Prologue

MacLaren knew that look.
“What is it, Ligeia?”
“I’ve been reviewing Mycroft’s basic coding, along with the facility logs from Calvin’s Gamma Lab from the day the crystals were stolen. I found something I didn’t expect to find.”
“What?”
“Do you recall that everyone, including Calvin, assumed that Judith Rockley used an unauthorized entry code to get into Gamma Lab when she stole crystals?”
“Right, they did – and then Mycroft admitted to ye that he gave her access, but never imagined that she would just pull the crystals out of their jacks without first stopping the scanning process.”
“Exactly. Well…the command to give Rockley access came from inside Mycroft, so to speak, but it wasn’t Mycroft who actually issued it. In other words, Mycroft didn’t do it, after all.”
“Damn.”
“Exactly.”
Blade looked over his shoulder at where Maureen lay on the folded-out bed of the Bombardier G7000’s cabin, still softly snoring. He was almost certain she was well and truly asleep – she had to have been every bit as tired as he – but he was taking no chances: turning back to the communications console, he silently put on his headset, activated his throat mike, and focused his attention of Ligeia’s image on the monitor facing him. She gave him a considering look for a long moment, then said. “You don’t completely trust her yet?” The remark was framed as a statement, but it came out as a question.
Blade frowned as he replied, sotto voce, “Seventy-two hours ago, I didn’t know she even existed, let alone knew anything about her.” The Scots burr in his voice was thick, as it was wont to be when he was uneasy. “She appears out o’ nowhere, jumps into the middle of a firefight – on my side, granted – and then without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ attaches herself, limpet-like, to the rest o’ my op. Trust her? What do ye think?”
“So far, she’s come up clean – and her story checks out.”
“As ye say, ‘so far.’ Keep looking.”
Raven sighed. “David, you can’t exactly expect an American to come with a signed character endorsement from Will or Kate.”
“Right, I’ll grant ye that. But just for the record, I’m not buying into all of her fangirl shite, either.”
“And yet there she is, aboard the Bombardier, 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, flying back to Scotland with you….”
“Ye’re the one who’s always telling me that trust has to start somewhere. So consider this a start.”
Raven smiled and shook her head, a brief sparkle in her dark brown eyes. “You, sir, are incorrigible.”
Blade grinned back at her and leaned back in his chair. “All right, all right, ye win, lass. I did say ‘Consider this a start,’ ye ken. Now, what’s this about Mycroft? And I’d be grateful if ye kept the technobabble to a minimum – when ye break out the schematics, flow sheets and whiteboards, ye tend to go off on long and winding tangents….”
Muttering something about Scottish luddites, Raven tapped a few keys and flourished her mouse for a moment, then sat back and drew her knees up under her chin. “I misspoke a moment ago – the problem isn’t actually that I found something I didn’t expect to find, it’s that I’m not finding something that should be there.”
“Go on.”
“We both know that Calvin is almost certifiably paranoid – and that’s not entirely a bad thing when it comes to IT security. He’s fanatical about logging darned near every activity on his network, and I can’t find any record of the actual request Judith Rockley made to get the access code for the Project Bowman lab. And I can’t find any record of when Mycroft gave it to her.”
Blade brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. “But Mycroft told ye he gave her the code – without it she would never have been able to access the lab and take the memory crystals.”
“Exactly. He says he did, but there’s no record anywhere that he actually did it. How can he have a ‘memory’ of doing something the logs say never happened?”
“I don’t know, but for some reason I think ye’re going to tell me.”
“Wise-arse. I’ve had Annabelle looking at this for the last fourteen hours” – “Annabelle” was Raven’s personal VI; in point of fact, she was the female persona of Blade’s VI, Alistair – “and what she’s found is scary.”
“‘Scary’ in what way?”
“We know that Mycroft can’t lie – he can get… creative… with the truth, or withhold information, but he can’t out-and-out lie. So if he says he gave Rockley access to the Gamma Lab, then no matter what the logs and records say, he did it. It’s just that the ‘memory’ he has is vague and incomplete, as if it’s not really a memory of doing something, but more of an impression that he did it.”
