Read an Excerpt
Down in Flames
Above all, the hard lessons of this century have taught us that there must be consistent oversight and effective constraint, and that the policing systems thus required must operate with unimpeachable levels of integrity and support.
He finally found Gray in a MarsPrep camp just over the Bolivian border and into Peru, hiding behind some cheap facial surgery and the name Rodriguez. It wasn’t a bad cover in itself, and it probably would have stood standard scrutiny. Security checks in the prep camps were notoriously lax; the truth was that they didn’ t much care who you’d been before you signed up. But there were still a few obvious signs you could look for if you knew how, and Carl, with a methodical intensity that was starting to resemble desperation, had been looking for weeks. He knew that Gray was up on the altiplano somewhere, because the trail led there from Bogotá, and because where else, ultimately, was a variant thirteen going to run. He knew this, and he knew it was just a matter of time before the traces showed up and someone called it in. But he also knew, with induction programs everywhere skimping and speeding up to meet increasing demand, that time was on the other man’s side. Something had to give, and soon, or Gray was going to be gone and Carl wasn’t going to get his bounty.
So when the break came, the tiny morsel of data finally fed back from the web of contacts he’d been plying all those weeks, it was hard not to jump. Hard not to dump his painstakingly constructed cover, fire up his Agency credit and badge, and hire the fastest set of all-terrain wheels available in Copacabana. Hard not to tear across the border at Agency speed, raising road dust and rumors all the way to the camp, where Gray, of course, if he had any kind of local support, would be long gone.
Carl didn’t jump.
Instead, he called in a couple of local favors and managed to blag a ride across the border with a military liaison unit—some superannuated patrol carrier with a Colony corporation’s logo sun-bleached to fading on the armored sides. The troops were Peruvian regulars, drafted in from dirt-poor families in the coastal provinces and then seconded to corporate security duties. They’d be pulling down little more than standard conscript pay for that, but the interior of the carrier was relatively plush by military standards and it seemed to have air-con. And anyway, they were tough and young, a sort of young you didn’t see so much in the Western world anymore, innocently pleased with their hard-drilled physical competence and cheap khaki prestige. They all had wide grins for him, and bad teeth, and none was older than twenty. Carl figured the good cheer for ignorance. It was a safe bet these kids didn’t know the subcontract rate their high command was extracting from its corporate clients for their services.
Sealed inside the jolting, sweat-smelling belly of the vehicle, brooding on his chances against Gray, Carl would really have preferred to stay silent altogether. He didn’t like to talk, never had. Felt in fact that it was a much-overrated pastime. But there was a limit to how taciturn you could be when you were getting a free ride. So he mustered some lightweight chat about next week’s Argentina–Brazil play-off and threw as little of it into the conversational mix as he thought he could get away with. Some comments about Patricia Mocatta, and the advisability of female captains for teams that were still predominantly male. Player name checks. Tactical comparisons. It all seemed to go down fine.
“¿Eres Marciano?” one of them asked him, finally, inevitably.
He shook his head. In fact, he had been a Martian once, but it was a long, complicated story he didn’t feel like telling.
“Soy contable,” he told them, because that was sometimes what he felt like. “Contable de biotecnologia.”
They all grinned. He wasn’t sure if it was because they didn’t think he looked like a biotech accountant, or because they just didn’ t believe him. Either way they didn’t push the point. They were used to men with stories that didn’t match their faces.
“Habla bien el español,” someone complimented him.
