Excerpt – Voice of the Whirlwind

This is an excerpt from my novel Voice of the Whirlwind, now available from Night Shade Books. This excerpt is copyright (c) 1987 by Walter Jon Williams. All rights are reserved by the author. It may not be duplicated or distributed without permission of the author.

“I like this book so much there’s a passage from it tattooed on my thigh.” — Peter J. Johanssen

This excerpt begins partway into the novel. I think you’ll find your footing fairly quickly, though…

LA. Night.

Steward looked down from the window of his descending aircraft and saw a web of Earthbound stars that marched from the mountains right into the rising ocean, stars that blurred with heat shimmer and promise.

The plane began to buffet as its plastic and alloy skin changed configuration, braking from supersonic to landing-approach speed. Below, Steward could feel Los Angeles reaching up for him with mirrored fingers.

He smiled. At home, though he’d never been here before.

Steward put the package in his pocket. He was to deliver it to Spassky in LA tomorrow evening.

“Beer in the refrigerator,” Griffith said. “Make yourself at home.”

Lightsource’s apartment in Flagstaff was furnished in a utilitarian way, very like a hotel room: bed, sturdy chairs, video, refrigerator, cooking range—just like a hundred other apartments in the same building, most owned by corporations. Steward sat on one of the chairs. He felt scratchy brown fabric against the backs of his arms.

Griffith stubbed out his cigarette and disappeared into the bathroom. Steward watched a silent vodka ad on the vid. The vodka was photographed so that it looked like liquid chrome. Griffith reappeared after running the sink for a while. The Welshman took a Negra Modelo longneck from the kitchenette refrigerator and twisted off the foil top. “Want some?” he asked.

Steward shook his head. He watched as Griffith walked to a cloth-covered chair placed next to the vid. He sat down, sipping at his dark Mexican beer.

Steward took a breath. “Tell me about Sheol,” he said.

Griffith looked at him for a long moment. “I don’t like to talk about it,” he said. “You know that.”

“You said you would.” Steward felt a kind of pressure on his neck, like a brush of wind from distant exploding stars. “I need to know what it did to—to the Captain. What I became, out there.”

Griffith looked away. “I know. I wasn’t trying to weasel out. I was just telling you this was going to be hard.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

Griffith’s voice was low. The words came slowly. “I don’t think you can know. Even if I tell you. It was just…not a thing you can understand secondhand.”

Steward just watched him. On the vid, a small child was choking on a piece of food at a birthday party. Adults moved in silent, screaming panic; other children were crying. Colors from the silent drama bled over Griffith’s face. Without looking up, Griffith flung an arm up and snapped off the picture. He looked up. He was pale. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I know.”

Steward waited. Saying nothing.

“First thing to realize,” Griffith said, “is that the psychological dimension isn’t all there is. It’s not just a matter of forgetting, or learning to adjust. I got married when I came home. She was a nice lady. Had herself, her life the way she wanted it. Knew where she was going. We tried to have kids, and each time it was a miscarriage…and that turned out to be lucky, because they were all monsters. My genes are all screwed up. From what happened out there. There were biological and chemical weapons that fucked with chromosomes. A lot of the medicines we took with us were experimental Coherent Light Pharmaceuticals, and the manuals that gave the dosages were just guessing. Some didn’t work, some had side effects. Some broke chromosomes. Coherent Light didn’t care. The Icehawks were an experiment, too, and even if we failed, we’d generate some interesting data.”

Griffith put a hand on his chest. “I’m marked, wherever I go, by what happened on Sheol. Not just in my mind, but on the microscopic level, in the little bits of DNA that made me. Poisoned. I could die of some new kind of cancer, and that would be Sheol. Or some kind of chemical I’d breathed in years ago could strip the myelin sheathing from my nerves, and I’d be crippled. That would be Sheol, too. It’s happened to other survivors. Like we’re all carrying little time bombs inside us.” Griffith was sweating. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “That’s something I can’t forget, that I’m carrying those little bombs. And the bombs keep reminding me of everything else.” He looked up at Steward. “You’re lucky, you know? You don’t have that stuff in your body.”

“Can’t you get a new one?”

“I didn’t buy the clone insurance, the way you did. I didn’t have family. I just took my hazardous duty bonus and had a big party the week before we took off. And now I can’t afford a new body.” Griffith looked at him. “You knew that,” he said.

Steward pointed a finger at his temple. “Not this memory. These are old recordings.”

Griffith breathed out, a harsh sigh. “Yeah. I keep forgetting. That you’re so much younger than I am. Even if you were born before me.”

Ardala leaned back on pillows. She was wearing a white T-shirt, smoking a Xanadu. Guys was open, lying unread on her stomach. “Two thousand Starbright,” she said. “Not bad for a day’s work.”

“Not bad,” Steward agreed. He had one of her cram books open in front of him, but he hadn’t looked at it in a while.

Ardala drew up a leg, scratched a bare calf. “I assume this is against the law.”

“It isn’t. I used your comp and checked the library.”

“If it isn’t illegal, then it’s dangerous.”

Steward frowned. “Maybe so. Griffith says not.”

Ardala handed Steward the Xanadu. He inhaled. “How well do you know Griffith?” she asked.

“At one time, very well.”

