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Chapter 7: Scars and Angel Wings

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Chapter 7: Scars and Angel Wings

     The Director sat on the edge of her desk, a cup of coffee in her fist, but not real coffee. Simsomatic coffee. Illegal, but necessary. It had been a long night, waiting for Demigod to crunch the sims. When she took the job, the number-one requirement was an abiding and patient hatred for Skinny. And right now, that was all she had left.

     The sims — every last one of them — were an unequivocal morass of failure. It wasn’t that they just didn’t work; it was that they never even came close.

     Luthor goes live pre-insertion, eradicates the insertion team, strips Richie’s flesh from his bones, and drop-kicks the GI EV casing more than a kilometer before suiciding.

     And that was one of the good ones.

     “Do you really need my analysis?” It was Simmons.

     The Director hadn’t heard him come in, but she was far too blanked to startle. She left her coffee cup hovering in the air before her desk, walked slowly around to her chair. “Can you tell me anything I don’t know?”

     “No,” Simmons drew the word out, an attempted conjunction.

     The Director sat heavily and rubbed her eyes, elbows on the desk. “Don’t fuck around. Out with it.”

     “It’s… crazy stuff.”

     The Director turned her face toward him, eyes closed. “It’s time for the crazy stuff. That’s all we have left. Hell, it’s probably all we ever had.”

     Simmons transmitted his wish-list: Shakti 4.0 and the Russian bio-weapon.

     The Director blinked rapidly and sat up. “Look at the busy little bee.”

     “Buzz buzz.”

     She paused. “You’re absolutely right.”

     “Yeah?”

     “This is crazy as fuck.” She lit a cig, drew the aromatic smoke deep into her lungs.

     “Mmmn,” Simmons said.

     She shook her head curtly. “Too many problems, and we don’t have the time to solve them. This is a race we have to win — do you read me? We have to win. And we’re not going to win by going back to the starting block.”

     “We’re not starting over — we’re just making a few replacements –”

     The Director snorted smoke. “The Russian bio-weapon? If the entire ESC military-industrial complex can’t find it, what makes you think we can?”

     “I’ve identified some probables in my report –”

     “Okay, fine, whatever.” She waved her hand dismissively, the cig giving off a little shower of ash. “So what in God’s name makes you think it’s gonna work for us? Compassion? Or patriotism?”

     Simmons’ lips parted, showed teeth. “That’s your job.”

     “Yeah, it’s my job.” She gave him a long, hard stare. “I’ll make you a deal, Simmons, you find it, I’ll convince it to ride a rocket into the Beachhead and take on Skinny. For God and country. Christ.”

     “Can I move this forward?” he hedged.

     She shook her head. “No.” Then, “Get me something real, will you?” She canceled her coffee. The cup of dream-stuff blinked to nothing.

     “Real coffee?”

     “Real solutions.”

     Simmons sighed. “This was it for me. The best I could do.”

     The Director tilted her head down and closed her eyes, tapping her pursed lips with the butt of the cig. “I wonder,” she said presently, “what’s the best the Chinese will do? Will they remake the world in their image like Office One? Are they already here, now, among us like that damned Russian thing? Or are they in us like Office One? Who’s gonna cross the finish line, Simmons? Who?”

     Simmons moved as if to answer when a call came through. The Director let the urgentcrypt window flop over Simmons, blanking him out, blanking out the office. The call was from outside. She secured her end and answered.

     “Mommy.” It was Maya, her eyes darker than usual, her face unusually pale. “Mommy, please come home. I’m sick.”

     She felt a picosecond of distaste — why can’t you be stronger? Then the instant snap-back of guilt. “Baby,” she said, “Baby, I’m sorry.” It was as much an apology to herself as it was to her daughter. “But I can’t right now. I’ve got a lot of very hard work to do.”

     “I know. I just thought –”

     “Baby, you have to be strong. Like we talked about.”

     “I’m trying. But –”

     “Just a moment.” She sprang another window, linked to Carmen, her housekeeper.

     “Yes ma’am?”

     “Just what are you doing?”

