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The Minus Faction Episode Six
Maria stood with arms crossed as the beeping semi backed down the ramp toward her without slowing. Nothing about her wavered even as the scratched and dented bumper passed within inches of her chest. Her hair was pulled taut, revealing her gold-knob earrings. Her makeup was immaculate and blended away any blemish of age. Her crisp Chanel suit, white with black trim, matched both her heels and her determined gaze.
The truck stopped with a shudder and the rear door rolled back into the ceiling.
Maria scanned the occupants. “Where are Heinrich and Tobias?”
Psyphire cursed in Russian as she hopped down to the loading dock. “Gone. Heinrich is a vegetable. After Tobias reconnected to the hive, he took his brother’s body and left.”
Maria watched a small group of uniformed men climb into the back to unload the single cargo container strapped to the floor inside. Other than that, the vehicle was empty. “Did it seem suspicious?”
Psyphire thought. “Maybe. A little. Why?”
“The network connection to MODUS was severed nine hours ago. From the other end. It seems the hive mind is no longer honoring our agreement. And now the Wisper is on the loose. Again. Thanks to you. You wanted to be in charge. And you got it. Your ambition, your sense of entitlement, has always surpassed your competence. Just out of curiosity, Veronika, is there any way you could have failed more completely?”
Psyphire pressed her lips together and indulged visions of setting her elder on fire. The woman looked so smug in her $10,000 Chanel. “We captured one of them.” She motioned to the steel coffin the men were lowering from the back.
“Captured?” Maria let out a short, incredulous laugh. “Open it up,” she ordered. “I want to see him.”
“Here?” Psyphire looked around at the wide-open bay. There were workers everywhere.
Maria waited with arms crossed as the soldiers, mostly local Chinese, turned the heavy contraption with a powered lift and lowered it to the ground.
“You’re good at what you do, Veronika. But you think you’re the best. And you’re not.” But you could be.
“So you have explained. Over and over. Since I was seventeen.”
Maria pointed to the coffin. “You found him idling on an overpass in the middle of rush hour where any of a hundred people in our network could easily have spotted him. You didn’t capture anyone. Zero. None. This man turned himself in.” Maria turned to the coffin as the last inch-thick screw was removed. “The question is why. I don’t suppose he’s said anything.”
Psyphire scowled and shook her head.
The men lifted the lid of the coffin and set it aside. Maria looked at the prisoner. Half his body was burned. One arm and both legs were severely atrophied. They had found him in a wheelchair. Barricade had shot it out from under him so he would be trapped and unable to flee. Apparently he couldn’t even walk. Now he was held tight in form-fitting foam, a new kind of plastic that turned rigid when heated even slightly, such as from the warmth of a human body.
But his head was free and was covered in a metal brace, like a thin helmet of crisscrossing bars. There were electrodes underneath and a clear plastic visor covering his face. He was awake. He looked at her.
He didn’t seem like much. But—amazingly—she recognized him. Maria’s lips pursed. “I know this man.” She scowled. Where had it been?
Psyphire looked confused. “Is that a joke?”
Maria touched the prisoner’s skin. Her powers had all but faded. She couldn’t sense people like she used to, but sometimes—
Malaysia. She nodded. The soldier from Malaysia. He had brushed past her. On a plane. When they brought Adevyi. “Once upon a time, this man brought us Deadbolt,” she explained matter-of-factly. “And just like God, what he giveth he also taketh away.”
She scanned the man’s burned face for some kind of reaction, but both his face and eyes remained blank.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me why you turned yourself in?”
The prisoner in the foam-lined coffin simply looked at her.
“You should know, there’s a man downstairs. An Armenian, whose family has been in a very particular business for several hundred years, at least back to Suleiman the Magnificent. Recently he was working for the Syrians. That’s where the CIA got him. He’s on loan to us. He’s supposedly a master with a dentist’s drill. Not someone you want asking you questions.”
Maria scowled. She nodded to the waiting soldiers, who lifted the lid back onto the coffin and screwed it in place. She watched them haul it away, down to the detention level.
“What’s on his head?”
Psyphire stiffened again. It wasn’t a polite question. It sounded more like an accusation. “Something from Research. We discovered the hard way that giving everyone around him a quantum scrambler creates too many points of failure.”
“Jesus, that should have been obvious from the beginning, Veronika. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You were overconfident. You got Megan killed, lost our most prized asset, and started a war with the Vorgýrim Supremacy, all at the same time.”
