/ Language: English / Genre:sf,thriller_techno,

Reamde

Neal Stephenson

Four decades ago, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa family, fled to a wild and lonely mountainous corner of British Columbia to avoid the draft. Smuggling backpack loads of high-grade marijuana across the border into Northern Idaho, he quickly amassed an enormous and illegal fortune. With plenty of time and money to burn, he became addicted to an online fantasy game in which opposing factions battle for power and treasure in a vast cyber realm. Like many serious gamers, he began routinely purchasing virtual gold pieces and other desirables from Chinese gold farmers—young professional players in Asia who accumulated virtual weapons and armor to sell to busy American and European buyers. For Richard, the game was the perfect opportunity to launder his aging hundred dollar bills and begin his own high-tech start up—a venture that has morphed into a Fortune 500 computer gaming group, Corporation 9592, with its own super successful online role-playing game, T’Rain. But the line between fantasy and reality becomes dangerously blurred when a young gold farmer accidently triggers a virtual war for dominance—and Richard is caught at the center. In this edgy, 21st century tale, Neal Stephenson, one of the most ambitious and prophetic writers of our time, returns to the terrain of his cyberpunk masterpieces Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, leading readers through the looking glass and into the dark heart of imagination.

Neal Stephenson

REAMDE

PART I

Nine Dragons

THE FORTHRAST FARM

Northwest Iowa

Thanksgiving

Richard kept his head down. Not all those cow pies were frozen, and the ones that were could turn an ankle. He’d limited his baggage to a carry-on, so the size 11s weaving their way among the green-brown mounds were meshy black cross-trainers that you could practically fold in half and stuff into a pocket. He could have gone to Walmart this morning and bought boots. The reunion, however, would have noticed, and made much of, such an extravagance.

Two dozen of his relatives were strung out in clumps along the barbed-wire fence to his right, shooting into the ravine or reloading. The tradition had started as a way for some of the younger boys to blow off steam during the torturous wait for turkey and pie. In the old days, once they’d gotten back to Grandpa’s house from Thanksgiving church service and changed out of their miniature coats and ties, they would burst out the doors and sprint half a mile across the pasture, trailed by a few older men to make sure that matters didn’t get out of hand, and shoot .22s and Daisies down into the crick. Now grown up with kids of their own, they showed up for the re-u with shotguns, hunting rifles, and handguns in the backs of their SUVs.

The fence was rusty, but its posts of Osage orange wood were unrotted. Richard and John, his older brother, had put it up forty years ago to keep livestock from straying down into the crick. The stream was narrow enough that a grown man could cross it with a stride, but cattle were not made for striding, or bred for intelligence, and could always contrive some way to get themselves into terrible straits along its steep, crumbling banks. The same feature made it an ideal firing range. Summer had been dry and autumn cold, so the crick was running low under a paper-thin glaze of ice, and the bank above it threw up gouts of loose dirt wherever it stopped a bullet. This made it easy for the shooters to correct their aim. Through his ear protectors, Richard could hear the voices of helpful onlookers: “You’re about three inches low. Six inches to the right.” The boom of the shotguns, the snap of the .22s, and the pow, pow, pow of the semiautomatic handguns were reduced to a faint patter by the electronics in the hearing protectors—hard-shell earmuffs with volume knobs sticking out of them—which he’d stuffed into his bag yesterday, almost as an afterthought.

He kept flinching. The low sun shone in the face of a two-hundred-foot-tall wind turbine in the field across the crick, and its blades cast long scything shadows over them. He kept sensing the sudden onrush of a bar of darkness that flicked over him without effect and went on its way to be followed by another and another. The sun above blinking on and off with each cut of a blade. This was all new. In his younger days, it had only been the grain elevators that proved the existence of a world beyond the horizon; but now they had been supplanted and humbled by these pharaonic towers rearing their heads above the prairie, the only thing about this landscape that had ever been capable of inspiring awe. Something about their being in motion, in a place where everything else was almost pathologically still, seized the attention; they always seemed to be jumping out at you from behind corners.

Despite the wind, the small muscles of his face and scalp—the parents of headaches—were relaxed for the first time since he had come back to Iowa. When he was in the public spaces of the re-u—the lobby of the Ramada, the farmhouse, the football game in the side yard—he always felt that all eyes were on him. It was different here, where one had to attend to one’s weapons, to make sure that the barrels were always pointed across the barbed wire. When Richard was seen, it was during terse, one-on-one conversations, spoken DIS-TINCT-LY through ear protection.

Younger relations, rookie in-laws, and shirttails called him Dick, a name that Richard had never used because of its association, in his youth, with Nixon. He would answer to Richard or to the nickname Dodge. During the long drive here from their homes in the exurbs of Chicago or Minneapolis or St. Louis, the parents would brief the kids on who was who, some of them even brandishing hard copies of the family tree and dossiers of photos. Richard was pretty sure that when they ventured out onto Richard’s branch of the family tree—and a long, stark, forkless branch it was—they got a certain look in their eyes that the kids could read in the rearview mirror, a tone of voice that in this part of the country said more than words were ever allowed to. When Richard encountered them along the firing line, he could see as much in their faces. Some of them would not meet his eye at all. Others met it too boldly, as if to let him know that they were on to him.

He accepted a broken twelve-gauge side-by-side from a stout man in a camouflage hat whom he recognized vaguely as the second husband of his second cousin Willa. Keeping his face, and the barrel of the weapon, toward the barbed-wire fence, he let them stare at the back of his ski parka as he bit the mitten from his left hand and slid a pair of shells into the warm barrels. On the ground several yards out, just where the land dropped into the ravine, someone had set up a row of leftover Halloween pumpkins, most of which were already blasted to pie filling and fanned across the dead brown weeds. Richard snapped the gun together, raised it, packed its butt in snugly against his shoulder, got his body weight well forward, and drew the first trigger back. The gun stomped him, and the base of a pumpkin jumped up and thought about rolling away. He caught it with the second barrel. Then he broke the weapon, snatched out the hot shells, let them fall to the ground, and handed the shotgun to the owner with an appreciative nod.

“You do much hunting up there at your Schloss, Dick?” asked a man in his twenties: Willa’s stepson. He said it loudly. It was hard to tell whether this was the orange foam plugs stuffed into his ears or sarcasm.

Richard smiled. “None at all,” he replied. “Pretty much everything in my Wikipedia entry is wrong.”

The young man’s smile vanished. His eyes twitched, taking in Richard’s $200 electronic hearing protectors, and then looked down, as if checking for cow pies.

Though Richard’s Wikipedia entry had been quiet lately, in the past it had been turbulent with edit wars between mysterious people, known only by their IP addresses, who seemed to want to emphasize aspects of his life that now struck him as, while technically true, completely beside the point. Fortunately this had all happened after Dad had become too infirm to manipulate a mouse, but it didn’t stop younger Forthrasts.

Richard turned around and began to mosey back the way he had come. Shotguns were not really his favorite. They were relegated to the far end of the firing line. At the near end, beside a motorcade of hastily parked SUVs, eight- and ten-year-old children, enveloped in watchful grown-ups, maintained a peppery fusillade from bolt-action .22s.

Directly in front of Richard was a party of five men in their late teens and early twenties, orbited by a ­couple of aspirant fifteen-year-olds. The center of attention was an assault rifle, a so-called black gun, military-style, no wood, no camouflage, no pretense that it was made for hunting. The owner was Len, Richard’s first cousin once removed, currently a grad student in entomology at the University of Minnesota. Len’s red, wind-chapped hands were gripping an empty thirty-round magazine. Richard, flinching every so often when a shotgun went off behind him, watched Len force three cartridges into the top of the magazine and then hand it to the young man who was currently in possession of the rifle. Then he stepped around behind the fellow and talked him patiently through the process of socketing the magazine, releasing the bolt carrier, and flipping off the safety.

Richard swung wide behind them and found himself passing through a looser collection of older men, some relaxing in collapsible chairs of camo-print fabric, others firing big old hunting rifles. He liked their mood better but sensed—and perhaps he was being too sensitive—that they were a little relieved when he kept on walking.

He only came to the re-u every two or three years. Age and circumstance had afforded him the luxury of being the family genealogist. He was the compiler of those family trees that the moms unfurled in the SUVs. If he could get their attention for a few minutes, stand them up and tell them stories of the men who had owned, fired, and cleaned some of the guns that were now speaking out along the fence—not the Glocks or the black rifles, of course, but the single-action revolvers, the 1911s, the burnished lever-action .30-30s—he’d make them understand that even if what he’d done did not comport with their ideas of what was right, it was more true to the old ways of the family than how they were living.

But why did he even rile himself up this way?

Thus distracted, he drifted in upon a small knot of ­people, mostly in their twenties, firing handguns.

In a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on, these had an altogether different look and feel from the ones who swarmed around Len. They were from a city. Probably a coastal city. Probably West Coast. Not L.A. Somewhere between Santa Cruz and Vancouver. A man with longish hair, tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of the five layers of fleece and raincoat he’d put on to defend himself from Iowa, was holding a Glock 17 out in front of him, carefully and interestedly pocking nine-millimeter rounds at a plastic milk jug forty feet away. Behind him stood a woman, darker-skinned and -haired than any here, wearing big heavy-rimmed glasses that Richard thought of as Gen X glasses even though Gen X must be an ancient term now. She was smiling, having a good time. She was in love with the young man who was shooting.

Their emotional openness, more than their hair or clothing, marked them as not from around here. Richard had come out of this place with the reserved, even hard-bitten style that it seemed to tattoo into its men. This had driven half a dozen girlfriends crazy until he had finally made some progress toward lifting it. But, when it was useful, he could drop it like a portcullis.

The young woman had turned toward him and thrust her pink gloves up in the air in a gesture that, from a man, meant “Touchdown!” and, from a woman, “I will hug you now!” Through a smile she was saying something to him, snapped into fragments as the earmuffs neutralized a series of nine-millimeter bangs.

Richard faltered.

A precursor of shock came over the girl’s face as she realized he isn’t going to remember me. But in that moment, and because of that look, Richard knew her. Genuine delight came into his face. “Sue!” he exclaimed, and then—for sometimes it paid to be the family genealogist—corrected himself: “Zula!” And then he stepped forward and hugged her carefully. Beneath the layers, she was bone-slender, as always. Strong though. She pulled herself up on tiptoe to mash her cheek against his, and then let go and bounced back onto the heels of her huge insulated boots.

He knew everything, and nothing, about her. She must be in her middle twenties now. A ­couple of years out of college. When had he last seen her?

Probably not since she had been in college. Which meant that, during the handful of years that Richard had absentmindedly neglected to think about her, she had lived her entire life.

In those days, her look and her identity had not extended much beyond her backstory: an Eritrean orphan, plucked by a church mission from a refugee camp in the Sudan, adopted by Richard’s sister, Patricia, and her husband, Bob, reorphaned when Bob went on the lam and Patricia died suddenly. Readopted by John and his wife, Alice, so that she could get through high school.

Richard was ransacking his extremely dim memories of John and Alice’s last few Christmas letters, trying to piece together the rest. Zula had attended college not far away—Iowa State? Done something practical—an engineering degree. Gotten a job, moved somewhere.

“You’re looking great!” he said, since it was time to say something, and this seemed harmless.

“So are you,” she said.

He found this a little off-putting, since it was such transparent BS. Almost forty years ago, Richard and some of his friends had been bombing down a local road on some ridiculous teenaged quest and found themselves stuck behind a slow-driving farmer. One of them, probably with the assistance of drugs, had noticed a similarity—which, once pointed out, was undeniable—between Richard’s wide, ruddy cliff of a face and the back end of the red pickup truck ahead of them. Thus the nickname Dodge. He kept wondering when he was going to develop the aquiline, silver-haired good looks of the men in the prostate medication ads on their endless seaplane junkets and fly-fishing idylls. Instead he was turning out to be an increasingly spready and mottled version of what he had been at thirty-five. Zula, on the other hand, actually was looking great. Black/Arab with an unmistakable dash of Italian. A spectacular nose that in other families and circumstances would have gone under the knife. But she’d figured out that it was beautiful with those big glasses perched on it. No one would mistake her for a model, but she’d found a look. He could only conjecture what style pheromones Zula was throwing off to her peers, but to him it was a sort of hyperspace-librarian, girl-geek thing that he found clever and fetching without attracting him in a way that would have been creepy.

“This is Peter,” she announced, since her boyfriend had emptied the Glock’s clip. Richard noted approvingly that he checked the weapon’s chamber, ejected the clip, and checked the chamber again before transferring the gun to his left hand and extending his right to shake. “Peter, this is my uncle Richard.” As Peter and Richard were shaking hands, Zula told Peter, “He lives pretty close to us, actually!”

“Seattle?” Peter asked.

“I have a condo there,” Richard said, sounding lame and stiff to himself. He was mortified. His niece had been living in Seattle and he hadn’t known. What would the re-u make of this? As a sort of excuse, he offered up: “But lately I’ve been spending more time at Elphinstone.” Then he added, “B.C.,” in case that meant nothing to Peter.

But an alert and interested look was already coming over Peter’s face. “I’ve heard the snowboarding’s great there!” Peter said.

“I wouldn’t know,” Richard said. “But everything else is pretty damned nice.”

Zula was mortified too. “I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch with you, Uncle Richard! It was on my list.”

From most ­people this would have been mere polite cliché, but Richard knew that Zula would have an actual, literal list and that “Call Uncle Richard” would be somewhere on it.

“It’s on me,” he said. “I should have rolled out the welcome mat.”

While stuffing more rounds into empty magazines, they caught up with each other. Zula had graduated from Iowa State with a dual degree in geology and computer science and had moved to Seattle four months ago to take a job at a geothermal energy start-up that was going to build a pilot plant near Mt. Rainier: the stupendous volcanic shotgun pointed at Seattle’s head. She was going to do computer stuff: simulations of underground heat flow using computer codes. Richard was fascinated to hear the jargon rushing out of her mouth, to see the Zula brain unleashed on something worthy of its powers. In high school she’d been quiet, a little too assimilated, a little too easy to please in a small-town farm-girl sort of way. An all-American girl named Sue whose official documents happened to read Zula. But now she had got in touch with her Zula-ness.

“So what happened?” Richard asked. For she had been careful to say “I was going” to do this and that.

“When I got there, all was chaos,” she said. The look on her face was fascinated. Going from Eritrea to Iowa would definitely give a young person some interesting perspectives on chaos. “Something funny was going on with the money people. One of those hedge fund Ponzi schemes. They filed for bankruptcy a month ago.”

“You’re unemployed,” Richard said.

“That’s one way to look at it, Uncle Richard.” she said, and smiled.

Now Richard had a new item on his list, which, unlike Zula’s, was a stew of nagging worries, vague intentions, and dimly perceived karmic debts that he carried around in his head. Get Zula a job at Corporation 9592. And he even had a plausible way of making it happen. That was not the hard part. The hard part was bestowing that favor on her without giving aid and comfort to any of the other job seekers at the re-u.

“What do you know about magma?” he asked.

She turned slightly, looked at him sidelong. “More than you, I would guess.”

“You can do heat flow simulations. What about magma flow simulations?”

“The capability is out there,” she said.

“Tensors?” Richard had no idea what a tensor was, but he had noticed that when math geeks started throwing the word around, it meant that they were headed in the general direction of actually getting something done.

“I suppose,” she said nervously, and he knew that his question had been ridiculous.

“It’s really important, in a deep way, that we get it right.”

“What, for your game company?”

“Yes, for my Fortune 500 game company.”

She was frozen in the watchful sidelong pose, trying to make out if he was just pulling her leg.

“The stability of the world currency markets is at stake,” he insisted.

She was not going to bite.

“We’ll talk later. You know anyone with autism spectrum disorder?”

“Yes,” she blurted out, staring at him directly now.

“Could you work with someone like that?”

Her eyes strayed to her boyfriend.

Peter was struggling with the reloading. He was trying to put the rounds into the magazine backward. This had really been bothering Richard for the last half minute or so. He was trying to think of a nonhumiliating way to mention this when Peter figured it out on his own and flipped the thing around in his hand.

Richard had assumed, based on how Peter handled the gun, that he’d done it before. Now he reconsidered. This might be the first time Peter had ever touched a semiautomatic. But he was a quick study. An autodidact. Anything that was technical, that was logical, that ran according to rules, Peter could figure out. And knew it. Didn’t bother to ask for help. So much quicker to work it out on his own than suffer through someone’s well-meaning efforts to educate him—and to forge an emotional connection with him in so doing. There was something, somewhere, that he could do better than most ­people. Something of a technical nature.

“What have you been doing, Uncle Richard?” Zula asked brightly. She might have gotten in touch with her Zula-ness, but she kept the Sue-ness holstered for ready use at times like this.

Waiting for cancer” would have been too honest an answer. “Fighting a bitter rear-guard action against clinical depression” would have given the impression that he was depressed today, which he wasn’t.

“Worrying about palette drift,” Richard said.

Peter and Zula seemed oddly satisfied with that nonanswer, as if it fit in perfectly with their expectations of men in their fifties. Or perhaps Zula had already told Peter everything that she knew, or suspected, about Richard, and they knew better than to pry.

“You fly through Seattle?” Peter asked, jumping rather hastily to the last-resort topic of air travel.

Richard shook his head. “I drove to Spokane. Takes three or four hours depending on snow and the wait at the border. One-hop to Minneapolis. Then I rented a big fat American car and drove it down here.” He nodded in the direction of the road, where a maroon Mercury Grand Marquis was blotting out two houses of the Zodiac.

“This would be the place for it,” Peter remarked. He turned his head around to take in a broad view of the farm, then glanced innocently at Richard.

Richard’s reaction to this was more complicated than Peter might have imagined. He was gratified that Peter and Zula had identified him as one of the cool kids and were now inviting him to share their wryness. On the other hand, he had grown up on this farm, and part of him didn’t much care for their attitude. He suspected that they were already facebooking and twittering this, that hipsters in San Francisco coffee bars were even now ROFLing and OMGing at photos of Peter with the Glock.

But then he heard the voice of a certain ex-girlfriend telling him he was too young to begin acting like such a crabby old man.

A second voice chimed in, reminding him that, when he had rented the colossal Grand Marquis in Minneapolis, he had done so ironically.

Richard’s ex-girlfriends were long gone, but their voices followed him all the time and spoke to him, like Muses or Furies. It was like having seven superegos arranged in a firing squad before a single beleaguered id, making sure he didn’t enjoy that last cigarette.

All this internal complexity must have come across, to Peter and Zula, as a sudden withdrawal from the conversation. Perhaps a precursor of senility. It was okay. The magazines were about as loaded as you could get them with frozen fingers. Zula, then Richard, took turns firing the Glock. By the time they were done, the rate of fire, up and down the barbed-wire fence, had dropped almost to nothing. Ammunition was running low, people were cold, kids were complaining, guns needed to be cleaned. The camo chairs were being collapsed and tossed into the backs of the SUVs. Zula drifted over to exchange hugs and delighted, high-pitched chatter with some of her cousins. Richard stooped down, which was a little more difficult than it used to be, and started to collect empty shotgun shells. In the corner of his eye he saw Peter following his lead. But Peter gave up on the chore quickly, because he didn’t want to stray far from Zula. He had no interest in social chitchat with Zula’s retinue of cousins, but neither did he want to leave her alone. He was swivel-headedly alert and protective of her in a way that Richard both admired and resented. Richard wasn’t above feeling ever so slightly jealous of the fact that Peter had appointed himself Zula’s protector.

Peter glanced across the field at the house, looked away for a moment, then turned back to give it a thorough examination.

He knew. Zula had told him about what happened to her adopted mom. Peter had probably googled it. He probably knew that there were fifty to sixty lightning-related fatalities a year and that it was hard for Zula to talk about because most people thought it was such a weird way to die, thought she might even be joking.

