AFX Neuromancer
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GREENWICH VILLAGE, 1978

The old man was dying. That much was clear.

It was difficult to determine his age, and no one felt close enough — or bold enough — to come out and ask him directly. He had to have been over fifty, probably sixty. But seventy? That seemed unlikely. And definitely not eighty.

His hair was thinning, the pate visible through the corn-silk strands. He walked in an odd shuffle, most of the work being done by the flapping hinges of his knees. Every movement was methodically slow and deliberate. Almost choreographed. It looked as if a slight breeze would bowl him over. And if he happened to fall, no one would've been surprised to see him shatter into a thousand pieces.

He didn't fall. Not today, at least.

Everyday was the same. He left the brownstone he shared with his son — the author S.J. Simons — at ten-thirty in the morning.

What a good son he is, the neighborhood clucked. To take his father in like that. Poor dear. I heard he's in hospice. That's a lot of responsibility for a young man, you know.

After double and triple-checking the front door of the brownstone to ensure it was locked, he climbed carefully down the front stoop, pausing to plant both feet on each step, until he reached the level sidewalk.

The neighborhood released its collective breath.

The old man made his slow, plodding way down the street. His clothes engulfed him, neck and wrists swallowed by the collars of his shirt. His eyes were two eggs pocketed in dark bags. He braced his shoulders against the wind — even if it was an imagined wind — and white-knuckled the parking meters as he went, using them for support.

Halfway down the block he froze. A child was walking a wire-haired Fox terrier pup — or rather it was walking her. Unaccustomed to the leash and collar, it tugged and bit and galloped its way toward him.

The old man swallowed. His Adam's apple bobbed in his throat like some living thing burrowed and moving beneath the flesh. A white, sticky film laminated his lips, and he licked them nervously as his eyes darted left to right.

The dog's trajectory was on a collision course with him. The metal tag on its collar jingled as it bounded up and off the curb and drew closer and closer. It paused — cocked its square little head, pink tongue lolling from its mouth. The dog's beady eyes met the old man's before it resumed onward, tugging against the leash while its claws scrabbled along the sidewalk.

The neighborhood gasped as they watched the slowest and most pathetic jousting tourney ever to take place. I heard from Janine, you know Janine, she lives on Hamilton. Well, I heard from Janine that he has pancreatic cancer.

I heard it was colon.

I heard it was a brain tumor.

You're all wrong. It's something in his blood. In his marrow.

I heard…

The dog hacked around its taut collar. It hunkered down, settling its weight on its hind legs, spine a coiled spring in preparation for launch.

The old man screwed his eyes shut and raised his arms, flinching away.

But the expectant blow never came. After a moment he opened an eye and peeked under the hooded lid. The girl had scooped the puppy into her arms and passed without a backward glance.

1

Each day, like clockwork, he made the two-block hike to the local bodega.

His purchases varied but were always similar. A bottle of juice — orange, apple, cranberry. A piece of fruit, maybe half a sandwich or a cup of soup. A newspaper. And sometimes — not often, but sometimes — half a pint of cheap vodka or a pack of cigarettes.

Today was an orange juice, banana and pint kind of day. He paid for it in cash, and accepted his change with palsied hands. The clerk wondered if he was catching, and would go on to wash her hands with bacterial soap after the old man made the pint and banana disappear in his billowing coat.

He was the living dead.

2

S.J. Simons had only written two novels in his career, both of them before the age of thirty. Pauper's Grave and Lilith's Wreath. Each hailed as instant classics in their own rights. Pauper's Grave was taught in high schools across the country and had even been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature.

After Lilith's Wreath Simons had withdrawn into himself: physically, emotionally, and professionally. By the time his father moved in with him Simons was a notorious recluse, and it'd been more than ten years since the publication of Lilith's Wreath. A sighting of S.J. Simons was like seeing the Lochness Monster or Bigfoot — mythological and rarely taken seriously. He'd never produced another piece of writing.

I wonder what it's like in there? the neighborhood had asked itself for over a decade.

The old man, safely returned from his expedition to the bodega and back inside, leaned against the door to catch his breath before locking it behind him. All the locks. The knob, the dead bolts (three of them in total, the single, the double, and the jimmy-proof) and the chain.

It was dim inside. He blinked his wet eyes as they adjusted to the darkness.

"I'm home," he called out. His voice was dead on arrival, trapped somewhere in the no-man's land between a croak and a whisper.

The house was clogged with ten years' worth of accumulated trash. It went beyond mere clutter. Skyscrapers, formed from stacked newspapers, brushed against one another; they reached the ceiling and swayed perilously. The popcorn ceiling of the first floor sagged beneath the weight being placed on the second floor, and the asbestos had turned piebald with water stains. Garbage bags were strewn about, torn open, contents cascading onto the floor. The drifts of garbage were four feet deep in some places. A beaten footpath wound through the refuse and between the moldy, broken furniture. All of the glass in the windows had been taped over.

The old man waded through the mess, steering clear not to accidentally bump into the newspaper stacks. If one of those toppled over it would kill him. Reaching the kitchen, he poured himself a screwdriver in a dirty glass. The first long pull of the drink was a full-on body rush, reaching all the way down to his toes. He bent over the countertop, propped on sharp elbows. A faint scratching of a cockroach's legs came from the sink's drain.

He polished off the drink and poured himself another.

rats scurried

The air was thick

The old man waded

The girl gave a burst of acceleration and scooped the dog into her arms. She slalomed agiley around him and continued on her way without a backward glance.

SCP-166's

He shambled the two blocks to the nearest bodega. His clothes engulfed him, neck and wrists swallowed by the collars of his shirts. He looked like the living dead. He braced his shoulders against the wind — even if it was imagined — and white-knuckled the parking meters, using them as crutches.

At the intersection of Hamilton and Lennon he waited for the traffic signal to turn before continuing in his awkward gait.

sniffed
bodega

shake like palsy

Over the course of the last month or so the neighbors had become familiar with his routine.

His clothes engulfed him, neck and wrists swallowed by the collars of his shirts.

He'd only moved in last month, sharing the Greenwich Village brownstone

Each day he left the Greenwich Village apartment

His clothes hung loosely about him, neck and wrists swallowed by the collars of his shirts. He'd obviously lost a substantial amount of weight, recently and rapidly. He'd moved in last month with a young relative — presumably his son — in Greenwich Village, on the west side of Lower Manhattan.

July 8th, 1842

Today I signed on as a porter aboard the Demeter.

It's a research vessel from Heritage University, currently berthed in Boston Harbor. We're scheduled to leave in two weeks for the Pacific island of Pan-Ran, to study the illusive

I lied and said I'd been on two whaling ships before, though the closest I've ever been is fishing for tuna off the Cape.

an odd ship, small for a whaling vessel.

The ship is currently berthed in Nantucket, but in two weeks we're scheduled to leave port and set sail for the Pacific on a two year journey.

Jude stared at the sun.

From his viewpoint it was just another star, no larger than a pinhead. A little brighter than its neighbors, maybe, but nothing special about it. Nothing that made it stand out from the rest.

An alarm beeped inside his helmet and flashed across the convex heads-up display:

WARNING. BATTERY LIFE AT 10%. THIRTY MINUTES REMAINING.

The message repeated, scrolling across the domed visor.

Jude sighed and began the long trek back to Gilead. He'd be cutting it close. Already he could feel the suit's climate system , the heaters turning off to conserve battery life.

He raised a gloved hand and used his thumb to blot out the sun. Poof. Like magic, he made it disappear with a flourish of his hand. Poof. He removed his thumb and it returned to its proper place in the sky — a pixel of white light, cold and remote.

rating: 0+x

July 8th, 1842

Today I signed aboard the Demeter.

I lied and said I'd been on two whaling ships before, though the closest I've ever been is fishing for tuna off the Cape. an odd ship, small for a whaling vessel. I lied and said I'd been a

The ship is currently berthed in Nantucket, but in two weeks we're scheduled to leave port and set sail for the Pacific on a two year journey.

I didn't want to, but we need the money

porter

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is an 1851 novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book is sailor Ishmael's narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the white whale that on the ship's previous voyage bit off Ahab's leg at the knee.

south pacific expedition - jacobson disease
a porter?
what're they looking for? gold? prior expedition that had success? disappeared?

translator and tour guide and others working together. in the end porter escapes while they perform horrible rituals/magic.

porter finds cave or something with revelation about prior expedition

rating: 0+x

Part Four

A bead of molten light formed at the top of the security room's blast door. It dripped and swelled, expanding into a solar eclipse that seared Nathan's retinas and made his eyes water.

Steel pyramids rose out of the tiled flooring. They were "dragon's teeth", about four feet high and four feet wide at the base, designed to prevent the Foundation from just rolling a mechanized unit down the hallway.

An armory was conveniently located next to the infirmary — it was a sprawling space roughly the size of a gymnasium. Shelves stretched floor to ceiling and ammo was sorted by pallets stacked two-stories tall. A scissor and forklift were available to reach the higher racks. Crane hooks dangled from upper sheaves connected to a rail system that ran the length of the ceiling. A tank and personnel carrier were parked in the rear in some sort of makeshift motorpool.

Nathan took mines from the armory and planted them between the dragon's teeth

This would be the kill zone. The infirmary sat kitty-corner to the security room, with the lab, cell storage and server farm in between. By camping out there, in the infirmary's aperture, he'd own the positional advantage, firing enfilade on any Foundation member that dared to stick as much as their little toe into the corridor.

I was chosen as the apotheosis of our kind, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution. A perfect specimen, sublime and consummate, no other entrant dare step forward to challenge my nomination. The subsequent election was unanimous.

The planet — our home, our collective mother since time primordial when we first crawled out of the swamps to stand on two feet — was no longer habitable. Centuries of abuse had rendered her a wasteland. Mountains vomited slag. The rivers burned, the oceans froze, and the sky turned green as we choked on toxic fumes and ash.

The planet could no longer sustain life. We were not — are not — a stupid race, despite our failings. We foresaw our doom in the approaching twilight and knew that time was short. But by then we'd already passed the point of no return. We had crossed the event horizon. There was no going back.

And so we scraped together our few remaining resources and placed the future of the entire species on a last scintilla of hope:

Me.

It was a heavy burden to bear, and it was mine alone.

I left our planet, our home, our mother, without any intention of ever returning. My farewell tour lasted a year.

and toxic fumes clouded the skies while we choked on the ash.

Rivers turned to acid.

Not only the strongest, but also the bravest, the smartest, the most generous.

The most fertile…

The decision was unanimous — I alone would voyage across space and time as the arc, carrying the fragile, candle-flicker of hope for our entire species.

It was a heavy burden to bear, although the weight was a gift.

Not only as a physical specimen — that alone wouldn't have made me a qualified candidate — but also the most generous, the kindest.

The most fertile…

The hopes of all were piled on me. It was a heavy burden to bear. I was ambassador, mother, pathfinder… the one beacon of hope in a galaxy of despair.

