W.T. Quick gives corporate warfare a new name in his esteemed novel, Singularities. Luna Inc. would live, he promised himself dourly. Even if he, the last of the Schollanders, died in the survival effort. It was in his genes, maybe, as Auntie Elaine had once said. But it was in his heart and mind as well. What had that long-dead mercenary rally cry been? Grab 'em by their balls--their hearts and minds will follow? Nakamura sure had balls. He had to give him that. But that was okay, too. It gave him a target to grab. And squeeze�
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The assassin came down the side of the mountain a few minutes after sunset. He was a short, compact man dressed in black. His face was covered with glare-suppressant grease, except for his eyes. His eyes were blank, dark circles, light-gathering inserts which made his night vision almost as good as day.
He had left his shadow glider near the top of the mountain. It had been a tricky flight in, buffeted by uncertain winds and sudden updrafts, and for a few moments he'd worried about the house radars picking him out against the general clutter of the neighborhood. They'd told him the glider was stealthed, proofed against casual radar observation, but long experience had taught him not to trust the experts with everything. Particularly not with his own life.
The landing had gone without incident. He'd activated the tiny capsule of tailored carbon-phage bacteria incorporated in the feather-light main spar of the almost weightless craft and, within moments, the butterfly wings had begun to dissolve. Now nothing remained to mark his arrival but a faint dusting of black grains across a thick layer of brown leaves.
He pulled up just before the tree line, where the forest of pine and oak stopped abruptly. Down below a few cattle grazed peacefully in a broad field, brightly silhouetted in the strangely sharp light of emerging stars. Beyond the cattle was a low wall and beyond that, the stark, Oriental plantings which surrounded a wide rock garden.
He hunkered down and scanned the back of the house which abutted the rock garden. A wooden patio ran the entire length of the very large house. Clumps of outdoor furniture dotted the patio,shaded by brightly colored umbrellas which proclaimed Cinzano and OptiTek and Coca-Cola in heavy luminescent strokes. Along much of the patio were tall glass doors divided by intricate wooden traceries, but the doors were shielded by thick curtains. Only here and there could he see faint yellow lines of light. It was late, but someone inside was still awake. The assassin sighed and settled back, concealing himself beneath a rank growth of some kind of flowering bush. He could smell the heavy odor of the blossoms on the chill night air. It reminded him of home.
Of course the inhabitants of the house were awake, he told himself. They were at war, just as he was. He suspected his chances of carrying out his mission were slim. His target was well guarded. The assassin was mildly surprised he'd made it this far. Perhaps the security here was not as good as he'd been told, although, in war, the first rule was that everything went wrong. Sometimes it went wrong for the enemy as well.
Whatever the reason, he'd managed to penetrate this far. His briefings had been explicit -- watch and wait. The target always comes to his patio in the morning, to sit and meditate on the silence of his rock garden. That would be the time to take him.
Stupid, he thought. If you are a potential target, habit becomes a liability. Never do the same things in the same way at the same time. Predictability is the key to death.
Perhaps this man feels safe, he thought. A man often feels safe at home. That is why so many men die there.
The assassin closed his eyes. Morning would come soon enough. The sharp-edged bulk of a Little Man rocket launcher, only twenty inches long, scraped against his fabric-clad thigh. He moved slightly to arrange the weapon more comfortably. It was a joke, of course. He liked that kind of humor. The Little Man was manufactured by TriDiCon, an arms maker which was a subsidiary of TechSYSTEM, which was itself wholly owned by Nakamura-Norton. And the man down below who would come to meditate on the gray morning light of his garden, if the spies were to be believed, was Shigeinari Nakamura. If this all came to pass, then Shag Nakamura would die by his own weapon and that, the assassin told himself, was a great joke. Such a success would please his ancestors and his Temple. He wondered if Nakamura would enjoy a joke like that.
Probably. Some things were universal.
He opened his eyes and stared at the stars overhead. A faint breeze crept around the mountain and rustled the fragrant branches of the shrub which concealed him. Only a little more time. He muttered a short prayer to his own personal war god. That was a joke too. He didn't really believe in gods.
The assassin didn't much believe in anything.
