Chapter Seven


46 days before Face’s arrival at Mukhya

It was Christmas Day. Or rather, it was the evening of Christmas Day. What was that called? Christmas night? The night of Christmas? Too easy to confuse with “Christmas Eve.”

It was December 25th, 2039, at about 7:30pm in Denver, Colorado. There. That was easier to think of. No bullshit that way. Holidays were bullshit. Easier just to ignore them.

It had been two weeks since he’d escaped from the FBI.

He’d spent those weeks recovering lost ground. He’d quickly ditched the car he’d stolen, as well as (a bit more grudgingly) disposing of the pistols he’d taken from the men he’d killed. Most of his contacts in Las Águilas didn’t respond when he tried to reconnect, but he was glad to find that at least they hadn’t frozen his accounts or decided to turn him over for political points with the government.

Avram Malka was a hunted man, now. Perhaps that should’ve bothered him more than it did, but it wasn’t the first time he’d hidden from the law. And besides… he had prey of his own, and that gave him purpose.

The car pulled into the driveway of 10645 King Ct. Malka squinted. His smooth, black eyes had been designed in a lab somewhere, but that didn’t mean he was any better than Vasya Pupkin at seeing in the dark. Nor had they been designed with any telescopic enhancements.

He thought about that sometimes. He was already a freak, so why not go all the way? In some ways he already had, and it wasn’t like they didn’t make eyes with night-vision or zoom features. In his line of work, those things would be useful, and he had the money.

The answer was the same as always: high-tech meant fragile. Malka didn’t trust any of it. The further a tool got away from a crowbar the more likely it was to spontaneously fail or get hacked. Malka’s augs used hardened circuits without any general processors—a luxury that he paid top-dollar for. No bad-firmware or EMP was going to fuck him over, and he slept better at night because of it.

He laughed at the thought, despite himself. It was the dark humour that he allowed himself when he was alone. Malka didn’t ever sleep well. That was a luxury he had lost long ago, hardened circuits or not.

Malka pulled his night binoculars to his face and focused them on the car that had just pulled up. They served the job just as well as fancy new eyes would’ve, and were a hell of a lot cheaper and better, too.

The car was a Civic. He hadn’t seen it before. He knew the man who got out, however.

{Charles Loyola…} Malka ran the name over in his mind, teaching himself to hate it.

Charles Loyola was in his 40s, was married to Cynthia Loyola, had no children, worked in accounting, and was betraying decent people with every breath he took. Malka didn’t know for sure, but he suspected Charles was embezzling money from the small architectural consulting firm he worked with. He was at the very least propping up drug lords with his weakness.

The Civic pulled out of the driveway as Charles went into his house. Malka thought he could see a person in the driver’s seat. That must have been why Charles took so long to get out.

Were the two of them simply sharing a ride, or was it something more than that? Malka briefly considered following the stranger and figuring out their relation to Charles. It was Christmas, after all, and he was sure that Cynthia was already in the house. The natural conclusion was that they were a link back to Divinity…

Malka took out his notepad and pencil and wrote down the plate number. Maybe if his friends in high places decided to work with him again, he’d be able to get some info from the records. He couldn’t deviate from plan tonight, though. Things were arranged too carefully.

It was time for action. Divinity grew with each passing day as hordes of upper-class junkies were turned into zombies by tech gone wrong. He might not agree with Las Águilas Rojas on everything, but in the time he’d spent working for them in America, he’d come around to seeing their wisdom here. The fetishism of technology was eating away at the human species, and Divinity was right along with WIRL in being at the heart of it.

Perhaps he should’ve killed Agent Taylor before he’d left Texas.

Malka checked his bag as he thought about the two organizations. WIRL was hideous in its own way, but it was tiny compared to Divinity. The gang was growing at an unimaginable pace. Unless taken out, they’d soon be stronger than the US government… An impossible thought. But there it was.

