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THE COUNCIL OF SHADOWS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Harvey Ledbetter leaned against his pickup and pushed the sunglasses up on his forehead before he crossed his arms on his chest. He was a lean grizzled man a little below six feet, his close-cropped brown hair shot with iron-gray above a long bony face, extremely fit for his early sixties. His eyes were startlingly blue against the weathered tan of his face.

Hot metal pinged in the engine, and the summer sun was pleasantly hot, without the humid rankness he'd grown up with. The breeze from the west held a little coolness; the Big Sur coastline wasn't far away. This dirt road ended in a field of long golden-yellow summer grass that smelled like old hay, above a ravine that cut down through a redwood grove to the sea. Wind soughed through the grass, and birds chased insects in swift, swooping curves.

He drew on his cigarette and savored the harsh bite. The Wreakings that shielded his mind were a teasing feeling at the corner of perception's eye, like a slight continuous buzzing. Nicotine helped long-learned mental disciplines to keep him reasonably calm, despite the knowledge of what was coming towards him. A click sounded through the bud in his right ear: alert.

It was some comfort to know that hidden snipers were covering the meeting site with rifles firing silver-jacketed .338 Lapua magnum rounds. Some comfort, but not too much. Tōkairin Michiko was a pureblood. She could sculpt the probabilistic foam underlying reality at a level that made his own meager talent look like a toy water-pistol compared to an Apache gunship. Despite defenses as elaborate as he could make them, at close range she could probably simply make his ticker give out, or block a vein in his brain for a few crucial seconds. She could certainly do it if given time to use glyphs and Mhabrogast to focus the effect, or if she used something preactivated.

A quiet burble of engine, a singing and crunching sound of gravel under wheels. The car snaked up the switchbacks of the road towards him, trailing dust. His brows rose a little when it was close enough for him to see the make: a Nissan GT-X, low-slung sleek elegance, with a double-turbocharged engine that put out more power than most armored personnel carriers weighing twenty times as much. You could use that on dirt country roads, but...

Tacky. Very fucking richbitch, Michiko-sama.

It was chrome-yellow, with a license plate bearing the mon symbol of the Tōkairin clan and the black sun pierced by a jagged trident that was the sigil of the Council of Shadows.

On the one hand, it won't mean anything to anyone who doesn't know already. On the other hand, it's worrisome they're so confident now. The last generation were a lot more careful about hiding. Michiko's bunch just don't give a shit. I wonder if they'll register it as the official Trademark of Evil one of these days.

The sports car pulled to a stop ten yards away, the quiet sound of its engine dying instantly. Harvey noted without surprise that the position would block one of his snipers and give the other the worst possible shot; Michiko probably wasn't even consciously aware that she'd done that. He threw his cigarette to the ground, twisted it under his heel and moved to the tailgate of his pickup, which would put her back under both scopes.

She got out of the car with a lithe catlike motion and walked towards him, smiling. She wore low-slung black Key Closet skinny-jeans, which he admitted she could bring off, and a sleeveless silk shirt. It all showed the sort of figure high-bred Shadowspawn females tended to have, slim but high-tensile.

All right if you like weasels with small tits, he thought whimsically, fighting down a hundred thousand years of instinctive terror. In her case, blond Japanese weasels.

He bowed his head slightly as she approached. She took off her sunglasses, tucked one arm of them in the neck of her shirt and returned the gesture, a little more deeply.

"Hoping the water will fall out of my head?" she said, in pluperfect Californian English.

"Well, you may notice I'm not offerin' cucumbers," he said dryly, the Texan hill-country rasp strong in his voice.

It was only in his imagination that she smelled of rotting blood. There wasn't any physical way of telling her apart from any rich Yonsei girl, unless you counted the tiny golden flecks in the irises. The Tōkairin had thought they were Ninja sorcerers until the missionaries of the Order of the Black Dawn arrived in the early Meiji era and told them where their powers really came from, and how to make the next generation stronger.

"You're being very unfriendly. I can sense hostility even with those tiresome shields," she said, pouting slightly. "Is this any way to treat a friend?"

"No," he said.

After a moment she shrugged. "Oh, well, if you want to be all tiresome and businesslike. I've got the preliminary schedule for the Council meeting in Tbilisi. Who's coming in, when, and where they're staying, plus the security protocols."

He raised his brows. "They've settled on those already? Bad tradecraft."

She shrugged. "It's a protocol. The older generation..."

He nodded. Shadowspawn tended to be fanatically conservative, the more so as they got older. Many of the current Council lords had been youngsters when their parents carefully directed Archduke Ferdinand down the wrong road in Sarajevo.

"We've made a formal request for a security review, warning that terrorists might strike, but they turned it down. Of course."

"We?" Harvey asked.

"Ah, the... Progressive Party, we're calling ourselves. Or the whippersnappers, to the other side."

Harvey laughed; it was quite genuine, and he wished it back.