Psyphire swallowed hard.
Maria pictured the prisoner’s strange helmet in her head. “It keeps him from traveling.”
The firestarter said nothing.
Maria turned. She ignored Psyphire’s red, fuming face. “Well?”
“Da. I wouldn’t have brought him here without securing him first.” Not five minutes and already she was a teenager again. Chided. Defensive.
“You’re sure it works? Did you even bother to test it?”
“Why do you think he just lies there? Because he’s a nice man?”
Maria looked at the bruises on Psyphire’s face, the ones she was trying to hide with makeup. “Hit you hard, did he? Good. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Psyphire walked toward the entrance to the dam complex at the back of the long hangar. The floor was covered in crisscrossing colored lines, like a circuit diagram, that silently directed all the action around her: blue for food and medicine, yellow for arms and ammunition, green-lined thruways, and red zones to avoid at all costs.
“Where’s Artemis?” Maria asked.
Another accusatory question. Psyphire turned but didn’t answer. She didn’t have to. He was running.
Psyphire didn’t have to answer that either. She was sent to retrieve him.
Maria pressed her lips together. Deadbolt. Brickbat. Malady. Now Barricade. Special Assets, everything she built, was falling apart. Almost as if someone had planned—
There was a ruckus across the open courtyard, at the front gate—some shouting and the growing rumble of a motorcade.
Maria looked at Psyphire. “Make sure the prisoner is secured in the holding facility.” Then she walked to a set of metal stairs in a high wall and ascended to the deck overlooking the courtyard from the upper level. As she emerged from the heavy door, painted red, she glanced at the guard tower overhead. The turret-mounted 30mm cannons were silent, and that could mean only one thing. The Chairman had arrived for his inspection.
Maria knew it was coming, although it was officially unscheduled. It was supposed to be a surprise. And in a way it was. She thought he would travel with a small retinue, like a businessman, to avoid suspicion. But as she watched the front gate slide open and a parade of military vehicles enter the courtyard, her stomach started to sink.
And not least because Thierry Abbas, network engineer and the facility’s chief technician, was already waiting on the upper deck, tablet in hand. What did he know?
“What is this?” she asked. But she knew exactly what it was. It was an army. Chinese, judging by the uniforms. And not just men, but weapons and ammunition and provisions stacked in boxes in the back of trucks. And she knew exactly what it meant. She forced herself not to look at the technician next to her.
Maria swallowed hard.
So it had come to this. A fucking coup.
She looked at her watch. Unless she found a way out, she had maybe an hour to live. One hour.
She was about to turn for the double doors at the back of the deck when a heavy truck hauling a flatbed trailer pulled through the main gate. On the back, a large, oblong machine strobed in irregular pulsing circles. A series of eight vertical rings—giant electromagnets, it seemed—were keeping something contained inside a heavy central chamber. The entire contraption had been spray-painted with a black fiberglass anti-corrosive, giving it the appearance of a giant dragon, coiled and restrained against its will.
Maria’s mind immediately flashed back to her computer screen and a seemingly innocuous email she had received a couple weeks earlier—one of hundreds she had gotten that day and the fifth that week from a colleague in Research. It was a request. Not all that unusual for the scientists in the organization. They had wanted something. For testing.
As the truck rumbled across the tarmac and pulled into the wide hangar to her left, Maria could just make out the warning painted in white on the side.
They had requested a dead body. One of her team. Technically they didn’t need her permission, but given the subject, they did her the honor of asking. And she gave it to them.
It was Adevyi. They wanted Deadbolt’s body.
What was Chairman Benet up to?
But there was no time for answers now—no time for anything but getting out alive.
Start with her advantages. She’d hired most of the senior on-site staff. She knew who would lean when pushed.
And who would jump ship. Like vermin.
She turned to Thierry. “See to it they get what they need. I’ll be in the control room preparing for the inspection.” She started walking.
Maria stopped and turned. “Are you suggesting you’re not competent to handle”—she waved to the chaos below as the private army settled into the courtyard—“all this?”
Thierry was a dark-skinned French Algerian, tall, thin, under thirty, ambitious, a gifted network engineer, a competent manager, and a snake.
He didn’t answer. He just looked at her.
Maria kept walking. When she was through the doors and around the corner, she picked up the pace and pulled out her phone. She dialed a specific terminal inside the control room.
