Rain hammers across my helmet. Lightning strobes on the horizon. Off in the middle distance a bright light turns in the sky like the eye of Sauron, sweeping land and sea: lighthouse.
I’m a hundred meters off the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. GPS puts Prism in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. A little over one klick northeast.
Hargreave’s back in my ear before I even make it ashore. “It’s good of you to come for me like this, Alcatraz, but you will need to proceed with caution. Lockhart has deployed his elite forces across the island. I’ll guide you as best I can, but my view from here is, shall we say, severely limited.”
The lighthouse rises in my sights like a terraced stone birthday cake: wide first layer with guardrail icing; narrower second; one big honking candle rising from the center. A wide stone stairway curves around the outer wall but even before I hit the shore I can see heat prints in the shadows of the first landing. I make three, line of sight; probably more inside the structure itself.
SECOND samples the airwaves: “You see that fly-by? Thought they were going to come in and strafe us.”
“Nah. Too shot up. Didn’t you see the flames? Be lucky if they manage five more minutes in the air.”
“Saffron Three and Eight, keep your comms clear. Run silent, perimeter sweep again—that tin fuck is coming, I can feel it.”
Daddy Lockhart, breaking in and squelching the signal.
I’m on the stairs now, flattened against the brickwork as Three and Eight clatter innocently past on their perimeter sweep, swinging their dicks. They hope I do show up. One of them had friends in Cobalt.
I wait until their voices fade, cloak for as long as it takes me to stick my head above the landing. Nothing but the backs of the Saffron Duo disappearing in the night. I don’t believe it. Lockhart’s an asshole but he’s not an idiot; he won’t have left the southern approach unguarded.
Sure enough, other voices slow me to a creep as I circle the first landing. Somebody thinks they should be out fighting the Ceph, not sitting here in the boonies. Someone else would rather be home fucking his boyfriend.
Way overhead, Sauron’s eye flickers and goes out. For a moment or two the night belongs to fires burning across the water. I look up at the lantern, catch a bright cloud of heat radiating from the dead lamp and a smaller shadow in front of it, something cooler. I switch to StarlAmp.
Ah yes. An arm. A sniper rifle. Have to remember that.
The lantern reignites. Somewhere behind all that stonework, gears grind faintly back up to speed: The beam resumes its endless track around the horizon.
“Ah, shit. Must be another power surge.”
“I swear, Lockhart’s losing it, man. He’s taking this shit way too personal.”
“Easy to get personal when some cyborg asshole puts half your friends in body bags. I want that fucker dead as bad as he does.”
“There’s no way he’s coming.”
“Maybe he’s already here. He’s got a cloak, you know . . .”
I do, at that. I bring it up and move along the wall and there they are, just outside the lighthouse door: three beetle suits, blinded by Science.
“. . . he could be watching us right now . . .”
I could reach out and touch her. I am so tempted. I am so tempted.
Right up until a fourth merc comes around the corner and touches me first.
Touches isn’t exactly the right word. Blunders would be closer. I am cloaked, after all; the dumb fuckwit walks right into me and bounces back on his heels, flailing. His buddies laugh as he goes over. For about half a second.
“He’s there! He’s right fucking there!”
“Well now,” Hargreave says softly on the penthouse freq.
“That didn’t last long, did it?”
I make it easy for them. I jump clear of the blunder zone the moment Fuckwit Four goes over so I’m spared the blizzard of bullets that Swiss-cheeses the spot a heartbeat later, but I’m not especially quiet about it. It’s about two seconds before the line of fire veers over to the sound of my boots on cement. Half a second after that the cloak runs out of juice and I start taking hits. A couple even get through before I crank the armor setting, but I don’t think there’s much left inside to hit anymore; for all I know the slug just bounces around in there and rolls down my leg. (Sometimes, Roger, I think I can almost hear it rattle when I walk.)
“Oversight, this is Saffron Two! Enemy contact in Sector Bravo!”
I hit back, of course. I teach Saffron’s front line the timely lesson that payback against Cyborg Assholes is a lot harder to do than to brag about, but by then they’ve called in air support and backup boots. I throw some suppressing fire up the tower on my way; I don’t have a hope in hell of hitting that sniper, but at least I’ve thrown off his aim. I scoop up a Feline submachine gun from one of the fallen (shitty recoil, awesome rate of fire) and head up-island, trying to balance stealth against speed.
Waypoint options, not great. Roosevelt Island’s maybe 150 meters across: not many degrees of freedom there, not much cover, and from the look of it those buildings that are still standing were derelict long before Squiddie came calling. Something hulks in the middle distance so that’s what I head for, calling up GPS on the fly: RENWICK HOSPITAL, it says, but there’s not so much as a streetlight out front. No big surprise; every other hospital in the country went under during the Double Dip. But it’s a building, it’s cover, it’s dark on thermal so there aren’t any blue-eyed beetles waiting to light me up from the shadows. I hear shouts and comm traffic behind me; the faint sound of rotors drifting down from up ahead. In between there’s crab grass and trampled chain link and no cover at all except for Renwick Hospital. So I charge toward it, weaving and deking because that lighthouse sniper must have got his groove back by now, yes?, and I look up and—
And it’s not a hospital.
At least, it doesn’t look like one. It’s a castle, or something. A dark castle looming in the rain, backlit by lightning, three stories of ancient brickwork and square-toothed battlements, mats of ivy crawling around windows as empty as eye sockets. I stop dead for a second, look up through those gaping holes straight through to smoke and sky. I feel like I’ve passed through some kind of time machine. Or maybe this place has: a little piece of the eighteenth century that somehow managed to hang on into the twenty-first.
It looks haunted.
And then those old stones splinter with the impact of the .30-caliber present, and I’m diving inside.
Turns out it’s a hospital after all. I don’t find out until later, but the place was built to hold smallpox patients back in the eighteen-hundreds. The original smallpox, not that Cuban strain—anyway. It was even a historic landmark for a few years, back before Hargreave-Rasch bought the place out.
Originally it was a quarantine site, they stuck it way out on the end of the island because they didn’t want all those poor sick bastards laying waste to the healthy population. A place to hold people too dangerous for civilized company. I wish I’d known that at the time. I would’ve felt so much more at home in the place.
A lot of people died in there, too, of course. Hundreds at least, I’d bet. Maybe thousands.
If Saffron and Hazel had known that, maybe they’d have felt more at home, too.
It’s a shell. What’s left of the floor is a tangle of dirt and scrub and stunted saplings. Half the second-story floor is missing; beams crisscross the empty spaces overhead. Rusty iron banisters angle up the walls, stairways with no stairs to floors with no floors. The roof has long since caved in but the stone walls are still standing; they might even be thick enough to foil whatever deep-scan thermal the incoming chopper might be packing.
