Project: Maldon

Copyright 1997

by Chris Atack

1 - Defector

The Skellig Michael Institute was founded by an eccentric and perhaps even repentant software billionaire in 2010. Fearing the collapse of Western civilization, he founded an Institute to shore up the tottering institutions. The Institute's home was to be "in the most remote locale available" with campuses in various parts of the globe. Ultimately headquartered in a high-orbit space facility, the Institute, self-governing, elitist, devoted to defining and preserving "civilization," rapidly achieved great prestige. Part university, part corporation, part private club and part monastery, the Skellig Michael has survived (except in Pakistan) and even flourished in the arid soil of the Post Millennium world.

Monks in the Sky

The Skellig Michael Institute--A Brief History

Thursday, July 1, 2027

07:43 hours

Wolfe's newest problem rear-ended him while he was being driven back from an early-morning meeting with Deputy Premier Beaufort. They had just stopped for a red light when a heavy impact threw the lightly-armored Isuzu sedan forward, pitching Wolfe back into the cheap upholstery and snapping his portable closed on the ddirate circuits of his interglove. A crunch of metal, a tinkle of glass. In the front seat, his security blanket swore volubly: "Jesus come quick, the crazy gumbah behind just rammed us. You alright, brother?"

"So far." Wolfe looked around, wondering why his blankie had taken the same route as yesterday, then twisted to examine the big black Saturn that had crawled up their rear end. Collisions like this were a common prelude to mugging or worse, and they were in a free zone, with no backup in the immediate area. But there was only one person in the Saturn, and he looked harmless enough as he clambered out onto the asphalt: a cheery-looking fat man, middle-aged, with an open shirt and chubby, amiable features. His right arm was in a heavy cast; he walked slowly around to the crumpled hood of his car, shaking his head in vexation.

A diversion? Wolfe scanned the area for other assailants, noting only a small encampment of raggedy Red Sky Listers cooking breakfast over a campfire on the far corner, wisps of gunmetal blue smoke from a burning pile of debris wafting across the grimed, steel shutters of the not-yet-open stores. The Listers looked at him with blank faces, then turned away again, interested only in their own reality.

"Fat fool," growled his blanket, then mumbled something Wolfe couldn't make out. He glanced at his driver in surprise. Usually Dulles was calm to the point of torpor; now his fair complexion was flushed red, small beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and his pupils were the size of pennies, black and blank. Was the man sick, or on a high? "Get focused and say again," Wolfe rapped out.

"Hmm? Oh, I said: he shouldn't be driving at all with that thing on his arm. I'd better go palaver, insurance and so on."

"Are you mad?" demanded Wolfe. "Get us out of here. We'll worry about insurance later." But Dulles had already stepped out onto the pavement, leaving the driver's door open.

Wolfe began to climb into the front seat. In the rear view mirror he saw the fat man turn to Dulles and with one fluid motion smash the heavy cast into the side of his head. Before Dulles hit the pavement, the fat man had skipped around with unnatural speed to peer through the open door at Wolfe, who was scrabbling for the handle. Wolfe's guts turned to ice. He was now a dead man or worse.

But the fat man only smiled. "Sorry about the fuss, Dr. Wolfe. Truly, you're a hard man to meet."

"You could always call for an appointment," suggested Wolfe, his heart pounding in his ears. "We could arrange one now if you like."

With a rich chuckle the fat man unzipped the false cast and flung it aside. "Why don't we just take advantage of this little encounter to do our business?"

Wolfe sat back, trying to control his panic. He had faced some tough situations in the Piracy Control Bureau and he was still alive. What he needed was room to maneuver. Jesus come quick, what was this anyway? If it was a straight hit he should be dead already--there was no need for conversation. An abduction then? A cleaning? If he could get out of the car he might be able to catch the fat man unawares. "You got the wrong gumbah," he said reaching for the rear door handle.

"I think not," purred the fat man. "You are Dr. Edward Wolfe, fellow, level three, with the Skellig Michael Institute. Also, on-site director of a Class-A sociocybernetics project with the unlikely code name of `Maldon.' The project is designed to drag Upper Canada back from the brink. It is not succeeding at the moment." A small black automatic appeared as if by magic in his huge hands as Wolfe began to open the door. "Please stay where you are, Dr. Wolfe--I have no desire to make acquaintance with your famous side kick. And truly, I mean you no harm. I'm a great fan of yours--I have followed your career closely since you were reassigned to Upper Canada, and I'm convinced you're one of the Institute's best all-round operatives. I took your security down for a moment so I could talk to you in private."

