O f course,” says Matthew Sinclair, “the whole thing’s a joke.”
He looks at Marlowe and Haskell. They look at the face upon that screen: the face of the man who heads up CounterIntelligence Command. They wonder what the hell he means. It’s been two days since the Elevator was blown from its orbit. Two days since the greatest man-made object became the greatest piece of wreckage. Tens of thousands are dead. Fission has ruptured the atmosphere so badly that the sky’s still glowing.
For the life of them neither Marlowe nor Haskell can see what’s so funny.
“This manifesto,” says Matthew Sinclair. “It’s a joke. They know it. And they know we know it too.”
“Then why did they write it?” asks Marlowe.
“Because,” says Sinclair, “they wanted people to talk about it.”
Looks like they got their wish. People can’t shut up. Information’s traffic flows like light and quenches like water. It’s never the same thing twice. When you think you’ve caught it in your hands, it’s already changed forever. But here’s the thing about information.
It can’t compete with rumor.
“Wiping out the Elevator would have accomplished that,” says Haskell.
“Right,” says Sinclair, “but this way they lay claim to an
Some identity. Some name.
“Yet the population of this country hasn’t read it,” says Marlowe.
“Not officially,” says Haskell.
“Exactly,” says Sinclair. “Keep in mind, too, that
“Meaning this document’s words don’t matter. Not in the slightest.”
“I don’t know,” says Haskell. “Those words might sound pretty inspiring to someone who’s looking for a reason to hate the government.”
“Not inspiring,” says Sinclair, “insipid. Read it again. ‘For too long have those you call leaders mortgaged your future’? ‘All of history has waited for this moment’? It’s one big joke. On us. Claims of nomenclature notwithstanding. It means nothing. Nothing at all. Which isn’t to say there aren’t meanings hidden within it. Invert comedy, you get tragedy. We’ve got both now. So we’re looking at it from every angle. We’re parsing every phrase.”
He goes back and forth, thinks Haskell. She looks at the face projected on that screen and wonders at the contradictions it utters, contains. She looks at that face, struggles to contain herself. She feels her heart overflowing: looking at that man right now, beard sharpened to a fine point, shaved skull extruding metal, metal walls behind him.
Just like she always dreamt him.
“But we haven’t succeeded in finding anything yet,” says Marlowe.
“Ever the practical one, Jason,” says Sinclair. “No. We haven’t. We’ve deployed specialists to calibrate the minds behind these words. They can’t tell us anything. They can’t even tell us if it was written by human or machine. They’re useless.”
Haskell shakes her head. “Then why are we talking about it?”
“Because,” says Sinclair, “it’s not their minds I’m interested in right now. It’s yours. The Rain?—they’re out there somewhere. Assuredly. But you’re right here.”
“And where are you?” says Marlowe.
“Exactly where you see me,” replies Sinclair.
“On that screen,” says Haskell.
“Yes, Claire,” says Sinclair. “On this screen. But right here with you all the same. For the first time among so many times, you’re not recollecting me in the trance. You gaze upon me in the moment. We’ve got no time for anything else.”
“How can we be sure you’re really Matthew Sinclair?” asks Marlowe.
“How can you ever?” says Sinclair. “I like you, Jason. I like your verve and butchery. But I also like Claire. She’s so different from my others. Truth to tell, I can’t decide which of you I like more. That’s why I’ve brought you here.”
“To find out?” asks Haskell.
“If you like,” says Sinclair. He seems amused. “You sit and watch me on this screen. You think I pull your strings. It’s an easy illusion to subscribe to. But what you must understand is that you’re the ones who hold the power. Because you’re the ones who go out into the world.”
“To be tested,” says Marlowe.
“To be sure,” says Sinclair. “And these times test us as never before. Jason: Claire will be your razor. She’ll pull
“To stop the Rain, of course,” says Sinclair.
“And we really know
“Of course we know something about them,” says Sinclair. “We know that they got onto the biggest thing our species ever built and turned it into junk.”
“Right,” says Haskell. “Thanks.”
“You don’t understand,” says Sinclair. “They didn’t just destroy the Elevator. They got
“How do we know that?” asks Marlowe.
“Surely your minds are sharper than this. The Rain was clearly hoping to use proxies to do their work. And to destroy the Elevator at a distance rather than reveal to us just how thoroughly they’d penetrated its security. They gave the Jaguars hypersonics. Ground-to-grounders that knocked out almost ten percent of our equatorial launch architecture. And yet those were a mere diversion from the ground-to-spacers those Jaguars were firing simultaneously. They almost got the Elevator.”
“But they didn’t,” says Haskell.
“What makes you so sure the Jaguars and the Rain aren’t one and the same?” says Marlowe.
“Please,” says Sinclair. “The Jaguars are formidable. Both of you did well to face them. But don’t let your emotional involvement distract you from the fact that they’ve never manifested spacefaring capabilities. We don’t even think they have the expertise to build hypersonics on their own. So we’re pretty sure that someone gave them those weapons. Someone who also rigged seventeen neutral satellites with space-to-spacers. Think of it—someone infiltrated the ground-to-space supply networks of two of the Euro combines. Someone sent up rockets instead of spare parts. Someone configured robots to rig those rockets. Someone did all that right under our noses.”
“And it didn’t work,” says Haskell. “Which forced them to play their ace.”
“Indeed,” says Sinclair. “As hard as it was to rig the neutrals—as difficult a feat as that might seem—getting onto the Elevator was even harder. And getting fission devices into its control centers should have been impossible. Which is why they didn’t want us to see that they could do that.”
“What makes you say they themselves were
“Right,” says Sinclair. “Now you’re asking the right questions. Let’s break down the events: 18:20 local time—the Jags unleash hell on heaven and earth; 18:22—rogue space-to-spacers rigged on the satellites of the Lvov and Wessex Combines bracket vacuum. But nothing touches our behemoth. The def-grids of its escorts take down everything that even comes close. Now. What happens then?”
“It blows up,” says Marlowe.
“Fourteen minutes later,” says Haskell.
“From the inside.”
“True enough,” says Sinclair. “True up to a point. That much you know. Now let me tell you what you don’t. The official record says that nothing happened on the Elevator before the blasts that finished it. But that’s not quite accurate. T-minus twenty minutes: we get a tip from some of the workers coming off shift that some of the workers who’ve just gone on shift aren’t really workers. We move in on one squad in particular. We start busting people. One of our ships gets taken out. We take out everyone in sight. T-minus sixteen minutes: the Jaguars open up. T-minus fourteen: the rigged neutrals follow suit. T-minus thirteen: the Bridge goes offline, along with its entire garrison. Offline as in not responding to anything whatsoever. T-minus twelve: all the Elevator’s engines fire in reverse on full throttle. The thing starts slowing down. Not gently either. Hundreds of construction workers start getting knocked into space. Pieces of construction start flying off too. SpaceCom marines scramble from nearby orbital platforms. The Elevator’s starting to drag atmosphere. Nadir Station’s starting to get warm. But structural integrity’s still intact. Zenith Station is still reporting in. They’re seeing nothing. They’re evacuating. Marines from east and west are closing in. A DE cannon rigged just aft of the Bridge opens up on them, gets some of them, gets itself blasted into powder. The marines get in there. They land. They enter the Bridge. And then—nothing but white light.”
There’s a pause. The screen flickers.
“No one told us that,” says Haskell.
“That wasn’t in the news,” says Marlowe.
“Of course it wasn’t,” says Sinclair. “It’s embarrassing.”
“They seized control of the Elevator before they destroyed it?” Haskell shakes her head. “How can we hide a thing like that?”
“We can’t,” says Sinclair. “It’s not like people don’t know. Just not everywhere. It was reported on neutral vid, sure. So now it’s more fuel to feed the rumors over here. I’m sure it’s the same in Moscow and Beijing….” His voice trails off.
“Why did they wait so long to detonate the Elevator once they had the Bridge?” says Marlowe.
“It’s simple,” says Sinclair. He pauses, glances again at something offscreen. “They were toying with us. That’s the only conclusion that kind of sequence points to. Once they knew that they had to reveal that they’d been able to get fission devices aboard, they postponed destruction as long as possible. Drawing more of our forces into the blast radius. Winding us up. Making us feel it.”
“They really got nukes in by infiltrating the
“Call it one option among many. Look at it this way: the thing was four thousand klicks long. Three main docking stations—Zenith, Nadir, and the Bridge—and ten minor ones. Cargo shuttles coming in around the clock. Thousands of workers—far too many, in retrospect—with most of them from the joint-control area in the Imbrium. Plus more than a hundred dedicated wireless conduits. But in the end, there were only two ways on. Whether they employed physical mechanisms or simply deployed a particularly adroit hack, there were only two ways to go about it.”
“Us,” says Haskell.
“Or the East,” says Marlowe.
“Exactly,” says Sinclair, beaming suddenly as though at a favored pupil. “Exactly. They either infiltrated us, or they infiltrated the East. Which brings us back full circle. The president and the Eurasian leadership have agreed to establish a joint tribunal. Joint investigation, cooperation in the face of the common threat, all the right words. All the right phrases. But it’s all nonsense from the word go, and everyone in the know knows it. Neither superpower will open to the other. Each suspects the other. The president has told me—”
“You’ve spoken with him?” asks Haskell.
“Of course I haven’t
“They might have penetrated the
“We can’t rule it out,” replies Sinclair.
“How are the other Commands taking all this?” says Marlowe.
“They’re afraid,” says Sinclair. “As they should be. As we all should be. All of us—we’ve let the Throne down. Heads are rolling right now. And they’re going to keep on rolling. There’s a glitch in the system, and no one knows where it is. But everyone knows this: if the Rain got into the Elevator, there may be very little that’s beyond their reach.”
“Do we have evidence of them reaching?” says Haskell.
“I’m sure we do,” says Sinclair. “Probably right under our noses. We just haven’t recognized it yet. It’s not like we’re not trying. We’ve been tearing up the Latin cities street by street. At our request, the Euro Magnates have frozen the assets of the Lvov and Wessex Combines, and have allowed the joint tribunal to deploy investigators across the Earth-Moon system to audit the assets of those combines. I say ‘allowed,’ but we were only going to ask once. Though I can tell you right now that angle of inquiry isn’t going to reveal a thing. There’s only cutoff conduits and burnt-out trails down those routes. Whoever the Rain are, they’re not leaving clues that obvious. And as for the Elevator—well, there’s not much evidence left there, is there?”
Neither Marlowe nor Haskell replies.
“But, to your point,” continues Sinclair, “the biggest question isn’t what the Rain have done so far. It’s what they’re going to do next.”
“Sure,” says Haskell, “but what do
“Hit the Moon. Stop them.”
“The equations stipulate a convergence of circumstantial evidence and current vulnerability,” says Sinclair. “We know they got inside the Imbrium mining contingents. That may or may not have been their main way in. But it’s one of the only things we have to go on. The main risk is that’s two days in transit when you won’t be fully leveraged. Jason won’t be able to do a run on anything, and Claire, your hacks will be at a disadvantage due to the distance to either Earth or Moon. But we have to take that risk. The Moon’s essential. Half our fleet is in its vicinity. If anything goes down there on the scale of the Elevator, we would be profoundly discomfited.”
“When do we leave?” asks Marlowe.
“As soon as I stop talking.”
“I mean, when do we leave the planet?” asks Marlowe.
“As soon as we can launch you,” says Sinclair.
“Houston. We’re prepping a booster even now. It’s ours—crewed by CICom personnel. But it flies the merchant marine colors. We’ll slot you right into the freight routes. You’ll go to ground in the lunar cities. You’ll rendezvous with other assets. And then you’ll start the hunt in earnest.”
“And the plan of operations?” asks Marlowe.
“What else do we
But Sinclair just holds up one hand.
“All in good time, my children. All in good time. You’ll get the second phase of the briefing when you arrive at Houston. And the third when you reach the Moon itself. Staggered updates to ensure that we keep pace with events. All I can say right now is that we have to throw the dice. The tension between East and West is rising even as the hunt for Rain intensifies. All our agents are going into the field. All the training you’ve received, all the runs you’ve done—all of it’s just been preparation for these times. Trust each other. Trust no one else. Trust me when I say that Autumn Rain represents a threat without precedent. They will strike again. I guarantee it. Unless you stop them. Unless you hit the Moon and stop them.”
The screen goes blank.
As specialization became the order of the day—as seekers of truth drilled ever deeper into the unknown, creating ever more minute taxonomies of knowledge, branching out along ever more arcane classifications…inevitably, the most significant discoveries in science lay more and more in the blurring fault lines among disciplines. The mapping out of the subconscious can be considered just such a development. As can the attempt to manipulate it through the nervous system. Yet even by the early stages of the twenty-second century, the pincer movements converging across mental and physical realms had yet to link up completely.
Which means that it’s not entirely unsafe for the Operative to dream.
Which hardly makes it safe. So if the Operative dreams, he doesn’t know it—insofar as he has them, his nighttime reveries have been deliberately situated at the fringes of his cognition. Thus he lies sleeping after his arrival, in a room deep within Agrippa Station, on the Moon’s nearside equator. Only to suddenly come alert in a single instant:
Wake. Wake in a chamber. What chamber? This chamber. Darkness surrounds you, and walls surround the darkness. Surround the instant. But cannot isolate the question: why have you woken? Why are you lunging forward? Reflex: the Operative’s thoughts trail his actions by a long chalk; he’s moving at a speed that belies the low gravity, pivoting out of the bed, careening into the man who’s entered his room, pinning him back against the wall panel with a heavy thud.
For a moment all is still.
The Operative is the first to speak: “Well?” His lips might be parting. His teeth definitely aren’t.
“Carson,” the man says, “it’s Lynx. Don’t you recognize me?”
“Christ.” The Operative releases his grip. He half-pivots, takes a step or three backward, and triggers a glow-light, though his eyes don’t really need it. Still: the man thus revealed wears a SpaceCom uniform. His skin’s ebony. His hair’s dyed silver. A thick pair of opticals perches on the bridge of an aquiline nose. The ears aren’t small. The mouth hung between them is grinning.
“It’s nice to see you too, Carson,” says Stefan Lynx.
Brain and muscles and reflexes keep open channels within the Operative. He stares at Lynx.
“How did you get through the door?”
“Who says I used the door?”
The Operative glances around with his peripheral vision. Notices that one panel of the wall is tilting ever so slightly askew.
“Christ, you’re taking a risk. Is this room wired for sound?”
“You bet,” replies Lynx, “and all the wires lead back to me.”
“So we can talk.”
“That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” says the Operative, “that’s what we’re doing. What do you want to talk about?”
“I want to talk about your trip, Carson. How was it?”
“You know damn well how it was,” says the Operative. “It was a little too eventful.”
“Eventful?” Lynx’s laugh sounds like a cat being strangled. “That’s one way of putting it. Another’s
“They already have,” says the Operative. “I got out of it, didn’t I?”
“Sure,” says Lynx. “You got out of it. Albeit not without a dip in your white blood cell count. I should imagine things got pretty tight in that metal tin. I hear you even called planetside.”
“Yeah,” says the Operative. “They were real helpful.”
“Of course they were,” says Lynx. “Your sarcasm notwithstanding. Sometimes the best form of help we can receive is to learn that we’re going to get none. But the little dustup you got dealt into at least let me dispense with my envy, Carson. You were supposed to travel in style. You were supposed to get the shortest route possible. Unlike mine. I had three layovers before I’d even got past the geo.”
“I presume that’s called covering your trail.”
“Yeah,” says Lynx, “it’s also called economics. But you’re special, Carson. Even with the complications, you got to hitch a fast ride.”
“So someone down there likes you.”
“I doubt like has anything to do with it.”
“You’re damn right it doesn’t,” says Lynx. “You’re at Agrippa now. Deep in SpaceCom territory. So let’s get started.”
“How would you guess?”
“Something to do with Autumn Rain?”
“Got it in one, Carson,” says Lynx. “Got it in one. The Elevator’s got this whole place buzzing.”
“Who the fuck are we dealing with, Lynx?”
“That,” says Lynx, “is the question that’s got me crawling Agrippa’s tunnels like a goddamn sewer rat.”
“You’re hacked into the SpaceCom systems?”
“I am,” says Lynx. “I’ve been doing my bit. Fair and square, Carson. Now it’s time to talk about you.”
“No,” says the Operative, “it’s time to talk about what you’ve found.”
“Same difference,” says Lynx. “Same difference. You wouldn’t believe what’s in Agrippa’s comps, Carson. I’ve been poring over it. It’s been pouring over me. It’s good. It’s fascinating. But it’s useless. So far.”
“No trace,” says the Operative.
“Not yet,” says Lynx. “But now that you’re here, we’re going to get on the board. We’re hunting big game now. We’re going to find these fuckers, Carson. And then we’re going to tear their fucking hearts out.”
“You think the Rain’s on the Moon?”
“We know they infiltrated the Imbrium miners on the Elevator. But here’s the thing, Carson: what you and I think doesn’t matter. What matters is what the Throne thinks. Last night I received word from the boys downstairs. Real-time, Carson. So they could vector us onto the new player.”
“The original mission still stands. Turning the Com upside down and shaking out the change is still part of the objective. But we’re also going to leverage them in our search for Rain.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means that one vector of this mission is finding out what Com intelligence knows. Finding out what they’re finding out. Finding out what they’re not.”
“And do we have an actual plan of operations?”
“We have an
“Your getting moving.”
“The south pole.”
“You heard me.”
“What the fuck is down there?”
“How’s your hearing, Carson? They told me that might be an issue after your adventures up the asshole of that rocket.”
“I fucking heard you. What the hell’s he doing at the south pole?”
“That’s where he retired.”
“Come on, Carson. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that.”
“I knew he left active service. But no one retires altogether.”
“Not officially,” says Lynx. “But think about it, Carson. The reflexes only go so far. And the conditioning’s only useful through a certain threshold. Comes a point when knowing that you’ll have your own little beanpatch can work wonders for one’s motivation. Beanpatches, Carson. You live long enough, you might even get one yourself.”
“I doubt I’d want it.”
“Because I’d guess that retirement has a catch.”
“Well,” says the Operative, “take Sarmax. I’m guessing that you’re about to tell me to go down there and kill him.”
Lynx laughs again. It’s even worse this time around. “Hardly, Carson. Hardly. You’ve got it all wrong. You’re going to go down there and break into his base of operations. You’re going to cut through his defenses. You’re going to ransack his files. You’re going to rape his comps. You’re going to find out everything he knows. And
“Because he’s been careless.”
“Do we have evidence?”
“Got a problem with that?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Because so far the boys downstairs have had no problem with you, Carson. They had no problem at all with you sitting in the sleep and mumbling on about how eager you were to get up here and rendezvous with me and do whatever the fuck I said. Of course, it never occurred to them that once you got upstairs you might start to get second thoughts about the whole thing.”
“I’m not getting second thoughts, Lynx. I’m just trying to understand this.”
“So let me clarify it. You off Sarmax and tell us what he was up to before he bit it.”
“And he’s hiding out down south?”
“He’s not exactly hiding.”
“Meaning he got more than just a beanpatch when he retired. Or rather, he may have gotten just the beans, but he’s parlayed them into a lot more. He runs a holding company that spans a number of enterprises. Most of them involving extraction of water from the south pole icefields.”
“And where’s the man himself?”
“Shackleton. That’s where he’s got his HQ. It’s quite the fortress.”
“How do we crack it?”
“It’s complicated,” says Lynx.
“Way too complicated to get into here,” says Lynx. “Time to go, Carson.” He beams data directly into the Operative’s skull. “It’ll download automatically on the train. Give you all the operational details. Every last one.”
“No kidding. We need to pick up the pace. I’ve maneuvered it so that the Com technician I’m passing you off as has been assigned to Shackleton. There’s a lev leaving in forty minutes. From equator to antipodes in one straight shot.”
“And what about you, Lynx?”
“What about me?”
“What are you going to do while I’m out on the run?”
“The same thing I’ve been doing, Carson. Keep on worming my way through this apple’s core.”
“Am I coming back here?”
“If I find something worth running you back in for.”
“And when do you contact me again?”
“When you’ve taken out the target. Here’s my one piece of advice, Carson. Don’t make it personal.”
“You’re really funny,” says the Operative.
“Go,” says Lynx.
And the Operative’s gone.
* * *
T ake a man. Take what price you can get for him. Get that man to gather data until he’s earned his passage home. See, there are some who crave information for political or military advantage. There are some who want it to further the cause. But you know better. At the end of the day, data dances to the beat of the markets. They’re all that matters.
Until an interloper comes calling…
Warbling rips through the dark. It’s the incoming line.
It wakes Spencer up.
He looks around. The walls press up around him. The light next to his head is glowing red in time with the signal of the incoming line. Spencer reaches to the switch, flips it.
“Hello,” he says.
He hears a series of clicks.
“Lyle Spencer,” says a voice.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s four-thirty right now. You’d—”
“Exactly,” says Spencer. “It’s four-thirty. Good-bye—”
“No,” says the voice. And there’s something in it that makes Spencer pause. “You’d better get dressed. I’ll be there in less than an hour.”
“An hour? Here? Who do you think you are?”
“More important thing is who
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re hilarious. But you might still save yourself by staying exactly where you are.”
“If you want to find out, all you gotta do is wait. And if you do anything else, you’re nowhere near as smart as I’ve been hoping.”
“Tell me that in person.” The line goes dead.
Spencer doesn’t waste time. He’s already seen that the call hasn’t registered. He runs his hand across what’s left of his hairline, feels for a point behind his right ear. He slots wires, jacks in—lets his mind plunge down into the endless architecture of the U.S. zone. He darts back and forth amidst countless conduits. He can’t find a trace of the call. He could opt for more intensive measures. He could kick down doors. But not without increasing the risk of exposing his own position.
Though clearly that position’s been exposed to someone. He jacks out, watches zone wink out all around him. He retains its frozen image in his head while he plays with strategies and replays the voice recording at about triple the speed. Then at normal. Then at fifty percent. The voiceprints swim on the screens on his walls. The implications cluster on the ones in his head. But they hold nothing concrete.
He shakes his head as though to clear it. He pads to the kitchenette, throws some switches. He runs some water, starts grinding beans. He could just let the machine take care of it. But right now he feels like doing it himself. So he thinks and lets the coffee percolate.
When it’s done, he walks to the window. A whisper from him, and the blinds are opening slightly. Red glow suffuses the room. The towers of Minneapolis gleam. He watches the lights, sips the coffee while he sifts through issues. If this were the federals, they’d be kicking in his door. They wouldn’t be bothering with this bullshit. But if not the federals…then who? Spencer’s never met a free agent inside North America before. If that’s who it is. But if it is, they must have some kind of maneuverability.
But now he hears something.
It’s coming from the corridor outside his door. He goes motionless. It’s been a lot less than an hour. A light chime wafts through the room as the doorbell sounds.
Spencer moves to the closet, retrieves his pistol. He cocks it. He creeps to the door, presses himself up against the wall beside it. He triggers the voice-switch.
“Yes,” he says.
“Lemme in,” says the voice that Spencer’s only heard once in his life before.
“Sure,” says Spencer. He checks the image on the screen. There’s nothing there. Just empty corridor.
“Hurry up,” says the voice.
“Hold on,” says Spencer. “Lights,” he adds. The stretch of corridor outside his conapt is filled with glow. The corridor’s still empty. Spencer flips the manual switch for the conapt’s lights and sets them on low.
“Stop fucking around,” says the voice.
“Open,” says Spencer.
The door opens.
A man enters the room. He’s Spencer’s height, but he’s got a lot more bulk. None of it looks to be fat. He wears a unistretch jumpsuit. His hair’s cropped close about his head. His face borders on the wizened. The eyes retract deep into the crevasses of the skin that folds about them. They seem to live in a way that the rest of that face does not. Spencer takes all this in in an instant. He keeps the pistol pointed at the man. The door slides shut.
“Lyle Spencer,” says the man. He grins, but it’s not much of one. “You alone?”
“I will be when I pull this trigger.”
“That’s the kind of talk that makes me edgy.”
“I can live with that.”
“Look,” says the man. “If I meant you harm, I wouldn’t have given you warning.”
“I’m really not interested in your assurances, my man,” says Spencer. He extends the arm that’s holding the pistol, raises it up toward the level of the man’s head. “What interests me is what you’re trying to pull. You call me unannounced in the middle of the night. On a line that turns out to be completely stealth. Now you’re standing in my apartment uninvited. In another moment you’ll be bleeding from a head wound unless you tell me exactly what you want.”
“Name’s Linehan,” says the man. “I’m here to help you.”
“No you’re not,” says Spencer. “You’re either here to arrest me, or you’re about to get me arrested. It’s one or the other.”
“Actually,” says the man mildly, “it’s neither.”
“In that case, I’ll say it one last time, and I promise it’ll be the last thing you ever hear if you don’t start talking sense. What do you
“To lower the risks to both of us. Look, let me tell you what I
“Information about what?”
“The Priam Combine.”
“Spencer, you really
“Where’d you find this information?”
“Never you mind where I found it. But I’ll tell you where I’ve put it. Out in the zone. With orders to grow some legs and start moving unless I keep reminding it not to.”
“And you think you can use this to control me?”
“I had in mind a little influence.”
“Was lucky you were home, Spencer,” says Linehan, looking around. “You’re often not. I said to myself, probably a fifty-fifty chance he’s here. When I found myself in the Midwest in the middle of it all, I thought, let’s see what Spencer’s up to. Good old Spencer. But not so good if he’s up north on one of his junkets for some surveying operation. Hell of a cover, Spencer. Does it really get you good information?”
Spencer doesn’t reply.
“Pretty far north, Spencer,” says Linehan. “What’s it like up there? Flitcar all the way to Hudson, mining tractors rumbling, fires through the Canadian night, American military bases everywhere—you can see a long way out there, can’t you?”
“Sure you can,” says Spencer.
“Well, see—that’s my problem. I can see a long way too. I can see it coming from a long way. I can
“Stay away from that window,” says Spencer. Linehan turns. “Listen,” says Spencer. “I’ve had about enough of this. You’ve done nothing but threaten me, you’ve told me nothing, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you keep talking without saying a thing. What’s this all about?”
“This I can’t wait to hear,” says Spencer.
“A deal, Spencer. You’re gonna get me out of this country. And if you don’t, I’ll turn you in to the authorities. What I hear, they got a real hard-on for limey data thieves rummaging through their Dumpsters.”
“No, that’s my stick. I also got a carrot.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What’s in my head.”
“What makes you think I care about what’s in your head?”
“Could be very valuable to your career, Spencer.”
Linehan smirks. “Not that that career needs any help. Senior consultant at defense contractor TransNorthern. Make managing director in another couple years if you hurry. You’re one fancy guy, Spencer. Your road’s lined with rose petals. Maybe even ones that have been grown. I’m surprised you’re living in a place as small as this.”
“I have a larger one up north,” says Spencer.
“Of course you do,” says Linehan. “Now look. Let’s get some things straight. I don’t give a shit why you’re making like a suit. Why you’ve been worming your way up the TransNorthern hierarchy. I don’t care what kind of cover it serves. I don’t care what Priam’s doing here. None of that interests me in the slightest. What interests me is that you can get me across the border.”
“I can get myself across the border,” says Spencer. “What am I supposed to do with you, put you in my fucking luggage?”
“Pack a big enough crate and sure. Listen, Spencer. I don’t care
“And in return?”
“Told you that already. Information.”
“Of what nature?”
“It’s very difficult to explain that without telling you everything.”
“So no. Your motivation to help me would be at an end.”
“It may be already.”
“I doubt it,” says Linehan. “Listen, Spencer, all I can say for now is that it’s worth it. That it’ll pay off your stint in the States and then some.”
Spencer looks at him. “Does it involve Autumn Rain?”
“Everything that’s anything involves Autumn Rain right now. I’m hardly gonna claim distinction for what I’ve got on
“You and everybody else,” says Spencer. “Anyone can say they have something if they don’t have to show a thing. This is nothing. And you’re even less.”
“Easy, Spencer. Easy. I know what you’re thinking.”
“What am I thinking?”
“You’re thinking that if you killed me now, and got inside my head for real, you might be able to keep the feds from learning about you—
“You’re thinking I’m thinking a lot.”
“So here’s something else to think about. A present. Just to show you I’m serious.”
“Namely this.” Linehan reaches into one of his pockets—“Easy,” he says as Spencer tenses. He takes something out, places it on the table. Spencer can see that it’s a chip.
“What’s on it?”
“What’s on it,” says Linehan, “is the production outputs for the United States’ farside mining operations. The real ones, Spencer. Not the ones they publish. Not the ones they claim. The genuine article.”
“If that’s true, that’s worth—”
“A fortune on the neutral markets? For you, it’s free. Check it out, Spencer. See for yourself.”
And Spencer does. He keeps the gun trained on Linehan, picks up the chip as though it will turn hot and burn at any moment. He slots it into a space that suddenly opens in his index finger. He downloads it into secure storage: a part of his software that’s modularized from the rest, thereby allowing him to see the readouts without compromising himself with a download that’s potentially tainted. Numbers stream through his skull. He can’t see if they hold everything that Linehan’s promised.
But he can see enough.
“Alright,” he says. The numbers fade out, replaced by Linehan’s mirthless grin. “Looks like you’ve got something here.”
“More than just something, Spencer. I reckon that little chip will get you most of your remaining distance to the quota Priam’s set for you. Maybe more.”
“You know about the quotas?”
“Of course I know about the quotas. I know they’re all your masters care about. I know your quota’s the difference between your being set up for life in Europe and trapped forever in the States. But what
“Where’d you get this, Linehan?”
“Looking in places I wasn’t supposed to.”
“I’m sure. My answer’s still no.”
“You heard me.”
“What more do you want?”
“How about something realistic? Look, you’ve got something going on here. I’m convinced. I’ll do what I can for you. I can get you to the coast. But a border run is something else entirely. It’s hard enough with one. Two would make it suicide.”
“Not if Priam took it seriously.”
“It’s not a question of what Priam takes seriously. It’s a question of ten million klicks of sensors. It’s a question of satellites scanning everything that moves. It’s ocean. How are we going to get you past that?”
“It’s not foolproof. No border is. You know that, Spencer.”
“You don’t know
“Then shoot me now, you listless fuck. Come on and try it. Or how about if I just call the feds and tell them to swing on by and collect us both. Look, am I saying it’s gonna be easy? Fuck no. I’ve lived the life too, Spencer. I’m living it now. That’s how I beat a trail to your door without leaving any fucking footprints. Zone prowess, right? Something I know you know all about. That’s how I’m staying one step ahead of all those hounds.”
“Who do you think is after you?”
“You don’t count. You’re nobody. No offense.”
“And what are you?”
“Already told you what I am. An asset.”
“An asset to what?”
“To you. To your life—let’s hope so. To my life—for sure. I aim to keep on living.”
“And for how long have you been prolonging it?”
“A few thousand klicks and a few score hours.”
“How hard are they looking for you?”
“Hard enough to damn me,” says Linehan.
“And now you’ve damned me too.”
“You gotta admit you’re intrigued, Spencer.”
“Of course I’m intrigued. I’m also fighting the urge to put one straight between your eyes.”
“Spencer, look at it this way. I can appreciate that you haven’t got the warm fuzzies for me. But try to put yourself in my position. Don’t think of this as blackmail. Think of it as a business offer.”
“I’ll think whatever I like.”
“Sure you will. But while you’re at it—keep in mind that what I’m proposing to give you will let you write your own ticket. It’ll catapult Priam to the top of the data-combines. It’ll vault you straight up into Priam’s rafters. Which surely ought to make up for the fact that you don’t have an alternative.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“But have I sold you?”
“More like you’ve sold me out. But I’ll play your game. I’ll take you across the fucking border. I’ll try to take you in one piece too. And then, so help me God, whatever you’ve got had better make the thing worth it.”
“It’s a deal,” says Linehan. “How do you propose we do it?”
“I propose we start by getting ourselves to the Mountain.”
