“How am I supposed to get there?” Harvard had said.

“Scam your way through, Harv,” Pa had said. “Scam your way through.”

Harvard had taken those words and made them real in his trek so far. A few card tricks on the waterfront rubes earned enough to take a trolley to the train station. A lonely-looking older cashier had provided a ticket to the next town over on credit in exchange for a date. Harvard embraced a dizzying number of aliases, a multitude of lies, and even a touch of the old grifting slight-of-hand Pa had tried–and largely failed–to pass on.

It took nearly six months, but Harvard eventually found himself on a train platform in Chicago, ticket to Manhattan in hand.

It was only the beginning.

Her note continued:

“I never believed your routine about being a cynic. You believe in things. Not good things or worthy things, but things nonetheless. From my point of view, every position I’ve teased out of you is utterly repugnant, but in taking them you’ve set yourself apart from the others.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. It’s a cruel world we live in when somebody has to hide their idealism behind a cynic’s mask, to feign apathy about something they care deeply about rather than confronting it head on. I’ve worn that mask many times in my life, and only recently have I had the courage to remove it for good. I think, in time, you will too.

This isn’t like the end of the book you told me you wanted to write–the one where everyone manages to live happily if not ever after without reeking of sickly-sweet sentiment. I don’t know if even such a qualified happiness can exist in this world of ours without a platform of lies to stand upon, much as we all desperately need to believe it can and does. But it is an ending.

I’ll go my own way–don’t worry. But whatever happens, I want you to be strengthened by it. Go out there and believe repulsive things, but believe them sincerely, just as I sincerely believe that you’ll get your happy ending–whether in real life or in a world of your own making on a manuscript page.”

Sionsla, or rather 510|\|5L4, had been one of the most notorious phreakers around. Their distinctive 1kb signature had been found in the boot sectors of computers from the Pentagon to Saddam Hussein’s private server, always placed in just the right place to cause mayhem after a period of time. It had also been attached to the infamous Three Mile Island polymorphic worm, and bombarded the servers of Yippee, Gaggle, and RoweWare with the most serious denial-of-service attacks those giants had ever witnessed.

Just as suddenly as they had appeared, though, Sionsla vanished. Their last known activity was in early 2001: a backdoor keystroke logger that bore the 1kb signature but was otherwise far below the elegant and devious standard of previous attacks. The source code to the various bits of malware the phreaker had inflicted on the world were never found; experts could only speculate that they had been developed on an isolated terminal using a custom-built operating system and programming language.

But if the junker HPAQ Probonio that Sanderson had brought by really did have Sionsla’s signature on it, well, that could be a major break. The Probonio hadn’t launched until late 2002, after all, long after custom machine code had been inserted into most units to lock Sionsla out.

Murdock Odcum was never late. Privately, behind his back, he was known as the “swiss watch” by the Suffingham shopkeeps he shook down for protection money. He’d let each shopkeeper know the day and time he’d arrive at their first meeting, and never deviate from the schedule.

There was no negotiation

There were no extensions.

Only death could induce a postponement.

So, naturally, when the shopkeeps on Cosington noticed that Murdock missed all his stops that day, they assumed that someone important had died. Such was Murdock’s reputation that many delivered their protection to other agents of the Suffingham outfit anyway, begging them to tell Odcum that they had paid in full.

The shopkeeps didn’t know how right they had been until Murdock’s body was fished out of the estuary the next day. Even then, hid gold pocketwatch was still ticking.

Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”

I’ve noticed a condition I call “morning weakness,” and while some of my more macho acquaintances insist that there’s no such thing, others have confirmed to me that it is a very real medical condition. Now I’m not exactly Samson even at my prime, but it’s my experience that immediately upon waking, and for ten to fifteen minutes afterwards, I’m weak as a kitten (though an abnormally large kitten could probably overpower me too).

Ordinarily this is an annoyance more than anything. Let’s face it: the heaviest thing most people need to lift after getting out of bed is a toothbrush. But on occasion it’s put me at a severe disadvantage. My little brother, for example, had a habit when he was younger of jumping on me in bed and initiated a wrestling match that would invariable leave me pinned and helpless–a particular humiliation for someone four years older than him!

It’s also inconvenient when there’s an emergency. On the day in question, I was roused from my sleep by the whine of the fire alarm. Ordinarily there would be no problem; my room was right near the apartment’s central stairwell and safety.

No, the problem was my backpack, overloaded with books and my laptop computer. Morning weakness had set in and, try as I might, I couldn’t lift it or any of the items inside.

Solveig delighted in being unconventional, to the point that even her unconventionality defied convention. All the other unconventionalists on the Telthusbakken (and there were many that held themselves to be so) tended to behave in similar ways. They’d attend rallies for the same unpopular causes, wear the same unpopular clothing, indulge in the same trite ‘scandalous’ behavior. Solveig saw this as a roundabout way of the other girls calling attention to themselves and seeking to interest boys (and for more than one of the Telthusbakken girls it was probably an accurate impression).

