AFX Neuromancer

OCT

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to—"

"Hey, don't say that," hissed Jules, tugging on Ben's coattails to get his attention.

Ben cupped his hand over the microphone. They were up in the announcer box, broadcasting live to all Foundation sites. "Say what?"

"What you were about to say." Jules shook her head. "That's trademarked by Michael Buffer, and he's very litigious about it."

"So what the hell am I supposed to say instead?"

"I don't know. Make something up."

Ben turned back to the microphone. "Umm… ladies and gentlemen… err… let's get ready to… exploit strangers and force them to fight each other for our amusement?"

He sunk into his chair, cradling his head in his hands.

"Great job, Ben," Jules remarked. "Really. Captured the tempo of the fights perfectly."

*

A bell dinged! and Nathan was pushed from behind, out of the corner of the ring. Intense lights blinded him. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare. It sounded as if he was surrounded by a crowd of people, but he couldn't see them, and so switched his visual augmentation. Yes, there they were. An audience in tiered seating with the ring as their epicenter. There had to be hundreds of them. Maybe thousands.

He searched for an escape route. The red glow of an exit sign on the mezzanine level drew his attention to a concrete tunnel and — beyond it — what looked to be a concourse. Nathan could just glimpse the edge of a beer garden, a woman in a paper hat working the taps, pouring pitchers of amber draft with heads of foam.

Nathan licked his lips and started for the exit. He could smell fresh popcorn and nacho cheese.

A tug on his wrist pulled him back. A man resembling a withered scrotum sac dressed in a white collared shirt and black slacks, his bald pate glistening under the lights, held onto him fast.

"I want a good, dirty fight," the man said, wagging a finger. Nathan tamped down the urge to snap the finger off and cram it down his urethra/mouth. "No-holds-barred. Biting, eye-gouging, below the belt, strangulation — it's all allowed. Got it?"

Where am I? Nathan thought to himself. What's going on?

"Now touch gloves." The old man dropped his arm like the clapstick on a slate and backpedaled out of the way, to the edge of the ring. The bell chimed again.

Nathan didn't think it was worth pointing out that he wasn't wearing any gloves. In fact, he was naked except for a pair of green trunks.

What fabric is this? he wondered. He rubbed the hem of the shorts between thumb and two fingers. Is this… is this silk?

And then his opponent was nearly on top of him. Whoever they were, they were backlit, framed from behind and — from Nathan's perspective — appearing as a silhouette seven feet tall with shoulders as broad as a defensive lineman. He swallowed a lump in his throat that hadn't been there a second ago.

As they approached the shadows shrank and withdrew. Nathan blinked and rubbed his eyes. Drugged. He must've been drugged and was still feeling the after-effects. That explained why he couldn't remember how he got here or what he was seeing now.

His opponent was an old lady.

She was dressed similar to Nathan, only her color-scheme was blue with a matching top, and she was armed with a…

…a cane?

Nathan had a hard time looking past her liver-spots and varicose veins. She leaned heavily on the cane for support. Her hair was the indistinct gray of cobwebs, secured in a bun by a pair of chopsticks. She was wearing compression stockings, for God's sake. He actually laughed aloud and strutted about the ring, shaking his head. Was this some kind of joke?

The cane flashed outwards. Its silver handle was molded into a snake, and the stiff metal connected with Nathan's throat. He sputtered and coughed. She'd known right where to hit him, closing off his windpipe. He gasped like a fish plucked from water and gazed at her with wounded, accusatory eyes.

The old woman returned his gaze, her own eyes glacial, cold and pitiless. The cane flashed again, sweeping Nathan's legs out from under him. He hit the ring supine and rolled, narrowly avoiding a blow intended for his groin.

He sprang back up, weaving unsteadily on his feet and careful to stay out of range of the cane. She was lethal with that damned thing.

"All right, lady," Nathan said, rubbing his neck. He tried to sound tough, but could barely register above a whisper. Okay, that might work, actually. Speak softly and carry a big stick. It kind of made him sound menacing. "No more Mr. Nice Guy. Just remember — you asked for this."

She slashed at him with the cane. Nathan was ready for it and deftly snatched it out of the air, stopping its arc mid-flight and arresting its collision course with his face.