She sat up, leaned toward him, propping her elbows on her knees. “He’s changed a lot. You said so.”


“So it’s dangerous.”

Steward shrugged and handed the cigarette back to Ardala. She looked at it in her hand and ignored it. “What was the company he worked for?”

“Lightsource, Limited.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know it, but I’ll check my files. I should be able to find out something about it.”

Steward shrugged again. Ardala’s green eyes narrowed. “You act,” she said, “as if you don’t care whether or not your old friend is going to fuck you over.”

“He’s giving me something else I want.”

She put the cigarette to her lips, inhaled, made a face at the discovery that it had gone out. She dropped it in an ashtray. “He’s giving you a chance to get into space, right? Money? Lotta good it’ll do if you’re dead.”

He looked at her. “Sheol,” he said.

The word seemed to hang in the air for a long moment, like honey dropping from a spoon. Ardala shook her head and fell back to the pillows. “It’s like you want to give Sheol a second chance to kill you. As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time.”

He reached out, put a hand on her knee. “I can’t do anything about whether the job’s dangerous or not. All I can do is be ready. I’m ready.”

She turned her head away. He could see her throat working. “Dead man,” she said. “A fucking dead man.”

Steward took his hand back, gazed down at the book. “I’ll be back in a day or so,” he said.

Ardala was still looking away. “So you say.”

“At the beginning it was easy. Sheol was pioneered by Far Ranger, but Coherent Light got the Icehawks into the Wolf 294 system before anyone else. Mobilized, declared hostilities Outward, and went. Only the male Icehawks were sent Outward; the women’s battalions were kept in-system to guard against sabotage and maybe try some themselves. The women weren’t happy about it—what were they trained for, anyway?—and a lot of the men were pissed off because they got separated from their girlfriends.

“Far Ranger only had a few pioneers down in the northern hemisphere, and a small base on the big moon. We captured all their personnel and got all their artifacts and data. Fortified the moon base, put some ships in orbit, put our people down. We had the Icehawks plus two brigades of corporation grunts that had been recruited and shipped up from Earth at the last minute. Plus support personnel and a couple hundred archaeologists, xenobiologists, scientist types.”

Griffith let his head fall forward. He passed his forearm across his eyes, wiping away invisible sweat. His voice changed, lost in a grating reverie. “Sheol was…lovely,” he said. “It was summer in the northern hemisphere when we landed. The planet had been tamed by the Powers over thousands of years…they’d arranged it like a garden, landscaped the mountains and rivers. It had overgrown and changed, but the intent was still there. The…harmony of the way they’d set things.”

He raised his head. “The Powers—they’re not like us.” Griffith’s watery eyes seemed to shine. “They’re older,” he said. “Better. They…they know how to live with each other. What we found on Sheol and its moon reflected that. They built well, but after all the years they’d been away, there wasn’t much intact above ground. But they live in tunnels as well as on the surface, and there was a regular underworld there, hundreds of thousands of tunnels and rooms, some wrecked or collapsed but most intact, filled with stuff that had been packed carefully for storage… and there were tunnels on the moon as well, still pressurized with air we could breathe. The Powers knew they were coming back, even if we hadn’t twigged to that. It was…beautiful. A wonderland.” He shook his head. “And we fought our filthy little war in there. In all that magnificence, amid all the beauty….”

Steward sat quietly in his plump chair, feeling the scratchy fabric against his forearms. There was a tingle in his limbs, a lightness, as if he’d just warmed and stretched and was ready to move, waiting for the signal that would take him into whatever was waiting…. It felt right. He tried to picture in his mind the waiting planet, green and blue against the black and patterned stars, the surprised Far Ranger personnel, the waiting tunnels where the Icehawks, taller than the Powers, would have had to crouch as they moved….

Griffith was fumbling for a cigarette. “I remember that at the beginning, you—the Captain—said we were dispersing too much, trying to hold too much ground. There were just stacks of artifacts everywhere we looked—there was no point in dispersal, he said. We could concentrate and still have more loot than we’d know what to do with. But Colonel de Prey said he didn’t have any choice. That the plans were based on maps of Sheol that our agents had got out of Far Ranger, they’d been set in advance, back in the Sol system. And then the Colonel left, returned to headquarters with the data we’d captured. He said he’d be back, with reinforcements, once he made his report. He left Major Singh in charge.” Griffith shook his head. “The Captain was right. When the next wave came, it was from Far Ranger, and they hurt us bad.”

As Griffith spoke of what happened next, Steward tried to picture the Far Ranger ships leaping across the blackness, the sudden blossoms of light in the sky that marked the battle in space where the Coherent Light ships were blown apart. The atmosphere cutters coming down, swooping on the Coherent Light positions out of a sky cut by the trails of defensive rockets, rising slow-motion tracer, straight-line bolts of lightning that were particle beams… the arc of the bombs and rockets as they fell, the way the flames leapt boiling from the perfect green landscape. Troopships landing, disgorging soldiers in Far Ranger colors. Fire snapping from ruins, from tunnels. Soldiers groping for one another amid the dense green. Urgent cries on microwave channels.

