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The elevator slides open on a man in combat fatigues who obviously never pulled a day of combat in his life. Glasses, salt-and-pepper goatee, middle-aged paunch pushing out over his belt. Stupid little ponytail, probably meant as some kind of diversionary tactic to draw attention from his hairline. Ive never seen him before, of course; but the sight of me lights his face up with such obvious joy I wonder for a second if hes going to kiss me.

Dude, he says. You made it.

Nathan Gould is a slob with a paper fetish. The apartment is piled floor-to-ceiling with all manner of shit: filing cabinets, drawers hanging half open like extruded tongues, piles of newspapers (where the hell did he get newspapers in Manhattan?), stacks of old optical ROM. Old paper maps spread out across one of those tilted architects tables you see in TwenCen movies, you know, before computers. Topographic, geological, architectural. Its like Goulds hardcopied every overlay anyones ever dumped into the Manhattan database. I dont know what hes using them for, other than to mop up coffee spills and snort the occasional line of grimwire (I can see the crystal residue from across the room; the eyes in this suit dont miss a thing).

Man, you wouldnt believe the shit thats gone down in the last twenty-four hours. Barclays guys are getting creamed uptown. CryNet are falling the fuck apart everywhere else. Chaos, man.

The wallsthose bits of them that peek through between the mountains of dead trees, anywayare a mix of smart paint, cork-board, and old 2-D monitors. One walls three layers deep in pushpins and pictures, everything from false-color satcam shots to coupons for 20 percent off tampons at PharMart. An ancient mini fridge squats in one corner; it doesnt even have an online connection but someone called Angie has scribbled Nate, When are you going to get your shit out of my place?! Im back for good on the 28th on the dry-erase board stuck to the door.

Gould leads me through all this chaos like a guide through the jungle, talking nonstop: That shit you absorbed at the crash site, its lit up the suit systems like a pinball, man, and Definitely viral, same base structure as the nano-weave, and Hargreave must be nuts, playing with that shit like it was Kevlar. Im not really paying attention. Ive just caught sight of an aquarium behind a stack of old hardcovers, a big hundred-gallon job, and somethings squirming in it: something with arms and suckers. For a moment I think Goulds caught himself a baby Ceph, but no; its just an octopus. Looks as alien as anything else Ive run into these past few hours, but at least its from around here.

Somehow that makes all the difference. I almost feel, I dont know, affection for the spineless crawly thing. Were all in the same tank now, right?

Gould leads me down the hallRight down here, same basic setup as back on the island, just not as many bells and whistlesinto a room thats at least empty enough to really appreciate how dingy the wallpaper is. Backed up against the far wall is a cross between a recliner and a crucifix. Or maybe a crucifix and a dentists chair. Definitely a crucifixion subtext, though: Its a molded recliner with outstretched arms, a socket for the suit. You sit back andjudging by those circular little receptacles along the arms and legs and spineit plugs right into you. A loose coil of black umbilicals connects it to a server stack in the corner.

So come on, lets get you checked out.

I lower myself into the cradle, and whump Im stuck in stone. I dont know if its the damn suit or Goulds setup but here I am again, paralyzed while this middle-aged geek rolls around on his desk chair and fiddles with controls I cant understand.

Some fucked-up shit, right? He ends up at an old scuffed desk against the wall, playing with the laptop there. And Hargreave, well, who knows whats going on in his head... So lets see what we

Wait a second, thats odd

And suddenly, whatever welcome I saw in Nathan Goulds face is nowhere to be seen. What I see instead is shock, and anger, and fear. I see the beginnings of a killing rage; I know what those look like.

I see the gun in Goulds hand, pointed at my face.

Youre not Prophet, he hisses.

I still cant move.

Who are you? What did you do to him? He leans in close. Hargreave, right? Just another loose end. Hargreave sent you to kill me.

I wonder how much this suit can take, immobilized. I wonder what kinds of tools Gould has at his disposal. I wonder how long itll take him to crack me open like a clam, get at the soft squishy parts inside. Just calm down, Nathan. You have the upper hand. No need to panic, no need to be hasty. Just

Thats right. Back to your keyboard. Access the black box. Theres gotta be one in here somewhere. Play back the log. Get the facts.

