Operatives from China and Unified Korea are gathering escaped or stolen Russian and American genetics, and there are reports of new biological nightmares: half-human things, bred to live their entire lives encased in powered armor suits.
Stan fights to keep himself alive and out of prison while he attempts to capture a genetic, one who will be able to tell him everything he needs to know about an newer threat, the one called "Project Sunshine."
Chimera is the third and final volume of The Subterrene War Trilogy, which tells the story of a single war from the perspective of three different combatants. The first two volumes, GERMLINE and EXOGENE, are available now.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By T.C. McCarthy
OrbitCopyright © 2012 T.C. McCarthy
All right reserved.
I flew around the world,” said Bea. “All you can do is sit there?”
The waves crashed so that I flinched and checked for my carbine, forgetting that weapons weren’t allowed on leave. Thailand’s jungles were close. Mountains rose almost vertically behind us to leave only a sliver of beach, and while I thought Bea looked beautiful in her bikini, there was too much going on to admire her; palms bent in a strong wind and whispered, warning that the mountains weren’t done yet—that soon they would have me again and hadn’t forgotten what I’d brought to them, were ready to pay me back for introducing an abomination. This was intermission.
“It’s good to see you. I didn’t think they’d let anyone fly into Bangkok since things flared up.”
She shook her head. “What’s going on in this place, Stan? The Thais are at war with Rangoon; so why do they need you? I’m tired of sitting at home and only getting a week or two before you disappear for another six months.” Bea was crying now. I wanted to reach out and hold her hand or pull her in close because a part of me recalled that it was something she liked, the physical contact an instant reassurance, but my hands felt like lumps of lead.
“You know how it is,” I said. “The King asked for help, and I guess the US likes to stick with its friends.”
“Are you kidding? How about sticking by your wife? Can’t you just quit?”
The question made me nauseous and tense at the same time, and the sand breathed warmth under my legs, too warm, as if it had begun to smolder. “I can’t.”
“There’s nothing to fear. I eat this job, it makes me strong, and there’s no angle in leaving because this is where I belong. What else would I do?”
The seconds ticked by until I shrugged. “You don’t look like it.”
“I’ve been pregnant for a month.”
“I wasn’t home a month ago.”
“I know,” she said. “What’s funny is that I can’t remember his name, only that he wasn’t even my type. A scientist, some kind of genetic engineer working at the new production plant outside Winchester.”
Everything went blank. If she knew what happened when my mind went in that direction, Bea would have run because it meant nothing mattered except the mission. But there wasn’t any mission now, and instead, the ways I could kill her flicked though my mind along with rage and sadness—a sadness that grew from failure and irony that she’d hooked up with a scientist from the Winchester plant. Even the jungle blamed Winchester for what happened under its canopy. Feelings shredded my stomach. Sound came from between my lips, a kind of groan that coincided with a swing so that my fist almost connected with her cheek but stopped less than an inch away, and Bea smiled, satisfied that for once she’d been able to penetrate and that all it took was another guy. There wasn’t much time before my hands grabbed her neck; I knew it and she didn’t, so before anything more could happen, I jumped to my feet and began the job of killing every feeling I could. Shutting each one off mentally and stabbing any that threatened to get up and try for me again, but for some reason the sense of failure resisted the effort. Grew.
“I should get back to base.”
Her jaw dropped. “Are you crazy? I just told you I was pregnant and the kid’s not yours, and you have to leave?”
“I know, but it’s cool. I won’t ask for a divorce unless you want to.”
“You don’t know what they’re making in the Winchester plant, Bea; you haven’t seen their creations, so you couldn’t have known any better. But it’s OK. The jungle can’t get you here.”
I headed for the road, leaving my towel behind because it wasn’t critical for where I was going, and anyway, it couldn’t wipe off the sense of failure. So instead, I’d take care of Bea and her kid because she was right: I was never at home, and maybe if I stayed married, it would make up for everything.
“Stan!” she screamed.
But I was past the point of recognizing my name, and she just didn’t get it: there was no Stan. Not anymore. The jungle had taken him and would never let go, not for anything.
Dzhanga. Nobody wanted Dzhanga. Not even the flies that swarmed over the mud, buzzing so loudly that they sounded furious, angry to have been born from some corpse in the middle of central Asia, and maybe they wanted Dzhanga the least of all because for the flies there wasn’t any chance of seeing anything except Turkmenistan. Imagine that: living your entire life in a Turkmen slum, the high point of which would be finding the body of a rat in which to reproduce. At least I wasn’t a fly. But the Subterrene War had been over long enough that missions were hard to get, and I’d waited so long for this one that there was no way to turn it down, so they’d dropped me from thirty thousand feet, where I’d spiraled down and gone through layer after layer of clouds, descending on this—yet another stillborn Turkmen city, a gray-and-brown smear of humanity that clung to the banks of the Caspian and whose waters had become infected with the filth of people, a sheen of oil and scum visible as soon as I hit the five thousand foot mark and popped my chute. That had been a week ago. For a mission that was to have lasted three days, a week meant that this one was bad, that this chick wasn’t going down easy. But every step made me harder. Each day sharpened the edge. It didn’t worry me that I hadn’t found her yet and didn’t consider it a problem (although I knew they were shitting back at the outpost, wondering why it was taking so long) because the mission was my life, and those endless days on the rack, nights without air-conditioning on a hotel’s bug-ridden mattress with stains that hadn’t come from me—those were the hardest things to bear, so that a prolonged mission struck me as a vacation, like a dog must feel when you let it off the leash. When off duty and on standby, the world ate at your skin until you couldn’t wait anymore. You were supposed to stay in your hotel room, by the phone, because we didn’t carry cells and had no means of communication when off the line, no electronics at all and no indication that we belonged to the machine because we weren’t allowed anything regulation except weapons. No crew cuts, no uniform, and no salutes. To those crotch-rotting hookers back in Armenia, I was a businessman, some fool and a drunk, which until now had made me their best customer. But not anymore. She was out there, and it wouldn’t be much longer because something told me she had started to fade.
