Emperors of the Twilight Excerpt

ONE

It was four-thirty in the morning on a snowless New Year’s Eve and Evi Isham was naked on a penthouse balcony overlooking Manhattan. She was doing her best to beat the crap out of her weight machine, and the machine was winning. She had geared the bench press down to 250 kilos and the reps were still beginning to eat into her shoulders. She had just come back from Havana, her first vacation from the Agency, and her muscles had turned to mush.

Great thing to realize first thing on your birthday, she thought to herself. She was thirty-one, allegedly. She could be twenty-nine, or thirty-two. She had picked December 31st, 2025, as her birthday for simplicity’s sake. No one really knew her real birth date, but the INS didn’t like blank spots in their forms.

However old she was, she couldn’t slack off on the workouts like a teenager. At least she had three days to catch up before the Agency wanted her back.

She stopped at rep number twenty and grabbed a towel. She was damp with a light mist of perspiration and her breath fogged, leaving little trails of infrared on the air.

Evi walked to the corner of the balcony and looked at her adopted home. The Manhattan skyline cut a glowing hole in the night. The buildings accumulated toward the chrome-blue spine of the Nyogi tower. Red lights from the constant aircar traffic enveloped the city like hot embers. To her right, through the gab between two neighboring condominiums, she could see a forest-green light from the mis-named Central Park Dome. Beyond the luminescent city, the sky was a dead black.

A cold wind drew across Evi’s skin causing an involuntary shiver that seemed to shake open every pore in her body.

Thirty-one, she thought. She was settling down. She had a permanent address for the first time since the war. Even though she’d kept in top condition, it’s been over five years since the Agency put her in a dangerous field mission. The only running she did was running the computer at the think-tank. The only thing she chased now was lost page work and obscure reference texts.

She’d been here long enough that she already had one male resident hitting on her. Chuck Dwyer on the seventeenth floor had given her his apartment number and a rain-check on her second week here.

She even had a co-worker invite her over for dinner. Dave Kyle wasn’t quite in her department, but they kept bumping into each other. She’d been to his house in Queens, and met about a dozen cats. If David hadn’t been aware Evi wasn’t human, it might have gone beyond dinner.

She was definitely settling down.

Some people would miss the action.

Such people were nuts.

Even though she had been bio-engineered for combat, flying a desk was fine with her. Back in ’54, when the Supreme Court finally gave the products of human genetic engineering the same rights the 29th amendment gave the moreaus, Evi had even considered quitting the Agency.

But, by then, she didn’t have terrorists shooting at her any more. One shitfire case in Cleveland and she was transferred to an advisory capacity. More than once she supposed that dropping her out of the field was someone’s idea of punishing her for unearthing that mess.

As far as she was concerned, it was a promotion. For close to six years she’d been working in that think-tank. The closest she ever got to “action” nowadays was writing reports about hypothetical alien invasions and less hypothetical projections on possible moreau violence.

She sometimes felt out of place in the midst of the academics, economists, and the political scientists, with her as the token non-human expert. She could deal with that. The job provided her with a decent living and a human identity. With a pair of contact lenses she could pass for compact, muscular human, and the Agency helped her maintain that fiction.

Evi padded back to the weight machine and started to re-configure it for a leg-press. She flipped the cover off the keypad and punched in the resistance at 600 kilos. There was a long pause as she listened to the hydraulics of the machine adjust.

She straddled the bench, leaned back, and put her feet in the grips.

The weight-machine was at the end of one arm of the L-shaped balcony. It was pointed toward the corner of the balcony and, beyond, toward one of a twinned set of condominiums that bordered the park. It was a dozen stories taller, fifty years younger, and about five grand cheaper than the place Evi lived in.

She watched the front of the neighboring building.

No matter how early she got up for her workout, her penchant for exercising in the nude always drew a few spectators. She hadn’t yet decided if she was bothered by it or not.

And, even though she had started her workout a half-hour early, apparently this morning was no different.

