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I have this recurring dream where I've been ordered by a federal judge to join a support group.
"Hi," I say. I'm sitting on a folding chair, part of a circle of people. "My name is Jace, and I am a human being."
"Hi, Jace," everyone choruses.
"I've been a human being for—well, thirty-some-odd years. Actually, where I come from pretty much everyone's a human being."
A large woman in a floral-print housedress puts up her hand. "Don't use the people around you to justify your actions," she says primly.
"But it's true," I insist. "No vampires, no lycanthropes, no golems. And then I got shanghaied into this universe by a shaman named Ahaseurus—believe me, when I find that guy, we are going to have words—and now I'm trapped here until I catch a Free Human Resistance terrorist named Aristotle Stoker—"
A weaselly guy with a ridiculous mustache and a BELA LUGOSI FOR PRESIDENT T-shirt puts up his hand. "So none of this is your fault?"
"No! I'm telling you, I was kidnapped out of my own bedroom—"
"Why you?" he asks in a nasal voice. "Are you trying to say you're different from everyone else?"
"I am different. I'm a criminal profiler for the FBI, specializing in hunting down homicidal psychos—a job that doesn't seem to exist here. Pires and thropes and lems don't go crazy—well, they never used to, anyway—so they need me to hunt down Stoker, who's definitely out of his gourd—"
The woman in the flowery dress shakes her head. "I don't know what that means."
"Mentally unstable. Deranged. Squirrelly. Nuts. Wacko. Out to lunch—"
Nasally Mustache frowns. "You're no different from anyone else, Jace. You have to accept that before we can help you."
"—insane in the brain. Off his meds. Unable to locate his marbles. Needs to be fitted for a long-sleeved love-me jacket so he can hug himself all day long. Bats in the control center, long-term resident of a rubber room, lights are on but so is the VACANCY sign—"
The woman sighs. "Sounds to me like you're in denial, Jace." The rest of the group mutters and nods. "Normally we insist that members finish each step in the program before they go on to the next, but in your case I think we'll make an exception. You need to go right to Step Thirteen."
She gets to her feet. So does Nasally and everybody else.
"Being human doesn't have to be a life sentence," someone says. Coarse gray hair sprouts on the woman's face as it lengthens into a muzzle filled with long, sharp teeth. Nasally's teeth are getting longer, too, his eyes turning blood red.
"Fur or fangs?" he says as they all reach for me.
That's usually when I wake up.
At least they didn't threaten to turn me into a golem. Much as I care for my partner and official NSA enforcer, Charlie Aleph, I really wouldn't want to go through life as a three-hundred-pound plastic-skinned mannequin filled with black sand. Not that he's ever been human himself—Charlie's body's animated by the life force of a long-dead T. rex, distilled through careful animistic magic by this world's shamans. It's something they do here a lot—though they usually use cattle or some other large animal to charge the lems' batteries—because golems make up something like 19 percent of the planet's population. Of the rest, 43 percent are lycanthropes, 37 vampires. One percent is all that's left of the human race.
Welcome to my life.
I've discovered that a few universal truths hold firm no matter what alternate world you're in; for instance, Mondays always suck. On a planet loaded with hemovores they tend to suck even more, in both volume and intensity.
"Morning," Charlie says in a deep-voiced rumble as I get on the elevator. He's his usual natty self, wearing a double-breasted dark green suit and matching fedora with a tan snakeskin hatband. His tie is black silk with an emerald stickpin, which compliments both the black chrome shininess of his plastic skin and his highly polished shoes.
"It is, isn't it?" I mutter. "AM. As in Awful and Malignant."
"No. Angels massaged my feet while I bathed in sunbeams and chocolate."
"Wouldn't that be messy?"
"It sounded better in my head." I take a long slug of coffee from the travel mug in my hand. "Will to live … returning," I say. "Damn. Thought I had it beat this time."
"The day's still young."
"Thanks for reminding me."
"Something's up." He glances at me and frowns. "Not you, obviously. But Cassius wouldn't call us in this early unless it was important."
I give him a withering glare, which has about as much effect as a laser on a mirror. David Cassius is our boss, the head of the National Security Agency, which for some reason is based out of Seattle here. He's a very old, very powerful pire, and he looks like an eighteen-year-old Californian surfer boy—or at least he did until recently.
