” says the Operative. “Let’s go.”
“All of us?” asks Riley.
“You and I will suffice.”
What the hell are you doing?” asks Marlowe.
“The only thing I can,” the razor yells.
She’s firing tracer rounds through the trapdoor, letting them go at rapid intervals to flare across the sky.
“Morse code,” she says.
“They’re probably a little busy up there,” says Marlowe. He goes from body to body, taking various devices: several grenades and a phosphorus charge that someone apparently was about to detonate to prevent this room from falling into Jaguar hands. Marlowe hooks his newfound possessions onto his belt. He hears a noise outside, looks up.
Just in time to see something roar past the window.
He screams at the razor to stop firing. She does. They hear something land on the roof.
“They must have come up from the basement,” Marlowe shouts.
“We’ve got no armor,” whispers the razor.
Marlowe looks around the control room. The suit he glimpsed outside had light armor: not a match for what he was wearing earlier but far superior to what he’s got now. Marlowe steps back into the jumble of debris and bodies on the floor, kicks a shattered suit aside, grabs the assault-cannon that suit’s still clutching, rushes back up the staircase. He’s shouting at the razor to get out of his way. He rushes out onto the roof, starts firing at the suited Jaguar who’s just alighted upon it: and who now gets drilled through the visor by hi-ex armor-piercing rounds from Marlowe’s weapon. The Jaguar goes down, smoke pouring from his helmet. Marlowe hears suit thrusters below the level of the roof: he hears the razor scream. He races to the edge of the roof, leaps.
For a moment he’s plunging. As he does he catches a glimpse of another suit, hovering in front of a nearby tower that’s been turned into more of an inverted melting icicle through the pounding of the now-silent space-to-grounders. Marlowe fires more hi-ex rounds, blows that suit backward into the tower even as he plunges past the hole in the wall of the control room—and sticks his feet out, finds purchase, twists into the control room itself. His head just misses torn metal. The Jaguar who’s just entered the control room through that hole is advancing on the staircase where the razor’s ensconced. Marlowe opens up: the suit whirls, burning—and then exploding as its motors ignite. Marlowe fires several more rounds for good measure, steps past what’s left of that suit.
And hits the floor. Because every window’s being shattered. The room’s filling up with fire. Marlowe crawls along the floor to the staircase, steps into its shelter. The razor’s standing there, her gaze flicking between the sky and a still-intact computer monitor set into the wall.
“Bought us maybe thirty seconds,” he tells her.
But the woman doesn’t answer save to gesture at the sky. Marlowe glances at it—sees some kind of signal light flashing up there. “They’re responding,” the razor says.
“What are they saying?”
“They’re not sending ships.”
“Then we’re fucked.”
“Not quite,” she says. She starts to explain but stops as the room beneath comes under heavy fire. A barrage of explosive shells starts tearing away what’s left of those walls. The stairway they’re in shakes. It keeps on shaking.
And stops. The firing cuts out.
“What the fuck,” mutters Marlowe.
But then they hear it from somewhere down below. It’s some kind of distant rumbling. Some kind of far-flung echo. It seems to be coming from within this building rather than outside. It’s not just one thing either. It’s many things. It’s the same thing. It’s many voices.
“The suits are whistling up the dogs.” Marlowe eyes the stairs.
“We’ve got to move.”
“Where?” Marlowe leans into the doorway, hurls frag grenades across the room and down that stairwell. But when the explosions die away, the shouting’s still there.
“How long do you think we have?” asks the razor.
“Maybe about another thirty seconds,” replies Marlowe. “How long do we need?”
They hear something else through the shouting. Something’s scraping along the roof, closing on the trapdoor. It’s dropping through.
“Grab it,” says Marlowe.
She does. And as he follows suit, he primes the phosphorus charge, tosses it at the foot of the stairs. The tether’s going taut. They’re being hauled at a run up what’s left of the stairway. They lift their feet, loop their legs around the tether. They soar through the trapdoor, leave the roof behind.