“Sort of a computer’s version of deja vu?”
“Precisely. And that’s where what Annabelle found comes in. There are hundreds – thousands – of little bits and pieces, fragments of cyber-fingerprints if you will, all over Mycroft’s message handlers that point to somebody or something executing deliberate erasures and deletions of how Mycroft was tricked into giving Rockley the Gamma Lab code.” A note of tension edged its way into Raven’s voice. “Somebody or something who was covering their tracks, and believe me, they were damned good at it.”
“Right then, but I’m not seeing how this is ‘scary.'”
“David, what Rockley used was a form of the ‘false key’ trap. You know, where what a system thinks is an invalid authentication key is simply an error, but the false key actually activates a hidden function – or even a whole series of functions – inside the system that the system never even knew was there.” Raven was hugging her knees now, a sure sign of her anxiety. “The easiest and most secure way to get those functions into a system is to make sure that they’re written into the kernel of the software on a server or a message handler while it’s being built and set up.” Even through Blade and Raven were more than two thousand miles apart, communicating by microphone and monitor, her nervousness was an almost palpable presence in the G7000’s cabin. “I think those functions have been resident in Mycroft since he was constructed, just waiting for the right opportunity to be used.”
“God’s holy trousers.”
“What frightens me is that even though Calvin, Kim, Project Bowman and Cogito Orbis were the ones attacked, they might not have the real targets for what just happened. Hijacking Mycroft might just have been a dry run.”
“For…?”
“For testing tools that can gain access to and control of every commercial VI that exists.”
“And nearly the whole damned world depends on VIs to keep its nuts-and-bolts operations working….” Blade’s voice trailed off – he didn’t need to finish the sentence. He sat in silence for moment, then said thickly, “Ye’re right, Raven, this is scary. What’s worse, it’s starting to scare me….”
—————***—————
The mission commander was demanding and determined. Equally, he was methodical and meticulous. For proof, he could offer up the fact that, after twenty years in his profession, he was still in possession of all of his digits and limbs, and what he euphemistically referred to as his “wedding tackle” was still intact. A more immediate demonstration of his attention to detail was presented by the fact that he’d spent the past two hours sitting in his car, parked in an overlook beside the two-lane road that ran the length of the long, narrow lake. It was his fourth such surveillance made over the course of as many days, from as many vantage points. He had been using a pair of Zeiss 20×60 binoculars to study the crevices and contours of a sheer face of granite and concrete, along with the terrain around it, intent on impressing the details of it on his mind, so that what was at the moment an already well-developed plan could be further refined and perfected.
He went by the name Maksim Yurovski; whether that was his real name, none of the two dozen people currently working under him knew for certain. In their line of work, such questions were seldom encouraged; on the rare occasions when they were asked, they were never answered. Short, stocky, with dark Eurasian features that were usefully undistinguished, Yurovski was a man with a rather narrow, specialized, and highly developed skill set: he was very, very good at blowing up things. More to the point, he was very, very good at blowing up things that most people didn’t want blown up. For this he was in high demand among people who wanted such things blown up and was paid on a level with this talent, that is, very, very highly in exchange for his expertise – and, of course, his discretion.
He was not, in his own opinion, and perhaps by strict definition, a terrorist as such. He had no national or ethnic allegiances, held to no political ideals or ideologies, embraced no religious beliefs: to him they were all empty posturings and pantomime. A student of philosophy would have recognized him as the quintessential nihilist. Nor was he truly a capitalist whore, as his lifestyle was surprising modest – he saw ostentation as pointless as politics or religion. The eight- figure fees for his services which he charged those he liked to think of as his “clients” were imposed to make the point that he was indeed a specialist: only those who truly needed his expertise could afford it. No bank jobs, subway bombings, or mob hits for him, thank you very much.