One slim yellow brow went up. "I notice that you're not exactly the official Brotherhood yourself, Mr. Ledbetter," she said. "They're not nearly imaginative enough to try using us against each other the way you have. Perhaps you're not as different from us as you'd like to think."

He hid his wince, but it was her turn to laugh; the silver tinkle was like splints shoved under the fingernails of his mind.

Don't talk to them beyond the bare necessity, he repeated to himself. Don't show any reactions. Don't emote, don't engage. They're naturally good at getting inside your head even if you're warded, and they play games and manipulate the way they breathe. Don't give her leverage to fuck with your mind. Just the minimum.

He held out his hand. She extended hers, with a memory stick in it; his came back before skin could touch skin.

"Now I'm hurt. Don't you trust me?" she said archly.

"'bout as much as I trust a cobra," he said.

"Hssssssss!"

The sound was startlingly realistic. He waited immobile, until she tossed the little data-storage unit. He caught it out of the air, then waited while she walked back to her car with a taunting swing of the hips. The superchargers whined, and the long yellow-and-black shape seemed to stretch, vanishing in a spray of dust and gravel as she tapped the accelerator. Harvey dropped the stick into a plastic baggie, tucked it into his pocket and sighed, then produced a handkerchief to wipe his face.

"Tough?" a voice asked in his ear.

"Strenuous," he replied. "Just a mite strenuous, I'd say."

And I don't know whether I'm glad Adrienne is dead or not. She was just as much a monster, maybe more, and a lot smarter. On the other hand she was more rational, so maybe a bit easier to anticipate. Michiko might have killed me just because it felt good.

 

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Harvey's covering squad waited a half-hour before they came in, which was good fieldcraft. Both had scope-sighted rifles with them, angular military models with chassis of carbon-fiber and aircraft-grade aluminum; the Mhabrogast protective glyphs and silver threads were decidedly non-standard.

They broke them down, fitted them into the shaped and padded recesses of the carrying cases, and slipped them into the compartment behind the rear seat of the pickup. Otherwise they were in the sort of thing hikers might wear, tough cotton drill in neutral colors and laced boots. Traipsing around Big Sur in a sniper ghillie suit would be a bit conspicuous.

"I could have gotten her easy," Jack Farmer groused.

He was a thirtysomething hard-case with cropped blond hair and a snub nose, and Harvey didn't like him.

He's trustworthy, and he's good at what he does. I just don't like him, because he's a son-of-a-bitch. I suppose his mother loved him. Before he learned to talk, at least.

His partner was a woman named Anjali Guha, South-Asian dark, athletic, and in Harvey's opinion considerably smarter. Or at least less driven and obsessed, which was more important than sheer IQ. Your mind could only do what your emotions let it. Character was more important than the size of your vocabulary every time.

"The plan is to use her to get a chance at a lot more of them," Harvey said patiently. "We did use her... and through her, Adrienne Brézé... to get Hajime."

"She and her husband stepped into her grandfather's shoes," Farmer said. "Does that mean we used her, or she used us?"

Guha gave him a barbed glance. "That's a distinction without a difference, Jack," she said sharply. "We got Adrienne Brézé too, who is, was, a bigger fish."

"Ellen Tarnowski got her," Harvey pointed out, which made them both pout a little at being outclassed by an amateur.

"And anyway," Guha went on, "If you'd really intended to kill her, something would probably have happened to stop it. You'd have had a stroke, or a wasp would have stung you just as you were squeezing the trigger, or some tourists would have tripped over you, or you'd have been assaulted by a wild sheep that suddenly decided it was an arse-bandit queer for humans. You know how that works, yes indeed you do."

"Yeah," he said, half-snarling with frustration. "But I just want to exterminate them."

Harvey sighed. "You're around thirty on the scale, aren't you?"

The Alberman Scale ran from fully-human at zero to absolute purebred Shadowspawn at a hundred; there were around a hundred and thirty-seven genes involved, mostly recessives. Professor Alberman had developed the scale and the automatic DNA sequencing test for the Council of Shadows, but both sides used it.

The Brotherhood operative was tanned, but he could still flush; thirty was more than twice the average in the general population. It took twenty-five or higher to use the Power consciously, not just have premonitions or the occasional tweaking of probabilities. Harvey was a twenty-seven.

"Yeah, I am. Your point?"

The point is that I keep having to remind you of things, Harvey thought. That's the problem with talking politics—which this is, down and dirty. People have to be continually mentally reinforced if you want them to absorb knowledge that contradicts what they want to hear; otherwise it just sort of slip-slides away, gets blurred down to the noise level of their viewpoint. It's a pain in the ass.

It wasn't an accident that he was the Brotherhood's loose cannon.