Our planet — our home — was no longer habitable following millennia of abuse. For too long she'd suffered,

Part Three

Nathan jumped out the back of the Transall 700C.

He was high enough that he could see the curvature of the planet. Far below him and to the southeast, out to sea, a storm was brewing off Cape Sainte-Marie. Charcoal clouds flickered with lightning as they spun clockwise.

He wore a pressurized suit and a respirator with an oxygen bottle. As a precaution, prior to the jump he'd manually flushed the nitrogen from his system.

He plummeted from sixty thousand feet. This high up the atmosphere was thin, the air cold, gnawing at him through the suit. He'd departed from Tahiti and so had no warm clothes, and the crew aboard the Transall had forgotten to bring him any. His fingers and toes went numb. He clenched them into fists to try and get the blood flowing.

Nathan kept his back straight and arms folded tightly against his body as he dove toward Madagascar. He reached terminal velocity within fifteen seconds, free falling at over a hundred and twenty five miles per hour. He wanted to get back to the ground as soon as possible — back where it was warm — in order to avoid frostbite.

He fell…

At seventeen thousand feet he broke through the cloud cover. A great expanse of land spread out below him — plains of rust checkerboarded by vermilion. He could make out the dirty smudges of human settlements along the coastline, and pale ribbons scored the island back and forth. They were either roadways or dry riverbeds.

The lack of vegetation was glaring and the flat, empty terrain made it difficult for Nathan to orient himself. He knew the ground was rapidly approaching, but he couldn't tell how close he was in approximation to it. It was like skydiving over snow or water: utterly blank and featureless. There was nothing to frame his perspective; the towns were too far away to effectively use as a gauge.

He relied on the altimeter in his HUD instead. When it reached eighteen hundred feet Nathan pulled the handle to the closing pin, releasing the pilot chute. An ATPS deployed from his back. His descent slowed as the parachute bloomed and created drag. The harness dug into Nathan deep enough to leave bruises while he wrestled for control with the toggles, using the steering lines to try and straighten out.

When he'd finally gotten himself level with the ground he was already crashing into it. He landed on the balls of his feet and threw himself sideways to displace the impact energy, distributing it along his left thigh and buttocks. Although he had shock absorbents newly implanted in his ankles, it was habit to spread the landing-shock over a greater area to reduce the risk of injury.

"My ride coming in from the west?" Nathan asked as he picked himself off the ground. A trail of dust in that direction had caught his eye during the descent. He unbuckled the harness container and shrugged out of the shoulder straps.

Yes, confirmed the Director, speaking through the phone in Nathan's head.

He removed the respirator's face mask. By the time he was stepping out of the pressurized suit a Jeep Wrangler was pulling alongside him. Behind the wheel looked to be a girl of twelve or thirteen. She had on camouflaged shorts and Adidas trainers patched with duct tape. Nathan was about to comment on her age then thought better of it. He tossed the parachute gear in the backseat and hauled himself into the Jeep by the roll bars.

A hot wind scoured the island, spawning dust devils and thawing Nathan's fingers. He flexed them experimentally. Movement was fine and sensation was returning.

They rode in silence. Nathan took the opportunity to bask in the sun and soak in his surroundings, though there really wasn't much to soak in — sand dunes met the horizon in a complete three hundred and sixty degree panoramic. The only sign of life during the short ride was a baobab tree. But as they drove past it he saw that the tree was in fact dead, the trunk rotten and hollow.

Twenty minutes later and the girl dropped him off at a lake surrounded by hurricane fencing topped with razor-wire. The lake was gone, evaporated, leeched by irrigation systems. A gatehouse stood unattended, and large portions of the fence were missing.

Nathan glanced at a posted sign. Next to the block letters was a radioactive trefoil:

WARNING!

NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT!

GUARDS NOT REQUIRED TO ANNOUNCE THEIR PRESENCE BEFORE OPENING FIRE

The message repeated in French and various Malagasy dialects. Beneath the bold font was something about the federal government and nuclear isotopes. He dismissed the sign as a paper tiger.

Treading past the gatehouse and fence, the lakeshore sloped down, and Nathan spotted a windowless concrete bunker by the banks. As he drew closer he saw that its industrial door was guarded by an digital lock and half a dozen laser-guided turrets. The guns chirped like birds at Nathan's approach, pivoting on gyroscopes and training their barrels on him.

He paused on an apron of poured cement in front of the bunker. Suddenly the steel door rolled up. A ramp led downward, and Nathan followed its course until it opened into a cavernous room. It was cool and dark inside.

He'd never been to this particular installation before, hadn't even known the Director had a place in Madagascar until he'd phoned him. All previous face-to-face interactions had been conducted in the Yukon, at a base carved into the layers of permafrost.

Elevator, advised the Director. To your right.

Nathan walked along a grated catwalk that clung to the wall, his footfalls echoing in the vast chamber. The bottom of the room — if there even was one — was lost in shadow far below.

He entered the waiting elevator. The door snicked shut behind him and his stomach rose as he felt himself catapulted downward, burrowing into the earth.

The door opened and deposited him in front of the Director.

"Nathan," the Director said. Or did he? His lips moved, but Nathan wondered if he was still hearing his voice inside his head. It was difficult to tell.

"Sir," he said.

"How're you feeling? Shoulder isn't bothering you anymore, is it?"

"It's fine."

"Good. I'm glad to hear that. Come on, this way."

He was escorted through a lobby with black tiled flooring, nonplussed by the Director's presence. Nathan hadn't expected him to personally greet him, and he had to quicken his pace to catch up with the Director's long strides.

They walked together. Various offshoots branched left and right from the main corridor, leading to conference rooms and offices. All empty save for cups of coffee and water bottles, like everyone had just picked up and left moments ago. In one conference room a screen still displayed the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, stuck on a slide about transhumanism.

"Hey. What's going on here? Where is everyone?"

The Director looked away. "We have been… liquidating all non-essential personnel."

The words hung between them. Nathan shuddered, recalling the staff at the Yukon site.

"What's considered non-essential?" he asked.

"Non-combat and high ranking, for the most part," replied the Director. "You'd be stunned at how many members of upper management are redundant. Or maybe you wouldn't. Personally, I find those at the bottom of the corporate ladder to be largely indispensable."

The Director moved through a pair of automatic glass doors and came to stand in a wide, circular room. It looked like a dead-end to Nathan; there were no other doorways, not that he could see, except back the way they'd come.

"Stand here a moment, if you'd please." The Director indicated a square on the floor the size of a folded newspaper. "I would override the security commands — I know it's really you, and that you're wearing a nine millimeter in a pancake holster — but it's quicker and easier to just allow it to cycle through its protocols."

The glass doors turned opaque. There was a fuzzy hum like an old cathode-ray television starting up. Nathan had the sensation of simultaneously being watched and probed — of eyes and hands on him, peering into his mind, groping and plugging their fingers into every nook and crevice. His gag reflex ratcheted to high-alert.

The Director, for his part, smiled. He was dressed smartly in a slate three-piece and polished shoes that reflected the recessed lighting. (Probably made out of an exotic animal's hide, the more endangered the better. Great white shark or black rhino, perhaps.) He was clean-shaven and had a full head of silver hair. He might've been a spry eighty, but Nathan wouldn't have been surprised to learn he was pushing ninety.

"You don't like it, do you?"

"You mean somebody does?" It felt as if Nathan was being molested by a ghost. A current of air from an unknown source ruffled his clothes and hair.

The Director shrugged. "You get used to it," he said. "We tried to make it as noninvasive as possible."

"Is it anomalous?" The hum crescendoed.

"The security protocols? No. It's all current technology. Expensive current technology, but current nonetheless. Would you believe you just had a PET scan?"

"Yes," Nathan said, adjusting his collar. "It's not the craziest thing I've heard today."

Like liquidating most of your staff, he thought but kept to himself.

"No, I suppose not," conceded the Director.

The humming ceased. A panel on a nearby wall slid aside, revealing an aperture beyond. The Director motioned Nathan through, trailing behind him. They moved through the aperture — what appeared to be a blast door but reminded Nathan of a sphincter, the way it opened and closed — and entered a new area of the facility.

"Where're we going?" Nathan said.

"We're bushwhacking off the grid." The Director's heels clacked against the tiles as he took point. "I forget that you haven't been here before. This is the high-security annex. I've changed your credentials to match my own, and taken the liberty of downloading the facility's map to your phone."

The wing seemed to be devoted to bio-research. Beyond a row of windows Nathan glimpsed a sterile laboratory. Next was a refrigerated stem-cell bank and — after that — a server farm.

They passed through another sphincter-door on the left, the aperture dilating to permit entry. Nathan followed the Director and froze just inside the room. It was some kind of infirmary, but an infirmary like he'd never seen before. It looked like a surgical suite crossbred with a mechanic's garage. An array of instruments were scattered across tables and countertops: sonic tissue and bone cutters, laser scalpels, drills and chisels and a hundred other tools he couldn't name. There was a spill on the floor that probably wasn't grease or oil. A lithium-ion battery the size of a twin mattress squatted in the corner, alligator clamps attached to the terminals.

Two months had passed since the incident in Massachusetts, and Nathan had spent the first of those months in the amniotic clutches of a drip-feed. But his complacency was disrupted by growing unease. He'd felt like a feral animal, treed by narcotics that wouldn't allow him to escape the hospital bed; they isolated and held him hostage. When he was awake he was listless — couldn't think straight, and the worst part of it was that he didn't care, not really. The drugs had somehow robbed Nathan of concern; of all his instinctive tendencies toward self-reliance and preservation. It stole his drive. The days passed, gently and as inconsequential as leaves falling, and the most he could manage to resist it was to pull out the IV. This served only to set off an alarm and draw the NP on duty at the nurse's station. They would reinsert the infusion while Nathan protested half-heartedly. Who did he think he was fooling? Not them, that's for sure. They knew he was content as long as they kept feeding him whatever the hell it was they were pumping into his veins.
Nathan experienced a flashback to his own recent hospital stay.

Eventually the nurses grew weary of reattaching the perfusion, and so they simply tied his hands to the hospital bed, and that was the end of that.

Nathan couldn't recall much else from his time in the hospital except for the disturbing image of his torso filleted on a surgical table, observed from an angle as if he was having an out-of-body experience. He would've dismissed it as a dream spun by his addled brain if the image wasn't so damn persistent.

After that came the rehab. He'd called it quits just one week into physical therapy with the random and impromptu decision to fly to Tahiti. The Director had surprised him by leaving him alone. He'd paid the rent on Nathan's bungalow, had sent him a stipend along with prescriptions and a treatment plan, but other than that remained unobtrusive and hands-off.

Until now.

"Are you all right, Nathan?"

Supported by pylons, the bungalow had roosted ten feet above the beach, and the blue Pacific waves lapped and hissed and foamed at the base of the poles during high-tide.

