A “thriller-style science fiction tale that’s a quick and fun read…. A good start to a promising series.” – Sfreader.com
One man can make—or break—Earth’s iron grip on its galactic colonies: Stone Chalmers. Spy. Assassin. Earth’s top operative.
On the newly-rediscovered colony world of New Moravia, an Earth operative is murdered. Stone’s mission: journey through an artificial wormhole to the planet. Find the perpetrators. And terminate them.
Going undercover, with a cover persona overlaid on his mind and genetic markers tweaked inside his cells, Stone expects an easy mission.
But on encountering shadowy, powerful men and dangerous women, Stone discovers more than a plot that killed a fellow operative. A conspiracy plans a powerful blow against Earth’s control of the planet.
A blow that will kill tens of thousands of colonists.
A blow supported by treacherous forces inside the government of Earth. Join Stone on a distant planet in a headlong race against the clock in this, the first adventure in his complete four-novel series.
Sample of “The Progress of Mankind (Stone Chalmers #1)”
© 2018 Raymund Eich
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.
Cover art by Jędrzej Tarkowski.
Cover design, book design, and aircraft carrier logo are copyrights, trademarks, or trade dress of CV-2 Books.
First CV-2 Books trade paperback edition: January 2018
The operative crawled up the lifeless slope. Dust sneaked through the gaps between his helmet and his gillie suit, and sweat glued the dust to his neck and shoulders. Pebbles rolled between his chest and the ground. He sucked at a straw and hot water from a bag between his shoulders flooded his mouth.
At least the heat vents on the suit’s front were open. Some of his body heat would slither between his chest and the baked ground. Enough to escape detection by the locals’ decades-old IR sensors.
From over the top of the slope came the rumble of a large vehicle. He froze, arms and legs at odd angles. He sucked more hot water from the straw. The bag crinkled against his undershirt.
An overlay projected onto his field of vision by his transcranial stimulator reported no motion to his sides or behind him. If not for the vehicle, he could be the only person within fifty miles.
He crawled toward a rock the size and shape of a squashed basketball, straddling the contour line of the slope. Agonizingly slowly, giving the multicolored e-ink camouflage time to change patterns without a casual glance noticing. Finally he made it. He lay face down, inhaling warm air through slits in the sides of his helmet. The rock’s narrow shadow covered the crown of his head. Barely cooler, but still a relief.
He subvoked a command to the computer implanted under the skin of his chest. A heat vent on the top of his helmet opened, dumping heat to the shade of the rock. Not much, but it would delay heat stroke a few seconds longer.
Another subvoked command. Diagnostics for his cameras, microphones, and volatile molecule sniffers whirled in his field of vision. All green. The implantable’s static RAM could hold nearly an hour of data.
Time to look at the other side of the slope.
He closed the heat vent atop his helmet and slithered six inches sideways. Subvoked the commands to record on all channels. Lifted his head.
On the other side of the contour line, the ground sloped gently down to a field of pebbles and rocks in jumbled shades of khaki and pallid rust, scattered randomly by a billion years of wind and rain. Against the natural rockscape, a dull black structure of metal/carbon nanotube alloy, thirty yards long by ten wide and high, instantly revealed the hand of man.
The structure curved away from the operative, as if a robot with uneven wheels laid out the long sides during construction. The structure’s long side facing him held double doors deeply recessed in the alloy wall. Near the far end, tiny holes in the alloy formed a grid about two yards square.
The operative’s breath caught. His gaze completed the circle defined by the alloy walls. White spray paint drew a circle. Estimated diameter 45 meters appeared in his vision.
More sweat bloomed in his armpits and on his back. Estimate, hell. The circle’s painters knew the intended diameter to the millimeter.
The men who’d built the structure and painted the circle also knew to hide their work from prying eyes. Thin poles staked around and throughout the circle held up a giant camouflage net, its sinuous surfaces rising from near ground level to simulate a low hillock. The nets glittered with strips of metal radar chaff.
Small wonder orbital surveillance had missed this site.
The operative breathed harder. His head wanted to jerk around, make sure the cameras caught everything. He resisted. Sudden movement might catch the attention of–
To the left. Half a mile from the curved structure, twenty men in woodland green camouflage scurried around a flatbed trailer bearing a red steel shipping container. The container was twin to a hundred million others carried by ship and truck and railroad around Earth and the colonies acceded to the Convention.
The halves of the container’s top suddenly flipped open and struck the sides.
From the container’s open top, a six-tube missile launcher emerged and swung its muzzles toward the curved structure. The clang of the opened top reached his hiding spot over the rocky ground. Fire streaked from the tubes. The missile launches shrieked in his ears.
Impact. Fireballs billowed into the cloudless sky. The explosion roared over the operative’s hiding spot. The microphone’s gain meter maxed out for a moment. Waves of hot wind stank of vaporized metal.
Sweat trickled down the operative’s face. Plain as day what the locals trained for. Didn’t they know the damage they would cause to their own planet?
They didn’t care.
Smoke dissipated from the structure. Five gouges scarred the alloy wall facing the missile launcher. One missile had punched through the grid of tiny holes, leaving a jagged hole dripping with melted metal. Not enough to destroy the cooling system.
The men shouted among themselves. The operative couldn’t hear their words, but from their tone, he imagined their expletives. Other than their shouts he only heard a faint buzz, like an insect near his ear.
Insect? No plants this far from the inhabited zone. Should mean no insects–
Something jabbed through his gillie suit into the back of his thigh. His heart slammed and he swatted his hand at whatever stuck him.
His arm turned into useless meat, dropping to the rocky ground. His head slumped, face-down onto the dust. Pebbles filled his vision like boulders, dim in the slivered light sneaking between the ground and his immobile head.
He tried wiggling his other arm. His legs. Nothing. He couldn’t even turn his head. Paralyzed? Drugs could do that, delivered by dart–
How could he think so calmly? Yet he did. His heart pumped steadily, no faster than if he walked at an easy pace. His diaphragm rose and fell in a corresponding rhythm. He should panic… yet the thought skittered over the surface of his mind while his subconscious took its cues from his heart and respiration rates.
A paralyzing drug and sympathetic nervous system inhibitors. The locals knew their business.
The insect-like buzz became louder, then ended with a springy rattle about five feet to his right. An airborne drone landing, like a vulture.
Pebbles crunched on the rocky ground in the missile launcher’s direction. Footsteps, several people. Coming his way. Far too close to have left the group at the missile launcher when the drone darted him. They’d tracked him, hid in camouflage twenty or thirty yards downslope. He’d looked right past them.
The footsteps resolved into three people. They fanned out around his head and halted.
“The Chinese man?” said a callow young man’s voice in the twangy local accent, two yards to the left.
“Yup.” Another man’s voice, to the right. Hard-bitten as the dusty landscape.
Breaths heaved in and out of the young man. “I always heard tell Chinese were decent enough folks, if you got them out from under the reds.”
From in front of the operative, a woman spoke, her voice melodious yet cold. “He serves a more evil master than the Chinese Communist Party.”
The wind sighed, skittering dust.
“He serves the United Nations.”
