AFX Neuromancer

KIDS WITH GUNS

Nathan peeled a rheumy eye open. The phone was ringing. It automatically picked up after the third ring.

Where are you? said the voice on the other end.

Nathan didn't ask who was calling. There was only one person that had the number.

The Director.

"Not telling." He was just two days into a week-long leave. The point was irrelevant though, as the phone — surgically implanted into his skull and hardwired to his nervous system — had a GPS the Director could easily access, assuming he hadn't already.

How soon can you get to Massachusetts?

"Commercial?"

Preferable.

"It's going to take about a day." If he didn't want him to fly private, it would all depend on the availability of flights.

Arrange it and call me back. The line went dead.

Nathan's head throbbed and his stomach was percolating. Too much wine with dinner last night, and he wasn't used to all the cream and butter the French put in their food. He lit a cigarette as he made his way to the bathroom, accelerating his bowels' already pressing needs. He snatched the travel kit off the credenza and rifled through it while perched on the toilet. A B12 syrette he injected into his thigh. Nathan probably didn't need it — usually his stomach was a garbage compactor, and he hardly ever got hangovers; on the rare occasions when he did they never stuck around.

Showered and dressed, he gazed out at the Paris skyline through the balcony window and slipped on his watch and sunglasses. Then he placed a call to the Charles de Gaulle Airport and booked a direct flight to Boston departing later that afternoon. Nathan put it on the company card. After all the fees and surcharges it totaled over ten thousand American dollars, just for a one-way trip. If the Director expected him to fly economy across an ocean he could go fuck himself.

Nathan mentally dialed him back. "Done," he reported.

Jacques' bakery on the Rue Anaïs. Ask for last month's special. Already paid for.

So the bastard knew where he was.

It turned out that Jacqeus' Bakery was only several blocks away from where he was staying. Nathan packed his suitcase, checked out of the Hotel D'Aubusson and walked over to the shop. The girl behind the counter looked like she was still in high school, had blonde hair in curls, a button nose and wet lips.

"Umm…" He hesitated. This seemed wrong, but he'd never known the Director to make a mistake. He looked up the French translation for 'last month's special' and mimicked the pronunciation while also running a search to see if there were any other Jacques bakeries in Paris. It seemed like a common name.

The girl smiled and bobbed her head. She flipped the sign in the window to boutique fermée. "This way," she said in accented English, and with a playful finger, lacquered with red gloss and dusted in flour, motioned him to the doorway behind the register.

Beyond the kitchen with its convection ovens and deep mixing bowls, downstairs into an insulated cellar and through a sliding door on casters, he was led into a room dominated by a surgical chair, the surfaces galvanized steel and a drain sunk into the middle of the floor.

Nathan smiled grimly. "You're Jacques?"

"Yeah GI Joe," she said, and blew a bubble of gum, snapping it with teeth that clicked. "Get in."

He sat in the chair and waited patiently while she administered a local anesthetic before getting to work on his face, changing the hair color and adjusting his hairline, new pigments to the iris, higher cheekbones with a harder jawline, molding his earlobes and sharpening the nose. She leaned over him, loudly chewing gum as she went about carving up his face, sculpting it like a lump of clay.

Or a wad of dough, he thought.

It was all cosmetic, nothing functionary. Her bosom pressed warmly against his shoulder as she leaned over. She smelled like cinnamon and almond extract. He focused on the cupid bow of her mouth, the thin picket lines in her lips, and found himself wishing he had more time in Paris to get to know her better.

She cleaned him off with a sterilized swab, looked him over, eyes narrowed, wiped his temple and chin, then nodded, apparently satisfied with her work. All told it'd taken a little over twenty minutes. Jacques produced a mirror and Nathan looked himself over. He had to admit she'd done a good job. It was a face, nondescript, plain, looked just like any of a billion other faces circulating the world. Not too pretty and not too ugly, nothing to draw attention. He pulled on the skin, still numb but elastic, responsive. Besides some mild swelling that made him appear slightly bloated, there was no indication of surgery.

"Want me to do your hands?" she asked.

"Don't bother." He only had a quarter of the epidermal ridges on his palms and fingers as a normal human, and had just gotten them changed a month prior. He would've liked to have had his fingerprints removed entirely, but a person with hands as smooth as glass could raise eyebrows. "You've got something else for me."

Jacques handed him a manila folder. Contained inside was a new wallet with all the standard contents — license, credit cards, even photographs of a fake family — a new passport, and a key emblazoned with the Toyota car manufacturer's logo. Attached to the key ring was a tag which read:

BOS INT Lot 16 Blue. Make: Toyota. Model: Camry. Year: 2031. Color: Gray. Plate Number: HG36T10.

He looked at his new name. It was the same one he'd provided to Air France when purchasing the ticket. He almost had to admire the Director — that cocksucker knew his every move.

He swapped the cash out of his old wallet to the new one, then handed it along with his previous passport to Jacques.

"What do you want me to do with this?"

Nathan shrugged. "Sell em if you can make money, but it's probably not safe to use, and the credit cards will have already been cancelled. Otherwise burn em." It never hurt to have a stranger traveling under one of his old pseudonyms to throw Interpol and the feds for a loop.

When he left the bakery he still had several hours to kill, and so Nathan decided to grab an early lunch at an outdoor café, the hangover already a fading memory. He ate an overpriced plate of steak-frites paired with an even more expensive bottle of sparkling water. From the café he hitched a cab to the airport.

Are you on your way?

Nathan sighed. "Heading there now," he responded. The driver glanced up at him through the rearview mirror, and assuming his passenger was talking on a mobile phone and the remark wasn't directed at him, ignored him for the remainder of the ride. "You know I have to get there three hours in advance just to check in."

You're flying to Logan?

"You know I am." It was annoying to be asked questions he knew the Director already had the answers to.

Emailing the dossier to you now.

The call disconnected.

The next ten hours were spent wading through the minutiae and hassle of air travel. The actual flight was just under seven hours, and Nathan spent the majority of it sleeping, not sure when he'd get another chance. After leaving the international terminal of Logan airport a little past four in the afternoon — the sea breeze refreshingly cool coming in from the harbor — he found the Toyota sedan right where the tag said he would. He appraised the hardware and firepower in the trunk then climbed into the driver's side, tossing the travel kit next to him on the passenger seat.

He hopped onto the Massachusetts Turnpike westbound. At this time of day the highway was a parking lot, and he set the vehicle on autopilot, cranked the AC and shut his eyes.

His destination was a town called Millbrook, located in the central part of the state. He'd passed through the area once or twice but knew next to nothing about it, and so browsed the web for information, the results appearing in his heads-up display against the dark background that was his closed eyelids. The details were dry, encyclopedic. Nipmuc tribe deeded the land and it was eventually incorporated in 1715. Consisted of 14.5 square miles of land and 6.7 square miles of water. As of the most recent census the population was listed as 2,963.

All that told him was that it was a small New England town consisting mostly of swampland. He checked local news articles, but except for a domestic murder-suicide three years ago, a particularly severe impact felt from the opioid epidemic in the first quarter of the century, and possible inspiration behind some of the stories by an author named Lovecraft, there was nothing of interest.

The car inched forward and stopped.

Millbrook bordered the Quabbin Reservoir, the primary water source for Boston, and the creation of which had necessitated the flooding of four towns back in 1938, almost a hundred years ago to the day.

Who gives a shit? Nathan thought. Discouraged and out of patience, he exhaled and closed out of the search.

It took over an hour just to get out of Boston, and another two to reach Sturbridge, where the sedan took the off-ramp of Exit 9 and button-hooked onto Route 20. The sun had already set, the sky changing from shades of rose and orangeade to velvet as the stars wheeled overhead.

His stomach growled, reminding Nathan that he hadn't had anything to eat since Paris. He'd passed on the in-flight meal.

He usurped the car's controls and manually steered into the first fast-food drive-thru he saw. He ordered three bacon cheeseburgers, a large fries and a fountain drink, and then pulled back onto Route 20, shoveling the food into his mouth after handing the controls back to the Toyota. The burgers were swaddled in wax paper, piping hot and delicious in the cheap, dirty way only American fast-food seemed to posses. The fries were a sodium blitz and the soda liable to turn him diabetic. He didn't care. It was like masturbation. Afterwards he might feel filthy and ashamed, but in the moment the act was pleasurable.

By the time he was finishing off the last burger, tossing the wrapper over his shoulder into the backseat, the car was turning off Route 20 and onto back, surface roads. Beyond Sturbridge was Brookfield and then Ware.