“Works for me. When do we leave?”
T he ’copter’s been going for a while now. It’s left the Rockies behind. It’s well out over the western desert. Smoke billows far to the northeast. Haskell can’t see it. Marlowe can.
“The prairie fires.”
“Eight weeks now,” she says. She doesn’t take her eyes off her window.
“Every year they flare longer past the summer,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” she replies. She’s still not looking at him.
“I think we should start talking,” he says.
“What’s there to talk about.”
“We could start with why he put us together.”
“I presume he has his reasons,” she says.
“Sure he does. Can you name a single good one?”
“Who said they had to be good?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe he just wants to see how we’re going to react.”
“You think he finds this amusing?”
“I think he might,” she says. She smiles slightly. “Don’t you?”
“Did you ever think you’d see me again?”
“I figured the odds were against it.”
“I tell you what’s funny,” he says. “What’s funny is how it seemed so secret at the time. It seemed like we were fooling them back in the academy. A month in the real world—a month into the runs and out of training, and it was clear they must have known all along.”
“They were watching us the whole time,” he says.
“Is that what’s got you so rattled?”
“I’m not rattled,” she says. “
“Obviously,” he replies. “They briefed us in real-time.”
“They briefed us
“That’s the way all of CI works,” he says. “I’ve never met another agent save in the field. I’ve never known an agent who had.”
“Or at least, that would admit to it.”
“And we were briefed by Sinclair himself.”
“Or by something that wore his face.”
“But why would it have done that?”
“To inspire us,” says Haskell dryly.
“And are you inspired?”
“To stop the Rain? Absolutely. To serve the greater glory of CICom? Sure. To help Matthew Sinclair help Matthew Sinclair? Why not?”
“You don’t sound that convinced.”
She says something he doesn’t quite catch.
“What was that?”
“I said Sinclair’s a bastard.”
He stares at her. He glances at the ’copter’s walls. She sneers.
“What does it matter if he hears us now? He heard us
Marlowe has no idea what to say to that. So he says nothing.
“Besides,” she says, “it’s not like he’s going to hear anything
She wipes at her eyes. “Shit,” she says.
“Is this why you haven’t been speaking to me?” Marlowe asks.
“No,” she says. “There’s something else.”
“That something being my being back in your life?”
“That sounds like wishful thinking.”
He doesn’t reply.
“Look,” she says, “all I’m saying is that we can never forget that Sinclair’s the one who handles the handlers. We can never forget he’s the master Operator of them all. That’s all.”
“You just changed the subject,” says Marlowe.
“I was talking about us.”
“What’s there to talk about?” she asks.
“What you’re not telling me.”
“What am I not telling you?”
“What’s really got you so rattled.”
“Look,” she says, “enough with all the questions. Enough with the interrogation. Or is this some kind of seduction? I’ve read your files, Jason—”
“You’ve read my
“—and you know what? I can’t say I
“Or whoever’s speaking for him. Think about it, Jason. I’m the razor. You’re the mechanic. Which means you’re reporting to me.”
Marlowe shakes his head. “Hey,” he says. “Relax. I think you’ve got the wrong idea.”
“Good,” she says.
“I just want to know what you’ve discovered.”
“What have I discovered?” she asks in a voice that would fool anybody else.
“Something you shouldn’t have.”
“I know that look,” he says. “The look that says you’re holding out on everybody. It was driving me crazy throughout the briefing with Sinclair.”
“The one-on-one,” she says.
Not that she needs to. He’s switching into it seamlessly, neural implants letting words flick between them.
“You’re doing this in code?”
“The only safe way,” she replies.
“How did you get my side of the cipher?”
“When I gave your systems that boost back in that city.”
“I thought that was just my suit.”
“Your head wasn’t that much farther away.”
“So what is it you want to tell me?”
“That I made covert downloads in the Citadel.”
“The Citadel? You mean, in South America—”
“While you were out there slugging it out with the Jaguars on the roof. I downloaded every file that was still intact.”
“Of course. That’s who owns the Citadel, right?”
“That’s who used to.”
“Right,” she says. “Anyway, the files didn’t help us. Most of it was wiped by EMP anyway. And then that zeppelin started signaling. So I never mentioned it.”
“If you had, you’d be facing a court-martial,” he says. “Jesus, Claire. What the fuck were you
“How the fuck should I know, Jason? Maybe I was gonna find the blueprint of an escape route. Maybe the location of a distress beacon. Or the coordinates of some evac point. Or
Her voice dies away inside in his head. He sits amidst that silence. Emotions tear at him—fear for this woman, fear of this woman, all of it bound up in something else that he can’t name. He tears away from all of it, focuses:
“Like I said, nothing at the time. But once they’d repaired the damage my cranial software had sustained from the EMP, I went back to those downloads with a revamped toolkit. Some of the data wasn’t recoverable. Some of it was. Some of it dealt with us.”
“One of the files talked about
“Not you and me specifically. Or maybe it did. I don’t know.”
“What did it
“Our memories—” Her voice trails off.
“May be manufactured.”
“Meaning they might have been implanted by the handlers.”
“Presumably to render their asses even more secure than they already are.”
He doesn’t reply.
“Surely I haven’t left you speechless? The handlers brief us in the trance to prevent turned agents from rolling up the network. They’re pros at using the deployment of memory to further their control. If they controlled our waking memories as well, they could configure that memory between missions. Which would make it irrelevant that an agent has been turned. Just install new programs and reboot.”
He stares at her. He realizes he’s doing so while a soundless conversation is taking place. He turns back to the window of the jet-copter, keeps gazing at the fires.
“Look, I’ll transmit you what’s left of the file,” she says. “It spells all this out.”
“Don’t,” he says. “I don’t want to see it.”
“Still the good little errand boy? I’m trying to show you what happens to good little errand boys.”
“So does this mean I haven’t done any of the missions I remember doing?”
“What else would be—
“And what about what happened between us?”
“What about it?”
“Does the document say anything about it? About—that kind of memory?”
“No,” she says. “But think about it. With something like this, security of the handlers probably isn’t the only thing in play. It
“But putting two agents with a history together is the kind of thing that could backfire.”
“It may already have.”
“Which doesn’t help in figuring out what went on between us,” says Marlowe. “Doesn’t help in figuring out if anything ever did.”
“No. It doesn’t.”
“And I’m sure our memories correspond with total precision,” he says acidly.
“That’s a thought. Try me.”
“How about the time we took that ’copter to Stanley Park.”
“What was I wearing?”
“Blue shirt,” he replies. “Grey cap. We looked out upon Vancouver. We looked out upon the ocean—watched the sunset and the cold came on all sudden. I gave you my jacket and you said—”
“No. That’s not what you said.”
“You’re right. That line of verification’s a red herring. The real question is
“Assuming they were.”
“Right,” she says. “Right: assuming they were, when would they have done it. Because they
“I’d say the last few days is your best bet,” says Marlowe.
That one makes her look out the window, shake her head.
“Think about it,” says Marlowe. “We know they’ve assigned us to work together. We know they’re changing up their rules. What better time to prime us than right before we meet?”
“But I recognized you in that city!”
“Did you really?”
“Fuck,” she says.
“And it may not stop there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means maybe you never did find a file in the Citadel.”
“As you say.”
“And you’d better listen. Sinclair’s not leveling with us, Jason. On any level. Even within the briefing itself. All that bullshit he was on about running that data through all those comps and coming up with all those probability vectors…that’s all it is: bullshit. He’s got specific intelligence about something, or he wouldn’t be committing key operatives off-planet. He’s not coming clean.”
“Does that scare you? Or just excite you?”
“I’m not sure I know the difference,” she replies evenly.
“Did you once?”
“Can’t we figure that out as we go?”
“I guess we’ll have to,” he replies.
The ’copter descends toward Houston.
Ten klicks south of Agrippa, the train emerges. Though you could be forgiven for not spotting the tunnel mouth, because to say that this terrain is rough is to put it mildly. But the vehicle now shooting out of the black just doesn’t care. It’s like hot mercury, that train, distended across a quarter-klick of rail as it dives through tunnels and sails across bridges, hurling itself along terrain that would have been deemed impassable a scant twenty years ago. The mountains cluster ever thicker; again and again, they seem to have the train completely boxed in. But—again and again—the train’s a mechanical Houdini extricating itself from apparent confinement, doing everything save pass through solid rock as it bores relentlessly onward en route for Shackleton, at the lunar south pole.
But the view isn’t keeping the Operative’s attention. He’s saving that for the interior of this car. The seats are three to a row on either side of a wide central aisle, with more cleared space up in front. The Operative’s got a row to himself. The tops of the seats are low enough to allow some line of sight to one’s fellow passengers. Though some are military, most of them seem to be corporate—and just technicians at that: grease deep in their faces, tools hung at their belts. The Operative doesn’t like the look of them.
There are two in particular he likes even less. His sixth sense is crawling: up near the front—one with red hair withering into premature grey, the other with grey hair dyed half-red. They haven’t tried anything. They haven’t given any sign they even know each other. The Operative keeps an eye in front of him, strays one eye sideways a little, stays attuned to what’s behind him—and all the while he thinks.
And listens too. To the man inside his head. Because uncertainties within the car can’t compete with the voice that suddenly comes dropping down into the middle of the Operative’s skull as the download kicks in, clothed in an image that sits in the very center of the mind’s eye. Ebony skin. Silver hair. Opticals. Oversized ears.
And grinning mouth.
“Carson, Carson, Carson,” it says. “Did you miss me?”
The Operative stares out the window. Stares at his fellow passengers. Stares at the image’s teeth. Doesn’t speak. Just listens.
“That’s good,” says the mouth. “Real good, Carson. Had to ask, you understand. Even though you can’t answer. Let me assume, though, that the answer’s the same as it was before: no and yes.”
The Operative just stares. Red going grey has risen to his feet, has joined a few other technicians lounging and leaning around at the front of the car—and in their center is grey going red, dealing out a game of Shuk. Or at least the Operative guesses it to be Shuk. There are five persons in all, and Shuk’s a five-person game. But he can’t see the many-shaped cards that are probably now lying on the floor of the car or on some makeshift tabletop made out of someone’s equipment. So he’s left to make his guesses. For minutes. For hours. Then:
“Yes and no,” continues Lynx, “no and yes. Can’t say I blame you. It was bad enough when I got here. It’s much worse now.”
The Operative keeps staring. Red going grey has thrown his right hand back in triumph, laughing. Grey going red’s getting even redder. Now others are separating the two, the Operative half-expecting all the while that they’re going to turn together and come for him. He’s starting to feel quite underdressed.
“But we’ll get you suited for it,” says the mouth. “We’ll get you sorted. Though I wish we didn’t have to. I wish they’d sent me someone else.” Tongue licks out, white teeth flashing behind its curve. “You think I’m pleased to see
The Operative feels himself tipped back. Ever so slightly: but unmistakably. The train is ascending. The bridges on which it’s riding are rising. More blackness is encroaching. Pulsings in that blackness are satellites sweeping low, catching the sun.
“Because the truth,” says Lynx, “it’s that this whole game is going up for grabs. This whole scene is getting out of hand. And we, my friend, are right in the middle of it.”
Now the bridge has risen so far into the peaks that they’re starting to constitute a bona fide horizon. The light of the stars is dribbling onto moonscape. And Lynx’s smile is vanishing.
“So we got to change it up, Carson,” he says. “We have to draw first
So now grey going red is whipping out a knife and trying to cut himself some red streaks. But his target’s not the Operative: red going grey leaps backward, his left arm swinging around in front of him as he pulls his torso out of the path of the serration, his left hand flicking out with one of the many-shaped cards—this one’s a triangle and one of its tips is actually hard-edged sharpness to pluck the jugular, play the red like a firehose out of control. But the hell of it is that grey that’s going red forever is still on the attack. He grabs the wrist that holds the fatal card, tries to turn his assailant’s own limb against him while he stabs in with his other one. The frantic nature of his thrusts parallels the jets of blood flying everywhere. It sends shadows sprawling, bystanders ducking, scarlet splashing, and all the while that smiling mouth just keeps on talking.
“I think you see the way this is going to go,” says Lynx. Data blasts from behind him to grid the whole of zone. “You’re going to die unless you listen to me. This is our nightmare scenario come to life. This is the moment you and I have always dreamt of. So wake the hell up, Carson. Because that’s the fucking
Grey going red is nothing but red now, and a lot of that red’s rubbed off on red going grey, who’s also now getting stuck straight through the belly to add to the royal crimson. As if to keep from falling, each man grabs the other, twists his blade in deeper, one practically decapitating, the other impaling almost up to the heart.
“And you know what our biggest problem is?” asks Lynx. “It’s you. You’ve got to loosen up. This place is far colder than you could ever hope to be. I don’t need the man who thinks he can outchill the next ice age. I need someone who acts like a normal human being. Ever tried smiling, Carson? It’s not that bad when you get used to it. When all is said and done: it’s not such a contortion after all.”
The mountains writhe. The sky reels. The two flopping bodies are lost to sight up front. Unless they were a diversion of some kind, they had absolutely nothing to do with the Operative. No one in the car is standing now.
“You stand out,” says Lynx. “But no matter. With the Elevator down, all bets are off anyway. The prospect of Armageddon is growing. The other side seems to think we did it, we seem to think the other side was behind it, and no one but no one thinks that this outfit that calls itself the Rain is anything but a front for players hot on the trail of the main chance.”
Sudden rearview: the Operative glances backward as the doors behind him open and suits swarm at speed into the room. SpaceCom military police. They check the bodies. They eye the technicians. The technicians return the favor.
“So,” says Lynx, “try this on for size. Agrippa: don’t come back to it unless you have to. Sarmax: weighed in the balance and found wanting. You: dancing to the tune I call. And whatever you do, don’t sit still. Because there are no guarantees. At all.”
Medics enter. God knows where they were hanging out. They unzip some body bags, stuff ’n’ load, zip ’em up, head on out. The cops exit with them.
“As to contingencies,” says Lynx. “If they try to take you, let them. Play dumb. Buy time. Maybe you can fox your way out. And if they vector onto your identity, I’ll switch your ass, buy you a little margin.”
Information washes around the Operative, information shot through with moonscape. And what, he thinks, if they vector onto yours…
“But first they have to find me,” says Lynx. “First they have to see me. But see: I’m invisible, Carson. I’m the fungus that grows on the walls of the disused shafts. I’m the ghost in the final machine. It’s all around me, man. It’s like being in somebody’s skull. It’s almost as fun. Are you ready for the run to end all runs?”
Long bridge becomes long tunnel. Long chute torpedoes past. Then:
“So steel your heart,” says Lynx. “Prep those weapons. This’ll put us both on the map, Carson, on the map for keeps for sure. They’ll never forget this one. Not like we’re going to give them the chance. Not when we’re fishing for pearls of wisdom, Carson, pearls of wisdom. Data you can
Train emerges from tunnel: chute gets torn away, shell shorn off by a darkness abandoned by the sun. It’s all black. It’s all mountains. It’s all stars.
“And this is how you’ll work it, Carson. You want the formula, here it is: by keeping the Earth overhead and the zone at your back. By keeping your own counsel and playing all the ends against the middle. By making this Moon yours.”
Through the last peaks, and lights become visible in the depths toward which the train’s now racing.
“And we’ll start,” says Lynx, “with the place that’s south of every south.”
S omewhere back on Earth another train is rushing east. Somewhere in that train’s a private compartment. Two men sit within. The door’s shut. It’s sealed.
So now their mouths aren’t.
“Okay,” says Spencer. “I’ve got this place rigged. It’s time to continue our conversation.”
“Yeah? What’s to continue?”
“A lot, actually. We need to know a little bit more about one another if we’re going to pull this off.”
“Nah, Spencer. You’ve got it wrong. Less we know, the better.”
“I disagree. In fact, it’s about time you stopped lying to me.”
“I mean it’s not like you’re some kind of zone god.”
“Did I ever say I was?”
“You damn well implied it. You think that just doing a hack on my apartment block is somehow going to convince me that you can tap into the lines at will? That you’re off the cameras altogether?”
“Never claimed either.”
“But having me believe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it? I’d be less likely to bolt that way, wouldn’t I?”
Linehan says nothing. Just looks out the window.
“I’m talking to you, Linehan. Look at me.” Linehan’s head turns as though it’s mounted on a swivel. “What are you using? You’re not a razor yourself.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The fact that
“Of course you are. I knew that already.”
“Of course you knew that already,” says Spencer. “That’s why you came knocking on my door in the first place. But I can see straight through your parlor tricks. Straight through you too. You don’t talk like a razor, you don’t act like one, and you certainly aren’t thinking like one.”
“Alright, Spencer. How
“In endless circles.”
“Got ten years?”
“Your point being?”
“My point’s made. What were you using for that conapt trick? A local node?”
“Something like that.”
“So why haven’t they picked you up yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that there’s no way you could be on the loose with just a piece of localized shit. They would have rolled up your identity by now. There’s no way you should be sitting before me, breathing. There’s no way at all.”
“What are you getting at, asshole?”
“That you’re working for the feds.”
“Already told you I ain’t.”
“So where are the others?”
“If you don’t enjoy federal blessing, then
“Listen,” says Linehan, “what you gotta under—”
But Spencer’s just talking over him: “And you know how you can get some
“Fine,” says Linehan, “you win. The others are dead.”
“What happened to them?”
“Blown out of an expresser about fifteen klicks up.”
“Two days ago.”
“Two days ago? You mean—”
“Right,” says Linehan. “With all that Elevator shit, the fact that a suborbital bound for Paris had bought it in mid-flight and scattered itself all over Greenland several hours earlier got knocked off the headlines and never made it back. They’re saying structural integrity was lost. I don’t exactly know what the reasons for that were, but I can tell you that they weren’t accidental. Awful lot of fuel on those fuckers. They’re fuel-bitches, really. All it takes to send one up’s a little spark. And that was all it took.”
“And what set off that spark?”
“What didn’t? See, you could say that we were expendable. You could say that. But you’d be lying. We were worse than expendable. We were marked for disposal from the start.”
“Because we learned things we weren’t supposed to. That’s all, really. I’d reverse it, you know. I really would. If I could, I’d ditch my memory. I’d ditch it all. I’d go back to them and tell them I was gonna do all that. But they wouldn’t believe me. They wouldn’t listen. And even if they did, you know what this business is like. Dead meat—safer than live. Right, Spencer?”
“Sure,” says Spencer. “Dead meat’s always safer. Who are we talking about?”
“We could be talking about anyone,” says Linehan. “That’s the point.”
“So point me in the right direction.”
“No,” says Linehan. “Gonna give you a little bit now, and you’ll get the rest when we cross the border.”
“The rest of what?”
“The rest of the story, asshole. Way I heard it, you like stories. Right? That’s why you’re in this country in the first place. That’s all that gets the Priam Combine’s rocks off, right? You broker information. You profit from data. You find the juice, your masters sell it to the highest bidder. Well, this one’ll get bid so high it’ll melt the fucking auction. Think your team’s good enough to take that heat, Spencer?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does. Surely you wouldn’t sell to someone who wasn’t going to be able to handle it.”
“You’re confusing me with someone who gives a fuck, Spencer. As long as
“And I was one of them.”
“Yeah, Spencer. Just one among many. It’s true. But don’t feel bad. I chose you all the same. Because it wasn’t just a matter of being proximate. It was a matter of connections.”
“Meaning I put my stash of names together from two different sets of sources. One was keepers of the records within this country. I had the inside track on some of them. Lots of records. Lots of keepers. Lots of data that some know, but not everyone. See, Spencer, the people who rule this country keep a lot of things hidden from one another. Always have, always will. And if you know how to work it, you can make that fact work for you.”
“What was the second set of sources?”
“Neutral data. I’m a little bit of a traveler, Spencer. Bit of a globetrotter. And if you want to get neutral dirt, best place to do it is beyond the Atlantic and Pacific firewalls. Right? So that became another asset that I had at my disposal. Things I dug up via the first set might have sufficed, but the second was my top choice. Especially now that a lot of shit that’s been buried deep is getting stirred up. So when the rubber met the road, I thought of you, on my second list and not on the first so far. Not too far away, either—and undoubtedly more than capable of helping me out. If you felt like it. If you could be made to see reason.”
“And your colleagues? When did you ditch them?”
“When they split for Kennedy. I figured that they’d be able to stay below the radar screen until they reached passport control. But I figured that after that they were gonna get busted. I didn’t place as much confidence in our razor as the rest did. Fucking optimists. They must have thought they had it made when they put the ground behind them.” He shakes his head. “Me, I cut loose. I turned to my portfolio of options. I turned to you, Spencer.”
“You wanted more. I’m giving you more.”
“So tell me how you’re moving around.”
“Standard procedure. Our razor locked each of us into our new identities and threw away the key.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t hold on to your reins himself. Given how frisky you seem to be.”
“I had an understanding with her,” says Linehan. His lip curls upward in a half smile. “She helped me get away without alerting the rest of the team. I pointed out that my enhancements were going to make it tough for me to get through an ever-tightening border security.”
“Look at me, Spencer. Take a good look. Even without weapons, I’m built for one thing. That’s going to be obvious to any halfwit customs software.”
“And now your razor’s dead.”
“She is,” says Linehan. “Turns out she couldn’t configure an identity strong enough to get out of the country. So she bought it. Along with the rest of them.” He shakes his head.
“Someone was willing to do a lot to make sure they never made it to Europe.”
“Someone was. Someone still is. So how do you propose we get there?”
“I propose we do what we’re doing, Linehan. Straight run to the Mountain.”
“Yeah. And then what?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“I’ve been giving. It’s time for some quid pro quo.”
“Oh really? So it’s quid pro quo day, is it? Tit for tat, huh? You haven’t even
“We’re on the same team, Spencer.”
“We’re not on the same team at all. This fugitive life has warped your fucking brain.”
“Then I’m gonna spell it out for you. We’re both professionals. Those who aren’t can never understand what that’s like. What those places are like. The one we’re in now. The one I’m coming from. But we can both come out of this winning.”
“Define winning,” says Spencer.
“Us both living,” says Linehan. “Tell me your plan.”
“You already know my plan.”
“If you know about Priam, then you know why we’re going to the Mountain.”
“To ask for help.”
“Exactly,” says Spencer.
“And how is the one you’re asking likely to take it?”
“Very badly, I suspect,” says Spencer.
T he jet-copter slides down the runway in horizontal landing mode, slowing all the while. It slants off the straight, taxis along ramps that thread it through the heart of the spaceport’s tangled maze. It proceeds past other craft waiting. It waits while other craft proceed. Sometimes the runway upon which it rolls bridges other routes. Sometimes it’s the reverse.
“Complicated,” says Marlowe.
“It’s Houston,” says Haskell.
The craft rolls into a less-trafficked area. Lights rise and fall through the haze at the far reaches of the runways. Hangar clusters draw closer.
“Looks like that one’s ours,” says Marlowe.
“Take my advice,” says Haskell, “drop the possessives.”
Because: they’re lazy. They constitute labels. They represent assumptions. They hide the truth. Beyond the periphery of your vision: that’s where it all goes down. Behind your own eyeballs: that’s where it all hangs out. Secret names in the dark that you’re hiding even from yourself: shadowed orbits that might just be revealed when the mood strikes them.
“All I’m saying is that we need to revert to first principles,” says Haskell.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Marlowe.
“Makes two of us,” replies Haskell.
Makes for one dynamic partnership, that’s for sure. She figures that must be the point. Volatility’s been known to strengthen the mix sometimes. Let agents bitch and moan and wonder all they want. But give them something to sink their teeth into and a reason to care…
“Tell me then,” says Marlowe, “how you think this’ll play out.”
“Take my advice,” she says. “Don’t think.”
The jet-copter trundles across an apron. It rumbles into a small hangar and rolls to a stop. The doors open. Marlowe and Haskell get up, get out, get hustled by waiting soldiers across the concrete and into an elevator set within one wall. Seconds later, they’re rising through the ceiling—and then through many more. It’s almost enough to make them think that this is the way into space after all.
But eventually the elevator slows and stops. Their escorts lead them down another corridor and into a room.
With a view. Windows occupy the entirety of one wall. Gantries and runways sprawl all the way to ocean. The sky’s filled with craft receding and craft approaching. Exhaust hangs heavy overhead. Concrete shimmers in the heat.
“Welcome to Houston,” says a voice.
The voice’s owner sits within a chair set in the corner. He regards Marlowe and Haskell without expression.
* * *
You say that Earth’s south pole is dark six months a year? The Moon’s nets all twelve with ease. Picture Malapert Mountain gleaming overhead, a black and furnaced pearl. Picture a plateau anchored halfway down into the void beneath it—and you’ve got your fix on Shackleton. But to really understand that place, you have to move beyond it. So picture the trails that lead down to nowhere. Picture the prospectors gone missing for more than five decades now. The bulldozers that hauled away and never came back. The valleys that lead to cul-de-sacs of killing angles, the caves that become catacombs, the craters within craters within craters. So tangled, that land: even worse than man’s mind—and now the Operative wanders through the streets that make up an outpost suspended above the polar maw itself.
He figures no one will give a shit about the Elevator down here. He’s right. These guys are rugged individualists. They think they’re so tough they don’t need a dome. Most of Shackleton is underground anyway. Including the main rail station. The Operative’s in that station’s lockers now. He keys the door to one locker in particular, picks up several packages. He whistles up a conveyor, places the packages on its platform, lets its gyro-stabilized bulk trail him as he walks out into corridors and passageways that are a lot wider than those within Agrippa Station.
Lot brighter, too. Turns out these guys are light hogs—they crank the illumination in compensation for their lack of sun. Technicians everywhere. Some suited. Some not. There are a fair number of soldiers. Ladders carve upward along the walls, lead to rows of shopfronts and businesses. Main drag, they call it—one lane for people walking and another for flitcars. Yet another for bona fide crawlers. And still another for thrusters.
But the Operative’s just walking. He leaves the central grid behind, leads his conveyor down a side street. The walls and ceiling close in. The passage zigzags through the rock. The lights grow more sporadic. Graffiti covers at least half the doors. What’s left of the overhead lighting stutters fitfully. The low-rent sector: and hopefully someone’s been paying the rent on one room in particular…
Someone has. The Operative triggers the lock, goes on in. It’s not much. Even less than what he had in Agrippa, in fact: just a cot and a wall-screen on one wall and a toilet on the other. Plus an incandescent coil overhead. The Operative flicks on the light. He unloads the conveyor and scrambles its memory before sending it on its way. He shuts the door, goes to work, starts opening containers.
Five minutes later he’s standing in the suit. Its material clasps in around his legs, arms, torso. He hears his breath echoing hollowly. This suit looks like a typical miner’s outfit, though in truth it’s anything but. The Operative lets his weapons range upon his screens. He checks over all his systems.
Suddenly he hears a voice between his ears.
Not his either.
T he twenty-first century wasn’t long in the coming before New York started to grow again. Refugees from the strife down south, immigrants fleeing the chaos abroad, fugitives from the rural as the combines took over, escapees from the shutdown of towns—and all such infusions intensified by a proliferation of birthrates across all demographics as the world grew more desperate and the mass of population grew poorer and the peasant mentality took over on the streets. Wasn’t just New York by that point, either. It was Newark and Boston and Philly all rolled into one thing that encompassed them all and piled on upward toward the heavens. Same story for so many other megacities. The Mountain isn’t even the biggest of them. But at the dawn of the twenty-second century, it’s the largest in the States by far. For five hundred klicks, it’s the Eastern Seaboard. For two hundred klicks inland, it’s the land itself.
For those within, it’s the whole world.
The two men exit the intercity at Grand Central, take a local from there. It blasts through the tube, sweeping recycled air before it. It stops three times, disgorging humans, taking them on. It stops a fourth time—and that’s their destination. Spencer and Linehan get out, rise on escalators that give way to a larger space—rivers of glass and steel, and all around: translucent tubes with people pouring through them, no ceiling in evidence save blur. The two men step off at the appointed platform. They pass along a ramp. They walk through a wide doorway.
Suddenly they’re inside in a way they weren’t before. The hubbub of conversation has shifted from the fragmented roar of the streets to the more subdued burbling into which voices conscious of each other recede. They’re standing in a foyer. Plush carpeting, chandeliers hung overhead. Clerks and bellhops looking bored. Savoy Metropole. Second-rate hotel. First choice for them right now.
Five minutes later they’re in a suite. Two bedrooms and a lounge: they sweep the whole place. They find nothing. They set up the surveillance inhibitors and repair to the lounge. They sort through the minibar, helping themselves to water and coffee. They put their feet back and look at each other.
“Now what?” asks Linehan.
“Now I make a call,” says Spencer.
* * *
Y ou’re alive,” says Haskell.
“An astute observation,” says Morat. He remains seated in his chair. His hands perch lightly on the armrests. The merest outline of a smile hovers on his face.
“How did you get out?” says Haskell.
“I used the stairs.”
“All eighty stories of them?”
“Hardly,” says Morat. “Eight was about all I could take. And then I broke through a window.”
“Why not? That’s how you got up the shaft, right? Like an angel speeding off to heaven, so they told me. You were lucky, Claire. Your mission failed. You fell. So did the sky. But you survived.”
“Just barely,” says Haskell.
“I’m not sure we’ve been introduced,” says Marlowe.
“We haven’t,” replies Morat. He gazes at Marlowe without expression.
“This is Morat,” mutters Haskell.
“And who,” asks Marlowe, “is Morat?”
“He’s an envoy,” says Morat.
“And how do you know him?”
“She knows me,” says Morat, “because I was almost the last thing she ever saw.”
“And here I was thinking I’d seen you for the last time,” says Haskell.
“Almost. But now I’m back.”
“Same reason anyone comes back. Because the job isn’t done.”
“And that job would be?”
“Because we weren’t exactly a winning team?”
“Ah,” says Morat, “but this time you have a real-live mech at your disposal.” He gestures at Marlowe.
“Are you trying to bait me?” asks Marlowe.
“Perhaps. Is it working?”
“I think it just might be.”
“So control it. You’re a mechanic. This lady is a razor. When you’re on the Moon, she’ll pull
“What,” says Marlowe softly, “is it that you want?”
“Reassurance,” says Morat. “Nothing more than that.” He stands up, steps to the window. “Look at that. Nothing like a genuine view to clarify one’s thinking. See those ships? Picture them falling back to Earth. The runways? Imagine them chopped to dust. That’s what Cabo Norte was like when the missiles hit her. The rockets toppled. The hangars collapsed. The fuel burned. It was inferno. Yet it was nothing—just the precursor to that which the Rain would visit upon us.”
“We’ve heard this speech,” says Haskell.
“It’s no speech,” says Morat. “Get that through your head. Tonight we’re on full alert. We’ve been that way for two days now. And there we’ll stay until we defeat the Rain or unleash upon the East or both. Think of a vehicle half driven off a cliff. It totters on that edge. Those within know that moving to save themselves could send them over. Yet they have to chance it anyway. Such is our dilemma. The difference being that we don’t even know in which direction the edge lies. We don’t even know whether we’re past the point of no return already.”
“I think we steered over it about fifty years ago,” says Haskell.
“Our planet might have,” says Morat. “We didn’t. We’ll live on. Even if we have to dwell in bunkers beneath the crust. Even if we have to lift the whole game into space.”
“Isn’t that exactly what the Rain accuses us of doing?” asks Marlowe.
“And there’s a certain justice in their charge,” replies Morat. “After all, we send up two more of our number tonight.”
“When do we leave?”
“As soon as your transport gets here.”
“Hold on a second,” says Marlowe. “Sinclair told us the ship was already at Houston.”
“He said it was fueling,” says Haskell.
“It was,” says Morat. “And then it launched.”
They look at him. He grins.
“We needed it elsewhere at short notice,” he says. “We couldn’t wait. We improvised. We’re moving a B-130 up from Monterrey. You know this game—circumstances change too fast to count on them.”
“But the destination remains the same?”