The elevator doors slide open and we step out into the NSA offices. It looks pretty much like the offices of any intelligence-gathering agency in my own world—lots of people in lots of cubicles, the murmur of voices and machines, people in suits and ties striding along clutching laptops or file folders or paper cups of hot blood.
See, that's the thing about this place. It does a real good job of seeming normal, at least on the surface—but then some little detail comes along and whacks you between the eyes. Cars look like cars until you notice how many of them have windows tinted so dark you can't see inside, even through the windshield. At Easter, the bunnies aren't made of chocolate—though there's still a hunt, and kids still stuff their faces. And during the full moon, every thrope beneath it participates in a massive, three-day party that makes Rio during Carnival look like a Mormon picnic. Okay, that last one isn't all that small, but at least I only have to deal with it once a month.
You can make up your own joke. I mentioned it's Monday, right?
We march through the room to Cassius's office, which has a large smoked-glass window beside the door. The other side is sometimes blocked by retractable wood paneling, depending on whether or not he feels like watching his people work. Mostly, just the fact that he might be looking makes them work harder.
Cassius's office looks more like a study—dim lighting, lots of books. He's sitting behind the desk, and of the four chairs in front of it two are occupied: one by Damon Eisfanger, a forensics shaman, and one by Gretchen Petra, one of our top intel experts.
Cassius is dressed in his usual dark blue suit, his short blond hair neatly combed, his hands clasped together on the desk like a high school student at his first interview.
"Hey, Damon," I say as Charlie and I sit down. "How's the baby, Gretch?"
"Growing at a prodigious rate." Gretch is British, sharper than a room full of razors and just as dangerous. She appears to be in her late thirties, wears her blond hair pulled back into a tight bun, and dresses like a librarian. She's a pire who recently had her first child, Anna—there's a spell here that allows that, as long as the parents are both willing to age six months for every year the child does. The kid becomes a full-fledged immortal when the spell is canceled, restopping the clock for the parents, too. That means Gretch is actually older than when we first met, though she doesn't look it—and so is Cassius.
Anna's father, Saladin Aquitaine, was murdered by a psychopath I helped catch. Cassius agreed to take on Aquitaine's time-debt, which otherwise would have fallen completely on Gretchen. My surfer-boy boss is growing up, after spending Lord-knows-how-many years with his internal stopwatch stuck at late puberty.
Damon Eisfanger just nods at me. He looks a little nervous, and I wonder why. Damon's a thrope, his bloodline descended from a pack of arctic wolves, which gives him his ice-blue eyes and snow-white crew cut. The wide, muscular build he gets from the other side of his family—sometime in the past a wolf-bitten pit bull chomped one of his ancestors, passing along the lycanthropy curse and adding a few additional canine genes at the same time. Damon's a geek who looks like he lives in a gym, but he's also a friend who's slipped me information that could get him in trouble.
"Jace, Charlie," Cassius says. "Good morning to both of you. Sorry to get you out of bed so early—"
"Oh my God," I say. "You have a zit."
"A zit. On your face. I realize you may not recognize it because the last time you needed skin care products they hadn't been invented yet, but that little yellow thing at the edge of your hairline wasn't there yesterday."
"I wouldn't know, Jace. I don't own a mirror."
"Point taken. Are you a squeezer or a grower? Because I really don't want to have to sit here and watch that thing expand every day—"
"Hey, is your voice changing?"
Cassius sighs. "Are you done?"
"I've got more material, but not all of it's ready. Let me do a polish and get back to you."
Cassius taps his keyboard and a panel behind his head retracts, revealing a large flatscreen. The face on it drives a stake through the heart of the wisecrack I was about to make.
"Do this right," Cassius says, "and you might not get the chance to perform any of it."
It's a shot of Stoker in a trench coat and sunglasses, walking down a city street. He's a big man, six foot ten or so, with the build of a linebacker. Good looking in that craggy, implacable way that speaks to the cave-woman genes—one look tells you this is a guy who'll bring you a saber-toothed rug and a stack of mastodon steaks on the first date.
Time-stamp on the photo is three days ago. "Where was this taken?" I ask.
"Brussels," says Cassius. "He was spotted coming out of a meeting with a representative of this man." The picture changes to a shot of a man sitting at sidewalk café, cup raised to his lips. His upturned collar and hat shade most of his face, but what I can see has an odd, shiny cast to it. "Is that a lem?" I ask.
