Authors: Robert Liparulo
Tags: #Thriller, #ebook, #book
Roughly 80 percent of the population was right-handed, meaning chances were high that a pursuer's body was also angled that direction. Turning left required the pursuer to swing his weapon and body farther. Even that extra second or two could mean the difference between the quarry getting around the next corner unseen or not. In the absence of contradictory evidenceâsay, a blood trail or scuff marks heading another wayâPage would trust his computer's advice.
Where are you?
he thought. He realized he had whispered the words only when a faint snickering came through his headphones. The voice belonged to his opponent, Col. Ian Bryson, a guy as hard and sharp as an obsidian arrowhead. That famous quote about something either killing you or making you stronger? Ian was the kind of guy Nietzsche had in mind.
Page said, “You've got a voice channel open.”
“The better to hear you scream,” Ian said.
Page paused, hoping to hear the sound echoing in the corridor, through a door. He said, “Not this time, my friend. Let's get on with it.”
“All right,” Ian continued. “Next door on the left.”
At the door, the computer told him there was a 19 percent chance his opponent would attempt an ambush immediately upon his entering. If time were an issue, if he had to stop his opponent from killing a hostage, for example, he would have bet on his four-to-one odds and stormed through the door. This time, however, he could be cautious.
He hunkered beside the wall and pushed open the door. No gunfire, no sounds. He pivoted through, kicking the door so it would slam against the far wall. If it did not, he would shoot through it. A quick 180-degree pan of his head allowed the helmet's optics to find, if it was there to find, the heat signature of even a single finger.
The room was a cavernous warehouse. Crates were stacked to varying heights, forming long canyons between them. Twenty, thirty rows, at least. Mesh-covered lights, hanging from high rafters, failed to dispel the gloom or chase away the deep shadows.
Page ran to a crate and pressed his back against it. He peered around the corner into one of the long canyons. With utter blackness on the other end, it could have extended forever.
The computer flashed a green
in the upper left corner of his display. Two lines appeared explaining why the Enemy possessed the advantage: Steyr = short-range weapon. E = long-range marksmanship. Page imagined getting in a firefight between the wooden walls of crates. His aim would not be as sharp as his opponent's; his ammo would fall short. He slipped his weapon over his shoulder and put it behind his back. From the same location he withdrew a Parker Hale Model 85 sniper rifle. The deficiency of his previous weapon disappeared from the screen, but the enemy's marksmanship continued to give him advantage. That wasn't going to change anytime soon. He had to find another way to turn the tables.
Page darted across the opening and to the next canyon.
Straight as a shooting range
, he thought. Precisely the venue of Ian's best advantage. Here Page could never triumph over the former Army Ranger. No, Page preferred close-quarter combat, where his greater agility and confidence gave him the upper fist. He needed to get closer to Ian. As he was trying to figure out a way to do that, the heads-up display suggested a different strategy. Anticipating Page's discomfort with distances and knowing he'd move closer, Ianâaccording to the computerâwould try to circle around.
Page moved back to the open door and slid behind it. He waited . . . three minutes . . . four.
It's not always balls to the wall . . . unfortunately.
Finally a noise reached the sensitive microphones on his helmet. He watched through the gap in the door as Ian poked his head around the farthest row of crates.
The colonel had taken advantage of retirement, letting his hairâstill full and dark at sixtyâgrow long and shabby, sprouting a mustache and even a soul patch. Ian's work at Outis was another way for him to let his hair down, as it were. The things he helped do there beat in time with his military heart, propelling the contemporary fighting machine into the future; but the Pentagon would never consider dancing on the razor's edge the way Outis did. It was much easier to let a private company get its hands dirty.
Ian ran to the next opening, peered down the canyon, ran to the next. He disappeared between the crates.
Page moved out from behind the door. He angled toward the opening where Ian had disappeared. His helmet beeped. It displayed an arrow moving from the top of the screen toward the bottom.