“It does. When the time to go comes, I’ll return to brief you. But for now, don’t leave this room.” He moves past them. The door opens as he approaches.
“You’re talking like we’re in a war zone,” says Marlowe.
“Exactly,” replies Morat.
The door slides shut behind him.
It’s just a voice. It’s no vid. Somehow the lack of visual makes that voice sound different. There’s no grin to underscore sardonic menace, no silver hair, no opticals to hint at all the lenses behind the eyes.
There’s just Lynx.
“Carson,” says the voice. “You’ve got it.”
“You’re damn right I’ve got it,” says the Operative. “I’m in it right now.”
“Makes two of us.”
“So I noticed. Is this another download?”
“No,” says Lynx, “it’s just the same old me.”
“You’re talking to me live,” says the Operative. He watches the codes crystallize in front of him. They check out. Which is good.
“No,” says Lynx. “I’m guessing what you’re going to say. I’ve worked it all out in advance. I’m jacking off while I let this proxy do the talking.”
“You’re really funny,” says the Operative.
“No,” says Lynx. “But I really am live, Carson. I really am here.”
“Then you’re putting us both at risk. What are you playing at, Lynx?”
“I haven’t been
“Why,” says the Operative.
“There’s been a change of plan. Sarmax isn’t here after all.”
“I think you heard me just fine.”
“You’re saying I came down here for nothing?”
“Not at all,” says Lynx. “He’s here. Just not
“You’re going to have to clarify that.”
“Four hours ago, I was in possession of reliable intel to indicate that Sarmax was holed up at his company’s downtown HQ.”
“Right,” says the Operative. “That was in the data you gave me.”
“Exactly,” says Lynx.
“Yeah,” says the Operative. “That was a pretty good rant you got on. I was eating it up. You must be wired higher than the L2 fleet.”
“Sure,” says Lynx. “I’m wired higher than the L2 fleet. I’m wired to the point where I’m starting to shit metal. None of which changes the fact that Sarmax split this morning. You just missed him, Carson. But cheer up: he didn’t go very far.”
“Eighty klicks north.”
“Which north?” says the Operative.
“Farside north,” says Lynx. He supplies the coordinates.
“What in shit’s name is there?”
“One of his bases. Totally isolated. Totally fortified. Take a look at this.”
The image flashes through the Operative’s head: “So when’s he coming back?”
“He’s staying there permanently?”
“His soul’s not,” says Lynx.
“His soul’s going to hit heaven without passing go.”
“You know exactly what,” says Lynx. “You’re going to get in there and kill him.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
“How the fuck am I going to get in
“Calm down,” says Lynx.
“I am calm,” says the Operative.
“Good,” says Lynx. “Because I’m not. I’ve been too far gone in the dark for too long to be in the mood to listen to your bitching. So now you listen to me, Carson. I’ve got the location of the
“End of the discussion? End of the discussion? Jesus Christ, Lynx. It’s the
“Is that a fact,” says Lynx.
“It’s not just a fact,” says the Operative, “it’s a fundamental fucking truth. Listen to me, Lynx. I’ve already had a goddamn nuke go off next to my head. I’ve already had to stay busy staying out of the bullseye of whole racks of strategic weaponry. Last thing I want to do now is to get my ass turned into cannon fodder just because you don’t have the balls to tell anyone above us that the plan has been rendered absurd by events on the ground.”
“You’re right,” says Lynx. “For once you’re right, Carson. I don’t have the balls to tell them that. And I
“Nobody’s talking about insubordination,” says the Operative.
“Really,” says Lynx. “Because that’s what it’s sounding like to me.”
“That’s because you’re not listening,” says the Operative. “Mech to razor: calling a plan crazy isn’t insubordination. Insubordination is disobeying orders. Which I haven’t done. Not yet, anyway. Though I have to admit I’m awfully tempted when I find that the razor holding my leash is my old pal Lynx, who’s apparently still just as fucking nuts as he was half a decade back, and apparently still lacing himself with every chemical he can lay his mitts on. Come on, man. There’s too much history here. This is vendetta road. It leads nowhere.”
“No,” says Lynx. “It’s the only way that I can see.”
“The only way that
“Sure, me. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying it sounds like you’re the one who thought this whole thing up.”
“Which just happens to involve the elimination of the only guy crazy enough to call you crazy to your face.”
“You don’t have the big picture, Carson.”
“The picture that whatever’s in your veins gives you?”
“The picture you can’t hope to touch. Millions of light-years, Carson. Chains of logic so far out they’ve done the red-shift. Don’t even think about trying to follow me.”
“Then don’t make me. Just give me a sense as to how this whole thing fits together. Fuck, man. So far you’ve given me fuck-all. You’ve spent all that time in your own mind’s tunnels, maybe I can notice a thing or two you haven’t.”
“We haven’t got a choice,” rejoins Lynx. But for the first time the confidence in his voice is waning. “We’ve got to nail him now. He might go anywhere next.”
“Never mind that,” says the Operative. “If it’s not because you hate him—if it’s not because the boys downstairs never forgave him—then why the fuck are we even after him in the first place? Is it just because we suspect him?”
“No,” says Lynx. “It’s because we can put his corpse to good use.”
“Then you’d better talk quickly.”
“Well,” says Lynx, “it’s like this.”
* * *
C ontrol’s not human. But Control’s been rigged to talk like one to keep agents on their toes.
“Spencer? Where are you?” The voice in Spencer’s skull is a hiss against static.
“Closer than you think,” Spencer replies in words that aren’t spoken aloud.
“Closer than you should be.”
“So you know.”
“So I can see. Took me a moment. What are you doing here?”
Control’s been doing time in the Mountain for a while now. Spencer doesn’t know precisely where. Maybe Control doesn’t either. Control’s physical location is a lot less important than the real one. And Control lurks in that reality, shifting beneath endless shades of camouflage, creeping through the branches of a jungle whose ground is something called detection, whose most feared denizens are the things we may as well call eyes.
“I need your help, Control.”
“Sounds like you’re beyond help, Spencer.”
“What makes you think I’m prepared to give it?”
“Control. I’m a dead man otherwise.”
“I got flushed from cover.”
“And you ran straight to me.”
“Let me explain.”
“You just did.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It’s even simpler than that,” replies Control. “You know the rules, Spencer. If you’re flushed from cover, you’re on your own. You don’t compromise the network. You don’t contact other agents. And you never even
“So cut me off.” It’s more curse than statement.
“But I already have,” says Control. “Do you think I’ve lost my reason? I’m speaking to you through more proxies than you’ve lived seconds in your life. I’m hanging by a thread. I’m still enough to get to the bottom of this. You shouldn’t be here. You came anyway. We may as well make the most of it.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Then follow this. You’re beyond salvation. You’ve placed yourself in my hands. Try to disconnect and I’ll make you writhe for eons. Make it easy for me, Spencer. I’ll end you far more quickly.”
“What about letting me live?”
“How can I do that when you’re so intent on condemning yourself? Who am I to stand in your way? Now tell me why you came here.”
“Because I’ve got what you want.”
“What is it I want, Spencer?”
“And what were you proposing to do with this information.”
“Get it out of the country.”
“So upload it. I’ll take care of it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“What you can’t do is strike a bargain with me, Spencer. You forget that for me none of this is new. I’ve had this conversation so many times that this is practically like listening to the tape. Compromised agents are always the same. They always beg. They always plead. They always try to bargain. I always sweep them from the table. I won’t tolerate it, Spencer.”
“You don’t understand, Control. I can’t give you the information because it’s in somebody else’s head.”
“Someone outside the network. Someone who’s right here with me.”
“I don’t know exactly. Potentially, an asset.” Data swims across the wires from inside Spencer’s head. Some of it Control accepts. Some of it Control doesn’t. But the conversation never falters:
“To us. Maybe. He’s good. He knows who I am.”
“And you don’t know who he is? No wonder you’re acting like meat.”
“But he gave me a down payment on that information.”
“And do you have this down payment?”
And Spencer does. More data winds its way through the circuits of the Mountain. Spencer pictures Control shielded behind a near-infinite proxy-series, scanning that data, scanning for hunters, scanning scenarios into which the current moment might lead.
And then responding.
“This is most interesting, Spencer. Assuming it’s genuine. Where did you get it?”
“I told you already. This man gave it to me.”
“Ah. And where did this man acquire it?”
“He says he stole it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Because it’s good, Spencer. It’s very good. If it’s real.”
“And if it is, does this change things between us?”
“Things between us can never change, Spencer. I’m your handler. You’re my razor.”
“I meant are you going to let me continue?”
“I know what you meant. The answer is it doesn’t matter. Even if I don’t finish you, this country will.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this information isn’t enough to buy your passage, Spencer. It’s still short of quota.”
“But there’s more where that came from.”
“You mean in your asset’s head?”
“Yes—according to your asset.”
“He said if we got him out, he’d put what I’ve just given you to shame.”
“Did he give you any hint as to its nature?”
“He intimated that it involved the Rain.”
“And you believe him.”
“I don’t know what to believe, Control.”
“Then let me help you out. Of course he’s going to say that. Anything to light a fire under us. Anything to put us into motion.”
“He’s a player.”
“He’s a problem. He’s either a federal plant or else he’s a con artist way out of his league. Either way he’s poison. And so, I fear, are you. You’d have me risk exposing the backbone of the network to someone who’s showing us no cards whatsoever? I fear for your reason, Spencer.”
“The network already
“No,” says Control, “
“The times are volatile, Control.” Spencer chooses his words as though they’re stones atop which he’s stepping in rapid succession. “Who knows what piece of data could constitute the edge? You’re all logic, but you’re staring straight into unknown. Maybe this is the break that sets the whole thing on its head. Maybe this is what propels Priam to supremacy among the data-combines. Who knows? Who can say what will constitute that lever? Who can even call the odds? But one’s thing for sure: if I’m dead anyway, then
“I think you’ve already made your last run, Spencer.”
“I’m making it right now. All you’re doing is getting in the fucking way. Give me a shot at border. That’s all I’m asking for, Control. Give me a shot at border, or off me here and now.”
“Indeed,” says Control. It’s rare that voice sounds hesitant, but hesitant is how Control is sounding. It means the calculations are that complex. That there are that many imponderables. That this is a tough call.
Or at least that Control wants it to look that way.
“Okay, Spencer. Give me a few more minutes here. I’m going to take a look at what you’ve given me. I’m going to scout out the current situation on the borders. And while I’m at it, I’m going to see if I can trace your friend.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“Good thing I am, Spencer. What does this man call himself anyway?”
“He calls himself Linehan.”
“And does that name link to an identity?”
“I don’t think it’s his real name, no.”
“I didn’t ask what his real name was,” snaps Control. “Of course it’s not his real name. Not unless he’s as unhinged as you seem to be on the verge of becoming. What I asked you is whether the name he’s told you is the name he’s using to get around.”
“He’s bought all his tickets in that name, yes.”
“Is he a razor?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then who configured his identity?”
“And what happened to his razor?”
“It’s in the data I’ve given you. Died fleeing the country. In that expresser crash two days back.”
“Does he have any other identities?”
“I assume he doesn’t. Otherwise he wouldn’t need us.”
“Leave the assuming to me, Spencer. Let me do some digging. I’ll need his chips. His retinas. And his skin. Not to mention a heads-up on anything he’s got that might trip the wires at customs.”
“What should I tell him when I ask him for all that?”
“Tell him the truth. Tell him I’m looking at options. Pass it all on to me without compromising your own software.”
“Can you get us out tonight?”
“If I can get you out at all,” says Control, “then I can get you out tonight.”
“And then what?”
“You’ll be met at landfall.”
“It could really be that simple?”
“It would be nothing of the sort. But I need more information, Spencer. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know who’s after him. We don’t know what they believe about him. They may think he’s gone to ground. They may think he’s six feet under. They may be outside your room right now. We don’t know.”
“Nor do we know who
“That’s not the real question,” says Control. “
“But it’s someone with power.”
“Used to have power, maybe. Not now. Now he’s got just enough to move around. To kick down your door.”
“And then haul me out that door for good.”
“Exactly. He’s a live wire. That’s why he’s still living. So watch him. If we furnish him with the road out, he’ll try to run as soon as he springs the border.”
“You think so?”
“I suspect so. But in truth it depends.”
“On what makes a man try to run.”
“Not sure I’m the best person to answer that one,” says Spencer.
T wo people in a room. The woman’s standing. The man is sitting. Outside, ships wheel past. Inside, lips weave patterns that distract from the real conversation that’s going on between the sentences:
“How well do you remember him?”
“Well enough,” says Haskell.
“Which doesn’t mean you ever really met him.”
“True enough,” says Haskell. “But who cares? May as well say that this is memory right now.”
“It may well be,” says Marlowe.
It’s an art that every agent learns: how to have two conversations at once. How to transmit signals while still listening to what’s said audibly. How to talk out loud while still monitoring what’s reaching the neural implants. In such circumstances what’s projected by voice is usually centered on banalities. What’s projected on wireless is usually less so.
Especially when it involves questions with no safe answers.
“There’s no end to that line of thinking.”
“You started it.”
“No,” she says, “I didn’t. I just found out about it. I never
“You think killing someone’s future’s any better?”
“You take less of their life that way.”
“Sophistry,” says Marlowe.
“Reality,” says Haskell. “And you should hope so. Having done enough of it.”
“Done enough of what?”
“I never killed anybody who wasn’t trying to return the favor. What’s up here? Do you want me to feel guilty?”
“How can I answer that?”
“Oh,” says Marlowe slowly. “
“Of course,” she says softly. “At least you see your victims. At least you give them a chance to fight.”
“Not if I can help it,” he replies. He arches an eyebrow. “Didn’t that file tell you I have no remorse?”
“Look,” she says, “I’m sorry I told you I’d read that.”
“But were you sorry to have read it in the first place?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re sure about so much else. Why not this?”
“Because I’m sure about nothing that concerns Jason Marlowe.”
“Probably because you’re sure about nothing that concerns Claire Haskell.”
“I understand myself fine,” she says.
“It’s my feelings that are the problem.”
“Same here. But then again, you already know that.”
“You read my file,” he says.
“I thought we’d gotten past that.”
“You know my memories, Claire. You were part of them.”
“But you don’t even know if those memories were real!”
“They’re real enough to count.” This last is said out loud. He stands up. She steps back to that window. Turns away. Turns back. Her eyes are wet with tears.
“I know,” she says, and now she’s talking out loud too. “Same here. You left. You came back. I feel like they’re fucking with me. They’re fucking with me by putting you here.”
“Maybe some good will come of it.”
“Good,” she says. “Come here.”
He walks to her, stands next to her. They don’t look at each other. They just watch the traffic rumble on the endless concrete, rise up into those endless skies. She reaches out, touches his hand.
“We’re going to the Moon,” she says.
“I don’t care where we’re going.”
“I do,” she replies.
He says nothing to that—just leans over, starts running a finger down her cheek. She puts her head on his shoulder. He turns into her, kisses her on the lips.
“About time we got this show on the road,” says Morat.
The words ring around their heads. The door to the room slides open. Morat’s standing there. He steps forward even as the buzzing of the room’s intercom subsides. The door hisses shut behind him.
“You often listen in on other people’s conversations?” asks Haskell.
“In point of fact,” says Morat, “I never stop.”
“Which is as it should be,” replies Haskell. “For a man who has no life of his own—”
“Please,” says Morat. “Which of us does?”
“Speak for yourself.”
“I’ll speak for all of us. Having no life is the price of being in the life. As you well know. Your transport’s here. They’re topping off the boosters. You’ll board in just a moment.”
“But first you’re going to brief us,” says Marlowe. “I mean, assuming you’re here for a
“I got a couple of good ones,” says Morat. “I got your number, Marlowe. You’d better not fuck this up and let our Claire get hurt. She dies and you’d better not come back. You’re expendable. She’s not. You got that?”
“Sure,” says Marlowe.
“Good. Because that’s the first item of the secondary briefing.”
“A joint briefing?” Haskell sounds amused.
“You have tactical command. But we need you to work as a unit. You’ll withhold nothing from Jason. That’s straight from the old man himself.”
She wonders whether the double meaning is intended. She wonders many things. “How can the secondary briefing compensate for the fact that the first involved no trance?”
“Because you and Jason come specially prepared,” replies Morat. “Item two: we now believe the Throne may be the Rain’s ultimate target. If that’s the case, whatever they’re up to on the Moon will be intended to get them closer to him.”
“Is there a Praetorian presence on the Moon?” asks Haskell.
“Item three,” says Morat without acknowledging her question. “The struggle between the Commands is intensifying in parallel with the search for Autumn Rain. Partially because the Coms’ individual investigations are all running onto the same track. But also because with the Throne threatened, other players in the Inner Cabinet become much more likely to attempt a coup. At the very least they need to be ready in case someone
“Can you project the latest strength estimates for the Commands?” asks Marlowe.
Morat sends a screen hurtling into their minds:
SpaceCom (Szilard) 28%
InfoCom (Montrose) 26%
ArmyCom (Secord) 5%
NavCom (Asgard) 22%
CICom (Sinclair) 19%
“The usual caveats apply,” he adds. “The current relative power of the Coms, expressed as infighting capability rather than firepower. ArmyCom alone could blow up the world ten times—but as a contender in the Inner Cabinet, it’s pretty much toast. The last few months have seen to that. And you can see who’s benefited.”
Haskell can. “Info and Space are really getting up there.”
“The hatred between those two runs deep,” says Morat. “Maybe too deep. One’s tempted to speculate that the Throne let Army get eaten a little too
Marlowe and Haskell say nothing.
“Good,” says Morat. “Say nothing. Speculating on the Throne is my privilege. Sinclair has supported this president since long before he was president. He won’t stop now. Stay alert for the Rain trying to take advantage of the conflict among the other Commands. All of them save Army maintain units on the Moon. SpaceCom’s control of Agrippa and the fleet at L2 gives it the upper hand. But it’s hardly a settled issue. It’s made even less settled by the fact that at Zurich we gave the East a quarter of the whole damn rock. Which also happens to be item four—keep an eye out for any linkage between Eurasian agents and Autumn Rain. The hardliners in the Coalition appear to be gaining in power.”
A second screen flits into their heads. It shows dossiers of certain members of the Praesidium.
“The core faction of hardliners,” says Morat. “Their support is growing, in spite of the dominance of the moderates these last few years. All the individuals you’re looking at have consistently advocated that the Coalition intensify its confrontation with the United States. All were dead set against Zurich. We have reports that at least one of them advocated a general first strike against us during the ’98 Israeli-Arab nukeout.”
“Well,” says Marlowe, “speed-of-light weaponry favors the one who hits first—”
“I’m not talking about the
“Are we being sent into Eurasian lunar territory?” asks Haskell.
“We’ll know that by the time you get there. But you might meet Eurasians anywhere. They have a way of getting where they’re not supposed to. Item five. Autumn Rain themselves. They may be somebody’s front or they may be autonomous. They possesses warheads, delivery vehicles, and an ability to strike high-profile targets. The question now is whether they can hit secure targets too. In retrospect, the Elevator was pretty vulnerable. Given that we had to trust the Eurasians and all that. The real targets are more critical: our inner enclaves, our fortresses, our fleets. And, as I mentioned, the Throne itself. Press any of us hard enough, and we’ll admit we have no idea as to the real extent of the Rain’s capabilities. Only a second strike can shed more light on the matter. And our lunar bases are all prime candidates for such a strike. But if you’re going to stop the Rain, you’re going to have to know the Moon inside and out. Do you know what it is that
The question comes out of nowhere, catches Marlowe and Haskell off guard. They aren’t even sure they’re expected to answer. They stare at him, but he’s not looking at them. He’s just gazing out that window.
“The color,” he says. “We imported all of it. It wasn’t there before us. It’s scarcely there now. Glare and black comprise that sky. Endless greys make up that ground. It’s a fraction the size of Earth. It seemed so much vaster. Even with that shoved-up horizon. Perhaps because it was such utter desert. Such endless mountains. Such a way to go, too: you carry that oxygen on your back like it’s some kind of god. The kind that dwindles as you worship. You measure all distances with that air: how far, how long, how much. How many times I wondered if I’d ever make it back. How many times I wished I hadn’t.”
“Seems strange that they’d make such a habit of putting an envoy in such danger,” says Marlowe.
“But I wasn’t an envoy then,” says Morat, turning back to face them. “I was like you. Don’t you see? I’m not the one that rewards loyalty. I’m what we offer the loyal. Promotion for those who can stick with it. Graduation from the endless runs. I’m real. I’m not just some blurry creature half-remembered from your sleep. I was like you once. I still am.”
“Is that a fact,” says Haskell.
“It is,” says Morat. “And sarcasm never did become you, Claire. I offer you sincerity and you meet it with a cynic’s tongue. How imaginative. We’re not so different, you and I. A decade ago, I rode my prime. I was as perfect as I’ll ever be. I fought our battles on the Moon, in space, on Earth, beneath the waves. I was Sinclair’s go-to man. I know how strange it is to have one of my number stand before you and confess these things. But what you don’t know is how much I envy you.”
“That’s bullshit,” says Haskell.
“Is it now,” says Morat.
“Of course it is,” says Haskell, and it’s as though something in her is finally giving way. Her voice is rising now. “So you made it. So you lived. So fucking what? You sit there and you reminisce, and you expect
“Easy,” says Marlowe. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“Let her finish, Jason,” says Morat. “It’s important that she says the things she’s never dared to. It’s one thing to confide it within reach of a microphone or rant it through the canyons of the sleep. It’s quite another to put it to a waking face. Past that anger, and I promise she’ll be as flawless as I once was.”
“What kind of game are you playing?” asks Marlowe.
“I’ll tell you what kind of game he’s playing,” says Haskell. “He’s playing the game that everybody plays when they get a rung above you on the ladder. The game of spitting on those who stand where you once stood. The game of false nostalgia. But don’t get carried away, Morat. You haven’t climbed above the point where you don’t have to deal with the likes of us directly. You’re not so exalted that you can never leave your bunker. Face it, Morat: you’re not a handler. You can’t sit at the old man’s feet just yet.”
“I wouldn’t want to,” says Morat. “Where else could I gaze at the likes of you but out in the shit of the field?”
She extends her middle finger.
“Item six,” says Morat. “The president has made it clear to Sinclair that he’s counting on him to eliminate the Rain. We’re going to hit them before they strike again. If that means this whole thing is over before you reach the Moon, so be it. We’ll just have to take the chance. There may be nothing but mop-up by the time you get there. I hope you can handle such knowledge.”
“I’m sure we can,” says Marlowe.
“Good,” says Morat. “Because I’m not sure
“In which case maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a runner after all,” says Haskell. “If you ever were one. We’re not hell-bent on action. We’re just doing what the old man tells us. If you’re to be his mouthpiece, then so be it. I’ll accept that. But adventure’s not something I seek. Still less history. Get with it man—don’t you know what
“Exactly,” says Morat. He nods approvingly. “Very good. No better attitude upon which to launch a run.”
His head dips slightly. His eyes lose a fraction of their focus—or rather, seem to focus somewhere within him.
Though only for a moment.
“And now I take my leave. This time for good. Let me offer up some final thoughts. Claire: the lunar portion of our zone is different. It moves just as fast. But it was built by those who were much lighter. Who weren’t quite as weighed down. It shows in its design. Remember that. Jason: your bullets move even faster. But hand-to-hand is different. Keep solids close at hand for bracing. Keep your air away from others’ hands. Keep on cutting until you leave the lungs of others nothing upon which to feed.”
He pauses. He looks them up and down. He smiles. He turns toward the door. It opens to receive him. He starts on through.
“We know this,” says Marlowe suddenly.
Morat stops. He stands in the doorway. “Excuse me?”
“What you just said: we know it. We’ve had the training. And I’ve been in space before.”
“Yes,” says Morat, “but never when so much depends on it.”
He leaves them without looking back.
Two men conversing within a suit of armor. One man’s physically present.
The other’s just dropping by.
“I didn’t say you were going to like it,” says Lynx.
“You knew damn well I’d hate it,” says the Operative.
“Mechs don’t have to be enamored of the plans they execute.”
“Razors don’t have to make that a prerequisite for the plans they configure.”
“The only prerequisite is that it succeed,” says Lynx. “Given that requirement, I’m hoping that now you can see why I’ve planned it out the way I have.”
“Don’t talk to me of
“Deliberately so,” says Lynx. “You want sanity? You won’t find it in
“And you can add me to that list when I initiate this run.”
“Initiate? It’s already
“It was too late long before it started,” snarls the Operative. “Long before I got here. Long before you snuck into those tunnels with the most convoluted stratagem any razor ever devised brewing in your fucking head. It’s as brilliant as it is mad. Jesus Christ, Lynx. All the players and angles up here, and you really think
“Not the key,” says Lynx. “The back door.”
“The back door to what?”
“You’re crazy,” says the Operative.
“I’m an artist,” says Lynx. “There’s a difference.”
“Sure. It’s called the need to proclaim it.”
“I’m long past any need,” hisses Lynx. “Save that which my orders stipulate. You know the rules, Carson. We’re on our own up here. We’re left to make our way as best we can. We have so little time. The Rain’s next strike could come at any hour. Think of us as standing in the floodplain, Carson. The only thing that can save us now is high ground.”
“But are you sure that’s what Sarmax’s domain is going to furnish?”
“We’ve got no choice but to take that chance,” says Lynx.
“Not now we don’t,” says the Operative.
“I’m glad you see that.”
“You’ve got me boxed in.”
“Myself as well, Carson. Don’t forget that.”
“But I’m the one who has to get in there and do this.”
“Yes, Carson. You’re the one. As I’ve been saying all along.”
“Don’t think of this as a victory,” says the Operative. His teeth are gritted. His eyes are closed. “I’m going to live through this. I’m going to defy whatever odds are being spat out by your comps. And then—so help me God—I’m going to have a say in the next phase of this abortion of an operation. You reading me, Lynx?”
“Loud and clear,” says Lynx. “But once you’re inside his world, you’ll get it. You’ll understand. You’ll realize just what it is I’ve bought us.”
“I already know,” says the Operative. His voice is weary. “I’m the coin. I’m the instrument of the demise of one of the great ones.”
“Fuck him,” says Lynx. “He outlived his purpose.”
“You mean his purpose is about to outlive him.”
“Tell me what higher calling a man could have.”
“Ours,” says the Operative.
“Exactly,” says Lynx. “And you should thank your lucky stars for that. As I do every day I survive in here. Agrippa Station eats the weak. It crushes the careless. It can’t touch me. They’re probing everywhere, Carson. They’re searching all around my body. Their eyes are never shut. But they can’t see my flesh. They can’t see my mind. They can’t see me. And they won’t see you either. As long as you do exactly what I say.”
“I understand, Lynx.”
“I hope you do, Carson. Believe me, beneath these pointless doubts of yours, I know how eager you are to get out there. To find out if you’ve got what it takes to make that run. To determine if you’ve got the guts to pull that trigger. Out there in those cold hills—it’s all going to blur against your visor. That man: you’ll put him in your crosshairs. You’ll put one through him. You’ll give me access to what he knows. I know you, Carson. I know what makes you tick. Not loyalty. Not faith. Certainly not honor.”
“Being a professional. Obeying orders. Doing your
The voice dies out. Static fills the Operative’s suit. The Operative turns it up to the point that it’s deafening. He lets it roar through him. He roars out curses against Lynx—against the fates, against everything.
And then he whispers to his suit.
T hey sit around. They pace. They sit around some more. It’s not easy to kill time when it’s you who might not survive the seconds’ passing. It’s not easy to ride out the moments when it’s you those moments might soon be rid of. But all you can do is wait. So you do. You resist the booze. You resist the urge to strangle the one you’re with. As for conversation—that’s no temptation. It can only hurt you now. Because there’s nothing left to say. It just comes down to what comes next.
Which turns out to be a beeping noise. It’s emanating from the wall. It’s the line. Spencer picks it up, takes it the same way he did before. Pulls the wire out, slots it into his skull. Hears the clicks as the switches run the simulations of nonexistent calls, shutting out any listeners from what’s really being said: the words that Spencer’s forming in his mind, the words he’s letting the software in his head download through those wires, out through the streets of the Mountain. Out to where Control is.
Wherever that might be.
“Okay,” says Control. “We’re going to try this. He’s got a new name. So do you.”
“Those names being?”
Control tells him.
“And?” asks Spencer.
“And what?” asks Control.
“That’s all you’ve got?”
“What do you mean, is that all I’ve got?”
“The data I gave you checked out?”
“Of course it checked out, Spencer. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking now. Top-quality product, Spencer. I owe you my thanks.”
“Thanks isn’t all you owe me, Control.”
“Actually, to be precise—it’s you who still owe me.”
“For the rest of the quota.”
“Exactly. But I’m going to give you a little
“Great,” says Spencer. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as possible. Tonight.”
“On an expresser?”
“I think that’s ill-advised.”
“We’d be there in under an hour.”
“Linehan’s colleagues left two days ago and haven’t made it yet.”
“Any mode of transport carries risk, Control.”
“Why pick one that’s already seen a major incident?”
“So what do you suggest?”
“Slight variation. Go for the Atlantic.”
“Hardly. Even the fastest ship available would take you the better part of a day. That’s way too long. Gives them way too much of a chance to vet their cargo.”
“So what’s that leave?”
A pause. Then: “Jesus. You really think that’s safer than a flier?”
“That’s two and a half hours from now, Control.”
“Sounds like you’d better hurry.”
“And those passengers against which we’re configured—what’s going to happen to them?”
“Nothing’s going to happen to them,” replies Control. “Ever again.”
“Who were they?”
“Not important, Spencer. The point is that now they’re you.”
“So about downloading me the new identities?”
“Already done,” says Control. “And your descriptions are now tied to the ones I’ve taken. You’ll have to pass on the new codes to Linehan. Unless he wants to get on the line with me.”
“He’s not that stupid,” says Spencer.
“I’m sure he isn’t,” says Control. “Particularly given that he’s almost certainly U.S. intelligence gone rogue.”
Another pause. Then: “Say that again.”
“You heard me.”
“You’ve been digging.”
“As I promised. As I thought, Linehan is no ordinary data thief. I traced him backward from Minneapolis to Chicago. I lost him there. He arises from that city’s eastern districts like a man walking out of mist.”
“So twenty hours ago, Washington put out an APB on all Midwest priority channels for someone important gone missing in the Chicagoland vicinity. Get high enough on those channels, and it becomes pretty clear we’re talking senior intel.”
“Very. His name isn’t Linehan, of course. But he’s within plus/minus physically. Nothing a little disguise couldn’t take care of. Nothing a little daring couldn’t hide.”
“Do they say why’s he’s on the lam?”
“They claim he’s trying to defect.”
“Defect? To the East?”
“That would be the presumption. It doesn’t matter. The point is he’s trying to get out. The word is he’s gone south. To try his luck at the Latin run.”
“And you think he hasn’t.”
“I think he’s right beside you.”
“Which Com does he belong to?”
“They don’t say.”
“Surely they would?”
“Usually they would. It may be out there. But—assuming he really
“He could be Praetorian.”
“Oh yes. It would make this positively radioactive.”
“Do these lines you’re tapping into say anything about accomplices?”
“They imply it. They don’t confirm it. Which may not mean much. Official investigations in this country are so compartmentalized that using them to generate the complete picture is always an exercise in extrapolation. Regardless, I’ve got enough. This operation is a go, Spencer. Move out as soon as you can. Watch him like a hawk. As I suggested earlier, it’s a safe bet that as soon as you’re on the farside of border he’ll try to bolt. Maximum vulnerability is when you hit Cornwall Junction.”
“That’s hardly the most immediate problem.”
“Which hardly renders it inconsequential. Back to first principles: if all you’ve got lined up is what’s right in front of you, you’re as good as dead already. I’ve done my best to prep you, Spencer. I’ve done my best to take you to the next level. I’m going to give you one last piece of advice. Get it together, or get taken apart. Your good standing with us—your fulfillment of your quota—depends on your bringing this man
“Perfect. Now, as you yourself just said, you’ll have to leave shortly if you’re going to make Kennedy. We’ll have a team waiting at Cornwall. But you’re going to have to reach them first.”