     Carmen blinked rapidly, raising a hand to her ample chest. “You — you told me to call if she got sick.”

     “I gave you specific parameters.” The Director stabbed her cig into the ashtray and began to grind it out.

     “Yes ma’am — the children at school, they are all sick; Maya is too.”

     She dropped the cigarette.

     No.

     She popped the window and sprang a news feed, scanned down through hierarchies of information.

     Please, God, no.

     The postings flickered past until her search completed, pared to a single story. Flu Season Early This Year.

     Influenza. Early.

     They wouldn’t — they didn’t — not without telling me.

     She dropped the news and picked up Maya. “Baby? Tell Carmen I’m coming home. I’ll see you –” her voice caught “– soon.”

     “I love you, Mommy.”

     Somehow, it hurt far too much.

     She cleared her eyes and addressed Simmons. “I’m going home.”

     Simmons narrowed his eyes. “Is everything okay?”

     “No, goddamnit, no.” Then, “Maya’s sick.”

     Simmons looked stricken. “Okay. Christ.”

     “Please,” she said, holding herself as tightly as she could inside, “let’s not go jumping to conclusions.”

     “It’s… probably not the –” He didn’t sound convinced.

     Goddamn them if they did. Goddamn them if they really went and did it without telling her first…. She’d see every last one of them dead if this was the Second Plague.

     “If it is, we’ve already lost.”

     Simmons’ eyes widened. “I — I’m sorry. I hope she’s okay.”

     The Director nodded. “Thanks.”

     “I’ll arrange a security detail for you.” His eyes rolled back in his head. He started to speak, stopped. Then, “What about the sims?”

     She thought of Maya. Office One and their goddamn apocalypse of a solution. A patient and abiding hatred.

     “Run them. Run anything you want. Just get the results we need.”

     With her eyes she pleaded, save her.

     “I will,” he said.

* * *

     Shakti was almost there when the call came; she closed her eyes and turned them inward to the pulsing red signal. Voice only.

     “You have a problem, Shakti.” Breathless and high-pitched, it could have been a woman. Mercer from INFOWAR.

     Yes? Shakti’s teeth squeaked.

     “A very serious problem.” Mercer paused. “An anomaly in your timetable.”

     Shakti tried to hold very still. Yes?

     “Comment?”

     Her mind felt solid, her thoughts solved like a complicated puzzle, finished and immobile. I used all time necessary to complete my mission.

     “Is that all you wish to say?” Disappointment hung from his voice.

     Shakti was silent.

     “We believe your mission clock was tampered with.”

     No. I —

     “I am recommending you for a full audit. Do you understand me?”

     Yes.

     “Are you suffering delusions of humanity?”

     Shakti paused. No.

     “Because you are not human.” His words were slow, deliberate.

     I am purpose-grown tissue, she replied numbly.

     “Is that sufficient for humanity?”

     No. Humans are created by God, imbued with the ability to commune with the divine, and translate the personality to the divine across death.

     “Humans have a creator, a savior, and a soul. Do you have these things?”

     I have a creator.

     “And who would that be?”

     The minds and hands of men.

     “Can you then be our equal?”

     Shakti paused. No.

     “I ask you again: are you human?”

     No. I am a weapon.

     “Are you aware of what we do to weapons that don’t obey?”

     Yes.

     “Good. Very good. I have faith that your audit will be clean. Sleep now.” The connection dropped.

     She opened her eyes to the boy who was in her, working her diligently, all sweat and breath. He was perfect; the curve of his nose, his eyes filled with simple longing. The universe for him was gone, there was only her, and his hunger to pour out his life. This fact was the ocean in which Shakti’s heart sank.

     “Can you love me?” Her voice surprised her. It sounded almost real.

     “Hell, yeah,” he grunted.

     “You love me.” She only sank deeper. Did she expect it to make her happy? It did not. Even if it were true, it was not hers to have.

     The boy stopped. “Look. I’m too fucked up to care right now, okay?” He pushed into her, hard. “Let’s just get what we came for.”

     She dropped the body.