Not too many places to hide once you’re inside but you can’t get inside without going through a bottleneck or two: open doorways, empty window frames. I plant my last few stickies with as much care as thirty seconds of lead time will give me: just inside the main door, under a few empty windowsills.
Hargreave drops in with a few helpful words: “Lockhart’s set an EMP trap for you up ahead.”
Good to know. A bit busy right now, Jack.
“Given the way they’re rerouting the local grid it’s going to be a big one, maybe big enough to get through your Faraday mesh. Might fry the Nanosuit, might even fry your own synapses depending on how deep the interface—uh . . .”
Two passageways leading to other parts of the ruin, narrow and relatively intact: my last couple of stickies go there. I just hope the grunts get here before the chopper does. I’m as good as naked to an airborne thermal scan.
“Now there’s no way to bypass the trap,” Hargreave says, “but why would we even want to when we can we can trick it out?”
I jump up to one of the few spots on the second level with both a floor and a ceiling. Not a bad view of the southern entrance, either.
An icon blooms on GPS: a hydro substation over on the east shore. The tit from which Prism sucks—but there’s no time for that now, because—
Saffron is at the door.
Two beetles, flattened to either side of the main door, waving their Scarabs around like magic wands. Something bounces off the stoop, rolls into the middle of the hall. I close my eyes.
My eyelids light up blood orange. Flash grenade. I hear Saffron whoop and come through the door.
I hear the sticky detonate. Saffron turns into a bloody pi~nata.
I open my eyes. It must have been bright as the sun in here a second ago; now it’s all orange flames and black smoke. Hazel Eight and Saffron Five scream news of my treachery back and forth across the channel. A beetle dives in through the window to the left of the main door window and nails the landing, a beautiful roll that brings him back on his feet in a second with his rifle cocked and sweeping. His buddy dives through the right window; another sticky blows his leg off. The acrobat whirls to face the carnage, off-guard. I shoot him.
A muffled whoompf from behind; one of my hallway grenades has just brought the walls down on someone approaching from the north (Hazel, that’s it. Reinforcements from up-island. The northern claw of an ill-advised pincer movement.) So far no one’s even spotted me yet.
Then the chopper heaves in out of the night and lacerates my little attic hideaway with tracer bullets.
I hear it coming, just in time: amp up the armor setting for those few seconds of HMG fire, cloak and hope there’s enough charge left to keep me covered as I roll off the platform and fall back to earth. The Feline’s in my hand by the time I hit: I spray the room like a water sprinkler and the cloak wears off but that’s okay, that’s okay, by now there’s nobody here but us corpses.
One of them died clutching a Grendel: half the firing rate, but twice the damage. The feline’s almost dry anyway. I swap out.
The chopper’s hanging just off the parapets up there somewhere, drifting back and forth along the building. Good news, I guess: It doesn’t know where I am. Can’t see through the walls. Just gotta make sure it doesn’t get line of sight on me again.
Here at ground level, the beetles have pulled back for the moment. Only a couple of the stickies are still live but they don’t know that, and they’ve learned their lesson. If I was them I wouldn’t risk rushing the place again, either. I’d set up a perimeter, make sure the Cyborg Asshole stayed inside it, and call in something heavy to bring the whole fucking place down on his head. An AGL, maybe. Hell, just call in an air strike and firebomb the place.
Time to be somewhere else.
I work my way sideways, keeping a wall between me and the chopper, keeping an eye out for heat prints and an ear cocked for comm. Can’t go this way; I stickied that route. Can’t go that way; beetles and choppers and CELL, oh my. There’s a window that opens to the northeast, wide-open path to a red-brick building maybe ninety meters away but I’d never get out before—
Something armor-piercing slashes a row of little divots across the stone at my back. I drop barely in time.
Gotta be more careful.
Okay, they know I’m in here. I can either wait to get bombed, or make a break before they bring in their big guns. They know that as well as I do.
Maybe I can use that.
I crawl back to the beetle I just disarmed; he’ll do nicely. Too bad I don’t have any more sticky grenades; that would be the ribbon on the wrapping. Doesn’t matter. I check my levels: Cloak’s fully charged. Twenty seconds guaranteed invisibility to beetles and choppers, forty if I don’t have to do anything fancy. And out there, all those cobalt-eyed cocksuckers just waiting for me to make a move . . .
Grendel Boy must weigh 120, 130 with his armor on. With the N2 backing me up I could throw him like a softball.
That’s what I do. One armored, badass, humanoid softball, blurring through smoke and rain and leftover flames, barely seen as it flashes past gaping stone windows in the dead of night but man that fucker’s moving fast, can’t get a good look under these conditions but it’s gotta be Prophet, just gotta be, I said he’d make a break for it and here he comes, boys, right through the window he’s coming right for us, and it’s
“Target in view! Southwest side, southwest side, he’s going for it—”
And by the time they figure it out—by the time the chopper stops strafing and the beetles stop shooting and everybody settles down enough to realize that the life-sized rag doll they’ve just reduced to sponge toffee is actually one of their own—I’m halfway to cover in the opposite direction, cloaked and running like stink. Shouts and shots fade behind me; I spare a glance over my shoulder and see the chopper swinging back and forth against the flickering brown sky like a fucking Nazg^ul, black and hungry and slashing the air with rage and frustration.
I’m headed for the east side, about seven or eight hundred meters up the island. Nothing I run into on the way gives us very much trouble. Nothing gets a signal out.
The substation itself is almost anticlimactic. I don’t have to kick in the door, don’t even have to knock. The door’s wide open, a couple of CELLulites standing off to one side, snorting a bit of dopatrix and complaining about all the brownouts spiking through the grid. Also complaining about Lockhart, who has apparently sent them down here to get it all fixed.
“You wanna go in there and fix it from the console? It’s a death trap in there.”
“Let’s just get it done. Lockhart’s pissed enough as it is.”
They’re right about the death trap part, anyway.
I don’t know shit about running a municipal power grid but the monitors I find inside do show a lot of icons changing a lot of different colors over a lot of the board. Hargreave hand-holds me through the protocols, which after all can’t be all that difficult if those ropadopas outside were supposed to know them.
“Good. Now, Lockhart doesn’t know it, but the power systems he’s using for his EMP blast have to route through that station, and they’re pushing close to overload.”
Line up the red lights. Reroute the yellows.
“If you can trigger the emergency shutdown, it’ll kick his loop out, and when the systems come back up, they’ll disallow any major power surge. It won’t show up on his board—he jerry-rigged the breakers in the first place to get the extra power, so there’s no diagnostic circuit on his board—but when he hits the trigger, trust me: It’ll fail.”
Oh, I trust you, Jack. I trust you as far as I could throw a Bradley.
“Excellent! Now get out of there. CELL will no doubt have spotted the outage, they’ll be on their way to investigate.”
