Authors: Walter Jon Williams
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #science fiction, #Adventure, #cyberpunk, #Military, #One Hour (33-43 Pages), #Space Marine
(Voice of the Whirlwind)
Walter Jon Williams
(Voice of the Whirlwind)
Walter Jon Williams
Set in the blazing future of
Voice of the Whirlwind
, “Wolf Time” continues the story of the mercenary Reese, who finds herself in the employ of a shadowy corporation intent on killing its own rogue employees. Not only is Reese assigned the impossible task of attacking an asteroid outpost whose defenders know perfectly well she’s coming, but she discovers that her greatest danger may come from her own side . . .
From Walter Jon Williams, the master of hard-boiled speculative fiction.
Copyright (c) 1987, 2014 by Walter Jon Williams
Cover art by Innovari
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Electronic Version by Baen Books
Speakers in the hospital ceiling chimed a series of low, whispery, synthesized tones, tones scientifically proven to be relaxing. Reese looked down at the boy in the hospital bed and felt her insides twist.
The boy was named Steward, and he’d just had a bullet removed that morning. In the last few days, mad with warrior zen and a suicidal concept of personal honor, he’d gone kamikaze and blown up the whole network. Griffith was dead, Jordan was dead, Spassky was dead, and nobody had stopped Steward until everything in L.A. had collapsed entirely. He hadn’t talked yet to the heat, but he would. Reese reached for her gun. Her insides were still twisting.
Steward had been lied to and jacked over and manipulated without his knowing it. Mostly it had been his friend Reese who had done it to him. She couldn’t blame him for exploding when he finally figured out what had happened.
And now this.
Reese turned off the IV monitor so it wouldn’t bleep when he died, and then Steward opened his eyes.
She could see the recognition in his look, the knowledge of what was about to happen. She might have known he wouldn’t make it easy.
“Sorry,” she said, and raised the gun. What the hell else could she say? Maybe we can still be friends, after this is over?
Steward was trying to say something. She felt herself wring out again.
She shot him three times with her silenced pistol and left. The police guards didn’t look twice at her hospital coat and ID. Proper credentials had always been her specialty.
CYA. Reese headed for Japan under a backup identity. Credentials her strong suit, as always. On the shuttle she drank a star beast and plugged her seat’s interface stud into the socket at the base of her skull.
She closed her eyes and silently projected the latest scansheets onto the optical centers of her brain, and her lips twisted in anger as for the first time she found out what had really gone down, what she’d been a part of.
Alien pharmaceuticals, tonnes of them, shipped down under illegal cover. The network had been huge, bigger than Reese, from her limited perspective, had ever suspected, and now the L.A. heat had everything. Police and security people everywhere, even in the space habitats, were going berserk.
All along, she’d thought it was friends helping friends, but her friends had jacked her around the same way she’d jacked around Steward. The whole trip to L.A. had been pointless— they had been stupid to send her. Killing Steward couldn’t stop what was happening, it was all too big. The only way Reese could stay clear was to hide.
She ordered another drink, needing it badly. The shuttle speakers moaned with the same tuneless synthesized chords as had the speakers in the hospital room. The memory of Steward lying in the bed floated in her mind, tangled in her insides.
She leaned back against the headrest and watched the shuttle’s wings gather fire.
Her career as a kick boxer ended with a spin kick breaking her nose, and Reese said the fuck with it and went back to light sparring and kung fu. Beating the hell out of herself in training only to have the hell beaten out of her in the ring was not her idea of the good life. She was thirty-six now and she might as well admit there were sports she shouldn’t indulge in, even if she had the threadware for them. The realization didn’t improve her mood.
Through the window of her condeco apartment, Reese could see a cold wailing northeast wind drive flying white scud across the shallow, reclaimed Aral Sea, its shriek drowning the minarets’ amplified call to prayer.
Neither the wind nor the view had changed in months. Reese looked at the grey Uzbek spring, turned on her vid, and contemplated her sixth month of exile.
Her hair was black now, shorter than she’d worn it in a long time. Her fingerprints were altered, as was the bone structure of her face. The serial numbers on her artificial eyes had been changed. However bleak its weather, Uzbekistan was good at that sort of thing.
The last person she’d known who had lived here was Steward. Just before he came to L.A. and blew everything to smithereens.
