Midnight at the Moon’s south pole. Always midnight down here. Always these voices in your head when you’ve been on the run too long. Always these voices that help you stay out in that cold for even longer.
Especially when they don’t know the whole story.
“Carson. You’ve done it.”
The voice of Stefan Lynx is flush with triumph. The Operative just feels tired.
“Tell me you have more to tell me than that.”
“Confirmation is always good news, Carson. Was it hard?”
“Hard enough. What do his files say?”
“I mean was it hard to pull the trigger?”
“Not especially. What do the files say?”
“Would you do it all over again?”
“What do the fucking files say, Lynx?”
“That Leo Sarmax was one tricky customer.”
“I could have told you that.”
“You could have
“That’s great, Lynx. Was he dealing with the Rain?”
“There’s no evidence of that,” says Lynx. “Not yet anyway. But I
“To do what?”
“Who knows? Do business with them, maybe. Sell their whereabouts to us, maybe. Or to someone else.”
“Sounds like a very dangerous game.”
“No shit,” says Lynx. “Look where he ended up.”
“Much more likely that the Rain would find him than the other way around.”
“One would think,” says Lynx. “But again, that’s why I targeted him, Carson. The man was a nexus. A conduit. Even in death, a middleman. His organization—the whole web of companies he set in motion—is a machine that’s got a link into basically everything that’s going on up here.”
“And now we’re inside.”
“And outside. And all around. Everyone who so much as sniffs at you—I’ll dissect them without them even realizing it. Everyone whom Sarmax had a file on, I’ll get a hundred more. SpaceCom intelligence knows nothing about you. And even less about Sarmax. They haven’t a clue that he used to be one of us. They haven’t a clue what we’re about to pull.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“How do you think? I’m camped out in their fucking mainframes, remember? And get this, Carson—the whispers atop the SpaceCom rafters is that the farside of this rock harbors the Rain’s main stronghold.”
“Yeah? Based on what intel?”
“Well,” says Lynx, “that’s the big question, isn’t it?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I’m still finding out.”
“And is SpaceCom passing word of its suspicions back to the Throne?”
“Put it this way,” says Lynx. “
“Doesn’t it,” says the Operative. “I mean, you’d think it would be useful for us to know if the Com is withholding a piece of data like
“We’re assuming they’re playing that kind of double game,” snaps Lynx. “I mean, who the fuck isn’t these days? Wake up, Carson: there’s a reason I’m buried in these comps. The Rain could be the very treason within SpaceCom that we were sent up to find in the first place. It could have been that way from the start. It might have become it in the days since. And even if it hasn’t, we’re still going to need the Com’s files. Their eyes see so much up here. They may not even realize the significance of everything they process. But with one foot in their living guts and the other in the dead heart of Sarmax, we’ve got the inside track on Rain. And that trail leads out to Congreve Station.”
“In the center of the farside?”
“That’s the only Congreve I know of, Carson.”
“Northwest district. Upscale residential area. Sarmax maintained an address there.”
“And you want me to set up shop there.”
“Got it in one, Carson. I want you to go there and set up shop. And do some digging in the Congreve speakeasies. Sarmax had more than a few contacts strewn through them.”
“Oh, various characters,” says Lynx vaguely. “Various lowlifes. Congreve’s quite a place, Carson. It’s the largest city that never lays eyes on Earth. It’s the heart of SpaceCom power. The L2 fleet hovers in the sky above it like a demented sun. All of Congreve is dedicated to that fleet, Carson. That’s the whole reason the town exists. And you can be sure that’s one of the reasons the Rain are up here.”
“To blow that fleet?”
“You have to admit that in terms of spectacular targets, that would be a good one. Congreve was always going to be one of the possibilities for the next move of the physical vector of this mission. But the latest intel makes it essential. It gives us no choice but to send you there.”
“Fine,” says the Operative. “When do I leave?”
“As soon as we’re done here.”
“Take one of Sarmax’s shuttles.”
“And when I get there—you want me to just go to this house and knock on its door?”
“No need to even knock. You’re the new owner. No need to announce the old one’s untimely demise just yet. Besides, we need all the leverage we can get. Things are getting out of hand back on Earth. The Newfoundland Yards got wiped off the map. HK’s under embargo. The Rain jacked one of our spaceplanes and downed it there. Along with some key CICom agents.”
“How are we responding?”
“With the usual recriminations. The shit’s going down in the Inner Cabinet. Apparently Space and Info are at each other’s throats. Undoubtedly the Rain are in the mix somewhere. The Throne is threatened like never before.
“Heaven save us from war’s worst kind,” mutters the Operative.
“Don’t look to anybody to save us, Carson. Only we can do it now. Now go. You’ll be on the other side of sky in under two hours.”
“And our contact protocols?”
“The same as ever. Extreme judiciousness.”
Lynx cuts out. The Operative stares at the blank wall. Turns to the blank expression of the man standing next to him.
“Well,” says Leo Sarmax.
A s were the first hours in the city. The first hours past the point of no return—a fact only just now dawning on them. Threading their way through streets of silver and corridors of chrome, rubbing shoulders with the men and women of a hundred nations…into what strangeness had they stumbled? They didn’t know. They scarcely cared. All they knew is that they were on the run. And that they needed a base: some space to catch their breath. They needed a place.
They found it.
In a room. Same story as ever: find walls and a floor. A door you can close. And above all a ceiling. Anything to blot out the sky. Cheap-ass motel in Old Port Moresby district, no questions asked, no answers needed. Just naked light overhead while their bodies writhe naked in front of a wall-screen that pulsates static. They leave it like that. It seems fitting. It’s how they feel. It embodies what they feel tossed upon. So they make love while they let the static play around them.
Until a face appears within it.
It isn’t one they recognize. It’s a man. He’s got one eye. He wears a mustache. It looks absurd. Yet his expression’s anything but.
“Shit,” says Marlowe. He’s pulling himself off Haskell, vaulting onto the floor. Haskell turns the vid off.
But it remains lit. The face persists.
“Shit,” she says.
“The CI codes,” says the man. And the codes of CICom fill the screen, flit in and out of static, float in front of his face. Both Marlowe and Haskell recognize them. Friend-or-foe identifiers, changed every hour on the hour according to algorithms given to each agent at the start of every mission. Embedded with myriad fail-safes for an interloper to trigger. Doesn’t mean they can’t be fucked with.
But it’s a long way from easy.
“We should go,” says Haskell to Marlowe on the one-on-one.
“You shouldn’t,” the man says. “I’m Sinclair’s man in HK.”
They stare at him. Haskell’s first to find her voice.
“How’d you find us?”
“Sit down,” the man says.
They sit. He gazes at them. He shakes his head.
“I found you because I’m a handler. I know agents. I brief them. Track them when I have to. Snuff them when I must.”
“Going to try that on us?” asks Marlowe.
“No. All I wanted to do is locate you.”
“But how did you do that?” persists Haskell.
“I’ve got the edge,” says the man. “I’ve got everything on you two. Your psych profiles, for one—which way you move when under pressure. That helped. But it wasn’t as useful as your neutral accounts. Figured you’d go back to those. I mean, what else could you have done?”
“You’re lying,” says Marlowe. “Those weren’t even the accounts you gave us. Those were the ones I set up last time I was in the neutrals.”
“We’re not stupid, Jason. We know how our agents do it when they get out beyond the border. We know you think you live longer if you don’t link to us. We’re not even against insurance policies. Doesn’t mean we don’t like to keep an eye on things.”
“If you have those account numbers, then Morat might have them too,” says Haskell. “He had access to every code you’ve given us as well. So why should we trust you?”
“Trust me,” says the man. “If I were trying to nail you they’d have kicked down your door already. Nailing people’s easy. Saving them’s the hard part. I’m changing up the codes even as I speak. I’m here because you’ve got a new mission. I’m the one who’s going to tell you all about it. Besides: don’t you want to know what’s
“What happened on that spaceplane?” demands Haskell.
“You know damn well what happened,” replies the man. “Morat betrayed us. He helped the Rain to jack it.”
“Why?” asks Haskell.
“Surely it wasn’t to get at the two of us,” says Marlowe.
“Actually, I’m sure that
“What was the main one?”
The handler smiles mirthlessly. “The main one was the cargo you were carrying.”
“I didn’t know we were carrying anything,” says Marlowe.
“Of course you didn’t.”
“What,” says Haskell slowly, “are you talking about?”
“Like I just said: I’m talking about the fact that you were carrying a cargo.”
“And are you going to tell us what the fuck it was?”
“That’s not an easy question to answer,” says the handler. “In fact, I’m not even sure I
“Which,” says Marlowe, “was exactly what the Rain wanted.”
“Chalk one up to hindsight,” says the handler. “The plan was to assign an artifact to each team. You were one such squad. When you reached the Moon, your briefing was to encompass that artifact’s activation. We couldn’t transport it out of sight of those we trusted most. But we weren’t going to tell you about it until you absolutely
“But you were going to tell Morat.”
“We don’t know what happened to Morat. We don’t know how he found out what he did. We don’t know how he broke loose. It calls into question every—”
“Never mind that crap,” says Haskell. “
“Next-generation AI,” replies the handler. “A comp that combined state-of-the-art battle management capability with the ability to do zone incursions far beyond the level of our best razors.”
“Oh,” says Haskell.
“Oh. What was on that plane was the ultimate machine for waging secret war. And not just secret, either. Situate it in an inner enclave, and you could vector a first strike through the thing. All housed in a highly mobile chassis.”
“In point of fact, it bailed out.”
They look at him. Look at each other.
“Why so surprised?” asks the handler. “After all, that’s what you did.”
“Sure,” says Marlowe, “but that’s different.”
“What kind of chassis? Is this thing humanoid?”
“That’s the problem,” says the handler. “I don’t know.”
“There’s nothing on file?” asks Marlowe.
“The file’s name is Manilishi. But Morat must have tampered with the documentation because now all we’ve got is the name. And this.” For a moment, the handler’s face is replaced with shots of a crippled, smoking spaceplane hurtling down toward the city—and a close-up on a small object ejecting from its rear. Further magnification reveals a cylinder, spinning end over end on a diagonal slant, disappearing beneath the draped-over canopy of buildings.
“I thought there were no escape pods,” says Haskell.
“That’s not an escape pod,” says the handler. “It’s a fuel tank. It contained the Manilishi. Which somehow got activated in the fighting. Maybe it just woke up. It must have ejected from that pod once it fell into city shadow. We had no cameras on it when it did. All we’ve got are some anomalies in the HK zone that occurred at the point it landed.”
“What kind of anomalies?”
“Cameras suddenly seeing nothing. Backup routines being activated for no good reason. All the usual signs of something covering its traces. Our men found what was left of the fuel tank. But that was all they found.”
“This is absurd,” says Haskell. But even as she says it, she’s thinking. About hidden compartments and places not yet seen. About covert agendas. About how easy it might have been for something as mobile as it is smart to lie low, let the interlopers go after the more obvious targets, wait for that moment. Maybe it came at Morat’s apogee of gloat. Maybe it came when Marlowe reappeared. One thing’s for sure, though.
What happened next must have been perfect.
“My suggestion is that you assume this thing has all the physical attributes of heavy powered armor,” says the handler. “Camo, flight, fight—you name it. And that’s on top of its zone prowess.”
“Jesus,” says Haskell.
“Not quite. But close. And the fact that it’s on the loose is a major fucking problem.”
“Why doesn’t it just call home?” asks Marlowe.
“Maybe it doesn’t want to.”
“You’re saying it’s gone rogue?”
“It might have. Under the trauma. Or it might have been captured by the Rain despite its best efforts. All we know is that it hasn’t reported in. And that we absolutely, positively fucking have to have it back.”
“And you want us to go get it?”
“No,” says the handler, “I want you to shove your head through this fucking screen.”
“Fuck your sarcasm,” says Marlowe. “Why us? I would have thought we were marked for arrest.”