In the bag by week’s end, that was the deal, and you just knew this would be hairy because she was past discharge by more than six months, which meant the girl was supercharged and out there with no sense of reality, her world a kind of half hallucination where fear and death thoughts merged. Other cleanup crews wanted to split the job, but that wasn’t about to happen; alone was better. It took a special kind of solitude to hear the things I did and a wired mind to parse them until only valid information remained—little nuggets that most people would have missed because the fact that Dzhanga was a shit hole would have distracted them. Being alone meant everything was mine: Time. The wind. Smells especially. Even the dead Turkmen who stared at me, slumped against the side of his hut on the other side of the dirt track, with eyes that looked happy instead of surprised; those eyes stopped me cold because there wasn’t any reason to be happy. Not in Dzhanga. Not anywhere. He shouldn’t have even been there if you thought about it, should have left the city abandoned as the oil industry had a hundred years before, the way you’d toss a fifty at a bartender without looking back. So his happiness was information; it just wasn’t clear if it was useful information. I knelt in front of him and stared into his eyes, which had glazed over after dying, and I grabbed him by his long beard, touching his nose against my vision port so I could get a better look, maybe through his retinas and into his brain so it could tell me what made him smile. Why dying—when I’d fired four fléchettes into his skull—was so damn funny.
But there wasn’t anything to learn; instead, my armor vibrated in a strong wind, a reminder to keep moving. It wasn’t the standard-issue armor they handed to regulars, and I took care of it the same way you’d take care of anything that meant so much, because even though I hadn’t paid for it with money, I’d paid for it with time; it was my own design. Instead of the thick, green ceramic plates on normal suits, mine were thin, sand-colored ones sandwiching a millimeter of titanium. The joints consisted of a special polymer, rubber, and Teflon amalgamation that stayed quiet no matter how far I walked, preventing every plate from touching its neighbor with that annoying clicking sound, the one that would have gotten me killed a long time ago, the one that tunnel rats—subterreners and their genetically engineered girls, satos—repeated until dead.
It took a moment for my sniffer to process the area and then… nothing. Not a single useful thing came from the Turkmen, and aside from a few molecules of hydrocarbons, remnants detaching from the massive oil storage tanks that rusted behind me at the port, only dust filled the air.
“Negative,” the suit’s computer said, her voice that of a woman whom I had named Kristen, the same as my first girlfriend in high school. She told me what I already knew from the display, but she was wrong; the sato was out here.
“Clean?” I whispered. “Bullshit. She’s rotting. Close.”
My suit chimed, surprising me. “Priority transmission, Sergeant, with the proper authentication key for Rabbit Five; should I play it?”
Rabbit Five was my controller, Wheezer, across the Caspian and safe in Armenia, where he sat in a shack and monitored the occasional status burst from the suit, relayed via satellite to his tiny dish on the edge of a runway. “Sure,” I said.
Wheezer was laughing. “You want me to tell you where she is? I have her marked; your little angel got her three hours ago, and tracking is all green.”
He was messing with me. The angel, my targeting drone, flew somewhere overhead and saw everything, so it was just waiting to pipe the information into my system if I wanted it—the sato’s exact location—but somehow it would have been cheating. Wheezer knew how much I hated the drone; his question had been a joke, the one thing he knew would piss me off.
“Do you wish to respond?” Kristen asked.
“Negative. Don’t want to risk another burst.”
I scanned the area. The hut was part of a string of shacks that formed a small neighborhood near Dzhanga’s abandoned rail-transfer point, a station that tanker cars once used to fill themselves from hundreds of now-empty oil storage vessels, most of them ruptured and torn open from a long-forgotten war. When the wind blew through them, it moaned. An hour ago I had gotten my first hit, a single tone from my computer followed by the announcement, “Germline unit, reading above background,” which meant that the chick was nearby and ripe, her skin starting to liquefy, and if I was lucky, her vision had blurred, with both eyes a milky-white. For now, though, Kristen stayed quiet; my heads-up read ambient temperature and weather data.
“Not much longer,” I whispered and wiped a film of dust from both vision ports.
My headgear was custom. The helmet fit snugly so that a centimeter of space separated me from the ceramic, and the only way to open it was to pop it from the neck ring, then unbuckle it from the back so the entire assembly would open in a clamshell fashion, just like the suit’s chest carapace. The helmet was art. A guy in New York had designed it, doped up and high, but the result had been something that resembled the head of a wasp, with wide oval vision ports and an extended “snout” that contained an integral collector unit to receive data from microbots or any one of a hundred other tools I used. Underneath it all, my vision hood clung like a second skin, so tight that I couldn’t afford the luxury of a beard. Nobody ever accused me of being a subterrener, one of those who lived among the fungus and rock and who shit all over their legs because it was easier to just dump waste than to take care of it with a few steps to the nearest flush port; those men grew beards to cushion their cheeks from the rough canvas of the hoods and came out of their bunkers with the bewildered look of a thousand Rip van Winkles. It had been years since I’d fought underground, and my suit told everyone that its occupant was a specialized thing, not to be used in tunnels or hangars. The hood underneath was the final piece, one last thing to set me apart from conscripts and those with the tired careers of lifers and superlifers; it had front magnetic claws that clicked into the sensor package on my helmet, which, in turn, sent data to my goggle lenses, a continuous heads-up feed of information that included chem-bio readings and the ticker for nitrogen compounds, explosives, or the real deal: rotting, human flesh.
Soon, the dead Turkmen would interfere with my sensors.
I dragged the body into the man’s hut, glanced around to make sure there was nobody there, and then shut the door so I could look through the crack—when the computer chimed again.
“Priority message, Sergeant, keyed to a general emergency frequency.” But this time she didn’t ask for approval, since it was priority, and piped it in.
“Challenge-echo, challenge-echo, challenge-echo. Echo-seven-six…”
I waited for the numbers to rattle off. “Go ahead, Wheez.”
“Subterrene War’s over, Bug. It’s official.”
“The war ended months ago when the Russians pulled out. That’s why Command wanted me to break radio silence?”
“No,” said Wheezer, “it means that we’re all being recalled. President just gave the order to pull in every man from the east and let the girls rot. We’re to go after them in Europe and friendly countries, but they want us out of the hot spots now. Something to do with the Chinese. Pickup at primary retrieval at oh six, tomorrow.”