Blue woodsmoke from the Listers' fire curled across the street and stung Wolfe's eyes, making them water. He relaxed back into his seat, waiting for an opening. The fat man chuckled and made the gun disappear again. "That's better. Now then, my name is Nicky Mancuso. I'm a marshal with the Accord, and I want to defect."

Years of training helped Wolfe to conceal his sudden and vast relief, an emotion so strong he thought for a moment he was going to throw up. He was apparently going to live. The smell of cooking meat wafted to him from the Lister camp, and his body, realizing it was reprieved, responded with a surge of ravenous hunger--an interesting physiological reaction which he made a mental note to report to his friend Dr. MacGregor, who enjoyed such biotrivia.

Sheer muscle-slackening relief was followed by amazement. Here was a rich catch indeed--if it was genuine. He maintained a casual manner, wondering how best to proceed. "So then--how do we know you're serious? You have any credentials?"

The fat man grinned, showing teeth as white and perfect as a row of pearls. "Do I seem a gumbah? Listen: there's a hit planned for tonight. Eastern Free Zone, the medical clinic at the Church of the Redeemer, around two thirty in the morning. Special elite team, led by one of our most earnest young captains--the one responsible for damaging Mary in fact. Check it out, then call me. Be discreet. Here's my direct line." He passed Wolfe a Tarot card--the Fool--and skipped back to his car with the unexpected grace of a large man. "God bless. Stay pure. And don't get caught like that again--it might not be me next time." He got in, backed up to clear the Isuzu and sped away down Gerrard, with a cheery wave, leaving Wolfe shivering with adrenaline reaction.

On the back of the card a number was written in black ink. Wolfe tucked it into the top pocket of his gray dress overalls and looked about him, seeing his surroundings with the clarity that he knew came from surviving a truly close encounter with the reaper. Two Listers, an old woman and a boy of about seven or eight, were approaching, whining their begging slogans, arms outstretched for alms. Already the boy's teeth were black and decayed. On the cracked pavement, Dulles stirred and groaned. Wolfe helped him to his feet, waving the beggars off while keeping a careful eye out for further trouble. "Are you alright?"

"I think so. Jesus, but he was quick."

"Truly." Wolfe helped the groaning security blanket into the back seat and started the car, feeling sick and weak himself.

That was just the sort of mistake that got you carved. Suppose it had been a Cleaner hit? By now he would have been emasculated, bleeding to death in some alley. You know the rules, Long Eddie. Get sloppy and you die.

He called in, requesting medical assistance, and flogged the Isuzu along as fast as he dared down Dundas Avenue, through the oasis of Little Saigon where grocers were now placing their wares--stands of purple eggplant, huge white radishes, murky tanks of home-grown carp and eels--out on the sidewalk in anticipation of the business day. Seeing his approach, one of the storekeepers held out a huge squirming lobster and shouted an incomprehensible sales pitch as he passed. After what seemed a hundred years he reached the rusting man-high barricade of compressed cars which marked the eastern boundary of Little Saigon, and emerged again into the free zone.

Super-families of Listers slept or lounged on the sidewalks, bright tumbles of red, green and yellow rags. Many more, Wolfe knew, sheltered inside the abandoned brick buildings which moldered on either side of the street. He imagined himself a quark, flashing silently through a wheeling galaxy of disenfranchised, sullen humanity, eating, slumbering and fornicating all around him. It was not entirely a reassuring image, suggesting as it did his transience, and the abiding nature of the problems he faced.

