The truck's suspension was shot. Harvey Ledbetter grunted as he pulled himself out from under the vehicle, slipped his flat LED torch into the back pocket of his trousers and slapped dust off his clothes. A series of freak accidents had cracked the springs on the rear axles, and an undetected lubricant leak had seized a set of bearings in the rear differential until they smoked. Somehow the temperature alarms in the big MAN hybrid's all-glass controls hadn't picked it up. If his thumbs hadn't started prickling the first he'd have noticed might have been flames destroying the shield generator and spilling the weapon within all over the landscape. The possibility made him sweat in retrospect.
It was so easy to fry solid-state circuitry with the Power, because screwing with quantum-mechanical fluctuations was what the Power basically did anyway. Which particle tunneled where...
He straightened up and stretched until something went pop in his back. Above him through the still, thin dry air the stars were a multicolored splendor in the night, with a three-quarter moon bright enough to dim them around its silver sheen. He saw just a bit better in light like this than the standard issue human. His nose was a bit better too; there was a smell of dry powdery soil and hot metal from the wrecked truck, and things vaguely like bruised sagebrush. This upland stretch of mountain and steppe felt older than the Southwestern deserts of his youth, somehow; you could taste the dust of empires and ages and armies.
Anger coursed through him, tasting sour and iron-rich at the back of his throat.
"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for verily I bear a slab of plutonium nuke-goodness fuck you!" he shouted at the darkness.
The Texan was a lean man who liked to think of himself as spending several years being fifty-nine; his sandy-brown hair was only lightly grizzled, but the short beard he'd grown to fit in as he crossed Anatolia was iron-gray flecked white. He was wearing local clothes, too, of a hick from the sticks variety; a collarless shirt, cloth cap, coarse jacket and rather baggy pants. Despite that, and the fact that he spoke fair Turkish, he didn't expect to pass for a local if someone looked hard unless he was willing to expend precious energy on a Wreaking. It wasn't his blue eyes, or the complexion under his weathered tan, though they were out of the ordinary. Enough Turks were just as Nordic looking, their sainted Kemal for starters, that it didn't attract undue attention, and it was pretty common among Kurds too—this was Kurd country.
The shape of his bones was wrong, though, and his body-language; he'd never had the time or motivation to acquire a convincing act for hereabouts.
What he usually did with anyone who penetrated his first layer of cover in this part of the world was pass for an American or European intelligence agent pretending to be a Turk—he could do a convincing mitteleuropan, and his French and German were fully native-fluent. If they thought you were CIA or DGSE or Kommando Strategische Aufklärung it didn't occur to them that you might be a witch-finder, which was how the Brotherhood had started out. Though these days it was more a matter of the keeping the witches from finding you. It also made it logical that you dealt in large amounts of cash and didn't talk much. He'd even managed to pull that off with the odd Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı type, though the odds of running into the Turkish secret police were remote this far from the borders.
This part of the world swarmed with spooks, metaphorically. He grinned tautly; with the Council of Shadows holding their first full meeting in decades over in Tbilisi, across the border in Georgia, there were going to be plenty of literal spooks around in a few months. Until he triggered the twenty-five kiloton device and blew them—corporeal and postcorporeal alike—into oblivion. The blast would do for the embodied ones, and the radiation would be as deadly as sunlight to the rest.
For a moment sheer aching need clenched his teeth. If he could take out most of the pureblood adepts the Brotherhood could finally win the ancient war. Collateral damage... was unfortunate, but whole orders of magnitude less than what the Council of Shadows had planned for humanity in its Trimback options, not to mention the endless torment that would follow when the Empire of Shadow returned full-force. Most of the really bad stuff in the past hundred-odd years had been their work anyway, like the Holocaust and the Great Leap.
Plus he didn't plan to survive the explosion. The Brotherhood could unload all the guilt on him, and then scoop the pieces off the board.
A quick glance either way showed nothing coming or going; there was an abandoned and burnt-out light truck with its right wheels in the ditch about half a kilometer away, nothing out of the ordinary; Turkey wasn't a third-world shitheap like say the ruins of Syria, but it wasn't exactly Denmark either, or even Texas. And this was Turkey's equivalent of West Bumfuche, Arkansas, plus it could give lessons in bleak to the country south of Lubbock.