“And if we get busted at customs or on the train? What then?”
“Probably not much.”
“Relax. I’ve got you covered. I’ve got decoys going. I’ve got you under multiple layers. This is going to happen. You’ll be in London by the dawn.”
“Can’t wait to see her,” mutters Spencer.
But the voice is gone. The line is dead. Now there’s just the room. And the face of Linehan. It stares at Spencer.
“Having fun in there?”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“What did your imaginary friend have to say?”
“That it’s a green.”
“That we’re going to take the tunnels.”
“Huh. Where’s the advantage?”
“There may be none.”
“When do we leave?”
“And how’s your friend gonna get us on that train?”
“He’s going to change us.”
“Change is good. What’s my new name, Spencer?”
And Spencer tells him.
“Do you have the codes to back it up?”
“I do. Are you prepared for download?”
“Meaning am I prepared to take that risk?”
“Interpret my question as you please.”
“No question at all. Gimme the codes.”
Spencer triggers an implant: information whips out from within his eyesocket, leaps the gap between them, alights on Linehan’s own retina. Linehan’s expression doesn’t change. Whatever precautions he’s taking or his razor gave him aren’t visible to Spencer. If Linehan’s to make use of the codes to reconfigure his own ID cards and chips, he’s going to have to brave the possibility of being fucked with. Then again: he probably has his own countermeasures at work. Spencer wonders at those countermeasures, wonders at the possibility that Control’s rigged the codes with trojan, wonders at the potential duel between that unseen creature and the one who stands in front of him.
And then Linehan smiles.
“Excellent,” he says. “These should work. Are they real?”
“I was told they were.”
“What happened to the signified?”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t,” says Linehan. “And what about us?”
“What about us?”
“I’m thinking we still don’t know each other well enough.”
“Isn’t that what I’ve been saying all along?”
“No. Who we are doesn’t matter. What happened in the past, why we’re here, what we’d do without constraints—that’s not what matters.”
“Then what does?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the fact that we’re speaking out loud right now.”
“So that would mean that when we’re on that train, we won’t be able to coordinate. We won’t be able to talk about anything related to the run.”
“You’re talking about the one-on-one.”
“Of course. Will you risk its configuration?”
“I presume you’re talking coded.”
“Anything else wouldn’t be enough. I’ll do this clean, Spencer. I’ll give you my word if you’ll do the same.”
“What’s that word worth?”
“Whatever you want to make yours, Spencer.”
“I’m a razor.”
“I’m full of surprises.”
“Let’s do it.”
And they do. They connect, and neither feels a thing. If either’s trying to trick the other, neither gives a sign. They connect, and in that moment a new understanding’s born. A new partnership’s afoot. It’s slaked its thirst on names wrenched from the ranks of the recently living. It’s gorged itself on identities furnished by the freshly dead. So now it strikes camp, stalks on out into those sun-starved streets. It catches the scent of sea.
And bears down upon Atlantic.
P owering out over that ocean is a winged craft that carries another. Atmospheric steed to transport orbital rider to a launching in the rafters. Two within that upper ship to feel it.
“Always a rush,” says Marlowe.
“The real rush,” says Haskell, “hasn’t happened yet.”
But when it comes you’ll know it. That hit to hammer you beyond air: it’s the one thing you can’t escape. That force: you either face it down, or else you stay on Earth forever. See, there were those who died by impact and those who died in the burn and others who perished only to just drift. Everyone who goes up shares their fate. Everyone who makes this climb partakes of what they went through.
If only for a moment.
“You okay,” says Marlowe.
“Yes,” she replies.
But she isn’t. She doesn’t know why. She can’t tell how much of it is the man beside her. How much of it is Sinclair. How much is Morat. How much is Moon itself. All she knows is that it’s like all those things are swirling ever faster inside her head. It’s like she can’t tell what’s going to happen when that swirling stops. It’s like she thinks she’s going crazy. It’s like she can hardly wait.
Nor does she. She reaches out into the zone, disconnects the cameras looking out into the room: releases her straps, pivots out of her seat—and into Jason Marlowe’s. Her lips meet his even as he undoes his own strap, harnesses it around both of them. They may as well be attacking each other for all the force they’re throwing into it. She moans as he gets a hand inside her shirt. He gasps as she runs her fingers down along his crotch.
And yet somehow she still can’t bring herself to focus. The more he touches her the more afraid she gets. Her mind’s fleeing beyond her burning nerve endings. Zone expands on wireless within her skull, anchors itself against the universe. The Sun: infinite energy, the ultimate source of all she sees, and yet the one thing she doesn’t. The Moon: purple clusters of lunar installations shimmering behind a second’s time delay, reflecting possibilities of the routes they might or might not have described during that eon-long lapse. The Earth: carpeted chaos of stations, greyed-out inner enclaves, blacked-out nexi of things she suspects but can’t ascertain. The cluster of connections sprawls up into the orbits all around, surrounds her with endless grids kaleidoscoped together in endless shifting patterns—and all of it regarded through the prism of the node that constitutes the Janus spaceplane and its B-130 suborbital booster.
But somewhere in that node she sees a picture of a room. In that room she can see her body making love to a stranger. She sees her own back arching as he moves on up inside her. She watches as she starts to grind against him. She wonders what it is she’s so terrified of—is she trying to get away from him, or is she looking for something else? She shouldn’t be jacking in during the transit. She shouldn’t be doing anything more than just a little harmless camera-tweaking. But some kind of intuition’s calling to her with an urgency to match her sharpest cries.
So she lets that node blossom around her, closes on that upper cockpit—and jumps from there to the lower. She takes in the two men sitting there—takes in the way they watch the controls, watch the sunset dissolving past them. Red melts across the window, shades off into deeper hues that fall away into something approaching black. She sees her flesh writhing all across that dark. She feels herself pulled back toward it.
But somehow she tears herself away: uses the instruments in both cockpits to inventory the sensors in both ships. The exterior ones just reveal rising heat and fading light. The interior ones show rooms, passageways, corridors, crawl spaces—all the contours of contained space. She keeps on moving through the cameras that monitor those silent chambers. All are normal.
Except for the one that holds Morat.
A compartment in the back of the lower spaceplane: Morat sits in a corner, atop a crate. His face is expressionless. Pale eyes look straight at her. They’re superimposed against Marlowe’s contorting features. Haskell meets both gazes—while simultaneously she lets her mind thread back toward the cockpit—and then toward the instrument panels in that B-130’s cockpit.
But she can’t reach them. She can’t trace a direct link from this particular sensor to what the pilots can see. Something’s blocking the data’s passage. Something’s hacking the comps. A razor immersed can see the truth. A pilot gazing at a screen can’t.
Adrenaline floods Haskell’s body, merges with her distant ecstasy—and as it does so, her perception in the zone sharpens even further. The nervous system into which she’s extended her own crystallizes still finer. The edges grow sharper, the colors brighter, the shadows darker.
And in those shadows she can start to see a pattern. She can see there’s something in the zone with her, something connected to Morat. The zone around him is changing—as though he’s somehow warping it. Haskell wonders how good a razor Morat is. She wonders what the hell he’s doing. She creeps in closer, feels her climax closing in. She pushes through thickets of circuits, gazes through them at Morat. She follows the focus of his efforts—sees that he’s reaching into the zone, reaching far beyond the B-130, accessing one of the nearby navigation satellites with codes so covert she can barely see them deploy. From there he passes in one motion through several more sats, obscuring his trail as he does so—but not so well that she can’t follow. She counts ten sats in all, strung across the globe. She follows him ever deeper into that labyrinth even as her vision blurs. Even as her body shakes. She feels the rush as she comes on the other side of planet.
And then Morat produces a door out of nothing.
And opens it. Haskell can’t believe what she’s seeing. She’s staring straight through the wall of the American zone itself. She’s looking straight down a tunnel that leads right through the middle of the moats and ramparts and battlements intended to forestall precisely this. She’s looking out into the neutral zones: staring straight at a snowstorm of traffic rushing past her, none of it seeing the door that’s opened in the wall of universe.
Which is presumably the point. Secret doors aren’t useful if everybody’s in on the secret. Haskell lets her head rest on Marlowe’s heaving shoulder, looks out over Morat’s shoulder, looks out upon that world, looks in the same direction he is—looking at where something’s suddenly flitting in out of that traffic, making a beeline toward the opening.
But she moves first. She lunges out to snap the connection, slam the door. But the thing’s faster—it darts in, whips past her, straight into the lower spaceplane as the door slams shut behind it. She’s got no idea what’s sustaining its connection. Maybe the door’s actually still open. Maybe it’s got one of its own.
Or maybe connection isn’t the point. Maybe the real issue is activation. Because now something’s coming to life within the crates that surround Morat. Whatever’s just leapt in from the neutral zones seems to have been the seed. But Haskell can’t see into the crates. She doesn’t know what’s sprouting. All she knows is that now virtual tendrils are starting to sidle from the crates out into the lower spaceplane’s systems—snaking through them, closing on the systems that ring the cockpit.
Haskell watches in sick fascination as they move in toward the pilots who sit at the cockpit’s center. She knows she should stop watching. But that thought seems very far away. Even farther than Marlowe as his thrusts grow ever more eager. Far closer is the feeling that she doesn’t need to move very fast at all. That she must be in a dream. That this is some fragment of some half-remembered briefing suddenly engulfing her. That her own mind’s finally tumbled over the brink of sanity. She hauls herself back from that edge—takes in Marlowe, takes in Morat, takes in the shape that’s swelling through the lower spaceplane like some kind of malignant growth. For a moment, she sees straight past it—sees the composite craft as one node among tens of millions, sees the whole zone. It’s her whole world.
And then it’s not.
All goes blank. All sound fades into silence, all sensation collapses to a single point. All existence winks out. There’s nothing left—nothing save the eyes of the man who’s just spent himself inside her. They stare into her own.
“Oh God, Claire,” says Marlowe. “I fucking love you.”
“Morat’s on the booster,” she replies. She’s struggling to pull herself off him.
“He’s right below us.”
“You’re seeing things,” says Marlowe. But even as he says this, the lights go out. For a moment there’s darkness. But then the emergency lighting kicks in on deep red.
“You’re damn right I’m seeing things,” Haskell mutters. “I’m finally starting to see them clearly.” She seals her shirt, fastens her pants. She hauls herself to her feet, yanks open one of the doors of the chamber.
“Where the hell are you going?” he says.
“Where the hell do you think I’m going?” she says. “I can’t get back into the zone. It’s like there
“Claire,” says Marlowe. “You’re losing it.”
“If I’m losing it, then
But Marlowe’s not responding. He’s just pulling himself out of his seat, pulling his own pants up, pulling himself after her. The corridor to which the forward door of their takeoff room leads is about six meters long. The only other door in that corridor leads to the cockpit. Marlowe fights the acceleration, catches up with Haskell when she’s halfway to that door. He tries to grab her arm. She backhands him across the face.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!”
“Easy, Claire,” says Marlowe. “Easy.”
“It’s not like you think,” she says, and now she’s weeping. “I don’t know what’s happening between you and me. All I know is what we’re heading for.” She keeps on hauling herself toward the cockpit. “Morat’s on this fucking plane. His hack threw me straight from zone. I swear it. I swear I’m not going crazy.”
“Then who turned out the lights?”
“I told you already! Morat’s fucking with the plane!”
“I thought Morat was on our side!”
She stares at him. “Are you in league with him?” she asks.
She stares at him, mouth open. She turns, reaches the cockpit door. She tries to open it. It won’t budge. She works the manuals, slides it open.
The two bodies of the pilots are still in their chairs. Agony’s frozen on their faces. No wounds are evident. The lights of the controls wink around them. The windows show blue that’s almost black.
“Oh Jesus,” says Haskell.
Marlowe’s drawn his gun. He’s pointing it at her with one hand while he holds on to the doorway with the other.
“I’ve got to try to get back in the zone,” she says.
“Sure, Claire,” he replies. “Whatever you say.”
“I didn’t do this!”
“God, I hope that’s true.”
“Put your gun away!”
“Not until we figure out what’s going on.”
She’s tempted to rage at him. She’s tempted to scream. She’s tempted to lunge for his weapon. But she realizes that such actions would compound the problem. So she just talks quickly while she holds on to the back of the chair in front of her.
“Jason. Look at me. I’m on your side. But if I wasn’t, I’d have taken you by surprise. I wouldn’t have let it come to this—your gun against my head, two dead to get you totally alert. Think about it, Jason. Something’s wrong and it’s far bigger than the two of us. And besides: if
He looks at her. He looks at the controls. He looks at the dead pilots. He looks back at her.
“Okay,” he says. “Fine.” He doesn’t put the gun away. But he’s no longer pointing it at her. “Do what you have to. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” says a voice.
They both whirl toward it. A dashboard-encased screen has sprung to life. It casts dull glow across their faces. The face of Morat sits upon it.
“We’ve got a problem,” he says.
“You’re damn right we’ve got a problem.” Haskell levels her finger at the screen. “You’re on this fucking plane.”
“You’re right,” says Morat, betraying no surprise. “I’m here to protect you. You’re in grave danger. The upper plane is infected.”
“With the Rain,” says Morat. “They’ve infiltrated.”
Haskell flings herself across the cockpit, smashes into that screen with both fists. Morat’s face disintegrates. Shards of plastic fly. But even as they hit the ground, that face is flickering back into existence.
On every remaining screen.
“You can’t destroy them
“You were trying to lure us to the lower plane,” says Haskell slowly. “You’re Autumn Rain.”
“No,” he says. “I’m not. But I’m going to take you to them.”
They stare at him.
“Right now,” he adds.
“Going to tell us why?” asks Haskell softly.
“There’d be no point,” he replies. “Save to say that I swore to deliver them live runners.”
“You’re not Morat,” says Marlowe.
“Oh yes he
“And what the fuck do you think you’re getting out of it?” asks Marlowe.
“Everything that matters,” says Morat. “When they hurl the rulers of this planet down in pieces finer than those into which that Elevator burned: I’ll be at their side. When they hold sway over all flesh, I’ll take my place among the anointed. All I have to do is convey you to their sanctuary.”
“You’ve gone insane,” says Marlowe.
“You’re a traitor,” says Haskell.
“Never in hell,” says Haskell.
“But Claire,” says Morat, “you’ve got to serve someone. And it can’t be Sinclair. I know he seems so sleek in those dreams of yours. But in truth he’s so tired. So old. He doesn’t even know how we fooled him. How we’ve turned CICom against those it would protect. How even now we move into the second stage.”
“I hate you,” says Haskell.
“But that’s what binds us,” replies Morat. He laughs but it’s not really laughter. “The cornerstone of the race’s future. You can’t stop it. Believe me, you’ve no idea. All this talk of halting the Rain in their tracks, and that’s all it is: just talk. You plan, you scheme, and yet they thought of all contingencies so long ago. They’re invincible.”
“Morat,” says Marlowe slowly, “what is it that you want us to do?”
“Jacking in, Claire?” asks Morat. “It won’t be as easy this time. Do yourself a favor and don’t even try. And don’t think about bailing out either. Unless you want to provide me with a little target practice.”
“Don’t be so hasty,” he replies. “You’re diving straight to your death. What’s waiting for you in the zone will see to that.”
“We’ll see about that,” hisses Haskell as she jacks in. She knows that haste is the whole point. If she’s going to beat whatever’s in there, she’s going to have to do it before it consolidates its position.
But it’s ready for her nonetheless. It’s trying to finish her straight from the start. It’s raining fire and brimstone right down upon her head. She dodges the missiles, steps in under them—breaks from open ground to where the sky’s bolts can’t touch her. She dashes straight into the thicket within which lurks the nexus of all decisions. The nest of switches that’s this cockpit. She’s there.
Along with something else.
It looks a lot like her. It leaps to forestall her. Now it towers above her. She makes her move, cuts out into the open. It takes her bait, rushes in toward her, starts to engulf her. But she doesn’t panic. She shifts the whole framework, goes from one-on-one to million-on-million: the landscape becomes a web of endless bridges across which she fights her endless battles. Only now it’s a different type of war—she wages holding actions, conducts sallies, lays and raises sieges. But it’s strong. It doesn’t conform to any pattern she’s ever seen. She’s losing. She trades off position for time. She times its actions, reactions, movements.
And suddenly catches it in ambush, smashes straight into it. She thinks she sees myriad faces contort in pain. She thinks she sees faces falling back. She follows, hammering blows down upon them. They’re giving way. They’re retreating altogether.
But only to the lower spaceplane.
As they do so, the firewall of that plane activates. She tries to forge through it. She can’t. She feels herself burning. She pulls back—secures the cockpit of the Janus, extends her control across the whole upper plane, secures all its data-ports, secures its own firewall. She lets her face appear upon one of the cockpit’s screens. She looks out at Marlowe.
“The upper plane’s ours,” she says. “The lower plane’s theirs.”
“So let’s get the fuck out of here,” he says.
“Agreed,” she replies.
“Are we high enough to reach orbit?” he asks.
“Probably not,” she says. “But we can make it back to planet, no problem.”
“Let’s do it.”
She sends the signals. The upper ship’s engines fire. The whole ship shakes. But it doesn’t move. She ramps up the thrust. The shaking intensifies—to the point where the ship feels like it’s going to fall apart.
But it doesn’t fly. It’s going nowhere.
“It’s not separating,” says Haskell.
“The lower cockpit must control the separation clamps,” says Marlowe. “Turn off the motors.”
“We’ve got to get away,” she says. She increases the power still further.
“Hell’s not what I had in mind,” he yells. “Turn off the fucking motors!”
She turns them off. The lurching ceases. She stares at Marlowe.
“Fuck,” she says.
There’s a vehicle that floats above the polar badlands. But it can’t fly. It can’t hover. It has no rockets. It consists of fifteen cars strung together, slung beneath a thread of superhardened metal that stretches all the way from Shackleton to the farside bases at Schrodinger. Farside’s always been pretty far gone: but combine that with proximity to the southern antipodes, and you’re talking terrain so remote and rugged that this cable system is actually the most efficient means of transport. Building branch lines off the Congreve-Shackleton maglev just can’t justify the cost—and, unlike spacecraft, a cable car requires no reaction mass. Which endows it with a certain utility.
Especially to the man who’s attached to the second car’s underside. It’s been forty minutes since the Operative left Shackleton. Forty minutes of staring through his visor down into black. Forty minutes of passing through pylon after pylon. He’s got his camo cranked. His active sensors are all turned off. His passive sensors aren’t picking up a thing. The terrain parades upon his screens anyway: the latest survey data that Lynx could get his hands on—and yet (starting at minute ten) patches of grey are appearing here and there amidst the panoply of false color, denoting those areas where the data’s been deemed unreliable due to recent rockslides or caves whose reaches stubbornly persist in resisting the encroachment of the satellites that waft overhead. Beyond minute twenty, those gaps grow in both number and size. Mountains loom ever higher, their tops now extending far above the Operative.
A buzzer sounds in his skull. He glances at one of the displays. His tongue flicks out to the back of a molar, depresses a tiny lever situated there. His suit begins to play out wire. He watches as the number and letterings and bolts above him shrink into illegibility, are framed by the outlines of the cable car itself, which in turn diminishes from rectangle to square to mere point, leaving him dangling at the end of an ever-lengthening cord. He descends out of the perimeter of the cars’ light, drifts down through the blackness. Now he can see stars again. Ground rises up to greet him.
His tongue flicks across teeth once more. The strand plays out at a faster rate. He releases the tether’s hold and floats downward, letting it trail out behind him. He bends his knees for the shock of landing, receives it. Like a long umbilical cord, the tether remains attached to a point between his shoulders—but the Operative sends a signal coursing up along its length, releasing it from its hold upon the cable car, allowing it to fall softly into the shadow in which he’s now immersed.
He looks around. He can’t see a thing. Only stars and one or two faint peaks. Which is as it should be. On the screens within his mind, a focal point is starting to take shape. It’s not that far ahead: the unseen center of the unseen fortress that he’s about to storm. But he’s running out of time. In his head a clock’s ticking steadily toward the zero. He points his hands forward in the dark, lets rigid tendrils extend from his suit’s wrists, sweeps them like a blind man across the ground before him. He moves horizontal to the mountain’s slope, doubles back along his path as the need arises.
Eventually he sees lights, exactly where he thought they’d be: a few dollops of luminescence up ahead. He intensifies his pace, gets rocks between him and those lights, starts to circle out away from them. He climbs up through a thicket of jagged boulders. He’s breathing hard now. It’s heavy going.
But it’s worth it. Because when he sees the lights again, he’s looking down. He clicks through his scopes, makes out structures amidst the shadows. Several square buildings, two domes (one large and central, the other much smaller), a landing pad and a tower, all set into the mountainside on a slope so steep it’s almost like they’re hanging from it. He takes it all in.
And keeps on climbing. Soon he’s clambering out over something that’s more sheer cliff face than anything else—though the claws that emerge from his suit’s gloves and boots ensure that he has no problem maintaining his course. He’s almost on the vertical.
He stops. The base complex is spread out below him. He feels like God himself looking down upon His creation. He looks out into the sky. He looks once more at the clock. He watches as it counts off those last few seconds.
Which is when he sees the thing he’s been racing all this time. It’s just blotted out the stars. Though only for a moment. But still: something’s somewhere out there between that mountain and this one. It’s right on time. For the last time, the Operative checks his systems. He gets ready to be seen. He takes still more steps to ensure he’s not.
The incoming shuttle turns on its landing lights. It’s much closer now—maybe a quarter of the distance to go. It descends toward the base—and as it does so, so does the Operative. He lowers himself on yet another tether—dangles down from the cliff’s edge toward the pad on which the shuttle is about to alight.
But he’s miscalculated. The shuttle changes course slightly, accelerates unexpectedly, floats in early over the base’s escarpment, crosses in toward the path along which the Operative is descending. He’s left with no margin: he ceases his descent, hauls himself upward—and watches as the craft slides in right beneath his feet. For a moment, he can see his own silhouette reflected in the starlight playing upon its roof—and then it moves past him, dropping with sudden speed upon the pad. The Operative halts his ascent, lets himself unwind once more. Every instinct within him’s screaming caution, but he’s committed now. He’s got to reach that pad no later than the shuttle does. But it’s so close to the ground now that its engines are kicking up dust.
The Operative releases himself from the tether, starts to fall. But nowhere near fast enough. As he drops beneath the level of the main dome, the shuttle’s powering down. As he drops beneath the level of the smaller buildings, the landing platform’s starting its own descent—down a shaft that’s just like the one the Operative traversed at Agrippa when his own craft landed. Another platform starts to slide in over the top. He can see that he’s not going to make it.
So he hits it.
A quick burst from his suit’s thrusters, and suddenly he’s plunging—zipping straight in through the closing door and (even as he extinguishes his thrusters) through some six meters of shaft, then out into the hangar beneath. The shuttle’s just touching the floor. The Operative lands upon its roof. He’s still camouflaged. But he knows his flame had to have registered on every sensor. He’s been made—and he’s getting confirmation in the sudden intensification of electromagnetic activity all around him. The mechanics in the hangar are running for cover. A turret hung from the ceiling swivels toward him and starts firing even as a siren starts up. But the Operative’s already flicking his wrist, feeling that joint shoved hard as the micromissile ignites—and then he fires his thrusters, flying off that shuttle roof as the rocket streaks in toward its target. The turret detonates in a blinding flash. It takes what looks to be half the ceiling with it.
As the Operative blasts in toward the smoking wreck, the shuttle’s doors open. Figures stand there, begin firing. A hatch opens in the Operative’s left shoulder—a gun-rack rises from it, swings around behind him, opens up on autofire. The shuttle’s cockpit disintegrates. The walls get perforated. The figures are taken to bits. The firing ceases.
The Operative reaches the space where the turret was. The barrel of the gun’s still intact—albeit bent, twisted by the heat of the blast. It dangles from a heap of mangled machinery that’s still held in place within the gaping ceiling. A bomb-rack rises from the Operative’s right shoulder—tosses grenades toward the corners of the hangar to take care of anyone who shows up right after he leaves. Which is right now: the Operative leaps up into the ceiling, slides in past that machinery. The gun is automated—but according to the blueprints in his head, there’s a servicing shaft that leads out of it. He enters that shaft—which rumbles as his grenades detonate. He makes haste along the passage, trying to ignore the cameras and sensors strewn all along. On one level, he’s rendering himself a sitting duck. He’s in a narrow crawl space with only one other exit. But this is the route that will bring him most directly into the vicinity of the base’s inner enclave. He fires his thrusters, rockets down the corridor. He scarcely slows to shove himself off a corner. He opens up on the door that’s now in sight. It disintegrates. He blasts on through.
And into the main barracks. It’s full of men and women frantically donning their armor. A few are already suited. Their armor is lighter than the Operative’s, but they’re still formidable. Two of them are even now exiting the room through the door opposite. One is opening fire as the Operative emerges into the barracks—but he’s deploying countermeasures, creating (for just a brief moment) the illusion of a suit whose camouflage is stuttering on and off as it stumbles toward one of the room’s corners. Meanwhile, he’s leaping the other way, real camo still humming on all spectrums. At such close quarters, the shelf life of such subterfuge is measured in fractions of seconds.
Which is all the Operative is after. Flame blossoms from the nozzles atop his gloves, roars out to hit the walls and ceiling—and folds back upon itself to encompass virtually the entire room and dash itself against his visor. For a moment, all he sees in visible light is orange and red—and all he hears on the audio are the screams of the unarmored being burned alive. He ignites his thrusters again, blasts into the fire, vectors straight in toward the first of the power-suits. Its sensors are inferior to the Operative’s—but not so inferior that the man within doesn’t know the threat is proximate: he opens fire at point-blank range, lashing out with both bullets and lasers.
But the Operative isn’t there. He’s changed course, coming in from the side like a torpedo. His fists cannon straight into the man’s helmet. The visor crumples, as does the skull behind it. The Operative spreads his arms, flings bone and meat and metal aside, roars past bodies whose writhing has segued seamlessly into the contortions of burning paper. The remaining suits are retreating—but their flight stops as the Operative fires micromissiles into their backs. He fires his thrusters, shoots through the debris and out of the room. He blasts down more halls, turns down one more corridor.
The door at that corridor’s other end is both massive and open. Suits from within are already opening fire as he rounds the corner. Lasers start to sear against the corridor’s walls. The Operative’s gun-rack starts spraying out flechettes. They take one of the suits out of commission. But their main purpose is to cover him against the lasers. He hurtles down the corridor, bouncing off the ceiling, the walls, the floor, back onto the ceiling—and then into the inner enclave.
The walls of the control room are lined with consoles. The crew manning them is divided between those who are trying to run at full speed through the other open doors and those who are opening up with their sidearms at the flaming, murky figure that is the Operative. A suit’s on either side of him: he hurls a hi-ex charge at point-blank range into the nearest one’s chest, kicks out with his feet to smash his boots against the other’s helmet. The charge is an exercise in overkill: the first suit’s torso detonates—for a brief moment, it seems as though its owner is struggling, absurdly, to remove his helmet, and then he pitches to the side and lies still. The second suit’s been knocked sprawling—and before the man can rise, the Operative bounces himself off the ceiling and onto his target’s back, shattering the suit outright and snapping the spine of the man within. Seeing this, the remainder of the control-room crew drop their weapons and start to run.
The Operative lets them.
“Going soft,” says a voice.
“Not at all,” says the Operative.
“Then what the fuck are you playing at?”
“Letting them get out of range of all this gear,” says the Operative. He flicks out with his wrists again, lets micromissiles sear down the corridors along which those men are fleeing, watches for just long enough to ensure that their flight comes to a halt. Then he turns back toward the room itself. As he does so, all the doors slide shut.
“So what’s the story?” he says.
“The story is these doors are mine,” says Lynx. “I’ve got this whole place in lockdown. So don’t just stand there.”
The Operative isn’t. He’s leaning over one of the consoles, stabbing buttons, stroking keys with surprisingly dexterous fingers. He’s keying in the commands that Lynx is feeding him—the commands that can only be entered manually. He’s doing the one thing Lynx can’t. Textbook procedure: the razor’s wreaked havoc with the base’s security and surveillance systems, allowing the mech to move untracked inside the perimeter and reach the inner enclave, where the house node itself is situated. Sometimes both razor and mech aren’t necessary. But this base is well-protected. The mech would be hard-pressed to go it alone. And as for the razor: switching off defenses is one thing, but gaining active control of an entire complex’s network to the point where one can access all data and run all systems—that’s something else altogether. Besides, by wiring his house-node so that accessing it requires manual protocols, Sarmax has placed that node beyond the reach of any mere razor attack.
Which is why the mech is here. And yet he couldn’t have reached the inner enclave without the razor. Who couldn’t gain control of the inner enclave without him. Thus the standard partnership. Thus the standard tension.
And sometimes it boils over.
“It’s not working,” says the Operative.
“What do you mean, it’s not working?”
“I mean it’s not working. I got access. But I can’t seem to do anything that matters with that access. Your fucking commands aren’t working.”
“Well, why the fuck not?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
“Get the base schematics on the screen.”
The Operative does. He keys in more commands. The master blueprints click into focus.
“Well,” he says.
“No difference between this and my blueprints,” says Lynx.
“This base is exactly what it’s supposed to be.”
“What’d you think it might have been?”
“I don’t know, Carson. Jesus Christ, man, give me a moment here.”
“Tell me what you’re thinking, Lynx.”
“I was thinking there must be more to this base than meets the eye. More than my intel showed. Another inner enclave, maybe. Maybe this isn’t the real one.” The Operative’s never heard Lynx talk this fast. “But according to these readouts, this is legit.”
“But we can’t control it.”
“So what do we need to get them?”
“I’m thinking we need Sarmax.”
“Right,” says the Operative. “I knew that already.”
“You don’t get it,” says Lynx. “There’s the chance that he built this so that
“Isn’t your hack supposed to forestall that?”
“It’s supposed to. Look, we need to find Sarmax, Carson.”
“Say he comes back here while we’re looking for him?”
“He can’t. I’ve got this place in lockdown, right? He’d have to fight his own defenses.”
“Say you get kicked out?”
“The place would still remain in lockdown. That’s default now. And even if he got back here, he still needs the manual codes I just gave you to reverse the lockdown. I’ve set up that much, at least. Listen, Carson, I thought I’d rigged it so I didn’t need Sarmax to take control of his fortress. I thought we could take over this place and then take him out. Looks like I thought wrong. But finding him was always on the cards. Eliminating him was always part of the equation. You’re just not going to have it so easy now. So let’s take a look at those camera feeds before I start to get really
“Relax, asshole.” The Operative starts to bring up the camera feeds. “Try to keep in mind that I’m the one who’s actually standing here.”
“Sure, Carson. Myself, I’m sitting on a beach. Huh, look at that.”
For now the screens are lined with images of rooms. Of structures. Of exteriors and interiors. A boardroom, several laboratories, a warehouse, a leisure center and personal quarters, guard quarters, a gymnasium: all of it spread out upon the screens. Lots of bodies too, indicating those places where defenses have turned against defenders. Other rooms have simply sealed their doors, trapping their guards inside. The Operative and Lynx get busy comparing the camera feeds against the rooms shown on the blueprints.
“Shit,” says Lynx.
But the Operative has simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion: there’s one room that isn’t visible on any screen. One place into which this inner enclave has no visibility whatsoever. One place off the maps.
The biggest place of all.
“The main dome,” says Lynx.
“He’s in there,” says the Operative.
“He’s got something going on.”
“He always did.”
“We’ve got him trapped.”
“Are you sure it’s not the other way around?”
“Get in there, Carson.” Lynx’s voice is as far from calm as the Operative’s ever heard it. “Get in there. It comes down to this. It always would. You always knew it. This is your moment, Carson. This is your time.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” says the Operative.
The door to the control room slides open.