And then a repeat as the whole thing happened all over again—first the silent flares in the sky, then the shriek of the cutters, these from Policorp Derrotero, which had come to seize their share of Sheol. More flares in the sky as Derrotero and Far Ranger ships, united in a brief alliance, drove off an assault from Gorky. Then treachery on the part of Far Ranger, a preemptive strike on Derrotero once Policorp Gorky was driven off, a strike that weakened Derrotero but didn’t knock them out. A counterstrike, and Derrotero ships held the sky. The Coherent Light troops, barely holding on, went on the offensive, in an alliance Singh had arranged with Derrotero against Far Ranger. Then a new flood of invaders, Policorps Magnus and OutVentures in alliance, blasting away the Derrotero presence from the system, landing fresh, well-trained troops in vast numbers.

A flare on the face of the largest moon. “We’d put a tactical atomic under the moon base, just in case we lost it. De Lopez was hidden in one of the moon tunnels with the detonator. Killed a lot of people that way. Took out ships that were in for maintenance.” Griffith swallowed. “Maybe that wasn’t good, to be the first to use atomics. Maybe that meant they weren’t inclined to be civilized with us anymore.”

Then, the winter.

Griffith was drinking his second beer. “The grunts died like flies. They were tough and smart, but they hadn’t trained together long enough, didn’t know how to work with each other, and their bad deployment at the start just made them targets, isolated them so their units couldn’t support one another. Only the Icehawks stood a chance against the numbers, the weapons they were using. We had the training, the morale. The capability. We could fight a sustained guerrilla war with a limited base, but once the grunts lost their cushy foam bunkers, their fuel-cell heaters and vid sets, they just fell apart.” He shook his head. “Christ. They had no winter training at all.” The parchment skin of his face was pale. His eyes were black and empty, staring blindly into the landscape of his memories. Smoke drifted up from the cigarette in his hand, but he’d forgotten it was there.

“Winter is bad, there on Sheol. That’s why the Powers built so many tunnels—to hide in the wintertime. It’s a flat planet, mostly, with a lot of ocean…. The winds just build up to hurricane velocity, pushed by Coriolis force and Christ knows what, and there’s nothing to stop them. They just come howling out of the prairie like perdition on a picnic. Storms could go on for days, weeks sometimes. The Far Ranger people, the first pioneers—they had landed in the winter. They knew what they were talking about when they called the place Sheol.” Cigarette ash fell on his trousers. He looked down in an abstracted way, brushed it off. Stubbed the cigarette out with a savage gesture.

“We were getting messages from home every now and then. A ship coming in-system, firing off messages, then running. Sometimes a supply ship would get in past the blockade. But eventually they stopped trying to supply us. We didn’t know that CL was devoting all its energies to supporting Far Jewel’s fight in another system. That two battalions of women Icehawks and a new wave of grunts had been sent out there, instead of to help us. We had to live off what we captured, that or what we found in the tunnels. Or could grow ourselves in the vats.

“We were still hitting them, though. From the tunnels. Flying in on isolated posts under cover of the storms. Sometimes we’d attack just to steal their food. We’d have to kill any that surrendered. We had no place to put them, no food to give them. If enemy reinforcements came after us, we’d hide in the tunnels.”

Griffith was shaking now. His hands were trembling, the beer splashing up the sides of the bottle. “They couldn’t get us out of our holes. It would cost too much to dig us out. That’s when they started using gas on us. Extermination drones. And biologicals.” Tears were running down Griffith’s face. He swallowed hard. “That’s when things broke down. That’s when we all knew… we’d been sacrificed. That Coherent Light wouldn’t be coming back for us.”

The warm night seemed full of sound and light. Todo music throbbed from the small shops crowding the wide alloy street that mirrored the bodies of those who walked on it, the crystal windows and bright holograph displays that soared soundlessly above the walkways. Steward wore a charcoal-colored jacket over a black T-shirt that featured a liquid-crystal display on the front, one that ran the text of Jack Totem’s poem “551” in three-inch rainbow letters across Steward’s chest….

“Our tongues are electrons, tasting the silicon heart of America.” Magic. An incantation. Invoking the local demons, calling them to Steward’s aid.

He was spiraling inward to the meet, trying to get a feel for this town, for the connections that existed here and for the rhythm of its life. He couldn’t match any of the locals for knowledge, but maybe he could taste a little of this city’s silicon heart, enough to give him a purchase on the way things worked here. He walked on tennis shoes with red balls on the sides, shoes he’d been unable to resist buying in his last hour in Arizona. A reminder of where he’d been, why he was here.

He felt the weight of the package in his pocket and wondered whether or not to carry it to the meet. Griffith said it was safe. Not to appear trusting might cost Griffith something with the people he worked with.

He moved down the bright reflective street, weighing things in his mind.

Griffith was lying on his bed. Smoking, staring at the ceiling. Breathing easier now. The trembling fit had passed. “A message came through. From Colonel de Prey. He ordered Singh into an alliance with Far Ranger and Gorky against Magnus and OutVentures. Ordered us to take the offensive. They didn’t even know, back home, that Gorky had never landed.

“We were living behind biologic seals, down in the tunnels. The food vats had been poisoned. Whenever we went out, we had to wear our environment suits, live in them every minute. People were getting sick, wasting away. There were only a thousand of the grunts left, and they’d lost all their heavy equipment…. They were just guerrillas now, like the Icehawks, only not as well trained. Far Ranger was worse off than we were. Singh decided to obey his instructions. You— the Captain—you argued against it. Told him that Coherent Light was months out of touch, couldn’t possibly know the situation. But Singh trusted the Colonel, said that CL must have based their decision on factors we didn’t know, that there was probably help on the way, or alliances that we didn’t know that would work for us.”