The wreck was unexceptional... except that it was a fairly new four-wheel-drive light truck, the sort you used for adventure tourism. The soot had fooled his eye for a moment. He walked closer, and when he got to within a few yards he could still feel the heat of its burning...
He took stance and closed his eyes, taking one deep breath after another, slower and slower. Let everything go; fear, worry... then thought, identity and hope.
"Tzze-mogh," he murmured, snarling at the feel of icy knives sliding through his head.
A sense of wrongness. Bane, of paths tending black, of complex parts breaking, rupturing, wearing, grinding, on down to the bubbling chaotic foam that underlay everything...
Harvey came back to himself with a jerk, panting and sweating and staggering two steps before he went down on one knee, resting his weight on a hand braced against his thigh. He fumbled in a pocket, took out a plastic bottle of a sports-energy drink and gulped it, and waited until the shivering and headache dulled a little. Then he walked over to the abandoned truck and gave it a once-over, careful to avoid touching the still-hot metal. Two fuel lines in the nearly-new engine had come undone, flooding the hot parts with sprays of mixed gasoline and air. The doors were all still shut, and it was unlikely that anyone making a fast exit would have bothered to close them.
Aha, he thought. The doors jammed at the same time. Secondary effect tacked onto the big one. Charming. Real Council type curse, high-level adepts working there with rivers of blood to power 'em.
The front passenger side window had been broken out; kicked out, probably; it was much harder to jam a boot or bugger up the effect of a straight-up impact. There were tracks on that side of the vehicle, two people and one much bigger than the other, both wearing hiking gear. That was about as much as he could make out without showing a light. A little way away he found a bootlace, which had apparently split all the way up when someone tried to tighten it. That was even more unlikely than the engine failure, just the sort of combination of immense power and skill with petty vindictiveness you'd expect.
The term of art was probability cascade, a directed aetheric structure like an immaterial sensor-effector mechanism; sort of like a Power-driven edition of Murphy's Law dropped on your head, only for real, and something only the most powerful adepts could do on this scale. It worked right down to the zipper jamming on your dick when you went to take a leak afterwards.
There was an interesting pattern to the damage in the rear trunk of the light vehicle, too. The panels were bowed outward in a flower-petal pattern studded with small holes, as if there had been an explosion and high-velocity debris. Contrary to Hollywood, cars very rarely blew even when they burned. That required an extremely precise fuel-air mixture. The fire had probably gone up very fast, with a roar and a flash and the speed of passage driving the flames back towards the windscreen even before it hit the fuel tank, then a rupture and spill and the whole thing burning, but it hadn't gone kaboom.
Now, certain other things did react to heat that way... he focused for a moment to make sure there weren't any live rounds still waiting to cook off like those last few popcorn kernels, then wrapped a handkerchief around his hand and reached carefully through. Even in the dim light the little brass shape was definitely a round of ammunition that had blown itself into shreds. From the damage to the trunk, someone had had a couple of boxes of mike-nine back there when their transport did its Mr. Crispy and tried to reduce them to long-pig chitterlings.
"Well, sheee-it," he said, and went back to his own vehicle. "Could have been worse. Whoever made it out could have just spontaneously caught on fire themselves."
The metal of his truck felt solid, in a way that went beyond the physical. Adrienne Brézé had made a very bad mistake when she didn't kill a physicist named Peter Boase. She'd been sent to Los Alamos by the Council to end researches which had come uncomfortably close to the truth of why the world was sliding down into a pit of seething chaos ruled by hatred and cruelty. On a whim she'd decided to take the young scientist along as a toy and keep him with her other lucies on her Californian estate to destroy at leisure and milk for useful data in the process.
Peter had escaped, and beaten the feeding addiction, and the truck contained the first fruits of his investigations at the secret labs of the Brotherhood.
Unlike the nuke, Harvey thought.