Four windows up and three to the left, and there was a peeper. He gave himself away with the high-spectrum glow from his binocs. She strained to focus on the guy. The peeper’s blurred window shot into focus and the rest of Manhattan quashed itself into her peripheral vision. She saw his face, monochrome and sliced into strips by the venetian blinds in his window. She guessed mid-twenties with a mixed-Anglo heritage. She couldn’t see anything of the darkened apartment behind him. He had supplied himself with a pair of military binocs, a pair of British Long-Eighties with night-vision attachments.

Evi’s eyes watered and she closed them.

She did a few presses and opened her eyes and re-focused on the peeper. December, and the guy was sweating. She could see the stains under his armpits, and light was reflecting off his forehead. There was something wrong about the guy, and not a standard New York wrongness.

She was working up an irritating sweat herself. Her ass was beginning to slide all over the plastic seat. That usually wasn’t a problem, but apparently she’d slacked off a lot. She did three more leg presses and stopped to get a towel to lay on the seat.

When she stopped she strained at her maximum to get a look at the peeper. That’s when she noticed that the peeper had an earplug and a throat-mike. Not standard peeper equipment. She’d missed it at first, because of the blinds and the shadows they were casting. The peeper was also talking to himself. Another thing she’d missed. In Manhattan you expect all the perv’s and scuzzballs to talk to themselves.

However, this peeper was talking to someone else. He wasn’t subvocalizing, so Evi could watch his lips move. At a hundred meters plus it hurt to make out, but the old Japanese gene-techs had designed good eyes.

Evi didn’t make the mistake of staring at the guy. That would have been a tip that she could see him and the guy would clam up and dive for cover. Even her brief pause in the leg presses might have alerted him. She resumed pumping.

Fortunately the peeper seemed not to have noticed her pause. So, while the peeper was getting an eyeful down her leg-press, she tried to read the peeper’s lips.

The fact he wasn’t speaking English threw her for a second. It took her a moment to recognize the syllabication as Japanese. Damn it. Trying to lip-read a language that relied so much on inflection was close to hopeless. Then he nodded a little, and slipped into Arabic. Evi was much more fluent in Arabic than she was in Japanese.

What the peeper was mouthing looked like, “word is go. The package is on southwest balcony. Team one is the pickup. Two and three, stairs.”

It didn’t take a tactical genius to figure out what “the package” might be. And, while being raised within the Israeli intelligence community might have prejudiced her against anyone who spoke Arabic, it wasn’t too far a leap to decide that the “pickup” wasn’t anything pleasant.

She was on rep number twenty, and she had to blink a few times to clear her vision. Once she re-focused and had a wider field of view, something glinted in her peripheral vision. At the same time, she heard a whirring chunk. The glint belonged to an open window on the top floor of the building next to the peeper’s. The chunk, and the whirr she was now hearing, belonged to the penthouse’s express elevator.

No one but her was supposed to be able to use the elevator. The other penthouse was unoccupied.

Colonel Abdel had a number of maxims, and near the top was, “know your territory.” She knew her building, knew its occupants, knew the sounds it made, and she knew that the elevator would get to the top floor in forty-seven seconds.

The french doors were around the corner of the balcony from her. Only fifteen meters separated her from her weapon.

The open window across the street glinted again, and something visceral made her vacate the weight machine and vault to the roof of the penthouse. Behind her something slammed into the bench she’d just left. She heard the crash of tearing metal and the siren wheeze of escaping hydraulic fluid.


SHIT!
” Evi screamed into the darkness. A sniper was firing at her, with something fifty-cal or better. She ran at top speed across the slick solar-collecting surface roofing the penthouse complex. She felt the wind of the second shot breeze by the small of her back before it shattered into the roof behind her. An explosion of ceramic powder dusted her legs as she dived behind the cover offered by the rectangular brick shack that housed the motors for the elevators and the central-air for the building.

She hunched up, shivering, against the brick wall. She could feel the wall vibrate as a third shot slammed into the other side of the shack.

“What the fuck is going on?”

She could hear Abdel telling her to ask questions later. When people weren’t shooting at her.

The sniper let up, apparently waiting for a clean shot at her. She had been damn lucky she saw that glint. If the sight of the peeper hadn’t primed her for trouble, she never would have paid attention to it.

That scared her.

