Dec 5 2013 4:00pm
Check out Myke Cole’s Breach Zone, the third novel in the Shadow Ops series, available January 28th, 2014 from Ace Books.
In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign “Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’s ever known.
In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.
When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil .
The press conference drew to a close, and Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson sweated beneath the makeup. The heat from the stage lights made his feet feel like they were burning inside his reflective, artificial leather shoes. The discomfort was a distant thing, an awareness that had no power to affect him. The Dampener helped, but most of his sangfroid was born of long experience. As special advisor to the Reawakening Commission, he was a man well used to television appearances.
His actions at FOB Frontier had betrayed his commander-in-chief but saved the lives of thousands, making him a pariah in the government and a hero to the public. That public acclaim had drummed the president he betrayed out of office and forced the new one to promote him and keep him in front of the cameras. Thorsson knew that President Porter thought him a traitor, but keeping the hero of FOB Frontier around as a spokesman helped lend the new administration legitimacy.
The assembled reporters shouted a flood of questions. Words ran together, amplified by the tight confines of the pressroom. Thorsson steadied himself behind the podium, remembering his public-affairs training. Back straight. Don’t fidget. No verbal pauses. Look serious, but not like you’ve got a stick up your ass.
“I’ll answer that,” he said, pointing to a reporter in the front row, a young man in a button-down plaid shirt about two sizes too small, jeans cuffed deliberately high, showing paisley socks.
Thorsson’s gesture quelled the sea of questions. The assembled reporters sat down as a single body.
“The Porter administration has no intention of abandoning the policies of the Walsh administration,” Thorsson said. “President Walsh’s violation of the McGauer-Linden Act and his trafficking in Probe magic does not invalidate the need for systems to remain in place to protect the American people from the dangers of unrestricted magic use. What happened at FOB Frontier was the exception that proves the rule.”
Thorsson had been an exception himself. When Walsh had abandoned the FOB, leaving thousands of Americans to die to keep his secret, Thorsson broke ranks and freed the political prisoner Oscar Britton, the nation’s worst enemy and the only man with the power to bring everyone home alive. But exceptions had to prove the rule. If they became the rule, the machine broke down. Everything unraveled.
He quelled the latest surge of questions with a wave of his hand. “Please… Please. Settle down. Let me put it this way: If you find out that a public official has been embezzling money, that’s not an argument to legalize embezzlement. It’s an argument to prosecute the wrongdoer and revisit how we can better protect our funds. It’s the same case here. No further questions.”
Further questions followed him as he left the podium for the door between two flagpoles, one bearing the Stars and Stripes and the other the emblem of the Supernatural Operations Corps: The eye in the pyramid surrounded by symbols of the four elements representing legal magical schools: Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Aeromancy, and Terramancy. The red cross above symbolized Physiomancy. The logo read: Our Gifts for Our Nation.
The young reporter intercepted him as he turned the doorknob. “Sir!”
Thorsson sighed. “Give me some space, huh? You’ve got your quote.”
The reporter shoved a digital recorder under Thorsson’s nose. “How do you feel about the administration’s recommitment to the law?”
Thorsson pushed the recorder down. “Get that out of my face. I told you question time was over.” He shot a dangerous glare over the reporter’s shoulder at another man who was considering joining the ad hoc questioning, and the man thought better of it.
The reporter wasn’t fazed. He switched off the recorder and pocketed it. “Fine. Off the record, just tell me.”
“Off the record is the same as on the record,” Thorsson said. “I’m a military officer below flag grade. My job isn’t to set policy. My job isn’t to interpret policy. My job isn’t even to have an opinion. My job is to carry out the will of my civilian masters, who are ultimately elected by you. How I feel about this, about anything, is irrelevant.”
The reporter leaned in closer, lowering his voice. “But… I mean, FOB Frontier, man. You rubbed the president’s face in it. You saved all those people, he got the boot, and you got promoted. You’re the motherfucking Harlequin. That’s got to feel amazing.”
Thorsson bridled at the man’s use of his call sign, the radio names that kept Sorcerers apart from the rest of the world.
Being the motherfucking Harlequin didn’t feel amazing. It felt exhausting, isolating.
“I did what I felt was right to save the lives of those people.” Harlequin said.
“And to free Latent people.”
“Latent people are already free. They have certain responsibilities that others don’t, but that comes with having certain powers that others don’t. FOB Frontier was never a political statement. I was saving lives. That’s it.”
The reporter gave him a knowing nod. “Well, I’ll say it, if you won’t. You’re a fucking hero. Porter’s going to have to change his tune soon enough.”
Harlequin felt blood rush to his cheeks. His magical tide surged. He opened his mouth to answer, but the reporter began to back away. “I got it! I got it! You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted to say thanks for your service.”
