Lea Prism took measure of herself the way she always did–in fleeting glimpses, caught by accident, off some reflective surface that obscured her face in shadow. Tonight it was a window, her face flanked by pinpoint stars and glowing LEDs, the flood of virtual monitors elongating her features in a trick of the light. It was a mission ritual: a pause followed by a sideways glance, just to see how much the person staring back at her had changed since the last time.
Outwardly, there wasn't much. An Inru
blade had grazed Lea's neck some months ago, leaving a thin scar that trailed along her jawline, but everything else was the same. With her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her eyes narrowed to a scowl, the scar hardened her features–which was why she had decided against having it removed. It was also a reminder of some deeper wounds, not the least of which was the memory of what she had done to the Inru
bitch who cut her. That day had marked the beginning of the spiral–and Lea's first realization of how far down she would have to go. That's how they get you
, a trusted voice had once warned her. You just wake up one morning, and you're one of them. After that, you can't go back
Worse still, Lea now understood that she didn't even have the will to try. The mission was the only thing that stirred her passions. The job was her only purpose. And the kill
, she added. What are you when that's your only kick
A spot of turbulence jolted her out of that thought, making her grab the nearest handhold. It seemed like she had already spent a lifetime in the air–most of it aboard heavy transports like this, sealed within cramped quarters rife with the taste of adrenaline. After more than fifty combat drops, she had developed a serious taste for it.
"CIC," Lea heard the pilot say over her earpiece. "We're crossing the Old Federation border now. Estimate thirty minutes to target."
"Acknowledged," she replied. "Keep it dark up there, guys. You know the drill when we're operating outside of jurisdiction."
"When are we ever in
Lea smiled. Even though Russia was technically part of the Incorporated Territories, there were still a lot of military freelancers in the former republics who made sport out of shooting down stray aircraft. "Just do the flying and let me worry about the travel arrangements," she said gamely. "Next time, maybe the bad guys will hole up someplace nicer."
"Roger on that, Skipper."
Lea closed off the channel, turning around to face the Critical Information Center. Once an empty cargo hold, the space was now crammed with rows of interface consoles, tracking nodes, and communications equipment: everything required to coordinate a complex mobile insertion. Manning the stations was a small crew of men and women wearing the black and gold uniform of Technical Branch. Independent of Corporate Special Services, T-Branch was an elite unit with a military chain of command–a hedge against the split loyalties and infighting that plagued the civilian security agencies. That autonomy had also spared her from having to deal with the layers of bureaucracy at CSS–not to mention an entrenched administration that still viewed her as an enemy.
For that reason, among others, Lea eschewed the uniform, even though she held a commissioned rank of major as a condition of her job. She had always been wary of working with the big guns, based on her own experience with the kind of mercenaries CSS employed. In time, though, Lea had come to think of the team as an extension of herself–which included her cunning, her instincts, and sometimes even her rage. It was their work, more than anything, that had assured her reputation as a corporate spook. You mean your reputation as an
The glint off her quicksilver blade reinforced that thought. The weapon had saved her life once–and since then, she never entered battle without it. She stowed the knife in the leg compartment of her body armor, then strode toward the rising fracas at the back of the CIC. Five members of her advance team were engaged in a game of breakneck poker, their voices rising and falling with the cards that flew around a pile of money on the deck. Epithets seared the air, volleying back and forth with the turn of each card, while the players fell one by one. Not even their own armor could protect them from the dealer–a skinny kid with fast hands and kinetic eyes, radiating a confidence that didn't know when to quit.
"Hey, Pallas," Lea told him. "Just make sure the house gets ten percent, okay?"
The kid flashed her a knowing grin.
"With this bunch," Pallas scoffed, "you'll have to wait until payday."
Lea shook her head, smiling. Alex Pallas was a natural hammerjack: cool and creative, with a singular talent for penetrating even the most secure networks–but too cocky to appreciate danger when it was staring him in the face. That same attitude had gotten him kicked out of MIT, after the board of regents discovered he had been looting the university's research budget to finance his high-stakes gambling excursions. That Pallas had turned a handsome profit didn't impress the disciplinary board, but it had impressed Lea. The kid might have been a liar and a thief, but his game was always honest.