And rise into the burning heavens.
Riley and the Operative make their way back through the chamber in which the latter rode out the initial climb. They trail cable out behind them.
“Careful,” says Riley.
But the Operative says nothing. It’s noticeably colder back here. The light from the glowsticks they’ve triggered plays fitfully upon the walls.
“Look familiar?” asks Riley.
“Not anymore,” says the Operative.
Riley shrugs. He moves to the door that leads to the cargo. He works the manual, slides the door open. The two men float like undersea divers into the bay. Which—since it’s nearly full—is really just a narrow passage.
“What’s in here anyway?” asks the Operative.
“Seed,” replies Riley.
“Plant or animal?”
“I think it’s both.”
“I hope it’s shielded.”
“Do you think that radiation’s killed us?”
“It will if we don’t start this fucker soon.”
“I’m not talking about our machines. I’m talking about our bodies.”
“Oh,” says the Operative, “those. Who knows? These ships are hardened against background. But a nuke in close proximity—that’s something else again. My guess, we should be okay. But”—he gestures at the cargo around him—“I hope you weren’t planning on having kids.”
“Never planned on anything,” mutters Riley.
They reach the door at the rear of the compartment. The Operative opens it. The room thus revealed is mere airlock. The Operative climbs in. He opens a locker, starts putting on a spacesuit, slotting equipment onto that suit while Riley slots the cord he’s been trailing through the airlock door’s cable-grooves. He locks them into place, hands the terminus to the Operative. The Operative inspects his helmet. He stares at Riley.
“One rule,” he says. “When I knock on that door, you open it. Got it?”
“Got it,” says Riley tonelessly.
He lowers his helmet—seals it as Riley seals the door. He turns to the next door: even thicker than the previous one. He unlocks the seals, winches the hatch open.
And stares straight out into planet.
It fills the view, a massive sphere half in shadow. The Operative crawls out toward it: edges through the airlock, deploys magnetic clamps, moves out onto the strait. He feels like an insect scurrying into infinity. He watches infinity spread before him, scattered through with stars. And the occasional explosion: flaring, dying away. They’re the casualties. They’re getting closer. The Operative keeps on crawling. The hull’s curve is sharpening. The planet’s curving away.
Finally the engines are silhouetted before him. The Operative doesn’t break pace. He clambers out into a wilderness of pipes and wires. He’s as careful with the cable he’s trailing as he is with his own suit: ensuring that nothing snags as he makes his way past the main turbines, out onto the side of one of the engine nozzles. He reaches the nozzle’s edge, climbs inside.
Metal closes about him. Space outside gets cut off. He worms his way deeper. It gets narrow fast. He crawls through into the reaction chamber. It’s just big enough for him to fit within. He crouches for a moment in the enclosed space—and then shoves the cable’s end into a vent, fixes it in place. The cable now stretches all the way back to one of the cockpit batteries. The Operative envisions Maschler’s hand hovering over that battery. Waiting for the signal…
But it hasn’t come yet. The Operative retraces his footsteps feetfirst. He wriggles out of the reaction chamber—wriggles back into the engine bell. He reaches that nozzle’s edge, climbs back out upon its exterior side. He begins climbing back up the engine block, retracing the cable’s trail.
But he stops when he gets near the turbines. He starts opening the maintenance hatches that lead to the turbine gears. Normally the gears would be powered by the fuel they themselves power through those pipes and into the reaction chamber. But in order to set that fuel in motion they need pressure supplied by the peroxide, whose tanks are arranged in such intricate geometries down near the Operative’s feet. He uses the tools in his suit’s glove to unscrew safety after safety. He sees more flares bursting from the corner of his eye. He feels time closing on him like a vise. He flicks off the last safety, reaches beyond that safety, and releases one last switch.
