It’s time,” says a voice.
Thirty klicks above Earth’s surface. Thirty minutes after takeoff. A small room within a large jetcraft: Jason Marlowe opens his eyes.
He looks around. No one there.
“Prep for drop,” says the voice.
He sits up. Gets up. Goes to the washbasin. Lets water dash itself against metal and skin. He runs his hands along his face. He wonders if something has changed.
“Stop it,” says the voice. “Move it.”
He turns away. He starts to pull things onto his body: vest, pants, belt. Light boots. Redundant biomonitors around his arms. A knife strapped below his left knee. A pistol below his right. Everything else he’s going to be wearing is contained in the hardware standing in this room’s corner.
“Suit up,” says the voice.
The armor’s the standard heavy model. Too standard. It’s not even his. Marlowe climbs within, wondering as he does who else has worn it. He wishes they’d shipped his own suit as quickly as they did him.
“Power up,” says the voice.
Vibration churns through him as the suit seals. Lights come to life around his face. He turns, feels pneumatic joints dig into him. He stops to adjust them. He calibrates the suit’s cameras to ensure 360-degree vision—sets the range-finders, lets numbers chase themselves across the displays, interface with the ones within his head. He walks to the door, slides it open, walks down a corridor. He goes through into another room.
“Load up,” says the voice.
But Marlowe doesn’t need to listen to know what to do with the ammunition racked upon the walls. Or the fuel pipes that emerge from the ceiling to slot into his armor’s tanks. He watches his screens as those tanks fill. He wonders who he’s going to demolish this time. They told him while he was asleep. Told him he’ll remember when the time comes. It’s the same thing every time. He opens one more door. He looks down the corridor beyond, feels the adrenaline hit him in one pure wave.
Another ship, far higher: the Operative’s rising into space for the very first time. He can’t believe he’s never been up here before. Nor can he believe how several hundred tons of metal clank as the winds of atmosphere hit on the ascent. For one crazy moment he thinks it’s all over. That all his missions on Earth have led up to this one blaze of glory—one blast of flame to crash back into Atlantic.
But the only thing that’s falling is the burnt-out first stage. The massive engines plunge to ten thousand meters—and then switch on their own engines, turn west, hurtle back to base, and reuse while high above the Operative turns dials, prowls frequencies, listens as the pilots call out telemetry readings, watches as blue of sky becomes black of space. Ocean rolls into the window as the craft rolls onto its orbit. The last remnants of day slide over western Atlantic. Eastern Atlantic is swathed in early evening.
And Africa’s given over to pure night. But the maps on the screens within the Operative’s eyes show him all that matters anyway. He gazes at the Eurasian fortresses strewn across Sahara—watches across the minutes as their own launch routines crank and the Moon casts shadows on the sand and the immensity of desert at last gives way to Nile. And what’s left of the Middle East. The Operative was thirty-eight when it got flash-broiled. He’s fifty now. He’s starting to wonder how long he’s got before he drops below peak condition. How long the enhancers that course through his body can fight encroaching age. Surgery after surgery. Drug after drug. Training that’s ever more intense. And then this mission: to infiltrate his own side’s offworld forces and terminate irregularities with no little prejudice.
A summons he wishes had come a decade ago. The Operative has fought Jaguar insurgents in Central America. He’s iced his own side’s defectors as they tried to run the border. He’s battled the East’s agents in the neutral territories: Europe. Australia. South Africa. Argentina. He’s taken out targets all over the world.
But never in space. He doesn’t know why. Maybe up until now his handlers optimized him for gravity. Maybe their orbital brethren are territorial. No reason they shouldn’t be. Every outfit divides against itself. Bureaucracy builds in the back office while agents work the field solo or in teams. The other member of this particular team is holed up in one of the lunar bases. The Operative is supposed to meet him there.
But first he’s got to do one orbit. So that the craft can line up the angles for the translunar burn. The Operative pictures what’s left of that craft: the engines, the cargo-modules, the cockpit. He’s just aft of that cockpit, in a room where passengers sit. He’s the only one that fits that description. He got slotted on here special. He takes in the roof of the world below him. Moonlight glints across receding snowcaps. Memory gleams within the Operative’s head. India’s on his mind. A nation caught between the Eurasians and the rising oceans, its power crushed and its coastlines swamped. Everybody who could got the hell out.