Clouds brushed the tops of nearby highrises and flurried snow onto Marcus Garvey Park. Stone Chalmers stood at one end of the practice field with the six boys playing defensive back. They looked up at Stone through their wire mesh face shields and rubbed together their electrotouch gloves. Pale nine-year-old faces, cheeks red with cold, noses running.
“When’s practice going to end?” Edwin muttered to Tiansheng. “I’m cold.”
“Practice ends–” Stone said. Edwin lurched back, eyes full of whites. “–when head coach says it ends.” Stone nodded toward the far end of the field. The team’s head coach went along the offensive linemen, touching shoulders and padded blocking shields to make fine adjustments.
Nearer, twenty yards away, the other assistant coach thumped his free hand against a football. “Stone, ready?” he called.
Stone nodded. “Time for man coverage drills,” he said to the boys. “Vikram, Hamza, you two first. Hang tight with the receivers and work on your breaks.”
Vikram and Hamza nodded and trotted into position opposite two receivers. All four boys looked like blue marshmallow men in heavily padded uniforms and concussion-resistant helmets. Green diagnostic LEDs on chests and backs showed all the players’ tag force sensors in working order.
“Hut, hut!” the other assistant coach called. The receivers took off. Hamza’s man sprinted straight downfield on a fly route. Hamza pivoted and ran shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
The other receiver ran five yards, then cut in. Vikram backpedaled until the cut in, then closed–and the receiver cut again and raced toward the end zone.
Vikram twisted, lost momentum. Five yards of separation. The other assistant coach tossed a tight spiral arcing into the receiver’s hands.
Stone stuck out his arm and caught the receiver across the chest. He patted the boy’s helmet with his other hand. The soft plastic firmed up under his palm. “Good cuts. Hand me the ball.” Stone tossed the ball to the other assistant coach. “Bryce, Gonzalo, your turn.”
The two boys ran toward the line of scrimmage. Gonzalo held out his hand to low-five Vikram. Vikram trudged along, shoulders hunched and head down, and missed the gesture.
Vikram came closer and looked up at Stone. His eyes crinkled, ready to cry. “I tried to work on my break, Coach Stone.”
Stone pulled him into a hug and rubbed his helmet. “It’s fine. Practice makes progress. Keep at it, you’ll get it.”
Vikram nodded. He walked, head raised, to his place in line. Stone watched him go and the cold sensation of lying washed down Stone’s throat. In his mind’s eye appeared his great-grandfather, Trajanus Chalmers, his Mexico City Conquistadors cap precariously balanced on his graying waves. A slow head shake, a glint in his yellow eyes, and Paw-Paw said You can’t coach hips.
Stone drew in a lungful of chill air. None of these boys would grow up to become football players–lack of hips was the least of their shortcomings. Boys from the glass-faced carbon-nanotube highrises north of Central Park, sons of UN and non-governmental organization officials, they faced more important futures than playing football. The burden of maintaining the galaxy’s fragile order would soon fall on them.
The team’s shortest, slowest receiver ran two steps, then turned back and caught a pass. Gonzalo shoved him, both hands in the receiver’s back. The LED on the receiver’s back turned red.
Stone clapped. “Way to close on him,” he called to Gonzalo.
A ding sounded in Stone’s ear. Against Mount Morris’ exposed gray schist and the brown trunks of leafless maples, bright green letters appeared. Not memory–neural activity induced by a network of nanometer-wide wires grown around his hair follicles and linked to the worldweb.
Come to office immediately. 108 on New Moravia. Out.
Stone blew out a streamer of breath. The sender lacked any need to identify himself. Only Gray could force a message past Stone’s software assistant.
The burden of maintaining the galaxy’s fragile order now fell on him.
He raised his hand and the six defensive backs looked up at him. “Boys, I hate to do this, but I’m being called into work.”
A chorus of groans. Edwin’s eyes drooped. “Can’t they send someone else?”
Stone cocked his head and smiled, mouth closed. “When you’re good at your job, you’re in demand.” He patted Edwin and Tiansheng on their shoulder pads. “Later.”
He subvoked to his car, Pull up on Madison just before 123rd. He jogged over and told the other assistant coach he had to leave. Twenty yards further, the head coach looked up from the padded thud of offensive linemen blocking pass rushers. “Let me guess,” he said to Stone. “Work needs you?”
“You’ll make the game on Saturday?”
108 meant an agent dead on an operation.
“Tricky negotiation on the far side of a wormhole. Plan on me being gone.”
He strode away from the field and between the gray stone pillars flanking the park’s gate on the Madison side near 123rd. Cars whispered uptown, headlights on under the overcast sky.
Claws scratched the sidewalk and collar tags jingled. Brown eyes bulged in a stout Boston terrier’s black and white face. No leash. Every three steps, the dog angled its head up and left, mark of a gene-tech’d and conditioned urge to seek commands from its mistress.
The dog’s owner had a pale heart-shaped face between the upturned collar of her black leather kneecoat and the cultured gray fur trim of her red bucket hat. Stone flicked his gaze up and down her lean form, then looked past her down Madison. He shook his left forearm and his watch slid past the cuff of his blue tracksuit. Platinum bezel and hands, silicon wafer face, a half-carat diamond marking twelve o’clock. Only a woman would notice how expensive it was from five yards away.
Three-forty-five. Her soles clacked closer and a floral perfume trickled into his nose. He took a closer look at her. A snowflake fell in front of her crisp cheekbones and narrow nose. She tucked blond tips of hair under her hat and her gaze met his.
Pretty, but a thousand women as pretty arrived in the city every day, dreaming their social justice degrees from flyover-state public universities and second-tier Ivies prepared them to change the world.
Stone smiled weakly and looked through her, down Madison. She sniffed in a breath. The dog trotted between its mistress and Stone and made a low growl.
Moments later, a sleek black coupe with tinted windows, its faces as sharp as a supermodel’s cheekbones, parked itself at the curb. A faint snick and the coupe’s doors popped open. He grabbed the handle and pulled too firmly for the pneumatic assist to help him.
Inside, Stone eased back on the horseshoe-shaped leather seat. “UNICA,” he said. “Priority one.”
The coupe accelerated smoothly and cut across three lanes to turn east on 123rd. Small, blocky cars in front of him slid left and right to the curb. Another right turn and the coupe headed downtown on Lexington. Stone’s car weaved in and out of traffic and all the lights turned green.
Spanish Harlem gave way to the Upper East Side. The highrises here stood taller, with stone faces and architectural curlicues at street level. In the upper 60s Stone caught a glimpse of the Korean hot dog stand in front of his apartment building. His coupe accelerated, pushing him back against the cushions. His mouth watered thinking of a hot dog with kimchi.
No telling what the locals ate on New Moravia.
The snow flurried more heavily here. He would wake to a dirty slush if he remained in the city till morning. South of 59th, logos of UN agencies and NGOs marked a building or two on every block. Pedestrians wore the native costumes of two hundred countries, tailored and adapted to New York chic, and strode through the concrete canyons as if they worked at the most important jobs in the galaxy.
Stone’s lower face flexed in a smile that failed to reach his eyes. Let them imagine they mattered. Delusions of importance kept them out of his hair.