"Stop it!" He tossed the cane aside. "Just quit it! You know, it didn't have to—"

He never finished the sentence though, because at that precise moment his nose exploded in a cataract of blood, his eyes rolled back into his head and his body, after locking in a rigid stance, suddenly went limp.

Nathan collapsed on the ring floor.

*

"Oh! And he's down! He's down! It's a knockout in the first round by Dr. Wythers!" Ben leapt up out of his chair. He had fifty bucks riding on the doctor. "She didn't even touch him. What'd he — he have a stroke?"

"That's 2801, for you, Ben," said Jules.

"Right. Right. 2801. Object class: Keter." The microphone picked up the shuffling of paper. "Our third contender, the hacker Nathan Snyder and alleged propagator of 2801, gives Nathan Un — Unknown a stroke. Unknown? What type of name is that, huh? Finnish?"

Jules sighed. "It's English, Ben, which is why you don't understand it. And he didn't give Nathan a stroke. Snyder used the 2801 variant W on him."

"Okay. Gotcha', yeah." More pages rustled. "'A neurological phenomena, 2801-W-1 instances have been recorded transmitting large amounts of directional signals at a single target in unison, known as a 217-W-Asprox event. This leads to a seizure in the target followed by sudden death.'"

"So we had a three-way fight? Is that allowed?"

"Well Jules, the first rule of Fight Club is that there are no rules."

"That's not the first rule of Fight Club."

"It's not? Well, I don't know. Never saw the movie. Can't say I'm a fan of that Matt Damon."

*

Dr. Clair Wythers wasn't certain what had happened. Her brow wrinkled with confusion. One moment Nathan was standing and the next he was hitting the mat.

The bell rang and she was ushered into her corner, plunked down on a wooden stool. Someone was massaging her shoulders. Someone else mopped her forehead with a damp towel, even though she hadn't broken a sweat.

And then she saw him, a third contestant. He'd never vacated his corner in the first round, had sat unnoticed, hunched above the laptop balanced on his knees.

The nipple of a water bottle was inserted into her mouth. She swished and spat into a bucket.

The bell chimed.

Dr. Wythers got to her feet and sauntered over to this new opponent. He realized the jig was up and that he'd been spotted. His narrowed eyes darted over the screen of his laptop as he absent-mindedly pushed his bangs out of his face.

He seemed to fold into himself as she drew closer. He was a pasty, nervous-looking type, hands perched above the keyboard. Although Dr. Wythers stood at a modest five-feet-three inches, she loomed over him. She was feeling bold, juiced up on endorphins from her unexpected victory.

"Good work on the gear-head," she said, hooking a thumb at Nathan's lifeless body, still sprawled out on the ring, the blood stain from his nose expanding to the size of a puddle.

"Th-thanks," Snyder replied.

Dr. Wythers slammed the screen of his laptop shut. Snyder managed to evacuate his fingers just in time.

"Now you did me a solid getting rid of GI Joe over there," Wythers said, poking Snyder in the chest with a French-manicured nail. "So I'm going to do you one, too. You're going to take a dive, got it?"

She decided she really didn't like him holding onto that computer, even if it was closed. She grabbed it out of his protesting hands and tossed it into the crowd.

Snyder watched his laptop sail across the auditorium until it disappeared in the sea of people. He brushed his bangs aside again. "A dive?"

"Yeah, a dive."

"But… but they said if I won they'd let me go."

"Do I look like I care? Do it. Now. No more talk. Do it or die."

Snyder's eyes flickered side-to-side, searching for help that was never going to arrive. Eventually he came to a decision: he eased off the stool, arms raised in the universal sign for surrender, and dropped to his knees.

"Okay. Okay. See? I'm doing what you—" Suddenly his eyes expanded into saucers. He pointed over her shoulder. "Lookout behind you!"

"If you think I'm falling for that old trick—"

"No, I'm serious. That guy is back up!"

Dr. Wythers considered putting Snyder in a choke-hold when she caught movement in her peripheral. At first she thought it might just be the referee, but no, he was on the other side of the ring. And was that a slight increase in the volume of the audience?

She spun around, arms raised in a defensive posture.

Nathan was back on his feet, wiping his upper lip with the back of his hand.

*

"Ladies and gentleman, Nathan Unknown appears to have been down but don't count him out. He's now standing and seems… well, he seems all right."