* * *

     Simmons stared blankly at the massive airlock set into the concrete floor in the center of the cavern, a low hill of polished steel beneath a rugged basalt sky. Beneath his feet, 12 klicks of nothing until you hit bottom. Simmons smoked, paced, and thanked his lucky stars he didn’t have to step off into that shaft. Not today, anyway. That was for Goldstein and his crew, and the Director.

     They were all late, he noted with a small shrug of his eyebrows, and took another deep drag. He exhaled and watched the smoke rise a short distance and evaporate into the yawning cavern.

     Everything was accelerating to the very edge of control. Pushing the envelope. The Chinese almost done gathering resources for their own war with Skinny, and Office One moving to beat them before they lit the firecracker. And that was it for Office Four, the deadline; we were supposed to grab the hyperdrive before the Chinese went off and helped Skinny wreck the world.

     Office One was going off early. Office One, whose sovereign mission was nothing less than to ensure the continued survival of the human race. At any cost. Their solution was simple enough — did you get the First Plague? It was the primer for the change. Anyone who didn’t get it would die in the next one. And those who got both would have their germ-cells permanently altered.

     Office One was reshaping the human race.

     The First Plague set the trigger for a germ-cell rewrite; while the sick coughed and vomited, the virus wound itself deep into ovaries and testicles, tacking dormant strips of custom-coded DNA into eggs and sperm-generating cells. Dormant, inexpressive ‘junk’ code, waiting dumbly for the trigger to go live. That trigger would be a Second Plague, harder than the first, an influenza epidemic that would kill anyone with pristine uncut gonads and make those with the dormant code give birth to children who where half-size. Children who would grow up, healthy and happy, to be no more than a meter tall.

     It came down to resources. The germ-cell rewrite simultaneously cleared out a good portion of humanity and made the subsequent generations need less energy and material per person. The Earth, as degraded and sub-hospitable as it was, could support an ultimately larger population. The rewrite essentially doubled the size the planet.

     And that bought us, as a race, more time.

     So what if Office One was early? What did it mean, ultimately, for the endgame? Nothing. But —

     She’d do it. For her daughter, she’d do it. She’d take on Office One, wipe them out, and then proceed with Skinny.

     He closed his eyes. An animated ad for fruit pies danced at the edge of his consciousness. BECAUSE YOU’RE HUNGRY, it declared. Sometimes, he could see why the old-timers hated the TG.

     His heart began to race, sweat stung his eyes. It was the panic, the same uncontrolled somatic rebellion he had felt when the Director gave the order to go operational. He slowed his breathing, shook his head.

     I got the first flu, I’m safe, besides, I’m way out here.

     So was Office One.

     And the Director, she was so hard he was afraid this might break her.

     And then what?

     Minutes later, Goldstein’s crew, massive and mean, filled the access hallway with tense darkness and hard stares. The syncopated thump of their boots filled the cavern, bundles of weapons lashed to their backs, smoke boiling from their heads.

     Simmons felt the same way he would about tigers in his bedroom.

     Goldstein smiled broadly when he saw Simmons, his teeth a preternaturally bright arc beneath the fat black X tattooed across his face. “Hey Squeaky — kill anybody lately?”

     Simmons took an unconscious step backward. “Uh, not in my job description, Goldstein.”

     “Oh, you think so,” Goldstein laughed. It was a hard sound, not the least bit mirthful.

     Goldstein, older than Simmons’ father, but with a similar air — coiled, compressed. Like a machine that winds up and stops running, silent but for an occasional creak of metal fatigue: great amounts energy bound up and stored in a rusting matrix of cocked springs. Makes you want to shield your eyes, and get the hell out of there.

     Goddammit, Simmons thought, I won’t let him do it to me this time —

     “You think if we just roll over and pray hard enough, Skinny’ll just — poof! — magically disappear?”

     “No.”

     “No,” Goldstein confirmed, “This ain’t gonna be no bloodless revolution, Squeaky.” Goldstein sighed. His eyes wiggled, hailing some unseen data.

     “You’re awfully talkative.”