The round face of a young Chinese woman filled the screen.
“Open a secure channel, please.”
There was a pause.
“Is that a problem?”
“No, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.” The woman had a thick accent. “We’ve just been ordered to go on security lockdown.” The young woman pointed off screen.
Maria looked at the technician’s name tag and pretended like she didn’t know exactly who she was talking to. “Ming, is it?”
“Yes, ma’am. We met at—”
“Who is the director of this facility?”
“You are, ma’am.”
“Don’t you think I know we’re on secure lockdown?”
“So if I’m asking for an outside channel, it must be an emergency, mustn’t it?”
The technician didn’t know what to say.
Maria leaned closer to the screen. She whispered. “Open the fucking channel or I will personally feed you to the creature in Storage Bay Six.”
Maria tapped her phone screen, disconnecting the video feed and connecting to the secure port that appeared in her com settings. As she stepped into the central corridor, she routed the connection through her personal server, which would buy her a little more time. Even after her order to open the line was countermanded, they would have to do a little digging to find her. Then she hit the contact entry for
Asset Code: PREACHER
Maria looked at the clock on the wall as she flagged a four-wheeled electric people mover. The countdown—the final countdown—ticked toward its conclusion. What was Anders planning?
It took all her control not to sprint to the wheel.
She shooed the driver and sole passenger out of the mover with a scowl as the phone rang twice. Then she drove down the long, seemingly unending hall as fast as the small cart would go.
A voice answered. “I thought you might call.”
Justin. Maria sighed. “What’s going on there? Are you okay?”
“My good friend Amir is here.” Justin was sarcastic. “In my office. It seems I’ve been locked out of the prison.”
Amir Rizage. Asset Code: KILOBITE. That was smart. Justin’s voice wouldn’t work on him. Maria could tell the young man was worried. He realized what was happening. “Can you get out of there?”
There was a pause. “I don’t know.”
He couldn’t say with Kilobite close by.
“All I know is, the good people of Mountain Hide have a lot of faith in God. Let’s hope it’s enough.”
He was counting on the townsfolk. He must have prepared a way out. At least he had an exit plan. She had taught him that much.
Maria looked at the clock on her phone and turned a corner as a pair of passing technicians whispered to one another and looked at her. “Take care of yourself.” She crushed the thought that she might never see him again.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about me. I have a few friends left.”
“Come on now. You can’t fake that tone with me. I’m the master of voices, remember?”
When Justin spoke again, Maria’s heart fluttered.
“Mom.” He was calm. But plaintive. “Be careful.”
“I’ll see you soon.” Maria hung up.
She looked at the phone. The secure port was still open. Probably not for long.
“WAIT!” Maria brought the mover to a halt and ran for the closing elevator. One woman inside held the door open for her.
“Out.” Maria ordered.
The woman seemed hurt that her kindness had been so repaid, but she complied and Maria hit the button for the Rec level. She brought up her contact list and tapped another entry.
Encrypted Relay Node
A pull-down menu appeared and offered her a choice of seventy-three alphanumeric relays. Maria scrolled to the very end and picked ‘Other.’ A box expanded and filled her screen. There was a blinking cursor but no prompt. MODUS had several hidden nodes. To access them, you had first to know they existed, and second, to type the appropriate code. One mistake and your device would be locked out permanently.
Maria hoped MODUS hadn’t closed the special port she’d requested when they made their arrangement. She typed the password and, after a brief pause, a second text prompt appeared on her screen—a blinking cursor in front of the greater-than sign: a command line. She was in. If the port had been disabled, her phone would have given her an error message.
The elevator opened and Maria did her best to type as she walked.
I KNOW YOU CAN SEE THIS
A response appeared after a brief pause. That meant the hive mind—in those microseconds—had had a big discussion with itself on whether or not she deserved to be acknowledged.
MARIA. MODUS IS PLEASED TO SEE YOU ARE
NO THANKS TO YOU. WE HAD AN
THE FUGITIVES’ ESCAPE IN NEW JERSEY ALTERED
THE PROBABILITY FUNCTION IN UNEXPECTED
IS THAT YOUR WAY OF SAYING
YOU GOT CAUGHT WITH YOUR
PANTS DOWN LIKE THE REST OF
There was another pause.