"No," says Gretchen. "He's human. He goes by the name of Silver Blue, and he's an arms dealer. The color of his skin is a self-imposed condition known as argyntia, caused by consuming large amounts of colloidal silver. It makes him immune to lycanthropy, obviously—in fact, no thrope can even touch him without suffering severe burns. Silver, of course, isn't quite as deadly to hemovores—so he also consumes an entire bulb of garlic every day."
"Shiny and smelly."
"And dangerous," says Cassius. "Silver Blue supplies black-market weapons to anyone who can pay for them. That includes the Free Human Resistance, which is no doubt why Stoker was in touch. It appears that some sort of major deal is under way, and more than just the FHR are involved. Also present at the meeting was this individual."
The picture changes again, now showing me a golem dressed in a pair of cargo pants, steel-toed work boots, and nothing else. At first I think the picture's in black and white, but it's not; the golem's gray, not a variation I've seen before. Most lems are a sandy sort of yellow, though enforcers like Charlie are black.
"Tom Omicron," says Charlie. "Founder of the Mantle."
"They're a radical golem rights group," says Gretchen. "Based out of Nevada. Much of the golem production in the country is centered there, due to the soil. The Mantle advocates civil disobedience, workplace sabotage, and criminal negligence as tools for social change. Essentially, members believe in isolationism; golems shouldn't even associate with the other races, let alone work for them. They've tried—unsucessfully, thus far—to organize several general strikes of all lem workers. Considering how many golems are employed in essential support services, the consequences could have been disastrous."
Sure. Most lems were used as manual labor, but that included everything from forklift operators to construction crews—not to mention soldiers. If they all decided to put down their pallets, shovels, and crossbows at the same time, it would bring the world to a halt.
"There were four people at the meeting," says Cassius. "Silver Blue himself was not present, but he sent his top lieutenant. I'm afraid it's someone we're all familiar with."
The next picture is of Dr. Pete.
Except it's not Dr. Pete, not anymore. It's Tair. He still has Dr. Pete's boyish good looks, but there's a streak of gray dyed into his hair now, and his eyes have a glint of cruelty in them that Dr. Pete's never did.
Dr. Peter Adams was the man who looked after me when I first came here. He treated my RDT—Reality Dislocation Trauma—and saved my life when my heart stopped. He was a kind, gentle man with a large family that cared about him.
And now he's gone. Not dead—erased. In the kind of weird magic whammy that would be impossible on the world of my birth, Dr. Pete had his history rewritten, changing a vital decision in his past from a good choice into a bad one. It sent him down a very different, very dark path … and it's not that surprising to see where he's wound up.
"I'm sorry, Jace," says Cassius. "We all cared about him. But this is not the man we knew. He's not just smart, he's ruthless and ambitious. He's become Blue's right-hand man in a very short period of time for a reason."
"The last time we saw Tair," I say, "he'd just stolen two very powerful artifacts."
"The Midnight Sword and the Balancer gem," says Cassius. "The first can cut through time itself; the second is able to manipulate and meld large amounts of magical energy. Sheldon Vincent not only managed to mystically unlock both items—making them usable by anyone—he bonded them together. We believe Tair offered this weapon to Silver Blue in return for employment."
"But that's not all he's done to prove himself," says Gretchen. Her voice is firm. If circumstances had unfolded differently, Dr. Pete would have been the one to deliver her baby. "He's demonstrated both ruthlessness and loyalty. He's killed his own kind, Jace—more than once."
"I guess he'd have to," I say. "Blue doesn't sound like he would trust a thrope or a pire to work for him unless they did." I try to keep my voice as neutral as Gretch's; I am a professional, after all. Two major shocks in as many minutes don't faze me, including the fact that someone I once considered a trusted friend is now a murderer.
Then Cassius hits me with shock number three.
I recognize the new face on the flatscreen, too. It's the bony, hawk-nosed profile of the shaman who brought me to this world, a man I've only met in a half-waking dream. I'm not supposed to know who he is, but I've done a little digging on my own.
His name is Ahaseurus. He's a very old, very powerful sorcerer—in fact, he's the one who designed the spell that turns unliving dirt into walking, talking golems, centuries ago.
And he's the only one who can send me home.
Oh, sure, another shaman could do it—if I fulfill the terms of my contract and catch Stoker, that is—but cross-dimensional magic is tricky. Only Ahaseurus can put me back more or less where he took me from, a few minutes or hours from when I disappeared out of my own bed. This whole alternate-universe experience will become nothing more than a series of fading memories, made real only by the scars I've accumulated since I got here.
