The Hidden Empire
Rafael Ward Book Four
Free preview of Chapter 1 below
Sam pulled back from the scope. There was no doubt. The man across the way slicing vegetables in his flat’s tiny kitchen was the target. Slicing and talking to himself. Singing, maybe. Like a normal person. Like someone who’d forgotten how to be vigilant. Someone who’d gotten lazy.
All the better. And the worse. It shouldn’t have taken this long to find a lazy target. She put her eye to the scope. A pile of diced onion sat beside the tomato he was starting to cut. A pot was steaming on a hotplate next to the sink. A coffee mug sat to the target’s right. He took a sip every now and then.
She marked his motions with her breathing, the crosshairs staying center mass. He finished the tomato. Next up, a potato. She counted the cuts. Halfway through was her spot. He’d be in a routine by then. She switched off the safety. There was little wind. The evening sun was below the rooftops. The constant rain was more like a mist. Her angle, one floor above, less than forty meters distant, was ideal. It was an easy shot, even for a normal person.
She could have made it at a thousand yards. Two thousand if the bullet’s grain density were right, even with the claw-like prosthetic on her right arm. It had taken three practice rounds to get used to the thing. A normal person would have had to start their training over. A normal person would have had to think about how to adjust. Not her. She’d allowed herself three practice rounds on the range inside the Citadel. Then it was back into the field for live ops. Thirty-four targets since then. Thirty-four live fires. Thirty-four dead, each from more than a thousand yards. Easy. Natural. Like taking a piss. Give her a weapon, or even a pencil, and she knew immediately how to make it kill.
Her partner told her this was not normal. The doctors who installed the claw told her this was not normal. The Seer told her it a was gift given to her by the Lord, just as he’d told her she was a gift given to him when she brought him the sword five years ago. He’d asked if she would kill for him. She’d said yes. Not because of some god or sense of duty. Because it was the only thing she knew how to do. It was the only way she knew how to live.
Each time it was like remembering her name.
One hundred and twenty-nine kills across New Jerusalem for the Seer. Traitors. Heretics. Criminals. She heard their crimes but didn’t care. He gave her a name or a location, sometimes less. He sent them, her and her partner—her dark friend—to find and execute. No arrests. No trials. No questions asked.
Except her partner, Compano, had begun asking. Sam had anticipated a degree of dissatisfaction heading overseas for the first time as the Seer’s personal assassins, but Compano was brooding like a…
That sounded right without Sam knowing why. Didn’t matter. The bottom line was Compano was being counterproductive, sulking around because she was so far from her Judges. Which weren’t hers anymore anyway, but that was not a conversation Sam was interested in having.
Kill him, the voice insider her—the voice she called Other—said.
She flinched. Other had been silent since they left New Jerusalem more than a month ago. A long time. At first, Other’s silence was like being outside in a blizzard without a jacket, but she’d become used to it. To her voice being the only one inside her. Which confirmed her choice to come here. Which both thrilled and worried her. Choices had consequences. What if normal was not a choice at all?
She reset her aim. The target was halfway through the potato. She placed the pad of her finger against the trigger. Six weeks to find him, and here he was cutting up a potato. It had never taken more than two weeks to locate a target before.
Did that mean something?
She flexed the claw the doctors had given her, the thing they called a hand, as cool and lifeless as the rifle itself. Like her. A tool. And tool was only good for one thing.
What if I could be more?
The thought was as jarring as Other’s unexpected voice. Worse, she hadn’t protected it. She hadn’t made sure it was in that deep place where Other couldn’t hear her.
Kill! Other cried.
Sam closed her eyes. Banished the doubt. Felt the death. The detonation of the powder in the shell. The release of the round from the barrel. The anticipation for all four-hundredths of a second before impacting the target between the shoulder blades with a satisfying thump she would hear a tenth of a second after that.
She opened her eyes. He’d finished the potato and was now dumping salt and pepper onto a piece of meat. Her mother put too much pepper on steaks, she remembered. Not her mother’s face or even the taste of the steak. Just that there was too much pepper. She pushed her tongue around her dry mouth. Compano’s heavy footfalls approached the bathroom, right on time, clockwork. The door opened. Light from the hall filled the bathroom, making Sam visible to anyone who might cast a glance across the street.