His Spanish was good, though for the last two weeks it was Quechua he’d been speaking mostly, Mars-accented but still tight up against the Peruvian original that had spawned it. It was what the bulk of the altiplano dwellers used, and they in turn made up most of the grunt labor force in the prep camps, just as they still did on Mars. Notwithstanding which fact, the language of enforcement up here was still Spanish. Aside from a smattering of web-gleaned Amanglic, these guys from the coast spoke nothing else. Not an ideal state of affairs from the corporate point of view, but the Lima government had been adamant when the COLIN contracts were signed. Handing over control to the gringo corporations was one thing, had oligarchy-endorsed historical precedent on its side in fact. But allowing the altiplano dwellers to shake themselves culturally loose from the grip of coastal rule, well, that would be simply unacceptable. There was just too much bad history in the balance. The original Incas six hundred years ago and their stubborn thirty-year refusal to behave as a conquered people should, the bloody reprise by Túpac Amaru in 1780, the Sendero Luminoso Maoists a bare century back, and more recently still the upheavals of the familias andinas. The lessons had been learned, the word went out. Never again. Spanish-speaking uniforms and bureaucrats drove home the point.
The patrol carrier pulled up with a jerk, and the rear door hinged weightily outward. Harsh, high-altitude sunlight spilled in, and with it came the sound and smell of the camp. Now he heard Quechua, the familiar un-Spanish cadences of it, shouted back and forth above the noise of machinery in motion. An imported robot voice trampled it down, blared vehicle reversing, vehicle reversing in Amanglic. There was music from somewhere, huayno vocals remixed to a bloodbeat dance rhythm. Pervasive under the scent of engine oil and plastics, the dark meat odor of someone grilling antecuchos over a charcoal fire. Carl thought he could make out the sound of rotors lifting somewhere in the distance.
The soldiers boiled out, dragging packs and weapons after. Carl let them go, stepped down last and looked around, using their boisterous crowding as cover. The carrier had stopped on an evercrete apron opposite a couple of dusty, parked coaches with destination boards for Cuzco and Arequipa. There was a girdered shell of a terminal building, and behind it Garrod Horkan 9 camp stretched away up the hill, all single-story prefab shacks and sterile rectilinear street plan. Corporate flags fluttered whitely on poles every few blocks, an entwined g and h ringed by stars. Through the unglassed windows of the terminal, Carl spotted figures wearing coveralls with the same logo emblazoned front and back.
Fucking company towns.
He dumped his pack in a locker block inside the terminal, asked directions of a coveralled cleaner, and stepped back out into the sun on the upward-sloping street. Down the hill, Lake Titicaca glimmered painfully bright and blue. He slipped on the Cebe smart lenses, settled his battered leather Peruvian Stetson on his head, and started up the slope, tracking the music. The masking was more local cover than necessity—his skin was dark and leathered enough not to worry about the sun, but the lenses and hat would also partially obscure his features. Black faces weren’t that common in the altiplano camps, and unlikely though it was, Gray might have someone watching the terminal. The less Carl stood out, the better.
A couple of blocks up the street, he found what he was looking for. A prefab twice the size of the units around it, leaking the bloodbeat and huayno remix through shuttered windows and a double door wedged back. The walls were stickered with peeling publicity for local bands, and the open door space was bracketed by two loopview panels showing some Lima ad agency’s idea of Caribbean nightlife. White sand beach and palm trees by night, party lights strung. Bikini-clad criolla girls gripped beer bottles knowingly and pumped their hips to an unheard rhythm alongside similarly European-looking consorts. Outside of the band—jet-muscled and cavorting gaily in the background, well away from the women—no one had skin any darker than a glass of blended Scotch and water.
Carl shook his head bemusedly and went inside.
The bloodbeat was louder once he got in, but not unbearable. The roof tented at second-story height, nothing but space between the plastic rafters, and the music got sucked up there. At a corner table, three men and a woman were playing a card game that required calls, apparently without any trouble tracking one another’s voices. Conversation at other tables was a constant murmur you could hear. Sunlight fell in through the doorway and shutters. It made hard bars and blocks on the floor but didn’t reach far, and if you looked there directly then looked away, the rest of the room seemed dimly lit by comparison.
At the far end of the room, a boomerang-angled bar made from riveted tin sections held up half a dozen drinkers. It was set far enough back from the windows that the beer coolers on the wall behind glowed softly in the gloom. There was a door set in the wall and propped open on an equally dimly lit kitchen space, apparently empty and not in use. The only visible staff took the form of a dumpy indigena waitress slouching about between the tables, collecting bottles and glasses on a tray. Carl watched her intently for a moment, then followed her as she headed back toward the bar.