Now I was angry, and to hell with whoever might be zeroing in on my location, triangulating on the open transmission; I almost saw the radio waves, a huge neon arrow pointing down at me from the sky. “I have one betty out here somewhere. There’s signs everywhere, and she can’t be far. I get readings every once in a while. I’ll come in when she’s dead.”
But Wheezer wasn’t listening anymore, and the radio stayed quiet. I flicked on my chameleon skin and slid out the door, shutting it behind me and wincing when the sound of children floated up the road from the main town to the north.
You wouldn’t have seen me. The goatherds never did, and it was funny because I knew all these Turkmens so well while none of them knew me. The kids had come close—once—to finding my hiding spot in the scrub, buried under a thin layer of sand and goat dung, because they had been playing soccer, and one of them kicked into my face, sending their ball on a wild bounce when it should have kept going straight. The kid who chased it down had almost died then; but he went on his way, and none of them knew how close it had been. The chameleon skins had been the greatest invention of the century, a polymer coating that—if you maintained it—would bend light, allowing the suit’s wearer to blend with the surroundings. Now the kids were at least a hundred yards away but heading toward me, so I sprinted across the road and lost sight of them as soon as I entered the rail yard.
“Probable Germline unit detected,” Kristen announced, “readings well above baseline, concentration gradient bearing two-seven-nine-point-eight.”
And everything went still. The map blinked onto my display and I moved out, charting a silent course through the concrete-and-steel wreckage, a forest of towering oil tanks that had been blown to create a twisted still life, huge flaps of rusted steel that fluttered just a bit in strong gusts. The sun gave the air a kind of shimmer that happened in the third world. It was hazy with maybe a little smoke and dust so that you knew if you popped lid there’d be a strong smell of sulfur and alcohol from the power plants, maybe an occasional whiff of ozone from the fusion reactors and generators. She’d be on the other side of the next tank; her red dot beckoned to me, begged me to come in. I rounded the concrete base, my carbine already pointed in her direction… and she disappeared before I could get a bead.
“This is crap.”
“Target lost,” Kristen said.
She’d gone to ground. My mind screamed at the prospect of having to follow, shouted that there shouldn’t be a tunnel, not this close to the sea where the water table would be high, and that it must be a sort of optical illusion, but it wasn’t. The entrance opened in front of me, a wide concrete wall, in the middle of which was a black hole, square and waiting, daring me to go to the one place I hated: underground.
“Damn it,” I said, trying to convince myself that it would be easy, and went in.
My vision hood switched to infrared at the same time I stepped in a kind of soft goo or thick water; then I knew what this was—a sewer, carrying the city’s filth to the sea—and that by the end of the mission I’d be covered with waste. My external mics picked up her breathing now, amplified it and homed in, the display telling me which direction to head, but it didn’t need to. She was there. The betty had backed against a wall to face me less than ten meters from where I stood, and she was missing one arm below the elbow. I flicked on my helmet lamp and switched back to normal vision, deactivating the suit’s chameleon skin so she could see me.
The girl smiled. “I want to live.”
“That’s going to be a problem.”
“I’m unarmed. In Turkmenistan. Look.”
She raised both hands. One was a stump that dripped blood, and the skin above it had turned a deep black, boiling with infection and rot, and her one remaining hand didn’t look much better. The girl’s left eye had gone white, and she must have flipped because she started toward me, a rotting zombie of a genetic, all of about eighteen.
“Are you here from God?”
I backed toward the entrance, centering my targeting reticle on her forehead. “Where have you been, and who helped you escape? Kristen, record this.”
“Are you God?”
“You’re hallucinating,” I said. “It’s the spoiling. Your mind and body are breaking down, consuming themselves because you’ve reached the end of your shelf life. Try to keep it together. I need you to answer a couple of questions, and it will all be over.”
“People don’t have shelf lives.”
“You aren’t people. We created you; people made you.”
“Are you God?”
“Who helped you escape?” I screamed, knowing that in a second she’d go for me, and when she took another step closer, I decided to get it over with. The fléchettes cracked through her skull, and she dropped into the sewage, face-first, making it easy for me to dig the tracking device from her neck. Kristen chimed up when I scanned it.
“Unit one-three-two-seven-four-nine. Given name of Allison. Terminated postschedule. Transmitting.”
I hiked back outside to let the scum slide down my legs, hoping it would dry and dreading the smell that would hit once I took off my helmet.
The sun started to set on the horizon, and from the tank farm I had a good view of it over the Caspian so that I rested my back against a block of concrete, lay my carbine across my legs, and began to peel off my helmet—not even caring when the stink assaulted me. As soon as I lit the first cigarette, it all melted away. The mission was over. From there I’d motor across the sea into Armenia, then board transport back to the States until I got the next call, Wheezer and me grinning at each other as we ran across some tarmac and onto a waiting transport. Missions were the reason to live, the only things worth doing, and Wheezer was a good partner to have.
It wasn’t clear how I’d make it, having to wait for the next one, because I’d been home once in the last three years. And home didn’t work for me anymore.
“No,” I said.
“Are you sure?” the kitchen asked. Its computer sounded arrogant, made me want to put a fist through the wall and find its circuits, rip them out one by one to taunt the thing, and let it know that the end was near. “Egg yolks contain harmful cholesterol. Medical records indicate a thirty percent chance that your arteries could become dangerously obstructed within the next ten years.”
I shut off the voice function and sighed. Home. Beatrice had relocated to one of the reclamation sites, a frontier city in the west, the region hardest hit by the years of war and famine, an old city that the government was trying to repopulate. It was a second front of sorts. Fighting for peace meant fighting against nature and the aftereffects of nuclear war, and someone in the government thought that by plopping down a few thousand people to stake its claim that maybe things would take care of themselves. It had been three weeks since I’d first returned, and already I was sliding down into my thoughts, drowning, so that when the call had come at 3 a.m., I nearly laughed out loud. But that would have woken her and the kid, and I didn’t want her to see me so happy—relieved that I’d be heading back out on a new mission.