"Nathan? You're drifting."

Nathan snapped back. He didn't want to; it would be easy to close his eyes and disappear into the memory. Get lost in there, like the hospital bed and its intravenous nectar. He could dine on lotuses all day, set Blonde on Blonde to repeat, and dream about anything except this new reality that he'd been thrust into:

A woman was strung up on the far wall of the infirmary.

She was crucified by bindings at her throat, wrist and waist, holding her upright and in place. All of her joints looked to be dislocated. Her legs were missing from the knees down, the left arm cuffed within an Ilizarov apparatus. Tubes ran from frosted tanks into her spine.

The flesh had been excoriated from her body, exposing a metal skeleton beneath and a white mop-head of intestinal wiring that spilled out of her abdomen. The metal gleamed like chrome.

"Bitch has a goddamn bomb tuned to her neural oscillations," the Director said as he advanced on the woman. Nathan didn't think he'd ever heard him swear before, and for the second time that day he was nonplussed. The Director crouched in front of the woman's splayed body, hands braced on his knees and leaning forward. His nose almost brushed her pubis. "You were lucky. If she'd spent another ten minutes in your car we could've used you for chum fishing. We had to freeze her with liquid nitrogen on the medevac to prevent it from detonating. I still haven't figured out how to defuse it. That's why it's so cold in here."

"What is she?" Nathan inched forward, curiosity getting the better of him.

The Director glanced at him over his shoulder, flashing a smile sharp enough to cut glass. "You don't recognize her?"

Of course he did. He didn't ask who she was, he asked what she was. The last time he'd seen her had been over two months ago. She was covered in blood, and he'd been in a rush to save his own skin, but there was no mistaking that face. The phone in his head had a recording of that night, captured by the camera attached to Nathan's optic nerve. He'd reviewed it so many times that he knew the exact time, down to the second, when the Foundation agent appeared. He pulled it up now and paused the frame, comparing the image to that of the one in front of him.

"Should I?" he said.

"She's the Foundation agent you captured."

He'd had a lot of time during his rehabilitation to scrutinize the events of that night in Millbrook, and most of it didn't make sense. The Director would've maintained constant surveillance on the area after the positive Sothian hit on the satellite, so why had he acted like he was unaware of the Foundation's presence up until Nathan arrived at the scene? And — for that matter — why delay that arrival by more than half a day? Under closer examination, the Director's explanation seemed more and more like a magician's misdirection, especially after he didn't hesitate to send in a helicopter to retrieve the Foundation agent.

There were other holes that persisted; whenever Nathan presumed to have a firm grip on things they buoyed and expanded, leaving him gasping and struggling to stay afloat. His assignment was to capture the alleged Sothian cultists, yet he'd been given an arsenal to take on a military unit, not subdue a covenant of witches. No non-lethals, no handcuffs, no charms or wards or talismans. Nathan wanted to interrogate Herbert McKeown, but he hadn't seen him since they'd boarded the maglev train together. He didn't even know if the old man was still alive.

"She's a cyborg."

"Android, actually," the Director corrected. "You're a cyborg."

This is why you sent me to Massachusetts, Nathan thought. He'd never outwardly expressed his doubts regarding Millbrook. An alert popped on his HUD whenever the Director dialed into his head, but he was suspicious that the Director had a backdoor allowing him to circumvent the notification, and was potentially spying on Nathan around the clock.

"So what's the big deal?" he said, leaning against the wall. "This technology has been available for years."

The Director shook his head. "Not like her. There's nothing like her. The technology is still only theoretical. She has a positronic brain utilizing artificial DNA computing. From what I've been able to find out she can exceed five yottabytes of storage capacity."

The agent's scalp was peeled back, the top of the skull removed, as in an autopsy.

"Looks like a normal brain to me," remarked Nathan. It was true — at least, for the small part visible.

"But it's not," continued the Director. "Do you have any idea how big a single yottabyte is? No? It's a thousand zettabytes, or a thousand trillion gigabytes. It's impossible to compress that much data into a human cranium. It'd probably take me a drive the size of school bus to fit half of it. This android's memory density just isn't possible — not yet, anyway — and it somehow sustains equal flops without melting. I wouldn't believe the Foundation had that kind of computing power if I hadn't seen it for myself — no one does, not even the Pentagon or the FSR."

"You don't know how they did it? Christ. You've had two months. Haven't you been reverse-engineering her?"

"There's a bomb wired to her brain activity," the Director reiterated. "It's severely impeded our diagnostics."

"Can't you just — I don't know — hack into her?"

"She runs on a closed network to prevent that sort of thing. But even if I manually plugged into her I wouldn't risk it. She's a supernova of power, her operating platform is unique, and there's no way to know what kind of defenses it has. I don't want to go up against her immune system and accidentally start a fusion reaction."

"Immune system? Wait. Are you telling me she's still alive?"

"If that's what you want to call it, yes."

Nathan felt something that he wasn't used to. What was it? Panic? Fear? He wasn't familiar enough with the emotion to accurately identify it. Anxiety?

"You… you vivisected her?"

"She doesn't experience pain the same way you do, Nathan. It's just an analogy of pain. I didn't torture her. Besides, the explosive device necessitated her continued survival. She didn't really give me much of a choice, now did she?"

Constant exposure to violence had caused Nathan to develop a mental callous against death. As far as he was concerned there was nothing mystical about it, no final judgement or waiting paradise, and certainly no 'New Game +' encore. The world had existed for four and half billion years prior to his creation. He had a hunch that it would continue on fine without him. Death was just another waste byproduct, dying not much different than taking a shit or blowing your nose. And what was left over, after all was said and done, got flushed down the toilet same with everything else.

But that didn't make him a sadist, and he was hard-pressed to imagine a fate worse than the Foundation agent's.

He crossed his arms and veiled his disgust with apathy. "You called me in for this?"

"No, but you should know that thirty six seconds ago the Foundation destroyed our missile silos, taking out our air deterrents."

"What?" Nathan pushed off the wall and stood rigid, his body tensed as he sussed out the breaking news. "You didn't remove her tracker."

"We removed three. After that the scans came back negative. Even if she was still broadcasting, this facility is too far underground and too well-insulated for a signal to reach the surface."

"Why don't you go up and explain that to them, then?"

The Director didn't take the bait. "They must've forced the Transall to land in Ivato and trailed it back here. I'd hoped your HALO jump would've fooled them longer than this."

"You're retreating," Nathan said. It was the only reasonable conclusion, as hard as it was to believe.

"Yes," admitted the Director. "They're coming for her — want their precious brain back, and they won't stop until they have it. I've been withdrawing as they seize my properties, one after the other. First the Yukon, then Crater Lake. The Amazon and Yalong Bay. All gone. And now Madagascar."

"How many are there?"

There was a discouraging pause. "It looks like an entire MTF."

"Say again."

"It's the whole task force."

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

"Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'."

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible.

"Forty-five."

And with that, the Director vanished.

Part Two

The door puckered open for Nathan while he accessed the facility's map and located the armory. It was right next to the infirmary. With a swipe of his eyes he minimized the map and stepped into the hallway.

He translated the corridor's dimensions into practical measurements. The corridor was wide; four men could walk abreast through it. It was high, too, especially for being underground. He jumped and palmed his hand against the ceiling. Probably eleven feet.

This would be the kill zone. The infirmary sat kitty-corner to the security room, with the lab, cell storage and server farm in between. By camping out there, in the infirmary's aperture, he'd own the positional advantage, firing enfilade on any Foundation member that dared to stick as much as their little toe into the corridor.

The armory was a sprawling space roughly the size of a gymnasium. Shelves stretched floor to ceiling and ammo was sorted by pallets stacked two-stories tall. A scissor and forklift were available to reach the higher racks. Crane hooks dangled from upper sheaves connected to a rail system that ran the length of the ceiling. A tank and personnel carrier were parked in the rear in some sort of makeshift motorpool.

Nathan strolled down an aisle, browsing the munitions. The rows were so massive that they boxed him in a canyon. He felt overwhelmed by the burden of choice; he had to be selective but expeditious in his decision-making.

He arrived at the end of the aisle when the lights went out.

Nathan had better night-vision than most. An abundance of rods along with a retroreflector behind each retina made it about twice as good as the average human's, but even he needed some light in order to see. He fumbled blindly in the dark.

Foundation has cut the power, the Director said over the phone. Rerouting to emergency.

"Until they cut that, too."

The emergency power is geothermal. They can't cut it.

When the lights came back on Nathan noticed — in the middle of the armory on a faceless mannequin, as if a centerpiece on display— a familiar garment.

"You kept it?" he asked. Nathan approached and rubbed the magnetorheological fabric between his thumb and fingers. It was warm and spongy.

I thought it might still prove useful.

He removed the suit from the mannequin. He never thought he'd see it again, thought it'd been destroyed after Millbrook. He stripped nude and slid into the combat armor. It was a whole production, and took him nearly ten minutes to squeeze in and get the suit sealed shut.

You're batman, Nathan told himself as he pulled the cowl over his face. He activated the camouflage. The suit's material turned a matte gunmetal to match the surrounding room.

The Foundation is moving through the elevator shaft.

"How much time do I have?"

The turrets wounded two before they knocked them out. He thought he heard a faint chuckle from the Director, but he didn't know him to ever laugh. They'll be moving more cautiously now. This is just a rough estimate, but figure ten minutes to get down the elevator shaft, and another fifteen or twenty minutes to break through the security anteroom and reach the annex.

Nathan went on a shopping spree. Half an hour wasn't a lot of time to be discriminatory. He rushed about the room and grabbed anything that looked like it could come in handy. Nestled behind an HK-UAV, he stumbled on an electric wheelbarrow and piled his assorted weapons into it, then carted it all back to the infirmary, dumping it onto the floor.

He'd made three trips in this manner before the Director said, They've made it into the security room. Get back here.

"How many am I looking at?"

There was a discouraging pause on the other end of the line. It looks like an entire MTF, the Director finally said.

"Say again."

It's the whole task force.

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'.

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible.

Forty-five.

He tried not to dwell on the odds. The last time he'd encountered the Foundation there'd been nine agents, and he'd barely limped away with his life.

The cart was overloaded and listing when he returned from his fourth and final trip. The Director was nowhere in sight, but the android was still there, still shackled to the wall. He maneuvered the wheelbarrow through the doorway and set it next to the accumulated stockpile, all while trying to avoid her dead gaze.

It didn't look like enough. Not by a longshot, not for forty-five highly-trained soldiers.

Nathan stood in the open aperture and waited.

Are you sure you're up to this? Your pulse rate has skyrocketed.

"I said I'm fine."

Actually, Nathan felt better than fine. At the hospital he'd had artiforg transplants replace most of his major organs. Somatic filaments increased his vertical jump to over three meters from a stationary position, and he could dead-press half a ton. A subdermal weave of next generation synthetic super-fibers and magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most bullets, including armor-piercing rifle rounds.