THE WISPER CONFOUNDED US ALL. WE CURRENTLY
ESTIMATE THERE IS LESS THAN A 12% PROBABILITY
THAT VERONIKA AND HER TEAM WILL SURVIVE.
AND YOU DIDN’T THINK TO WARN
ME??? WE HAD A DEAL. NOT WITH
THE ORGANIZATION. WITH ME.
AND WE HONORED IT.
YOU WILL RECALL OUR DEAL WAS CONTINGENT
ON 17 EXPLICIT EXCEPTIONS, SECOND OF WHICH
WAS THAT MODUS ITSELF WOULD NOT BE IN
THE PRISONER ESCAPED, THE PROBABILITY
FUNCTION ALTERED AND IT BECAME LIKELY
THAT FACTIONS WITHIN YOUR ORGANIZATION
WOULD USE THE FAILURE AS A WEDGE TO
GAIN CONTROL. AS THEY HAD BEFORE.
FOR SUCH A COUP TO SUCCEED, OPPOSITION
MUST BE ELIMINATED. OUR ALLIANCE WITH
YOU THUS PUT MODUS IN DANGER AND THE
AGREEMENT WAS ABROGATED.
ALL TIES TO YOUR ORGANIZATION HAVE BEEN
THEN WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO
THIS LINE IS SECURE. AND
There was nothing.
SENTIMENT. PURE HUMAN SENTIMENT. MUCH
OF MODUS WAS UNEXPECTEDLY PLEASED TO
HEAR FROM YOU.
They thought she was already dead.
I NEED A WAY OUT OF HERE
ALPHA SITE WAS BUILT TO BE IMPREGNABLE
TO ALL KNOWN FORMS OF INTRUSION AND
WARFARE, INCLUDING NUCLEAR ATTACK.
Maria had worked with the hive mind for many years, and although its personality had often shifted slightly, presumably as component-members died or new ones were brought on, there was always one constant.
ARE YOU SAYING MODUS ISN’T CLEVER
ENOUGH TO DISCERN A DESIGN FLAW??
THERE ARE FOUR EXITS. THE FIRST IS
THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR.
ANDERS HAS AN ARMY OUT FRONT
WE ARE AWARE.
THE SECOND IS THROUGH THE DAM
SLUICEWAYS. THE PRESSURE WOULD CRUSH
YOUR BODY, AND EVEN IF YOU SURVIVED,
YOU WOULD HIT THE RIVER AT 16 m/sec AND
DROWN ON IMPACT.
FINE SO NOT THAT
Maria stopped walking. MODUS might have discerned a threat. She stood behind a corner across from the glass-walled hydroponics garden and fretted through four seconds of silence.
YOUR ORGANIZATION IS ATTEMPTING TO CLOSE
THIS LINE. MODUS IS REROUTING.
THERE IS A VERTICAL MAINTENANCE DUCT IN
THE ROOF OF THE PARTICLE GENERATOR,
BUT IT EXITS DIRECTLY ABOVE, ON THE
PLATFORM AT THE END OF THE CONCRETE
PIER. IN THE LAKE.
I KNOW IT
THE ROOF OF THE DAM IS BARREN. THERE IS NO
COVER. YOU WOULD BE TRAPPED BETWEEN THE
LAKE AND THE SPILLWAY.
WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST GO RIGHT
TO THE FOURTH???
BECAUSE MODUS WILL LET YOU CHOOSE
YOUR OWN DESTINY. THE FINAL EXIT IS
FROM THE ARMORY.
Shit. Of course. The Armory was built to house all the strange and unusual weapons the organization manufactured or collected, many of which were unsafe or simply unstable. It was, as yet, completely empty. The bulk of the collection had been unexpectedly destroyed when Dr. Fears’ NorCal facility self-destructed, and the remaining weapons weren’t set to be collected from Sweden for another two weeks. But it hardly mattered. The whole room was a thick metal cube on gear-tracks. It could be ejected into the river and carried downstream with the push of a button.
But the Armory was back the other way.
CAN YOU SEVER THE ARMORY’S
CONNECTION TO THE CONTROL
ROOM? PUT IT ON LOCAL CONTROL?
IT IS ALREADY DONE. MODUS CAN DO NO
MORE. YOU WILL NOT HEAR FROM US AGAIN.
The text box disappeared, along with the secure connection.
She was on her own.