THE INN WAS QUIET.
Walls darkened with years of fireplace soot drank in the lanternlight, reflecting dim illumination. The dying fire in the hearth offered scant warmth and, from the demeanor of those who chose to sit before it, less cheer. In contrast to the mood of most establishments of its ilk, this inn was nearly somber. In murky corners, men spoke in hushed tones, discussing things best not overheard by the uninvolved. A grunt of agreement to a whispered proposal or a bitter laugh from a woman of negotiable virtue were the only sounds to intrude upon the silence. The majority of the denizens of the inn called the Sleeping Dockman were closely watching the game.
The game was pokiir, common to the Empire of Great Kesh to the south and now replacing lin-lan and pashawa as the gambler’s choice in the inns and taverns of the Western Realm of the Kingdom. One player held his five cards before him, his eyes narrowed in concentration. An off-duty soldier, he kept alert for any sign of trouble in the room, and trouble was rapidly approaching. He made a display of studying his cards, while discreetly inspecting the five men who played at the table with him.
The first two on his left were rough men. Both were sunburned, and the hands holding their cards were heavily callused; faded linen shirts and cotton trousers hung loosely on lank but muscular frames. Neither wore boots or even sandals, barefoot despite the cool night air—a certain sign they were sailors waiting for a new berth. Usually such men quickly lost their pay and were bound again for sea, but from the way they had bet all night, the soldier was certain they were working for the man who sat to his right.
That man sat patiently, waiting to see if the soldier would match his bet or fold his cards, forfeiting his chance to buy up to three new cards. The soldier had seen his sort many times before; a rich merchant’s son, or a younger son of a minor noble, with too much time on his hands and too little sense. He was fashionably attired in the latest rage among the young men of Krondor: a short pair of breeches tucked into hose, allowing the pant legs above the calf to balloon out. A simple white shirt was embroidered with pearls and semiprecious stones, and the jacket was the new cutaway design, a rather garish yellow, with white-and-silver brocade at the wrists and collar. He was a typical dandy. And from the look of the Rodezian slamanca hanging from the loose baldric across his shoulder, a dangerous man. It was a sword only used by a master or someone seeking a quick death—in the hands of an expert it was a fearsome weapon; in the hands of the inexperienced it was suicide.
The man had probably lost large sums of money before and now sought to recoup his previous losses by cheating at cards. One or the other of the sailors would win an occasional hand, but the soldier was certain this was planned to keep suspicion from falling upon the young dandy. The soldier sighed, as if troubled by what choice to make. The other two players waited patiently for him to make his play.
They were twin brothers, tall—two inches over six feet he judged—and fit in appearance. Both came to the table armed with rapiers, again the choice of experts or fools. Since Prince Arutha had come to the throne of Krondor twenty years before, rapiers had become the choice of men who wore weapons as a consideration of fashion rather than survival. But these two didn’t look the type to sport weapons as decorative baubles. They were dressed as common mercenaries, just in from caravan duty from the look of them. Dust still clung to their tunics and leather vests, while their red-brown hair was lightly matted. Both needed a shave. Yet while their clothing was common and dirty, there was nothing that looked neglected about their armor or arms; they might not pause to bathe after weeks on a caravan, but they would take an hour to oil their leather and polish their steel. They looked genuine in their part, save for a feeling of vague familiarity that caused the soldier slight discomfort: both spoke with none of the rough speech common to mercenaries, but rather with the educated crispness of those used to spending their days in court, not fighting bandits. And they were young, little more than boys.
The brothers had commenced the game with glee, ordering tan- kard after tankard of ale, letting losses delight them as much as wins, but now that the stakes of the game were rising, they had become somber. They glanced at each other from time to time, and the soldier was certain they shared silent communication the way twins often did.
The soldier shook his head. “Not me.” He threw down his cards, one of them flipping completely over for an instant before it came to rest upon the table. “I’ve got duty in an hour; I’d best be back to the barracks.”