Pallas dealt out a quick hand of five-card stud, while Lea heard a baritone voice growling behind her. "One of these days," it said, "that boy is going to get himself launched ass first out of the back of this transport."
Lea looked back to find the last member of the advance team sauntering up to her. Eric Tiernan was pure T-Branch: tall and angular, with a seasoned toughness that telegraphed his rank even more than his lieutenant's bars. As squad commander, he was in charge of the tactical aspects of the team's missions. He was also Lea's executive officer.
"Relax, Tiernan," she said. "He's going easy on them."
Pallas threw down an ace to match the other one he had showing.
"I can see that," the lieutenant replied.
Lea brushed off the remark but took it as her cue. "Stations
, people," she ordered. "Preop briefing in one minute."
The advance team jumped into action, throwing their cards down and scooping up what was left of their money. They then filed over to the weapons lockers, where they efficiently loaded up on all the gear Tiernan had speced out–pulse rifles, flash grenades, stun pistols, plus the integrators Lea had designed for this mission–with the cool professionalism of a combat unit.
Pallas, meanwhile, remained sitting on the deck. As Lea looked back at him, she saw his head shaking mournfully.
"You really know how to hurt a guy, boss," he said.
"You have no idea," Lea retorted.
She helped Pallas up and walked with him toward the imaging station at the center of the CIC. Pallas plugged himself into the interface, and within moments a three-dimensional map of Ukraine sublimated out of the hazy mist that hovered over the console. A red line cut a slash across the country, following the transport's approach from the Black Sea. A blinking graphic showed their current position near the city of Cherkasy, while a blue arrow pointed out their projected course–straight toward the upper bend of the Dnieper River. Their target was a restricted zone near the southern border of Belarus, an area of rolling hills that grew larger on the display as Pallas zoomed in on it.
Lea gave her people a few moments to absorb the image as they gathered. Tiernan assumed his place at her side, while the rest of the advance team formed a circle around the display. Joining them was a dark, matronly woman with closely cropped hair–a civilian like Pallas, with the perplexed eyes and deprived fashion sense of a scientist. She leveled a sour look at the display.
"The last time I visited this part of the world," the woman said in a light Afrikaans accent, "I had hoped it would be the last."
"Any reason in particular?" Lea asked.
"The people mostly," the woman sniffed. Her tone was haughty, but as a genetic medical examiner Didi Novak wasn't afraid of getting her hands dirty–though that never stopped her from acting the part. "Never will you come across such a dour and fatalistic culture."
"At least they know how to have a good time," Pallas remarked, interrupting Novak. The two of them lived to needle each other–though it was anyone's guess how serious they were. "You know the only thing scarier than an Inru
terrorist? A sober Russian."
"Or a Greek hammerjack," Novak shot right back. "Particularly one who uses ouzo as an immersion drug."
"Save it for later," Lea interrupted, stopping them before it got any further. "Patch in latest orbital pass," she told her hammerjack, who jacked into a satellite feed of the target area and positioned it over the display. High-res images assembled into a mosaic of visual and thermal elements, smeared by the telltale blur of creeping radiation.
"Twelve hours ago," Lea began, "we received some intel that points to significant Inru
activity. It seems that after prolonged conflict with our team, their operational cells are starting to get a little desperate."
The crew murmured a wave of approval. From the start, Lea had been single-minded in her dealings with the antitechnology cult–a pursuit that bordered on obsessive. Using a more extreme approach than her predecessor, she had pounded their infrastructure with virtual attacks, drying up their finances and material support. After that, she went after the Inru
leadership itself, targeting them personally in a series of relentless strikes. In a matter of months Lea had effectively decapitated the major cells, pushing them even further underground. As for their leaders, most of them were now either dead or rotting in some Collective gulag. Most
, she reminded herself, but not all.
"Analysis based on my information points to an Inru
summit," she continued. "Some kind of high-level gathering of the surviving leadership–probably to discuss a new, larger strategy against the Collective. CSS has been wondering when they might pool their remaining resources to mount some kind of counterstrike. If what we're hearing is true, they could be very close to making that happen."