According to the dossier he'd read while he was still seven miles above the Atlantic, the Thaumaturgical Array Sensor — a black satellite in low Earth orbit — had detected a spike within the Sothian spectrum at 0300 local time the previous night. The witching hour, if you believed European folklore. Supposedly due to the canonical hour's lack of prayers.

Coordinates pinpointed the source to a half kilometer square patch of land in Millbrook. But the technology the TAS utilized was still in its infancy, and often gave false positives.

So basically Nathan had no idea what he was walking into. For all he knew it could've been a couple of teenage girls at a slumber party playing with a planchette and Ouija board.

Night was deepening as the Camry hung right onto a road called Hammond Hill. This was the street where the four residences within the targeted zone were located. He was lucky the place wasn't densely populated — the properties were large, each plot several acres, the homes spread far apart. It could've been a lot worse, and he grimaced at the memory of past missions involving an apartment complex, and another — not too long ago — a trailer park.

He'd studied the four residences on his phone, through 3D rendering composed of satellite imagery and GIS data. House number one was a modern two-story with a manicured lawn. The second house was more of the same. House number three was a ranch with a wrap-around porch, and like the first two there was an unobstructed view from the street. They were all possible candidates, but Nathan doubted it. For his money he was betting on house number four — a Cape Code built in the eighteenth century, set a hundred yards from the street, accessible only by foot or via a long dirt driveway. That would be the one.

The Sothian cultists would want their privacy.

Then again it might not be in any of the homes. Half a square kilometer also covered a lot of forested area, and he didn't like the idea of having to trudge through the woods at night looking for what amounted to a needle in a haystack.

A dark sedan was parked in front of house number four, blocking the driveway. The windows were tinted and he couldn't tell if it was occupied. The car idled next to a rusted mailbox, the name MCKEOWN written on it in faded letters.

He seized control of the wheel and drove past.

"Looks like we've got company."

I know. I saw.

"You know I hate it when you watch the feed from my eyes. It's so… intimate."

Grow up. I'm using all available resources at my disposal, so don't flatter yourself. Aerial surveillance shows two SUVs and a box truck up at the house. I don't know what's inside the box truck, it's either empty or shielded somehow.

Nathan wasn't surprised. Rival factions were like an iceberg — if you saw two agents, it usually meant there were ten more close by.

He hit the blinker and swung onto the next street, driving slowly and careful to obey all traffic laws, buying some time before he had to loop back around. From the travel kit riding shotgun he pulled out a Benzedrine nasal inhaler and gave each nostril two pumps. In addition to the methamphetamine it also contained a cocktail of sensory enhancing chemicals. He felt his sinuses immediately respond and open up, and he inhaled deeply.

I'm tracing the plates. Registration belongs to a Megan Parsons. No criminal record. Next the Director would run a background check, employment history, credit bureau scores, taxes, everything he could get his hands on. It's a dummy alias.

That was fast. "How do you know?"

Social networking accounts are boilerplate. Digital photographs along with the same exact comments have been identified on eight other profiles with mutual friends averaging at twenty-five percent. Two of these mutual friends also share the same date of birth and college degree as our Megan, and another has the same license number. There are other overlapping convergences I won't bore you with.

"Someone got sloppy." It was easy to forge social security numbers and medical documents to pass cursory examinations. The Director's examinations, though, were anything but cursory, and it took time and energy to craft convincing social networking accounts that could fool him and his search algorithms. Cutting and pasting wouldn't do the trick.

"Any idea who my new friends are?"

Nothing yet. The aliases must be fresh, no known affiliations coming back.

"Great." There was a huge difference between going up against members of the Voltaic Counsel and the GOC, or the Chaos Insurgency and the Branch Lakivians, and being able to identify which group it was could be a matter of life and death.

I'm piggybacking on their communications but they're currently radio silent. When I know you'll know.

"You want me to wait?"

Absolutely not. You wasted too much time already getting here and it's lost us the initiative.

"Hey, that's your fault. If you'd chartered a private jet I could've flown straight from Paris to Worcester, and from there I can get to Millbrook by car in less than half an hour. It would've shaved ten hours off my arrival."

I didn't like the the risk assessment. Only two private flights have flown from Paris to Worcester in the past year. There was a sixty-five percent chance your unexpected flight would have been flagged as atypical and subjected to further scrutiny.

Nathan was grateful to hear there was an actual reason behind the Director forcing him to fly commercial, but he'd never express it. "Well, what about flying into Logan?" he responded instead.

Nineteen percent, and if you'd then flown from Boston to Worcester it climbs back up. Higher if we used a helicopter. TF Green was at twenty-five percent. Flying commercial had less than a single percentage point probability of you getting flagged. So I sacrificed the hours and went with the safest option.

Nathan decided to let it go. He should've known better than to question the Director's logic. "So what's my approach on this one? Think I should try bluffing?"

I think they'll shoot you before you could get close enough.

"Okay… How many combatants?"

Counting seven armed by the house, four covering the sides and three about to breach. There're another two in the car that you passed.

He made a three-point turn and headed back onto Hammond.

Pull in here.

Nathan stopped the car half a mile from the McKeown house, parking it on an old fire road. He stepped out and stripped naked, breath pluming in the spring air, and squeezed into a suit of combat armor that was in the trunk. It was tailored for him, but still a tight fit. The suit was a magnetorheological fluid-based weave. The insulation and reflective surfaces blinded optoelectonics, rendering him effectively invisible to everything besides motion sensors and the naked eye. A reinforced cowl covered his head without restricting movement or his field of vision. The phone in Nathan's brain made additional components — such as a helmet-mounted display, WPSM or a situational-awareness hub — superfluous.

When he finished selecting the last of his gear and weapons from the trunk, buckling an explosive belt around his waist, he jogged back to the house, careful to stay out of the arc-sodium streetlamps. He told himself he was about to engage nine people, all of them probably highly-trained. Hopefully his own training and technology would prove superior, lending him an advantage by force multiplication to try and even the odds.

The sedan hadn't moved, was still next to the mailbox. Nathan crept toward it and planted a proximity mine on the side panel, then slunk away, up the muddy driveway before the thirty second delay ran out and the mine armed itself.

He heard commotion up ahead as he approached the house — a door kicked in followed by boots stomping across warped planks. Orders shouted to "Get the fuck down!" and "Let me see your hands!" Nathan paused at the top of the driveway and tilted his head, hidden under the eaves of pine trees that ringed the barren yard. The house was dilapidated, paint eroding from the few clapboards that remained. All of the windows were either capped by plywood or covered with newspapers that had gone bankrupt and folded decades ago. There was a hole in the gabled roof, the shutters had been stripped and the chimney was slanting so much a strong breeze probably could have toppled it.

Five are inside, now. There's one standing by the vehicles, and the last one is at the rear of the house, on the opposite side.

The two SUVs were parked on a patch of gravel to his right, sandwiching the box truck between them. He moved swiftly, circling the SUVs. A stocky man loitered by the rear of the truck. He had on a bullet-proof vest over a tactical uniform sans insignia, head covered in a helmet and balaclava. He looked like a member of SWAT. These guys — whoever they might be — definitely weren't Voltaic or Lakivians. Judging by their hardware they might have been agents of the Insurgency.

The way he was standing, the man's back was against the cargo door of the box truck, and the two SUVs covered his flanks. Nathan either had to come at him from the front or go under the vehicles, and the latter would limit his strike zone to nonlethal parts of the body save the femoral.

He couldn't afford the time to let him bleed out. Nathan switched on the active-camouflage system of the suit and rushed head-on, relying on his speed and the darkness to keep him concealed until he struck. He had three million photoreceptor cells in each retina — more than twice as many rods than average — allowing for better scotopic vision. To him the world at night was clearly visible, although it came in drained of color, like an old black-and-white movie. What he saw as nothing more than shade, what the foliage of a tree might cast on a bright afternoon, everyone else saw as inky, abyssal black.

The midnight zone.

He clung to it, that fathomless dark, and unsheathed his knife. The padded soles of his boots didn't make a sound as he swept forward, launching into the air to cover the last ten feet.

The blade flashed as he pounced and buried it in the agent's throat, his other hand cupped around the mouth to muffle any potential scream. He twisted the handle and dragged it horizontally. Blood sprayed in a fan. There was the wet sound of running water as if someone had turned on a spigot. The eyes went wide even as the body began to sag. Nathan wrenched the knife free and slipped the blade between the ribs.

He gently laid the corpse on the ground and rolled it under the truck.