What could she do now? The peeper was talking to a pickup team that must be in the elevator now. The team would be here in less than half a minute, the sniper had her pinned back here, and the peeper was spotter on the high ground broadcasting her movements.

She forced the panic back and tried to think clearly.

In the elevator, a radio would be blacked out for the duration. She looked up at the wall she was huddled against. The door to the shack was facing the sniper, but here, on this side, was a small window. She forced it open. There was a screech of twisting metal, but she was unconcerned by the noise. The pickup team in the elevator wouldn’t hear it. The elevators in this place were plush, luxurious, and soundproof.

Inside the room, the only noise was the motor raising the elevator. The place smelled of grease and electricity. She stuck her head under the blackened girders that held up the whirring motor and looked down the shaft of the elevator. If their radios had been in order, the emergency exit on top of the elevator would have been open.

The elevator was halfway up the shaft and the trap door was still closed. The radio blackout prevented the peeper from telling the team that she was about to land on them.

Whoever they were.

Evi looked at the cables stringing between the motor and the elevator. She didn’t want to do this, but taking the offence was the only way she could gain control of the situation. She grabbed a cable and started lowering herself, hand over hand. Dangerous as hell if her grip slipped, but that was only par for the course.

She and the elevator met on the fifteenth floor of the twenty-story building. Her feet squished in the black filth coating the top of the elevator. Her skin was now covered in brown grease.

She crouched over the trap door and listened. She couldn’t hear them, but she could smell them. Two of them, and they weren’t human. She could identify the smell, canine, both of them. They were most likely Afghani-engineered dogs. Plenty of combat experience during the Pan-Asian war, would have went merc when the Kabul government discontinued the strain.

She was glad the Japanese gene-techs had avoiding moreaus in mind when they designed her odor profile. Had she been human, it would have been themsmelling her. But, they hadn’t smelled her, or heard her. If she did her job right, they never would.

The trapdoor was just a panel resting in the roof of the elevator. When the sixteenth floor was passing by, she silently lifted it. She looked down, and her guess was right. Two Afghanis. Their shaggy gray fur was the tip-off. Both faced forward, pointing a pair of silenced sub-machineguns at the chromed door.

Their black noses began to twitch in unison and the one nearest her began to turn. Noise and stale air from the shaft was blowing in.

She straddled the trapdoor and grabbed the sides of the opening with both hands. She heard the metal crunch in her grip, and so did the canines.

The elevator reached floor number seventeen and now both dogs were turning around. Too slow, She thought. She shot her legs through the opening and wrapped them around one dog’s neck. She hauled the dog upwards, pushing with her arms. The other one wanted to shoot, Evi knew, but his partner was in the way. Though his partner was rapidly losing his usefulness.

She yanked the dog halfway through the trapdoor, giving herself some cover from dog number two. She ended up on her back on top of the elevator, dog still thrashing. He faced her, sputtering white foam on her stomach as he whipped his muzzle back and forth. She grabbed the dog’s muzzle and snapped it shut with her right hand. Blood and a piece of tongue splattered warm on her thigh.

She used the dog’s muzzle as a lever-arm to break his neck.

She unscissored her legs and rolled to the side of the elevator. The elevator passed floor eighteen. The corpse lay, folded over the lip of the trap door. Its head looked back over the right shoulder as if it saw something interesting at the top of the shaft. Evi spared a look to her right, down the adjoining shaft. The neighboring elevator was down by the lobby, unmoving. She swung down and dangled by the side of the elevator.

She’d just cleared the top of the elevator when the second dog started spraying the roof with gunfire. The corpse shook like it was having a seizure, and the shaft rang with the sound of bullets ricocheting. She wondered if the dog worried about hitting a cable, or the motor.

The dog ceased firing, managing not to hit anything vital. Evi stationed herself across from the trap-door, bracing her feet in the metal strut halfway up the side of the elevator’s exterior. She ducked low and listened. She heard the corpse thud back into the elevator and suddenly the shaft was filled with the odor of gunfire. She listened, as probably did the canine, and, soon, she heard the canine pull himself out the hole.

Nineteenth floor.