The reporter nodded as if they were both in on the same inside joke, and Harlequin felt exhaustion swamp him. No matter what he said, the reactions were the same. If he wouldn’t be the hero they wanted, they’d just make him that way regardless. He shook his head, went through the door, and shut it behind him, closing his eyes in the air-conditioned space beyond, feeling a modicum of serenity return as the door lock clicked behind him, shutting out the maelstrom of buzzing voices.
He breathed for a moment, calming himself, trying to keep his mind in the present. It wandered too readily to the past nowadays, and that was a dark path. There were decisions back there, decisions that had saved some lives but also cost some. Decisions that couldn’t be changed.
He looked up at the TV monitor mounted to the wall. They’d be rebroadcasting the highlights from the press conference. Hopefully, he’d come off better than he thought he had.
But instead, the screen showed a breaking news clip, Oscar Britton holding court, another guerrilla press conference of his own, held in some deserted field. Britton would stay only long enough to make his point, then go back to the Source long before anyone could get close enough to apprehend him. Not that the SOC would ever do that on camera. After FOB Frontier, Britton was a bigger public hero than Harlequin.
“All right!” Britton shouted. “Shut the hell up if you want me to talk.”
Britton’s time on the run had made him leaner, harder-looking. He still kept his head shaved so close it shone in the sun. He still looked like he could bend cold iron with his bare hands. Beside him stood Therese Del Aqua, the Physiomancer who had escaped with him and returned to help save the people who’d held her prisoner. Her long brown hair hung nearly to her waist now, ragged, in need of a cut. It did little to diminish her fierce beauty.
The buzz subsided, and Britton had to lean back as a half dozen microphones were thrust in his face. “I’ve heard that President Porter has recommitted himself to the misguided principles of the McGauer-Linden Act. He doesn’t get it, and if you support him, neither do you. Latent people are still people. We are citizens of this country, and we have the same rights as everyone else.
“The problem is a government that traffics in the same practices it prohibits. The problem is a law that makes it illegal for a class of people to simply exist. The people who are so hard over keeping Latent people second-class citizens are the same people who were willing to let thirty thousand people die to keep a secret.
“Well, I’m done with secrets. This law needs to change, and it needs to change now. You hear me Porter? I’m talking to you. A fancy suit and an office you weren’t even elected to doesn’t give you the right to put your boot on my neck. The only crime I ever committed was to Manifest a power I never asked for.
“The government uses a drug called Limbic Dampener to help the SOC control the emotional center of the brain, which conducts magic. If it were freely distributed, we wouldn’t need a damn McGauer-Linden Act. Nobody would go nova. Nobody would ever have to go Selfer. It’s expensive, but so is the cost of enforcing the current laws. And it doesn’t have to be so expensive. The price is kept high, so Entertech and its subsidiaries can profit off the drug. The distribution is kept controlled, so the SOC can have a monopoly on magical power. You want to do some investigative reporting? Investigate that.”
Therese moved up and jostled Britton aside, looking into the camera. “He’s right. I may not be a Probe, but I’m a criminal, too. And for what? Let me show you something.” She pointed, and the camera swung to cover a boom-mic operator, a young man in his early twenties with a thin scrabble of beard and much thicker glasses.
She moved toward him, and he dropped the boom, backing up, raising his hands. “Sir,” she said. “It’s all right, I’m not going to hurt you. Let me do this.”
The cameraman and one of the reporters began yelling at the boom operator to let her, and he acquiesced reluctantly, closing his eyes and leaning away as she placed her hands over his face. A moment later, she pulled her hand back, taking his glasses. The boom operator stood blinking, a smile spreading across his face.
“How’s your vision?” she asked.
He blinked, blushing. “Perfect. It’s perfect.”
She tossed his glasses over her shoulder and turned back to the camera. “He won’t be needing these anymore. That’s my great crime? A gun owner can shoot people, but they’re still allowed to own guns. Sure, I can use my magic to hurt people, but I don’t. We have free will, and with Limbic Dampener, we’d have control, too.”
Britton overrode the chorus of questions. “I beg you to look past your fear. Latent people want the same things you do. Running them into the ground isn’t going to make them less likely to harm you. It’s only going to make them more likely to see you as an enemy. Let us live among you. As equals. Distribute the drug. Change. The. Law.”
Harlequin stared. It was all true, but that didn’t mean it would help. Harlequin had been in front of TV cameras nonstop since Britton had first escaped. Rants like that would frighten as many people as it convinced. In his heart, he wished Britton well. You do it your way, and I’ll do it my way. Let’s see who changes the world first.
He closed his eyes, gave himself another minute of peace.
The door at the far end of the room opened, closed. “Hey, Jan.”
Harlequin opened his eyes to see the familiar face of Lieutenant Colonel Rick Allen, call sign Crucible.
He felt the smile spread across his face. “Holy crap, Rick. What the hell are you doing here?”