He had to fight them. He was fighting them, throwing himself head-first into the jaws of the dragon to save those who sought to lock him up. The irony did not escape him. But danger was not his concern. In his life, Malka had always done things for two reasons: because they paid well or because they were the right things to do. He’d earned more than enough, recently.

The duffle bag beside him held the equipment he’d stashed before the mess on Olympus:

  1. His beautiful, custom Dragunov. Having it back in his possession made him feel infinitely more at ease.
  2. Spare batteries for his legs.
  3. First-aid kit and emergency food/water/blanket.
  4. Ammunition.
  5. Sound suppressor attachment.
  6. And lastly, a trio of grenades (flash, smoke, and frag).

It was all backup. Better safe than sorry.

The weakness of Divinity was that, unlike WIRL, it had a head that could be cut off. Their choke-hold was in the proprietary nature of their zen helmets. There had to be a leader or a cabal or someone in control of the tech. Sever that link and millions of people would be free. They’d still be junkies, but they could get help instead of being pawns of organized crime.

Malka picked the suppressor out of his bag and carefully screwed it onto the end of the Nighthawk M1911 he held in his other hand.

Was there ever a sidearm as beautiful as the M1911? As far as he was concerned, John Browning had designed the perfect pistol, and anyone who disagreed was too fixated on “progress” to understand that sometimes there just wasn’t room for improvement.

He didn’t feel bad for the junkies. He didn’t feel bad for the Loyolas. They were scum that deserved whatever came to them. Everyone had a choice, always, and they had chosen to feed their weakness and their evil. He’d seen it time and time again. He’d seen it in himself. Avram Malka didn’t pretend he was any better than they were, but he’d at least take a few demons down with him.

The cold night air was actually much warmer than it could have been. Avram took off his wool cap and threw it in the passenger seat of the car as he got out. The cold front that had swept through earlier that month had been replaced by unseasonably warm weather. The planet was getting more fucked up by the year. People were shit.

Malka adjusted his bag as he carried it over his shoulder. He kept the Nighthawk tucked into the pocket of his hoodie. He swept the street, looking for watching eyes, but there were none. His heartbeat was normal. His breaths were even. He was in his element.

As he reached the door, he took his Nighthawk out and held it behind his back. With his left hand, he knocked sharply on the wood.

He waited in silence for a minute, listening and waiting. He was hunting now, and nothing could distract him.

Cynthia Loyola opened the door. She had short, dark hair. Thin legs and neck. Beautiful, in her own way. Her thick, brown sweater erupted with blood as he put a bullet in each lung. The sound of the Nighthawk was no louder than if he’d slapped her.

The woman’s eyes bulged in terror, but she couldn’t scream. She was already dead, even if her brain hadn’t come to terms with that yet. A soft gurgle was all she managed as her body collapsed on the hardwood floor.

He moved automatically, swiftly, stepping over the threshold and pushing the body out of the way with a robotic foot. He closed the door. Breathing still calm. Heart rate only slightly elevated. He didn’t like killing women, and he hated her for forcing him to.


He only needed one of his targets alive, however, and it was better to kill whoever opened the door and get them out of the picture right away.

The house was new-ish. Two stories, and probably three bedrooms. Just to the right was the living room. The garage was to the left. He knew the kitchen would be past the living room and towards the back of the house. There was only so much that binoculars could tell you about a floorplan, though.

Charles walked through the door to the kitchen, oblivious to what was going on. He had a contented look, thanks to the stupid helmet that he now wore. Even the surprise of seeing Malka couldn’t remove his dumb grin.

Malka jumped forward and snapped a sharp roundhouse kick to Charles’ hip. He could hear the break. Another mental command snapped the titanium prosthetic back and down. He never lost awareness of his gun and the possibility of additional threats. Balance and precision.

Charles was middle-aged, white, clean-shaven, medium height, overweight, soft as cream cheese… And yet, he didn’t scream. He only grunted as he fell, collapsing into a heap on the wooden floor.