At first glance, UNICA headquarters looked like any other of the thousand skyscrapers occupied by the agencies and organizations that governed mankind. UNICA’s eighty-story highrise filled the middle of a block in the mid 50s between Lexington and the FDR. Concrete bollards, and Czech hedgehogs like a giant’s steel jacks, lined the sidewalk. A sign perpendicular to the sidewalk between the parking garage entrance and exit bore a dusting of snow. On the sign, four multiracial hands clasped one another, superimposed over the UN flag. Fine print below the image read United Nations Interagency Coordination Authority.
The gate bobbed up. Stone’s coupe entered the garage.
Eight minutes later, he strode from the elevator on the 27th floor and entered the office of the most powerful man alive.
Essentially all six billion survivors of the Time of Troubles assumed the Secretary-General governed the world. He or she appeared on Worldforum, after all, when time came to call on the US to send soldiers to enforce a resolution, and the US President always complied. Even the vast majority of UN and NGO workers trodding the nearby streets assumed the same.
A few thousand people, more perceptive of the invisible ebbs and flows of power behind the public show, might understand the head of UNICA wielded far more power. The bland bureaucratic label–UN Interagency Coordination Authority–hid the fact that every major decision by the UN’s agencies and the major NGOs required the assent of UNICA Director Kroebel, high in his opulent corner office facing Central Park from the skyscraper’s penthouse.
Stone and a dozen other people knew Director Kroebel took his orders from UNICA’s assistant director of operational planning. Gray.
The ceiling-height door stood six inches open, showing a swathe of bookcases and windows. Stone rapped his knuckles on the manufactured wood.
Gray’s voice boomed through the opening. “Come in.”
Stone entered and shut the door behind him.
In profile at a standing workstation, Gray peered through reading glasses down his long nose at text scrolling up one of three monitors. Too mature a man for new-fangled transcranial nerve induction technologies, or at least that’s what he wanted his few subordinates to think.
Gaze locked on his monitors, Gray raised his right hand, a patrol leader commanding his men to halt. “I need a moment.” He angled his head at another monitor. Checking the time. “Pour us each a drink.”
A table of cherry wood and gold inlay. Whisky lurked in a decanter, next to a stack of clean glasses. Stone lifted the decanter’s hefty glass stopper, poured. The peaty smell evoked his father, numbing himself as he dissolved over the years into his worn, brown leather recliner. He stoppered the decanter and cracked open a bottle of sparkling water for himself. Stone held his hissing, mineral-scented water near his nose, then slipped between visitor seats and set the whisky on Gray’s second, sitting-height desk, near an embedded touchscreen facing an empty ergonomic chair.
The text window winked out. “Enough of that,” Gray said. He pivoted a quarter turn, revealing his broad shoulders, firm chest, and narrow waist. His blue tie, properly dimpled, arched away from his starched white shirt. Under his high forehead, his gray eyes, source of his code name, took in Stone’s blue tracksuit. “Any future Giants players on your team?”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“You know I never bet. Sit, and tell me about New Moravia.” Gray extended his index finger straight up. “No searches.”
“I didn’t search the web about that colony when I drove downtown. Why would I now?”
Gray’s eyes narrowed. “You are a very good operative, Stone. If you kept up with analyst reports, you could be a great one.”
He said that every time. Stone eased into a seat. “New Moravia is the forty-second and most recent extrasolar colony to accede to the Dubai Convention. Two, three months back, ITB–” The UN’s Interstellar Transport Bureau. “–sited the Earth end of the wormhole somewhere in Texas. I’ve run out of facts.”
Stone squinted past Gray at a painting of two racing sailboats on the wall. Blurred lines and peach-colored dollops of faces filled the painting with excitement. Fifteen years of visits to Gray’s office, and Stone still didn’t know if Gray sailed every weekend, or hated the ocean and wanted to misdirect his few visitors.
His gaze met Gray’s eyes. “I’ll guess the New Moravians left Earth from Eastern Europe.” Moravia, Moldova, the little map blobs only mattered if they held a wormhole mouth.
“You’re six thousand miles off. The colony’s founders were Czech Texans. They established the colony on explicitly ethnic grounds.”
“Yes, and?” Stone drank. Sparkling water fizzed across his tongue. “Most colonies are monoethnic–”
“The New Moravian charter limits immigration to people who genetically are at least 25% Czech and at least 75% white. Here’s the full text.” Gray touched the tips of his index and middle fingers to the screen embedded in his desk, then flicked them forward.
A bong sounded in Stone’s ears. A text notification of the received file popped into his vision, then faded.
“Seventy-five percent white.” Those thousand women coming to the city with social justice degrees would shake with outrage. Utter a few well-practiced words and in fifteen minutes they would climb into his bed to punish those distant racists. “Yet New Moravia acceded to the Dubai Convention anyway.”
Gray lifted his whisky glass. “ITB’s quite skilled at persuading colony worlds that granting 10% of their habitable land surfaces to the UN for new settlement is in their best interests. The standard ploys worked on New Moravia. ITB sold the colony’s business leaders on new employees and customers. It promised the governor and other elected politicians consulting jobs after they leave office. One legislator had enough principle to raise the charter’s immigration terms. ITB told him the land grant, by law, would belong to the UN, so New Moravia’s charter would not apply. They assuaged him further by inviting him to UN headquarters to provide New Moravian input on any settlement plans.”
Stone drank more sparkling water. A hundred governments in the underdeveloped world sought dumping grounds for their undesirables–quarrelsome religious and ethnic minorities, unemployed college graduates, excess males arising from sex-selection technologies. Anything to forestall a repeat of the Time of Troubles. ITB’s wormhole network made vast landscapes, dozens of light years away in real space, reachable in a few days of travel across Earth. ITB might bring New Moravia’s representative to meet a few ambassadors in the Secretariat building, but it would do the colonist no good. Bureaucrats in a dozen UN agencies would decide the fate of his world.
“The New Moravians will be in for a shock,” Stone said, “when they find out what they signed up for.”
Gray sipped, then set down his whisky with a resonant thump. “They already know.”
Stone arched an eyebrow. “A desk jockey downstairs spun up a good story, at least.”
Gray narrowed his eyes. “I know the personnel in Analysis Branch. Far better than you. Here are vetted facts they gave me.” He jutted out a finger with each one. “One: within a week of the colony’s accession to the Dubai Convention, hundreds of colonists on social media accused their leaders of bringing to New Moravia all the evils their ancestors fled last century. Or to quote, ‘ghettos and barrios.’ Two: colonists spray painted the house of the CEO of New Moravia’s largest construction company with the slogan Just say No to criminals and welfare queens. Three: a week ago, an unidentified perpetrator threw a rock through the classroom window of the governor’s youngest son. The rock bore a laser-carved message: We will kill your son to protect our daughters from Earth’s thugs.”
“People settled in their ways assume the worst of any change.” Stone took a mineral swallow of sparkling water. A chill washed down him.
Even if the New Moravians assumed their way of life would be violated, colonists on other worlds had done the same without threatening businessmen and politicians. “Though never before to this extent,” Stone added.
