David Louis Edelman
MultiReal
'MultiReal' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: Lessons Learned

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Chapter 2

Lieutenant Magan Kai Lee stood at the window of a Falcon hoverbird and watched the Potomac scroll away until it was lost in the snow. December of 359 had proven an exceptionally good month for snow.

The pilot quietly veered off the established flight path, leaving the sparse morning traffic behind while they plowed through the mist a dozen meters above the river’s froth and foam. Today, at least, the hoverbird’s egg-white finish made decent camouflage.

Magan looked out the port window and saw the Shenandoah River slide into view. “Ulterior admission,” he said quietly. Full stop.

It was a small craft, designed by Defense and Wellness Council engineers for first-response situations. Twelve could fit here with comfort, and today there were only three. The pilot could hear his superior officer’s command just fine. “Impulse open and locked,” he replied in acknowledgment. Full stop. Seconds later, Magan could hear the decrescendo of engines shutting down and the ethereal whir of antigrav kicking in. The hoverbird came to rest twenty meters above the treetops.

Within the space of a heartbeat, the illicit advertising began dribbling in to Magan’s mental inbox. Guerrilla messages, automated, probably keyed in to the whoosh of the hoverbird’s vapor exhaust.

COZY WINTER GETAWAYS on the SHENANDOAH: Affordable Prices!
Hoverbird in Need of a Boost? Read Our Special Report
THE MAKERS OF CHAIQUOKE SALUTE THE SHENANDOAH COMMUTER

The hoverbird’s third occupant blocked the flow with an irritated tsk.

Rey Gonerev, the Defense and Wellness Council’s chief solicitor, rose from her seat and stood at Magan’s side. She parted her long braided hair to reveal a thin face with skin of deepest cocoa. Magan could feel the neural tug of her ConfidentialWhisper request. “You sure we’re not overdoing this?” she asked, her words appearing silently in his mind like adjuncts of his own thought process.

Magan ignored her and watched the skyline. His mind was sifting through combinatorial possibilities in preparation for their mission. Rey Gonerev had no place in his reflections at the moment.

The solicitor pursed her lips. “Lieutenant?” Receiving no response, she shrugged and retreated to her seat, keeping the ConfidentialWhisper channel open just in case.

Magan turned his attention to the circular table that comprised most of the hoverbird’s rear section. He waved his hand over the surface, causing a holographic map to blink into existence. It was an example of true Defense and Wellness Council austerity: the meeting of two rivers reduced to a handful of intersecting vectors, with the hoverbird itself nothing more than a triangle of canary yellow. As Magan studied the hilly terrain with a critical eye, four more yellow triangles arced into the display and halted in formation alongside them. He looked out the window and surveyed the line of sleek white hovercraft floating above the Shenandoah, silent as vultures. The lieutenant noted approvingly that the noses of the hoverbirds were in perfect alignment.

There was a momentary squawk of pilots confirming their rendezvous and their mission number. Then one craft broke off from the rest and took a vanguard position. A blue dot on the map indicated the presence of the team leader: Ridgello, a veteran from the Pharisee front lines and one of Magan’s most trusted subordinates.

The team leader opened a voice channel to the rest of the troops. “Broad strokes imply a declension of purpose, and such things cannot be ascertained with present information,” he said. We commence operations in approximately six hundred seconds, after we receive the technical crew’s signal. Any questions?

My question,” said Rey to Magan over the ConfidentialWhisper channel, “is whether this whole thing is overkill.”

The skepticism in her voice would have earned a swift reprimand had it come from anyone else. But Magan had learned long ago that kowtowing to superiors was simply not part of Rey Gonerev’s nature. She would continue dropping little bombs of snarkiness all morning until he had answered her. “If you insist on observing,” replied Magan over the ’Whisper channel, “the least you could do is follow standard procedure and use Council battle language.”

The solicitor made a dismissive shrug. “This isn’t a military issue,” she stated icily. “It’s a policy question, and you know it.”

“This policy comes from High Executive Borda.”

“But Magan — nineteen dartguns, six disruptors, and three technical crew, just for one unarmed man? You’ve taken out whole Pharisee outposts with fewer boots on the ground.”

Lieutenant Lee gritted his teeth, perfectly aware that he had no cause to gainsay her. You know she’s right, he told himself. And there’s nothing you can do about it. He seethed momentarily with ire for the unsorted, for the unordered, for the chaotic and unplanned.