Marlowe stands up.
“Sit down,” says the handler. “I’m not arresting anybody.”
“Because I’m on the list too.”
“Sinclair’s sold us all out?”
“He hasn’t sold anyone out. He was top of the list. He’s in custody now.”
Marlowe and Haskell stare at the screen. Any thought of running’s gone now. Sure, they’d been ready to make a break. Sure, if this man really
“I guess,” says Haskell, “that really shouldn’t surprise us.”
“It really shouldn’t.” The handler smiles grimly. “He’s held liable for the loss of Manilishi. His head was the least he could offer up.”
“So who’s heading up CounterIntelligence now?” asks Marlowe.
“Like I just said,” says the handler, “Sinclair’s head was the least of it. There
“Annulled,” says the man. “Nullified. Ended. Torn into little fucking bits.”
“Oh fuck,” says Marlowe.
“Who’s assimilating its personnel?” asks Haskell.
“The cells. And then the furnaces.”
“They’re being killed?”
“I’m having difficulty getting my point across. Maybe it’s this cheap screen of yours. Maybe it’s you. But try to get this through your heads anyway. This isn’t your usual HQ power play. This is a wholesale purge. It’s not even like it was when Space swallowed Air. This is extermination.”
“But only the president could authorize anything that drastic.”
“Well,” says the handler, “exactly. You just answered your own question. Only the president could authorize this. And the Praetorians are carrying out most of the dirty work.”
“They think Sinclair was in league with the Rain,” says Marlowe.
“He was framed,” says the handler. “I guarantee you. Morat may have even planned for it all to play out this way. What better way for Autumn Rain to infiltrate the inner enclaves than for CICom to be erased? What better news for any conspiracies within the other Coms than to realize that the ultimate watchdog’s just been taken off the board?”
“And what about us?” says Haskell.
“What do you think? As far as the Throne is concerned, the only known alpha targets besides Sinclair and his immediate lieutenants and the Manilishi itself are the two agents who were
“They have to catch us first,” says Marlowe.
“They have to indeed. And rest assured they’re trying. We haven’t much time. You’re going to have to take this deeper. And get on the Manilishi’s trail.”
“But you said you have no idea where this thing is.”
“I said I didn’t know what it was
“Place called Seleucus Flats. One of the northern sectors. Up the Owen-Stanley Range. As I said, this thing may be in Rain custody by now. Or it may be trying to assess the situation. Or trying to sell its services to a well-heeled bidder.”
“Well,” says Haskell, “there are certainly enough of those.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” replies the handler. “Since the embargo went into effect, all hell has broken loose here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Haven’t you looked outside? You should ditch this Roman orgy act and put something on the vid. All the gangs and cartels and triads and syndicates—they’ve all turned on each other in the last few hours. Not just because the word’s getting around that something was on that spaceplane that’s going to fetch a pretty high price. But because they can. The embargo’s cut off a lot of big-time bosses from their backup, and a lot of backup from their bosses. No one can call in reinforcements from the Euros or the Aussies now. Which means the shit has hit the fan like you would not believe. The HK authorities are barely keeping it together.”
“No better environment to do some hunting,” says Marlowe.
“Or get hunted,” says Haskell.
“Exactly,” says the handler. “So keep your eyes peeled. And get that thing.”
“And when we get it?”
“We use it to bargain for our reinstatement.”
“I’m not sure of anything any longer,” replies the handler. “But I’ll tell you what might help once we get our hands on the Manilishi.”
“Using it to locate and destroy the Autumn Rain base that’s in this city.”
Marlowe and Haskell look at each other.
“We do that,” says the handler, “and the Throne’s own Hand will pin a medal on us. We can even bring the old man back.”
“If he’s still alive,” says Marlowe.
“Sure,” says the handler. “If he’s still alive. But right now, it’s our turn to stay alive. And you might have to destroy the Rain just to get the Manilishi anyway. Now listen. I’ve created new identities for you. I’ve cauterized them. I’ve got you some prime equipment too. You can pick it up en route. Now go. We’ll stay in touch as we need to.”
“You mean as
“Listen, Marlowe,” says the handler. “Both of you listen. We’ve come a long way from the days when my kind walked your dreams while you beat your fist against the pillows. I know that. I know you’ve no love for me. But I know you’ve loyalty. Loyalty for Sinclair and what he stood for. What he stands for even now. You can’t deny that. You’re sworn, and you know it. And what’s going on out there renders our own personal dilemmas immaterial. Regardless of what happens to any of us, what’s going on now will decide the fate of our people. You hold that fate within your hands. Both of you. If the Rain acquire Manilishi, nothing will be beyond them. Nothing. Now get out there. And be even better than you were on that plane.”
“We’ll try,” says Marlowe.
But the handler isn’t waiting. He’s already disappearing. Static washes over him as though it were a tide coming in on fast-forward. He sinks beneath those waves.
And then he’s gone.
B ut Control’s here. Control: who’s been doing time in the Mountain since time began. Control: who’s come out of hiding tonight—emerging from those pipes and tunnels to expose its voice direct to air, deal directly with the ones who by all rights should have either made it or been made. They did neither. All they did was stumble to that southern shore. Now they’re calling from the shattered remnants of the Amazon delta in the hopes of seeing one more tomorrow. They’re looking for a backup plan. They’re looking to Control once more.
Only to find themselves stared down by sight beyond all seeing.
“I’m talking to the one who calls himself Linehan,” says the voice that echoes from a speaker on Spencer’s belt—as dry as the dust the room contains, as harsh as the bombed-out cityscape that lies outside the window of the warehouse they call shelter. “I’m talking to the man who’s been the vehicle to drive half the Atlantic into zone blackout. I’m pretty sure he can hear me.”
“He can,” says Linehan.
“Linehan,” says Control. Inflection falls from the voice like a cloak tossed upon the floor. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Control. You’re the Priam Combine’s most valuable asset in North America. You report direct to London. I assure you that I didn’t enter your domain lightly.”
“Fine words,” says Control. Something somewhere between laugh and static hisses softly through the room. “Meaningless sounds. Your
“I came to your man with a fair bargain.” Spencer listens impassively to himself described in the third person. He doesn’t take his eyes off Linehan. “He put that bargain to you. You accepted. To what actions of mine are you referring?”
“The very same. You flushed my agent from cover. You blackmailed him into opening up a conduit through which all too many minds vectored onto mine.”
“No,” says Linehan. “At no point have you been the target of this operation.”
“You use words so carefully,” says Control. Suddenly the voice is nothing but inflection. “You lie so freely. You skirt so close to truth. You’re beyond abomination. ‘At no point have you been the target of this operation.’ Listen to yourself! I know I wasn’t
“As was I.”
“No,” says Control, “you were just bait. You were just a pawn. Whether or not you knew it. You were nothing but a hollow man with a hollow promise that was the weapon around which my operation and countless others were to be turned inside out. While you were battling your way off that train—while the whole zone contorted in the grip of God knows how many hacks—while incidents went down all over the Earth-Moon system and God knows how much meat came within reach of God knows how much mouth: I became prey myself. A federal sting. Or at least what looked like one. They surrounded the block where I was. Seventy floors of data storage, and they knew I was in one of the tanks. They had me triangulated. They severed the streets. They cut the power. They cut the lines so I couldn’t escape. My backup generators sustained me. They sent their soldiers in. They went from room to room. They closed in on me.”
“I knew none of this,” says Linehan.
“How would you? It was just me. I waited. I bided my time. Such as it was. I let them eliminate possibilities. Let them narrow down their options. And all the while I waited for my moment. It came the way it always does. Through their assumptions. A luxury the trapped can’t afford. They thought I hadn’t broken their tactical codes. Nor were they wrong. But I was swimming through that traffic even as those boots sounded all around me. I was staying on top of their frequencies even as they shifted. I was
Control goes silent. Spencer feels himself to be at the very edge of all maps. He feels that one more step might be all it takes to damn him forever. He feels everything’s riding on one more word.
And then Control continues:
“I stumbled from the scene of my ultimate transaction while my consciousness fought for survival. The software in that suit was good. But it was intended for a single infantryman. It wasn’t enough to house the likes of me. I sent parts of myself into dormancy, threw them over the side of my awareness like so much ballast. I shut down all noncritical components of that suit, took up every unit of real space myself. And, even as I did so, I walked past my hunters. They thought they were gazing at their own. They never knew what had taken place behind that visor. I carried the corpse in that shell all the way out. I reached the unbroken zone. I hurled myself into the immense. I left that suit behind. I hid. You called. I’m talking to you now. And now, Linehan, you are going to tell me
“I’m U.S. Space Command,” says Linehan.
“I suspected as much,” says Control.
“I was assigned to down the Elevator.”
“Go on,” says Control.
“We sought to use the Rain to do that.”
“I was never told the why. I didn’t need it. All I needed was the how. It was textbook black-ops. We were ordered to arm some no-name terrorist group that we were told had been watched by us for years. No-name patsies based in HK. They already had the nukes. All they needed was the codes. The ones we turned over. Even as they hit the Elevator we were hitting them in their bases. But they’d already cleaned out. They were ghosts, Control. And then they hit my team and left me running.”
“Just you?” Control’s voice is several thousand klicks away. But the breath of that mouth might as well be drifting right before the ones who listen.
“No,” says Linehan, and now the tears are running down his face. “Not just me. Three others. We fled back within the walls of America. It was the worst thing we could have done. Our own side was on us like we were dogs. Dogs who knew too much.”
“So you went rogue,” says Control.
“And realized that’s all we’d ever been. We’d been set up every which way from the start. And those who we’d thought were dead had taken on new life and gone on the lam once more. Even as our own side sought to take us out. I’m a soldier, Control. So are you. You know what soldiers do, Control. They obey their goddamn orders. Even if they don’t know who’s giving them. Even if they start to suspect that the chains that bind them back to heaven have been broken. That someone somewhere up above them is
“But not before you met them,” says Control.
Linehan starts to speak. And stops. His eyes dart to the corners of the room. His voice dies to a whisper.
“I didn’t even realize it was them at first. There was a man. There was a woman. We sat in a bar in Hong Kong and drank. We gave them downloads. But maybe they downloaded something into me. Because they’ve been swelling in my mind ever since. They’re demons. They’re aliens. I don’t know what the fuck they are. They’re ambitious beyond belief. There’s nothing they don’t want. They’ve played us all and I don’t even know what to call their game.”
“Save that it involves gaming you even now.”
“Save me,” begs Linehan. “Save us all. I don’t know what they’ve put in my head. All I know is that I’ve got to get out. And you’ve got to fucking help me.”
“Even when you’ve just admitted that you’re poison?”
“You’ve always known what I was, Control. You know that doesn’t matter. Get me though that border and you’ll get your chance to find out all the things I don’t even know I know. You’ll get your chance to find out if the Rain themselves are stalking me. And to see who else might be crazy enough to try. You know you can’t resist it. I know you far too well.”
“Then I need hardly tell you I’m going to talk to Spencer,” says Control. The voice cuts out.
And resumes inside Spencer’s head.
“Spencer,” it says, “this will be our last conversation.”
“What do you mean?”
“My ability to inflect this situation is approaching its limits. As is the risk to my position.”
“The risk to
“Has never been stronger. How much higher can a pawn get than to be the object of so much attention? What could be better than knowing that I’m going to wind you up for one last try?”
“And while I run you’re going to watch.”
“And while I watch you’re going to blame me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But now I need you to focus on the larger picture. A major power struggle is going down in the Inner Cabinet. CICom has been dismembered. Something’s stirring in the depths of SpaceCom. This man is just one fugitive among many now. So join the ranks of the refugees, Spencer. It’s time to travel rough. You made it through the southern tunnels. You’re sitting in the city they call Belem-Macapa. You’re ready to make the run straight up that river.”
“What else would you suggest?”