“Quite.” Gray’s tone sounded like centuries of wind down Manhattan’s concrete canyons. “Reason enough to draw my attention. Yet the situation could be even worse than a spontaneous outbreak of populism. One of the New Moravia leaders who signed the Dubai Convention may have leaked details to trigger the outbreak.” Gray lifted his whisky glass and swirled it in long, knobby fingers. His hand grew still, but he did not speak until the brown liquid calmed. “Or UN advance personnel on the planet betrayed Earth’s plans.”
“Improbable, I’ll grant you. In my position, though, I must consider every possibility. Even the worst.”
Stone nodded. “Which is why you sent–?”
“Dragon? You sent an East Asian operative to a planet where his ethnicity isn’t welcome?”
Gray sipped. “A calculated risk. On Earth, certainly, northern European whites view Asians more favorably than other ethnicities. I considered it likely New Moravians would as well. He went under the cover story of a luxury adventure travel blogger scouting undiscovered tourist sites for rich Earthers. He received some odd looks but, overall, hospitable treatment. The prospect of making money helps people overcome their ethnic biases.”
“Not everyone, apparently.”
“After three weeks in the capital, Dragon headed into the wilds. Under the pretext of exploring a wilderness adventure site, he followed a lead regarding weapons training by disgruntled locals. Evidence pointed to the locals being bankrolled by a New Moravian transport mogul named Lukas Benavides.”
“‘Benavides’ doesn’t sound Czech.”
Gray shrugged. “Perhaps he lied about his ancestry to get on board the settler ships. Immaterial. Benavides is the bioseeding patron of eight hundred thousand acres of wilderness, which includes the site Dragon investigated.”
“Where Benavides and his men killed him?”
Gray shook his head. “Our field office on New Moravia tracked Dragon’s biotelemetry and his SUV’s positioning beacon back to the city. An hour later, he died in his hotel room. An hour after that, the local medical examiner logged death by natural causes. Another hour, and Dragon’s remains were cremated.”
“Did biotelemetry show any signs of struggle? Heart rate spike, accelerometer signals.…”
Gray’s unsmiling face answered no.
Stone swallowed dryly. “His abductors knew we remotely monitored his biometrics.” UN personnel betraying Earth’s plans–and Gray’s agents–suddenly became less improbable.
He took a long drink of sparkling water, composing himself while the fizz and mineral taste flooded his mouth. He lowered the glass. His cheeks tightened in a smirk of easy confidence. “My mission is all three, right?”
“Determine Dragon’s cause of death, follow his weapons training lead, and find the source of the New Moravians’ opposition to Earth. Right?”
Gray nodded. “We’ve prepared your cover. Hypnogogue it on the flight to Texas. You leave from LaGuardia in two hours.”
Stone downed the last of his sparkling water, then shifted his weight forward in his chair. “If that’s all, I’ll go upstairs for my cover–”
“Not all. Before you download your cover files and pick up the supporting trinkets, go to Genomics Sub-branch. 30th floor.”
Stone blinked. Never been there before.
“One final thing. When you arrive at New Moravia, avoid our field office, both in person and electronically. Surveillance of the office by hostiles possibly tipped them to Dragon’s true role.”
Or someone in the field office betrayed Earth’s plans–and Stone’s fellow agent. A glance at Gray’s suddenly creased face kept the words out of Stone’s mouth. The old man realized the possibility. He didn’t need a reminder.
“Got it.” Stone’s legs pushed him out of his chair. “One more question. How many of ITB’s Keyhole Kops are on New Moravia?”
“Too many,” Gray said. “I assumed I needn’t tell you to avoid them as well.”
ITB’s undercover operatives supposedly only worked in wormhole security and operations. Supposedly. Like cockroaches, bureaucratic mission creep had survived the Time of Troubles. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my distance. They would only get in my way.”
“I’ve never seen a SNP profile like yours,” the Genomics tech said. A rubber band in the back bundled her blond hair. Her full face was almost as pale as her white lab coat. A faint pink glowed in her cheeks, was not painted on. In his younger days, Stone would have glanced once and crossed her off his target list.
Not that she was on his target list now. She and her spinning, rolling stool seemed fused together, as if she never left this cramped laboratory. Computer cooling fans hummed and liquids sloshed inside the base of an upright, man-sized plastic tank occupying the far corner.
Off his target list, but he had skills to practice in case he needed them on New Moravia. “I bet you say that to all the men.” Stone curled up the corners of his mouth and held his gaze on her brown eyes for a two-count. He looked away. In the westward windows, his reflection grinned back against the backdrop of darkening sky and high-rises with glowing windows, like pixelated jack-o-lanterns.
“No,” the Genomics tech said. Her voice lacked guile. “Yours is unique. Is your ancestry why you took the codename Hybrid?”
Stone replied slowly, in a lecturing voice, “I prefer the term ‘person of multiraciality.’” That line would wrongfoot his usual women, get them gushing apologies for offending him, conceding the lead to him in the mating dance. He smirked and wished he could laugh.
“I’ve never heard that term. Anyway, your codename definitely fits your SNP profile.”
“I’d comment, if I knew what a–snip?–profile was.” He curled up the corners of his mouth again.
“Oh.” She blinked at him as if she saw him for the first time. “You know what genes are, at least?”
He nodded. “Blueprints for proteins.”
The Genomics tech eased out a breath. “Good. Okay. The genetic code contains a lot of redundancies. Because of that, there are I don’t know how many trillion different gene sequences that can provide the blueprint for one protein. Since those different gene sequences lead to the same result, there’s essentially no selective pressure to weed them out of the gene pool. But they also don’t mutate very often. So you have a bunch of single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs, you inherited, and your SNP profile tells us with high accuracy about your ancestors. Got it?”
No, but saying the word aloud would only get a longer and more detailed explanation. “How is my profile unique?”
A negotiation between his software assistant and hers poked at the bottom of his mind. The poke went away and a pie chart popped into his vision to the left of her pale face. “You’re 9.4% African.”
The boys would still be at the park, doing coverage drills and working on their breaks. “A great-grandfather of mine played cornerback in the NFL for fourteen years.”
“I’ve never heard of the game of cornerback, and I don’t know where the NFL is,” the Genomics tech said. “You’re also 6.3% Ashkenazi.”
“One of my great-grandmothers was a prominent Reform rabbi.”
“And 12.5% Spanish.”
“Another of my great-grandfathers. Born in Mexico, was an anchorman for a Spanish-language television network’s national news broadcast in the U.S. I get my blond hair from him.” Again, a line to wrongfoot his usual women.
The Genomics tech swept her finger around three-fourths of the pie chart. “The rest of your ancestry is northwest European. You already meet most of the requirement.”
“You’re already 75% white. Before you leave the lab, I’m supposed to make you 25% Czech.”
“My grandparents made that impossible, decades ago.”
“Not Czech in any real sense,” she said. “Just SNPs in the parts of your body conveniently used for DNA samples. Time for you to get naked.”
Stone raised his eyebrow. “You haven’t even taken me out for coffee, let alone dinner.”
