Sneak Preview! (Rough Cut of Episode Six: Chapter One)

T Minus: 009 Days 22 Hours 40 Minutes 01 Seconds

 

Maria’s eyes flinched at the semi’s ear-piercing beeps but the woman remained still, arms crossed, even as the scratched and dented bumper backed right toward her without slowing. Nothing wavered. Nothing was out of place: her hair, pulled taut; her make-up, blending away the blemishes of age; her Chanel suit, white with black trim; her matching heels; her determined gaze.

Twelve inches from her face, the truck stopped with a shudder and the rear door rolled back into the ceiling.

Maria scanned the occupants. “Where are Heinrich and Tobias?”

Psyphire cursed in surprise as she hopped down to the loading dock. “Gone. Heinrich is a vegetable. After the Tobias-construct reconnected to the hive, he took his brother’s body and left.”

Maria watched a small group of uniformed men climb into the back to unload the single cargo container strapped to the floor inside. Other than that, the vehicle was empty. “Did it seem suspicious?”

Psyphire thought. “Maybe. A little. Why?”

“The network connection to MODUS was severed nine hours ago. From the other end. It seems the hive mind is no longer honoring our agreement. And now the Wisper is on the loose. Again. Thanks to you. You wanted to be in charge. And you got it. Your ambition, your sense of entitlement, has always surpassed your competence. Just out of curiosity, Veronika, is there any way you could have failed more completely?”

Psyphire pressed her lips together and indulged visions of setting her elder on fire. The woman looked so smug. In her $10,000 Chanel. “We captured one of them.” She motioned to the steel coffin the men were lowering from the back.

“Captured?” Maria let out a laugh. “Open it up,” she ordered. “I want to see him.”

“Here?” Psyphire looked around at the wide-open bay. There were workers everywhere.

Maria waited with arms crossed as the soldiers, mostly local Chinese, turned the heavy contraption with a powered lift and lowered it to the ground.

“You’re good at what you do, Veronika. But you think you’re the best. And you’re not.” But you could be.

“So you have explained, over and over, since I was seventeen.”

Maria pointed to the coffin. “You found him idling on an overpass in the middle of rush hour where any of a hundred people in our network easily spotted him. You didn’t capture anyone. Zero. None. This man turned himself in.” Maria turned to the coffin as the last inch-thick screw was removed. “The question is why. I don’t suppose he’s said anything.”

Psyphire, scowling, shook her head.

The men lifted the lid of the coffin and set it aside. Maria looked at the prisoner. Half his body was burned. One arm and both legs were severely atrophied. They had found him in a wheelchair. Barricade had shot it out from under him so he would be trapped and unable to flee. Apparently he couldn’t even walk. Now he was held tight in form-fitting white foam, a new kind of plastic that turned rigid when heated even slightly, such as from the warmth of a human body.

But his head was free and was covered in some kind of metal brace, like a thin helmet of crisscrossing bars. There were electrodes underneath and a clear plastic visor covering his face. He was awake. He looked at her.

He didn’t seem like much. But—amazingly—she recognized him. Maria’s lips pursed. “I know this man.” She scowled. Where was it?

Psyphire looked confused. “You’re joking.”

Maria touched the prisoner’s skin. Her powers had all but faded. She couldn’t sense people like she used to, but sometimes—

Malaysia. She nodded. The soldier from Malaysia. He had touched her. On a plane. When they brought Adevyi. “Once upon a time, this man brought us Deadbolt,” she explained matter-of-factly. “And just like God, what he giveth he also taketh away.”

The prisoner didn’t respond.

“I don’t suppose you want to tell me why you turned yourself in?”

The man in the foam-lined coffin just looked at her.

“You should know, there’s a man downstairs. An Armenian, who’s family has been in a very particular business for several hundred years, at least back to Suleiman the Magnificent. Recently he was working for the Syrians. That’s where the CIA got him. He’s on loan to us. He’s supposedly a master with a dentist’s drill. Not someone you want asking you questions.”

Still nothing.

Maria scowled. She nodded to the waiting soldiers, who lifted the lid back onto the coffin and screwed it in place. She watched them haul it away, down to the detention level.

“What’s on his head?”

Psyphire stiffened again. It wasn’t a polite question. It sounded more like an accusation. “Something from Research. We found out the hard way that giving everyone around him a quantum scrambler creates too many points of failure.”

“Jesus, that should have been obvious from the beginning, Veronika. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You were overconfident. You got Megan killed, lost our most prized asset, and started a war with the Vorgýrim Supremacy, all at the same time.”

Psyphire swallowed hard.

Bitch.

Maria pictured the man’s helmet in her head. “It keeps him from traveling.”

The firestarter said nothing.

Maria turned. She ignored Psyphire’s red, fuming face. “Well?”

“Da. I wouldn’t have brought him here without securing him first.” Not five minutes and already she was a teenager again, getting defensive.

“You’re sure it works? Did you even bother to test it?”

“Why do you think he just lies there? Because he’s a nice man?”

Maria looked at the bruises on Psyphire’s face, the ones she was trying to cover with makeup. “Hit you hard, did he? Good. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

Psyphire walked toward the entrance to the dam complex at the back of the long hangar. Thick colored lines painted on the floor directed the workers: blue for food and medicine, yellow for arms and ammunition, green-lined thruways, and red zones to avoid at all costs.

“Where’s Artemis?”

Psyphire turned but didn’t answer. She didn’t have to. He’d run.

“And Scarab?”

Psyphire didn’t have to answer that either. She chased. Probably with orders to kill.

Maria pressed her lips together. Deadbolt. Brickbat. Malady. Now Barricade. Special Assets, everything she built, was falling apart. Almost as if someone had planned—

There was a ruckus across the open courtyard, at the front gate—some shouting and the growing rumble of a motorcade.

Maria looked at Psyphire. “Make sure the prisoner is secured in the holding facility.” Then she walked to a set of metal stairs in a high wall and ascended to the deck overlooking the courtyard from the upper level. As she emerged from the heavy door, painted red, she glanced at the guard tower overhead. The 70mm guns were silent, and that could mean only one thing. The Chairman had arrived for his inspection.

Maria knew it was coming, although it was officially unscheduled. It was supposed to be a surprise. And in a way it was. She thought he would travel with a small retinue, like a businessman, to avoid suspicion. But as she watched the front gate slide open and a parade of military vehicles enter the courtyard, her stomach started to sink.

Fast.

Not least because Thierry, network engineer and the facility’s chief technician, was already waiting on the upper deck. What did he know?

“What is this?” she asked. But she knew exactly what it was. It was an army. Chinese, judging by the uniforms. And not just men, but weapons and ammunition and provisions stacked in boxes in the back of trucks. And she knew exactly what it meant. She forced herself not to look at the man next to her.

Maria swallowed hard.

So it had come to this. A fucking coup.

She looked at her watch. Unless she found a way out, she had maybe an hour to live. One hour.

Tops.

She was about to turn for the double doors at the back of the deck when a heavy truck pulled through the main gate hauling a flatbed trailer. On the back, a large, oblong machine strobed in irregular pulsing circles. A series of eight vertical rings—giant electromagnets, it seemed—were keeping something contained inside a heavy central chamber. The entire contraption had been spray-painted with a black fiberglass anti-corrosive, and it gave the appearance of a giant dragon, coiled and restrained against its will.

Maria’s mind immediately flashed back to her computer screen and a seemingly innocuous email she had received a couple weeks earlier—one of hundreds she had gotten that day and the fifth that week from a colleague in Research. It was a request. Not all that unusual for the scientists in the organization. They had wanted something. For testing.

As the truck rumbled across the tarmac below and pulled into the wide hangar to her left, Maria could just make out the warning painted in white on the side.