THE GRAND MARQUIS was blocking an SUV full of kids and moms who had just had it with being out there in the noise and the cold, so Richard—glad of an excuse to leave—moved quickly toward it, passing between Peter and Zula. Not too loudly, he announced, “I’m going into town,” which meant that he was going to Walmart. He got into the huge Mercury, heard doors opening behind him, saw Peter and Zula sliding into the plunging sofa of the backseat. The passenger door swung open too, and in came another twentysomething woman whose name Richard should have known but couldn’t recall. He would have to ferret it out during the drive.

The young funsters had much to say about the Grand Marquis as he was gunning it out onto the road; they had got the joke of it, decided that Richard was hip. The girl in the passenger seat said she had never before been in “a car like this,” meaning, apparently, a sedan. Richard felt far beyond merely old.

Their conversation flew back and forth like the twittering of birds for about five minutes, and then they all fell silent. Peter was not exactly chomping at the bit to divulge facts about himself. Richard was fine with that. People who had job titles and business cards could say easily where they worked and what they did for a living, but those who worked for themselves, doing things of a complicated nature, learned over time that it was not worth the trouble of supplying an explanation if its only purpose was to make small talk. Better to just go directly to airline travel.

Their chilly extremities sucked all the energy from their brains. They gazed out the windows at the frost-burned landscape. This was western Iowa. People from anywhere else, traveling across the state, would have been hard-pressed to see any distinction between its east and its west—or, for that matter, between Ohio and South Dakota. But having grown up here, and gone on many a pirate quest and Indian ambush down along the crick, Richard sensed a gradient in the territory, was convinced that they were on the threshold between the Midwest and the West, as though on one side of the crick you were in the land of raking red leaves across the moist, forgiving black soil while listening to Big Ten football games on the transistor radio, but on the other side you were plucking arrows out of your hat.

There was a north-south gradient too. To the south were Missouri and Kansas, whence this branch of the Forthrasts (according to his research) had come around the time of the Civil War to get away from the terrorists and the death squads. To the north—hard to miss on a day like today—you could almost see the shoulder of the world turning inward toward the Pole. Those north-seeking Forthrasts must have thought better of it when they had ascended to this latitude and felt the cold air groping down the necks of their coats and frisking them, and so here they’d stopped and put down roots, not in the way that the old black walnut trees along the crick had roots, but as blackberries and dandelions grow thick when a lucky seed lands and catches on a stretch of unwatched ground.

The Walmart was like a starship that had landed in the soybean fields. Richard drove past the part of it where food was sold, past the pharmacy and the eye care center, and parked at the end where they stocked merchandise. The parking spaces were platted for full-sized pickup trucks, a detail useful to him now.

They went inside. The young ones shuffled to a stop as their ironic sensibilities, which served them in lieu of souls, were jammed by a signal of overwhelming power. Richard kept moving, since he was the one with a mission. He’d seen a way to contribute to the re-u without stepping in, or turning an ankle on, any of the cow pies strewn so intricately across his path.

He kept walking until everything in his field of vision was camouflage or fluorescent orange, then looked around for the ammunition counter. An elderly man came out wearing a blue vest and rested his wrinkly hands on the glass like an Old West barkeeper. Richard nodded at the man’s pro forma greeting and then announced that he wanted three large boxes of the 5.56-millimeter NATO cartridges. The man nodded and turned around to unlock the glass case where the good stuff was stockpiled. On the back of his vest was a large yellow smiley face that was thrust out and made almost hemispherical by his widower’s hump.

“Len was handing it out three rounds at a time,” he explained to the others, as they caught up with him. “Everyone wants to fire his carbine, but no one buys ammo—and 5.56 is kind of expensive these days because all the nut jobs are convinced it’s going to be banned.”

The clerk set the heavy boxes carefully on the glass counter, drew a pistol-shaped barcode scanner from its plastic holster, and zapped each of the three boxes in turn: three pulls of the trigger, three direct hits. He quoted an impressively high figure. Richard already had his wallet out. When he opened it up, the niece or second cousin (he still hadn’t contrived a way to get her name) glanced into the valley of nice leather so indiscreetly that he was tempted to just hand the whole thing over to her. She was astonished to see the face of Queen Elizabeth and colorful pictures of hockey players and doughboys. He hadn’t thought to change money, and now he was in a place with no bureaux de change. He paid with a debit card.

“When did you move to Canada?” asked the young woman.

“1972,” he answered.

The old man gave him a look over his bifocals: Draft dodger!

None of the younger people made the connection. He wondered if they even knew that the country had once had a draft, and that people had been at pains to avoid it.

“Just need your PIN number, Mr. Forrest,” said the clerk.

Richard, like many who’d moved away, pronounced his name forTHRAST, but he answered to FORthrast, which was how everyone here said it. He even recognized “Forrest,” which was what the name would probably erode into pretty soon, if the family didn’t up stakes.

By the time they’d made it to the exit, he’d decided that the Walmart was not so much a starship as an interdimensional portal to every other Walmart in the known universe, and that when they walked out the doors past the greeters they might find themselves in Pocatello or Wichita. But as it turned out they were still in Iowa.

“Why’d you move up there?” asked the girl on the drive back. She was profoundly affected by the nasal, singsongy speech pathology that was so common to girls in her cohort and that Zula had made great strides toward getting rid of.

Richard checked the rearview mirror and saw Peter and Zula exchanging a significant glance.

Girl, haven’t you heard of Wikipedia!?

Instead of telling her why he’d moved, he told her what he’d done when he’d gotten there: “I worked as a guide.”

“Like a hunting guide?”

“No, I’m not a hunter.”

“I was wondering why you knew so much about guns.”

“Because I grew up here,” he explained. “And in Canada some of us carried them on the job. It’s harder to own guns there. You have to take special courses, belong to a gun club and so on.”

“Why’d you carry them on the job…”

“…if I wasn’t a hunting guide?”

“Yeah.”

“Grizzlies.”

“Oh, like in case one of them attacked you?”

“That’s correct.”

“You could, like, shoot in the air and scare it off?”

“In the heart and kill it.”

“Did that ever happen?”

Richard checked the rearview again, hoping to make eye contact and send the telepathic message For God’s sake, will someone back there rescue me from this conversation, but Peter and Zula merely looked interested.

“Yes,” Richard said. He was tempted to lie. But this was the re-u. It would out.

“The bear rug in Grandpa’s den,” Zula explained from the back.

“That’s real!?” asked the girl.

“Of course it’s real, Vicki! What did you think it was, polyester!?”

“You killed that bear, Uncle Dick?”

“I fired two slugs into its body while my client was rediscovering long-forgotten tree-climbing skills. Not long after, its heart stopped beating.”

“And then you skinned it?”

No, it politely climbed out of its own pelt before giving up the ghost. Richard was finding it more and more difficult to resist firing off snappy rejoinders. Only the Furious Muses were holding him at bay.

“I carried it on my back across the United States border,” Richard heard himself explaining. “With the skull and everything, it weighed about half as much as I did at that age.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because it was illegal. Not shooting the bear. That’s okay, if it’s self-defense. But then you’re supposed to turn it over to the authorities.”

“Why?”

“Because,” said Peter, figuring it out, “otherwise, people would just go out and kill bears. They would claim it was self-defense and keep the trophies.”

“How far was it?”

“Two hundred miles.”

“You must have wanted it pretty bad!”

“I didn’t.”

“Why did you carry it on your back two hundred miles then?”

“Because the client wanted it.”

“I’m confused!” Vicki complained, as if her emotional state were really the important thing here. “You did that just for the client?”

“It’s the opposite of that!” Zula said, slightly indignant.

Peter said, “Wait a sec. The bear attacked you and your client—”

“I’ll tell the story!” Richard announced, holding up a hand. He didn’t want it told, wished it hadn’t come up in the first place. But it was the only story he had about himself that he could tell in decent company, and if it were going to be told, he wanted to do it himself. “The client’s dog started it. Hassled the poor bear. The bear picked the dog up in its jaws and started shaking it like a squirrel.”

“Was it like a poodle or something?” Vicki asked.

“It was an eighty-pound golden lab,” Richard said.

“Ohmygod!”

“That is kind of what I was saying. When the lab stopped struggling, which didn’t take long, the bear tossed it into the bushes and advanced on us like If you had anything whatsoever to do with that fucking dog, you’re dead. That’s when the shooting happened.”

Peter snorted at this choice of phrase.

“There was no bravery involved, if that’s what you’re thinking. There was only one climbable tree. The client was not setting any speed records getting up it. We couldn’t both climb it at the same time, is all I’m saying. And not even a horse can outrun a grizzly. I was just standing there with a slug gun. What was I going to do?”

Silence, as they considered the rhetorical question.

“Slug gun?” Zula asked, dropping into engineer mode.

“A twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs rather than shells. Optimized for this one purpose. Two barrels, side by side: an Elmer Fudd special. So I went down on one knee because I was shaking so badly and emptied it into the bear. The bear ran away and died a few hundred yards from our camp. We went and found the carcass. The client wanted the skin. I told him it was illegal. He offered me money to do this thing for him. So I started skinning it. This took days. A horrible job. Butchering even domesticated, farm-bred animals is pretty unspeakable, which is why we bring Mexicans to Iowa to do it,” said Richard, warming to the task, “but a bear is worse. It’s gamy.” This word had no punch at all. It was one of those words that everyone had heard but no one knew really what it meant. “It has almost a fishy smell to it. It’s like you’re being just steeped in the thing’s hormones.”

Vicki shuddered. He considered getting into detail about the physical dimensions of a grizzly bear’s testicles, but, judging from her body language, he’d already driven the point home firmly enough.

Actually, he had been tempted to rush the job of skinning the grizzly. But the problem was that he started with the claws. And he remembered from his boyhood reading about the Lakota braves taking the claws off after they’d killed the bear as a rite of manhood, making them into a necklace. Boys of his vintage took that stuff seriously; he knew as much about Crazy Horse as a man of an earlier generation might have known about Caesar. So he felt compelled to go about the job in a sacred way. Having begun it thus, he could not find the right moment to switch into rough butchery mode.

“The more time I spent—the deeper I got into it—the more I didn’t want the client to have it,” Richard continued. “He wanted it so badly. I was down there covered in gore, fighting off yellow jackets, and he’d mosey down from camp and size it up, you know. I could see him visualizing it on the floor of his office or his den. Broker from New York. I just knew he would tell lies about it—use it to impress people. Claim he’d bagged it himself while his chickenshit guide climbed a tree. We got to arguing. Stupid of me because I was already deep into the illegality of it. I’d placed myself in a totally vulnerable position. He threatened to turn me in, get me fired, if I didn’t give him the trophy. So I said fuck you and just walked away with it. Left him with the keys to the truck so he could get home.”

Silence.

“I didn’t even really want it that badly,” Richard insisted. “I just couldn’t let him take it home and tell lies about it.”

“Did he get you fired?”

“Yes. Got me in trouble too. Got my license revoked.”

“What’d you do after you lost your job?”

Put my newfound skills to work carrying backloads of marijuana across the border.

“This and that.”

“Mmm. Well, I hope it was worth it.”

Oh Christ, yes.

They reached the farm. The driveway was full of SUVs, so Richard, pulling rank as one who had grown up on this property, parked the Grand Marquis on the dead grass of the side yard.

THE VEHICLE RODE so low that getting out of it was like climbing out of one’s own grave. As they did so, Richard caught Peter scanning the place, trying to identify where the fatal clothesline had stood.

Richard thought about becoming Peter’s Virgil, giving the poor kid a break by flatly explaining all the stuff he’d eventually have to piece together on his own, if he and Zula stayed together. He did not actually do it, but the words he’d speak had been loosed in his mind. If there was such a thing as a mind’s eye, then his mind’s mouth had started talking.

He cast his eye over a slight bulge in the ground surrounded by a ring of frostbitten toadstools, like a boil striving to erupt through the lawn from some underlying Grimm brothers stratum. That’s what’s left of the oak tree. The clothesline ran from it to the side of the house—just there, beside the chimney, you can see the bracket. Mom was upstairs dying. The nature of what ailed her created a need for frequent changes of bed linens. I offered to drive into town and buy more sheets at J.C. Penney—this was pre-Walmart. Patricia was affronted. As if this were me accusing her of being a bad daughter. A load of sheets was finished, but the dryer was still busy, so she hung them up on the clothesline. It was one of those days when you could tell that a storm was coming. We were up there sitting around Mom’s bed in midafternoon singing hymns, and we heard the thunder rolling across the prairie like billiard balls. Pat went downstairs to take the sheets off the line before the rain came. We all heard the bolt that killed her. Sounded like ten sticks of dynamite going off right outside the window. It hit the tree and traveled down the clothesline and right down her arm through her heart to the ground. Power went out, Mom woke up, things were confused for a minute or two. Finally Jake happened to look out the window and saw Pat down in the grass, already with a sheet on her. We never told Mom that her daughter was dead. Would have made for some awkward explaining. She lost consciousness later that day and died three days after that. We buried them together.

Just rehearsing it in his mind left Richard shaking his head in amazement. It was hard to believe, even here, where the weather killed people all the time. People couldn’t hear the story told without making some remark or even laughing in spite of themselves. Richard had thought, for a while, of founding an Internet support group for siblings of people killed by lightning. The whole story was like something from a literary novel out of Iowa City, had the family produced a writer, or the tale come to the notice of some wandering Hawkeye bard. But as it was, the story was Zula’s property, and he would give Zula the choice of when and whether and how to tell it.

She, thank God, had been away at Girl Scout camp, and so they’d been able to bring her home and tell her, under controlled conditions, with child psychologists in the room, that she’d been orphaned for the second time at eleven.

A few months later Bob, Patricia’s ex-husband, had popped his head up out of whatever hole he lived in and made a weak bid to interfere with John and Alice’s adoption of Zula. Then, just as suddenly, he had dropped out of the picture.

Zula had passed through teenagerhood in this house, as a ward of John and Alice, and had come out strangely fine. Richard had read in an article somewhere that even kids who came from really fucked-up backgrounds actually turned out pretty good if some older person took them under their wing at just the right point in their early adolescence, and he reckoned that Zula must have squirted through this loophole. In the four years between the adoption and the lightning strike, something had passed from Patricia to Zula, something that had made all the rest of it okay.

Richard had failed to mate and Jake, the kid brother, had become what he’d become: a process that had started not long after he’d looked down out of that window to see his dead sister wound up in a smoldering sheet. These accidents of death and demographics had left Alice not only as the matriarch but as the only adult female Forthrast. She and John had four children, but precisely because they’d done such an excellent job raising them, these had all moved away to do important things in big cities (it being the permanent, ongoing tragedy of Iowa that her well-brought-up young were obliged to flee the state in order to find employment worthy of their qualities). This, combined with her perception of a Richard-Jake axis of irresponsible malehood, had created a semipermanent feeling of male-female grievance, a kind of slow-motion trench warfare. Alice was the field marshal of one side. Her strategy was to work the outer reaches of the family tree. John helped, wittingly or not, with things like the firearms practice, which made coming here less unattractive to distantly related males. But the real work of the re-u, as Richard had only belatedly come to understand, took place in the kitchen and had nothing to do with food preparation.

Which didn’t mean that the men couldn’t get a few things done of their own.

Richard made a detour over to Len’s Subaru and left the boxes of cartridges on the driver’s seat. Then into the farmhouse by its rarely used front door, which led him into the rarely used parlor, crowded today. But more than half of the shooters had gone back to the motel to rest and clean up, so he was able to move around. A cousin offered to take his ski parka and hang it up. Richard politely declined, then patted the breast pocket to verify that the packets were still there, the zipper still secured.

Five young cousins (“cousins” being the generic term for anyone under about forty) were draped over sofas and recliners, prodding their laptops, downloading and swapping pictures. Torrents of glowing, crystalline photos rushed across their screens, making a funny and sad contrast with the dozen or so family photographs, developed and printed through the medieval complexities of chemical photography, laboriously framed, and hung on the walls of the room.

The word “Jake” caught his ear, and he turned to see some older cousins looking at a framed photo of Jake and his brood, about a year out of date. The photo was disorientingly normal-looking, as if Jake could comfortably flout every other convention of modern American life but would never dream of failing to have such a picture taken of him and Elizabeth and the three boys. Shot, perhaps, by some other member of their rustic church who had a knack for such things, and framed in a birchbark contraption that one of the boys had made himself. They looked pretty normal, and signs of the true Jake were only detectable in some of the minutiae such as his Confederate infantryman’s beard.

A woman asked why Jake and his family never came to the re-u.

Richard had learned the hard way that when the topic of Jake came up, he needed to get out in front of it fast and do everything he could to portray his kid brother as a reasonable guy, or else someone else would denounce him as a nut job and it would lead to awkwardness. “Since 9/11, Jake doesn’t believe in flying because you have to show ID,” Richard said. “He thinks it’s unconstitutional.”

“Does he ever drive back here?” asked a male in-law, cautiously interested, verging on amused.

“He doesn’t believe in having a driver’s license either.”

“But he has to drive, right?” asked the woman who’d started it. “Someone told me he was a carpenter.”

“In the part of Idaho where he’s moving around, he can get away without having a driver’s license,” Richard said. “He has an understanding with the sheriff that doesn’t translate so well to other parts of the country.”

He didn’t even bother telling people about Jake’s refusal to put license plates on his truck.

Richard made a quick raid on the outskirts of the kitchen, grabbing a ­couple of cookies and giving the women something to talk about. Then he headed for what had, in his boyhood, been the back porch and what had latterly been converted into a ground-level nursing-facility-slash-man-cave for his father.

Dad, legal name Nicholas Forthrast, known to the re-u as Grandpa, currently aged ninety-nine, was enthroned on a recliner in a room whose most conspicuous feature, to most of those who walked into it, was the bearskin rug. Richard could practically smell the aforementioned hormones boiling off it. During the porch conversion project of 2002, that rug was the first thing that Alice had moved out here. As symbol of ancient Forthrast manly virtues, it competed with Dad’s Congressional Medal of Honor, framed and hung on the wall not far from the recliner. An oxygen tank of impressive size stood in the corner, competing for floor space and electrical outlets with a dialysis machine. A very old console television, mounted in a walnut cabinet, served as inert plinth for a fifty-four-inch plasma display now showing a professional football game with the sound turned down. Flying copilot in a somewhat less prepossessing recliner to Dad’s right hand was John, six years older than Richard, and the family’s acting patriarch. Some cousins were sitting cross-legged on the bearskin or the underlying carpet, rapt on the game. One of the Cardenas sisters (he thought it was most likely Rosie) was bustling around behind the recliners, jotting down numbers on a clipboard, folding linens—showing clear signs, in other words, that she was about to hand Dad off to John so that she could head off to her own family’s Thanksgiving observances.

Since Dad had acquired all these accessory parts—the external kidney, the external lung—he had become a rather complicated piece of machinery, like a high-end TIG welder, that could not be operated by just anyone. John, who had come back from Vietnam with bilateral below-the-knee amputations, was more than comfortable with prosthetic technology; he had read all the manuals and understood the functions of most of the knobs, so he could take over responsibility for the machines at times like this. If Richard were left alone with him in the house, however, Dad would be dead in twelve hours. Richard had to contribute in ways less easily described. He loitered with hands in pockets, pretending to watch the football game, until Rosie made a positive move for the exit. He followed her out the door a moment later and caught up with her on the wheelchair ramp that led down to Dad’s Dr. Seuss–like wheelchair-lift-equipped van. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he announced, and she grinned sweetly at his euphemistic ways. “Turkey this afternoon?” he asked.

“Turkey and football,” she said. “Our kind of football.”

“How’s Carmelita?”

“Well, thank you. Her son—tall! Basketball player.”

“No football?”

She smiled. “A little. He head the ball very well.” She pulled her key chain out of her purse, and Richard got a quick whiff of all the fragrant things she kept in there. He lunged out ahead of her and opened the driver’s-side door of her Subaru. “Thank you.”

“Thank you very much, Rosie,” he said, unzipping the breast pocket of his parka. As she was settling into the driver’s seat, smoothing her skirt under her bottom, he pulled out a manila envelope containing a half-inch-thick stack of hundred-dollar bills and slipped it into the little compartment in the side of the door. Then he closed the door gently. She rolled the window down. “That is the same as last year, plus ten percent,” he explained. “Is it still suitable? Still good for you and Carmelita?”