It wouldn't be enough, though.

He leaned out the doorway and focused down the hall. It was about fifty yards to the security room. A bead of molten metal, like lava, began to form around the aperture's airtight seal.

Part 3

The days were a balmy eighty-five degrees, the nights comfortable, hovering in the low sixties. On the southeast end of the island of Tahiti he'd rented a small bungalow, far removed from the bustle of the capital city, from the resorts and tourist traps. Supported by stilts, the bungalow roosted ten feet above the beach, and the blue Pacific waves lapped and hissed and foamed at the base of the poles during high-tide.

Nathan woke early and grabbed a bottle of lychee soda, then stood out on the deck under the frond-thatched eaves to watch the sun rise above the ocean. There was no electricity in the hut, but he had an icebox, and the first sip of carbonation was stingingly cold as he leaned out over the railing and urinated off the side, aiming downwind. Fishermen and pearl-divers were already scattered along the beach, carrying their dug-outs past the breakers. The few lingering stars dimmed and then faded as the western sky turned indigo.

He slid his feet into a pair of moccasins and made his way down to the water. By now the locals were used to the sight of him, and the few that reacted to his presence did so with a friendly wave. Nathan waved back.

He waded into the surf and dove head-first through a comber, allowing the currents to toss him about and drag him under, the shock of the water fully rousing him. When he couldn't hold his breath any longer he spring-boarded off the ocean floor and described a torpedo across the surface, paddling out to sea.

He never measured how far out he went or for how long he was gone. It wasn't about that. Nathan just swam for the pleasure of it, and any additional benefits of exercise or therapy, if they were ever considered, were incidental and took a backseat to his enjoyment. He frequently changed styles — breaststroke then backstroke, butterfly into trudgen — and while his form was technically lacking, he made up for it with enthusiasm and the natural grace of a born-athlete.

When he finally emerged from the water and stepped back onto the beach he felt stretched, as if he'd somehow sprouted two inches. By now the sun was the size of a Morgan silver dollar broiling above the horizon. Nathan air-dried and strolled up the ramp to his bungalow, sitting on a rattan chair and parking his feet on a stool. He finished off the last of the lychee soda. It'd turned tepid and flat.

A while later — on the island time was an abstract, often pliable concept — a young woman arrived carrying a woven basket. She had almond-shaped eyes; skin the shade of a ripened coconut husk.

"'Ia ora na 'oe," she said.

'Ia ora na," Nathan replied, not relying on the internet translation. It was one of the few phrases he'd picked up in Tahitian, and he butchered the pronunciation without any help, thank you very much.

She placed the basket on a patio table and opened the lid. One-by-one she removed the contents and displayed them for his approval. Inside was a fish wrapped in banana leaves, a grapefruit, a liter of water and a can of coconut milk. At the bottom, unnecessarily concealed under a folded cloth, were two prescription refills. He glanced at the labels and nodded. "Thank you. Umm… Māuruuru roa."

She dipped a bow and said, "'Aita pe'ape'a," and departed, taking the empty basket with her. She'd be back later with the evening delivery.

Nathan grabbed the pill bottles and wandered inside the hut, storing them in the bureau next to his bed. He wasn't taking the medication as prescribed and had accumulated a sizable reserve over the past month; already had a stock of thirteen bottles ranging across therapeutic classes, from antibiotics and anesthetics to respiratory tract agents, sedatives and steroids. He felt better every day and took them less and less, and only as a last resort when he felt a pressing need.

Returning to the chair outside he dug into breakfast with his bare hands. He wasn't sure what kind of fish it was, probably mahi-mahi, definitely not tuna or bonito, but it'd been a while since Nathan had brushed up on his marine biology, and it could've been jungle rat for all he knew. Whatever it was, it'd been salted and cooked over an open flame with a splash of lime. He took large bites, lips and fingers greasy, pausing only to tweeze a thin bone from his mouth. The Tahitian cuisine suited him far better than Paris, the fare consisting mostly of fresh seafood and tropical fruit, chevrettes and poisson cru and pineapples, although as a former colony it wasn't completely devoid of French influences —

I need you to come in.

The call he'd been dreading for weeks interrupted him as he sliced into the grapefruit. Startled by the unexpected voice in his head — it'd been a while since he'd received any phone calls — he slipped and cut his hand on the knife.

Four months had passed since the incident in Massachusetts, and Nathan had spent the first of those months in the amniotic clutches of a drip-feed. But his complacency was disrupted by growing unease. He'd felt like a feral animal, treed by narcotics that wouldn't allow him to escape the hospital bed; they isolated and held him hostage. When he was awake he was listless — couldn't think straight, and the worst part of it was that he didn't care, not really. The drugs had somehow robbed Nathan of concern; of all his instinctive tendencies toward self-reliance and preservation. It stole his drive. The days passed, gently and as inconsequential as leaves falling, and the most he could manage to resist it was to pull out the IV. This served only to set off an alarm and draw the NP on duty at the nurse's station. They would reinsert the infusion while Nathan protested half-heartedly. Who did he think he was fooling? Not them, that's for sure. They knew he was content as long as they kept feeding him whatever the hell it was they were pumping into his veins.

Eventually the nurses grew weary of reattaching the perfusion, and so they simply tied his hands to the hospital bed, and that was the end of that.

Nathan couldn't recall much else from his time in the hospital except for the disturbing image of his torso filleted on a surgical table, observed from an angle as if he was having an out-of-body experience. He would've dismissed it as a dream spun by his addled brain if the image wasn't so damn persistent.

After that came the rehab. He'd called it quits just one week into physical therapy with the random and impromptu decision to fly to Tahiti. The Director had surprised him by leaving him alone. He'd paid the rent on Nathan's bungalow, had sent him a stipend along with prescriptions and a treatment plan, but other than that remained unobtrusive and hands-off.

Until now.

A sigh rustled between Nathan's ears. Please respond when I address you.

"Why?" Nathan sucked on his finger to try and clean out the citrus. The pulp and juice of the grapefruit had added an extra level of pain to the otherwise minor cut.

Because I'm your boss and it's polite.

"No, not that. Why do you need me to come in?"

A suspected Sothian chapel has been identified in England. A plane is inbound and will be arriving within the next hour to bring you in. Be ready.

"You mean I'm not flying commercial this time?"

No, replied the Director, not taking the bait.

Now he sends in a private jet, thought Nathan and rolled his eyes, hoping the Director picked up on it if he was watching the feed. There was a camera attached to his optic nerve. "This village is only accessible via boat or on foot," he said. "If your plane's landing at Fa'a'ā, it's going to take me a lot longer than an hour to get there."

He glanced at the interior of the island. The village of Tepati was nestled on the edge of a dense rainforest. Beyond the jungle canopy were foothills terraced by black rock, rising like scaffolding to the base of Mount Runui. The volcano's conical peak was wreathed in rainclouds.

The plane is amphibious and will be making a water landing.

Of course it was.

Despite his reluctance, Nathan had a bug-out bag prepared under the bed, ready in case of such a development. He dragged the duffel bag out by the shoulder-strap and added the prescriptions from the bureau, his two remaining lychee bottles, a six pack of Hinano beer and a string of black Tahitian pearls, then zipped it closed. He went back out and sat on the porch, waiting for his ride to show.

The plane was a Japanese US-4, designed for ASR. It's unexpected descent a half hour later drew the local children out on the beach, followed closely by their mothers and grandparents. The plane looked like it might crash into the Pacific, buzzing a low orbit overhead until it made a controlled landing half a klick out to sea, gliding to a stop on the belly of the fuselage.

Nathan arched an eyebrow and observed that more than a few of the children actually seemed disappointed that the plane hadn't broken apart on impact. He smirked, kind of wishing it'd crashed, too.

That would've at least bought him a couple of more hours on Tahiti.

A zodiac arrowed over from the plane to the shore. Nathan tossed his bug-out bag over the inflatable gunwale and hopped in, watching as Tepati dwindled away. The boat gave a burst of acceleration and flew up the incline of the plane's ramp, surfing through the rear bay doors and into the cargo compartment. The aircraft was large, the cargo box ten meters in length, not including the ramp. Half a dozen seats were installed on each side of the box, facing inward toward each other. He chose a seat at random and strapped himself in.

They touched-down in Wellington where Nathan swapped aircraft, boarding a Cessna. Its amenities were luxurious in comparison to the US-4 — he sank into the seat like it was almond butter. From Wellington it was another twenty hours to Heathrow, including a stop to refuel. In London he rented a sporty coupe (the clerk pronounced it cou-pay), punched coordinates into the console and allowed the car to drive itself to his destination. It was about a seven hour trip from the city.

Nathan slept most of the way.

He reached the coastal village of Buggesport a little past four in the afternoon. The day was overcast. Needling precipitation — it was difficult to say whether it was actual rain or spray from the chalky ocean cliffs — penetrated his clothes, and he turned his collar up against it as made his way to the nearby pub.

The Quarter Keg was situated on a cobbled street across from the post office. Amber shafts of light spilled from the front windows on to the sidewalk.

Nathan, his hands shoved into his coat pockets and shadow growing long, mounted the steps and entered the pub. A mirror-backed bar was to the right, seating to the left with a hallway disappearing into the rear. The floorboards were tacky and creaked under his feet. It was an old building, a couple of hundred years at least, the ceiling low. It smelled like hops and vinegar.

large room, bar to the right,

hesitated. It was only a fraction of a second — too quick for anyone watching to note. Then whatever it was that caused his

He'd just arrived and already Nathan disliked the place. It was a drab town. Cold and gray. He'd gone from Tahiti to England in the span of a day and didn't consider it a fair trade of islands.

The Muse was the only inn in town, functioning as both the local watering hole and hotel. It took him less time to walk from the car to

The car parked itself in a narrow, cobblestone snicket. An alarm chimed and a female voice announced: "You have arrived at your destination. You have arrived at your destination."

Nathan opened his eyes. He sighed and turned the ignition off, silencing the voice midsentence.

penetrated Nathan's clothes, and he turned his collar up against it.

The village consisted of a handful of narrow, cobblestone snickets sandwiched between the Atlantic and surrounding farmland. The newest building in the town center looked to be at least a couple of hundred years old.

the local

His contact was a man named Lawson.

the beer was so thick it was almost chewable.

Cessna 700C

"Yukon?" The Director's main operative base was located in the Canadian arctic, buried deep beneath the layers of permafrost. Nathan wasn't looking forward to the drastic switch from the tropical beaches of French Polynesia to the steppes of the tundra.

No. You're flying into Ivato.

He frowned. Geography had always been one of his stronger subjects, but even he had to think a moment. "Madagascar?" He hadn't been aware the Director had property there.

Yes. I'll explain when you get here. The Director — according to the HUD, at least — disconnected.