You could cross our apartment in ten steps, and it had a tiny kitchen plastered with advertisements for the marvels of self-contained living—like the one above the sink, a sticker declaring that the Government Omni-Unit was smaller, more efficient, and less expensive to install than other modular brands. I rinsed the measuring cup. The moisture collectors came to life, humming like trapped hornets to remind me that in the west, life existed on a knife’s edge, where reuse wasn’t just a slogan but something that could mean the difference between having enough water or not. I unbuttoned my uniform tunic and smoothed it over a chair to make sure that I didn’t get it dirty while cooking. Then I shivered, not wanting to think about water, and switched the voice back on.
“… And the use of butter for cooking is ill-advised both from health and rationing perspectives. Your allotment for the month is almost gone, Sergeant Resnick.”
Half an hour later, the alarms went off in both racks. Phillip emerged first. He bounced out of his bed as I watched, and like a kid, the boy didn’t bother to say anything before he plopped in front of the holo station, where he swayed back and forth and ran both hands through the projections.
“Use less, want less,” he sang with a commercial. “Less waste means more for space. Opportunity is what we make of it!”
“Good morning, Master Phillip,” the kitchen said. “Today’s a big day for your father.”
I stiffened at the reminder, wondering if Phillip would know it meant I’d be leaving, and watched Beatrice pull herself out of bed.
“Jesus.” She moved to the side and waited for the master rack to retract into its wall. “I’m still exhausted. You’re up early.”
“I got the call last night. Deployment’s in an hour.”
“So that’s it.”
I flipped the last omelet and lowered the heat on the stove. “That’s it. You and the kid need money, Bea. It’s the only job I know.”
She lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling. “We moved here last year. I had to lie and tell them that it was for patriotic reasons, wanting to reclaim the west, all that kind of bullshit. Really it was because they pay a hardship stipend, extra money because of the radiation danger, and what you give us isn’t enough. Not nearly.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that I don’t care if you stay or not. I just want to know why you do it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why go out and kill like you do? Why take all those risks? It would be nice to know, so that when you’re dead—and Phillip starts asking questions—I can tell him why.”
It was hard to even think; an empty bottle of bourbon rested on the counter beside me, and I marveled at the fact that so little had already muddled my brain. It never used to work that fast.
“It’s good,” I said, ignoring the urge to remind her that technically I wasn’t his father. “I like that you came down here. To help. Even if it was for the money, you’re still helping to make sure that we head in another direction, that we don’t go back to worse times.”
Phillip turned from the holo, just for a moment, to look at me while quoting another line. “We don’t want to go back to those days!”
“So you’re not going to answer,” Beatrice said.
“I don’t know why you’re complaining. Wheezer called earlier. Both he and Michelle went to Canada for vacation, and things are better up there, the whole corridor from Pennsylvania to Chicago filled with industries gearing up to process the metals we brought back from Kaz. Tell him that’s why I do it. That’s why I kill. And those factories will be ready once metals start coming in from space, once they get an engine that can handle mining missions.”
“Have you gotten your things together?” she asked.
“Stop trying to change the subject.”
“I’m not trying to change the subject!”
Phillip froze at the holo station, and I could tell he was too scared to turn around. What did I feel? My mind spun in circles, looking for something that it suspected should be there, some feeling of concern for the kid, maybe even a little for Beatrice, but either it wasn’t there or it had been buried so deep that I couldn’t find it anymore. I didn’t feel anything—nothing except the bourbon and some relief that soon I’d be gone.
“Voice-pattern recognition,” the kitchen said, “indicates a sixty-seven percent probability of an impending domestic disturbance. Shall I notify authorities, Mrs. Resnick?”
I glared at the speaker. You could turn it off again, but that wouldn’t deactivate the apartment’s audio pickups. Nothing could shut down those, and even if you wanted to deactivate them, you wouldn’t know where they all were. Right after I’d returned, I found a microphone under our rack, but the entire unit was wired because that’s how it was supposed to work, and I’d never find them all. They trusted me with a lot but only so far. The military had already dealt with enough veterans who had gone psycho and killed their families or who had put a bullet in their own brains, so the idea was that close monitoring could nip things in the bud. Of course, nobody in DC had to worry about monitoring. The land of politicians would be safe from everything, and the last thing the government wanted was to spy on itself.
“No,” she said. “No need for the authorities.”
I grabbed my tunic, shrugged it on, and buttoned it, then lowered the omelet to the table in front of her. “I have to go. I can’t be late for pickup.”
It was best just to leave without saying anything else, so I headed for the door, stumbling a little and catching myself on the wall, when Phillip asked where I was going.
“He’s going to work,” said Bea.
I paused, thinking about turning around and giving him a hug, but it wouldn’t do any good, wouldn’t change anything. “Bye, kid.”
“Sergeant Resnick,” said the kitchen, “your family is so proud of you!”
In the hallway, I broke into a sweat. The sun had risen, and as I trudged down the stairwell, wind threatened to open rattling doors that lined each side of the corridor. I tried to avoid the dwellings, which were vacant except for lingering ghosts. Unit after unit went by, their name placards either covered with grit or swinging on one fastener, and I couldn’t help but read the names in passing—Eleanor, Gillespi, Capozzi, and O’Leary—names that meant nothing to me in terms of personal knowledge, but which hung on my shoulders because I was a soldier and so they blamed me for their deaths. Each one was an additional weight, lead bricks that couldn’t be jettisoned until I burst onto the street, gasping for air.
Bea’s building was identical to the blocks of housing units that stretched for miles in either direction, and it made me wonder why I hadn’t remembered what they looked like, despite having walked in and out every day for the past few weeks, and yet for some reason they were as unfamiliar now as when I’d first arrived. Concrete and narrow windows formed a never-ending series of bunkers, and empty pigeons’ nests tucked into broken sashes fluttered, as if announcing that even birds didn’t want to live there anymore. This was Dzhanga again. I lowered myself to the curb and shook, cursing myself for having shown up too early for pickup because now all I could do was wait, think about what was going to happen, and do my best not to find a bar.
“You’re approximately twenty minutes early for the crawler, Sergeant Resnick.” The voice echoed in the empty street from speakers mounted on tall poles next to cameras.
“It’s good to be eager.”
“How would you know?”
But the government system didn’t have an answer for that one. I lit a cigarette and blew it toward the camera.