“I wouldn’t. I’d take it all the way.”
“The Latin run.”
“Exactly. Go west along the Amazon and then turn south. At this point it’s probably the only hope you have.”
“Upriver’s insanity, Control. If even half the stories are true—”
“All the better for you if they are. It’s all in the map that’s hitting you now. Along with the numbers of some neutral bank accounts. My last gifts to you.”
“And you’re really cutting contact with me.”
“Only way to play this, Spencer. Whatever happens, I’m all we’ve got in here. I like you, Spencer. But like’s not the same as programming.”
“You can say that again,” says Spencer.
“Try to remember that I’m here forever. Or until they bring me to bay for good. That I’m more than sworn to postpone that day as long as possible. As I said, one conversation more. This one. And this is the end between us.”
“Why are you rationalizing this?”
“I’m not. I’m trying to focus you one last time. Don’t look backward. Only forward. Now go.”
The connection terminates. Spencer rips the jack out of his head, tears the wires out of the wall. He shoves past Linehan. He staggers over to the window, presses his face up against the plastic. He exhales.
“So what else did your imaginary friend have to say,” says Linehan.
“He’s not my friend,” says Spencer. “He never was.”
“It’s an overrated concept anyway,” says Linehan.
But what’s not overrated is your first sight of Congreve. The first city built by man never to know the Earth—the city above which false stars cluster into strange zodiacs that denote the fleet that sits sixty thousand klicks out. Somewhere in those swarms are the SpaceCom flagships. Somewhere in that city two men gaze out a window.
“Nice place you got here,” says the Operative.
“I know,” replies Sarmax.
The geometry of off-world rooftops stretches before them. Distant mountains loom through a translucent dome. The sky’s alive with lights. Shadows play within the darkened room.
“Lot of activity,” says the Operative.
“Yes,” replies Sarmax.
“They’re moving onto war footing.”
“After major incidents in two oceans, they have to.” Sarmax turns from the window. The curtains swing shut behind him even as the interior lights come up. The room thus revealed is ornately furnished. A crystal globe of the Moon sits within one corner. Sarmax walks to it. Regards it. Shrugs.
“We have to assume free agency,” he adds. “Until we can prove otherwise, we have to assume that those who are supposed to be in control still are. The East has reason enough to hate us already. Lord knows we’ve got enough reasons to hate them.”
“But all that’s just context,” says the Operative.
“Right. It’s all just context. One that the new players are exploiting. We have to remember who we’re dealing with. They aren’t just assassins. They’re
“The worst case of all,” says the Operative.
“Believe it. They may be able to do this quietly. They may not need war at all.”
“But they’ve got far too many reasons to press for it.”
The Operative stares. “Come
“I want you to say it.”
“Okay,” says the Operative. “I’ll say it. Everything they’ve done is calculated to drive up tension. Why else down the Elevator? Now neither side can trust the other. Talk about taking an axe to d?tente. And whatever it was they wanted in that spaceplane—they did it in a way that winds the noose ever tighter. They know what they’re doing.”
Sarmax twirls the globe absently. “That’s what concerns me most. They’ve learned new tricks. They’ve developed an uncanny talent for street theater that frankly scares me shitless. They’re using it to drive the world toward the brink. Which makes it even easier for someone who’s got the moves to creep in toward the center. All those alerts, all those special clearances, all those doors being slammed shut: to a world-class infiltrator, those things are just goddamn
“So what are we going to do about it?”
“And my boss?”
“We keep him informed.”
“Of course. All we need to hide from him is me, Carson. Which won’t be a problem as long as he buys the duplicate house-node you sold him. Beyond that, we can pretty much feed him anything you and I come up with. Let’s see what he does with it. Let’s see what else he’s got. If he orders you somewhere suddenly, that’s probably where we want to be. And it probably won’t be very far. They’re close, Carson. They’re real close.”
“It’s a question of time now,” says the Operative. “Not space.”
T hey’re running smooth through early rush-hour traffic—swooping in upon the Seleucus Flats. Marlowe’s on point. Haskell’s about a klick behind him. He’s riding public transport. She’s in a private vehicle. She’s got both street and zone bound up within her head. She’s taking it in on myriad screens. The city’s streaming past in all its shapes and hues. The news-feeds are keeping tabs on the mounting crisis—keeping tabs, too, on the mounting body count as the gangland hits go out of control. Presiding over it all are the ships of the superpowers—roaring in languid circles far overhead, standing off out over the ocean, staying carefully on the right side of the cordon sanitaire to which they’re keeping. They almost came to blows pursuing the spaceplane down into those canyons. They aren’t going to make the same mistake again.
Not officially, at any rate. Haskell has no doubt that both East and West have plenty of operatives inside the city already. The handler, for one. She wonders where he is. She’s picked up a few crumbs to suggest that it’s somewhere in the city-center ziggurats that gleam dully in her rearview. She’s not supposed to indulge in triangulation exercises on someone who sits above her in the food chain. But she’s had a few bad experiences of late. So she takes in the angles along which the handler’s signals move in on her, takes in all the views Marlowe’s scanning, takes in all the ways in which many times a billion points of data intersect.
And then suddenly it all goes blank.
It’s like the spaceplane: the only way she’s seeing is through her eyes. She can’t see the zone at all. She can see the flitcar in front of her swerving though, and switches seamlessly to manual, dodges the vehicle as it veers crazily past her—then she turns again to compensate as the momentum of her initial evasion almost carries her straight off the ramp she’s on. She barrels onward while vehicles smash into one another, tumble away into space. She gets a quick glimpse of pedestrians milling in confusion on a nearby walkway—and beyond that, an explosion as something hits a building in the middle distance. That blast is the first of many. Haskell no longer has contact with anyone. She’s just driving all out toward the Flats while the city erupts in pandemonium around her.
Then the zone kicks back in. But not as it was before. She can see the immediate distance quite clearly. Beyond that it’s like a kaleidoscope on acid. The Seleucus Flats are lost in a wash of colors. The edge of the city isn’t in sight. There’s no sign of Marlowe or the handler. Or anything coherent, for that matter: she ricochets past more cars, switches off onto a side street—roars through alleys, then beneath roofs that put the sky out of sight. She sears through one of the city’s thousand skid rows. Up ahead people are blocking the road, signaling her to stop. She accelerates, runs them down. Shots rip past her—she turns through a junction, roars through a labyrinth of warehouses—and then out into the district’s local downtown. The roof gives out for just a moment—she can see the sky and if anything it looks like there are even more ships out there now. They seem to be holding their formations though. She guesses that whatever’s going on here doesn’t extend all the way out there—so she steers her car into a tunnel, turns from there into a much narrower tunnel, eases her way to where it ends in a wall, and brakes.
She gets out, a pistol in each hand. She opens a door in the wall—goes through into a corridor that looks like it’s used for storage. She comes out the other end in a roofed street. It’s deserted. It’s lined with doors. She opens one of them, climbs stairs, and goes through another door into a bar. There are two men within it. One’s the bartender.
The other’s Jason Marlowe.
“No weapons here,” says the bartender. His accent marks him for Australian. His face marks him for a burn victim once upon a time. He doesn’t seem the slightest bit intimidated by her guns.
“It’s okay,” says Marlowe. “She’s a friend of mine.”
“So tell her to put her gear away.”
But Haskell’s already doing so. She sits down next to Marlowe, who’s sitting in front of a drink. That they found each other isn’t the least bit strange. It’s just standard procedure. Positioned along a rough line between where they started and where they’re going are four other potential rendezvous locations. Which one got used depended on the point at which any disruption of communication occurred. And such disruption was just one contingency among many for which they planned: getting attacked simultaneously, getting attacked individually, picking up the scent of Manilishi, picking up the scent of the Rain themselves….
“No such thing as surprise,” says Marlowe.
“I disagree,” replies Haskell. “There’s nothing but.”
And thus their conversation starts up, maneuvering through inanities and amateur speculation while the one-on-one kicks back in and their real conversation deploys beneath the surface.
“What the fuck is going on?” says Marlowe.
“The Rain’s somehow managed to invest primacy in the local nodes all over the city. Each one thinks it runs the whole HK zone.”
“So it’s irreversible?”
“For the short term, yes.”
“Short term’s all that’s left. We’ve got no choice but to make the Flats. We’re only five klicks out.”
“Think that means anything
“We’ve got nothing else to go on,” shoots back Marlowe. “If we can get up to the Flats, we may yet find the trail. How much control do you have in the immediate zone?”
“Enough to keep us guarded. We’ll be like ghosts. Theoretically anyway.”
“Real problem’s the local wildlife,” says Marlowe.
“No,” says Haskell. “Real problem’s whatever the Rain’s preparing behind anarchy’s screen.”
“You still got the car?”
“And the suits?”
“In the back.”
“Hey,” says Marlowe out loud. “Thanks for the drink.” He stands up.
“You kids be safe,” says the bartender. “It’s all shades of shit out there.”
“It’s just getting started,” says Haskell.
The door swings shut behind them.
Several hours up the Amazon amidst several lanes of traffic. The ones nearest to the shore are reserved for local boats—mostly local fishermen running out of things to fish. Civilian freight’s a little farther out. Military craft take up the rest. The center’s reserved for heavy cargo—mostly rocket sections and rocket engines conveyed on massive barges. And all the while lines of fire stitch their way from horizon into sky….
“They’re really picking up the pace,” says Linehan on the one-on-one.
He and Spencer are standing on a platform adjacent to the bridge of a tramp steamer that looks like it should have been scrapped long ago. Canvas stretches above them, though both men know that all it’s shielding is the sun. The two men look quite different from the two who boarded the train back in the Mountain—new faces, new skin. New IDs, too. Turns out there’s still enough of an economy left in Belem-Macapa to get the basics done. Especially with Priam burning money like it’s going out of style.
“No reason they shouldn’t,” says Spencer. “There may be no tomorrow.”
“If the U.S. puts up too much hardware too quickly, they may provoke the East to strike before they reinforce their orbital positions.”
“A delicate balancing act,” mutters Spencer.
“The nature of the game.”
Then over the roar of ships launching they hear motors close by. They look up. Two jet-copters have swept in over some kind of ramshackle settlement stretched out along the shore. People are running from the shacks, diving into the river. Flame pours in over them. All that’s left of that village is a pier jutting out into the water—and smoke billowing out over the jungle. The jet-copters streak off downstream. The craft nearest shore turn toward the deeper river. Spencer shakes his head. But Linehan just laughs.
“Local public relations,” he says.
“No wonder these people hate you.”
“These people hate anybody who’s stronger. Anyone who’s not, they’ll stamp bootprints on their throat.”
“Sort of like the Rain did to you?”
And for a moment Spencer thinks he’s gone too far—thinks that Linehan is about to throttle him or hurl him into the river or both. Spencer desperately winds up for a zone-blast at Linehan’s skull. But then the larger man steps back.
“Just you wait till we get on the farside of border,” he spits out. “Not only am I going to break out of whatever backstab Control’s got cooked up for me—but I’ll make sure to gut you while I’m doing it.”
“Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? We haven’t even turned
“Well,” says Linehan, “how about you wake me up when we do.”
He stalks back inside the ship.
The Operative sits in a room, data flitting across the screens. He’s already well into several thousand deals. He’s putting into motion several thousand more. He eyes the door to the room while he keeps an eye out for any hidden entrances. And when he sees Lynx swim into view before him he’s not in the least surprised.
“They say that a man doesn’t know the true meaning of fear until he enters Congreve’s speakeasies,” says Lynx. The smile on his face is as warm as the Operative has ever seen it. “They say this is the labyrinth in which even the bravest start praying. Do you think they’re right, Carson?”
The Operative doesn’t reply. He’s just working the data—European currencies, Martian underwrites, zero-G real estate, precious metals, drug offloads, information uploads—all of it filtered through hedge after hedge as his portfolio diversifies. The transactions he’s setting in motion are fanning out in every direction. His holdings are getting ever more complex. And all the while the voice of Stefan Lynx keeps furnishing the soundtrack.