He'd engineered that himself, diverting a little extra stolen plutonium. The Brotherhood used the stuff in hits, putting chunks in with a dead Shadowspawn master to make sure their final resting place was really restful and completely final. He'd simply liberated a few extra kilos, let some jihadi lunatics think they were buying it from him and then dropped back in later to collect the weapon. When that was over all was quiet at Casa Jihad until the neighbors noticed a stink really bad even by the standards of a Veracruz slum. The Mexican cops had probably written it off as another of the innumerable gangland killings.
A nuke by itself wasn't very useful; brute-force engineering rarely worked against adepts. The explosion would cut across too many world-lines, rippling back in time through the possible paths to resonate with those who were threatened by it, if they had the Power. Anyone with the right genes blueprinting their neural circuitry would sense it and just avoid the location without thinking about it; those with the training as well would probably be able to make a good guess at what was making their hair crawl. The chance of taking a whole slew of powerful Shadowspawn adepts by surprise that way were somewhere between zip and nada. That was the drawback of fighting people with turbocharged luck.
What encased the bomb was a... field... that turned aside the Power. That blocked all traces of what it shielded from the whole web of possibilities, regardless of how strong they were. Peter Boase had gotten his start by investigating why silver baffled the Power, but unlike the traditional silver sheathing this didn't shout its presence either. It just... wasn't present unless you could eyeball it.
When he tried to focus the Power on the truck himself, it was just there, without the fuzz of world-lines everything else had. He couldn't see its past, or its potential futures, or anything that it affected. It was as if around it the world was the deterministic set of blind billiard-balls that Newton had imagined, rather than the will-driven sea of ultimately arbitrary malleability that it really was.
The problem right now was that while a seer couldn't locate the bomb, or even trace it back from the impact it would make on the world, ordinary logic and evidence worked just fine. And while the Power couldn't see the area inside the shield, as far as he knew there was nothing to stop a Wreaking from affecting it. Someone was using the shotgun principle, and ready to spend a lot of the Power on it. Luckily it had been a truck-break-down curse, not a nuke-go-off one.
Harvey had just enough of the nocturnis genes to Wreak consciously and to give him consistently useful hunches; not nearly enough to nightwalk or even feed on blood, which meant that everything came out of his own reserves. That made him a Chihuahua to the wolf of a real high-blood, though a Chihuahua to a mouse against human norms. Smarts and subtlety could substitute for raw power to an extent, though.
"All right," he muttered to himself. "It's a generalized curse. Someone knew, or more likely suspected, I was in X number of square miles, and put a vehicle-heading-east-go-wrong Wreaking on the area since they couldn't pick me up specifically. Heap big mojo, probably wrecked dozens of trucks even here in East Bumfuche. And maybe some donkey-powered stuff. Hell, I may have brought the Council and the Brotherhood together on somethin'... but they don't know, not the specifics, or most of 'em don't, or they'd be doing more. Am I using Adrienne, or she me? We'll see about that at the end of the day. After which the secret part is moot."
He took out his tablet and tapped. It was a special model untraceable even when he hooked into the Web via satellite uplink, and it had GPS and a map of the vicinity. The nearest settlement was only three kilometers northeast, a wide spot in the road just above the farming-village level; the nearest city was a crapsack named Elâzığ whose main claim to fame was cement factories. Luckily it was fifty miles behind him and he hoped he didn't need to go there again.
"My Google-fu is strong, grasshopper," he muttered, and got his backpack out of the truck.
I hate to leave my beloved nuke alone for a moment, but I can't very well stuff it in here.
What looked like company logos on the side of the truck body were actually preactivated Mhabrogast glyphs. Ordinary folk would leave it alone without knowing exactly why.
Twenty-four hours before the internal fuel cell runs out and the nuke is a blazing signpost. Just have to arrange things by then. Christ, I hate doing this alone, too. Nice to have backup... Adrian, if I had my druthers. As it is, I suspect someone with an unhealthy interest in me is in that little town up ahead. Let's go and see who it is. Maybe kill 'em, maybe talk, maybe both.
There was a machine-carbine and a couple of clips in the backpack, a compact little H&K G36C, but he didn't think he'd be using it against even a low-level Power user—complex weapons were too easy to fuck with via Wreaking, even for low-levels like him. It was a fallback in case he stumbled across hostile locals, or needed to deal with strictly human renfields and mercenaries working for the Council.