Despite his reluctance, Nathan had a bug-out bag prepared under the bed, ready in case of such a development. He dragged the duffel bag out by the shoulder-strap and added the prescriptions from the bureau, his two remaining lychee bottles, a six pack of Hinano beer and a string of black Tahitian pearls, then zipped it closed. He went back out and sat on the porch, waiting for his ride to show.

The plane was a Japanese US-4, designed for ASR. It's unexpected descent a half hour later drew the local children out on the beach, followed closely by their mothers and grandparents. The plane looked like it might crash into the Pacific, buzzing a low orbit overhead until it made a controlled landing about three hundred yards out to sea, gliding to a stop on the belly of the fuselage.

Nathan arched an eyebrow and observed that more than a few of the children actually seemed disappointed that the plane had landed safely instead of breaking apart on impact. He smiled, kind of wishing it'd crashed, too.

That would've at least bought him a couple of more hours on Tahiti.

A zodiac arrowed over from the plane to the shore. Nathan tossed his bag over the inflatable gunwale and hopped in, watching as Tepati dwindled away. The boat gave a burst of acceleration and flew up the incline of the plane's ramp, surfing through the rear bay doors and into the cargo compartment. The aircraft was large, the cargo box ten meters in length, not including the ramp. Half a dozen seats were installed on each side of the box, facing inward toward each other. He chose a seat at random and strapped himself in.

He closed his eyes.

We have a situation that calls for your… immediate attention.

Nathan snorted. "Fuck does that mean?"

It means—

"I'll tell you what it means. It's politic bullshit. Means absolutely nothing." He felt resentment bubbling up inside of him like bile, and he had to cough it up or risk choking on it. It'd been building for too long. But there was something else, too. Something that he wasn't used to. What was it? Panic? Fear? He wasn't familiar enough with the emotion to accurately identify it. Anxiety? "It provides me with zero details or actual information from which I can base my decisions. It's nothing more than lip service."

He'd had a lot of time to scrutinize the events of that night in Millbrook, and most of it didn't make any sense, didn't pass the smell test. The Director would've maintained constant surveillance on the area after the positive Sothian hit on the satellite, so why had he acted like he was unaware of the Foundation's presence up until Nathan arrived at the scene? And — for that matter — why delay that arrival by more than half a day? Under closer examination, the Director's explanation seemed more and more like a magician's misdirection, especially after he didn't hesitate to send in a medevac chopper to retrieve the Foundation agent.

There were other holes that persisted; whenever Nathan presumed to have a firm grip on things they buoyed and expanded, leaving him grasping and struggling to stay afloat. His assignment was to capture the alleged Sothian cultists, yet he'd been given an arsenal to take on a military unit, not subdue a covenant of witches. No non-lethals, no handcuffs, no charms or wards or magic wands. Nathan wanted to interview Herbert McKeown, but he hadn't seen him since they'd boarded the maglev train together. He wasn't even sure if the old man was still alive.

The McKeowns had only been a distraction, but for all his ruminations Nathan was no closer to discovering whatever the true objective had been.

Are you through, soldier?

"No."

Nathan had never outwardly expressed his doubts regarding Millbrook. An alert popped on his HUD whenever the Director dialed into his head, but he was suspicious that the Director had a backdoor allowing him to circumvent the notification, and he was potentially spying on him around the clock without Nathan's knowledge.

Yes, you are. Now shut up and listen to me. I'm not only your boss, I'm your commanding officer in a combat hot-zone. I don't give a shit what your decisions or opinions are. Your job is to follow my orders. Insubordination will get you court-marshaled… or killed.

"Sir yes sir!"

Don't mock me. You're acting like an angst-filled teenager.

"I'd say it's more like a genetically mutated first-grader," said Nathan.

Fair enough. Perhaps it's my fault. Maybe I coddled you too much, maybe I was too lenient in your training and responsibilities.

"Oh, please don't self-analyze or get paternal on me."

//Some might argue with your semantics, but in this we're in agreement. I am not your father, so I will repeat: stop acting like an angst-filled teenager. A spoiled brat. Or, as you put it so succinctly, a first-grader.

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

rating: 0+x

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 aerial surveillance 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. It was one less thing to have to worry about. "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 prior 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 racing on a salt flat; the street consisted more of hills and potholes than actual pavement, and their speed was constantly hindered.

Nathan let his eyes drift shut. "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. It's counterproductive. 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 implanted 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 me at least another thirty seconds 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 goddamned 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 formed on the glass around her lips or nose.

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, could bend metal and shatter glass, then you weren't somehow getting back up unscathed and without a single hair out of place.

The car slowed down as they entered 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; buildings elbowed for space 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 the tin roof overhang was the ambulance.

"You sent a helicopter?"

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

He'd been expecting a typical ambulance, a van, although in hindsight he realized the Director had never specified.

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, 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 avoiding the same streets.

Let's hope that's the last I ever see of her, Nathan thought to himself.

Part One

3

rating: 0+x

He'd ditched the nine millimeter and its pancake holster, swapping it out for an automatic shotgun and a gas-operated assault rifle. He then dumped them by the door —he'd need quick-access for when the bullets started flying. A grenade launcher with a twenty-projectile cylinder and bandoliers containing both chemical and explosive grenades; EMP and fragmentation mines.; an anti-material rifle that must've weighed fifty pounds and was six feet long. It took 20x102mm Vulcan rounds that dwarfed all others.

Are you sure you're up to this?

"I said I'm fine."

Actually, Nathan felt better than fine. At the hospital he'd had artiforg transplants replace his lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, and spleen. In Tahiti he'd taken to swimming in the Pacific for leisure, and discovered that he could hold his breath for more than ten minutes with little discomfort. Somatic filaments increased his vertical jump to over three meters from a stationary position, and he could dead-press half a ton. A subdermal weave of next generation synthetic super-fibers and magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most bullets, including armor-piercing rifle rounds, as well as limited protection against stabbing and slashing weapons.

He went on a shopping spree, rushing around and grabbing anything that looked like it could come in handy. He piled it all into a wheelbarrow that he'd found nestled behind a drone and carted it back to the infirmary, dumping it onto the floor.

More than a thousand feet of dirt and rock separated him from the surface and any possible light-source.

He worked best in low-light conditions, not zero-light. His other senses escalated to DEFCON one to offset his blindness.

"You kept it?" Nathan asked.

Yes. I thought it might still prove useful.

Nathan rubbed the magnetorheological fluid between his thumb and two fingers. It was surprisingly warm and spongy, yielding to his touch.

He stripped out of his clothes and into the combat suit, lowering the cowl over his face. He felt like Batman putting it on.

Forty-five, he thought to himself.

It was going to be a long day.

"How many am I looking at?"

There was a discouraging pause on the other end of the line. It looks like an entire MTF, the Director finally said.

"Say again."

It's the whole task force.

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'.

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible.

Forty-five.

Forty-five? He tried not to dwell on the odds. The last time he'd engaged the Foundation there'd been nine agents and he'd barely limped away with his life.

Are you up to this?

"I said I'm fine."

Actually, Nathan felt better than fine. At the hospital he'd had artiforg transplants replace all of his major organs. Somatic filaments increased his vertical jump to over three meters from a stationary position, and he could dead-press half a ton. A subdermal weave of next generation synthetic super-fibers and magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most bullets, including armor-piercing rifle rounds, and limited protection against stabbing and slashing weapons.

Part Two

rating: 0+x

He tried not to think about it as he stepped into the armory. The last time he'd engaged nine Foundation agents and had barely limped away with his life.

The armory was as expansive as a gymnasium. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling; they boxed him in a canyon. There was a scissor-lift available to reach the higher racks. A tank and transport carrier were parked in the back. Several drone aircraft hung suspended from the ceiling.

"Where's my backup? Where's Bryanna and Pat?"

He found a wheelbarrow nestled behind a pallet of ammunition and went on a shopping spree, grabbing anything that looked like it would come in handy.

Bryanna died in the Yukon. Pat in China.

The Director had always functioned on limited staff. Most of his operations were automated wherever possible.

"And Jake and Steve?"

Nathan inspected an anti-material rifle that must've weighed fifty pounds and was six feet in length. It took 20x102mm Vulcan rounds that dwarfed all other bullets. He tossed it in the wheelbarrow.

Dead. You're the last. I postponed calling you so as not to disturb your convalescence.

The wheelbarrow full and listing to the right, Nathan quit browsing the aisles and made his way back.

He tapped the brakes, retraced his steps and stopped in front of a display cabinet.

"You kept it?" he said.

Yes. I had it repaired, too. Try it on.

Nathan removed his combat armor from the display. He kicked off his shoes, slid out of his clothes and into the magnetorheological suit. It hugged him tightly, like an old friend.

He slipped the cowl over his face. The suit activated, turning steel-blue to match the color of the armory.

a grenade launcher with a twenty-projectile cylinder and bandoliers containing both chemical and explosive grenades; EMP and fragmentation mines.; an anti-material rifle that must've weighed fifty pounds and was six feet long. It took 20x102mm Vulcan rounds that dwarfed all others.

The bunker turrets wounded two before they knocked them out. The MTF will be moving more cautiously now. This is just a rough estimate, but figure ten minutes to get down the elevator shaft, and another fifteen or twenty minutes to break through the security anteroom and reach the annex.

stocked with weapons and ammunition.

There was an exhibit dedicated to the history of warfare: a timeline showed the evolution of weapons, ranging from Neolithic axe heads to malware agents. A tank and transport carrier were parked in the back. Several drone aircraft hung suspended from the ceiling.

The décor was ultra-modern, all sharp angles, polished metal, stained wood and dull plastic that seemed to come in only two colors: black and gray.

The Director flickered. A bar of static lanced his torso.

Buy me time, he said. His voice stuttered as he vanished.

One moment he was there and the next… gone. Nathan was alone except for the Foundation agent.

"Goddamn holograms," he muttered.

Get to the armory, please.

"How many?"

There was a discouraging pause on the other end of the line. It looks like an entire MTF, the Director said.

"Say again."

It's the whole task force.

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'.

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but that didn't mean much. Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible. The last time they'd encountered each other he'd engaged nine agents and had barely limped away with his life.

The Director flickered. A bar of static lanced his torso.

The infirmary door puckered open for Nathan as he accessed the facility's map and located the armory. It was a beeline from the infirmary, straight up the corridor about a hundred yards. With a swipe of his eyes he erased the navpoint that had automatically been set.

Nathan translated the corridor's dimensions into practical measurements that he could use later on. The corridor was wide; four men could walk abreast through it. It was high, too, especially for being underground. He jumped and palmed his hand against the ceiling. Probably eleven feet.

"How many?"

There was a discouraging pause on the other end of the line. It looks like an entire MTF, the Director said.

"Say again."

It's the whole task force.

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'.

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but that didn't mean much. Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible. The last time they'd encountered each other he'd engaged nine agents and had barely limped away with his life.

Forty-five total. They're packing some impressive hardware, too. Most of the infantry is armed with the new M39 IAR, and I count four particle beams and a minigun. There are a few other weapons I don't recognize. They also have a GDD with a mounted fifty-caliber machine gun — they use that thing on Pave Lows.