She waited a heartbeat and popped her torso over the edge. The canine was standing on top of the elevator and, predictably, looking upwards. She sank her right hand into the dog’s crotch and lifted the dog upward and off balance. She held on to the roof of the elevator with her left hand as she leaned her body back into the adjoining shaft. The canine had both hands on his gun, so he didn’t have a chance. Evi felt the cables brush her hair as she flipped the dog over her. The dog tumbled, head-first, down the neighboring shaft.

Inside the elevator, she heard the doors ding open, twentieth floor.

Below her, she heard the dog hit.

She vaulted over the top of the elevator and dropped though the hole. Her feet squished into the blood-soaked carpet. The canine that took the header had done quite a number on his partner. The inside of the elevator was ripe with the smell of wasted canine. She hit the emergency stop before the doorscould close.

Evi gave herself fifteen seconds to examine the body.

The dog looked a little too healthy to be from the Indian frontier, so she guessed that the dog had originally been involved in Persia or Turkmen. Long time since the war, and the canine had since gone independent. The vest was vintage Afghani special forces, as was most of the dog’s outfit. . .

The gun was a different story.

She briefly considered running into her apartment for her own gun. The windows could stand at least one slug from the sniper’s weapon. She decided she didn’t have time, yet.

She grabbed the dog’s gun and the radio that was clipped to one ragged ear.

She pulled herself back up through the trap door and maneuvered through the girders supporting the motor running the elevator. She gave herself another few seconds to admire the gun. Very rare weapon, Japanese make, something that just wasn’t seen any more. It was hard to find Japanese anything after the Pan-Asian war. Weapons were unheard of. The small black Mitsubishi SG-2 was mostly plastic and ceramics. The only metal component would be the firing pin. Even without the silencer, it was quiet as the devil.

She checked the magazine. Nine-millimeter, plastic tip, anti-personnel. No wonder the cables and the motor survived the dog’s salvo. Full clip, thirty rounds.

The earplug she salvaged from the dog wasn’t a human model, of course, but the plastic alligator clip that held it on was serviceable. She hung it off her earlobe. The speaker ended up facing the wrong way, but her hearing was good enough to make out the peeper’s Arabic. “. . . team one, repeat, package is on top of the shaft. Over.”

Then silence.

She ran through the door into the room adjoining the elevator shafts. She spared half a second to wonder what happened to building security as she rounded the green sheet-metal block of the main air-conditioning unit. The room was steaming from the building’s forced-air heating system. It used the same ductwork as the air-conditioning.

She looked at the throat-mike and the radio connected to it. The throat-mike and the strap that held it on hung loosely around her neck. The radio itself was a small box that dangled between her breasts. On the box was a small recess with a row of four dip-switches. They were the only controls. She figured they were the frequency pre-sets. It was a guess. The radio wasn’t a familiar model.

She reached into the tiny recess with a slightly pointed nail, and turned on switch number two.

“. . .three to north stairs. Team one needs help delivering the package. The package is intact and unwrapped, repeat, package is intact and unwrapped. . .”

She had, long ago, trained her laugh to be totally silent. There were just too many things in combat that ended up striking her as funny. When the adrenalin was really cooking, she could get inappropriately giddy. Especially in the brief interludes, such as now. She knew that “unwrapped” must mean she was assumed to be, wrongly now, unarmed. However, unarmed or not, she certainly was unwrapped.

She stopped laughing. Abdel, during many training sessions, had told her that her sense of humor was going to kill her.

She set down the SG-2 and turned the bolts on one of the side panels in the massive air-conditioning unit. She was careful to avoid making undue noise. If team three was more canines their hearing was to be respected, even if the furnace in the basement would cover most of her noise. Another worry was her smell. She was engineered to avoid, as much as possible, having a signature odor, but she was covered with grease and blood that would broadcast her location well enough. But, she’d be descending and the air-currents were upward. She’d be upwind of them most of the the way.

The green panel came loose and she lowered herself into the ancient ductwork. She shimmied down a rectangular sheet-metal aluminum tube. The hot metal burned against her skin and seemed to do its utmost to amplify her every noise. The updraft of stale furnace air made her eyes water.