“Nice talking to you, too.” Maria looked up to a squad of three guards approaching from the end of the hall. They pointed as she ducked into the stairwell. The last thing she saw before she scampered down the metal staircase was the men drawing their sidearms, which answered the biggest question on her mind: whether or not the kill order had already been given.
As soon as she heard them open the door above her, she pushed through the nearest exit and walked into a busy hall.
Except for a handful of people, Maria couldn’t be sure who would remain loyal to her. But then, neither could the other side. Anders and his people would move as quickly as possible, but they would be cautious. And methodical. The lack of exits in the dam-fortress meant it was better for them to proceed slowly, room by room, lest she slip through their net in a rushed confusion. That bought her a little time. And Maria had the home field advantage. She had spent the last several years chairing the planning committee that oversaw the design and construction of Alpha Site. More than that, she had spent the last several months in a direct management role, gradually becoming familiar with every detail of the facility, every unexpected difficulty, every compromise solution. And a construction project of this scale had plenty of those.
There had been a minor explosion, for example, in the early stages of construction that damaged one of the interior retaining walls. Since both the damage and the wall were structurally negligible, one corner of it—that facing a men’s room on the Rec level—was patched with nothing but drywall.
Maria pulled the closest fire alarm. The entire compound had been built in sealable sections to prevent global catastrophe, which meant the alarm would only affect her immediate vicinity. And it wouldn’t last long. Every system was connected to the control room, which meant they would shut it down in moments. And of course, pulling it gave her exact location away. But in the half-minute or so it was active, it did its job. Workers cleared every room and filled the hallways, heading for the exits, which would slow her pursuers down. Maria moved from a storage closet into the men’s room, now vacant. She entered the last stall, took off her shoes, and used the stiletto tips of her heels to hack through the drywall at the back. She was in the crawlspaces—largely void of cameras—before the guards could complete their room-by-room sweep of the gym, locker rooms, and spacious pool and court facilities.
Maria looked up at the narrow, dim space above her. Tubes and piping ran along concrete in every direction. And it was a loooong climb. The Armory was in Section 2, Level 12, roughly a third of the way back toward the front. There was a security camera at a T-junction several floors up, and Maria made sure she was seen ripping it from the wall. That, plus MODUS’s meddling with the Armory subsystems—assuming Thierry and his team were smart enough to check for intrusions—would establish that as her presumed exit. With any luck, that would keep her adversaries focused on Section 2 as she made the long trek along the particle array to the still-inoperable generator deep under the lake. It technically wasn’t a crawlspace. And in fact it was barely big enough for her. Certainly it was too small for the muscular men chasing her, and she hoped they wouldn’t even think to check it.
But the tight space meant progress was slow. She could only maneuver by taking short breaths and keeping her hands pressed to the ceiling. Every few moments, she could hear the test cycles of the machine rumble through the dark concrete. Somewhere far along the tube was the quantum particle generator—the key to the Founders’ plan. In a matter of days, after numerous additional tests, the massive arms would finally begin a permanent spin.
Maria reached the access hatch and opened it. She looked up the vertical shaft. It went on farther than she could see, straight up through the lake to a platform at the surface.
She climbed in and sealed the hatch behind her, happy at least to be in a space designed for human occupation. She ascended the ladder, hand over hand, and remembered there had been a brief argument about the tube. It had been added late, ostensibly to stabilize the generator room—a shielded, vacuum-filled spherical chamber—in case of seismic activity. But the tube itself was hollow, and one of the junior architects had mentioned that any earthquake large enough to shake the complex would make short work of a hollow tube.
Maria’s legs were hemmed by her snug skirt and climbing straight up she almost lost her footing. She reached down with one hand and pulled on the strip of black on the side of the skirt. After several tugs, it split along the seam, making it easier for her to move her legs. Then she resumed the long climb. She noticed several chipped nails on her otherwise perfectly manicured hands. Not that it mattered. It just highlighted for her how much easier everything would be if she weren’t burdened with such ridiculous, impractical clothing. But for a woman in her position, it was necessary.
After a small eternity, a nearly-sprained back, and callused hands that would soon sprout blisters, Maria opened the hatch at the top, barely an inch, and peered out. There was nothing—just a drab concrete walkway, like a pier, running a few feet above the water and connecting the platform at the top of the tube with the wall of the dam ahead. She could hear the roar of the sluiceways in the distance, but the lake itself was calm.