Still, people almost always died in the explosions Yurovski created – and sometimes in great numbers. The worst was the Chunnel Disaster in April of 2019, when more than twenty-two hundred men, women, and children lost their lives in a single horrific afternoon. That didn’t trouble him at all, however: as he saw it, the victims who died in the blasts he created or as a result of them were those whose time had come, regardless of age, gender, social position, or any other factor. It was not, for him, a convenient conscience-salving fiction: in his heart he held to a conviction that was very close to the idea of karma or fate, though he would never admit as much, even if he had recognized it as such. In his view, those who died were meant to die where, when, and how they did.
The current mission was a perfect example of this. His employers wanted to send a message, so he had been told, and an unknown number of people were certain to lose their lives when when the rock face was blown apart and the structure above it collapsed. Exactly how many would die was beyond his control; the people who hired him might or might not issue a warning to those who would be threatened. It was his responsibility to ensure that the message was delivered on time.
—————***—————
The assassin never bothered with a flashy street name or call sign – no one knew him as “The Jackal,” or “Eliminator,” or “Shrike,” or “The Walking Death” or any sort of similarly absurd tag sported by so many lesser talents in his profession. He felt that such theatrics were pointless; to him, his record of success spoke for itself, and carried more than enough of an intimidation factor.
To the world in which he lived and worked, he was known simply as “Mr. Weber.” As with Maksim Yurovski, that may or may not have been his real name; if he had a first name, no one ever knew. Also like Yurovski, he had no loyalties that extended beyond himself: he was not bound by nor beholden to constructs of religion, race, or nationality. He regarded them all equally, as intellectual abstractions, irrelevant at best, dangerously distracting at worst.
There was a downside to such a Weltanschauung, Weber knew. His “profession” was one where its practitioners, even those who were truly good and gifted at it, tended to have a rather limited shelf-life. It was a race where one man was pitted against the sum resources of the world’s law enforcement agencies, as well as a number of private contractors, some of them rivals, others competitors, still others individuals who were dedicated to eradicating people like himself. Always, he knew, lurking out there somewhere was the “Golden BB”, some minor mistake, a trivial oversight, or just that moment of sheer, random bad luck, which could expose him and leave him in the hands of the authorities – or worse. Should that happen, there would be no friends or allies to whom he could turn for help, no state sponsors to offer sanctuary: he could call on past employers for many favors, if for no other reason than that he often knew where the bodies were literally buried, but could draw on few obligations. In short, he was a man always on the run, even at the best of times, very much on his own.
That was not to say that he lived according to the stereotypical conception of the perpetual fugitive. Far from it. He used the substantial – and by necessity, tax-free – income he earned for services rendered to enjoy a remarkably comfortable lifestyle. He had no permanent residence, but instead moved around the world, staying for weeks, sometimes months, in a succession of luxury hotels, availing himself of any and all of the available amenities which appealed to him. There were practical considerations to this, as having a permanent residence anywhere was a liability – it was always possible that somebody, somewhere could somehow connect it with him, creating a breach, however small, in his walls of personal security. At the same time, he had never in his life been especially materialistic, so there was no need for a fixed location in which to store the “things” by which so many people came to create their identities.
Intriguingly, no matter what the hotel in which he ensconced himself, he always presented himself as himself – that is, no matter what the name on his passport, the face that looked out of the photo in it was always his own. Had they but known it, Weber’s countenance was known to hundreds of concierges and desk clerks around the world. As it was, trained observers though they might be – a top-flight desk clerk always prided him- or her- self on knowing everything and everyone who came through their front doors – for all the times any of them looked at Mr. Weber, they never really saw him, as there really wasn’t much to see.
He was remarkably unremarkable. Average in height and build, apparently just on the front cusp of middle age, with conservatively-trimmed sandy brown hair topping a face-shaped face in which were set a pair of hazel-colored eyes, he was possessed of not a single distinguishing feature. There was a bland evenness about his brows, nose, mouth, and chin; nary a mole, wart, or skin tag was visible; even his skin tone was determinedly neutral, shading neither toward pasty white or sun-worshipper olive, but displaying just a hint of a tan, appropriate to a man who, conscious of his health – but not overly so – got out-of-doors when he could. It was as if he was a walking specimen of “Standard Issue Generic Caucasian Male, age 35-45, one (1) each.”