“The CRISPR dermal vector requires exposure to all your skin.” She blinked at him. “Oh, you’re embarrassed. I’ll leave the room, then you can get naked and step into the vessel.” She spun her stool and turned her head toward the man-sized plastic tank in the corner. “The vessel will beam text and verbal instructions through your transcranial stimulator web. Follow them. The process will go faster. Got it?”
The cover story waiting for him required him to pass as a potential immigrant to New Moravia. He gave one sharp nod. “No time like the present.” He pinched his tracksuit’s zipper pull and tugged it down his chest.
The Genomics tech fixed her guileless brown eyes on him. “Good, you’re not letting any little fears get in the way. The vessel will let me know if you need my help. Bye, Hybrid.” She separated from the rolling stool and went to the door. Denim swished between her thighs with each step.
Stone loped off his stool and across the laboratory. The tank stood in the corner like a rocket on the launchpad. He ran his hand over its stippled, beige plastic surface. Air puffed and a fine seam popped an inch open.
He shed his clothes and piled them on a lab bench, next to a stack of folded white towels. He rested his watch on his tracksuit. A draft chilled his bare skin.
Stone stepped up into the tank and pulled an inside handle. The door swung shut, trapping him in a space six inches wider than his shoulders. LEDs spaced evenly around the ceiling and floor dimly lit a smooth white plastic interior punched through by two dozen nozzles. A synthetic female voice said Rotate the handle ninety degrees clockwise to lock.
He turned the handle a quarter-turn. A click from the door echoed inside the vessel.
A motor whirred near his left shoulder, opening a compartment between two nozzles. Inside, a milky blue liquid filled an inch-high disposable plastic cup. Swish the liquid in your mouth for thirty seconds, then swallow.
Stone swished berry and mint and bitter medicinal flavors around his mouth. He turned his head and a timer in the lower right corner of his vision moved with him. 4. 3. 2. 1. His nose wrinkled as the clashing tastes went down his throat.
The compartment motor whirred again. Same milky blue liquid, but this time in a battery-powered syringe with a green button at the back and a flexible, glistening tube on the business end. Insert anally until tube is fully extended, then deploy the liquid.
“You haven’t taken me out for dinner, either.”
Two seconds of silence, then Insert anally until tube is fully extended, then deploy–
Stone grabbed the syringe. The tube glistened with lubricant. He grimaced and eased the tube into his backside. It extended itself inside his rectum like a parasitic worm. He moved the syringe body closer to his body, until cold plastic bumped against his skin.
A green checkmark appeared in his vision. Depl–
By feel, he pressed the button. Liquid squirted into his colon.
Stone yanked out the syringe and threw it to the floor. He squirmed his hips until the crawling liquid in his colon faded below perception.
He took a breath, blew it out. Better than getting shot.
Once again the motor sounded. The compartment door revealed a syringe, identical to the first.
“How thoughtful of you,” Stone said to the tank. “You saved the best for last.”
Insert the catheter–
“Got it.” He picked up the syringe, gritted his teeth. When he pressed the button, the liquid burned like a venereal disease or a urinary tract infection. He squeezed his eyes shut and grunted.
After a time, the pain faded. He lifted his shoulders and breathed more easily.
Dermal vector delivery begins in 3. 2. 1.
Cold jets of the blue liquid needled him all over. The synthetic female voice told him to turn his body a few degrees and hold each position for five seconds. He almost got used to the jets striking patches of skin when time came to expose fresh nerve endings. Shivers gripped him. He pulled his arms closer to his flanks–
Hold arms away from body.
Stone did. Cold seeped into his armpits. Between his legs. Through his hair. Down his back. Hold. Turn. Hold.
The jets cut off. You may exit now.
Stone spun the handle counter-clockwise with trembling hands and pushed. He staggered to the bench. Clumsily he pulled towels of the stack, dropping one on the floor. Plush fabric, still faintly warm from a clothes dryer.
A few minutes later, dry and not shivering, he put his tracksuit back on and snapped his watch to his wrist. Twinges still ran through his lower abdomen. No help for it.
He headed out of the room. In the corridor, the Genomics tech stared at the wall and molded the air with both hands. Some data manipulation through her transcranial stimulator only she could see.
She glanced over her shoulder, then swiped her right hand palm-down in front of her and turned. “Looks like you followed instructions.”
“Best to get it over with.”
She nodded. “After your mission, come back and we’ll restore the SNP profile in the target tissues back to your original.”
“Thanks, but I might stick with being a quarter Czech.”
The Genomics tech made a quarter-turn away, but then her eyebrows jutted up and she raised her right hand. “Oh. Almost forgot. The vector delivered by catheter only changes the SNP profile of the cells lining your bladder and urethra. Your sperm cells retain your original SNP profile. Too complicated to change them. Very invasive even if we could. So use a condom when you’re in the field.”
The last traces of any urge to bed the Genomics tech evaporated, but a mild affection remained. “Gee, thanks, sis.”
“And flush it right away. If you blow your cover because you leave contradictory DNA evidence tied up in a plastic bag, don’t blame me.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” He shook his wristwatch past his cuff, glanced down. “I’d love to chat more, but I have a plane to catch.”
Five minutes later, Stone knocked on an ajar door on the 29th floor. An LED display on the wall next to the door frame read Operational Support I. Cover stories.
Before anyone inside replied, he pushed the door wide and strode in.
One end of an L-shaped room. A wall-to-wall counter of sand-colored cultured stone separated the waiting area in which he stood from a maze of gray cubicles disguising the room’s full depths.
A head and upper torso peeked out from behind a cubicle panel. A man, woolly eyebrows and a peaked nose. Unfamiliar. “Hybrid?”
“I’ll be with you in a sec.” The man receded, then emerged from the cubicle farm with a transparent plastic folio dangling between long fingers. Tall yet slouched, he approached, then flicked the folio onto the counter. A perfect toss. The folio landed flat and rotated a quarter-turn to stop with its zippered end near Stone.
“We haven’t met,” Stone said.
“Are you new?” The assured way Fabrizio had tossed the folio onto the counter suggested the answer was no.
“I’ve been here six years. You?”
How long Stone had served was no business of a cover stories tech. “Jürgen usually does prep for me. Is he off today?”
Fabrizio puckered his lips, shook his head. “No. He’s been promoted. I moved up into his former position.” He drummed his hands on the cultured stone. “Good hunting.” He turned for the cubicle maze and soon disappeared.
Stone rolled his eyes, then reached for the transparent folio. Inside, a manila envelope lay on the counter, its color roughly matching the surface, like a moth’s protective coloration. Stone unzipped the folio and shook out the envelope. Along with the envelope, a white plastic object half the size of his little finger tinkled onto the counter.
He squeezed the sides of the plastic object. A clip on the back snicked its jaws apart. Stone zipped open his tracksuit and clipped the plastic object to his undershirt near his implantable computer.
Within a minute he descended in the express elevator. Pressure filled his ears, muffling a mellow instrumental version of some shrieking violent song from the Time of Troubles. As if the world had truly mellowed in the last decades. He pinched the manila envelope between thumb and forefinger and spun it a quarter-turn up and down. Inside the envelope, a rigid plastic cylinder clattered against metal objects.