A young man on the vid was putting himself into some kind of combat suit, stuffing weapons and ammunition into pockets. He picked up a shotgun. Suspenseful music hammered from the speakers.
Reese turned up the sound and sat down in front of the vid.
She had considered getting back into the trade, but it was too early. The scansheets and broadcasts were still full of stories about aliens, alien ways, alien imports. About “restructuring” going on in the policorps who dealt with the Powers. It was strange seeing the news on the vid, with people ducking for cover, refusing statements, the news item followed by a slick ad for alien pharmaceuticals. People were going to trial— at least those who survived were. A lot were cooperating. Things were still too hot.
Fortunately money wasn’t a problem. She had enough to last a long time, possibly even forever.
Gunfire sounded from the vid. The young man was in a shootout with aliens, splattering Powers with his shotgun. Reese felt her nerves turn to ice.
The young man, she realized, was supposed to be Steward. She jumped forward and snapped off the vid.
She felt sickened.
Steward had never shot an alien in his life. Reese ought to know.
Fucking assholes. Fucking media vermin.
She reached for her quilted Chinese jacket and headed for the door. The room was too damn small.
She swung the door open with a bang, and a dark-complected man jumped a foot at the sound. He turned and gave a nervous grin.
“You startled me.”
He had an anonymous accent that conveyed no particular origin, just the abstract idea of foreignness. He looked about thirty. He was wearing suede pumps that had tabs of velcro on the bottoms and sides for holding onto surfaces in zero gee. His hands were jammed into a grey, unlined plastic jacket with a half-dozen pockets all sealed by velcro tabs. Reese suspected one of his hands of having a weapon in it. He was shivering from cold or nervousness. Reese figured he had just come down the gravity well— he was wearing too much velcro to have bought his clothes on Earth.
Some descendants of the Golden Horde, dressed in Flieger styles imported from Berlin, roared by on skateboards, the earpieces of their leather flying helmets flapping in the wind.
“Been in town long?” Reese asked.
He told her his name was Sardar Chandrasekhar Vivekenanda and that he was a revolutionary from Prince Station. His friends called him Ken. Two nights after their first meeting, she met him in the Natural Life bar, a place on the top story of a large bank. It catered to exiles and featured a lot of mahogany imported at great cost from Central America.
Reese had checked on Ken— no sense in being foolish— and discovered he was who he claimed to be. The scansheets from Prince mentioned him frequently. Even his political allies were denouncing his actions.
“Ram was trying to blame the February Riots on us,” Ken told her. “Cheney decided I should disappear— the riots would be blamed on me, and Cheney could go on working.”
Reese sipped her mataglap star, feeling it burn its way down her throat as she glanced down through the glass wall, seeing the wind scour dust over the Uzbeks’ metal roofs and receiver dishes. She grinned. “So Cheney arranged for you to take the fall instead of him,” she said. “Sounds like a friend of humanity to me, all right.”
Ken’s voice was annoyed. “Cheney knows what he’s doing.”
“Sure he does. He’s setting up his friends. The question is, do
know what you’re doing?”
Ken’s fine-boned hands made a dismissive gesture. “From here I can make propaganda. Cheney sends me an allowance. I’ve bought a very good communications system.”
She turned to him. “You going to need any soldiers in this revolution of yours?”
He shook his head. His lashes were full and black. “I think not. Prince Station is a hundred years old— it’s in orbit around Luna, with ready access to minerals, but it cannot compete effectively with the new equipment on other stations. Ram wants to hang on as long as possible— his policy is to loot the economy rather than rebuild. He’s guaranteed the loyalty of the stockholders by paying large dividends, but the economy can’t support the dividends anymore, and the riots showed he has lost control over the situation. It is a matter of time only. We do not expect the change will be violent— not a military sort of violence, anyway.”
“Too bad. I could use a job in someone’s foreign legion about now.” She glanced up as a group of people entered the bar— she recognized a famous swindler from Ceres named da Vega, his hands and face covered with expensive, glowing implant jewelry that reminded her of fluorescent slime mold. He was with an all-female group of bodyguards who were supposed to stand between him and any Cerean snatch teams sent to bring him to justice. They were all tall and round-eyed— da Vega liked women that way. He’d tried to recruit Reese when they first met. The pay was generous, round-eyed women being rare here, but sexual favors were supposed to be included.
jobs, Reese thought. She was tempted to feed him his socks, bodyguards or not, but in the end told him she was used to a better class of employer.