Peroxide bubbles through a tube beneath his hand. The turbines start up. The Operative feels them churn. He pictures fuel and oxidizer being drawn into the reaction chamber. He pictures that chamber filling up. He yanks the cable hard.
And holds on.
Light blasts from somewhere behind him. Something slams straight through his suit and brain and just keeps going. Vibration washes over him in waves. He knows the hammer in his skull for concussion. He knows the wetness in his ears for blood. He feels the acceleration full against him. He pulls himself up along the turbine and hauls himself over the fuel tanks. He feels heat—even as he leaves the engine behind and gets out on the hull once again. But the warmth’s quickly vanishing. The temperature’s dropping.
Steadily. His suit’s clearly holed somewhere. Maybe he snagged it. Maybe it’s just burning through. Regardless, he’s starting to get short of breath. He’s starting to see stars for real now. The ship rumbles against him. It’s all he can do to hold on. He knows his time’s down to single seconds.
So he cheats. His hand goes to his boot knife. His knife goes to the air tank on his back, stabs in, rips along it. Air shoots out. The Operative positions himself: lets go of the cable, lets himself slide back along the hull. He feels air shoving him. He feels air being sucked from him: he takes one last breath, reaches out to the door, grasps the hatch, holds on while his vision starts flashing. Dissipating air’s momentum tries to haul him onward. He jettisons the tank, pulls himself in, slams the hatch behind him, seals it. Black and red press in upon his vision. He strikes his hand against the inner door.
It opens. Riley’s face is staring into his own—now unmediated by visor as the Operative hauls his helmet off and gulps in air. Riley looks at him, says something.
“Save your breath,” says the Operative. “I can’t hear a fucking thing.”
Together, they make their way back toward the cockpit.
T ogether they rise into the skies. The Citadel drops away beneath them. The tether to which they’re clinging is retracting rapidly. The city starts to spread out beneath them. There’s no electricity left in it now, only flame. Smoke billows from countless fires. The lights in the sky shimmer on those rising clouds.
“Here they come,” says the mech.
The militia are swarming onto the roof. Four suits are flashing past them—rising toward the two who cling to the tether. But as the suits pass the tower, there’s a flash: the top of the structure is blown apart by the charge the mech rigged there. White-hot phosphorus flings itself everywhere. Bodies fly. Two of the suits get taken out.
But two remain. They climb. They’re opening fire. Haskell and the mech do the only thing they can: let go, drop along that tether, grab it again. Shots rip past them. It’s a trick that only works once. There’s nowhere left to go. They fire desperately at the closing suits.
Which suddenly get riddled. Hails of bullets rain down from long range, dissect the suits almost simultaneously. Chunks tumble back into the city below.
“About time,” says the mech.
But Haskell doesn’t answer. She’s just staring at the thing that’s spreading out across the sky. It’s like nothing she’s ever seen.
“The roof’s caving in,” she says.
She’s not kidding. Gigantic streaks of orange and white are sliding across the sky, glowing ever brighter as they drip in toward the horizon. They’re what’s left of the Elevator. They’re what happens when something big meets atmosphere. She can’t tell where this mother of all meteor strikes is going to hit. She only knows that it’s going to change the world forever when it does. It looks like it’s coming right down on her head. She’s guessing the real impact will be somewhere to the east. But that’s almost worse. The tidal waves set in motion will put both sides of the Atlantic beneath the water. It will be the kind of event that only satellites witness. Only the damned will see much more than that.
Suddenly the sky above them goes white. It’s like the Earth has been thrust up against a supernova. Final nightfall’s ripped apart by false dawn. The superpowers have combined to destroy their joint creation. The def-grids on both sides have unleashed. Warheads are striking home from stations elsewhere on the planet. Directed energy’s blasting down from space. Crossfire becomes annihilation. There’ll be nothing left to hit the ocean. EMP drenches them anew.
“I’m blind,” Haskell says.
But not permanently. And eventually their sight fades back in. To reveal a city that’s now a distant fire and a sky that’s still a long way from black.