Magan turned and gave Rey Gonerev an appraising look. She had risen once again from her seat and was standing alongside the pilot watching the formation. Gonerev should have been the type of volatile element that Magan tried to suppress from the Council hierarchy. Instead he had worked hard to put Rey Gonerev in the chief solicitor’s office, and it had taken him some time to realize why. It was precisely because she refused to kiss ass, because she was not Len Borda’s toady and did not aspire to be Magan’s either. Gonerev could always be counted on to cut through bureaucratic and organizational hypocrisy like a machete slicing through so many thin vines. It was no wonder the pundits had nicknamed her “the Blade.”

Ridgello had just received final status reports from the other four hoverbird teams. “Perhaps we need to cover extremities and observe full zoning regulations,” he said. Commander Papizon will signal us when he’s overridden the building’s security and compression routines, and then it’ll be time to move.

“This man is not to be underestimated,” Magan told the Blade. “He is as sly as a snake.”

“But—”

Enough. The high executive has made his decision. My duty — and yours — is to carry it out.” Magan cut the ’Whisper channel with a curt swipe of one hand, and even the Blade knew that further argument was useless.

Ridgello concluded his preoperational briefing with a question for Magan Kai Lee. “South by southwest makes for a defensive maneuver,” he said. Anything to add, Lieutenant?

Magan could feel the randomness algorithm hijack his thoughts and twist them into unrecognizable shapes designed to sow confusion among any eavesdropping enemy. “Keep pushing for higher ground, regardless of any spiking temperatures,” he said. “It’s a tribute to your preparedness that we have a robust strategy at all.” He could imagine the same process at work in reverse in each of the soldiers’ heads, realigning and reassembling his gibberish into something more comprehensible. Remember that the subject is expected to be unarmed, and lethal force will not be required. If we encounter his apprentices, they are to be taken alive.

Silence ensued. Magan watched the drifting snowflakes and tried to clear his mind. He could see the officers through the window of the next hoverbird polishing their dartguns, choosing which canisters of black code–laden needles to load. Rey Gonerev was making small talk with the pilot in plain speech, as if deliberately flaunting her defiance of military convention.

A little more than a month ago, Magan had never heard of this man, this fiefcorper who was the object of their mission. He had come from nowhere, really, a shameless entrepreneur who had clawed his way out of the bear pit of bio/logic programming. Nobody was quite sure how he had wormed his way into Margaret Surina’s good graces, or how he had gained control of her MultiReal technology so quickly. Then he had showed up in Len Borda’s chambers, mere hours ahead of a major product demo, looking to make a deal. The Council’s protection from some group of assassins in black robes that had ambushed him on the streets of Shenandoah. Protection from the black code swarming through his bloodstream even now like barracudas. In exchange: access to MultiReal.

The high executive had kept his word. He had raised his hand and sent three legions of his best troops scrambling for Andra Pradesh. The fiefcorper’s product demo had gone off as planned.

And what had the entrepreneur delivered in return? Nothing.

He had failed to show up for half a dozen scheduled meetings over the next week, leaving Magan and his underlings to sit alone in a series of conference rooms feeling foolish. Urgent messages and ConfidentialWhispers had disappeared into the void, unacknowledged and unanswered. Threats had gone unheeded.

Borda had responded to this charade with the subtlety of someone conducting an orchestra in a suit of armor. He had sent white-robed Council officers to shadow the man twenty-four hours a day, then had those officers parade before the man’s windows with dartguns drawn. When that had failed to apply the appropriate pressure, he had ordered the troops to accept no excuses and firmly escort the man to the Council’s administrative offices in Melbourne. Still the fiefcorp master managed to elude them. He would disappear for days at a time right under the officers’ noses — nobody knew where or how.

Two days ago, Len Borda’s patience had reached its limit. He had called Magan Kai Lee to his chambers in the middle of the night, telling him to drop everything and bring the intractable fiefcorper back to the negotiating table, by force if necessary.

“In handcuffs?” Magan had asked.

“In chains,” Borda had replied.

Lieutenant Lee had looked at that weathered face, that bald capstone of a head. The high executive had stared back at him with a gaze of acid. Magan felt his fingertips flex involuntarily, yearning to take hold of the dartgun holstered at his side and aim it at that caustic, lichlike countenance. Borda had merely sat there, defenseless but utterly without fear. He knew that Magan would not break their agreement.