 

DANGER

300 MEGAVOLTS

 

They had requested a dead body. One of her team. Technically they didn’t need her permission, but given the subject, they did her the honor of asking. And she gave it to them.

Deadbolt’s body.

What was Chairman Benet up to?

But there was no time for curiosity now. No time for anything but getting out alive.

Start with her advantages. What were they? She’d hired most of the senior on-site staff. She knew who would lean when pushed.

And who would jump ship.

She turned to Thierry. “See to it they get what they need. I’ll be in the control room preparing for the inspection.” She started walking.

“You’re leaving?”

Maria stopped and turned. “Are you saying you’re not competent to handle”—she waved to the chaos below as the private army settled into the courtyard—”all this?”

Thierry was French Algerian, tall, thin, under 30, ambitious, a gifted network engineer, a competent manager, and a snake.

He didn’t answer. He just looked at her.

Maria kept walking. When she was through the doors and around the corner, she picked up the pace and pulled out her phone. She dialed the control room—one technician in particular.

A young Chinese woman with a round face filled the screen.

“Open a secure channel, please.”

There was a pause.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. I mean, we’ve just been ordered to go on security lock down.” The young woman pointed off screen.

Maria looked at the technician’s name tag and pretended like she didn’t know exactly who she was talking to. “Ming, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am. We met at—”

“Who is the director of this facility?”

“You are, ma’am.”

“Don’t you think I know we’re on secure lock down?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So if I’m asking for an outside channel, it must be an emergency, mustn’t it?”

The technician didn’t know what to say.

Maria leaned closer to the screen. She whispered. “Open the fucking channel or I will personally feed you to the creature in Storage Bay 6.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Maria tapped her phone screen, disconnecting the intercom and connecting her phone to the secure port that appeared in her com settings. As she stepped into the central corridor, she routed the connection through her personal server, which would buy her a little more time. Even after her order to open the line was countermanded, they would have to do a little digging to find her. Then she hit the contact entry for

 

Martin, Justin

Asset Code: PREACHER

 

Maria looked at the clock on the wall as she flagged a four-wheeled electric people mover. The countdown—the final countdown—ticked to its conclusion. What was Anders planning?

It took all her control not to run.

She shooed the driver and sole passenger out of the mover with a scowl as the phone rang twice. Then she drove down the long, seemingly unending hall as fast as the small cart would go.

A voice answered. “I thought you might call.”

Justin. Maria sighed. “What’s going on there? Are you okay?”

“My good friend Amir is here.” Justin was sarcastic. “In my office. It seems I’ve been locked out of the prison.”

Amir Rizage. Asset Code: KILOBITE. That was smart. Justin’s voice wouldn’t work on him. Maria could tell the young man was worried. He realized what was happening. “Can you get out of there?”

There was a pause. “I don’t know.”

He couldn’t say with Kilobite close by.

“All I know is, the good people of Mountain Hide have a lot of faith in God. Let’s hope it’s enough.”

He was counting on the townsfolk. He must have prepared a way out. At least he had an exit plan. She had taught him that much.

Maria looked at the clock on her phone and turned a corner as a pair of passing technicians whispered and looked at her. “Take care of yourself.” She crushed the thought that she might never see him again.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about me. I have a few friends left.”

“Come on now. You can’t fake that tone with me. I’m the master of voices, remember?”

When Justin spoke again, Maria’s heart fluttered.

“Mom.” He was calm. But plaintive. “Be careful.”

“I’ll see you soon.” Maria hung up.

She looked at the phone. The secure port was still open. Probably not for long.

“WAIT!” Maria brought the mover to a halt and ran for the closing elevator. One woman inside held the door open for her.

“Out.” Maria ordered.

The woman seemed hurt that her kindness had been repaid so, but she complied, and Maria hit the button for the Rec level. She brought up her contact list and tapped another entry.

 

MODUS

Encrypted Relay Node

 

A pull-down menu appeared and offered her a choice of 73 alphanumeric relays. Maria scrolled to the very end and picked ‘Other.’ A box expanded and filled her screen. There was a blinking cursor but no prompt. MODUS had several hidden nodes. To access them, you had first to know they existed, and second, to type the appropriate code. One mistake and your device would be locked out permanently.

Maria hoped Modus hadn’t closed the special port she’d requested when they made their arrangement. She typed the password and, after a brief pause, a second text prompt appeared on her screen—a blinking cursor in front of the greater than sign: a command line. She was in. If the port had been disabled, her phone would have given her an error message.

The elevator opened and Maria did her best to type as she walked.

 

I KNOW YOU CAN SEE THIS

 

FUCKING ANSWER

 

A response appeared after a brief pause. That meant the hive mind—in those microseconds—had had a big discussion with itself on whether or not she deserved to be acknowledged.

 

MARIA. MODUS IS PLEASED TO SEE YOU ARE

STILL ALIVE.

NO THANKS TO YOU. WE HAD AN

AGREEMENT.

 

THE FUGITIVES’ ESCAPE IN NEW JERSEY ALTERED

THE PROBABILITY FUNCTION IN UNEXPECTED

WAYS.

 

IS THAT YOUR WAY OF SAYING

YOU GOT CAUGHT WITH YOUR

PANTS DOWN LIKE THE REST OF

US?

 

There was another pause.

 

THE WISPER CONFOUNDED US ALL. WE CURRENTLY

ESTIMATE THERE IS LESS THAN A 12% PROBABILITY

THAT VERONIKA AND HER TEAM WILL SURVIVE.

 

AND YOU DIDN’T THINK TO WARN

ME??? WE HAD A DEAL. NOT WITH

THE ORGANIZATION. WITH ME.

 

AND WE HONORED IT.

YOU WILL RECALL OUR DEAL WAS CONTINGENT

ON 17 EXPLICIT EXCEPTIONS, SECOND OF WHICH

WAS THAT MODUS ITSELF WOULD NOT BE IN

MORTAL DANGER.

WHEN

THE PRISONER ESCAPED, THE PROBABILITY

FUNCTION ALTERED AND IT BECAME LIKELY

THAT FACTIONS WITHIN YOUR ORGANIZATION

WOULD USE THE FAILURE AS A WEDGE TO

GAIN CONTROL. AS THEY HAD BEFORE.

FOR SUCH A COUP TO SUCCEED, OPPOSITION

MUST BE ELIMINATED. OUR ALLIANCE WITH

YOU THUS PUT MODUS IN DANGER AND THE

AGREEMENT WAS IMMEDIATELY ABROGATED.

ALL TIES TO YOUR ORGANIZATION HAVE BEEN

SEVERED.

THEN WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO

ME?

 

THIS LINE IS SECURE. AND

There was nothing.

 

AND????

 

SENTIMENT. PURE HUMAN SENTIMENT. MUCH

OF MODUS WAS UNEXPECTEDLY PLEASED TO

HEAR FROM YOU.

They thought she was already dead.

 

I NEED A WAY OUT OF HERE.

 

ALPHA SITE WAS BUILT TO BE IMPREGNABLE

TO ALL KNOWN FORMS OF INTRUSION AND

WARFARE, INCLUDING NUCLEAR ATTACK.

Maria had worked with the hive mind for many years, and although its personality had often shifted slightly, presumably as component-members died or new ones were brought on, one thing was always constant.

 

ARE YOU SAYING MODUS ISN’T CLEVER

ENOUGH TO DISCERN A DESIGN FLAW?

 

Another pause.

 

THERE ARE FOUR EXITS. THE FIRST IS

THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR.

ANDERS HAS THE CHINESE ARMY

OUT FRONT.

 

KOREAN. WE ARE AWARE.

THE SECOND IS THROUGH THE DAM

SLUICEWAYS. THE PRESSURE WOULD CRUSH

YOUR BODY, AND EVEN IF YOU SURVIVED,

YOU WOULD HIT THE RIVER AT 16 m/sec AND

DROWN ON IMPACT.