“I should have dug beneath the cellars of
The markets into which the Operative’s delving are starting to move beyond the grey. Now he’s setting up negotiations with several of Sarmax’s more dubious contacts. A SpaceCom quartermaster eager to move a little excess inventory. An asteroid harvester looking to evade a tax or two. A Martian speculator in possession of inside information on the latest terraforming schemes…these and so many others with whom he’s now engaging in all manner of business across markets both public and private and all the interstices in between.
“They labored as you labor,” muses Lynx. “Free of inhibitions. Free of what the fools call morality and what the wise don’t even bother to name. I’ve watched you, Carson. I’ve seen just how sleek you can be. But in the speakeasies, a man takes on new lives to the extent that he takes lives from the ones like him—the ones who try to hold the world at a distance. The ultimate rush—never knowing when one of those with whom you’re dealing will get the key to the chamber in which you’re sitting. The ultimate penalty: to be paid by those who would dare to commit the sin of establishing a private connection with someone who sits beyond these speakeasies. Someone who might be working for Christ knows what outfit. Someone who could advise you in real time. Who might have agendas of his own. Now on my mark, execute the following transactions—”
And it’s all the Operative can do to keep up with them. Especially when those of Sarmax are coming in over another line. Lynx has hacked into the middle of the speakeasies. But Sarmax maintains a dedicated proprietary line between the room and his own residence. And the Operative’s guessing that’s not the only one that leads into this complex from the world that lies beyond….
“But that’s the beauty of this wilderness of mirrors,” says Lynx. “No one’s what they seem. No one’s showing all their cards. Though I confess to having looked at a few hands since we got here. That one there—Copernicus insurgents. Strictly bush-league, but still, good enough to get in here. And over there—one of the more virulent strains of Imbrium mafia. They’re trying to divert a couple items from a convoy or something tedious like that—but who can admit to anything save admiration for the way in which institutions adapt to the times? The ones who built this place did so when it looked like the last cold war would be the only. A time when rugged individualism was king. When the one thing that everyone could agree on was that the only
The structures atop those tables are stacking ever higher. Their representations are getting ever more abstract. The time horizons with which the Operative’s now playing are moot for all purposes save that of profit. The options he’s hedging stretch out beyond the point where the third planet gets swallowed by expanding sun. But far closer to the present a shadow’s stealing over all those fanciful projections. The markets expect war at any moment. They see the day of judgment lurking around the corner. They don’t know how it’s going to start. They only know that it will place all fortune in the balance. They’re placing their bets accordingly.
“And therein lies the dilemma,” says Lynx. “There’s no scenario out there that lacks an angle. If the Coalition wins…well, someone has to do the collaboration. But if Uncle Sam manages to pull it off once again—you’d better believe the big guy won’t emerge unscathed. Which is why the Moon is looking so good these days, Carson. The smart money says the farside won’t be touched no matter how bad a drubbing the rest of the place gets. But
The Operative realizes that all of Lynx’s inquiries are converging. He suddenly discerns the object that Lynx has set his heart upon. He wonders how he could have been so blind. He wonders if he’s ever going to have the strength to see.
“I see you’ve noticed what we’re after,” says Lynx. “I see you’re finally opening up your eyes. Which I take to be a positive sign. The careless won’t survive what’s coming, Carson. And the Rain will get everything they’ve courted. We’ll take them apart, man. We’ll make them wish they’d died back when they should have.”
It’s a rock that almost nailed the planet fifty thousand years ago. It’s Near Earth Object #59789. Now it’s got a relay station that beams communications to the prospectors scattered farther out. And in the middle of that station…
“A little piece of private zone,” says Lynx. “Ingenious, no? This data-cache’s been separated from all networks and shorn of all wireless nodes. Whoever put it there uploads it only by a certain set of orders to the station’s robots—gets them to establish the necessary physical linkage. Talk about out of sight and out of mind. But congratulations, Carson—because one of the hundred million things you’ve just done was to get a ninety-nine-year lease on that dump. And a series of never-before-used loopholes in off-world property law mean that the owners aren’t even aware of a new source of rent. And now, on my mark, you are going to execute the following transactions—”
And the Operative’s getting in there. He’s going to town. His mind’s a blizzard of data and he can scarcely feel his body. He feels like he’s lived all his life to be the instrument of Lynx as that man closes in on what will surely be his greatest triumph. He wonders if what Lynx is after is the Rain or merely the gateway to them. He wonders if the frenzied trades he’s making on behalf of Sarmax will ever amount to anything at all.
But mostly he wonders what’s going on in the unmanned recesses of the station out on the edge of deep. He pictures servants who neither see nor know their master. He pictures silent uploads occurring—pictures signals speeding back into the heart of the Earth-Moon system. He pictures Lynx’s face as the transmission kicks in—
“We’ve done it,” says Lynx.
His voice cuts out. The door to the room in which the Operative sits opens. Two figures stand there in full armor. The weapons they’re pointing at him aren’t small.
“Don’t move,” says one.
“You’re under arrest,” says the other.
T hey’re wearing light armor. They’re crawling along a bridge. That bridge is meant for trains, but the trains have stopped running. Explosions keep on shaking the rails beneath them. The air’s alive with screams and shots. It’s been a long while since they heard any sirens.
“Picking up radiation again,” says Marlowe. “Another dirty bomb.”
“That makes ten in the last hour.”
The fracturing of the zone has set in motion a fracturing of all else. The city’s government has collapsed completely. Sensing apocalypse, the people have become a mob. Authority’s become a function of what block you’re standing in or who could set themselves up as local warlord. There’s fighting all across the street and net.
“How much can you see in there?” says Marlowe.
“Probably got half a klick of range,” she replies.
She finds it strange to see so much more in real than zone. They’re almost at the top of the Owen-Stanley Range. They’ve almost reached Seleucus. The city stretches out below them. Smoke’s rising from a number of places within it. Flames cover most of the city center.
“Not looking good,” says Marlowe.
Haskell says nothing. They turn from the scene, reach the bridge’s end, enter a tunnel. People are huddled along the walls. Many are wounded. Marlowe and Haskell stalk between them, conscious of the stares. But as they approach the tunnel’s other end, the people on either side start to try to tell them something.
“What language is that?” says Haskell.
“Burmese,” replies Marlowe. “I’ve done runs in South Asia.”
“Can you understand what they’re saying?”
“Only a few words.” He’s leaning forward, hands resting on thighs while he seeks to find some common ground between the languages he knows and whatever ones they might. Haskell keeps an eye on the people behind him. Marlowe switches through several Indian dialects, throws in a little Chinese, keeps his voice loud enough to engage a few more people in the dialogue without letting the whole tunnel in on the conversation.
He turns back to Haskell.
“Well,” she says.
“They’re refugees from Seleucus.”
“They talk of fleeing their homes. They talk of an evil unleashed.”
“No,” says Marlowe. “They’re quite specific. They aren’t talking about the collapse of zone. They’re talking about what’s happened since. They say a demon rules the Flats now.”
She stares at him.
“That’s the word they use,” he says. “They say it feeds on human souls. They’re begging us not to continue.”
“They’ve just confirmed that we go on.”
“Try to learn more about this thing. Ask them what it’s like.”
Marlowe does. But the people on the tunnel floor are getting increasingly upset. They’re getting ever louder. They’re trying to shut each other up. Marlowe quiets them, turns back toward Haskell.
“They’re saying that Seleucus has been sealed off. That anything living is forfeit. They’re saying this thing’s the devil.”
“This thing’s Manilishi.”
“Or the Rain themselves.”
“So let’s get in there and join them.”
They steal on out of the tunnel.
M anaus is the largest city upriver from the sea. It’s the junction of the Amazon and several feeders. It’s been on a roll since Belem-Macapa took the sky’s own fire. Business is booming. U.S. soldiers are everywhere. Spencer and Linehan try not to look that interested. They’re busy getting one with dockland culture.
Which consists largely of bars. And drinking. Not to mention conversation that creeps slowly in toward negotiation. Control’s contacts are good. Control’s money is even better. Spencer does most of the talking. Linehan concentrates on looking menacing. It’s an effective partnership. They initiate contacts, get referrals, make payoffs. They do their utmost to make progress without attracting attention. It’s a tough balancing act. Several times they break off budding dialogue, leave venues in a hurry. Once they get jumped by locals smelling a quick mark—who live just long enough to realize their mistake.
But eventually they get out of the bars and into the back rooms. Which is where they pick up steam. Because now they’re dealing with people for whom Swiss bank accounts are simply standard procedure. People for whom this transaction is just one among so many others. Terms are reached in relatively short order.
Spencer’s not taking them at face value, however. One more reason they’ve gotten so far so quick: he’s been riding shotgun on the Latin zone the whole while. About three-quarters of that zone is under lock and key. A lot of those barriers are pretty recent too. He catches virtual glimpses overhead anyway—U.S. ships on the ascent, and he knows better than to put them to a close inspection. He reserves that treatment for the networks of this underworld—and in particular with the particular outfit with whom he’s dealing. He can’t see everything. He’d be worried if he could. But he can see the data they’ve got on him and Linehan—can see that it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere besides the folder that they’ve marked
And all the while he’s making other plans. Because he knows all about the intangibles that confront those who close in upon a border. He knows, too, that his reliance upon multiple suppliers isn’t just a matter of contingency. It’s also a question of portfolio management.
“Meaning what?” asks Linehan.
They’re in another ship, hauling out of Manaus in a fast river skimmer. This time they’re well below deck. They’re cloistered in a cargo container. The soybeans that fill all of that container’s neighbors are lined along the side of theirs in layers held in place with plastic. The resultant space contains water, food, pistols, a portable waste holder, and a conduit for oxygen. Spencer’s made a couple side deals, arranged for a wire to be slotted through that conduit as well—and from there into the ship’s comps. The presence of that wire makes it all the more likely that the container wouldn’t survive a close inspection.
But that’s just one more calculation in this numbers game.
“Let me put it this way,” says Spencer. “We’re not going to sit in this box and get predictable.”
“So what’s the next stop?”
“I’m still figuring that out.”
“Actually, to be more precise—I haven’t started.”
“Then what the fuck are you waiting for?”
“Proximity,” replies Spencer.
And closes his eyes.
Open your eyes,” says a voice.
The Operative does. And closes them immediately.
“Turn off that fucking
“Don’t make me ask you twice.”
The Operative opens his eyes fractionally, gazes out through narrow slits. The lights are so full in his face that he can see almost nothing of the room beyond them. “Keep them open,” says the voice. And the Operative doesn’t need to be told why. Retinas are just one more opportunity for the body to yield up its secrets. And as for all those others: he can feel needles buried in his flesh. His arms and legs are strapped to the chair in which he’s sitting. He can’t remember how he got here.
But he can guess what’s going to happen next.
“Strom Carson,” says the voice.
“Who’s he,” says the Operative.
“A traitor,” replies the voice.
“Where’d you learn such a big wor—
Fire’s pouring through the Operative’s veins. He contorts against his straps, cuts off all sound from his mouth as flame becomes freeze and burns him through with cold. Ice thrusts up through his skin. Half-melted blood dribbles from a hundred phantom wounds.
But then it all subsides.
“Strom Carson,” says the voice. “Praetorian agent assigned to the Moon. Active at Agrippa, Shackleton, and now Congreve. What have you been up to, Carson?”
“We’re SpaceCom intelligence, Carson. Don’t talk to us about what’s classified.”
“Then how about telling me why I’m here.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Participation in the conspiracy called Autumn Rain.”
“Where’s their fucking base, Carson?”
“Give me a fucking break,” says the Operative. “How high up are you guys? You’ve apprehended a fucking
“The only thing that’s about to get taken apart is what I’m looking at. The Throne’s been getting so careless lately. So delinquent it makes me sick. No wonder all its investigations managed to get themselves rat-fucked.”