He turned toward Steward. Steward saw the recognition in his eyes, sensed that he wasn’t talking to himself anymore, or to Steward, but to a dead man. To the Captain.

“I heard you and Singh shouting at each other. But I saw you after the meeting, and you were calm. I remember you quoted Corman at me. Our old martial-arts teacher. Remember when Corman was talking Zen? She said that the world, that reality, was like a whirlwind. That the Zen warrior did not fight the whirlwind, that she gave the whirlwind nothing to strive against, that the whirlwind passed through her and left her unaffected, unmoved.”

You, Steward thought. He called me “you,” talking about the Captain. I’m enough like him, then. A feeling, cold and then hot, passed through his bones.

“You were a little sick, like we all were. Feverish. Either the enemy’s biological weapons, or our own preventive vaccines, always had us sick. You’d lost weight, you hadn’t slept in days, kept going with speed. You looked like a fucking phantom, man. We all did. And what you said was, that it wasn’t enough to be unmoved, to let the whirlwind pass. You said that the only way we’d survive was to become the whirlwind.”

It seemed to Steward that he could see right into Griffith’s head, that his eyes were black holes leading into an emptiness, a place where invisible snow beat against the confines of his skull and the voice of the whirlwind shrieked in his ears.

“I’ve been through combat,” Griffith said. “I’ve been shot at and gassed and lost in a snowstorm. But I’ve never been as scared as I was when I heard you say that. Because I knew you were the only one who understood what kind of war we were in. And that you accepted it, and that you could still act. You were crazy, I think, out of your mind on combat and speed. But I knew that if I wanted to get out of this, I’d follow you. I wasn’t alone. People were trying to get out of other units, to join the Captain. Trying to find reasons to be with him. People were starting to figure that if anyone was gonna live, it would be him.” His voice dropped, and he spoke with calm authority.

“You were the whirlwind, Captain,” he said. “The rest of us just followed along. But you were the whirlwind. You were Sheol.”

No cabs. Steward noticed that right away. Lots of private cars and cycles, but no cabs.

There were a lot of little neighborhoods here, condecologies on a small scale. Self-contained, easily defined. The buildings were old, sometimes centuries old. On the ground floor only, the facades were recent—clubs, shops, boutiques, all striving for something new.

Turf, Steward thought. Where the kids who ran the real LA did their business. There weren’t many people over twenty-five here. Not at night.

Most of the little neighborhoods were full of people in brocade and paint, butterfly-wing eye makeup, hair done in extravagant little braids, with jewelry implanted in their wrists, cheeks, the backs of their hands. Their music was loud, insistent, full of revolution and defiant joy. But another style was creeping in. Cooler, quieter. The music was based on complicated rhythms mixed in complex ways, the stance ambiguous, calculated.

Steward saw his first Urban Surgery here. Metal tooth implants of sharpened alloy, ears removed and replaced with flat black boxes, audio scanners. Sunglasses with crystal videos on the reverse sides, so that their wearers could see everything as if it were on vid, or, if reality wasn’t interesting enough, could switch to a video program. Eyes replaced, not with natural-seeming implants but with obvious ones: metal scanners, clear plastic eyes that you could see through, liquid-crystal eye whites that created shimmering, abstract patterns shifting like quicksilver in the eye sockets. Flattening the nose seemed popular, an alteration that made the entire face a canvas for the tattoo artist. Entire heads were covered with monochrome circuit diagrams, mathematical statements, urban skyscapes.

Steward felt his nerves tingle. Something in him wanted to get out of this. He resisted the impulse to speed up. These people were unsettling.

A short-lived phenomenon, Steward decided. This extravagant style of self-mutilation wouldn’t appeal to enough people to last. But while it lasted it was going to be powerful.

He felt again the weight of the Thunder in his pocket and came to a decision. He wasn’t going to go into a club full of these people with anything worth a hundred K of Starbright scrip. He began looking for an all-night safety deposit company.

They were all over the place. It looked as if there was a lot of business for them.

Griffith’s eyes were closed. He lay like a dead man on his bed, his arms and legs splayed. His voice was soft now. Steward had to strain to hear it.

“Our offensive collapsed in two days,” Griffith said. “Far Ranger was worse off than we were and couldn’t give us proper support. The counterattack creamed us. We lost almost two thousand people. The last of our heavy weapons. The Captain’s command was the only one that survived more or less intact. He disobeyed orders to do it. We hit our preliminary objectives, then took off in captured aircraft before the counterattack developed. We stole some biologic weapons and rode into one of their command centers using some false codes we’d captured, dumped the germs into every ventilator we could find, then flew off again. Hit-and-run stuff. It was all we could do, really. It was weeks before we got back to where Singh had set up his command center. Sometimes I wonder if the Captain ever intended to go back, because Singh had kept the offensive going as long as he could, and the Captain just wasn’t following orders. Maybe Singh was hoping Gorky would come back and help us.