A few minutes later it spoke again, almost at the same time the sky darkened; I looked up to see clouds of red dust on the horizon, boiling in. “Looks like the first sandstorm of the season.”
“I’d say so.”
“Don’t count on it, though, Sergeant Resnick. The wind might die after all. To remain occupied I often incorporate data from stations all over the nation and make local weather predictions, which I then compare to those of dedicated semiaware weather-modeling systems. Did you know that my answers are the same as theirs, within error?”
“No,” I said, wishing I could deactivate the voice on the street or somehow choke it into submission. “I suppose not.”
“My operators encourage this as a redundancy. Weather modeling is a key to reestablishment in abandoned zones, and once successful in changing things for the better, we don’t want to go back to those days.”
“Were you around in those days?” I asked.
The thing had to think for a second. “No.”
“Then how do you know that going back would be bad?”
It had no answer, and I grinned. “Thought so.”
The dust storm, I figured, would hit any minute, and I watched it approach—a wall of radioactive sand that looked as high as the buildings themselves—and it threatened to force me back inside, to wait with Bea and Phillip. But something was speeding at the front of it. A speck of black grew into the shape of a crawler, its high-speed tracks kicking up twin fountains of crud as it headed toward me. It squealed to a stop, the rear hatch lowered, and a corporal hopped out, speaking at the same time he waved a hand scanner over my wrist tattoo.
“I carry priority orders from Special Operations Command. You’re to report with me to Phoenix terminal for transport and assignment.”
“Where am I headed after that?”
“I don’t have that information, Sarge.”
Special Ops Command. SOCOM. The corporal ushered me into the crawler at the same time the storm hit, so that just before our driver gunned the engine, I heard the patter of grit outside. I tried one last time, to see if I’d miss them—Bea and Phillip—but still there was nothing. There had to be something wrong with me, but damned if I could figure it out, and it didn’t matter anyway; I’d be gone within forty-eight hours with other things to worry about.
“Nice visit?” the corporal asked.
“Bet you can’t wait to get back home again.”
I shook my head. “I’m not coming back. I’d forgotten how shitty the central-monitoring computers are.”
“Well, we don’t want to go back to those days,” the corporal said without even realizing it, and I almost slammed him against the bulkhead.
“Another sato. Another day.” Wheezer sat next to me in a beat-up eco job, the recycled plastic kind with an electric motor and two seats. A computer tablet sat on his lap. “Jesus, I hate these urban ops; give me a suit’s computer any day. It’s friggin’ daytime.”
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Two blocks up, on the left, three-slash-two-to-four. Pine Street. The locals know we’re here, right?”
I nodded, pulling the car into an empty slot—far enough away from the target that we shouldn’t be noticed, but in position to get a good view. “Briefed ’em this morning. They’re glad to have us so they don’t have to deal with them.”
“You see the news?” asked Wheezer.
“Chinese entered Burma—invited in by the Burmese—and spooked everyone in Thailand. Bangkok may go to hell any day now.”
I shook my head, an imaginary whiff of jungle somehow overriding the smell of the car, elbowing its way into my head and making me shiver. “Emigration?”
“Not yet,” said Wheezer, “but the Thais are expecting it and maybe some rioting. Soon. None of them want to be there if the Burmese have China helping this time. I wouldn’t have brought it up, but… you know. Everything that happened there.”
I nodded. The memory of my last tour in the bush was enough to make me crawl with the feeling that everything was wrong until I pushed the thoughts out, forcing myself to focus on the present. There’d be time to quit, I figured, before things went south in Thailand, and there was no reason to think they’d send us there anyway.
We saw Manly Beach from our spot. How’d she make it this way—to Australia of all places? It didn’t matter if I figured it out or not—the betty would wind up like the others—but I’d never been this far from a war zone to track one down. People laughed as they walked by our car, headed for the sand, some of them carrying surfboards and all of them oblivious to what had infested their corner of the world. If we did it right, they’d never know.
“Movement,” said Wheezer, my signal to lift a pair of field glasses and aim them at the windows.
She had one blind up, peering through the narrow crack that formed so that I could see those eyes, a deep blue like some exotic berry broken by a pinpoint of black pupil. There was another window nearby, and its blinds flickered too.
“There’s two of them. Didn’t intel say there was only one?”
Wheezer shook his head. “Friggin’ intel. This isn’t good, Bug.”
I thought for a second, reaching for the ignition button and still staring through the binoculars when the first one looked directly at me. “We’re burned,” I said, cursing myself for parking too close. Sloppy.
“Let’s get the hell out,” Wheezer said, yanking a fléchette pistol from his shorts. “Now.”
I had just put the car into reverse when the passenger window shattered. Wheezer didn’t have time to react. One of them had snuck up behind us, must have already been on the street, and punched through the glass as if it were paper. She slammed her fist into Wheezer’s temple and his head went limp, falling against my shoulder before I grabbed the pistol from his hand, kicked open my door, and rolled into the street.
Her figure blurred when she slid over the back of the car, toward me, barely giving me enough time to think, God, this one is fast. My fléchettes snapped through her torso; tiny spots of blood appeared on her white T-shirt as the needles worked their way upward, bursting through her neck and forcing her to the asphalt.
My car trunk didn’t want to work. I slammed my fist on it, working the key until eventually it gave, everything moving in slow motion. Grenade launcher, I thought. Where is the fucking grenade launcher? I lifted it, resting the barrel on the top of the car, running through a list in my head: blinds open now; movement; they are still there.
The first grenade detonated when it hit glass, sending shards everywhere so that people in the street screamed, running for cover while I fired a second, a third, and then kept going until the clip chimed empty. Speed was important now—to clean up before the chicks had a chance to scatter into the sewers or wherever else, making it that much harder for us to track them down, if we ever found them again at all. I grabbed the carbine, a special model without a hopper but three thousand fléchettes in a banana clip that angled upward. The weapon was short for tight spaces.
My legs didn’t move as fast as I wanted them to and crossing the street seemed like it took an hour, the apartment steps endless. I wasn’t afraid, didn’t feel anything except a vague notion that the movement carried me into a zone where it all clicked by the numbers, the knowledge that everything was as it should be, making the next few seconds smooth.