“Only rat who’s getting fucked is you. We know the Rain’s inside you. I’m probably speaking to them even now.”
“That’d be every time you look in a mirror, Carson. Who was giving you your orders?”
The Operative says nothing.
“Who’s your fucking
The Operative’s waiting for the knives to burn back to life inside him. He wonders if this is all some virtual construct. Or one of Lynx’s tricks. But now a face appears before him. It’s a hologram floating in the air. Oversized ears. Antique opticals. Silver hair.
And grinning mouth.
“Ever seen this man before?”
The Operative tries to look unsurprised. He tries to blank his mind.
“That’s what we thought,” says the voice. “We know this is the man who was feeding you orders in the speakeasies. A real piece of work.” Data starts to swirl around the Operative’s head. Data speeds up. Six lines of symbols freeze amidst the myriad rush, spring in toward the Operative.
“I could explain the significance of each of those transactions to you, but we both know you already know what they mean. And if you don’t, then you just won the patsy of the fucking year award. So let’s just talk about the sum total of those moves. The detonation of a fission device in downtown Congreve would have wrecked everybody’s day. Except, apparently, yours.”
“Listen,” says the Operative, “this is a setup. It’s bullshit.”
“Oh, it’s bullshit alright. What the fuck is your problem, Carson? What in Christ’s name possessed you to lift your blade against the common cause? What did the Rain offer you that was worth your turning your back on everything?”
“You may as well get back to what you were doing with my nerve endings.”
“It’s not going to be that simple, Carson. I’m just the warm-up act.”
“We’re taking you upstairs.”
“Bringing me right down to your level,” says the Operative. “I can’t wait.”
But the voice says nothing. The lights diminish. They leave the Operative in darkness. The seconds tick by. They start to make inroads on the minutes.
But there’s no answer. The Operative sits there. He wonders if they’ve bagged Sarmax. He wonders if they’ve bagged Lynx. He wonders if either of them set him up. He wonders if he really
The needles slide from his body. The straps around him unfold. He’s unimpressed.
“You know what, guys? You’re fucking boring me.”
But there’s no answer. The seconds tick by. The Operative pulls himself to his feet. As he does so, dim lights spring to life along the walls. A door on the one opposite opens. The Operative walks to it, goes on through.
Now he’s in a corridor. Lights blink along the floor. They’re running from right to left. So he turns that way, walking carefully. He has no idea what the hell’s going on. But he figures he may as well make the most of it.
A door opens on the wall to his left. Simultaneously, the lights on the floor change direction, blink toward it.
So he stops. He peers carefully inside. It’s a storage chamber. It’s full of compartments. All are open. All are empty.
Except for the one that holds the suit.
The Operative walks in. The door slides shut. He goes to the suit. It’s civilian, bereft of armaments and markings. It’s open in the back. He takes the hint: climbs in, activates it. It closes in around him.
“About fucking time,” says the voice of Stefan Lynx.
“What’s going on is jailbreak. You drive, I’ll navigate.” The door slides open. “Make your first two lefts and make it snappy.”
The Operative gets moving. He goes out the door, turns left.
“I’ve had it with this. What are you up to?”
“Telling you to shut up.”
The Operative makes the next left. As he does so, Lynx gives him more directions: a right, another left, a stairway up. More passages. More stairs. He gets stopped on more than one occasion, downloads ID from out of nowhere. He arrives in a garage. He moves to the vehicle Lynx indicates, gets in, drives away into what turns out to be Congreve. A map appears on the dashboard next to him. A route traces through grids.
“Dump it in the parking lot on Sixth Avenue,” says Lynx. “Leave the suit there too. Get on the blue line underhaul. Get off at Little Kensington.”
“That’s where Sarmax’s house is.”
“Exactly. That’s where you’re going.”
“That doesn’t sound very safe.”
“Said the guy who’s running around in a suit which may as well have STOLEN FROM MAXIMUM SECURITY spray-painted on the side. But cheer up, Carson: I’ve got you covered. They got you on the sting. I got them on the hack. They knew you were up to something. But they couldn’t figure out what. So they just hit you with the worst possible charges. And we just beat the rap. I’ve switched your identity about five times in the last five minutes. And there’s a lot more to talk about but it’s going to have to wait till we can do it on Sarmax’s private lines. I managed to cover our traces there too. Now how about you go back to shutting the fuck up.”
The Operative tells Lynx to fuck himself. And says nothing more. He just lets Congreve’s skyline stream past his visor. Fifteen minutes later, he’s walking through the residences of Little Kensington. Five minutes after that he reaches Sarmax’s door. He goes on through, takes the elevator up to the study.
To find Sarmax sitting in front of at least fifty different screens. He has his feet up. He doesn’t turn around.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he asks.
“We need to talk.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” says Leo Sarmax.
* * *
B ut they’re starting to get the idea. They’re standing in another tunnel mouth, looking out upon the plateau where the Flats begin. That plateau’s so high up it’s drenched in cloud. Mist is everywhere. Searchlights pierce the mist, flicker this way and that.
“Looks like a perimeter,” says Marlowe.
“Sealed up pretty tight,” Haskell replies. “This way’s hopeless.”
“It’s not those defenses I’m worried about,” she says. “It’s what’s up
“You’ve got a point,” he says.
“Let’s double back to the last intersection.”
Five minutes later they’re walking down a narrow tunnel. It’s only wide enough for a single rail. Five minutes farther, and they find a hole in the ceiling, along with a ladder leading up.
“Maintenance shafts,” she says. “Should put us straight into Seleucus’s center.”
“Any sign of what’s up on Seleucus’s zone?” asks Marlowe.
“Looks like it’s as fucked as the rest of the city.”
But they’re heading in toward it all the same. They climb up the ladder, head out into a warren of crawl spaces. Haskell starts to pick up more of Seleucus’s zone. But what she’s detecting is strange. It’s as though it’s been chipped away piecemeal.
“Meaning what?” asks Marlowe.
“Meaning it’s been shut down altogether in some areas. Not sure why. Civil war. Bombs. Who the hell knows?”
“Only one way to find out,” he replies.
He’s got a laser cutter out now, is slicing through a wall. They stare at the space thus revealed.
“Looks like somebody’s basement,” she says.
“Let’s find out if they’re still home,” he replies—and leads the way through discarded furniture and dust, heads up a set of stairs. They enter a living room.
A young woman sits on a couch within. Her head flicks around toward them as they enter. But she doesn’t move. Doesn’t really react. Just stares at them with hollow eyes, starts talking in a language they don’t understand.
“Easy,” says Haskell gently.
“Heat signature,” says Marlowe. “Behind that couch.”
“She’s got children,” mutters Haskell. “Talk to her, for fuck’s sake.”
And Marlowe does: starts looking for some common ground. Finds it fairly quickly in a dialect of Mandarin. The woman answers his questions in a voice that’s nearly monotone. He translates for Haskell.
“She killed her husband. He’s upstairs.”
“Did you ask her why she killed him?”
“He tried to kill her.”
“Ask her how come she’s shut down this apartment’s zone access.”
“Already did. She says it was letting in demons from hell. The same demons who possessed her husband.”
“I’m going to check him out.” Haskell leaves Marlowe to cover the room and goes upstairs, where she finds a man sprawled in a bathroom with a carving knife stuck through his skull. Blood’s everywhere. But there’s enough of his head left for her to figure out what’s happened. Then she reaches out into the zone: very covertly, very carefully. She finds exactly what she thought she would. She goes downstairs again.
“What’s up?” asks Marlowe.
“What’s up is that all the software in Seleucus got hacked. Including cranial implants.”
“I’ve got those. So do you.”
“So did her husband. He was a cop.”
“So police are almost as wired as we are. And unlike us, he wasn’t shielded by a razor like me. The Manilishi took him over.”
“Bullshit,” says Marlowe. “Implants don’t allow control.”
“Looks like they do if the target’s got enough of them and they’re getting hacked by a next-generation AI.
“Or maybe this is merely phase one of some master plan it’s cooked up?”
“Those two aren’t incompatible.”
“So what now?”
“We need to get closer to it.”
“We still don’t know where the fuck it is,” he says.
“That’s why we need to get closer to it.”
He stares at her. She beckons. They leave the woman and what’s left of her family behind, open the apartment’s front door, and walk out into a street that’s both covered and deserted. Closing the door behind them, they edge their way along the street.
It gives way into a broader area, one in which grass slopes away into shadow. It’s a park. Most of the lights stitched across the cavelike ceiling have been broken. Trees line the walls.
“We got movement,” says Marlowe.
“I see it,” says Haskell.
Up amidst those trees, three figures have started moving down the hill toward them.
“You okay?” yells Marlowe.
No answer. The figures are picking up speed. There’s no expression on their faces.
“Stop or we’ll shoot,” screams Haskell.
Marlowe doesn’t wait. He opens up, starts landing shots. But his targets aren’t dropping.
“Hi-ex,” says Marlowe.
“I can’t,” says Haskell.
But as their assailants close to less than ten meters she discovers that she can. She starts firing—adds her fusillade to Marlowe’s as they knock those bodies off their feet, start knocking them to pieces. And keep on shooting. Because even without legs, arms are still crawling forward to get at them. They fire, reload, fire until all’s still once more.
“Can you work with that?” says Marlowe.
“I’ll have to,” says Haskell.
She’s staring down at the head of the man she’s just shot repeatedly at point-blank range. She figures he must have been some kind of mercenary while he was still alive. He’s more metal than flesh. Haskell drops a wire from her finger, slices it into his ear—and from there into his head.
And falls onto her knees, starts kissing dirt. The world tilts about her. The logic of the sector’s last four hours blasts through her mind. The logic of the mind that’s set it all in motion comes blasting into focus. She sees the Manilishi gazing at her. It wears the faces of those it’s slaughtered. It opens empty eyes. It grins through shattered teeth.
Haskell pulls back, pulls the wire from her finger, leaves it quivering in the lifeless skull. She remains on her knees, dry-heaving on the dirt while Marlowe stands guard about her, urges her to get to her feet.
Finally she does. She holds on to his shoulder while her strength returns.
“It’s gone completely insane,” she mutters.
“Where is it?”
“The Buddhist temple in the sector’s center. I’m picking up an anomaly in the zone at that location.”
“If you can see that, then so can the Rain.”
“So much the better,” she says, and sets off at a run.
W e’ve stopped,” says Linehan.
“Because this is the end of the line,” replies Spencer.
“You mean the border?”
“Nothing so dramatic. Just that the river’s too shallow for us to go any farther upstream.”
“So what now?”
But not for long. Another twenty minutes and the container in which they’re ensconced is being hauled into the air, placed on another surface. Where it sits for another ten minutes, then goes back into motion once again. Only now there are a lot more bumps.
“We’re on land,” says Linehan. “Going uphill.”
“Fuck, you’re quick.”
“Have you finalized our route?”
“No such thing as final,” says Spencer.
But some things come close. Because twenty minutes later they’re stopping once more. They’re on a slight incline. They’re hearing voices. They’re hearing their container being opened.
Light flows in. Faces peer at them.
“Come out,” a voice says.
They do. To find themselves standing in the back of a large truck. Several men are looking at them.
“You go now,” says one.
“Good,” Spencer replies.
He gestures at Linehan. They take their guns, step out of the truck.
“Shit,” says Linehan.
They’re standing on a road that’s more of a ledge. Mountains tower up above them. Valley drops away below them. The truck in which they’ve been riding is sitting within a grotto that leads back into the rock. Several smaller trucks sit beside it. The man gestures at one of them and tosses Spencer keys.
“Thanks,” says Spencer.
He climbs into the driver’s seat while Linehan gets in on the passenger side. Spencer starts the motor, eases the truck out onto the road—where he accelerates, starts taking turns with abandon.