Nathan wasn't sure what a GDD was, and he didn't bother inquiring. All he knew was that he didn't want to find out.

A quarter of the task force is wearing combat exoskeletons. They're moving in a phalanx formation with the frontline wielding ballistic shields.

Nathan stepped into the armory — it was more expansive than a gymnasium. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling, stocked with weapons and ammunition. There was an exhibit dedicated to the history of warfare: a timeline showed the evolution of weapons, ranging from Neolithic axe heads to malware agents. A tank and transport carrier were parked in the back. Several drone aircraft hung suspended from the ceiling.

"How much time do I have?"

The MTF will be moving more cautiously now that the bunker turrets wounded two before they knocked them out. This is just a rough estimate, but figure ten minutes to get down the elevator shaft, and another fifteen or twenty minutes to break through the security anteroom and reach the annex.

Half an hour. Not much time. There was so much to pick from that he was overwhelmed by the burden of choice. He had to be selective but expeditious in his decision-making.

He strolled down an aisle, the shelves so tall that they boxed him in a canyon. There was a scissor-lift available to reach the higher racks.

He ditched the nine millimeter and its pancake holster, swapping it out for an automatic shotgun and a gas-operated assault rifle. He then dumped them by the door —he'd need quick-access for when the bullets started flying. On his return trip he found a wheelbarrow nestled behind a pallet of flares and decided to go on a shopping spree: a grenade launcher with a twenty-projectile cylinder and bandoliers containing both chemical and explosive grenades; EMP and fragmentation mines.; an anti-material rifle that must've weighed fifty pounds and was six feet long. It took 20x102mm Vulcan rounds that dwarfed all others.

Nathan tapped the brakes, retraced his steps and stopped in front of a display cabinet.

"You kept it?" he said.

Mmm-hmm. Had it upgraded, too. Try it on.

Nathan removed his combat armor from the display. He kicked off his shoes, slid out of his clothes and into the magnetorheological suit. It hugged him tightly, like an old friend.

He slipped the cowl over his face. The suit activated, turning steel-blue to match the color of the armory.

The remainder of the shopping was completed hastily. He grabbed an automatic shotgun and an gas-operated assault rifle, dumping them by the door. A grenade launcher with bandoliers containing both gas and explosive projectiles. EMP and fragmentation mines. An anti-material rifle that must've weighed fifty pounds and was six feet long. It took 20x102mm Vulcan rounds, the shells of which dwarfed neighboring

Nathan couldn't wait to try that sucker out.

Are you sure you're up to this?

"I said I'm fine."

Actually, Nathan felt better than fine. At the hospital he'd had artiforg transplants replace his lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, and spleen. In Tahiti he'd taken to swimming in the Pacific for leisure, and discovered that he could hold his breath for more than ten minutes with little discomfort. Somatic filaments increased his vertical jump to over three meters from a stationary position, and he could dead-press half a ton. A subdermal weave of next generation synthetic super-fibers and magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most bullets, including armor-piercing rifle rounds, as well as limited protection against stabbing and slashing weapons.

"Can they come from any other direction?" Standing just outside the armory, it was a straight shot a hundred yards to the sphincter-blast door leading from the annex to the security room.

"Not unless they dig

Forty-five MTF personnel? The last time he'd engaged the Foundation Nathan had only been up against nine. He'd barely limped away with his life, and he wasn't entirely convinced they'd been an actual MTF.

Nathan felt like a kid in a candy store. His mouth watered at the thought of all that firepower collected under one roof. There must've been several kilotons worth of black powder.

what if I take out the ceiling, cause a cave-in, blocking their access.

Go for it if you think you can break through it. Try not to bury yourself alive in the process.

waits, lures them into the hallway, opens fire, then collapses the ceiling.

Nathan had the positional advantage, as both the infirmary and armory doors sat kitty-corner to the security anteroom. The MTF would be exposed, taking him head-on.

camp

vapor

frap

He was like a kid in a candy store with a pocketful of cash, burning a hole in his pocket.

He reached out, maybe to give Nathan a reassuring pat on the shoulder. A paternal squeeze. But the Director's hand passed through his shoulder, and wound up submerged in his chest instead, up to the elbow as if plunging it into a bucket of water.

"How much time do I have?" Nathan moved into the armory.

Actually, Nathan felt better than fine. At the hospital he'd had artiforg transplants replace his lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, and spleen. In Tahiti he'd taken to swimming in the Pacific for leisure, and discovered that he could hold his breath for more than ten minutes with little discomfort. Somatic filaments increased his vertical jump to over three meters from a stationary position, and he could dead-press half a ton. A subdermal weave of next generation synthetic super-fibers and magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most bullets, including armor-piercing rifle rounds, as well as limited protection against stabbing and slashing weapons.

"Glad to hear it. The armory is out the door, to the left."

The Director vanished in the blink of an eye.

He didn't dissolve as if beamed up in a transporter on a cheesy science fiction program, accompanied by warbling sound effects. One moment he was there and the next he was just gone.

"Goddamn holograms," Nathan muttered to himself.

My ears are burning.

"Hang up the fucking phone!"

Get to the armory. They're breaching through the bunker.

What Nathan would've liked to have done was snap the Director's neck and get the hell out of dodge. First the liquidation of the staff and now this android. It was all too much to take in at once.

His palms itched as he considered the act. It would be easy. Place one hand firmly on the top of the head, the other cupping his chin, and then… just… twist.

The Director narrowed his eyes and focused his steely gaze on him, as if he could read his mind.

There was a rumbling like an approaching freight train. It was faint at first, but it quickly dialed all the way up to eleven. Nathan was aware that he'd been hearing it for some time, but that his brain — instead of immediately registering it — had initially archived the rumble as ambient background noise.

A moment later and he could feel it too, a vibration that tickled his feet.

Puzzled, he was about to question the Director whether the site had a transport railing system.

The infirmary suddenly rocked beneath them, swaying like a ship caught in rough seas. A tray containing curettes spilled off a counter and clattered on the floor. Nathan stumbled and braced himself against the wall, using it as a prop. The lights spasmed, growing brighter and then dimming.

The Director remained motionless, seemingly unaffected by the turbulence. "The Foundation has just bombed our missile silos, taking out our air deterrents," he said.

"You didn't remove her trackers!" Nathan had to yell to be heard over the roar, the freight train passing by and then fading.

"We removed three. After that the scans came back negative. Even if she was still broadcasting this facility is too far underground and too well-insulated for a signal to reach the surface."

"And yet here they are."

"They must've forced the Transall to land in Ivato and trailed it back to you. I'd hoped your HALO jump would've fooled them."

"I was following your orders."

"I know. I'm not blaming you for it. It's my fault. But I need to get her out of here."

"So what do you need me for?"

"I need you to buy me time."

The infirmary suddenly rocked beneath them, swaying like a ship caught in rough seas. A tray containing curettes spilled off a counter and clattered on the floor. Nathan stumbled and braced himself against the wall, using it as a prop. The lights spasmed, growing brighter and then dimming.

The Director remained motionless, seemingly unaffected by the turbulence. "The Foundation has just bombed our missile silos, taking out our air deterrents," he said.

"You didn't remove her trackers?"

"We removed three. After that the scans came back negative. Even if she was still broadcasting this facility is too far underground and too well-insulated for a signal to reach the surface."

"And yet here they are."

"They must've forced the Transall to land in Ivato and trailed it back to you. I'd hoped your HALO jump would've fooled them."

"I was following your orders."

"I know. I'm not blaming you for it. It's my fault. But I need to get her out of here."

Nathan imagined the Foundation hitting them with bunker-busters: laser guided missiles specifically designed to penetrate underground complexes. There was nothing to stop them if the silos had already been taken out. Why bother sending in troops when you could solve your problems with a flip of the button from a safe distance?

trapping him under tons of dirt and cement. He wasn't necessarily afraid of dying. He dealt with it almost every day and had developed a callous against it, but the thought of being unable to move while slowly starving to death genuinely frightened him. He didn't want to die, but if he had to he'd prefer it to be relatively quick and painless.

But they wouldn't do that, would they? The Foundation had come to reclaim their precious robot, not grant her a premature burial.

He'd been friendly with a few of them, and had even considered asking the Secretary of International Relations out on a date. There was no way to estimate an accurate total, but based on the scope of his operations the Director must've employed thousands of people across the globe. And that was being conservative.

He didn't like the Director, never had, and he didn't really trust him, either. Their relationship was based on Nathan's value, usually measured in the wetwork duties he performed.

Nathan's palms itched, and he was unexpectedly overwhelmed with the desire to snap the Director's neck. He'd never liked him anyway, and didn't trust him, either. Their relationship was based on Nathan's value, which was typically measured in his ability to successfully perform wetwork.

He would've snapped the Director's neck if he could have. First the liquidation of the staff and now this. It was too much to take in all at once. His palms itched as he considered the act. It would be easy. Place one hand on the top of his head, the other cupping his chin, and then… just… twist.

"Not at all. I don't use deception to get what I want — there's no need. Your purpose was to capture the McKeown family member responsible for the Sothian activity. I didn't lie about that. The Foundation agent was just an added bonus."

"You're telling me you didn't know about her?"

"No, I'm telling you she isn't why I sent you to Millbrook. I had my suspicions that the Foundation had successfully created a synthetic human. There've been rumors circulating for years. Over the past six months that same chatter turned deafening, and my sources advised me they were pilot testing it with active duty in an MTF."

"And it's just a coincidence that I happened to bump into her?"

"Yes," the Director said nonchalantly. Nathan found his calmness infuriating. "It was bound to happen sooner or later — for our paths to cross — when you consider the overlapping nature of our pursuits."

Nathan smothered his response, allowing it to die on his lips. This was the answer he'd been looking for while he licked his wounds and recuperated on Tahiti. The McKeowns had only been a distraction. The agent had always been the target.

He'd never outwardly expressed his doubts regarding Millbrook before today. An alert popped on his HUD whenever the Director dialed into his head, but he was suspicious that the Director had a backdoor allowing him to circumvent the notification, and was potentially spying on him around the clock without Nathan's knowledge.

He allowed the topic of conversation to drop. Nathan didn't want to press the Director, and didn't think it would go him any good, anyway. Better to keep it inside.

A diagnostic computer had been pushed into another corner.

"What's going on?" Nathan repeated, his patience growing thin. He hadn't signed up for the guided tour. "Why'd you bring me in?" The Director had refused to discuss it over the phone, only dropping cryptic hints.

"That's what I'm about to show you," the Director said.

The McKeowns had only been a distraction, but for all his ruminations Nathan was no closer to discovering whatever the true objective had been.

hemorrhage

After that came the rehab. He'd called it quits just one week into physical therapy with the random and impromptu decision to fly to Tahiti, where he'd been recovering ever since.