     “Oh, just high on life. And whatever the hell the medtech boosted me with. You know how this place fucks me up.”

     Indeed. Two klicks straight up through the rock, on the heat-crusted surface, frozen bodies still glistened in the sunlight. Silent City.

     Goldstein sighed. “Maybe we have it comin’, Squeaky, like the Neanderthals.”

     “What?”

     “The Neanderthals. Nature loves a winner. Fucking loves a winner. The Neanderthals were a piss-poor version of man, came in second place. And second place is first loser.”

     “But –”

     “You think it ends there? Nature goes all the way to the edges of the mother-fucking universe, Squeaky. We won here. We’re the hardest motherfuckers on Earth. But what about out there? You think the challenge ends at the edge of the atmosphere? Naw. It gets big-time out there. And I’m sorry to report we’re not the first ones outta the gate.

     Don’t you ever wonder, Squeaky, how many times they’ve done this? Skinny, I mean. How many times has Skinny stacked his odds by steppin’ on some upstart civilization like ours? He sure as hell comes on like he’s done this before.”

     “We don’t — know why they’re here. Communication –”

     “What — you think they’re here to ‘uplift’ us or some shit? Skinny’s here to fuck us — and not in the fun way.”

     “Then why bother, Goldstein — because we can’t help it? Because we’re to stupid to know when to stop?”

     “Naw. We have to take our shot, Squeaky. Is Skinny really the best the universe can do? There’s only one way to find out. We go at him with everything we got — teeth and fingernails — because you never know. We just might be it.”

     “What do you think?”

     “What do I think?” He tilted his head toward his men. “What do I think, boys?”

     A communal chuckle, thick with menace, thick with remembered blood. It made Simmons’ hackles stand and sent a chill down his spine. Or was it thrill? Though they scared him the way that sociopaths should, he sensed in them a darkly infectious hope. A hope that was his birthright as a member of the human race.

     “I’m sorry, Squeaky — it’s just been so long since you and I have had a chance to bullshit. Relax. It’s us who’re goin’ places.”

     Simmons smiled inside. Yes indeed. “You’re going dirt-side. The Director’s gotta get home. You’re her security detail.”

     Goldstein frowned. “Shit.”

     The Director arrived at the end of the line, small and prim among the lethal bulk of Goldstein’s crew.

     “Let’s get this over with, gentlemen.”

     Simmons watched them fall away on TG, bundled in pressure suits, clipped into transit cables around the periphery of the vertical shaft, drifting downward into the distant lights of the vault. The Moon’s one-sixth gee pulled at them lightly; they intermittently arrested their various falls with but a thought, flicked through the TG, to the fist-sized trolley that crawled down their respective cables. To Simmons they looked like man-shaped balloons, arranged in a rough circle, bobbing and tugging in a breeze he couldn’t feel.

     And somewhere at the bottom, the Director would ask the artifact for a personal favor. Simmons shuddered and killed his TG feed, silently, almost unconsciously, thanking God he was not among them.

* * *

     The black queen was a quiet threat to the white bishop, but a threat nonetheless. She stood, with commanding imposition, flanked by twin dark knights.

     What will it be? The poisoned cup? Daggers at midnight? Or perhaps merely a simple distraction?

     The artifact touched Dyer’s mind, a fingertip’s delicate tap on the surface tension of his will, a fading ripple of wavering images, faintly charged with emotion.

     The bishop bowed, and retired its position.

     The distraction, then.

     A dark knight charged, looping in from the flank, trampling the resigned bishop.

     Dyer could feel the artifact fuming, the fingertaps coming like raindrops against his mind. As facile as Dyer was at sensing the artifact’s thoughts, he was even better at screening his own. The artifact could touch him, but never penetrate.

     Dyer smiled. Your king will die.