The door splintered when I kicked it, and I sprayed the room, moving forward in a crouch. It got quiet then. A siren blared in the distance, getting louder, and it took me a second to realize that they were all dead: three satos on the floor and splayed in different poses, with expressions of surprise on their faces as if the grenades had shredded their minds—before they had a chance to figure things out. By the time I made it back to the car, the first local cop had already arrived.
“They were genetics?” he asked.
I nodded. “Three in the flat, one on the street. Shredded.”
He looked at Wheezer and shook his head. “I already checked him. He’ll be out for a bit but should be OK. Nothing that won’t mend.”
“Yeah.” I tossed the carbine into the trunk, then slid into the driver seat, trying not to say anything that would show how glad I was that she hadn’t killed him. “But he missed all the fun.”
The car didn’t want to accelerate and whined as if it were angry that it had to move. I hated the things. Wheezer was right: screw urban ops; give me the steppes or the jungle—the night—where we’d play the game our way with microbots and air support, would get to carry our weapons in the open instead of having to lock them in the trunk. Even walking across Turkmenistan would have been better then being trapped in a plastic box because at least out there you’d have a combat suit.
The mission hadn’t ended. I thought we’d get the recall notice as soon as we got back to the hotel, by which time Wheezer had come to, but instead of the regular phone call, we got orders to head to the Sydney desalination plant south in Cronulla. Cronulla. It was the kind of place where immigrants wound up, a rats’ nest forming the working-class slums of Sydney, a megacity that was more Asian than anything else, and every night we heard gunfire from the battles raging between Korean and Japanese gangs—the product of a decades-old war and famine that had spread from east Asia to the entire Pacific. We drove through a Korean neighborhood on the way to the plant, and I marveled at the front yards, none of which had a blade of grass or a shrub. Each lawn had been replaced by a concrete apron, some decorated by imitation stone statues, but most contained groups of young men who stared at us as we passed, their eyes indifferent to who we were as long as it was obvious that neither of us was Japanese. Finally we crested a hill and turned east toward the ocean. In front of us we saw the entire shore, on which rocks and sand had been taken over by fusion power plants interspersed with desalination units, and even from that distance, we heard the hum of the switchyards and throbs of pumps, struggling to convert the salt water into something that could support Sydney’s bursting population.
What had happened here and in the States? It had gone down so long ago that even the living among us—ones who could remember when Kazakhstan had been an unknown land or when Sydney had been a safe city—hadn’t been alive before the Asian Wars, and everyone had to rely on the claims in history books. Either you believed them or you didn’t. What nobody denied, though, was that the world was fucked up so badly by limited nuclear exchanges that even though I hadn’t ever been to Sydney or Cronulla, the air itself hummed at the wrong frequency, like the earth had a bad case of the nerves and could snap at any minute. It put everyone on edge. Projects like the ones to reclaim the west back home or to establish desalination along Australia’s east coast, these were Band-Aids, maybe just psychological ones, designed to assure the public that what could be done was being done and that if everyone could just hold out until space colonization and mining went large scale—well, then everything would be just fine.
We turned into the plant, where an armed guard ushered us through, and I pulled up to a group of Australian soldiers who helped us from the car.
One of them introduced himself. “Lieutenant Grimes, Sergeant. Sorry to have your people call you out after your mission.”
“It’s all right, but they were light on the details. What’s going on?”
“We don’t know. We found a bunch of dead bodies in a boat moored to the desalination plant’s pier.”
I shrugged. “So? Call the cops.”
“We did. They told us about your party in Manly this morning and referred us to your SOCOM liaison. That’s when you got the call.”
“You think this is related?” asked Wheezer.
The lieutenant nodded. “You’d better come with us; it might be easier to just show you. We found a boat that came in a few days ago. From Vietnam.”
We followed him through the plant. Five men surrounded us in half combat gear consisting of a chest plate and bucket helmet that concealed their faces, but for some reason they kept scanning from side to side, with Maxwell carbines ready to go. The Australians’ weapons were similar to the American version: a coil gun with a flexi-belt that fed thousands of fléchettes from a shoulder-mounted hopper, but it made me wonder. What was going on? They were acting skittish, as if expecting an ambush, and I began to suspect that we should have brought our own weapons.
Our path wound through the plant, which swallowed us amid its pipe galleries and buildings, the noise of machinery punctuated by an occasional hiss when steam valves opened to relieve pressure. Everything was light blue. The color, I supposed, had been chosen for some reason, maybe to put the plant’s workers at ease, but the only indication of a worker we saw was a glimpse of a figure, which soon disappeared and left me sure I was seeing things; even the poor lighting showed that his features were Asian, and I assumed that this was where the Japanese had found jobs. It must have been a hell of a commute. The Japanese had settled downtown near the university, and so it explained why the Koreans had watched us as we passed, since they would have been wary of anyone on their way to the plants.
Five minutes passed, and still nobody had said anything. It was as if an unspoken signal had been exchanged between us, that something was way off with this place, and when we climbed a metal ladder to mount one of the jetties, the boat and the ocean came into view, making me sigh with relief. The boat was old, though. Rusty. Japanese lettering declared its name, under which had been hand painted in white, The Golden Flower. It looked like an old fishing boat, and I wondered how it had made the trip all the way from Vietnam to Sydney, but something was wrong with the craft, and it took me a second to place it.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the pilothouse. Its windows were shattered, and something had been smeared across the white paint.
“Blood,” the lieutenant said. “We think your girls arrived on her, killed the crew, and took off.” He gestured for us to board ahead of him. “After you.”
“You sure this is safe?” Wheezer asked.
The lieutenant nodded. “We checked the plant and rechecked it, so the workers are terrified right now and think we’re going to arrest half of them. So it’s safe.”
“You’re not coming on board?” I asked.
“Nah, mate. I’ve seen it.” He handed Wheezer a holo camera. “Your SOCOM people wanted it recorded. We’ll take you to the American liaison in Sydney when you’re ready to transmit.”