“It is fine, thank you very much!” she said.

“Thank you,” he insisted. “You are a blessing to our family, and we value you very much. You have my number if there is ever a problem.”

“Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Same to you and all the Cardenases.”

She waved, put the Subaru in gear, and pulled away.

Richard patted his jacket again, checking the other packet. He would find some way to slip it to John later; it would pay for a lot of oxygen.

The handoff had undoubtedly been awkward and weird. Much less stressful, for a man of his temperament, was to FedEx the C-notes, as was his practice in years when he did not attend the re-u. But, as he ascended the wheelchair ramp, the Furious Muses remained silent and so he reckoned he had not handled it too badly.

The gravamen of the F.M.s’ complaints was Richard’s failure to be “emotionally available.” The phrase had left him dumb with disbelief the first time a woman had gone upside his head with it. He guessed that many of his emotions were not really fit to be shared with anyone, much less someone, such as a girlfriend, he was supposed to be nice to, and associated “emotional availability” with unguarded moments such as the one that had led to his getting the nickname Dodge. But several of his ex-girlfriends-to-be had insisted that they wanted it, and, in a Greek mythic sort of revenge, they had continued to be emotionally available to him long past their dates of expiration. And yet he reckoned he’d actually been emotionally available to Rosie Cardenas. Maybe even to the point of making her uncomfortable.

Back to the ex-porch. The place had become more crowded as the football game approached the end of the fourth quarter, and the sound had been turned back on. Richard sidled through the crowd and found a place where he could lean against the wall, which was more difficult than it used to be, since people kept hanging new stuff on it. John, apparently, had been spending enough time here that he’d taken the liberty of decorating it with some of his own Vietnam memorabilia.

In the middle of a big empty space, though, a World War II vintage M1 Garand rifle was mounted on a display bracket with a brass plaque. John knew better than to crowd this shrine with his ’Nam souvenirs.

As a boy, Richard had assumed that this rifle was The One, but later Bud Torgeson—the longest lived of Dad’s comrades-in-arms—had chuckled at the very idea. Bud had patiently explained that holding an empty M1 rifle by its barrel and swinging it like a club hard enough to stave in excellent Krupp steel helmets was way out of spec for that particular equipment and generally led to its being rendered unusable. After The One had been duly inspected by whoever was in charge of handing out medals, it had been scrapped. This M1 on the wall, along with the plaque, had been purchased surplus, cleaned up, and given to Dad by the enlisted men who had served under him and, according to the story, been saved from death or a long stint in a prison camp by said crazy spasm of Berserker-style head bashing.

Without being unduly bitter about it, Richard had always wondered why the offspring of Nicholas who had settled down and lived exemplary, stable, churchgoing lives in the upper Midwest were viewed as carrying on the man’s heritage and living according to his example, given that the single most celebrated episode in the man’s life had been beating a bunch of storm troopers to death with an improvised bludgeon.

IN THE AFTERMATH of Patricia’s death, when long-absent Bob, or a lawyer representing him, had sent them a letter containing the startling news that he’d be seeking custody of Zula, the family had held a little conference. Richard had attended via speakerphone from British Columbia. Speakerphones normally sucked, but the technology had served him well in that case, since it had enabled him to roll his eyes, bury his head in his hands, and, when it got really bad, hit the Mute button and stomp around the room cussing. John and Alice and their lawyers were being perfectly rational, of course, but to him they’d seemed like a town council of hobbits drafting a resolution to demand an apology from the Ringwraiths. Richard, at the time, was in regular contact with motorcycling enthusiasts who had a branch in Southern California, euphemistically describable as “active.” Through their good offices, he got a line on some private investigators, unconventional in grooming and in methods. These then made it their business to learn more about Bob’s private life. When the Bob dossier had reached a pleasing thickness—heavy enough to make a flinch-inducing thump when casually tossed onto a table—Richard had climbed into his crappy old diesel Land Cruiser and driven straight through from Elphinstone to L.A. There he had checked in to a hotel, taken a shower, and put on exactly the sort of bulky leather jacket he would use to conceal a shoulder holster, had he owned one. He had dropped off the Land Cruiser for an oil change and taken a taxi to a specialty auto rental place that had been recommended to him by an actor Richard had met in the tavern at the Schloss when the actor and his entourage had been up in Elphinstone for a movie shoot. There he had rented a Humvee. Not a Hummer, that being the pissant pseudo-Humvee then (it was 1995) available in the civilian market, but an actual military-grade Humvee, seven feet wide and, once you figured in the weight of the subwoofers, three tons heavy. Blasting Rage Against the Machine’s “Know Your Enemy” from its formidable aftermarket stereo, he had showed up half an hour late for the showdown at the Denny’s and parked in the handicapped space. He had known, from the moment he’d spotted Bob’s slumped profile through the window of the restaurant, that he had already won.

It was a disgrace. A bundle of the cheapest tricks imaginable. That, in and of itself, would have convinced a better man that Richard was only bluffing.

Richard’s future ex-girlfriend of the moment had spent several years with her nose pressed up against the glass of Hinduism, and he had been subjected to much talk of avatars, maia, and so on. By showing up in this avatar, Richard was manifesting himself in exactly the way that Bob had always imagined him. And to the extent that Bob was now a declared enemy of the family, Richard was in that way becoming Bob’s worst nightmare made flesh.

The gambit had worked. But Richard had not been comfortable in that avatar, to the point of wondering where the hell it had come from. What had come over him? Only later, after talking to Bud and meditating on the story behind the Medal of Honor, had he understood that he had been manifesting, not as an avatar of Richard, but as an avatar of his whole family.

THE FOOTBALL GAME did not exactly end but, like most of them, reached a point where it was simply unwatchable. Almost everyone left. Richard pulled up a chair and sat at his father’s left hand. It was just the three of them then: John, Nicholas, and Richard. Patricia was fourteen years dead. Jacob had been born much later than the others, when Mom had been at damn-near-menopausal age, and everyone understood that he had been an unplanned pregnancy. He was neither dead nor here, but in Idaho, a state often confused, by bicoastal folks, with Iowa, but that in fact was the anti-Iowa in many respects, a place that Iowans would only go to in order to make some kind of statement.

Richard had practically no idea as to his father’s true state of consciousness. Since the last storm of ministrokes, he’d had little to say. But his eyes tracked things pretty carefully. His facial expressions and his gestures suggested that he knew what was going on. He was pretty happy right now sitting there between his two oldest sons. Richard settled back in his chair, crossed his ankles atop the bearskin, and settled in for a long sit. Someone brought him a beer. Dad smiled. Life was good.

RICHARD AWOKE AND made efforts to silence his phone, only to find that the local climate had sucked all moisture out of his fingertips, which could not obtain virtual purchase on the tiny affordances of its user interface. Through some combination of licking and breathing on his fingers he was able to get them damp enough that the machine now grudgingly recognized them as human flesh, responded to his commands, and became silent.

He groped for his reading glasses and tapped the Calendar button. A green slab rushed out of the darkness and made his white chest hairs glow in viridian thickets. His eyes came into focus and read its label: ROAD TRIP: SKELETOR.

Zooming out to a longer time scale, he saw good color omens: no red at all for the next fortnight, and four solid days of green—the color of business—coming up.

Blue was the color of family and other personal activities. Yesterday, for example, had been a sixteen-hour blue tombstone labeled RE-U.

Following ROAD TRIP: SKELETOR were other enormous green slabs labeled → IOM, which, as Richard knew only too well, was the airport code for the Isle of Man. Then PAY FEALTY D2 and finally → SEA.

Red was for things like medical appointments and doing his taxes. A week that was even lightly spattered with Red was pretty much a write-off when it came to getting anything accomplished. Blue wasn’t as bad as Red, but it did tend to infiltrate neighboring regions of Green and mulch them. Rare indeed were the moments when Blue time could be converted to Green; for example, yesterday when he had realized that Zula ought to be working for Corporation 9592.

Waking up in Green mode, then spending the whole day there, was really the only way to get anything done. So color physics now dictated that he must steal out of the hotel without having any interactions whatsoever with the re-u crowd that would already have filled the Ramada’s breakfast room and spilled over into the lobby.

He checked out over the phone and stood in perfect silence, eyeball to peephole, until he could no longer see miniature Forthrasts in bathing suits, going to or from the pool. He then stole out of the motel through a side exit and gunned the Grand Marquis to a gas station half a mile down the road, just to get decisively clear. He pumped a bathtub-load of gasoline into the thing and bought a cup of coffee and a banana for the road. He fired up the car’s onboard GPS device and began coping with its user interface.

The Possum Walk Trailer Court was no longer listed in its “Points of Interest” database, so he had to settle for browsing the greater Nodaway region of northwestern Missouri. Expecting to see nothing more than a post office and maybe a county park, he was dismayed and fascinated when it hurled up a low-res icon of a pointy-eared humanoid with long blue braids, labeled KSHETRIAE KINGDOM. Further browsing informed him that it was part of a larger K’Shetriae-themed complex that included an amusement park and a retail outlet. He could not bring himself to choose this as his destination and coyly allowed the machine to vector him to the county seat.

On his way out of town, deeply preoccupied with the fact that the ersatz quasi-Elven race known as the K’Shetriae were now embedded (though sans the controversial apostrophe) in the memory chips of real-world GPS systems, he almost plowed into the back of what passed for a traffic jam around here: Black Friday shoppers trying to force-feed their vehicles into the parking lot, and their bodies through the doorway, of Walmart. In olden days he would have pumped the brakes judiciously, bringing the enormous vehicle to a stop, but nowadays he knew that this could be outsourced to antilock brakes, so he just crushed the pedal to the floor and waited. The pedal thrummed beneath his foot. The white plastic teat of his go cup discharged a globule of coffee and his banana boomeranged into the glove compartment lid. He watched dispassionately as the tailgate of a pickup truck grew huge in his windshield, not unlike a calendar item zooming onto the screen of his phone. No collision occurred. The driver gave him the finger. A light changed and traffic seeped forward. Soon enough, he was on the interstate, southbound. That rapidly grew boring, so he switched to two-lane roads, to the mounting chagrin of his GPS.

In spite of his cloak-and-dagger exit from the Ramada, his brain was jammed with family stuff. He had woken up in the wrong color! He had to get all traces of Blue out of his mind and achieve full Greenness before he got anywhere near the Iowa/Missouri line.

For this was not just a friendly meeting. Nuances in today’s conversation, things left unsaid, or said in the wrong way, could have expensive consequences. The day after Thanksgiving might have been time off for most of the country, but not for Skeletor. The parochial turkey-eating customs of the United States were of no interest at all to the hyperinternational clientele that he and Richard shared. And even their American players, though they might have taken a few hours off yesterday for family observances, would be devoting most of today to questing for virtual gold and vicarious glory in the world of T’Rain, making this one of the heaviest days of the year for Corporation 9592’s servers and the system administrators who kept them running.

But his mind kept drifting into the Blue. It was like a puzzle in a video game: he had to figure out what was really bothering him. It wasn’t the Furious Muses; after a brief howl of outrage when he’d almost rear-ended the pickup truck, they had been silent for hours.

Somewhere around Red Oak, he finally put it together: it was yesterday’s short but uneasy exchange with the Wikipedia-reading in-law.

The actual content of the Wikipedia entry was not at issue. What bothered Richard was the mere fact that such a thing existed and that he had been abruptly reminded of it at a moment when he just wanted to be Dodge, hanging around the old place, doing normal Iowa stuff.

The entry in question started with a summary of what Richard was now, and it filled in biographical details only when they seemed relevant to whatever mysterious stalker/scholars compiled such documents. He was not important enough, and the entry was insufficiently long, to include a biographical section laying out the whole story in narrative form. Which seemed all wrong to him, since the only way to make sense of what he was now was to tell the story of how he’d gotten that way.

WHEN HE HAD lugged that bearskin down the Selkirk Crest, he had done so without a plan—without even a motive—and certainly without a map. The ridges were steep and rocky. The sun shone on them like a torch. No water sprang from them. Attempts to descend into the cool-looking valleys were baffled by the density of the vegetation, called “dog fur” by the few people who actually lived in those parts, apparently because it made the hiker know what it must be like to be a flea navigating a dog’s hindquarters. Half out of his mind with hunger and exhaustion, he traversed a long talus slope that ramped down into the remnants of a dead silver mine, then descended through a belt of dog fur and, surprisingly, into a grove of ancient cedar trees. Decades later he would learn the term “microclimate.” At the time, he just felt that he had stepped through a wormhole to a damp and chilly rain forest perched above the Pacific. The canopy was so dense as to choke off the energy supply to everything beneath it, so the place was mercifully free of undergrowth, and a brook ran through the middle of it from a spring farther up the slope. Maybe it was just heatstroke and low blood sugar, but he felt something holy. He flung off his pack and sat down in the creek and let its cold water explore his clothes, lay down on his back, gasped at the cold, rolled over on his stomach, drank.

His fantasy that he was the first human ever to set foot in the place was shattered moments later when he noticed, just a few yards from the stream, the foundations of an old one-room cabin. It was currently occupied by the wreckage of its own roof. Rot and carpenter ants had reduced it to a splintery mulch that he raked out with his bare hands, until a cold slicing sensation told him he had just cut his finger on something unnaturally sharp. Investigating more carefully after he’d bandaged the cut, he found a crate of whiskey that had been crushed into shards by the collapse of the roof. He had inadvertently followed an old whiskey-smuggling trail from Prohibition days. This cabin had been used as a cache by bootleggers.

What worked for whiskey ought to work as well for marijuana, and he made a business out of that for a few years, sometimes traveling solo, other times as part of a pedestrian caravan. He showed them the bootleggers’ shack, and they used it as their base camp in the United States. Half a mile down the slope was a logging road where they would rendezvous with their U.S. distributors, a sodality of motorcycling enthusiasts.

In 1977, President Carter granted amnesty to draft dodgers, so Richard, finally free to do business in his own country under his own name, crossed the border in an actual vehicle for a change and drove down the valley to Bourne’s Ford, the county seat, where the records were kept. He found the owner of the property where the cabin stood, and he bought it for cash.

Though this was exactly the kind of subtlety that the Wikipedian herd mind could be relied on to trample, there was much about his later life that could be traced back to the obsession with land that had come over him when he first walked into that cool grove. In the fullness of time, he came to understand that it probably had something to do with the farm in Iowa and his knowing, even at that age, that whatever Dad’s last will and testament said—however things were handled after his father’s eventual demise—he wasn’t going to be part of it. If he wanted to own land, he’d have to go out and find some. And it might be better and more beautiful land than the farm in Iowa could ever be, but it would never be the same; it would always be a place of exile.

He fancied, for a few years in the late 1970s, that he would one day build a cabin on the bank of Prohibition Crick, as he had dubbed the nameless stream that flowed through his property, and live there. But it was much more comfortable north of the border, lounging on the shores of Kootenay Lake with pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, and he lost his gumption for homesteading in the wilderness.

THE MOUNTAINS IN that corner of B.C. were riddled with abandoned mines. Richard and one of his motorcycle gang buddies, a Canadian named Chet, became fascinated by one such property, where, a hundred years ago, a successful miner from Germany had constructed an Alpine-style Schloss whose foundations and stone walls were still in decent shape. The local economy was in the toilet because of the closure of a big paper mill, and everything was cheap. Chet and Richard bought the Schloss. From the moment that they conceived this idea, Richard came to think of the Idaho property as a mere rough draft, a before-thought.

As the Schloss became a more settled and comfortable place to live, and developed into a legitimate resort run by people who actually knew what they were doing, Richard found himself with a lot of free time, which he filled largely by playing video games. In particular, he became seriously addicted to a game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and its various sequels, which eventually culminated in the vastly successful massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft. The years 1996 through 2006 were his Lost Decade, or at least that’s what he’d have considered it if it hadn’t led to T’Rain. His weight crept up to near-fatal levels until he figured out the trick of playing the game while trudging along—very slowly, at first—on a treadmill.

Like many serious players, Richard fell into the habit of purchasing virtual gold pieces and other desirables from Chinese gold farmers: young men who made a living playing the game and accumulating virtual weapons, armor, potions, and whatnot that could be sold to American and European buyers who had more money than time.

He thought it quite strange and improbable that such an industry could exist until he read an article in which it was estimated that the size of the worldwide virtual gold economy was somewhere between $1 and $10 billion per year.

Anyway, having reached a place where he had no more virtual worlds to conquer—his characters had achieved near-godlike status and could do anything they wanted—he began to think about this as a serious business proposition.

Here was where the Wikipedia entry got it all wrong by laying too much emphasis on money laundering. The Schloss was turning a profit and appreciating in value and giving him free lodging and food, so it had been years, by this point, since Richard had given much thought to all his unspent hundred-dollar bills. In his younger days, it was true, he had spent enough time worrying about money laundering that he had developed a nose for subterranean money flows, like one of those dowsers who could supposedly find water by walking around with a forked stick. So, yes, the quasi-underground virtual gold economy was inherently fascinating to him. But T’Rain was certainly not about him laundering a few tubs of C-notes.

Video games were a more addictive drug than any chemical, as he had just proven by spending ten years playing them. Now he had come to discover that they were also a sort of currency exchange scheme. These two things—drugs and money—he knew about. The third leg of the tripod, then, was his exilic passion for real estate. In the real world, this would always be limited by the physical constraints of the planet he was stuck on. But in the virtual world, it need be limited only by Moore’s law, which kept hurtling into the exponential distance.

Once he had put those three elements together, it had happened fast. Canvassing chat rooms to communicate with English-speaking gold farmers, he confirmed his suspicion that many of them were having trouble expanding their businesses because of a chronic inability to transfer funds back to China. He formed a partnership with “Nolan” Xu, the pathologically entrepreneurial chief of a Chinese game company, who was obsessed with finding a way to put Chinese engineering talent to work creating a new massively multiplayer online game. During an epic series of IM exchanges and Skype calls, Richard managed to convince Nolan that you had to build the plumbing first: you had to get the whole money flow system worked out. Once that was done, everything else would follow. And so, just as a way of learning the ropes, they worked out a system whereby Richard acted as the North American end of a money pipeline, accepting PayPal payments from American and Canadian WoW addicts, then FedExing hundred-dollar bills to Taiwan, where the money was laundered through the underground Filipino overseas worker remittance network and eventually transferred from Taiwanese bank accounts to Nolan’s account in China, whence he was able to pay the actual gold farmers in local specie.

This Byzantine arrangement, whose complexities, colorful failure modes, multinational illegalities, and cast of shady characters still, all these years later, caused Richard to wake up bathed in sweat every so often, was only a bridge to a more sane and stable venture: Richard and Nolan cofounded a company whose purpose was to construct the new, wholly original game of Nolan’s dreams on top of the system of financial plumbing that Richard now felt he was qualified to build.

When their discussion of the company’s name consumed more than the fifteen minutes Richard felt it deserved, he pulled some Dungeons & Dragons dice out of his pocket and rolled them to generate the random number 9592.

The game that Corporation 9592 built had any number of novel features, but in Richard’s mind their most fundamental innovation was that they built it from the ground up to be gold-farmer-friendly. Gold farming had been an unwelcome by-product, an epiphenomenon, of earlier games, which had done all that they could to suppress the practice, even to the point of getting the Chinese government to ban such transactions in 2009. But in Richard’s opinion, any industry that was clocking between $1 and $10 billion a year deserved more respect. Allowing that tail to wag that dog could only lead to increased revenue and customer loyalty. It was only necessary to structure the game’s virtual economy around the certainty that gold farmers would colonize it in vast numbers.

He sensed at a primal, almost olfactory level that the game could only be as successful as the stability of its virtual currency. This led him to investigate the history of money and particularly of gold. Gold, he learned, was considered to be a reliable store of value because extracting it from the ground required a certain amount of effort that tended to remain stable over time. When new, easy-to-mine gold deposits were found, or new mining technologies developed, the value of gold tended to fall.