* * *
T ransit nexus named after spaceport named after airport named after martyred president from the old republic. Kennedy: its bulk might seem to equal the city itself. Five percent of all transport arriving at it exists solely to supply it. Of the remainder: three-quarters is domestic. A quarter is international. But this last segment commands the lion’s share of the security resources Kennedy has at its disposal. That security is elite. They’re nobody’s rent-a-cops. They have the very best in personnel and equipment. Even so, they’re far from perfect.
Especially when a military-grade AI is fucking with their systems.
So somewhere in some basement a vehicle is undergoing the last stages of boarding. Somewhere in that vehicle a man’s taking his seat. He notes that there are no windows in here. He notes, too, that nobody’s sitting next to him. Yet even as he registers this fact, a man’s sliding into the seat opposite his. The newcomer nods politely at him, adjusts his strap across his chest, sits back. His face has that glazed expression that people get when they’re preoccupied with views that only they can see. Nor does that expression change in the slightest when he starts to speak to Spencer. He makes no eye contact. His mouth remains shut. But his words ring in Spencer’s head anyway.
“Nice to see you on the other side,” Linehan says.
“Say that to me when we actually get there,” replies Spencer.
“I meant customs,” says Linehan.
“I know what you meant.”
The two men don’t know one another. That way they don’t have to keep their stories straight. Control hates to give investigators free gifts. Control has given these two whole histories, has rigged vid footage to account for their movements across the course of the last several days. If anyone wants to probe back further than that, it can be arranged. Because Control’s a magician. Control knows the formula to grant the dead more life—keep the body’s corruption a secret, map out the paths that flesh might have taken had it not crossed paths with one of the Mountain’s predators, graft those paths onto new meat, set that meat in motion.
And hope for the best.
“But speaking of,” says Linehan, “what kind of welcoming committee have you got prepared for me when we get there?”
“Don’t play the clown, Spencer. After we get through these fucking tunnels, who’s going to be in the arrival lounge at Cornwall Junction?”
“Like I’m going to discuss that.”
“Then how about if we discuss our deal?”
“What’s there to discuss? We’ve already made it.”
The car starts to vibrate. A humming reverberates through it: intensifies, drops away into a gentle thrumming. There’s the feeling one gets when forces go to work at the edges of one’s perception. There’s the sound of many doors closing, echoing. A chime sounds. The train starts to move.
“And we’re off,” says Linehan.
“About time,” says Spencer.
“And it’s about time we started talking about our deal.”
“I’m still not sure what you’re driving at.”
“Then let me help you out. You’re providing me with the means out of here. I’m paying for my passage with information. True?”
“It had better be true.”
“True. But that still leaves a lot of grey area.”
“For example, what happens after I turn over my data to you.”
“Isn’t it a little too late to start talking about that?”
“Hardly. If anything, it’s a little too early. All your Control was going to agree to was the general concept. And as for you—you can’t agree to shit. You don’t have the power.”
“And you’re saying you do?”
“In a word: yes. See, it’s not just your identity that I’ve placed out there on the vine. I also stashed a copy of the thing I promised you.”
“What the fuck are you saying?”
“You know exactly what I’m saying, Spencer. If your masters construe our deal to contain a claim to my person as well as to my information, they’re going to find out that the down-low’s been downloaded to the whole world. Now they can take the chance that they can take me and take me apart with enough ultraprecise butchery to preclude dissemination. They might even pull it off. But I’m guessing they’re going to regard it as far easier to meet me halfway. And I have a few thoughts on how to best ensure that which I’m looking forward to sharing with your bosses.”
“Sounds to me like you’re trying to change our deal.”
“Not at all. I’m just insisting on my interpretation of its terms.”
The train accelerates. The straps tighten. As they do, Spencer’s mouth opens, starts up a conversation. Introductions are made. Small talk begins. The rate of speed of this train, for instance. The economy of the undersea. The temperature in this car. The timing of the next meal. Small talk indeed—insisted upon by Control. The two men have to have a reason to remain alongside one another as they exit the train on the other side of ocean. They have to be talking as they make that exit. Otherwise, if they get shuffled or jostled, they’ve got no reason to drift back toward one another. Of course, Spencer knows that Linehan might drift the other way anyway.
But that’s what the welcoming committee’s for.
“So what exactly is it you want, Linehan?”
“I want what I’ve always wanted, Spencer. I want to be a free agent. I want to give you the information that will make Priam the most powerful data-combine on Earth. And then I want to get out of your hair for good.”
“And that’s it?”
“What do you mean, is that it?”
“What about the means for freedom, Linehan? What about funds? What about an insistence that we don’t track you?”
“Do you think I’d waste my breath? The latter—you’d never keep your part of the bargain. The former—you’d use that to accomplish the latter. No, I’ve got my bases covered, Spencer. I’ve got resources set up for a rainy day. Accounts, IDs, funds—the works. I know those Euro hubs, Spencer. I know the boardrooms. I know the bars. I know the places that are off the zone. Put me into London, and your trackers will be sniffing nothing within the hour.”
Spencer says nothing. Yet even as he does, his lips dish out commentary on these tunnels’ sealed-off southern reaches. He talks about things that everyone knows. How the main line through that segment of the warrens stretches from the mouth of Amazon to the bulge of Africa. How it was closed down when the superpowers set up shop down south. He comments on the long klicks that lie dormant. He speculates that perhaps with enough d?tente they’ll be opened up again. He says that he looks forward to that day. Linehan agrees.
“So what’s it to be?”
“I thought you said I didn’t have power.”
“I did say that. I wasn’t kidding. But I’m going to need you to make sure that someone upstairs understands my position. As soon as we hit Cornwall, you’d better tell your boys what I’ve just told you. And you’d better get me a line to whoever the hell your Control’s control is.”
“You’ll get all the dialogue you want, Linehan. Beyond that, I can’t promise anything.”
“You can’t even promise that,” sneers Linehan.
“I’m on your side, Linehan. I’ve got as much riding on this deal as you do.”
“To be precise: you’ve got more.”
“Because if it all falls through, I’ve got at least a chance of evading Priam. You’ve got none. You’ll die for my sins, Spencer.”
“If that’s the price of your confession: so be it.”
Linehan starts to reply—but his words are cut off by a buzzing that suddenly leaps out of nowhere into Spencer’s skull. Spencer holds his face steady, gives no indication that he’s ceased to hear Linehan, that another signal is even now forcing its way into his head. He doesn’t know its source. At first he thinks it’s some viral attack of Linehan’s local node bearing fruit against the odds. He tries to blot it out, switch it off. He tries to stop it. But it overrides him like it knows his own codes. It swells ever louder. Now it’s overwhelming. Now it falls away.
To be replaced by the voice of Control.
“Spencer. Can you hear me?”
“I can,” says Spencer.
“Good. Because you’ve been rumbled.”
“By federal agents. They’re on the train already. More are boarding right now.”
“Boarding? From where?”
“From the vehicles they’ve brought alongside. Behind and in front. You’ve been made, Spencer. They know the names you’re using now. They know exactly where you’re sitting. They’ll be on you any moment.”
“Why didn’t they just bust us at customs?”
“Does it matter? Maybe my hack on security failed. Maybe they wanted you to think you had it made.”
“I was starting to.”
“So stop it. This is moving very quickly. They’ve wasted no time. We can’t either. In sixty seconds, I’m going to strike key elements of this line’s systems. I’m going to go through some back doors and hit some weak points. I suggest you sync with me. Maybe you can make something happen in the confusion.”
“Risking yourself to save us, Control? What’s got into you?”
“Spencer, I need you to concentrate on what matters. I’m downloading the map of this train into your head. Along with a map of the tunnels along the most direct route to border.”
“The border? How in Christ’s name are we getting through that
“For now, why don’t you think about how you’re going to take those feds.”
“You may as well try. That man Linehan’s a mech if ever there was one. And you’re my finest razor. You’ve got your backs to the wall. Fight them. Crush them. Take that train. Take it all the way east. This is for real. Forty seconds, Spencer.”
The connection terminates. In its place is static. And the words of Linehan.
“Let me guess: you’ve been talking to your bitch again.”
“Shut up,” says Spencer. “We’ve been made.”
“There’s two men in this car I’ve had an eye on ever since they got on. They’re trying to blend in. They’re clearly tracking somebody. And if your Control just told you our number’s up, I guess that means that somebody’s us.”
“Where are they?”
“They’re three seats behind you. Keep looking at me, Spencer.”
“Linehan. Control also said they’ve brought vehicles alongside this one.”
“What kind of vehicles? Where in relation to this car?”
“Behind and in front.”
“Too bad there aren’t windows in this thing. Did Control tell you anything else?”
“That it was going to do a hack on the main line’s systems in exactly”—a momentary pause—“twenty-five seconds.”
“That we should take this train and take that border. That we should work together.”
“Goes without saying.”
“I’ve got lots of ideas, Spencer. The problem’s time. At this point, I hate to wait even twenty seconds.”
“Now it’s eighteen.”
“Spencer. Got a question, and I need the truth. Do you have any weapons?”
“Not a thing?” The one-to-one isn’t good with nuance. But Linehan’s surprise is coming through loud and clear anyway.
“How was I supposed to get them past customs?”
“I’m stunned Control didn’t set you up.”
“Control’s hacking isn’t foolproof. Which is probably why we’re in the fix we are. I take it you’re carrying?”
“Of course I am, Spencer. Concealing weapons is a lot easier than concealing identity.”
“The specs you gave Control showed none.”
“So I lied.”
“So this is what you were going to use on us at Cornwall?”
“This is what I’m gonna use on anybody who gets in my way. Right now those guys behind you are top of my list. How certain are you as to that thing’s timing?”
“Meaning three seconds,” says Linehan.
“Try two,” says Spencer.
“One,” replies Linehan.
But Spencer’s already gone: wireless entry into wireless data-ports, barriers collapsing all around—and suddenly he’s at home once more. It’s been so long. It’s been just a moment. That’s what the zone does: makes him remember that everything that occurs between those immersions is nothing but a dream that’s scarcely worth the effort. But this is a slice of zone he’s never seen before. It seems to be endless. It ends almost at his feet—the very edge of universe that he recognizes as border. He’s making haste upon that border in a chariot wrought from light.
But only for a moment. Suddenly lightning streams in from every direction: shatters that chariot, hurls him from the zone to find Linehan’s legs scissoring past him as the mech leaps from his seat, onto Spencer’s armrests—and from there onto the seat’s back, whereupon he proceeds to use the seat backs behind that one as stepping-stones in a sudden lightning run. He takes it in a low crouch, his head ducked just shy of the ceiling, his boots just missing people’s faces. There’s barely time for them to protest before he reaches the men he’s making for. His targets see him coming. They’re leaping to their feet.
All the lights go off.
The train’s still at cruising velocity. Its momentum is affected not in the slightest. Most of the passengers have enough optical enhancements to be able to see each other. But the unexplained darkness is still unwelcome—all the more so given that all video and audio channels that the train’s routing to them just went out. The fact that the first thing that most people are seeing as they switch to infrared is three men fighting doesn’t help matters.
Linehan throws himself down onto the first man, pulls him into the aisle, putting the man between him and his colleague while he pulls a loop of plastic wire around the man’s neck. A moment ago, it was one strand on Linehan’s shorn hairline. Now it’s become one with his victim’s jugular. Blood gushes everywhere. The second man already has a pistol out—and Linehan hurls his comrade’s body at him, rushes in behind it, and dives at the floor as the man starts firing through that dead flesh. People are screaming now. But Linehan pays them no heed: he’s tackling his assailant at the knees, knocking him off his feet—and then jumping to his own, kicking the gun away, bringing his boot down on the man’s face—and diving after the weapon, grabbing it, whirling around, firing a single shot at the man who’s pulling himself upward again—but who now grunts and slides back to the floor.
“No one fucking move,” shouts Linehan.
People were starting to. But now they’re stopping. Linehan gestures at Spencer, who steps into the aisle. As he does so, Linehan tosses him the pistol.
“Cover them,” he says on the one-on-one.
Spencer does. Linehan grabs the first man he killed by his shirt. He grabs the man’s pistol, shoves it into his belt. He pulls the corpse up onto a seat, shoves it up against the wall—and then seizes it by the back of its neck, starts smashing its head against that wall. He keeps on smashing until the skull cracks, breaks open like an overripe melon. The contents of the brainpan spill everywhere. Linehan starts rooting through them.
“What the hell are you doing?” yells Spencer on the one-on-one. He’s backed against the opposite wall, is using it as a vantage point from which to cover the passengers. The height of the seats means that they can’t see what Linehan is doing. Which doesn’t mean they can’t hear it.
“Software,” snarls Linehan. “Take the software from the head, find out who they work for. Find out what their fucking
“We already know what their goddamn brand is,” yells Spencer. “I told you already. They’re federals.”
“How long have you been in the States, Spencer? Huh? How fucking long?” Linehan’s fingers are covered with blood and brain matter. His fists close on chips. “
“Presumably whichever one you split from,” screams Spencer. “When you stole whatever they’d found out about Autumn Rain. You’ve sold out your own kind, Linehan. And now you’re going to die at their hand. Tell me I’m wrong, Linehan. Go on.
“Gonna tell you right now you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” hisses Linehan, and for one sentence he’s both broadcasting and speaking. People around him whimper. “My country’s in deadly peril. My run’s the highest service I can offer her. And the last thing I need is holier-than-thou shit thrust in my face by some
“Sure,” says Spencer, “I’m reading you.”
“So tell me how your hack went.”
“I don’t have control. I’m not sure anybody does. My guess is that this train’s been stripped down to its basic locomotion and emergency fail-safes.”
“Almost certainly gone.”
“Christ, let’s hope so.”
“What do you suggest we do next?” says Spencer. And even as he does so he’s reaching down, kneeling on the floor, reaching inside the shattered head.
“You’re lucky I didn’t clean him out,” sneers Linehan.
“Answer my goddamn question,” says Spencer.
“I suggest you do exactly what I say,” says Linehan. “We’ve got feds in both directions, and God knows how close they are. But I’ve got a plan. You’re not going to like it. The sheep around us are going to like it even less. But I can guess what Control’s orders were, Spencer. Get me to London. No matter the cost. Got it?”
“So what’s the plan?” says Spencer.
“Start racking up cost,” says Linehan.
B ail out,” Haskell says.
“We can’t,” Marlowe replies. “He’ll blow us to pieces. We need to wait for reentry.”
“Close the cockpit doors. Lock them.”
While she does that, he’s pulling himself down onto the floor of the cockpit, crawling beneath the instrument panels, finding the trapdoor that’s situated where floor meets sloping wall. He opens it—and finds himself looking down into the narrow chute that leads to the escape hatch. He descends within. He reaches the airlock at the bottom and hauls it open.
Now he’s in something that’s more of a closet than a chamber. Another airlock sits adjacent to him. He knows better than to try to open that one. He rigs that door with devices from his belt: sensors, mini-charges, more sensors. Then he pulls himself back through into the chute. He closes the interior airlock—rigs still more devices, clambers back up.
Haskell’s sitting there. She’s rigged wires from her head to the control panels. She wears a dazed expression on her face.
“I can’t raise anything on the zone beyond us,” she says.
“Do the cameras show anything in the cockpit-access corridor?”
“They show nothing on this ship. But I don’t trust them for shit.”
They train their guns on the cockpit door. They open it. The corridor beyond is empty.
“You cover the zone,” says Marlowe. “I’m heading to the cargo chamber.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“I thought razors couldn’t move and remain in the zone.”
“The best ones can.”
But he figures it must be a tough balancing act. He notices that she’s letting wires trail out behind her as the two of them push themselves off walls and move down the corridor.
“Wires are safer,” she mutters. “I’ve shut down as much wireless as possible.”
“Can you access the zone beyond this plane?”
“No,” she replies. “We’re being jammed.”
The two of them pull themselves into the room where they waited out the takeoff. They open the doors that lead to the cargo bay. That cargo bay contains the three remaining ways into the ship. Two are airlocks, one on either side. But they’re not the main focus right now.
“The elevator,” she says.
“I know,” he replies, sailing through air toward the airlock door that dominates the center of the cargo chamber’s floor. Metal beams run up from its corners: the beams along which the elevator that connects the two ships is intended to slot. The elevator is there to expedite the loading of cargo into the upper ship. But it’s about to be repurposed for a different kind of freight. For even as Haskell and Marlowe pull open that airlock door, they feel a vibration that can only be the lower ship starting to extend its shaft into the upper. That shaft’s only supposed to be extended when the ship’s parked.
But whatever’s activating it isn’t in the mood to quibble.
The door they’ve just opened gives way to a two-meter drop. At the bottom is the exterior airlock door. Ladders drop down the walls to it. Marlowe climbs in. He looks back up at her.
“Weapons,” he says. “And some of that pressure-friendly ammo.”
She pulls weapons from their racks along the cargo walls, hands them down to him one by one. He slots in ammo specifically designed for use in pressurized environments, starts to mount guns on the ladder’s upper rungs: everything from handhelds to heavy rifles. He sets them up so that they can swivel as needed. He configures them on automatic—rigs their sights and sensors so that they’ll fire as soon as they see anything that passes for a target. He links them so that they can be controlled remotely by Haskell through the cockpit node—positions them so that they’re all pointing down at the exterior door below. He climbs down more rungs, keeps setting up weapons. His feet are almost at the bottom of the shaft.
The center of the door beneath him starts to glow.
“He’s burning his way through,” he says.
“Get back up here.”
But Marlowe quietly continues his preparations. He’s setting the weapons for interlocking fields of fire, concentrating them on the center of the lower door. The glowing looks positively molten now. He starts making his way back upward, checking weapons as he does so.
“Hurry,” says Haskell.
The guns around Marlowe whir, turn on their axes. Even the ones he didn’t point initially toward the expanding glow are now swiveling upon it.
The guns roar to life—Marlowe reaches in, snaps one off its rung, starts unleashing it on full auto: the recoil sends him sailing upward even as Haskell starts closing the interior airlock door. He wafts through.
Just as something swarms through the space he’s left.
Drones. A fraction of a meter in length. Scores of them. The mounted weapons are firing on high precision, cutting great swathes into that seething mass. The initial wave is getting annihilated. But the second wave is coming in from behind. They rise on gyros. They climb the walls. They open fire. Shots whiz past Marlowe’s head. Guns start to get knocked off their mounts.
The interior door slams shut.
“You got control?” asks Marlowe.
“Can we hold them?”
“I don’t know,” she says. She projects the view from the guns onto screens set along the walls of the cargo chamber. She projects the specs too: Marlowe can see how she’s running them through the cockpit circuitry, coordinating them to degrees that they’re not even capable of—rewiring the functionality in real time, letting their barrels turn, fire, hit shots coming at them, hit the drones that are doing the shooting. He notices that armor plates have been positioned some distance down the shaft so that she can’t touch the lower plane—notices, too, that the ammunition the drones themselves are using is the same as that of the guns he’s just configured: precisely calibrated not to penetrate the airlock around them—and, by implication, the hull. Morat seems to want to take them alive.
He seems to have the resources to do it, too. Because the drones are responding to Haskell’s onslaught in coordinated fashion—forming up in new waves of attack. They’re upping their game.
“They’re pressing,” she says.
“Can you hold them?” he repeats.
“For now. Not for long.”
“We need to get the fuck out of here.”
“Sure,” she says. “How?”
“I get out on the hull and detonate the separation clamps.”
She stares at him. “You can’t do that.”
“Want to bet?”
“Those things are probably out there right now.”
“Which is the other reason why I need to get out there. Before they find another way in.”
Even as Marlowe’s speaking he’s rigging more charges within the two side airlocks. It takes him all of twenty seconds, throughout which the bedlam below continues. Her eyes blank, Haskell drifts in free-fall by the wall as she tries to shore up their defenses and find another opening in the hack.
Marlowe finishes with the charges, starts suiting up. It’s slightly lighter armor than he wore in South America. He gets on everything except for his helmet. He attaches another rack of charges to his belt, starts to pull himself back toward the cockpit. Haskell keeps pace with him. And while they move they argue.
“You go out there and you’ll die,” she says.
“We’re dead if I don’t.”
They reach the cockpit. She positions herself in front of the trapdoor that leads to the escape hatch.
“I won’t let you go.”
“You have to.”
“If you go through that door, I’ll never see you again.”
“Never say that,” he says. Her eyes struggle to focus on his. She steadies herself against the control panels. But he’s already stepping inside the cockpit—getting down on the floor, looking back up at her.
“I don’t care what’s out on that hull,” he adds. “I’ll be back. I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” she replies.
Marlowe steps inside the cockpit. He gets down on the floor, crawls beneath the instrument panels, finds the trapdoor. He opens it. He looks back up at Haskell.
“Go,” she says. She leans down, kisses him. “Come back.”
“I will,” he replies. He turns. Turns back again:
“But if I can’t.”
“But if you can’t.”
“We need some kind of insurance policy.”
He tells her. To his surprise, she agrees. She asks him to forgive her if it comes to that. He nods, pulls on his helmet, seals it. He crawls inside the chute. She pushes the door shut behind him.
He wriggles down, reaches the bottom. He opens the interior door, finds himself back in the tiny chamber. The sensors and charges he rigged are still there. He adjusts the latter so they won’t detonate if he’s the one who comes back in through this door.
Then he signals up to Haskell. She works the overrides, evacs the air. He works the door’s manuals and pulls it open.
The surface before him is less than a meter away. But it’s not the surface of the ship he’s in. And the space between them is just that: space. Marlowe holds on to the edges of the doorway, activates his magnetic clamps, carefully protrudes his head.
And looks around.
Metal stretches out in all directions, curving away at various angles. He’s between the bottom of his ship and the roof of the one that holds his in thrall. Dark lines connect those surfaces at the point where curves begin: wires and struts. There aren’t many. Past them’s only black.
Marlowe edges out of the escape hatch. He begins to crawl toward the closest struts. He’s got his camo as high as it’ll go. He’s trying to minimize contact with the lower ship. He’s hoping that those who designed its exterior sensors were realists—that its sensors are optimized against objects approaching it over great distances and speeds rather than people crawling like insects on the hull. But he’s not sure. He’s planning on avoiding the open. He’s hoping to remain sandwiched between the ships if at all possible.
He reaches the nearest strut, looks past it and down at the massive sloping wing of the B-130. It’s partially retracted. Though it looks wholly unstable, it’s actually one of the toughest things on the ship—almost as tough as the struts themselves. Marlowe can see where they bent when his ship tried to break free. They’re warped here and there. They’re far from broken.
He means to change that. He moves along them, rigging minute amounts of hi-ex at key points. In short order he reaches the rear of the Janus, still well short of the rear of the B-130. Its tail splays out above him like some monstrous bird of prey. Bisecting the tail from left to right is a line of color through an otherwise-black sky: black shading off into dark blue shading off into violet.
He stares for a moment at what remains of sunset. Then he turns and begins crawling across the area just aft of the Janus’s engines, reaches its other side. He takes out his largest charge and places it on the lower plane, just past the rearmost strut. He adjusts it so that its blast will slice straight downward.
But no sooner has he done that than he feels the topography around him tilt. The forces on his body rise. He doesn’t have much time. He starts in on the next strut.
Movement catches his eye. Close at hand. A lens on his suit swivels. He stares.
It’s one of the drones.
The ones he saw earlier were in rapid motion. This one isn’t. It’s sidling along the place where the B-130’s hull meets wing. It’s powered by what appear to be magnetized treads. It’s not making directly for him. He’s not even sure it’s seen him.
But now he sees another. It’s about the same size as the first, but of a wholly different shape. It’s like some kind of centipede—moving along on far too many legs, each one clinging to the ship’s side. Past it, Marlowe spots what may as well be its identical twin. Only this one’s on the wing. Beside it is another model altogether.
Marlowe carefully looks around. The situation’s as bad as he feared. The hull of the B-130 has come alive with these things. He spots at least a dozen more. There are several behind him too. They’re closing in upon one of the side airlocks. They don’t seem to have spotted him. They’re about to, though. He releases the safeties of his wrist-guns.
And the combat starts up.
Though it doesn’t involve Marlowe. Light streaks from several of the drones—lines of fire that just miss the B-130’s tail, but that strike things far beyond the ship. There’s an explosion. For a moment, Marlowe sees distant ships lit by the glare of that blast. And then another detonates with a flash that blots out those remaining.
But something’s returning fire. Something’s sweeping the B-130 with light that lights up Marlowe’s screens—something that knocks drones off the hull as though they’d never existed. Maybe the surviving ships. Maybe weapons deployed at longer range. Maybe both. Marlowe doesn’t care. All he cares about now is making it back. The black all around him is starting to dissipate. The metal’s starting to glow. He’s almost at the hatch once more. It’s still open. He’s three meters away. Now two.
The B-130’s retros fire.
This is just the initial thrust. It’s not full blast—the ship has yet to turn around to engage its main engines. Even so, Marlowe’s flung forward. He grabs for the hatch, misses. He sails straight past the nose of the Janus—straight along the forward roof of the B-130, out toward the B-130’s own nose. He fires his suit’s thrusters on reverse. It’s like pissing in the wind. He’s almost shot past all metal. He grabs out with the desperation of the man who knows there’s nothing past the thing for which he’s reaching save planet.
And somehow he finds purchase. His clamps connect—leave him clinging to the place where the B-130’s cockpit’s windows meld into its hull. There’s an indentation there. It’s not much. Combined with his own thruster’s blast, he might be able to hang on for a few more seconds. He can barely move. The retros are intensifying. He needs to do something quick.
“Claire,” he says.
Her voice comes back immediately.
“You’re alive,” she says.
“You holding out?”
“Just barely. You’re still out there?”
“And I can’t get back.” He watches as the struts fold in preparation for the return to atmosphere. There’s no space visible between the two craft anymore. It doesn’t matter: he sends the signal. Both ships shake. Force rolls against Marlowe. Somehow he keeps his hold.
“You blew the struts.”
“All that’s left are the fail-safes,” he replies. “They won’t resist blastoff. You’re going to have to leave without me.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to.”
“There’s no way.”
“There’s no time to argue. There’s nothing you can do for me now anyway.”
“Jason. Where the hell are you?”
“Look out the window,” he says.
She replies, but her voice is drowned by static. They’re hitting the main phase of reentry. Marlowe takes another charge from his belt, slaps it on the windows as far away from where he is as possible, edges back as far away from it as he can. Chances are that it won’t penetrate the hardened ship. And if it does, it might depressurize the whole thing. Which he’s willing to chalk up as an acceptable outcome at this point.
But then again: he’s on the window. Morat and his minions should be able to see him coming. They should be able to see exactly what he’s doing. And if they are, they can see the problem all too clearly. Which would leave them with exactly one option.
Get ready for him.
The charge detonates. The window vanishes. Marlowe falls inside. It’s as he suspected: they’ve depressurized already. At least this portion of the ship anyway. He rolls along the cockpit’s floor. Flame’s pouring in after him—and then it’s quenched as metal panels slide across where the windows were, slam into one another.
Marlowe grabs on to the wall. Deceleration presses against him. The space he’s in repressurizes. He looks around. The bodies of the pilots are still in their seats. They look just like their brethren upstairs. The lights of the instrument panels gleam. They look to be pretty much broken. Though even if they weren’t, Marlowe knows better than to try to work them. He knows better than to bother trying to contact Haskell. He knows there’s only one thing he
And starts his journey into the interior.
The Operative stalks from the control room. Its doors slide shut behind him. He doesn’t know what that dome is. Beyond hinting that it’s some kind of R&D facility, the control room furnishes no information on it whatsoever. Even though it should. This place is clearly a lot more complex than he or Lynx had bargained for.
To the point where he starts to wonder whether Sarmax really
Which doesn’t mean that Sarmax wouldn’t have his options. He might know a way to thwart the guns. Or maybe he’s gotten out by one of the exterior doors—though moving out over the surface is usually seen as a means of last resort. Keep as much as you can between you and the sky: that’s every runner’s rule. That’s every runner’s logic.
But logic isn’t what’s in the Operative’s head right now. Intuition is. And intuition says that Sarmax is waiting in his sanctuary for the interlopers who have penetrated his lair. The Operative has never been so at cross-purposes with himself. He’s done all the things Lynx asked him to do. He’s done the one thing that Lynx would never have asked for in a million years. He’s already made the move that’s about to transform the whole equation.
Now all he has to do is take the consequences.
The Operative reaches one of the dome’s many access chambers. He steps over the bodies of some guards. Looks like they got blasted by their own defenses. The Operative notes the telltale nozzles hanging from the room’s ceilings. He imagines Lynx looking down at him. He’s tempted to wave. He doesn’t.
Instead he moves toward the door that leads to the dome itself. He stands by the side of that door and raises one hand. The door slides open. He goes on through. The door shuts behind him.
Leaving him immersed once more in night. A forest of night. He’s standing in what seems to be a grassy meadow. The branches of huge gnarled trees reach toward him like claws. Lichens climb up trunks. Some of them shine phosphorescent, casting sharply angled shadows onto the forest floor. Through small patches of clearing, stars are visible overhead, preternaturally bright and serene against the blackness. Floating above the highest treetops, grotesque in its surrealism, is the Moon. It can’t be the Moon—but there it is nonetheless, pockmarks of craters and smoke pall of mares smeared vivid across its surface. Three paths lead forward through the high grass. Each one tunnels into the woods, is swallowed by the blackness.
But before he’s gone another step, a timer in his head hits zero. That timer heralds the activation of the jammer he placed on the bottom of the overhang before he lowered himself on the tether into the base. As jammers go, it isn’t subtle. It doesn’t search out specific frequencies. It just bludgeons the entire spectrum. It caterwauls on short-range, hopefully dissipating before it goes too far but almost certainly creating enough interference to make Lynx lose his connection. Its activation is something the Operative has been expecting.
But what happens next he hasn’t.
An explosion rocks a distant part of the base. The whole dome’s shaking. The faux moon and stars overhead are flickering. They’re winking out. And coming back on. The Operative grimaces. Looks like the generators just got detonated. The backups have come on. A measure that must have been prearranged. Rig the generators with something that’s going to blow unless it gets a signal at intervals—a signal that won’t be forthcoming if a hostile razor has seized the comps, thereby ensuring that when the backups come on, any hostile razor will have lost his foothold: the Operative realizes that he’s not the only one with a plan for keeping Lynx out of the action. The lockdown’s probably still on. But Lynx has almost certainly been thrown out. The Operative’s on his own. It’s what he wanted. He fires his thrusters, blasts out over that sylvan cocoon. Halfway toward the dome’s center, forest becomes fungal garden—he swoops over it, crosses over into a moated island in the center that’s a patch of trees. He lands in a clearing at the island’s center, makes his way toward a gazebo at the center of the clearing. Standing under the gazebo’s roof is a figure in a combat suit that looks to be every bit as heavy as the one the Operative is wearing. He’s got his back to the Operative.
Who continues to close. The man remains motionless. The Operative primes his weapons. The man turns around, regards the Operative. Eyes meet through visors. Nothing happens.
But then the Operative hears a voice.
S traight shot from New York to London, and this train just keeps on eating up these klicks. It streaks supersonic through this hollow. Overhead’s the world’s weight in water. And that seabed suffers from the same thing you do.
Linehan clambers back into the aisle. As he does so, the emergency lighting kicks in, bathes the car in a dim red glow. Linehan looks around. He starts shouting.
“Okay, people. I want everyone on their feet. Hands behind your head. Let’s go. Let’s go.” They’re doing what he tells them. They’re standing up.
“What’s going on?” says one of the nearer ones.
“This,” says Linehan, and fires. The man’s head disintegrates in a burst of gore. Screams are stifled as his body flops. Spencer whirls toward Linehan, sends words skimming on the wireless connection.
“What the fuck are you—”
“Shut up,” says Linehan, cutting Spencer off. “Don’t take your eyes off them.” Then, aloud: “I’ve got a bullet for every fucking question, people. Curiosity’s a shortcut to the grave. As is not doing exactly what I tell you. Oh, what have we here.”