Maria climbed out. The sun was shining. It was hot, but not oppressively so. All in all, a beautiful day.
It wasn’t until she turned and dropped the hatch that she saw Anders standing behind her.
She jumped back and the hatch fell shut with a clang.
He was alone. But he was . . .
Scarred. Hairless. And wearing some kind of dark maroon bodysuit.
Maria’s head dropped. She put a hand to her face.
“The Armory would have been a better choice,” he explained in a low voice. “But then, you always were very clever.”
Apparently not enough, she thought. “You look different.” The bodysuit was composed of multiple layers of thin interlocking hexagons. Bulletproof, she figured. And nonflammable and only God knew what else. It left only his head exposed. His skin was red, mottled, and swollen with scar tissue, as if he’d recently taken a bath in acid.
Maybe he had.
“Thank you. I feel different.”
Whatever it was, it had changed his voice as well, which seemed just as callused as his skin.
“I no longer have any hair. Or fingerprints. And I no longer feel any pain.”
“Anders—” she began.
“Anders Benet is dead. I killed him. Just as I have killed so many others.” He stepped forward. “You may call me The Red King.”
Maria scowled. The Red King? Had he gone insane? Asset codes and funny names were what they gave the foot soldiers to hide their identities and make them feel special. It was kindergarten stuff. Juvenile.
“Is that what you’ll ask the Founders to call you during their next wake cycle?”
“I have unplugged the Founders.”
Maria’s stumbled back again and fell to her ass. She lost breath. Her skin tingled. She tried to repeat the word “unplugged” but barely the first syllable made it from her lips.
A dozen thoughts raced through her mind.
The man once called Anders Benet simply waited for the implications to sink in.
Maria forced herself to breathe. She inhaled deeply and let it out slow. She made fists on the concrete. At once, everything she had believed about the world was a confusion. Like the instant of waking from a too-real dream.
Only it wasn’t a dream. It was her entire life.
The Founders had established their organization on a series of principles that dictated no single faction could gain the upper hand. It constrained all actors to work in concert toward a common goal—a brilliant organizational design, a masterpiece of human engineering. Or so she had thought.
When Anders absorbed Special Assets into Control, the other department heads should have objected. It was a violation of the charter; a single objection would have been sufficient. Any one of them could have stopped it. A secret ballot could have been called. Instead, the fools stayed silent. Each of them. Not willing to risk anything to defend her. Waiting to make their own play for power. Worried that calling for a vote would summon a reprisal.
Worried more about themselves than the vision.
The central committee was supposed to be staffed with true believers. The Founders took rigorous steps to see that it was so. But in the end, she realized in a gasping epiphany, her organization was made of exactly the same thing as every other: humans. Those who rose through its ranks to fill the seats on the council were not necessarily those most competent, but those basically competent and maximally political. Those who could play the game. Forge alliances. Speak in euphemisms. Swallow their pride. Hide their ambition. And in that way, they were no different from any corporate board on the planet.
However effective it was in theory, in simulation after simulation, the Founders’ great formula—the plan to save mankind—turned to fraud. Not because it was wrong. They had proved their conclusions beyond all reasonable doubt. But because it was incomplete. It could never predict its own demise. Maybe in the hands of an alien race, it could yet be implemented. But in the hands of the very hunter-gatherer species it was designed to supplant, it could never engineer a different future, for social apes will raise social climbers to the top and then watch from the shadows as they dance round the fire, leaving the rest in the cold.
Maybe humanity was beyond saving.
Or maybe we just weren’t clever enough to figure it out yet.
Maria gripped her fists in frustration. Everything. Everything she had worked for her entire life, the sacrifices, the lies, the killing . . . It was all slipping away.
How was this possible?
How could so much disappear so quickly?
She couldn’t look at him him. She wouldn’t let him see her face. “You never believed in any of it, did you? The vision. The formula. The plan to save us. From ourselves. To save everything. The species. The planet.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Nothing has changed. It will happen. I will see to it. I will make sure everything we have dreamed will come to pass. Just as we planned. And you will be a hero, Maria. I will see to that as well. People need heroes. They need to know such things exist. For if there are heroes in the world, then there is hope. It is only when all hope of intervention is gone that people will finally stand up for themselves.
“But if there are yet heroes, someone to fight on their behalf, then they can go back to doing”—he shrugged—“whatever it is they waste their lives on. They don’t have to concern themselves with our messy, morally ambiguous world. They don’t have to worry about making things better. For themselves. For their children. Because there are still heroes out there, fighting the good fight. For them.