FINE. SO NOT THAT.

 

ONE MOMENT

Maria stopped walking. MODUS might have discerned a threat. She stood behind a corner across from the glass-walled hydroponics garden and fretted through four seconds of silence.

 

YOUR ORGANIZATION IS ATTEMPTING TO CLOSE

THIS LINE. MODUS IS KEEPING IT OPEN.

TO CONTINUE:

THERE IS A VERTICAL MAINTENANCE DUCT IN

THE ROOF OF THE PARTICLE GENERATOR,

BUT IT EXITS DIRECTLY ABOVE, ON THE

PLATFORM AT THE END OF THE CONCRETE

PIER. ABOVE THE PARTICLE GENERATOR.

IN THE LAKE.

I KNOW IT

 

THE ROOF OF THE DAM IS BARREN. THERE IS NO

COVER. YOU WOULD BE TRAPPED BETWEEN THE

LAKE AND THE SPILLWAY.

WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST GO RIGHT

TO THE FOURTH???

 

BECAUSE MODUS WILL LET YOU CHOOSE

YOUR OWN DESTINY. THE FINAL EXIT IS

FROM THE ARMORY.

Shit. Of course. The Armory was built to house all the strange and unusual weapons the organization manufactured or collected, many of which were unsafe or simply unstable. It was, as yet, mostly empty—the weapons weren’t set to be collected from Sweden for another two weeks—but it hardly mattered. The whole room was a thick was a metal cube on gear-tracks. It could be ejected into the river and carried downstream with the push of a button.

But the Armory was back the other way.

 

CAN YOU SEVER THE CONNECTION TO

THE CONTROL ROOM? PUT IT ON

LOCAL CONTROL?

 

IT IS ALREADY DONE. MODUS CAN DO NO

MORE. YOU WILL NOT HEAR FROM US AGAIN.

 

The text box disappeared, along with the secure connection.

She was on her own.

“Nice talking to you, too.” Maria looked up to a squad of three guard approaching from the end of the hall. They pointed as she ducked into the stairwell. The last thing she saw before she scampered down the metal staircase was the men drawing their sidearms, which answered the biggest question on her mind: whether or not the kill order had already been given.

Except for a handful of people, Maria couldn’t be sure who would remain loyal to her. But then, neither could the other side. Anders and his people would move as quickly as possible, but they would be cautious. And methodical. The lack of exits meant they had time and it was better for them to proceed slowly, room-by-room, lest she slip through their net in a rushed confusion. That gave her a little time. And Maria had the home field advantage. She had spent the last several years chairing the planning committee that oversaw the design and construction of Alpha Site. More than that, she had spent the last several months in a direct management role, gradually becoming familiar with every detail of the facility, every unexpected difficulty, every compromise solution. And a construction project of this scale had plenty of those.

She knew, for example, that there had been a minor explosion in the early stages of construction that damaged one of the interior retaining walls, and that in the interests of staying on schedule, since the damage was structurally negligible, one corner of it—that facing a men’s room on the Rec level—was patched with nothing but drywall.

Maria exited the stairwell and pulled the fire alarm. It wouldn’t be global—the entire compound had been built in sealable sections to prevent global catastrophe—and it wouldn’t last long since every system was connected to the control room, who would shut it down after a moment. And of course, pulling it gave her exact location away.

But in the half-minute or so it was active, it did it’s job. Workers cleared the hall and headed for the exits, which would slow her pursuers down. Maria moved from a storage closet into the men’s room, now vacant. She entered the last stall, took off her heels, and used the point of her shoes to hack through the dry wall at the back. She was in the crawlspaces—largely void of cameras—before the guards could complete their room-by-room sweep of the gym, locker rooms, and spacious pool and court facilities.

Maria looked up at the narrow, dim space above her. Tubes and piping ran along concrete in every direction. And it was a loooong climb. The Armory was in Section Two, Level 12, roughly a third of the way back toward the front. There was a security camera at a T-junction several floors up, and Maria made sure she was seen ripping it from the wall. That, plus MODUS’s meddling with the Armory subsystems—assuming Thierry and his team were smart enough to check for intrusions once they realized she had opened the port—would establish that as her presumed exit. With any luck, that would keep her adversaries focused on Section Two as she made the long trek along the particle array to the still-inoperable generator deep under the lake.

Somewhere under all that water was the quantum particle generator—the key to the Founders’ plan. In a matter of days, after numerous additional tests, the massive arms would finally begin spinning. For good. But now they were silent as Maria worked her way between the spherical subterranean chamber and the facility’s heavy outer wall, built to withstand an attack from both above and below—even from everyone’s favorite tunneling Neanderthal bloodsuckers.

Maria opened the hatch and looked up the vertical shaft. It went on further than she could see, straight up through the lake to a platform at the surface.

She sighed.

She climbed in and sealed the hatch behind her, and as she ascended the ladder, hand over hand, she wondered again why this tube had even been built. It had been added late, ostensibly to stabilize the generator room—a shielded, vacuum-filled spherical chamber—in case of seismic activity. But the tube was hollow. And one of the junior architects had mentioned that in any earthquake large enough to shake the complex, such a hollow tube wouldn’t offer much additional stability.

She stopped to tear the skirt of her suit. After several tugs, it split along the black seam, making it easier for her to move her legs. Then she resumed the long climb. She chipped a nail, then two. Not that it mattered. It just highlighted for her how much easier everything would be if she weren’t burdened with such ridiculous, impractical clothing.

After a small eternity, a nearly-sprained back, and calloused hands that would soon sprout blisters, Maria opened the hatch at the top, barely an inch, and peered out. There was nothing—just the drab concrete “pier” a few feet above the water that connected the platform at the top of the tube with the wall of the dam ahead. She could hear the roar of the water in the distance.

Maria climbed out. The sun was shining. It was hot, but not oppressively so. All in all, a beautiful day.

It wasn’t until she turned and dropped the hatch that she saw Anders standing behind her.

She jumped back and the hatch fell shut with a clang.

He was alone. But he was . . .

A monster.

Scarred. Hairless. And wearing some kind of dark maroon bodysuit.

Maria’s head dropped. She put a hand to her face.

Dammit.

“The Armory would have been a better choice,” he explained in a low voice. “But then, you always were very clever.”

Apparently not enough, she thought. “You look different.” The bodysuit left only his head exposed. It was composed of multiple layers of interlocking hexagons. Bulletproof, she figured. And only God knew what else.

But the strangest part was his skin. It was red, mottled, and swollen with scar tissue, as if he’d recently taken a bath in acid.

Maybe he had.

“Thank you. I feel different.”

Whatever it was, it had changed his voice as well.

“I no longer have any hair. Or fingerprints. And I no longer feel any pain.”

“Anders—” she began.

“Anders Benet is dead. I killed him. Just as I have killed so many others.” He stepped forward. “You may call me The Red King.”

Maria scowled. The Red King? Had he gone insane? Asset codes and funny names were what they gave the foot soldiers to hide their identities and make them feel special. It was kindergarten stuff. Juvenile.

“Is that what you’ll ask the Founders to call you during their next wake cycle?”

“I have unplugged the Founders.”

Maria’s stumbled back again and fell to her ass. She lost breath. Her skin tingled. She tried to repeat the word “unplugged” but barely the first syllable made it from her lips.

A dozen thoughts raced through her mind.

The man once called Anders Benet simply waited for it to sink in.

Maria forced herself to breathe. She inhaled deeply and let it out slow. She made fists on the concrete. At once, everything she had believed about the world was a confusion, like turning your head to realize the person you thought was next to you the whole time, the spouse you’d been talking to for twenty minutes, wasn’t there. Like the instant of waking from a too-real dream.

Only it wasn’t a spouse. Or a dream. It was her entire life.