And Borda was right. In the end, Magan Kai Lee had done what he was told. He had retreated back to his quarters, filing the impatience away in yet another mental side room that was full dangerously close to bursting. He had called up Papizon, and the two of them had sketched out this endeavor, with occasional input from the Blade. The next forty-eight hours had been a haze of architectural blueprints, supply requisitions, and scouting reports.

An incoming blip snapped Magan back to the now. It was time.

Go.

All at once, the Defense and Wellness Council hoverbirds blasted into motion. They quickly shifted into single file as they sped towards Shenandoah like a poison arrow, with Ridgello’s hoverbird the barb and Magan’s VIP ship the fletchings.

Magan took a parting glance at the crossing of the two rivers. He thought of the flow of illicit advertising, and wondered what kind of societal parasite would resort to such a scheme.

Natch, he thought, you brought this on yourself.

*

Five hoverbirds darted out from behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, skirting close to the ground, where they blended in with the snow. Traffic was a farce this early in the morning. The sun hung close to the horizon, unsure of itself.

Papizon, what’s your status? said Ridgello.

Even scrambled, the tactician’s voice sounded serene and unhurried. Security is under Council control, he said. We’re decompressing the building now. Target apartment will be just inside the northwest entrance in ninety seconds.

And Natch? asked the team leader.

We saw him enter the building last night at approximately ten o’clock local time. He’s been active in MindSpace ever since. There are human and data agents watching every exit.

Magan and Gonerev exchanged looks of cautious optimism. So far, so good. Let the Blade call the plan overkill; once they had the fiefcorp master safely onboard a Council hoverbird en route to Melbourne, this whole operation would be yesterday’s lessons learned.

Rey Gonerev joined Magan at the command console. The yellow triangles were rapidly converging on a blinking red star. A sixth triangle hunkered down beneath the building in the pipes of the city’s underground transfer system. That would be Papizon and his technical crew.

Magan switched the rear windows of the hoverbird to battlefield display, blocking out the rapidly receding December landscape. Perspectives from six different soldiers filled the screens: here a man rubbing the barrel of his multi disruptor with a soft cloth, there a woman stretching her calves and muttering about the cold. Following regulations, Magan flipped through each of the twenty-five officers in turn to verify the connections. He found Ridgello calm and collected and not the least bit nervous; operations like this were his gruel.

The hoverbirds zipped over a large hill and went into a steep, nosebleed descent behind a copse of trees. The pilot cut the inertial cushioners to stifle the noise. Rey Gonerev grunted as her head bounced against the low hoverbird ceiling, but Magan remained composed. He thanked a thousand generations of Chinese heritage for making him too short to worry about such obstructions.

They touched down in the snow with a soft thud. All five yellow triangles were now clustered on a slope next to the blinking red star.

Seconds later, the doors whooshed open and the Defense and Wellness Council was on the move.

A disciplined sprint up a snow-covered slope, dartguns drawn. A building that curved atop the next hill like a natural extension of the landscape. Two dozen figures in white fatigues with muted yellow stars edging through a small huddle of fir trees. The fog of heavy breath.

About ten meters up, a door opened and spat forth a middle-aged woman holding a mug of steaming nitro. A black platform slid beneath her feet in the blink of an eye to serve as balcony. She yawned, stretched, cracked her knuckles.

Take her down, snapped the team leader.

Six pinpricks of light slid across the woman’s torso. The dart-rifles sang. The woman collapsed, ceramic mug of nitro tumbling after.

Magan watched from his ship as Ridgello’s team zipped across the snow and dashed through the building’s northwest entrance. Rey flipped a window to focus on one of the three soldiers ascending the unconscious woman’s balcony via magnetic cable. One of the officers glanced back over his shoulder at the copse of fir trees, which looked perfectly undisturbed. Ridgello was good. Magan felt confident that nobody inside the building had noticed anything unusual.

The interior hallway was brightly lit. Ridgello’s team flew down the corridor, swift as ghosts, until they reached the first door on the left. Two officers lined up on either side of the door, dartguns drawn and needles loaded. Ridgello blasted the apartment security with a Defense and Wellness Council priority override, and the door slid open. A dozen troops swarmed into Natch’s apartment.

Rey Gonerev let out a gasp.

The apartment was empty.

A half-eaten sandwich lay on the kitchen counter alongside a cold mug of nitro that had obviously been untouched for hours, perhaps days. One of the viewscreens was broadcasting a spirited melee from a fencing tournament on 49th Heaven. A triangular blob of code rotated inside a MindSpace bubble in Natch’s office with no hand there to rotate it. Even more telling, however, was the absence of the ubiquitous shoulder pack of bio/logic programming bars that fiefcorpers always kept within reach.