     Albertus Munro Dyer had been, pre-contact, the human chess champion of the world. That’s not to say he was the best at the game of chess itself — he actually played a fairly mediocre game — but even a mediocre player can humiliate a master who announces his every move far in advance, a master who broadcasts his intentions and strategems, hopes and fears. Dyer could hear thoughts like distant birdcalls in the human forest. It had been a good living. There had been money and regard and women. Sometimes he thought he missed the women most of all, silky heat and half-lidded eyes. But that was a lie. What he missed most of all was the feel of the pieces. Fingertips on polished wood. The muted spines of a queen’s crown, the simple curve of a pawn’s helm. Cool and firm and real.

     He’d have to feel it through others, and never again through himself. Selected portions of his spinal cord were dead. Killed by Office Four for security reasons. He had no TG node — they stripped it from him in an excruciating and humiliating procedure. It wasn’t so bad now. He had come of age in the time before telegnosis; it wasn’t a part of him from infancy, unlike the kids today. And yet, it was, for a time, like going blind and deaf simultaneously.

     They didn’t allow him to smoke — though he could smell it on the staff when they came to feed him or ignominiously wipe his ass and it drove him mad with longing — and without a TG node he couldn’t even enjoy the phantom pleasures of a simsomatic cig.

     They kept him strapped to a wonderfully archaic gurney. The only purpose he could surmise in this was to give the security team the time they would need to pass through the alcove in the ‘door’ — a rotating stone plug ten meters thick — and kill him. That was the standing order — death — should he somehow rise and walk, or speak in tongues.

     He opened his eyes to the vault, a yawning bubble in the bedrock, a sphere of lunar basalt fused into black glass. And over that a thin crust of nanofabbed carbon-matrix ultracrete. He lived — if it could indeed be called living — in a diamond-encrusted tomb. Arcs of harsh lights ringed the upper and lower reaches of the spherical chamber; a metal catwalk defined the circumference. Open in the center, a dizzying expanse of empty space beyond the railing. And in that space the artifact hovered silent and implacable as if stuck fast to the very center of the vault. A black triangle a meter to a side and somewhere around one-tenth of that thick. It did not sparkle or shine in the hard light; it was a black so absolute it left a void smear on the retina, bleeding color at the edges.

     Thirty or so meters directly below the artifact, the dull, metallic nipple of the antimatter fountain protruded from the floor. He had no real idea of what would set it off, and he imagined that Office Four was careful not to let anyone into the vault who did know. If Dyer could find out how to trigger it he would do his god-awful best to get it lit. He sighed. The standard precaution in this day and age; after all, didn’t everyone feel better with a bomb under their well-wiped ass? Ah, but he was getting angry, and anger was like a tunnel through the wall of his soul — it always brought the artifact sniffing around, pushing a little harder. Testing Dyer’s willpower for holes. Calming breaths, relaxing breaths. He smiled beatifically at the black triangle, eyes sleepy. I am a fortress of serenity.

     He brought the chessboard back to the forefront of his consciousness, and saw that the artifact had made its next move, opening up a very probable attack on its own queen.

     His Buddha-smile deepened. Dyer might play a poor game of chess, but the artifact was even worse.

     A British expedition found it in 1923, atop a steep and jagged temple, encapsulated in jungle, in the Yucatan. At that time, it was a black stone disk, two meters in diameter. A calendar. Bas reliefs carved around the black mirror of the top edge showed the parade of time in hunched animals and screaming faces, stars and planets and serpents flowing ever forward. It was accurate to 50,000 years. The size of the flawless obsidian, the savage artistry with which it was wrought were more than enough to signal a momentous find — but this was no ordinary calendar. It was also a sacrificial altar. A shallow, oblong blood-runnel cut across the center. It was there that the autocratic priests of the winged serpent gouged out the hearts of prisoners and princesses alike, tearing loose their souls with daggers of volcanic glass whose edges were only a single molecule thick. God’s work, all. They let the blood pool beneath the jittery corpse, to scoop up handfuls and slick back their long braids, let it dribble thick and hot down their sloped foreheads, framing their sidereal eyes in crimson, sticking to their lips and dripping reluctantly off their chins.

     He knew this because the artifact had shown him as much.