We boarded the ship on its ladder, which creaked under my weight; I prayed it wouldn’t give, and the smell of hot guts filled the air, strong enough that even the evening breeze couldn’t remove it completely. Dried blood covered the deck and bulkheads. Two dead Japanese lay near the bow, their necks snapped and their bodies lying where they had been thrown, heads turned at impossible angles, and a third was at the wheel, his throat slit. All of them had been there for some time, and the air buzzed with the noise of bottle flies, laying their eggs as quickly as they could until I couldn’t think about it without feeling like I had to get out.
“They’ve been dead for a while,” Wheezer said, filming everything.
“And satos definitely did this,” I said, nodding. “They painted a cross in blood on one of the doors.”
“How could it have been here for this long unreported?”
I shook my head. “If this was some screwed-up Japanese smuggling op, I doubt the plant workers wanted to get near it. Nobody would want to stick their nose out and bring down the law or worse.”
“Bug, this is messed up.”
“Why?” I asked.
He shut the camera off. “When was the last time SOCOM cared about some dead Japanese smugglers? Why would anyone smuggle satos to Australia anyway? And why were the betties you wiped in such good shape; why weren’t they rotting like the rest of them?”
I didn’t have the answers. Nobody ever paid me to be a detective, and I had the same questions he did, unable to shake the feeling that the boat had been cursed and understanding now why the Australians had been so edgy: it didn’t add up. The body at the wheel had bloated into the caricature of a human, his eyes covered by swarms of black flies.
“I don’t know. But we did what they wanted, so let’s get the hell out of here.”
I had stepped back onto the deck and was heading for the ladder when Wheezer called out.
“I’m going to pull the ship’s records, Bug. To see if maybe there’s something on the logs that might give us a better idea.”
I swung onto the ladder and had just begun to tell him to let the Aussies handle it when it happened. Wheezer had gone back into the main cabin and was staring at me through the broken window when he leaned over the boat’s main console to reach for the log-file chits. A second later there was a flash, a moment of curiosity as I flew backward toward the plant, and then darkness after I collided with something solid. When I came around, nobody had to tell me; the chits had been rigged to blow when pulled, and nobody on board could’ve survived that blast.
The Australians did what they could for me, but I wasn’t staying in their hospital and grabbed my street clothes to hit the road as soon as the doctors turned their backs. I bought five bottles of scotch on the way back to my hotel. Wheezer’s hotel. Although the bandages were tight around my head, blood must have soaked through; guards in the lobby stopped me and asked to see my room chit, then escorted me all the way up to make sure I was OK.
Wheezer’s things were still there. I didn’t bother with a glass and cracked open the first bottle, turning it up to let scotch wash in, burning my throat at the same time I willed it to burn away his memory and my brain. My wife and her son. There was feeling in me for Wheezer because he had watched out for me over the years and we’d shared the same missions, walked the same dirt, and had both decided that the real world was for fucks, a crazy house that had mixed up what was important with what was garbage. But nothing for my family. You could give a guy like Wheezer the name of a Kazakh town, and he’d just nod because there wasn’t any need to explain; he’d either been there during the action or had heard all about it. Bea wouldn’t have understood even if I tried to tell her why we did it, why we’d been cursed with an addiction. Being on a job was like having the shades pulled up by God so he could scream at you, See, you stupid little sacks; see what matters more than a paycheck or the day’s grocery ration? You whored with Turkmen women because to hell with it; tomorrow might not happen. You dove into the fight because someday you might need someone else to do it for you. Being shown the truth like that was like having a one-way ticket to Mars, and once you stepped on board, there wasn’t a return flight to the real world. Wheezer had dug that one too.
His memory didn’t leave until the second bottle, and after that I called an escort. At about the same time she showed up, I opened the third bottle, then paid her to get lost after figuring out I was too drunk for anything to work right, and when she shut the door, it all hit at once, the fact that Wheezer was gone. The chair was an easy choice. It sailed through the closest window, and I giggled as I leaned out over the sill, my hands gripping it as hard as they could, daring it to hurt, searching for broken glass on which to cut themselves. It took a few seconds for the chair and glass shards to shatter on the street below, and someone flipped me off, so I sent out a second chair, then my empty bottles. Someone would come for me soon, I figured. With only a matter of minutes before the cops showed up, I chugged the last two bottles and began wrapping my hands, which had somehow escaped being cut. But maybe they weren’t my hands. Instead of hurting they were numb, as if the pair were attached to my wrists but had failed at birth to connect via nerves. How many people had these hands killed, anyway? Maybe it would be better to have none at all; maybe it was because of them that I couldn’t get back to the real world, the one where Bea lived.
The first cop didn’t bother with a key and burst through the door so the frame splintered, and by then I was naked anyway, no clothing except for a new bandage around my head, fashioned from the bedsheets. He stumbled upon seeing me. Even drunk I saw the opening and kicked him in the groin, wondering how it was that he could stand there like that when there was an insane man in front of him. How could he give me such an opening? His partner came in then, and behind him I saw a team. Twenty of the bastards had gathered in the hallway, their uniforms making them look like crossing guards instead of police. One of them hit me with a nonlethal, a tiny needle that sounded like a bee when it slammed into my chest, injecting a dose of tranquilizer that was supposed to put me to sleep, but all it did was piss me off.
Before I knew it, one of them hit the ground, and I stood over his back about to snap his neck when the rest of them boiled into my room, slamming their clubs into my head, making me even more angry. What had I ever done to them? They said things but none of it made sense, and the nonlethal must have grabbed hold because everything moved in slow motion and a soft glow came from their faces as they handcuffed me and wheeled me out on a gurney.
I went through the lobby like that. Naked. And laughing at a limousine that had just arrived to dump a pair of newlyweds at the hotel, but then another fight broke out. Not physical, but it looked like the newlyweds were two men, guys in suits, who poked their fingers in the cops’ faces and gave them a real chewing out. It was over before I realized it. And rather than being loaded into the police van, the newlyweds threw me into their limousine.
“Sergeant Resnick?” one of them asked.
“Yeah. But I’m tired. They hit me with a nonlethal of some kind. Can’t see straight.”
“We’re sorry to hear about your partner, Sarge,” the other one said.
“Yeah. Me too. He was the eye in the back of my head, monitored the angel, you know?” They both nodded, and I tried to focus but my eyesight was wavering too badly. “You two just married?”
They looked at each other. “You sure you’re OK, Sarge? Maybe they hit you too hard.”
