Bzrk, p.23
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       Bzrk, p.23

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
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  It was Keats who broke the code of silence and asked Vincent, “When does it start?”

  “Tomorrow,” Vincent said. “Our British cousins are in the city. They’ll be taking—defending—their prime minister. We have our president. And …” He paused, glanced at Anya as though not sure whether he could speak freely in her presence. Something reassured him, and in accepting reassurance, Plath thought something inside Vincent twisted and writhed a little bit, too, and he said, “And we have a little surprise for the Armstrong Twins.”

  Every fork except Wilkes’s stopped moving.

  “I won’t lie: they hit us pretty hard. We believe now that AFGC has targeted our president, Keats’s prime minister, the Chinese president, the Japanese and Indian prime ministers. Five targets. But the Armstrong Twins hit our Chinese and Indian cells very hard. So we’re probably going to have to give them up. And that’s very bad.”

  “The Japanese cell is very tight, and they don’t seem to have been hit. So we’ll leave the Japanese PM to them. Same with our British cousins.”

  “God save the king, eh?” Wilkes said to Keats.

  “Or at least the prime minister. Even if he is a Tory,” Keats answered.

  “Nijinsky and I are the first team on President Morales. Wilkes and Ophelia run counterforce for that,” Vincent went on.

  “What’s counterforce?” Plath asked.

  “There are three ways to stop a twitcher,” Ophelia explained. “You can beat him down in the nano. You can incapacitate him in the macro: in other words, kill him. Or you can wire him. Wilkes and I will be looking for the twitchers. They’ll use multiple locations near the UN Building to avoid having to use signal repeaters.”

  “Their repeaters are junk,” Nijinsky interjected.

  “We have word from Lear—possibly from a mole inside AFGC—that one of the locations will be inside the UN.”

  “Inside the building? What, inside the UN itself?” Plath asked.

  “Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation,” Ophelia said. “They still run more than four hundred gift shops in airports, in train stations in Europe, and in places like museums. And in the basement of the UN.”

  “You’ve got to be kidding,” Keats said.

  “That’s what we think,” Vincent confirmed. “So Ophelia and Wilkes are going to see if we can’t at least disrupt them there. Maybe expose them so they have to withdraw.”

  “What about Keats and me?” Plath asked.

  Vincent glanced guiltily at Nijinsky.

  Nijinsky frowned, sensing that something bad was coming. He said, “They aren’t ready for—”

  But Vincent cut him off.

  “Lear has ordered … and I agree … that we need a counterattack. Something to throw them off. It has to be something real, with a real chance of success. The other side isn’t stupid—we can’t just wave our hands in the air and distract them.”

  Nijinsky put down his wineglass with a little more force than necessary. “What are you sending them into?” He was seated directly across from Vincent.

  Vincent took a sip of wine, stalling. Then, with no more emotion than he might have in announcing that tomorrow’s weather would be rainy, he said, “We’re going after the Twins directly.”

  “May I speak to you in private, Vincent?” Nijinsky said through gritted teeth.

  “My friend Jin thinks I’m sending you two on a suicide mission,” Vincent said, staring hard at Nijinsky, who glared back.

  “Are you?” Plath asked.

  Vincent nodded slightly. “Probably.”

  “What if we say no?” Plath demanded.

  Vincent turned from Nijinsky and met her gaze. “You won’t.”

  “What makes you so sure?” Plath said. “Have you done something to me, is that it?”

  “I told you I would never—”

  “Then how the hell are you so sure we’re going along with this suicide mission?”

  “Because they murdered your father and your brother. And they damned near killed you,” Vincent said. “And when I mention that to you, your eyes blaze and your teeth start to show, and you’re aren’t a person who lets her family be wiped out without fighting back.”

  “This is how we repay her father?” Nijinsky demanded. “By getting her killed?”

  Vincent slammed the side of his fist down on the table. Every dish jumped. No one breathed. “Do you think I like this, Shane?”

  Almost as shocking as Vincent showing emotion was Vincent using the name “Shane” instead of Nijinsky.

  “You don’t like anything, Vincent. That’s why Lear has you running this cell. A man without pleasure is a man without any idea what life is about.” Nijinsky pointed at Plath. “She’s sixteen, for Christ’s sake. She’s barely trained. And him, young Mr. Hormone there, he’s already in love with her. If she goes, he’ll go.”

  Nijinsky was shaking with emotion. Vincent had already brought his under control.

  “Yes. That’s what I figured,” Vincent said. He stood up carefully, pushed his chair back, said, “I’ve had enough. Enjoy your dinner,” and carried his plate to the kitchen.


  “You think maybe the time has come to tell me how the hell we’re going to do this, Vincent?”

  Vincent answered, “Lear made it very clear that the plan stays with me until there is no other choice.”

  The two of them were walking down Third Avenue past the British Consulate, a building of no particular interest once you had noted the Union Jack flying alongside the Stars and Stripes.