"Yeah, Jules, that's the problem with 2801-W-1. It only has a success rate of eighty-three percent, meaning it's non-fatal the other twenty-four percent of the time."

"You might want to check your math again there, Ben."

*

Nathan smiled. It was a ghastly smile, dyed pink by the blood that had dripped into his mouth and ran down his chin. He socked his fist into the cup of his other hand.

"Now you've done it. Now I'm really pissed."

Dr. Wythers ignored Snyder. She had a hunch that without his computer he was impotent.

Nathan closed the distance between himself and the old lady. She was deceptively quick, and had some basic grasp of hand-to-hand combat, that much was clear. She tried to stomp on his foot and he strafed out of the way. A feint with the left and she came inside his guard with an upper cut. She was using an odd form of mixed martial arts, a combination of traditional boxing along with Taekwondo and Judo.

But Nathan fought with surgical precision. Even drugged and with his nose still gushing, his reflexes were sharper. Faster. And without her cane she no longer had the reach advantage. He danced around her on the balls of his feet, a sort of violent ballet choreographed by years of practice and real-world application.

Dr. Wythers was soon winded. Every strike she tried to lay was parried or dodged or deflected. She was no longer in control of the fight. She was the conductor of a train barreling off the rails, and she racked her brain trying to think of a thaumaturgical spell to counter with if she could only catch her breath.

Nathan jabbed twice with his right, piston-shots that the old lady blocked but caused her to reel. While she was still recovering he delivered a left haymaker to her temple. The blow shook her to the marrow. Her eyes went blank. She was stunned, leaning back against the ropes.

The crowd responded with a raucous cheer, jumping to their feet. Someone literally screamed for "Blood!" and someone else roared "Finish her!"

Nathan grabbed her by the arm and tugged her towards him. He pivoted on his heel, twisting so that his back was facing her and simultaneously lashing out with his right leg in a vicious donkey-kick. The two opposing forces met — the forward propulsion of the doctor and the backward motion of his foot — in a bone-crunching impact. The first three rows of the audience — the "splash zone" — were doused in blood and teeth.

Dr. Wythers did not get back up.

*

"And in a surprise upset, Dr. Claire Wythers of the Thaumaturgic Research and Development department is out!" Jules took joy in the unexpected outcome, knowing that her partner in the announcer box, Ben, was out fifty bucks. It added an element of excitement to her voice that was otherwise lacking.

"Yeah great. Just great."

"What's wrong Ben?"

"Nothing."

*

Nathan was standing above his felled opponent when he was struck in the back of the head. The blow pitched him forward, arms pinwheeling to try and regain his balance.

While he'd been preoccupied with the old lady, Snyder had crept out of his corner and up behind Nathan, using the stool to club him over the head. He'd expected Nathan to just crumble to the ring, light's out, like he'd seen in the movies a million times.

Snyder declared winner by total knockout!

He was caught unprepared when everything didn't go as planned. The stool actually broke from the hit, leaving him holding two wooden legs as Nathan slowly turned around.

"Umm… " he tossed the legs away, too late in getting rid of the evidence.

"Who the fuck are you?"

Nathan glanced at the referee for guidance. He didn't know why he bothered. There didn't seem to be any rules or consistent logic to the fight — the first round had felt like it was only thirty seconds long, while the second round was stretching on forever. Why was there even a referee if everything was allowed?

"I'm Nathan."

"You are?"

"Yes."

"So am I."

"What the fuck is this? An Abbott and Costello routine?"

"Okay…"

They stood, awkwardly staring at each other in a silent vacuum. One of the Nathan's (it doesn't matter which, just like it didn't matter before who was speaking, pick one — Unknown or Snyder) fidgeted with the elastic waistband of their shorts.

*

"I can honestly say this is now the most boring thing I've ever watched," commented Jules, propping her head up with her hand, elbow bent on the desk. "The two Nathans appear to be… talking?"

Ben had briefly closed his eyes. A runner of drool hung from the corner of his open mouth. He was reclining in his chair, the front wheels off the floor. But he went too far back and toppled over. He picked himself up and clawed his way up the desk.

Jules looked down at him. "Did you just fall asleep?" she asked.

*

"You hit me," Nathan said. It wasn't a question.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"I thought you'd just go unconscious," Snyder said.

