Wolf Time

Walter Jon Williams

November 1, 2021

Editor's note: This story has been modified from the original to maintain the PG-13 tone of this site. Contains strong language and suggestive situations. Read the original story in the Bullet Points anthology.

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 hell 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.

Assholes. Damn 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 you 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.

One of those 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 concept 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.”

“I see.”

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.

Her nerves were wired for combat and she snapped them on, speeding her perceptions and making everything seem in slow motion, the way his hands moved on her, the susurrus of her own breath, the endless red beat of the strobe that sketched the outlines of his face in the warm darkness. She could hear the bluster of the northeaster outside, the way it knocked at the panes, shrieked around corners, flooded down the long and empty Street outside.

Kept securely outside, at least for this slow-moving, comforting moment of exile.

* * *

A day later a maintenance seal blew out on Prince Station and killed sixteen people. Ken was pleased.

“We can do a lot with this,” he said. “Demonstrate how the administration’s cronies can’t even do simple jobs right.”

Reese stood by the window, looking out toward the distant brown horizon, tired of Ken’s torn wallpaper and sagging furniture. In the distance, foreigners on Bactrian camels pretended they were carrying silk to Tashkent.

“Sabotage, do you think?” she asked, then corrected herself. “Sorry. Destabilization is the proper term, right?”

He sat cross-legged on his chair, watching the screen with an intent, calculating frown. “It could have been us, yes. An effective little action, if it was.”

“The people who got killed weren’t volunteers, anyway. Not your people.”

He grinned in a puzzled way. “No. Of course not.”

Reese turned to look at him, folding her arms. “That’s what scares me about you idealists. You shoot sixteen people into a vacuum, and it’s all for human betterment and the triumph of the revolution, so everything’s okay.”

Ken squinted as he looked at her against the light. “I’m not sure it’s different from what you do.”

“I’m a soldier. You’re an ideologue. The difference is that you decide who gets killed and where, and I’m the one that has to do it and face the consequences if you’re wrong. If it weren’t for people like you, I wouldn’t be necessary.”

“You think this difference somehow makes you less responsible?”

Reese shook her head. “No. But the people I fight—they’re volunteers, same as me. Getting paid, same as me. It’s clean, very direct. I take the money, do a job. I don’t know what it’s about often as not. I don’t really want to know. If I asked, the people I work for would just lie anyway.” She moved to the shabby plush chair and sat, curling one leg under her.

“I fought for humanity once, in the Artifact War. I was on Archangel with Far Jewel, making the planet safe for the Freconomicist cause. Making use of the alien technology we’d stumbled on by accident, all that biochemware the Powers are so good at. It sounded like a noble adventure, but what we were doing was looting alien ruins and stealing from the other policorps. The war blew up, and next I knew I was below the surface in those alien tunnels, and I was facing extermination cyberdrones and tailored bugs with nothing between death and my skin but a very inadequately armored environment suit. And then I got killed.”

Ken looked at her with his head cocked to one side, puzzled. “You had clone insurance? This is a different body?”

Anger burned in Reese as she spoke, and she felt it tempering her muscles, turning them rigid.

Remembered dark tunnels, bodies piled in heaps, the smell of fear that burned itself into the fibers of her combat suit, the scent that no amount of maintenance and cleaning would ever remove.

“No. Nothing like that. I did the killing—I killed myself, my personality. Because everything I was, everything I’d learned, was just contributing to help my employers, my officers, and the enemy in their effort to murder me. I had to streamline myself, get rid of everything that didn’t contribute in a positive way toward my own physical survival. I became an animal, a tunnel rat. I saw how qualities like courage and loyalty were being used by our bosses to get us killed, and so I became a disloyal coward. My body was working against me—I’m too tall for tunnels—but I tried real hard to get short, and funny enough it seemed to work. Because in times like that, if you’ve got your head right, you can do what you have to.”

She looked at Ken and grinned, baring her teeth. An adrenaline surge, triggered by the violent memory, prickled the down on her arms. “I’m still an animal. I’m still disloyal. I’m still a coward. Because that’s the only way to keep alive.”

“If you feel that way, you could get out of the business.”

She shrugged. “It’s what I do best. And if I did something else—got a job as a rigger, or some kind of tech—then I’d just be somebody else’s animal, a cow maybe, being herded from one place to another and fed on grass. At least this way, I’m my own animal. I get my reward up front.”

“And during?” Ken’s dark eyes were intent.

Reese shifted in her seat, felt a certain discomfort. Nerves, she thought, jinking from the adrenaline. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You like the work. I have that impression.”

She laughed. No reason to be defensive about it. “I like being wired and hanging right on the edge. I like knowing that I have to do things right, that any mistake I make matters.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand that. People like you.”

“You haven’t had to become an animal. You’re a macroeconomist, and you’re trained to take the long view. A few people blown out a hatch, that’s just an acceptable sacrifice. I tend to take this kind of thing personally, is all. See, I figure everyone who ever tried to get me killed was looking at the long view.”

Ken’s gaze was steady. “I’m not planning on getting you killed. That’s not part of my view.”

“Maybe someday I’ll end up standing between you and your revolution. Then we’ll see.”

He didn’t say anything. In the steadiness of his dark eyes, the absence of expression, Reese read her answer, and knew it was the one she’d expected.

* * *


It was the first time she’d heard her name in six months, and now it came from a complete stranger on a streetcorner in Uzbekistan. Her hardwired nerves were triggered and her combat thread was evaluating the man’s stance, calculating possible dangers and responses, before she even finished her turn.

He was about forty, tanned, with receding brown hair and a widow’s peak. His stance was open, his hands in plain sight: he wore a blue down vest over a plaid shirt, baggy grey wool pants, old brown square-toed boots. He smiled in a friendly way. His build was delicate, as if he’d been genetically altered. His face was turning ruddy in the wind.