And the Operative was down there once, caught up in that crunch. Tracking down a scientist on the run from Mumbai who was trying to sell her expertise in the Kuala-Lumpur markets—until the Operative caught up with her, persuaded her to give it up for free. Now she’s doing life in a laboratory in New Mexico. A comfortable life, to be sure. Far more so than the Operative’s own.
Which right now consists of sitting in a metal room and watching dawn creep across the Pacific toward China’s endless cities. Looking at that ocean reminds him of the trance he woke from just before the launch. Those swirls of sea are far more real than the swirling in his head. He remembers the way his handlers prowled his dreams— remembers the bit about SpaceCom and the bit about Lynx and the rendezvous somewhere on the nearside. And that’s about it.
Save for one other memory of the time before he boarded. A memory of the launch complex spreading out beneath him as the elevator trundled up sixty stories of rocket. He could see all the way to jungle. He could hear the tanks pressurizing for main-engine start. But that was an hour ago. Ignition’s long past. That rocket’s gone. All that’s left is spaceship.
• • •
Claire Haskell’s coming awake. It doesn’t come easy. Her head hurts. The seat in which she sits is shaking. She’s in motion. She opens her eyes.
To find herself in the rear of what looks to be a jet-copter. A low ceiling curves above her. The straps of her seat curl over her. The cockpit door is plainly visible from where she sits. It’s shut. She feels the same way. She feels there are things she can’t recall. It’s always like this when she wakes from trance: before awareness folds in, lays bare the residue of dreams. Ostensibly, those dreams look the same as any others. But they give themselves away with telltale signs she knows too well—the green of the old man’s eyes, the soft tone of his voice, the particular ambience of a room. It seems there was a room. It seems she was there, out upon some sea. But that chamber had no windows. The one in which she sits now does. Each one is covered with a plastic shade. She reaches over to the nearest.
But now the dreams surge in upon her. They remind her who she is. They remind her who’s been at her mind again. Those dreams: there was a time when she regarded them as her succor. There was a time when she grew to hate them worse than death. But lately it’s been both thrill and revulsion simultaneously—and with such intensity that she’s no longer sure she can even tell the difference. And what does it matter? All primary briefings of agents take place under the trance, get remembered by those agents only in retrospect. It doesn’t matter how she feels about that. Emotions are incidental. Facts aren’t—her charge, however difficult, her lot in life for now, is to tend these thoughts that aren’t hers, to shelter them and incubate them, and then do whatever they may ask.
And now she’s waiting for that moment. But her hands aren’t waiting. They grasp the shade. Her fingers fumble with the clasp. She rips aside plastic to reveal window. She blinks. She stares.
And draws back as she realizes what she’s looking at.
Marlowe’s got two minutes. Lighted arrows show him the way, but he no longer sees them. Disembodied voices goad him on, but he no longer hears them. All he hears is the soundless noise that’s building up within him—the silent siren that accompanies the moments that play out before the run . . . out of that formless dark in which the word goes down, out into the events in which he writes that word across flesh. He races down another corridor. It’s getting narrower. Up ahead, a door slides aside. He runs through the opening and down a ramp.
He’s in the underbelly. The ceiling’s lower here. Technicians step in from left and right. They check his suit’s seals. They check the thrusters on his back and wrists and ankles. They make some adjustments to the minigun that’s perched on his right shoulder. They wave him onward. Marlowe moves past more ladders, closes in upon one ladder in particular. Blank screens are everywhere. He feels the stare of invisible eyes upon him. He’s going straight for the door at his feet. It seems to lead directly into a crawl space—a tiny alcove that he might have missed had the arrows not led him straight here. But it’s not an alcove. It’s not a crawl space.
It’s his ride to ground.
“Get in,” says the voice.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Mirrored Heavens by David J. Williams. Copyright © 2008 by David J. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.