If anyone else tries to put me back, I'll lose decades, both personally and objectively—I'll arrive back home an old woman, in a world that's moved on without me.
"Well, well, well," I say. "You found that shaman you misplaced, huh? Where was he, behind the couch?"
"His name is Asher," says Cassius. "I see you remember him, Jace. He's an Agency asset that's gone rogue—we believe Silver Blue is brokering some sort of deal among him, the Mantle, and Stoker, though exactly what is on the block has not been determined. What we do know is that he doesn't seem to be representing any other organization; whatever his agenda is, it's personal."
Gretchen nods. "That suggests Asher has something to sell, and both Stoker and the Mantle want it." Eisfanger hasn't said anything the entire time, and all he does now is give me a quick, nervous glance. Cassius and Charlie just stare right at me.
"Right," I say. "Three of the four principals have connections to me, and the guy with something for sale is the same one who dragged my sorry ass across the cosmic divide. Gee, what do you think he's offering up for grabs?"
"It's not that simple," says Gretchen. "True, Asher does possess a certain mystic knowledge of you that no one else does—but we're really not sure how that would be valuable to anyone but yourself."
"Depends on what he can do with it," I say. "Can he use it to eavesdrop on me? Control me? Make my head explode?"
"Uh, no," says Eisfanger. "He can use it to locate you—but I'm going to set you up with a masking spell that'll take care of that."
"And then what?" I ask. "You lock me away somewhere for safekeeping?"
"No," says Cassius. "I'm going to give you exactly what you want, Jace—the chance to go after both Stoker and Asher at the same time. You're going to spearhead the task force we're putting together to take them down."
I blink. I smile. I grin.
"Where and when?" I ask.
"The meet is sometime in the next few days," says Cassius. "I've assembled a strike team—you leave in two hours. You'll rendezvous with them on the ground, coordinate a tactical strategy and be in place when your targets congregate. After that—assuming you manage to take Asher alive and either kill or capture Stoker—you'll be going home."
Home. The word sounds strange in my ears. An obvious joke about Auntie Em burbles into my forebrain, but never makes it out into the air. There's this sudden stinging sensation in my eyes.
"Good God Almighty," Charlie says. "You actually made her shut up."
"Screw you, sandman," I say. I take a deep breath through my nose and pretend I don't hear a sniffle in it. "You know you're taking point, right? If I'm outta here, you're expendable anyway."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," he says. He puts just enough softness in his voice to make me want to punch him.
I can't believe it.
I might actually be going home.
* * *
I'm staring out the plane's window, thinking broody thoughts, when Charlie looks up from his magazine and says, "Don't worry. We'll get him."
"Sure. As long as Asher doesn't zap us all to the moon or something."
"That's what your shaman's for, to protect us from things like that. Wolosky, right? She knows her stuff."
"Good to hear." What I haven't told Charlie is that I have my own mystic ace-in-the-hole: a powerful magic relic that I inherited from Dr. Pete when he went rogue. Of course, I have no idea how to use it or what it can do, just that it's supposedly charged with eldritch energy. It's currently in my baggage, tucked between two pairs of pants. Maybe I can ask Wolosky for some advice on the proper use of an enchanted comic book.
"You know any of the others?" I ask.
"I did a tour with Brody—best thrope with a blade I know. Gunderson has a room full of trophies he won at ax-throwing competitions. Don't know Wilson."
"How about the lems?"
"You mean the ones on our side?"
I frown. "You know some of the ones working for Blue?"
"Not specifically. But I know lems with connections to the Mantle."
"The briefing was a little skimpy on them."
"I noticed. They're a touchy subject, especially in Washington."
"Yeah? Why's that?"
"Because some of what they're saying actually makes sense."
That makes me pause. Charlie's about as loyal—not to mention traditional—as they come. It's hard to see him endorsing the beliefs of any radical anti-human group. "You going anti-establishment on me, Charlie? Going to start showing up at demonstrations and yelling about Mineral Rights?"
"I didn't say I agree with everything they stand for. But they do make a few good points."
"For one thing, they think golems should be in charge of their own reproduction. Golems aren't allowed to own or even work in lem factories, did you know that?"
"No. Guess they're afraid you'll crank up production and flood the workplace. Golem inflation—now there's a scary thought."