I wonder if he’s dim, or if he just thinks that I am. He told me about the trap, after all. The great Jack Hargreave steals magic from the stars and can’t even put two and two together? Doesn’t he get it?
They’re not supposed to kill me, not anymore. Not even the chopper sniffing me out along the rooftops, Azure Seven calling in from behind its eyes, the HMG in its nose twitching in anticipation. Not supposed to kill me, not really, not unless it gets in a really lucky shot. Lockhart has switched strategies—or maybe this was his plan all along. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that you don’t chase fish around the ocean. You wait until they swim upstream and ambush the scaly little fuckers in a bottleneck.
Azure Seven spots me at the substation. Azure Seven can’t do a damn thing about it, not without shooting up Prism’s power supply. He tries to hem me in and calls up more boots on the ground, but one of the CELLulites on electrical duty brought along an L-TAG he won’t be needing anymore.
Azure Seven goes down in fire and rain.
Okay, Lockhart, you miserable sonofabitch. You want to stop chasing me around this goddamn city? You want me to come to you instead?
Let’s do this.
Send me your cannon fodder. Send me your second tier. Send me your sad-sacks and your Saffrons, your fresh-faced mall cops who can’t shoot straight. Don’t make it too easy, though. Gotta keep me thinking it’s an uphill battle, can’t ever let slip that I’m being lured, directed, herded. Don’t worry, I’ll play along. I’ll mow down your boys and girls for you, do my part to keep it real. I’ll pretend to fight my way forward and you pretend to try and stop me and all the while that honey pot gets closer and closer and there it is, Lockhart, the outer wall, the edge of the kingdom, ten meters high and topped with razor wire. The edge of Jacob Hargreave’s Secret Kingdom.
Only one way through: a vehicle air lock big enough to hold two M1 Abramses shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s not inside the kingdom, it’s not out. It’s the gatehouse where all those who’d pass between must wait to be judged. It’s Limbo.
And it’s open at both ends.
I can look straight through into the outer compound. And why not? Ever since CELL planted its flag all the way down to the lighthouse, the whole damn island is Prism’s backyard. Why worry about arbitrary checkpoints inside the green zone?
I make it look good. I lurk out there in the rain, peeking around corners, going through the motions: thermal, StarlAmp, zoom. I step out in the open.
“This should be interesting,” Hargreave murmurs.
I go for it.
I dial up a fast sprint—no point making it too easy. It doesn’t change anything: I’m barely in the tunnel when a few tons of steel and concrete slam down directly in front of me. I skid, turn, bounce off the barricade: another hardened slab of steel and concrete crashes down and blocks my retreat.
I dial back the power, let the charge rebuild. Best-case scenario I’m going to be indulging in a few high-energy maneuvers in the next minute or two. Worst-case scenario I’m dead.
Recessed nozzles along the walls, probably loaded with everything from halothane to nerve gas. (Nothing my filters can’t handle, worst-case I can always use the rebreather.) Recessed drainage gratings bolted into the floor. I pan the ceiling: a camera in every corner—
Shit. Lockhart’s going to know his pulse is a bust the moment he hits the trigger and doesn’t lose the video feeds. So much for the element of—
Something goes ping in between my ears. I taste copper.
The lights go out.
“Uh—wait a second . . .,” Hargreave says.
No little red LEDs glowing in the darkness past my helmet. The cameras are down. I’m not, though; my eyes are still full of icons and overlays. I can still move.
“Nothing to worry about, son. Just a small pulse, built up enough to kill the lights before the circuit blew. Nowhere near strong enough to penetrate your shielding.”
I hear voices whispering on comm, faint and riddled with static: Blast confirmed, they say. They’ve got me.
“There’s a drainage gate to your left,” Hargreave says. “Smash it out. Follow the pipes to the river. I’ll send you Lockhart’s location.”
They’re getting ready.
They’re coming in.
The inner door rises just a hair as the bolts unlock. Lockhart’s voice channel comes clear and strong through the crack: “Soon as you get line of sight, gentlemen, you hose him down. We’re taking no chances this time. I want that suit turned to scrap.”
But by then I’m already in the sewers.
I can hear them shitting bricks behind me. Their voices bounce down along all this unsecured plumbing, shout back and forth along frequencies they don’t know I know: Fuck he must’ve cloaked. He’s not cloaked he’s gone. Drain gate’s out. In the pipes. Saffron Ten be advised.
Tin man is loose. Tin man is inside.
“Flush him out of there! Bring him down!”
That’s Lockhart, supervising. Hargreave squirts me a way-point: I squirm left at the next junction.
“Do I have to do everything myself? You are elite soldiers! You are equipped!”
That’s Lockhart, venting. I see a mesh of light ahead, dim and gray and cold.
“Will somebody grow some balls and kill that tin fuck!”
I’m at the grating. The East River crawls past on the other side, broken into eddies and sluggish backwash by the concrete dock just upstream.
“He’s just one fucking man! What the hell am I paying you for?”
That’s Lockhart doing something I’ve never heard him do before.
That’s Lockhart, losing it.
He sees me coming for him, oh yes he sees.
He spies me on the pier and calls in another copter; I send it down to the sea in flames. His cameras catch me on the rooftops and he calls for his mercenaries; after a while there are no mercenaries left to answer. He sees me squirming up from underground like some kind of childhood bogeyman, before I shoot out the lens of his camera. He sees me in the gatehouse and stalking facelessly through the storage bay and by now he’s got to know I’m letting him see me, I want him to see me: each new sighting a little closer to his command, each new tag leaving him a little less room to run.
But he doesn’t run. He calls in every man on the chessboard, bishops and castles and Saffron and Hazel, he calls out along all the empty hissing wavelengths at his command. He calls on everyone right up to the sacred whoremother of God’s bastard Son but at the end of it all, the only one to answer that call is me: Alcatraz the Invincible, climbing the stairs to this sad and lonely little command center under a downpour of rain and ordnance and lightning bolts.
Behold, motherfucker. I stand at the door and knock.
The door blows off its hinges.
Lockhart blows back, Gauss gun cradled against his gut: “Come on. Come on! Show me the color of your guts, boy!”
The joke’s on him, of course. My insides and outsides are all the same color by now, all honeycombed and striated and gunmetal gray, and they barely feel the impact of Lockhart’s sabots.
“Fuck you, Tin Man.”
I don’t even bring up a weapon. I grab him by the throat and raise him high and I squeeze. At first I think he’s making those sounds, those hacking choking coughs, but no: It’s Hargreave, invisible and omnipresent as always. Hargreave, laughing.
I throw Lockhart through the window. He arcs down past two stories, clears the razor wire, hits the gravel road facedown not ten meters from the inner compound.
“Good work, son.” Hargreave’s voice pats me on the head. Down on the road, Dominic Lockhart drags his broken body by inches through the rain.
“Now let’s get you inside.”