But underneath it all they still conformed to the same rules and conventions that everyone else did. Solveig took particular delight in uncovering those mundane conventions and flouting them in subtle yet meaningful ways. Nothing ostentatious–to get too carried away was to become one of the others–but always very deliberate.

People drove on the right, and so tended to walk on the right. Solveig walked on the left, and forced people to detour around her.

People faced forward in elevators. Solveig faced the back to the great consternation of all persons boarding, riding, or disembarking.

People paid with debit cards, credit, or large bills. Solveig paid with 50 øre coins.

I found Julian right where I thought he’d be: at the heart of the facility.

He’d couldn’t’ve been there a few moments, but the bastard had set up a small mirror to watch his back, in case Castiglio and Kearns failed. I didn’t see the thing until it was almost too late; two rounds from Julian’s pistol shattered the concrete where my head had been moments ago.

Luckily I’d drawn back. I’ve learned to be cautious when things seem too easy.

“Is that all you’ve got for me, Julian?” I shouted around the corner. “Not even a hello?”

“I gave you two of them,” he retorted. “You always were too self-centered, Max. It’s all about you. What did you expect me to do, give a speech?”

I eased my way toward a side hall, painfully aware of how unarmed and vulnerable I was. “I thought after all we’d been through you’d at least want to put a proper ending to it.”

“You’ve got guts, Max. I could’ve used somebody like you. Herringbone, he never saw the potential, but I did. If you’d been a little smarter we could have avoided all this.”

I silently unhooked a fire extinguisher from the wall. “Maybe we still can. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

“I think things are pretty well set on their course by now,” Julian said. “And I sure as hell am not going to listen to you when you try to get me reminiscing for tactical advantage. You leave now, maybe there’s still a chance, but if we come face to face the last thing you’re gonna see is me smiling.”

“He’s through here, Comrade General.”

The adjutant led Santos through the Ministry of State Security annex toward the interrogation rooms. The demanding affairs of state precluded the general’s direct participation in most security affairs, of course, but he enjoyed keeping his hand in the game. After all, he’d made his bones working state security for the late President Barranca before transferring to a combat command, and during his tenure he’d maintained some of the best numbers of the MSS interrogators.

The gentleman–Santos refused to be told the prisoner’s name until it was voluntarily given up–was in Annex C, designated for the most severe offenders. Unlike his predecessor, who had favored mossy ex-monastic cells in the Punto de los Delfines, Santos insisted on a clean, almost clinical atmosphere; the air of civilization such a place projected helped undermine foreigners’ perception of the general’s beloved country as a place of savages.

“Let me tell you something,” Santos said, walking a slow circle around the prisoner, who was bound to a chair and visibly bruised. “Every man is the hero of his own story. Every man, when he is met with adversity, expects a fairytale ending as in the movies.”

The man made no reply, staring at the floor.

“But this is real life, my friend, and there is no last-minute reprieve. There is no cavalry. One way or another, your story ends here, with me. It is up to you to write this ending.”

Santos gestured to his adjutant, who handed the general his pistol–a Beretta he’d received upon commissioning, now loaded with blanks. “Will the ending relate that you were killed, unloved and unmourned, in Annex C of the Ministry for State Security? Or, perhaps, will it record that you aided a noble cause in your final moments?”

The general held the pistol a foot from the prisoner’s head–not close enough to kill, but enough to cause severe pain and burning from the force of the blank. “The time is now.”

Jane shrugged. “Hypocrisy is unavoidable in modern life.”

“That’s a rather dim view to take, don’t you think?” said Paul.

“It’s a sensible one,” Jane said. “All but the most careful people will eventually contradict themselves, and nearly everyone holds others to higher standards than they hold themselves–it’s just human nature.”

“Don’t you think it would just be easier for everyone if we said what we felt?” said Paul, pushing a little.

“I don’t necessarily believe that the disguising of one’s feelings is hypocrisy. If everyone openly displayed their feelings and was completely, brutally honest, I hate to think of what the world would be like.”

“Oh come on,” Paul said. “I don’t know that it would be so bad.”

“Tell me, if you thought a woman was ugly as a warthog, would you tell her when she asked?” Jane pressed. “If you were in a lousy mood, would you make sure everyone knew? ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Lousy, you piece of crap! Piss off and leave me alone.'”

“Well, no,” Paul said sheepishly.

“See? That’s not hypocrisy. Hiding one’s feelings isn’t always best, but it does serve a purpose, and more importantly, it’s not a contradiction that others can see. I could be smiling on the outside and sullen on the inside, but who could tell? People could guess, but I would rarely, if ever, state my true feelings if I was hiding them.”