“But new instructions came in from Colonel de Prey. Coherent Light had concluded that Magnus was ready to stab OutVentures in the back. We were ordered to join Derrotero and Magnus in a new offensive. Even with our united commands we had only about eight hundred men left. The Captain had fifty who’d been with him. The grunts, support people, and scientists had either joined us or died. The winter was supposed to be coming to an end, but there wasn’t any sign of it.”

Griffith shook his head. “There was another face-off with Singh. He wouldn’t give in. He had faith, he said. CL knew what they were doing. This time the Captain wouldn’t give in, either. He assumed command. Just took over. Major Singh didn’t have anyone left who’d follow him.”

“Just like that,” Steward said. His own voice sounded loud in the still apartment. Inappropriate. He thought about Singh. Intelligent. Hard. Not an easy man to know, but a fighter. Tenacious. Steward couldn’t picture Singh giving up that way.

“No, not just like that.” Griffith’s eyes opened. He was staring at the ceiling. Steward couldn’t read his expression.

“I was there,” Griffith said. “I was right behind the Captain when he took out his pistol and shot Major Singh in the head. Then I held my gun on the staff while they were disarmed and then split up and sent to other units. I didn’t—I didn’t see any other way. The whirlwind had us by then, and Singh was trying to stand against it. He didn’t understand that everything had changed. That was when the Captain gave himself a promotion. After that, he was the only officer we had. The only one we needed. He got us through.”

“NeoImagery,” said a recorded voice. “More than a philosophy. More than a way of life.”

A NeoImagist street carnival burbled in one of the streets. Sullen girls in brocade handed out literature. They belonged to an affiliated gang, Steward assumed. Displays, live and on holo, showed orbital second-stage habitats, smiling people, sleek zero-g humans modified for space, models of the DNA helix that you could alter yourself to new configurations.

The Pink Blossom logo rotated over the street. Major contributors to the cause.

“We are reconstructing the human race,” the voice said. It was female, friendly but authoritative. A software construct, designed to attract attention and inspire trust.

Darwin Days. Steward thought about people on top of glass towers hurling windows into the void, unconscious agents of evolution. Reconstructing the human race in their own irreverent fashion—that was as close to messing with the gene pool as Steward ever wanted to get.

“The Captain knew that Magnus was going to hit Outward Ventures pretty soon, allied with Derrotero. So he let Magnus know he was joining them, and as he made plans with Magnus, he established covert relations with OutVentures and let them know exactly what Magnus was up to. Magnus noticed OV making their preparations and accelerated their own schedule. Then we just stood back while they preempted each other. They blew each other apart while we hid in the tunnels. We weren’t a part of it. We were on the move all the time, nibbling at the enemy, stealing their equipment so we could live. When they’d come after us in the tunnels, we’d ambush them, then come up again somewhere else. The Captain called it eating the dead.”

There was a hologram running over the counter, our business is run on trust, it said. we trust you will pay in advance.

There was an advanced scanner in the doorframe that would detect any weapons that weren’t actually implanted in the body and precision lasers hanging from the ceiling.

The sign on the outside said loans, sporting goods. The interior said pawn shop.

Trust, Steward thought. Right.

A thin woman with bad skin, about thirty, stood behind the counter, her arms folded across her chest.

“Monowire,” Steward said, pointing. “The Officier Suisse.”

She looked up at his French pronunciation, then reached behind the counter and took out the weapon. It was about the size and shape of a switchblade knife. “Hold on a second,” she said. “Gotta hit the deadman. Stay inside the tape.”

“D’accord,” he said.

She stepped behind a clear plastic shield and pressed a button on the floor with her foot. If the pressure was removed, the house lasers would cut him up in a fraction of a second.

Steward made certain he was inside a ten-foot square marked with duct tape on the floor, then pressed the On button on the end of the wire, then pressed the thumb toggle. The stabilized monofilament line, with a little lead weight on the end, extruded from the handle to about two and a half feet. Steward whipped the sword through the air.

It made no sound at all.

Steward rocked the thumb toggle back, and the monofilament lost its rigidity, hanging from the handle by its weight.

“I don’t take any responsibility for what happens next, jack,” the woman said. “You cut off your own head, it’s nothing to do with me.”

Steward began to move the whip, gently at first until he got his reflexes back. Icehawk reflexes. He’d never had the nerve to try these when he was a Canard. The possibility of damaging himself with the unpredictable weapon was too high.

He began to move faster, whirling the line through long arcs, changing from whip to sword to whip again. The woman watched, expressionless.

He turned off the monowire and put it back on the counter. He stepped away. The woman disarmed the deadman.

“How’s it go through detectors?” Steward asked.

The woman shrugged. “Depends on the detector. Don’t try wearing it through my door.”

Steward glanced at the lasers above his head. “Okay,” he said. He put a credit spike on the countertop next to the monowhip, then stepped off to look at something beneath the glass top of one of the other counters. Nautical flares, the kind that burned even underwater. “I’ll take the flares, too,” he said. He’d been thinking of making a trip to the oceanfront for just this item.

In a boutique next door he bought a tote bag to carry them in. It was made in Malaysia of white linen, with an abstract black pattern on one side and the words fine white appreciation set of wheels on the other. The first three words were in black, the others in red. Steward had no idea what it meant.