The Director had surprised him by leaving him alone. He'd paid for Nathan's rent, had sent him a stipend along with prescriptions and a treatment plan, but other than that had remained unobtrusive and hands-off.

Until now.

*instruments used in general surgery

Nathan reviewed the map of the installation on his HUD. This wing appeared to be devoted mostly to tech and bio research, although he made note of an armory and motorpool.

a human female head, strung up along the far wall

taking out missile silos

Nathan glimpsed a sterile laboratory, the equipment covered in protective plastic.

block chain

There is also an armory, motorpool and infirmary, as well as my own private quarters."

Another hallway bisected a series of sterile laboratories.

They were bushwhacking off the grid.

server farm

The recently-exposed lakebed was decorated by the corpses of animals, mummified by the clay, drawn to the lake by past memories of water.

and Nathan sensed minute vibrations through the soles of his feet
"Welcome Nathanial Rex," said a generic female voice over the intercom system.

The hum

Nathan was skydiving out the back of a Transall 700C.

He was high enough that he could see the curvature of the planet. Far below him and to the southeast, out to sea, a storm was brewing off Cape Sainte-Marie. Dark clouds strobed with lightning as they spun clockwise.

He wore a pressurized suit and a respirator with an oxygen bottle. As a precaution, prior to the jump he'd manually flushed the nitrogen from his system.

He fell from sixty thousand feet. This high up the atmosphere was thin and cold, gnawing at him through the suit. Coming from Tahiti he had no warm clothes, and the crew aboard the Transall had forgotten to bring him any. Soon his fingers and toes went numb. He clenched them into fists to try and get the blood moving.

Nathan kept his back straight and arms folded tightly against his body as he dove down to Madagascar. He reached terminal velocity within fifteen seconds, free falling at over a hundred and twenty five miles per hour. He wanted to get back to the ground as soon as possible — back where it was warm — to avoid frostbite.

At seventeen thousand feet he broke through the cloud cover. A great expanse of land spread out below him, made up of varying hues of orange — plains of rust checkerboarded by vermillion. He could make out the dirty smudges of human settlements along the coastline, and pale ribbons scored the island. They were either roadways or dry riverbeds.

The lack of vegetation was glaring, and the flat, empty terrain made it difficult for Nathan to navigate or orient himself. He knew the ground was rapidly approaching, but he couldn't tell how close he was in relation to it. It was like parachuting over snow or water, utterly blank and featureless, with nothing to provide a reliable source for perspective. The towns and roads were too far away to use as a gauge.

He relied on the altimeter in his HUD instead. When it reached eighteen hundred feet Nathan pulled the handle to the closing pin, releasing the pilot chute. An ATPS parachute, cruciform in shape, blossomed out of his back. His descent slowed as the parachute flared open and generated almost-instant drag. The harness dug into Nathan deep enough to leave bruises while he wrestled for control with the toggles, using the steering lines to try and straighten out.

By the time he'd gotten himself level with the ground he was already crashing into it. He landed on the balls of his feet and threw himself sideways to displace the impact energy, distributing it along his left thigh and buttocks. Although he had shock absorbers in his ankles with bone grafts of magnesium alloy, by spreading the landing-shock he reduced the risk of injury.

"My ride coming in from the west?" Nathan asked. A trail of dust in that direction had caught his attention. He unbuckled the harness container and shrugged out of the shoulder straps.

Yes, confirmed the Director.

He removed the respirator's face mask. By the time he was stepping out of the pressurized suit a Jeep Wrangler was pulling up alongside him. Behind the wheel looked to be a boy of thirteen or fourteen, wearing camouflaged shorts and shoes patched with duct tape. Nathan was about to comment on his age and thought better of it. He hauled himself up and in by the roll bars.

A hot breeze scoured the desert, generating dust devils and warming Nathan's frozen fingers. He flexed them experimentally. Movement was fine and sensation was returning.

They rode in silence. There was not another person or vehicle in sight.

The boy dropped him off at a lake surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor-wire. The lake was gone now, evaporated and drained away by irrigation systems. Animals, drawn by memories of water, littered the lake bed, their corpses mummified by the mud and clay.

A gatehouse stood unattended, and large portions of the fence had been cut and dumped in the sand. Nathan glanced at a posted sign. Next to the block letters was a radioactive trefoil.

WARNING

NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT

GUARDS NOT REQUIRED TO ANNOUNCE THEIR PRESENCE BEFORE FIRING

The message repeated in English, French, and various Malagasy dialects. Walking past the gatehouse and fence, the lakeshore sloped down, and Nathan spotted a concrete bunker squatting by the banks. The building was windowless. As he drew closer he saw that its industrial door was guarded by an electronic lock and a pair of laser-guided turrets. The guns chirped like birds at Nathan's approach, pivoting on gyroscopes and training their barrels on him.

He paused in front of the lock. Its red light flashed green and the door rolled up. A ramp led downward, opening up into a cavernous room.

Elevator. To your right.

Nathan followed a grated catwalk that clung to the wall, his footfalls echoing. The bottom of the room — if there was one — was lost in shadow far below.

He stepped into the elevator. The door snicked shut behind him and his stomach rose as he felt himself bulleted downward. There were no buttons to select a floor. Apparently he'd chosen the express, as Nathan had just completed a rotation on his heels, inspecting the tight enclosure, when the door opened again and deposited him in front of the Director.

"Nathan," the Director said. Or did he? His lips moved, but Nathan wondered if he was still hearing his voice inside his head.

"Sir."

"Follow me."

He walked out into a small lobby with black tiled floors.

"Where am I going here?" Nathan said. He'd never been to this particular facility before, hadn't even known the Director had a place in Madagascar until he'd phoned him. All previous interactions had been conducted in the Yukon, at a base carved into the layers of permafrost.

Straight ahead. There's a hallway. Just follow it.

Nathan did as he was told. Various offshoots branched left and right from the main corridor, leading to darkened conference rooms and offices. All empty, like everyone had just picked up and left moments ago.

"Hey, what the hell's going on? Where is everyone?"

We have been… liquidating all non-essential personnel.

The words hung between them. Nathan shuddered, recalling the staff at the Yukon base. The Director must've employed thousands of people across the globe.

"And what's considered non-essential?"

Non-combat and low ranking, for the most part.

He pushed through a pair of glass doors and stood in a wide circular room. There were no other doorways for egress, except back the way he'd come.

Stand here just a moment, please, the Director said, and a holographic image of him appeared. I would override the security commands — I know it's you — but it's quicker and easier to just allow the protocol to cycle through.

//There is a maintenance shed inside the fence perimeter

Nathan stepped off an elevator and into the lobby of the Director's underground complex. Located in the heart of Madagascar, the facility — from what little he'd glimpsed of it so far — reminded Nathan of a super-villain lair, and he'd been disappointed that it wasn't carved into the side of a volcano.

He pulled up an altimeter on his HUD. He was initially confused when he saw the readout of under five thousand until he realized the measurement was in meters rather than feet. He mentally converted the units. He still had about a minute and a half to fall.

With nothing to do except let gravity do its work and try not to die, his mind roamed. Nathan had never been a fan of heights. Not this high up — that didn't bother him. The distance was so great that it divorced his brain from the threat, rendering it innocuous. Mountaintops, skyscrapers, the HALO jump he was currently in the middle of — the potential fall and resulting impact became difficult for him to conceptualize.

Ten thousand feet.

No, it was the (comparatively) short drops that bothered him. Like up on a ladder or perched in a tree. For some reason those were the heights that induced vertigo and turned his legs into jelly. He figured it had something to do with the immediate and very real presence of the ground. It wasn't so far removed from the equation when you were dangling just fifty feet above it. In fact, it was probably the only variable that really mattered. Most people weren't aware, but the median height for a fall resulting in death was only fifty feet.

Five thousand feet.

Granted, most people didn't have shock-absorbing ankles with bone grafts made from magnesium alloy. He also had training, knew how to land, how to tuck and roll. He'd sustained little trauma from falls as high as eighty feet.

Two thousand feet.

When the altimeter reached fifteen hundred Nathan pulled the handle to the closing pin, releasing the pilot chute. An ATPS parachute, cruciform in shape, blossomed out of his back. His descent slowed as the parachute flared open and generated almost-instant drag. The harness dug into Nathan deep enough to leave bruises while he wrestled for control with the toggles, using the steering lines to try and straighten out.

The deployment had been sloppy. It was too quick, the canopy opening too rapidly. And for this jump he was dealing with a wing load of seventeen kilograms per square meter of fabric, meaning he'd be coming in fast. That sort of wing load was generally reserved for professional skydivers, and Nathan didn't count himself among their ranks. This was only his fifth jump, and second HALO jump.

By the time he'd gotten himself level with the ground he was already crashing into it. He landed on the balls of his feet and threw himself sideways to displace the impact energy, distributing it along his left thigh and buttocks.

The Director's voice suddenly and unexpectedly chirped in his ear: Your heart rate just skyrocketed. What's wrong?

Nathan had neither the inclination nor the lung capacity to respond. His breath had gotten lost somewhere between his Adam's apple and his tonsils. He had the toggles of the steering lines locked in a vice-grip as he attempted to guide himself safely to the ground. For this jump he was dealing with a wing load of seventeen kilograms per square meter of fabric, meaning he'd be coming in fast. That sort of wing load was generally reserved for professional skydivers, and Nathan didn't count himself among their ranks. This was only his fifth jump, and second HALO jump.

By the time he'd gotten himself level with the ground he was already crashing into it. He landed on the balls of his feet and threw himself sideways to displace the impact energy, distributing it along his left thigh and buttocks.

//Your safe now. Try to relax. //

"Coming in from the west?" A trail of dust in that direction had caught his eye as he unbuckled the harness container and shrugged out of the shoulder straps.

It still didn't erase the fear, though. He could ignore it — banish it to the nosebleed seats in his brain where it wouldn't affect his performance, but he couldn't erase it. Not with bravado, not with chemicals, not even with logic and past experience.

The combination of high downward speed, minimal forward airspeed, and the use of only small amounts of metal helps to defeat radar and reduces the amount of time a parachute might be visible to ground observers, enabling a stealthy insertion.

Coming so close on the heels of the HALO jump he was in no mood for another free fall, and was searching for the control panel and button selection when the elevator decelerated and then stopped.

free fall

He'd swapped aircrafts in Wellington, replacing the slow, cumbersome search-and-rescue plane with a sleek, commercial jet, the fastest available on the market.

His body was moving more than one hundred and twenty miles per hour

He'd thought that by going to Madagascar, as opposed to the Yukon, he'd be saving on some travel time. But by the point he was stepping foot in New Zealand, swapping the US-4 for a Cessna 700C, he was no longer too sure. The US-4 was designed for search and rescue, not speed, and it'd taken just shy of ten hours to reach Wellington. Now he had to fly over all of Australia and the entire Indian Ocean. He was beginning to think it might actually be further to Ivato.

