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Despite rampant, not to say runaway, development in the course of the preceding decades, the sprawling megalopolis of Shanghai still boasted areas that could be relatively dark and quiet—especially after ten at night. Even in bustling modern China, not all enterprises operated around the clock. Not every commercial venture burned power by keeping its lights on when the last shift had left for the day. The outskirts of the business park that was home to assorted heavy industries was nearly silent. A minimum of lights pushed against the darkness at an assortment of locations where such illumination was deemed necessary for security reasons.
A sizable chunk of the ancient city had sacrificed its homes and alleys, its noodle shops and kiosks, to make way for the extensive industrial compound. A few of the old neighborhoods still clung to its fringes, saved from demolition when the developers’ voracious appetite for land had finally been sated. Most of those who dwelled within the surviving houses counted themselves fortunate. Their homes had been spared, the living was cheap, and they had benefited from good jobs in the factories while being spared the need for an expensive commute. Their preserved hutong was safe, too. Spillover from the advanced security that protected the commercial development kept thieves and vandals away from their homes.
In the absence of the delivery trucks that rumbled to and from the industrial complex throughout the day, the surrounding streets were comparatively quiet. Exhausted workers slept, while behind closed doors and windows those who could not rest parked themselves in front of garrulous televisions or plied the Internet. Young lovers stole moments of intimacy where they could in a city where privacy was among the scarcer commodities. Elders contemplated how much their lives had changed in the preceding decades, much as elders have done since the time when their predecessors prowled for food in fields and jungles instead of massive grocery stores.
A nomadic distributor of such food was presently plying its lonely way among the district’s deserted streets and avenues. The ice-cream truck was squat and battered, and had visibly been heavily used. Its bells tinkled an oddly familiar melody while the intensity with which its headlights illuminated the surrounding streets and structures suggested hidden power quite out of keeping with its scruffy external appearance. Equally iconoclastic was the English- language sticker that decorated part of the truck’s rear bumper:
DECEPTICONS—SUCK MY POPSICLE
Out of the darkness a trio of powerful motorcycles came thundering. Their leather-clad female riders were beautiful, alluring, and as alike as identical triplets. Occasionally their outlines wavered like the advanced holograms they were. Though not real, they were all part and parcel of the single entity to which they belonged.
The lateness of the hour neither inhibited the two children who came running after the ice-cream truck nor diminished their desire for its produce. Waving yuan, the boy and girl tried desperately to intercept it. Short legs being no match for large tires, they were too late. Despite their imploring shouts they rapidly fell behind, slowed, and finally came to a discouraged and disappointed stop. Then the truck abruptly halted, turned, and with headlights dimmed came straight toward them.
Brother and sister, too startled to get out of the way, could only stare as the truck bore down on them. In the absence of an adult to snatch them up and carry them to safety, scream at them to run, or deliver any other instruction, they stood dumbly in the middle of the street and gaped at the oncoming vehicle. At the last possible instant the truck did the impossible: it split perfectly in half. As if mounted on individual gyroscopes, each section sped past the paralyzed children, one on each side. Whirling around to maintain eye contact, brother and sister became simultaneously aware of two subsidiary impossibilities. The more obvious one was that the two halves of the ice-cream truck had rejoined to once more become one. The other was that it had left in its wake a small mountain of Popsicles, Dreamsicles, drumsticks, and other frozen treats both imported and domestic. Instantly putting aside all thought of the magical vehicle that had nearly run them down, the delighted children piled into the stack of frozen treats with an enthusiasm that would have done their physical education instructors proud.
On another street, a speeding black semi was in the process of disgorging contents of a very different kind. No treats these, frozen or otherwise. The small Hummers it unloaded carried men clad in full hazmat gear. In addition to their protective clothing they bore a variety of cutting-edge search-and-seek instrumentation. They also packed weaponry designed to deal with whatever their searching might find. Their expressions matched their gear and reflected their determination.
Ice-cream–seeking children aside, the industrial complex was a hive of uncharacteristic nocturnal activity. Blackhawk choppers had joined the rapidly deploying hazmat teams and began to circle the district. They were backed up by Cobra gunships. Bigger copters of Russian design mounting heavier weapons formed still another line of aerial defense.
No shots were fired. No disinfecting elements were deployed. The increasing number of weapons- wielding arrivals worked in silence, searching for . . . targets. The men and women of several squads began to slip out of their bulky hazmat suits. The insignia on their uniforms identified them not as waste workers but as soldiers.
One such group preparing to exit a rapidly descending chopper was led by a somber-faced major who was better prepared than anyone else in the area to deal with the unknown possibilities it currently presented. Better prepared, that is, except for the master sergeant crouched beside him. As always, Epps had his iPod with him, but for once it was tucked away in a secured pocket. There was a time and a place for swaying to the music, and this particular night in industrial Shanghai was neither. Like Major William Lennox, the sergeant was all business. Behind them, highly trained troops readied themselves to follow the pair’s lead. Though they had been well briefed and given some idea what they might expect to encounter, all of them knew they would have to rely on the expertise of the two battle-hardened Americans.
Reaching up, Lennox gently repositioned his lightweight headset. “Break, all stations, this net: cordon and search. People’s Republic has put out an appropriate cover story, so the area should be clear of civilians. ‘Toxic spill’—had to evac the district for search and rescue. That’s us, ’cept for the ‘rescue’ part. Don’t need to restate how important this is—and how in all probability dangerous. Six sightings in eight months; gotta make sure this one does not get out in the public eye. ’Specially after Rome. So keep it tight and let’s make this operation as clean as possible.”
The chopper’s skids made a grinding sound as they touched down on the thick concrete.
“All right, everybody—let’s rock.”
Led by Lennox and Epps, the troops poured out of the copter and quickly spread out, keeping in contact while seeking cover. No one spoke. There was nothing more to be said, and any communication would come from their commanding officer and his assisting noncom.
Flipping the visor of his advanced headgear down over his eyes, Epps hastily activated its integrated radiation tracker. The heads-up display showed him what he expected to find, in spades.
“Lotta interference on this one,” he muttered to the man standing alongside him. “Gamma signature’s at four bars.”
“Four?” Lennox added something under his breath. “You gotta be kidding me. That’s not what we came for.”
Behind them, one of the team members offered his own assessment. “Either it’s cloaking its signal, like in Rome, or we’re getting echoes off all this heavy metal.”
Lennox nodded, pondering. Reaching a decision, he whispered sharply into his headset’s pickup. “Tell our four-by-four friend that he’s clear.”
A moment later another black truck appeared. A second squad of experienced soldiers scrambled out, the last one getting off just as the vehicle began to change shape. Bending, folding, rising into the night sky, it assumed the form of a familiar silhouette, scarred but unbowed. Taking a step forward, it crouched down wordlessly behind Epps and Lennox, looming over them. Neither man was intimidated by its proximity.
Quite the contrary.
Turning, Epps favored the new arrival with a welcoming nod. The metal giant responded with a slow nod of its own. Epps grinned knowingly.
“Let’s kick some alien ass.”
Lennox’s tone was disapproving. “Epps, you’re getting cocky.”