He gets them. Seems to sink into himself a little. After a few moments he remembers me, and frees me with the flip of a switch. He turns without a word and disappears up the hallway.

I find him back in the living room. Somehow, against all odds, hes found a chair that isnt half a meter deep in ancient hardcopy. He sits with his head in his hands.

I cant do this anymore, he says to the carpet. Im not a fucking stormtrooper, Im not some spec ops hard case like ylike Prophet... was. A conspiracy geek with a grudge. Thats all I fucking am.

Motion from the corner of my eye: Over by the wall the octopus writhes in its tank. Its arms coil, uncoil, beckon me from across the room.

Prophet was supposed to get us out. The marines were coming for us. Now...

Suckers attach themselves deliberately to the glass, one after another after another, an endless procession of circular footsteps. The body of the thing inflates as I watch, swells up like a great fleshy balloon, then slowly collapses; I get the sense of a weary, resigned sigh. One gold unblinking eye regards me through a horizontal bar of pupil.

Thats Houdini, Gould says, behind me. Know anything about cephalopods? He sounds almost hopeful, but it doesnt last: No, of course you dont.

Houdini and I watch each other through the glass.

Smartest inversmartest earthly invertebrate that ever lived, Gould remarks. Astonishing problem-solving abilities, deep memory, physical dexterity an order of magnitude greater than anything we vertebrates ever managed. You know, they have individual motor control over every one of those suckers? Pass a pebble from one sucker to the next: down from the tip of one arm, across the beak, back up to the tip of another arm, do it a hundred times and never drop the damn thing once.

Imagine what they could do with a clitoris.

I turn, and catch the ghost of a smile fading on his face.

Half his nervous systems in the arms, you know? You could say those things literally think with their tentacles.

Houdini retreats to a pile of fake rocks, pours himself into those cracks and crevices like epoxy. He disappears before my eyes, his boneless body mimicking not just the color but the texture of the rock pile. Gould grunts softly.

Hes wrong, though. I may just be a dumb jarhead but I knew a thing or two about those crawly beasts even before Goulds little tutorial. When I was a kid there was this public aquarium down by the waterfront, had an octopus in a tank. Big triangular Plexi column backed onto a rock wall full of little caves and crannies. No matter how many times you paid to get in, the fucking octopus was always hiding in that rock wall; youd see maybe an eye, a little patch of suckers, and a whole lot of empty tank. It was pathetic.

But then one night me and a couple of the guys broke into the place on a dareit was pretty easy actually, the security guard was a bit of a stoner and kept forgetting to turn the alarm back on after he did his roundsand my buddies went straight to the shark tank but for some reason I decided to check out the octopus. And the whole gallery was dim and green and deserted, it was great, and wouldnt you know it the fucking thing was out and about. Right there in the open. Turns out octopuses are nocturnal. It would swell up and then phoomphjet its way into the deep blue sea, but of course its in a fucking tank, right? So it just slammed into the Plexiglas like a limp water balloon. And you could just see it deflating, sinking down to the bottom all depressed, but then it would change its mind and gear up for another run, puff itself up, phoomph out into the deep blue seaand thump into the glass and it would get all depressed and sink back down again. I watched it for a good ten minutes and it never seemed to learn. So lets just say Im a little skeptical of the Gospel According to Gould when it comes to cephalopod intelligence.

But the thing is, it never learned but it never gave up, either. I couldnt help feeling sorry for the little fucker. It had needs and wants, it valued its freedom, you never saw it during the day but at night youd have to be blind not to see how much it hated being in that tank. And now Im looking at Houdini, and Im thinking about the Ceph, and you know, theres a part of me thinking maybe we just havent seen these things at night yet. I mean, if an ignorant asshole like me can drum up sympathy for an overgrown garden slug at the tender age of fourteen, whos to say we cant come to terms with these aliens somehow, right?

Nah. Of course not.

Had you going for a moment though, didnt I?

Goulds going on about ancient history. Houdini has retired under a rock so I start paying attention: something about smallpox and the Aztecs.