There’s a gun in my hands.
“I’m opening the Prism entrance right now. Head on over here, as fast as you can!”
Part of me wants to shoot Lockhart in the back. Part of me wants me to stop. I don’t know which part is which anymore and I don’t give a shit. I don’t stop squeezing the trigger until the hammer clicks on empty.
I throw down the Grendel, pick up the Gauss. I keep it moving on my way across the inner compound but nobody tries to get in my way. Everything leads to this moment: Battery, Prophet, Gould. The Wave. The fucking suit. Ever since I crawled up on shore I’ve been stuck in the bleachers; this is the end zone. A jumbled pile of multistoried cubes looms up through the rain like giant building blocks; Hargreave waits in the tallest. This is the place where the answers lie. The end of the Yellow Brick Road. The man behind the curtain. Victory over the Ceph. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, my own resurrection from the dead. It’s all right in there.
The door is open. The light inside is warm and inviting.
I walk in.
A flash bomb goes off in my head. Electricity sings, right down in my bones. I can’t feel my skin—no, the suit. We can’t feel the suit. We can’t move.
“EMP assault.” I don’t know which one of me is saying that. “Systems shutdown.”
“Ah,” Hargreave says from the other side of the universe. “That’s perfect. Thank you, Ms. Strickland.”
I’m blind. I’m blind. The whole world strobes around me in bright jagged flashes. BUD is nothing but tinsel and static.
“Check his vitals, would you? Then have him moved across to the skinning lab. We need to get him prepped as soon as possible.”
The bright light fades in time to see the floor come up like a kick in the face.
Outside I see nothing. Inside, my head is full of gibberish: FRDAY_WV and FLXBL DPED-CRMC EPDRMS and LMU/894411. GPS scribbles idiot wireframes across my brain: Digital Manhattan swings and twists like a tabletop model under an eight-year-old’s swing set. False Prophet reads out omens of doom, incantations full of critical shutdown modes and limbic integration overrides. Eventually the wireframes go away; something like an EEG takes their place. Falsey’s making a little more sense now: We’re switching to core function mode, apparently. Life support takes priority. Deep-layer protocols are engaging. Some kind of system reroute is under way.
That’s nice. Just reroute everything away from me. That’ll be perfect.
Footstep echoing against the shitty acoustics of raw cinder block. Vague, fuzzy bars of brightness passing by overhead. I can’t squeeze my eyes shut, so I squeeze them into focus: fluorescent lights. The EMP’s worn off but I still can’t move; I’m strapped to some kind of rolling gurney.
I raise my head in time to see it push through a pair of swinging doors into a cavernous gray room with tiled walls. Big blocks of machinery sit humming in all that empty space; the place reminds me of a furnace room or a physical plant, one of those dull grimy places infested with ducts and piping you find in the sub-basements of office towers.
“Just another grunt, I’m afraid.” Hargreave, still hidden behind his curtain, sighs to someone who isn’t me. “Prophet could have told us so much more.”
It’s not a furnace room, though. It’s an operating theater. I can tell by the lackey in the blue surgical scrubs playing on the keyboard up ahead, a CELLulite grinning at his elbow. It’s a machine shop; I can tell by the gleaming enamel spider bolted to the ceiling, each jointed hydraulic arm tipped with a laser or a scalpel or—
I’ve never seen a lug wrench with a built-in spinal needle before.
“At least we have the nanogear intact, that’s all that really matters. The rest I’ll have to improvise once I’m in the suit.”
The spider drops with a soft whir, comes to a stop a meter over my chest. It unfolds its legs, flexes each joint as if warming up for a marathon. Bits and pieces click together like chopsticks.
“Let’s get started.”
The table flexes around me, tightens my restraints. Lights wink at the end of those articulated arms; tiny saws whine into the ultrasonic, dip and weave and plunge. My bones rattle in their cage. Suddenly I’m seeing the world through blood-colored glasses.
Way over at the corner of my eye, the man in scrubs pays very close attention to the monitor on his desk. His eyes are bright and tiny over his surgical mask. They never look at me.
Just following orders.
“Ah, my young friend.”
Hargreave again. Deigning to address me directly. “I had hoped to spare you consciousness at this point, but the nanogear is not proving cooperative. I am truly sorry for this betrayal, but I really have no choice. I need the suit—this particular suit, in fact—if I’m to have any hope at all of stopping the Ceph. A simple soldier will not suffice here.”
My body goes numb. The room still rattles in my eyes, but suddenly I can’t feel the vibration.
“Don’t misunderstand me. You’ve proven far more resilient than I ever would have expected. You are a soldier, and a damn good one, and you would be an asset in repelling any invasion, alien or otherwise. But allow me to fill you in on a little secret.” I can hear the wink in Hargreave’s voice, I can hear him leaning in to share his little confidence. “This isn’t an invasion, son. It never was.”
I wonder if these restraints are even necessary anymore. I bet they’ve cut my spinal cord.
“It’s obvious if you think about it. Why would a race that can terraform worlds, that plans and builds across light-years, across millennia—why would they be interested in anything so vulgar as territory?”
My eyes go out. I’m in a black void: blind to the abattoir, numb to my own vivisection, cut off from everything but Hargreave’s voice, the snap of lasers, the whine of spinning bone saws.
“There was a time, son, when people tried to save the rain forest. Oh, they were an emotional lot, woolly-minded and disorganized, but a few of them knew that they could never get a shortsighted and indifferent public to care about a bunch of trees half a world away. People don’t give a rat’s ass about anything unless you can answer the question, What’s in it for me?”
The saws are gone. The lasers are gone. I’m deaf now, as well as blind and numb and paralyzed. But somehow I can still hear Hargreave here in my head. True to his word he stays at my side, walking with me through the valley of the shadow of death. Jack Hargreave is my universe.
“So the more clever environmentalists came up with an answer: There’s Taxol, there are antioxidants and anti-aging drugs, there are cures for every cancer and filters for all the shit we pump into the air. There are a billion compounds and a million cures, the rain forest might make you immortal someday, but we lose it all if we wipe it out without even knowing what’s in there.”
I know what this is: this cable-cutting, this endless monologue, this pointless fireside chat with the senile old uncle you wish would just shut the fuck up. This is deliberate distraction. This is an attempt to take my mind off what’s happening. This is Jack Hargreave being merciful.
I wonder if Prophet ever found out what it means, when a man like Hargreave calls you son.
“It was a good strategy, and it might have even worked, but then some company—actually, I think it may have been one of mine—synthesized Taxol. And then of course we arrived at the dawn of Synthetic Biology, and why leave all those millions of hectares undeveloped on the off-chance of some miracle cure when you can program artificial microbes to shit out whatever you need? The rest was history. As is the rain forest, sadly.”
I think he’s receding. His voice sounds—fainter, somehow. Hard to tell, with nothing to compare it with. Maybe it’s just my imagination.