It didn’t take a huge amount of acumen, then, to understand that the value of virtual gold in the game world could be made stable in a directly analogous way: namely, by forcing players to expend a certain amount of time and effort to extract a certain amount of virtual gold (or silver, or diamonds, or various other mythical and magical elements and gems that the Creatives would later add to the game world).

Other online games did this by fiat. Gold pieces were reposited in dungeons guarded by monsters. The more powerful the monster, the more gold it was squatting on. To get the gold, you had to kill the monster, and building a character powerful enough to do so required a certain amount of time and effort. The system functioned okay, but in the end, the decision as to where the gold was located and how much effort was needed to win it was just an arbitrary choice made by a geek in a cubicle somewhere.

Richard’s crazy idea was to eliminate the possibility of such fudging by having the availability of virtual gold stem from the same basic geological processes as in the real world. The same, that is, except that they’d be numerically simulated instead of actually happening. Idly messing around on the Internet, he discovered the mind-alteringly idiosyncratic website of P. T. “Pluto” Olszewski, the then twenty-two-year-old son of an oil company geologist in Alaska, homeschooled above the Arctic Circle by his dad and his math major mom. Pluto, a classic Asperger’s syndrome “little professor” personality now trapped in the rather hirsute body of a full-grown Alaskan bushwhacker, had spent a lot of time playing video games and seething with rage at their cavalier treatment of geology and geography. Their landforms just didn’t look like real landforms, at least not to Pluto, who could sit and stare at a hill for an hour. And so, basically as a protest action—almost like an act of civil disobedience against the entire video-game industry—Pluto had put up a website showing off the results of some algorithms that he had coded up for generating imaginary landforms that were up to his standards of realism. Which meant that every nuance of the terrain encoded a 4.5-billion-year simulated history of plate tectonics, atmospheric chemistry, biogenic effects, and erosion. Of course, the average person could not tell them apart from the arbitrary landforms used as backdrops in video games, so in that sense Pluto’s efforts were all perfectly useless. But Richard didn’t care about the skin of Pluto’s world. He cared about its bones and its guts. What mattered very much to Richard was what an imaginary dwarf would encounter once he hefted a virtual pick and began to delve into the side of a mountain. In a conventional video game, the answer was literally nothing. The mountain was just a surface, thinner than papier-mâché, with no interior. But in Pluto’s world, the first bite of the shovel would reveal underlying soil, and the composition of that soil would reflect its provenance in the seasonal growth and decay of vegetation and the saecular erosion of whatever was uphill of it, and once the dwarf dug through the soil he would find bedrock, and the bedrock would be of a particular mineral composition, it would be sedimentary or igneous or metamorphic, and if the dwarf were lucky it might contain usable quantities of gold or silver or iron ore.

Reader, they bought his IP. Pluto moved down to Seattle, where he found lodging in a special living facility for people with autism spectrum disorders. He set to work creating a whole planet. TERRAIN, the gigantic mess of computer code that he had single-handedly smashed out in his parents’ cabin in the Brooks Range, gave its name to T’Rain, the imaginary world where Corporation 9592 set its new game. And in time T’Rain became the name of the game as well.

NEAR RED OAK the highway ran past a shopping center anchored by a Hy-Vee, which was a local grocery store chain. Like a lot of the bigger Hy-Vees, this one had a captive diner just off the main entrance, where local gaffers would go in the mornings to enjoy the $1.99 breakfast special. Richard, seeing himself, for at least the next half hour, as a sort of aspirant gaffer, parked the Grand Marquis in one of the many available spaces and went inside.

He was expecting bright simple colors, which would have been true of the Hy-Vee diners of his youth. But this one had post-Starbucks decor, meaning no primary colors, everything earthtone, restful, minutely textured. Big steaming pickups trundled by the window, enhanced, like Lego toys, with bolt-on equipment. Pallets of giant salt bags were stacked in front of the windows like makeshift fortifications. At the tables: a solitary general contractor rolling messages on his phone. Truckers, great of beard, wide of suspender, and huge of belly, looking around and BSing. Uniformed grocery store employees taking coffee breaks with spouses. Small-town girls with raccoon eye makeup, not understanding that it simply didn’t work on pale blondes. Hunched and vaguely furtive Mexicans. Gaffers showing the inordinate good cheer of those who, ten years ago, had accepted the fact that they could die any day now. A few younger clients, and some gentlemen in bib overalls, fixated on laptops. Richard made himself comfortable in a booth, ordered two eggs over easy with bacon and whole wheat toast, and pulled his own laptop out of his bag.

The opening screen of T’Rain was a frank rip-off of what you saw when you booted up Google Earth. Richard felt no guilt about this, since he had heard that Google Earth, in turn, was based on an idea from some old science-fiction novel. The planet T’Rain hung in space before a backdrop of stars. The stars’ positions were randomly generated, a fact that drove Pluto crazy. Anyway, the planet then began to rotate and draw closer as Richard’s POV plunged down through the atmosphere, which sported realistic cloud formations. The shapes of continents and islands began to take on three-dimensionality. Dustings of snow appeared at higher elevations. Waves appeared on the surfaces of bodies of water, rivers were seen to move. Roads, citadels, and palaces became visible. Some of these had been presupplied at T’Rain’s inception, and therein lay a great number of tales. Others had been constructed by player-characters during the Prelude, a period of speeded-up time that had occupied the first calendar year of T’Rain’s existence, and still others were being constructed now, though much more slowly since the game world had slowed down into Real Time Lock. At the moment, Richard’s main character was twiddling his thumbs in a half-completed fortress in a system of fortifications that, in this part of T’Rain, was roughly analogous to the Great Wall of China, in the sense that everything north of it was overrun by high-spirited horse archers.

Richard hadn’t logged on since late Wednesday evening. During the intervening thirty-six hours, of course, an equal amount of time had gone by in the virtual world of T’Rain, which meant that Richard’s character had to have been doing something during that day and a half—something quiet, innocuous, and inconsequential, such as sleeping. And indeed, according to the minilog that was now superimposed on Richard’s view of the world, the character, whose name was Fudd, had slept for eight hours, spent seventeen hours awake, slept for another eight, and rolled out of bed three hours ago. During Fudd’s waking hours he had, without any intervention from Richard, consumed a total of four meals, which accounted for two hours, and had devoted the remainder of his time to “meditation” and “training,” which had had the effect of making Fudd slightly more magically powerful and slightly better at kicking ass (not that Fudd needed a lot of improvement in either department). Every race and class of character in T’Rain had such automatic behaviors. Some, such as sleeping and eating, were shared by all. Others were specific to certain character types. Since Fudd was a sort of warrior magician, his “bothaviors” were meditation and training. If he’d been a miner, his bothavior would have been digging up gold, and whenever Richard logged on to that character he would have observed a slightly larger amount of gold dust in its purse.

Of course, being a warrior mage had way more entertainment value than being a miner. Players selected their character types accordingly. Still, the entire virtual economy would collapse unless miners were digging up the gold and other minerals that Pluto’s algorithms had salted around the world, and so miner characters had to exist in very large numbers to make the whole thing work. Here was how Corporation 9592 had squared this with making a game that was actually fun to play:

• Warrior mages and other interesting characters were expensive to maintain. Corporation 9592 charged the owners of such characters more money. Miners, hunter-gatherers, farmers, horse archers, and the like cost virtually nothing; teenagers in China could easily afford to maintain scores or hundreds of such characters.

• Miners, farmers, and the like didn’t require a lot of intervention by their owners. A miner character would reliably generate gold with no human intervention at all, provided that its player had the good sense to plonk it down in a part of the world that had actual gold mines and to protect it from raids by bandits, invaders, and so forth.

• If you really did feel like playing the miner, as opposed to just letting it act out its natural-born bothaviors for the entire duration of its life span, there was usually stuff you could do. There were rich veins of ore scattered around the world that, once discovered, could be mined far more productively than the run-of-the-mill deposits where the vast majority of miner characters toiled. These veins tended to be in rough border regions that could not be reached and explored without having a lot of fun adventures along the way.

• The social structure was feudal. Any character could have between zero and twelve vassals, and either zero or one lord. A character with no lord and no vassals was called a ronin, but, except among rank newcomers, there were few of these; more typical was to set up a moderately sized network of vassals who spent their lives doing things like mining and farming. A character who had some vassals but no lord was called a Liege Lord and, obviously enough, sat at the top of a hierarchy; most Liege Lords were small-timers running one-or two-layered networks of miners or farmers, but some ran deeper trees comprising thousands of vassals distributed among many layers of the hierarchy, and here was where the intragame politicking really became a significant part of the game, for people who cared and could afford to spend their time that way.

By making such provisions and tweaking them over the first couple of years of T’Rain’s existence, Richard and Nolan had managed to pull off the not-so-easy feat of making a massively multiplayer game that was as accessible to the all-important Chinese teenager market as it was to the podgy middle-aged Westerners who were dependent upon those Chinese teenagers for virtual gold. From one point of view, the Westerners got to have more fun, since they could purchase gold pieces and use that virtual cash to fund spectacular building projects and wars that were simply out of reach to the kids in China. But on the other hand, those kids in China were actually making money; playing the game, to them, was a source of income rather than an expense, and most of them were perfectly happy with the arrangement.

All of which fell under the general category of “plumbing”; it was the stuff that Richard had figured out very early in the project, the prerequisite for its being a self-sustaining business at all. He had become so fascinated by the gritty stuff, such as bothaviors of bellows-pumpers, that he had failed to pay enough attention to the features of the world that would be most obvious, and therefore most important, to the actual customers. Pluto’s world generation code was mind-blowingly awesome. Richard’s currency stabilization plan—once he’d hired a ­couple of people who knew about tensors—was worked out in better detail than such plans for real currencies. And the underlying code written by Nolan’s programmers to keep the whole system running was as well engineered as any in the industry. But for all that, they didn’t actually have a world. All Richard’s miners and horse archers and whatnot were just faceless manikins. T’Rain had no races, no cultures, no art and music, no history. No Heroes.

To provide all that, they needed what were known in the business as Creatives.

It seemed logical enough that their first Creatives ought to be writers, since their work would inform that of the artists and composers and architects who would be hired later. They had hired Professor Donald Cameron, a Cambridge don and writer of very highly regarded fantasy fiction, to lay down a few general markers. But Don Donald, or D-squared as they inevitably referred to him in all internal communications, was under contract, at the time, to deliver Volumes 11 through 13 of his Lay of the Elder King trilogy, and Richard really needed to get a lot written in a hurry.

And so it was that Richard, under a certain amount of temporal duress (launch was less than a year away), had conceived Corporation 9592’s Writers in Residence Program.

Years later, he was astounded by the naïveté of it. Writers, as it turned out, rather liked having residences. Once they had moved in, it was nearly impossible to dislodge them.

Devin Skraelin was the third writer they approached. Negotiations with the first two had run hard aground on various arcane new-media subclauses for which their lawyers had lacked the necessary mental equipment. Richard was desperate by that point, and, as it turned out, so was Devin. As a fantasy writer, he was not highly regarded (“one cannot call him profoundly mediocre without venturing so far out on the critical limb as to bend it to the ground,” “so derivative that the reader loses track of who he’s ripping off,” “to say he is tin-eared would render a disservice to a blameless citizen of the periodic table of the elements”), but he was so freakishly prolific that he had been forced to spin off three pen names and set each one up at a different publishing house. And prolific was what Richard needed at this point in the game. Early in his career Devin had set up shop in a trailer court in Possum Walk, Missouri, because he had somehow determined (this was pre-Internet) that it was the cheapest place to live in the United States north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He had refused to deal through lawyers (which was fine with Richard, by this point) and refused to travel, so Richard had gone to see him in person, determined not to emerge from the trailer without a signed contract in hand.

Just how dirty and squalid that trailer had been, and just how much Devin had weighed, had been greatly exaggerated since then by Devin’s detractors in the T’Rain fan community. It was true that his reluctance to travel had much to do with the fact that he did not fit comfortably into an airline seat, but that was true of a lot of ­people. It was not true, as far as Richard could tell, that he had grown too obese to fit through the doorway of his trailer. Later, when the money started coming in, Devin moved into an Airstream so that he could be towed around the country with no interruption in his writing schedule—not because he was physically unable to leave it. Richard had seen the Airstream. Its doorway was of normal width and its sanitary facilities no larger than those of any other such vehicle, yet Devin had used both of them, if not routinely, then, well… when he had to.

It was all kind of irrelevant now. Richard had shared with Devin the trick of working (or at least playing) while walking on a treadmill, and Devin had taken it rather too far. Obesity had not been a problem with him for a long time. On the contrary. The nickname Skeletor was at least four years old. There was a web page where you could track his heart rate, and the number of miles he’d logged that day, in real time. He graciously credited Richard with saving his life by telling him about the treadmill thing, and Richard ungraciously wondered whether that had been such a good idea.

FUDD HAD A dozen vassals, each of whom had another dozen: enough to keep him in beer. His lord was another character owned by Richard, who didn’t get played that often. Having no particular responsibilities, Fudd had been hanging out in a corner of this fortification that was designated as a Chapterhouse, which only meant that it was a safe place for characters of Fudd’s type to be parked, and to practice their bothaviors, for hours, days, or even weeks at a time while their players were not logged in. In the jargon of the game it was called a home zone or simply HZ, by analogy to children’s games of tag. For a miner, the HZ would be an actual mine with its associated canteen and sleeping quarters, for a peasant it would be a farm, and so forth. Warrior-mage knights like Fudd had fancier and more expensive HZs in the form of Chapterhouses, most of which were generic—serving any character of that general type—and a few of which were limited to specific orders, by analogy to the Knights of Malta, Knights Templar, and so on, of Earthen yore. A whole set of conventions and rules had grown up around HZs. They were necessary to maintain the game’s verisimilitude. You couldn’t have characters just snapping out of existence when their player’s Internet connection got broken or their mom insisted that they log out, and so most players tried to get their characters back to an HZ when it was time to stop playing. In cases of force majeure (e.g., backhoes, or Mom slamming the laptop shut on the player’s fingers), the character would slip into an artificial intelligence (AI) mode and attempt to automatically transport itself back to an HZ. Trotting along like zombies, these were easy pickings for bandits and foemen. Nolan kept it that way to discourage players from simply logging out when their characters were embroiled.

Anyway, now that Richard was in control, it was safe for Fudd to leave the Chapterhouse, and so, as Richard prodded keys on his keyboard, the white-bearded warrior mage unlimbered himself from his meditative pose and headed for the exit of the HZ. The way out led through the tavern where Fudd had been taking his meals in Richard’s absence. The tavernkeeper had mail for him: remittances from his network of vassals, which went into Fudd’s purse. From there he exited to a sort of arming and mustering room, a transition zone between the HZ and the outside world. Fudd shrugged off an invitation from a trio of characters who had figured out that Fudd was decently powerful and who wanted him to join them on some kind of raiding party. For many who played these sorts of games, going on raids and quests in the company of one’s friends—or, in a pinch, with random strangers—was the whole point. Richard had always been more inclined to solo questing. Rather than explaining matters to them, he simply used a magic spell to render himself invisible. Rude, but effective. Angry “WTF?s” rolled up the chat interface as he slipped out the doorway.

Fudd was not going on a quest anyway. Richard didn’t have that kind of time. He just wanted to wander around the world a bit and see what was happening. He’d been doing this a lot recently. Something was changing; there was some kind of phase transition or something under way in the society of the game. Richard didn’t know much about phase transitions other than it was what happened when ice melted. Working at Corporation 9592, however, had brought him into contact with a sufficient number of nerds with advanced degrees that he now understood that “phase transition” was an enormously portentive phrase that those guys only threw around when they wanted the other nerds to sit up and take notice. Suddenly something happened; you couldn’t exactly make out why. Or maybe—an even more haunting thought—it had happened already and he was too dim-witted, too out of touch, to get it. Which was actually why Fudd existed. Richard had other characters in T’Rain that controlled huge networks of vassals and possessed godlike powers, but for that very reason they never had to participate in the same grunt-level questing and moneymaking on which the majority of customers spent most of their time. Fudd was powerful enough to move around the world without getting jumped and killed every ten minutes, but not so powerful that he didn’t have to work at it.

Invisible, Fudd jogged around the courtyard of the fortress, which was home to a bazaar or market comprising a number of separate stalls: an armorer, a swordsmith, a victualler, a moneychanger. He eavesdropped on the latter for a minute to make sure that nothing weird was happening with exchange rates. Nothing ever was. Richard’s plumbing was working just fine. Something in Devin’s department might be fucked, but Corporation 9592 was still making money.

The characters running the market stalls, and the customers browsing them, broke down into three racial groups: Anthrons, which were just plain old humans; K’Shetriae, which were rebranded elves; and Dwinn (originally D’uinn before the Apostropocalypse had forever altered T’Rain’s typography), which were rebranded dwarves. Three additional racial groups existed in the world, but they were not represented here, because those three other groups were associated with Evil, and this was a border fort just on the Good side of the border. K’Shetriae and Dwinn were generally Good. Anthrons could swing either way, though all the ones here (unless they were Evil spies) were Good.

He wasn’t seeing anything new here. He invoked a Hover spell. Fudd levitated into the air above the square court of the fortress, gazing down at the two dozen or so characters in the market.

A projectile passed beneath him, arcing down into the court from outside the wall. It landed harmlessly on the ground. Richard zoomed closer and moused over it. The thing was cobalt blue and had an ungainly shape. As he got closer he could see that it was an arrow, its warhead and fletching cartoonishly oversized, its shaft much too thick. They had to be modeled in this style if they were to be visible at all. Video screens, even modern high-resolution ones, could not depict a fast-moving arrow from a hundred feet away in any form that would be detectable to the human eye, and so a lot of the projectiles and other small pieces of bric-a-brac in the game—forks and spoons, gold pieces, rings, knives—were done in this big oafish style, like the foam weapons wielded by nerds in live-action role-playing games.

This arrow, however, was even fatter and stupider-looking than the norm, and when Richard zoomed in on it, he saw why: it had a scroll of yellow paper rolled around its shaft and tied with a red ribbon. The interface identified it as a TATAN MESSAGE ARROW.

He gained altitude and looked out to the north to discover a formation of Tatan horse archers cavorting, daring the fort’s garrison to make a sally, firing message arrows in high parabolic arcs. Probably Chinese teenagers, each running a dozen characters at a time; horse archers had bothaviors that made it easy to maneuver them in squadrons. Richard’s eye was offended by their color scheme. He did not have to consult Diane—Corporation 9592’s color tsarina, and the last of the Furious Muses—to know that he was looking at a case study in palette drift.

The horse archers loosed a final volley of arrows, then turned away; crossbow fire from the parapet of the fortress had already felled several of them. Richard turned his attention back to the courtyard, just to see if any of the characters down there had been struck by a message arrow. None had; but one of them had walked over to investigate an arrow that was lying on the ground. As Richard watched, he picked it up. Richard moused over him. The character’s name was Barfuin and he was a K’Shetriae warrior of modest accomplishments. Double-clicking to obtain a more detailed summary of Barfuin, Richard was rewarded with a grid of statistics and a head-and-shoulders portrait. He could not help but be struck by the similarity between Barfuin and the dreadfully low-resolution K’Shetriae icon that had come up on his GPS screen this morning, when he had been attempting to browse the points of interest of greater Nodaway. The most obvious fact was that they both had blue hair. Which was palette drift again. He slammed his laptop shut and pushed it out of the way, because a waitress was approaching with his eggs and bacon.

IF THERE WERE going to be K’Shetriae and Dwinn, and if Skeletor and Don Donald and their acolytes were going to clog the publishing industry’s distribution channels with works of fiction detailing their historical exploits going back thousands of years, then it was necessary for those two races to be distinct in what archaeologists would call their material cultures: their clothing, architecture, decorative arts, and so on. Accordingly, Corporation 9592 had hired artists and architects and musicians and costume designers to create those material cultures consistent with the “bible” of T’Rain as laid down by Skeletor and Don Donald. And this had worked fine in the sense that every new character came with that material culture built in—its clothing, its weapons, its HZs were all drawn from those stylebooks. But it was necessary to give players some freedom in styling their characters, because they liked to express themselves and to show some individuality. So there was an interface for that. Your K’Shetriae cloak could be made of fabric in one color, fringed with a second color, and lined with a third. But all three of those colors had to be selected from a palette, and Diane had chosen the palettes. So in the game’s early years, it had been easy to distinguish races and character types from a distance just by the colors that they wore.