“We’re not married. We came to pick you up and have orders; you’ve been reassigned to Strategic Operations and promoted to lieutenant. It wasn’t supposed to happen until tomorrow, but the embassy’s been keeping a close eye on things, and when they heard about the cops…”
“Wow,” I said, “you guys came fast.”
“Fast? Lieutenant, you held the cops off for an hour and put four in the hospital.”
There wasn’t anything to say. The words registered, and I did my best to make a mental note that whatever they had shot me with didn’t mix with alcohol, had rocketed me past screwed up and into a mental time warp.
“I’ve never heard of Strategic Operations,” I said, but they were already gone, along with the limo.
Someone wheeled me up the loading ramp onto a transport plane, and next to me the engines roared to life, spitting and whining as the rotors turned, and the smell of precious kerosene synthetic wafted over my nose, making me grin. The gurney locked to the floor, and a Navy medic hovered over me. I felt a pinprick. Then he hung a saline bag, which made me feel better almost immediately, taking the edge off a headache that came out of nowhere and threatened to get worse.
“I never heard of Strategic Operations either, LT,” he said.
“Whose an LT?”
“You are, sir. That’s what your records say.” He showed me the flexi-tab, my name and image floating in the middle of off-green plastic. “See. Lieutenant Stanley Resnick, along with all your physical data. The rest looks classified.”
“Where are we headed?”
He shrugged. “Not my business to know.”
“Well, I’m in the shit now.”
“What do you mean?”
But I’d already started ignoring him because he was worthless. The cold air made my skin tingle, and when the aircraft started pulling takeoff g’s, I nearly vomited with the sensation of weight, a weight that terrified me for a moment because it wouldn’t leave, just like the one I’d felt in Bea’s apartment building.
Wheezer was dead. It should have still bothered me, but the bottles I’d had in the hotel and the scrape with the police had been just the right mix to purge any emotion. And one other thing helped: this had to be a new mission. It was the one reason they’d have rescued me from such a monumental screwup and then promoted me.
Only the high brass thought that way.
Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. By the time the plane landed, the medic had produced a new uniform for me, complete with second lieutenant’s bars, and when I started getting my first salutes, they hit me like insults. And my head had swelled, literally, from the beating. There was nothing I could do about the bruises, and when the guy asked if I wanted to shave before debarking, I looked in the mirror. Both eyes were black. My hair stuck out in all directions, and my beard had grown in, but I’d never been much at growing facial hair and so it stuck out in patches, lending me the appearance of a prophet or homeless guy—maybe both. I decided the look was perfect for meeting with brass. Besides, we played by different rules, right? Operators were supposed to look nongovernment issue, and if it weren’t for the uniform, I doubt anyone would have let me on the base.
Still, I was uneasy; being called to Florida was unusual. In fact, it almost never happened. My driver didn’t say anything. He picked me up at the air station, the guy focusing on the road until we had driven for so long that I fell asleep and woke about six hours later when we approached an installation I didn’t recognize, and it surprised me that he didn’t even have to stop at the gate. The sentries must have seen something on his car; they got ready to challenge but instead backed away with a salute, and when we got out, my driver ushered me through a doorway and into an elevator. Down into the earth. My palms started to sweat, the seconds ticking by and my brain orbiting a singular thought, trying to factor the chances of a cave-in. The doors opened onto a conference room, and my escort ushered me in.
An admiral, a Navy captain, and a Marine brigadier sat around a small mahogany table, and my CO, Colonel Momson, motioned for me to have a seat next to him. When the door slid shut, the admiral grinned.
“Nice work in Sydney,” he said. “Shame about your teammate, but four kills is good and these things happen.”
Screw you, I thought. Who were these guys? Had any of them ever been in the field for any reason other than to spend six weeks at some rear base, just to have their tickets punched so they could claim they’d “seen” combat? He was right, these things did happen, but he said it as though he understood, and I doubted he knew anything except how to kiss ass and make JCS, or maybe he knew things happened because he had ordered so many people like Wheezer to their death—all from the safety of this bunker. “Yes, sir. They happen.”
“Admiral,” the captain said, “before we get started, I want to reiterate what I said before, that this is a job my guys can do. Christ, if we hadn’t stepped in, this guy would be rotting in some Sydney prison with Japanese gangsters.”
The admiral lit his pipe. “Really, Mike? Like your group in Uzbekistan? How many you lose during that recovery operation? Ten? Twenty?”
“It was a mess,” the Marine general added. “You had micros, air support, and a platoon against two satos. Those girls knifed most of your guys.”
The Navy captain shut up, looking so pissed that I had to force myself not to smile, and the admiral nodded to my CO. “Colonel, why don’t you kick this off?”
“Stan, we have a new operation,” Momson began. “Now, I want you to understand before I lay out your role, that this is all volunteer. There will be no orders, and you won’t be connected to us anymore—not officially. Your records will indicate that you were honorably discharged for medical reasons, and this means that if you run into trouble, you’ll be all alone. So you can say no to this one.”
The room got quiet then, and I waited before realizing that they expected a response. “You want an answer now, before telling me about the mission, sir?” I asked.
He nodded. “That’s the way it’s got to be. You say no and then turn around and head out the door so the corporal can take you back to the air station to send you home to wait for the next op. But if you say yes, there’s no turning back.”
“What about pay?”
“Not a problem.” He glanced at the admiral to make sure it was OK to continue. “You’ll be set with an untraceable account into which someone will deposit the equivalent of two years’ salary, plus mission expenses, courtesy of a long lost—and dead—benefactor.”
The mission or home. It was such a familiar scenario that it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it always did, same as now. I knew how I was supposed to act—that I should have at least pretended to want to go home, maybe spend some time with Phillip and take them on a vacation, just relax—but I’d given up on that route a long time ago, so it didn’t take a second to decide. “I’m in. What’s so special about these satos; are they Russian?”
The admiral gestured, and my CO reached back to dim the lights, a holo image popping up on the table at the same time. “Not satos exactly,” he said. “To be honest, we don’t know what they are, and there’s likely a person involved. A real person, an American.”
Excerpted from Chimera by T.C. McCarthy Copyright © 2012 by T.C. McCarthy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.