Around the house, he turned the corner and sprinted to the back. The ground was uneven, an obstacle course of depressions and hillocks and half-submerged rocks, dead grass slick with dew. Scattered leaves crunched underfoot. He cut around the next corner and there was the other agent, exactly where the Director said he'd be. He was dressed identical to the previous man, watching the windows and backdoor in case anyone tried to escape that way.

He swiveled in Nathan's direction, raising the gun muzzle. But his reaction was too slow, too slow…

"What-" he managed to utter, and then Nathan was on top of him, his weight driving the agent to the ground. He jammed his finger into the trigger guard to prevent the gun from discharging as the knife severed the jugular, cutting deep, almost to the point of decapitation. He sped death along with another thrust to the heart, and left the body where it fell.

They're about to exit through the front. They've got three unarmed with them. I think they're bound prisoners by the way they're moving.

He girded the side of the Cape Cod, hugging the crumbling foundation as he made his way back toward the front and peeked around the corner. An agent emerged from the house and tramped down the uneven porch steps. He was less than ten feet away from Nathan, but the angle was poor, and the line of fire was broken by an old man trailing close behind him. The old man's hands and feet were shackled, he was blindfolded with his mouth gagged. Another agent pushed him along with a catchpole — a noose made from steel cable attached to a long rod, like the kind animal control officers used to snare dogs — forcing him to march outside.

The old man staggered and almost fell on the top step, the wire drawing taut around his neck as he tried to catch his breath, nostrils flared and cheeks ballooning around the ball-gag.

Nathan backpedaled, returning to the edge of the pine trees that encircled the property in order to gain a wider perspective. Two more civilians in matching restraints to the old man were led out: a woman in a stained house dress and a boy — couldn't have been more than seventeen. Both were being led by catchpoles. Bringing up the rear were the final two agents.

The old man was emaciated whereas the woman was obese, the boy as big and fit as a farmhand. Despite these differences there was a familial resemblance to all three, and Nathan surmised that he was looking at three generations of the McKeown family.

Overwatch is trying to update them on the deceased status of the two agents you killed. I'm blocking the receivers but it's only a matter of time before they switch to a back channel. They can't see you but they know someone is there; they think it might be snipers and are broadening their search pattern.

Nathan wanted to broach the topic that they had an Overwatch at all, but was preoccupied and filed it away for later. He waited until the group reached the medial point between the house and the vehicles and then opened fire, focusing on the two agents forming the rearguard, as they were clustered together. He mowed them down, rounds perforating their chests in red cloudbursts, and moved up the line. The vests offered no protection against the antipersonnel flechettes Nathan was using for ammunition, the needle tips puncturing the ballistic material like tissue paper.

The boy rubbed his face against his shoulder, dislodging the blindfold. Realizing he was no longer tethered by the catchpole, he dropped his shoulder and charged the agent holding fast to the McKeown woman — presumably his mother. The boy slammed into the agent like a linebacker, knocking him off balance and giving Nathan a clear shot as he stumbled, arms pinwheeling. Three supersonic flechettes sliced through the balaclava and drilled into his face, cleaving the tip of his nose in a surgical bisection and ripping the mandible from one of its hinges, the lower jaw flapping loose from the remaining attached joint. Broken teeth crested a waterfall of blood. The agent wailed. His tongue protruded like an angry pink worm from the back of his throat. If there were any words in that wail they were lost to his disfigured mouth as he collapsed to his knees.

The two remaining agents reached cover behind one of the SUVs, dragging the old man with them as they laid down suppressing fire. The shots were scattered and all over the place. The flechettes had no tracers, and he was using a suppressant to cover the muzzle flash. It was clear they had no clue where Nathan was, and he didn't bother seeking the protection of a tree trunk as bullets stitched a line of tiny meteoric craters in the earth several feet away, spraying him with loam.

On Hammond Street a ball of fire suddenly erupted. There was the booming peal of the detonation of the proximity mine — Nathan felt the shockwave reverberate in his diaphragm — followed by the shrill protest of shearing metal and the crystal-chimes of glass hitting the macadam. The surrounding land was briefly bathed in a warm light as the flames blossomed. His suit rapidly changed colors trying to match the lighting, the outer skin turning bright orange before dimming as the flames withered and finally dissolved in a cloud of black smoke.

The two in the car are now dead, but they've caught on and switched to a back channel. I'm trying to find it now. They'll be calling in support.

I'M ALMOST DONE, Nathan texted back in order to maintain silence.

He stood and surveyed the situation. The boy had found a key ring on one of the corpses and was systematically trying each one on his mother's chains. The surviving agents hunkered behind the SUV, probably digging in, would hold the position until their backup arrived.

They didn't understand that they had just boxed themselves in.

Nathan popped two smoke grenades and lobbed them at the vehicles. One landed close enough for an agent to snatch it in a gloved hand and pitch it away, but it was too late. Pale, thick smoke was already enveloping them, expanding and spreading across the yard. Nathan cut right through the trees, emerging a hundred feet away as made his approach.

As he closed the gap he cycled through visual augmentations, switching to thermal-infrared imaging. His suit's color automatically changed to a milky, off-white to blend in with the smoke.

He could easily see the agents now — one of them was trying to hook some kind of optical device on their head, but was having difficulty getting it to clip on the brackets of their helmet. The other clutched a submachine gun and sat on top of the old man, pinning him to the ground.

Nathan paused a moment to listen in. One of the agents was actually a woman. Underneath the current of their voices, the prisoner repeatedly mumbled something behind the plug of the gag.

"Did you see how many there are?"

"I didn't see shit. I still can't. These fucking goggles aren't picking anything up."

"Rodriguez is still alive. They blew his face off and he's still alive. I can hear him choking over there."

"Sit tight. You can't do anything for him right now. Slanted and Enchanted is on its way along with a med evac."

Nathan vaulted over the hood of the SUV, landing softly behind the pair.

"This is goddamned Charlie Foxtrot."

"You got that right."

"You still don't see anything?"

"No. I told you. Neither did Overwatch."

"Wait, I think I heard something."

The man turned on the balls of his feet, spinning one hundred and eighty degrees as the smoke parted just in time for him to glimpse the bore of the gun pointed between his eyes. Nathan fired from a range of about two inches. Blowback showered his hand with blood and bone fragments as the skull split open like a rotten piece of fruit.

The remaining agent whipped her carbine around while Nathan was aligning his next shot, readjusting from the recoil. He slapped the barrel away, iron-sight digging into his palm, as the first bullet glanced off his thigh. The other shots went wide, punching holes in the SUV's door panel and shattering the tempered glass window, breaking it into granular chunks. The tire popped, exhaling a puff of pressurized air as it deflated.

She released her grip on the carbine and Nathan allowed it to fall, belatedly realizing that it was a distraction while she drew her sidearm. He sidestepped and she unloaded into the vacant space he'd previously occupied. Wedged in the tight quarters between the SUV and the box truck, he jumped onto the side of the truck, using it to pivot and change his trajectory, angling with his foot to strike at her exposed neck.

Hearing him rebound the agent twisted and fired blindly. A bullet found Nathan, striking his forearm. The armor absorbed the round, deforming and pancaking the bullet while deflecting most of the energy, but the impact numbed his hand to pins and needles and he dropped his gun. The kick sailed harmlessly over the agent's head.

She backed away and reloaded, ejecting the clip and sliding in a fresh magazine as she skirted the rear bumper of the SUV, putting it between her and Nathan. Reaching up with a gloved hand, she ripped the goggles off her helmet, and Nathan likewise cycled back to normal vision. The smoke was dissipating, now no more than tendrils of light fog being torn apart by a gust of wind. The nearby trees swayed back and forth. Leaves skidded past, chattering across the gravel.

He snatched his gun up and sprung on top of the SUV, the chassis rocking beneath his weight and the roof dimpling.

The agent looked up at him, sidearm gripped in a shooter's stance. "You're human," she said, like it was an accusation.

Nathan cocked his head, rolling his shoulders in a shrug as if to say: You were expecting something else?

"Might be Insurgency," she continued. "Or a Yeb. Definitely not a Neo-Luddite."

Wait, Nathan thought to himself. I thought you were with the Insurgency. Again he found himself wondering just who exactly these people were.

She fired at him, but the combat suit had already learned from the first bullet and had adapted accordingly. The rounds glanced harmlessly off the armor and cascaded down onto the roof of the vehicle. Nathan hopped down. Comprehending the futility of it, the agent retreated, pistol pointed at the sky.

I'm in their back-channel now, the Director buzzed inside his head. The call signs match a known Foundation MTF.

"What?" Nathan blurted in his surprise.