“You talking to me?” Reese asked him. “My name’s Waldman.” Her wetwear was still evaluating him, analyzing every shift in posture, movement of his hands. Had Ken shopped her? she wondered. Had Cheney, after deciding she was a danger to Ken?

His smile broadened. “I understand your caution, but we know who you are. Don’t worry about it. We want to hire you.”

His voice was as American as hers. Her speeded-up reflexes gave her plenty of time to contemplate his words.

“You’d better call me Waldman if you want to talk to me at all.”

He put up his hands. Her nerves crackled. She noticed he had a ragged earlobe, as if someone had torn off an earring in a fight. “Okay, Miss Waldman. My name’s Berger. Can we talk?”

“The Natural Life, in an hour. Do you know where that is?”

“I can find out. See you there.”

He turned and walked casually up the narrow street. She watched till he was gone and then went to the apartment she rented in a waterfront condecology. She looked for signs anyone had been there in her absence—there weren’t any, but that didn’t mean anything—and then, to calm her jittery nerves, she cleaned her pistol and took a long, hot bath with the gun sitting on the side of the steel tub. She stretched out as far as the tub would let her, feeling droplets of sweat beading on her scalp while she watched the little bathroom liquid-crystal vidscreen show a bouncy pop-music program from Malaysia. She changed her clothes, put the pistol back in its holster—the security softwear at the Natural Life would shred her with poisoned darts if she tried to carry it in—and then headed back into town.

The muezzins’ song hung in the gusty air. Her mind sifted possibilities.

Berger was the heat. Berger was an assassin. Da Vega had shopped her out of pique. Cheney had sold her name. Ken had regretted telling her so much about his revolution and decided to have her iced before she sold his plans to Ram.

Life was just so full of alternatives.

Berger hadn’t arrived at the bar when she came in. The bartender was at prayer and so she turned on the desktop comp and read the scansheets, looking for something that might give her an edge, help her to understand what it was about.

Nothing. The aliens hadn’t generated any headlines today. But there was a note about a Cerean exile named da Vega who had been found dead, along with a couple of his bodyguards. Another bodyguard was missing.

Reese grinned. The Uzbeks, a people who usually endorsed the long view, had probably turned da Vega into fertilizer by now.

The amplified muezzins fell silent. The bartender returned and flipped on todo music broadcast by satellite from Japan. He took her order and then Berger walked in, dabbing at his nose with a tissue. He hadn’t been ready, he explained, for this bitter a spring. He’d have to buy a warm jacket.

“Don’t worry, Miss Waldman,” he added. “I’m not here to crease you. If I wanted to do that, I could have done it on the street.”

“I know. But you might be a cop trying to lure me out of Uzbekistan. So I hope to hell you can prove to me who you are.”

He grinned, rubbed his forehead uncomfortably. “Well. To tell you the truth, I am a policeman, of a sort.”

“Terrific. That really makes my day.”

He showed her ID. She studied it while Berger went on. “I’m a captain in Brighter Suns’ Pulsar Division. We’d like to hire you for a job up the well.”


“No. Closer to Earth.”

Reese frowned. Policorp Brighter Suns was one of the two policorps that had been set up to deal with the alien Powers. It was almost exclusively into Power imports, and its charter forbade it from owning territory outside of its home asteroid, Vesta. A lot of Brighter Suns execs were running for cover ever since Steward had blown Griffith’s network in L.A., and the whole Vesta operation was being restructured.

“The Pulsar Division handles internal security on Vesta,” Reese said. “Your outside intelligence division is called Group Seven. So why is Pulsar handling a matter so far away from home?”

“What we’d like you to handle is an internal security matter. Some of our people have gone rogue.”

“You want me to bring them back?”

Something twitched the flesh by one of Berger’s eyes. She knew what he was going to say before the words came out his mouth. She felt her nerves tingling, her muscles warming. It had been a long time.

“No. We want you to ice them.”

“Don’t tell me anything more,” she said. “I’m going to check you out before I listen to another word.”

* * *

“It’s not even murder, I’d say,” Berger said. He was eating spinach salad in an expensive restaurant called the Texas Beef, named after a vaguely pornographic and wildly popular vid show from Alice Springs. Dressing spattered the creamy tablecloth as Berger waved his fork. “We’ve got tissue samples and memory thread, like we do for all our top people—hell, we’ll clone ’em.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t end up in prison for it.”

“Who’s gonna catch you? It’s a goddam asteroid fifty zillion klicks from anywhere.”

She had checked him out as far as she could. After telling him what she was going to do, she’d sent a message to Vesta asking for confirmation of the existence of one Captain Berger of the Pulsar Division, that and a photo. Both arrived within twelve hours. If this was a plot to arrest her, it had some unlikely elements.

Reese took a mouthful of lamb in mustard sauce. She worked out hard enough, she figured, and deserved her pleasures.

“The rock’s about two kilometers in diameter. The official name is 2131YA, but it’s also called Cuervo Gold.”

“Funny names they’re giving asteroids these days.”

“They’ve run out of minor Greek gods, I guess. Cuervo’s officially owned by a nonpolicorporate mining company called Exeter Associates, which in turn is owned by us. Gold’s an Apollo asteroid, crossing Earth’s orbit on a regular schedule, and that makes it convenient for purposes of resupply, and also makes it a lot more isolated than any of the rocks in the Belt. We’ve had a lab there for a while, using it to develop some technology that—” He grinned. “Well, that we wanted to keep far away from any competition. Security on Vesta is tight, but it’s a port, people are always coming in and out. What we’ve got on the asteroid is pretty hot stuff, and we wanted to keep it away from the tourists.”

“I don’t really want to know,” Reese said.