He turned south on Carlaw Avenue and their destination came into sight: Versailles, the Institute's embassy and operational headquarters, a three-story converted warehouse, which stood like an uneasy passerby just north of a steam-belching toiletries factory. A high steel-link fence, topped by coils of razor wire, surrounded it. From the street, the green tops of the trees on the roof garden were just visible. Ground-floor windows had been covered with sheets of blank gray steel, and upper windows gazed out from behind square metal grills. A bank of solar collectors on the roof shimmered like huge azure mirrors. The vapid slogans of the Post Millennium world were dayglo'd in fiery red and green all down its brown-brick walls, like sores on a diseased dragon's scales: Slam Islam . . . Jesus cometh in a condom . . . Pith the Listers. The Izuzu pulled up to the domed concrete guard booth at the fence and Wolfe waited, impatient now to be safe inside, while an Institute blanket with red hair and bright blue eyes verified their retinal patterns and scoped the trunk and chassis for hidden passengers or explosives. His check complete, the blankie waved them through. At the bottom of the ramp, a steel door opened. He raced the Izuzu down the ramp into the cavernous garage, delivered his ashen-faced driver to the medical team waiting at the bottom, and parked beside the elevator.

The adrenaline rush was slowly wearing off, leaving Wolfe tired and shaky. With a sigh he keyed a seven-digit combination into the lock of the heavy metal door at the end of the garage; it swung aside to reveal a massive freight elevator with low sides of splintered gray wood. Stepping inside he pressed a button; the elevator emitted a deep mechanical groan of agony and lurched into motion.

A bone-jarring thump signaled his arrival on the third floor, where the project's administrative offices were located. As usual, the elevator had stopped a few inches too low. Wolfe jumped up onto the floor, strode down the dingy hallway, his aesthetic sense recoiling at the casual ugliness of uneven gray linoleum and scuffed, industrial-white walls. The Institute was niggardly in the extreme when it came to field installations. Normally these economies did not concern Wolfe. In his present jittery mood, however, the squalor seemed oppressive and suffocating. He diagnosed in himself the near-escape vapors--a common affliction in the Post Millennium. With a mental shrug he knocked on the door marked Head of Security--Rickki Harrow.

"Enter!" called a female voice. Inside, a black-haired young woman was sitting with her feet up on the crowded desk, aiming the gaping blunt muzzle of a neon-red spattergun at a point just to the side of the door. She pulled the trigger, there was an explosion, a sudden reek of ozone and he jumped back. Rickki lowered the gun and waved him in. "Come admire my latest toy, Long Eddie."

Rickki was one of the few who knew or dared to use his nickname, a tag derived--despite other interesting rumors--from the length of his lanky legs. The handle had been hung on him by members of the dojo when he perfected his rib-crushing side kick, and it had lingered among close friends thereafter.

Rickki was included in that category. Eight years ago they had both been posted to Hong Kong as Institute's liaison with the Asian section of the U.N. Commission on Organ Traffic. He had been twenty five, was it possible? Several years junior to him, Rickki had displayed an uncanny gift for understanding the motives and mechanics of violence. When he had been given the job of on-site director three years ago, he had demanded her as security chief.

"Morning, Rickki." Wolfe entered and closed the door behind him, half-expecting to see a gaping hole in the wall where she had been aiming. Instead a winged green demon flapped back and forth across a wall-mounted holo unit of antique design, making obscene gestures with its tiny claws. Rickki tossed the replica spattergun to him. "Remember this one? Swat Team Mephisto? Very big, back when I was a sweet little girl. I picked it up at Dr. Flea's Market for a ten-piece. Go in, take a shot. Hold on tight--there's a built-in recoil."

Wolfe aimed, pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang, the gun jerked realistically, the demon exploded in a puff of tiny green scorpions, to be replaced a moment later with a miniature batwinged fiend.

"Nice shot, brother." She motioned with her thumb to the battered black office couch flanked by two vintage pinball machines, their lights flashing hypnotic reds and purples. "So flop it and talk."

Wolfe tossed the toy gun on the desk, eased himself onto the sofa and contemplated his security chief. As usual, Rickki was wearing the standard Post Millennium uniform: red bandanna, sunbands dangling from her neck, black cotton overalls open down to about the middle of her chest, enough to display the curves of the small, muscular body beneath. He felt a reflex twinge of physical attraction which short-circuited on the ever-intrusive memory of Omaha, long-legged, merry Omaha, his lover, his wife--dead three years as of July 16, one more victim of the nuclear hurricane that had summarily ended the War of Three Cities. Since then, her ghost had haunted his bedroom, making would-be liaisons so anticlimactic he had postponed further experiments indefinitely. He did not particularly care to be known as Limp Eddie.

Rickki eyed him with an air of sardonic amusement: "You just got the bad news from Orbital too, I take it?"