“Shut the door,” she said.
Compano shut off the hall light instead. A rebellion. A refusal to take orders. Or maybe a refusal to believe she wasn’t the one giving the orders. Either way, it was careless, and Compano was rarely careless. Did she suspect?
“We should be coding in,” Compano said, her mechanical voice echoing in the small bathroom. She loomed in the doorway but didn’t try to enter. There was nowhere in the bathroom she wouldn’t be in front of a window, and she always avoided windows. And the outdoors. And people in general. She was support and muscle if it came to a fight. Sam was their eyes. Sam gathered their intel. Sam could hide her machinery, wrist to fingertips, but Compano couldn’t conceal what she was.
“Change in orders,” Sam said.
“I don’t like changes in SOP.”
“Take it up with the Seer when we get back.”
Sam knew she’d made a mistake even before Compano made that angry growling sound she made that sounded more like gears grinding. The mission only worked because Compano wasn’t allowed in the Citadel. She was welcome in New Jerusalem, free to travel its twelve districts that had been named after the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but she was not allowed within sight of the Seer. The order was explicit and unbreakable, though no reason for it had ever been given.
Teasing her with that fact was not going to help Sam’s mission.
We don’t need her, Other said.
“Have you identified the target?” Compano said.
Sam put her eye to the scope once more. The target had come to the kitchen sink, framing his face in the window through which she’d been sighting him. There was no doubt. She was looking at the face of Rafael Ward.
She raised the rifle and folded the tripod. “It’s not him.”
There was a silence. She expected Other to rage. She expected Compano to demand to look for herself. Instead, the silence continued.
Eventually, Compano said, “You’re sure?”
“I know him.”
More silence. Not even the whirring of Compano’s mechanisms. It would only take a step or two into the bathroom for her to see Rafe in the kitchen window. At this range, even without her advanced optics, she’d recognize him instantly.
“Our intel was solid,” Compano said.
“It’s one flat.” Sam stood, blocking the bathroom window.
“You think he’s still here in Edinburgh?”
“I’ll go out after dark.”
“Maybe we should both go,” Compano said.
Sam couldn’t smell fear or rage in her dark friend like she could normal people, but she was certain both were coursing through Compano’s veins and circuits. If she pushed too hard, it would all fall apart.
“Midnight,” Sam said.
Compano remained in the doorway, as if trying to read Sam’s bluff. She couldn’t just go trekking about the city, not even at night. She was the support part of the team, useful for tracking with her optics and integrated Port, but Sam did all the physical work. Basic SOP was a night drop into the target site, set up an op center or stakeout location, and have Compano stay there undercover, indoors, hidden. No other way. One bystander’s look at her and their cover and ability to gather intel or get close to a target was blown. She wouldn’t risk that, not with this target. Sam was counting on it.
Compano looked around her once more. Sam turned. The kitchen light in Rafe’s flat was out. Nothing to see but the false lead she said it was.
“Check with me when you’re prepped,” Compano said.
Compano moved aside. Sam let her eyes fall on the body in the bathtub. A thirty-something woman with auburn hair, her head hanging at an impossible backwards angle. The flat’s owner. Compano looked, too. A reflex. Sam had been studying human nature, by both observation and reading the occasional text on the subject whenever she found an accessible Port nearby. It applied even to things that were no longer fully human, it appeared. She took her rifle into the living area and placed it on the couch. Compano wouldn’t complain. She never sat on a couch, just like she never lay in a bed. Every place they went, she dragged a chair into a dark corner and sat there, silent but for the whirring of her small movements. If she slept, Sam couldn’t tell.
She went into the flat’s only bedroom and picked up the piece of paper and the pen she’d collected from the kitchen table earlier. She’d been practicing with her deep place. With her left hand. With her eyes closed. She scrawled the note, then pushed it into her pocket and dropped the pen. She waited. Silence outside and in. She waited longer. Finally satisfied, she lay down. About five hours until midnight. Until she knew if her lie would hold. Until she would finally, after five years, get to speak to Rafael Ward.