The Founders had established their organization on a series of principles that dictated no one faction could gain the upper hand. It constrained all actors to work in concert toward a common goal—a brilliant organizational design, a masterpiece of human engineering.

When Anders absorbed Special Assets into Control, the other department heads should have objected. It was a violation of the charter and a single objection would have been sufficient. Any one of them could have stopped it. A secret ballot could have been called. Instead the fools stayed silent. Each of them. Not willing to risk anything to defend her. Waiting to make their own play for power. Worried that calling for a vote would summon a reprisal.

Worried more about themselves than the vision.

The central committee was supposed to be staffed with true believers. The Founders took rigorous steps to see that it was so.  But in the end, she realized in a gasping epiphany, her organization was made of exactly the same thing as every other: humans. Those who rose through its ranks to fill the seats on the council were not necessarily those most competent, but those minimally competent who also could play the game. Be popular. Forge alliances. Speak in euphemisms. Swallow their pride. Hide their ambition. And in that way, they were no different than any corporate board on the planet.

However effective it was in theory, in simulation after simulation, the Founders’ great formula—the plan to save mankind—was a fraud. Not because it was wrong. Just incomplete. It could never predict its own demise. Maybe in the hands of an alien race, it could yet implemented. But in the hands of the very hunter-gatherer species it was designed to supplant, it could never engineer a different future. For a social ape raises social climbers to the top and then watches from the shadows as they dance round the fire, leaving the rest of us cold.

Maybe humanity were beyond saving.

Or maybe we just weren’t clever enough yet to figure it out.

Maria gripped her fists in frustration. Everything. Everything she worked for her entire life, the sacrifices, the lies, the killing… It was all for nothing.

She couldn’t look at him him. She wouldn’t let him see her face. “You never believed in any of it, did you? The vision. The formula. The plan to save us. From ourselves. To save everything. The species. The planet.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Nothing has changed. It will happen. I will see to it. I will make sure everything we have dreamed will come to pass. Just as we planned. And you will be a hero, Maria. I will see to that as well. People need heroes. They need to know such things exist. For if there are heroes in the world, then there is hope. And it is only when all hope is gone that people will stand up for themselves. If there are heroes, someone yet to fight on their behalf, then they can go back to doing”—he shrugged—”whatever it is people waste their lives on. They don’t have to concern themselves with our messy, morally ambiguous world. They don’t have to worry about making things better. For themselves. For their children. Because there are heroes. Out there. Fighting the good fight for them.

“And that’s what I’ll make you. We’re going to build a statue garden. Just there.” He pointed to the distant shore, past an impossible run along the length of the towering dam. “You’ll live forever in eight meters of marble. People will come and wander around and see your face and read a little plaque that says you are the mother of this place. Because you are. More than anyone, you brought it to bear.

“Just as you did with Special Assets. Back when our organization had more dreams than promise. You showed us the way. Recruit extraordinary people, like yourself. Do more with less. Leave no trace.

“There were mistakes, to be sure. If not for Havek’s havok, there would have been no need for the Founders to bring me aboard, and it would be you standing here.” He pointed to his feet resting on the strange platform in the water. “But I recognize that progress doesn’t come without risks. And you were never afraid to take risks.”

“It sounds like you’re practicing my eulogy.” Maria wondered what he was waiting for. Why he was stalling? Why not just kill her and be done with it?

And then she saw.

A lone figure approached along the barren high ridge of the dam and turned to follow the pier, dressed in unmistakable blue.

Psyphire.

The women met each other’s gaze. Maria’s dark but graying hair had come free in the climb, and the gentle breeze blew it in front of her face.

They both knew what was coming. Both flinched ever-so-slightly all the same. A tiny twitch behind the eyes.

The Red King, standing in his strange bodysuit, simply waited.

Maria knew Psyphire all too well. She looked down. “Jesus, Veronika, don’t let him win.”

The firestarter stiffened. Maria was always keeping her in check. Always the disappointed parent. “Who says he’ll win?”

Maria shook her head. Arrogant girl. “You have a choice. You always had a choice.”

“What choice?” Psyphire scoffed in her Russian accent. “His suit is impenetrable.” She turned her eyes to the scarred man in the dark red suit. “And it does something. If he touches you. I saw it. It sucks the life right out of people. The woman Ming just… disappeared.”

Maria turned to look at the suit. Then she turned to the concrete beneath her. If Psyphire didn’t kill her, Anders would kill them both.

She had played right into his hands. And on such a beautiful day.

The Red King saw her gaze. “Nothing but concrete and water up here.” He raised open palms.

Maria wiped her hands together. Small pebbles and bits of dirt fell. Up there, on the top of the dam, Psyphire’s power was just about useless. In fact, the only thing flammable for a thousand yards in any direction . . . was Maria herself. Her Chanel suit. The product in her hair. Her makeup. Maria knew Psyphire could sense flammability the way a thirsty animal could sense distant water in the desert. It pulled at her.

Maria looked at the animal once called Anders Benet. No emotion. “I was wondering why we built this pier.” She stood. She felt the cool dam under her stocking-covered feet. “The designs suggested it was to stabilize the particle chamber in case of seismic activity. But the architects mentioned it would never do much. I knew there had to be a reason. But of all the things to worry about—the countdown, the schedule, labor shortages, your shenanigans on the council . . . I never gave it much thought. Not that it would have mattered if I did. I never would have guessed the truth.” She looked The Red King in the eye again. “This where the throne will go. Isn’t it?”

Psyphire turned to the man. He revealed nothing.

The high dam was vaguely hockey stick-shaped. The first section ran out from shore at a 30-degree angle with the river. Then it turned and cut perpendicular across the flow, creating the primary obstruction and so the lake. Sitting on the circular platform at the end of the pier, Anders would be visible to the crowd on three sides.

Both women knew it was no accident the platform sat directly above the particle chamber, the source of his power. From there—once the tube was converted to its true purpose, an elevator—the man could rise up through the water, like Moses parting the Red Sea, to greet the throngs gathered to worship at his feet, to beg for favors and trinkets.

The Red King raised his arms and turned. “Isn’t it beautiful? You did such a wonderful job. Larger than all the great pyramids combined. Such a wonder.”

Maria shook her head. He’d planned this. All along. His coup. And the evidence had been right under her nose the whole time. They never should have built it, this impregnable monster.

For now there was no one to stop him.

No one.

“They will come from all over. They will line up in great throngs. There will be banners.” He pointed. “All along causeway. And a red carpet. And they will line up for the chance to walk, timidly, across the pier and kneel. Before their king. Everyone. Everywhere.”

Maria looked at Psyphire.

Psyphire looked back.

Maria could see the struggle. And the faintest hint of shame.

So. She had fucked him. Jesus, Veronika, Maria cursed to herself. You think the honeypot routine works on a man like him? Reward him with sex and he’d fall at your feet? You were supposed to be better. My best student. It was supposed to be you and I.

It was no mistake, of course, that it was the two of them up there on the dam. Two women. Anders had to prove himself dominant. He had to be the alpha fucking male.

“Good luck, Veronika,” Maria said softly.

Psyphire’s eyes welled. There was no going back now.

Was there?

She shut her eyes.

For the first time in her life—ever—Veronika Molotov didn’t want to see the blaze she started.

She snarled and covered her ears. She didn’t want to hear the screams. They sounded just like her little sister. Trapped in that burning bed. Dying. So long ago.

Moments passed.

The Red King walked over and nudged Maria’s black, smoldering body with his dark boot. He inhaled deeply, drawing the scent of her charred flesh through his scarred nose. And when he was certain the woman was gone, he pushed her body over the side of the pier. After a short fall, it hit the water with a splash and sank slowly into the lake.

Psyphire turned and walked the length to the dam. Such a splendid view of the river winding through the valley below. It was empty. Everything as far as she could see. Out of fear of a reactor meltdown that never happened.