Nakamura had been dreaming. He thought it was a terrible dream but, as he opened his eyes, the thin bloody rags of it flapped away and only a bitter mental aftertaste remained. It left him feeling violated. He reached up and touched his cheek and felt a sheen of sweat.
"Shag. Mr. Nakamura. Wake up."
"Don't touch me."
The man bending over his desk withdrew his hand. He was a tall blond man, hair cut short, gray suit impeccable. He had a sort of open Southwestern American face which, at first glance, seemed appealing. But his brown eyes were utterly blank and Shag was struck once again by the frightening mystery of this man he'd created through torture and betrayal, both his and Oranson's.
"Sorry," Frederic Oranson said.
Nakamura waved him away. "What is it?" He felt terribly tired. He'd been up into the late hours trying to keep track of this war he waged against most of the rest of the world. It was a war of murderous shadows, where death came silently by knife or poison or worse, didn't come at all. Some of the ones who survived would wish they had died, he promised himself. It would be a mercy.
"It's all right. I'm--" Nakamura almost said "tired," but that would have been an admission of weakness he could not allow himself. "I'm irritable. It's been a long night." His smooth tenor dropped slightly, became brisker, more businesslike. "Catch me up. I dozed awhile."
Oranson stared at his boss for an instant. Shigeinari Nakamura appeared young for a man who controlled the single most powerful conglomerate on earth. But if he turned his head just so, the morning light slanting through cracks in the thick draperies revealed a network of fine lines that even the best surgical and monoclonal Retin-A treatments couldn't entirely eradicate. Shag Nakamura was older than he looked. Oranson wasn't deceived. It was only another weapon, as everything was to his driven Japanese master.
"Yes," Oranson said. He gestured toward a pair of video monitors inset into the top of Nakamura's priceless antique mahogany desk. "Have you been following the fine details?"
"As much as I can. Given the strategic situation. What happened in Old Bonn, for instance?"
"We sent in killer teams," Oranson said noncommittally. "Two teams made it back out."
A shadow passed quickly across Nakamura's smooth features. His black eyes snapped once, then were hooded again. Oranson continued quickly. "The teams achieved their objectives. The Chancellor is dead. Long live the new Chancellor."
Nakamura permitted himself a small, satisfied smile. "I would have liked to have seen that. The German was a pig. An arrogant one, as well." He paused. "Like all the rest. What about the new man?"
"In our pocket. Bought and paid for a long time ago."
"Certainly. But the question is, will he stay bought?"
Now Oranson allowed his own lips to quirk upwards. "You didn't see the late Chancellor's demise, but his successor was... permitted... to observe. The reports say he was quite impressed. There are tapes, by the way. Would you like to see?"
The Japanese pushed the fingers of his right hand through his stiff brush of shiny black hair. He tilted his round head back and stretched his neck. "No. Business before pleasure. But keep the tapes."
"Of course," Oranson said.
An insistent, silent pricking in the ball of his thumb woke the assassin an hour before dawn. He tapped the face of his nailtale to shut off the alarm and permitted his eyes to open into slits. False dawn turned a silver line along the distant horizon. Mist smoked across the silent field below, swirling and bunching like ghostly fists above the bulky specters of the cattle. He could hear the soft, plaintive noises they made.
The lights were still glowing behind the curtains of the house, but he had the feeling nothing moved in the room beyond. It was only an intuition, but he trusted such hunches. Not everything could be explained.
Then his mind turned to immediate problems. He had landed black in the dark of night, a shadow on shadows. The surface of his camo suit was stealthed, designed to soak up everything from infrared to radar. At night he should be safe from everything but visual observation, and even that was nearly impossible. But daylight was another story. Soon morning would burn down, and even hidden beneath shrubs he couldn't be certain of escaping detection in the footprint of an overhead spysat on routine patrol. This estate would almost certainly be closely observed. His masters had planned for that as well. Their minds were insectlike in thoroughness and hunger for detail.
Grunting quietly he began to slip out of his night camo suit until he lay naked on the ground. He was careful to muffle any clink or chink of metal, and prudent as well of sudden movement. It was hard to guess what kind of detectors might be spotted in the forest, but insane to suppose that nothing guarded the silent trees.