And this tether hanging in between.
“Where are we going?” says Haskell.
“The only kind of craft that’s guaranteed to still be up here after all that EMP.”
“Exactly. I passed several on the way down.”
“Then you kicked off in style.”
“I think they briefed me off the coast and shipped me in.”
“What do you remember before that?”
And the mech starts to say something, stops. Opens his mouth again.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“I just mean you’re familiar.”
“How would you know?”
Because she saw his moves under pressure. Because she was inside his head. Because the whole time she’s been fighting for her life she’s been fighting the realization that the man she’s with is more than a stranger. She wants to tell him all this. She wants to tell him that he’s the living ghost of memory. But she’s not sure.
And she needs to be.
“Because I’ve seen you before.”
“This has been tough,” says the mech. “You need some rest.”
“But first I need your name.”
“My real one?”
“No,” she sneers, “just one of the ones you’ve discarded.”
“You’re asking me to break regulations.”
“Is that so bad?”
“It is if I comply.”
“Did regulations stop the sky from tumbling? Did regulations save that city from dying?”
“They might yet see us through this mess.”
“Heads up,” he says.
A shape is looming out of the night above them. It’s hundreds of meters in length. It blots out the stars. It blots out afterglow. It’s hauling in the remainder of the tether.
“We’re here,” he says.
Rough hands grab them, haul them inside a room on one level of a much larger gondola. Haskell and the mech watch while the soldiers who’ve just pulled them in pull in the remainder of the tether. They stare at each other while a burning city floats through the dark several klicks below.
“You’re Jason Marlowe,” says Haskell.
“And you are?”
“Who do you think?”
She removes her mask with one hand, brushes brown hair back with the other. He stares at freckles and sweat—pulls off his own mask to reveal black hair and a bloody nose.
“Hello,” says Haskell.
“Fuck’s sake,” he says—and steps forward to embrace her. But she just steps away, leans back against the window.
“They didn’t tell me.”
“Didn’t tell me either.”
“Guess they’ve got other things on their mind right now.”
There’s a pause. Soldiers continue to move around them, closing the trapdoor through which they’ve just come, storing away the tether. One of them turns to Marlowe and Haskell.
“You’re both wanted in the medbay,” he says.
“In a minute,” says Marlowe.
“Now,” the man replies. “We need you out of this room so we can lock it down.”
“You’ve got it wrong,” says Marlowe. “It’s the reverse.”
The man stares at him.
“Don’t take it personally,” says Haskell.
The man stares for another moment, comes to a quick decision. He snaps orders to the rest of the soldiers. They stop what they’re doing, exit the room in haste. Haskell and Marlowe hear them muttering among themselves. The words
“As direct as ever,” says Haskell.
“Some things never change,” replies Marlowe.
“We’ve got maybe five minutes before they send someone down.”
“They can send away,” says Marlowe. “I doubt anyone on this ship outranks us. And I’m willing to bet none of the handlers are anywhere near
He gestures at the window. She gazes at the colors rippling across the heavens, at the fires burning down below. Powered craft are starting to move through the skies once more, their lights flickering here and there amidst the dark. She takes it all in, glances back at him.
“So what is it you wanted to say?” she asks.
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
She looks at him. There’s a long pause.
“Look,” he says, “I just wanted to be able to say
“Well,” she says, “sorry to surprise you.”
“I’m rolling with it.”
“You and me both.”
“They’ll bring the wall back down between us,” he says. “We’ll be debriefed, tossed back into the mix. We didn’t see each other in ten years of runs—”
“Which was deliberate.”
“I know,” he says. “That’s what I’m saying. We’re only here right now because of pure chance.”
“They’re going to think we’re trying to sneak away like we used to.” She tries for a mischievous smile but just ends up looking as tired as she feels.
“We should get you to the medbay.”
“Me?” She laughs. “You’re the one wiping blood off your face.”