The Red King walked up behind her. “Do you know why her powers failed her?”

Psyphire didn’t answer. Her hands were wrapped around her chest. Even from this height, she could feel the power of the water erupting from the dam far below. She could feel the mist from twelve billowing exhausts. Pure whitewater.

The Red King stood next to her and stared over the edge. The front face of the dam was ridged, alternating evenly between smooth inset and block support. “She could sense so much. She found you. And your colleagues. She was like a mother to you, I know. So empathic. Sensing not only your abilities, but your anxieties and how to overcome them. Giving you strength.”

He turned to face the firestarter. Psyphire was grim. She wanted to kill him. She would kill him.

One day.

“I was poisoning her. Slowly. It was in her makeup, you see.”

Psyphire reached up and touched her cheek.

“Just a little bit. Every time. Absorbed through the skin. As she got older, she used more, and the effect quickened. As her powers faded, her anxieties grew. As her anxieties grew, she relied more on her appearance. And on and on. It happens to all women, I suppose. The loss of potency that follows the loss of youth.

“I couldn’t risk her sensing my true intentions. Every interaction with Maria pushed me to the limits of my restraint. She was twice the adversary you are.” He stepped closer to the woman in blue. “I wanted you to know,” he whispered, “because I want you to understand how completely she was beaten. How she never saw it coming. How very patient I am. And that it should be a comfort to you knowing that you didn’t have a choice.

“You’re a survivor, Veronika. And now you exist for one reason and one reason only: because you just murdered the closest thing to a mother you ever had. So I yet have hopes you can become something more than the failure you are.”

The Red King turned his eyes over the edge of the dam. Then he walked toward the front.

Psyphire kept her eyes on the white water. The din was louder there, standing just at the edge. “Someone should tell Justin,” she said.

The emperor of the world stopped. “Preacher died ten minutes ago.”

Psyphire didn’t look. “Who was it?”

“Amir.”

The firestarter nodded. That was smart. Preacher’s voice wouldn’t work on Kilobite.

“Scarab found Artemis. Hiding in a ‘safe’ house in Nairobi. I’m giving him to the Vorgýrim. As a peace offering. To offset your failure and buy us some time until the machine goes live, when not even the ancient Supremacy will matter.”

Psyphire didn’t move. There was hardly anyone left. In his role as Chairman, Anders had given her enough rope to destroy her own team. And then sat back and let her do it.

“I’m going to meet our esteemed prisoner. And let him know he has friends on the way. You will remain on the upper levels, far from me. See that our army is installed.” Then he walked away.

Psyphire didn’t acknowledge.

She simply stared at the churning river below.

 

—————————————————–

T Minus: 006 Days 19 Hours 55 Minutes 02 Seconds

 

Ian was about to die.

He clung as best he could to the steep slope as the shards of slate shifted under his feet. A few meters above, the camel train on the narrow path was still lumbering forward. Ian was so focused on not sliding down the near-vertical mountain face that he dared not look to see if his guide, Qasim, had noticed him fall.

They were supposed to be silent. Should he yell?

Ian cursed himself. He had let the pain of several days’ ride convince him it was okay to loosen his straps and adjust himself so he wasn’t aggravating his painfully sore ass. A few hours later, he had fallen asleep and then fallen from his camel.

Ian opened his mouth as rocks shifted again.

He seized. He couldn’t move. If he held his breath, he would phase right into the mountain, and unless there just happened to be a cave or other opening right underneath him, he’d only wind up entombed forever. If he fell, he would almost certainly be impaled on the sharp rocks that studded the slope like fangs, and if not, the smaller ones would tear him to shreds as he tumbled to the gorge below.

Qasim.

His guide stood over him, blocking the sun, his keffiyeh wrapped around everything but his eyes. He lowered a braided leather strap, and as it dangled, Ian grabbed it with his one good hand. The shift in weight caused the rocks under him to slide, and he fell flat to the ground.

But at least he held on.

Ian regained his balance, and Qasim pulled him up.

Ian nodded silently in thanks and walked back to his camel, a female whose name he couldn’t pronounce. As he brushed past the big male, Yank, the animal spit at him. Again.

Ian didn’t bother to clean the mucus from his keffiyeh this time. He just took his mount, tightened his straps, and waited.

Qasim rolled up his braided leather. Apparently it was a whip. Then he walked along the narrow path to the front of the camel train. As he passed Ian, he checked the padded restraints on his saddle. And tightened them painfully, as if in punishment.

Ian groaned involuntarily, but took it.

He had never ridden a camel before. In fact, he didn’t even remember ever seeing one in person, although he probably had at the zoo any number of times as a boy. They had a reputation for being foul-tempered, he knew, but his mount seemed pleasant enough. Qasim seemed to have reserved the foulest animals, like Yank, for pack duty. The big male spat at Ian every time he passed. Qasim had explained that Yank was short for Yankee, and that the animal was so-named because it hated Americans. Ian explained that he wasn’t American at all, that he was Canadian by birth, and Japanese by ancestry, at which Qasim merely shrugged and asked “What’s the difference?”

Still, Ian liked the man, despite his cultural insensitivity, and he was glad to have Qasim’s company on the three-day trek to the outskirts of Dushanbe. Qasim teased Ian relentlessly at every mistake, but he never failed to correct it appropriately, or to make sure Ian wasn’t set to fall from the narrow path they followed down the mountain—if he followed instructions.

Ian pulled the blue, pattern-printed keffiyeh down from his mouth and took a swig from his canteen. His face was chapped and irregularly pink, a result of several days’ exposure to high wind and unfiltered sun at elevation. Both sucked the moisture from his body, and he was drinking often—at least twice as often as his guide. Ian wondered how Qasim did it. But then, the forty-seven-year-old’s tanned face was as grisly as the slopes of the mountains he had traversed his entire life, and probably just as dry. There weren’t many trees around, or vegetation of any kind, in fact. But the view was spectacular.

Qasim nonchalantly took his place at the head of the train and signaled for them to continue. As Ian’s funny-named camel lurched forward, he turned to check the cargo. There were seven other camels in the caravan, besides the two the men rode, and each was attached by a rope to the animal in front and behind, and each carried a pair of long wooden crates, attached to each other and hung by straps over the animals’ backs.

Guns. Lots and lots of guns. The latest tech. Or so he was told.

Ian hoped it was enough.

As his camel waddled back and forth, Ian already felt himself getting sleepy, despite the near-death experience he’d had just moments before. He was exhausted, and there was no way to pass the time. No way to charge a phone. And no signal. But the worst part was the imposed silence. There was no talking, at least not during the day. Sound carried in the mountains, Qasim explained, a truth Ian experienced directly every time he heard the call of some great hunting eagle only to scan the skies and find nothing but a distant winged speck, moving across a cliff face a good ten or twenty miles away.

“Police?” Ian had asked about the rule of silence at the outset of the journey. Not that he was worried about a jail whose walls he could pass through. Rather, it was that there wasn’t enough time to arrange another deal. The U.S. military rifles they’d purchased from the Afghani tribesmen the day before, which were earmarked for anti-terror activities, weren’t exactly in steady supply.

Qasim had shrugged off Ian’s suggestion. “A slow-moving camel is an easy target for a leopard.”

Ian had immediately scanned the high cliffs, which brought a deep chuckle from his guide.

“Don’t bother. You’ll never see them coming.”

Indeed, after two and a half days of near-constant travel, they hadn’t seen—or heard—anything in the high wilderness, save the eagles and a few mountain rodents.

That night at camp, Qasim watched his young companion once again struggle to find a comfortable spot, as he did every night, and the old guide was finally overcome by curiosity. The question that had clearly been plaguing him for days finally came out.

“Why are you out here, my friend?” Qasim reclined on a woven mat in front of the tiny fire that crackled softly between them, and the light jumped around his bemused face.