“Shitsucker,” Malka loudly swore, glancing into the kitchen and living room. He was quite sure that the couple were the only ones home, but the check was automatic. He tossed his bag down and focused on his prey.

Despite having a clearly broken hip, Charles pushed himself up on his left hand, right arm twisted awkwardly behind his back. He was no longer smiling, but he didn’t seem to be in pain, either. His face spoke of calm hatred, as though he were watching a politician on a net feed instead of staring death in the face.

Malka always found Zen creepy as fuck.

“The helmets will self-destruct any minute,” said Charles, looking Malka defiantly in the eyes.

“I’m not here for them.” Malka pointed his Nighthawk at the man’s face.

“You’re with the Chinese? A mercenary?” he guessed.

Malka sneered. “Maybe. Maybe not. Word is you’re gearing up for something big in Idaho. Talk, and I’ll let you live,” he lied.

“Tell me who you work for, and I’ll tell you what’s happening,” offered Charles.

Malka kicked the man again, in the chest this time. It seemed to knock the wind out of Charles, but the man simply fell back and closed his eyes in calm acceptance as his body sputtered.

The helmet was a bulky thing of black plastic, something like a motorbike helmet without any face guard. Malka should’ve realized that removing it would be a necessary first step to getting anything out of the bastard.

As he bent over Charles to remove the zen helmet, Charles leapt at Malka, clawing wildly with insane desperation. He hadn’t even caught his breath. Malka grabbed and wrestled with the man. Despite his efforts, Charles was still a flabby piece of office trash.

As the helmet came off, Charles screamed in pain. Or at least, he tried to, but was still nearly out of breath. The result was a pitiful, shattered squeal. Tears immediately began to pour forth from the fatty’s eyes.

That was better.

“Please kill me! Please!” Charles begged, his voice a soft whine in-between broken sobs. The suddenness of the shift was just as creepy as the calmness had been. “Please!” He just kept repeating the word. “Please!”

Malka got up and spat on the worthless meat that called itself a man. “Tell me what Divinity is up to.”

Charles reached for Malka with an outstretched hand and another gasping “Please!”

Malka stomped the worm’s fingers into the floorboards. “TELL ME WHAT YOUR PLAN IS, DAMMIT!”

Charles shuddered and pissed himself as he continued to weep.

Malka twisted his foot, grinding the hand into a pulp with mechanical power. “Listen to me, you fat retard! You think this is bad, but we’re just getting started if you don’t talk to me! You’ve got a broken hip, probably a couple broken ribs, and now this hand, but you aren’t going to die unless I let you.”

Charles screamed like a god-damned woman.

Malka dropped onto his victim again, with much less resistance this time around. Two muscled hands found the sides of the worm’s head, and with a quick jerk, he slammed it into the floor. It wasn’t enough to kill the fucker (he hoped), but it did stop the scream. A quick check indicated that the worm was unconscious.

He’d get the information out of the shitstain one way or another, and then he’d stomp the fucker’s head into jelly for forcing Malka to do what he had to do, and then he’d light the house on fire, and then he’d find a place that would sell him enough vodka to forget.

{Shitfucking, cocksucking, waste-of-skin.}


Avram Malka needed to die.

There were times when he forgot this and lost himself in something. Work. Drink. The thought of escaping back to Europe. Something.

But it kept coming back to him.

He loved his gun. As beautiful as his M1911 Nighthawk was, the Dragunov was his real girl. She had range and power and accuracy and speed. She was perfect.

He dreamed of her kiss. What sweet freedom would he feel with her barrel in his mouth? He’d be done with everything. It would be a release.

And yet, he was a coward. He knew he needed to die, but he lacked the will to do such a simple thing.

And so pain was his price. The aching, throbbing pain that was a morning after drinking far, far too much. His bladder was beeping at him like a fucking alarm-clock hooked up to an amp.