"What's the source of this intel?" one of the commandos asked.
Lea hesitated for a moment before giving her answer.
Muttered comments arose around the table. Lea was always secretive about how she got her information, choosing to compartmentalize intelligence operations to the nontactical members of her team. She knew it spooked them–not because of her methods, but because she was almost never wrong. In their view, Lea was clairvoyant in matters of the enemy. If they only knew
"SIGINT has been pretty flaky for a while," Tiernan pointed out. "The Inru
have been putting out a lot of false information since they got wind we compromised their networks. What are the chances this is just comm chatter designed to throw us off?"
Lea gave Pallas a nod.
"We picked up some weird inclusions in Axis traffic," the hammerjack said. "Most secure communications are condensed into proprietary tokens, which means you can backtrace them to their source by parsing the routing code. CSS keeps a record of these codes, so they can listen in on pirate traffic, unauthorized exchanges, whatever pisses them off. Lea happened to notice a couple of stray tokens originating from some Port Authority nexus, so she had me check them out. Turns out they're not stray after all–they're repeating
at regular intervals, using some custom algorithm designed to make it look random."
"Burst communications," Tiernan decided.
"Give the man a cigar," Pallas said. "The Inru
were using the North American Pulser Grid as a transmission medium–modulating photons into carrier streams, then encoding their messages with some routing key I'd never seen before."
"How did you crack the key?"
Pallas tossed a sideways glance at Lea.
"I found it while running some permutations through a CSS computer," she said–an honest answer, though not even close to the whole story. "After a couple of cycles, it came up with a mathematical constant: the decay rate of heliox emissions."
The squad responded with muted laughter.
"Shit, Major," her gunnery sergeant–"Gunny" to the rest of the team–chuckled. "That must be one hell of a crystal ball you have back at the office."
"Just because you're good," Lea said, "doesn't mean you can't get lucky."
She redirected their attention to the sat pics floating over the display table. "Our objective is in the wastelands of northern Ukraine," she continued, while Pallas augmented the image. The profile of a small city appeared in silhouette, its dimensions extrapolated into a graphic that showed a cluster of buildings surrounding a large technical complex near the center of town. "The Old Federation abandoned the area a long time ago, for logistical and safety reasons–which means there are no military outposts anywhere nearby. Then there's the radiation endemic to the region, which scrambles the ability of sensors to pick up electronic signatures. Put it all together, you've got a pretty good place to hide."
"What's the target?" Gunny asked.
Lea pointed at the shadow city, dark as the night of a new moon.
"Chernobyl," she said.
Pallas used the interface to overlay a sixty-kilometer circle on the map, with the dilapidated city at the center. "Within this border is the so-called dead zone around the old reactor," Lea explained. "This is where radiation from the Scimitar Event is still high enough to make long-term exposure dangerous. Nobody has lived within the perimeter since the mid twenty-first century, although the roads and structures within the zone are largely intact."
She motioned toward a satellite image of the reactor complex. Pallas zoomed in on the ancient facility, its lone cooling tower still jaggedly pointing toward the sky. Time had ravaged it even more than the nuclear accident that first earned Chernobyl its infamy. More ominous, though, were the collapsed sections and craters that remained after the bombing of the plant during Operation Scimitar–an act so heinous, it ended the wars of Consolidation.
The Collective had launched Scimitar as a way to flush out European Union separatists, a tough band of rebels that used the area as a home base to launch attacks against the new government. Shielded by the local populace–and a minefield of radioactive fallout–the rebels assumed that Chernobyl was the last place their enemies would mount an offensive. That gamble turned out to be a colossal mistake. Official history maintained that the rebels had sabotaged the plant themselves, blowing the lid off the number four reactor in an act of mass suicide. Darker rumors suggested that the Collective was actually responsible–specifically, that they had targeted the plant to wipe out the resistance in a single, deadly stroke. To this day, nobody knew the full truth, or how many had died. The region had been uninhabitable ever since.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Prodigal by Marc Giller. Copyright © 2006 by Marc D. Giller. 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.