Then someone had figured out that the palette system was hackable and had posted some third-party software giving players the ability to swap out Diane’s official palettes for ones that they made up to suit their own tastes. Corporation 9592 had been slow to react, and so this had become quite popular and widely used before they’d gotten around to having a meeting about it. By that time, something like a quarter of a million characters had been customized using unofficial palettes, and there was no way to repalettize them without deeply pissing off the owners. So Richard had decided that the company would just look the other way.

Which you almost had to, so ugly were many of the palettes that people ended up using. It had gotten so bad that it had actually led to a backlash. The trend in the last year or so had been back toward Diane’s palettes. But out of this, it seemed that an even more strange and subtle phenomenon was going on, which was that people were using Diane’s palettes with only small modifications. These almost-but-not-quite Dianan palettes were being posted and swapped on fan sites. Players would download them and then make their own small modifications and then post them somewhere else. Since a color, to a computer, was just a string of three numbers—a 3D point, if you wanted to look at it that way—you could actually draw diagrams showing the migration of palettes through color space. Over the summer, Diane had hired an intern to develop some visualization tools for understanding this phenomenon of palette drift, and then for the last two months Diane had been putting in way too many hours messing around with those tools and sending Richard “most urgent” emails about the trends she’d been observing. Another executive would have reprogrammed his spam filter to direct these messages into interstellar space, but Richard actually didn’t mind, since this was a perfect example of the hyperarcane shit that he would use to justify his continued involvement in the company to shareholders, if any of them ever bothered to ask. Yet he was having a hard time putting his finger on why it was important. Diane was convinced that the palettes were not just zinging around chaotically but slowly converging on one another in color space, grouping together in regions that she designated “attractors” (borrowing the term from chaos theory).

Cutting into his egg and watching the neon-yellow yolk spread across his plate, Richard considered it. He looked up and gazed around the Hy-Vee. It was a good place to be reminded of the fact that palettes were everywhere, that people like Diane were gainfully employed in many industries, picking out the color schemes that would best catch the eye of target markets. Panning from the cereal aisle (wholesome warm colors for colon-blow-seeking senior citizens) to the checkout lanes (bright sugar bombs in grabbing range of cart-bound toddlers), he saw a kind of palette drift in action right there. He was too far away to read the labels on the boxes, but he could still draw certain inferences as to which customers were being targeted where.

There was a brief interruption as the gastrocolic reflex had its way with him. As he was coming back from the men’s room, Richard glanced over the shoulder of a (judging from attire) farmer in his middle fifties who was sitting alone at a table, ignoring a cold mug of coffee and playing T’Rain. Richard slowed down and rubbernecked long enough to establish that the farmer’s character was a Dwinn warrior engaged in some high-altitude combat with Yeti-like creatures known as the T’Kesh. And palette-wise, this customer was playing it pretty straight; some of his accessories were a bit garish, but for the most part all the hues in his ensemble had been picked out by Diane.

He went back to his table and called Corvallis Kawasaki, one of the Seattle-based hackers. Reflecting the natural breakdown of skills between Nolan and Richard, most of Corporation 9592’s programming work was done in China, but the Seattle office had departments that ran the business, made life good for Creatives, and took care of what was officially denominated Weird Stuff and the weird people who did it. Pluto was Exhibit A, but there were many other arcane R&D-ish projects being run out of Seattle, and Corvallis had his fingers in several of them.

While dialing Corvallis’s number, Richard had been checking the IP address of the Hy-Vee’s Wi-Fi router.

“Richard” was how Corvallis answered the phone.

“C-plus. How many players you have coming in from 50.17.186.234?”

Typing. “Four, one of whom appears to be you.”

“Hmm, that’s more than I thought.” Richard looked around the diner and found one of the others: a kid in his early twenties. The fourth was harder to pick out.

“One of them’s dropping a lot of packets. Look outside,” Corvallis suggested.

Richard looked out the window and saw an SUV parked in the handicapped space, a man sitting in the driver’s seat, face lit up by a grotesquely palette-drifted scenario on the screen of his laptop.

“One of them’s a Dwinn fighting some T’Kesh.”

“Actually, he just got killed.”

Richard looked up and verified that the farmer had disgustedly averted his gaze from his screen. The farmer reached for his coffee cup and realized how cold it was. Then he looked up at the clock.

“This guy is a study!” Richard said.

“What do you want to know?”

“General demographics.”

“His net worth and income are strangely high, considering that you are in something called a Hy-Vee in Red Oak, Iowa.”

“He’s a farmer. Owns land and equipment that are worth a lot of money. Takes in huge federal subsidy checks. That’s why.”

“He has a bachelor’s degree.”

“Ag engineering, I’ll bet.”

“He has bought seventeen books in this calendar year.” Meaning, as Richard understood, T’Rain-themed books from the online store.

“All by D-squared?”

“You called it. How’d you know?”

“Call up his character.”

Typing. “Okay,” Corvallis said, “looks like a pretty standard-issue Dwinn to me.”

“Exactly my point.”

“How so?”

Richard pulled the paper placemat out from under his platter and flipped it over. Pulling a mechanical pencil from his shirt pocket, he drew a vertical line down the middle and then poised the tip of the implement at the head of one of the columns.

“Richard? You still there?”

“I’m thinking.”

In truth, he wasn’t certain that “thinking” was the right word for what was going on in his head, since that word implied some kind of orderly procedure.

There were certain perceptions that pierced through the fug of day-to-day concerns and the confusions of time like message arrows through the dark, and one of those had just hit him in the forehead: a memory of a scene from a generic fantasy world, not Tolkien but something derivative of Tolkien, the kind of thing that a Devin Skraelin would have created. It had been painted on the side of a van that had picked him up in 1972 when he had been hitchhiking to Canada so that he wouldn’t have to get his legs blown off like John. In those days—strange to relate—there’d been a connection between stoners and Tolkien buffs. For the last thirty years it simply hadn’t obtained; the ardent Tolkien fans were a disjoint set from the stoners and potheads of the world. But he remembered now that they were once connected to each other and that the van-painting types used the same album-cover palette as these ­people—some Good, some Evil—groping out to find one another with their cobalt blue message arrows and their acid yellow scrolls.

“New research project,” Richard heard himself saying.

“Uh-oh.”

“You seen all Diane’s shit about attractors in palette space?”

“I’m aware of it,” Corvallis said, pivoting into a defensive crouch, “but—”

“That’s all that matters,” Richard grunted. His hand had begun moving, drawing letters at the top of the left-hand column. He watched in dull fascination as they spelled out: FORCES OF BRIGHTNESS. Then his hand skated over to the right column. That one only took a few moments: EARTHTONE COALITION.

“Forget everything you’re supposed to know about T’Rain. The races, the character classes, the history. Especially forget about the whole Good/Evil thing. Instead just look at what is in the way of behavior and affiliation. Use attractors in color space as the thin end of your wedge. Hammer on it until something splits open.” Richard thought about supplying Corvallis with these two labels but thought that if he wasn’t completely full of shit, C-plus would discover the same thing on his own.

“What prompts this?”

“At Bastion Gratlog this morning, horse archers were shooting messages over the walls to people inside.”

“Why don’t they just use email like everyone else?”

“Exactly. The answer is: they don’t actually know each other. They are reaching out. Reaching out to strangers.”

“Completely at random?”

“No,” Richard said, “I think that there is a selection mechanism and that it’s based on…”—he was about to say color, but again, he didn’t want to tip Corvallis off—“taste.”

“Okay,” Corvallis said, stalling for time while he thought about it. “So your fifty-five to sixty rich farmer with college degree who reads lots of books by Don Donald… he’d be on one side of the taste line.”

“Yeah. Who is on the other side?”

“Not hard to guess.”

“Bring me hard facts though, once you’re done guessing.”

“Any particular deadline?”

“My GPS tells me I’m two hours from Nodaway.”

“De gustibus non est disputandum.”

Day 0

SCHLOSS HUNDSCHÜTTLER

Elphinstone, British Columbia

Four months later

“Uncle Richard, tell me about the…”—Zula faltered, then averted her gaze, set her jaw, and plowed ahead gamely—“the Apostropo…”

“The Apostropocalypse,” Richard said, mangling it a little, since it was hard to pronounce even when you were sober, and he had been hanging out in the tavern of Schloss Hundschüttler for a good part of the day. Fortunately there was enough ambient noise to obscure his troubles with the word. This was the last tolerable week of skiing season. All the rooms at the Schloss had been reserved and paid for more than a year ago. The only reason that Zula and Peter had been able to come here at all was that Richard was letting them sleep on the fold-out couch in his apartment. The tavern was crowded with people who were, by and large, very pleased with themselves, and making a concomitant amount of noise.

Schloss Hundschüttler was a cat-skiing resort. They had no lifts. Guests were shuttled to the tops of the runs in diesel-powered tractors that ran over the snow on tank treads. Cat skiing had a whole different feel from Aspen-style ski areas with their futuristic hovering techno-infrastructure of lifts.

Though it was less expensive and glamorous than heli-skiing, cat skiing was more satisfactory for truly hard-core skiers. With heli-skiing, all the conditions had to be just right. The trip had to be planned out in advance. With cat skiing, it was possible to be more extemporaneous. The diesel-scented, almost Soviet nature of the experience filtered out the truly hyperrich glamour seekers drawn to the helicopter option, who tended to be a mixture of seriously fantastic skiers and the more-money-than-brains types whose frozen corpses littered the approaches to Mt. Everest.

All of which was water long, long under the bridge for Richard and for Chet, who, fifteen years ago, had had to suss out all these tribal divisions in the ski bum market in order to write a coherent business plan for the Schloss. But it explained much about the style of the lodge, which might have been flashier, more overtly luxurious, had it been aimed at a different segment of the market. Instead, Richard and Chet had consciously patterned its style after small local ski areas of British Columbia that tended to be more rough-and-ready, with lifts and racks welded together by local people who happened to be sports fanatics. It was designed to be less polished, less corporate in its general style than south-of-the-border areas, and as such it didn’t appeal to all, or even most, skiers. But by the same token, the ones who came here appreciated it all the more, felt that merely being in the place marked them out as truly elite.

In one corner was a group of half a dozen ridiculously expert skiers—manufacturers’ reps for ski companies—very drunk, since they had spent the day up on the high powder runs scattering the ashes of a friend who had ODed on the same drug that had killed Michael Jackson. At another table were some Russians: men in their fifties, still half in ski clothes, and younger women who hadn’t been skiing at all. A young film actor, not of the first rank but apparently considered to be really hip at the moment, was taking it easy with three slightly less glamorous friends. At the bar, the usual complement of guides, locals, and cat mechanics had turned their backs on the crowd to watch a hockey game with the sound turned off.

“The Apostropocalypse is to the current realignment in T’Rain what the Treaty of Versailles was to the Second World War,” said Richard, deliberately mocking the tone of a Wikipedia contributor in hopes that the others would get it.

Zula showed at least polite attention, but Peter missed it on every level, since he had been spellbound by his phone ever since he had tramped into the place about fifteen minutes earlier, wind-and sunburned and deeply satisfied by a day’s snowboarding. Zula, like Richard, was no skier and had ended up turning this trip into a working vacation, spending several hours each day in the apartment, jacked in to Corporation 9592’s servers over the dedicated fiber connection that Richard had, at preposterous expense, brought up the valley to the Schloss. Peter, on the other hand, turned out to be a very hard-core snowboarder indeed, who, according to Zula, had spent a lot of time since the re-u shopping for special high-end snowboards optimized for deep powder; he had finally purchased one from a boutique in Vancouver just a few weeks ago. He now treated it like a Stradivarius, all but tucking it into bed each night, and Zula was not above showing a trace of jealousy.

Peter and Zula were making a long weekend of it. They’d left Seattle after Zula had got off work and had fought traffic up to Snoqualmie Pass, where most of the skiers peeled off to ride the conventional lifts. Feeling more elite by the minute, they had blasted across the state to Spokane and then headed north toward Metaline Falls, a tiny border station up on a mountain pass that just happened to coincide with the forty-ninth parallel. Crossing about an hour before midnight, they drove through the pass to Elphinstone, and then turned south along the poorly marked, bumpy, meandering mountain track that inclined to the Schloss. This plan actually did not sound insane to them, and thus reminded Richard once more of his advanced age. During the hours they’d been on the road, he’d found himself unable to stray from his computer, calculating which dangerous road they were driving down at a particular time, as if Zula were a part of his body that had gone off on its own and that needed to be kept track of. This, he supposed, was what it was like to be a parent. And as ridiculous as it was, he found himself haunted by thoughts of the re-u. For if Zula and Peter did have a crash on the way over, then later, when the story was told and retold at the re-u, laid like a brick into the family lore, it would be largely about Richard, when he’d learned of it, what actions he’d taken, the cool head he’d displayed, the correct decisions he’d made to manage it all, Zula’s relief when he had showed up at the hospital. The moral was preordained: the family took care of itself, even, no, especially in times of crisis, and consisted of good, wise, competent people. He might have to steer to the required denouement on slick and turning ways, through a whiteout. Just when he had been getting ready to pull ski pants over his pajamas and go out looking for them, they had arrived, precisely on their announced schedule, in Peter’s annoyingly hip, boxy vehicle, and then Richard had stopped seeing them as crazy wayward kids and thought them superhuman with their GPS telephones and Google Maps.

Now they were getting ready to do it again. Not wanting to waste a single hour of snowboarding, Peter had spent Monday afternoon on the slopes and intended to drive them back to Seattle tonight.

When Peter had first come in and sat down next to Zula, Richard had forgiven his close attention to the phone on the assumption that he was checking the weather and the road conditions. But then he started typing messages.

He seemed like a barnacle on Zula. Richard kept telling himself that she wasn’t a stupid girl and that Peter must have redeeming qualities that, because of his social ineptness, were not obvious.

Zula was looking at Richard through the big clunky eyeglasses, hoping for something a little more informative than the Treaty of Versailles joke. Richard grinned and leaned back into the embrace of his massive leather-padded chair. The tavern was a good place for telling stories and, in particular, for telling stories about T’Rain. Richard had been so impressed by a Dwinn mead hall drawn up by one of T’Rain’s retro-medieval-fantasy architects that he had, as a side job, hired the same guy to make a real version of it at the Schloss. This was a young architect who had never had an actual job building a physical structure. Coming out of school into a market smashed flat by the real estate crash, he’d been unable to find work in the physical universe and had gone straight into the Creative department of Corporation 9592, where he’d had to forget everything he knew about Koolhaas and Gehry and instead plunge himself into the minutiae of medieval post-and-beam architecture as it might have been practiced by a fictitious dwarflike race. Actually building such a thing at the Schloss had made him very happy, but the stress of dealing with real-world contractors, budgets, and permits had convinced him that he’d made the right move after all by confining his practice to imaginary places.

“I see vestiges of it when I go through Pluto’s old code,” Zula said. “The D’uinn.” She spelled it out.

“So the chronology is that we brought Don Donald in as our first Creative, but he didn’t have a lot of time to work on the project.”

“More high-level discussions is what I heard,” Zula put in.

“Yeah. I had to cram for these discussions by reading my Joseph Campbell, my Jung.”

“Why Jung?”

“Archetypes. We were having this big discussion about the races of T’Rain. There were reasons not to just use elves and dwarves like everyone else.”

“You mean, like—creative reasons or intellectual property reasons?”

“More the latter, but also from the creative standpoint there’s something to be said for making a clean sweep. Just creating an entirely new, original palette of races without any ties to Tolkien or to European mythology.”

“All those Chinese programmers…” Zula began.

“You’d be surprised, actually. The politically correct, campus radical take on it would be just what you’d think—”

“Elves and dwarves, c’mon, how could you be so Eurocentric?” Zula said.

“Exactly, but in a way it’s almost more patronizing to the Chinese to assume that, just because they are from China, they can’t relate to elves and dwarves.”

“Got it.”

“Turned out, though, that when we got Don Donald in here, he had good reasons why elves and dwarves were not just arbitrary races that could be swapped out for ones we made up but actual archetypes, going back…”

“How far?”

“He thinks that the elf/dwarf split was born in the era when Cro-Magnons coexisted in Europe with Neanderthals.”

“Interesting! Way back, then, like tens of thousands of years.”

“Yeah. Before even language, maybe.”

“Makes you wonder what we could find in African folklore,” she said.

This stopped Richard for a few moments, while he caught up with her. “Since there might have been even a greater diversity of, of…”

“Hominids,” she said, “going back maybe farther.”

“Why not? Anyway, we didn’t get much beyond this level in the initial set of D-squared talks. Then it all got handed off to…”

“Skeletor.”

“Yeah. But we didn’t call him that in those days, because he was still fat.” Saying that, Richard felt a brief spike of nervousness that Peter might be twittering or, God forbid, live-video-blogging this. But Peter’s attention was entirely elsewhere; he had begun keeping an eye on the tavern’s entrance, his eyes jumping to it whenever someone came in the door.

Richard turned his gaze back to Zula, not without a certain feeling of pleasure—avuncular, noncreepy—and went on: “Devin just went nuts. His official start date was two weeks before our initial meeting—but by the time he walked in the door, he already had a stack of pages this thick with ideas for historical sagas based on the very sketchy outlines provided by Don Donald. There actually wasn’t much point to the meeting. It was a formality. I just told him to keep it up, and I got an intern cataloging and cross-referencing all his output…”

“The Canon,” Zula said.

“Exactly, that was the beginning of the Canon. Forced us to hire Geraldine. But with the key difference that it was all still fluid, since we hadn’t actually released any of it to the fan base yet. It was kind of scary, the way it grew. Later in the year is when we started to feel a little creeped out by it, like Devin was taking our world and running away with it. So we announced, and I’m not too proud to say that this was a retroactive policy change, that the Writers in Residence program operated on an annual basis and that when Devin’s year was up, he was welcome to continue writing stuff in the T’Rain world but that he would in fact have to share authorship of that world with the next Writer in Residence.”

“Which turned out to be D-squared.”

“No accident. Devin had become so dominant over the world that any other writer just would have been buried under his output. There was only one other writer who had, (a) the prominence in the world of fantasy literature to rival Devin’s, and (b) the priority—”

“He’d been there first,” Zula said.

“Yes. Just long enough to run around and pee on all the trees, but that still counted for a lot.”

“Hey, I just saw someone I know,” Peter announced, nodding toward the entrance. A man in an overcoat had just walked in from the parking lot and was scanning the tavern, trying to decide where he wanted to sit.

“Friend of yours?” Richard asked.

“Acquaintance,” Peter corrected him, “but I should go over and just say hey.”

“Who is it?” Zula asked, looking around, but Peter was already on his feet, headed over to a table by the fire, where the new arrival had just taken a seat. Richard watched as the man looked up at Peter’s face. His expression did not show anything like surprise or recognition. And certainly not pleasure. He had expected to meet Peter here. They had been texting each other about it. Peter was lying.

Richard now sort of forcibly turned the conversation back, because the thing with Peter troubled him and his first instinct with things that troubled him was to wall them off, and then wait for them to grow bad enough to threaten the structural integrity of the wall, and then, finally, to get out a sledgehammer.

“We brought both of them out here,” Richard said.

“To the Schloss?”

“Yeah. It didn’t look like this in those days. It was before the Dwinn mead hall remodel. They came in the summer, when this place has a whole different vibe. We brought some chefs up from Vancouver to prepare meals, and we held a retreat here, sort of to mark the formal handoff from Skeletor to D-squared. That was when the Apostropocalypse happened.”

“ONE IS BEMUSED by the notion of convening a retreat in order to get work done,” said Don Donald, while they were still just milling around on the terrace, sipping pints and getting used to the views of the Selkirks. “Should it not in that case be denominated an advance?”