With a strength that came from living through this hell regularly, Malka pushed himself off the motel bed and did his best to power through the headache.

He checked the other side of the bed.

{No whore. Good.}

Simpler this way.

He dragged himself to the bathroom. His legs were out of juice. As he unclipped his bladder bag, extra piss poured out. He swore.

After pouring the full bag into the toilet, he fell back on the floor, trying to avoid the puddle he’d made. He didn’t even bother reconnecting the bag. He spent another half-hour there, on the floor of the motel bathroom, fantasizing about suicide.

Eventually, Malka got thirsty enough that he dragged himself back to the bed and swapped batteries, then took a few minutes finding his balance before walking back to the bathroom to fix his bladder, wash his hands, and draw a few handfuls of water from the tap.

Deciding he needed coffee, he pulled his hoodie and some pants on and found his way across the shitty parking lot to the motel lobby that had a coffee machine and the last remnants of a pitiful breakfast tray that others had decimated hours ago.

He could feel the stare of the receptionist on the back of his head. She knew he needed to die, just as much as he did. Everyone knew he needed to die.

He poured himself two cups of coffee and fled, trying not to make eye contact. He hated the stares.

Technology was ruining the planet, just like it had with him. Avram Malka was supposed to have died in 2022. The medic that had saved his life had done him and the world a terrible injustice that day.

He sulked in silence for about an hour, finishing both cups of coffee in his room, downing his daily testosterone supplements, and soon changing his bladder bag again. He took the time to change his shit bag too.

By the time he felt like a real person again and had washed the piss-smell off himself, it was after 14:30.

He’d been intentionally avoiding thinking about the previous night. Not that he felt like he could remember much after he’d found the Loyola liqueur cabinet.

Images of a dead woman and a knife came back to him. He flinched away. Jem needed a report, but that didn’t mean he had to remember. That was what his notebook was for.

He opened it and flipped through a couple old pages. He remembered the Civic as he found the license plate number. Below it was written «idaho – gathering for utopia – equipment and people – alturas» in sloppy Russian.

His phone was out of batteries again, but after fucking around with the charge cable for a few minutes, he finally managed to get onto the web. Alturas was a town in northern California, but “Alturas Idaho” brought up the name of an old territorial division. Blah blah blah. It was turned into Blaine County in 1895. That wasn’t it either.

Malka switched tasks, ordering a sandwich delivered for breakfast. Special instructions: knock on the door and leave the food outside. Confident that it was on the way, he did the light version of his morning exercise routine.

It felt good to move. It helped him forget, and to have purpose. The darkness would swallow him if he stopped moving for long enough, and he wasn’t ready to face it. He had to keep working. Some part of him just wanted to slow down and relax, but he had been down that road before and knew better than to listen to it.

He got up and picked up his phone again, beginning to compose an email to Jem. From what he’d been told, most Águilas were very insulated from the core leadership by a chain of handlers and cells, but because of his involvement with the Socrates fiasco in Italy, he’d been slotted into one of the most central circles.

Jem had been his handler before Olympus. He’d only met the woman in person once. She was small built, with dark curly hair and a plain face. It had been an uncomfortable half-an-hour in a stairwell in Manhattan. She’d brought not one, but two bodyguards. Her given name was Jezreel, and she’d jumped at the chance to speak Hebrew with him. His was rusty, and hers was bad, but that didn’t matter. She was supposedly an executive for some major media conglomerate, not that he could verify that. She hated looking at him. She knew he needed to die. These were standard things. He expected them.

She also knew that he was useful to her cause. In the time after that meeting, he’d proven himself as a tracker and assassin. While Las Águilas had its fingers in pies all over the world, Jem’s only concern was Divinity, and she’d witnessed that he was a useful weapon and tool against them.

He’d continued sending reports to Jem after escaping from the Stephano mansion.