     The calendar was smuggled out of South America and installed in the British Museum in London. Its initial unveiling and exhibition drew little interest; Egypt and her plundered treasures were all the rage. After 15 years of gathering bored shrugs and the inconstant caress of eyeballs, the calendar was carefully, but impiously, rolled into long-term storage. One hundred and fifty years later, it spoke.

     Well, not in so many words. The day before Skinny spoke to the world, announcing his presence, the calendar made contact with an athletic and brilliant graduate student by the name of Alex Willowford. Willowford was doing physical research for his dissertation, looking for evidence of genetic memory of the K/T Boundary Event, looking for visual echoes of the asteroid strike that snuffed the dinosaurs, and most other life on Earth 65 million years previous. He wasn’t terribly interested in the calendar itself; indeed, he hadn’t even seen it in the catalog. He was in sub-basement 2 to see, with his own eyes, a crumbling fresco of the god Tezcatlipoca rendered as a descending pillar of light, scouring the Earth with his feet, driving all living things to flee before him.

     The calendar didn’t actually speak, but rather it churned images in Willowford’s unconscious the way clumsy boots might roil a well-settled puddle of water into mud. He was gripped by a seizure and driven to the brink of madness by what he was forced to experience: the universe winding backwards, the Earth reversing and falling the wrong way through time, retracing its interminable path around the Sun. Life bursting and subsiding and bursting forth again, continents slithering and tearing. The land finally shrugging off its awkward cloak of green into the oceans, the oceans draining into the sky until all was rock and smoke. Only when the moon fled the sky, vanishing in an as-yet-undiscovered heartbeat, did the awful experience reach its terminus.

     When he clawed his way upright, drained pale, shivering with cold sweat and gagging on bile, he knew. He knew with terrible certainty what thing had afflicted him with the yawning, ego-obliterating vision. It was very clear. The obsidian calendar beneath the shroud. And he knew what it all meant. It was older than sin.

     He left the basement and carefully relayed his experience to a startled docent, then retired to his dormitory and killed himself. No one scooped the blood pooled beneath young Willowford’s disquiet corpse; they let it gurgle down the bathtub drain.

     Two more frenzied encounters and resultant suicides followed. But by this point there was too much else going on in the world — the atmosphere was nearly rigid with anticipation. We were not alone, and perhaps we merely misunderstood the initial attempt at inter-solar/species communication. The hallucinations and suicides were blamed on the unique pressures of this historical cusp; the fact that Willowford’s experience preceded contact by a day was unfortunately overlooked.

     And then Skinny scoured humanity off of the Moon. The Alpha Strike. Nothing but fire and darkness; once clear powers of reason soaked heavy with blood.

     The calendar languished in the sacked and benighted Museum, far too heavy — and useless — to be removed by looters.

     Then the end of the War of Thundering Hooves, and a rise toward something like order. The wise architects of the ESC knew that their construct would only be useful for maintaining order among the populace — but would hamper the creativity and expedient necessity required to thwart Skinny. And so separately, secretly, they established the Offices. The only one that Dyer knew of with any certainty was Office Four, his employer, but it was rumored that there were others, each a subtle and entrenched web of operatives and moles, companies and associations of extra-governmental power; each Office with a distinct, but dovetailed, mission.

     During Office Four’s inception, an automated intel-gathering pass tagged Willowford’s experience, and the stone calendar, as possible interests. The text of the following two suicides included references to Skinny. And this time, the fact that the calendar communicated the day before contact was not overlooked. It might be pure hallucination, or a hoax, but Office Four’s credo — and perhaps the credo of all the Offices — was BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

     In a lightning commando raid, elements of Office Four penetrated London, located the wreckage of the British Museum, and descended, under fire, into the rubble-choked bowels.

     The team secured the calendar. They had planned on moving it out under power of two load-lifting robots, but one of the robots had caught a rocket during the firefight. As the team leader worked with the remaining bot, the calendar abruptly changed shape, flowing like a globule of oil in zero gravity, collapsing in on itself, hovering. It solidified as a polished back triangle and established contact with the startled team leader; he plucked it gingerly from the air and tucked it under his arm. He found it to be ‘incongruously light.’ The team fought their way out, using the left-over load lifter as a decoy. Once in the city proper, they picked their way toward the dust-off point. The artifact again made contact, and giving the team leader directions to a short-cut, and walked them into a bloody ambush. Most of the team died in the initial fusillade; only the leader, shielded by the artifact, and the team’s archeological expert, made it to the dust-off.