"What? Like in a movie?"

"I guess…"

"That means I get a free one." Nathan walloped Snyder, giving him a Charlie horse in his bicep.

Snyder rubbed his arm. "Do this mean we're even now?" he asked.

"Not sure."

The referee chimed in, advising: "Guys — the fight ain't over till one of you goes down."

"That's gonna be you, buckaroo," Nathan said, and hit Snyder again, this time aiming for the chin. He didn't put all his strength behind the punch, it was just a pop, really, sending him to the ring.

A count started. When it reached ten the referee lifted Nathan Unknown's hand up into the air. The bell rang and a tidal flow of people surged into the ring, some of them congratulating Nathan, some of them scolding him for the loss of wages. Stretchers were brought forward and bore Wythers and Snyder away.

It was a bizarre scene for Nathan. The entire situation had the surreal quality of a dream. He was no closer to understanding what the hell was going on than when the match had started. When an announcer introduced himself as Ben with 'the Foundation' and stuck a microphone in Nathan's face, asking him what his strategy had been for the fight, Nathan — in a spur of the moment decision — plucked his eyeball out of his skull.

Jules clapped and cheered.

the first three rows — the splash zone— were sprayed with blood and teeth.

She tweezed the pair of chopsticks out of her bun. Her hair fell free around her shoulders in undulating drifts. When she tapped the sticks together they made a sound like a tuning fork blasted and amplified through a million speakers. Nathan, caught in the waves, could do nothing but scream and clap his hands over his ears.

Instinct told him it was some kind of thaumaturgical weaponry. He ground his teeth and made a faltering step toward her. It felt like the whole arena was shaking around him. He tried to think of any wards he might know to deflect or counter it, but the words to any spells were lost to the ringing in his head.

What the hell? Did everyone get to smuggle in weapons except him?

Each step he made was the equal to summiting Everest. He was in the death-zone, could feel his strength sapped. His bladder released, warm fluid running down his leg, but there wasn't even any room left for embarrassment. Just the ringing in his head.

With her focus on Nathan, Dr. Wythers never saw Snyder creeping up on her from out of his corner. He wielded the wooden stool, using it as a club to batter her over the head. The doctor dropped the chopsticks and twirled a one-eighty.

Snyder had expected her to go down from the single hit, a smooth execution, cleanly knocking the woman unconscious like he'd seen done a million times in the movies. His plan was then to steal her chopsticks to take out the other guy and come out on top, win his freedom.

He hadn't figured for this contingency.

The stool had smashed on contact. Snyder was left holding two of the legs as Dr. Wythers turned on him, snarling. She was like a cornered animal, rabid and foaming at the mouth. Snyder flinched away from her fury, screwing his eyes shut and crouching into a ball. She was very much not unconscious.

Wythers raked her nails down the side of Snyder's face. Four score-marks ran down his cheek, and wherever the tips of the French-manicure touched, the flesh blistered and charred, as if burnt. The

smashing it in turn. Now he just held onto two of the three legs.

the crowd responded with a raucous cheer. Someone literally screamed for "Blood!" and someone else roared "Finish him!"

picture the bathrooms, the urinals a single trough choked with ice

He could fill in the blanks of the rest of the concourse with its snowdrifts of popcorn and bathrooms where the urinals were troughs choked with ice . He clenched his hands into fists and shook his head to try and clear it. Drugged. He must've been drugged and was still feeling the after-effects. His mouth tasted like a dumpster, his eyes sandpaper and his skull stuffed with cotton. There were gaps in his memory, too — couldn't remember anything before being deposited into the ring.

circling Nathan like a shark closing in on its prey.

He danced around on the balls of his feet, toying with his opponent like a cat playing with a mouse.

popcorn

Nathan didn't have the physique of a professional body-builder. He considered many of the groups they focused on to be glamour muscles, preferring style over function. Plus it was hard to blend in if you looked like a swollen scrotum. He was lean but not scrawny, solid as bedrock, his muscles ropey.

He'd been designed left-handed. While this put his at a disadvantage for most mundane tasks (one task that wasn't mundane was the bolt-action on most rifles being on the wrong side), it also put him at an advantage for other tasks.

Such as hand to hand combat.