  “British Embassy?” Nijinsky asked, eyebrow raised.

  “We’re heading over to Lex. Over to the W Hotel. We’re meeting someone.”

  “I suppose I shouldn’t ask who?”

  “You may recognize her. Tatiana Featherstonehaugh.”

  Nijinsky looked at him tolerantly. “It’s pronounced ‘Fanshaw.’ ”

  Vincent frowned. “Really? All that to get Fanshaw?”

  “The English,” Nijinksy said, and shrugged as though that explained it. “She’s a society type. What is she doing involved in this?”

  “Ours not to reason why,” Vincent said. “She’ll be at a reception at the Hilton over by the UN shortly, right after we meet her. That’s where the POTUS is staying. It’s just a meet and greet with Morales and Bowen and various Anglophiles before they both head to the General Assembly for their speeches. A society thing. She’s helping us, courtesy of our London friends.”

  “You’re sure the president’s going to be there?”

  “That’s never guaranteed,” Vincent said. “Presidential security makes every other kind of security look lazy. If the Secret Service even smells anything … But if she is there, we’re in.”

  “And meanwhile?” Nijinsky asked.

  Vincent stopped, retreated beneath an overhang as a light rain began to fall. “There’s a very good chance none of us come out of this alive, Jin. That’s just the reality.”

  “The two kids, though …” He didn’t really have a conclusion to that sentence.

  “It’s not just them. Wilkes and Ophelia, too. All of them. All of us. If it makes you feel any better, I argued with Lear.”

  “Did you?” Nijinsky believed him; he just wondered how you argued via text.

  “I reminded Lear of their value. Keats as a twitcher, Plath as the connection to McLure money and technology. Maybe if the Armstrongs hadn’t hit us so hard in China and India. Maybe then we could hold something back. But this is it. This is the fight we can’t lose, and yet AFGC will probably be able to wire the heads of the two most populous nations on earth. We start the day off with a disaster, Jin. Do you get that? We’ve already lost half the battle. We can’t lose it all.”

  It was still raining, but Vincent was done talking. Nijinsky followed, troubled but silent.

  They pushed through the revolving doors and into the lobby of the W Hotel. Nijinsky had been there before, Vincent had not.

  “Where is she meeting us?

  “Penthouse.” Vincent had a swipe key, and they took the elevator to the top floor. A capably tough-looking man with an Israeli accent opened the door.

  He led them through a hall and into a beautifully decorated suite.

  Tatiana Featherstonehaugh was what an older generation would have called a knockout. Her last name was English by way of her husband, but her skin was a few shades too dark, her mouth too wide and lips too full, to be from a cold, dark country. She had begun life in the less-desirable neighborhoods of Seville, Spain, but had spent her early childhood always on the move with her widowed father, a Romanian by birth, as he chased scarce jobs through Argentina, Uruguay, and Panama.

  Tatiana wore a casually elegant outfit of which Nijinsky approved. Jewelry was of the understated yet very expensive variety, with platinum and diamonds and Peruvian opals to set off her eyes and not a cubic zirconia in the bunch.

  She looked at first glance to be a rich man’s trophy wife—her husband was in fact older and very rich—but there were lines in her face that spoke of pain, a determination in the set of her jaw, and a degree of focused attention that made you feel as if you’d been stripped down to your component parts.

  Possibly she had had a trivial thought once in her life, but it had not happened often.

  “You would be Vincent,” she said, and held out her hand.

  “And this is Nijinsky,” Vincent said.

  That brought a smile from Tatiana. “Interesting name.”

  “Thank you,” Nijinsky said.

  “I was just having tea,” Tatiana said. “I’ve picked up a few habits from my husband: tea with milk, and a love of horses.”

  She served from an elegant china set that had not been supplied by the hotel but had to have been brought in.

  “I would rather not have you crawling around in my eyes or brain,” Tatiana said.

  “That’s … understandable,” Vincent said.

  “I don’t want to have to poke myself in the eye before I shake hands with the president.”

  “No,” Nijinsky agreed.

  “So I’ve thought of an alternative. I’ve already had a manicure. My nails are very clean. I can signal you when it’s time, by allowing my fingernail to touch the president’s wrist as we shake hands.”

  Vincent and Nijinsky sipped tea and exchanged a look.

  “That would work,” Vincent said. “If we were quick.”

  “I have some of our British friends on this finger.” She held up her right hand, index finger. “I thought you might take the middle finger.”

  “We often do,” Nijinsky deadpanned.

  Tatiana smiled and said, “Can you I ask you both something?”

  “Of course, ma’am,” Vincent said. “Why are we doing this?”

  “Really? I’m a ‘ma’am,’ am I?” She mocked Vincent gently. She waved that question away. “No, I understand well enough the why of it. I’ve … met … the Armstrong Twins.” There was definitely a memory hovering just out of sight and giving her lilting enunciation sharp teeth. “No, I wanted to ask what it’s like. Down there? Is it very horrible?”