     Shah mat, old friend. Your king is dead.

     With the 40th game — and 40th win — of the morning, Dyer was in need of something to break the monotony of the artifact’s piss-poor chess game. He let the board and pieces dissolve into dream-stuff.

     I will be taking my leave now. I would appreciate some… solitude.

     He felt the artifact skulk away like a receding heat source. It fumed quietly in the center of the room, a fire burned to shimmering coals.

     Dyer relaxed into himself, cycled through possible memories, stopped at a still vision of a dark-haired woman tied to a bed.

     Her, the one with the chin-scar and the angel’s wings tattooed on her back.

     He fell into the memory, let it warp around him. She saw him, her eyes and mouth wide, her breath quick.

     “You,” he said from the foot of the bed, “have been a very naughty girl.”

     Without a TG node to feed his mind, Dyer spent his idle hours painstakingly reconstructing past dalliances. He spent weeks on a single tryst, layering details until the experience was hyper-real. The sound of leather on flesh, altered by the angle and intensity of the blow, and the structure beneath, whether it be bone or flesh. Smells. Individual hairs in a crinkled eyebrow becoming a forest for him to wander, ponds of sweat rising in sinkhole pores.

     Once complete, the vignette was a permanent fixation in his mind, an exhibit in his personal history museum to be browsed, lightly caressed or heavily experienced. He could lose himself in carnal hours, looping them interminably. It was best when he forgot the truth. When he was finally there, ensconced in flesh, his fists full of hair or leather, the bed shuddering and creaking in tempo with breath hissed through teeth, every detail of the woman’s savage beauty and power painfully rendered — save perhaps her name — Dyer could feel the artifact. The artifact, ever-present at the edge of the display, a darkness just beyond the blinds. Consuming the experience with something like approval.

     “Can you feel him?” the mortal angel asked.

     He stopped abruptly, arm cocked back, dripping with sweat. “Always,” he breathed, and hit her again.

* * *

     In the lower airlock, Goldstein popped his visor and lit up a cig.

     “That better be fake,” said Duff, angling his head back slightly. Behind him, the sign on the wall stated

WARNING

HIGH PRESSURE 02

SIMSOMATIC SMOKES ONLY

     “It’s fake,” stated Goldstein. He held it out between his fingers, turned it from side to side. “I think.”

     The Director twisted her helmet off and pressed it into a wall clamp. “Goldstein.”

     “Yes’m.”

     “We shouldn’t be Earthside for more than a day. I just need to know you understand what’s required of you.”

     The men stopped stripping their pressure suits. The sudden quiet was artificial, conspicuous, and mind-numbing.

     “Standing orders, ma’am.” He took a long drag on his cig, eyes pinched in a thousand-meter squint.

     “Are you up to it?”

     “Yes ma’am,” he said through a plume of smoke. “If this trip goes south, you’re the first to die. I guarantee it.”

     She studied his eyes, held his gaze, challenged him with hers. He held, unflinching.

     Her eyes softened.

     “I don’t get to choose, do I?”

     “No ma’am. Shootchya in the head if I can, but I’ll use my hands if it comes to that.”

     “I prefer quick.”

     “Don’t we all.”

     The men laughed, smashing the quiet into fragments, and began stripping down.

     She flashed him, hit him with an encrypted mind-mail: AFTER ME, I WANT YOU TO GET MY DAUGHTER, it read, OUT OF THERE. SAVE HER. SIMMONS’LL HANDLE THE REST.

     With only a split-second’s hesitation he nodded, cigarette clamped in his teeth.

     Shit, he thought.

* * *

     “Hit him again,” the angel said.

     “What –” Dyer watched, stunned, as masculine arms burst from her perfectly welted back and grabbed him, slapped him hard.

     He gripped the hairy wrists and screamed, “Go away!”