He feinted a jab with his right hand. The doctor saw it coming and deflected it with an arm. What she didn't see coming was the follow-up haymaker Nathan swung with his left. Still recovering from the jab, she didn't get her arms back up in time. Nathan's fist connected with her temple.

Lights out.

It was a good thing the Director had designed him left-handed.

Part Four

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

They were cutting their way through.

Steel pyramids rose from the tiled floor of the corridor. They were "dragon's teeth", about four feet high and four feet wide at the base, designed to prevent the Foundation — or anyone else, for that matter — from just rolling a mechanized unit down the hallway.

An armory was located adjacent to the infirmary. A sprawling space, the armory was roughly the size of a gymnasium. Shelves stretched floor-to-ceiling and ammo was sorted in 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 entire length of the room. There was a tank and personnel carrier tucked away in one of the back corners and a massive, manufacturing-grade 3D printer in another. UCAV's hung from suspension-wires.

Nathan wasn't sure how the Director had gotten the vehicles down there — they didn't appear to be for display-purposes, as he recognized a Merkava and a Reaper, and everything else he'd found was functional. The only way he could figure out how to do it was to disassemble and then — once you got them inside — reassemble them.

But then how the hell did you get them back out? Did you have to disassemble them all over again? That seemed… ponderous.

Returning to the corridor, Nathan translated the hallway's dimensions into practical measurements. The corridor was wide; three men could comfortably walk abreast through it. It was high, too, especially for being underground, though not nearly as high as the armory. He jumped and palmed his hand against the ceiling. Probably eleven feet.

He took mines from the armory and sowed them between the dragon's teeth. A pair of turrets he staggered and adhered to opposite walls. 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 in the infirmary he'd own the positional advantage, firing enfilade on any Foundation member that dared to show as much as their little toe.

A dollop of liquid-hot metal, moving like a lava-flow, issued from the bottom of the blast-door. The Foundation was working the door from both ends now, and when they met in the middle they'd have gained access to the annex.

Nathan went on a shopping spree, transferring armloads of weapons from the armory and stockpiling them inside the infirmary door.

"How much time do I have?" he asked.

Ten minutes, the Director replied through the phone in his head. Twenty tops.

The Director had never been present, at least not physically. What Nathan had mistook as one of his avatars had actually been a holographic projection, and it had since disappeared, leaving him alone except for the butchered android pinned to the far wall.

He should've known better. The projection had never interacted directly with either him or the environment.

He made three more trips to the armory, increasing his already-sizable arsenal and building a semicircle of guns and ammo around his position. The minutes ticked away. The two glowing lines steadily drew closer and closer toward each other. Retrieving his MR combat suit — recharged and repaired — from the armory, Nathan slipped the cowl over his face and crouched in the infirmary doorway, the aperture dilated just enough to allow him to lean out with his upper-body and aim down the corridor. A nearby dragon's tooth provided additional cover.

With the combat armor on he felt a bit like Batman.

You are Batman, Nathan tried to tell himself.

A vaguely familiar voice, as if reading his thoughts and eager to contradict them, said, "You're going to die."

Nathan almost jumped out of his skin. He swiveled on his heels, maintaining the crouch, bent at the knees, a coiled viper, spring-loaded and ready to strike. The nine millimeter was a blur as it leapt from the holster and into his hands.

The lights went out.

The Foundation has cut the power, advised the Director. Rerouting to emergency.

"Yeah, until they cut that, too," Nathan said.

"You're going to die." The voice slithered out of the dark. It spoke without inflection.

He moved toward the back of the infirmary. It sounded like the voice was coming from the Foundation android.

But that was impossible, right?

Nathan had better night-vision than most: an overabundance 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 scouted the area ahead of him with his foot, careful not to bump into anything.

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

A moment later the lights flickered and kicked back on. Nathan lifted the android's chin with the muzzle of the pistol. The eyes were open — they were flat, full of life and somehow lifeless all at the same time.

The uncanny valley.

Had the eyes been open earlier? He didn't think so and rewound his optic recording to verify.

No, they hadn't been.

"You're going to die," the android repeated. Her teeth chattered and breath plumed from blue lips.

"Yeah, probably." Nathan grimaced and mentally texted the Director: YOUR DROID IS AWAKE. He lowered the gun and stepped back.