"Negative," the woman was saying as she moved further away. "Still engaged. Can't terminate."

He raised the flechette gun, aiming to put this agent down. No more playing with her. No more fooling around. With dawning alarm he realized she wasn't addressing him — had never been speaking to him, not directly.

"Initiate," she said before he could stop her.

And the Hellfire missile, launched from the Foundation Overwatch drone — a hunter-killer UAV circling high above — struck the house.

1

The explosion reduced the house to kindling and flipped Nathan over before slamming him to the ground. His combat suit protected him from the heat and debris, but the concussive shockwave of compressed air turned his insides to jelly. When he tried to move it felt like he was going to break apart into a million pieces; the only thing preventing him from doing so was the suit, holding him together like a sausage casing.

Burning roof tiles, pulling tails of smoke and embers, sizzled and rained down all around him. It looked like the Pleiades meteor shower. Shards of porcelain scudded past his head. Pretzeled rebar clanged as it hit the ground and went careering off into the surrounding woods. A bed frame landed in the boughs of a white pine, setting the needles on fire.

The rapid change in pressure, from high to low, caused the wind to howl and whip around Nathan as it rushed back in to fill the sudden vacuum.

Administered hormonal agents, otic compound and coagulants, the Director said inside his head. He was speaking at his normal volume, but to Nathan it sounded amplified, booming and echoing through his skull. He winced and — not for the first time — wished for the serenity of a mute button.

SOME PAINKILLERS WOULD BE NICE, he texted back.

Later. There're more Foundation troops en route, both air and ground. Now get up.

Nathan attempted to lever himself onto his knees and elbows. His sight dimmed from the exertion, black particles swimming and expanding across his vision, and he tasted the signature copper notes of blood on his pallet. His strength ebbed and he foundered, sprawled out on his stomach. He may have passed out for a second or two. It was hard to tell.

He tried to pick himself up again, grinding his teeth and choking back a moan that demanded to be released. A vein throbbed in his forehead. Nathan imagined his insides as a frayed sweater, the entire garment unraveling under the governance of a single unspooled thread. He coughed, and the taste of blood grew stronger.

Get up, ordered the Director. You have internal bleeding in your lungs and bowels. One of your lungs has also collapsed. It's been closed off and the other, remaining lung adjusted for compensation. You've got several herniated discs, your right eardrum is ruptured and you have a hairline fracture in your clavicle and another in your ulna. You're dying but the nanodocs have you stabilized. It will take hours for you to expire in your current condition. But if you don't hurry you're going to jump to the head of the line. Now. Get. Up.

Nathan relied on his arm strength, pushing off from the ground and curling his knees into his chest, swinging his feet into position under him. He straightened his legs, and when his sight finally returned he found himself standing, albeit weaving drunkenly.

You should feel the adrenaline and the otic stabilizer kicking in.

Nathan didn't feel shit; or if he did it was too subtle to notice. He had pharmaceutical caches inside his body that could be administered automatically based on vitals or remotely through the phone in his head. The hormonal stimulant should've boosted his energy while the otic compound restored balance, but at that particular moment there was nothing more he'd rather do than lie down and close his eyes, make the world stop spinning and hibernate for the next four months.

The missile had transformed the house into a pocked lunar landscape. In the unsteady light of the burning trees he glimpsed the female agent, supine and half-buried in sheetrock. Her helmet was dented, the bangs pasted to her forehead by a bright red freshet. A curtain rod had skewered her below the left breast, pinning her to the ground like a butterfly specimen pinned to a piece of corkboard.

WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THAT DRONE? he asked, glancing away from the body. Her eyes were open. For some reason that he didn't care to explore that was the worst part of it. The eyes were open. They lent the corpse a vampiric quality and seemed to follow him as he roved the debris field.

It's inspecting a vehicle approaching on George Street. Not one of ours, and obviously not Foundation. Seems to be civilian. Once they figure that out it will return, so we only have a small window of opportunity.

DOES IT HAVE ANYMORE MISSILES?

Yes. I think they're using the AGM-114-V variant of the Hellfire.

WHAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?

It's what I'd use. If I'm right, then that drone's model can carry a payload of four. So it either has three remaining or some other armament that's the equivalent.

Great, Nathan thought as he stumbled through an asteroid belt of rubble formed by the explosion. A webwork of copper piping was being licked by green flames. The silhouette of a large chifforobe loomed through the smoke — it was missing the wardrobe door, drawers hanging out and clothes strewn across the yard. He stepped over a smoldering pile of tomes and grimoires. A Windsor chair split down its saddle-shaped seat. What looked to be a horned neopagan altar, the unwrought stone covered in a patina of soot and candlewax with runes crudely chiseled into the sides and surface of the Communion table.

He paused, frowning at the spot where he'd last seen the McKeown boy, trying to free his mother from her bindings. It would take a sponge and squeegee to clean them up. They'd been closest to the point of impact, and all that remained now was a bloody skidmark and some viscera that might've belonged to one of them, both or neither. The wet cordage of an intestine stretched like a clothesline between a pile of drywall and a jumble of wooden beams.

What about Herbert McKeown? said the Director.

Nathan, assuming he meant the old man, picked his way through the wreckage. The old man had been partially shielded from the blast by the box truck and one of the SUVs, but still looked to be in poor shape. As Nathan recalled, even prior to the missile strike he hadn't exactly been a shining beacon of health.

Nathan jabbed his hand under the outcrop of chin, rooting for a pulse. It was there, fluttering and off-tempo. Nathan wasn't sure if he was breathing or not.

Rivulets of blood leaked from the old man's nose and ears. His skin was jaundiced, beard the indistinct gray of cobwebs, speckled with putrescent food and squirming with fleas and lice. The fingers were chapped and stained from nicotine and resin. He was naked except for threadbare cargo shorts, starched with dirt and dotted with cigarette burns. Up close the yellowed flesh was oddly translucent. Not only could Nathan see the vascular system, but also the faint outlines of the skeleton — the attenuated and pronounced rib-cage, the almost bird-like fragility of the arm and leg bones and the spur of his hip…

Unless it was all some kind of elaborate subdermal tattoo. There were designs, a mandala and what appeared to be Buer or Baphomet —

The drone has completed its scan of the car and is headed back your way.

Nathan removed the catchpole noose from the old man's neck, pulled out the gag, and then picked him up, draping him over his shoulders in a fireman's carry. He was greasy but remarkably light, and the new burden seemed to make little difference to Nathan, except for an acute itch that flared in his collarbone.

Maybe those hormones were finally kicking in after all.

Even through the air filters of the suit he was assaulted by the stink of the old man. It socked him like sulfuric fumes, causing his eyes to water and the little hairs in his nose to curl. It reminded Nathan of a long night he'd once spent out in the Florida everglades, surrounded by an inhuman miasma of jungle rot and scales and steaming mud.

He opened the driver's side door of the closest SUV, a Ford Explorer, and after verifying the keys were in the ignition he tossed the old man over the center console and into the passenger seat. The rear left tire was on its rim after catching a stray bullet, but he chose it because the other SUV had taken the brunt of the explosion and was worse for wear. He threw the transmission into reverse, looping backwards to align the front end so that it pointed down the driveway.

Wait. Take her with you.

WHAT? WHO?

Don't be obtuse. The female Foundation agent. I want her. Bring her along.

WHY? SHE'S DEAD.

She's not dead, and stop arguing. We don't have time for this. I want her.

Nathan put the Explorer into park and darted out. He didn't understand or agree with the request, it seemed to jeopardize their objective with additional — and unnecessary, if you asked him — risk, but the Director was right on one account: there was no time for arguing. He wrenched the curtain rod from the woman's abdomen. The yawning wound fountained blood like a geyser.

He texted, as if the Director didn't already know: FOUNDATION AGENTS ALL HAVE TRACKING IMPLANTS.

I've arranged an ambulance retrofitted for surgery to rendezvous with you in Ware. It's equipped with stealth technology, signal dampeners and multi-spectral camouflage. That should buy us enough time to extract the devices.

AND WHAT ABOUT ME AND THE OLD MAN? WE DON'T WARRANT AN AMBULANCE? I DON'T THINK HE'S GOING TO LIVE MUCH LONGER WITHOUT IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION. He hauled the woman up onto his shoulders, repeating the process of the fireman's carry. Her removal left an impression of her profile in the powdered sheetrock like a snow angel. She was much heavier than the old man, and the itch in Nathan's collarbone graduated into a molten burn.