“But the Ceph are so much smarter than we are. They know we can only see what we look for, we can only make what we can imagine. Nature—four billion years of experimentation, endless mutation and selection, Darwin’s tangled bank in all its glorious diversity—Nature creates what we haven’t imagined, gives us vital gifts we’d never even think to look for.”
No, his voice is definitely fainter.
“The Ceph understand these things: They come upon life-bearing worlds and they set up their monitoring stations to watch nature grind out its wonders and they leave it alone. And every million years or so they drop by to see how their garden grows and let me tell you, my friend, they don’t much like the cancer that’s infested this place since the last time they were here. Here we are, growing out of control, destroying everything around us and too stupid to see that we’re destroying ourselves in the process.”
I have to strain to hear him now. He must be light-years away.
“We are metastasis made flesh, my boy. We are pestilence, we are the weeds in the garden, and we are not facing warriors at all. We’ve never seen their soldiers, and I pray we never do. This is a pruning expedition. We are getting our asses whipped by a bunch of gardeners who are improvising in the face of the unexpected.”
I can barely hear him at all. My whole universe is a whisper.
“And that is the only reason we have a hope in hell of winning.”
I wonder how many pieces I’ve been cut into. I wonder how many pieces are thinking this.
(Cellular force overload, someone says at the bottom of a very deep well.)
All things considered, I think I’m thankful to be here. To be nowhere. A far cry from my Happy Place, but at least I can’t feel the drills and the needles anymore. I can’t hear my Creator and my Tormentor. I know I’m being disassembled somewhere, but at least I can’t see it happening. You learn to be thankful for what you get.
That’s not Hargreave. That’s—
(Wake up, marine.)
I know that voice. I shouldn’t be hearing it though, not now. Haven’t Hargreave’s lackeys cut it out of my head yet?
“Wake up, marine! This is no time for dying!”
It’s False Prophet. It’s False Prophet, I can see his face hanging there in the void before me. It’s nothing like the original, it’s barely even an imitation. Just pixels and polygons. A constellation, a thousand stars that just happen to look like a human face.
It’s the goddamn suit. The suit is shouting at me.
“Get your ass back in the fight!”
Go away. You’re dead. I saw you die.
“Back at you, soldier. You think that’s an excuse?”
Maybe this is SECOND in denial, just a dumb biochip reliving the good old days in an attempt to rekindle the flame with a partner who dumped it days ago. Or maybe it’s pretending to be Prophet because it accessed a psych database somewhere and decided I’d react better to something that sounded like it had a life. Shit, maybe it is Prophet—some warped-mirror cartoon of Prophet at least—cobbled together from loose talk and synaptic echoes long after the conscious meat blew itself to kingdom come. Maybe it’s insane, maybe it thinks it’s real.
Or maybe not. This could just be the oxygen-starved brain of Cyborg Asshole Mk2 making stuff up as it goes along, Tin Man’s version of a near-death experience: as meaningless as all those lights and angels the neo-agers go on about during their asphyx parties. Maybe there’s not even any brain left to starve, maybe it’s been dead for hours and all these thoughts are running along a net of carbon nanotubes. Maybe they’ve already cut open my helmet and puked their guts out from the stink of all the dead meat that’s been rotting inside for fuck knows how long . . .
What are you, in here with me? Are you alive? Are you even real?
“Enough of this shit, marine!” it bellows. “Enough!”
What the fuck are you? What the fuck am I?
I am awake.
Somewhere very close, alarms are singing. Multijointed robot arms quiver spastically overhead. The doctor with the optional Hippocratic Oath is not avoiding my eyes now, no sirree: He’s staring right into them, and he looks about ready to piss himself. Flickers of unfocused light and shadow play across him: reflections of outputs changing far, far faster than they have any right to. And although it should be impossible for anyone to retrodict those vague blobs and blips into anything even approaching the original image that cast them, somehow I find it easy. I can see the good doctor’s monitor reflected in his scrubs, in his mask, in those dark shiny pupils grown so huge you can barely see the irises around them.
I know it before he says it: “Some kind of overload! The suit’s—it’s rejecting the rip somehow . . .”
“Stop him!” Hargreave’s voice rises an octave. “Kill him if you have to, but don’t damage the hardware!”
What, no sad farewell? No fond final words for your latest son?
Doors slam open up past my head. I hear boots on bricks. “Headshots only!” Hargreave cries to the CELLulite leaning over me.
“Got it.” The CELLulite slides back the bolt on his pistol, lays the muzzle against my forehead. I keep waiting for SECOND to lay on the tacticals—AY69 AUTO, ENEMY COMBATANT, THREAT LEVEL: HIGH—but I guess they shut it down. I’m alone at last.
My executioner’s head explodes.
Then his buddy’s.
Then the man in the scrubs, and some hapless med tech I never noticed before now. Four shots, four kills. I turn my head, almost interested, while Hargreave seethes on the radio: “Tara, no! Tara, listen to m—”
She kills the channel and goes to work at the doctor’s station. Her fingertips come dark and shiny off the keys.
“CIA,” she says. “Special ops. Recruited three years ago now.”
I wonder what her code name was. Probably Deus Ex Machina. Or Belle.
“You’ve got me to thank for this whole shitstorm.” She barely glances up; her eyes, her bloody fingers are all about the controls. “I’m the one who ordered your squad in to extract Prophet and Gould in the first place. Best-laid plans, huh?”
My restraints pop open. Up in the left-hand corner of my eye, uplink icons wink back into existence.
Strickland’s at my side, her hand at my elbow, urging me to sit. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
I’m a little bit surprised to see that everything’s still attached. I swing my legs over the edge of the gurney, roll to a sitting position. GPS and MODE SELECT come back online. A panicky amber light on the ceiling spins in its glass bubble, stabbing my eyes five times a second.
Little crosshairs pan across my field of vision and lock down on the heavy assault rifle one of the CELLulites dropped while he was getting his brains blown out. BUD serves up a subtitle: HEAVY ASSAULT RIFLE: GRENDEL/HOL. PT.
“Let’s go, man! The Ceph are coming and we’ve got to get Hargreave out.”
And she’s right. Suddenly, I’m there. All that fatalistic indifference I was feeling just a few minutes ago, that candy-ass que sera resignation to my own death? Fuck that. I’m back, baby. I’m strong, I’m stoked, I’m ready to kick ass all the way to the next millennium.
Nice to have you back, SECOND. I missed you.
No, I don’t think he was right at all. He got maybe halfway there, tops. But the fact is, even gardeners would’ve done a better job.
