Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

SHADOWS OF FALLING NIGHT

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


 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Paris-Mitteleuropa

 

A railway attendant in an archaic uniform met them as they stepped from the cab before the main gate of the Gar d'Est, holding up an umbrella against the light slushy snow.

"Monsieur et Madame Brézé? For the Venice-Simplon Orient Express Special to Istanbul? This way, if you please."

Porters in period costume swarmed over their luggage. Ellen turned to him:

"Don't tell me it was your great-grandfather who had this restarted," she said. "You said we were taking the train, but I didn't expect this."

Adrian looked at her straight-faced, enjoying her surprise. She was very fetching, he thought, in a long-sleeved taupe celtic knotwork cable twinset with intarsi hints of rose and and cream in the fine cashmere, and a deep box-pleated skirt of fine brown wool. A few snowflakes were melting on the glossy black Astrakan fur of her coat and Cossack-style hat.

"I cannot tell you it was him," he said gravely.

"Aha! I win!"

"Perhaps I should punish you for that."

"Is that a promise, lover?"

"But I will not. Because it was my great-grandmother's idea, not his," he said, feeling his spirits lift as he sensed hers. "Indirectly; an ordinary company acquired and refurbished the original cars of the Orient Express to the level of the 1920's, and runs them as a luxury excursion. Except when the masters wish to use them, of course."

Then he grinned. "There! True to the letter, false to the spirit, and you can't complain."

"I can't complain but I can kick you," she said, and did—lightly, on the ankle. Then she did a double take as they walked through the huge barrel-vaulted concourse and onto the platform beneath the iron and glass.

"My God," she said. "Is that a steam engine?"

It was, a big gleaming-black 2-8-2 French version of the old Pacifics belching smoke and steam amid a smell of burning coal and hot wetness, and the Parisians and tourists who crowded the Gar d'Est were gawking. Discreet security details kept them at a distance. Adrian put his head to one side and concentrated. A flicker of emotions—wonder, annoyance, that stolid bureaucratic feeling of doing one's job without curiosity...

"Maybe we should be taking Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," she said, shaking her head.

"I think they are indeed claiming it is all a part of a film," Adrian said.

Ellen shook her head again. "Why on earth would the Council adepts want the trouble of running the world, when they can do this sort of thing just on a whim?"

And she is as intelligent as she is ornamental, he thought, happy despite the tension. Indeed, that she loves me—for what I am—is undeserved good fortune.

"They might not, if it were not for the increasing risk of the great secret being discovered," he said. "Or the earth being ruined. It took decades of dispute for them to decide and a great deal of pressure from... "

A prickle ran through him, and he laid a hand on Ellen's arm: "Do not be startled. She is near. The agent of this crisis."

Ellen turned slowly, and inclined her head very slightly. Adrienne was dressed in the height of fashion... for nineteen twenty-two, or so; bobbed hair, a cloche hat with a band, and a straight tubular dress under a coat with a spotted ermine collar. One hand held a cigarette in a long ivory holder, wrist bent at an extravagant silent-film-star angle. Monica was beside her, carrying a small overnight suitcase of ostrich leather; she wore a soft sapphire blue wool coat with a collar of golden ocelot fur, and it made her shoulders look exaggeratedly big. Beneath was a jaqard-loomed silk dropwaisted dress, patterned with silver wolves and nymphs on a nile green background.

"Nothing lacking but another maid with a lapdog," he heard Ellen murmur inaudibly.

"'allo, chérie," Adrienne said to her cheerfully. "Just... " she indicated the steam train. "... going with the ambience. Though that is a very pleasant outfit, I must admit."

"20's suits you," Ellen said coolly, looking down her nose slightly. "If I was doing period, I'd have gone Belle Epoque, with a Gibson Girl blouse and walking skirt with a nice loose Harris tweed coat. You'd look mousy in that, of course."

Adrian felt a flash of genuine annoyance from his sister, and smiled slightly. It was an absolutely correct fashion judgment; which was why she was annoyed, of course.

"Such charming insolence, sweetie! I would have to spank you soundly for that if you were still in my household," Adrienne said. "As I recall, you enjoyed that quite a bit."

"Yup. But it really requires a man's hands to do a first-class job," Ellen said. "Teeny-tiny little paddle paws always... disappoint in the end."