“Team three to post office, floor eighteen, no sign of package. Over.”

“Post office to team three, team one is not responding. Assume they delivered to wrong address, you’re to pick up the package now.”

She hit a ceiling duct on the nineteenth floor. She trusted her sense of direction to get her to the north stairwell. She squeezed into a narrow transverse duct. By the time she got behind a grill overlooking a landing in the north stairwell, she was squeezing, gun first, through a tube that was barely a meter wide by a half tall. She couldn’t back up. She had scraped raw her knees, hips, elbows, shoulders and nipples.

She got to the grate in time to see two canines rounding the stairs. Evi could tell the dogs were smelling something odd blowing out the vents.

She clicked the SG on full auto and sprayed the dogs, through the vent, aiming high. Her aim was good. The first bullet caught the closest dog in the face. The dog’s face exploded in mist of fur, blood, and flecks of teeth and bone.

The other one was quick. He had seen the grating on the vent fly out and started firing immediately, but his gun was pointing the wrong way. She swept her gun on the dog. The dog swept his SG toward her. Evi had the advantage.

She felt a spray of cinderblock dust as the dog hit too high above the vent. That had been the canine’s only chance. She tracked her fire into the dog, shots plowing into his vest. She pulled up slightly as the dog fell back against the railing. The dog’s gun ran away, firing into the ceiling, sending down confetti of broken fiberglass acoustical tile. He flipped backwards over the railing as she clipped his neck with a shot. The canine merc tumbled down the center of the stairwell.

The peeper was going nuts over the radio. “Team three, come in, team three. Where is the package, where are you? Over.”

Evi squeezed out of the vent with some relief. No one from team three was responding to the peeper. Only the two of them. She looked over the railing to see where the second dog went.

The corpse was folded backwards over the railing on the opposite balcony on the fifth floor.

She flipped the radio to another frequency pre-set.

“. . . two cross over to the entrance to the north stairwell. Package has not been picked up. Team four will join you at the door. Do not pick up the package until team four joins you. Package is now wrapped. . .”

That would be at least four dogs. Five if they had an extra in the lobby. This was getting messy. She’d gotten the four so far by surprise and an edge in the skill department. Time to change tactics.

Team four had to make it up from the lobby, and they wouldn’t engage now until the two teams linked up. She had a chance now to get her emergency pack and her own gun.

She ran up the stairs, leaving an obvious trail of grease and blood, and slammed through the door into the hall. The hall ran between the two penthouse apartments, and it had a stairwell on either end. It was done up in mirrors and red carpeting. The elevator was open, still stopped on this floor.

She inched up on her door and punched in the combination. It was a risk, but she doubted anyone had made it up to the apartment yet. The lock chunked open. She shouldered the door open and dove into her apartment.

The peeper went nuts again. “The package is in the penthouse! Repeat. . .”

A shot from the sniper tore into one of the bedroom windows next to the french doors. The polymer held, the bullet now embedded in it. Evi’s view of the sniper’s building was now distorted and prismatic.

That was good, the sniper now had the same distorted view of her.

She kept moving, rolling through the door to her bedroom as the sniper hit the window again. Two slugs now sat in the center of concentric rainbows. The window began to make ominous creaking noises.

She dropped the SG and swept her arm under her bed. She came out with a black backpack.

Evi rolled to the corner of the bedroom and huddled behind the brick pillar that supported the end of the roof. It offered cover from the sniper. Another shot plowed into the window and it finally gave. The window snapped and sprayed pieces of itself all over the bedroom.

“. . . repeat, package is in the southwest bedroom. . .”

She pulled her weapon out of the backpack. It was a IMI-Mishkov LR 7.62, an Israeli design for the Russian secret service. She snapped on the extension, lengthening the automatic’s barrel by nearly a meter and flicked off the safety.

The recoilless Mishkov only held six shots, standard 7.62 millimeter rifle cartridges. She used it because it was the longest-ranged and most accurate handgun in existence, even though the extension was so finely machined that the accuracy crapped out after only a dozen shots. As she shouldered the pack, she made a mental picture of the neighboring apartment building.

