Remember those not here today,
And those unwell or far away,
And those who never lived to see,
The end of War and Victory.
—WILLIAM WALKER, “ABSENT FRIENDS”¹
SR-216, McCain Senate Office Building, Washington, DC
The fifteen senators stared at the piece of parchment folded into a square and covered with what looked like nineteenth-century English script.
“You see, ladies and gentlemen, this is the actual letter of marque. The one your president signed. There is a copy in one of my vaults and a third, as you might know, has been donated to your Smithsonian Institution for its historic significance.” Sir Aeric Cavendish then playfully tapped the paper to make it spin weightlessly in front of the view screen. “It is a binding legal document. What you are asking of me is not based on, my legal team informs me, any law, terrestrial or otherwise.”
“Nobody is questioning your contribution to the war effort,” said Senator Bob Courtenay, the California Republican who chaired the committee. He tried not to show his frustration. Witnesses at congressional hearings were supposed to be intimidated, not showboating on a video screen from two hundred and fifty miles overhead. And they were supposed to be in clothing appropriate to the occasion, not in a baby-blue jumpsuit with the name Zorro embroidered on it. “But the past notwithstanding, you have to understand the present seriousness of our position.”
“What I understand is that I delivered on all terms of a business agreement, and now my partners seek to change that agreement,” said Sir Aeric. “Highly disappointing, but to be expected of politicians.”
Senator Courtenay leaned forward, twirling a ballpoint pen in his hand. It was his signal for the media cameras to focus tightly on him because he was about to drop the hammer on a witness.
“Let me be explicitly clear about what the legislation this committee is considering means: You will agree to give the space station you now occupy back to its rightful owners,” said Senator Courtenay, raising his voice. “Or, Mr. Cavendish, your properties inside the United States will be seized, and a warrant for your arrest will be issued.”
“Senator, it seems you are having trouble with a great many things, from the nuances of business to the basic matter of getting my title correct.” Sir Aeric Cavendish floated up and then steadied himself in front of the camera.
“So let me simplify this for you. You can make all the empty threats that you desire. I rather like it up here and I don’t expect to come down there in the foreseeable future.”
San Diego, California
She stayed to the shadows on the edge of the woods. They provided good cover, were familiar, comforting. They were also cool and didn’t make her sweat as much in the wool blanket she’d cut a poncho slit into and wore in order to break up her heat signature.
From her vantage point, she could see the children in the field. Only children could be so brave, so oblivious to it all, running about in the open like that. An adult was pulling soccer balls out of a bag as the children lined up.
Suddenly, the back of her neck tingled, a sixth sense telling her that something wasn’t right. She heard it before she saw it. It was one of the new electric versions. Lightweight and cheap, but largely autonomous, able to pick up and track human signatures on its own. A shot of adrenaline, almost like an electric shock, pushed through the handful of calmers she’d taken that morning. Her pores opened up and she began to sweat profusely.
At first, she thought it would track her, but then the drone locked in on the children in the open field. She focused on the child closest to her, a little boy around six years old. He didn’t notice the drone at first. It stalked him, just thirty feet in the air, hovering at the corner of the field and then slowly moving closer until it was right above him. Then, finally, he saw it.
Her jaws clenched, locking, teeth pressing hard against each other. She wanted to run out there. But she couldn’t. Every instinct told her not to move.
The little boy was now running, the other children following him, all screaming. As fast as they were running, the drone easily kept pace.
She knew she shouldn’t stay there in the woods. She should be out there, among them, doing something. But she couldn’t. Her body wouldn’t let her move.
The drone pulled ahead of the running children and then stopped and raised a few yards to get a better shot. It steadied, fixing its position, as the children continued to run, screaming as loud as they could.
She felt cold. In the space of just a few seconds, she’d sweated through her clothes underneath the wool blanket; the rough fabric was starting to absorb the wet and stick to her. Damn it, get your ass out there, she could hear her old drill instructor screaming. But she couldn’t move.
She closed her eyes. She couldn’t watch it all anymore. Her head began to pound,² the noise of the children screaming combining with the drone’s rotors. Then it was all drowned out by the dull roar of white noise that began to build in her eardrums, the blood rushing in. She couldn’t move.
And then she felt it. Conan opened her eyes and saw the little boy. Her little boy. Liam was standing there, holding her hand, squeezing it, tears in his eyes.
“Mommy, please won’t you come play with us? You said you’d try this time.”
Moscow, Russian People’s Republic
Markov shook the snow from his thick jacket’s shoulders. As he began to peel off his layers of fur and wool, he caught a whiff of butter and onions. The widow upstairs cooked nonstop. For whom, he did not know. She clearly did not eat it; she was an elderly little wisp of a woman.
The smell made him feel trapped in the small apartment. The main living space contained only a heavy pine chair, a matching footstool, and an unsteady-looking wooden cabinet. With only enough room for him to read and pace, it was a retreat in both meanings of the term.