He lay for a moment on his back, feeling the slow, damp wind roll over his body. False dawn was becoming real. Only a few of the brightest stars still glimmered overhead. He breathed in and out slowly, willing a certain calm. The calm was necessary, for he knew he was about to die. This would be his last dawn, unless he was wrong about the shared joke of gods and men, and there was truly something beyond the gates of death.
He couldn't allow that to interfere with his mission. A sure hand, strong nerves, a calm mind. Death was only a minor distraction.
Thinking such thoughts he began to turn his camo suit inside out. The inner surfaces of the suit were coated with a thin layer of pressed mimetic carbon fibers which imitated any background. As he slid into the reversed suit he tried to think of himself as a chameleon of the technological age, placid and certain as the lizard itself.
He had to get closer to be sure of the kill. Across the field would be best, but halfway would do. He pulled Velcro fasteners shut and blinked thoughtfully. The Little Man launcher was a comforting weight beneath his hand. It would be his last mission. He didn't intend to botch it.
Dreams of life and death. Was there a difference? Only his ancestors knew. He sighed and continued the wait.
Nakamura took a light breakfast in the great room where he'd spent most of the last three days. It wasn't any hardship. The house itself was a rambling wooden design that somehow contained forty-three rooms. A wallpaper baron had built it for his mistress almost two hundred years before, when houses like it were called cottages. Nakamura ate his cold cereal and skim milk alone at a table in front of a huge fieldstone fireplace across from his desk. Oranson kept watch on the various monitors and screens which were dotted about the vast room. Most of the screens were inset into the paneled wall behind Nakamura, usually concealed by Van Goghs and Monets gathered up in the frenzied corporate bidding of Japanese conglomerates the century before. Nakamura-Norton, Double En, had then swallowed the conglomerates, in some cases simply because Nakamura coveted the art that hung on their home office walls.
He ate slowly, without passion, chewing his cereal thoroughly before swallowing. His black button eyes shifted from one screen to another. Some screens showed videos. Snippets of short, bloody action or longer shots of distant explosions and fires. One screen was full of distorted, shouting faces -- a mob in full cry. He watched for a long moment. The picture shook, jittered, and fell away.
"What happened there?"
"The cameraman got too close. Stupid."
Nakamura nodded and spooned up the last of his skim milk, then pushed the empty lacquer bowl away. The bowl was worth more than the table it sat on, and the price of the table would have built the house that sheltered it. Nakamura didn't look at the bowl after he was done, though it was exquisite. He had no idea how much it had cost. He never knew how much things cost anymore. He never bothered to ask.
"Arius?" Nakamura said.
Oranson paused. He stopped moving for an instant, and then he moved again, turning his blank eyes toward a distant screen that was as empty as his expression. "Nothing."
"Three days now?"
"Yes," Oranson said.
"Too bad." There was an unholy glee in Nakamura's voice.
"Yes," Oranson said again. But there was nothing at all in his voice. It was dead.
The assassin had removed his light-gathering vision inserts and replaced them with thin polarized goggles made of a pressurized liquid plastic sealed between two polymer lenses. He tightened the muscles of his forehead and, obediently, the tiny chip embedded in the frame of the goggles sensed the movement and activated an invisible pump. The liquid between the lenses swelled slightly. He kept moving his forehead until he could watch the patio behind the house with a thirty-power increase in his eyesight.
The sun was over the horizon now. It was at his back, but a layer of low-lying clouds ringed the far horizon in a bloody, swollen line. He tried to remember the old Western axiom. Red sky at night, sailor's delight. But what was the morning? Something warning, he thought, but wasn't sure. He pushed the riddle away.
Ah. Yes. Two uniformed guards sporting Aachen-20 machine pistols appeared at the far end of the patio and began to march down its length. They moved briskly and seemed alert. He glanced at his nailtale. Right on the money. This little patrol passed by every twenty minutes. Evidently their post was nothing more than a circle around the house. Predictable as sheep.
They didn't bother him. But now he saw something that did.
The tiny figure ambled slowly across the center of the patio. He moved silently, because neither of the guards showed any awareness of his presence. The assassin knew what kind of skill it took to cross creaking wooden floorboards and give no hint to listeners only ten feet away.
