Carter watched the woman wheelspin the BMW 740i up the snowbound lane, park at a curious and somewhat precarious angle, climb from the warmth and comfort of the car and kick the waxed and polished wing three times. She glanced up towards him, towards his shield of glass. He waved, but she did not see him through the thickly falling snow.
Carter moved across the heavy rugs, luxuriating in the feel of the fur and wool under his bare feet. He threw another log on the fire and Samson, his chocolate Labrador, looked up from his luxurious basket and tilted his head slightly. The dog gave a little whine. Carter smiled. ‘She loves me really,’ he said and winked. Samson’s head dropped and the dog grunted, closing his large eyes.
Carter flipped open the front door with an IR and collapsed into a deep sofa with a glass of red wine.
He heard her, stamping snow from her boots and cursing the climate, the location and, most of all, him. He smiled wryly, swirling the wine and peering into its velvety depths as the woman climbed the stone steps to the front door.
‘Are you in?’
Carter raised his arm, and peered over the back of the sofa. ‘Guilty, Nats. How’s life?’
‘It’s Natasha, you arse, not Nats.’
‘Hmm, tetchy. Wine?’
‘Red. Some kind of Italian stuff, I think. Does it matter?’
‘It matters, Carter. Why the fuck did you move out here?’
‘I like it out here.’
‘It’s in the middle of nowhere!’
‘That’s what I like about it. The cities are full of the military. And after the London Riots they’ve moved in Justice Troops – JT8s.’ Carter shook his head. ‘It’s not what I call a pleasant environment conducive to relaxation and long life.’
Natasha gave a short laugh, her gaze moving around the room. ‘And I can’t believe you haven’t even got a fucking car.’
‘What would I need a car for?’ Carter frowned. ‘I have everything I need right here.’
Natasha stopped, took a deep breath and counted silently as she summoned patience. She removed her scarf and gloves, closed her eyes for a moment and threw her Berghaus fleece over a nearby leather chair.
‘I hate Scotland,’ she said.
‘It’s where I was brought up,’ said Carter softly. He drained the glass in one. ‘Where I was born. It has character and strength and solitude. Sure you won’t try some wine, you bad-tempered little temptress?’
‘Maybe a whisky.’
As Carter found the Lagavulin decanter and poured two generous measures, he watched Natasha’s slim and athletic form. He licked his lips and thought back to better times – long nights and longer days, making love on this very floor, laughing, talking, drinking . . .
He handed her the glass. She ran a hand through her short black snow-damp hair, leaving it spiked – the way that he knew she knew he liked it. He smiled in anticipation, downed the single malt and threw the crystal glass into the fire where it shattered; for a moment the flames grew bright.
‘You always were over-dramatic,’ said Natasha sombrely, staring down into her whisky. She had moved to sit in front of the fire and she twirled her glass gently, seemingly lost in thought.
‘What do you want?’ he said finally when he realised that she would not break the silence without prompting.
Flames crackled for a while and Carter wondered if she had heard him.
‘How do you know I want anything?’
‘It’s been over a year,’ sighed Carter. ‘You still working for that slave-driver Spiral?’
‘Of course. Our role grows more important with every passing day.’ She smiled softly. ‘We have a job for you.’
‘Ah.’ Carter sighed, climbed to his feet and walked to stand in front of the window. The snow was falling thick and fast and he could see, dim through the swirling flakes, the lofty peaks of Ben Macdui, blue-grey and sheer – exhilarating. The wind howled in the distance and Carter shivered, despite the fire’s heat in the room. He felt a twinge of disappointment that he could not see the frozen lake.
‘Is it a solo, or a joint assignment with a DemolSquad?’
‘Solo. A protection issue.’
‘I am finished with Spiral,’ Carter whispered softly, turning and watching Natasha through heavy half-lowered eyelids – internal movie screens flashing images of events he would rather forget, nightmares he would rather not relive. She stood, a fluid and graceful action, and moved to him, draped her arms across his shoulders and ducked a little, looked up into his eyes.
‘I know you’ve turned down the last four gigs – as with all Spiral jobs that is your prerogative. But this has come from the top. Real important.’
‘It always is,’ said Carter bitterly.