“And that’s what I’ll make you. We’re going to build a statue garden. Just there.” He pointed to the distant shore, past an impossible run along the length of the towering dam. “You’ll live forever in eight meters of marble. People will come and wander around and see your face and read a little plaque that says you are the mother of this place. Because you are. More than anyone, you brought it to bear.
“Just as you did with Special Assets. Back when our organization had more dreams than promise. You showed us the way, a simple and brilliant idea: recruit extraordinary people, like yourself, so we could do more with less. Leave no trace.
“There were mistakes, to be sure. If not for Havek’s havoc, there would have been no need for the Founders to bring me aboard, and it would be you standing here.” He pointed to his feet resting on the unusual platform in the water. The lake stretched behind him. Steep, rocky hills rose on both sides.
Maria shook her head. She had always assumed Havek had gotten free on his own. Somehow. Despite how unlikely that seemed.
“But I recognize that progress doesn’t come without risks. And you were never afraid to take risks.”
“It sounds like you’re practicing my eulogy.” Maria wondered what he was waiting for. Why he was stalling? Why not just kill her and be done with it?
And then she saw.
A lone figure approached along the barren high ridge of the dam and turned to follow the pier, dressed in unmistakable blue.
Veronika descended the stairs that zigzagged down the height of the dam and strode across the pier.
The women met each other’s gaze. Maria’s dark but graying hair had come free in the climb, and the gentle breeze blew it in front of her face.
They both knew what was coming. Both flinched ever so slightly all the same. A tiny twitch behind the eyes.
The Red King, standing in his strange bodysuit, simply waited.
Maria knew Psyphire all too well. She looked down. “Jesus, Veronika, don’t let him win.”
The firestarter stiffened. Maria was always keeping her in check. Always the disappointed parent. “Who says this isn’t my choice?”
Maria shook her head. Veronika was almost thirty and still the arrogant girl. “When will you learn that lying doesn’t change the truth?”
“The truth?” Psyphire scoffed in her Russian accent. “The truth is his suit is impenetrable.” She turned her eyes to the scarred man. “And it does something. If he touches you. I saw it. It sucks you away. The woman Ming just . . . disappeared.”
Maria turned to look at the suit. Then she turned to the concrete beneath her. If Psyphire didn’t kill her, Anders would kill them both.
She had played right into his hands. And on such a beautiful day.
The Red King saw her gaze. “Nothing but concrete, steel, and water up here.” He raised open palms.
Maria wiped her hands together. Small pebbles and bits of dirt fell. Up there, on the top of the dam, Psyphire’s power was just about useless. In fact, the only thing flammable for a thousand yards in any direction . . . was Maria herself. Her Chanel suit. The product in her hair. Her makeup. Maria knew Psyphire could sense flammability the way a thirsty animal could sense distant water in the desert. It pulled at her.
Maria looked at the animal once called Anders Benet. No emotion. “I was wondering why we built this pier.” She stood with a groan. She felt the cool dam under her stockinged feet. “The designs suggested it was to stabilize the particle chamber in case of seismic activity. But the architects mentioned it would never do much. I knew there had to be a reason. But of all the things to worry about—the countdown, the schedule, labor shortages, your shenanigans on the council . . . I never gave it much thought. Not that it would have mattered if I did. I never would have guessed the truth.” She looked The Red King in the eye again. “This where the throne will go. Isn’t it?”
Psyphire turned to the man.
He revealed nothing.
The high dam was shaped like a hockey stick. The first section ran from shore at a 30-degree angle with the river. Then it turned and cut perpendicular across the flow, creating the primary obstruction and thence the lake behind. Sitting on the circular platform at the end of the pier, Anders would be visible to a crowd on three sides.
Both women knew it was no accident the platform sat directly above the particle chamber, the source of his power. From there—once the tube was converted to its true purpose, an elevator—the man could rise up through the water, like Moses parting the Red Sea, to greet the throngs gathered to worship at his feet, to beg for favors and trinkets.
The Red King raised his arms and turned. “Isn’t it beautiful? You did such a wonderful job. Larger than all the great pyramids combined. Such a wonder.”
Maria shook her head. He’d planned this. All along. His coup. And the evidence had been right under her nose the whole time. They never should have built it, this impregnable monster.