Ian paused. He hadn’t expected that question. It seemed like some horrible breach of etiquette. He thought smugglers weren’t supposed to ask each other questions. “Not much to say,” he lied.

“Oh, come now. Men don’t risk their lives for nothing. There must be a woman, eh?”

Ian scowled. That was a trick question. “There’ve been a few woman.” Emli. Wink. Xana. “But not like that.” Axl. She would be waiting with “the others,” as they called themselves. The Faction was a collective—or so they were fond of explaining—not a hierarchy. There were no groups and no titles.

“Then why?”

Qasim took a bite from the tough, gamey dried meat that comprised the bulk of their rations. Ian had no idea what kind of animal it was and wouldn’t have been surprised if it were the same as the one he rode.

He thought about the question. “Kind of a long story, I guess.”

Qasim chuckled and raised his arms to the clear night sky. “No TV out here, my friend. No computers. And nowhere to hide. We have only each other to pass the time.”

At the outset of the journey, on their first night together, Qasim had asked Ian several questions. About his family. About where he was from. Ian asked about the rule of silence and was told that didn’t apply after the sun went down, provided they kept their voices low. Ian was suspicious for all of ten minutes, until he departed the small camp to take a piss. A few meters from the fire, darkness engulfed him and he immediately raised his hands to steady himself. One misstep and he’d careen down the mountain, as he almost had that day.

No one traveled that high at night, Qasim explained. At least, not without a full moon. And a death wish.

Ian reclined on his own mat and looked up at the stars. It was amazing. The closest thing he’d ever seen was on a grade school trip to a campground near Banff. But this was something else. There was no light pollution at all. Ian craned his neck and wondered if he’d ever seen these stars, or if they were different on this side of the world.

Qasim cracked another twig and set it on the small fire that kept them both surprisingly warm.

Ian looked back at the fire. “I’m not sure I could explain it.”

Qasim shrugged indifferently.

Ian felt bad then, as if he’d just offended the man who had quite probably saved his life not five hours earlier.

“Well. Let’s see.” He watched the fire. It was a good question, actually. Why was he out there? “The neighborhood where I grew up, outside Vancouver. Good ol’ O, Canada.” He stressed his unAmerican-ness at every opportunity. “There aren’t many Asians there. I mean, not that I felt oppressed or whatever. Fucking nerdy Japanese kid. What did I have to worry about, right? But it didn’t help me feel like I belonged either, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, of course.”

“My dad died when I was young. Did I mention that? That’s part of the reason I got chosen for this mess. Anyway, when I was in high school, my mom had her first bout with cancer. She’d end up beating it and going into remission for a few years, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that she looked like crap and I thought . . . Holy shit. I’m gonna be alone. Like, where would I go? Who would I live with?”

“Don’t they have friends in Am—where you are from?”

“I had a few friends, but none of us were early bloomers.”

“Early bloomers?” Qasim took another pull from his strand of mystery meat.

“Low social skills, if you know what I mean. Awkward. Makes it hard. My own fault, I suppose. I never put much effort in.”

“Ah. That is strange to me. Here, a man without family, who keeps only to himself, doesn’t long survive. But please.” He motioned.

“I used to sit across from this girl in chemistry class. Stefanie. Man, I had such a huge crush on her. Of course, she liked this guy Kevin. Kev Banacek. Who was like Mr. Canada. He played hockey, but he wasn’t on the hockey team. He played guitar, but he wasn’t in a band. He didn’t need to be. Everyone liked him.

“This one time, I was talking to someone after class—this girl Alice, kinda nerdy like me. She asked about my mom. She prolly woulda gone out with me if I had asked. But I was too stupid to see it. Anyway, I mentioned something about how mom was on morphine and what it did to her, and next thing I know Kev is talking to me about . . . I don’t even remember. Stuff. I just remember being shocked. Flustered.”

“How old were you?”

“Maybe 14 or 15.”

Qasim grunted in understanding. “Difficult age.”

“Kev was older, I think. He invited me to this party. And I remember, he made it a point to mention Stefanie would be there. Now, as far as I knew, no one in the world had any idea how I felt. I had never spoken about it. Not even to my nerdy friends. So now I’m freaking out, like what have I done, ya know?

“Anyway, at some point he asks about the morphine. What’s it for? How much is there?

“At that age, I didn’t know kids did prescription drugs. Like, that just wasn’t on my radar. So maybe it was a little strange, but I thought he was just more like my awkward friends than I expected. Like he was trying to ask about mom but not doing a very good job or something.

“Couple times that week, it comes up. Kev Banacek is talking to me.

“I mention to mom I got invited to a party and she thought it was the greatest thing ever. I thought parents were supposed to hate teenagers and their parties. But she was ecstatic. And so sick. And it made her happy. She was probably worried about what would happen to me. If she passed. I mentioned it and she just lit up. And I didn’t want to let her down, ya know?

“But now it was clear. I was supposed to bring a bottle.”

“Of morphine?”

Ian nodded. “Yeah.

“Some days, mom was good. But some days she was so doped up, she couldn’t remember if she’d taken two pills or four. So I was pretty sure I could get away with it. And I was pretty sure she could get more. When you’re battling terminal cancer, the docs aren’t so worried about rationing the pain meds. As long I took the new bottle and left her the remnants of the old, I figured she’d be fine. Just another trip to the pharmacy.”

“So you took them.”

Ian nodded. “When she was sleeping. In the afternoon. Jesus, my heart was pounding so hard. I frickin’ ran to the party like I was running from the cops. It was kind of exciting, ya know? First bad thing I ever did.”

Ian paused. “And probably the worst.

“As soon as I walked through the door, scrawny kid in my too-tight geek pants and button-down shirt—who wears a button-down to a party? Kev comes over and asks if I got the bottle.

“Maybe he didn’t mean it this way, but I felt right then like I was buying admission, like if I didn’t have it, he’d send me home or something.

“So I show him and he just kinda takes it out of my hand and raises in the air and shouts ‘Asian kid came through!’ And everybody cheers.”

Ian stopped. “Asian kid,” he said softly.

Qasim waited.

“When this guy Merlin—that’s what everyone called him, I guess ‘cuz he was supposed to be a wizard with a hockey stick or something—when Merlin passed the out pills so everyone could get high, he handed me one. Like I was anyone else. Like it wasn’t my mom’s name on the bottle. Like she wasn’t dying of cancer back at my house.

“I didn’t take it, of course. I remember feeling sick. I wanted to cry. But I didn’t want anyone to see, so I just kind of wandered around and didn’t talk or make eye contact. I wanted to grab all the pills and put them back in the bottle and run home and pretend like none of it had happened.

“That’s when I saw Kev with a girl. On someone’s bed. They still had their clothes on, but it didn’t seem like that would last long.

“I was a virgin. Of course. And I remember being soooo jealous.

“Stefanie saw it too and had her feelings hurt pretty bad. I’m not sure anything had happened between them, but it kinda seemed like it. I guess I should have said something to her. She sat on the swing set in the back yard and talked all night to this guy Dan. They actually ended up getting married. After graduation. Two kids, at last count. He’s a financial planner. I think.

“So here I stole. Narcotics. From my dying mother. Just so some other guy could get laid. And be popular. And nothing was any different. No one cared. I didn’t even have a name. I was just ‘Asian kid.’

“The worst part is, I’m pretty sure my mother knew I swiped the bottle. Jeez. Who knows what she must have thought? I could never bear to bring it up. Even to apologize.”

“Of course she knew,” Qasim added. “But I wouldn’t worry about that. Back then, your mother knew you better than you did.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“What happened to the other boy?”

“Ya know, I always thought Kev would go into sales or something, but turns out he got very sick and ended up having some kind of religious experience. Now he’s a pastor at some local church back home. The best part of me wishes him well and hopes he does something worthwhile with it.”