The separation of you from the agent is tantamount to your safety. The sooner the better. After you drop her off a private maglev train will be waiting for you and Mr. McKeown up in Fallon. It has a fully-staffed medical bay to see to both of your injuries, and is about twenty miles north of Ware. The distance is… regrettable. But it's the closest point in the railway line to your location. There isn't a station; the train will be making an unscheduled, unreported stop on the westbound line, which is where you'll board. Your vehicle will then be dumped into the nearby Pike's Pond. It's small but deep. Used to be a quarry. The Toyota will never be found.

Nathan pawed open the rear door of the SUV and deposited the Foundation agent into the back. After a moment's hesitation he decided to remove one of the zip ties from her belt, rolled her prostrate, and cinched her wrists behind her back. He didn't think she posed any threat, not really. If she was alive she must've been knocking on the pearly gates, had an appointment with Saint Peter. But she'd already proven to be a dangerous adversary, and he didn't relish the thought of her waking up and finding herself strategically positioned behind him.

The UAV is locking on to you.

The drone couldn't actually see Nathan, but it sure as hell could see the Ford Explorer and his two passengers. He jumped into the driver's seat and floored the accelerator. The vehicle lurched forward with a jolt that pushed him back into the seat. They caught air cresting the top of the driveway, and he bit his tongue when the SUV's tires touched down. Sparks spat out from the rim. The old man jounced and slewed sideways, leaning against Nathan's shoulder. His slack mouth — the few remaining teeth rotten kernels of corn — was only inches away, and Nathan could feel his rank cesspool breath on his neck.

At least he's breathing, he thought and shoved him off. The old man flopped and sank to the floor, wedged between the glove box and the bucket seat.

He turned right at the bottom of the driveway, the rear of the vehicle fishtailing as he swung onto Hammond Hill. For one brief moment Nathan was sure that he was going to flip the damn thing before the Explorer responded and straightened out of the slide.

There were headlights about a quarter mile up the road, three pairs, maybe more, approaching fast and occupying both lanes of traffic, blocking his escape. More headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. Too many to be a coincidence on this rural backstreet and at this hour of night, and they lacked the flashing red and blue lights of emergency response vehicles.

HEY, I'VE GOT A PROBLEM HERE.

He considered turning his own headlights off and vetoed the idea. A lot of good it would do him. He was dragging a rooster tail of sparks behind him like the fourth of July.

I told you that Foundation troops were en route by both land and air.

They were already between Nathan and the fire road where his Toyota Camry — and his weaponry stashed in the trunk — was parked. He checked the ammunition on his gun. The feed counter next to the slide read seven. He had a spare magazine containing another twenty flechettes. He was also wearing the explosive bandolier with an assortment of grenades — frags and incendiaries and flashbangs. And he had his knife.

The shoulder of grass on either side of the road was only two feet wide. Too narrow for him to squeeze on and sneak past. Nathan, his foot a lead weight on the gas pedal, red-lined the tachometer, the RPM needle dancing as the Explorer roared forward. He couldn't sneak past them, but maybe he could barrel through if he gathered enough speed and momentum. Probably not; probably the collision would kill both the old man and the agent, and then the Foundation could finish Nathan off leisurely in a hail of gunfire.

What I wouldn't give for a plough or cowcatcher right now, he said to himself as the speedometer crept to forty miles per hour. At this speed the SUV continuously wanted to pull to the left, cantering on that rim. Nathan fought the wheel for every inch he gained.

He buckled his seatbelt. How did that old joke go?

Question: Do you know what the letters in Ford stand for?

Answer: Found on road dead.

The headlights had grown much larger and brighter. Lensflares kaleidoscoped across the windshield. There was the squawk of a voice projected over a loudspeaker or megaphone. Nathan couldn't parse the words but knew the gist. Pull the vehicle over and exit with your hands up. Stop or we will shoot.

Walls of fire sprung up in front of and behind him, transforming the night into a holocaust. His hypersensitive eyes were blinded by the sudden blaze, and he threw his arm up to shield them in the crook of his elbow, until the lenses of the cowl dimmed and polarized. The flames erupted thirty feet into the air; they spanned the entire width of the road and scored the trees that fenced the street, cutting a swath through their ranks.

Nathan had to fight the reflexive impulse to slam on the brakes. Instead, he applied even more pressure to the gas. A large sycamore had been guillotined and the cloven trunk was toppling into the street. If he didn't beat it he'd get trapped behind it.

Or crushed beneath it.

I hacked the drone, the Director informed him, and deployed the remaining Hellfires. Direct strike on the Foundation vehicles. They've already regained control of the drone, but not before I set it into a nosedive.

The fire was fading as quickly as it had bloomed. Nathan drove into the newly-formed crater. Waves of heat prickled his flesh and sweat issued from every pore, engaging the suit's climate control. The Explorer shook and rattled across the scorched bowl as if skiing over moguls. He could feel the rubber of the tires melt and try to adhere to the chunks of baking macadam. Of the Foundation vehicles only one remained — they'd all been blasted into scrap except for a sedan that had been lagging behind the formation. It was now nothing more than a charred husk. Tines of fire lapped the interior, and flames poured from the driver's mouth and eye sockets. The corpse was still strapped in with its hands fused to the steering wheel.

The descending sycamore's branches raked the roof of the Explorer, gouging the paint in a high-pitched squeal, like nails on a chalkboard. It was going to be close. A window coughed inward, showering the unconscious Foundation agent with glass as a limb of the tree speared through the back seat. The hatchback door was ripped from its hinges and disappeared in a spray of foliage. The sycamore's bole grazed the rear bumper, briefly lifting the SUV off the front axle until the bumper tore off and the Explorer squirted out from under the immense weight of the tree. Nathan clipped the burnt sedan's fender in his haste and sent it spinning off the road.

The Ford, limping along on its last leg, managed to make it the rest of the way to the old fire road. Nathan stepped out and doubled-over, bracing his arms against his knees while he tried to catch his breath. It felt like a python was squeezing his lungs. His eyes scanned the road, up and down. It was unbelievably deserted in comparison to mere seconds ago. Through the burning trees he saw a light on at the nearby ranch, and heard a one-sided conversation as a neighbor, out on the wrap-around porch, screamed on the phone at a 911 dispatcher.

A buzz with a Doppler shift drew his attention. What now? Nathan groaned inwardly. The noise seemed to be plummeting out of the sky, right above his head. It quickly terminated as another explosion burgeoned just twenty yards away. It was smaller than the Hellfires and lacked the forceful punch of the missiles.

"The fuck was that?" he said, reverting back to verbal communications. "They're shelling artillery now?"

The Foundation stalled the drone trying to pull it out of the dive.

Nathan chewed his lip. It was the first piece of good news he'd heard all night, and it momentarily caught him off guard. He stifled a laugh. "Are there any agents left in the area?"

A pair of military helicopters have been deployed out of Worcester. ETA seven minutes. Local law enforcement is much closer, they're only ninety seconds out, but they're approaching from the southeast and will be blocked by the felled tree if you follow my directions.

He jogged down the fire road and hopped into the Camry, backing it out onto Hammond Hill. "Some painkillers right about now would really hit the spot."

I administered them at the same time as the hormones and otic compound.

"You did? Why didn't you tell me?"

Because I wanted you focused on the task at hand and not thinking about it.

Could Nathan feel the opioids coursing through his bloodstream, releasing pain-blocking neurons in his brain? Certainly he could feel the hormonal stimulant by now, his mind honed to the sharpened point of a single atom, body thrumming like a finely-tuned instrument. Likewise the otic compound seemed to be working since his balance no longer troubled him. But he still ached all over. A heavy weight had settled over his chest due to the collapsed lung. And even more worrisome were the injuries he couldn't feel — the internal bleeding in his lungs and bowels. He could wind up drowning in his own blood or bleeding to death through his ass.

"Did you ever stop and wonder if by withholding that information you were having the opposite effect than intended?"

Yes.

He pulled the Toyota alongside the SUV, swapping the prisoners from one vehicle to the other. He placed the woman in the passenger seat, right beside him where he could keep a close eye on her. From his travel kit he ripped open a packet of powdered antibiotics coupled with a cauterizing agent. He dumped the entire package down the ugly hole in her tactical vest to try and staunch the bleeding and keep her alive, at least until he got her to the ambulance and she became someone else's problem.

When Nathan laid the old man in the backseat he spasmed, shackled arms and legs outstretched as the atrophied muscles seized and contracted. His gnarled hands beat a drum solo against the upholstery, and a dry keening ejaculated from the back of his throat like a Passing Bell.

"I think we might be losing the old man," Nathan remarked.

Is there anything you can do?