I mean, try and wrap your head around the magnitude of the imbalance here. Maybe you’re imagining us as a bunch of cavemen going up against a Taranis or a T-90 with reactive armor, but that’s not even close. Cavemen are people, too, Roger, they’ve got the same raw brainpower even if their tech is Stone Age. The Ceph are a whole different species. So let’s say Hargreave’s right and we’re not facing soldiers. Do you really think the world’s lemurs, say, would have a better chance against a bunch of gardeners? If a bunch of gardeners wanted to take out an anthill, would they attack the ants with formic acid and titanium mandibles? ’Course not. They’ve got sprays and poisons and traps and guns, things no ant has ever seen, things no ant could possibly defend against.
So why the Ceph gunships, Roger? Why the exoskeletons that walk pretty much like we do, and the guns that fire pretty much like ours, and bloody artillery for chrissake that does pretty much what ours does? Why are Ceph weapons and tactics so much like ours, hmm?
I don’t think they’re gardeners at all. I don’t even think they’re aliens. Not the real aliens, anyway. Not the real gardeners.
I think they’re hedge clippers and weed whackers, left in the shed to rust. I think they’re the dumbest of the garden tools, programmed to bump around the property mowing the lawn while the owners are away because after all, this place is too far out in Hicksville to waste real intelligence on. I think they have basic smarts because where they come from, even the chairs are smart to some degree—but nobody ever read them The Art of War, because they’re goddamn hedge clippers. So they’ve had to learn on the fly. Their tactics and their weaponry look like ours because they’re based on ours, because we were the only game in town when those cheap-ass learning circuits looked around for something to inspire them. And I think a lemur wouldn’t have a hope in hell against a bunch of gardeners, but he just might stand a chance in a war against the Roombas.
Organic? Are you fucking kidding me? Dude, even we’ve got CPUs made out of meat, we had neuron cultures wired into machines back before the turn of the century! Why do you think those blobs in the exoskels are any different? What makes you think the Ceph—whatever made the Ceph—what makes you think they even draw a distinction between meat and machinery?
Because I’m telling you, Roger, that line is not nearly as black-and-white as you seem to think.
Trust me on this.
Strickland sketches out the essentials while we make our escape. Hargreave’s a sick twisted motherfucker—“totally insane,” she says, “thinks he’s the only competent human being on the planet”—but Gould was right: He knows more about the Ceph than any other backbone around. It goes back farther than Ling Shan, farther than Arizona; apparently Hargreave’s known about the Ceph ever since he jacked some of their tech out of the Siberian backwoods in 1908. (Which would make Hargreave around 130 years old by now. Kinda surprised that didn’t prick up any ears over at the Census Department. Of course, Hargreave probably owns the Census Department.)
Tunguska is the word Strickland throws over her shoulder, as if it’s supposed to mean something to me. Turns out that was the site of a fifteen-megaton airburst back then, decades before the human race figured out how to make nukes. Two thousand square kilometers of forest flattened just like that. Nobody ever figured out for sure what it was: comet fragment, meteorite, microsingularity. Nobody ever found anything definitive, because Jacob Hargreave and Karl Rasch got there first and carted it all away.
And in all the long decades since, Hargreave has been walled away with the fire he stole from the gods, breathing on those dangerous embers all through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, patiently waiting for our technology to grow into something that could crack the codes and solve the riddles. Sometimes not so patiently; you have to wonder how much of our vaunted human technology really belongs to us and how much we were herded toward by some megalomaniac and his stolen box of miracles, working behind the scenes.
Not enough, judging by the past couple of days.
So three years back Hargreave engineers some ill-fated foray into a Ceph outpost in the South China Sea; the Ceph wake up and Tara Strickland’s father doesn’t come home. Hargreave’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since. He’s had a hundred years to get ready and three years early warning and he’s got some kind of plan to beat back the invaders; Strickland’s masters need to know what it is.
I know what it is. It’s a plan to rip me out of the N2 like ripping someone out of their own skin and nerves, throw away the parts you don’t need, and graft yourself into the rest. After that I’m not sure; but Strickland’s already foiled Part A, so I suppose it can’t hurt to find out. It might even save the world.
We rise again. The cargo elevator is a metal cube with a grillwork floor and no walls: I-beams and cable conduits and greasy white cinder blocks scroll sedately past as Strickland talks. “He’s holed up in the executive level. You’ll be running into heavy resistance. No one gets in to see him face-to-face; believe me, I’ve tried, and I’m his head of security. You’re going to have to break in.”
She doesn’t seem to notice the dead employee sharing the car with us. He’s got a very nice silencer screwed onto the end of his M12. He won’t be needing it.
The elevator lurches to a halt on some level not meant for open house: server cabinets, ammo crates, lockers. Another one of those rotating amber lights.
Oh, and cameras.
“I’ve locked down local wireless; you’ve got maybe five minutes before Hargreave breaks the lock and sets the dogs on you.” She snorts softly. “I guess that’d be on us, now. I’ll get up to the helipad and secure our transport. Bring him out and meet me on the roof. We fly him out, we take him away, we make him talk. Go.”
I cloak. I hear the elevator grind back into motion as I run invisibly past the securicams on my way to the stairwell.
No waypoints, this time. No helpful filepics or friendly voices telling me what to do. Just stairs and switchbacks and, two or three landings above me, low worried voices:
“Comms still dead in the skinning lab.”
“Where the hell’s Strickland?”
“Must be offline, too. I can’t get hold of her, anyway.”
“Shit. This isn’t good.”
It isn’t good, but it’s quick and it’s easy. They go down before either of them can draw a weapon or a breath. The silencer works like a charm.
I’m a shark circling a shipwreck. I work my way through befuddled mercenaries torn among so many masters—Lockhart, Strickland, Hargreave—that they were starting to suffer whiplash even before Strickland jammed their communications. I move up from spartan basement storage into rows of spotless offices, into conference rooms paneled in oak and leather. Each floor is more opulent than the last, each outfitted with darker grains and older antiques, each more anachronistic. The whole building is a time machine. Waypoints would be redundant here; the path to Jacob Hargreave is obvious. Just follow him back to the Victorian era.
It takes closer to ten minutes for Hargreave to undo Strickland’s sabotage; thirty seconds for the kill order to spread. By that time I’m already on the executive level. A tiny knot of armored mercs kills the lights and hunts me on thermal, but they’ve just spent the last thirty-six hours watching Golem Boy cut their numbers in half. Last night, maybe, they were jonesing for payback; right now I can track them by the sound of their knees knocking together.
I’d put them out of their misery myself, but the Ceph beat me to the punch.
I don’t know where they came from. Haven’t seen a Squid since I hit the island, but here they are: an intrepid little band of stalkers, eye clusters blazing, dorsal tentacles flailing, crashing through the walls and tearing out human hearts for all the world as though they’re on my side. There are only four of them—three after one of the CELLulites gets off a lucky shot—and I manage to take out another before diving into a convenient stairwell and dropping down a level. I back against a corner that offers decent cover and a slitscan view of the door above. I aim the SMG.