“I don’t know myself, so I couldn’t tell you,” Berger said. “The work was in a fairly advanced stage when certain activities relating to your old friend Griffith became public. It became an urgent matter to shut down the project and transfer its members to other duties in central Africa, where I work. If the investigators found out about our owning that asteroid, and what’s on it, Brighter Suns could be very embarrassed.”

“The techs refused to move?” Reese asked.

“They protested. They said their work was entering a critical stage. A transport was sent from Earth to pick them up, but they refused to evacuate, and then we lost touch with the freighter. We think the crew have been killed or made prisoner.”

“Your people could have defected to another policorp, using the transport.”

“We don’t think so. Their work would have been hard to take with them. And they couldn’t have gone far without attracting attention—some of the lab personnel were Powers.”

A coolness moved through Reese’s bones. She sat up, regarding Berger carefully. Powers were forbidden off the two entry ports—the official reason was that there was too much danger of cross-contamination from alien life-forms. Plagues had already devastated the two Power legations, and the reverse was always a possibility. The discovery of Powers in Brighter Suns’ employ outside of Vesta would ruin Brighter Suns’ credit for good.

But after a while the heat on Brighter Suns would die down. Trade with the aliens was too profitable for people to interfere with it for long. In a year or two, the lab could be reopened with cloned personnel and some very mean security goons to make certain they followed orders.

“I understand your sense of urgency,” Reese said. “But why me? Why not go yourself?”

“We don’t have anyone with your talents on Earth,” Berger said. “I’m not wired the way you are. And, well, we’d like to know you’re gainfully employed by us rather than floating around Uzbekistan waiting to be captured by the heat. If we can find you, they probably can.”

Reese sipped her club soda. “How did you find me, exactly?”

“Someone recognized you.”

“Who might that have been?”

The skin by Berger’s eye gave a leap. “It’s already taken care of,” he said. “We didn’t want him giving your name to anyone else.”

Da Vega.

Well. At least it wasn’t Ken.

But there was also a threat: Berger didn’t want her in this refugees’ paradise, where the number of desperate people was higher than average and where a policorporate kidnap team could find her. If they’d already iced one person, they could put the ice on another.

“Let’s talk payment,” Reese said. “Brighter Suns, I think, can afford to pay me what I’m worth.”

* * *

Ram’s cops had beaten some woman to death during interrogation. Ken was busy at his console, putting out fact and opinion pieces, making the most of another death for the revolution. Reese paced the room, picking at the tattered wallpaper, eating Mongolian barbecue from a waxed paper container. Below the window, some drunken descendant of the Golden Horde was singing a sad song to the moon. He kept forgetting the lyrics and starting over, and the burbling ballad was getting on Reese’s nerves.

“I’d feel better,” she said, “if Cheney was paying you a decent wage.”

“He pays what he can afford.” Ken’s fingers sped over his keyboard. “The money has to be laundered, and he has to be careful how he does it.”

“You don’t even have a promise of a job after it’s all over.”

Ken shrugged. “Prince can always use another economist.”

“And you don’t have protection. Ram could order you iced.”

“He needs a live scapegoat, not a dead martyr.” He frowned as he typed. “This isn’t a mysterious business, you know. Ram knows our strength and most of our moves, and we know his. There aren’t very many hidden pieces on the board.”

The Uzbek began his song again. Reese clenched her teeth. She put her hand on Ken’s shoulder.

“I’m disappearing tomorrow,” she said.

He tilted his head back, looking up in surprise. His fingers stopped moving on the keys.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I got a job.”

She saw a confirmation in his eyes. “Not one you can talk about,” he said.

“No. But it’s not for Ram. In case you were wondering.”

He took her hand in one of his. “I’ll miss you.”

Reese put her food carton on top of his video display. Her chopsticks jabbed the air like rabbit-ear antennae.

“I’ve got another twelve hours before I take the plane to Beijing.”

Ken turned off his console. “I can send the rest out tomorrow,” he said.

Reese was surprised. “What about the revolution?”

He shrugged and kissed the inside of her wrist. “Sometimes I feel redundant. The revolution is inevitable, after all.”

“It’s nice to know,” Reese said, “that the devil can quote ideology to his purpose.”

Outside, the Uzbek continued his wail to the desolate stars.

* * *

The tug was called Voidrunner, and it was thirty years old at least, the padding on its bulkheads patched with silver tape, bundles of cable hanging out of access hatches. Reese had been in enough ships like it not to let the mess bother her—all it meant was that the tug didn’t have to impress its passengers. The air inside tasted acrid, as if the place was crammed full of sweating men, but there were only four people on board.

Berger introduced the other three to Reese, then left, waving cheerily over his shoulder. About four minutes later, Voidrunner cast off from Charter Station and began its long acceleration to its destination.

Reese watched the departure from the copilot’s chair in the armored docking cockpit. The captain performed the maneuvers with his eyes closed, not even looking out the bubble canopy at the silver-bright floodlit skin of Charter, reality projected into his head through his interface thread, his eyelids twitching as his eyes reflexively scanned mental indicators.

His name was Falkland. He was about fifty, an Artifact War veteran who, fifteen years before, had been doing his level best to kill Reese in the tunnels of Archangel. A chemical attack had left his motor reflexes damaged, and he wore a light silver alloy exoskeleton. Fortunately his brain and interface thread had survived the war intact. He wore a grey beard and his hair long over his collar.

“Prepare for acceleration,” he said, his eyes still closed. “We’ll be at two gees for the first six hours.”

Reese looked out at Earth’s dull grey moon, vast, taking up most of the sky. “Right,” she said. “Got my piss bottle right here.” Hard gees were tough on the bladder.

After the long burn Voidrunner settled into a constant one-gee acceleration. Falkland stayed strapped in, his eyelids still moving to some internal REM light show. Reese unbuckled her harness, stretched her relieved muscles while her spine and neck popped, and moved downship.