"I don't think so. Are you hearing this shit? It looks like he's having a convulsion or something."

You must have some medication that will help.

"I wouldn't even know what to give him."

Let me see him.

Nathan took a hard, steady look at the old man, letting the Director soak it all in. His spine arched as he writhed and spittle ran through his beard.

That's not good.

"Thank you, doctor."

His condition could be caused by a multitude of different injuries. It could even be neurological or biological.

"Yeah, definitely biological. Has nothing to do with the missile that landed on his head."

Do you have chlorpromazine?

"I'm not sure what that is. Maybe."

It's Thorazine.

"Yeah, I think I've got it somewhere." He fished through the travel kit and found the small glass vial and a single-use syringe.

Administer ten CCs intravenously.

Nathan bit the cap off the syringe and spat it out onto the ground. He stabbed the needle through the vial's rubber stopper and retracted the plunger until the barrel was filled with ten cubic centimeters of the clear fluid.

"You think this will be enough?" The dose looked paltry and insubstantial.

I think it might be too much for a man in his state and estimated weight, but I have no clue. Give him the shot.

"Isn't this stuff for psychotics?"

It covers a wide range of receptors, which is why we supply it to our field agents and why we're going to give him some without knowing exactly what's wrong with him. I can guess that his injuries are probably similar to your own, but you don't happen to have any extra nanodocs or clotting factors in that bag, do you?

"Sorry, fresh out."

So give him the Thorazine. It's not going to treat his injuries, but it might ease his symptoms and prevent him from hurting himself.

It was easy finding a vein, since they were all highlighted in ink. He chose one on the calf, waiting for the small muscle to unclench, and then thumbed the plunger of the syringe.

"Okay, done. Anything else?"

No. The police are arriving. Just get to Ware.

The Camry, as a Director-issued vehicle, came with an electronic countermeasure pod installed in its undercarriage, coupled with stealth advances to deceive an array of detection systems. It was a Toyota in appearances only. By putting the two prisoners in it Nathan made them vanish from any eyes-in-the-sky that might be spying. The ECM applied various passive and active techniques to manipulate surveillance intelligence and sensing behavior. It could engage in soft-kill measures such as electronic warfare to jam communications, mask acoustics or confuse missile guidances with directional IRCM, and even substitute image-feeds with false pictures, erasing the car from visual recordings.

I'm going to have Levine drive.

"Go for it," Nathan replied. "Tell him to be gentle. Precious cargo."

The Camry was then remotely controlled by Levine, a professional driver on the Director's payroll. He'd driven for Nathan on several occasions, during a car chase on the Los Angeles freeway and an extraction in Mumbai.

Of course, none of the stealth advances in the world did any good if you had a police cruiser riding on your tail or a helicopter pinning you in its spotlight. That's where the performance upgrades came in.

The car's engine was an after-market V16, essentially two V8 engine blocks linked to one crankshaft. The immense size and weight necessitated a custom chassis and hood to accommodate the mount and an enlarged heat sink to hide its thermal output. The car purred as it chewed up the road. They broke sixty miles per hour in under two seconds. But as a back road in New England it wasn't exactly like driving on the Stelvio Pass; the street consisted more of hills and potholes than actual pavement, and their speed was constantly hampered.

"You know, I've been thinking… "

Don't. Stick to things you're good at it.

"Funny. You should heed your own advice and leave the humor to the professionals. But seriously, how come I'm getting the feeling the old man isn't a priority anymore?" He glanced in the backseat. The tremors — or whatever the hell they were — were still present, but had subsided in their intensity. "Why did I pull this guy out? I mean… why don't we stick him in the ambulance and I take Little Miss Foundation over here " he hooked his thumb at the agent "to the train instead."

I don't pay you to question motives, especially mine. That being said, it seems I've learned an important lesson which you, unfortunately, have not.

"Oh yeah? And what's that?"

What's done is done. As unpropitious as Herbert McKeown's death may be, there's no point in getting upset over something that can't be changed. Do I wish it had gone differently? More smoothly? Of course. But I've adjusted my plans accordingly and we will continue to forge ahead with the resources that are available to us, not lament over what could have been. And that means getting the agent into surgery as soon as possible to remove the Foundation trackers.

"Is he even the right guy?" Although Herbert was the eldest of the McKeown clan, that didn't automatically make him their target. It could just as easily have been that the Sothian talent in the family skipped a generation, and his daughter was the sorceress, or that the grandson showed an aberrant proclivity for the cult's particular brand of black miracles, one the rest of the family didn't share.

I have no idea. It might turn out he doesn't know anything and his death won't be a loss to us. Certainly the capture of all three members would've been preferable to just one that might die anyway. Even their bodies could've aided us in our research.

"Yeah, I'm not going back to the house to pick them up. You'd need a fucking wet vac for that job."

And I'm not asking you to.

"I know. That's not what I meant, though. You're getting me sidetracked. I want to know why you suddenly became interested in the girl." He allowed his sight to linger on her. "What's so special about her?"

There's nothing inherently special about her; not that I'm aware of. It was simple opportunistic predation. The drone was investigating the car, it was going to take another thirty seconds for me to hack into it, and so I had you retrieve her. Can you not see the benefit in capturing a Foundation agent alive despite the risk?

He still couldn't believe she was alive. They'd been standing right next to each other when the Hellfire hit, and she'd been impaled like a goddamn kebab.

"Are you sure she's even alive? She looks dead. I might just be carrying a Foundation tracker inside a hundred pounds of rotting meat." Her head rested against the window, and he noted there was no condensation on the glass from respiration.

She's alive, the Director said. And I intend to find out the explanation for that as well.

Nathan shook his head but remained quiet. It wasn't like a movie where the action star bodysurfs the shockwave of an explosion. If something had the power to toss you through the air for thirty feet, can bend metal and shatter glass, then you're not somehow getting back up unscathed and with perfectly groomed hair.

The car slowed down. They were entering Ware. Like a lot of places in the area, it was an old mill town that had seen better days. Just when exactly those fabled better days had been no one seemed to recall. The car drifted through empty streets and vacant lots, ignoring stop signs and a blinking red light. Brick buildings elbowed for room perched above the Ware River. Some of them had been converted into retail and residential space since the textile industry had parted ways overseas, but most remained untenanted and abandoned. The Toyota crossed a bridge over a spillway and turned into the lot of one such building.

Hidden in the shadows of a tin roof overhang was the ambulance, waiting beside a brace of loading bay doors, the corrugated steel shutters rusted shut from decades of disuse.

"You sent a helicopter?"

Yes. As you're aware, time is crucial. What'd you think I was sending?

Nathan was stunned. He'd been expecting a typical ambulance, a van, although in hindsight he realized the Director had never specified. As the Camry crunched across the gravel lot and stopped shy of the chopper's rotors, he found himself at a loss for words.

This was bad. This was going to attract a lot of attention. Even with its stealth capabilities, people tended to remember things like a goddamn helicopter parked in their backyard, and especially in a place like Ware. That stuff just didn't happen here. Nothing happened here. And you couldn't tell Nathan there wasn't an alcoholic or insomniac up at this late hour — watching infomercials on liniments for male-pattern baldness and limited edition coin memorabilia — that hadn't noticed it coming in for a landing. The Foundation was bound to get wind of this, and it didn't take Hercule-fucking-Poirot to connect it to the house in Millbrook. How long before they traced it back to the Director, and by extension to Nathan himself? How could the Director be so myopic? He'd forced Nathan to travel on a commercial airline and then drive all the way out here, delaying him by hours in order to stay off everyone's radar, costing them the initiative, and now he sends a life-flight.

And he accused Nathan of being obtuse.

A pair of EMTs rolled a gurney over to the car. The technicians opened the passenger-side door of the Camry and gingerly placed the woman on the stretcher. They looked disapprovingly from her bound wrists to Nathan. Nathan glowered back through the cowl and dared them to say anything. Perhaps from a sense of self-preservation they chose to remain silent, closing the door and wheeling her up a short ramp into the clamshell doors of the helicopter. As soon as they were out of sight the car's wheels kicked up a fan of gravel. Levine steered the car onto the road and headed north, back they way they'd come while he avoided using the same roads.

Let's hope that's the last I ever see of her, Nathan thought to himself. She was more trouble than she was worth.

According to his HUD, estimated travel time to his destination was twenty-eight minutes. But that was based off the presumption he'd be abiding the speed limit, something which Nathan knew Levine had no intention of doing, and so he hoped to at least cut that timeframe in half.

"My boy… my boy."