Qasim smiled wryly. “And the other part?”

Ian shrugged. “It kinda bugs me that he just happened to get sick, ya know? Like, right when life gets hard. Not that being a pastor is easy, I guess. It just seems like he keeps finding a way to skate out of everything. He’d just found another way to use people, earning tithes by convincing everyone not to do all the exact same shit he did.”

Ian shook his head. “But whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

“And then your mom passed?” Another bite.

“Not right away. A few years later, the cancer came back. And eighteen months after that, she died. I was in college.

“I never really dealt with it. Her death. Or my dad’s. The feelings of abandonment or whatever. I suppose that’s why it hit me so hard.”

“What do you mean?”

“I had a kind of falling out with some friends recently. I really thought we had something special. Things went sideways and everyone split up. I have no idea how to find them.”

“Do you still want to?”

More than anything burst into Ian’s mind. “Yeah. I didn’t think so before. But yeah. I really do.”

“Then you should. We need friends. Women, you know, they come and go.” Qasim scowled and waggled a hand. “But a brother-in-arms, a man who will stand and hold a sword at your side, that is worth ten fortunes. Sounds like you could have used someone like that.”

Ian laid back and looked up at the stars. “Yeah . . .” He wondered where the others were.

“But you still didn’t answer my question.”

“Ha. Sorry.” Ian stared up as he spoke. “I’m out here because I don’t wanna be that kid who steals for other people. Who gets up every day of his life and goes to an office and works hard so someone popular guy can get rich. Who waits for someone else to make the move.”

Qasim pulled a swig from a colorful bottle Ian hadn’t seen before. “And those?” The man motioned to the crates on the silent camels.

Ian looked. Then he turned back to Qasim. “That’s none of your business.”

The man smiled broadly, and it stretched the tanned wrinkles of his face. “You learn quickly. Get some rest, my young friend. We will reach the airstrip in the morning.”

 

  • § §

 

“Are you sure your friends are coming?”

Ian looked to the foothills in the distance. Beyond them were the mountains they had just crossed. Qasim knew something was wrong. Axl and the others were supposed to have arrived an hour ago. Ian wanted to make it look like there was an unexpected confusion before politely suggesting they take off anyway.

The pilot, Eziz, was Qasim’s cousin, and looked the part. He was a few years younger and not quite as weathered, but he had the same light humor draped over a stone-cold gaze. He chewed some kind of root, spitting occasionally into the dusty gravel of the airstrip, as he leaned against the plane, a twin-propped Russian monstrosity that was definitely older than Ian, maybe even all of them.

“Perhaps you should try the radio inside one more time,” Eziz growled.

Ian had already “tried” to contact the Faction two times. In reality, he just fiddled with the knobs.

“Sure,” he said. That was good. They were frustrated. One more “try” and they would be open to discussing Plan B. After all, they couldn’t hang out on the runway all day with a stolen plane full of illegal arms. They would still want the last half of the money they’d been promised, but Ian figured there had to be room to negotiate.

He stood from a crouch and walked across the gravelly strip and into the single-story wood structure that served as both air traffic control and commissary. The only other building nearby was the small, dirty hangar next door. Both were empty. He looked out the window to make sure neither man had followed and noticed Eziz climbing into the plane. Ian flipped a few switches on the radio as the plane’s propellers sputtered to life.

Well, seems they were definitely antsy. This would be easier than he expected. Ian was about to turn for the door when he heard the gun cock behind his head.

“Shit.” Apparently his double cross just turned into a triple.

Ian turned slowly. Three men dressed similarly to the two outside and bearing identical daggers had emerged from their hiding place in the back room. They were Qasim’s clan. Same pattern on their keffiyeh. Same handlebar mustaches. Hardcore mountain people. Probably killers.

Ian jumped and the man in front pulled the trigger at point blank range. The bullet passed through Ian’s forehead and ripped through the plywood wall as he phased through his attacker, like a ghost, which set all three men aghast. Ian wanted to think that, after John’s training and all the fighting recently, he was cool-headed and experienced enough to hold his breath at the sound of the gun. But in reality he knew it was entirely involuntary and he had held his breath out of total surprise and fear.

Whatever.

Ian took a breath just before reaching the floor. He smiled at the wide-eyed man behind the shooter and yanked the pin from a grenade on the man’s belt. Then he jumped through the far wall.

Just not far enough.

The simple plywood-and-beam structure offered no resistance to the grenade, and the blast hit Ian in the back as it ripped the building open and killed the men inside. Ian was knocked forward and got a face full of dirt and gravel.

“Ow . . .”

Tiny rocks poked his skin, puncturing it in at least a couple places, as his nose reeled from the impact. His eyes watered. His ears rung.

And the plane was making its turn onto the runway. He could hear the engines sputter and rev. They were going to take off, and with all his leverage on board!

“Shit shit shit.” Ian sat up and rubbed his nose. It stung. He fumbled in the pocket of his fatigues—his makeshift utility belt—and pulled out a restaurant pepper packet.

But his nose was already stopped up.

“Shit!”

Ian ran around to the front of the now-exposed structure just in time to see the twin-engine plane accelerating down the runway.

Ian danced in a circle in frustration. “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Not at all. His face was red. His neck strained. He blurted “God dammit!” as the plane took to the air.

“Okay, okay.” He tried to calm himself. He rubbed his nose. He shook the pepper packet. He rubbed his nose again and sniffed hard. Okay. His ears were ringing and his nostrils were stopped up from the fall. But maybe he could do it.

Ian dumped a little pepper in the crook of his hand and snorted it like a coke addict. He dropped the packet at the sting and put both hands—real and phantom—to his watering eyes.

“Fuck.”

A tingle.

Ian’s eyes whipped toward the retreating plane. Concentrate concentrate concentrate.

He sneezed.

And appeared in the back of the low-flying plane. But just like in New York, where he had appeared too close to the wall and got his leg stuck in a pipe, now he was standing in a crate. All the long boxes from the caravan, save one, were stacked three-high and secured by mesh to the sides of the hold. The men had opened one and left it in the middle of the floor, presumably to verify the contents before their hasty takeoff.

Ian looked to the cockpit. The oval door was open but Eziz and Qasim had their backs to him. Why shouldn’t they? They had no reason to suspect anyone was on board. And luckily, the noise from the old prop engines obscured all but the loudest sounds.

Ian tugged gently, trying to get his leg free.

Nothing.

He tugged harder.

Still nothing. He was trapped. His knee was just wider than the stretch of lower thigh that took the place of the crate lid.

He looked to the front. They still hadn’t noticed him. Over the engine noise, he couldn’t tell if they were talking to each other or not. If one of them turned and saw him, he’d have no warning. They both had knives. Eziz had a gun.

And Ian was immobile.

He looked at the crate. His leg taken the place of part of the lid as well as several of the rifles inside, stacked in alternating fashion.

If he could just get the lid off . . .

Ian squeezed the fingers of his phantom arm between his leg and the heavy lid. It was a tight fit, too tight for solid fingers, but with Stubs he was able to get a grip.

He pulled.

The men had loosened the lid more than he expected, and Ian fell back with a clatter.

Qasim and Eziz turned. Both men exclaimed something Ian couldn’t hear. He kicked free of the crate and scrambled to his feet as Eziz pulled a handgun. The man shot just as Ian took cover behind the left row of cargo. The bullet struck the wood and Qasim yelled at his cousin in a language Ian didn’t recognize. Eziz yelled back. He put his gun away and drew the curved dagger from his belt, the same dagger as the men at the airstrip.

From the cockpit, Qasim opened the rear cargo door. A short klaxon sounded and the door began to lower. Hot, dry air whipped through the hold. Ian smelled pasture. They weren’t more than a thousand or so feet in the air.