He hitched the tote bag over his shoulder. His T-shirt talked to the metal streets.

He began to spiral inward, toward the club that was his destination. Picking up vibrations, the Zen of the city, as he went.

“Gorky came back, allied with Far Ranger. It was their last shot. Their landing force got beat off, so they just took the moon and held it. Captured asteroids with their mass drivers and started dropping them on the planet, wherever they saw life. Magnus and OutVentures tried to throw atomics back at them, and some got through. There was no real spring on the planet. Too much shit in the atmosphere. All we had was a kind of half-winter, sleet storms instead of ice storms. With dead people in tunnels, piled in the drifts.”

Steward put the tote bag in the slot outside the club entrance. The machine accepted the bag and gave him a chit, a piece of paper with magnetic code written on it. He put the chit in his pocket and walked in.

He’d concluded that it would be embarrassing to walk into the club and have every alarm in the place go off. It was the sort of thing guaranteed to start him off at a disadvantage. He decided to check the monowhip at the door instead.

The holo outside said CLUB BAG in letters that looked like molten bronze, and he could see through the open doorway that the interior featured concrete floors and walls of sprayfoam, both painted black. Tables were clear plastic on chrome stands that doubled as computer terminals. About half the people inside wore Urban Surgery or at least made a bow in that direction.

People at tables looked at him as he walked through the doors. Tattoos, drinks in strange colors, heads nodding to music. Steward looked back at the crowd for a moment and then walked to the bar. The bartender was a middle-aged man with a massive chest, vast arms, and the hoarse voice of an old prizefighter. “Star beast,” Steward told him.

Trebles shrilled off the walls. The bass was lost somewhere in the void. People were dancing to recorded music in front of an empty stage. None of them looked very interested.

The night was young. Things really hadn’t started yet.

“I wonder why we never surrendered. It would have made so much sense.” Griffith rubbed his mustache. “Because our loyalties were so strong, I guess. The Icehawks had esprit. We couldn’t disappoint each other by surrendering. And after a while, there was no one to surrender to. We were all living in the tunnels like savages. Fighting over food. We couldn’t accept surrender because there was no food for the prisoners, and we couldn’t surrender because we’d be killed for the same reason. So we’d kill everyone, there being no choice. A lot of them were just corporation grunts, cannon fodder. Little girls from Korea, street kids from Rio. Just there to get swept away.” He shook his head. “We would have eaten one another, eventually.”

Steward sipped his beast and watched the crowd. More people had come in. The level of conversation had risen, sometimes drowning out the music.

He thought he knew which one was Spassky—a small, active kid dressed in blue jeans, half boots, a bright yellow short-sleeved jacket with lots of zips and straps. His hair was done in black cornrows that turned into jagged vertical tattoos that marched down his face. He had pointed metal teeth, sharpened and staggered to fit into sockets in the gums so that he wouldn’t bite himself every time he closed his mouth. He wore glasses with video screens set into the backs.

There were a girl and two boys at the same table. The girl hung onto the small boy’s arm, ignoring the fact that he paid her no attention. Her forehead was tattooed and there was a bandage across the middle of her face. Steward figured she’d just had her nose altered.

The boys were big, six and a half feet tall at least. Heavy boots. Shaved heads with tattoos. One was fat, one was thin. The fat one wore video shades, the thin one had transparent eye implants that let you see the circuitry inside. Steward wondered if they had combat thread woven into their brains and concluded that they probably did.

Steward could see their heads turn slightly every time the door scanners flashed the green light for someone to come in. They never looked at the door directly. It would have made them seem anxious. But they were clearly waiting for something.

The music stopped abruptly. The people who were dancing stopped, hesitated, and returned to their chairs, looking lost.

A pale boy, about fifteen, walked onto the stage. He had a spotty, sunken chest and wasn’t wearing any clothes. He carried a pouch in one hand. There was scattered applause. A microphone lowered itself from the ceiling. Colored floods turned the boy’s skin pastel green. He shouted into the mic, “The deathworm coils in their hearts!” His voice broke on the last word. The boy took a six-inch alloy needle from his pouch. Holding the needle in his right hand, he put it through the middle of his left palm. Blood gleamed on the alloy. The applause became general.

Steward felt the tang of metal in his mouth. This was interesting.

“In the hearts of the dog pack that eases through the tear-streaked streets,” the boy said. He bent and picked up another needle. His skin was pastel pink.

There were cheers. Steward watched carefully to see how it was done. It was possible, with the pastel lights, that there was a trick here. The boy put the needle through the loose skin under his arm, chanting his poetry. More needles went in. Steward decided it was real. After that he lost interest.

Instead of being a technician with an interesting trick, the boy had become another fool who couldn’t think of a way to be famous other than to hurt himself in public.

Darwin Days, he thought. Natural selection, right here on stage.

Steward ordered another star beast and waited for the bartender to bring it. He pointed at the table with the people who looked like they were waiting for someone. “Is that Spassky?” he asked.

The bartender gave him a wary look. “That depends on who you are,” he said.

Steward took his drink. “Thanks,” he said, and walked to Spassky’s table. Video shades turned toward him.

“I’m from Griffith.”

“Sit down.” Spassky’s voice was alto, so young that Steward was surprised. He chided himself. The reflexes hadn’t come back yet. When he was a Canard, when he was Spassky’s age, this was the sort of thing he dealt with every day.