‘Things are getting worse,’ whispered Natasha. ‘The world is changing, Carter, and you’re fucking hiding up here . . .’
She tailed off as she saw the look on his face and cursed herself inwardly. That had been unfair; Carter was good. No, he was the best. And after the Battle of Cairo7 . . . he had the right to live and rest any way he pleased . . .
Natasha took a deep breath.
‘Look, I want you to do this,’ she said. She moved forward slowly. Her lips touched his and he allowed her to kiss him for a few moments. Her breath was sweet, her lips soft and inviting.
‘I empathise with this girl’s situation. She is young, alone, afraid. And you are the best, Carter.’
‘Bull – shit.’ He kissed her again, anyway, tasting Lagavulin on her lips. When he pulled away, he was frowning. ‘What about Jax? Or Scott? Or Evoss?’
There was a long pause. Natasha averted her gaze and looked over at the fire as though debating with herself. Carter caught a glimpse of something then, in her face, in her eyes. There was something that Natasha knew, a secret she did not wish to share.
Carter smiled tightly and reached up, stroking her cheek. She turned back to him, licking her dry lips.
‘I recommended you, Carter,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t turn me down. Don’t let her down.’
‘Who is she? Why should I care?’
‘Maria Balashev. She’s nineteen. The niece of Count Feuchter.’
Carter pulled away for a moment. Reflected flames danced in Natasha’s deep brown eyes. He searched her face for – he shook his head, unsure of the unspoken signs he sought.
‘Feuchter? Where the hell am I going?’
‘You shouldn’t let me manipulate you,’ said Natasha, turning and walking away from him.
Carter watched the hypnotic sway of her hips. He swallowed – hard. How long have I been a hermit? he thought. How long without lips to kiss, soft skin to nibble, a flat stomach to taste . . .
‘I can’t help myself, Nats.’ His voice was hoarse. ‘Where am I going?’
‘Schwalenberg, Germany, in the Weser River Valley. My homeland, Carter, near the place I was born.’
‘Weser? Isn’t that where the Pied Piper enticed the rats to their deaths?’
‘Could be,’ said Natasha, ‘although I’m no student of history.’
‘Nor literature, I see.’
‘Feuchter is based at Spiral_Q, in Saudi Arabia – he’s come over to Germany to give a series of lectures to Spiral operatives, and for a celebration of his achievements working on several breakthroughs in processor development. Many of those working on the project have been based in Germany for – shall we say, security reasons . . .
Carter sighed and shrugged. He rubbed at his suddenly weary eyes, then met Natasha’s gaze. ‘Will you stay?’
There was a pause. Natasha put her hands in her pockets and looked at Carter steadily. She tilted her head, her lips pursed, her beautiful brown eyes unreadable. Carter realised that she had aged – matured – wonderfully in the year since he had last seen her. And he realised too that he wanted her more than anything in the world . . . more than anything.
‘And you turned her down,’ mocked Kade, a distant whisper in his head. ‘You dick. You sent her away.’
Carter gritted his teeth and battled to ignore the acid sly observations of the ever-unwelcome voice within his mind. Fuck off and die, Kade, he thought.
Then he forced a smile to his face and looked up to see the kindness in Nats’s expression.
‘Not tonight,’ she whispered. She smiled. ‘But we’ll make a date. When you get back, maybe.’
‘You mean in another year when Spiral has another job for me and decides that a cheap kiss is enough to purchase my skilled services?’
Natasha moved forward and placed a finger against his lips. ‘When you get back from Germany. We’ll meet then.’
‘I promise. Here.’
She tossed Carter a small cube. It was soft under his fingers, and he turned it slowly; similar in size to a matchbox, the dull matt black alloy shone as the cube fitted neatly into the palm of his hand. ‘New model?’
‘Version 4.2. ECubes have moved on since you last worked for us.’
‘Really? Same basic functions?’
An ECube was an electronic communications device, standard Spiral issue. Running the V4.2 ICARUS operating system, it sported a 12GHz RISC processor and 256 gigabytes of static RAM. It was solid-state – no moving parts – and quite robust; it had voice – and fingerprint-recognition facilities; it could act as an advanced GPS – could navigate across the whole of the world, relaying data straight back to Spiral mainframes and thus allowing Spiral to keep a tab on its finest operatives. It also had a few hidden and very ingenious little tricks within its alloy casing.
