Here’s another small part of the book, and here we meet Mantell, the assassin. Enjoy!
The Thames stank.
Before she began, Mantell slipped off her right glove and looked at her right hand, at that thing on her palm she had never shown anyone.
That she would never show anyone. Not after the recent disaster, not since the annihilation of her hope. Hope, she thought, as the martial armoring around the remnants of her heart quivered briefly—she could have had everything!—then locked again.
Hardness, she told herself instead. Life without hope.
She slipped the glove back on.
Then she triggered the protectives on her suit—night vision, hearing augmentor, helmet laser, exo-armor, threat detector—and set off across the rough wooden structure that made the long-collapsed Tower Bridge crossable. The wailings of plague survivors huddled in their nests among the rubble almost slowed her—she could so easily have been one. So easily alone in the City of the Dead. London the wasteland since the Kent Plague and the massive nationwide riots. Britain the Alone. The Disunited Kingdom. Though Europe was scarcely better with its suicide parties and unenforceable anti-suicide laws. A continent without hope.
With the Second’s summons in her secure pouch alongside her dead mother’s bottle of perfume, she passed through the twisted metal and collapsed granite and stagnant pools where the Thames had backwatered.
On the muddy southern bank, near the abandoned docks, she drew her laser and set out through the empty streets of Southwark, watching for the violently territorial gangs that made the Borough impassable by night. Shielded as she was by the best body armor in her cell leader’s armory, she made her passage through Southwark rapid and silent.
The day coughed up the last of its light. A leprous silence followed Mantell through the streets like the abandoned child she was. Rain spattered. Viscous discharges scummed the surface of puddles. She panted shallow breaths and ran on. The smell of ozone accelerated her stride when she detected and shot several gang sentries, brought a hungry, adrenal charge to her throat. The taste of war, she mused with a strong, iron thrill, brutal and beautiful.
Come, provoke this lost child, this once-lover. Name your armaments. Show me your wounds, for all mine are within.
She turned the last corner puzzling, as she had received the message. Why did the Second summon me? The greatly-feared Second of the mighty Cabal. He to whom much was owed, but nothing taken. Why me?
The Second summoned so few. His orders appeared in cheap brown envelopes on doorsteps in mornings. Hurricanes did not shift them; storms did not wet them. No-one could open them but the person for whom they were intended. Inside, the orders were written in red ink on cheap lined paper in a child’s awkward script, and in some places, the pressure of the pen had torn the paper. Some were stained with substances that no-one dared analyze.
Nevertheless, those who received such an envelope and fulfilled their orders well were accorded the highest esteem in the Cabal. Those who failed in their tasks, even the hardest soldiers, were left to live a few paranoid weeks waiting for punishment until their own terror guided their hands to a suitable weapon.
Mantell’s summons simply read ‘Come to me’ above a scribbled map. Her few friends had warned: there’s strange things happening across the Channel. Be careful, soldier. She had heard through Cabal sources of the strange boy and his baffling painting of the comet and wondered what the Second thought.
And the closed faces of her friends had made the message very clear: How much of your soul are you prepared to lose?
Lose? she thought. She had already lost everything—mother, father, lover, all gone. And since that terrible night a month ago, she had sometimes considered how best she might stop the meaninglessness of her pulse, most often with a knife.
All that prevented her was her mother’s bottle of perfume. Deep in her secure pouch, it still offered the hope that one day she would be attractive to a man. Perfume to bring love, her mother used to say. Faint hope better than none, she thought. And war beat love most times.
So why summon her? Perhaps it involved preparations for the Melcassar Comet. Comet and curse are coming together, her fellow assassins told her. The social media was full of its approach to Earth. Some predicted a Pacific impact that would obliterate most coastal Rim cities, others an African landfall that would rival Tunguska, while others proclaimed it would obliterate all life on Earth. Mantell almost hoped for devastation, either with her at the blast center or watching the tsunami it caused bear down on her on an isolated coast somewhere. How loud would her scream be as an ocean advanced on her? The laws of physics had no love for her. One last kiss of a billion tonnes of seawater hardly counted.
If not that, she thought, and in the absence of anything sensible, the Second must have summoned her on an impulsive desire for nothing more than a cup of tea and a chat about ballistics or entry wounds, her favorite topics of conversation.
The building surprised her when she reached it. Windowless. Like a prisoner whose eyes had been cut out, whose mouth had been fused shut. Ungraffitied, though the buildings to both sides shrieked with ragged scrawls. A single door was two meters above ground level, with no steps to reach it. She leaped up, grabbed the sill and, just as she pulled herself up, her right threat-sensor pinged. She jerked left and a bullet embedded itself into the door next to her neck. She whirled, sighted the sniper and shot him. Then she drew careful breath and pushed open the door, remembering the message: Come to me. Lover or hunter? Parts of her wanted both.
The door behind closed her into darkness. A latch clicked. Her pulse accelerated, calibrating seconds like a bomb timer. She stowed her laser in her thigh-sheath.In the half-second before her night-vision goggles kicked in, she smelled new concrete. Then a light came on above her, a single dim globe, illuminating stairs and nothing else. She climbed two flights with no landings and no doors. At the top, the staircase ended with a plain wooden door.
Come to me.
Lover or hunter?
There’s strange things happening. How much of your soul are you prepared to lose?
Everything. I have nothing.
A voice said, “Enter” even before Mantell knocked.
The light went off.
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