He left it in the pack and took out the coach gun instead; the Brotherhood had a lot of experience dealing with the Power. That was a weapon as simple as a firearm could be, a big pistol cut down from a double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun. The surface was webbed with silver thread and the parts plated with it; the clear spaces in between had pre-activated Mhabrogast glyphs in jet that gave a prickly, itchy feel through your palms, if you could sense the Wreakings. He slipped a dozen shells into the pockets of his coat and tucked the coach gun into a set of Kevlar loops sewn into the inside of his jacket on the left. The stiffening disguised the outline of the weapon a little, and his knife was across the small of his back with the worn dimpled bone hilt slightly down, where he could get his hand up under the tail of his jacket and out again in a single flick.
He set out along the side of the road with a nasty chill wind in his face; dust smoked off the plowed fields like pale mist, and a little even where they were left in the sparse native pasture. There were no trees, and it undoubtedly looked even barer in the daytime. This high up and this late in the season the night was cold enough for his breath to smoke. Snow-capped mountains were a hint of white and purple to the north and east.
The big noisemaker approaching an eastern Anatolian village was the dogs, which were great vicious brutes fully capable of using the average wolf as a chew-toy. They were a threat to any chance traveler on foot, but they could smell the Shadowspawn blood in you and hated it unless they'd been exposed as puppies. Domesticating the dog had been one of the things that triggered the original human revolt against the Empire of Shadow; they could sense disembodied nightwalkers, too, even when they were impalpable and invisible as far as men were concerned. Three of them were circling him while the lights were still a dim glow on the other side of the hill. He stooped, picked up a couple of golf-ball-sized rocks, and sighed as he juggled them and picked targets.
"Thing is, fellers, I like dogs. So this hurts me too, but not nearly as much as it's going to hurt y'all."
He wound up and let the first one go just as the beast was slinking in at a sidling trot, massive head low. It hit his nose with a dull thuwmp sound, and there was a startled yip before it turned and ran. The other two tried to rush him from behind. He turned and threw the next rock, and the dog went over with a drumlike thump as it plowed into his ribs. The last skidded to a stop, visibly had second thoughts, and backed off growling. Harvey waited until it turned tail, plowed the last rock into its rump to discourage any other reconsiderations, sighed again as it yelped and fled, and walked towards the outline of the stubby minaret that marked the little town's mosque. Everything else important—the gas station, the meyhane tavern-cum-hotel, and the stores if any—would be fairly close to it.
Change the mosque to a church, and it could be something in parts of Mexico or even the American Southwest. The village was a straggle of old plastered-stone or mudbrick homes, one-story and flat-roofed, and newer cinderblock structures with tin roofs, with a scattering of tired, scrubby-looking fruit trees, apples and pistachios. He could smell sheep-pens further out. One fairly largish new building was probably the school. Harvey pulled his cloth cap down over his eyes and sidled towards the meyhane, keeping to the edge of the buildings rather than crossing open spaces. The door slammed out, and he heard a woman's voice raised over a man's strangled cry.
Well, well, he thought. And they say there's no such thing as coincidence... and where the Power's involved, there ain't no such thing. Could that be who I think it is? Sending my ol' buddies after me? Tricky, but tricks can work both ways, Adrian.
It was definitely the pair from the wrecked vehicle; you were about as likely to see a bullfrog playing a mandolin as a local woman in a village tavern hereabouts.
Three men came though the door; one sagged, and his friends were holding him under the arms as he gasped and whimpered and made cradling motions around his crotch, as if he wanted to rub himself but was afraid to. A moment later he began to puke, at which point his friends cursed and shifted their grip to his back.
Harvey ducked aside and ghosted down a rubbish-strewn alleyway behind the inn that stank of stale urine even in the cold, then eeled through a back door. Down a narrow hallway between walls that had the lumpy smoothness of plastered adobe, past a kitchen where an antique gas range threw heat and the cook's back was to him as he began to pack up for the night. He took out the weapon, waited until there was a metallic clatter and racked the hammers back; there was nothing quite like that little springy click to alert the experienced ear.