They had acknowledged his effort in Hawaii with a medal and then had made it clear that the episode was best forgotten by all, the various old alliances no longer seeming so wise after the coup had toppled the old spy. He’d traded the medal at the flea market for a 130-year-old book of Mikhail Lermontov’s poems, including “Death of the Poet,” about Pushkin’s demise, and told his bosses he would like to be discharged so he could become a policeman. They thought it was a joke at first. The pay is terrible. Nobody is good for bribes anymore. You’ll have to drive a dented Lada, and even the little kids will throw rocks at you. Better that than strutting around the Alpha Group compound³ like an old cock with tattered feathers and nothing to do. Three months later, he walked out into a cold Moscow evening with a badge and an ID identifying him as a junior-grade detective on the city police force. It meant a life of small apartments filled with the smell of neighbors’ cooking, but also a constant supply of mysteries that made life worth living.
The thin wooden door shuddered as a fist pounded on it three times. Barely a second passed, and the door visibly flexed inward again from another round of pounding.
His first instinct was to draw the SIG Sauer pistol in the cracked leather holster on his left side. But then he thought of the old woman cooking upstairs and the tumbling children across the hall. He wasn’t going to go out with his last act on earth being the death of some innocent from a stray round fired through a flimsy door.
Markov knelt, staying just outside the door frame, and drew the serrated five-inch boot knife he carried in a sheath at his ankle. Old habits die hard. He paused in a crouch, noticing the snow on his boots melting at his feet. The fist hammered the door again. Before it could finish the rest of the three-knock pattern its owner was so enamored of, Markov flung open the door and seized the extended hand. He twisted the arm and spun his own body, throwing the man onto his back in the middle of the room. A quick look in the hallway. Empty. And so Markov gently closed the door behind him and locked it.
The man on the floor wore a helmet and bulky protective gear. Still on his back, he reached out with his hands up, heavy padded gloves with carbon knuckles pointing at the ceiling in surrender. Motorcycle gauntlets, not military issue. His dark blue jacket and pants were covered with a spider-web pattern of reflective segments and pads at the elbows and knees. The uniform that Markov saw buzzing past him on the streets every day.
“Delivery,” said the RusGlobal Delivery courier, almost in a whimper.
“You know you’re going to get yourself killed with a knock like that,” said Markov.
Markov flipped the knife in his left hand, concealing the point along the length of his forearm. He offered his right hand to the man, who was really a wide-eyed boy, likely not even twenty years old.
“I hate Moscow,” the courier said as he swung a satchel across his chest and pulled out a padded silver nylon envelope covered with the company’s angular black double-headed-eagle logo. The courier tossed it to him, and Markov unlocked the door and let him out.
Markov set the package on the scuffed hardwood floor and knelt before the envelope. He poked at it with the knife tip. He leaned over it and listened. Then he simply sat with it and waited. After a few dozen deep breaths, he lifted it up and slightly bent the stiff envelope.
With the knife now lying alongside the package, he carefully positioned his phone and held it steady for fifteen seconds. The phone’s signal didn’t waver, meaning no interference from active circuitry inside. It could still be chem, bio, or even radiological. Yes, a slow death that last way that would be classically Russian. At least the manner in which he died would help reveal the sender.
He sliced the knife through the envelope along its long edge. If you wore white gloves all the time, then all you’d get was clean fingernails when you finally put your pistol to your temple, he thought.
Inside was another package: a slightly smaller cardboard envelope with a FedEx logo on it. Its origin showed it had gone through the shipping hub in Abu Dhabi.
With the tip of the knife, he carefully slit the cardboard envelope open along its longest edge, listening for a click or a hiss of a switch.
Another package. This one was an inch smaller and only slightly thinner. This FedEx envelope had an American flag covering one entire side of it, as was the company’s practice these days, and on the other side was the faint LED display of the tracking tag. He activated it and it showed the package had journeyed from Honolulu to Abu Dhabi.
He broke the button-size capsule that released the envelope’s seal, and the material parted when the envelope’s magnetic seal broke. A flat, brown butcher-paper-wrapped package tumbled to the floor. It landed with a familiar thump. Only one thing made a sound like that.
He smiled as he tore off the paper that wrapped the Pushkin book. Inside, tucked next to the tea-stained opening page, was a three-by-five-inch card of solid white. Only two words—With gratitude—were typed on it.
He didn’t know whether to smile or shudder at the realization that she somehow knew where he lived. So he just opened the book and began to read again: I live in lonely desolation, And wonder when my end will come.
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
“You need to be careful right now. See that set? See the way it’s breaking? You’re too far forward on the board, so slide back and paddle!”
Mario Giordini was not paying attention to the waves. He found it hard to look at anything but his instructor. When she arched her back to see how the next set of waves was shaping up, it was impossible to consider anything but the curve of her breasts beneath the long-sleeved black rash guard.
The Italian banker from Milan would be turning thirty next month, and he knew his mother would soon force him to finally settle down and get married. Thank God he was not married now.