His coupe waited in the parking garage outside the elevator lobby. He climbed in and it pulled out of the garage and into traffic. Stop-and-go rush hour traffic all the way up Third, and time enough to make his flight without overriding city traffic control. He rested his hand on the manila envelope, lying next to him on the rear seat. The thick paper passed the outlines of data chips and keys to his hand. Curious, but the artifacts relating to his cover would make more sense to him if he opened the envelope later.
When Stone entered his apartment, he locked the door behind him and let his eyes adjust. The glow of a thousand high-rises through the windows, partially reflected by off-white wallboard, cast thin light on the dark fabrics and straight lines of his living room furniture. The tomb of a Scandinavian pharaoh, a brunette with high cheekbones declared his apartment to be one morning, a few minutes before he never saw her again. To the right, behind Stone’s dark, dusty kitchen, old Mr. Leipziger in the next apartment banged a pot on the induction cooktop.
Stone subvoked to his implantable, I need clothes for the climate around New Moravia’s wormhole mouth..
He crossed the dark living room. His bedroom windows showed matte black, and a single bulb glowed in his closet. The scent of cedar oil bit his nose as he approached. Panels as deep as the closet divided it into eight floor-to-ceiling storage cubbies. Each cubby held a roller carryon case, a pair of shoes and a change of clothes hanging from a bar. The single bulb glowed over the third cubby from the left.
Khaki tactical pants, a rust-red polo shirt with a golfer icon over the breast, and a thin, baggy black jacket. He shucked off his tracksuit, pulled the polo over his undershirt. Warmer, dryer weather than the city, and the disguise should suffice. The garments only put him at risk of a golfer bending his ear.
As for other risks.… Stone strapped on his shoulder and ankle holsters, then knelt beside his bed. He reached under and his fingers slid onto the keys of his firearm safe and flexed, entering the combination. The drawer hissed open, then the motor hummed, sliding the drawer into view. Stone slid his .357 pistol into the shoulder holster and two magazines of cartridges into zippered pockets on his tactical pants. His hand nearly engulfed the compact 9mm and he snapped it into the ankle holster.
In the living room, he pulled on the black jacket and reached in the same motion for the doorknob.
His coupe flashed its hazards in the pickup zone outside his building. Shivering, Stone hopped in while the doorman loaded his roller case. The coupe crawled up First and onto FDR Drive, where the computerized reflexes of self-driving cars, freed of pedestrian traffic, picked up speed. Snowflakes landed one-by-one on the windshield. The heater, finally up to temperature, soon turned them into trickles of water. He took the Triborough over the dark sports fields and the fusion power plant on Randalls Island, across the dull chop of the East River. The Brooklyn neighborhoods on either side of the parkway, the destinations of the other cars in Queens and Long Island, all were foreign to him. He might as well be driving across Kansas.
Minutes later, Stone’s black coupe pulled up at LaGuardia. The long, curved, overhang of the terminal building blocked the snow flurry. A robotic cart rolled up and the coupe popped its trunk. A plane’s engines roared on the other side of the terminal.
Inside, Stone slipped through crowds of average Americans, rumpled businessmen off to Chicago or Denver, shell-shocked tourists returning to flyover country. The terminal smelled of hot dry air and the oiled submachineguns of the TSA security police. He cut across the line shuffling toward the X-ray machines and brain scanners at the main security checkpoint. Only five others waited ahead of him at the prescreened, elite passenger security line.
When his turn came, he laid his roller case on the conveyor belt. Thumb against the scanner, he waited for the green light and cheerful bing, then strode ahead. The metal detector looked like a dumb box of plastic, but it had enough networked computer power for Gray’s hackers to suborn it. Stone went through, pistol and magazines unremarked by the blue-jacketed TSA. The roller case’s wheels whispered over worn tile.
He boarded soon after reaching the gate. First class, a window seat, next to a businessman in a sweater vest gesturing and subvoking in an intense conversation. Stone pulled the manila envelope from his roller case, along with a black velvet eyemask and a pinkie-sized tube of earplugs, and tossed them onto his seat before hefting the case into the overhead.
Seated, he opened the manila envelope. Without looking, he fished inside for the rigid plastic cylinder. A pharmacy bottle, complete with a false patient name, false prescription, false pharmacy address. The cocktail of tablets rattled inside. He raised his hand for the flight attendant’s attention, made a W with his fingers, tapped the side of his hand to his chin.
A moment later, she set a water bottle on his tray table. Stone emptied the pharmacy bottle into his free hand. Two tablets and a capsule, color-coded green, yellow, red. He popped the green one in his mouth and chased it down with a swig of water.
A puff of white vapor crossed Stone’s vision. The businessman lowered a nicotine vaporizer from his mouth and peered at Stone’s hand. “What’s all that?”
“Without these, I’m a white knuckle flier,” Stone lied.
The businessman took another puff of nicotine vapor, then lifted a glass clinking with ice, smelling of gin. “Enough of these will do the same, and they’re free.”
Only fools used any drug that made them less effective, instead of more. Stone waggled his head side-to-side. “They won’t do the same. Not for me. I’ll be asleep most of the flight. I usually don’t snore.”
“My wearable runs a noise-canceling app. Linked with my transcranial stim mesh.” The businessman squinted at the sleepmask and tube of earplugs. “More effective at blocking out sound than using that stuff.”
“Again, not for me.” Stone popped the yellow capsule. In went the earplugs, muffling sound. Pulled the sleepmask’s elastic cord around his head, left the mask itself over his forehead.
The red tablet. He pulled the sleepmask over his eyes. His hand, suddenly heavy, tapped the white plastic object clipped to his undershirt. The rattling ice in the businessman’s glass sounded grew even more distant. Stone’s hand slid down his torso and settled in his lap.
Stone lost consciousness before the plane pulled away from the gate.
He woke up with two personalities crammed into his skull.
Adrenaline kicked him in the back. Chest heaving, he yanked at the sleepmask. His fingertips pushed taut the skin of his forehead. He pawed at the sleepmask and finally slid it up.
A spacious airline seat. A reclining businessman in a sweater vest snored next to him, tray table laden with a glass of melting ice and empty vape cartridges.
The hell? He’d climbed into his pickup truck at the Society’s headquarters in Austin for the drive to the wormhole mouth–
His mind shifted. Two selves came clear within him, like that time at NYU he and three classmates popped neuroactive drugs before their method acting class. The real one solidified, like a ghost resolving into flesh. Rolston Wentworth Gridley “Stone” Chalmers, UNICA operative. Spy, killer, seducer of more women than he could count. The other personality was merely data from the clip-on transfer unit, hypnogogued into his mind by the drug cocktail and his implantable computer.
Stone probed the other personality with his thoughts.
Jasper Jezhek, a family name to match the snips crispered into his genes. Employee of the Pan-American Czech and Slovak Cultural Preservation Society, headquartered in Austin, Texas. A name, a job. Insufficient on their own… and memories came like waves rolling up a beach.