That's impossible, responded the Director, echoing Nathan's misconception. I've maintained her temperature at seventy-eight kelvin.

"If you give me back and surrender they may let you live," she said. The tendons in her neck were as taut as violin strings, in stark relief against her gypsum flesh.

"I doubt that," he said.

"You know it's the only way you're getting out of here other than a body bag."

Even if she was telling the truth — and that was a big if — Nathan refused to entertain the idea of spending the rest of his life in an eight-by-twelve cell. Better to go down fighting.

"Your Foundation put me in a body bag before."

What do you think you're doing? Don't talk to her.

The android tilted her head. An icicle clung to one nostril like a stalactite. "I know you… You're the one from the house, aren't you? The assassin. You murdered my friends."

Ignore her, the Director said.

Ignore her? How the hell was he expected to do that?

There was no way she could know that Nathan was the same person from Millbrook. His identity was concealed behind the cowl and he didn't think he'd ever spoken a word aloud at the McKeown house. On top of all that, he'd since had his face swapped and his vocal chords detuned. He might as well have been a completely different person.

"Yeah, you're him. Son of a bitch. Too afraid to take me in a fair fight, had to use your drones to knock me out…"

Nathan wondered what that was supposed to mean. Didn't she remember calling in the missile strike herself? Was it confabulation caused by the freezing process?

She'd been accurate in her accusation of him as the assassin she'd met in Massachusetts, he had to give her that, even if he would never admit it and didn't understand the source of her knowledge. Maybe she just recognized the magnetorheological suit.

The agent gave a sudden and unexpected burst of energy, straining against the bindings, muscles contracted and mouth pressed into a slit. Nathan took another step back, getting out of arm's reach in case she somehow managed to free herself. He raised the pistol, aiming for the exposed brain. She was two or three generations beyond all other synthetics he'd encountered and he had no clue what she was capable of.

It was a pointless exhibition, though — she didn't gain an inch, and when she'd depleted whatever reservoir of strength she was clinging to her eyes rolled back and her chin sagged. The muscles relaxed again.

Nathan was about to press the matter of the drone missile but was interrupted by a heavy thud. He diverted his attention back to the corridor. Poking his head out of the aperture he saw the blast door smoldering on the floor, cut into two slabs, edges still glowing, and what he assumed were the shadows of MTF soldiers prowling through the smoke as they made their approach.

He swapped the pistol for a SCAR, nestling the stock of the assault rifle against his shoulder and toggling it to fully-automatic. He applied two pounds of pressure to the three-pound trigger and —

No. Wait a moment. The smoke was clearing. Nathan blinked, carefully eased his finger off the trigger and exhaled. He change his vision to infrared and confirmed what he already suspected — no one was there. The figures he'd seen were examples of pareidolia, his mind playing tricks, seeing what it wanted to see, perceiving expected images where none actually existed.

The security room's threshold was empty.

The Foundation — and by extension their Mobile Task Forces — wasn't stupid. They weren't going to blindly charge through a door without knowing what was on the other side. They'd play it safe for now. Take it slow.

As if on cue, an aerial quadcopter appeared in the security room's vacant doorway, stirring the smoke with its rotors. It hovered in place before cruising down the corridor, floating toward Nathan, pausing to inspect the biolab.

He used his HUD to activate a turret. Its twin barrels tracked the copter's advancement, opening up with a short burst that swatted it out of the air.

A mechanical, segmented appendage emerged from the security room. Nathan only had a partial view; whatever it was connected to remained obstructed, and so it was difficult to determine exactly what it was — a leg? A tentacle? It was as thick as an anaconda and the visible end tapered to a sharp point. He was beginning to hope it wasn't connected to anything at all. Maybe it was just some sort of tube.

A second appendage popped up behind the first.

Then a third…

And a fourth. A fifth.

What the fuck? Nathan thought. Sweat streamed down his temples, wicked away by the cowl.

A six-legged vehicle, the mutant-hybrid of a tank and a wingless insect, squeezed into the hallway. Its shell was the iridescent coloring of oil on water, a prismatic spray that changed depending on the angle of the light. To Nathan it kind of resembled a robotic ant. He wasn't sure if it was piloted remotely or governed independently. And did it really matter? What he did know was that it was a big sucker, the thorax the size of a refrigerator.