“Mario, stay with me,” she said. “You’re going to have to dive under when this wave comes, okay? All the way under this time.”
He’d actually arrived the day after the final prisoner exchanges between China and the United States had been completed, the U.S. forces taken in Guam swapped for the Chinese forces who’d surrendered after the Americans had taken back the island. The two nations had shown they could pound each other into a weakened equilibrium, but having sunk most of each other’s fleets, neither wanted to take it to the next level. So the deal was status quo antebellum, a term Mario thought funny for its naive suggestion that anything could go back to the way it was before the war. And that was the opportunity for those who had been smart enough to sit it out. Half the hotels on the island had some kind of battle damage, but location had a permanent value. As did beauty, he thought, looking at the woman he’d picked up on a site visit to the Moana Surfrider hotel.
The question was, how was he going to make this particular investment pay off? Maybe ask her out to dinner and then try the tactic of testing a bottle of Italian prosecco against a California sparkling wine, which they ignorantly called champagne? It had worked enough times here, the girls grateful for a free meal and the chance to peek at luxury, even for a night. Or was she the kind of girl who needed a little narcotic persuasion?
“Now!” she shouted. Mario leaned forward on the board just as the wave approached. He meant to shove the board’s nose deep under the water and arch his back to drive it deeper still, but he froze. He just stared up at a blue wall closing in on him.
The wave sucked him up and launched him into the air, spinning him underwater. Salt water filled every cavity, worked its way into his nose and ears. He surfaced with a desperate gasp but the board kept racing toward the beach, locked in the wave’s rushing white water. The tug on his leash dragged him back down. He flailed harder, thrashing with open hands.
The next thing Mario knew he was on the beach, coughing as if he had just smoked two packs of cigarettes. She stood over him, backlit by sunset. He felt completely disarmed and at peace in the presence of such beauty.
“You know, you really are starting to get the hang of it,” she said. “But you have to learn to trust me. How about we go back out tonight? The moon will be full. It’s so amazing, like nothing you’ve seen back in Italy,” she said.
He nodded, already thinking of which bottle to bring.
“I know just the place,” she said, “quiet, just the two of us. And there’s not a better break for teaching. But you gotta promise me you’ll look out for that leash next time; it can be a real killer.”
Vallejo Yacht Club, Vallejo, California
“Tacking now, Dad!”
Martin Simmons held the sailboat’s tiller in his right hand and the jib sheet in his left. The little boy stopped calling his father Daddy ever since he’d come back. The breeze picked up as the small Lightning sailboat edged closer to the Mare Island pier.
“Don’t let go of the jib just yet. Feel it fill, then . . . okay, now, now!” said Jamie Simmons. He sat hunched as low as he could, ducking the aluminum boom.
The sailboat tacked to starboard, and Jamie carefully shifted his weight across to the port side. Lindsey and Claire screamed with delight as the boat began to tilt. He watched his son, now eight, try to transfer the line and the tiller between his hands as the hull shifted underneath him. All the while, they were closing in on the barnacles.
“My turn next, Daddy!” Claire said from the bow. At least she still called him that.
The channel was so changed from a year ago. Much of the old Ghost Fleet was gone; some of the vessels were still at sea until the shipyards could complete their decades-long work of rebuilding the American Navy, and some were lost forever. And on the ships that were back, fresh paint covered the rust and bloodstains while welders daily worked over their new scars.
Simmons reached over and nudged the tiller. There was so much to do, but this was exactly how he wanted to spend the day before the change-of-command ceremony. He was going to make the most of all of this.
The sailboat kept edging closer to the pier, about two hundred yards astern from the sleek metal box-cutter bow that still looked to him as if it were going in the wrong direction from the water.
“Watch your speed; I don’t think the Z could take a ramming even from us,” said Simmons.
Martin yanked the tiller, turning the sailboat into the wind. With no air flow over the sails, the sheets luffed and hung limp. The young boy searched frantically for the next puff of warm breeze to fill the channel, losing track of the sailboat’s momentum carrying them onward.
“Shit!” said Martin when he realized how far they had drifted, too late trying to turn the rudder. The sailboat bumped into the pier lightly; Jamie pushed off with his hand.
“Martin Simmons, who taught you that word?” said Lindsey.
“Grandpa,” said Martin sheepishly.
“Well, that’s appropriate,” said his father.
Jamie could see the boy was blushing even under his sun hat. He drew a cooler to his feet and opened it up. He got out a can of Coke, took a sip, then passed it to his son. “You’re doing great; your grandpa would be proud of you . . . and of your new vocabulary. We’ll just wait here for him to send us some wind.”
The sailboat slowly floated past the Zumwalt. One of the sailors onboard recognized the captain and snapped a salute. Claire saluted back first, then Martin, and, finally, Jamie, smiling.
The jib stiffened, and Martin took up the slack in the line as the wind picked up and the sailboat took off.