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Manhattan Island, the Upper West Side
The wind sweeping over the roof of the office building carried a chill autumnal bite. Lying flat on a cornice overlooking the walls of the narrow concrete canyon, Kane tugged up the collar of his jacket, but he didn't shiver. He was more concerned about the effect the sudden temperature change might have on the trigger spring of the OICW rifle cradled in his arms.
The stiff breeze gusting up from the dark waters of the Hudson had to be considered for trajectory deflection. He would only have one chance to make the shot before he lost the element of surprise and drew the attention and the wrath of Baron Shuma's followers.
Reaching up behind his right ear, Kane made an adjustment on the Commtact's volume control. The little comm unit fit tightly against the mastoid bone, attached to implanted steel pintels. The unit slid through the flesh and made contact with tiny input ports. Its sensor circuitry incorporated an analog-to-digital voice encoder embedded in the bone.
Once the device made full cranial contact, the auditory canal picked up the transmissions. The dermal sensors transmitted the electronic signals directly through the skull casing. Even for people who went deaf, as long as they wore a Commtact, they would still have a form of hearing. However, if the volume was not properly adjusted, the radio signals caused vibrations in the skull bones that resulted in vicious headaches.
Lifting a compact set of night-vision binoculars to his face, Kane switched on the IR illuminator and squinted through the eyepieces. Viewed through the specially coated lenses that optimized the low light values, the street seemed to beilluminated by a lambent, ghostly haze. Where only gloom had been before, his vision was lit by various shifting shades of gray and green. He squinted against the light of the Sun in the west where it touched the facade of the building on the opposite side of the boulevard.
"Edwards?" he subvocalized.
"Sir?" came the immediate response. The man's voice sounded tense.
"Good. Move in as close to the street as you can. Get prepped when you hear them coming."
Kane couldn't see the shaved-headed ex-Magistrate, but Edwards had proved his competence many times since joining Cerberus nearly a year earlier.
Another voice filtered into his ear. "Commander?"
"I can spot 'em fine, Commander."
"Hell, I can spot them," Kane snapped. "I want a perfect triangulation."
"I've got the shot, if that's what you're worried about it."
"It is, but you wait for my order."
Kane thumbed the tiny stud on the Commtact, opening another channel. "Domi?"
"Yeah?" The girl's sharp, high-pitched voice made him grimace.
"I'm ready to join the pack."
"Acknowledged. In your rig, they won't give you a second glance."
"Hope not." There was a pause. "Kane?"
Her tone a bit softer, Domi said, "Aim good. You be very careful."
"Aren't I always?" he retorted.
The transceiver accurately conveyed Domi's snort of derision. "Hell, no. That's why I mentioned it."
A trifle annoyed, Kane said, "Just make sure the target is where he's supposed to be and be aware of all our people's positions."
Kane knew Domi intended to blend in with the group of Farers, flowing unnoticed among their number in her patched denims and long, hooded coat that concealed the girl's white hair and skin, Detonics Combat Master autopistol, grenade-laden harness and her signature knife, with its nine-inch-long, serrated blade.
Kane had been reluctant to put Domi in the midst of the Farers because of her inability to get along with others, but under the circumstances, she was the least conspicuous of the Cerberus rescue team.
He opened another Commtact frequency. "Baptiste?"
"Here," Brigid Baptiste responded in her characteristically calm tone.
"Hanging out with some Roamer stragglers, half a klick north-northwest of your position. "
Kane turned his head in that direction and squinted. "Sun is in my eyes."
"In the convoy's, too," Brigid replied. "I'm keeping a street between us."
"Any sign of Grant?"
"None so far." Someone who didn't know her would not have detected so much as a hint of concern in her crisp tone, but Kane heard the worry underscoring her voice.
"He's still alive," he said reassuringly. "Baron Shuma won't pass up the chance of show off his prize pig to the citizens."
"Assuming," Brigid replied, "nothing has gone wrong in the past few hours."
"You're always such an optimist," Kane said sarcastically. "About as much as you are which is to say, not much."
"Aren't you the one who always tells me to watch my overconfidence?"
"Only when you need it," she answered. "Like now." Kane smiled crookedly and adjusted the Commtact, opening all the individual channels simultaneously. "Status reports every two minutes now, people."
"Yes, sir," Edwards said.
"Yo," Brady announced.
"Gotcha," Domi stated.
"Acknowledged," Brigid said.
Kane took a deep breath. The stock of the OICW rifle felt smooth and warm in his hands. He eyed the sky, noting that in a few minutes the autumn sunset would plunge the narrow concrete valley below into deep gloom. The laser optical scope would help, but he prayed Shuma's triumphant procession arrived while it was still daylight. If anything went wrong on the op, light levels wouldn't matter.
A faint, faraway rumble of a distant engine reached his ears. Hitching around, Kane shifted position. A tall man built with a lean, long-limbed economy, most of his muscle mass was contained in his upper body, much like that of a wolf. The cold stare of a wolf glittered in his blue-gray eyes, the color of dawn light on a sharp steel blade. A faint hairline scar showed like a white thread against the sun-bronzed skin of his clean-shaved left cheek. The wind ruffled his thick hair, its color a shade between chestnut and black.
He resisted the urge to stand up, not wanting to risk being spotted by any of Baron Shuma's advance scouts. Shuma was a known killer who operated for hire, using the bombed-out ruins of Newyork City as his base of operations. Manhattan Island no longer held even the ghost of a thriving metropolis, only the hecatomb of a vanished civilization. The fields of devastation stretched to the horizon in all directions. The few structures that still held the general outlines of the buildings they had once been rose at the skyline, then collapsed with ragged abruptness.