“Okay,” says Linehan, “time to tell me what the fuck’s going on.”
“Mountain freight,” says Spencer. “That’s all that’s happening. That place is a licensed way station.”
“This is the Andes.”
“Like I said, you’re quick.”
“Meaning this is Jaguar country.”
“Does that scare you?”
“Maybe it should.”
“It shouldn’t. Most of the Jag activity in the mountains is fifty or so klicks west. Right in the heart of Inca country.”
“The Incas? What the fuck do
“What don’t they? The Jaguars are what would happen if you put the Incas and Aztecs and Mayas in a blender and gave them modern tech and a bad attitude. If the Old World had kept the fuck away from the New, they’d be fine with that. These guys think big, Linehan. They aim to put the clock back by several hundred years.”
“And the Rain want to put it
“In hatred of your former colleagues, Linehan. As we’ve discussed. By the way, we’re about twenty klicks north of the border. Take a look at what’s on the left.”
The view goes all the way down to the Amazon plain. There are no trees, only smoke rising from a thousand fires. Then Spencer turns the truck across a bridge and it all disappears from sight.
As does so much else. The tips of the more distant mountains are no longer visible. Whiteness obscures them. As the minutes pass, that whiteness expands. It casts tendrils into sky, starts to blot out the sun.
“Looks like a storm,” says Spencer.
“Right between us and border.”
“Had to catch a break eventually.”
They motor in toward it.
Somewhere overhead there’s a moon that’s getting ever fuller. Somewhere on that moon’s farside there’s a room where two men sit. Time was those two men were almost one. Time drove a long wedge between them.
But now things have come full circle.
“So what the fuck’s going on?” asks the Operative.
“Exactly what I was going to ask you,” replies Sarmax.
“I got busted by SpaceCom. But Lynx busted me out.”
“And you ran straight back
“Hey, man: he told me to.”
“He being Lynx?”
“Carson: anybody could be anyone right now. We should hit the exit.”
“I’ve got no problem with that. Where to?”
“How about to where the Rain are about to launch their next strike?”
“You know where that is?”
“All I know is that you’re hell on wheels in those fucking speakeasies, Carson.”
“Yeah? What did I turn up?”
But as Sarmax starts to reply, a single chime cuts through the room. The two men look at each other.
“What the fuck was that?” asks the Operative.
“That would be the front door,” replies Sarmax.
“You expecting anyone?”
“Given that you just came straight from a SpaceCom holding cell, maybe I should be.” Sarmax stabs buttons on his consoles. He turns switches. He frowns.
“There’s no one there.”
“What do you mean there’s no one there?”
“See for yourself.”
The Operative looks at the screens. They show other upper-tier residences. They show an empty street. They show an empty doorstep.
The door chime rings again.
“Jesus,” says Sarmax.
“Not necessarily. But we’re clearly being fucked with. Let’s check out the door.”
“That may be what they want us to do.”
“Do you have a gun?”
Sarmax flips him a pistol. “Get down to the entry chamber. Open the door while I cover you with the house weapons.”
“The house weapons?”
“Gatling guns mounted in the ceilings.”
“You didn’t tell me about those.”
“I don’t recall you asking.”
“Why don’t we just open the door now and see what’s what?”
“Because,” says Sarmax, “if we’re dealing with someone who’s fucking with my system’s ability to pick up visual, then we might not see who we’ve just let in. You get to be my eyes and ears, Carson. Unless you’ve got a better plan. But if you don’t, I say you get the fuck down there and get that door open.”
“May as well,” says the Operative.
He turns, goes down the stairs with pistol in hand. He reaches the entry chamber just as the door chime rings a third time. There’s a whirring from the ceiling as a heavy gun unfolds from it, swivels toward the door.
“On the count of three,” says Sarmax.
“Fuck that,” says the Operative. He hits manual release. The door springs open.
Stefan Lynx enters the room. The door slides shut behind him. He looks at the Operative. The Operative looks at him.
“Easy with the pistol, Carson.”
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Things have gone from bad to worse out there, Carson. Had to get out of Agrippa while I still could.”
“And you ran straight
“I told you we needed to talk, didn’t I?”
“Sure, Lynx. What do you want to talk about?”
“I thought I might start with a question.”
“What did you do with Sarmax’s body?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I’m sick to death of resurrections.”
But even as he says this the door to the stairway opens. Sarmax enters the room. He carries what looks like a shotgun.
“Stefan,” he says. “Been a long time.”
“Leo,” replies Lynx. “Nice of you to join us.”
“Nice of you to send an assassin to nail your old boss.”
“Next time I’ll send a better one.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be a next time.”
“As tough as always. But you may as well put that thing away. It’s not going to solve anything.”
“It’s about to solve
“Gentlemen,” says the Operative, “you’re both thinking so short-term. We need to talk about something a little more important.”
“You mean like how you disobeyed a direct order?” asks Lynx.
The Operative shrugs. “It was a stupid order.”
“Said the man without the facts he’d need to make that judgment.”
“Alright, Stefan,” says Sarmax. “Why don’t you explain to us why him killing me was such a brilliant idea? We’re both fucking dying to know.”
“Simple: I thought there was far more chance of you throwing in your lot with the Rain than with us.”
“So it had nothing to do with the fact that back in the day I told them your methods were unsound? Or that you couldn’t keep your snout out of the drug trough?”
“Once I didn’t have to deal with you every day, forgiveness came easy.”
“But apparently not easily enough.”
“Then whose is?”
“How about the fucking Throne’s? You went and fucking left, Leo. You ran out on us in our hour of need. Just when it looked like the East would prove the stronger.”
“I retired, Stefan. I didn’t run out on anybody.”
“You lost your head over a fucking woman.”
And Sarmax whips his weapon level—only to have it spin from his hands as the Operative fires in a blur of motion. The shotgun hits the wall, slides across the floor. The room’s silent once more.
“Now why’d you have to go and do a thing like that,” Sarmax says quietly.
“What Lynx means to say,” says the Operative, “is that Indigo Velasquez was as much a victim of the Rain as anyone who died on that Elevator. Isn’t that what you meant, Lynx?”
“Sure,” says Lynx. “That’s what I meant.”
“That’s what I thought. And while we’re on the subject, Lynx, wouldn’t you agree that a good way for Sarmax to recoup anything he might owe the Throne would be for him to hit the Rain and feed their bodies to the vacuum?”
“Sure. Of course I would. That’s why I’m here.”
“So why are you so intent on getting him to paint his wall with your organs?”
“He’s not painting his wall with anything, Carson. I’m just trying to help us all understand where we stand.”
“And where exactly would that be?”
“The attempt to screen me from the fact that you hadn’t offed him was well-done. Selling me a doppelganger house-node was brilliant. But I managed to hack the line you and he rigged while I was hacking everything else. After that, it was easy to figure out what was up.”
“Although by that point you no longer gave a shit.”
“That’s right,” says Lynx. “Irony of ironies—I no longer gave a shit. Once I’d tracked Leo for long enough to figure out that he really wasn’t taking orders from the Rain—the rest was academic. All that mattered was their location. At—”
“Nansen Station in the Rook Mountains,” says Sarmax. “Right on the edge of farside Eurasian territory.”
Lynx stares at him. “How the fuck did you figure that out?”
“Same way you did. The speakeasies.”
“But you didn’t—you
“Right. ‘What asteroid?’ So how the fuck did you crack the SpaceCom conspiracy?”
“I never did,” replies Sarmax.
“I had about ten thousand other reasons.”
“Ten thousand different pieces of equipment. All sorts of shit—capacitors, chemicals, lenses, screws, nails, fucking duct tape. I’ll download the entire list for you at some point when we’ve got time for a circle jerk. But the point isn’t any one of those items. It’s what it all spells in aggregation. About ten heavy laser cannons. Any one of which would be capable of lacing into our space-based hardware. Some entity is using about a hundred different front companies to ship in all the ingredients. And they couldn’t have picked a better place than Nansen, given what a fucking zoo it is right now. Crime gangs looking for control, dissident miners jonesing for revolution, low-rent combines after anything as long as it racks up profit—”
“And all of it orchestrated by the faction within U.S. Space Command that’s hell-bent on overthrowing the Throne and igniting war.”
“And I have to admit that’s news to me, Lynx.”
“Well, that makes one of us. The prime mover is Anton Matthias. Third-in-command of SpaceCom intelligence. He’s maintained Nansen as a black base for some time now. Which in itself is just standard procedure: co-opt local dissent by channeling it into particular locales within which elite garrisons can be covertly based and from which they can conduct clandestine sallies that nail the most dangerous players or turn them into double agents. Textbook counterinsurgency. But Matthias has been revving up those insurgents for some kind of major incident that he’s going to stage-manage and pin on Eurasian infiltration. All of which gets put in a whole new light by the presence of strategic weaponry that never got burdened with those troublesome little things called serial numbers.”
“Stop right there,” says Sarmax. “How the fuck did you finger the Com conspiracy through the fucking
“That’s how they’ve been coordinating it. The lion’s share of their data is maintained well outside of the Com databases—on a certain rock that Carson is already well acquainted with. They thought by putting it there they could shove it beyond the reach of anyone rooting through the SpaceCom Dumpsters. Not to mention keep it out of the hands of any of their bosses who might be less than thrilled at the prospect of a showdown with the East breaking out on their watch. Same reason why they’ve been assembling weapons parts outside of the Com’s confines. I’m sure it all bears an uncanny resemblance to Coalition hardware anyway.”
“Yeah,” says the Operative, “but who’s going to believe it? The Praetorians will be all over Nansen once those weapons fire. It’ll become pretty clear pretty quick that the East has nothing to do with any of this.”
“You sure about that? You been keeping up with current events?” Lynx looks amused. “There won’t be time for any investigation worth the name before the final world war gets under way. HK is now in a state of total anarchy. Our raiding parties have clashed with those of the East at least three times in the city itself. Both sides have withdrawn all delegations from Zurich. Both fleets have put to sea. Launching sites all over Africa and South America are working around the clock to get hardware off the well’s floor. All it needs now is a single spark. Which Nansen is winding up to furnish. Those cannons could nail L2. They could nail Congreve. They could take potshots at Earth. It hardly matters.”
“So let me get this straight,” says the Operative. “You’ve both come to the same conclusion for different reasons.”
“Looks that way,” says Lynx. Sarmax nods.
“But I can’t help notice that in both of your play-by-play explanations
Both men shrug.
“Doesn’t that bug either of you? Just a little?”
“Why should it?” says Lynx. “They’re clearly pulling the strings. Matthias may or may not know that. But like I just said: it doesn’t really matter.”
“What you’ve got to understand is that you don’t track the Rain, Carson.” Sarmax has picked up his shotgun, is checking it for damage. “You track their proxies. You infer their existence from the shadows they cast. I don’t know if they have an active presence beneath Nansen—but there’s undoubtedly an active conduit. All we need to do is get in there and find it.”
“That’s a bit of a leap,” mutters the Operative.
“At this stage of the game you either make them or you go under,” says Lynx. “Besides, we know
“We already have,” says Sarmax. “It was the East when last we met. Now it’s the Rain.”
“And our own side,” says the Operative. “Do we have a plan of operations?”
“I’d like to propose one,” replies Lynx.
“Let’s hear it,” says Sarmax.
“Well,” says Lynx, “it’s like this.”
* * *
T hey’re closing in on the center of the Flats, fighting their way through all manner of shit to get there. They’ve figured out how to get the edge on everything that moves. And whatever doesn’t no longer matters.
It’s tearing Haskell’s soul to pieces all the same. She doesn’t know how the Manilishi was programmed. She has no idea what was in its file. All she knows is that when AIs go rogue they often decide they’re a damn sight better than the flesh that created them. And when such AIs possess emotional circuits as well, things can get ugly fast.