The little yellow man on the patio moved with a slow fluidity, as if his muscles were made of some kind of cold but elastic metal. The assassin pressed himself closer to the earth and risked a glance at the sleeve of his camo suit. It was working. His arm mimicked perfectly the colors of the earth on which it rested, even to the few blades of yellowing grass which he'd crushed as he burrowed in.
Even so he felt a twinge of nerves as the small yellow man paused in his quiet pacing. He turned his face away from the house and for an instant looked directly at the assassin's hiding place. The assassin held his breath and tried to think long, innocent thoughts. Some of those who resembled the man below had hunches -- intuitions -- as good as his own. He might survive a struggle with one of those, but his mission would not.
After what seemed a long time the figure lowered its head and turned back to the house. The assassin tried to follow his movements, but when the little man disappeared, the assassin couldn't quite see how he'd done it.
Good. Very good.
He hissed the thought to himself. The Blade of God was a traitor to the Temple. Yet he was as close as anything the assassin might call brother. Too close.
The assassin would have enjoyed killing him if he could. But it wasn't likely he'd get the chance. He checked his nailtale one more time as a bright blue bird flew overhead with a flap and a harsh cawing croak. Where was the target? Why was he late?
Would that be what went wrong?
Nakamura clasped his hands behind his back and wandered in the direction of the windows. His face was impassive. "Already morning." He peered through a place where the heavy drapes were cracked slightly open and sighed.
"You should rest," Oranson said. "Real rest. In a bed."
"I can't." Nakamura said nothing more, but there was a world of explanation in the two words. Oranson understood. He'd been with the man a long time, through service and betrayal and service again. And while no one could say they were friends -- there was too much of a gulf between them -- they had a working knowledge of each other.
Oranson watched his master without appearing to do so. Shag seemed sharper these last few days, as if the long hours of battle had awakened him, made him more clear and decisive. Something had happened a while before, and for a time Nakamura had seemed almost in a trance. The incident had involved Arius, the bizarre fusion of man -- William Norton, Nakamura's former partner -- and machine -- the runaway Lunie Artificial Intelligence which had manipulated them for so long. The fusion called itself Arius and took human form as a stunted, weirdly deformed child.
This war was the work of Arius. But Arius had not been seen or heard from since its beginning, and now Nakamura was blooming as he had not for months.
Oranson was sure it was connected. He wondered how it might affect his own future. It was a question to consider, but the greater conflict had to be resolved first. Nakamura had always been a dangerous man. He was still dangerous.
"We will win," Oranson said quietly.
Nakamura turned away from the window. The epicanthic folds of his eyes hid any meaning. His face seemed bisected by black lines. "Yes, I think so. I might have thought differently two days ago, but now I agree." His bulky chest rose and fell once.
"Perhaps I should rest. But it will be over soon. That will be the time."
"Of course," Oranson said.
"Have you tried to find out about Arius?"
It was a tricky question. Oranson considered his answers. If he said he had, which was the truth, then Nakamura might be angered. Arius had never brooked meddling in his affairs, and his vengeance could be terrible. On the other hand, to deny any effort might be construed as failing Nakamura's own interests, and that could be dangerous as well. Oranson told the truth. It was safer.
"Yes. Mostly direct queries. I've dispatched a team, but they haven't reported back yet."
"To Chicago? The Labyrinth?"
Oranson nodded. "Yes."
Nakamura walked slowly to his desk. He ran his fingers lightly across the polished wood, as if the tactile contact gave him pleasure. Oranson knew it did. He wondered when Nakamura would seek other tactile pleasures, and made a mental note to have such things in readiness.
"Is there any possibility Arius is..."
They glanced at each other. Each filled in the missing word, but neither spoke. The death of Arius would be a wonderful thing. But acting on, even speaking of such a consummation might bring horrible results. They let the silence remain between them, acknowledged and understood.
"I'm going outside for awhile," Nakamura said.
Oranson had been expecting it. While the Japanese could go a long time without sleep, he needed something to maintain his energy level. In Nakamura's case, it was a short time of meditation. Oranson didn't understand the pleasures of the rock garden behind the house, but he accepted them.
"A moment," he said, and touched a button set into one of the wood-and-glass doors. The drapes slid back a bit, until two of the doors were completely revealed. He pushed the doors open and stepped out onto the wooden patio.