Page ducked into the canyon next to the one for which he had been heading. The system indicated Ian would anticipate Page's move: he was probably returning to wait for him at the head of the canyon. Page moved deeper into the row. He found a place where the wall was a single crate high. He slung his weapon over his shoulder and hoisted himself up. Testing the top for noisiness, he crawled across to the next row.
Ian had his back pressed against a crate, inches from the end of the row. He held a pistol in one hand, a knife in the other.
Page backed away from the edge. He carefully set down his rifle and pulled a pistol from a holster. He shifted it into his left hand and inched forward. Ian was gone.
He heard a sharp inhalation above him. He rolled to see Ian lunging, both hands on the handle of his BFK knife. Page raised his leg, and Ian landed on his boot. Page fired. The first shot tore a chunk out of Ian's shoulder. The second pierced his neck. The next three caught him in the chest and sent him reeling over the edge of the crate.
Page rose. He holstered his pistol and picked up the rifle. He jumped down from the crate. He straddled Ian's legs, staring down at the bloody mess. He said, “That was too easy, my friend.”
Ian's head lifted. He said, “You don't think it's over, do you?”
Footsteps pounded against the concrete floor behind Page. He spun in time to see a soldier charging with a bayonet. Page fired, a .308-caliber direct hit that sent the soldier sailing into the shadows.
Page frowned at the smoke drifting from the rifle's barrel. It formed a perfect circle and drifted away.
Something soft landed behind him. He twirled to see a black-cloaked ninja holding two
âshort sickles with foot-long blades. The assassin skipped toward Page, blurring the
in front of him.
“Okay,” Page said. “That's more like it.” He flipped his rifle over his shoulder and withdrew a
, a long staff with a crescent blade on one end. As Page braced himself, the computer analyzed his opponent's foot movement, body roll, the angle of each arm, the movement of the eyes.
The ninja attacked.
Perfectly reading his helmet's tones and the icons flashing on the display inside his face mask, Page moved: he ducked as a
swung past. He pivoted his leg away as another
struck the floor where his knee had been. He was about to rise when the computer told him not to. He crouched lower as the two blades crossed overhead. Responding to a tone, he thrust his own weapon, skewering the ninja through the rib cage. Blood geysered out of the man, who dropped his
and continued to spasm on Page's weapon. A choking, gurgling sound issued from his gaping mouth.
Page watched for a few moments, then said, “All right, Ian.”
Ian's voice came through the headphones: “Thought you wanted to experience the victory of the kill.”
Blood poured from the ninja's mouth.
Page said, “I got it.”
“Ain't pretty, is it, Brendan?” Ian said. “Unless you didn't like the guy.” Ian laughed wickedly.
The ninja's eyes rolled toward Page's. More blood, more wet noises.
Ian was challenging him, putting it in his face. Page knew the man's position: War was hell. Not that it wasn't sometimesâoftenânecessary, but it burned hotter when death was easy, impersonal.
Page yanked the
out of the ninja. Before the man could fall, he swung the b
lade into his neck. The ninja disappeared.
Page unsnapped his chinstrap. The video flicked off. He pulled the helmet over his head, squinting into the darkness of the circular room around him. He wore a skintight bodysuit on which seventy markers allowed 250 cameras to monitor his every movement. They, in turn, placed him in a virtual reality environment, one of many that were preprogrammed and called up at a controller's whim. The point-of-view of his VR self in that VR environment was then fed back to the heads-up display in his face mask. The controller could introduce millions of details into the viewer's perspective, from people to objects.
Page's companies had been experimenting with putting specific people into the VR worlds, as it had done this time, with Ian. Coupled with Behavior Pattern Analysis software that made the computer-drawn peopleâor
âbehave the way actual people did, it allowed soldiers to learn to fight opponents before they ever actually faced them in person. The virtual Ian that Page had fought behaved the way the real Ian would have in a similar situation.
Page bent and unsnapped his heavy, ski-type boots. He slipped out of them and stepped off the low pedestal. It was a pad that registered every step, jump, and tiptoe he made. Its resistance-adjusting surface, in tandem with a harness-and-wire system, gave the VR player total freedom of movement, and the
of actual movement, without his venturing from the center of the VR roomâor “Void,” as it had become known at Outis.