What he really knew was that trouble was imminent, and if he were still around when it arrived, he’d never make muster. And the duty sergeant was a man not given to receiving excuses kindly.
Now the dandy’s eyes turned to the first of the two brothers. “Play?”
As the soldier reached the door of the inn, he took note of two men standing quietly in the corner. They stood in great cloaks, faces obscured slightly by the shadows of their hoods, despite the night being warm. Both made a show of quietly watching the game, but they were taking in every detail of the inn. They also looked familiar to the soldier, but he couldn’t place them. And there was something about the way they stood, as if ready to leap to action, that reaffirmed his determination to reach the city barracks early. He opened the door to the inn and stepped through, closing it behind.
The man closest to the door turned to his companion, his face only partially illuminated by the light from the lantern above. “You’d better get outside. It’s about to break loose.”
His companion nodded. In the twenty years they’d been friends, he had learned never to second-guess his companion’s ability to sense trouble in the city. He quickly stepped through the door after the soldier.
At the table, the betting reached the first of the two brothers. He made a face, as if perplexed by the play of the cards. The dandy said, “Are you staying or folding?”
“Well,” answered the young man, “this is something of a poser.” He looked at his brother. “Erland, I would have sworn an oath to Astalon the Judge that I saw a Blue Lady flip when that soldier tossed in his hand.”
“Why,” answered his twin with a twisted smile, “does that pose a problem, Borric?”
“Because I also have a Blue Lady in my hand.”
Men began to back away from the table as the tone of conversation shifted. Discussion of what cards one held was not the norm. “I still see no problem,” observed Erland, “as there are two Blue Ladies in the deck.”
With a malicious grin, Borric said, “But you see, our friend over here”—he indicated the dandy—“also has a Blue Lady tucked just not quite far enough back in his sleeve.”
Instantly the room erupted into motion as men put as much distance as possible between the combatants and themselves. Borric leaped from his seat, gripping the edge of the table and overturning it, forcing the dandy and his two henchmen back. Erland had his rapier and a long dirk out as the dandy drew his slamanca.
One of the two sailors lost his footing and fell forward. As he tried to rise, he found his chin met by the toe of Borric’s boot. He collapsed into a heap at the young mercenary’s feet. The dandy leaped forward, executing a vicious cut at Erland’s head. Erland deftly parried with his dirk and returned a vicious thrust his opponent barely dodged.
Both men knew they faced an opponent worthy of wariness. The innkeeper was circling the room, armed with a large cudgel, threatening anyone who sought to enlarge the fray. As he neared the door, the man in the hood stepped out with startling speed and gripped his wrist. He spoke briefly, and the innkeeper’s face drained of color. The proprietor briskly nodded once and quickly slipped out the door.
Borric disposed of the second sailor with little trouble and turned to discover Erland in a close struggle with the dandy. “Erland! Could you use a hand?”
Erland shouted, “I think not. Besides, you always say I need the practice.”
“True,” answered his brother with a grin. “But don’t let him kill you. I’d have to avenge you.”
The dandy tried a combination attack, a high, low, then high series of chops, and Erland was forced to back away. In the night the sound of whistles could be heard.
“Erland,” said Borric.
The hard-pressed younger twin said, “What?” as he dodged another masterfully executed combination attack.
“The watch is coming. You’d better kill him quickly.”
“I’m trying,” said Erland, “but this fellow isn’t being very cooperative.” As he spoke, his bootheel struck a pool of spilled ale and he lost his footing. Suddenly he was falling backward, his defense gone.
Borric was moving as the dandy lunged at his brother. Erland twisted upon the floor, but the dandy’s sword struck his side. Hot pain erupted along his ribs. And at the same instant the man had opened his left side to a counterthrust. Sitting upon the floor, Erland thrust upward with his rapier, catching the man in the stomach. The dandy stiffened and gasped as a red stain began to spread upon his yellow tunic. Then Borric struck him from behind, using the hilt of his sword to render the man unconscious.