Falkland offered no comment.

The crew compartment smelled of fresh paint. Reese saw the tug’s engineer, a tiny man named Chung, working on a bulkhead fire alarm. His head was bobbing to music he was feeding to his aural nerves.

Chung was so into the technophilic Destinarian movement he was turning himself slice by slice into a machine. His eyes were clear implants that showed the interior silver circuitry; his ears were replaced by featureless black boxes, and there were other boxes of obscure purpose jacked into his hairless scalp. His teeth were metal, and liquid-crystal jewelry, powered by nerve circuitry, shone in ever-changing patterns on his cheeks and on the backs of his hands. He hadn’t said anything when Berger introduced him, just looked at Reese for a moment, then turned back to his engines.

Now he said something. His voice was hoarse, as if he wasn’t used to using it. “He’s downship. In Cargo B.”

His back was to Reese, and she had been moving quietly. His head still bobbed to inaudible music. He hadn’t even turned his head to speak. “Thanks,” she said. “Nice implants.”

“The best. I built ’em myself.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be monitoring the burn?”

He pointed at one of his boxes. “I am.”


She always found common ground with control freaks.

Vickers was in Cargo B, as Chung had promised. He was Reese’s armorer, hired by Berger for the sole purpose of maintaining the combat suit that Reese was to wear on Cuervo. Vickers was young, about eighteen, and thin. His dark hair was cut short; he had a stammer and severe acne. He was dressed in oil-spattered coveralls. When Reese walked in, Vickers was peeling the suit’s components out of their foam packing. She helped him lay the suit on the deck. Vickers grinned.

“W-wolf 17,” he said. His voice was American Southern. “My favorite. You’re gonna kick some ass with this. It’s so good it can p-practically do the job by itself.”

The suit was black, long-armed, anthropoid. The helmet, horned by radio antennae, was fused seamlessly to the shoulders. Inside, Reese’s arms, legs, and body would fit into a complex web that would hold her tightly: the suit would amplify and strengthen her every move. It wasn’t entirely natural movement—she’d have to get used to having a lot more momentum in free fall than she normally did.

“D-damn great machine,” Vickers said. Reese didn’t answer.

The Wolf’s dark viewplate gleamed in the cool cabin light. There was a clean functionality to its design that made it even more fearful—nothing in its look gave the impression that it was anything but a tool for efficient murder. The white Wolf trademark shone on the matte-black body of the suit. Reese fought a memory charged with fear—Wolf made most of the cyberdrones she’d encountered on Archangel. The combat suit, free of its packing, had a smell she’d hoped she’d never scent again.

“I want to look at the manual,” she said. “And the schematics.” If her life was going to depend on this monster, she wanted to know everything there was to know about it.

Vickers looked at her approvingly. “I’ve got them on thread in m-my cabin. The suit’s standard, except for some c-custom thread woven into the t-target-acquisition unit. Berger knows who you’re going to b-be gunning for, and he put in some specific target identification routines. You’re gonna be h-hot.”

“That’s the plan,” Reese said. The smell of the Wolf, oil and plastic webbing and cold laminate armor, rose in her senses. She repressed a shiver.

Vickers was still admiring the Wolf. “One wicked son of a bitch,” he said.

When talking to machines, Reese noticed, Vickers lost his stammer.

* * *

Reese and the Wolf moved as one in the void. Amber-colored target-acquisition data glowed on the interior of the black faceplate. Below them the asteroid glittered as flecks of mica and nickel reflected the relentless sun.

No way they’re not gonna know you’re coming, Berger had told her. Not with your ship’s torch coming at them. We stabilized the rock’s spin, so you can try landing on the blind side, but they’re smart enough to have put detectors out there, so we can’t count on surprise. What we’re going to have to do is armor you so heavily that no matter what they try to do to you, they can’t get through.

Great, she thought. Now the rock’s little techs, human and alien, were probably standing by the airlocks with whatever weapons they’d been able to assemble in the last weeks, just waiting for something to try booming in. All she could do was hope they weren’t ready for the Wolf.

The hissing of her circulating air was very loud in the small space of the helmet. Reese could feel sweat gathering under the Wolf’s padded harness. The rock’s short horizon scrolled below her feet. Attitudinal jets made brief adjustments, kept Reese close to the surface. The Wolf’s suit monitors were projected, through her interface stud, in a complex multidimensional weave, bright columns glowing in the optical centers of her brain. She watched the little green indicators, paying little attention as long as they stayed green.

The target rolled over the near horizon in an instant—a silver-bright pattern of solar collectors, transmission aerials, dishes pointed at different parts of the sky. In the middle squatted the gleaming bulk of the freighter that had been sent to retrieve the base personnel, its docking tube still connected to the big cargo airlock.

Reese had a number of choices for gaining entry: there were two personnel airlocks, or she could go through one of the freighter locks and then through the docking tube. There were nine personnel on station, five humans and four Powers.

They can brew explosives with the stuff they’ve got on station, Berger had told her. But they can’t put anything too big around the airlock, or they’d decompress the whole habitat—and they don’t have enough stored air to repressurize. They can’t set off anything too big inside, or they’d wreck their work. It’s too small a place for them to plan anything major. We figure they’ll depend on small explosives, and maybe gas.

The base rolled closer. Reese felt her limbs moving easily in the webbing, the hum of awareness in her nerves and blood. A concrete certainty of her capabilities. All the things she had been unable to live without.

Coolant flow had increased, the suit baking in the sun. The webbing around her body was chafing her.

She thought of explosive, of gas, the way the poison clouds had drifted through the tunnels on Archangel, contaminating everything, forcing her to live inside her suit for days, not even able to take a shit without risking burns on her ass. At least this was going to be quick, however it went.