He switched the turret to electromagnetic slugs and raked the ant with an extended and experimental salvo. It didn't even flinch. He'd expected it to be shielded but still had to try. After that he changed the ammunition to fifty caliber — the largest in the turret's munitions box — and had it release another volley. The bullets struck the tank's block-shaped head and bounced off the reactive plating with a sound like rain pattering on a tin roof. The noise was almost gentle. Soothing. Nathan leaned a little further out of the aperture to get a better look, make sure he was seeing this correctly.

The bullets hadn't even chipped the paintjob.

"Umm…" His forehead corrugated in disbelief.

What? the Director asked. Are you not feeling up to this?

"I said I'm fine," he snapped.

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 and he could dead-press half a ton. A subcutaneous weave of super-fibers coupled with magnesium alloy bone grafts rendered him invulnerable to most small-arms fire.

He ditched the SCAR and reviewed the scrounged pile of ordnance.

"What's the ceiling made of down here?"

Why?

"Just tell me."

It's five feet of reinforced concrete.

"Shit."

A grenade couldn't punch through the ant's armor, not with that reactive plating in the way, and at a glance he didn't see anything designed to bust tanks. Probably there was something back in the armory. If not he could've brewed something up on the 3D printer.

He might be able to cause a cave-in, make the corridor's roof collapse and bury the damn thing under so much dirt and rock while also — as an added bonus — stalling the Foundation's progress, buy himself a couple of hours until they could tunnel their way through.

Or he might just end up trapping himself within the annex, with no food or water.

Nathan grabbed a launcher from the pile. He inspected the cluster chambers, verifying that it was loaded with explosive grenades and that they were designed to detonate on impact. He snapped the chamber shut.

Trapping himself was a risk he would just have to take.

He pulled the turret up again on his HUD and switched it to its autonomous setting. The gun whirred, spinning on a gyroscope as it recalibrated the laser-guidance system. The barrels twitched and burped incendiary pellets. They splashed and spread a greasy fire across the tank's hull. Blue flames licked chitin and polycarbonate segments. A trail of blazing accelerant ran down the chassis and pooled on the tiled floor.

The ant took the bait. Antennae swayed as its head snapped around to face the attacking turret. Rockets erupted from its undercarriage. Nathan stepped through the aperture and shot three grenades at the ceiling. Exhaust fumes coughed from the launcher's honeycomb barrels, spitting the explosives out like a tennis ball machine. The grenades sailed over the ant, propelled by compressed air.

The turret vanished in a petal-blossom of fire. A piece of shrapnel from the manifold cartwheeled past Nathan's nose and lodged in the wall with a shuddering twang.

The tank swiveled in his direction. Nathan was stunned by its reaction speed. It was fast. Very fast. He dove inside the infirmary as more rockets streaked out. He felt them hammer into the aperture, the heat from the impact bathing his legs while he skidded across the room, suit squeaking like damp rubber soles scuffing against a floor.

"Surrender and they may let you live," the android repeated. She was awake again. Her voice somehow managed to drip with smugness, even as a triple amputee that looked as if they'd been caught in the middle of a lobotomy.

Nathan popped up off the floor. "Oh, shut the fuck up."

The infirmary's aperture was dented where the rockets had struck, the prongs of the sphincter charred and twisted. It would never close again, not snugly, and the matte-laminate had blistered and peeled.

Nathan edged toward the doorway, sneaking a glance down the corridor. The damage to the ceiling was negligible. The three grenades had vaporized the drop panels, but the structural concrete and steel support beams remained unscathed.

It was about what he'd expected.

I'M OPEN TO ANY SUGGESTIONS HERE, he texted.

I'm a little busy operating the reality anchors.

ANOMALOUS TECH?

They're trying to open a portal in the infirmary to flank you. What do you need?

The tank reached the periphery of the dragon's teeth. Nathan held his breath as one of its front legs settled next to a mine. Another step would set it off, and he thought it may have enough force to cripple the damn thing.

The ant bent forward, muzzle close to the ground, as if smelling something. Antennae twitched. Suddenly it sprang onto the ceiling, bladed feet puncturing the cement and tearing more of the drop panels off. A fluorescent light panel

Don't let them reach the server farm.

The ant had reached the

twisting the aperture into a mangled

He steeled

vapor

the grenades supersonically combusted.