The morning air smelled damp and fresh. Dew had not yet evaporated from the field beyond the garden wall, although the cattle were beginning to move about. He caught a sharp whiff of their animal smell, a mixture of hide and shit and grass.
It was a peaceful scene, but Oranson was not deceived. He scanned the dark line of the forest further up the mountain. The forest made him nervous. It was public land and Double En had never been able to purchase it. He'd scattered what precautions he could among the trees, but had no confidence in his ability to secure the area against any professional penetration. The meadow and its innocent-looking cattle, however, was a killing field.
Far overhead a flight of ducks winged by. He heard their distant cries. Bootsteps crunched and he turned. The regular guards approached. They saluted him as they passed. He followed them with his eyes until they turned a corner and disappeared.
One more time he scanned the area. The jagged rocks in the neatly raked gravel of the garden cast long morning shadows. There was a rhythm, a serenity to the arrangement that he sensed but didn't fully comprehend.
Which was a new turn. Perhaps he was changing as well. Before, the garden had only been rocks and sand to him. Now it was becoming something else.
An interesting thought.
He turned. "It's okay. Come on out."
Nakamura stepped out into the sunlight, blinking. He walked slowly over to a wooden bench and sank down, facing the garden.
"Leave me alone," he said.
Oranson nodded and wandered away down the patio. Already his mind was turning to the impending victory and what it might hold for him. Particularly if Arius had in some unimaginable way become a non-factor.
Would Nakamura style himself emperor of the earth, or would the power alone be enough for him?
The assassin breathed a small sigh of relief to himself when he finally saw the drapes part on the long wall of glass doors. A tall blond man he'd never seen before stepped out on the patio and gazed around.
He searched his mind for a picture, but nothing came. Perhaps it was Oranson, the mystery man who supervised the uglier, more pragmatic aspects of Double En's vast empire. He wasn't certain. His briefing hadn't included this man.
He scented danger, but after a time the feeling subsided. The man sensed nothing. He turned and said something to somebody inside the house, and then Nakamura appeared.
The assassin watched the Japanese walk slowly to a bench and sit. He cranked up the power of his visual inserts until he could almost see the faint lines at the corner of Nakamura's dark eyes.
He looks tired, the assassin thought. His lips curved into a bleak smile. Very soon this target could rest.
We can rest together, he thought.
Already he was beginning his breathing discipline. He could feel his body respond. It was almost as if he were filling up with pure light. The Blade of God he'd seen earlier had not reappeared, which was good. He feared the Blade. But he saw nothing else that could stop him. Certainly not the blond man who had ambled off down the patio and was facing away from his position. He didn't even think about the guard patrol and their machine pistols.
Instead he concentrated on his target. At first he'd thought he might have to make his shot from the woods, but given the peacefulness of the setting he decided he could rush the middle of the field to increase his certainty. The heavy bodies of the cattle might shield him, and he could be there in fractions of a second. There would be no time for reaction.
Just to be on the safe side he muttered a short prayer to gods he didn't believe in. Then the killing frenzy took him and he began to rise from the earth.
Like a hero, he thought, full of light. Like a hero.
Nakamura felt the seat of the bench beneath his bony buttocks. He was a wide, solid man but not fleshy, and the wood was hard. He remained still for a moment, then consciously willed himself to relax. It always took a few moments before he began to sink into the garden, began to savor the simple patterns which took him away from the complexities of his life.
And what a long road it had been. If he allowed it, the incidents, treacheries, triumphs of it would overwhelm him merely with their numbers.
He pushed his back against the bench as if to push the weight of memory away, and after a moment he was able to focus on a particular boulder near the center of the raked gravel. It protruded like a rotten tooth but there was a desolate beauty to it that sucked him in.
He let his mind open to the stone, feeling the familiar pounding of his blood in his temples. But he couldn't quite submerge himself. Some nameless thing tugged at his attention.
Slowly he tilted his head back and opened his eyes wider. He saw the meadow and beyond it the black line of forest.
It was shifting and hard to see. The morning sun flared into his eyes. He squinted, but by the time he understood a man was there, where a man should not be, it was already too late.
The cattle began to converge.
Copyright © 1990 by W. T. Quick