Then he halted a foot back from a screen of wooden bead strings that gave onto the largish front chamber, the gun held down by his thigh, as inconspicuous as possible with a massive deadly weapon. People saw what they expected, even when you didn't encourage them with the Power.
The air was hazy with harsh tobacco smoke; rural Turkey hadn't caught on to the no-smoking thing yet. There was also the scent of garlic-heavy grilled meat, and the distinctive bitter-spirits and aniseed smell of raki, double-distilled white lightning made from grape pomace or (in a place like this) sugar-beet molasses. Most of the patrons seemed to be gone, though it was early in a winter's evening, the slow season of the farming year. Possibly the village was unusually religious, but he wouldn't bet on it. Those few left were bristly-chinned middle-aged men built like swarthy barrels on legs, and they were clumped at the tables over by the door, trying not to look at the pair closer to the back wall here.
Those two weren't making any attempt to blend in, just sitting and radiating pissed-off contempt for their surroundings, along with vibrations of extreme danger. Which was Anjali Guha and Jack Farmer to the life, both among his favorite blunt instruments. They were in denim jeans and laced hiking boots and expensive if slightly battered oiled-cotton jackets, the type with lots of pockets and brass snaps and leather patches on their elbows.
She had an oval face with skin the color of milk chocolate and eyes so black the pupils disappeared in the iris and was fine-boned without looking the least fragile. Her hair was clubbed at the back of her neck, with a few strands escaping as if she'd done something energetic lately, and it was that raven's-wing black that has bluish highlights. The locals flinched when she looked up from her glass at them.
Her companion had American—and specifically Upper Midwest—written all over him, blond crewcut, pale-blue eyes, face like a pug-nosed clenched fist and the build of someone who'd be stocky if he hadn't also exercised fanatically. Both of them could have been anywhere between tired mid-twenties and fit early middle age; the man had a frosting of light stubble on his face.
The woman spoke, her voice flavored with the slight mellifluous sing-song of a native Hindi speaker who'd grown up with an old-fashioned dialect of British English as her second language, before spending many years in the United States:
"I am thinking: Why do I spend so much of my life dealing with troglodyte sexist banchuts in places like this? Defending them from fates worse than death. Risking my life to do so when I could be in La Jolla throwing treats to the cormorants? It is a wonderment."
"You gave that one a toecap vasectomy, so he probably won't be breeding any more of 'em. And hey, usually we're in more civilized parts of the world," the man said. "Don't you love to travel?"
"With you?" she asked snidely.
"Hey, I'm not a sexist troglodyte banchut!"
"Not a sexist. Full stop."
Harvey waited until they were both looking at the front door and pulled nothing-here around himself as he sidled in, hooked a chair over with one foot, and sat down at their table. They were both naturally stronger with the Power than he was; that was just a matter of the genes. But his technique was perfect, which also mattered, and the don't-notice-this trick was his best. Good enough that he hadn't died forty-odd years ago, on his first op against a real adept. He held the coach gun below the level of the table, tapping the barrels once on the underside for emphasis when he let them see him.
Neither started when they recognized him, or at the equally distinctive sound of the stubby gun knocking on rough wood. Instead their hands moved smoothly towards their own weapons and he sensed preset Wreakings welling up towards the surface of their minds, like smooth fanged shapes rippling the surface of still black water. Harvey showed his teeth.
"Now y'all don't have to get unfriendly, and it would be a pity to go throwing Wreakings around in this fine scenic example of Turkish peasant authenticity because anything they built to replace this shitheap would be even worse," he said. "'sides, I got a barrel for each of you. At this range... "
At this range, the sixteen pea-sized silvered shot in the smoothbore weapon would spatter bits of skin, bone, intestines and blood back a dozen paces, and both the Brotherhood operatives had seen more than once how swiftly he could react in a hard place. Plus there was something illogical but primal about having a weapon pointed at your crotch. They froze, and then returned their hands to the table, keeping them carefully in sight. Their eyes rested on his, unwinking as snakes. They were shielded well, but he could feel their taut readiness. And a curious relief, as if they realistically feared deadly violence and welcomed the prospect as well.
Don't you love life in the Brotherhood? he thought whimsically. Eventually your head becomes a bad neighborhood you don't want to go into by yourself. You need more of the stuff that fucked you up to distract you from how badly you're fucked up.