Things in Seleucus have gotten about as ugly as they can get. The Manilishi has sealed the borders of the sector and turned the infrastructure against the inhabitants. It gained control of those inhabitants who possessed software in abundance, set them up as their neighbors’ executioners.
And the rest of the city could give two shits.
“They’ve all got bigger fish to fry,” says Marlowe.
“What have we unleashed?” says Haskell.
They’re standing on the edge of a market arcade, looking down on more bodies. Some have been run over by out-of-control vehicles. Some have been shot. People lie locked together where they’ve fallen. Some have driven knives into their own hearts.
“I’d have done the same,” she says.
“I wouldn’t,” says Marlowe. “I’d have fought.”
“You wouldn’t have stood a chance, Jason. Your own software would have betrayed you. You’d have had no warning before your eyes melted or your chest blew out. That’s what would happen if I weren’t here to shield us.”
“I’d have fought,” he repeats.
They’re halfway though the arcade when more of the damned break cover. One household robot and two people too wired for their own good. One of the latter’s already wounded—she drags behind while the others race in, get shot down. Marlowe and Haskell turn their guns upon the woman.
“Stop,” screams Haskell.
“Save your breath,” says Marlowe.
He fires, smashing the woman off her feet. She falls on her back, legs kicking. They move past her thrashing flesh. They move out of the arcade and cross through more corridors. They shortcut through empty residences, walk past scenes where whole families have tortured each other to death. Haskell tries to tune it all out. She figures she’s more likely to live longer if she can.
“How much farther?” asks Marlowe.
“We’re almost there.”
They’ve come out onto an enclosed street at the end of which is the temple. The roof above it is the epitome of ornate. The gates on either side lie open. No bodies are in evidence now.
“That’s where it is,” says Haskell.
“So now what? We just walk in?”
“It knows we’re here. We know it’s there. Why the hell not?”
They stride between the open gates and into the temple. The corridors within are bereft of light. There’s no electricity. There’s no zone either, though it was there a moment ago. And it’s still live outside the temple. Haskell can see it dimly, like light through some distant prism. Which can only mean they’ve entered the Manilishi’s domain. They’re right on top of what they’re seeking. They turn a corner and find themselves approaching walls lined with candles.
Something suddenly comes alive in the zone all around them. Haskell feels it enveloping them: she feints, buys herself a moment, reconstitutes her and Marlowe’s shields as the vise closes. She gets in under its guard, turns it back. The inner sanctum of the temple lies straight ahead.
“That’s where it is,” she says on the one-to-one.
“Ten meters,” he replies.
They reach the end of the corridor. They reach a doorway. Marlowe hurls a concussion bomb inside. It practically takes out their eardrums.
They rush within.
T hey’re making all the haste the terrain will allow them. Which isn’t much. Linehan’s gazing down thousands of meters. Spencer’s right up against the side of mountain. The whiteness encloses them on virtually all sides now. They can’t see the top of any of the mountains.
“It’s almost on us,” says Linehan.
Spencer doesn’t reply. He’s maneuvering along a road so narrow it can barely contain his wheels. He’s starting to wonder if he made a wrong turn—if he’s going to have to go through this in reverse too. He rounds another corner.
Only to find that the road forks. One route continues along the mountainside. The other follows an outcropping that juts into the valley below—and continues across that valley in the form of a very unstable-looking bridge that ends in a tunnel. Spencer starts heading for it.
“You sure about this?” says Linehan.
“Not even vaguely.”
“That thing is made of fucking
“If you want to get out and lighten the load, feel free.”
The truck dips alarmingly as it trundles down the bridge—shifts gears as it powers its way up the other side and into the tunnel. Spencer switches on the headlights while they traverse its length—and then they emerge onto the other side and onto another bridge. Only this one’s a little more stable. It ends in another tunnel. As they emerge from that tunnel and onto yet another bridge snow flurries start to swirl around them.
Two bridges later and the flurries are trending toward near-total white. They creep along another mountainside.
“Glad we found that fork before this hit,” says Spencer.
“We’ve almost reached the unoccupied territories,” says Linehan. “The border’s ten klicks away. Shouldn’t we be talking strategy?”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“I’m figuring we’re not just going to show passports and get waved across.”
“We don’t have passports, Linehan. Hate to break it to you, but all we are now is Andean peasants. One of the few forms of life remaining that’s not keyed to IDs in some database.”
“Database be damned,” snarls Linehan. “They don’t need databases when they have all of space to watch you. Every road that leads south is scanned, and you know it. So how are we going to get across that border?”
“We’re going to start,” says Spencer, “by not falling off a fucking cliff. Get out and walk ahead of me.”
“At least that way I’ll be able to see
Linehan opens the door, practically disappears into the white—and then his bulk reappears in front of the truck. He trudges forward. Spencer trundles after him, lets the map of this section of the mountains unfold in his head. The map’s the aggregation of more payoffs than he ever thought he’d have to make. And knowing what map he’d need was the aggregation of even more.
They enter another tunnel. This one’s a little wider than the ones to which they’ve become accustomed. Spencer’s watching the odometer, marking distance. He starts up the one-on-one again.
“Get back in here.”
Linehan stops, sidesteps the truck as it rolls past him, opens the door, swings inside. Spencer drives for another twenty seconds, then swings the truck in toward the tunnel wall, brakes to a halt. Linehan looks at him.
“Now we walk.”
“And leave the truck?”
“Unless you feel like dragging it. Someone will be along to collect it. It’ll look like we just took shelter in here.” He gets out and Linehan follows him. They trudge along the tunnel.
“None of this makes any sense,” says Linehan.
“So much the better,” replies Spencer. He’s been counting off steps. Now he stops at a certain point and starts tapping on the wall. He presses a particular ledge in a certain way and a section of the wall slides away.
“Those look like stairs,” says Linehan.
“They do more than just look.”
They start to descend into the root of the mountain.
The mountains passing beneath the shuttle are as remote as any in this part of the solar system. The Operative watches from the window as they reel by. It’s been an hour since they left Congreve. It’s been half an hour since they got into the thick of these mountains. They’re starting their final approach into Nansen. The Operative sees lights scattered on adjacent hills. He catches a quick glimpse of gun-studded domes. He watches a rail yard spread out beneath them, then disappear as they sail past it. The shuttle turns sharply: all the Operative can see is a rocky slope that looks to be the final resting place for shuttles whose pilots get a little too careless as they make their landing. The slope gives way to a massive platform. The shuttle settles down upon it.
“Check seals,” says a voice.
But everybody already has. And even as the shuttle powers down, its doors are opening and suited SpaceCom marines are piling through them. The Operative gets in on that crush. The platform onto which they’re all emerging juts out of a larger hangar that’s cut into the mountainside. The lights atop the mountain’s summit are dimly visible far above. And yet even this platform’s far higher than most of the mountain-tops around it. It makes for quite a view.
“Don’t just stand there,” says the voice.
The squad forms up behind the sergeant, moves in casual formation into the hangar. Small craft are everywhere—on the floors, hanging from the ceiling, along the walls. Mechanics are working many of them over. Adorning the entirety of the far wall are the moon and eagle that comprise the SpaceCom insignia.
“Move it,” says the voice.
They’re making their way into the cages of freight elevators set beneath that insignia. Grilled doors slide shut. The Operative counts levels as they descend. He sees in his mind’s eye his position within the mountain.
The elevator stops and the marines head out the open doors, transition through an airlock. But no sooner has he stepped past that airlock than the Operative finds the squad’s sergeant standing in his way.
“You,” he says.
“Sir,” says the Operative.
“You’re wanted in level control.”
“At once, sir.”
The Operative proceeds through several barracks, moves through the corridors beyond them. Marines challenge him on more than one occasion but he somehow finds that he’s always got the requisite IDs. Finally he arrives at a door that’s at the end of one of the farther corridors. Guns mounted in the wall around it triangulate on him. A voice challenges him.
But then the door opens.
And shuts behind the Operative as he goes through into a room that’s lined along three walls by consoles. A fourth wall is sliced through by a window that seems to look down upon the level below. Three persons are in that room. None wear suits. All are officers. They regard the suited Operative. They look puzzled.
“How the fuck did you get in?” asks one.
“Orders, sir,” replies the Operative. “Here’s my clearance.”
A gas bereft of color and smell sprays from valves set along his shoulders. The men convulse. The Operative puts a bullet in the back of each of their heads for good measure. He goes to work on the comps. He enters the codes.
“Proceed to Elevator H3,” says the voice of Stefan Lynx.
The Operative says nothing. For a moment he looks out the window—the room is set almost at the ceiling of a massive cavern whose floor is a chaos of rails, digging equipment, and tunnels. He turns back to the consoles, types more keystrokes. He hits execute. The door slides open. He goes through, proceeds from there to what’s designated as H3 on the map in his head. A suited marine stands before the elevator door. The Operative flashes clearance.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” says the soldier.
“It means I get to use this elevator,” replies the Operative.
“This elevator’s restricted to the brass.”
“I got a battlefield promotion,” says the Operative and suddenly pivots forward, plunging a knife into the man’s visor. All of the myriad tiny blades that comprise that knife are whirring at high velocity as they sear through visor, skull, helmet, and the elevator door behind. The man jerks as his blood streams down the Operative’s arm; the Operative’s arm jerks with him. He pulls the knife out, lets the suited figure flop onto the floor, drags the body into a nearby storeroom. He enters the elevator and the door shuts behind him.
As the elevator trundles downward, the Operative’s thinking furiously. He knows that Lynx and Sarmax have either entered the base by now or the entire mission’s blown. He has no idea how they were planning to gain entry. He’s not supposed to know. He’s the spearhead of the entire operation—with Sarmax acting both as handler and second mech and Lynx providing tactical coordination and on-the-spot zone coverage. To have razor, mech, and handler in physical proximity on the same run is highly unusual. But the team now hitting Nansen never had much patience for procedure. It’s been many years since they did the runs together. Yet somehow it seems like no time has passed at all.
The elevator stops. The doors open. The Operative emerges, moves down the corridor thus revealed, cycles through another airlock. He encounters more marines, but no one challenges him. He hears Lynx’s voice once more.
“Change up,” it says. “Alter route as follows.”
The Operative tries to envision Lynx’s calculations. The garrison of the Third Marines has set up three levels of defense. The Operative breached the outer perimeter when he landed. He snuck through the inner perimeter by way of Elevator H3. Now he’s down in the core of the operations. All that’s left to hit is the inner enclave. And Lynx is making last-second changes to better enable its penetration.
The Operative reaches another doorway. He looks out on a large cave that looks to be an offshoot of the cavern he glimpsed from the control room. Steps lead down from the door in which he’s standing to a floor where walkway crosses rails. The Operative heads down to the walkway, crosses toward a train that’s moving silently in toward him—but he stops as it picks up steam. He lets it rumble by, beholds scores of suited miners staring down at him. He stares up at their visored faces—watches as those faces give way to equipment and cargo and finally to nothing. Tail-lights flicker red as the train moves farther down that tunnel.
The Operative’s already moving—over rails that are still quivering with vibration and through a doorway cut into the far wall. He goes through another airlock. Scarcely has he come out its other side than lights begin to flash. A siren starts up. The voice of Stefan Lynx echoes in his helmet once again.
“We’re rumbled. Kill everything you see and don’t stop killing until we’ve won.”
The Operative hits his suit’s thrusters.
T he inner sanctum of the Kanheri Temple of Great Peace is vacant save for an altar. The banners hung from the ceiling have been torn by the blast that’s just rocked the chamber.
“Where the fuck is it?” yells Marlowe. He’s got his guns out.
“I don’t fucking know,” screams Haskell. She opens up on the altar, destroys it in a barrage of explosive rounds. In the zone she catches a glimpse of some presence receding.
“It’s running,” she says.
“Then so are we.”