She silently thanked the sniper for clearing the window out of the way.

Then, with her heart in her throat, she rolled out from behind the brick pillar and aimed dead center, at the window four up and three to the left.

“Hurry, the package is moving. . .”

She fired at the peeper’s window. As she rolled away from her fire position, she saw the venetian blinds close as the peeper collapsed against them. Red stains spread along the slats of the blinds. The peeper’s windows weren’t bulletproof.

“Now, maybe, you’ll shut the fuck up.”

She had a moment to hope that didn’t go out over the air.

The sniper missed the one shot she gave him. The bullet tore into her bed. Water sprayed as far as the ceiling. She’d just decapitated the hit squad’s command and control, partially blinded them as well. She now also had the evil things she kept in the pack for emergencies.

Sniper missed another shot. The slug embedded itself in another window.

She rolled back out into the hall and the sniper finished off the window behind her. It wasn’t until then that she began to feel the cuts from rolling over the broken window. The grease on her skin got into the cuts, stinging as if a feline moreau was using her for a scratching post. She ignored the pain and headed for the south stairway, carrying her emergency pack in one hand and the Mishkov in the other. Teams two and four would be storming up the north stairway. She didn’t have much time.

The south stairway was concrete, functional, the mirror twin of its opposite number. On the nineteenth floor landing there was a vent grating, exactly like the one she had shot two canines through. The duct led straight across to the other stairwell. She could even catch a whiff of the carnage there.

The vent was barely in reach. She set down the backpack and jammed her fingers through the grating, ripping it away, taking some of the wall along with it. She put the gun back in the pack and withdrew a small round grenade. She chinned herself up, wincing as she rubbed her nipples across the whitewashed cinderblock wall. She looked down the vent, a straight aluminum tube down to a small rectangle of light, maybe thirty meters. She smelled canine blood, even over the forced air from the furnace. She listened.

They were trying for stealth, but there were just too many of them. Of course, there was the predictable pause by the corpse. There was a slight echo effect as she heard them through the duct and over the radio.

“Team two to post office, we’ve found team three. Returned to sender. . .”

She’d never been fond of explosives. They were messy, imprecise, and likely to involve people other than the intended target.

Her left arm ached. She raised the grenade in her right hand, pulled the pin with her teeth and made a quick estimate. She waited exactly one and a half seconds before she threw it through the vent. She dropped and rolled immediately. Two seconds later she heard the grenade hit the aluminum vent and roll half a second before falling out the other side. It was a close thing, but the alarm she heard over the radio told her that it had gone out the vent in the opposite stairwell and not some side passage.

Teams two and four only had an instant to recognize the grenade.

The sound was deafening even though she was on the other side of the building. A belch of smoke came out the vent preceding a pressure-wave that made her ears pop.

Evi hated explosives, but sometimes they were indispensable as an equalizer.

The canine’s radio now only broadcast static. She tried the other settings and their combinations, she only got silence. In the best case that would mean she had got them all. However, the safe assumption was that the team doing the hit had discovered that their communications were compromised and were running on radio silence.

In any event, the sniper was still out there. Also, despite their precautions— taking out security, using the penthouse elevator and the fire stairs, silenced weapons, and cutting the power and probably all the comm circuits for the building— the hit was no longer a secret. The fire alarm was going off, half the building would have just woke up, and the top of the building must be pouring out smoke.

Ten minutes and the NYPD, the fire department, and probably a car from the Bureau would be showing up. In twenty minutes, the Agency would take over the Bureau investigation on behalf of the Fed. In a half-hour the vids would be parroting an official statement, probably from the chief of police, about random moreau violence. It would be a bland, simplistic story that would fit the facts while remaining a blatant falsehood.

She had about that long to leave the building and come in from the cold.

She couldn’t get caught up with law enforcement. Standard procedure for covert ops; get caught doing something a little to the left of legal, even by domestic forces— especiallyby domestic forces— the operative gets thrown to the wolves while the Agency cooks a cover story, usually about rogue agents.

Sometimes she wished it had been the CIA that recruited her. They’d eat a little bad press to save an agent.

Her time sense told her it was four fifty-two in the morning.