Richard was lost from the very beginning of that sentence, so gave up altogether on trying to parse it and just watched D-squared’s face. Donald Cameron, then fifty-two, looked older than that, with swept-back silver hair and an impressive honker, swollen from the rich liquid diet of the ancient Cambridge college where he lived about half the time. But his complexion was pink and his manner was vigorous, probably because of all the brisk walks that he took around the castle on the Isle of Man where he lived the other half of the time. He’d checked in to his suite a few hours earlier, rested up for a bit, gone for one of those brisk walks, and stepped out onto the terrace only thirty seconds ago, whereupon he’d been surrounded by about four nerds, sufficiently highly ensconced in Corporation 9592’s food chain that they felt entitled to approach him. Richard knew for a fact that most of these people had stacks of Donald Cameron fantasy novels in their rooms in hopes of getting them signed, and that they were just sucking up to him long enough to feel comfortable with broaching such a request.

“Maybe you need to coin a new word for it,” Richard said, before any of the fanboys could laugh or, worse, try to enter into repartee with the Don.

“Heh. You have noticed my weakness for that sort of thing.”

“We depend on it.”

D-squared raised an eyebrow. “We have already advanced to the point of doing work! One imagined that this was to be a purely social gathering, Mr. Forthrast.” But he was only kidding, as he now indicated by winking, and nodding in the direction of—

Richard turned around and stepped clear of the rapidly growing fan cluster to see Devin Skraelin making his entrance. He wondered whether Devin had been twitching the curtain in his suite, waiting for Don Donald to emerge onto the terrace so that Devin could arrive last. As usual, he was trailed by two “assistants” who seemed too old and authoritative to merit that designation. Richard had been able to establish that the female “assistant” was an intellectual property lawyer and that the male was a book editor who had been sacked in the latest publishing industry cataclysms: he was now Devin’s captive scribe.

“Thank you,” Richard said. “More on this later, if you please.”

“I can’t wait!”

Richard moved to intercept Devin but was cut off by Nolan Xu, who was just about the worst Devin Skraelin fanboy in the whole world. Nolan had, until now, been largely marooned behind the Chinese border by visa and exchange-rate hassles, but during the last year or so he’d been finding it easier and easier to make long forays out to the West. Some men in that position would have headed straight for Vegas, but Nolan, for a combination of personal and business reasons impossible to sort out, went to science-fiction and fantasy conventions.

Richard pulled up short and spent a few moments watching the interaction. Devin had lost 211 pounds (at least that was the figure posted on his website as of six hours ago) and now looked hefty, but not so obese as to draw attention to himself. He paid due attention to Nolan but never let more than about five seconds expire without casting a glance in Don Donald’s direction. If Richard had been a random observer of the scene, he’d have guessed that one of the two writers was an assassin and the other his intended victim. He’d have been hard-pressed, though, to know which was which.

Professor Cameron, for his part, remained supremely affable and civilized until he was good and ready to acknowledge Devin’s presence, then pivoted on the balls of his hand-tooled loafers and swept—there was no other word for it—across the terrace to extend a hand of greeting to his rival.

“As if he owns the place,” Richard muttered.

“The Schloss?” asked Chet, who was just hanging around keeping an eye on things. All Chet knew of fantasy literature was that it was a useful source of van art.

“No,” said Richard. “T’Rain.”

LATER THEY DINED in the Schloss’s banqueting hall, which was fairly standard-issue Bavarian fortress architecture. Several tables had been joined end to end to make a single very long one. “Just like Shakey’s Pizza Parlor!” remarked Devin, when he saw it. “Just like High Table at Trinity,” said D-squared. Richard, the only man in the room who had dined at both of those places, could see merit in both points of view, so—trying to be the agreeable host—he signaled agreement with each, while hiding a growing feeling of unease over what would happen when these two men ended up sitting across the Shakey’s/Trinity table from each other. For seats had been assigned. Richard was at the head of the table. Devin and Professor Cameron were adjacent to him, facing each other. Nolan was next to the latter, so that he could gaze lovingly across the table at the former, and Pluto was next to Devin, on the theory that Don Donald would feel more at home if somewhere in his field of view was a ridiculously intelligent geek of limited social skills. Pluto’s chair faced the glass windows that opened out onto the terrace, so that he could relieve his boredom by inspecting the shape of the mountains that rose up on the opposite side of the valley.

So much for all the people who’d be in earshot of Richard. From there the seating arrangement propagated down the table according to someone’s notion of hierarchy and precedence. The menu was middle-European hunting-lodge cuisine as reinterpreted by the culinary staff that Richard and Chet had drawn to the place over the years. The venison, for example, was farm raised, therefore certifiably prion-free, ensuring that Corporation 9592 would not go belly-up in a few decades as its entire senior echelon was struck down by mad cow disease. The wine list made a diplomatic nod or two in the direction of British Columbia’s nascent viticultural sector and then lunged decisively south of the border. D-squared made some insightful remarks about a nice dry Riesling from the Horse Heaven Hills and Devin requested a Diet Coke. Lots of curiosity was expressed, on all sides, about the Schloss and how Richard and Chet had come to build it. Richard explained that it had originally been put together from bits and pieces of three different structures in the Austrian Alps, which had been bought by a certain Austro-Hungarian mining baron (literally a baron). He’d caused the pieces to be shipped down the Danube to the Black Sea and thence all the way around the world to the mouth of the Columbia, then up to a place where the stuff could be loaded onto a narrow-gauge mining railway that no longer existed, whose right-of-way, now a bike and ski path, ran through the grounds of the Schloss. Then fast-forward to its discovery and prolonged rehabilitation by Richard and Chet. Richard left out all material having to do with drug money and motorcycle gangs, since that was amply covered by the Wikipedia entry that all present had presumably read and perhaps even edited.

For in the late 1980s the marijuana thing had started to get darker, more violent; or perhaps Richard, after his thirtieth birthday, started to notice the darkness that had been there all along. He had cashed out and gone back to Iowa, where he had enrolled in courses in hotel and restaurant management at Iowa State University. This was the point where the story became wholesome enough that he felt he could relate it in polite company. After a few months in Iowa, he had come to his senses, realizing that people with such skills could simply be hired, and had returned to B.C. He and Chet had then begun to fix up the Schloss in earnest.

All of which made for perfectly pleasant conversation as they sampled some light predinner wines and popped colorful amuse-bouches into their mouths and spooned up soup, but as the dinner stretched on into dishes that looked more like main courses and that were accompanied by red wine, Richard found himself wishing that they could just grab the Band-Aid and rip it off. The formal purpose of this retreat and this dinner was to celebrate the conclusion of Devin’s year as Writer in Residence and to hand the torch to Don Donald, who had finally polished off his trilogy-turned-tetrakaidecalogy and was ready to devote some time to further development of the backstory and “bible” of T’Rain.

During the last three months of Devin’s tenure, he had been almost disturbingly productive, leading to an email thread at Corporation 9592 (subject: “Devin Skraelin is an Edgar Allan Poe character”) spattered with links to websites about the psychiatric condition known as graphomania. This had led to a new piece of jargon: Canon Lag, in which the employees responsible for cross-checking Devin’s work and incorporating it into the Canon had been unable to keep pace with his output. According to one somewhat paranoid strain of thought, this had been a deliberate strategy on Devin’s part. Certainly it was the case that, as of this dinner, the only person who had the entire world in his head was Devin, since he had delivered a thousand pages of new material at one o’clock this morning, emailing it from his room in the North Tower of the Schloss, and no one had had time to do more than scan it. So he had everyone else at something of a disadvantage.

Talk of the Schloss led naturally to a conversation about Don Donald’s castle on the Isle of Man, which had also been the target of heavy renovation work. In that, Richard perceived an opening and made a gambit. “Is that where you anticipate doing most of the T’Rain work?”

Silence. Richard had probably crossed a boundary, or something, by mentioning “work.” He had found that barreling on ahead was better than apologizing. “Do you have a study there—a suitable place to write?”

“Most suitable!” the professor exclaimed. He went on to describe a certain room in a turret, “with prospects, on a fair day, west to Donaghadee and north to Cairngaan,” both of which he pronounced so authentically that visible frissons of pleasure radiated down the table. It had been fixed up, he said, in a manner that made it “both authentic and habitable, no easy balance to strike,” and it awaited his return.

“Devin’s given you a lot to work with,” said Geraldine Levy, who was the mistress of the Canon, seated down the table from Pluto. “I can’t help but wonder if there is any particular part of the story of T’Rain that you’d like to hone in on first.”

“Home in,” Cameron corrected her, after an awkward few seconds trying to make sense of it. “The question is perfectly reasonable. My answer must be indirect. My method of working, as you may know, is to compose the first draft in the language actually spoken by the characters. Only when this is finished do I begin the work of translating it into English.” Like a tank rotating its turret, he swung around to aim at Devin. “My collaborator, quite naturally, prefers a more… efficient and direct method.”

“I am in awe of what you do with all the languages and everything,” Devin said. “You’re right. I just… wing it.”

“So your world,” said D-squared, continuing the pivot until he was aimed at Richard, “has no languages at the moment. You are more fascinated by geology”—he nodded Pluto’s way—“and consider that to be fundamental. I would have started rather with words and language and constructed all upon that foundation.”

“You have a free hand in the matter now, Doctor Cameron,” Richard pointed out.

Almost free. For there have been some”—Cameron turned his eyes back toward Devin—”coinages. I see words in Mr. Skraelin’s work that do not appear in English dictionaries. The very word T’Rain, of course. Then the names of the races: K’Shetriae. D’uinn. These I can work with—can incorporate into fictional languages whose grammar and lexicons I shall be happy to draw up and share with—Miss—Levy.” A hesitation before the “Miss” as he checked her left ring finger and found it vacant.

Miss Levy was only a “Miss” because lesbians couldn’t get married in the state of Washington, but she was willing to let it slide. “That would be huge for us,” she said. “That part of the Canon is just a gaping void right now.”

“Happy to be of service. Some questions, though.”

“Yes?”

“K’Shetriae. The name of the elven race. Strangely reminiscent of Kshatriya, is it not?”

Everyone at this end of the table drew a blank except for Nolan. Halfway down the table, though, Premjith Lal, who headed one of their Weird Stuff departments, had pricked up his ears.

“Yes!” Nolan exclaimed, nodding and smiling. “Now that you mention it—very similar.”

“Mind explaining it?” Richard asked.

“Premjith!” Nolan called out. “Are you Kshatriya?”

Premjith nodded. He was too far away to talk. He reached up with both hands, grabbed his ears, and pulled them up, making them pointy and elven.

“It is a Hindu caste,” Nolan explained. “The warrior caste.”

“One cannot help wondering if the person who coined that name might have heard the word ‘Kshatriya’ in some other context and later, when groping for an exotic-sounding sequence of phonemes, pulled it back up, as it were, from memory, thinking that it was an original idea.”

Richard tried ever so hard not to look at Devin, but it was as if someone had put a crowbar into his ear and kicked it. Within a few seconds everyone was looking at Devin, who was turning red. He killed time for a few moments by sipping from his Diet Coke and fussing with his napkin, then looked up with great confidence and said, “There are only so many phonemes, and only so many combinations of them that you can string together to make words in imaginary languages. Any name you come up with is going to sound like the name of a caste or a god or an irrigation district somewhere in the world. Why not just put your head down and get on with it?”

Premjith was just barely in range. “There are something like a hundred million Kshatriya who are going to be bemused by this aspect of the Canon,” he pointed out. He wasn’t upset, just… bemused. Richard made a mental note to take Premjith out for sushi and find out if there were any other things he’d noticed seriously wrong with T’Rain that he hadn’t felt like mentioning.

“Hundred million…” Devin repeated, not loudly enough for Premjith to hear him. “I’ll bet within five years of T’Rain going live, we’ll have more K’Shetriae than there are Kshatriya.”

“Now, that is—if memory serves—spelt with an apostrophe between an uppercase K and an uppercase S, is it not?” Don Donald asked.

“That’s right,” said Devin, and glanced at Geraldine, who nodded.

“Now the apostrophe is used to mark an elision.”

“A missing letter,” Pluto translated. “Like the o in ‘couldn’t.’” He snorted. “The second o, that is!”

“Yes, just so,” the Don continued. “Which leads me to ask why the S in ‘K’Shetriae’ is capitalized. Should one infer from this that ‘Shetriae’ is a separate word that is a proper noun? And if so, what are we to make of the K-apostrophe? Is it, for example, some sort of article?”

“Sure, why not,” said Devin.

D-squared, having set the hook, was content with a few moments’ discreet silence, but Pluto erupted: “Why not? Why not?

Richard could only watch, like staring across a valley at an avalanche overtaking a skier.

“If it is an article,” said Don Donald, “then what is the T-apostrophe in T’Rain? What is the D-apostrophe in D’uinn? How many articles does this language have?”

Silence.

“Or perhaps the K, the T, and the D are not articles but some other features of the language.”

Silence.

“Or perhaps the apostrophe is being used to indicate something other than elision.”

Silence.

“In which case, what does it indicate?”

Richard couldn’t bear it anymore. “It just looks cool,” he said.

Don Donald turned toward him with a bright, fascinated look. Behind him, Richard could see everyone else collapsing; things had gotten a bit tense.

“I beg your pardon, Richard?”

“Donald, look. You’re the only guy in this particular sector of the economy who has the whole ancient-languages thing down pat to the extent that you do. Everyone else just totally makes this stuff up. When some guy wants a word that seems exotic, he’ll throw in a couple of apostrophes. Maybe smash a couple of letters together that don’t normally go, like Q and Z. That’s what we’re dealing with here.”

Silence in a different flavor.

“I am aware that it doesn’t exactly jibe with your M.O.,” Richard added.

“M.O.?”

“Modus operandi.”

“Mmm,” said the Don.

“If you want to make up some languages,” offered Devin, “knock yourself out.”

“Mmm,” the Don said again.

Richard glanced at Geraldine, who was thinking so hard that coils of smoke were rising from her sensible hairdo.

“Mr. Olszewski,” the Don finally said, “may I plant a volcano here?”

Here!?

“Yes, on the site of this property.”

“Any particular type of volcano you had in mind?”

“Oh, let’s say a Mount Etna. I’ve always favored that one.”

“No way,” said Pluto. “That is a highly active, young stratovolcano. The Selkirks aren’t that geologically active. The type of rock here—”

“It simply wouldn’t make sense,” said the Don, summing up and cutting short what promised to be a long and devastatingly particular tour of the world of volcanology. “It would be incoherent.”

“Totally!”

“I fear that an analogous situation may obtain in the case of all these apostrophes. My colleague has refrained from coining words, it is true. But it has been necessary, hasn’t it, to coin names for the races of T’Rain, and indeed for the world itself. And in some cases, such as ‘K’Shetriae’, the apostrophe is followed by a capitalized letter, while in others, as ‘D’uinn,’ the following letter is lowercase, a situation that requires some sort of coherent explanation. At least if I am to proceed with my work in the manner to which I am accustomed.”

Richard noted the implicit threat there.

“THANKS FOR COMING all the way out from Vancouver,” Peter said. They had not introduced themselves, or shaken hands, just sized each other up and confirmed with nods that they were who they were.

This is a hell of a place,” said Wallace. He did not seem like the kind of man who was utterly confounded—or would admit to it, anyway—very often. For a good half minute he had eyes for nothing but the interlocking timbers that pretended to hold up the roof. “Where have I seen those before?” Then his eyes dropped to regard Peter, who was eyeing him somewhat warily. He turned his attention back to the tavern: its rustic furniture, its leaded glass windows, its floor of pegged wooden planks. But finally it was the silverware that tipped him off. He picked up a fork and stared in amazement at the motif stamped into its handle: a raw geometric pattern inspired by Nordic runes. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “Dwinn!”

“I beg your pardon?” Peter said, aghast at how this was going.

Wallace cracked up—another thing that, one suspected, he didn’t do often—and cast a glance at his laptop bag, which he’d left sitting on the empty chair next to him. “I could show you,” he said. “I could go to this place right now, in T’Rain.”

“You play T’Rain?” Peter inquired, seeing in this an opportunity for, at least, a conversational gambit.

“We all have our vices. Each brings its own brand of trouble. That connected with an addiction to T’Rain is less dangerous than many I could name. Speaking of which, what does a man have to do to get a club soda in this place?” Wallace spoke with a Scottish accent, which came as a surprise to Peter and created a one-second time lag in all Peter’s responses as he worked to understand what Wallace had just said. But once he’d parsed “club soda,” he turned in his chair, half rose, and secured the attention of a waiter.

Peter did not yet like the way the conversation was going. Wallace had thrown him completely off-balance by making the conversation about T’Rain and had pressed him into service as drink fetcher. Now, though, Wallace changed his attitude a bit, explaining himself, as if educating Peter. Doing him a favor. “This is the feast hall of King Oglo of the Northern Red Dwinn. I’ve been in it ten, maybe fifteen times.”

“You mean, your character’s been in it.”

“Yes, that is what I mean,” said Wallace, and he didn’t have to add you fucking shite-for-brains.

Wallace had come into the place wearing an overcoat, a garment that Peter had seen only in movies. Probably the only overcoat within a two-hundred-kilometer radius. A gentleman’s garment. About him were various other faint traces of white collarness. His red-going-white hair had been slicked back from his sun-mottled forehead, which sported a divot above the left temple where a skin cancer had been rooted out. Reading glasses hung on a gold chain from his neck. His shirt was open at the neck. Its sheer fabric would look good beneath a sharp suit but would afford him very little protection if he had to stop and change a tire. His right hand was anchored by a fat gold signet ring.

“I don’t play T’Rain myself,” Peter said, though this seemed pretty obvious by this point.

“What games do you play?”

“I like snowboarding. Shooting. Sometimes I—”

“That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what’s your vice and what brand of trouble does it lead to?” Wallace tapped his signet ring on the table.

Peter was silent for a few moments.

“And don’t try to tell me that there is none, because we both know why we’re here.” Tap tap tap.

“Yeah,” said Peter, “but that doesn’t mean it’s because of a vice.”

Wallace laughed, and not in the delighted way he’d laughed when he had recognized that he was sitting in the feast hall of King Oglo. “You reached me through certain individuals in Ukraine who are not exactly solid citizens. I checked you out. I have read all the postings you made, starting at the age of twelve, in hacker chat rooms, written in that ridiculous fucking spelling that you all use. Three years ago you went on record under your real name calling yourself a gray-hat hacker, which is as good as admitting that you were a black-hat before. And a year ago you signed on with this security consultancy where half of the founders have done time, for Christ’s sake.”

“Look. What do you want me to say? We’re here. We’re having this meeting. We both know why. So it’s not like I’ve been lying to you.”

“Very true. What I’m trying to establish is that you have been lying to everyone else, including, I’d guess, your cappuccino girlfriend over there. And it’s helpful for me to know what vices or troubles led you to tell those lies.”

“Why? I’ve got what you came for.”

“That’s what I am trying to establish.”

Peter reached into a large external pocket of his coat and pulled out a DVD case containing a single unmarked disk, white on top, iridescent purple on the bottom. “Here it is.”

Wallace looked disgusted. “That’s how you want to deliver it?”

“Is there a problem?”

“I brought a notebook computer. No DVD slot. Rather hoped you’d bring it on a thumb drive.”

Peter considered this. “I think that can be arranged. Hold on a second.”

“THAT GUY JUST tasked your boyfriend,” Richard remarked, shortly after Peter had sat down across from the stranger by the fire.

“Tasked?”

“Gave him a job to do. ‘Get the waiter’s attention. Order me a drink.’ Something of that nature.”

“I don’t follow.”

“It’s a tactic,” Richard said. “When you’ve just met someone and you’re trying to feel them out. Give them a task and see how they react. If they accept the task, you can move on and give them a bigger one later.”

“Is it a tactic you use?”

“No, it’s manipulative. Either someone works for me or they don’t. If they work for me, I can assign them tasks and it’s fine. If they don’t work for me, then I have no business assigning them tasks.”

“So you’re saying that Peter’s friend is manipulating him.”

“Acquaintance.”