A woman has thrown herself at the dead man’s body. She’s sobbing. Linehan lunges at her. She tries to get away, but he’s too quick. He pushes her up against the nearest seat, starts whispering in her ear. Her struggling intensifies. He pulls her back into the aisle, shoves her away from him. She stumbles toward the front of the car. Her cries fill the cabin.
“Now listen to me,” yells Linehan. “On the count of three, I want everyone to my left to start moving through that door”—he gestures at the one that leads into the train’s rear—“and into the next car. And I want everyone to the right of me to proceed through the other one”—now he points at the door leading forward—“and then keep going. And head for the ends of this train. And don’t stop till you get there. And I
He’s pointing at a man a few meters toward the car’s rear. The man looks normal enough. He’s looking at Linehan with mouth agape.
“Me,” he whispers.
“Yeah,” says Linehan. He advances through the people between him and the man. No one tries anything. No one touches him. He reaches the man, throws him to the floor, tells the man he didn’t like the way he was looking at him. The man’s begging for mercy. Linehan kicks him, tells him that he doesn’t need to worry, that he’s not even worth the bullet. He then moves back to rejoin Spencer. His yelling starts up anew.
“Three, people. Let’s go. Forward, backward.
And people start to move. Spencer recognizes the look of stunned horror most of them are wearing. It’s the look of those who suddenly find themselves in the middle of the kind of events they’ve never encountered outside the safe confines of a screen. Those at the front and rear work the manual controls of the doors. Spencer and Linehan watch as they start to shuffle through into the next car.
“Let’s pick up the pace a little,” says Linehan.
He fires into the backs of two of the nearest rearward-bound passengers. He turns forward, repeats himself. People start to sprint. The screaming starts up again in earnest, spiking as those in the adjacent cars are engulfed in the onrush. As ever, terror’s infectious. But above the rising consternation echoes the voice of Linehan.
“You’ve got ten seconds before I start coming after you,” he shrieks. “So you’d better haul
“You’re fucking crazy,” he says.
“Do you want to live or don’t you?” says Linehan evenly. “I just bought us a couple minutes.”
“And just what the fuck are we going to do with those minutes?”
But Linehan says nothing. He places his foot on one of the seats and hitches up a trouser leg. He runs his thumbs together down his shin. He digs deep. Something clicks. Part of his skin folds backward. His knee’s not the only hinge in his leg—and what’s within is mostly solid. And spongy. Linehan roots in there. Grasps something. Holds it up. Adjusts it.
“How the hell did you get that through?” asks Spencer.
“Because it’s the same density as the rest of me,” says Linehan. “Same visual readout too. I didn’t even need your Control’s help for this.”
“Your whole leg’s robotic,” says Spencer.
“Something like that,” says Linehan.
“How much of the rest of you is?” asks Spencer.
“Nowhere near enough to make me not care about my hide.” He pulls out more pieces. He finishes assembling the resultant rifle. He hands it to Spencer.
“Have at it.”
“What are you going to use?”
“This,” says Linehan. He reaches into his leg again. He removes what seems to be an auto-pistol and what seems to be a—
“Looks like a whip,” says Spencer.
“It should,” says Linehan. He seals his leg, puts his foot back on the floor. He strides to the door at the front of the car and works its manuals. It opens. The two men move through into the next car. It’s empty, apart from several bodies strewn in the aisle. From the marks on them they’ve been trampled. The door on the far end of this one is open. Through that door can be seen another empty car—and in the car beyond that, the rearmost elements of the fleeing passengers. A keening wail echoes in their wake.
“Looking good,” says Linehan.
“Yeah,” says Spencer, “it’s looking great.”
“Spare me your sarcasm,” says Linehan. He starts to move forward at a rapid clip. Spencer keeps pace with him. “Here’s an even better view.”
Two images appear in Spencer’s head. They’re A/V feeds from right in the midst of the masses of fleeing passengers, looking out upon their backs. It’s like a rugby scrum gone haywire. Each car into which the panic spreads means there’s that many more people trying to get through the next door. With the inevitable result that there’s as much fighting going on as there is fleeing.
“What the fuck,” says Spencer. Linehan grins.
“Those two I pulled aside? The bitch whose husband I shot? The dickless wonder I singled out for special treatment? The one went toward the front and the other went toward the rear. But I planted cameras on both of them while I was telling them who was boss. I was giving us a little bit of transparency, Spencer.”
“Into the ones we’re fighting. You said your Control said they were behind
“Right. Though he didn’t say why they didn’t just board at our car directly.”
“Because then we would have known something was up,” says Linehan. “Right? If there’s a disturbance at the place of boarding and we’re not at that place, who are we to be any the wiser? The plan clearly was to have the plainclothes agents arrest us and hustle us to the waiting vehicles. Minimum of fuss, minimum of effort.”
“And it backfired on them,” says Spencer.
“Hardly,” says Linehan. “Far as I can see, their plan’s working fine. The plainclothes were expendable. That was the point. The heavies are undoubtedly the ones based from the vehicles. Who have us trapped between them.”
“And where are they?”
“Delayed a little bit by the human tide, I expect,” says Linehan. “But only a little bit. In fact—hello.”
For now a new turbulence is engulfing the mass of people on the screen that’s showing what’s happening several cars behind them. People are stopping, being trampled by those on either side. People are diving into the seats on either side. The camera bearer almost goes down, gets shoved against a seat, manages to stay on his feet. The people in front of him are parting.
To reveal two suited figures standing in the doorway up ahead.
Each wears light powered armor. The armor looks to be U.S. military, but it features no insignia. Visors shimmer in the half-light.
“Into the seats,” says a voice. “Clear the fucking aisles. Or you all die.”
“They’re right behind us,” someone screams at him.
“We know,” says the second suit.
“But here’s what you don’t,” says Linehan.
They can’t hear him. But everyone on the train hears what Linehan does next. If only for a moment: Spencer watches as he hits a button on his wrist—and the whole scene dissolves in static. Spencer hears a loud boom toward the train’s rear. The whole car shakes—a shaking that intensifies, becomes an agony of reverberations. The emergency lights go out altogether. Spencer grasps his rifle in one hand, grasps the back of the nearest seat in the other. It struggles in his grip like a living thing.
“You’ve killed us all,” he says.
“You’re awfully vocal for a corpse,” says Linehan.
“And here I was thinking he spontaneously combusted. Let’s hit it.”
They’re rushing forward. They’re leaping bodies. They’re watching on their screens as the passengers somewhere in front of them keep on running for their lives. They’re carrying on their conversation all the while.
“How come we’re still alive?” says Spencer.
“Because we’re just too damn quick.”
“I mean how come your bomb didn’t kill us?”
“Because that’s the way they build these things,” says Linehan. “As modular as possible. Most explosives will do no more than depressurize a single train car. The engine blocks—the magnets—are designed to survive most blasts.”
“And that’s what just happened.”
“My bomb was a little more powerful than that,” says Linehan. “Probably knocked that whole rail into the ceiling. Not to mention causing one hell of a pileup behind the lucky car. We just got a hell of a lot shorter, Spencer.”
“You’re a fucking maniac.”
“As long as I live, I can live with that.”
“You just murdered hundreds of people!”
“But not the ones I’m trying to,” says Linehan.
And now they’re catching up with the fleeing passengers in front of them. They’re trailing them at a distance of just under a car, watching as they keep on screaming.
“Look at them go,” says Linehan.
“Gotta live for the moment,” replies Linehan.
He raises the auto-pistol, starts firing into the backs of the people in front of him. For a moment, Spencer’s tempted to whirl on him, beg that he stop, shoot him if he doesn’t. But only for a moment. Truth of the matter is that he doesn’t dare. It’s not even that he’s sure Linehan will turn on him if he has to. It’s more that he feels he’s already in too deep, already complicit. He wonders if he still holds out the hope that he can justify these deaths, wonders if thinking along such lines is the worst crime of all. He realizes he still has no idea what Linehan’s plan is anyway.
So he asks.
“What makes you think I’ve got one?” says Linehan. He stops firing. Most of the targets have raced out of range. Those who remain are doing their utmost to get there.
“You’re certainly acting like it,” replies Spencer.
“That’s what improvisation’s all about,” says Linehan. “Better get ready to use that gun of yours.”
For a moment, Spencer thinks that Linehan has read his mind, figures that he’s about to turn on him. But then he realizes that what Linehan is referring to is the forward A/V feed. Flame’s gouting toward the screen. People in front of the woman to whom the camera’s been attached are burning. Through that flame, Spencer catches a glimpse of two more suited figures a car or two ahead, spraying out fire from nozzles atop their helmets.
“They’re killing everybody,” says Spencer.
“They’re not stupid,” says Linehan. “They’ve realized we’re using the passengers. They must know that’s the only way we could have got hi-ex right next to them.”
“Did you mine her too?”
“With something a little less powerful,” says Linehan. “Given that we’re behind her.”
“You’re a real piece of work.”
The woman’s been caught in the fires. They’re hot. They consume her quickly. They consume the camera too—Linehan hits the button. Snarls.
“Too late,” he says.
“Too bad,” says Spencer.
“Here they come.”
Running toward them are the rearmost passengers who’ve had the misfortune to be caught between the two sets of antagonists. Now they’re foremost in fleeing in the direction they’ve come.
“We need your bullets too, Spencer,” says Linehan as he opens up once more.
“I can’t do it,” says Spencer.
“Don’t you get it, man? They’re
The doomed are reversing direction once more—heading forward once again. But a few aren’t turning around. One dies at Linehan’s feet. One lunges toward Spencer—who fends off the lunge, strikes the man with his rifle butt, sends him sprawling. Linehan shoots him through the head, starts moving forward once again.
“I can’t take this anymore,” says Spencer.
“Want me to get it over for you?”
“Fuck you. I’m getting back into the zone.”
“I thought you said there was no zone to speak of.”
“There’s a zone alright. It’s just a mess. Wireless isn’t happening. Wires may be more reliable.”
“So jack in.”
“So I need to stop.”
“We can’t stop.”
“I didn’t say
He halts, pulls open a door. It leads to the facilities. It’s just a tiny chamber. But Spencer steps inside anyway. He pulls wires from his skull, pulls lights from fixtures. Linehan stares at him.
“We can’t split up,” he says.
“Want to bet?” says Spencer.
“Steel yourself,” says Linehan. “You’re Priam’s man. Do you think that Priam is above all this? That your side never uses innocents as weapons?”
“This isn’t about morality,” says Spencer. “It’s about strategy. We’ve got to get some zone coverage or we’ll never make it.”
“Oh,” says Linehan. “I get it. The quintessential razor—fine with anything as long as you’re doing it in zone. But get you out into the real world and you can’t even pull a goddamn trigger.”
“Shut up,” says Spencer. “Shut that door.”
“I’ll be back,” says Linehan.
“And I’ll watch your back,” replies Spencer. “Now get the fuck out of here.”
The door slams shut. Spencer stares at it—watches as it’s replaced in a single moment by a zone that’s just as fuzzy as it was before. Things still haven’t clarified. On the contrary: they’ve retreated still farther into shadow. The train’s one long blur. What’s beyond it is scarcely visible. There’s some intimation of something big somewhere farther out. Something that’s in motion. Spencer pictures a titanic struggle going on out there. He pictures himself as elusive, unattainable. He knows that’s about as false a picture as he can paint.
But now he can see shards of light glowing close at hand. There’s one about twenty cars up and one on the opposite side of the train, about fifteen cars back. They’re unmistakable.
They’re his fellow razors.
Only they’re not on his side. And they’re not on the train either. They’re in vehicles right alongside. The razors are shielding those vehicles’ exact specs. Spencer presumes there are other vehicles out there. Yet the zone’s awash with so much turbulence that it’s impossible for him to say for sure. Nor does he need to: he springs forward, cannons into two of them. Now he’s a battering ram surging. One of his targets gets his shields up in time.
The other doesn’t.
Spencer crumples through the defenses like they’re so much paper. He feels his sharpness tearing all the way through to the point where wires meet nerves. He burns those nerves, sears that brain. He slices open all that data.
And suddenly he’s presiding over several different views of the car that’s fifteen cars back from the one in which he’s hidden. Several different views through several different visors. But far more important than those views is the glimpse he’s now got into these men’s hearts. Spencer flares like lightning through their suit-comps, overrides them, makes them turn on each other with all their automated weapons. He destroys the whole squad that was attached to the gunship he’s just taken over. He revs up the ship’s controls. He’s ready to go places with it and the corpses it contains.
Only he’s not. Instead the ship’s getting shredded by gunfire from still another farther down the tunnel. Simultaneously he comes under attack from several other razors. They’re trying to triangulate on him. He’s searching for a way to get at them. He needs a better view. He rifles through the train’s systems. He still can’t get at its controls.
But what he can get at are its cameras. Suddenly he’s got access to the feeds from all eighty cars. Only it’s not eighty. Cars sixty-five and onward are gone. Cars number nineteen through twenty-eight have been scorched with fire. What’s left of the passengers in that section of the train are huddled amidst the seats of cars twenty-nine through thirty-three. Suited figures are moving up through twenty-seven and twenty-eight. There are five of them. The gunship from which they’ve come is moored at car number nineteen. It’s the one whose razor resisted Spencer’s onslaught. That razor’s shielding his men well. He’s trying to get out ahead of them. He’s trying to get into the cameras. But Spencer is blocking him—preventing him from seeing Linehan in car number thirty-four, preventing him from seeing Spencer himself in car number forty.
Spencer’s got a nasty feeling he’s been made anyway. His view into most of those cars is vanishing, and he can no longer see Linehan or his antagonists—or any of the cars save the ones immediately adjacent to the one he’s in. He’s coming under point-blank zone assault. Other razors are prising the train from his virtual fingers. The gunship behind him accelerates up the tunnel, climbing past the train’s cars, moving past the sixties, the fifties—the forties. It starts to slow down. It moves past car number forty-five. It stops at car number forty-one. Spencer can see it vaguely in the zone. He hurls himself against its razor. But that razor’s dug in. Spencer can’t break through.
All he can do is watch as though in a dream: the exterior door in car number forty-one slides open and suited figures emerge from a walkway that’s been extended from their gunship. They stride rapidly into car number forty. Spencer watches as they move toward the door behind which his body’s stored. He wants to jack out. He wants to run. He wants to stop them somehow. He doesn’t do any of those things. He just flings himself forward in one final frantic attack at the razor who’s crouched behind the bulwarks so close at hand.
He fails—ricochets off those barricades. And watches as the suits rip that door off its hinges. He catches a quick glimpse of himself sitting against the sink, eyes rolled back, jaw open—and then they seize him.
The zone vanishes. He’s staring up at visors staring down upon him. Weapons are thrust in his face.
“Don’t move,” says a voice.
It’s not like Spencer would dream of it. They slap a neural lock onto his spine. He’s paralyzed: they’re carrying him back toward their ship like some kind of trussed-up trophy. They move back on through to car number forty-one.
Which is where they stop. Something seems to be going on. One of them leaps forward, slides shut the door through which they came. They no longer seem to be bent on getting back to their ship. Instead they’re taking up defensive positions. They’re not talking. But they’re clearly communicating. They’re training their guns forward and backward, eyeing the exterior and interior doors alike. Spencer finds himself hurled down upon one of the now-empty seats. He watches as the door from car number forty opens.
And Linehan enters the room.
He’s not in armor. Those he faces are. That should be the end of it. But it’s not. And Spencer feels like he’s back in his dream—as Linehan leaps forward, ducking in under the suits’ fire, twisting his whole body through the air as he runs along the wall, right angles to the floor, his whip leaping out, licking onto one of those suits’ helmets. There’s a detonation. The suit topples to the floor, smoke trailing along a quarter-circle arc from what remains of its neck. Linehan continues his charge down the wall—switches to the ceiling as the suits continue to fire at him. His auto-pistol speaks—first left, then right, then left again, even as its wielder’s path blurs onto the other wall, even as that wielder lashes out with the whip again, lands a blow on another suit’s torso. There’s another detonation. Linehan leaps straight forward—knocking what’s left of that suit into the next, grappling with the next one, ripping its arm clean off, firing shots into mangled flesh. But as he does so, the remaining suit’s whirling toward Spencer, taking aim—and then the suit’s gun hand disintegrates as the whip hits home, dances from there to the suit’s head.
The car’s still. Linehan bends over Spencer, removes the neural lock, tosses it aside.
“I can walk from here,” mutters Spencer.
“We’re done with walking,” says Linehan.
He steers Spencer to the car’s open exterior door. Beyond is some kind of tube. Spencer follows Linehan down it.
And into the interior of the much smaller vehicle that’s running parallel with the train. There’s not much in that interior. It’s about six meters long and three meters wide, with a cockpit at each end. Each cockpit features controls and a slitted window.
“Sit down,” says Linehan. “Wire yourself in.”
“Is this one of their gunships?”
“If it were, we’d never have made it in here. But we’ve got about ten seconds all the same. So how about we talk as we go?”
The door slides shut behind them. They strap in. They disconnect the ship from the train. Spencer jacks in. The controls spread before him. The rails stretch far beyond him.
He hits it.
S ea and space and aircraft: all have the same type of corridor. All boast new kinds of narrow: like bones bereft of marrow, like hollow when it’s hardly worthy of the word. Marlowe moves carefully through a labyrinth that’s far more complex than the layout of the plane above it. It’s far larger. It’s not lit either. Whoever’s in charge has turned off all the lights.
But Marlowe’s willing to bet they haven’t turned off the sensors. He’s felt nothing upon him yet, but—camo or no camo—he’s sure he’s being picked up all the same, particularly as the darkness is forcing him to use his own sensors. He sends them probing along a number of spectrums. Among them is the visible.
The walls and ceiling thus revealed are a combination of plastic and metal. The rooms that they enclose are largely empty. The ship those rooms comprise has seen better days. It was commissioned as a massive bomber—capable of launching a smaller one from its back and into space, and then swooping down upon the enemy anywhere on Earth. But that was twenty years ago. It still constitutes impressive technology. But from a military perspective, it’s obsolete. Smart hypersonic missiles have seen to that. Now the ship’s primarily given over to cargo runs. Usually it’s no longer even armed. Under normal circumstances it would be packed with freight. But for this mission it only had one piece of freight to haul.
And release. At least, that was the idea. But someone had other ideas. And Marlowe can’t wait to get face-to-face with that someone. But it seems like his body couldn’t be moving any slower. It’s like he’s pulling himself up a mountain—as the descent steepens, the floor is sloping ever more steeply beneath his feet. He’s being shoved toward that floor with a steadily increasing force. The shaking around him is intensifying, the ship rocking in the full throes of reentry. Marlowe keeps to the walls. He moves through the doors like anything could happen.
But the drone catches him by surprise anyway. It’s propelled by jets—gyros that flare suddenly as it rounds a corner and whips in toward his face. He fires his own jets—meets it in its headlong flight, smashes into it with one fist, sends it slamming into a wall. He lights it up with his guns, keeps going.
Straight into two more. One’s clinging to the wall—and suddenly springing in toward him. The other’s another gyro-platform. Wicked-looking barrels hang from beneath it. Marlowe dives toward the side, gets the first drone between him and the second. It riddles its comrade, starts to riddle him—but now he’s lashing out with rapid fire to perforate it.
But not before he’s been hit himself. He’s scarcely got time to assess the damage before he’s taking more of it from every side. They’re rushing him from all angles now. They’re even coming out of the walls: the vent covers are snapping off and machines are leaping from them. Marlowe retracts his thrusters and lets his guns roar. Flamers mounted on his back spray everywhere. His fists and boots dispatch drones of every description. He catches quick glimpses here and there of the things he’s fighting—his helmet cannonades into something that’s more teeth than body, his boot dropkicks a spiked orb into a wall—but mostly he’s just going on reflex. His vision’s a maelstrom of data and drones. He’s getting hit repeatedly. He’s giving out far worse than he’s getting.
And yet he’s being ground down steadily. There are simply too many of them. One of his flamers gets knocked out. Bullets are lodged all over his suit. The outer armor on his left side’s almost penetrated. His fists are worn dull from punching.
“Had enough?” says a voice.
Morat’s voice is being broadcast from one of the drones. Marlowe fires hi-ex into it. The drone detonates. But the others take up where it left off.
“You’re fighting something you can’t kill,” they say.
But Marlowe doesn’t answer. He just keeps battling his way through them—straining against the G-force, grabbing two drones, smashing them together, firing point-blank, letting his shots ricochet off walls and into targets. His movements speed up even as his armor corrodes—even as the pressures on his body continue to build as the ship surges through reentry. He’s in some kind of zone all his own now, one where the voices lapping up against his brain are just part of the scenery.
Marlowe doesn’t answer. Now he’s battling just to stay on his feet. The husks of shattered metal pile up around him. The frenzy of the drones’ attack is increasing. He uses his armor as a battering ram, charges into a wall, takes it down, charges away from the onslaught and on through into an adjacent room. It’s empty of drones.
For about a second.
“Because I’m going to make you
Marlowe has hit on a strategy he likes. It’s pretty much the only one he’s got left—smashing his way through wall after wall—but if he’s making better progress, that’s mostly because the ship’s finally coming out of its reentry. The angle of descent is decreasing. So is the deceleration, which ought to mean he can contact Haskell. But she’s not answering. Or she can’t hear. The drones keep sniping at him. His wrist gets hit hard enough to destroy the gun encased there. He’s pretty much down to the innermost shell of his armor now.
“But don’t worry, Jason. You’ll get that action yet. I’ll shear off your one last weapon and cram it down her throat. Partially to repay you for what you’ve done to my machines. But mostly to teach her for being such a troublesome cunt. Oh yes: she’s doing much better than you are, Jason. She’s still holding out up there. Whereas you’re about to meet with one wall too many. You’re about to meet with me, Jason. Come on.
Marlowe realizes that the attack of the drones is subsiding. They’re still pressing him hard. They still mean business. But they’re giving way in front of him and closing in behind. They’re herding him in one particular direction, which is fine by him. He’s being driven toward the very place he’s been trying to get to. He’s down to a single heavy pistol now. But it’s still got ammo. His shots are still crashing home. His boots are still crunching over what’s left of things he’s shot. He picks one up and flings it—scoops up another, uses it as a club against its live brethren. He gets through one more wall. He smashes through one last door, charges through into the main cargo chamber.
It’s completely bereft of cargo. All it contains is the elevator, set within four pylons that rise to the ceiling and end in the corners of a shaft. The trapdoor to that shaft is open. Marlowe can’t see where it leads.
But he can see Morat, standing suitless in front of that elevator, surrounded by several larger drones. He’s smiling.
Marlowe isn’t. He whips his arm up, opens up. But as he does so, the drones around Morat fire. They all hit in the same place. Pieces of Marlowe’s pistol fly through the air. Marlowe snarls, starts toward Morat. But the larger drones are forming up between him and his quarry. They form a wall. They train their weapons on him.
Marlowe stops. He brandishes his makeshift club. He stares at Morat.
“I’m not done yet,” he says.
“Well,” replies Morat, “that makes two of us.”
Marlowe steps toward him.
“That’s far enough.”
Marlowe lines his target up. Even though he’s got neither guns nor screens. All he’s got is a visor so cracked as to be useless. He pulls off his helmet, tosses it aside.
“Right here. Let’s settle this once and for all.”
“We already have,” says Morat. “Didn’t you notice?”
“I haven’t noticed shit.”
“Funny, neither has your bitch.”
“She’s not my bitch.”
“No,” says Morat. “She’s mine. Or at least, she will be in a few more minutes.”
“She still hasn’t blasted off?” Marlowe can’t keep the dismay from his voice.
“Strangely enough, she hasn’t.”
“I don’t know if she thinks
“She’s crazy,” mutters Marlowe.
“For once we agree on something,” says Morat. “But give her some credit. She’s quite the feisty one. She’s up there waging all-out siege warfare.” He gestures at the roof. “She’s got one hell of a crossfire going, Marlowe. She’s racked up quite a score. Anything that I put in that shaft gets toasted. I’m starting to have my doubts that I can break through before we land.”
“You’re planning on
“No,” says Morat. “I’m planning on circling the Earth forever.”
“You’re a fucking riot, Morat. Just where the hell do you think you’re going to down it?”
“Stick around long enough,” says Morat, “and you might find out. Have you tried to contact Claire since we emerged from reentry?”
“And I can’t get through.”
“And you know why that is?”
“I presume it has something to do with that hack of yours.”
“More than just something.”
“Who’s running it? You?”
“Look around you, Marlowe.”
And Marlowe looks. And stares at Morat.
“You mean the drones?”
And Morat just laughs. “It’s tempting to think of them as plural. But it’s the same mind that spans them. I built them to the specifications furnished by the Rain. I uploaded their activation codes scant minutes ago. Brought to life with the Rain’s own essence—and your little strumpet couldn’t stop me. She’s been trying to slice her way into their circuitry ever since. She can’t make it happen. Nor will she. She thinks she’s the razor to end all razors. She has delusions of such grandeur. Now she’s learning just how pathetic those delusions really are.”
“So how come she’s still up there raining shit down on you?”
“Well,” says Morat, “that’s why you’re still standing there talking shit to me.”
“Yes. Because you’re going to persuade her to surrender.”
“The hell I am.”
“And that’s exactly where I’ll put you if you don’t.”
“So what are you waiting for?”
“You’ve got it wrong. I’m talking about a different kind of pain. I’ll blow the whole top plane. I’ll toss her ass into the fucking slipstream. I already rigged it. All I want to do is talk to her. That’s all. You don’t even have to say a word. You’ve got her life in your hands, Jason. All I want is conversation. Just a little chat.”
“And what are you going to say to her?”
“How foolish she’s being. Among other things. And how I don’t have time to fuck around. Five seconds, Jason. Four. Three. Two.”
“Fine,” says Marlowe. He sends out the one-on-one. It’s answered almost immediately.
“Jason. Where are you?”
“Right below you.”
But now her voice cuts out. “I don’t want you
“Sure,” says Marlowe.
“—son? Are you there?”
“Claire,” he says. “Morat’s got me down here. Tune in to this frequency.”
“Jesus,” she says—and her voice cuts out. Marlowe tunes in to the frequency in question.
“And now we’re all here,” says Morat.
“What the fuck do you want out of all this?” says Haskell.
“You,” says Morat.
“That’s not enough. That can’t be.”
“How about letting me be the judge of that?”
“You’d go to all this trouble to capture two runners?”
“I’d go to all this trouble to publicly expose the superpowers for the impotents they are.”
“By taking us to HK?”
“You heard her,” says Morat. “And yes, Claire: exactly. Look at that procession we’re leading. Look at all those ships arrayed out behind us. It’s all going down on camera. Hundreds of millions are watching. It’s almost as good as the Elevator. And when we get ready to land, it’s going to get even better.”
“That’ll never happen,” says Haskell. “They’ll blast us from the sky before they let you put this down in the city.”
“Spoken like a true servant, Claire. You don’t know your own masters. I do. There’s no reason for them to shoot us down—
“This doesn’t add up,” says Haskell.
“Did I ever claim it had to?”
“There’s something you’re not telling us.”
“There are many things I’m not telling you,” says Morat. “That much will never change. Truth to tell, I’m not sure I could tell the whole truth even if I wanted to. Even if I knew it. But I’ll tell you this much: unless you want to give up all hope of seeing Marlowe again, you’d better give it up and get down here right now.”
“You really expect me to believe that?”
“What you believe is beside the point.”
“I thought you said you wanted us alive.”
“I exaggerate sometimes,” Morat replies. “It’s a bad habit of mine. And here’s another: I was never any good at negotiating. So I won’t even try now. The Rain want you alive if possible. They’ll take you dead if they have to. Now are you going to come on down or am I going to scratch one mech?”
“Just try,” says Marlowe.
“Just you wait,” says Morat. “Claire. What’s it going to be?”
“Don’t do it, Claire. He’ll have us both.”
“He already does, Jason.”
“He doesn’t have to.”
“Oh,” says Morat, “but I do.”
“Fuck you,” says Haskell.
“Maybe,” says Morat. “Maybe. It might be fun. Although I have to confess that the animal ceased to turn me on some time ago. I get off in my head now, Claire. I get off on twisting yours—to the point where you’re about to violate all your training in order to save someone who might not mean a thing to you. Even though you know damn well that all you’re really doing is condemning both of you to the claws of the Rain. They’re waiting for you, Claire. So am I. So come on down and join my party.”
“I have to,” she says.
“You’re right,” says Morat.
“You’re dead,” she says.
“Wait long enough,” he says, “and you’ll be right. But I’m going to live long enough to see this world go into the grinders of the new one. What’s it going to be, Claire? Are you going to open that airlock? Or do I have to count this down?”
“No,” she says, “you don’t. Forgive me, Jason.”
“There’s no need,” replies Marlowe.
But Haskell’s already sending signals from her mind that have nothing to do with that airlock. They’ve got a different destination altogether. They flit past the outer plane’s hull, stop at the lower’s. They trigger circuitry. Which triggers chemistry.
The bomb that Marlowe planted on the B-130 detonates.
The voice of Leo Sarmax is sounding in the Operative’s ears. It’s almost like the first time he heard it. Back before anyone saw all this coming. Back when the world was young. It’s lost none of its intensity in those intervening years. In fact, it’s gained a new edge.
Though that may be just a function of the circumstances.
“You’ve got something I want,” says that voice.
They’re just words. But they surge like waves within the Operative’s skull. He feels himself struggling not to be swept under. He feels so gone he can’t imagine being anywhere else. He waits for all eternity.
And then he speaks.
“More than just something.”
“Meaning I’m Carson.”
There’s a pause. Then audio’s joined by another set of signals. A face appears before the Operative’s retina. He reciprocates even as he takes it in: nose, sharply sloped cheekbones. Those eyes. That half smile.
“Carson,” says Leo Sarmax. “Been a long time.”
“Long time for sure.”
“Didn’t even know you were up here.”
“That’s because you’re slipping.”
“I doubt it,” says Sarmax. “When did you get in?”
“About twelve hours ago.”
“And what do you think?”
“Not much. Expected your security would give me more of a challenge.”
“I’m not talking about my defenses. They weren’t intended for the likes of you. I’m talking about this rock.”
“Oh,” says the Operative. “In that case, I like it.”
“You should,” replies Sarmax. “It suits you.”
“Well,” says Sarmax, “I like this place for different reasons. I’m different than you, Carson. I always was. We both always knew that.”
“We always did. That’s why you left.”
“And why I’m staying.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to do anything else.”
“Good, Carson,” says Sarmax. “Good. I’m glad to hear that. You know why? Because I’ve carved out a bit of a niche for myself up here. Used to be that the Moon could guarantee you some isolation. No longer. Now you have to work for it even here. And that’s what this place is to me. Those mountains you saw coming in—they’re mine. The valleys—mine. The horizon in between—mine too. It’s all mine. And so are you.”
The Operative doesn’t reply.
“Carson,” says Sarmax. “You really shouldn’t have come here. All you’ve done is dig your own grave.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Much as you might deny it. Much as I might deny the hand that strikes you. You’ve stuck your nose into one rabbit hole too many. Took you a long time do it. But you’ve finally managed to pull it off. And now I’m going to pull apart your skull and use whatever’s inside to reverse-engineer the lockdown you’ve put on my comps.”
“Not so,” says the Operative.
“In that case,” says Sarmax, “climb out of that suit. Walk me back to the control room. One chance, Carson.”
“Listen,” says the Operative, “you’ve got it wrong. If they wanted to rub you out, I wouldn’t be the instrument of their displeasure. Come on, man, don’t kid yourself with the hubris. Sure, you’re your own little Moon lord now, but if they really wanted you dead, face it: you wouldn’t be alive. And it wouldn’t be subtle, either. Some low-flying sat would just do a drive-by on your ass, and that’d be that. It’s not like there’d be an investigation worth the name.”
“Would you believe that I wanted to look up an old friend?”