Wolfe stared at her with new apprehension. "No, I came to tell you about how I just about got cleaned this morning, thanks to Dulles. What news from Orbital?"

"No, you first. Your agenda sounds more immediate." Rickki scooped a cigarette from the carved ivory box on her desk and sat back in her padded chair. "Focus, what's the story?"

"It starts and ends with this." Wolfe placed Mancuso's card into the red-gloved plastic hand of the meter-tall Mickey Mouse doll on her desk. "Have you heard of an Accord marshal, name of Mancuso?"

"Sure. He's the Accord's top security gumbah here." Rickki took the card and darted a glance at him. "The Fool, huh? Hardly. So what's the story?"

"He just ran into us. Literally. Rear-ended the blue Isuzu, then mentioned he'd like to defect. That's his private number."

"Dulles allowed himself to be rear-ended?" Rickki blinked incredulously. "Very sloppy indeed."

"He allowed himself to be taken out too. Mancuso knocked him senseless. If it had been a hit, we'd be dead now."

Rickki whistled in dismay. "Give details, brother."

Wolfe described the incident. When he was finished, Rickki bowed her head for a moment. "A thousand apologies! Jesus come quick, what will Helen do when she hears?" She drummed her fingers on the desk. "Dulles was a good friend of Mary's; the whole episode jangled him. He should have been rotated back to Orbital, but we're stretched too thin right now." She turned towards the gray enamel hump of her desk console: "Hey, Mildred, get me Medical."

"Sure boss," piped the console, in a very fair imitation of Rickki's own voice. Its screen came to life, showing a droll-faced man of about thirty in a white coat: "Medical here. For every ill we have a pill. What's the complaint today?"

Rickki nodded at the image. "`Morning, Doc. One of our agents has just turned in a very substandard performance. In fact he's practically killed himself and his client. Cyrus Dulles, level one, riding shotgun on Dr. Wolfe."

"Ah yes. Not so funny--he was just brought in with concussion."

"He can consider himself lucky he's still of the male gender. Listen, Doc, he showed very poor judgment this morning. Acted very odd, seemed almost out of control. Any medical explanation?"

"A moment please." The doctor looked somewhere off screen for a few moments then turned back. "He was taking hypnocounseling for mental trauma as you know. Also on medication, a brand new antidepressant from BioAge. Not supposed to be taken on duty of course."

"And if he did?"

The doctor pursed his lips, then nodded. "It's just possible he could have experienced an adverse reaction brought on by extreme stress. Irrational panic, that sort of thing. A few instances have been reported."

Rickki made a ferocious face at the screen. "Well, he's suspended as of now, pending medical and disciplinary reviews. I'd like a report on the incident as soon as possible. And if there's anyone else on this medication, or marginal in any way, I want to know. Immediately."

The doctor nodded. "I'll review the records right away Rickki." He hesitated. "It's not an excuse, but we're all feeling the strain. Don't be too hard on Dulles."

"Comment noted. Thanks and disconnect." Rickki swung back to Wolfe. "And we think we're so superior. Just shows you, Institute people break too. Anyhow, I'm hereby assigning you a fresh security blanket, just down from Orbital. Name's Harper Amadeus: very clever, vicious as a wolverine when required, doesn't follow silly orders, should you give one. Quiet too; you'll hardly know he's there unless you need him. So tell me about Mancuso."

"Not much to tell. After he took out Dulles he told me he wanted to defect. Gave me his number, waved good-by and left us looking like the gumbahs we are."

"Mancuso! Old Nicky Mancuso! Wouldn't that be fun though?" Rickki addressed her console again with exaggerated politeness: "Mildred, my dear electronic serf, give us the top line on Nicolas Mancuso, if you'd be so kind."

The console tittered, a high clear note of merriment. "Sure, boss. Nicolas Mancuso, Marshal of the Temple Guards. Joined the Accord when he was fifteen. Helped plan the so-called Prairie Massacre. Very likely a graduate of the Soldiers of the Millennium program--in other words, a trained assassin. You want more?"

"No, hold it there." Rickki raised her eyebrows at Wolfe. "Lucky for you he was in a good mood. If he's real, we'd have access to literally years of dirt--operations, intelligence systems, you name it."

"But is he real?"