“It’s some kind of business contact,” Zula guessed.

“Then why didn’t he just come out and say so?”

“That’s a good question,” Zula said. “He’s probably afraid I’d be mad at him if he interrupted our vacation for a business meeting.”

So he lied to you? Richard thought better of actually saying this. If he pushed too hard, he might get the opposite result from what he wanted.

Besides, Peter was now headed back over to the table.

“Does either of you have a thumb drive I could use?”

The question hung there like an invisible cloud of flatulence.

“I want to transfer some pictures between computers,” he explained.

Richard and Zula and Peter had all been lounging around the place for a while, occasionally checking email or messing around with vacation photos, and so Richard had his laptop bag between his feet. He pulled it up into his lap and groped around in an external pocket. “Here you go,” he said.

“I’ll get it right back to you,” Peter said.

“Don’t bother,” Richard said, peeved, in a completely school-marmish way, by Peter’s failure to use the magic words. “It’s too small. I was going to buy a new one tomorrow. Just erase whatever’s on it, okay?”

PETER RETURNED to the table, pulled out his laptop, and inserted the thumb drive. His computer, a Linux machine, identified it as a Windows file system, which was just what he needed since Wallace’s machine was also a Windows box. Finding several files in it, Peter erased them. Then he popped the DVD out of its case and pushed it into the slot.

“Why don’t you just use the local copy on your machine?” Wallace asked him.

“Ooh, good trick question!” Peter said. “It’s like I told you. There is only one copy. It’s on the DVD. I am not about ripping you off.” The DVD appeared as an icon on his desktop. He opened it up, and it showed but a single file. He dragged that over to the thumb drive’s icon and waited for a few seconds as the files were transferred. “Now, two copies,” he said. He dismounted the thumb drive and removed it. “Voilà,” he said, holding it up. “The goods. As promised.”

“Not until I agree that it is what you have claimed.”

“Go ahead and check it out!”

“Oh, I’ve looked at the sample you sent. They were all legit credit card numbers, just like you said. Names, expiration dates, and all the rest.”

“So what are you getting at?”

“Provenance.”

“Isn’t that a city in Rhode Island?”

“Since you are an autodidact, Peter, and I have a soft spot for autodidacts, I’ll forgive you for not knowing the word. It means, where did the data come from?”

“What does that matter, if it’s good data?”

Wallace sighed, sipped his club soda, and looked around the feast hall. As if willing forth the energy needed to go on with this stupid conversation. “You are misconstruing this, young man. I’m trying to help you.”

“I wasn’t aware I needed any help.”

“This is proactive help. You understand? Retroactive help—the kind you’re thinking of—is throwing a drunk the life preserver after he’s fallen off the pier. Proactive help is grabbing him by the belt and pulling him to safety before he falls.”

“Why should you even give a shit?”

“Because if you end up needing help, boy, owing to a problem with the provenance of these credit card numbers, then I’m going to need it too.”

Peter spent a while working it out. “You’re not in business for yourself.”

Wallace nodded, managing to look both encouraging and sour at the same time.

“You’re just running the errand—acting as an agent, or something—for whoever it is that’s really buying this.”

Wallace made expressive gestures, like an orchestra conductor, nearly knocking over his club soda.

“If something goes wrong, those people will be pissed off, and you’re afraid of what they’ll do,” Peter continued.

Wallace now went still and silent, which seemed to mean that Peter had at last come to the correct conclusion.

“Who are they?”

“You can’t possibly imagine that I’m really going to tell you their names.”

“Of course not.”

“So why do you even ask, Peter?”

“You’re the one who brought this into the conversation.”

“They are Russians.”

“You mean, like… Russian mafia?” Peter was too fascinated, yet, to be scared.

“ ‘Russian mafia’ is an idiotic term. An oxymoron. Media crap. It is vastly more complicated than that.”

“Well, but obviously…”

“Obviously,” Wallace agreed, “if they are purchasing stolen credit card numbers from hackers, they are by definition engaging in organized criminal activity.”

The two men sat there silently for a minute while Peter thought about it.

“How these people come to engage in organized criminal activity is quite interesting and complicated. You’d find it fascinating to talk to them, if they had even the faintest interest in talking to you. I can assure you it has nothing in common with the Sicilian mafia.”

“But you just got done threatening me. That sounds like…”

“The cruelty and opportunism of the Russians are greatly overstated,” Wallace said, “but they contain a kernel of truth. You, Peter, have chosen to trade in illegal goods. In doing so, you are stepping outside of the structures of ordinary commerce, with its customer service reps, its mediators, its Angie’s List. If the transaction fails, your customers will not have any of the normal forms of recourse. That’s all I’m saying. So even if you’re a complete shite-for-brains with no regard for the safety of yourself or your girlfriend, I’ll ask you to answer my question as to provenance, because I still have a choice as to whether I’ll proceed with this transaction, and I’ll not go into business with a shite-for-brains.”

“Fine,” Peter said. “I’m working with a network security consultancy. You already know that. We got hired by a clothing store chain to do a pen test.”

“What, their pens weren’t writing?”

“Penetration test. Our job was to find ways of penetrating their corporate networks. We found that one part of their website was vulnerable to a SQL injection attack. By exploiting that, we were able to install a rootkit on one of their servers and then use that as a beachhead on their internal network to—to make a long story short—get root on the servers where they stored customer data and then prove that their credit card data was vulnerable.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“It took fifteen minutes.”

“So these data you’re trying to sell me are already compromised!” Wallace said.

“No.”

“You just told me that the client has been tipped off to the vulnerability!”

That client has been tipped off. Those numbers were compromised. These numbers are not those numbers.”

“What are they, then?”

“The website I’ve been telling you about was set up by a contractor that subsequently went out of business.”

“No wonder!”

“Exactly. I looked through archived web pages and shareholder disclosures to learn the names of some of the other clients who’d hired the same contractor to set up retail websites during the same period of time.”

Wallace thought about it, then nodded. “Reckoning that it was all cookie-cutter.”

“Yeah. All these sites are clones of each other, more or less, and since the contractor went belly-up, they haven’t been keeping up with security patches.”

“Which is probably why you got hired to do the pen testing in the first place.”

“Exactly. So I did find a lot of cookie-cutter sites that shared the same vulnerabilities, including one big one. A department store chain that you have heard of.”

“And you then repeated the same attack.”

“Yeah.”

“Which is now traceable to that consultancy you work for and its computers.”

“No no no,” Peter said. “I worked with some friends of mine in Eastern Europe; we ran the whole thing through other hosts, we anonymized everything—there is absolutely no way that this could be traced to me.”

“These friends of yours work for free?”

“Of course not, they’re getting part of the money.”

“You trust their discretion?”

“Obviously.”

“That explains why your initial contact with me came through Ukraine.”

“Yes.”

“It’s good to have that loose end tied up,” Wallace said primly. “But the biggest loose end of all is still loose.”

“And that is?”

“Why are you doing this?”

Peter was stuck for an answer.

“Just tell me you’re addicted to cocaine. Being blackmailed by your dominatrix. It’s perfectly all right.”

“I’m upside down on my mortgage,” Peter said.

“You mean on that hacker dump where you live?”

“It’s a commercial building in Seattle… an industrial neighborhood called Georgetown…”

Wallace nodded and quoted the address from memory.

Peter’s face got hot. “Okay, you’ve been checking me out. That’s fine. I acquired the space before the economy crashed. I use part of it as live/work space and lease out the rest. When the economy went south, vacancy rates went nuts and the property lost a lot of book value as well as not bringing in rent. But with this, I can make it right. Avoid foreclosure, fix a few things, sell it, be in position to buy…”

“A real house where a female might actually want to live?” Wallace asked. For Peter, in spite of willing himself not to, had let his eyes stray momentarily in the direction of Zula.

“You have to understand,” Peter began.

“Ah, but Peter, I don’t wish to understand.”

“Seattle is full of these people—no smarter than me—no harder working than me—”

“Who are zillionaires because they got lucky. Peter! Listen to me carefully,” Wallace said. “I’ve already told you who I work for. How do you think I feel?”

That left Peter silent long enough for Wallace to add, “And did I make it clear enough that I don’t give a shite?”

“You give a shit about tying up those loose ends.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you for bringing me back to important topics,” Wallace said. He checked his watch. “I got here about half an hour ago. If you’d been watching the parking lot, you’d have seen two vehicles pull in. One is mine. Nice little ragtop, not so well adapted for these roads, but it got me here. The other a black Suburban with a couple of Russians in it. We parked on either side of your orange 2008 Scion xB. One of the Russians, a technical boy not much less talented than you, opened up his laptop and established a connection to the Internet using the lodge’s Wi-Fi network. He is sitting there now waiting for me. If we go through with this transaction, I’ll be in the backseat of that Suburban about thirty seconds later handing him this thumb drive. And he has got, what d’you call them, scripts that can go through your data and check those credit card numbers fast. And if he finds anything wrong, why then the retribution that I was warning you of, a few minutes ago, will have been completed before your liver has had time to metabolize that swallow of Mountain Dew you just enjoyed.”

Peter took another swallow of Mountain Dew. “I have the same scripts,” he said, “and I just ran them on this data a few hours ago. My friends in Eastern Europe have been keeping an eye on things too; they’d let me know if there was a problem. I’m scared of the people you work for, Mr. Wallace, and I wish I had never gotten into this; but one thing I’m not worried about at all is the integrity of the data I’m selling you.”

“Very well then.”

Peter set the thumb drive on the table and slid it across to Wallace.

Wallace drew a laptop from his bag and opened it up on the table. He inserted the thumb drive. Its icon appeared on the screen. He double-clicked it to reveal a single Excel file entitled “data.” Wallace dragged that folder into his “Documents” icon and watched for a few seconds as the little on-screen animation reassured him that the transfer was taking place. As this was happening, he remarked: “There is another way that this could go wrong, of course. Already alluded to in this conversation.”

“And that is…?”

“Perhaps this is not the only copy of the data? Perhaps you’ll double your money, or triple it, by selling it to others?”

Peter shrugged. “There’s no way I can prove that this is the only copy.”

“I understand. But your Ukrainian colleagues—?”

“They’ve never even seen this stuff. When we ran the exploit, the files went straight to my laptop.”

“Where you have retained a copy, just in case?”

“No.” Then Peter looked a bit uncertain. “Except for this.” He ejected the DVD from his laptop. “Would you like it?”

“I would like to see it destroyed.”

“Easy enough.” Peter bent the disk into a U and squeezed it hard, trying to snap it. This required a surprising amount of effort. Finally it made an explosive crack and fell apart into two halves, but several shards went flying onto the table and the floor. “Fuck!” Peter said. He dropped the two jagged semicircles onto the table and held up his right hand to display a cut on the base of the thumb, about half an inch long, with blood welling out of it.

“Do you think you could try to be a little more conspicuous?” Wallace asked. He had opened up the new “data” file and verified that it consisted of line after line of names, addresses, credit card numbers, and expiration dates. He scrolled all the way to the end and verified that it contained hundreds of thousands of records.

Then he pulled the thumb drive out of his machine and flicked it into the fire burning a few feet away from them. Peter, who was sucking on his self-inflicted laceration, couldn’t help glancing over in the direction of Richard and Zula.

With his foot, Wallace shoved a small duffel bag across the floor until it contacted Peter’s ankle. “Should pay for a few Band-Aids with enough left over to buy Uncle Dick a new thumb drive. But how you’ll pay off your mortgage with hundred-dollar bills I’ll never know.”

“Turns out Uncle Dick knows something about it.” Peter had taken his hand from his mouth and now pressed the bleeding wound against the icy cold side of his Mountain Dew glass.

“You know this of your own personal knowledge, or Wikipedia?” Wallace asked.

“Just so you know, he has a lot of problems with his Wikipedia entry.”

“As would I,” Wallace said, “were it mine. Answer my question.”

“Richard doesn’t talk about the old days. Not to me anyway.”

“What, he doesn’t think you’re worthy of his niece?” Wallace said in a tone of mock wonderment. “Richard Forthrast went straight a long time ago. He’ll not help you with your embarrassment of hundred-dollar bills.”

“He found a way,” Peter said. “So can I.”

“Peter. Before we part ways, hopefully forever, I’d like to speak with you briefly about something.”

“Go ahead.”

“I can see that you’ve spoken forthrightly. So now I want to respond in kind and tell you that all that stuff about the Russians was just BS. A scare tactic, pure and simple.”

“I figured that out already.”

“How, exactly?”

“A minute ago you said you were going to give the thumb drive to a Russian hacker in the backseat of the Suburban. But just now you threw it in the fire.”

“Clever boy. So I needn’t tell you that there is no Suburban in the parking lot. You can look for yourself.”

Peter did not look. He was almost excessively ready to believe Wallace.

“I am in business for myself,” Wallace said. “A small-timer without the muscle to back up my business, and so I have to play these mind games sometimes, as a way of judging people’s sincerity. It worked in this case. I can see that you have played me straight. Otherwise it would have come through in your eyes.”

“That’s okay,” Peter said. “We used to watch this stupid program called Scared Straight. I think you scared me straight just now.”

“Oh really!” Wallace drawled. “You’ve turned a new leaf! This was your last big score! You’re getting out now. Going on the straight and narrow path, like Richard Forthrast.”

“He did it…” Peter began.

“…so can you,” Wallace finished. “I think that is all bollocks, but I shall take my leave now and wish you luck.”

“IS PETER A drug user?” Richard asked.

“No, he’s straight edge,” Zula said with a quick roll of the eyes and air quotes. “Why?”

“Because that looked like a drug transaction to me.”

She looked back over her shoulder. “Really? In what way?”

“Just something about the psychological dynamic.”

She gave him a penetrating look through her glasses.

“Which I admit doesn’t explain the antics with the thumb drive and trying to kill himself with a DVD,” he allowed.

She averted her gaze and shrugged.

“Never mind,” he continued.

“So D-squared lowered the boom on Skeletor about the apostrophes.”

“Yeah. A well-planned attack, I’d say. And it led to, among other things, the change where D’uinn became Dwinn.”

“Gosh, the way people talk about it on the Internet…”

“You’d think it was a much bigger deal. No. Not at the time, anyway. But this is how history is done now. People wait until they have a need for some history and then they customize it to suit their purposes. A year ago? Only the most hard-core T’Rain geeks would have heard of the Apostropocalypse and it would be considered a footnote. Maybe amusing at most.”

“But ever since the Forces of Brightness went all Pearl Harbor against the Earthtone Coalition—”

“It’s become important in retrospect,” Richard said, “and it’s been blown up into this big thing. But really? It was just an excruciatingly awkward dinner. D’uinn got changed into Dwinn. Supposedly for linguistic reasons. But it set a precedent that Don Donald had the authority to change things that Devin had done in the world.”

“Which he then went on to abuse?”

“According to the Forces of Brightness,” Richard said. “But the fact is that D-squared has been discreet, restrained, only changed things in places where Devin really pissed down his leg. Things that Devin himself would have changed, had he gone back and reread his work and thought about it a little harder. So it’s mostly not a big deal.”

“To you maybe,” Zula said, “but to Devin?”

Richard thought about it. “At the time, he really acted like he didn’t care.”

“But maybe he really did,” Zula said, “and has been plotting his revenge ever since. Hiding things deep in the Canon. Details of history that Geraldine and herm it was like a dog whistle.”

Richard shrugged and nodded. Then he noticed that Zula was gazing at him. Waiting for more.

“You don’t care!” she finally exclaimed. Then a smile.

“I did at first,” he admitted. “I was shocked at first. One of my characters got ganked, you know. Attacked without warning by other characters in his party. Cut down while he was defending them. So of course that was upsetting at the time. And the furor, the anger over the last couple of months—how could you not get caught up in that, a little? But—I’m running a business.”

“And the War of Realignment is making money?”

“Hand over fist.”

“Who’s making money hand over fist?” asked Peter, breaking in on them. He unslung a black nylon duffel bag and placed it on his lap as he sat down. He was gripping a rolled-up wad of paper napkins, applying direct pressure to his DVD wound.

“You ask an interesting question,” said Richard, looking Peter in the eye.

“Just joking,” Peter said, immediately breaking eye contact.

“Well,” said Zula, and tapped her phone to check the time. “Could you take a picture of me and my uncle before we hit the road?”

AS GOOGLE MAPS made dispiritingly clear, there was no good way to drive from that part of B.C. to Seattle, or anywhere for that matter; all the mountain ranges ran perpendicular to the vectors of travel.

The Schloss’s access road took them across the dam and plugged them in to the beginning of a provincial two-laner that followed the left bank of the river to the southern end of the big lake Kootenay: a deep sliver of water trapped between the Selkirks and the Purcells. It teed into a larger highway in the middle of Elphinstone, a nicely restored town of about ten thousand residents, nine thousand of whom seemed to work in dining establishments. A gas stop there developed into a half-hour break for Thai food. Peter talked hardly at all. Zula was used to long silences from him. In principle she didn’t mind it, since between her phone, her ebook reader, and her laptop she never really felt lonely, even on long drives in the mountains. But usually when Peter was quiet for a long time it was because he was thinking about some geek thing that he was working on, which made him cheerful. His silence on the drive down from Schloss Hundschüttler had been in a different key.

From Elphinstone they would go west over the Kootenay Pass. After that, they would have to choose the lesser of two evils where routing was concerned. They could go south and cross the border at Metaline Falls. This would inject them into the extreme north-eastern corner of Washington, from which they could work their way down to Spokane in a couple of hours and thence bomb right across the state on I-90. That was the route they’d taken when they’d come here on Friday. Or—

“I was thinking,” said Peter, after he’d spent fifteen minutes twirling his pad thai around his fork and attempting to burn a hole through the table with his gaze, “that we should go through Canada.”

He was talking about an alternate route that would take them across the upper Columbia, through the Okanagans, and eventually to Vancouver, whence they could cross the border and plug in to the northern end of I-5.

“Why?” Zula asked.

Peter gazed at her for the first time since they’d sat down. He was almost wounded by the question. It seemed for a moment as if he’d get defensive. Then he shrugged and broke eye contact.

Later, as Peter was driving them west, Zula put away her useless electronics (for phone coverage was expensive in Canada and the ebook reader couldn’t be seen in the dark) and just stared out the windshield and replayed the encounter in her head. It pivoted around that word “should.” If he’d said, It would be fun to go a new way, or I’d like to go through Canada just for the hell of it, she would not have come back with Why? since she’d been thinking along similar lines herself. But he’d said, We should go through Canada, which was an altogether different thing. And the way he’d deflected her question afterward put her in mind of the way he’d behaved around that stranger in the tavern. Uncle Richard’s question about a drug deal had irritated her at the time. Peter’s look, his clothing, the way he acted, caused older people to make wrong assumptions about who he was. But she knew perfectly well that he was a sweet and decent guy and that he never put anything stronger than Mountain Dew into his body.

Should. What possible difference could it make? The Metaline Falls border crossing was rinky-dink to be sure, but by the same token, it was little used, and so you rarely had to wait. The border guards were so lonely they practically ran out and hugged you. The Vancouver crossings were among the largest and busiest on the whole border.

He was avoiding something.

That was the one thing about Peter. If something made him uneasy, he’d dodge around it. And he was good at that. Probably didn’t even know that he was dodging. It was just how he instinctively made his way in the world. He wasn’t an Artful Dodger. More of an Artless Dodger, guileless and unaware. As a young child Zula had seen some of that behavior in Eritrea, where confronting your problems head-on wasn’t always the smartest way; the patriarch of her refugee group had devised a strategy for getting even with the Ethiopians that revolved around walking barefoot across the desert to Sudan, checking into a refugee camp long enough to make his way to America, starting a life there, getting rich (at least by Horn of Africa standards), and sending money back to Eritrea to fund the ongoing war effort.

But the Forthrasts came out of a different tradition where, no matter what the problem, there was a logical and level-headed behavior for dealing with it. Ask your minister. Ask your scoutmaster. Ask your guidance counselor.

Peter had been really troubled on the drive down the lake shore to Elphinstone, then hugely relieved when they had opted for the western route. By going west, he had effected some sort of dodge.