Monica made a strangled, shocked sound. Adrienne's eyes flashed for a second, then she smiled and inclined her head in acknowledgement of a verbal gambit worthy of herself before turning to her brother.

"Adrian, beloved, what a coincidence that you accepted great-grandfather's invitation as well. But shouldn't you be in character too? If you're going to be out of date, at least be thoroughly out of date! Spats, perhaps, a cane and a monocle?"

"You have mistaken me for Great-Uncle Arnaud."

"No, you are not insane, tedious or notably treacherous. I have become somewhat... annoyed with Arnaud."

"He tried to kill me last year. And Ellen."

"Yet despite that, I find him irritating. He has a talent for annoyance. Even Great-grandfather is becoming short with him. We discussed it, among other things."

"You always were a suck-up," Adrian replied; he kept his tone light, but realized that he really meant it. "And a tale-teller."

That always enraged me, when she blamed me to our parents... even though they could read our minds...

"But of course!" Adrienne said. "And if our revered ancestors are going to all this trouble, we can at least fit in. Shadowspawn or human, flattery never hurts. As true now as it was in the 80's... evidently your perpetual decade of choice."

Adrian inclined his head again, hiding a wince; once again his twin had managed to plant a fishhook, if a small one. His slacks, loafers and jacket did have a slightly dated flavor, the narrow-lapel, long-jacket style he'd favored as a young man when everyone was finally reacting against the excesses of the sixties and seventies. Adrienne displayed unwonted tact by heading off ahead of them.

Ellen was taking deep slow breaths, and he could feel her calming, directly through her aura and through the strong base-link that joined them. A surge of admiration went through him. They had worked on technique in their time together, but even at the beginning she had been better than any human-norm he'd ever met at simply keeping functioning despite whatever happened inside her head. It had been one of the things that attracted him in the first place, that combination of toughness and vulnerability and intelligence. And it was what had allowed her to survive months under Adrienne's hand without more insanity than a wholly understandable and only mildly obsessive lust for revenge.

"Thoughts?" she said quietly, as she turned and felt his eyes on her. "C'mon, oh telepathic one, play fair."

"Thinking that I am the luckiest man on earth," he said.

She flushed a little. "Damn, and I can feel you actually do feel that way. You know how to pay a girl a complement."

"And usually it is men who complain that their wives expect them to be mind-readers... "

Though with most women, being a real mind-reader is less help than one might think.

It took close contact for a while to actually read thoughts, the discursive interior monologue of the mind speaking to itself. Feelings you could grasp immediately.

Usually that simply punctures illusions faster... or prevents one from having illusions in the first place. Now with Ellen, however... I have never felt so connected to another being.

He gave her his arm. The staff of the Express were lined up beside the train, waiters and cooks in white jackets, stewards in blue with gold-banded kepis and white gloves, the train manager in a suit. As he got closer the scale of the thing was apparent. The train was a third of a mile long and the rolling stock was taller than the modern equivalents, with the WL between gold rampant lions that was the blazon of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (et des Grands Express Européens.) The staff were more numerous than the passengers, even including the renfield servants.

Most of the employees were feeling suppressed wonder, but no more than normal apprehension. They'd probably been fed a cover story involving a set of impossibly rich eccentrics, with the occasional mental nudge to damp suspicion. The managers had Wreakings clamped into their brains like a web of barbed steel hooks, and he winced slightly and raised his barriers at the feel of minds like raw wounds and a muffled screaming down under the imposed control. Hopefully they'd have their memories excised without too much damage afterwards. His great-grandmother Seraphine was perfectly capable of petty malice on the order of pulling the legs off one side of an insect to watch it walk in circles, but usually didn't discard useful servants—as opposed to toys—that casually.

Though if they fail, may God have mercy on them... and there is no God.

"Was it really like this?" Ellen asked as they climbed aboard into Art Deco splendors of burnished tropical woods and parquetry and inlay and burnished brass.

"I am older than you, my darling, but not that old! When I was at the Sorbonne the primary local sport was rioting, with '68 already a fading nostalgic memory from a previous generation."

Ellen grinned, shaky but recovering her poise. "My fault for dating a boomer."

"Not quite a boomer, though short of Gen X."

"But you're like a Boomer."

"Ouch. And this train is probably fairly close to the original," Adrian said.

He nodded to where a group of servants—high-ranking renfields—was boarding. "Though of course few in that time traveled boxed, as it were."