Memories of his escape that night flashed in the back of his mind, especially the interaction with Neurotoxin. Damned AIs were creeping up everywhere. It may have “rescued” him by walking him through WIRL’s knowledge of the patrol routes of the guards and the codes to the garage and gate, but he felt no gratitude towards the amorphous entity. Maybe after they took down Divinity, he could convince Las Águilas to direct him towards beating the shit out of whoever had created Neurotoxin and forcing them to shut it down. He hated the idea of it crawling through computers without anyone knowing. It might even be on his phone.

But even if it was, he doubted it knew that he was using the phone to communicate with Jem. They used two codes: One was a simple digital encryption. But the other was a custom code kept in his head that they used to conceal identities and topics.

Half-way through writing the message he growled and scrapped his draft. It wasn’t enough. This wasn’t the first time he’d hit Divinity. And what had come of it? Rumours about Idaho? He already knew the gang was setting up some sort of base of operations.

He needed a drink, and his eyes ricochetted off the empty bottle of vodka he must have brought up to the room last night. A little alcohol wouldn’t hurt. His brain worked better when he was a little buzzed, anyway.

{Beer,} he decided.

He ordered some off the web and went back to poking around on the web for “Alturas.” There was a lake, too. And a campground. That was more promising. It was in Sawtooth Valley, a relatively flat section of land nestled into the middle of a fuckton of mountains in central Idaho.

Some additional checking around suggested that the campgrounds near the lake were permanently closed. Weather reports said it was snowing up there. Some things didn’t change, global warming or no.

{Why would Divinity pick a place in the middle of the mountains in winter? Maybe I have the wrong place.}

The Loyolas were supposed to be in the loop, however. He’d picked them because his previous target had identified them as local leaders for Divinity in Colorado.

Had Charles lied to him during the torture? He flinched away from what few memories still lurked within him.

He searched for news and plane tickets to Friedman Memorial Airport.

His beer came. He noticed the bag with his sandwich was also on the ground outside his door. Whoever delivered it didn’t knock. Retard.

He ate and drank and continued to research. The price of tickets was abnormally high. That was a sign. Another web query told him that it was only a (long) day’s drive from Denver.

{Worth a shot.}

The email to Jem was easier this time. He had a purpose in mind instead of just a progress report.

“feather pattern of owls in canada makes me think that they’re related to great horned owls in Alturas Idaho (maybe near alturas lake?). not clear on the specifics, but hoping to call my cousin to get more info about alturas. snowing there so i’ll prob call him in about two hours unless you have a better idea. migration patterns make me think idaho is a big deal. P.S. getting really into birds from Seattle, Washington. maybe we can talk about those soon”

The choice of “owl” was arbitrary. All birds were Divinity gang members, in the code. The message meant he’d found info from the Loyolas that indicated the Divinity leadership was in Alturas, that he’d be in Idaho soon, and he’d report again in two days. The postscript was a regular thing they used to obfuscate important words. In future contact “Alturas” and “Idaho” would be replaced with “Seattle” and “Washington,” respectively.

Satisfied, Malka began to pack. Idleness was the enemy.

He’d leave his phone on for another 24 hours, waiting for a response (though he doubted any would come), then he’d ditch it and get a new one. Certain precautions were standard in keeping the people hunting him a few steps behind.

One of the best ways to do that was to use an off-the-grid vehicle, and boy did he have that. Not knowing when he’d next have the chance, he’d used his Las Águilas account to buy a used, but well-maintained, 2029 BMW 3 Series with a gas engine, tinted windows, and no computer. He’d still be trackable, of course (which was why he’d used a taxi the previous night), but it meant that they’d need to rely on police and traffic cameras, and they’d be slower about it too.

The thought of being on the road made him happy, or at least less miserable. He liked to drive. He’d be nice and alone. He could put on some music. He could swing by a burger place and get something good. With luck he’d forget that he needed to die. Maybe.