They don’t come after me.
Not an assault force. Not a measly four stalkers. Recon party at most; but advance scouts implies scouts in advance of something. Strickland was right: The Squids are coming to Roosevelt Island.
It would be a really good idea to get Hargreave out before that happens.
“So. Despite all the betrayals, all the pain, you are coming to get me out. Remarkable. Almost heroic, one might say.” No hysteria in that voice, no more anger. Just—weariness. Resignation. Something almost approaching amusement. “But I fear our tentacular friends have formulated a similar plan. You’d better hurry if you hope to beat them to it.”
Our tentacular friends are not back in the hall where I left them.
“Come. I won’t fight you anymore. I’ve even rescinded the kill order, for the benefit of any soldiers you may have left alive.”
There it is: a golden thread of waypoints. A trail of bread crumbs to the inner sanctum: down the hall, hang a right, hang a left. Knock.
“It is time to admit that loyalties are concentric. It is time to unite against the greater enemy . . .”
For some reason—only SECOND knows why—I finally believe him.
Marble columns. Double doors between them, ornately carved, brass-handled, high enough for a pinger to walk through without stooping.
I don’t knock.
The doors creak as they swing inward. They grind. You’d think that someone of Hargreave’s means would have been able to afford a can of WD-40.
Then again, maybe there’s no point. Maybe these doors don’t get used enough to matter.
Not just a room, through those doors. A cathedral. The great hall of some museum. A library. An endless carpet, three meters wide and red as clay, runs down the center of this vast space. On either side, rows of marble columns hold up dark skylights twenty meters overhead; suits of armor stand between them, mounted in glass cabinets. Massive bookshelves rise along one wall, barely visible in the dim distance; dark draperies go up forever on another.
“Theseus, at last. Welcome.”
His voice does not crackle over comm. It booms. It fills the room.
Breakers chunk overhead. The lights come on. The glowing face of Jacob Hargreave, four meters high, smiles sadly down on me from overtop a wall-sized map of the planet: an old Eckert projection in faded yellow and pale blue.
Not armor in those glass cases, I see now. Nanosuits. Prototypes. Antiques in their own right, even now; Moore’s law makes everything new old again.
“Scant reward for so much effort, eh. Crack the labyrinth, and you would at least expect to see the Minotaur before it kills you.”
Dwarfed by map and monitor, someone has arranged half a dozen overstuffed antique chairs around a massive wooden desk. Its surface is smooth and polished and utterly empty.
“Ah well, it seems only fair. Come, then. Masks off.”
The sound of old machinery, grinding into gear.
“I am here.”
The map on the wall splits down the center and pulls apart like drawn curtains. There is only one antique inside, and at first I do not see it.
“Shocked? I would be.”
“I’d revel in it, if I were you: that sudden jump of the pulse, the cram of flight-or-fight chemicals into the belly. So sweet while it lasts. But it’s been so very long since I felt any of it.”
So pristine in there, Roger. So, so antiseptic. Past the great chrome bars sliding back into the wall, the enameled walls gleam; the concentric tiles on the floor form a spiderweb with Hargreave’s capsule at the center. Life-support machinery chirps and hisses around it. Half a dozen umbilicals sprout from its ends and loop up into a low ceiling. Flatscreens scroll nutrient levels and biotelemetry like billboards running stock prices.
There’s a window in that capsule. It runs nearly the whole length of the cylinder; it leaves nothing to the imagination. The capsule is full of yellow-green liquid, like a public swimming pool too many six-year-olds have pissed in. The thing looking out from inside does not look like Jacob Hargreave. It barely even looks human.
“A century or more since my pleasures were anything but cerebral. I took the path Karl Rasch refused, the cold road to immortality.”
Its lips don’t move. The eyes above them are bright and hard as obsidian, and they don’t leave me for an instant.
“I can still hear him—cursing Tunguska and what we found there, screaming at me for a coward and a fool. I wonder which of us really was the coward.”
You ever see those bog men, Roger? On National Geographic, online, anything? The ones that died hundreds of years ago, somewhere in England or Ireland or something. Whoever killed them threw them into these peat bogs full of tannins, lignins. Natural preservatives. Bodies don’t rot in there. They shrink, they shrivel up. They turn brown and wrinkly like baked apples but they don’t rot, not for hundreds of years. You could fish them out of those bogs and they’d, they’d—
—They’d look just like Jack Hargreave, floating in his tank.
“And now so little time remaining.”
Oh, Jack. You’re not going anywhere, are you?
“I’d hoped to wear Prophet’s suit myself. Take on the weapons he brought us, wear his armor. Enter the labyrinth and confront the Minotaur. But now . . .”
Hargreave’s lips move at last. They tighten, split, pull back over toothless gums. He probably thinks of it as a smile.
“You. You will have to finish what Prophet began.”
Something flickers in all this brightness. I can’t tell what it is.
“Nathan? Are you there? Are you eavesdropping on my affairs again?”
And he is: There’s his filepic, up above my left eye. There’s his voice in my ear, faint and grainy and shot through with static: “Get out of there, Alcatraz!”
That flicker again. A bad fluorescent, maybe.
“Wait,” Hargreave repeats. “You need the final piece of the puzzle. There on the desk.”
Behind me. I turn and look out into the hall. That’s where the flicker is coming from. Not in here, not in this bright sterile oasis. Out there, among the towering bookcases and the marble pillars and the caged Nanosuits.
“Go!” the wizard urges from behind his curtain. “Take it!”
The surface of the desk opens as I approach: Panels slide back to reveal a shallow compartment, flat-gray, soft blue light glowing from the rim of a beveled disk in its center. A wooden cigar box waits for me there. I open it.
“This is m—your destiny now, Alcatraz. Use it.”
Close, but no cigar. A loaded hypodermic syringe.
“Stick it anywhere! Are you looking for a vein? How can you have spent so much time in that armor and still not realize that it knows, Alcatraz. It knows what to do.”
And Hargreave’s right. Because good old Alcatraz would have had serious second thoughts about shooting himself up with a hypo full of Formula X, but the suit knows what it wants. SECOND knows.
We stick the needle in and plunge it down.
“Yes, there.” Hargreave’s avatar is almost purring. “The Tunguska Iteration.”
Everything goes fuzzy.
“The key to all gates . . .”
Everything goes black.
There in the void, Nathan Gould is with me. Whining.
“Here? They were here, in New York, all along?”
“Their dormant systems were, yes, Nathan.” Hargreave speaks slowly, patiently, as if explaining the facts of life to a special-needs child. “One of their cottages, and the quantum port facility to transmit themselves aboard. You think I’m based in this cesspit city because I like it here?”
Red clay carpet, going in and out of focus. Some weird pattern on it, like birds. Never noticed that before.
“Why didn’t you warn someone?”