Wellington to Perth.

Fortunately the Cessna was designed for speed. In fact, it happened to be the fastest commercial jet available on the market. The distance from Wellington to Perth was about equal as Tahiti to Wellington, but the Cessna made the trip in under five hours. They only stopped to refuel. Nathan was back in the air within the hour.

Perth to Ivato.

The sun was waiting in ambush for him at TNR, lurking like a back-alley mugger prepared to pounce on the next pedestrian that strolled by. As soon as Nathan stepped foot off the Cessna he was assaulted by a wave of heat — it had to be at least a hundred and twenty degrees in the shade. The air shimmered above the runway.

From Ivato International Airport an autonomous helicopter took him northward to complete the last leg of the trip. Madagascar was like stepping into a new world — a wretched, post-apocalyptic world, exhausted and depleted. He watched from the backseat as the helicopter's shadow played across the landscape far below, floating above arid fields and a sprawling favela that was eerily void of signs of life.

The island was in the final stages of desertification. Continued deforestation coupled with rising global temperatures had left it fallow and barren, barely able to sustain life. It was the twenty-first century's very own Dust Bowl, the sand gradually — grain-by-grain — swallowing once fecund paddy fields, the tropical rainforests clear-cut to make way for grazing pastures for livestock that were long since dead.

How much further? Nathan wondered. He would've asked the pilot, but the helicopter was automated and didn't have one. It seemed as if he was always travelling, always trapped between destinations and never arriving. A headache was gestating at the front of his skull, and despite the sleep he'd caught on the Cessna his eyes felt dry and tired, like sandpaper.

As soon as Nathan stepped foot off the Cessna he There was already a helicopter waiting for him on the runway at TNR. For the brief moment Nathan was outside, flitting from one aircraft to the other, the

When travelling he always felt as if he was in limbo, never arriving, permanently caught between destinations. He didn't know why he was doomed to be left in-between. What sin had denied him admittance to heaven? Or, perhaps the better question was what deed had saved him from the fires of hell?

Times like these Nathan was reminded of a classic rock song with appregiated guitar notes. He could never remember the name of it, just the defeated vocals singing about motorways and tramlines. There was a sense of ennui to the song that connected with

A headache was gestating at the front of his skull, and if he stared out the window too long .

The pilot of the zodiac secured the boat with ratchet straps, then thumbed a button on the wall to close the ramp doors. Nathan spared a last glance at the cerulean waters before the doors sealed shut.

"We're taking off immediately," the zodiac pilot informed Nathan. He had a hard-to-place accent, probably from somewhere in the Balkans. "Sit anywhere you want. You need anything before we take off?"

"We're flying straight to Ivato?" Nathan asked.

"No," the pilot shook his head. "This craft only has a range of about three thousand miles. We'll be dropping you off in New Zealand, and from there you're catching a ride on a Cessna."

"How long is this going to take?" He'd thought that by going to Madagascar, as opposed to the Yukon, he'd be saving on some travel time, but now he wasn't too sure. They had to fly over the entire Indian Ocean, and although it seemed hard to believe, he was beginning to think it might actually be further to Ivato.

"You better get comfortable. You're looking at ten thousand miles total flight. Figure it's going to take us nine, ten hours to get to Wellington. She's a good plane — " he thumped the curved hull with sincere appreciation " — but not exactly what you'd call fast. Now, that Cessna they got lined up for you in Wellington, I think it's a 700C. She's fast. Fast as anything else on the market, but you're still looking at… oh, I'd say another fifteen hours on it."

Nathan tossed the bug-out bag under a row of seats and sat down. A short while later a steady, growing vibration informed him that the engines were prepping for take off. They were airborne within the next five minutes.

Almost a full day's worth of air travel followed, most of it spent over a featureless plane of blue water that hurt Nathan's head if he stared at it for too long. At Wellington International he had a chance to stretch his legs and grab a meat pie, passing on the marmite and sticking with ketchup.

The Cessna 700C jet was the fastest civilian aircraft in the world. It flew at an altitude of forty thousand feet, needling through the stratosphere with a cruising speed of eight hundred miles per hour.

Twenty hours of pure boredom drove Nathan to pound the six-pack of Hinano, by now lukewarm, and fall asleep. When he awoke they were touching down in Ivato. A helicopter was waiting for him on the tarmac to take him the rest of the way to the Director's compound.

Madagascar was like stepping into a new world — a wretched, post-apocalyptic world, exhausted and depleted. He watched from the backseat as the helicopter's shadow played across the landscape far below him, floating above arid fields and a sprawling favela that was eerily void of signs of life.

The island was in the final stages of desertification. Continued deforestation coupled with rising global temperatures had left it fallow and barren, barely able to sustain life. It was the twenty-first century's very own Dust Bowl, the sand gradually — grain-by-grain — swallowing once fecund paddy fields, the tropical rainforests clear-cut to make way for grazing pastures for livestock that were long since dead.

How much further? Nathan wondered. It seemed as if he was always travelling, always trapped between destinations and never arriving. A headache was gestating at the front of his skull, and despite the sleep he'd caught on the Cessna his eyes felt dry and tired, like sandpaper.

His attention was drawn by a column of black smoke on the horizon. As they approached he saw the source: a village on fire. It looked like the villagers, instead of attempting to put out the fire, were attacking one another with hatchets and machetes and shovels, any farm tools they could get their hands on.

"What's going on down there?" he asked the pilot, leaning forward and raising his voice to be heard over the rotors.

By now most of the population had either fled or perished due to starvation, disease, or ethnic cleansing. Inter-village conflicts constantly flared up, caused by the pressures of extreme poverty. People fought in a battle-royale for resources, killing their neighbors for water and rice. They slaughtered each other over women and livestock and More than three quarters of the flora and fauna species unique to Madagascar were extinct, and the few that remained were all endangered.

Most of the species unique to Madagascar's biosphere were extinct.

baobab trees

The Tahitian cuisine suited him far better than Parisian, the simple fare consisting mostly of fresh seafood and tropical fruit, chevrettes and poisson cru and pineapples, although as a former colony, wasn't

hook or by crook

In this case, most of the modifications — at least the obvious ones — had been dedicated to luxury and comfort. The rear six seats had been removed and replaced by a partitioned bedroom with a California king mattress and an en suite with marbled surfaces. Nathan took a long, hot shower and then crawled under the bed's comforter and Egyptian cotton sheets, a thousand thread count.

11,480 km

4,269 km

15,582 KM 9682.20

The cargo box is 17.71 m long excluding ramp

Nathan would miss the island, miss the people, his bungalow and his morning swims. Jogs along the beach and long hikes into the jungle.

He took this last, fleeting opportunity to take one last swim. The water was warm but still refreshing, and it was crystal-clear.

Outside again, he eyed the fruit on the table. His appetite had evaporated the moment he heard the phone ring.

There was something going on, something that didn't pass the smell-test. He would've liked to have flat-out refused the Director's requests until receiving legitimate answers, but Nathan was pretty sure the Director could kill him remotely at anytime with the phone, and so had decided not to push him. Hopefully he could get more information in Madagascar.

Which only served to raise more questions. It was odd, having him fly in to Ivato. The Yukon site was much larger and more secure, buried by

A staple of the Tahitian diet, fresh fish - especially tuna, mahi-mahi, grouper and bonito - is on every menu. You can also try more exotic lagoon and deep-sea offerings such as parrotfish, barracuda, octopus and sea urchin. River prawns, known as chevrettes, are also popular.

tsunami/earthquake

pia - beer
poe - pearl

This was his new routine. He'd recently discovered (or rather rediscovered) the weightlessness of swimming, and quickly realized that it did more for him as both an exercise and as therapy than anything else he'd tried, and so had adopted it as part of his daily regimen. He never measured specifically how far or how long he swam for, it wasn't about that. He just swam until he'd had enough, often changing styles — breaststroke and backstroke, butterfly and trudgen. His form, while technically that of an amateur,

He spent the next hour leisurely strolling the length of the beach, picking at flotsam and seashells, until his path was obstructed by a natural jetty of volcanic rock and he turned around. Muscles loose and stretched, he jogged on the way back.

He didn't push himself too hard, though. It'd been two months since the incident in Massachusetts. The first few weeks had passed in the haze of a narcotic drip-feed, punctuated by multiple surgeries. Nathan couldn't recall much outside of laying in a hospital bed, and a single snapshot of being fileted on an operating table. He hadn't seen Herbert McKeown since boarding the maglev train.

The Director took the opportunity to enhance and improve several of Nathan's augmentations while he was sliced open on the operating table. After surgery came therapy, and learning how to use and

Nathan jogged the length of the beach until his path was obstructed by a natural jetty of volcanic rock. He turned around and jogged back to the bungalow. He wasn't sure how far it was, but it took about an hour to complete.

Nathan had fallen into the routine of a morning jog followed by a lengthy swim. Afterward, breakfast usually consisting of grapefruit and rice, or whatever he might have laying around from the night before.

He spent most of his time between the beach and a local, nameless establishment that served beer and rum, and cooked fish wrapped in banana leaves over an open flame.

Behind him the foothills of Mount Ronui marched upward toward the base of the four-thousand foot volcano.

only accessible by foot or boat, and separated by an isthmus, rainforests jungle, and volcanos

in the village of Tepati.

pearl divers, Tahiti also exports vanilla, fruits, flowers, monoi, fish, copra oil, and noni. Tahiti is also home to a single winery, whose vineyards are located on the Rangiroa atoll.[45]

One of the most widely recognized images of the islands is the world-famous Tahitian dance. The 'ote'a (sometimes written as otea) is a traditional dance from Tahiti, where the dancers, standing in several rows, execute figures. This dance, easily recognized by its fast hip-shaking and grass skirts, is often confused with the Hawaiian hula, a generally slower more graceful dance which focuses more on the hands and storytelling than the hips.

drum with shark-skin heads

The tropical sun bronzed Nathan's skin while the waters of the Pacific soothed the few injuries that still lingered.

The first month passed in the haze of a narcotic drip-feed punctuated by surgeries. Nathan couldn't recall much outside of The Director took the opportunity to enhance and improve several of Nathan's augmentations while he was sliced open on the operating table. After surgery came therapy, and learning how to use and

He spent the next two months recuperating.

They knocked him out as soon as he boarded the train, and he never saw Hebert McKeown again.

most of it on the beaches of Tahiti, catching up on earned vacation time.

There was supposed to be an indicator on the HUD when the Director dialed in, but Nathan was suspicious that he was able to circumvent this to spy.

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.

As the Camry crunched across the gravel lot and stopped shy of the chopper's rotors, he found himself at a loss for words.

Winsor Dam bridge and spillway

This was bad. This was going to attract a lot of attention. Even with its stealth capabilities, people tended to remember things like a 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? Why would the Director forc Nathan to travel on a commercial airline and then drive all the way out here, then turn around and send a life-flight.

And he accused Nathan of being obtuse.

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,