Nathan glanced over his shoulder. The old man's eyes were couched inside reticulated pockets, but for the first time they held a scintilla of awareness.

He licked his bloody lips and whispered, "What happened to my boy?"

"Your grandson's dead, Mr. McKeown," Nathan said.

Tears excavated canals through the caked dirt on his face. A snot bubble pulsed in and out of a nostril.

Why has his gag been removed?

I TOOK IT OUT BECAUSE I WAS WORRIED HE COULDN'T BREATHE.

"What about my old lady?" rasped Herbert, his voice shaking.

It was his wife? Not his daughter? Then did he actually mean "my boy" to refer to his son? Although knowing Sothic morales and the cult's history of inbreeding, being ones daughter did not necessarily exclude them from also being ones wife.

"She's dead too."

No one told you to do that. Put it back in.

"They didn't do nothin'."

The old man's eyes slid shut. He was sinking back into the Thorazine hole. His face relaxed, the lines smoothed. Nathan slapped him across a cheek.

Put it back in immediately.

"Hey, wake up. Wake up, old man."

Put the fucking gag back in. What's wrong with you? Have you forgotten what he is? He could cast a spell on you at any moment.

The old man was about as threatening as a Pomeranian. On top of that, he was drugged and near-death. His respiration was shallow and labored, rattling around inside his chest. It seemed more of a risk to block one of his airways than allow him the ability to speak.

Do it. Now.

Nathan obeyed like the good soldier he was, pulling the ball gag from around his neck and plugging it back into his mouth.

"There. Happy?"

I won't be happy until you're both safely on that train.

The trip north to Fallon was uneventful and over to soon. At the designated spot, Levine parking along train-tracks that stitched a line through fallow fields, and Nathan was promptly escorted away by a group of men that crowded him. He cursed and elbowed them away. They were Asian, at least judging by their complexion and almond eyes hidden behind surgical masks, and would broke no resistance. They ushered him into the train cart, Herbert McKeown carried behind him on an encapsulated litter.

He was led into what must've been the infirmary, everything polished stained steel. They fitted a mask over his face and he tasted the metallic flavors of general anesthesia.

"Wait!" he cried, his mind racing while his body went numb. "Get this fucking thing off me!"

He tried to pull the mask from his face but hands held him down, and his limbs, millions of miles away by now, couldn't resist. He was just like Herbert, reduced to a drooling idiot lost in a hole of sedation.

"Get the fuck off me!" he demanded, but the doctors — nurses, orderlies, whatever the hell they were — pretended like they didn't understand. Someone pricked his arm with an IV. His breath fogged the mask. "Hey, get away. I'll fucking break your neck." He tried to reach out and tweeze the closest attendee's neck between his hand, but it felt like trying to lift an immovable object. His hand refused his brain's signal, hanging limp at his side.

Someone braced hid head while he was lay prone in a hospital bed. Nathan realized with dreading horror that he was completely paralyzed.

"Fuck off!" he spat, reduced to a cornered and wild animal. "I'll chew your hand off! It's a goddamn shaggy-dog! A red herring! Don't you understand? The Director lied! He lied to you! He lied to me. It was never about the Sothians! It was always about the Foundation agent!"

And then his eyelids became inarguable in their weight, and he slept.

Nathan shut the rear door and popped the trunk, exchanging the explosives belt for an automatic shotgun. He settled back into the driver's seat. The car swung onto the road and took off toward Ware. The old man continued to seize in the backseat. The agent sat limp next to Nathan, head propped up against the window. He noted that the window wasn't fogged by exhalations. If both captives expired this mission would really be a SNAFU — situation normal: all fucked up. Yeah, that sounded about right.

Nathan felt the car slow as they took a hard right turn onto Stafford Street. The G's stapled him to the seat while the Toyota's tires, wide and with high-pressure inner tubes, screeched as they gripped the road, and the sedan's low center of gravity discouraged a rollover. If he'd tried that turn in the Explorer he would've ended upside-down.

Winsor Dam bridge and spillway

He drove as fast as possible, treading a thin line between expediency and safety. He was travelling on back roads, and in New England that meant uneven surfaces composed more of hills and potholes than actual pavement. Nathan had no intention of escaping by the skin of his teeth only to face-plant the car into a tree. At a rare straightaway he pushed the car to a hundred before immediately easing back as they coasted into a curve.

After he dropped the captive agent off at the rendezvous point, he'd then loop north again, back through Millbrook and then to Fallon. Estimated travel time was forty-eight minutes according to the GPS. But that was based off the presumption he'd be abiding the speed limit, something which Nathan had no intention of doing, and so he hoped to at least cut that timeframe in half.

Ware was an old mill town, like a lot of places in this area, and had seen better days.

Ensconced in the relative safety of the vehicle, the seat almost embracing him like a familiar lover, Nathan found his mind starting to drift.

Something about this mess didn't add up. In the fog of war he hadn't been able to see it clearly. The Director had almost acted surprised by the Foundation presence, as if he hadn't been expecting it, but Nathan couldn't imagine that he'd ever taken his eyes from the house since the TAS confirmed a hit for Sothian activity. Even if the satellite moved out of orbit, he'd just hijack another or send out one of many surveillance aircraft Nathan knew he had at his disposal.

The engine was an after-model V16, essentially two V8 engine blocks linked to one crankshaft. The immense size and weight necessitated a custom chassis and hood to accommodate the mount and an enlarged heat sink to hide its thermal output.

A scrubber system recycled the inert contents of the vehicle's exhaust while condensing and collecting the chemically active emissions — such as carbon monoxide — into a sealed, disposable canister. When engaged the car became carbon-neutral without a footprint to trace. Nathan had enough canisters to sustain approximately ten continuous hours. The efficacy of the heat sink and scrubber depended mainly on engine performance and utilization. If he pushed the car past two hundred miles per hour — as opposed to, say, the speed limit — it would significantly shave that ten hours down.

He switched on the scrubber system from the dashboard controls. There was a soft hum as it booted up.

Then there were the standard warfare enhancements. Half a ton of graphene and polyethylene ablative armor and a coat of para-aramid visco-elastic nanomaterial. A spall lining. Laminated bullet-resistant glass. A self-sealing, crashworthy fuel tank that ran on an open-cell foam to prevent slosh and vapor combustion. As a last resort Nathan could substitute high-test for the foam, if he was in a crunch and had to make a pit-stop for gas.

The Foundation was the most imposing enemy out of Nathan's long rogues gallery, and he tried to keep contact to a minimum. They had the most resources, wielded the most power — politically, militarily, and technologically. Who knew if they had a satellite or some other tool that could breach his ECM? Maybe the Director did, but Nathan doubted it. Even his reach wasn't long enough to infiltrate the Foundation.

And yet, as he turned off of Hammond Hill and onto Oxbow Lane, speeding as much as possible through the twisting back roads as he followed the directions on his HUD back to Ware, he couldn't help but feel a sliver of triumph. He was the underdog and had just hit a walk-off homerun against the reigning champions. In the end the victory might prove temporary and Pyrrhic, but the fleeting taste of it was delicious. Intoxicating.

Nathan shook his head. Maybe those painkillers were working afterall.

Nathan could then eject the canisters by a dashboard control.

scored an overwhelming

Alter acoustic

It had a self-sealing, crashworthy fuel tank, and ran on an open-cell foam to prevent slosh and vapor combustion.

Nathan was familiar with the counter-surveillance techniques utilized by the Director. His own combat suit and car employed many of them, granting him invisibility over multiple layers of the electromagnetic spectrum. That didn't help much, though, if you were broadcasting your coordinates via GPS, but he supposed that was what the dampeners were for.

swap

trick IR and laser guided missiles.

manipulation

Of course, none of that really mattered until he got rid of the Foundation agent. He could be flying in Wonder Woman's invisible jet and they'd still track him down.

Nathan felt a tidal wave of relief; a lifting of weight that he hadn't been aware he was carrying. He hadn't expected to survive, and now it looked like he just might have a chance. There'd been so many times when death had seemed eminent. First the reveal that he was engaging the Foundation, and then the knowledge of the Overwatch UAV on the heels of the encroaching ground forces.

He jogged down the fire road and hopped into the Camry, backing it out onto Hammond Hill. "Some painkillers right about now would really hit the spot."

I administered them at the same time as the hormones and otic compound.

"You did? Why didn't you tell me?"

Because I wanted you focused on the task at hand and not wondering when you'd feel them.