“Cut the shit, Carson,” says Sarmax. “Don’t make yourself look pathetic by trying to worm out of it now. Just get busy thinking on the irony—you came out here on the cold run, but it’s going to be you who gets taken out instead. It’s that simple, old friend.”
“No,” says the Operative, “it’s not.”
“Then tell me what you’ve come to do.”
“To deliver a message.”
“To deliver a
“To deliver a message.”
Sarmax laughs, a sharp short bark. “You’re damn right you’ve delivered a message, Carson. You carve through my inner and outer perimeters in nothing flat, you slice your way straight through my household staff, destroy my machinery, fuck my systems—you’d better believe you’ve just delivered a message.” He puts one glove toward the left side of his helmet. “Heard you loud and clear, Carson. Heard you loud and clear.”
“Sure,” says the Operative. “Had to do that. Had to make it look convincing. Otherwise the message wouldn’t have been worth much.”
“So what the fuck is the message?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can’t take you down, Leo. I’m this close to putting your body through the roof of this dome, but I’m not going to do it.”
“Hardly the one to make threats, Carson. So you’re having second thoughts? So you want to slink back out? So what’s new? A man can do a lot of soul-searching when it’s time to ride that ferry. Particularly when he’s lived so long a life as yours.”
“So come on over here and get it over with.”
“No,” says Sarmax. “First I want you to tell me who sent you.”
“Like you can’t guess.”
“You’re still working for them.”
“I’m still killing for them.”
“And I’m next on the list?”
“Something like that.”
“So why the fuck did it take them so long? They have cause now, they’ve had cause for a long time. Why now?”
“Because,” says the Operative, “things are getting out of hand.”
“And I’m stirring them up?”
“I don’t know,” says the Operative. “
“Apparently I must be.”
“Leo. Are you dealing with the Rain?”
“Jesus,” says Sarmax. “Is that what this is all about?”
“Answer the question, Leo.”
“No,” says Sarmax, “I’m not.” A pause. Then: “They really think
“I have no idea what they really think.”
“I thought you said—”
“You didn’t listen,” says the Operative.
“I’m starting to think there’s been a pretty big mistake,” says Sarmax.
“No mistake,” says the Operative. “No mistake at all. They’re calling in all the variables. Biggest manhunt in history. Anyone who might have dealt with the new player. Anyone who might
“I see,” says Sarmax.
“I hope you do,” says the Operative. “Because that’s why there’s a termination order on your ass.”
“And they sent you to carry it out.”
“Well,” says the Operative, “in theory, sure.”
“Like I said, I’m not going to kill you. Not unless you draw first.”
Sarmax doesn’t move. Static. Then: “If you really
“Oh,” says the Operative, “that. I was just tossing things out there. Trying to get you to calm down a little.” He laughs. “But I tell you where I wasn’t bullshitting you, Leo: I meant it with the hubris. Like they see you as worth blowing that kind of hardware on…” His voice trails off in a dry chuckle.
“So you were talking bullshit?”
“It’d certainly be one way to off you. But I guess they wanted to make this one less overt. Maybe even save on some expenses.”
“But still eliminate a variable.”
“That’s it,” says the Operative. “That’s all. It’s nothing personal. They’re calling in the variables.”
“When did they start cleaning them up?”
“Two days ago. But they started calling in the ones on the Moon last night.”
“Carson,” says Sarmax suddenly. “Do you really want us both to walk away from here?”
“I really do.”
“So why didn’t you make a run for it? Why come here?”
“I’m not sure I follow your logic,” says the Operative.
“I mean that you didn’t have to show up in the first place,” says Sarmax. “Just start your run and contact me later.”
“Would you have listened?”
“Well, that’s part of the reason then. But the basic issue’s a little more simple: anyone who makes a break too early’s meat. Only hope now is to get you out of here in such a way that they think you’re dead, and then set you loose as rogue. Rogue, but in contact.”
“With anyone else?” asks Sarmax.
“What about your razor?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You’d tell your razor I was dead when I was still alive?”
“I’ll tell my razor whatever he wants to hear.”
“Your razor being Lynx?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The fact that this run bears all the hallmarks of that sick fuck.”
“I can’t say I disagree.”
“What precisely does he want to hear?”
“That you’re not breathing. That your systems are ours. That we can move on to the next phase.”
“Of course,” says Sarmax. He pauses. He smiles. He shakes his head.
“What’s so funny, Leo?”
“So let me in on the joke.”
“I would have thought that was obvious.”
“Sure. It’s obvious. So why don’t you tell me what the fuck it is?”
“Because you’re doing so well on your own.”
“This isn’t just about the elimination of variables, is it?”
“No,” says the Operative. “It’s not.”
“They want me dead for a specific reason,” says Sarmax.
“What the fuck do they think I’ve done?”
“You sound so righteously indignant, you ought to be a case study.”
“Level with me, Carson. You know I can take the truth.”
“The truth,” says the Operative, “is that it’s not a matter of what you’ve done. Not a matter of who you were. It’s a matter of asset mobilization.”
“What in God’s name are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about why they sent me here, Sarmax. I’m talking about harnessing your holdings in the service of the Throne.”
“All the Throne has to do is ask!”
“You forget,” says the Operative, “that this is how the Throne asks.”
Sarmax shakes his head. “Those stupid bastards,” he whispers. “Those stupid. Fucking. Bastards.”
“Maybe,” says the Operative. “Maybe not. But at any rate: now we’re getting to the proposal I’ve come all this way to make. See, Leo, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking while I sat in that truck for two days and ran that deep. I’ve been thinking about what I’d do when I got here. Thinking of what it’d be like. Lot of folks watching now, Leo. Lot of folks waiting too. A lot of people are getting very nervous. So I knew the pressure would be on when I got here. I knew I’d better be ready with some fancy footwork. I knew I’d better be ready with a plan. Which you’re the key to making happen.”
“This plan’s yours?”
“If you even have to ask that, then you aren’t thinking. Or you haven’t been listening. Or you never knew me in the first place. I think the endgame’s upon us, Leo. I want to be ready when it starts to break. I want you ready too. I want you to listen to what I’m going to say.”
And Sarmax does. Nor is the telling short. It stretches out over the lunar surface, leaping to places far afield of the south pole. The exposition unfolds across the temporal too, weaves in whole series of events both real and hypothetical, spins out the web of permutations that link those events…and thus the larger structure is laid: possibilities, contingencies, all made manifest in the plan that the Operative now proceeds to outline.
When he’s finished, no little time has passed. The dome hangs heavy overhead. The artificial stars twinkle. And Sarmax is silent.
“You can see,” says the Operative, “why I decided that you were more useful alive than dead. To both of us.”
“I can see that,” says Sarmax. “All too well.”
“I can’t do it.”
“What do you mean you can’t do it?”
“I mean I can’t do it. I accept everything you’re saying, Carson. Believe me, I do. You’re right on all counts. You’re right on the implications too. But I can’t get involved.”
“Can’t get involved?” says the Operative. “You can’t stay out of it. You’re already
“All I understand is who I am.”
“But this is your chance to put all that behind you.”
“But it’s going to keep coming back, Leo. Unless you deal with it once and for all. Out here in these cold hills—you’re not dealing with it, man. Nor are you dealing with—”
“Don’t say it,” says Sarmax.
“Are you trying to provoke me?”
“It’s not just trying,” says the Operative.
“What’s your fucking point?”
“My point is that she’s dead. She died long ago. But even all this time later, she’d want you to stay alive.”
“Funny,” says Sarmax. “I always assumed she wouldn’t.”
“Because we’re still separate this way.”
“The way things are going, you won’t have long to wait.”
“You already told me that.”
“No, I mean you’re not going to have to wait more than thirty seconds at the rate you’re going. I’ll make it easy for you, Leo. We’re walking out together or not at all.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
“This is fucking nuts.”
“Call it what you want. What’s it going to be?”
“You’re a fool, Carson. I could say yes just to get out of here.”
“No you couldn’t,” says the Operative. “I know you, Leo. I know that the only reason why you’d say yes is if you meant it. Because I also know that you seriously believe you can kill me.”
“I believe that because it’s true.”
“So put us to the final test.”
“Carson, this is crazy. We walk out of here together, then head in separate directions.”
“I can’t let you walk after what I’ve just told you. I can’t do that. And I gave you your chance.”
“If that was my chance, then you’ve already made your choice.”
“But out of everybody, you just have to be the one to try to nail me.”
“Starting to look that way,” says the Operative.
“You don’t want to do this,” says Sarmax.
“What I want doesn’t matter.”
“Then what does?”
The two men move suddenly, on the same instant. Both go for the jugular right off the bat. They fire all jets, charge in spraying bullets—cannon into each other with a noise that sounds like they’ve both been shattered. They haven’t. They’re just ricocheting off one another—and pivoting, turning, boots hitting ground, gloves gripping armor as they start to grapple. Through his visor, the Operative can see the eyes of Sarmax staring straight into his own. Next moment, that view is replaced by Sarmax’s fist as—augmented by wrist-mounted jets—it slams into his face. The Operative feels the force ripple through his helmet. He grabs Sarmax’s arms, feels the other grab his. For a moment the two are locked there, fire lighting up the night, muscle and machine straining for the slightest advantage while shadows play in unholy combination all around them. Their thrusters scorch their armor as each tries to power the other off his feet. Their helmets are locked up against each other. And now the voice of Leo Sarmax echoes through those helmets.
“Knew they would send someone,” he says. “Hadn’t dared to dream it would be you.”
“Looks like you got your wish without even asking,” says the Operative. He tries to bring his shoulder gun to bear. But Sarmax is just too close.
“I’ll get my wish when I rip your corpse from what’s left of that armor,” says Sarmax. “I’ll know my heart’s desire when I consign your body to the ice. You’ve no idea just how fucked you are, Carson.”
“Talk’s cheap,” replies the Operative. He leans his head back suddenly, lunges forward, headbutts Sarmax while firing all his thrusters on maximum. Sarmax doesn’t move. But his suit’s being plowed into the ground. Dirt and flame fly everywhere. Yet now Sarmax is firing all his jets too. The Operative’s being forced inexorably backward. He’s starting to realize that he may not be able to win this quickly. He’s starting to suspect that Sarmax might still be stronger….
“Think you can teach the man who taught you everything?” says Sarmax. “Think you can stay alive long enough to receive one last lesson?” His jets intensify. Now the Operative’s being pushed back toward the trees. His feet leave furrows behind him in the dirt. “Well, here it is: I’m going to wrap you around that wood.” More jets come to life atop Sarmax’s back. The Operative crams more fuel into his own motors. He’s urging them beyond their safety threshold. They’re starting to overheat. He and Sarmax are starting to pick up speed. The trees rush toward them. The Operative feels his course change slightly as Sarmax steers him straight toward what looks to be the nearest and biggest of them. He feels his suit vibrate as Sarmax feeds still more power to his own. He hears Sarmax muttering about how easy this is going to be. He’s got a nasty feeling that the man is about to be proven right.
Yet as that tree fills his own rearview, he reverses his own jets’ thrust, adds his power to Sarmax’s own—but at a slightly different angle. The two men suddenly speed up, whip past the tree, shoot into the depths of the grove. Sarmax keeps trying to run the Operative into something solid. The Operative keeps managing to avoid anything other than a glancing blow. They crash together through the woods, leaving a tunnel of broken branches behind them. They rush out over the water. They charge headlong into the fungus garden, tear through it, bear down upon the larger woods beyond. The Operative knows he’s got to put some distance between himself and his opponent. His smaller weapons aren’t going to be a factor. His larger weapons are too close.
But he opens up with them anyway.
The only thing he can think of: sow the road ahead with pitfalls. He starts using up all the hi-ex in his bomb-rack, flinging grenades forward. Some of them arc upward toward the roof. Some of them lance off into the trees. All of them are aimed not that far ahead. The forest is about to get pummeled into driftwood. Sarmax can achieve the Operative’s death in there but only at the price of his own.
So he does what the Operative thought he would. He changes course—hard to the left. But the Operative’s not buying it. He’s just careening on forward. The two men strain against one another. Their path starts to curve to the left. But not at a sharp enough angle to avoid the impending blasts.
And Sarmax knows it. He does the only thing he can do. He lets go of the Operative, hits the brakes, lets the Operative blast onward into the kill zone. The grenades start to detonate. The Operative steers in among the explosions. He knows where they’re going to occur. He knows where they’re not. He hits his camo, turns off his own jets. He gets as low as he can, and moves into the undergrowth.
He’s not a moment too soon. Because now flame’s cascading down from on high. The Operative quickens his pace. On his screens he can see Sarmax behind him and fifty meters overhead, almost touching the roof’s moon, lighting up the artificial night with his jets, not bothering to camouflage himself as he rains rockets and flame down upon where he thinks the Operative is. The Operative feels himself bombarded by Sarmax’s sensors. He realizes he’s being hunted down like a dog.
So he turns at bay: flicks his wrists, sends micromissiles streaking upward from both arms and back even as his gun-rack fires on auto spray. He lets rip with his flamers too. What’s left of night vanishes. The Operative doesn’t wait to assess the damage—he dives back into the fungus. And makes haste through the water while the fires roar overhead. Most of his view’s blotted out by smoke. He wonders for a second if Sarmax has been caught within the blasts. He wonders if he’s going to have to try to recover the necessary software from what’s left of a charred skull. Maybe he’s going to have to tell Lynx he got a little too eager. He stands there on the island, looks out into the conflagration, sights his scopes, waits for something to move into one of a thousand crosshairs. But nothing does.
The ground starts to shake.
At first the Operative thinks it’s more explosions going off on the other side of the dome. But it’s not. Because the fires out there don’t seem to be rising. They seem to be sinking. It’s as though the dirt itself is getting burned away. What’s left of the tangled mass of vegetation is disappearing from view. The Operative feels the shaking beneath his feet intensify. The ground upon which he’s standing is very definitely tilting. He watches as the fungus garden starts to slope away from him. He can see exactly what’s happening. The floor of the place is collapsing. The foundations must have been burned or blasted away. But the blueprints show nothing beneath the dome save rock.
Which is beside the point right now. The Operative starts making for the other side of the island. Water sloshes beneath his feet, runs through channels where his and Sarmax’s boots carved trenches in the ground. There’s water pouring from the ceiling too. Sprinklers are going all out. The Operative stumbles toward the gazebo. It’s leaning to one side. But it’s still standing. The Operative pulls himself past it.
Which is when Sarmax strikes once more.
Tracers whip through the air. Rocket-propelled grenades streak in. The Operative hits his jets, shoots upward. Explosions tear at him from every side. He can hear Sarmax broadcasting to him. He’s not hearing anything coherent. He returns fire with everything he’s got.
For about a moment. But then something strikes him on the head. Hard. Concussion sweeps against him. He feels himself being shoved downward. He realizes that what’s left of the dome’s inner roof is collapsing. That the outer roof might be coming with it. He hears Sarmax laughing. The ground’s folding up beneath the Operative. He feels everything above him bearing him down like an avalanche. He’s riding that debris, running downward over it, fighting for consciousness all the while. And now he’s through into more space—charging through underground corridors that undulate as the landslide that contains the garden’s contents piles down into them. Somehow he keeps moving. Somehow he’s not crushed.
And at last those vibrations die away behind him. He figures that he’s chosen the right way by virtue of the fact that he’s still breathing. He figures that Sarmax is one step ahead of him—figures, too, that the man has more defenses down here. He reaches a fork. One passage slopes up, the other down. He chooses the latter, starts along it.
As he does so, he hears a rumbling. A large section of rock is descending behind him. What’s driving it is clearly mechanical. He almost hits the jets on reverse to try to beat it. But he doesn’t. Instead he charges forward, racing down the tunnel, using his hands and feet at intervals to push himself off the walls, floors, ceiling. He’s trying to stay unpredictable. He’s scanning every centimeter of those surfaces. When he starts to notice nozzles here and there, he isn’t surprised. They could be sensors. They could be weapons. Either way, he’s starting to feel like he’s getting warm.
And when he hears the voice of Leo Sarmax, he knows it for certain.
“Carson, Carson, Carson,” says the voice. “Did you miss me?”
It’s broadcast from the nozzles. It echoes in the Operative’s head. He doesn’t speak. Just listens. Just keeps rushing forward. Just keeps watching every centimeter of the walls…
“That’s good,” says the voice. “Real good, Carson. Had to ask, you understand. Even though you won’t answer. Let me assume, though, that answer’s the same as it was before: no and yes.”
The Operative just stares. He’s beyond blinking now. He’s gotten to the point where reflex and intuition blur. He reaches another fork. He doesn’t slow. He makes his choice, accelerates.
“Yes and no,” continues Sarmax, “no and yes. Can’t say I blame you. It was bad enough when I got here. It’s much worse now.”
Half fall, half dive: the Operative tumbles down a stairway in one motion. He vaults off the last step, roars down the new corridor like some avenging angel. He pours fire in his wake. He gets ready to pour fire out before him.
“Because the truth,” says Sarmax, “is that this whole game is going up for grabs. This whole scene is getting out of hand. And we, old friend, are right in the middle of it.”
Now the Operative comes shooting out into a wider space. It’s still a corridor but it’s twice as wide and twice as deep as any of its predecessors. It harbors far more choices, too: openings of every size and shape hewn into every one of its surfaces. The Operative feels like he’s been here before, like he’s in a dream.
But he isn’t.
“So we got to change it up,” says Sarmax. “We got to take you off the fucking
All the nozzles in the space open up on the Operative. He’s getting it from all sides. Lasers sear against him. Bullets are right behind, albeit a little slower. Too slow: for now he’s charging down a side corridor, smoke churning off his armor, his own weapons flinging countermeasures back into the passage he just exited. But this new passage has its own defenses too. They open up on him. They flail against him at almost point-blank range. They carve deep into his armor, sending screens into static, comps into overload, fail-safes into action—and all the while the man who’s killing him keeps on telling him all about it.
“I think you can see where this is going to go,” says Sarmax. “Assuming your eyes haven’t melted yet. These are the last sounds you’ll ever hear, Carson. These are the final words your brain will ever process. Lynx never bargained on my real base being buried so far beneath the surface. He never counted on my sowing the black markets with false maps. All the inner enclaves of all my major residences, Carson: they’re all red herrings. The real ones are all off the charts. But that’s the way it always is with the truth. It’s always beyond the pale. Though it pales in comparison with the lies that surround it. Wouldn’t you agree, Carson?”
But the Operative’s not listening. He’s just flicking his wrists—letting grenades slot into his hands, flinging explosives in both his path and wake. It’s not an act of suicide. These grenades aren’t ordinary. Wavelengths of every size and hue rush over him. His sensors are being blotted out. He hits the dirt. He crawls on down that corridor while the lasers fire randomly. They’re blinded too. They’re trying to filter out the disrupters. They’re not succeeding.
Which gives the Operative some respite. Even as his mind’s frantically working to extrapolate what he knows against what he doesn’t. He takes a chance, shoots off down one of the adjacent passages, ignoring the guns that blast against him as he blasts downward through a suddenly larger space. Something strikes him in the back. He sees stars. He thinks he sees things below him—catches glimpses here and there: platforms hanging in the dark, vast ramps leaning through the gloom. He figures he’s already dead. He figures this is one demented Hades. He resolves to start the afterlife in style. He wafts in toward one platform in particular, throws his feet forward. He hits. He runs along that platform, then slows to a walk and finally stops.
This chamber is huge. It’s far larger than that dome. The floor’s not visible. The walls glisten with ice. Some of them are pretty much vertical. Others climb inward toward each other, as though the mountain that houses the cave has been turned inside out.
But what those walls contain is a maze of gantries and platforms and ramps. Electric lights hang here and there. Cranes tower overhead. The platform upon which the Operative has landed protrudes out over the edge of abyss. A single ramp connects it to the remainder of the structure.
And standing in the shadows atop that ramp is Leo Sarmax.
T he final stages of the race we call the border run. Take these curves too tight and you’ll fly off the rails and into hell. Take them too loose, and you’ll lose all speed differential. So now inside turns out, all colors are ripped asunder. Stars torpedo at you, lick away, and this ship keeps on shooting through this tunnel.
“We need more
“We can’t go any faster,” yells Spencer.
He engages the rear guns. The ship shudders as they discharge. Lasers and shells streak down the tunnel. The gunships giving pursuit absorb the former, dodge the latter—slide along a crossover onto parallel rails, let the rounds shoot past them.
“Can’t shake them,” mutters Linehan.
“Hold on,” says Spencer. He’s lashing out with newfound abandon at the razors a fraction of a second and several klicks behind him. They’re doing their best to get at him. But he’s co-opted the car. He can see it all so clearly—can see the way they configured the craft so that even if the zone
But suddenly the cars behind them are slowing down. Suddenly they’re disappearing in the rearview.
“So much for them,” says Spencer.
“What’d you do,” says Linehan.
“What does it look like I did? Maglev speed depends upon control.”
“Which they no longer have.”
“Crash them into each other,” says Linehan.
“I’d settle for slowing them down,” says Spencer.
For now he can see that they’ve switched off their engines. They’ve stopped interfacing with the rails. They’ve abandoned the chase. They’re no longer a factor. Spencer grins.
“What’s up?” says Linehan.
What’s up is that somewhere back down that tunnel something’s glowing. Something that’s getting steadily brighter.
“What the fuck.”
“They’re riding rockets,” says Spencer.
“We got anything similar?”
“So fire us up.”
“So no. We try that and we’ll just be dragging against the magnets.”
“So turn us off,” says Linehan. “Start us up.”
“Magnets are faster.”
“Then what the fuck you waiting for?”
The answer’s nothing. Spencer’s opening the throttle. He’s jury-rigging the ship far past the limits of its safety margins. It’s nothing but momentum now. The two men let vibration rise through them. They watch their pursuers fade again. Up ahead on the map Spencer can see the place where the tunnel starts blossoming—can see where the real warren kicks in. The tunnel steers just south of the Newfoundland Yards. Somewhere past that’s the place where the continental shelf ends and the real ocean takes over and the warrens drop several thousand meters. For a moment Spencer envisions looking at this route in retrospect and not in anticipation. For a moment, he imagines they’re already running beneath the real trenches of Atlantic. For just a second he sees them almost at the border….
But then his attention’s captured by yet another flaring in the rearview.
“What the fuck,” he says.
“That’s a missile,” says Linehan.
“I can see that.”
“Then you can also see it’s closing.”
“Eight klicks back,” says Spencer.
And he is. He lets the rear guns engage. He lets lasers fly at the warhead. But it’s got countermeasures of its own. It’s taking evasive action. It’s eating light like no one’s ever fed it. It’s flinging out light of its own. The back of their ship is taking damage.
“It’s smart,” says Linehan. “It’s speeding up.”
“They’re falling back.”
The ships: they’re fading. They’re drawing off. They’re gone.
“We need more speed,” says Linehan.
“We go any faster and we lose control.”
“It’s either that or take a warhead up your ass. Take a look at that thing. Take a good look. Do you see what I’m seeing?”
There’s no way Spencer couldn’t. Linehan is projecting his extrapolation of the schematics of the missile straight into his head. He’s disaggregating all its parts. He’s highlighting all its components. He’s focusing on one in particular.
“It’s nuclear,” breathes Spencer.
“Tactical,” says Linehan. “But still overkill.”
“They’ll collapse this fucking tunnel.”
“I don’t think they care, Spencer. I think they just want to be sure.”
“Why doesn’t it detonate right now?”
“Like I just said, Spencer:
Spencer does. They roar forward. All the while taking stock of what’s behind them.
“Four point six klicks back.”
Not quite as quickly as before. But still just as inexorably. Their rear guns may as well not even be there for all the effect they’re having. There may as well be nothing in the universe save hunter and target.
Only there is. Because the gap between the walls on either side is getting wider. The rails are sprouting more rails. The tunnel’s starting to fork into still more tunnels.
“The warrens,” says Linehan.
“We might make it yet,” says Spencer.
“What’s our route?”
“Follow the main line straight on through.”
“That won’t work.”
“We need to shake this fucker off. And we’re not going to do it in the straight.”
“Get anywhere else but the straight and it’ll catch us.”
“Give me the fucking map.”
“I already did, asshole. It’s in your head. You want a different itinerary, you better name it fast.”
“Let’s hit the Yards,” says Linehan.
“So is doing nothing while a missile overhauls you.”
“You don’t get it,” says Spencer. “Whatever hack Control’s got in place extends only to the main tunnel and its auxiliary lines. The Newfoundland Yards are neither. We venture in there and we’re going to set off every single alarm and then some.”
“I don’t think you’re grasping our situation,” replies Linehan.
Another train takes that moment to charge on by. It roars westward on an adjacent track. It’s at least a hundred cars long, another transatlantic haul. It’s impossible to tell if those who steer it are aware of the chaos all around them. The missile darts sideways to avoid it, loses a fraction of a second in so doing. Its afterburners fire. It draws in upon its target like it’s being pulled in upon a string.
“What else we got for speed?” says Linehan.
“We got nothing.”
“Than we got nothing to lose. And even if we
He double-clicks onto the map. It lights up both their minds. The Yards are winding in toward them. They’re sprawling out on all sides. They’re as messy as any boomtown. Their topography’s complex.
“We turn off onto the local line
“And if there’s something on that local line?”
“We’ll never know it.”
“And if that thing behind us follows us and not our decoys?”
“We go straight through the main districts and back into the tunnels.”
“The main districts?”
“There’s nothing to stop us. Most of the local lines intersect with them. They’re basically one big cave.”
“Filled with a
“But this thing we’re in’s not bound to the rails, Spencer.”
“It’s not a question of propulsion. It’s a question of maneuvering. Anything that’s more than about two degrees off the straight is going to be too much for us right now. We can’t afford to put on the brakes any further.”
“Good. Because we’re not going to. Ten seconds, Spencer. You ready?”
And Spencer is. He’s ready to live out the last seconds of his life. He’s got himself immersed just enough in the zone to see the myriad threads that constitute the Yards. He wonders for a moment if they’re being herded into it by what’s behind them. He wonders what else is out there still. He wonders just what the man he’s with is worth.
Besides a nuke.
“If that thing detonates in the Yards, it’ll kill tens of thousands.”
“Maybe,” says Linehan. “But at least I’m not asking
He gestures at the screens upon which the missile’s closing. But Spencer’s not even looking. He’s just tweaking the magnets, letting the craft press up against the left-hand rails, forcing it away from the right-hand ones. It eases off the straight onto a crossover rail. It bends along that rail toward the wall.
Except suddenly there’s no wall.
Or rather: there is. But now it’s shifted five meters to the left. And in that space, another rail is sprouting away from the leftward main track. The craft curves along it. Spencer fires balls of flame and countermeasures from the forward guns. They roar down the leftward line.
Which encloses their craft within a much smaller tunnel. But only for a moment, and then they charge out of the branch line and into a wider tunnel. Spencer slots the ship in along the rails. He slings them at lightning speed along this new straight. He sees no obstructions whatsoever.
“We made it,” breathes Linehan.
“Eye of the needle.”
The missile’s emerged through the tunnel they’ve just come through. It’s less than a klick back now. It’s roaring in toward them far more quickly than before.
“Fuck’s sake,” says Linehan.
They’re well within the confines of the Yards now. Rows of doors that lead to airlocked stations are streaking by. The tunnel’s now a translucent tube. Beyond it they can see a far wider space. They shift along more rails. They streak through more tubes. They can see the intimations of architecture all around. They can see the flame of the missile behind them. It’s only half a klick back now. Spencer’s realizing that Linehan’s plan is for shit. They can’t destroy the thing that’s chasing them. They can’t outrun it. They can’t outmaneuver it. They can’t shake it. They streak out of translucence and back into solid.
Which is when something finally clicks in Spencer’s mind. It’s something that’s been getting in his way. And now it drops away. He doesn’t want to see it go. It’s the last of his moral scruples. And now it’s gone. Leaving him in search of something else. Something that’s buried in this town’s systems. He runs his mind parallel to the route of his body. He brushes up against a lever that triggers a door. It’s one of thousands throughout this complex. It’s intended to forestall emergency flooding should the seabed overhead rupture. Now it slides shut behind them. They have a fraction of a second to secure additional distance from the door.
Before the missile hits it.
That nuke’s got next to nothing in the way of EMP. It harbors only modest force. But it’s all relative. Because the seabed’s being shaken to pieces. Half the Yards just got caved in. The ocean’s been left to do the rest.
“We’re gone,” says Linehan.
There’s no way he could be wrong. What’s surging down the tunnel behind them is water that’s far worse than any weapon. It won’t be outrun. It can’t be outgunned. It can’t be outmaneuvered. It surges in toward them. It turns maglev into mere metal—snuffing out the electricity in one fell swoop. Yet even as the magnetism dies, Spencer’s switching to rocket. Wheels protrude, hold them steady as velocity kicks in once again. To no avail. That surge is overhauling them all the same. It’s almost got them. It’s starting to churn in amidst their rocket’s fires.
“Do you believe in God?” says Linehan.
“I’ll believe in anything that’ll get us out of this.”
“Me neither,” snarls Linehan.
Their rockets switch off, seal as the tide washes across them. The water roars in around the ship. The two men within feel themselves shaken like rats by dogs. They feel their craft lurch into the walls, ceiling, floor with ever-greater force.
“Tell me what this was all about,” says Spencer.
“Tell me what it wasn’t,” says Linehan.
And yet somehow they’re still alive. And all they’re doing is finding out what it’s like to die. Which is pretty much what they would have suspected. It’s time that’s run clean out. It’s dark at the end of endless tunnel. It’s the shock of realizing that somehow you’re still breathing.
When you really shouldn’t be.
“We’re still intact,” says Spencer.
“We’re still running,” says Linehan.
“Like I said.”
“I mean we’re still
He’s right. There’s a new vibration that’s even nearer than the waters swirling around the ship. It’s the rumble of engines close at hand. The instrument panels are lighting up in a new configuration. Understanding suddenly dawns: this ship’s a true interceptor. Even though it prowled the tunnels on rails and wheels, it was configured to operate in one more medium.
The one they’re in right now.
“We ride it out,” says Linehan.
“All the way through.”
And all the while they’re thinking about how things have surely just come full circle. Of how this ship’s immersion represents nothing save a return to a condition it’s plainly familiar with—which might have even been the point. And the answer to this question: if at least some feds knew what was what, why weren’t the two sought by all simply seized at Kennedy? Someone didn’t want others to know that the prize had been bagged. Someone intended to remove them in the middle of the tunnel. Someone intended to get out of that tunnel without going out of either end. Someone wanted to escape detection altogether. So: smooth moves in the dark. From ocean to shaft and back again. Nice and neat.
Though it doesn’t look like either now.
“We’re still living,” says Spencer.
“Running with the current,” says Linehan.
All manner of debris is churning up against the windows. And so much of it he doesn’t want to see. Bodies, torn by the blast and by the water—they dash themselves against the ship. They press their faces up against the plastic. They churn off into the mother of all undertows.
“Oh Christ,” says Spencer. “Oh Jesus Christ.”
“What’s your point?” asks Linehan.
“We killed them.”
“We? You’re the one who took our ship through the Yards.”
“You’re the one who told me to!”
“And I’m the one who’s telling you to shove everything out there out of your fucking mind. And replace it with nothing but thinking about how you’re going to stay in here with the oxygen.”
And he’s right. Because now they’re rushing downward. Now the tunnel’s sloping as the Atlantic drops down from continental shelf. Spencer fights to master the current as the ship picks up speed.
“Just keep us away from the
“Like it matters,” mutters Spencer.
Though he’s trying. And somehow succeeding even as that speed increases. The controls are like a live animal in his hands. He compensates, adjusts, guesses. He sees nothing now save water. He feels himself pressed down to depths he’s never dreamed of.
The B-130 is no longer flying. It’s disintegrating. The back wall of the main cargo chamber is practically staved in. The floor’s crumpling. Morat and the drones are thrown toward the front wall. On the way they pass Marlowe, who’s fired what’s left of his thrusters as Haskell hit the detonator. He’s rocketing toward the shaft above. Shots dance around his feet as he roars upward. Wreckage of drones is everywhere. But past that wreckage he can see the opening airlock doors of the still-intact upper ship.
