Authors: Katharine Kerr
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #General
I looked out over an unfamiliar city, a toothed skyline of brick-and-stone buildings in a flat landscape. A brown river wound through, bound with iron bridges. A train rumbled and whistled. Factories poured black pollution out of tall smokestacks.
As I watched, I saw an enormous spray of energy, colored like the rainbow, fall into view from high above. It blotted out the sun and filled the sky. Bright spots of colored light swarmed like wasps, hot and vibrant, tearing the sky apart. I could see the black of outer space and stars shining, cold pinpricks of light as the sky withdrew like the water in a tidal wave. It rolled back and back, leaving the city naked, exposed to the blazing tide of death that swooped down to light every building with the flare and flash of all the colors in the spectrum.
With a roar the blue sky rushed back in and washed the rainbow colors away. The buildings on the skyline glowed with an evil violet glare. As the sunlight faded into night, I smelled rotting meat, the overwhelming, gagging stench of corpses.
The living room reappeared around me. The white plaster ceiling looked oddly close at hand. It occurred to me that Ari might be carrying me in his arms. I checked, and yes, he was.
“Nola? Are you back?”
“Are you ill? You’ve gone pale.”
“Just terrified. That’s all.”
He carried me to the couch, set me down, then sat next to me and slipped his arm around my shoulders. “You went into another of those sodding walking trances.”
“Yeah, sure did. It was quite a vision.”
“The death of Interchange.…”
Available from DAW Books:
LICENSE TO ENSORCELL
WATER TO BURN
APOCALYPSE TO GO
Novels of Deverry,
The Silver Wyrm Cycle:
THE GOLD FALCON (#1)
THE SPIRIT STONE (#2)
THE SHADOW ISLE (#3)
THE SILVER MAGE (#4)
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Copyright © 2012 by Katharine Kerr.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Aleta Rafton.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1576.
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Martin H. Greenberg
a lover of the short story,
but his should have been longer.
Many thanks to Howard Kerr, Madeleine Robins, Amanda Weinstein, Karen Williams, and Cliff Winnig for putting up with reading this book in ever-changing pieces. Thanks to Max Kahn for his thoughts on the effects of power stations. A special thanks to Kate Elliott and Jo Kasper, who suffered through revising the opening with me.
Y FIRST SATURDAY OFF WORK
in a long time—and it had to go and rain. I sat in the front room of my flat and stared out the bay window at the gray sky, which was busy drizzling water over my view of drab houses and an apartment building. I’d been hoping for a day in the park or on the beach with the guy I live with.
Ari Nathan, my partner in a number of senses of that word, was slumped down on our old blue couch with his feet up on the coffee table and his laptop balanced on his midsection. He’s macho gorgeous, to my way of thinking, anyway, with his wide dark eyes and softly curly dark hair. He works out a lot, too. It shows, particularly when he’s wearing tight jeans and a thin white T-shirt as he was that afternoon.
I was contemplating seducing him for recreational purposes when someone or something downloaded itself into the room. I turned cold, and my hair, which is not quite shoulder-length, lifted away from my face in what felt like a blast of wind. Not far from where Ari sat, a blue shape appeared on the landing of the stairs that led down to our front door. The way it shimmered and throbbed in a pool of blue-violet light obscured the details, but it looked vaguely human overall. Psychically, I felt it as female. Something metallic gleamed around her neck. A hint as to her identity objectified itself as the faint smell of cat urine.
Ari went on typing; he’d noticed nothing, which meant the phenomenon was purely psychic. I got up and walked toward the shape. As I got closer, I could see black tattoos all over her neck and bare shoulders—roses, maybe, though I couldn’t be sure. When I raised one hand to draw a Chaos ward and try to banish her, she shook her head as if to say, “No, don’t!” and held up a glittering blue-violet sphere about the size of a billiard ball.
“Stolen property,” the shape said to me. “Where are they?”
“Where are what?” I said. “I don’t understand.”
“What are you? A fence?” She hissed like a giant cat and disappeared.
Ari had heard me speak. He looked up with eyes that drooped in martyred resignation. “What is it now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Some kind of apparition.”
“Has it gone?”
“Yeah, though she wasn’t really here. Just a projection, I think, probably from a deviant world level.”
“That’s all? Oh, well, then, I shan’t worry about it.” He speaks like a Brit with a classy accent, because he learned his English in London.
“No need for sarcasm. Huh. I wonder if she’s a were-leopard? I think such critters exist, anyway.”
Ari sighed and hit a few keys. When I glanced at the laptop screen, I saw a solid mass of Hebrew letters.
“Working at your second job?” I said.
“None of your sodding business.”
Which meant that yes, he was. He’s an Interpol officer first and foremost, but he’s also an Israeli national and, let’s face it, a spy. “Secret agent” sounds nicer, but whatever you call it, he funnels information to his government that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Oh, well, no one’s perfect.
My name is Nola O’Grady. I can’t tell you the name of the government agency I work for. Our funding depends on our staying top secret, not because we have bureaucratic enemies but because most Americans would consider us a waste of tax monies. Your average citizen has no idea that the forces of unbridled Chaos threaten civilizations daily
throughout the multiverse. My agency’s mission: stop them from destroying ours.
I’m the head of our San Francisco bureau, or as we’re known in the Agency, the Apocalypse Squad. It sounds impressive, but as squads go, ours is pretty small game. I have two full-time staff members and a part-timer who happens to be my younger brother, Michael. Ari, my bodyguard, is technically not on Agency staff, merely on loan from Interpol “indefinitely.”
“Uh, Nola,” Ari said, “about this were-leopard.”
“Yeah?” I said. “What?”
“Is she going to come back?”
“How would I know?”
“I was afraid of that.” Ari paused to glower. “Could you make a guess?”
Before I could answer, his laptop beeped at him. Ari stared at the screen as if it had committed a crime. I waited. A minute passed. “Say what?” I said.
“Sorry.” He looked up. “Another e-mail from AOS Fourteen. Do you remember who he is?”
“The guy who must be another Interpol agent, but you couldn’t find him in any of your outfit’s online directories.”
“Right. He says that Javert told him you’ve apprehended the suspect we’re calling Belial. He wants to know if you’ll remand to his custody.”
“Tell him you can’t share that intel until he identifies himself. And ask for his need to know.”
Ari sat up straight and put the laptop onto the coffee table. He spent a few minutes fiddling with the machine, because he had to detach the Hebrew keyboard in order to attach the English version.
“Did you ever hear back from your in-house security people?” I said. “If Mr. Fourteen can use the e-mail system, they must have some kind of password or something for him.”
“Not necessarily. Conceivably he could have authorization to edit the system log.”
“How am I ever going to understand this stuff if you won’t tell me?”
“You don’t need to understand it. You have me for that.”
While we waited to see if AOS14 answered, I ran the psychic procedure that the Agency calls Scanning the Aura Field or SAF. This particular function has a number of uses, depending on how the operator focuses her mind. In this instance, with an SAF: Links I let my mind roam around what little data I knew about AOS14, who had appeared, via e-mail only, at the very end of my last case, the arrest of the aforementioned Belial.
For good measure, I included the apparition, which had appeared only moments before Spare’s e-mail. Synchronicity means a lot in my line of work. Almost immediately I saw a memory image of another thing that had recently appeared: a graffito that someone kept painting on the front of the building where we lived. About eighteen inches high, it was a solid black circle from which emerged seven black arrows, three on the bottom half, four on the top. Although it looked like a highway symbol for a multiple exit interchange, it signified the opposite of orderly procedure.