“Small price,” he says. He smiles sadly. “You know, I’d like to see you before another ten years have passed.”
“You will,” she says, though she’s not sure if she believes that. “They owe me after this. I’ll see you again. Or at least be in contact.”
“In contact,” he says.
“In contact,” she repeats. “At least. It’s the least the old man can do. He almost got me killed tonight.” She looks at Marlowe. “Thank you, by the way.”
He waves that aside. “You shouldn’t be so hard on Sinclair. I hear he hears of nothing but your exploits. You’re CI’s rising star.”
She forces herself to smile: nods, mumbles something.
“What was that?” he asks.
“I said, I’m feeling faint. Let’s get to that medbay. See that?” She gestures at a light approaching out the window. “Probably a ’copter to offload us.”
“And then they’ll send us on our separate ways.”
“They already did. Here we are again. It’s just a matter of waiting.”
He stares at her.
“Not for them.” He points past the approaching ship at a night that continues to flare colors. The city’s conflagration continues apace. Faint dots are aircraft swarming over it in renewed fury. Explosions and tracers are flying into the air. They’re kilometers below, barely visible. But it’s clear enough that the fighting’s still going on. That the dying’s continuing.
“They’re already there,” he says.
The Operative and Riley arrive back in the cockpit to find Maschler still sitting in his chair. He’s staring out the window, holding what looks to be a small telescope up to his eye. He glances around.
“Congratulations,” he says.
“He’s deaf,” says Riley.
“But he can read lips,” says the Operative.
“You didn’t tell me that,” says Riley.
“You didn’t ask,” says the Operative. “And I wasn’t exactly in the mood for talking. Besides, I don’t need to read shit to know that the first thing you’re going to say when I emerge from a live rocket engine with blood dripping from my ears is
“Hard to say with this kind of crap at my disposal,” says Maschler, setting aside his instrument to float in front of him. “But it doesn’t look so bad right now. We’re only off by a few degrees.”
“That’ll grow,” says Riley.
“So what?” says the Operative. “The point is that we’re a hell of a lot less likely to get impaled by anything now. We launched within the window, brothers. That’ll be enough until we get rescued.”
“Rescued,” repeats Riley.
“Rescued?” asks Maschler.
“What the hell else are we going to do?” says the Operative testily. “I’ll admit I find the thought distasteful. But I’m fresh out of ideas. It’s not like we can land. It’s not like we can dock with anything. In fact, it’s not like we can do shit except cruise through space until we either hit something or the engine conks out for good. We’re flying deadweight, gentlemen. Besides, a med scan wouldn’t be such a bad idea right now anyway. I’m sure we all could use it.”
“He’s right,” says Riley.
“Of course I’m right,” says the Operative. “It’s over.”
“Good,” says Maschler.
“How about if we agree to call it the end of the beginning?” asks the Operative.
“You mean there’s more?” Maschler asks.
“I would assume so,” replies the Operative.
“So what happens next?” says Riley.
“If I knew that, I’d be giving orders instead of carrying them out,” says the Operative. “But with any luck, yours won’t be more than a bit part. Just keep your head down and keep on hauling freight, okay? That should suffice to see you through. Doesn’t matter what’s going down or who comes out on top: they’re going to have a need for people like you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” says Riley.
“You should,” says the Operative. “That’s how I intended it. Survivability’s the ultimate praise. You guys should be fine from here.”
“And what about you?” says Maschler.
“What about me,” says the Operative.
“What’s this all mean for you?” asks Riley.
“I’m still figuring that one out,” says the Operative. “But for now, the same as you. We get picked up, we get checked out, we get a new rig, we head on toward our destination.”
Riley starts to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” says the Operative.
“What’s not?” he replies. “I’d forgotten all about that fucking rock. Strange, eh?”
“Strange indeed,” agrees the Operative. “How about we get some brakes before we get there?”
But Riley just keeps laughing.