Yet even as he tears toward them, he’s forced to change direction, bouncing off the walls as the vertical tube through which he’s moving slopes toward the horizontal while the stricken ship plunges downward. He’s yelling at Haskell to close the airlock doors. She’s not waiting—the doors are sliding shut as he rushes toward them. The space between him and them is a narrowing window. She’s set them going too fast: Marlowe accelerates as drones sear into the shaft after him; he rushes past the surviving gun installations, through the closing gap into the room beyond. The doors slam shut behind him as he extends his hands, shoves himself off the ceiling. His jets cut out. He drops toward the front of the upper ship’s cargo chamber, yells at Haskell to blast off.
And she does.
The motors ignite. The Janus leaps from the back of the stricken B-130. It hurtles downward, parallel to the other ship. Then it veers away. Marlowe’s shoved toward the room’s rear. He grabs on to the wall, holds on. He can’t see Haskell anywhere.
“Where are you?” “In the cockpit,” she says.
She’s strapped in, wired to the instruments. Her eyes are watching through the windows while her mind’s carving through the zone. She started laying into the drones as soon as the bomb went off—took advantage of their momentary confusion to get in amidst them, start slicing them apart. The only drones still extant now are on a rendezvous with ocean. Haskell withdraws her mind from theirs, peels the ship away from the intended destination. It’s scarcely ten klicks off. It’s city-covered mountains looming through the haze. She lets the ship bend back out over the ocean.
But suddenly she’s pulled back wholly into zone. She’s under furious assault from something coming in from out of empty, from the broader zone around. It’s smashed through the firewall she’s configured around her ship and is powering in upon her, fighting her for the controls.
Which means nobody’s in control at all.
F ifteen meters behind her, Marlowe holds on as the ship writhes through the air. He’d been on the point of convincing himself that it was going to be a smooth ride to the nearest U.S. ships. But clearly it’s going to be nothing of the kind. The ship ascends at a sickening rate. It twists off to the side. It spirals back toward the ocean. It uses both jets and rockets. The latter are intended only for space. The former are intended only for landing planetside. But now both are firing almost at random. It’s all Marlowe can do to keep his head from hitting metal. He’s acutely aware that the craft is being subjected to near-lethal strains.
But then it levels out. Marlowe doesn’t waste a moment: he leaps to the floor, grabs more weapons from the wall racks, sprints across the chamber—and through the door and down into the room where he and Haskell rode out the takeoff. He rushes into the cockpit-access corridor, reaches the cockpit. The door is open. He looks inside.
To find Haskell lolling in her straps. He lunges to her side. She’s still breathing. He shakes her. She doesn’t respond. He shakes her harder. She opens her eyes. She smiles weakly.
“They threw me out of the zone,” she replies. “They almost killed me.”
“That’s where the Rain are,” she says. “That’s where they’re based. They’re hacking us at point-blank range. They’re too close for our own side to jam.”
“Why didn’t they do this earlier?” says Marlowe.
“Don’t you understand? We’re dealing with something that works through proxies.” She’s whispering now. “That set this creature Morat and all his creatures against us. That only gets involved when it has to. They have us, Jason.”
“We’ve still got suit-jets,” he says. “We bail out.”
“Same reason we couldn’t earlier. The hack controls this ship’s weapons.”
“You didn’t disable them?”
“I didn’t have a chance,” she snaps. “We’d be like fish in a barrel. We’ll be shredded long before we get to sea.”
“Then what are you saying we do? Just wait to be taken?”
“No,” she says suddenly. “We cut the ground out from under it.”
“We get out on the hull. We take down the comlink. We shear off all means via which it can ram its signal into us.”
“Works for me,” he says.
He crouches down once more upon the cockpit floor, bends once again to the trapdoor. He severs wires to deprive the thing that controls the ship of any chance of forestalling him. He works the manuals, opens the door and crawls in. He looks back up at her.
“Go,” she says.
But he says nothing—just starts down the chute. She pushes the door shut behind him. He wriggles all the way to the bottom—the airlock door that’s the miniature of the one back in the cargo bay. He disables its locks manually and opens it. He slides through into the tiny room within, pulls the door shut behind him, and disables the charges he placed there. He works more manual overrides and pulls the last door open.
City’s crammed up against his face. Buildings at least a klick high are streaking by. Marlowe holds on as best he can—pushes his feet against the walls of the chamber, extends his hands to the opposite wall, lowers his head. He’s staring back along the ship’s undercarriage. Its wings are extended for the landing. Ships are scattered across the city sky beyond it. There seem to be several formations of them.
But Marlowe’s main focus is on a certain panel just behind the rear wheel wells. He’s trying to get line of sight to it. He has to lean out farther. He’s practically hanging out of the forward escape hatch.
Which is when the ship starts to writhe once more. Marlowe activates what’s left of the magnetic clamps in what’s left of his suit and sidles out upon the hull. He clings to it as it slopes and slants and turns. Each and every view now contains nothing save buildings. They’re totally enclosed by city. It roofs them in as they fly ever deeper into its depths. It constrains the extent to which the hack can send the ship on erratic courses. Which means Marlowe’s still holding on. And lining up that comlink once again…
In the cockpit above: Haskell watches as the ship’s suddenly free once again. Controls cry out for someone to control them. The flight path starts to waver. The nearest buildings close in. But Haskell doesn’t panic. She’s scarcely strong enough to access zone, but she’s still slotting out the wires, plugging herself back in once more—taking command as though there’d been no interruption whatsoever. She seamlessly pulls the ship back onto its flight path. She starts calling up the maps of HK. She starts looking for a way out.
But suddenly she sees something on the screens. The ship’s cameras: she whirls around, starts firing with her pistol.
Bullets catch Morat in the chest. He doesn’t break stride. His hands flash silver. Blades whip through the air. Haskell cries out as blood bursts from her wrists. She moans, drops the pistol, doubles over, lets endorphins surge through her on automatic response. The pain subsides. The bleeding doesn’t—and then the knives rip from her flesh, slice through the wires that connect her to the controls, carve back through the air toward Morat. He catches them, sheathes them in his skin, moves in toward her. He backhands her across the face, backhands her again—and then hurls her against the cockpit wall. She sprawls on the floor while he turns his attention to the controls.
“Thus begins the next thousand years,” he says.
And starts up the landing sequence—sets it on automatic, turns back to Haskell, reaches out, sprays foam onto her wrists to halt her bleeding.
“There’s something I’d like to show you,” he says.
He drags her to her feet and pulls her up against the controls. He shoves her up toward the window.
“Our welcoming committee,” he says.
She hears explosions sounding from somewhere close at hand. Glare from outside lights up the cockpit, catches missiles rising skyward. Sides of buildings slash by. Lasers sear past the window. HK’s all around.
“You’ve rigged whole blocks,” she says.
“We bought whole blocks,” he replies. “Front companies, derelict housing, epic bribery—so much for the first wave of pursuit. So much, too, for your man. As soon as we got a bead on him, we dropped him. He’s already gone.”
“You don’t know that,” she says. “You’re lying.”
“It’s you who’s lying,” he says. “To yourself. But you’ll get it eventually. Once we land, I’ll let you watch the replay. In fact, I’ll
“I’ll kill you,” she whispers.
“Then you’d better act fast,” says Morat. “Look what we’re heading for.”
She sees something in among the approaching buildings. She realizes that amidst all the roads and roofs and skyways, it’s possible to trace a straight line—one long slash that cuts across them. It’s well-done. Here it’s a bridge that connects two towers. There it’s a ramp that’s swiveling. It’s pedways from whom the people are now scattering. It’s reinforced struts now sliding into place. It’s something whose pieces were always there, whose lacks were long contemplated—and then compensated for by structures positioned on hinges upon which they would turn as one.
Creating a runway.
“Shit,” says Haskell.
“The chosen ground,” says Morat.
And suddenly looks down to see Jason Marlowe at his feet. The mech’s already firing—opening up with a pistol at point-blank range. Morat loses his grip on Haskell, sprawls backward: falls onto his back as Marlowe pulls himself up into the cockpit. He keeps his gun pointed at Morat while Haskell pulls backward on the stick. The ship swerves upward.
But Morat’s already getting back on his feet. Smoke’s rising in wisps from where Marlowe’s shot part of his face away. But through that smoke his eyes still gleam.
Nor has his smile wavered.
“You again,” he says mildly.
“Tenacious as ever,” says Marlowe.
“Let’s see if you can say that with your lips ripped off.”
“You’re not so tough without your drones.”
“What the fuck do you think I am?”
He moves forward almost casually. Marlowe fires, catches him in the chest and in the head again. But Morat’s ready this time. The shots don’t break his momentum. He cannons into Marlowe, strips the pistol from his hands, grabs him with his own hands, hurls him up against the ceiling.
“Tenacious,” he says. “Don’t make me laugh.”
Marlowe flops back down onto the floor. Morat aims a vicious kick at his head—easily strong enough to stave it in. But Marlowe somehow pulls himself out of range—keeps on rolling backward as Morat keeps on advancing—and then comes to his feet in a crouch, another pistol in one hand. He holds on to the wall as Haskell turns the ship sharply again. Morat falls back to the cockpit doorway. Marlowe fires a volley, hits his target with several shots. Morat looks at him.
“If you’ve got anything more powerful,” he says, “now’d be a good time to use it.”
But Marlowe just starts firing again. Morat whips his hands forward, lets loose with both knives. One slices through the pistol. The other slices toward Marlowe’s head. But Marlowe ducks away—the knives hit the wall, hang there quivering until Marlowe hammers his fists against their hilts, destroying their gyros, driving them farther into solid. The blades vibrate. Their motors whine. But they’re stuck.
“So quick,” says Morat. “So far from enough.”
Still Marlowe says nothing. Just holds on to the wall with one hand, regards Morat the way a man does when he’s looking for a weakness he has yet to find. The twists and turns that the city’s geography is forcing Haskell to put the ship through are keeping both men close to the walls. She can’t tear her eyes away from what’s outside the window. The two men can’t tear their eyes away from each other. They sidle along the walls, Marlowe trying to increase the distance, Morat trying to close it.
“Look at this state of affairs,” says Morat. “Look how close those buildings are. If I touch Claire, we’ll crash into them. But we’ll be back out from under this canopy in a few more seconds. At which point I’m going to take you both and take us back to that runway.”
“There are more interceptors coming in with every minute,” mutters Haskell. “You can’t land, Morat. What the hell are you going to do when this thing comes to a stop?”
“Where the Rain are waiting,” says Haskell.
“Not for much longer,” he replies.
The buildings above them give way to sky. They’re out of the central part of the city. Morat lunges in toward Marlowe. Marlowe backs up, fills his lungs, blows hard: and a dart sails from a tube slotted in the roof of his mouth. It strikes Morat’s head.
Which disintegrates in a blast of shrapnel. Morat’s body flops backward. But there’s no blood within his neck. Only wires. Marlowe rushes forward, his own blade out. He plunges it toward Morat’s chest.
Who promptly parries that blade. And sits up. And smashes his fist at Marlowe’s head. Marlowe ducks, slashes forward, just misses. Morat seizes him. The two men grapple as Haskell lets the ship rush upward among the buildings. Morat’s voice echoes from somewhere in his chest.
“Turn this ship around,” he says.
“What the fuck…are you,” mutters Marlowe. He’s finding Morat’s grip is still easily strong enough to crush him. He feels his own knife being twisted from his grasp.
“The future,” replies Morat. Smoke’s still streaming from his neck. He gets control of the knife, smashes Marlowe back against the instrument panel—scarcely two meters to the left of where Haskell’s frantically taking the ship through another series of maneuvers, trying to prevent it from hitting HK’s towers in its headlong rush. “Nothing more. And it’s not my body that matters. It’s my mind. That’s what’s wriggled beyond the old man’s reach.”
“Sinclair should have killed you,” says Haskell. Morat’s hand snakes out from where he’s grappling with Marlowe. She dodges to her right.
“You make them sound like God,” says Haskell. She lunges back in toward Morat—who blocks her blow with his right hand, holds her off from where he’s killing Marlowe with his left.
“They’re far more than that,” says Morat. “God’s a parasite that preys on our brains. We’ll burn Him into ashes. We’ll replace all the gods that never existed. Henceforth humanity shall have no limits. Least of all its own humanity. And the last thing it’s going to miss is one less
He presses the blade down against Marlowe’s throat. But now they’re all knocked sprawling as something impacts the ship. The walls are becoming floor. The instrument panels are going crazy. Buildings are whipping past. As the ship drops in among them, Morat leaps to the pilot’s seat, seizing Haskell with one hand, working the controls with the other. But the controls aren’t responding.
“We’ve been hit from the
“Your own team,” screams Haskell, struggling against Morat’s grip. Marlowe’s at the back of the cockpit. He’s fighting the forces of acceleration to try to get to them. The fact that such acceleration is practically random is making it difficult. “They’ve figured this ship ain’t landing. They’ve figured right. They’ve written you off, Morat. All this talk and all you are is just a pawn. You’re not worth the spit that’s in my mouth.”
But Morat’s arm holds her like steel while the ship roars out of control. He hauls her against him. His knife hovers at her heart. His voice is as cold as she’s ever heard it. “It’s not like you have the strength to spit, bitch,” he snarls. “Way I see it, I’ve got five seconds to teach you manners. Not to mention reason.”
“Reason,” breathes Haskell. “
She hits the manual release on the eject. Morat’s chair leaps through the open ceiling. His grip’s nearly strong enough to take her with him. But not quite: he catapults out of the opening, disappears without a sound. She grabs on to the now-useless instruments. The plane keeps plunging downward.
“We’re following him,” says Marlowe.
“I know,” she says.
Nor does she wait. She’s already turned, wrapping her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist. And even as she grabs him, he’s igniting his thrusters. Haskell catches a glimpse of the Janus spacecraft, smoke pouring from its engines, interceptors dying in flame in its wake. She sees cityscape shooting past.
Marlowe cuts out the flame. She feels herself falling. They drop between skyways, fall past levels. Marlowe reignites his motor, sends them roaring in among a thicket of buildings.
Ten seconds later, they alight upon a skyway. They race along it. They see no one. They hear everything. Thunder of gunfire rolls amidst the buildings like the distant roar of ocean. Flashes blot out the neon in the direction from which they’ve come. They keep running—to the edge of that skyway, onto the roof of an adjacent building. They tear a trapdoor away, race down stairs. They find an elevator. They leap into the shaft.
And descend into the city.
So at the end of Moon there’s a labyrinth. At the end of that labyrinth’s a chamber. That chamber wasn’t built by man. It’s been there since this rock cooled. It sits within the heart of mountain. It contains the most valuable thing in this world.
“Water,” says Sarmax.
He steps into the light. His armor looks pretty beat-up. It’s been burned almost black. He walks toward the ramp’s edge.
“Come again?” says the Operative.
“Water,” repeats Sarmax. “Or should I say
“Which is how you made your fortune,” says the Operative.
He stops just short of the edge. He gestures at the sloped walls. He looks back at the Operative. He smiles. He’s so close the Operative can see teeth through visor.
“You’re a resourceful man,” he says quietly.
“Look who’s talking,” replies the Operative.
“It’s just too bad that such resourcefulness has to compensate for such lack of planning,” continues Sarmax. “Such a goddamn shame it’s forced to rely so heavily on pure luck. You almost brought the roof down on your stupid head, Carson. It’s a wonder you didn’t get buried in those tunnels.”
“Would that have been such a terrible outcome?” asks the Operative.
“Now that,” says Sarmax, “depends on your point of view.” He gestures at the ramps and ladders stacked about him. “You see before you the industry of a new era, Carson. We live in the dawn times, old friend. Humanity is poised to boil out beyond the Earth-Moon system. The red planet will be colonized en masse within the next two decades. The prospectors are even now testing the tug of the gas giants. The Oort is surrendering her secrets to the probes. It’s all there for the taking, Carson. And it all makes me say I don’t give a fuck if you take me down. I don’t give a damn about the Rain or anybody else. Let them squabble. Let them plot. What does it matter when history itself is at last coming into focus?”
“I’m sure the Rain couldn’t say it any better,” says the Operative.
“But you and I know that all they’re really doing is playing the same old game.”
“Power. They want it all, Carson. They’re using all of us to make it happen.”
“Including you, Leo?”
“I’m sure they’d like to. One more reason why I took myself out of the equation. One more reason I content myself with commerce. Leave the politics to others, Carson. Leave the games to those who would play them.”
“Is that a statement or an invitation?”
“What makes you think it’s not both?”
“Tell me about the latter.”
“You already know it. You’re the best I ever trained. You’re the man whose instincts were always closest to my own. You want to set up shop for yourself. You want it so badly you’d shut your own razor out of the picture. Hell of a move, Carson. Only you would try it. Not that it mattered in the end. You were always going to have to venture into my garden. You were always going to have to descend into what I built beneath it.”
“Not if I’d broken you upstairs,” says the Operative.
“But you didn’t,” says Sarmax. “It was almost the other way. I fully expected to pull your body out from under rubble.”
“You may yet,” says the Operative.
“The suspense is killing me.”
“Lynx knew the mine was down here, Leo. But he thought it was abandoned decades ago. He didn’t think there was any connection between it and the surface fortress. Especially not when the maps assured him of that fact.”
“Then he’s a fool, Carson. You were right to cut him loose.”
“On the contrary,” says the Operative. “I was inspired to do some research on my own. I tapped into Shackleton’s archives. I learned everything I could about this mine’s dimensions. So when I ended up in the vicinity, I knew how close the labyrinth was taking me to the main chambers. And if I’d bought the farm anyway, I figured we could always settle this in Valhalla.”
“Well,” says Sarmax, “now you don’t even have to wait.”
“I’ve already waited far too long,” says the Operative.
“We both have, Carson. We both know it. Look at us. We’re practically old men. You’ve been around for half a century. I’ve been on the loose for even longer. Not for us are the ways of the new breed. Not for us the zeal of the latest contenders. Turn your back on this whole thing, man. Turn your back on that crazy plan. You know that’s what you want. An alliance between us was where this was always going. We’ll put all our energy into pushing it outward. We’ll shove the frontier out to where time mills dust into forever. You and I, Carson. This is where it all begins.”
“And ends,” says the Operative.
He steps backward into space. Sarmax whips his arms up, lets flame erupt from his wrists. Fire shoots through the space where the Operative just stood—but he falls below the level of the platform, tumbles down amidst a webwork of support beams. He starts his jets, roars into a new maze. Lasers streak down from on high as Sarmax dashes to the edge.
“Keep running and you might actually win,” he sneers.
“Exactly,” says the Operative.
He fires his last micromissiles. They explode amidst the beams. The edifice above him starts to sway. Sarmax leaps from it, blasts upward. The Operative emerges from the other side, rockets over more ramps, opens up on Sarmax. The two men roar parallel to one another as they exchange fire.
Until Sarmax scores a direct hit on the Operative’s thrusters.
There’s an explosion. The Operative feels heat across his back. He feels like his spine just got severed. He fires the auxiliary jets on his wrists and ankles at full blast. They give him a tiny amount of leverage. Tiny—and nowhere near enough. He hurtles past more ramps, somehow dodges a crane. He veers beneath all that infrastructure, closes in on the sloping wall of the chamber. Rocks rush toward him. He feels something smash against his arm. He hits the ice and starts to slide. He extends claws on hands and feet. They shear inward. His arm is almost ripped from its socket as his visor slams up against the ice.
The Operative retracts one hand, lets himself dangle outward. He takes in the situation. His shoulder racks are wrecked. He’s on a slope some thirty degrees in incline. He twists around to face that nightmare structure. He can see now how it’s built out over these slopes of ice. How it’s intended to allow drills to be shoved up against the surface. He can see the drills themselves, slung low along some of the platforms.
But he can also see Sarmax. A suit of armor far more together than his own, circling some twenty meters overhead.
“Carson. Didn’t I always tell you engines are more important than weapons?” The soaring flight pattern proclaims nothing save triumph. But the voice is almost sad.
“Fuck you,” says the Operative.
“On the contrary.”
“I may yet surprise you.”
“I don’t think anything that happens in what remains of your life is going to be the least bit surprising,” says Sarmax. He swoops downward, fires a salvo five meters to the Operative’s left. Then another, five meters to the Operative’s right. “Though it’s funny it should come down to this, isn’t it? All those times and all those runs and it all ends up with you stuck to a wall like an insect. And all I need to do to make it official is grind my boot.”
“So get it over with,” says the Operative.
“Not before you tell me where Lynx is holed up.”
“Why the fuck should you want to know that?”
“So I can nail him too, Carson. Was that fuel sustaining your mind as well? I have to take him out lest they send more mechs for me.”
“They probably will anyway.”
“Nothing wrong with buying myself a little time. Where is he, Carson?”
“Surely you can pull the answer from my skull after you finish with me.”
“But it’d be so much easier if you told me.”
“You mean if I told the Rain, Sarmax.”
But Sarmax only laughs. “I’m not the
“Funny, that’s exactly what your bitch said to me before they snuffed her.”
And suddenly Sarmax’s lazy spiraling patterns cease. He swoops downward like a bird of prey, roaring in toward the Operative—and swerves aside at the last moment, hitting the slope a few meters up. He perches there, opens up with lasers on the ice to which his target’s clinging. At some point during this sequence of events, his voice becomes coherent enough for the Operative to understand it. Though Sarmax is doing nothing save cursing. He sounds like a demon who’s just been tossed from hell.
“That’s great,” says the Operative. The lasers whine scarcely centimeters from his visor. The ice is starting to get noticeably less solid. Water’s running across his suit. He digs his hands in deeper. “Priceless. You getting a tape of yourself?”
“You I can forgive,” screams Sarmax. “After I kill you, that is. Lynx I can’t. It must get him so hard to see you and me set on each other like dogs. I’ll tear that motherfucker limb from limb. Fucking razor—living vicariously through all of us and never doing fuck-all himself.”
“Actually he’s been quite busy,” says the Operative. “He’s been in the tunnels of Agrippa for several days. He’s gone walkabout in the SpaceCom comps. I’m sure the Com would love to get the heads-up. Though I’ll be damned if they’re going to hear it from
And with that, he fires a tether straight at Sarmax, strikes him full in the chest with a magnetic clamp. Before Sarmax can shear the cord away, the Operative is pumping out voltage from what’s left of his power packs. For an undamaged suit, that wouldn’t be much of a problem.
For one as badly damaged as Sarmax’s, it’s a different story.
There’s a blinding flash. The Operative hears Sarmax curse. He relinquishes the tether, watches as Sarmax extends his body full off the ice, brings his hands forward with the well-practiced motion of someone starting his thrusters. But instead there’s another explosion and Sarmax tumbles onto the ice. He crashes into the Operative, knocks him from his weakened perch even as the two grapple. In this fashion they slide down the ice together.
They accelerate quickly. The infrastructure above them vanishes as though it’s being hauled upward on the back of a rocket. The darkness is near-total. It’s broken only by two things. One is the lights of both their suits. The other’s a red glow that’s starting to take shape beneath them. As that glow draws closer, the frenzied nature of their struggle intensifies.
“Do you recognize that light, Carson?” mutters Sarmax.
But the Operative says nothing. He’s intent on trying to somehow reverse the position of himself and Sarmax. He’s trying to shove Sarmax flush against the ice. He’s doing anything he can to put his opponent between him and whatever they’re about to run into.
“Carson,” says Sarmax. “
They’re almost down amidst the glow. It’s not just one glow, either. It’s several. They’re stretching out on all sides.
“Like moths to the candle,” says Sarmax. “We’ll burn together.”
The Operative’s doing his damnedest to forestall it. For now he manages to get his leg out from under Sarmax’s—manages to lever it against Sarmax’s side. He shoves Sarmax down onto the ice beside him. He smashes his fist against Sarmax’s head. Sarmax is giving as good as he’s getting, if not better. But now their slide’s starting to get less steep. They’re starting to slow.
Though only slightly.
“My furnaces,” says Sarmax. “We’ve reached rock bottom.”
And yet they’re still rushing downward. Now the Operative can see that the lights are really incandescent lines strung here and there, glowing through the dark. More infrastructure appears out of that gloom: more ramps, more chutes. More machinery.
“So simple,” says Sarmax. He sends a jet-powered glove at the Operative’s helmet—who pulls his head out of the way, grabs Sarmax’s arm, desperately tries to keep the jets off his visor. “This cavern must be one of the wonders of this world. It harbors the mother lode. We hammer off the ice. We shove it up against the wires. We pipe the water back to Shackleton. They ship it all the way to Congreve. We keep this rock running.”
“And it’ll keep on running long after you’re buried,” says the Operative.
They slide writhing to a halt on the cusp of another edge. Lights glow all around. Water’s dripping down everywhere.
“Long after we both are,” says Sarmax. He pulls himself free of the Operative’s grip, leaps to a standing position—and is immediately tripped by the Operative. The momentum of his fall carries them both over the new edge. They hurtle downward once more. Both their suits are pretty much wrecked beyond repair. Neither has any functioning weapons save his own fists and feet. Neither has any power. In this manner they set about bringing the struggle to a finish. Each pays particular attention to the areas of the other’s armor that appear to be most damaged. Each does his utmost to shield those areas on his own suit from his opponent. Each strives desperately to use the other as shielding from the next impact. Each strives desperately to gain the upper hand.
They run headlong into the base of the lowermost lamp. The blow knocks them apart. For a moment the Operative lies stunned. Red-orange glow looms above him. Now that he’s up close, the Operative can see it’s really more of a giant filament wire, curled in upon itself. Ramps jut up around it. Some of them contain ice. Water falls down in a steady trickle upon his face, pours away in narrow channels situated for that purpose. But now his view is blotted out by Sarmax—who’s bending over the Operative with a half smile.
“Carson. You always knew it would come to this.”
“I guess I always did.”
“Then why did you come here in the first place?”
“What choice did I have?”
“You know I wasn’t dealing with the Rain.”
Sarmax turns. He pivots forward. He looks for a moment like he’s going to put his boot straight through the Operative’s visor. But at the last moment he steps aside.
“You didn’t have to say that,” he says.
“They didn’t have to kill her.”
“No,” says Sarmax. “But I did.”
The Operative’s got such a head start on the afterlife that he’s almost beyond surprise. But he’s speechless anyway. He stares as tears well in the eyes of the man who was once his mentor.
“As you said,” mutters Sarmax. “She was dealing with the Rain. Didn’t mean I didn’t love her. She was…she was my Indigo. She was my everything. But she was dead set to join them. She was dead set to have me go with her.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Maybe I should have. I’d still have been with her. But she wouldn’t have been with me. That’s the truth of the matter, Carson. I’d like to tell you I killed her because I was loyal. Because I was a Praetorian. Because I stood at the Throne’s right hand. But I’d be lying. I killed her because she loved the Rain more than she loved me. Time was I couldn’t imagine a world without her. Now I live it every day—this rock on the edge of existence, this mountain that might as well harbor all the souls of the ones who died that night.”
“Which is exactly why you can’t stay,” says the Operative softly.
“No,” says Sarmax. “And you can’t either. I can’t put you beneath this ground, Carson. I can’t add your name to the ones who went before us. And I admit it—I can’t stay out of it either. You’ve made me realize that. You come to me with this scheme for subverting the Rain and all of creation into the bargain. There’s no way I can look into your eyes and tell you I’m a party to it. But there’s no way I’m going to stop short of a chance to take care of the Rain once and for all. And after that we’ll see what the new world looks like.”
“So help me up,” says the Operative. “And let’s talk about the most immediate problem.”
“You mean the Rain?”
“I mean Lynx.”
They make their way back up into the upper reaches of that mountain.
T hey’re slowing down. The tunnel’s leveling out. The water’s draining out—conveyed through sluices that lead down even farther. The ship decelerates through the diminishing flood. It keeps on losing speed as the water lowers past the windows. It slides along in darkness. It slows still further.
“Zone’s gone entirely,” mutters Spencer.
“Does that surprise you?” says Linehan.
“Not in the least.”
Which doesn’t mean he’s come to terms with it. It’s all he’s known all his life. Now suddenly it’s vanished, leaving him alone in the midst of endless tunnels. All the interstices upon which his mind abutted have faded from existence. He’s been reduced to just himself.
It’s going to take some getting used to.
“So what now?” says Linehan.
“Now we keep moving,” says Spencer.
He reactivates the ship’s power and switches on the headlights. They show tunnel stretching into dark. He fumbles with the ship’s controls, fires up its rockets. The headlights vanish in the reflected light of flame. The ship lurches, starts to move, starts to accelerate. Spencer calls up the map of the tunnels once again and pinpoints their position as best as he can. He no longer has the zone to moor him, so he has to extrapolate precisely what shaft they’ve been swept into, has to line it up against the map that gleams within his head.
Even as that map starts changing.
Lines start to expand through Spencer’s mind. What’s dark is suddenly being thrust into light. What were edges are fast becoming core. The whole of the old map becomes the center of the new one. And what the new represents is no longer just the corridor that surrounds the main line from Mountain to London. It’s the whole of the North Atlantic. Spencer watches as it keeps on growing. He realizes that if he isn’t crazy yet this map will probably take over his mind and make him so. Because it’s Control’s creature. He sees that now. He gets it. Control’s given him autonomous software able to adapt to the situation—able to help Control’s razor to assess that situation correctly. The zone’s gone. Spencer’s in the dark. But the lights of the map within him play upon him anyway. He reads the riddle embedded in their shifting patterns. He sees the route that’s tracing itself through them. He sees what Control wants him to do.
He starts discussing options with Linehan.
“What’s there to discuss?” says Linehan. “We’re ten minutes out from border.”
“What’s to discuss is that we’re not going there,” says Spencer.
“I said we’re not going there.”
“What the fuck’s your problem?”
“There’s no problem,” says Spencer slowly. “There’s just logic. And logic says that we aren’t going to try to run the border.”
“We almost have!”
“Linehan. We’re still almost two thousand klicks west of where the Euro Magnates take over.”
“So our chances of doing a stealth run have basically dropped to nothing flat. We were running beneath the radar before the zone went. We still are. But now it’s for a different reason. And it’s a safe bet that somewhere in the next couple thousand klicks the zone reasserts itself. Which means we’re essentially hiding in what amounts to a local disruption. Let’s hope that means that they can’t see what’s going on within it. But let’s not make any plans that don’t presume that they’re sending craft in right now. And let’s not kid ourselves for a moment that they aren’t waiting with all forces they’ve got for whatever comes
“Which may not matter if this disruption extends all the way to the border!”
“You don’t need to have a zone to seal a border.” And with that Spencer veers the ship down a southward fork.
Linehan shakes his head. “You’re dead,” he says.
“By all means,” says Spencer. “Off me and add me to the trail of bodies you’ve left strewn in your wake. It won’t change a thing about all the heat in front of us. Nor will it save you when you run smack into fire.”
“We’ve already hit that fire,” says Linehan. “Are you fucking blind? We’re carving through it. We’re on the cusp of London, man. How can you deny it?”
“As wishful thinking,” says Spencer. “As embarrassing. The thought that we could slip on through the zone’s border membrane: events have rendered it a fantasy. We could have done it in that train. We could have even done it in this. But, like you said—every alarm and then some has been raised. The nuke didn’t kill us, Linehan. We’re alive. How about we face the consequences?”
“How about we
“I want to go home more badly than you could know. But you forget my home’s in front of me. And your home, that’s nowhere. You’re rootless, Linehan. Your soul’s even more mechanical than your flesh.”
“So what’s your point?”
“This: I don’t see you ripping me away from the controls and ripping me in pieces. I don’t see you ripping through the tunnels and making hell for London. I don’t see you doing much except for sitting there and sneering. In fact, I don’t see you doing
“And if we don’t go for the border—”
“It’s no if.”
Spencer tells him.