"Quite possible." Rickki shrugged her slim shoulders and Wolfe caught a glimpse of freckled breast underneath the black cotton. "I think there's a connection between your close encounter and the news from Orbital. It appears that Zacharian Stele was elected Deacon of Upper Canada about two weeks ago at a secret Accord conclave in Chicago. The election will be publicly proclaimed next week."

It was Wolfe's turn to make a sour face. "Zacky the Zealot? I thought he and mad Absolom were safely exiled to Central Africa or some out-of-the-way spot."

"So they were. Then the great Pastor himself snuffed it, and they came hotfooting back to Chicago, as did all the other members of the Stele clan. Ever since then, a power struggle has been raging over who is to succeed Daddy Stele. Apparently all his friends and relations think they should be the supreme pastor. Amazing how everyone heard the Call From Above simultaneously." She picked up the spattergun from her desk again and absent-mindedly aimed it at the red holo demon on the miniature stage. "None of the Pastor's heirs is strong enough to take out all the rest at the moment, so they've carved up the Temple by region. Net result: fourteen sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, each waiting for the chance to slaughter all the others and consolidate power. Messy, but that's how it is with new religions."

"But I still don't understand," protested Wolfe. "How do we inherit Zacky the Zealot? He's the worst of the whole lot--with the possible exception of his twin Absolom."

"That's why we got him. You think they're going to hand over a powerful diocese like Texarkana or Midwest to a maniac? Of course not. They're going to put him as far out on the periphery as they can--so they fob him off on Upper Canada. Absolom did even worse--he got Brazil." She pulled the trigger, exploding the flying gargoyle into shreds of red holographic goo. A crackle like frying bacon, a smell of ozone, and a particularly hideous demon peeped out from the corner of the holo stage. "Prepare for the eighth circle of hell," it rasped.

Wolfe pulled thoughtfully at his beard. "Not necessarily a wise strategy. A would-be emperor can raise a lot of support in the provinces, then march on Rome."

"It's happened," agreed Rickki passing him a sheaf of pics from her desk. "Here--take a look at our newest adversary."

Wolfe studied them with interest. They showed an austere, clean-shaven man in his mid-thirties. Under a domed forehead, made higher by receding red hair, blazed the intense eyes--an unusual deep blue--of a fanatic or a madman. Pinched nose, long down-curling mouth, thin and cruel as a razor slash. He tossed the photos on the desk. "Looks like his father without the charisma. Mean."

"Mean and strange. He's the third son of wife number three, herself a little strange according to the reports. Now then, this little shuffle is almost certainly behind the current uptick in violence. Zacharian has a reputation for extreme methods. The episode with Mary was probably his greeting card to us."

Wolfe frowned. "Interesting, to say the least. But what's the connection to Mancuso?"

"Maybe young Zacharian thinks Mancuso's too soft, or too old. Or not devoted to him personally. If that's the case, Mancuso may want to buy some insurance, open an escape hatch in case things get rough. Can you see it?"

"Could be," agreed Wolfe after a few moments thought. It would not be the first time that a turf war had erupted inside the Temple of the Accord with brutal consequences to the losing side. Three years ago a purge of the so-called Professors had resulted in a series of bizarre "accidents" involving top leaders. One had mysteriously fallen from a seventeenth-story window, while another had stepped into the path of an oncoming train. Another had committed suicide by shooting himself in the back of the head. Many of their supporters had been broken to basic subscriber status, to scrub out a dismal existence at the lowest echelons of the organization. It could easily happen again. "Mancuso gave me a tip to prove his good intentions. According to him, there's a hit planned tonight at the Church of the Redeemer's medical facility. Led by the gumbah that did Mary."

Rickki smacked her clenched fist into her palm with a sharp crack. "Dammit, why didn't you say so? I've been itching for the chance to make some clinic a present of his kidneys."

"Me too, Rickki, me too." Wolfe picked up the spattergun, aimed across his arm, recalling the winter he had been the unofficial East-end champ of Swat Team Mephisto. "I haven't forgotten Mary either." He pulled the trigger, exploding a demon in a sizzle of blue light.