Natasha turned to leave, gathering her fleece coat and gloves and moving to the door and the steep steps beyond. ‘When are you coming back to the real world, Carter? It misses you, y’know?’
‘I enjoy the seclusion.’
‘That wasn’t the question.’
‘Then, “when I have a reason to” would be the answer.’
She held his gaze for a long time, then turned and left. He listened to her departure, then moved to the window and watched the plumes from the 740’s exhaust. Wheels spinning dangerously, the BMW cut a swathe through the fresh snowfall and was soon gone, tail lights flickering into nothing.
Carter felt suddenly, terribly alone.
For a while he watched the snow, then stared down at the ECube nestling in his palm like a tiny Chinese puzzle box. He squeezed it, and it came to life. Small blue digits flickered across its alloy face. He looked from the ECube to the roaring fire – and for a moment was undecided . . .
He could destroy it. Walk away.
He had sworn that he was through with Spiral.
Because . . .
When he was through with Spiral, then he was through with Kade.
Carter shivered, staring into the flames.
Spiral did not know about Kade. But then, nobody knew about Kade. Kade was a ghost that Carter would rather forget: a dark and psychopathic slice of his personality that had found itself a voice; a dark and menacing angel squatting in his mind. A demon ready to feed, to prove itself again as it had in Egypt and China and Poland . . .
He turned from the flames and slumped into the embrace of the deep and comfortable sofa. Samson climbed to his feet ponderously, for the dog was large for a Labrador – hence his fitting and none too subtle name – yawned, padded over to Carter, climbed up slowly next to the man and placed his wide head on Carter’s lap. Samson gave a huge dog sigh and Carter rubbed gently at his velvety ears.
Protection, Natasha had said. Carter’s mouth was dry and he realised that she – and Spiral itself – understood him perfectly. No more killing. No more demolition. No more destruction . . . Those days were over. Gone. Dissolved into dust, just like Cairo.
The protection of the niece of a senior Spiral weapons researcher.
No killing . . . no bombs . . . no cool collective violence . . .
‘Talk to me,’ he said to the ECube. Instantly it locked onto his voice pattern and linked with a click to the Spiral mainframe . . .
Data log #887
CLASSIFIED FFUCH/111/SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Data Request 117554#887
Count Feuchter; German professor, born in Schwalenberg, educated in Munich, London and Prague. Great-grandfather killed by the Nazis during World War II after being tortured somewhere on the German/Austrian border. Mother and two sons fled to Italy, then to England for protection after the war was over; Feuchter comes from this bloodline.
Expert in computing systems, specialising in processor function and artificial intelligence. Currently pioneering military processor after setting up Spiral_Q, with coprogrammer and system developer, Durell. Spiral_Q – currently based in Rub al’Khali, Saudi Arabia, also named The Great Sandy Desert. The technologically advanced research station has been set up with the knowledge of the Saudi government in what is a largely completely unexplored region of desert; the Saudi government has been bribed with technology and information to turn a blind eye on the operations there, and no satellite locks have been discovered: the station is, therefore, invisible to most of the snooping eyes of the world.
QIII Military Proc – classified; Level Z access required. ‹Lock›
Caution activation: Feuchter has been the victim of various death threats; suspect terrorist activity, probably Middle Eastern influences with sights set on the ‘rumoured’ processor which is in development. German Special Forces are involved with protecting Feuchter on home ground. One weak link could be his niece, daughter of his murdered brother; she travels with him everywhere and could be a target for kidnapping, even murder in order to blackmail Feuchter or garner information on the QIII.
Keyword SEARCH››DURELL, QIII [lvlz], NEX [lvlz] SPIRAL_Q
Carter peered out through the smoked glass as the engines whined. He grinned like a young boy – unable to contain himself – as he felt the power of the machine beneath him wind up like a turbine.
The Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche eased up from the snow, suspension bobbing as it was released from the aircraft’s dead weight, and Carter watched the Scottish mountains drop away beneath him. Exhilaration was his mistress and he licked his lips nervously – he hated flying, and yet drew some perverse pleasure from the stimulation such machines gave him. The pilot was ensconced in his HIDSS – a Helmet Integrated Display Sighting System – and looked somewhat alien as he eased forward and the twin 1380 shaft-horsepower LHTec turboshaft engines moaned like huge ferocious animals in pain.
‘Hey, Langan, you hear me in that ugly thing?’
‘I hear you, Carter.’
‘I thought these choppers weren’t in production yet?’
‘They’re not. Especially ones like this. It’s a MkIV. Very advanced.’
‘Is it fast?’
Carter was slammed back, heart in his mouth.
Stupid question, thought Carter as the engines finally returned to their ‘normal’ speed. His stomach churned and he regretted his fried breakfast. He made a mental note to keep his irrepressibly foolish questions to himself in the future.
‘You want to go over land, via the coastline or straight across the sea?’
‘Does it matter?’ said Carter.
‘Not to me.’
‘Down the coast, then.’
Carter settled back as the Comanche hummed, settled into stealth mode and cruised down the coastline of England. He ran through the ECube’s instructions once more: protection in support of German Special Forces agents. Not even a full job. A support job. Break him in gently; ease him back into the Spiral fold . . . and then he would feel Kade’s wings curl around him to obscure the light and the killing would begin . . .
He remembered the probing of the little ECube machine with some annoyance. Spiral testing him: physical and mental responses. Check he was still the same. Check he hadn’t lost his magic touch.
‘I should have retired,’ he mused, settling deeper into the uncomfortable seat; it was structured for combat, not sleep. ‘In fact, I thought I already had.’
Carter managed to nod off as they flew low down the east coast of England, the cold dark waters of the North Sea below them as the Comanche weaved like a reignedin predator between radar pulses and deflected the probings of other more sophisticated detection equipment. They left the southern coast of England, avoiding both Dover and Boulogne by flying straight down the centre of the English Channel as Carter remembered older, harder days, training in the mountains, running, sweating under packs, carrying logs, wading through snow, navigating blizzards . . . He smiled amiably as the memories drifted through his mind. He had felt so heroic; at the peak of his physical and mental fitness. And yet it had been the beginning.
The beginning of a new career with Spiral . . .
‘Can I smoke?’
He slept, and dreamed only a little; it was a bad dream.
It was a dream about Kade.
‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’ he muttered as he came awake to the sound of rain and the buffeting of wind.
‘You OK?’ asked Langan.
Carter sighed. ‘Yeah. Sort of. Has this thing got a cigarette lighter?’
‘Like I said, no smoking, pal.’
‘Where are we?’
‘Just crossing the Ardennes. We won’t be long; touchdown will be just east of Siegen. Nice little pad we’ve got hidden away in the hills. A car will meet you and rush you off to whatever secret and heroic mission you’re destined to enjoy.’
‘Shut the fuck up.’
‘OK, boss.’ The pilot grinned, flicked a switch and the Comanche swooped down from the sky towards the flatlands beyond the mountain range. Carter watched the landscape flicker below him in the approaching gloom like some ridiculous computer-game simulation – and thanked God that this unwanted adrenalin-injected journey was nearly over.
‘I’d like to thank you for a smooth flight, but I won’t.’
‘Any time, pal,’ Langan chuckled.
Carter watched the Comanche leap into the air, bank sideways and hurtle into the distance. He shook his head, lit a cigarette and inhaled. His boots crunched stone as he walked to the black Mercedes and climbed in. In minutes the hills were moving past on either side and the car soon drove into the gloomy sanctuary of a pine forest.
Carter wound down the window and breathed in the pleasant scent. Rain spat through the gap and he revelled in the shocking coolness on his face. He saw himself imposed over the image of the speeding forest: Carter, reflected in glass – short brown hair, heavy stubble, pale blue eyes. A broad boxer’s nose that had taken one too many punches. A strong chin – he thrust it forward, then grinned weakly at his reflection.
Ugly bastard, he mused, and lit another cigarette, reminding himself that he really should quit.
The hotel was basic. Low-key. Cheap.