Her eyes went to the small, heavy containers several of them carried. "That's... "

"Probably my disreputable ancestors. Sleeping the light away as comatose marmosets."

"Ferrets," Ellen observed clinically. "No way they'd do something without fangs."

"Or ferrets; it is the logical way. Travel is always difficult for postcorporeals, that is why they are such homebodies."

"It would be like... traveling through a radioactive wasteland, during the day, wouldn't it?"

"Not quite so bad. Even modest shielding will suffice... you see how the windows are tinted... but any accident to that shielding, any sabotage, and... the Final Death. The instinct is to seek deep shelter during the day, deep and safe and familiar, and to have many bolt-holes. Those boxes are thick alloy like the armor of tanks, and completely sealed. One awakes and walks through the walls. The train will have dozens of them, secreted in places impossible for humans to reach. Even so... "

"And they really trust the renfields to guard... oh, telepathy, mind control."

"Exactly. Those in renfield families grow with the knowledge that they can conceal nothing and are never safe."

Ellen shivered; he could tell that she was remembering her time at Rancho Sangre. Though she hadn't been in precisely that position, since he'd been able to help her bury secrets via their base-link; still, she'd had to give a very convincing imitation of utter helplessness. Wordlessly he touched her shoulder, then occupied himself with directing the porter to stow their baggage. The train was being run in the true lavish old-time style, born of an era when labor was cheap.

Their compartment was a miracle of compact elegance, down to the inlay of peacock's-tails on the opposite wall. The train lurched as they finished stowing their traveling bags; the rest would be in the baggage car. Adrian had traveled extensively on the Continent by Eurorail pass when he was in his twenties—first as a student, then on Brotherhood business—but he had to admit that this was more picturesque.

"This feels different," Ellen said, putting a hand to the frame of the compartment's window. "Different from a normal train."

"The pistons make the motions less regular than an electric locomotive," Adrian said. "The thrust is less continuous."

The chuffa-chuffa-chuffa of the great steam engine sounded through the fabric of the long train. There was no clickity-clack as there would have been in the glory days a hundred years ago, and less swaying from side to side; they were running on seamless welded rail on ferroconcrete, not short lengths mounted on wooden ties and secured to each other by bolted fishplates. They sat with their arms around each other and her head resting on his shoulder, watching as the wet gray bulk of Paris slid by outside and night fell on the French countryside beyond.

"You're thinking again, Adrian," she said, some time later.

He chuckled. "I was thinking how appetizing you smell," he said. "And how good it is to think that without feeling guilty about it."

"My conscience-ridden one," she said.

"You would not like me if I did not have a conscience," he said soberly.

She chuckled. "I've met you without a conscience. Well, without a conscience, without some other things, and with tits. I didn't like it. Though it was the lack-of-conscience part that was really unpleasant."

"Something else smells a bit appetizing. There are no less than three dining cars on this train, and a lounge as well."

"Beats stale Amtrack sandwiches all to hell," she said. "Let's go!"

They walked down the side-corridor. The lounge was exactly that; a Jazz Age nightspot complete with a musician tinkling the ivories in a white tux, while well-dressed men and women drank highballs and elaborate cocktails and chatted and laughed. If you could ignore the hot yellow eyes of more than half, that is. The dining car beyond was an island of light and fine white linen and tableware—not silverware, of course—with Lalique low-relief panels of frosted glass showing dancing bacchanals and bunches of grapes. He winced slightly as they passed a group in kimonos and took a seat at the far end; they'd recognized both of them, and the wave of hatred was almost palpable.

"Who are they?" Ellen asked.

"Those are the Tōkairin family, including the clan-heads from Japan."

"Tōkairin as in Tōkairin Michiko of unfond memory? The guys who thought they were ninja magicians."

"Yes, until the Brézés taught them the truth in a fit of missionary enthusiasm. Michiko's kindred. I hear that they are feeling extremely aggrieved. After all, they lost their California patriarch and their most purebred female still in the body, and at our hands. In fact, I was informed at the Hôtel de Brézé that they have kept Michiko's body alive."

Ellen's brows went up as they sat. "I thought the body died if a nightwalker was killed while they were out of it?"