The four remaining locals all put away their backgammon games, got up and walked out into the night, talking loudly among themselves about the local football—soccer—team's chances. Possibly they were going to go to the town cop, but Harvey Ledbetter didn't think so, not from his read of their auras. Certainly the man he'd seen being helped out earlier wouldn't be. Pigs would strap on jetpacks before a highland Turk or a Kurd complained to the authorities about getting slammed in the nuts by a female tourist. Bursting back in behind an AK on rock-and-roll was more likely, and still not very high on his list of worries right now.
With his left hand he picked up a glass of a milklike fluid and sipped. It was raki, which for some reason colored up like that when mixed with chilled water. There were plates of meze on the table: beyaz peynir goat cheese, sliced ripe melon, hot pepper paste with walnuts, yoghurt, stuffed bell peppers, and kӧfte lamb meatballs.
He scooped some up with a piece of the lavash flatbread; using his left hand was mildly impolite hereabouts, but nobody would expect better from a Frenk, and he wasn't going to take his right index finger too far from the trigger just yet.
"Anjali," he said, nodding to the woman. She stared back expressionlessly. "Mighty nice meze for a three-hole-privy town like this; I was somewhat peckish. Long time since that kebab stand. I heard you was messed up pretty bad. Didn't expect you back on your feet this quick."
She nodded. "Accelerated healing. Adrian did the Wreakings," she said.
Laying on of hands actually worked reliably with someone at Adrian's level; it was sort of like transferring his own biochemical luck. Unfortunately the cost was high.
"Always was a good sort. How's it hanging in Iowa, Jack?"
"I'm from Wisconsin, you dumb Hill Country shitkicker!"
Harvey grinned at the other man's snarl. "Charmin' as ever, Jack. That was your little cross-country number still smoking a bit out there about three klicks back, right? Someone got their blessings an' curses and ever-filled purses crossed, or did they just not give a damn about you being downrage of the muzzle?"
Jack Farmer was favoring his left hand and there was a spot on one cheek that looked a little reddish, which was consistent with putting up the arm to shield his face as he plunged through a growing wall of flames. Both of them smelled a little singed at close range.
"Let me count the ways you cowboying away with a fucking nuke has nearly gotten us killed—" Farmer started.
Harvey chuckled. "Hell, you two helped me get it. Don't recall you being too behind-hand doing the down-and-dirty boogie when we had that little black flag party in Veracruz with our late buddy Dhul Fiqar. Or thinking it was a bad idea to hit the Council meeting in Tbilisi whether or not we had official permission from the Brotherhood's not-so-omniscient committee of bickering. I can't see you two getting' all weepy about collateral damage the way Adrian would. How'd he talk you around into stopping me?"
"We helped you before we—" Anjali said.
"Before you learned Adrienne was alive and was manipulatin' us all from behind the curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz?" Harvey asked genially. "Great and Powerful Ozzette? Ozma? Whatever."
They both started this time, and looked at each other. He laughed, scooped up a few of the meatballs, and chewed. When he'd swallowed:
"You thought I didn't know? Or that I had some sort of Wreaking planted in my brain? Hell, you can tell from this distance that ain't so. Check on it, I won't bite. Just be careful 'cause it would be truly tragic if this gun went off."
Harvey drank another swallow of the raki as he felt the featherlight touch of their probes, and exhaled in satisfaction as the warmth hit his belly. They looked at each other.
"He is clean," Anjali said. Then, cautiously: "As far as I can tell."
"Yeah, that's the way I read it too," Jack said after a moment.
Harvey nodded. There was a click-clack as he broke the action of the coach gun open, palmed the shells, and set them down neatly on the table. Both the other operatives relaxed infinitesimally.
"Let me tell you two a little about the wheels within the turning wheels," he began.
As he spoke, he wondered what had been going on among the enemy, a category which had ballooned uncomfortably of late. Something had happened, or he'd be tooling along towards his target. There had probably been enough wheels within wheels on the other side to make up a fair chronometer.
'cause if you've got two Shadowspawn in a room, you've got a conspiracy and three double-crosses.
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>