Reese decided to go in through one of the small personnel airlocks—the brains inside the rock might have decided the cargo ship was expendable and packed its joints with homemade explosive. She maneuvered the Wolf in a slow somersault and dropped feet-first onto the velcro strip by Airlock Two.

Berger wanted her to get in without decompressing the place if she could—there was stuff inside he didn’t want messed up. Reese bent and punched the emergency entrance button, and to her surprise she began to feel a faint humming through her feet and the hatch began to roll up. She’d planned to open the hatch manually.

How naive were these people? she wondered. Or was there some surprise in the airlock, waiting for her?

You’re gonna c-carry that stuff? Vickers had asked in surprise, as he noticed the pistol snugged under the armpit and the long knife strapped to her leg.

I don’t want to depend entirely on the Wolf, she’d said. If it gets immobilized somehow, I want to be able to surprise whoever did it.

There’d been an amused grin on Vickers’ face. They immobilize the Wolf, they sure as hell can immobilize you.

Adjust the webbing anyway, she’d said. Because battle machinery always went wrong sooner or later, because if the mission directive didn’t give her backup, she’d just have to be her own. Because she just didn’t like the Wolf, its streamlined design, its purposeful intent. Because even to someone accustomed to violence, the thing was obscene.

Reese knelt by the airlock, pulled a videocamera from her belt, and held it over the airlock, scanning down and fought back a wave of bile surging into her throat, because the lock was full of dead men.

Mental indicators shifted as, with a push of her mind, she ordered her attitudinal jets to separate the Wolf from the velcro parking strip, then drop into the lock. The dead swam in slow motion as she dropped among them. Her heart crashed in her chest.

The crew of the freighter, she thought. The rebels had put them in here, not having anyplace else. Their skins were grey, the tongues protruding and black. Some kind of poison.

“Welcome to Cuervo Gold,” she said, and laughed. Nerves.

She hit the button to cycle the airlock, found it refused to work. Incurious dead eyes gazed at her as she cranked the outer door shut manually, then planted thermocharges on the inner door locks. She drifted up to the top of the airlock again, the Wolf’s horns scratching the outer door. The dead men rose with her, bumping gently against the Wolf’s arms and legs.

Reese curled her legs under her, protecting the Wolf’s more vulnerable head and back. Adrenaline was beating a long tattoo in her pulse.

A vulture smile crossed her face. Her nerves sang a mad little song. Here’s where I take it up the ass, she thought, and pulsed through her wetware the radio code to set off the detonators.

The lock filled with scorching bright light, smoke, molten blobs of bright metal. Air entered the lock with a prolonged scream. Suddenly her olfactory sensors were overwhelmed with the smell of scorched metal, burning flesh. Her gorge rose. She pulsed a command to cut out the smell, then moved down to the inner lock door, seized it, rolled it up with the enhanced strength of the Wolf.

An explosion went off right in her face. Projectiles thudded into corpse flesh, cracked against the faceplate. She and the dead men went flying back, slamming against the outer hatch. Her pulse roared in her ears. She gave the Wolf a command to move down, and move down fast.

Her nerves were shrieking as she smashed into a wall of the airlock, corrected, flew down again, out the lock this time, cracked into another wall. Her teeth rattled. A homemade claymore, she thought, explosive packed in a tube with shrapnel, bits of jagged alloy, wire, junk. Command-detonated, most likely, so that meant someone was here watching the airlock door. Targeting displays flashed bright red on the interior of her faceplate. She turned and fired. Slammed into a wall again. Fired a second time.

The targets died. Fixed to each of the Wolf’s upper forearms was a semiautomatic ten-gauge shotgun firing shells packed with poison flechettes. Reese had more deadly equipment available—a small grenade launcher on the left lower forearm, and a submachine gun on the right, gas projectors on her chest—but the op plan was to kill the targets without taking a chance on disturbing any of the valuable equipment or experiments.

Dollops of blood streamed into the near-weightlessness, turning into crimson spheres. A man and a woman, the latter holding some kind of homemade beam weapon she hadn’t got the chance to fire, were slowly flying backward toward the sprayed grey plastic walls, their hearts and lungs punctured by a dozen flechettes each. Their faces were frozen in slow-gathering horror at the sight of the Wolf. Reese tried to move, then hit the wall again. She realized the shrapnel had jammed one of her maneuvering jets full on. Her wetware wove routines to compensate, then she leaped past the dying pair and through an open doorway.

No one was in the next series of partitioned rooms, the crew quarters. These people were incredibly naive, she thought, hiding out next to an airlock they knew was going to be blown and not even getting into vac suits. They should have put the claymore on the interior hatch door, not inside the station itself.

Maybe they couldn’t face going into where they’d put the crew they’d killed. These weren’t professionals, they were a bunch of eggheads who hadn’t known what they were getting into when they signed their declaration of independence from a policorp that could not even afford to acknowledge their existence.

They weren’t soldiers, but they were still volunteers. They’d already killed people, quite coldly it seemed, in the name of whatever science they were doing here. She clenched her teeth and thought about how some people, no matter how smart they were, remained just too stupid to live.

There was a new bulkhead door welded to the exterior of the crew quarters. Reese blew it open the same way as the airlock, then jetted through. Shrieks sounded on her audio thread, the strange organ sounds Powers made through their upper set of nostrils. Even as her mind squalled at the unearthly sight of a fast-moving, centauroid pair of aliens, she fired. They died before they could fire their homemade weapons. Her mind flashed on the video, the actor-Steward eradicating aliens with his shotgun. An idiotic memory.

She went through a door marked with biohazard warnings. The door gave a soft hiss as she opened it.