Herding bull calves to dad and older brothers for castration, linking arms and swaying with thirty thousand other students after a Texas A&M football victory, staring wistfully out an office building’s window at a summer sky full of clouds like puffed cotton, drinking bock beer and peering at nametags in a Society gathering in a dusty barbecue joint full of slanting afternoon light and monaural recordings of western swing. Lament tinged them all. Another memory, the flag-draped coffin of one older brother, dead in some failed nation-building mission somewhere on Earth.
Lament ebbed. Purpose straightened Stone’s back. Persuade New Moravia’s leaders to invite thousands of Society members to their planet. For both sides’ benefit, against the foreign millions the UN would inflict on New Moravia.
Stone cycled deep breaths in and out. Jasper Jezhek faded from his awareness, but remained as certain as his skill at shooting a pistol or driving a car. He pulled out his earplugs, then slid the manila envelope from the seatback pocket. He reached in and outlines of objects against his fingertips filled him with recognition, more. Familiarity. A college class ring, retrieved from the bottom of a tall glass of beer in a centuries-old custom. A keychain empty but for a bottle opener with the Texas A&M logo. A flat metal case about two inches by three, cool to the touch. Business cards. He visualized the Society’s logo and the animated slideshow of Texas landscapes on the cards despite having never seen them. Business cards, utterly archaic.
As archaic as New Moravia’s quest for ethnic purity.
He dropped the business card case back into the manila envelope. Pressure jabbed his ears. Stone held his nose and closed his mouth, exhaled. The whine of the plane’s engines came louder. So too did the businessman’s snores.
More pressure in his ears. Stone looked out the window. Dark subdivisions below, street lamps partially screened by old trees. The highrises of downtown Houston glittered twenty miles to his left. Insanely hot and humid in summer, late autumn would make it more comfortable.
Thirty minutes later, Stone’s words tasted as thick and warm as the air outside the terminal. He pulled his roller case to the taxi stand. Sweat dampened the small of his back before a taxi popped its door and trunk for him.
Cracked leather squeaked under his backside and conditioned air smothered him. His implantable popped a business’ name and address into his field of vision. “R & G Customs,” he told the taxi, along with an address a mile from the airport.
The taxi delivered him to a complex of light industrial buildings, all one story high with pitted concrete walls. Next to the parking lot entrance, a bronze sculpture of a smith–one of a million cast in one of a thousand foundries around the world, according to a randomized pattern ensuring each was unique–hammered a sword into a plowshare atop a pedestal showing business names. Another sculpture, a bronze-casted surveyor looking through a tripod-mounted monocular, stood on thick grass near the front door of R & G Customs.
A wall-mounted video panel and the smell of stale coffee dominated a tiny waiting area. The video panel flicked away from a football highlight show, Mexico City versus Toronto, to a computer-generated receptionist, blond and blue-eyed as a girl from Jasper Jezhek’s home town. “May I have your name?”
“Gray sent me.” Stone widened his left eye toward the screen. Light flashed.
The computer-generated image froze, then skipped ahead a dozen frames. “Our sales representative will be with you shortly.”
Football highlights returned. Mexico City’s cornerback bit on a play fake. The ball spiraled over his head and the Toronto receiver caught it in full stride. Stone sniffed out a breath as the receiver high-stepped into the end zone. You can’t coach hips, but you can coach watching your man instead of the quarterback’s eyes.
An interior door opened. A pudgy man came out, mouth tight under a ragged mustache. “Mr. Jezhek?”
“We got your truck ready. Barely. Next time, could you give us more than six hours notice?”
Stone crossed his arms. “You got more notice than I did.”
“It was damn hard fabbing alloy panels to match the design your people sent–”
“Do you want more of our work in the future? Lead me to it.
The pudgy man led him through the interior door, down a narrow hallway. The rustle of his roller case’s wheels grew louder between the wallboards. The clank of machinery and the slangy voices of young men came from an open space at the end of the hall.
Double-height ceiling, concrete floor, a dozen vehicles torn down into oily metal skeletons and glossy body panels like bits of a giant’s body armor. Smells of lubricating oil and new tires. Infrastructure maintaining the civilized world, usually kept well out of Stone’s sight.
A squat wheeled robot squirted rubber protectant onto the new tires of an extended cab pickup truck. Stone frowned. Hideously antiquated design–not the robot, the truck. Rounded lines and not a single straight edge.
Another robot, its football-sized body bobbing on six spidery legs, buffed flexible solar panels covering the truck’s hood. Running boards and a black metal cage in front of the radiator grill rounded out the list of the truck’s most visible features. If his black coupe were a slot receiver, this truck resembled an offensive lineman, from the days when football players blocked with their bare hands and tackled opponents to the ground.
“We added a fuel cell with a forty-gallon tank,” the pudgy man said. “The fuel cell will catalyze any material with carbon and hydrogen you pour in, though the fewer contaminants, the better.” He set his hands on his hips and squinted up and down Stone’s golf-casual garb. “There’s a full set of controls as well. That’s steering wheel, shift lever, accelerator–”
“Is it?” Stone’s sarcasm filled the space.
The pudgy man blinked, clear sign he believed Mr. Jezhek couldn’t drive worth a damn. “Standard transponder-assisted and autonomous driving modes. By switch or by voice commands you can force autonomous mode or override to full manual mode. Get caught using it on public highways and our ass is in a sling same as yours.”
“I’ll only use it where I won’t get caught.” Stone paused. “I asked for a custom toolkit.”
“We packed everything you asked for. Flip up the bench seat in the back of the cab if you want to check it.”
Hell yes he wanted to check. Stone walked around the truck’s hulking engine compartment toward the driver’s door. There, he pressed his thumb to the lock. His implantable and transcranial stim mesh relayed instructions from the truck’s computer to his field of vision. Hold three seconds, stare at a virtual dot superimposed on the door post–the truck’s locks snicked open.
Stone pulled open the rear driver’s side door, climbed into the thin white illumination of an LED mounted in the ceiling. A loop of tan leather, the same color as the rest of the rear seat, poked out from between the bench and the backrest. He tugged it and the bench seat flipped up. The LED cast sharp shadows onto a mass of tools carefully tucked into slots in slate-gray compressed foam: first aid kit, cable ties of varying lengths, expandable magnetic-resonance helmet for improvised interrogations, a flare gun, a snub-nosed revolver, a handheld rotary cutter, a spool of peel-and-stick transponders to track suspect vehicles or locations.…
He nodded to himself. Every expected item and each in its place. If needed, he could find any tool in the dark, or blindfolded, or upside down in a lake with water flooding the cab.
The pudgy man shifted his feet. His tight face suggested heartburn.
Stone stepped onto the running board and spoke over the top of the cab. “Anything else? I’ll be off.”
Roller case to the front passenger seat, then Stone climbed behind the wheel. The electric motor hummed and the instrument panel lit up. In front of him, a garage door lifted, showing the service drive behind the building.
He paused and ran his hands over the controls. His fingers bumped over the stitches in the steering wheel’s leather. His foot pressed the brake pedal and he shifted from park to drive. The truck lurched once, a hound eager to slip the leash.
Not yet, boy. You’ll get your chance on New Moravia.