"Eventually. The physical... plant, as it were... is all there, the autonomic functions continue for a while, but there is no consciousness to use the machinery. While one is nightwalking there is a link. Quantum entanglement, didn't Peter Boase call it? Destroying the nightwalking body severs that, the trauma of death instantly transmitted and chaoticizing the... mmmm... software files. The physical form enters a very deep coma. They have kept Michiko's on life-support machinery so that it does not perish of dehydration or lack of nourishment, I am not sure why."

"No way to cure it?"

"Not even the Power can cure death. The essence, the person, is dead."

Adrian paused, a thought teasing at him. "I do recall a speculation that it might be possible to... transplant... a personality, as it were... to such an empty shell. By soul-carrying. That's merely theory, though: I do not think it has ever been done, not in the modern era at least. It would account for some of the legends of possession. Or perhaps they will try to breed the unconscious body. That might be possible."

"Oh, euwww... I seem to say that a lot about Shadowspawn."

Adrian shrugged. "Spawn of darkness, eh? But we should be cautious about the Tōkairin even beyond the usual. Ah, I see we have reached Germany."

Another party was entering the dining room. One was—

Ellen blinked, and Adrian sensed her astonishment at the black and silver, the skull and crossbones insignia and burnished jackboots. She had never seen it except in films, of course.

"Is that—"

"Yes, SS dress uniform. Standartenführer Alberich von Trupp, in the flesh... well, not literally in the flesh since 1945. But present anyway."

"The Council was behind that?"

"No, just some individuals, thought Alberich was an enthusiast—he was at the Wannsee Conference, behind the scenes."

"Why didn't they win, then?"

"My great-grandfather insisted on an Allied victory. Not for any altruistic reasons, I assure you... Shadowspawn are perfectly capable of maintaining the prejudices of their upbringing. Even my great-grandfather considers him a pig of a Boche. The von Trupps still hold a grudge."

"Was Hitler... "

"Not enough to nightwalk or feed, but there was a substantial element, yes. Not that he knew it. Most great dictators are at least one-third homo nocturnis. And many saints, too."

"As a reaction against their impulses?"

"Precisely."

He looked at the menu. "Hmmm. Le filet de boeuf en salaison à l'aneth... fillet pickled in coarse salt, sliced with dill and coriander berries... and a bordelaise sauce... I would suggest the Château Latour 1998 with this... "

Ellen paused in the middle of breaking a roll. He could feel a roil of emotions in her aura; love, and something like... exasperation.

"You just told me we were even more likely to be horribly killed than we thought, if we don't manage to get ourselves vaporized by that damned nuke, and you're certain which Bordeaux we should have?"

The sommelier opened the bottle. Adrian rolled and sniffed the cork, tilted the glass to look at the candle flame through the swirl of dark intense red, sniffed and breathed in a sip. Something like bitter chocolate and graphite... just now reaching its peak. Not quite infanticide, but still a bit young, though the grapes had been harvested in the year Ellen was born.

"But of course. One would be mortified to die with the wrong wine upon the tongue."

She sighed. "I'm worried about the kids. Do you think Eric can get everyone to Vienna?"

He considered. It felt right, but of course...

"We must do what we can, and hope for luck. He is a very capable man. Unfortunately... now... Harvey is too. We are racing against time."

 

@@@

 

Eastern Turkey:

 

"The first thing we need is a truck," Harvey Ledbetter said.

"How are we going to get one?" Farmer asked.

"Steal it, as usual," Anjali said dryly. "How else?"

"Take a look at this place, Guha. Steal an oxcart, maybe."

It was a cold bleak dawn, with a sad dry smell and. Harvey absently chewed on some fresh flatbread as they walked back towards the wreck of his vehicle. The nameless village rose as early as any farming settlement, but the locals pointedly ignored them, which was for the best when all was considered. They passed the burnt-out van the two Brotherhood operatives had been driving back when they were chasing him, still smelling faintly in the chilly morning.

"That must have been just a bit lively," Harvey said; they'd been trapped inside a suddenly burning car with no obvious way to get out. "Closer to bein' unsalted cracklings than was comfortable, I'd say."

"No fucking shit, if I hadn't felt it coming maybe two, three seconds in advance we'd have been fried," Farmer replied.

Anjali was almost pouting. "And we lost our weapons, mostly. And our luggage. I do not like not having a toothbrush or clean underwear in the morning!"

"You could get something local," Harvey said.

Anjali threw her hands up. "Have you seen any woman here over thirteen whose backside is not a bloody yard across? And none of it would be clean, washed or not."