Da Vega turned to her and smiled. Uzbekistan was suddenly far too small a place.
Reese finished her mataglap star and stood. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said.
“An architecture of liberation,” Ken said. “That’s what we’re after. You should read Cheney’s thoughts on the subject.”
The night street filled with a welling tide of wind. Its alloy surface reflected bright holograms that marched up and down dark storefronts, advertising wares invisible behind dead glass. The wind howled in the latticework of radio receivers pointed at the sky, through a spiky forest of antennae. A minaret outlined by flashing red strobes speared a sky that glowed with yellow sodium light.
“Liberation,” Reese said. “Right.”
“Too many closed systems,” Ken said. He shrugged into the collar of his new down jacket. “That’s the problem with space habitats in general— they strive for closed ecological systems, and then try to close as much of their economy as possible. There’s not enough access. I’m a macroeconomist— I work with a lot of models, try to figure out how things are put together— and the most basic obstacle always seems to be the lack of access to data. We’ve got a solar system filled with corporate plutocracies, all competing with each other, none giving free access to anything they’re trying to do. And they’ve got colonies in other solar systems, and nothing about those gets out that the policorps don’t want us to know. The whole situation is far too unstable— it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen because the data simply isn’t available. Everything’s constructed along the lines of the old Orbital Soviet— not even the people who need the information get the access they require.
“Prince Station’s main business is processing minerals— that’s okay and it’s steady, but the prices fluctuate a lot as new mineral sources are exploited in the Belt and elsewhere, and it requires heavy capital investment to keep the equipment up to date. So for the sake of a stable station economy, it would be nice for Prince to develop another, steadier source of export. Biologicals, say, or custom-configured databases. Optics. Wetware. Export genetics. Anything. But it takes time and resources— five years’ worth, say— to set something like that up, and there are other policorps who specialize in those areas. We could be duplicating another group’s work, and never know it until suddenly a new product comes onto the market and wipes out our five years’ investment. All this secrecy is making for unstable economies. Unstable economies make for unstable political situations— that’s why whole policorps suddenly go belly-up.”
“So you want the policorps to give away their trade secrets.”
“I want to do away with the whole
of trade secrets. Ideally, what I’d like to do is create a whole new architecture of data storage and retrieval. Something that’s so good that everyone will have to use it to stay competitive, but something that by its very nature prohibits restriction of access.”
Reese laughed. The sound echoed from the cold metal street. “You’re dreaming.”
He gave her a faint smile. “You’re right, of course. I’d have to go back two hundred years, right to the beginning of artificial intelligence, and redesign everything from the start. Then maybe I’d have a chance.” He shrugged. “Cheney and I have more practical plans, fortunately.”
She looked at him. “You remind me of someone I used to know. He wanted to know the truth, just like you. Wanted access.”
The cold wind seemed to cut her to the bone. “He died,” she said. “Somebody shot him in a hospital.”
Somehow, caught in the warm rush of memory, she had forgot that ending.
“A funny place to get shot,” Ken said.
She remembered Steward’s last comprehending look, the final words that never came. The northeaster touched her flesh, chilled her heart. The lonely street where they walked suddenly seemed endless, not just a street but the Street, an endless alloy thoroughfare where Reese walked in chill isolation, moving between walls of neon that advertised phantom, unreal comforts. She shivered and took his hand.
Ken’s voice was soft, almost drowned by wind. “Were you close?”
“Yes. No.” She tossed her head. “I wanted to be a friend, but it would have been bad for business.”
She tasted bile on her tongue, gazing down the endless gleaming Street again, the dark people on it who touched briefly and then parted. Sometimes, she thought, she just needed reminding. She wondered what Steward’s last words might have been.
A bare yellow bulb marked the door to Ken’s apartment building. They entered, the yellow light streaming through the door to reveal the worn furniture, the bright new communications equipment.
“Hey,” Reese said, “it’s Agitprop Central.” She was glad to be out of the wind.
The room blinked to the distant red pulse of the minaret’s air-hazard lights. Reese stopped Ken’s hand on the light switch, stopped his mouth, every time he tried to talk, with her tongue. She really didn’t care if he had someone special back on Prince, preferred this to happen in a certain restrained, ethical silence.