Stone shifted back into park, then reached to the bottom of the steering column for the manual-control switch. He flicked it and the nav computer lit up in the center console. Another computer-generated woman, this one brunette and freckled, with a voice as smooth and bland as unflavored pudding. “Do you wish to set an override code?”
“Yes…” His afternoon with the peewee football players came back to him. “Override code: cornerback.”
“Thank you. Destination?”
The Genomics tech’s advice came back to him. Better to buy them and not need them than the reverse. “A place that sells condoms. Then take me to the wormhole to New Moravia.”
Two nighttime hours on the freeway took Stone out of Houston and its suburbs, onto a climb up a rolling plain westbound toward San Antonio. A steady line of robotic tractor-trailers rolled down the right lane, two hundred yards apart. The electric engine of Stone’s new truck purred past the tractor-trailers, until the nav computer bonged and the truck slid over for his exit.
A glow from elevated signs lit up fast food joints and refueling stations. Empanadas Del Rey and Taj Mahal Tandoor glared at each other across a state highway. The glow from QuikCharge’s sign washed out the asphalt under the blinking yellow light where the state highway intersected the off ramp. In front of the Grab&Go, a scrawny male figure in denim jacket and cowboy hat held the elbow of a pregnant woman waddling to a dented pickup. Rural people living petty lives–
Ten thousand small towns hold more people than all your decadent neighbors on your concrete-covered island. The thought wedged sharp angles into crevices of his mind. And after Time of Troubles 2.0, those rural people will survive when a terrorist H-bomb vaporizes Manhattan.
Stone quirked his eyebrow, then subvoked to his implantable, Tell cover stories they made this one too intrusive.
Parallel to the ramp, segmented retaining walls held back a giant wedge of dirt curving toward a line of thick concrete pillars climbing toward the interstate. Orange-striped signs and barrels cluttered the road side like garish fungi. A freeway spur to the new wormhole. Once construction was complete, a thousand settlers would take the exit to New Moravia every day.
Stone’s truck slowed at the end of the ramp, then swung left onto the state highway. Two lanes with a yellow stripe between them and a broad asphalted shoulder. The lights at the freeway intersection faded in the rear view mirror and the rolling plain on either side of the highway grew pallid gray in thin moonlight.
A blue square sign soon came into view. Spotlights revealed its words.
NOW ENTERING UNITED NATIONS INTERSTELLAR TRANSPORT BUREAU RESTRICTED ZONE. ALL VEHICLES SUBJECT TO SEARCH.
The sign left out the remote scans already performed by ITB. The truck sped onward. When curves approached, the truck’s headlights illuminated brick farmhouses and steel-walled barns. Up close, though, the buildings showed only dark windows and unlit front porches. The farmers lived somewhere else now, bought out by ITB to further the progress of mankind.
Behind barbed wire fences, fields of wild grass rustled in the breeze. Concrete pylons carried a blue pipe as thick as a man’s leg–terabit data cable–parallel to the highway. Rising up toward a curve, Stone’s headlights lit up a handmade sign of black spray paint on a bed sheet: a cannon’s barrel above the words come and take it. A last ineffectual protest against inevitable change.
Stone’s gaze drifted past the sign to more wild fields. Another foreign thought bubbled up. A shame all this ranchland is given over to brush and feral hogs.
The truck slowed again. The headlights panned across a line of solitary oaks running away from the state highway. Gravel of a side road crunched under the truck’s wheels.
Ahead, far beyond the reach of the headlights, a glow lurked behind a tree-lined rise. Stone rested his hands on the locked steering wheel and pulled himself forward in his seat as the truck crested the rise.
A hemisphere of daylight shone in the middle of the Texas night, like a fat half-moon fallen sideways to Earth. About fifty yards across, the hemisphere showed a sky a deeper blue than any sky of Earth. Under the hemisphere, a blue-black asphalt slab ran from side to side, perpendicular to a line of gouged dirt. Shells of distortion rippled the night sky just outside the hemisphere’s surface.
In front of Stone, just outside the hemisphere’s surface, rose a curved tower, about fifteen yards tall by ten wide and deep. Daylight on the tower’s sides showed a metal/carbon nanotube alloy surface with a black matte finish. A deeply recessed set of double doors huddled at ground level. The shells of distortion thickened around the vent near the curved tower’s roof, where the air rippled with waste heat from the fusion reactor powering the wormhole’s exotic matter equilibrator.
From the top of the equilibrator tower, a black strip, the equilibrator ring, arched to the hemisphere’s summit and down the far side. The surface of the equilibrator ring facing the wormhole interior shimmered with coiled blue light, all the way down to the ground. The equilibrator ring continued underground and completed the circle at the equilibrator tower’s base buried fifteen yards below ground level. Energies corralled by the equilibrator tower and ring kept the wormhole from collapsing on itself and bursting gamma rays tangential to the tower’s long axis.
Having reached the limits of his understanding of wormhole physics, Stone stretched his arm to the truck’s windshield, then jutted up his thumb. Slivers of blue sky appeared on either side of his thumb.
A sharp feeling pushed at the corners of his mouth. Gig ’em! Some glitch from the Jasper Jezhek persona. Stone shook his eyes and let his mind measure the angle and calculate the distance. Eight hundred meters. The truck rolled along, gravel crunching under the tires. Any moment now–
The truck braked. Light banks came on, flanking the road ten yards ahead. A concrete barrier blocked the right half of the road and a tubular steel gate, the left. The lights silhouetted three men in blue uniforms. Their shoulders held patches showing the UN flag distorted by a wormhole. ITB security. If ITB’s undercover operatives were keystone kops, these three were meter maids.
Stone set his hands high on the steering wheel. “Window down,” he told his truck.
Two security men fanned out, in front of the truck but clear of its path, and cocked their hips near their shooting hands in the manner of insecure policemen everywhere. The third came to the driver’s window. Buzz cut hair, lined face. “Good evening. Identification, please.”
“Of course.” Stone subvoked to his implantable to transmit Jezhek’s ID. “Is something the matter?”
“We don’t see too many transits this time of night, Mr… Jezz-heck?”
The sharp angled feeling returned, this time aimed outward. Stone kept his voice calm. “Ye-zhek. Is the wormhole closed? My clearance came through today and I don’t want to–” He nodded toward the deep blue hemisphere less than half a mile ahead. “–burn daylight.”
“You have an important purpose on New Moravia?”
“My organization wants to preserve Czech-American culture. New Moravia might be the best place for us.”
The security man’s mouth twisted in passing. “Good luck with that.” His gaze shifted to something low and central in his vision. “You’re free to go, Mr. Jezz-heck. Traffic control will request permission to override your truck’s autopilot. Do not touch your truck’s controls, especially when transiting. Best to shut your eyes when entering and exiting the wormhole.” Behind him, the gate lifted. “Good day.”
In the truck’s dark cab, the nav screen pulsed a red border around text repeating the security man’s message. Stone tapped authorize.
The truck rolled forward and left, then turned right to avoid another concrete barrier. It serpentined around two more barriers before turning to the right, onto freshly-scraped dirt heaped over a culvert shiny in the truck’s headlights. The fresh scrape marked a temporary track, bouncing Stone against the seat belt and the leather seat. The