"Yeah, and if you're going to smell your own smell's always better," Harvey chuckled.

Anjali shuddered, looking as if she would like to climb out of her skin. She wasn't a high-caste Hindu except in a cultural-descent sense—wasn't teetotal or a vegetarian, for instance—but...

You can take the girl out of India, but you can't take all the Brahmin out of the girl, he thought, not for the first time. Fastidious ain't the word, ditto about feeling unclean even if she doesn't take ritual purity literally. Still, she keeps going even if she grumbles and you can't expect more.

Nothing was moving east. Harvey wasn't surprised; that curse probably had traffic knotted up back a hundred miles from here, with minds boggling and refusing to accept it even as things broke down, blew up or caught on fire. If you tried to travel in that direction by anything more modern than a donkey anything that could go wrong would, every single microsecond the quantum foam bubbled. Like fate, if Fate was a malicious child grinning and poking you with a stick. So...

"OK, but there's probably going to be something traveling the other way. Get us to a seaport, then find us a ship."

"A lot harder to hit a stretch of sea the same way," Farmer agreed. "Those generalized curses tend to bounce and shatter if you try them over open water. You can get a nasty backlash, too."

"A water surface is already chaotic," Anjali said, a little pedantically; she'd always been strong on theory, and had been an instructor down at the new Brotherhood HQ in Ecuador for a while. "That makes it easier to affect in detail but harder to maintain a standing effect."

They passed a herd of sheep with two attendants in coats about as hairy as those of their charges, and more of the big Anatolian sheepdogs. Their masters called them back from a barking, growling frenzy and passed the foreigners with wary nods. The three halted at Harvey's truck.

"Eighteen hours," Harvey said. "I am not going to lose this opportunity to hammer the Council's nuts. Probably nothing like it will come along again. Eighteen hours, and this lights up like a Christmas tree."

"Or Diwali lights," Anjali said, pleased that he'd used one of her favorite activities as a metaphor. "Hmmm."

She and Farmer knelt. He drew a circle in the dirt and inscribed the glyphs with quick practiced motions of a wooden stylus; they looked vaguely Egyptian, but were much older. A memory of them had lingered when the first Egyptian scribes wrote.

Though they also had a distinct touch of Belle Époque art nouveau, legacy of the adepts who had re-created them by fishing with the Power into the deeps of time. She began flipping a coin... what looked like a coin at first glance... into the circle as they both muttered in Mhabrogast, an antiphonal chorus like rats scratching in the walls of the world. Nobody had ever been able to prove whether the lingua demonica was objectively necessary to Wreaking or simply served as a focusing device, but like the glyphs it worked.

After a moment, breathing deeply and wiping her face Anjali went on: "Hard to be absolutely certain indeed, but I'd say the odds are good."

She frowned; they both gulped a sports drink. It didn't really help all that much, but it soothed some of the feelings Wreaking gave you, like sucking on a candy when you were trying to quit smoking.

"The odds of getting a truck are good. Better here than anywhere else within reach. But the fall... it does not seem very good somehow, overall. There are blackpath hints to the reading."

Harvey nodded. "We're goin' on the next thing to a suicide mission with a nuke to blow up a whole city," he said. "You expect goodness? As opposed to visions of bane and ruin?"

"A point, indeed, a point."

"No shit, Sherlock," Farmer said, fishing out a pair of Ray-Bans and leaning back against the bulk of Harvey's MAN diesel, moving carefully to avoid jarring the fading post-Wreaking headache.

"Hell, none of us does good, much," he said, sounding less angry than usual. "We do what's necessary. Other people get the goodness. We get the satisfaction of knowing we'd feel even worse about everything starting with ourselves if we did anything else."

"Seems that way, sometimes," Harvey agreed.

Not long after a trail of dust showed to the east; he squinted into it and the rising sun. It was considerably less fancy than the MAN rig he'd organized back in Austria, but then, this wasn't Austria. Or even Slovenia, or for that matter western Turkey, which had being getting almost offensively modern in recent decades. His practiced eye took it in as a Seddon Atkinson Strato 350 hauling a cargo container; ten axles all up. The make meant it had seen its best days in the 1990's, which come to think of it had been his best days too—in your thirties you were past being a dick with legs without being too creaking—but you used what you had on hand.