"Nice shot." Rickki nodded approvingly then shouted at her console: "Hey, Mildred, spit up a city map please." She swiveled her chair as the wall behind her glowed into a detailed map of Greater Toronto. A black street grid was overlaid with colors: light blue marked small oases of safety--the financial district, the university enclave, the midtown belt of hardened residential areas, the industrial parks curving across the top of the city. No-man's-lands, where ordinary citizens mingled uneasily with Listers, subscribers and other assorted denizens of the Post forgotten Millennium, were delineated in yellow. Free zones, areas of outright anarchy, glowed like neon wounds all about the city, thickest in the abandoned south and east industrial areas. The graphic display of his shattered city brought a quote bubbling up from Wolfe's subconscious.

Rickki cocked her head. "What was that?"

"I said: `A house divided against itself cannot stand.'"

"You're philosophical this morning. Hey Mildred, show us the Church of the Redeemer clinic." The console obediently displayed a large-scale projection of the Eastern Free Zone. Rickki pointed to a green dot about the size of a coin blinking slowly just outside the protective blue circle of a community hub.

"That's the target: an outpost of Hub Seven." She swiveled her chair back to face him. "Makes sense from a political point of view: Hub Seven's been getting profile recently for production gains and recruiting. I have no doubt the Accord would like to put the knife to it."

"Too bad for them." Wolfe put his hand out, turned thumbs down. An attack on a hub clinic could not be tolerated. "So what's our response?"

"Keep our eyes open, in case this is a ploy of some sort. Ambush the hit team." Rickki nodded briskly, picked up a cookie-sized control box and pressed a button. Swat Team Mephisto fizzled out in a spatter of rainbow light. "For once I have a good feeling."

Wolfe drummed his fingers on Rickki's desk while he thought, then nodded: "Set it up. I'll call in a report right now and clear the ambush with Helen after lunch. I'm on anyway for weekly review and interface enhancement."

Rickki gave a lazy mock salute. "At your order." She stubbed her cigarette out and looked at him quizzically, her pretty face painted a lurid purple by the reflected light of the pinball machines. "You know, I think the Interface Project is actually working. The old girl's more human every time I talk to her."

Wolfe laughed. "She asks the damnedest questions sometimes. The other day she wanted to know what my favorite color was."

"What did you tell her?"

"Blue, like her eyes."

Rickki stretched luxuriously. "Better be careful--what if she falls in love with you?"

"She's not that human yet." Privately Wolfe wondered. Helen was not less than human but more. What could you say of an entity that could simultaneously carry on dozens of holo meetings around the globe, crunch the rock-hard equations of the Hartley-Singh SoCy labs, monitor all major planetary variables, troll the nets for data--and at the same time crack a subtle personal joke based on a comment you had made a year ago? The Accord referred to Helen as the Idol in Orbit, but she was no graven image. She was, in fact, something with the potential to be uncomfortably like a god--not least because she was very hard to bring to account. A helluva a boss to land yourself with, Long Eddie.

Rickki merely grinned. "Better take a quick shower or something before you see her. You're pale and you smell of fear. She's terribly quick to notice details."

A new idea struck Wolfe as he rose to go. "Wait a minute though. Mr. Beaufort expressed a desire this morning to see the Institute in action. What if he saw one of the hubs actually repelling an assault?"

"Have him sit in on the ambush tonight?" Rickki nodded slowly. "Sure, if you like. It won't be pretty though."

Wolfe touched his level three ruby ear stud, a common Institute mannerism, said to bring luck and good judgment. "Beaufort's an advocate of strong measures. He may as well see what they look like in practice. Let's see what Helen says."

He shut the door softly behind him, strode down the hall to the men's washroom, which was fortunately unoccupied, and bolted the door behind him. In the mirror his face was indeed pale and drawn. He looked and felt like hell. It was fear that did it. Jesus come quick, he had been lucky this morning. It had been too close, far too close to an unthinkable, humiliating end. Nausea overcame him as he contemplated the idea of being cleaned. Bloody savages, the Accord cleaners, barbarians who deserved only death. Of all the debased categories of humanity, hit-men and torturers were the most contemptible, the most frightening. He bent over the toilet and threw up, a brown chunky broth of tea and half-digested cereal. He sat for a few minutes in the cubicle, then washed his face with green industrial soap from the plastic dispenser and proceeded to his office.

Copyright 1997 by Chris Atack

Return to Baen Books Home Page

Baen Books 02/02/03