"The point is that you'd have to exterminate the human race to get rid of the Shadowspawn genes," Harvey went on patiently. "Startin' with the ones like... oh, the three of us. Humans're too mixed; hell, being a stable Shadowspawn-human mix probably defines us as a species and has for twenty thousand years. If the bad guys hadn't spread their genes around during the Empire of Shadow, humans... mostly humans... probably wouldn't have been able to overthrow them in the first place. Why do you think we're the only surviving type of hominid? I suspect it's because they preferred fucking us to Neanderthals or the rest."

I need to keep Farmer on-side. On the other hand, he's not stupid, exactly. He just filters out things that don't fit the story as he'd prefer it. Shit, that just makes him human. For that matter, Shadowspawn do that too.

"In fact," he went on, "if we weren't mixed, we'd probably be sitting around in caves splitting mammoth bones for the marrow and eating the lice out of each others' hair. Notice when civilization started?"

"When we overthrew them!"

"Yeah, which was just about the same time they finished diluting themselves until it was pretty hard to know who was them and who was us. A lot of the first pharaohs and kings and high priests and whatnot had a lot of Shadowspawn blood, judging from the way they acted. And if the Council Shadowspawn weren't mixed, they'd be less of a problem—they wouldn't be able to cooperate or care about long-term group interests even as much as they do."

"We can kill all the purebred ones," Farmer said stubbornly; he had the ghost of a Midwestern accent under the California. "There aren't more than a few thousand of them. The ones in the Council clans, in their breeding program."

Guha snorted as she snapped the last of the latches on the battered rifle case.

"Jack, back in Victorian times you would have been a purebred. Most of the original Order of the Black Dawn weren't any stronger than you when they discovered Mendel and Darwin and started to use the Power to reconcentrate the heritage. They let in anyone who could lift and turn a feather then. And even if we did get rid of the ones who think of themselves as Shadowspawn, the whole thing might happen again. The genes themselves are lucky. They want to recombine and they'd still be there."

"Sort of like the One Ring," Guha put in.

"Yeah, all we have to do is reeducate them," Farmer jeered. "They'll become members of PETA—People for the Eating of Anthropoids."

Harvey checked the hidden compartment to make sure nothing was visible to the naked eye; it was a pity this wasn't Texas, where a gun rack was routine. Hiding was one thing the Brotherhood was very good at, though Farmer could probably simply tell a cop that these weren't the droids he was looking for and get away with it.

There was a cooler in the back of the pickup. He pulled out beers, a Hefeweizen he'd picked up in Los Gatos, plus shaved-ham sandwiches on sourdough rolls, and handed them around.

"That's pretty much what I did with Adrian, Jack," he said, biting into one and savoring the sharp-smoky-meaty flavors.

If hunger was the best sauce, danger survived came a close second; it made you horny too. Luckily that wasn't as big a nuisance when you were over sixty, though it didn't go away either.

"I got him around puberty and raised him," he pointed out mildly. "And he turned out all right."

A lot more like a human being in the positive sense of the term than you, Jack, he thought to himself. I suspect if you were just a little higher on the Alberman, if you could feed and get any benefit from the blood and nightwalk, you'd be off to the other side like a shot.

Guha nodded. "And Adrian has killed more Shadowspawn than you've had beers, Jack, yes indeed. He scares the hell out of me, but not like he's going to boil my eyeballs just for the fun of seeing me run around bumping into things."

"Yup," Harvey drawled. "The problem with the Shadowspawn isn't really their instincts. Hell, I feel like killing people pretty often—who doesn't occasionally want to kick some asshole into oblivion? The problem is that the Order of the Black Dawn started as a bunch of black-path occultists. Just because they stopped worshipping Satan and started worshipping themselves after they found out why they could do what they did didn't make them any less assholes, and they raised their kids that way."

Farmer took a swig of the beer and shrugged. "So long as I get to kill the bastards, I'm satisfied. And you two give me more opportunities than I'd get if I stayed on the reservation. The Brotherhood's gotten too much like a fucking rabbit in the headlights, you ask me. The Council's planning to wreck the world and all they're doing is trying to build a bolthole so they can survive the apocalypse."

Guha nodded. "That's why I'm with you, Harvey. But I notice you don't tell Adrian about your little talks with Michiko-san," she pointed out.

"I did my job too good. The boy's idealistic."

They all chuckled. "So," Farmer said. "What's your solution for the ones we can't reeducate?"

"Oh, we kill 'em all," Harvey said cheerfully. "And Tbilisi is goin' to be one fine opportunity for that. A lot more than Michiko and her hubby think. I got a project going along those lines. You guys in?"

"In," Farmer said.

Guha shuddered. "In. But it also means we'll have to walk into the biggest nest of them that's gathered for generations. With enough Power in the air to make all the molecules dance in their favor."

"Considering the alternative, I don't think there is much of an alternative. At least Adrienne isn't going to be around. She was too smart for comfort and she had a lot more self-control than most of her friends."

Guha sighed. "I said I am in, too. Deep in do-do."

 

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Copyright © 2010-2011 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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