Carter unpacked, then spent a half-hour familiarising himself with the room and then with the hotel. He walked around, smoking, checking out entrances and exits. He sat for a while in the lobby, watching the people coming and going, and being eyed himself by the two hotel guards armed with 7.62mm AK49s. A waiter approached and asked him if he required a drink. In fluent German he asked for a bottle of whisky to be sent to his room and then shook his head, telling himself off.
You’ve one day left, he mused. The last thing you need is a hangover.
Ignoring his own advice, he went back to his room to listen to the rain, drink, and pray that Kade would leave him alone.
‘You’re drunk,’ whispered the voice of Kade in his mind.
Carter ignored the words and poured himself another whisky. It was a cheap blend and tasted burning, sour – evil, almost – on his tongue and in his throat.
‘Let me look at her. Just one more look at her.’
‘No,’ said Carter softly. His fist clenched the glass tightly and he looked across the room at the mirror. He always expected to see something – he wasn’t sure what. Maybe a spirit drifting over his head. Maybe a ghost standing behind his shoulder. But it was always the same . . . nothing. Nothing there – no ghosts, no haunting, no floating spirits. He was alone – alone in body but not in soul . . .
Am I going crazy?
The same question. The same question a million times.
He laughed, and downed the whisky. He felt Kade leave him and was thankful – thankful for the peace and solitude. Kade came to him much less these days and that was the way he liked it. But again the thought nagged at him, would not relinquish its alcohol-fuelled grip: crazy man, mad man, insanity . . . Schizophrenia? Severe mental disorder? A fucked-up mind fried on the toxins of three wars and a thousand battles—
Insane . . .
‘You’re fucking insane,’ Roxi had shouted at him from across the room, fear in her face, in her eyes, in her stance. He could see her fingers trembling, could see the enticing pulse beating rapidly in her neck.
And he could still feel the bulky grip of the 9mm in his hand as he pointed it at her, a full 13-round clip in its magazine. And Kade: there in the back of his mind. ‘Kill her. She will betray you – betray us. And we shall be nothing. We shall be ashes and dust. Do it – or, if you’re such a fucking coward, let me do it . . .’
He had walked from the room, to the lake, and thrown the weapon into the cold waters.
He had let Roxi leave. Without a farewell.
But at least with her life.
She had known there was a problem – a needle in his mind, a splinter through his soul – and she had begged him to tell her. But he could not. How could he describe Kade in mere words? How could he define his torture, his misery – and, ironically, his saviour – in simple sentences?
Yeah, Kade – his Saviour. His fucking God.
Carter laughed drunkenly at that and refilled his glass, spilling whisky over his hand. He could remember the shame: like a brand scarring his brain and soul. He had almost let Kade have her; had almost given in to the raging fucked-up beast-demon-murderer roaming his soul . . .
Shit, he realised, sometimes he had even welcomed that merciless unbidden intruder – at first: when he had discovered what Kade was capable of. He admitted to himself that without his dark twin he would now be dead, dead many times in bunkers, bullets in his skull, his corpse rotting on river beds and in sewers and lying in pieces on distant forgotten battlefields. Kade had saved his life, had pushed him on and murdered when Carter felt weakness and Kade was untroubled by fear or compassion or doubt or consequences and had maimed and slain and slaughtered on his fucking behalf and yet . . .
Carter couldn’t help wondering if he would rather be dead.
What is it like to be normal?
How would my life have been?
How would I have turned out?
He slept uneasily, images of the people that he – Kade – had murdered floating up from the depths of his mind. They accused him, fingers pointing, silent dead mouths open and screaming at him.
Transcript of recent news incident
unorthodox incident scan 545834
Outbreak of malicious computing activity across the globe/a malicious virus Kleq5 – so far undetected on even the most powerful computing systems – has hit global networks in quick succession, striking 15,000,000 machines within 30 seconds.
Not a single country in the world has remained unaffected – from America to France, from Africa to the Czech Republic. According to IT experts, the suspected virus detects sectors where operating systems reside and writes random blocks of data in short bursts, rendering any infected machine unusable.
Because of its highly contagious nature, the virus and sample hard disks are being rigorously examined by leading anti-virus software companies. It is estimated that this Kleq5 virus has caused upwards of US$4.3 billion damage.
Computing experts are fearful of a second payload which is expected shortly.››#