Ordinarily that very blandness would hoist a red flag for any trained, professional security officer anywhere in the world, and wave it most emphatically in travel hubs such as airports and train stations, but when actually traveling, Weber never appeared as himself. He regarded his face, his entire body, even, as an endlessly renewable canvas on which he painted an endless succession of countenances, altering his appearance subtly but significantly enough to make his real self unrecognizable. He could, of course, through the use of some simple prosthetics and millennia-old stage techniques, alter his height by a few inches, while carefully tailored clothing would seem to add or subtract twenty pounds to or from his build. Colored contact lenses, hair dye, false facial hair, synthetic skin blemishes and scars, all were part of his palette, just as they had been for men and women in his profession for decades, sometimes centuries.
What set Mr. Weber apart, though, was what lay beneath, as it were: embedded in strategic positions in his skull just under his skin were a number of prosthetic implants. He carried with him legitimate documentation to prove the innocuous nature of those implants, in case their appearance in a security scan raised questions about them and their nature. The documents attested that the implants had been introduced into his bone structure during an extensive facial reconstruction following a severely disfiguring boating accident in which Weber’s face had made brief but devastating contact with the spinning propeller of an outboard motor. This had the effect, human nature being what it is, of invariably deflecting or at least diminishing further scrutiny by any inquiring security officers, lest their curiosity appear morbid and ghoulish.
The implants were, of course, no such things. In fact, they were cybernetic devices that could induce changes in the size, shape, and proportions of the features on Mr. Weber’s face. They could make his cheekbones – or his brow ridges – more prominent, for example, or add jowls to the cheeks themselves. The contours, width and length of his nose could be altered, as could the width of his mouth and the size of his lips, or his jawline redrawn. One set even had the ability to introduce epicanthic folds into his eyelids. Renewable “glands” residing in the cavities where his tonsils had once been were able to inject chemicals into his bloodstream that would alter the tone of his skin, ranging from Nordic pale to Mediterranean bronze. They were activated and powered through his neural processor, and although the transformations were uncomfortable, even painful when pushed to their limits, they were also extremely fast acting. He could – and frequently did – give himself a new face in the time it took for him to walk from the doors of an airline terminal to the nearest taxi stand – or vice versa. It was that ability which allowed him to live from day-to-day with his own face – if indeed that’s what it was, even that was open to question – and yet always travel under a different identity. Mr. Weber was in truth the real Man with a Thousand Faces.
It had been his exceptional talent in dealing death, whether by gun or garrotte, blade or biologic agent, chemical or catastrophe, which had allowed him the means to acquire such exotic appliances and technology, which in turn allowed him such a further remarkable run of success. But all good things et cetera, et cetera… and nineteen years in his line of work, he was realistic enough to admit to himself, had pushed his luck to – and probably past – the breaking point. Luck was a priceless commodity for a professional assassin, and somehow he possessed an abundance of it, but only a fool depended on luck for survival – and Mr. Weber was no fool. As he packed his bags, and prepared to depart the Hotel George V, and with it Paris, for what was probably the very last time, he considered his newest contract. The woman who was about to die had been a thorn in his employer’s flesh for a long time: the moment and the necessity to remove her had conveniently coincided, an opportunity not to be missed, so with the exchange of a cool £20,000,000, a living, breathing human being was, without her knowing it, transformed into a mere target, her demise as assured as any sunrise. In the last few weeks, as he planned his mission, Mr. Weber gradually came to think of the money as his retirement bonus.
This is it, Weber mused, closing the last buckle on his matched set of custom-made Corinthian leather bags. The last time I ever go through this routine. Time to get out, on my own terms, walk away before some damned fool gets lucky and catches up to me. And no one will ever be able to say I didn’t go out in style – even if no one will ever know that it was me. Yeah, I’m probably leaving some chips on the table…. So, it’ll be work for lesser talents to take on in the future. I get to go out while I’m still at the top of my form. So few men or women in my line of work have ever been able to do that! But I’ll be one of them.
Pressing the signal button to summon a porter, Mr. Weber smiled grimly. And before I do, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I made the whole world piss in its pants.