“Warn whom, Nathan? Humanity at large? The species that has proven so bracingly honest with itself in the face of unpleasant truths? That race so quick to accept the facts about population growth and resource overconsumption and climate change? No, thank you very much, I preferred to trust only myself, and a few handpicked men.”
I’m back on my knees. I’m back on my feet.
“A few handpicked men. Right. And look what it’s brought us to. Look what you’ve done, old man. They’re here, you—”
“That’s right, Nathan! The owners are back—”
They are, too. I can see where that flickering is coming from now: the dark sky above those overhead panes, strobing to gray. I can see insectile shapes backlit against the clouds, scampering and leaping across the skylights. I can see the blinding blue sparks of arc-welding torches.
“—waking the systems, firing up the boiler. Back to spring-clean the old family residence, and not much liking what they’ve found festering behind the fridge.”
A Ceph gunship eclipses the moon. It hangs in the sky like a segmented crucifix, lining up the shot.
“And really. Can you blame them?”
The gunship cuts loose. All those superstrong reinforced windowpanes fall to earth in a shower of jagged glass.
Wind and rain and Ceph infantry cascade into Hargreave’s inner sanctum. The wizard on the wall welcomes them with a giddy laugh: “Ah, the angels of death at last! My escort back to human frailty! It took you long enough!”
They’re not just interested in him, though. Not judging by the fire I’m taking.
The flames are already rising. Stalkers and grunts leap across the chamber toward me like eager Dobermans. I flee up a metal staircase to a catwalk that accesses the upper reaches of all these bookshelves; it’s high ground at least, a place to shoot back from, a hill to die on. I don’t expect to find a way out but there it is, jammed into the narrow space between two bookcases: a backstage exit, an emergency stairwell, cinder-block walls and concrete steps and ventilation ducts running up the shaft like tendons.
Hargreave’s avatar urges me on: “Become Prophet! Take on his armor! Strike for your species, for humanity in all its fumbling, half-made glory! Go, go! Save us all!”
I charge up the stairs past spinning emergency beacons. The building shakes around me.
“This is Jacob Hargreave to all CELL personnel. Commander Lockhart is dead, I will be joining him shortly, and the Prism facility is wired to self-destruct. Subject Prophet is now your only hope of turning back the alien invasion. You will therefore afford him every assistance you can as you evacuate this island.”
That’s nice of him. I wonder if anyone’s listening.
Some machine—some other machine—starts a countdown in a cool feminine voice: “All Prism facilities will explosively self-seal in ten minutes. Your employee duties are terminated. Please exit via the indicated channels.”
Plenty of time to make it to the helipad, I’m thinking. Right up until Tara Strickland checks in to tell me that the whole damn roof’s been trashed. The Ceph have left nothing flyable up there at all. “I’m heading for the Queensboro Bridge,” she tells me. “Meet me on the far side if you can.”
The Ceph are everywhere. So are CELL, and it really doesn’t matter whether they heard Hargreave’s last orders or not; we’re all just animals in a forest fire now, all just trying to keep ahead of the flames, and there’s no predators and no prey when you’re all about to be burned alive. We run like hell; we shoot at Squids when they get in our way. Countdown Girl pops onto the channel every now and then with timely updates that All Prism facilities will explosively self-seal in eight minutes, seven minutes, six minutes, but it’s not like we need to be reminded. We get it already.
Someone says something about a service elevator, a way onto the Queensboro Bridge. I don’t know where it is and nobody’s feeding me waypoints but it’s easy enough to follow the herd. A little less easy, maybe, when the herd keeps getting thinned out from above.
The elevator turns out to be right where the bridge crosses the eastern edge of the island. Three CELL are crowded around the lower doors when I arrive, repeatedly stabbing the call button. They bring up their weapons the moment they catch sight of me; I bring up mine. We stand there waving our dicks at each other, wondering about appropriate battlefield etiquette at times like these. Countdown Girl says two minutes.
The elevator arrives. We pile in. Someone pushes UP, again and again and again. Someone else pushes CLOSE DOORS.
We start moving.
There’s one of those old speakers bolted to the frame, you know the ones that look like big square megaphones. There’s Muzak coming out of it, a Nine Inch Nails cover done entirely with violins and pan flute. Countdown Girl says one minute.
I bring up my Grendel and shoot out the speaker. One of the CELLs says, “Thanks.”
Then we’re on the bridge, and it’s every man for himself.
I’ve got every goddamn capacitor in the suit dedicated to speed—maybe twenty seconds at maximum sprint before the juice runs out. The bridge is taking fire from below, fire from above. Ceph tracers fill the air with streams of bright hyphens. The bridge is jammed with abandoned vehicles, some gutted, some still burning: cars, cube vans, semis. I think I see a pinger through the struts and girders, stalking down the oncoming lane; I know I see a gunship swooping in for another run.
Countdown Girl runs out of things to say.
Turns out the lady was a real mistress of understatement. The Prism facilities do not explosively self-seal. They blow sky-fucking-high, and they take the whole damn bridge with them.
It heaves under me, buckles in the middle. Fire boils up from below. All those great iron girders, the arches and trusses and studded yellow I-beams, crumple around me like origami. A tanker truck shoots by like a space shuttle and gets caught up in a web of burning metal. I try to keep running but I can’t even stand, it’s like balancing on the back of a harpooned whale. The bridge tears apart around me and I go over the edge, barely manage to catch myself on an exposed strut while an Airstream trailer sails past on its way to the river. I hang by my fingertips, too drained to haul myself back up, hoping against hope that the N2 manages to build back a charge before the spreading heat turns me to slag. I have a pretty good view of what’s left of Roosevelt Island, though. It’s hell on earth, it’s fire on the water. I can’t see a single recognizable feature through all those flames. When they burn down—if they ever do—there won’t be anything left but a mound of glass.
Explosive self-sealing. I wonder what the zoning permits look like for that.
I don’t wonder for long, though. One of New York’s yellow cabs drops from a nest of tangled steel, bounces, rolls down a forty-degree chunk of burning asphalt, and flicks me off the bridge like a gnat.
Will there be an afterlife, I wonder? Choirs of angels? Or a fiery pit? One unlearns these falsehoods over time, but the child who learnt to fear hell is never really gone. To tell the truth, I think I’ve had quite enough of afterlives as it is—this one has been pretty purgatorial.
Almost fifty years floating in supercooled jelly like some medical specimen, thoughts creeping like rats through the cramped silicon corridors of machines, trapped behind video screens and camera systems. Never sleeping, never resting, never ceasing to think about the world you no longer belong to.
No, if this is a taste of the afterlife, I think oblivion will do nicely.
—Unencrypted signal fragment intercepted at 0450 24/08/2010
37.7 MHz (gov/nongov shared, land mobile)
local source (Manhattan)
No Positive ID.