He gave Crucible a brief hug, then stepped back, still shaking his hand, grinning. “I haven’t seen you in forever!”
He could see the urgency in Crucible’s face. The Pyromancer was deeply worried about something, but histrionics had never been his style, and Harlequin knew he’d get to whatever it was in his own time.
Crucible forced a broad smile. ”I see you all the time, Hollywood! You’re on TV every other day! Hell, I’m getting sick of your ugly mug.”
Harlequin’s smile vanished. “Don’t call me that.”
“Whoa,” Crucible’s forced smile didn’t falter. “What? Ugly mug? I’m just kidding. You’re a very attractive man. If I weren’t happily married, I’d jump your bones right here.”
“Hollywood. That’s what everyone calls me now. I’m fucking sick of it. They think I like being on TV.”
“No shame in liking it. You’re good at it, and you’re helping. Slinging lightning isn’t the only thing Army Sorcerers do.”
“What am I helping, Rick? Tell me how this helps anything.”
Crucible was quiet for a moment. “Sorry, Jan. I really was just kidding about the Hollywood thing.”
“I know,” Harlequin said, “what’s going on? This isn’t a social call.”
Crucible creased his mouth into a thin line and took a deep breath.
“How are you doing?” he finally asked.
“I’m okay,” Harlequin said. “I’m sorry to be so pissy. I’m just getting tired of being a poster boy for a revolution I don’t want. I did what I had to do to save the FOB, but I don’t want the whole system to come down. Magic still needs to be controlled. Let Oscar Britton carry that torch… wherever the hell he is.”
Crucible waved a hand. “Nobody is going to mess with him now. He’s way too popular. If you think you’re a folk hero… That guy is…”
“Hollywood,” Harlequin finished for him. “Rick. You’re practically crawling out of your own skin. What’s the problem?”
Crucible reached into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone. “There’s trouble in New York City. They want you to head out there and lock it down.”
“What kind of trouble?” Harlequin worked to keep the excitement out of his voice.
Crucible held up his smartphone. “A cop took this on Wall Street this morning.” He thumbed through some photographs before settling on a video clip stopped on the frozen image of the cobblestone street that ran past Federal Hall, the giant columns rising out of the broad stone steps like some giant’s gap-toothed smile. The street was crowded with people, mostly in suits and ties, lacking the cameras and maps that would have marked them as tourists. Lunchtime then, the bankers, analysts, and computer geeks who made the country’s financial system run heading out for a bite or a cigarette.
Harlequin took the phone from Crucible, hovered his thumb over the play button.
“When you say ‘they’ want me to lock it down…” Harlequin began.
“‘They’ is actually ‘he,’” Crucible said. “President Porter. He asked for you personally.”
“It’s got to be a hell of a thing to make that happen.”
“It is.” Crucible gestured at the phone.
Harlequin pushed play. The video was slightly grainy, the digital zoom making the colors run together, the gray and white of the stone and asphalt blending. But it wasn’t so fuzzy that Harlequin couldn’t make out the shimmering curtain, the ranks of monsters marching through it.
Harlequin showed no reaction, and Crucible watched him, arms folded, until the video finally stopped, leaving the image frozen on a woman, arms spread, smiling up at the widening gate. Around her, tall ebony shapes spread out, white cuts for mouths grinning along with her.
Harlequin lowered the phone. “That’s her, isn’t it?”
The picture was too distorted to make out her face, but he recognized her anyway.
Harlequin searched Crucible’s face for an accusation, found none. Relief mingled with guilt. If she was involved with anything, he was to blame. No. Oscar Britton is to blame. If it went your way, she’d still be rotting in the hole and FOB Frontier would still be standing.
“It’s her,” Crucible said. “We ran the image through facial-recognition software just to be double sure.”
“Jesus,” Harlequin said, resisting Crucible’s attempt to retrieve his phone, his eyes returning to the picture.
Crucible nodded. “It’s not just Gahe. There are goblins. Rocs. Giants. Everything we faced at FOB Frontier.”
“What do they want me for?”
“The president is declaring this to be a national-security incident. He wants you as his incident commander on scene. You’ll be back in New York, just like old times,” Crucible said, “except I won’t be there, and you’ll be commanding the defense instead of liaising with the NYPD.”
Harlequin finally let the phone go. “So, in other words, nothing like old times.”
“They know who that is, Jan. You… know her. You’ve fought the Gahe before. You want out of this pasture they’ve put you in? You want to show them you’re a team player? This is your chance.”
Harlequin thought of the slim shape between the Gahe and felt his stomach do somersaults. She was easily the most dangerous Selfer in the world, the woman who’d single-handedly slaughtered hundreds and left FOB Frontier bared to its enemies. She called herself Scylla.
Once, he’d known her by another name.
Breach Zone © Myke Cole, 2014