     The arms slipped into her back like snakes into holes.

     Dyer backed away from the bed and peeled off his leather mask. His heart felt like it was doing cartwheels in his chest.

     The angel’s face turned from the pillow, 180°, and spat at him. “If he does that again,” she said, “kill him.”

     Dyer sucked a huge breath and opened his eyes.

     A ring of hard faces around his gurney — faces marked with black Xs — and three guns pointed at his head. Huge guns.

     He smiled at the Director. “You know I hate you.”

     Kowalski picked himself up off the floor. “Chuck it! Chuck Christ!” He looked at his shaking hands. “Fuck!”

     “Shut him up.” The Director’s eyes never left Dyer’s.

     Goldstein spat his cig to the floor and threw a silverback glare at Kowalski.

     “Touchy, touchy,” Dyer said, “who wants to touch me?”

     “The only words I want to hear out of your mouth,” the Director said with ice, “Are that thing’s.” Her eyes tracked briefly up toward the void triangle of the artifact.

     Dyer smiled a thin rictus grin and sank into himself on a pillow of breath, carefully logging the lines and tones of her face. Later, he would have her exactly, precisely where she belonged. Begging him for it. His anger rose, slow and controlled, rose as the artifact poured into his mind, a cold deeper than death pooling in the base of his skull.

     Dyer cleared his throat. “It wants to know if you have the live… skinny.”

     “I do not,” the Director replied.

     Dyer frowned. “It’s… disappointed.”

     “We need to go to Earth.”

     “No.” Dyer’s head stirred slightly on his damp pillow. “It won’t let anyone gate until you bring the live… skinny here.”

     “That is why we have to go to Earth.”

     “Don’t… lie. You’re going because of… love.”

     The men looked at the Director. Only Goldstein kept his eyes on Dyer.

     She swallowed. “Alright. Yes. It’s a personal junket. Does anyone else have a problem with that?”

     The hum of the ventilators rose in the silence.

     “If you really love her,” Dyer whispered, “you will get the live one.”

     “We’re working on that. It’s not easy. They’ve been very uncooperative.”

     Dyer’s smiled broadened. “It thinks that’s funny. It appreciates the joke. It agrees with you.”

     “Let me go to Earth.”

     “Wait –” Dyer tilted his head back. “It’s worried. Worried you don’t understand how things are… accelerating.”

     “Yes?”

     “And — I don’t understand.”

     The Director hesitated. “You, or the artifact?”

     Dyer shrugged with his lips. “Me. It’s — something growing. No. Something at the end… of a sleep period.”

     “Time is short. Got it. Let’s gate and get this all moving forward.”

     “No,” Dyer shook his head. “The time in which to get a live one is… truncating geometrically. And in the time beyond that there is — there is nothing.”

     The Director’s eyes narrowed. “Do you mean it is unforeseeable?”

     “It is the preordained end of all things.”

     “What?”

     Dyer smiled. “As far as humans are concerned.”

     The Director looked at the artifact and squeezed her hands into fists.

     “It can hear you,” Dyer whispered, “like prayers, I think.”

     The Director turned from the wretch on the gurney to the impassive black triangle, black like the night of her childhood, that absent swallower of hope.

     I have to see her, she thought at the artifact, please. I — I can’t do the job without knowing she’s safe. I can’t do it. Give me that assurance and I can do what you ask. This — this is not an ultimatum. I’m not saying I won’t. I’m saying I can’t. The pressure will destroy me. It’s as simple as that.

     She thought she felt something in her then, a blind spot that darted, always at the periphery, when she sought to scrutinize it. Then it was gone.

     Dyer felt it touch her, felt it wind its way into the labyrinth of her soul. It gave him delight to have it touch another, to see it strong enough to get to her dim, shadowed mind.

     Go. You have one complete turning, one day, one night.”

     The Director nodded.

     Goldstein holstered his pistol. “Remember to close your eyes,” he intoned.

     The first ripple hit them, the little one just before the big one that snaps reality inside out.

     Goldstein grimaced. God, I hate this part.

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