The hallway channeled the dual explosions. A wall of heat and debris roared past the aperture.

Nathan poked his head back out into the hallway.

The turret was gone. A streak of oil and a black scorch-mark was all that remained where it had been stuck on the wall. The ant, besides some cosmetic damage, remained unscathed.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered to himself. "I'm gonna get knocked out in the first round."

He hadn't expected the grenades to do anything, but it was still a disappointment. All he'd managed to achieve was a small crater in the ceiling. It was only an inch or two deep. Really not a crater at all. More like a divot. Chips of cement sifted down on the tank and dusted its fuselage. The flames shrunk and then were extinguished.

flange

exhaust

matchstick

ammo, testing each one in its munitions compartment, just as Nathan had previously done with the EMP and fifty cal.

Incendiary rounds splashed and spread a greasy fire across the tank's hull. Blue flames licked its joints and segments. A trail of burning accelerant ran down the chassis and pooled on the tiled floor. Nathan wrinkled his nose at the stench of napalm and scorched plastic.

exchange

they marched in a phalanx position, covering their front and top with ballistic shields

The only ammo-type that had any sort of success were the acid rounds, sizzling and popping as they ate through the laminated plating. But it would take forever to and the turret's supply was finite. Soon the acid rounds were depleted and it had to change to

exhaust

moving on to the next in its

then firing at the ant. The tank's head snapped around and focused on the incoming fire. Rockets erupted out of tubes along its underside and strafed toward the turret.

With the tank distracted, Nathan peeked out of the infirmary and launched a cluster of three grenades at the ceiling, directly above the

Peeking out of the infirmary, he set the turret to autonomous.

banking it off the wall

tracer rounds
calf

pivot

There was no way he could

scrounge

scavenged

Next, he had the turret change ammunition to its highest caliber

Both turrets honed in on the target as soon as it set its front appendages down in the hallway.

The bullets bounced off the reactive plating. The tank swung its block-shaped head around, immediately focusing on the turrets. Rockets erupted out of tubes along its underside. They streaked like shooting stars and let off a falsetto cry like fireworks. Nathan ducked inside the infirmary as the blast — intensified by the enclosed area of the corridor — whipped past,

rattling like rain on a tin roof.

"Yoo-hoo! Nathan? That you?" Commander

If he could take it out he could turn it into a roadblock
tracers
clog

turret bustle?

If it came down to a siege-type situation it wouldn't end in a stalemate. Nathan had no supply lines. The Foundation could easily starve him out. But time wasn't exactly on the Foundation's side, either. Not if the Director had some backdoor to the facility he could use to smuggle the android out.

The Foundation couldn't take that chance.

It was disconcertingly quiet. Nathan wouldn't have been surprised to have heard a cricket chirp.

It was a game of chess, but the side playing white refused to make the first move, and time wasn't on their side. Nathan could wait all day — the Foundation couldn't. They were on a time crunch, had to move before the Director was able to evacuate the android and slip through their fingers for a

"Nathan!" a gruff voice bellowed. "This is Captain McVries with the Foundation. Come out with your hands up!"

How did they know his name?

Nathan decided on the silent treatment route. He remained mute, hunkered in the aperture.

"C'mon, Nathan. There's no way out of here. I've got fifty soldiers with me just begging to get their hands on you. We

jellyfish sting

IS SHE REALLY WORTH ALL THIS TROUBLE? he texted.

Her technology is worth billions, maybe even trillions, and is decades ahead of our own.

He decided to heed the Director's advice and not engage her any further. As he turned his attention back to the hallway the blast door exploded in a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. This was it. Nathan braced the stock of the rifle against his shoulder and focused through its sight.

wasn't a lot of time to be discriminatory.

The security annex blast door exploded in a shower of sparks

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.

the eyes were flat — full of life and somehow lifeless at the same time. Nathan shuddered at the uncanny valley of it.

spun glass

Nathan was ready for it, already had EMP rounds chambered in the

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.

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.

"Yeah, the sub could pilot itself autonomously or even remotely."

"So why the crew?"

"My best guess: in case of mechanical failure. That and to supervisor the transfer of the drugs."

"But there were two crew members."

"You need at least two so that they can watch each other, keep them honest and stop them from scuttling the sub and disappearing with the haul."

[[*user]]