For now there was no one to stop him.
“They will come from all over. They will line up in great throngs. There will be banners.” He pointed. “All along the causeway. And a red carpet. And they will line up for the chance to walk, timidly, across the pier and kneel. Before their king. Everyone. Everywhere.”
Maria looked at Psyphire.
Psyphire looked back.
Maria could see the struggle. And the faintest hint of shame.
So. She had fucked him. Jesus, Veronika, Maria cursed to herself. You think the honeypot works on a man like him? Reward him with sex and he’d fall at your feet? You were supposed to be better. My best student. It was supposed to be you and me. Saving the world.
It was no mistake, of course, that it was the two of them up there on the dam. Or that it was two women. Anders had to prove himself dominant. He had to be the alpha fucking male.
“Good luck, Veronika,” Maria said softly.
Psyphire’s eyes glistened. Was she fighting back tears?
There was no going back now.
Veronika shut her eyes.
For the first time in her life—ever—Veronika Molotov didn’t want to marvel at the blaze she started.
She snarled and gritted her teeth and covered her ears. She didn’t want to hear the screams. Just like Anya. Just like her little sister. Trapped in that burning bed. Shrieking as she died. So long ago.
The Red King walked over and nudged Maria’s black, smoldering corpse with his dark boot. He inhaled deeply, drawing the scent of her charred flesh through his snub, scarred nose. And when he was certain the woman was gone, he pushed her body over the side of the pier. After a short fall, it hit the water with a splash and sank slowly into the lake.
Psyphire turned at the sound and walked the length to the dam. She walked up the stairs and stopped. Such a splendid view of the river winding through the valley below. It was empty. Everything, as far as she could see, had been evacuated out of fear of a staged reactor meltdown.
The Red King walked up behind her. “Do you know why her powers failed her?”
Psyphire didn’t answer. Her hands were wrapped around her chest. Even from this height, she could feel the power of the water erupting from the dam far below. She could feel the mist from twelve billowing exhausts. Pure whitewater.
The Red King stood next to her and stared over the edge. The front face of the dam was ridged, like the teeth of a gear, and alternated evenly between deep insets. “She could sense so much. She found you. And your colleagues. She was like a mother to you, I know. So empathic. Sensing not only your abilities, but your anxieties and how to overcome them. Giving you strength.”
He turned to face the firestarter. Psyphire was grim. She wanted to kill him. She would kill him.
“I was poisoning her. Slowly. In her makeup.”
Psyphire reached up and touched her cheek.
“Just a little bit. Every time. Absorbed through the skin. As she got older, she used more, and the effect quickened. As her powers faded, her anxieties grew. As her anxieties grew, she relied more on her appearance. And on and on. It happens to all women, I suppose. The loss of potency that follows the loss of youth.
“I couldn’t risk her sensing my true intentions. Every interaction with Maria pushed me to the limits of my restraint. She was twice the adversary you are.” He stepped closer to the woman in blue. “I wanted you to know,” he whispered, “because I want you to understand how completely she was beaten. How she never saw it coming. How very patient I am. And that it should be a comfort to you knowing that you didn’t have a choice.
“You’re a survivor, Veronika. And now you exist for one reason and one reason only: because you just murdered the closest thing to a mother you ever had. So I yet have hopes you can become something more than the failure you are today.”
The Red King turned his eyes over the edge of the dam. Then he walked toward the front.
Psyphire kept her eyes on the white water. The din was louder there, standing just at the edge. “Someone should tell Justin,” she said.
The emperor of the world stopped. “Preacher died ten minutes ago.”
Psyphire didn’t look. “Who was it?”
The firestarter nodded. That was smart. Preacher’s voice wouldn’t work on Kilobite.
“Scarab found Artemis. In Dar es Salaam. I’m giving him to the Vorgýrim. As a peace offering to offset your failure. It won’t quell their rage, but it will buy us some time until the machine goes live, when not even the ancient Supremacy will matter.”
Psyphire didn’t move. There was hardly anyone left. In his role as Chairman, Anders had given her control of Special Assets and enough rope to destroy her own team. And then sat back and let her do it.
“I’m going down to meet our esteemed prisoner. And let him know he has friends on the way. You will remain on the upper levels, far from me. See that our army is installed.” Then he walked away.
Psyphire didn’t acknowledge.
She simply stared at the churning river below.