"We're not a commodity, Jace." I can tell by his voice I've ticked him off—and not in the usual way. "We're people. We may not care about food or sex or any of the other ridiculously squishy things you're all addicted to, but that doesn't mean we don't care about anything."
"Hey, come on, I didn't mean it like that—"
"The thing is, you need us more than we need you. The one thing—the only thing—us lems really need from the other races is to be made in the first place. After that, we can do just fine on our own. That's the one basic right we demand—and it's the one you'll never give us."
I should have said, Me? Don't rope me into this, Kemo Sabe—if I had my way, every lem would pop out of the mold with three hundred pounds of spare clay, a set of DIY blueprints, and an extra birth certificate.
But I don't. Did I mention I have this bad habit of making jokes at inappropriate times?
Because what comes out of my mouth is, "Duct tape."
"The right to reproduce, and access to unlimited duct tape. Those should really be the cornerstones of the golem constitution. You know how many times I've had to patch you up because you sprang a leak in some hard-to-reach place?"
He gives me a look even flatter than his usual stare. "The one thing we do have in common with you organics," he says, "is a need for sleep. I think I'll get some right now."
He leans back in his seat, tilts his fedora down over his eyes, and proceeds to ignore me for the rest of the flight. Great start to the mission, Jace.
I spend the flight studying the files Gretch put together. They break down into two basic groups: my team and Tair's. Silver Blue's hired some of the best mercenaries in the business to provide muscle, while Cassius has done much the same by drawing on government assets. I feel a little bit like someone who's just bought an NFL franchise and needs to review the starting lineup. But while I don't know crap about football, I do understand the strategies and dynamics of a strike team.
I sigh, pull out my spray bottle of wolf pheromone, and spritz some more on. It's got an aroma like a sheepdog that's been rolling in a field of wet mushrooms, but rule number one when dealing with a pack is always to establish dominance. The pheromone makes me smell like an alpha female; that won't automatically make me top dog, but it'll get my foot—uh, paw—in the door. The rest is up to me.
Only three of my team are thropes, though—there are two lems and a pire, as well. I study each of their files in turn.
First up is Master Sergeant Otis Zayin, a lem who did three tours of duty in the first Persian Gulf War. Expert marksman with a compound bow, one of those complicated counterweighted deals with a pull like an anchor. I've seen a shaft from one punch through armor plate.
Next is Captain Caleb Epsilon, an NSA enforcer like Charlie. He's my heavy weapons man, which on this world means he throws javelins. Big steel ones, useful in case I need to take down a plane or helicopter. Charlie himself prefers silver-coated ball bearings, kept in a spring-loaded holster up each of his sleeves.
The pire is Jane Wolosky, one of the Baby Biter generation that sprouted up after World War II. She's my battlefield shaman, experienced in combat magic as well as being a specialist in the use of silver-nitrate-laced CS gas, aerosolized garlic, and a variety of acid sprays that'll melt a lem's plastic skin like a heat lamp on Frosty. They may not use bullets or explosives, but the supernatural races still know how to deal out industrial-strength death.
The three thropes are all NSA field agents, with a good sixty years of experience among them: Jake Wilson, Arnie Gunderson, and Joseph Brody. They'll be using body armor and bladed weapons—Gunderson's good with a throwing ax, Brody prefers a claymore, and Wilson likes a katana in one hand and a KA-BAR in the other. It goes without saying that all three can do major damage without any weapons except teeth and claws.
Plus, of course, Charlie and me. It's a good team, but leafing through their files is making the gnawing sensation in my belly get worse and worse. They're lethal, all right—but lethal is not what I need. I need Asher—or Ahaseurus, take your pick—alive.
My world has guns and bombs, while this one doesn't. Except for my own personal hand-cannon—a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan, sometimes used to hunt moose—nobody here uses firearms, or even knows what they are. This isn't a natural situation, either; it's the result of a spell that imposes a blind spot on the mind of every sentient being on the planet, one that's been in effect for centuries. This spell was cast right around the same time that the one animating golems was being disseminated, which is why lems have more or less taken the place of firearms in this world; given the power and accuracy with which they can hurl things, they're almost living guns themselves.
And the shaman who cast that spell is the same one I'm after.
What happens after I catch him is a big, scary blank; I have no idea how I'm supposed to coerce him into sending me home, or even if I can. And what if he decides to send me someplace even worse?
I stare out the window at the clouds below me and wonder just high up we are.
And what happens after we touch down.
Copyright © 2010 by DD Barant