Steward gazed at the boy as he sat down. He saw that the glasses had two tiny cameras set above the nose bridge, and mind-interface pickups in the bows so that Spassky could change channels by thinking about it, without having to go through the bother of pressing buttons. Mind and video grown together.

Steward tasted his beast. Fire touched his palate, made him wary.

On the stage, the boy was bending over to put a needle through his foot. His fingers were growing slippery with blood and he was having a hard time. His head was down, away from the mic, and his voice had faded away, but he was still talking.

The girl on Spassky’s arm was watching the show with interest. Steward saw bruises around her eyes, revenants of recent surgery.

He looked at Spassky. “You have my Starbright?”

Spassky nodded. He moved his chair back. “Let’s go to my place. I have it there.”

Steward shook his head. “We do this in a public place. That’s the agreement.”

Spassky gazed at him in an odd way, as if he was dialing new settings on his spectacles, looking at Steward in as many ways as possible.

“I don’t have the money on me.”

“Maybe I don’t have the package, either,” Steward said.

The boy on stage was beginning to breathe hard. The pain grew raw in his voice.

“You and Griffith,” said Spassky, “are both too old to be in this business.”

“Do you have the money or don’t you?” Steward asked.

“Come to my place and I’ll give it to you.”

“Fuck you,” Steward said. He pushed his chair back. So did the two big boys. Steward stood up, gazed into their flat tattooed faces.

Spassky was still looking at him in his strange way, as if Steward were a vid show he didn’t quite understand.

“It’s my city, buck,” he said.

Steward turned and walked away. Lightning danced through his nerves. A surge of adrenaline hit him, and his hand trembled as he reached for his chit, walked through the detectors, and then put it in the machine.

No cabs in this town. No time to call one. He looked behind, through the open door.

The fat boy and the skinny boy were following, taking their time. It was their town after all. He could see chits in their hands, ready to reclaim whatever was being held at the door.

Behind them the pastel blue boy was sobbing onstage as he tried to put a needle through his foreskin.

The machine coughed up Steward’s tote. He took it and ran.

Griffith was pale. He seemed drained of blood, emotion, feeling. “The Powers came then, and it was all over. A whole lot of them on the move. Hundreds of ships, big ones. The Gorky ships in-system didn’t dare to try anything against them, just pulled out and ran. Left us on the ground.” His hands were trembling again. He reached for a tissue, blew his nose, then stood up and walked into the bathroom. Steward heard water running. When Griffith came back, he seemed better; his color was back. He sat in the chair by the silent video and took a few long breaths.

“That was when the Captain and the Icehawks had their showdown. The Captain didn’t want to come in, didn’t want to admit it was over. We told him this was the end, that we weren’t going to fight against a whole alien species. He was like a crazy man, fighting to keep the war going. He had become the whirlwind and he didn’t want the whirlwind to stop. I thought it would be Major Singh all over again, that we’d fight it out then and there. But then I figured out how to bring him over, to make him see reason. I told him that if we went on fighting, he’d never see Natalie again.” Griffith took a breath, let it out slowly. “That brought him over,” he said.

Griffith hung his head. “He put down his pistol and walked away, back into his little command center. I could see he was crying. A few minutes later he came back out, told us to destroy our codes and break our weapons. We took our transport to where the Powers were waiting.” He gave a short laugh. “De Lopez was there. The guy with the atom bomb on the moon. He’d just sat in his tunnel for months and listened to the war on the radio. He was fat, healthy, laughing…. He looked at us like we were some other species.

“I don’t know why the Powers didn’t just wipe us out like a bunch of bugs, especially after what we’d done to their planet. The place was a mess—cratered, looted, poisoned. But they took care of us. Fed us some of their own food, distributed whatever Earth medicines and clothing were left. They even asked us how to dispose of the dead. It was important to them to do it right. I was scared of them at first. The way they look, the way they move, the sounds they make—it’s like discordant organ music. We didn’t really have a way of communicating yet. But I realized, eventually, that they were better than we were. By the end of the first month, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. A lot of us had that reaction.

“When we came back, there wasn’t any Coherent Light. The people responsible for its policy were in prison. No one had responsibility for us, no company hospitals, no benefits. We were on the streets. And we found out how we’d been sold.

“CL didn’t plan to win. The Icehawks were like a bargaining chip that CL was using to get leverage out of other companies. Coherent Light decided Far Jewel had the best chance of winning control over one of the other systems, so they put all their logistical effort into supporting Far Jewel’s efforts in return for a share of the loot. All the attacks we were ordered to make—they were designed to tie up Far Jewel’s enemies in the Sheol system, so they couldn’t fight Far Jewel elsewhere. When I found that out—well, I’d just had it with humanity. When we came back to Earth, I went to work for the Powers, like a lot of the others. I was rated a translator, but I didn’t really have the skills for it. Then the Powers moved offplanet, and I was out of work. In a way, losing the Powers was worse than Sheol. I don’t know how to explain it. I was sick in bed for a week. Literally sick.”

Down a side street, through an alley. Heading for someone else’s turf, but zigzagging, trying to keep out of their line of sight. Steward reached into his tote, pulled out the monowire, and jammed it into a jacket pocket. He turned off the crystal display on his shirt by way of changing his profile. He looked behind him.