The next room was brightly lit, humming with a powerful air conditioning unit, filled with computer consoles plugged into walls of bare metal, not plastic. Cable stretched to and from something that looked like a hundred-liter aquarium filled with what appeared to be living flesh. Strange, she thought. It looked as if the meat were divided by partitions, like honeycomb in a cultured hive. Silver-grey wires, apparently variable-lattice thread, were woven through the meat. Elsewhere an engine hummed as it pumped crimson fluid. Monitors drew jagged lines across screens, holographic digits floated in air.

Weird, she thought again. Alien biochemistry.

There were three other rooms identical to the last. No one was in the first two.

In the third was a single man, gaunt, silver-haired. He was floating by the room’s aquarium, a frown on his face. He was in a vac suit with the helmet in his hand, giving the impression he simply didn’t want to bother to put it on.

He looked at Reese as she came in. There was no fear in his eyes, only sadness.

He spoke as he pushed off from the aquarium, floating to the empty alloy ceiling, where Reese’s shot wouldn’t hit his experiment by mistake.

“It’s over,” he said. “Not that it matters.”

Reese thought of Steward in the hospital bed, dying for something else equally stupid, equally futile, and filled the man’s face with poison darts.

Past the next seal two Powers tried to burn her with acid. The stuff smoked pointlessly on her ceramic armor while she killed them. One of the remaining humans tried to surrender, and the other tried to hide in a toilet. Neither tactic worked. She searched the place thoroughly, found no one else, and disarmed the traps at each of the airlocks.

There was a pain deep in her skull. The air in the suit had begun to taste bad, full of sour sweat, burnt adrenaline. Sadness drifted through her at the waste, the stupidity of it all. Twelve more dead, and all for nothing.

Reese left the bodies where they lay—nobody was paying her to clean the place up—and used the other personnel lock to return to Voidrunner. Once she was in sight of the ship she pointed one of her microwave antennae at the ship and gave the code signaling success: “Transmit the following to base. Mandate. Liquid. Consolidation.” A combination of words unlikely to be uttered by accident.

She cycled through the ship’s central airlock. Pain hammered in her brain, her spine. Time to get out of this obscene contraption. The door opened.

Targeting displays flashed scarlet on the interior of her faceplate. Reese’s nerves screamed as the Wolf’s right arm, with her arm in it, rose: The ten-gauge exploded twice and the impact spun Vickers back against the opposite wall. He impacted and bounced lightly, already dead. “No!” Reese cried, and the Wolf moved forward, brushing the body aside. Reese’s arms, trapped in the suit’s webbing, rose to a combat stance. She tried to tug them free. Targeting displays were still flashing. Reese tried to take command of the suit through the interface stud. It wouldn’t respond.

“Take cover!” Reese shouted. “The Wolf’s gone rogue!” She didn’t know whether the suit was still on transmit or whether anyone was listening. The Wolf had visible light and IR detectors, motion scanners, scent detectors, sensors that could detect the minute compression wave of a body moving through air.

There was no way the Wolf would miss anyone in the ship, given enough time.

Reese’s heart thundered in her chest. “Get into vac suits!” she ordered. “Abandon ship! Get onto the station. Try and hold out there.”

Chung’s voice snapped over the outside speakers. “Where the hell are you?” At least someone was listening.

“I’m moving upship toward the control room. Oh, shit.” The heads-up display indicated the Wolf had detected motion from the docking cockpit, which meant the armored bulkhead door was open.

The Wolf caught Falkland as he was trying to fly out of the cockpit and get to an airlock. The flechettes failed to penetrate the exoskeleton, so the Wolf flew after him, caught him bodily. Reese felt her left hand curling around the back of Falkland’s head, the right hand draw back to strike. She fought against it. Falkland was screaming, trying to struggle out of the Wolf’s grip. “I’m not doing this!” Reese cried, wanting him to know that, and closed her eyes.

Her right arm punched out once, twice, three times. The Wolf began to move again. When Reese opened her eyes there was blood and bone spattering the faceplate.

“I’m still heading upship,” Reese said. “I don’t think the Wolf knows where you are.”

Chung didn’t answer. No point, Reese thought, in his sending a radio signal that might give away his position. The Wolf reached the forward control room, then began a systematic search of the ship, moving aft. Reese reported the suit’s movements, hoping to hell he’d get away. The ship was small, and a search wouldn’t take long.

Custom thread, Vickers had told her. Woven into the target-acquisition unit. Berger had done it, she knew, not only wanting to wipe out the station personnel but anyone who knew of Cuervo’s existence.

She was riding in an extermination cyberdrone now, trapped inside its obscene, purposeful body.

Mandate. Liquid. Consolidation. The code had sent the Wolf on its rampage. The liquidation is mandated. Consolidate knowledge about Cuervo.

Displays flickered on the screen. The thing had scented Chung. Reese could do nothing but tell him it was coming.

Chung was by the aft airlock, halfway into the rad suit he’d need to flee through the airless engine space.

His face was fixed in an expression of rage. “Steward!” Reese screamed. The ten-gauge barked twice, and then the Wolf froze. The displays were gone. The Wolf, still with considerable momentum, continued to drift toward the aft bulkhead. It struck and rebounded, moving slowly toward Chung.

Reese tried to move in the suit, but its joints were locked. Her crashing pulse was the loudest sound in the helmet. She licked sweat from her upper lip, felt it running down her brows. Chung’s body slowly collapsed in the insignificant gravity of the asteroid. Drops of blood fell like slow-motion rubies. The gravity wasn’t enough to break the surface tension, and the droplets rested on the deck like ball bearings, rolling in the circulating air.

Reese’s heart stopped as she realized that the sound of the Wolf’s air-circulation system had ceased. She had only the air in the suit, then nothing.

Her mind flailed in panic. Shouting, her cries loud in her ears, she tried to move against the locked joints of the Wolf. The Wolf only drifted slowly to the deck, its limbs immobile.