“You said he was here, Papizon,” barked the Blade. “Where is he?”

A puzzled stammer came over the connection. “You mean, he — he’s not there?”

“No, he fucking isn’t.”

“But the scope says… There’s still… If Natch isn’t there, then who’s working in MindSpace?”

Ridgello, the only one still using battle language: No sign of him, Lieutenant.

The troops had relaxed their guard by now, and were all casting dazed looks at one another. One of them scratched his beefy head with the barrel of his disruptor gun, against all weapons protocol. Officers were poking through closets and peeking under tables on the off chance that Natch might be cowering in some undiscovered corner. A woman standing behind the workbench in Natch’s office turned to face one of the interior windows and was startled to read the text printed there in bold letters:

A PRIVATE MESSAGE FOR MAGAN KAI LEE

Back in the hoverbird, Magan blanched. Rey Gonerev’s face showed some amalgam of disgust and amusement. The snake knew we were coming, thought Magan. How could he possibly have known that? Magan counted the people who had known the details of this operation ahead of time on three fingers: the Blade, Papizon, himself. Not even Ridgello had known what was going down until late last night.

The team leader had seen the text by now. Do you want to read this, Lieutenant? he said.

Magan felt his mind downshifting, looking for a more acceptable gear. The smart thing to do would be to ignore the message and get his people out of there as fast as possible. But wasn’t that what Natch was expecting him to do? The message on the window was such a transparent ploy to get Magan into the apartment that the fiefcorp master must be counting on him to not take the bait. In which case… shouldn’t he do the opposite? The lieutenant cursed silently. How difficult it was to use logic on a creature whose entire nature rejected the concept.

Magan opened the supply chest at his knee, grabbed a canister of black code darts, and snapped it onto the barrel of his dartgun. “You’re not going in there, are you?” said the Blade incredulously.

“Shit,” replied the Council lieutenant, striding for the door of the hoverbird. “I guess I am.”

Within two minutes, he had made it up the hill to the tenement building’s northwest entrance. Magan was approaching middle age and no longer possessed the feline agility of his younger troops, but he still doubted that any of the building’s occupants had seen him. Magan glanced up at the balcony of the third-floor apartment, where the officer standing guard confirmed his assessment with the okay signal. Two other guards were escorting the unconscious woman back to her bed, where she would wake up in a few hours with a splitting headache. Even the dropped mug of nitro had disappeared back inside.

The yellow-starred officers in the apartment saw the look in Magan’s eyes and gave him a wide berth. He walked into Natch’s office, ushered the massive Nordic team leader out the door, and opened the message on the viewscreen with a gesture.

SMILE FOR THE CAMERAS.

Magan frowned. What kind of message was this?

Suddenly his eyes widened. “Out! Everybody out!” he snapped, unencrypted, startling the Council officers into a pell-mell gallop for the exit. “No, he knows we’re here — southeast exit!” The group skidded to a halt and reversed directions. Rey Gonerev was yelling something in his ear, but Magan couldn’t process it quickly enough. He managed to decipher the solicitor’s words just as they burst into the southeast courtyard: “No, stay inside. The drudges, the drudges!”

Standing in the snow outside Natch’s building was a pack of men and women whose eyes were lit with predatory glee. Magan recognized many of their faces on sight: the craggy visage of Sen Sivv Sor, the dandyish face of John Ridglee, the weasel smirk of V. T. Vel Osbiq.

The drudges.

Ridgello, clearly irritated, gave his troops the signal to sheathe their weapons. The Council lieutenant summoned PokerFace 85a to mask his own roiling emotions as the drudges formed a receiving line and began peppering the retreating officers with questions for their readers.

“Lieutenant, why has Len Borda decided to seize MultiReal by force?”

“Who approved this mission?”

“Has the Council consulted the Prime Committee about this?”

“What charges are you planning to bring against Natch?”

“Is this legal?”

Magan Kai Lee trudged through the courtyard, saying nothing, trying to figure out the exchange rate of this new situation. He could practically taste the bile in the back of his throat. “You see, Rey?” he said over ConfidentialWhisper. “This snake has fangs.”

*

Excerpted from “MultiReal” by David Louis Edelman. Copyright © 2008 by David Louis Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Excerpt licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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