He walked to a wall of additional helmets and other motion-capture gadgets and seated his helmet into a recharging base. He snapped his weapons propâwhich, in his VR display, had been a Steyr TMP, Parker Hale rifle, and
âinto tongs on the wall.
He gazed up at the control room's window, two stories above the Void's floor. Ian sat at a control panel, punching buttons and turning knobs. He saw Page looking and flipped a switch that opened an intercom.
“How was it?” Ian said.
“Your avatar flickered a few times. It hesitated when it was over me with the knife.”
“That was a glitch,” Ian said. “I wouldn't have hesitated.”
“And the eyes still aren't quite right.” Page rolled his head around, feeling the muscles in his neck flex and pop. He pushed his fists into his lower back and bent over them.
Snatching a cigar holder off a shelf, he withdrew a vintage Davidoff Dom Perignon, a dark brown stick of aromatic Cuban leaf, made before the manufacturer fled Havana for the Dominican. He rolled the cigar under his nose, appreciating the coffee-chocolaty fragrance coming off the wrapper.
“Oh,” he said, catching Ian's eye again. “Was the rifle smoke your idea? How many programming man-hours did you spend on that one?”
“If you want, we can program smoke rings for you too,” Ian said.
“I'm not laughing, smart guy.” He clipped the foot of the Davidoff and toasted the head over a lighter's mini-torch. His inability to blow smoke rings, despite burning through a dozen cigars a day, was a company jokeâthough only Ian dared laugh about it to his face.
The great Brendan Page,
conqueror of cities, builder of empires, leader of thirty thousand men . . . can't blow a smoke ring.
Page pulled on the cigar, tasting cedar in the smoke. He glanced up at the empty control room window. He formed his lips into an
and pushed out some smoke. An unformed plume billowed into the room.
Ian strolled past the window.
“Ian!” Page called. He waved the smoke away from his face. Ian nodded at him.
“Let's go again,” Page said.
“Anyone in mind?”
Page thought about it. “I think it's time to kick bin Laden's butt again. Put him on, but give him a couple extra bodyguards this time.”
Hutch held the phone away from his ear as the man on the other end laid into him.
“Where do you come off calling me at home?” the man said.
Hutch said, “Okay, forget about Dr. Nichols.” He tapped a notepad on his desk with a pencil. “What about
? Does that word mean anything to you? I think it's G-E-Nâ”
He heard a
and the familiar nothingness that was somehow deeper than silence. “Hello? Dr. Kregel?”
He sighed and dropped the handset onto the cradle, then rocked back in his chair. He gazed at the dry-marker board, the size of a garage door, that hung on one wall of his home office. It was covered with scribbled notes in a dozen colors. Lines snaked around and through words, suggesting tentative connections. Photographs and articles clipped from newspapers and magazines or photocopied from books were taped here and there along its edges, spreading onto the walls.
One of the papers, partially covered by later additions to the wall, was headlined “The Psychological Effect of War on the Adolescent Mind.” It was written by Dorian Nichols, PhD. A small picture showed a man in glasses and a bow tie.
Hutch tossed the pencil at it. He said, “What is it, doctor? What did you want me to find out?”
A knock came at the door. Laura peered in, smiling. “You're not talking to yourself, are you?”
“Don't worry, I don't listen.” Hutch looked at his watch and realized he'd been holed up for three hours. “Uh . . . I lost track of the time.”
“I kind of got that,” Laura said. She came into the room, carrying two steaming mugs. “I brought you something from my neck of the woods.
“Ah, the good stuff. Supposed to be relaxing, right?”
“It means âsit down' in Cree,” Laura said, picking her way though the clutter on the floor. “It's supposed to
you to relax. You look like you can use it.” Her foot struck a pile of magazines. She lurched forward, swayed, kept the tea from sloshing out. She handed him a mug.