From his hide behind the stack of crates, Ian had only one thought: I’m not dying up here with these fuckers.

He stepped out to face the grizzled mountain warrior.

Eziz smiled, adjusted his blade from under- to overhand grip, and came at Ian. The man’s eyes turned in shock and confusion when his arm was stopped in midair by . . . nothing.

Ian held with Stubs and did exactly as John taught him. He stepped in and kicked Eziz. Right in the balls. A life-and-death situation was no time to be coy, John had explained. You do what you need to survive, and damn what anyone else thinks.

Eziz grimaced and stepped back. But when his face lifted, the look in his eyes suggested Ian’s move might have been a mistake.

“Shit.”

The mountain warrior yanked his blade arm free and came at Ian with a roar. Ian took a slice across his shoulder as he moved against the stack of crates behind him.

Eziz had him pinned. Ian struggled, but his attacker was a lot stronger and the curved blade moved slowly but relentlessly toward Ian’s throat.

A life-and-death situation was no time to be coy.

Ian extended Stubs in the air. He reached around and pulled the pistol from his attacker’s belt and fired with the barrel pressed to the man’s side.

The shot rang.

Eziz’s eyes went wide.

His arms relaxed.

He slumped to the ground.

Ian stared.

He had just shot a man. At point blank range.

A crack. Ian felt a sting in his right shoulder. He dropped the gun involuntarily as Qasim recoiled his whip and cracked it again. The force surprised him and Ian stumbled back toward the open hatch.

Qasim kept his eyes on Ian as he bent to feel his cousin’s neck. Ian could guess from his facial expression that Eziz was dead. Qasim picked up the pistol and tossed it into the cockpit.

Ian looked at his right arm. His severed arm. The whip had torn his shirt. The gash on his shoulder was bleeding and painful—painful enough that he was no longer experiencing phantom limb. That meant the Oric had nothing to misinterpret and there was no more Stubs. That was why the gun had dropped.

“Shit.” Ian backed toward the rear of the plane. Qasim drew his blade as his whip cracked in the air near Ian’s face.

Another crack. Then another. The whip was effective, Ian realized. It was long enough to keep him out of jump range. If he phased through it, he’d only get close enough for Qasim to gut him with his dagger. And anyway, if he didn’t time his landing perfectly, he’d fall through the floor of the plane straight to his death, either as a bug splat on the surface or entombed forever underground.

Crack.

Crack.

Ian backed to the rear of the lowered platform. With the wind and mild turbulence, he could barely keep his balance. He bent his knees and extended his arms.

All of this now seemed like a really bad idea.

Qasim yelled over the twin dins of engine and air. “I told you. We are nothing in this world without the men at our side. Unlike yours, mine stay together. We stopped your friends in the mountains.”

Qasim and Eziz hadn’t been waiting for the Faction. They’d been waiting for their own. In truth, Ian had sent Axl and “the others” to the wrong place. Qasim’s people might have stopped them in the mountains as well, but they wouldn’t have showed up on time either way. But with his heels hanging two thousand feet in the air, Ian didn’t really feel like explaining the overlapping double crosses.

He looked down and saw a single paved road. They must be getting close to the city.

Qasim was almost gleeful. “And here I thought you people couldn’t get any more ridiculous than those fools from the CIA, bumbling around pretending like we don’t know who they are.”

Ian inched back again, drawing Qasim as close as possible. He hoped the wind was strong enough to make the whip useless. He would only get one shot.

“This is no business for a boy like you,” Qasim yelled over the roar. “I don’t know how you lost the hand, but it takes more than tragedy to make a man.”

Ian looked at the knife in Qasim’s hand. Fifty bucks said he was skilled at using it. Ian looked him in the eye. Qasim was really gonna kill him.

Really, really.

“You’re not leaving me any choice, dude!” The wind took Ian’s keffiyeh.

“Such is life. You should have stayed home, American.”

That did it.

Qasim came at him. Ian jumped forward, passed through, and in one movement jumped and turned, grabbing one of the supports in the roof and kicking his surprised attacker square in the chest.

The curved knife bounced off the cargo door and followed its owner screaming to the ground.

“I told you.” Ian watched the man’s arms and legs flail as he fell wide-eyed to the ground. “I’m Canadian.”

Ian ran to the cockpit. He looked at all the controls. “Shit. Now I got no god-damned pilot.”

This day sucked.

Ian sat down in Eziz’s seat. The first thing he noticed was someone screaming through the radio headset. The second thing he noticed was the brightly-lit, heavy red light in the middle of the display, right next to a metal switch. The label was in Russian.

“Shit.” He looked around. Everything was in Russian.

Ian put the headset on. Someone was screaming in a language he didn’t understand—probably because the plane was heading right for Dushanbe.

“Uhhh, yeah. Hi. Um. We had some, uh, technical difficulties. But we’re okay now. Thank you.” He stopped, then remembered. “Oh—over.”

The man yelled at him. Then someone else came on. A woman. Thankfully, she spoke English, albeit with a thick accent.

“A76492 you have deviated from your flight plan and are entering a restricted airspace. Turn around and land your plane for inquiry. Over.”

“Uh, look. Sorry. Like I said. We had some technical difficulties. But everything’s okay now.” Maybe. If he can figure out how to fly. He had already forgotten how hard it was to do everything one-handed. “Oh. Over.”

“A76492, who am I speaking to? Over.”

“My name is, uh. Kev. Kevin Banacek. I’m a pastor. From Canada.” Ian fumbled one-handed with his phone.

“Mr. Banacek. You are entering congested airspace. Do you know what that means? Turn your plane and land. Over.”

“Right. About that.” Google Translate said the word by the red light was autopilot. Perfect. Ian flipped the switch and the plane began to rock and jostle. “Shit!”

He grabbed the W-shaped handle in front of him and tried to keep it steady. “Damn, this is heavy.”

“Excuse me? A76492 say again, over.”

“Uh, nothing. Everything’s okay here. Resuming flight plan. Over.” Ian found the compass on the dash and began to turn the plane slowly. The map on his phone had calculated the trajectory and distance, and he kept turning until the arrow on the little screen matched the right heading. “Thank God for Google Maps,” he whispered.

“A76492, we have you returning to your proper course. You are still under orders to turn your plane and land. Continue on this course and we will be forced to alert the Air Force. Over.”

“Hey. Whoah. Look, here. Check the flight plan. We’re with Oxfam. I’m a pastor. We’re a humanitarian mission carrying agricultural supplies to the Chinese border, en route to the victims of the recent nuclear disaster. We had some unexpected technical difficulties, as I said. That’s all your inquiry would uncover.” He glanced back to Eziz’s dead body. “Besides making a ton of paperwork for you. Me. Everyone. And none of that will help those poor people. We’ve resumed proper course. Another hour and we’ll be out of your airspace entirely and then we’re someone else’s problem. Over.”

There was a pause.

Ian kept repeating the same phrase over and over in his mind. Please be a bureaucrat. Please be a bureaucrat. Please be a bureaucrat.

“A76492, proceed to 12,000 meters and keep present course and speed. Over.”

“Roger that! Awesome. Thank you. You’re awesome. This country is awesome. God bless the Tajik people. Just. Thank you so much. Over. And out.”

12,000 meters, he thought. I can do that. Right?

Finding the altimeter was easy enough, even in Russian. Ian pulled back gently on the stick and the plane rose.

“Cool.”

Ian was admiring the view of the mountains he had from this height when he noticed the one in front of him, the one that had seemed so far away a moment ago, seemed to be coming at him very fast.

Ian pulled back more on the stick. Then more. And more. The plane went up with a jerk and Ian almost threw up. He shut his eyes for a moment. Then opened them as the plan crested a ridge with a few hundred feet to spare.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I totally got this.”

 


top image: “Fortress Neo Tokyo V” by Markus Vogt

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