The big boys were moving faster now, eating up the street with their long stride and heavy boots. They hadn’t missed his evasions, which argued for good scanners in their eyewear. They’d stopped to put chits into the weapons detector at the club entrance, and Steward didn’t want to know what they’d come out with. Maybe even guns.

Steward was riding the adrenaline boost now, the first shock over. Moving easy. A liquid feel in his limbs. Ready for Zen.

Another alley. This one was of old concrete, T-shaped, with a turn at right angles. There were no lights at all. Steward began to run, putting distance between himself and his pursuers before they turned the corner. The warm summer air burned his throat as he ran. He neared the T-intersection, skidded, and ducked behind a dumpster. A damp brick wall slammed against his back, jarred breath from his lungs. He put the monowhip next to him on the concrete, then reached into his tote for the nautical flares. Their surface was cool against his palms. He held one in each hand and waited.

Heavy footsteps, coming fast, then slowing. Good eyewear, then. They’d seen body heat and warm breath radiating from behind the dumpster and knew to expect him. He gathered his legs under him, ready to spring. The cautious footsteps were coming closer. Ten meters? Eight? Five?

Steward felt sweat gathering at his nape.

He scratched the fuzes against the old concrete, saw them strike, and tossed them into the alleyway, toward his pursuers, just as the fire and smoke began to boil out. He heard a pair of cries as IR scanners were overloaded by sudden thermite heat.

Steward clawed for the monowhip and sprang. Orange smoke gushed into the alley. The big boys were moving fast, already striking out blindly, knowing he was there. One of them had a neural sword; the other, some kind of short hand weapon. Reflexes hardwired in, a union of implant thread and boosted nerve, speed Steward couldn’t match.

He struck for the face of the nearest, wrapped the wire around his head, pulled. There was a shriek, blood spurting into the smoke. The other had disappeared into the billowing orange haze. The neural sword hummed near his head and he ducked. He lashed out with the whip again, felt it wrap around something, hit the toggle. The line should have straightened into a sword, cutting right through whatever it was wrapped around, but there was resistance. Maybe the line had gone around a pipe, something too strong to cut through.

Cries were echoing from the brick walls. Tears filled Steward’s eyes. He toggled again, but the wire was yanked from his hand, and he fell backward in pure reflex as the neurosword swung through the place where he’d been. Steward kept moving backward, found a wall with his hand, followed it to a turning, ducked around it. He was out of the smoke and he could breathe. He drew in the hot summer air, jogged slowly so he wouldn’t trip over something, and wiped his streaming eyes. There wasn’t enough air in all of Los Angeles to fill his aching lungs. Screams pursued him as he ran.

He reached into the tote and dropped another lit flare behind him. He was beginning to see again. Brightness flickered at him from the end of the alley.

Steward burst into the street. Lights dazzled his eyes. The Pink Blossom logo reeled overhead.

Darwin Days, he thought. Whirlwind days.

There was a cab right in front of him. It was the only one he’d seen in the entire town. He dove for the door, shouted the address of his hotel.

Behind him, the skinny boy came out of the alley. The monowire was still wrapped around the armored sleeve of his jacket. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand, stared at the bright lights of the carnival.

The taxi was already out of range.

“I never saw the Captain again. He had Natalie to go back to, and I didn’t have anything like that. Eventually I got a job, got married, tried to have those kids. Having broken chromosomes bothered me a lot more than it did my wife. She just kind of shrugged and said, okay, no kids. But I wanted to start something new, something that wasn’t poisoned. I kept falling apart, my wife kept putting me back together. Eventually she quit trying. I can’t blame her. She gave me much more than I ever gave her.”

Griffith fell silent. He had his arms folded over his eyes. Steward rose slowly from his chair, feeling blood pouring into his awakening limbs. His head spun, then righted. “Thank you,” he said.

“If it was anyone but you, Captain,” Griffith said, “I would’ve told ’em to fuck off. But…I owed you, I guess.” His voice was drained of color, of emotion. He shook his head, blindly. “What time is it?” he asked.

“Two o’clock.”

“Shit. I had a sales meeting at one-thirty.” He sat upright, reached for the phone.


“My own fucking fault. Goddammit.”

Steward, feeling the package against his ribs, let himself out while Griffith was on the phone, walked to Ardala’s condeco, let himself in. He wanted to be alone for a while.

He sat cross-legged on the bed and thought about Sheol, the wind whipping across the long prairies, scattering snow across the entrances to the old, narrow tunnels…people moving across the white in reflective camo suits that chilled their exteriors to outside temperatures so as to fool infrared detectors, walking hunched over and carrying weapons, their faces masked against gas and bacteria…a storm rising far away on the flat horizon, conjuring a wall of white, advancing like a cloud. The whirlwind that Sheol had summoned, that Steward had become.

Steward took a breath and wondered if he could summon the wind here, ride it outside the gravity well to the source of himself, to the origin of the voice he’d heard on the blurred video, the grating phantom voice that was his own, his Alpha. Who had gone through his own process of becoming, of finding the heart of himself on the skin of the frozen prairies and in the cold tunnels that led into Sheol’s secret womb, in these places and in the howling Coriolis madness that had become his mind.

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