Ever wonder how they felt when they saw those pustules popping up for the first time, when they saw what it was doing to them? One of the most culturally dynamic civilizations on the planet, wiped out by a bug less than half a micron across. You might be surprised how often that kind of thing happens.

Ever wonder how history might have turned out if theyd had vaccine technology?

I cant say I have. It doesnt take a gene genie to see where hes going with this, though.

Prophet said there might be one. For the spore. Gould nods in my direction. I think the datas in that suit youre wearing, somehow. It was the only reason he came back in, he sure as fuck doesntdidnt trust Hargreave. I gotta say, even I wondered if he was getting a bit paranoid. Wear that suit long enough, you start toanyway. If your field trip to the crash site proved anything, it proved that Prophet was right about Hargreave. Your suit, the alien techno way independent evolutionary tracks give you that kind of similarity down on the molecular level. Whoever you are, youre pretty much wearing a Ceph exoskeleton. All we did was file off the serial numbers, change the chrome, and slap a dozen CryNet patents onto a black box.

He sighs, and shakes his head.

Let me tell you a story.

Its more of a conspiracy theory, actually. I wouldve rolled my eyes if Leavenworth had fed it to me a week ago. After today, though, Im wondering if its paranoid enough.

Theres this company, Hargreave-Rasch. Its over a hundred years old, even though Ive never heard of it before. Apparently thats the way they like it; H-R is the company behind the companies, the dark force pulling the strings behind the smiling beneficent Monsantos and the Halliburtons and the General Technics of the world.

Think about that. Think about a company that makes Halliburton look socially progressive. Think about a company that uses Monsanto as its happy face.

Hargreave-Rasch didnt have to hide. It was so fucking scary that anyone in the know was afraid to look it in the eye.

They ran a big honking radio-telescope array out of a chunk of Arizona theyd owned since before Hiroshima. Added some outgrouped satellites up in geosync to widen the aperture, just as soon as the tech was available.

All that time they were looking for space aliens.

Were not talking your average high school SETI project here. This was no shoestring operation put together by the tinfoil-hat crowd, nobody was holding bake sales or begging spare CPU cycles on peoples iBalls to crunch space static. This one project had the budget of a good-sized third-world puppet regime.

Also, according to Gould, they had a pretty good idea of where to look. Not that he ever told me how they came by that information.

They went at it for the better part of a century. They strained the whole fucking sky, squeezed every gamma burst and every X-ray and every burp of static through all the filters and algorithms that money could buy, and they came up with bupkis. They must have lost billions over the years, but they kept at it. They didnt quit. This wasnt a gamble, you see. Hargreave was no visionary, he wasnt just playing the odds. He wasnt hoping there was something out there. He knew.

Six months ago they caught something out past the orbit of Mars. Gould doesnt know what it wasapparently he used to work for H-R himself but by then hed left over, well, he called them creative differences. But something. And now, all of a sudden, weve got aliens invading Manhattan.

Does that make any fucking sense to you at all? Gould asks me.

And if I could talk Id have to say, well, sure. It makes perfect sense. Im a soldier, for chrissake. There wouldnt be a need for people like me if life was all flowers and fluffy kittens. But this is Darwins universe, Dr. Gould. Theres never enough to go aroundand if there is, you gobble it up until there isnt, and then you fight over whats left. Youd think a scientist would know this shit.

What did Hargreave think would happen when he went out looking for giants? Did he think theyd invite us into some big shiny galactic federation, cure cancer, and give us the secret of immortality? Of course theyre gonna kick our ass. Any soldier worth his shit will tell you: You think theres something bigger than you out there, you fucking well keep your head down and hope it doesnt notice.

I mean, if were dealing with actual goddamn space aliens herethings that travel among the starsthen Goulds wrong: Were not the Aztecs to their Europeans, were the whales to their factory ships. Were the palm trees to their fucking napalm. What I cant figure out is why were getting in any licks at all.