Like Archangel, she thought. Nothing to look forward to but dying in a suit, in a tunnel, in the smell of your own fear. Just like her officers had always wanted. She tasted bile and fought it down.

I’m using air, she thought, and clamped down, gulping twice, trying to control her jackhammer heart, her panicked breath.

Chung’s furious eyes glared into hers at a distance of about three feet. She could see a reflection of the Wolf in his metal teeth. Reese began to move her arms and legs, testing the tension of the web.

There was a pistol under her left arm. If she could get to it with her right hand, she might be able to shoot her way out of the suit somehow.

Fat chance.

But still it was something to do, anyway. She began to move her right arm against the webbing, pulling it back. Blood rubies danced before her eyes. She managed to get her hand out of the glove, but there was a restraining strap against the back of her elbow that prevented further movement. She pushed forward, keeping her hand out of the glove, then drew back. Worked at it slowly, synchronizing the movement with her breath, exhaling to make herself smaller. Steward, she thought, would have been quoting Zen aphorisms to himself. Hers were more direct. You can get smaller if you want to, she thought, you’ve done it before.

She got free of the elbow strap, drew her arm back, felt her elbow encounter the wall of the suit. She was beginning to pant. The air can’t be gone this quickly, she thought, and tried to control panic as she pulled back on her arm, as pain scraped along her nerves. Sweat was coating her body. She tried to think herself smaller. She could feel warm blood running down her arm. The Wolf was saturated with the scent of fear.

Reese screamed as her arm came free, part agony, part exultation. She reached across her chest, felt the butt of the pistol. It was cold in her hand, almost weightless.

Where to point it? She could try blowing out the faceplate, but she’d have the barrel within inches of her face, and the faceplate was damn near impervious anyway. The bullet would probably ricochet right into her head. The Wolf was too well armored. Chung’s angry glare was making it impossible for her to think. Reese closed her eyes and tried to think of the schematics she’d studied, the location of the variable-lattice thread that contained the suit’s instructions.

Behind her, she thought. Pressed against her lower spine was the logic thread that operated the Wolf’s massive limbs. If she could wreck the thread, the locked limbs might move.

She experimented with the pistol. There wasn’t enough room to completely angle the gun around her body.

Sweat floated in salty globes around her as she thought it through, tried desperately to come up with another course of action. The air grew foul. Reese decided that shooting herself with the pistol would be quicker than dying of asphyxiation.

She tried to crowd as far over to the right as possible, curling the gun against her body, holding it reversed with her thumb on the trigger. The cool muzzle pressed into her side, just below the ribs. Line it up carefully, she thought. You don’t want to have to do this more than once. She tried to remember anatomy and what was likely to get hit. A kidney? Adrenal glands?

Here’s where I really take it up the ass, she thought. She screamed, building rage, and fired... and then screamed again from pain. Sweat bounced against the faceplate, spattering in the fierce momentum of the bullet’s pressure wave.

The Wolf’s limbs unlocked and the cyberdrone sagged to the deck. Reese gave a weak cheer, then shrieked again from the pain.

She had heard it wasn’t supposed to hurt when you got hit, not right away. Another lie, she thought, invented by the officer class.

There was something wrong with the world, with the way it was manifesting itself. She realized she was deaf from the pistol blast.

Reese leaned back, took a deep breath of foul air. Now, she thought, comes the easy part.

* * *

Reese managed to put her right arm back into the sleeve, then use both arms—the armor, thankfully, was near weightless—to get herself out of the suit. She moved to the sick bay and jabbed endorphin-analogue into her thigh, then X-rayed herself on the portable machine. It looked as if she hadn’t hit anything vital, but then she wasn’t practiced at reading X-rays, either. She patched herself up, swallowed antibiotics, and then out of nowhere the pain slammed down, right through the endorphin. Every muscle in her body went into spasm. Reese curled into a ball, her body a flaming agony. She bounced gently off one wall, then another. Fought shuddering waves of nausea. Tears poured from her eyes. It hurt too much to scream.

It went on forever, for days. Loaded on endorphins, she looted the station, moving everything she could into the freighter, then pissed bright blood while howling in agony. Fevers raged in her body. She filled herself with antibiotics and went on working. Things—people, aliens, hallucinations—kept reaching at her, moving just outside her field of vision. Sometimes she could hear them talking to her in some strange, melodic tongue.

She grappled Voidrunner to the freighter’s back, then lifted off Cuervo and triggered the charges. She laughed at the bright blossoms of flame in the locks, the gush of air that turned to white snow in the cold vacuum, and then into a bright rainbow as it was struck by the sun. Reese accelerated toward Earth for as long as she could stand it, then cut the engines.

There was a constant wailing in her ears, the cry of the fever in her blood. For the next several days—one of them was her birthday—Reese hung weightless in her rack, fought pain and an endless hot fever, and studied the data she’d stolen, trying to figure out why nine tame scientists were willing to commit murder over it.

The fever broke, finally, under the onslaught of antibiotics. Her urine had old black blood now, not bright new crimson. She thought she was beginning to figure out what the station crew had been up to.

It was time to decide where she was going to hide. The freighter and the tug were not registered to her, and her appearance with them was going to result in awkward questions. She thought about forging records of a sale—credentials, after all, were her specialty. Reese decided to tune in on the broadcasts from Earth and see if there were any new places for refugees to run to.

To her surprise she discovered that Ram’s executive board on Prince Station had fallen three days before, and Cheney had been made the new chairman. She waited another two days, studying the data she’d stolen, the bottles of strange enzymes and tailored RNA she had moved to the freighter’s cooler, and then beamed a call to Prince and asked for S. C. Vivekenanda. She was told the vice president of communications was busy. “I can wait,” she said. “Tell him it’s Waldman.”