Could Nathan feel the opiates moving through his blood stream, releasing neurons in his brain? It was almost impossible to tell. Certainly he could feel the hormonal stimulant by now, his mind felt sharpened to a razor-thin edge, and the otic compound seemed to be working since his balance no longer troubled him. But he ached all over. Even his tongue hurt from when he'd bitten it.

"Did you ever think that by keeping that information from me you were having the opposite effect than intended?"

Yes.

"Oh."

He stopped the Toyota beside the SUV, swapping the prisoners from one vehicle to the other. This time he put the Foundation agent in the front seat, close beside him where he could watch her.

Her eyes were closed now. When did that happen?

The Camry, as one of the Director's standard-issue vehicles, came with the same stealth technology as the combat suit. It was a Toyota in appearances only. By putting the two prisoners in it Nathan made them vanish from any satellite that might be spying. The engine was an after-model V16, essentially two V8 engine blocks linked to one crankshaft. The immense size necessitated a custom hood to accommodate the mount and the heat sink that hid its thermal signature.

A scrubber system recycled inert content of the vehicle's emissions while condensing and gathering the chemically active emissions — such as carbon monoxide — into a sealed, disposable canister that Nathan could then eject from the dashboard controls. He had enough canisters to last one hour.

Of course, none of that really mattered until he got rid of the Foundation agent. He could be flying in Wonder Woman's invisible jet and they'd still track him down.

carried the old man and the agent back to his Toyota, making two trips. He probably could've carried them together — the old man must've weighed under a hundred pounds — if not for his clavicle.

when he rushed into it, waves of heat prickling his flesh and sweat immediately springing from every pore. The Explorer heaved and shook, dipping into the recently formed crater. He passed by the charred husks of the SUVs that had been pursuing him only seconds previous. Most of them were now unrecognizable; blasted into pieces. He hit one with the fender of the Explorer and sent it pirouetting across the road.

suppurate

night turned to day

two walls of fire sprung up

The agent somehow managed to hold on, clinging to the running boards and window like a spider. He floored the gas pedal and fought the car every inch for control; it wanted to pull to the left on that rim.

tactical reconnaissance

A German-led NATO research project concluded in 2004 that while "the multispectral signatures of most military equipment can be significantly reduced by combinations of various camouflage materials", multi-spectral camouflage for individual soldiers remained lacking. The main problems identified were operational constraints such as mobility, weight, and the soldier's physiology.[6]

Among animals, both insects such as the eyed hawk-moth, and vertebrates such as tree frogs possess camouflage that works in the infra-red as well as in the visible spectrum.

That's not possible, Nathan thought. She'd been impaled by that curtain rod. Couldn't have pulled herself up and off it. Unless she just ripped it out of her side… but even Nathan couldn't have survived that.

On your nine.

The side window coughed inward as the curtain rod crashed through the glass, launched like a javelin. Nathan slammed on the accelerator, the vehicle lurching forward with a sudden jolt that pushed him back into the seat. They caught air cresting the top of the driveway, and he bit his tongue when the SUV's tires touched down. Sparks spat out from the rim. The old man jounced and slewed sideways, leaning against Nathan's shoulder. His slack mouth — the few remaining teeth rotten kernels of corn — was only inches away, and Nathan felt his rank, sour breath on his neck.

The Foundation agent suddenly rose up and through the shattered window. She had somehow latched onto the side of the SUV and was clinging to the running boards. She clawed a bloody hand past Nathan's chest — one of the fingers, the pinkie, had been shorn away and was nothing but a pencil stub.

She's going for the keys, he realized. She's trying to stop the car.

He grabbed her wrist and twisted it, but with one hand still on the steering wheel the grip was awkward, and she had the benefit of blood for lubrication. She easily slipped out of his grasp. He batted her away just as her nails brushed the fob.

I want that one. Take her with you.

WHAT? WHO?

The girl. Stop being obtuse. Bring her to me. Alive.

UMMM… I'M NOT SURE I CAN..

sewer

sour

she looked normal under infrared

It felt like there were a hundred fishhooks, screws and tangles of razor wire buried deep within him, coiled inside, the barbs and threaded tips glowing white with some intrinsic heat as they tore apart his stomach and lungs and spine.

She's not human, not in the slightest. Some kind of synthetic human.

"Bullshit," Nathan said. "She showed up normal on all optics, including the infrared. If she was a robot I would've picked it up. She was breathing, for Christ's sake. I saw her heartbeat."

He reminded himself this wasn't some splinter group he was dealing with, as he'd initially presumed. This was the Foundation. Their technology and resources dwarfed even the Director's.

"You… you knew, you sonofabitch. You never broke surveillance from the house, yet acted surprised when I passed the car at the end of the drive."

Nathan's mind was racing along now, filling in the time frame and gaps n the story.

"You picked up Foundation chatter and found out when they'd arrive. That's the real reason you forced me to fly commercial. It had nothing to do with probability. You timed it so I'd arrive right after they'd captured the Sothians."

The gear in his trunk had been specifically supplied to take on a well-armed, sophisticated special military unit. It wasn't the type of hardware you'd actually use to take down a group of cultists. There was no charms or blah blah blah

"Which can only mean you wanted them to capture the Sothians and me to sweep in and clean them up. But why? If it was just the Sothians you woukld've flown me in sooner to bypass the Foundation"

Of course, agreed the Director. Now pick her up. You can lose the old man.

"Fuck that — I didn't just kill nine — eight people to leave him behind."

Unfortunately, the main tracking device proved more difficult to remove than we initially predicted. Exploratory surgery showed that it was connected to a "technical jargon for bomb" — a bomb, and removal would automatically trigger detonation. It… delayed the removal.

So I replicated the signal and cast it out into the world… Four hundred times. All the while dampening the real signal she was broadcasting.

Which necessitated our temporary change of address to the current compound.

ejected shell casings pattered

The submachine gun in his hands purred and there was the strobe of a muzzle flash, but the shots went wide as he collapsed.

The dossier had come with clear instructions not to kill any of the suspects — at least not until he determined which, if any, were members of the Cult of Soth.

out of curiosity he checked pulled up biometrics on his HUD. His heart rate had never risen above bpm.

and he knew the shade he was standing in was really deep folds of shadow. He

microclimate cooling system
magnetorheological fluid-based

Force multiplication, in military science and warfare, refers to an attribute or a combination of attributes that dramatically increases (hence "multiplies") the effectiveness of an item or group, giving a given number of troops (or other personnel) or weapons (or other hardware) the ability to accomplish greater things than without it

The director was deceased — at least, in a biological sense — and his consciousness existed in a VR platform. His corpse was cryogenically frozen, the DNA of which had been used as the template for Stephen's own genome. With age and increased wealth had also come paranoia, and the Director didn't trust anyone except himself. Stephen was about as close as you could get.

It was mostly rural, a rugged terrain of hills and dense woods.

ceramic flechettes

tapestry

his mouth tasted like he'd been eating out of a trashcan. His

"An observation team was already in the area. Ten minutes, tops."

Irvine wasn't so sure about that, but he was too tired to argue. He yawned and settled back in the seat, his exhaustion finally catching up to him. "Hey, how much fuel we got in this thing?"

The pilot glanced at the gauges. "We've got another hour left."

One hour. One more hour. He could handle that. Then, as long as the skip didn't re-emerge suddenly like the villain at the end of a bad horror film, he'd go through radioactive decontamination for the next several days. As the commanding officer in the field he was also required to write up an after-action report for the Foundation's records. When it was all said and done he was probably looking at another week before he could go home.

began working on logistics of the plan, and another detonation is planned for later today."

He slapped a newspaper down on the desk. It was the Las Vegas Sun. The front story was about the nuclear detonation going as scheduled at the

"Good," Bruce said, heading bobbing up and down.

"Haven't been sleeping much," he confessed, knuckling a rheumy eye.

"I do have some good news for you. You'll be going home shortly — by midafternoon, I'd say. The SOC has approved our proposition."

"I wish I could say it's been a pleasure…" Bruce said.

"Yes, I understand. Under these circumstances it's difficult to feel anything accept grief and misdirected guilt, but I'm telling you that you should feel proud.

We're en route to your location. Please maintain a holding pattern around the impact site at a safe distance and report any "

Mercury had supplied the bird with a pair of polarized binoculars. Irvine surveyed the impact site with them. He held his hand over the microphone of his headset and commented to King, "I can't see anything with these damn things."

"Here, let me take a look."

Irvine shrugged and handed the pair to King. "There's too much shit thrown in the air. I don't know what they expect us to see."

"You're right," agreed King after a minute. "I don't see anything. Uh, Mercury. We have no visual on Able due to

metastasis collective cell migration,

metastasis collective cell migration,