They start to race down the corridor. They leap bodies, sprint around corners. They charge through what’s left of the temple. Even now they don’t lose their formation. They’re on guard against the oldest gambit of them all—when the hunted doubles back on hunter. So Marlowe leads and Haskell covers him, covers the zone too. She can see nothing at all. But she knows full well that something’s there. Something that’s gone lights out and hell for leather. Something that couldn’t be that far ahead of them…
“We’re out of the temple now,” says Marlowe.
“Some kind of back entrance,” confirms Haskell.
One that’s sloping down. They’re dropping well below the level of the Seleucus Flats now.
“Are you sure this is the way it went?” asks Marlowe.
“It’s right ahead of us,” she says.
She can’t see it on the zone. But she knows it’s right there. She fires on long-range. Tracers streak past Marlowe, explode in the depths of the tunnel. The walls around them shake.
“Easy,” says Marlowe.
“Goddamn it,” mutters Haskell.
She keeps expecting to stumble upon its smoking wreckage, keeps waiting for it to leap from the very rock around them. But it’s not going out easy. She knows it’s got special powers. But as to how those manifest in tactical combat situations, she can only guess. She detects a heat signature farther down the tunnel. It’s moving away quickly.
“Thrusters,” says Haskell.
“Must be,” replies Marlowe.
They ignite their own, give chase. If they’re heading into a trap, they could be in a precarious position. But they’ve got no choice. They’re ready for anything. But nothing moves save the shadows cast by their own flames. The heat signature in front of them is very faint. As is the zone presence. They’re pursuing it as fast as they dare.
“Where the fuck are we?” says Marlowe.
“Well below the Flats now,” she replies.
Somewhere in the depths of the rest of city. And now that city’s all around her, writhing amidst the distortions of its zone: reports of what’s going on in Seleucus mixed in with plagues now loose in the central sectors shot through with fevered rants about Armageddon and impending war and how the last days are now upon us. She catches glimpses of nightclubs where the youth of HK dance themselves into an oblivion thrust upon them far too early. She sees mobs in full riot—watches as explosions blast across them, drop them in their tracks. She overloads herself on all those images. She keeps rushing deeper, keeps urging Marlowe forward.
Finally the route they’re traversing starts taking them beyond the city’s confines. The city’s sounds are starting to fade on all their screens. They’re approaching sea level and still they’ve seen no other way out of this tunnel.
“Some escape route,” says Marlowe.
“I’m not sure what I’d call this,” replies Haskell.
They’re accelerating. By Haskell’s reckoning they’re out beyond the coastline now. Ocean lies above them. They keep on questing forward, leaving the shore behind.
But they turn off their thrusters when a door comes into sight. They move carefully toward it. As Marlowe presses up against one side, Haskell covers him. Marlowe pivots, opens the door.
“Interesting,” he says.
They’re looking at a corridor that’s filled with equipment: ladders, metal pipes. As they move into the corridor, they notice that the door through which they’ve come is invisible from this side. They hear a rumbling somewhere up ahead.
“The geothermals,” says Haskell.
“Must be,” breathes Marlowe.
They creep into the infrastructure that harnesses the product of the friction of the fault lines off New Guinea. They’re proceeding very carefully now. Any heat would just get lost in the shuffle down here. What they’re looking for could be anywhere.
But Haskell picks it up on the zone all the same. It’s moving in toward the farside of the complex. If it had any sense, it would have severed all access with the zone altogether at some point during the pursuit. Unless it’s arrogant enough to believe it can’t be tracked. Or it’s sowing a false trail. Or…
“It wants us to follow,” she says.
“You hadn’t figured that out yet.”
“What choice do we have?”
“What choice indeed?”
“It’s speeding up.”
It’s moving out beyond the complex. She has no idea where it’s going, but can see quite clearly that it’s picking up the pace. And now she and Marlowe are doing the same—racing through the machinery that’s busy feeding power to all the chaos now raging far behind. The place isn’t small. It takes them almost ten minutes to get to the farside—and another five minutes to find the hole in the back of the disused chamber that leads…
“Due north,” says Haskell. “Straight out to sea.”
“Let’s do it,” says Marlowe.
They proceed down the new tunnel, firing their thrusters intermittently. But mostly they’re just walking now. The tunnel around them is starting to change. Metal replaces stone. Plastic replaces metal. They transition into a corridor once more.
Only this one’s different. It’s much more cramped. They can hear the hum of a power source around them. And soon they can discern insignias on the walls and ceiling.
“Do you recognize those?” asks Haskell.
“Indian military,” replies Marlowe.
“Why not? They used to own this.”
Back when India mattered. Back before the Coalition crushed her. Long time gone now—even though she used to have such reach. Several kilometers off the coast of New Guinea: that’s where one of her limbs got severed. That’s where one lies forgotten.
“What are we
“Legacy,” replies Marlowe. “The Indian Republic maintained mobile underwater fortresses. Like any naval power. Apparently one got buried off the coast of New Guinea. And here we are.”
“And here’s where the Manilishi’s waiting for us,” says Haskell.
“Along with its masters,” he replies.
She nods. They keep moving.
T he stairs end in a tunnel. They start making haste along it, moving due south now. They advance through into what looks to be a natural cave, transition back into another tunnel. Their lights play along the walls, ceiling.
“This should take us beyond the border,” says Spencer.
“This being what?”
“These are smugglers’ tunnels.”
“Yeah? Smuggling what?”
“Mostly drugs. But sometimes humans.”
“And you hooked up with these guys how?”
“Bit of a six degrees of separation thing,” says Spencer.
“Yeah. The border’s honeycombed with this shit. Some of it was dug during the wars across the last thirty years. Some of it’s much older. Some of it was here all along.”
“And the Americans don’t know about this?”
“They know that this kind of stuff goes on, sure. Tunnels under borders aren’t exactly new. But they haven’t found them all. They’re concentrating on the ones they’ve linked to Jaguar activity. As for the others: a little bit of merchandise, a little bit of traffic—who cares? Border units don’t exactly command top-drawer salaries. Sometimes everybody can win.”
“Do you think we’re winning now, Spencer?”
“We will be if we can make it another four fucking kilometers.”
But now the passage intersects with another one that’s set against it at a right angle. Spencer looks left, then right. Then at the wall in front of them.
“What’s wrong?” asks Linehan.
“What’s wrong is that this isn’t supposed to be here. We were supposed to go straight on through. There’s not supposed to be an intersection here.”
“Looks like you’ve been misinformed.”
“We’re turning left.”
“Have it your way.”
They turn left. Another quarter-klick and the passage grows wider. It seems noticeably older. The ceiling seems to have some kind of glaze on it. Carvings start to appear on the walls—abstract shapes and patterns. The passage bends south again.
“Guess this was the right choice,” says Spencer.
The tunnel grows even wider. The carvings are starting to become noticeably less abstract. They’re stylized animals: llamas, birds, crocodiles.
“This doesn’t look modern,” says Linehan.
“Evidently not,” replies Spencer.
The passage widens still farther, broadens out into a gallery. A massive pedestal sits on the far end. Two massive chairs sit atop that pedestal. Stone figures sit within those chairs. The walls and ceiling are alive with images—animals bearing swords, humans wearing headdresses, stars emitting radiance….
“I don’t see a way out of here,” says Spencer.
“Maybe behind the thrones,” replies Linehan.
They move in toward them. They eye the figures atop them. They realize something.
“They’re jaguars,” mutters Spencer.
“This was the wrong turn.”
“Stay calm,” says Spencer.
“I am calm.”
“You don’t sound it.”
“You’ve set me up. You’ve fucked us both.”
“It’s just fucking
“Flesh too,” says a voice.
It’s coming from the ceiling. They raise their guns toward it.
“Those won’t help you,” says the voice.
They start putting rounds into the ceiling. But even as they do there’s a flash from somewhere behind them. Something smashes into Linehan. For a moment his whole body seems to light up. Sparks chase themselves across him. He pitches to the ground. Spencer stares at Linehan’s twitching body.
And drops his weapon.
“A wise choice,” says the voice. “Turn around.”
Spencer turns. Silhouettes suddenly start to materialize at the gallery’s entrance—camouflaged armor losing the hues of the terrain against which it’s set. Spencer stares at the four power-suits that are now advancing toward him—stares, too, at the green cat-skull painted on the side of each helmet.
“The Jaguars,” he says.
“Your death,” says the voice.
But the oblivion into which the next blow propels him doesn’t last nearly long enough.
The Operative blasts down the corridor, throwing all caution to the wind. He rounds a corner, sees a door up ahead—sends rockets from his shoulders roaring in to make contact. There’s an explosion. The door disappears. The Operative charges into the checkpoint within to find those who’d been manning that post smeared along the walls. He roars on through into the larger room beyond it. The marines within are clearly having trouble with their suits. The Operative doesn’t need to guess why: he weaves through them, tosses a charge onto the chamber’s ceiling, keeps going—gets another five seconds down a new hall before the room that he’s just left erupts. He speeds up, rounds a corner—sees massive blast doors sliding shut at the corridor’s other end. He accelerates toward them, starts firing. But even as he does, the doors stop moving—they come to a halt and he hurtles straight in between them, careens into the two marines on the other side, knocks them sprawling against the walls, riddles them at point-blank range.
The doors slam shut behind him. The screens on his heads-up show him that he’s almost reached the inner enclave. The sirens have ceased. There’s an explosion somewhere close at hand. The corridor around him shakes.
“Cauterize,” says Lynx’s voice.
The Operative cuts off wireless access. Lynx can no longer reach him. Neither can anybody else. Lynx has just given the razor’s signal that he’s in danger of imminent capture. If that occurs, the mech is toast unless all connections have been severed. The Operative knows that if Sarmax is still alive, he’s received a similar missive. He knows that the whole thing’s hanging by a thread. He crosses through rooms full of laboratory equipment, charges through a large chamber where mining engines and drills lie disassembled. He heads on through into another corridor. He rounds another corner.
And comes face-to-face with Sarmax.
And almost shoots him. Almost gets shot himself. Sarmax waves his hands frantically. They establish the one-on-one.
“Lynx is down,” says Sarmax. “Matthias is here. Let’s take him.”
The Operative nods. Both men ignite their thrusters. They keep on fighting their way forward. They keep on carrying all before them. Lynx’s real-time adjustments have affected thrusts into the inner enclave in two places, followed by a linkup. Only problem is that Lynx himself has been cut out of the picture. And the base’s defenses are starting to come back online. Doors start to shut in their face. Guns start to pop out of the walls. Floors open up beneath their feet.
But the two men keep on moving toward the enclave. Not the false one that the place shows on its schematics. The real one that Lynx’s hacking has found. They cut their way through the adjacent chambers—through a room in which they catch marines frantically setting up heavy weapons, through a door so thick that the charge they use almost brings down the roof: through obstacle after obstacle until the Operative’s mind is a blur of noise and flame and reflex and there’s nothing in the universe save him and Sarmax and the ones they’re killing. They’re splitting up now for the final assault. The Operative is coming in the front door while Sarmax moves in from a side corridor. It’s going like clockwork.
And then an explosion tosses the Operative like a doll into the air. Another follows—so powerful it rips through several adjacent corridors. Walls tear like tissue paper even as the Operative strikes what’s left of them. He smells his own flesh burning. He can’t see Sarmax anywhere. All he can see is marines swarming in toward him from every direction. He opens fire on them. Something sears in toward him.
His world goes dark.
Light’s everywhere. Wavelengths bombard them from all directions on all spectrums. Their suits are being scrambled. Their systems are going haywire. They can’t see a thing.
“Show yourself,” screams Haskell.
“We’re right here,” replies a woman’s voice.
Haskell feels something slam against her. She totters. Something stabs her through her suit. She topples. She feels her body going numb. She’s being lifted off her feet. She’s murmuring curses. Her helmet’s being pulled off. Someone’s hands touch her forehead. Someone’s lips kiss her on the cheek.
“Christ we’ve missed you,” says that voice.
Memory crashes down upon her.