Ken’s voice came on almost immediately. “Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m coming your way,” Reese told him. “And I think I’ve got your architecture of liberation with me. But first, we’ve got to cut a deal.”

* * *

What the lab’s inhabitants had been up to wasn’t quite what Ken had been talking about that gusty spring night in Uzbekistan, but it was close. The Brighter Suns biologists and artificial intelligence people had been working on a new way of storing data, a fast and efficient way, faster than variable-lattice thread.

They had succeeded in storing information in human DNA.

It had been tried before. Genetically altered humanity had been present for a century, and the mysteries of the genetic mechanism had been thoroughly mapped. There had long been theories that genetic material, which succeeded in coding far more information on its tiny strand than any comparable thread-based technology, would provide the answer to the endless demand for faster and more efficient means of data storage.

The theories had always failed when put into practice. Just because specialists could insert desirable traits in a strand of human DNA didn’t mean they had the capability of doing it at the speed of light, reading the genetic message the strand contained at similar speed, or altering the message at will. The interactions of ribosomes, transfer RNA, and enzymes were complex and interrelated to the point where the artificial intelligence/biologist types had despaired of trying to control them with current technology.

Alien genetics, it turned out, were simple compared to the human. Power DNA chains were much shorter, containing half the two hundred thousand genes in a human strand, without the thousands of repetitions and redundancies that filled human genes. Their means of reproducing DNA were similar, but similarly streamlined.

And the Power method of DNA reproduction was compatible with human genetics. The transfer and message RNA were faster, cleaner, more controllable. Information transfer had a theoretically astounding speed—a human DNA strand, undergoing replication, unwound at 8000 RPM. Power RNA combined with human DNA made data transfers on thread look like slow motion.

Once the control technology was developed, information could be targeted to specific areas of the DNA strand. The dominant genes could remain untouched; but the recessive genes could be altered to contain information. Nothing could be kept secret when any spy could code information in his own living genetic makeup. And no one could discover the spy unless they knew what code he was using and what they were looking for.

The architecture of liberation. Risk-free transfer of data. It would be years before any of this was possible—Prince Station’s newly hired biologists would have to reconstruct all the station’s work and then develop it to the point where it was commercially viable. But Prince Station was going to have its new source of technology, and Reese a new source of income—she’d asked for a large down payment in advance of a small royalty that should nevertheless make her a billionaire in the next forty years. She’d asked for that, plus Prince’s help in disposing of a few other problems.

* * *

Reese looked down at her double, lying on a bed in a room that smelled of death. Her twin’s eyes were closed, her breasts rose and fell under a pale blue sheet. Bile rose in Reese’s throat.

Reese was blond again, her nose a little straighter, her mouth a little wider. She had a new kidney, a new eardrum. New fingerprints, new blue irises. She liked the new look. The double looked good, too.

Two bodies, a man and a woman, were sprawled at the foot of the bed: assassins, sent by Berger to kill her. They had followed a carefully laid trail to her location here on Prince, and when they came into her apartment they’d been shot dead by Prince’s security men firing from concealment in the wide bedroom closet. Reese had waited safely in the next room, her nerves burning with adrenaline fire while she clutched Ken’s hand; her nerves alert for the sound of gunfire, she watched her double breathe under its sheet.

Then the security people came for the mannikin. They were going to kill it.

The double was Reese’s clone. Her face had been restructured the same way Reese’s had, and her artificial eyes were blue. Her muscles had been exercised via electrode until they were as firm as Reese’s. There was even a metal pin in her ankle, a double of the one Reese carried. The clone was an idiot—her brain had never contained Reese’s mind.

The idea was to make it appear that Reese and the assassins had killed each other. Reese looked down at her double and felt her mouth go dry. The security people were paddling around the room, trying to make appearances perfect. Hot anger blazed behind Reese’s eyes. Fuck this, she thought.

She pried the pistol out of one of the assassins’ hands and raised it.

She was a tunnel rat, she thought. An animal, a coward, disloyal. Sometimes she needed reminding.

“It’s not murder,” Ken said, trying to help.

“Yes it is,” Reese said. She raised the killer’s gun—an ideal assassin’s weapon, a compressed-air fletcher—and fired a silent dart into the mannikin’s thigh. Then she closed her eyes, not wanting to see the dying thing’s last spasm. Instead she saw Steward, dying in his own silent bed, and felt a long grey wave of sadness. She opened her eyes and looked at Ken.

“It’s also survival,” she said.

“Yes. It is.”

A cold tremor passed through Reese’s body. “I wasn’t talking about the clone.”

While Ken’s assistants made it look as if she and the assassins had killed each other, Reese stepped through the hidden door into the next apartment. Her bag was already packed, her identity and passport ready. Credentials, she thought, her specialty. That and killing helpless people. Group rates available.

She wanted to live by water again. New Zealand sounded right. It was getting to be spring there now.

“You’ll come back?” Ken asked.

“Maybe. But in the meantime, you’ll know where to send the royalties.” There was pain in Ken’s eyes, in Steward’s eyes. Attachments were weakness, always a danger. Reese had a vision of the Street, people parting, meeting, dying, in silence, alone. She wouldn’t be safe on Prince and couldn’t be a part of Ken’s revolution. She was afraid she knew what it was going to turn into, once it became the sole possessor of a radical new technology. And what that would turn Ken into.

Reese shouldered her bag. Her hands were still trembling. Sadness beat slowly in her veins. She was thirty-seven now, she thought. Maybe there were sports she shouldn’t indulge in.

Maybe she should just leave.

“Enjoy your new architecture,” she said, and took off.

Walter Jon Williams is the award-winning author of over forty volumes of fiction, including the Dread Empire’s Fall series and “The Green Leopard Plague,” which won the Nebula award in 2004. His blog is as complex and riveting as his fiction prose.