All of the skyscrapers and towers had been broken by titanic blows combining shock and fire. Entire city blocks were nothing but acres of scorched and shattered concrete, with rusting rods of reinforcing iron protruding from the ground like withered stalks of some mutated crop.
Why anyone would want to stake out Newyork as an empire was beyond Kane's understanding, but he knew a number of self-styled and self-proclaimed tyrants had rushed in to fill the power vacuums in the former baronial territories. Shuma was not unique in his dreams of ruling over others. He was, however, a scalie, so by virtue of his pedigree, he stood high on the rung of the unusual ladder.
But even taking overweening ambition into account, Newyork seemed a singularly unappealing place to build an empire of any sort, situated as it was in the longest hellzone in the country.
Manhattan had never been claimed as part of a baronial territory, partly due to its inaccessibility.All the bridges connecting it to the mainland had fallen during the massive quakes in the first few minutes of the nukecaust.
In the company of Brigid Baptiste, Grant and Domi, Kane had visited the shockscape of ruins over five years earlier, when they found it inhabited mainly by the peculiar mutie strain known as scalies.
The engine rumble grew louder and Kane peered over the edge of the building. Lights bobbed along the dark ribbon of the road, already cast into shadow by the structures rising on either side. Faint cheers and shouted laughter were audible through the mechanical roar.
"On his way," Brigid's voice whispered.
"Acknowledged," Kane replied as he checked the direction of the wind with a moistened forefinger.
He eyed the sky, noting that in less than fifteen minutes, sunset would give way to dusk, then full night. A shot would be exceptionally risky, depending on where Grant was positioned in the promenade.
Brigid's voice came again. "Shuma himself just passed. Big as life and about five times as ugly."
"Did you see Grant?"
"Yes." Her tone quavered slightly. "It's going to be close, I'm afraid."
"It's what I figured. Stand by. Edwards?"
"Yes, sir," the man calmly responded. "Target coming into sight."
"Brady?" Kane inquired.
"Got them in my crosshairs, Commander," Brady stated.
"Acknowledged. Wait for my signal."
A single shaft of sunlight slipped over the top of the building and cast a shifting yellow halo on the road below. A thunder of drums, a rhythmic engine throb and sharp voices echoed between the walls of the concrete canyon. Kane crept closer to the cornice edge and peered through the rifle's scope.
Straight down the potholed street came the procession, and on either side milled the Farers and Roamers, lean people wearing rags, but their faces were those of predatory animals. They yelled and shouted and waved at the vehicle chugging slowly over the potholed blacktop. In a previous incarnation, some two centuries earlier, the long automobile had been a bright yellow Cadillac convertible. Garlands of artificial flowers festooned the bodywork, from the gleaming grillwork to the sharp tail fins. Four men marched beside the vehicle, hammering on drums made of old metal containers.
Although he had never seen him before, Kane had no problem identifying Baron Shuma. An enormous man stripped to the waist stood upright in the rear seat, his arms folded over his thick chest. His hairless head was small in proportion to his massive torso. He resembled a toad more than a lizard. His blunt-featured face was coated in overlapping scales of a dark gray-green. His nose was a blob, a lighter shade of gray. His pendulous lips drew back over yellowed teeth in a savage grin. His black-rimmed eyes glittered brightly even in the dim light.
Kane recalled that Lakesh had speculated the scalies were the descendants of humans modified for war. Most likely the first generation were little more than expendable fighting machines, with their brains modified to ensure that they remained under the control of those guiding their actions.
With a sudden surge of disgust, Kane realized that Shuma was under no one's control. He made that very clear by parading his captive down the street in full view of his subjects.
Grant lay spread-eagled on the broad hood of the Cadillac, arms and legs held at painful angles by taut lengths of rope. His olive-drab T-shirt was ripped and stained. Kane was unable to tell if the gleam on his brown-skinned body was from perspiration or blood.
Grant was a big man with a heavy musculature. His black hair was sprinkled with gray at the temples. Beneath the fierce, down-sweeping mustache, black against the dark brown of his skin, his teeth were bared either in a silent snarl or a rictus of pain.
Kane adjusted the scope and sighted through the lens, carefully pushing a cartridge home into the chamber, gauging the distance at 250 yards. He gave the small figure sitting hunched over in the back seat beside Shuma only a brief visual appraisal, dismissing him as a servant.
His Commact buzzed and Domi's voice whispered urgently, "Kane?"
"The car is about twenty yards from me " Domi's voice trailed off.
"What is it?" Kane demanded impatiently.
"Not sure . I see something that"
The Commtact squirted out a burst of static and Kane squinted against the needle of pain boring into his skull.
There was no reply. "Domi!"
He opened the channel to Brigid. "Baptiste, can you see Domi?"
"She was cut off."
"Cut off how?"
"How the hell do I know? That's why I'm calling you."
"Do you think something has happened to her?" Kane inhaled a slow, thoughtful breath before answering, "I guess we'll find out."
"That's no answer," came Brigid's sharp, reproving response. "Until we know what's happened to her, we should scrub the mission."
"There's no time for that."
Edwards's voice blared through the comm unit. "Sir, I've got Shuma dead center. I haven't heard from Domi."
Brady announced, "Commander, I just tried checking in with Domi, but she didn't respond. Do we scrub?"
"Stand by," Kane said flatly. "Everybody, just stand by."
Brigid said curtly, breathlessly, "We need to pull back and regroup before"
"Shut up, Baptiste," Kane snapped.
The Cadillac lurched as the tires rolled into a rut and Shuma reached out a claw-tipped hand to steady himself. Kane settled the rubber-cushioned stock of the OICW into the hollow of his shoulder and held his breath. The skin between his shoulder blades seemed to tighten and the short hairs at the back of his neck tingled.
He squeezed the trigger.