"Anjali, you flag him down," he said. "Take off your jacket. We'll persuade him of the error of his ways."

"Sexist banchut," she grumbled, but complied.

"Me no, the driver of that rig, pretty much guaranteed," Harvey said. "Jack, don't kill him."

The two men crouched behind the cab of the disabled truck; they could both sense the sudden spike of interest in the bored competence of the man's aura. She stood in the road, waving the jacket and looking distressed. The big vehicle slowed, with a hiss and squeal that made Harvey wince a little; someone had been neglecting the brakes. It crept past them, putting them a little behind the cab. The door opened and the driver jumped down, putting on his best would-be dashing grin.

"You need helping?" he said, in thick almost-English.

Which showed an unusual degree of perception—he'd noticed at once that she couldn't possibly be local and hadn't tried Turkish and Kurdish first. The driver was midway between wiry and burly, with a short black beard and bristle-cut hair and dark-olive skin; with the nondescript sweater and pants and battered shoes he could have been from anywhere between Bosnia and Afghanistan, though Harvey would have guessed at Iranian Azerbaijan from the accent and body-language and aura. The two Americans stepped forward without unnecessary haste or words, their movements sliding smoothly between the driver's first sight of them and the possibility of reaction. The younger grabbed the man's left elbow and wrist, twisted and locked and pushed upward.

"Sadece sakin, arkadaş," Harvey said, dropping into Turkish for a moment: "Just keep quiet, friend. No need for anyone to get hurt. Hurt much."

The truck driver gave an incoherent grunt and then froze as Harvey laid the barrels of his coach gun beside the right side of his face. The man's eyes rolled frantically, trying to see them without turning, but Farmer's hold meant that he'd wrench his arm out of the socket if he did anything but stay uncomfortably still. The unmistakable feel of the gun's twin barrels in the skin over his cheekbone encouraged this pragmatic attitude. Still, you could never be completely certain. Men under stress sometimes did astoundingly stupid things, even professionals, and he could feel this amateur's fear and bewilderment.

Fear had its uses, but encouraging rational thought was not one of them. Harvey reached up with his left hand and placed thumb and forefinger on either side of the man's head just above the neck; contact made things much easier for his modest command of the Power.

"No!" he said sharply to Anjali, who was buttoning her coat and also winding up for one of her patented toecap ballectomies. "He hasn't done anything but get unlucky and we've got him under control."

The woman scowled and shoved her hands into her pockets instead. Harvey took a deep breath, let it out, and adjusted the auras—there was some scientific term about entangling the functions but that was what it felt like, as if the edges of their personalities had started vibrating in tune. Then he pushed mentally.

"Szzeee. Mogu, ze ta!"

Blackness-devouring-thought. Command!

Farmer released his grip and stepped back as the driver went totally rigid for an instant and then as limp as a set of empty clothes. Anjali stepped forward and grabbed a handful of the sweater, setting herself to guide the fall a little. When the trucker was on his back, they could see trickles of blood running out of his nose.

Anjali stared at it fixedly for an instant, then turned away, unconsciously licking her lips and swallowing repeatedly. Then the lips curled back from her teeth.

"Watch it!" Harvey said sharply.

"I am," she muttered. "Just leave me alone for a moment."

The hands in her pockets clenched and her shields went up like ceramic laminate armor on a tank. She was the highest of the three on the Albermann scale, but well short of the ability to feed. Human blood was nothing but dirty salt water as far as her digestive system was concerned. Unfortunately, the craving for blood hit at a much lower level; without endless and very careful control, that was what produced a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Blood Countess. Housekeeping in Hell as you tried over and over again to reach an itch you couldn't scratch, tormenting as an insect dancing on your eardrum. He felt only the faintest shadow if it himself, and that was bad enough.

So you gotta make allowances. It's no wonder some people are testy a lot of the time.

"That will hurt more than a kick, yes," she said shortly.

Harvey grunted. He was feeling bad himself; you had to ration Wreaking very carefully indeed when it all came out of you.

"I gave him a dose of short-term amnesia," he said. "Safer than a concussion, though. Rearranging his man-tackle wouldn't have made him forget this."

"A good thump on the head would," Farmer observed. "And it takes less out of you than a Wreaking."

"Tell me," Harvey muttered; he was still feeling logy and aching all over. "That's risky, though. Concussion's no joke."