  Vincent deflected the question to Nijinsky.

  Nijinsky thought for a moment, finding his words. “No. It’s not horrible. I mean, at first, yes. And for some people, yes, they never come to … to love it.”

  “But you do love it?”

  “It’s … I’ve seen a lot of planet Earth,” Nijinsky said. “I’ve traveled a lot. And sometimes you might almost start getting bored with it. You might start thinking, Is that all there is? And then you go down in the meat.”

  “Is that what you call it?”

  Nijinsky nodded, a little embarrassed. “It’s like, the world, the planet, suddenly got so much bigger.”

  “Not smaller?”

  “No. By going down there, seeing what’s down there, it’s like you’ve spent your whole life just seeing surfaces. Like you’ve seen the covers of books and never seen the words inside. It’s vast down there. It’s a universe. It’s more universes than you can even imagine, because what I’ve seen is just a few parts of Homo sapiens at the nano. How many millions of other things are there to see? What’s the surface of a frog like? What’s it like to be down in the meat on a jellyfish? How about a cactus? A stalactite? A rattlesnake? It’s … You could never possibly run out of things to see.”

  He sipped tea, which was now almost cold.

  “I suppose it’s possible to enjoy it,” Tatiana said doubtfully.

  “Some become addicted,” Vincent said, gloomy, no echo of Nijinsky’s enthusiasm. “Others are driven over the edge. They can’t handle it. It’s too much. They can’t unsee it.”

  For a few moments they sat in silence, digesting each other’s words and nibbling at tea cakes.

  “I know what happened in Shanghai and Mumbai,” Tatiana said. “It’s very important that neither you nor my British friends fail. We will likely lose Ts’ai and Chauksey. Do you know what this will mean?” Neither of them answered, so she did it herself. “The Armstrongs will be free to operate in China and in India. They’ll facilitate the spread of Nexus Humanus into those countries, allowing them to identify and recruit talent. They’ll gain access to resources— technology and money. They will be immeasurably stronger.”

  “Yes,” Vincent said, narrowing his eyes curiously. He had expected a contact. He had not expected a lecture. This woman, he realized, was connected to Lear.

  Might even be Lear herself. Only a blind man could fail to see the knife-edged intellect behind the beauty-queen eyes.

  The thought knocked him off-balance. He had walked into the room sure that he was in charge. He no longer felt that way as he sat listening to Tatiana Featherstonehaugh lay out the strategic picture in a way that Lear never bothered to do.

  “If you are able to keep President Morales safe, and if Mr. Bowen and Mrs. Hayashi are also kept safe, we at least have the possibility of reaching out to agencies within China and India and warning them. We can at least cut off any attempts to enlist the UN itself in the Armstrong cause.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Nijinsky said.

  “Don’t fail,” Tatiana Featherstonehaugh said, and there was nothing of the socialite or the trophy wife in that tone; that was pure, confident authority speaking. It was an order.

  “No, ma’am,” they both said, despite having been warned off that title.

  “How shall we do this then?” Tatiana asked, brightening and lightening at once.

  “I’ll touch my finger to yours,” Vincent said. “And then Nijinsky will do the same.”

  Tatiana held her hand out, palm up. “Don’t get yourselves killed. Someday when this is all over, I’d love to invite Mr. Nijinsky here to a dinner party. You, Vincent, don’t strike me as the party type.”

  “No,” Vincent said, and looked just a little forlorn.

  Dog fur at the nano level is less like a palm tree and more like a sort of limp asparagus. That was Plath’s first observation.

  She wanted to focus on the fur, which was an overgrown forest of thick hairs, all pressed down around her so that it was dark down there, down there beneath the eerie forest on the German shepherd’s muzzle. She wanted to focus on anything that wasn’t one of her own biots with their smeared Plath eyes and compound bug eyes atop that, and the drooling spinneret mouth, and the bug legs and the mantis claws and …

  She walked beside Keats, a hundred yards away from their biots on the dog. They were pretending to be young lovers because that was a good cover, two teenagers with their arms interlocked, occasionally bumping together deliberately and smiling, and maybe a butt grab here or there, the way a young couple might do walking through Central Park on a cold but clear fall morning.

  But she was also down on that dog’s muzzle, the one being walked by the girl with the strange black-flame tattoo beneath one eye.

  The dog in question was on a choke collar, and yet Wilkes could barely hold him. He was a dog rescued from a dog-fighting r
ing. He had not yet been resocialized. He was still savage and vicious and looking for prey.

  Plath and Keats, two biots each, were side by side in the thicket just above the animal’s upper gumline.

  The target was a beagle being walked by two TFDs, with two more TFDs scowling at passersby. One wore a plastic bag over his hand, ready to pick up the beagle’s poop should the beagle decide to go.

  They formed a loose triangle: Wilkes with the tugging, snarling German shepherd; and the AmericaStrong TFDs with the beagle; and the two young lovers enjoying the unlikely sunshine.

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