We still dont even know where theyre coming from, he says. If theyve got a ship in orbit, its cloaked against anything weve got. If theyve landed already, nobody saw them come down. And God help us if theyre teleporting their troops in from out past Mars. He snorts softly, a hollow chuckle, a gallows laugh. However theyre doing it, theyre going by the book. First send the pox to soften us up, then send the conquistadores. At least the Mayans could see the damn galleons coming over the horizon...

Houdini waves a listless tentacle at me from across the room. A glossy hardcopy catches my eye just to the left of his tank, a satcam enhance of a fractal coastline stripped of cloud cover: the eastern Chinese seaboard, stippled with text and contour lines. One of the labels is oddly familiar.


Of course. Goulds noticed my interest. I keep forgetting. Manhattan wasnt exactly the first stop on the tour.

Thereve been rumors. Some kind of covert op that went bad back at the start of the decade, just before the climate jumped the rails and turned the whole fucking planet upside down. You hear things, some of them pretty wildbut I dont remember anything about space aliens.

They had aI suppose youd call it a skirmish, Gould tells me. Were assuming they encountered the Ceph. Were hoping they encountered the Ceph; otherwise weve run into two hostile alien species within three years, and how do you like those odds? But Prophetwell, you met him. He was top-of-the-line, he wouldnt have been running that team otherwise, but Ling Shanchanged him.

He looks away for a moment.

No, he says at last. Im bullshitting you. The suit changed him. Your suit, now. His shoulders rise, fall. Prophet wasnthe may not have been entirely sane, there at the end. Theres a degree of integration that not everyone can handle. Probably nothing for you to worry about, not over the short term, but Prophet was hooked into that thing forI dont know how long, actually. He dropped right off the map after Ling Shan. Stopped trusting Hargreave entirely, figured out how to disable the tracking chip, and just

Gould kisses the tips of his fingers, spreads them as if blowing smoke to the wind.

They sent a team in afterward, of course. No trace of any aliens, no trace of our guys, no trace of Prophet. The whole playing field had been slagged to glass. He laughs a sad little laugh. I was never able to find out which side did that, actually.

I think Hargreave blamed me, in a way, even then. I mean I wasnt Prophets handler, exactly, but I was there. Doesnt matter how many lab tests you run, your prototypes always gonna fuck up in the field, right? First rule of product testing. So there I was, in the same room with all those black ops need-to-know heavyweights, just a geek to keep an eye on the suit feeds and work out the bugs. When the suit goes dark, who else you gonna blame? I was the guy supposed to make sure that didnt happen.

It was bad enough we all thought he was dead, but then I started getting these messages. A vcard or a voicemail, totally untraceable, just out of the blue every two or three months: Having a blast, wish you were here, that kind of thing. I have no fucking clue why he reached out to me of all people. Nobody else heard squat from the man as far as I know, not even his handler.

But now Hargreaves thinking I was in on it somehow. Prophet was a top-of-the-line field man but theres no way he had the chops to hack that suit on his own, right? I managed to convince him I hadnt conspired to steal his secret technologyit wasnt all that hard, actually, Hargreave-Rasch has machines that can sniff out a little white lie from your blink rate, among other thingsbut that still pretty much wrapped it up as far as the whole Prism gig was concerned.

Anyway, at least we knew Prophet wasnt dead at the bottom of a jungle canyon somewhere. But we never saw him, and he never came in, and I dont know how much of these past three years he spent in that suit and how much he spent out of it. For all I know he never took the damn thing off, and that would be... well.

Outside, the faint faraway sound of something colossal, falling over.

Gould shakes his head, gets back on message. The point is, he wanted to come in now. After all this time. And Im not working at H-R anymore but I guess Im the only one he trusts. So he reaches out. Going to bring me something, he says, something to save the goddamn world. And here you are. Youre not carrying any gift-wrapped packages. Youre not handing me the key to some safe-deposit box. All youve brought me is that fucking suit.

Find Gould. Nathan Gould. Im so fucking sorry.

Its all on you now.

The Geek from Prism hauls himself to his feet. It seems to take all the strength in the world.

So, he says. Shall we get started?

Manhattan Triage Preprocessing Transcript, Subject 429 10024-DR | Crysis: Legion | * * *