He looked at the truck. "You're young and full of beans, Jack. Get this thing backed up to mine. The load's on rails and I've got a good set of tools and a winch. We should be able to transfer it and hook up the power leads in a couple hours."

"What about the cargo?" Farmer said.

"It's... "

He hopped up into the bed of the truck and used his knife to rip open a few cartons marked as condensed chicken soup in Georgian. That was Georgian as in the Georgia in the Caucasus, an obscure and isolate language with its own script.

"... yeah, cigarettes and booze, probably dodgy as hell. We'll just dump it out and you can be damned sure it'll all disappear and I know nothing, officer, nothing! Anjali, give me a hand with this osco. We'll leave him in my truck's cab, wrap him up in a foil blanket, there's a couple of spares. He ought to be all right."

It was a little odd taking the trouble, since he was going to blow up an entire city right down to the little girls and their big-eyed kittens. On the other hand, that was necessary.

Leaving the driver to die of exposure would just be convenient. Keeping the distinction in mind was crucial.

 

@@@

 

On the mountainside a mile distant, Dmitri Pavlovich Usov watched patiently through the scope of the M82 sniper rifle. It was a .50 weapon, thirty pounds of recoil-operated precision throwing slugs the size of a woman's thumb fast enough to blast through a quarter inch of armor plate, and the maximum range was two thousand meters. More, if you could do a little Wreaking with aimpoints, and there were few adepts better at that than he was. The range was further than the usual individual hexes could reach, especially if the target was taken by surprise, so it was hard to defend against with the Power.

He imagined the sudden distant explosion of terror as the first round hit; those massive bullets could rip limbs off or kill from shock alone. The instant despair as the others died trying to leap for cover... He smiled. He had no intention of killing them, but there was no harm in dreams. He was a happy man, because he often lived his dreams.

Dmitri looked around thirty and was in his forty-eighth year, a sharp-featured blond man with a long lean body covered in ropy muscle, and currently wearing grey-brown hiking clothes and padded jacket. He watched the three Brotherhood agents as they toiled and sweated at their task. Even now, even at this distance the sheer absence of the cargo was disturbing. He knew it was there, and he could see it with the eyes of the body, but it simply did not affect the balance of the world as the Power perceived it.

Eerie, he thought. I do not like it.

There were practical matters to attend to.

Adrienne... Juliyevna... he thought.

A sense of awareness, of sharp-edged attention. Damped down behind shields, of course; his emotions were too. You never handed a tool to a potential opponent... which everyone was. Your allies most particularly.

Dmitri... Pavlovitch... came the reply.

Normally Adrienne and her fellow Progressives preferred to just text someone if they wanted to communicate; telepathy took energy and had low bandwidth long-range. It was very difficult to tap, though. They also used an obscure dialect once found only in a few villages in Central America. One no Shadowspawn had ever known, except for a peculiar renegade in New York most of a century ago, when things were more free-wheeling. The Council clean-up squad had buried his body and that of his seven odd associates under the Empire State Building, and killed off the villagers who'd helped him on general principles. Adrienne had come across the handwritten notes taken in the last raid and dumped in an old warehouse by the Council's mercenaries, liberated them, and had a few of her inner circle learn the language from her. Abstractly he admired her energy, because she had had to do it the slow way from the paper notes and the recordings.

It made a very good code. Shadowspawn could pull a language out of the brain of a speaker, but it was much harder to do to an adept. Impossible, under most circumstances.

The... subjects... are... mobile... again... I... did... not... need... to... intervene.

Good... do... not... underestimate... them.

He nodded, let agreement flow over the link, and waited. Soon enough they would leave. They had little of the Power, but they used what they had well. He would clean up the site—and of course dispose of the truck driver, which would be amusing—and then follow, cautiously. Things were coming together.

Another communication: the... situation... in... new mexico... is... confused.

He acknowledged that without replying; no complex operation came off as planned, even where Dale Shadowsblade was involved. Here it was fascinating to watch a major action develop with so little of the Power and prescience involved. The Council and its foes had relied on their abilities for a very long time; there was a curious advantage to limiting it to passive deflection.

Though even that took some effort. He licked his lips and snarled lightly. He hoped they hurried; he was growing hungry.

Finish... there... and... join... Shadowsblade... in... Santa... Fe... to... exert... control... act... only... with... a... low-risk... opportunity.

 

@@@

Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com