To avoid some scary-looking, switchbacky stuff in the Okanagans—perhaps not the best choice, in the middle of the night, and at this time of year—they shot up north and connected with a bigger, straighter highway at Kelowna. There they stopped at a gas station/convenience store, and Peter took the exceptional step of buying coffee. Zula made the hopeless suggestion that she be allowed to drive and Peter offered her an alternative role: “Talk to me and keep me awake.” Which she could only laugh at since he hadn’t said a word. But from Kelowna onward she did try to talk to him. They ended up talking mostly about nerd stuff, since that was the only area where, once he got going, the words would really tumble out of him for hours. He was perpetually interested in the underlying security apparatus of T’Rain and how it might be vulnerable and how, therefore, he might be able to improve it, while charging them money for the service and making him look very good to his new employer. Zula was perpetually unable to talk about it much because she had signed an NDA of awesome length and intimidating detail, something on which no minister, scoutmaster, or guidance counselor could ever have given sage advice. She could talk about what had been made public, which was that her boss, Pluto, was the Keeper of the Key, the sole person on earth who knew a certain encryption key that was changed every month and that was used to digitally sign all the fantasy-geological output of his world-generating algorithm. It was sort of like the signature of the Treasurer of the United States that was printed on every dollar bill to certify that it was genuine. Because the output of Pluto’s code dictated, among other things, how much gold was in each wheelbarrow of ore dug out by Dwinn miners. Zula had not been hired to work so much on the precious-metals part of the system—her job was computational fluid dynamics simulations of magma flow—but she had to touch those security measures every day, and Peter was forever posing hypothetical questions about them and how they might be breached—not by him but by hypothetical black-hat hackers that he could be paid to outwit.

That got them awake and alive to Abbotsford, still something like an hour outside of Vancouver, but grazing the U.S. border, and in some ways a more logical place to cross. They stopped, not for gas, but because Peter’s bladder was full, and the stop turned into a long one as Peter used his PDA to check the waiting times at various border crossings. Meanwhile Zula went in and bought junk food. When she came out, he had the back of the vehicle open and was fussing with something back there. She heard zippers, the rustle of plastic. “You want to drive?” he asked her.

“I’ve been telling you for six hours that I’d be happy to drive,” she pointed out mildly.

“Just thought you might have changed your mind or something, but I would really like to rest my eyes and might even go to sleep,” he said, which Zula did not intuitively believe since to her he seemed to have a pretty serious buzz on. But something clicked in her head to the effect that he was dodging again. The act of driving across the border was triggering his dodging instinct. It had happened as they had neared the fork in the road at Elphinstone and was now happening again. She agreed to drive.

“It’s the Peace Arch,” he said. “We want the Peace Arch crossing.”

“There’s one, like, two miles from where we are now.”

“Peace Arch has less traffic.”

“Whatever then.”

So she began driving them the last few dozen kilometers west, to the Peace Arch crossing, which was actually right on salt water: the farthest they could go, the longest they could delay the crossing. Peter, after a few minutes, leaned his seat back and closed his eyes and stopped moving. Though Zula had slept with him more than a few times and knew that this was not his pattern when it came to sleeping.

The electronic signs on the highway said that the so-called Truck Crossing—just a few miles to the east of the Peace Arch crossing—was actually less crowded and so she went that way. Only two cars were ahead of them in the inspection lane, which probably meant a wait of less than a minute.

“Peter?”

“Yeah?”

“Got your passport?”

“Yeah, it’s in my pocket. Hey. Where are we?”

“The border.”

“This is the Truck Crossing.”

“Yes. Less wait time here.”

“I was kind of thinking Peace Arch.”

“Why does it matter?” Only one car to go. “Why don’t you get out your passport?”

“Here. You can give it to the guard.” Peter handed his passport to Zula, then settled back into a position of repose. “Tell him I’m asleep, okay?”

“You’re not asleep.”

“I just think that we’re less likely to get a hassle if they think I’m asleep.”

“What hassle? When is there ever a hassle at this border? It’s like driving between North and South Dakota.”

“Work with me.”

“Then close your eyes and stop moving,” she said, “and he can see for himself that you’re asleep, or pretending to be. But if I state the obvious—‘he’s sleeping’—it’s just going to seem weird. Why does it matter?”

Peter pretended to sleep and did not respond.

The car ahead of them moved on into the United States, and the green light came on to signal them forward. Zula pulled up.

“How many in the car?” asked the guard. “Citizenship?” He shone the flashlight on Peter. “Your friend’s going to have to wake up.”

“Two of us. U.S.”

“How long have you been in Canada?”

“Three days.”

“Bringing anything back?”

“No,” Zula said.

“Just a bag of coffee. Some junk food,” said Peter.

“Welcome home,” said the guard, and turned on the green light.

Zula accelerated south. Peter motored his seat back upright and rubbed his face.

“Want your passport back?”

“Sure, thanks.”

“It’s like two hours to Seattle,” Zula said. “Maybe that’s long enough for you to explain why you have been fucking with me all day.”

Peter actually seemed startled that she had figured out that he was fucking with her, but he made no attempt to protest his innocence.

A few minutes later, after she had merged into traffic on I-5, he said, “I did something hyperstupid. Maybe even relationship-endingly stupid, for all that I know.”

“Who was that guy in the tavern? He had something to do with it, right?”

“Wallace. Lives in Vancouver. As far as I can tell from his trail on the Internet, he’s an accountant. Trained in Scotland. Immigrated to Canada in the 1980s.”

“Did you do some kind of job for him? Some kind of security gig?”

Peter was silent for a little while.

“Look,” Zula said, “I just want to know what is in this car that you were so nervous about taking across the border.”

“Money,” he said. “Cash in excess of ten thousand dollars. I was supposed to declare it. I didn’t.” He leaned back, heaved a sigh. “But now we’re safe. We’re across the border. We—”

“Who is ‘we’ in this case? Am I some sort of accomplice?”

“Not legally, since you didn’t know. But—”

“So was I ever in danger? Where does this come from, this ‘we’re safe’ thing?” Zula did not often get angry, but when she did, it was a slow inexorable building.

“Wallace is just a little weird,” he said. “Some things he said—I don’t know. Look. I realized I was making a mistake even while I was doing this. Hated every minute of it. But then it was done and I had the money and we were on the road, headed for the border, and I started to think about the implications.”

“So you wanted to find a border crossing that was busy,” she said.

“Yeah. So they’d be more pressed for time, less likely to search the car.”

“When you checked the crossing times at Abbotsford—”

“I was looking for the crossings that were busiest.”

“Unbelievable.”

She drove for a while, thinking through the day. “Why did you do it at the Schloss?”

“It was Wallace’s idea. We were trying to match up our travel schedules. I mentioned I’d be there. He jumped at it. Didn’t seem to mind driving all the way out from Vancouver in the winter. Now I realize that he didn’t want to cross the border with the cash. He wanted to saddle me with that little problem.”

“What kind of an accountant pays for security consulting services in cash?”

Peter said nothing.

Zula was working through it. Hundred-dollar bills. One hundred of them would make ten thousand bucks. That would be a bundle roughly how thick? Not that thick. Not that difficult to hide in a car.

He was carrying more than that. A lot more. She’d seen odd behavior connected with his luggage. Rearranging something at Abbotsford.

“Hold on a sec,” Zula said. “You charge two hundred bucks an hour. It would take fifty hours of work to add up to ten thousand dollars. My sense, though, is that you are carrying a lot more than ten thousand. Which means a lot more than fifty hours of work. But you just haven’t been that busy lately. You’ve been fixing up your building. You just spent a whole week hanging drywall. When could you have logged that many hours?”

And so then the story did come out.

ZULA’S PREDICTION WAS right. It did give them something to talk about all the way back to Seattle.

Peter was right too; it was a relationship termination event. Not so much what he’d done in the past—though that was pretty stupid—but what he’d done today: the ridiculous drama about crossing the border.

The real kiss of death, though, was that he invoked Uncle Richard.

It happened when they were somewhere around Everett, about to enter into the northern suburbs of Seattle. He sensed that he had ten, maybe fifteen miles in which to plead his case. Which he attempted to do by bringing up all the weird stuff that Richard Forthrast had done, or was rumored to have done, in his past. Zula seemed to get along just fine with Uncle Richard, so—the argument went—what was her problem with Peter now?

It was then that she cut him off in midsentence and said that it was over. She said it with a certainty and a conviction in her voice and her face that left him fascinated and awed. Because guys, at least of his age, didn’t have the confidence to make major decisions from their gut like that. They had to build a superstructure of rational thought on top of it. But not Zula. She didn’t have to decide. She just had to pass on the news.

Day 1

On Friday Zula had skipped out of work early and driven straight to Peter’s space (he always called it his “space”). She had parked her car inside the more warehousey part of the building, which was accessible through a huge, grade-level, roll-up door off the back alley, and left a few of her work things there. So despite the relationship termination event, she had to go back to his place to get her car and collect her things. From I-5 she exited onto Michigan Avenue, which ran diagonally along the northern boundary of Boeing Field, and after following it toward the water for a couple of blocks, doubled back north into Georgetown.

A hundred years earlier Georgetown had been an independent city specializing in the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It was bounded by major rail lines and industrial waterways. Early in the twentieth century it had been annexed by Seattle, which couldn’t stand to see, so close to its city limits, an independent town so ripe for taxation.

When airplanes became common, the regional airport had been built immediately to the south. This was nationalized around the time of Pearl Harbor and then used by Boeing to punch out B-17s and B-29s all through the war. Georgetown’s quieter and narrower streets had become crowded with riveters’ bungalows. Still the neighborhood had preserved its identity until late in the century, when it had come under attack from the north, as dot-coms looking for cheap office space had invaded the industrial flatlands south of downtown, preying on machine shops and foundries that had lost most of their business to China. The mills and lathes had been torn out and junked or auctioned off, the high ceilings cleaned up and rigged with cable ladders creaking under the weight of miles of blue Ethernet wire. Truck drivers had had to get used to sharing the district’s potholed streets with bicycle commuters in dorky helmets and spandex. It was during that era that Peter, sensing an opportunity, had acquired his building. He had talked himself into it largely on the strength of a belief that he and some friends would launch a high-tech company there. This had failed to materialize because of changes in the financial climate, so he had ended up using part of it as live/work space and renting the rest of it to artists and artisans, who, as it turned out, didn’t pay the same kind of rent as high-tech companies. But what was bad for Peter had been good for Georgetown—at least, the aspect of Georgetown that was about actually making things as opposed to playing tricks with bits.

It was an old brick building. The ground floor had high ceilings supported by timbers of old-growth fir, which would have made it a fine setting for a restaurant or brewpub if the building had been on a more accessible street and if Georgetown hadn’t already had several of those. As it was, he’d subdivided that level into two bays, one leased by an exotic-metals welder who made parts for the aerospace industry, the other serving as Peter’s workshop. It was there that Zula’s car had spent the weekend. Above was a single story of finished space with nice old windows looking out toward Boeing Field. This too was subdivided into an open-plan live/work loft, where Peter lived, and another unit that he had been fixing up in the hopes of renting it to some young hip person who wanted to live, as Peter put it “in the presence of arches.”

The remark had made little sense to Zula until she had spent a bit of time in the neighborhood and started noticing that, yes, the old buildings sported windows and doorways that were supported by true functioning arches of brick or stone, the likes of which were never used in newer construction. For Peter to have noticed this was a bit clever, and for him to have understood that it would be attractive to a certain kind of person reflected somewhat more human insight than one normally looked for in a nerd.

So, that night, when they got back to his space at about 2 A.M. and she went upstairs to collect the stuff she’d left scattered around during the months that she’d been quasi living with him, and she saw the brick window arches that he had left exposed during the remodel, a lot went through her head in a few moments and she found herself unable to move or think very clearly. She stood there in the dark. The lights of Boeing Field shone up against a low ceiling of spent rain clouds and made them glow a greenish silver that filled the apertures of the windows smoothly, as if troweled onto the glass.

She was strangely comforted. The natural thing for Zula to be asking herself at this moment was What did I ever see in this guy? Other than his physical beauty, which was pretty obvious. Those occasional left-handed insights, like the arches. Another thing: he worked very hard and knew how to do a lot of things, which had put her in mind of the family back in Iowa. He was intelligent, and, as evidenced by the books stacked and scattered all over the place, he was interested in many things and could talk about them in an engaging way, when he felt like talking. Being here now, alone (for he was down in the bay unpacking his gear), enabled her to walk through the process of getting a crush on him, like reenacting a crime scene, and thereby to convince herself that she hadn’t just been out-and-out stupid. She could forgive herself for not having noticed the relationship-ending qualities that had been so screamingly obvious for the last twelve hours. Her girlfriends had probably not been asking each other, behind Zula’s back, what she saw in that guy.

Which led her to question, one last time—as long as she was alone in the dark and still had the opportunity—whether she should have broken up with him at all. But she was pretty certain that when she woke up tomorrow morning she’d feel right about it. This was the third guy she had broken up with. Where she’d gone to school, mixed-race computational fluid dynamics geeks didn’t get as many dates as, say, blond, blue-eyed hotel and restaurant management majors. But, like a tenement dweller nurturing a rooftop garden in coffee cans, she had cultivated and maintained a little social life of her own, and harvested the occasional ripe tomato, and maybe enjoyed it more intensely than someone who could buy them by the sack at Safeway. So she was not utterly inexperienced. She’d done it before. And she felt as right about this breakup as she did about the other two.

She turned on the lights, which hurt her tired eyes, and began picking up stuff that she knew was hers: from the bathroom, her minimal but important cosmetics, and some hair management tools. From her favorite corner, some notes and books related to work. A couple of novels. Nothing important, but she didn’t want Peter to wake up every morning and be confronted with random small bits of Zula spoor. She piled what she found at the top of the stairs that led down into the bay and looped back through the living quarters, gleaning increasingly nonobvious bits of stuff: a baseball cap, a hair clip, a coffee mug, lip balm. She went slower and took longer than necessary because when this was over she’d have to carry it all downstairs to the bay where Peter was fussing with his snowboarding gear, and that would be awkward. She was too tired and spent to contend with that awkwardness in a graceful way and did not want Peter’s last recollection of her to be as a fuming bitch.

When she returned to her stuff pile for what she estimated was the penultimate time, she heard voices downstairs. Peter’s and another man’s. She couldn’t make out any words, but the other man was vastly excited. A cool draft was coming up the stairs from below: outside air flowing in through the open bay door. It carried the sharp perfume of incompletely burned gasoline, a smell that nowadays came only from very old cars, precatalytic converter.

Zula looked out a small back window on the alley side of the building and saw a sports car parked there with its lights on, the driver’s door hanging open, the engine still running. The driver was arguing with Peter down in the bay. She assumed that this was because Peter had left the Scion blocking the alley while he unloaded. The convertible was stopped nose to nose with the Scion; its driver, or so Zula speculated, was pissed off that he couldn’t get through. He was in a hurry and drunk. Or maybe on meth, to judge from the intensity of his rage. She couldn’t quite follow the argument that was going on downstairs. Peter was astonished by something, but he was taking the part of the reasonable guy trying to calm the stranger down. The stranger was shouting in bursts, and Zula couldn’t understand him. He had (she realized) some sort of accent, and while her English was pretty much perfect, she did have a few weak spots, and accents were one of them.

She was just about to call 911 when she heard the stranger mention “voice mail.”

“…turned it off…” Peter explained, again in a very calm and reasonable voice.

“…all the way from fucking Vancouver,” the stranger complained, “rain pissing down.”

Zula moved to the window and looked at the stranger’s car again and saw that it had British Columbia license plates.

It was that guy. It was Wallace.

There had been some kind of problem with the transaction. It was a customer service call.

No. Tech support. Wallace was complaining about a “fucking virus or something.”

The tension somehow broke. The adrenaline buzz on which Wallace had blasted down from Vancouver had abated. They had agreed to talk about this calmly. Wallace shut off the convertible’s engine, killed the lights, came into the bay. Peter pulled the door down behind him.

“Whose car is this?” Wallace demanded. Now that the big door was closed, the sound echoed up the steps and Zula was better able to follow the conversation. Her ear was tuning in to the Scottish accent.

“Zula’s,” Peter said.

“The girl? She’s here?”

“I dropped her off at home.” Zula noted the lie with grudging thanks and admiration. “She parks it here when she’s not using it.”

“I have to take a vicious piss.”

“There’s a urinal right over there.”

“Good man.” The freestanding urinal in the middle of his shop was one of Peter’s proudest innovations. Zula heard Wallace’s zipper going down, heard him using it, thought it would be funny to come down the stairs and make her exit at that point. But her car was now blocked in by Wallace’s. “I’ve been assuming that you deliberately fucked me,” Wallace remarked, as he was peeing, “but now I entertain the possibility that it is something other than that.”

“Good. Because it was totally on the up-and-up.”

“Other than being a massive identity theft scheme, you mean to say.”

“Yes.”

“Convincing me of that is easy enough. Already done. But the people I work with are another thing.” Wallace finished and zipped up again. Zula could hear the timbre of his voice change as he turned around.

“I thought you said you worked alone.”

“I was telling the truth the first time,” Wallace said.

“Oh,” Peter said after a noticeable pause.

“I’ve already had three fucking emails from my contact in Toronto wanting to know where the hell are the credit card numbers. As a matter of fact, I’d better send him an update right now. If lying through my teeth can be so called.”

The conversation lapsed for a few moments, and Zula guessed that Wallace was thumb-typing on a phone.

“I guess I don’t understand why you haven’t just sent him the numbers,” Peter said. “So maybe you should just take this from the top, because everything you were shouting when you pulled up a few minutes ago left me totally confused.”

“Almost finished,” Wallace muttered.

“The password to my Wi-Fi is here,” Peter said, and Zula heard him sliding a piece of paper down the counter.

“Never mind, I used something called Tigmaster.”

“You should use mine; it is way more secure than Tigmaster.”

“What is that anyway, an animal trainer?”

“Welder. My tenant. He should put a password on his Wi-Fi, but he can’t be bothered.”

“Right, he’s not security conscious like you and me.”

Peter didn’t answer since that must have sounded to him, as it did to Zula, like a trap.

Zula had thought better of calling 911 when she understood that it was Wallace and not some random enraged crankhead. Now she considered it again. But Wallace was much calmer now. And Peter was the only person here who had actually broken the law. Zula was satisfied just to have broken up with him. Sending him to prison would have been overkill.

“Take it from the top? All right, here we go,” said Wallace, then paused. “Any beers in that fridge?”

“I thought you didn’t drink.”

Silence.

“Be my guest.”

Fridge-opening and beer sound effects as Wallace went on: “As you saw, I transferred the file to my laptop right there in the tavern. Verified its contents. Closed the laptop. Went to my car. Drove back to Vancouver, stopping only once for petrol, never left the car, never let the laptop out of my sight. Parked in the garage at my condo building, went to my flat, hand-carrying the laptop. Set it down on my desk, plugged it in, opened it up, verified that everything was just as I’d left it.”

“When you say ‘plugged it in,’ could you please tell me everything you plugged into it?” Peter had now dropped, improbably, into a polite, clinical mode, like a customer service rep in a Bangalore cubicle farm.

“Power, Ethernet, external monitor, and FireWire.”

“You say Ethernet—you don’t use Wi-Fi at home?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Just asking. You have some kind of firewall or something between raw Internet and your laptop?”

“Of course, it’s a corporate firewall solution that I pay a fucking mint for every month. Have a lad who maintains it for me. Totally locked down. Never a problem.”

“You mentioned FireWire. What’s on that?” Peter asked.

“My backup drive.”

“So you’re backing up your files locally?”

“You’re not getting this, are you?” Wallace asked. “I told you who I worked for, yes?”

“Yes.”

Peter had not mentioned to Zula that Wallace worked for anyone and so she did not understand what this was about, but the way both men talked about Wallace’s employer had certainly attracted her notice.

“There are a couple of things I would never, ever like to have to explain to him,” Wallace said. “First, that I lost important files because I forgot to back them up. Second, that his files have been accessed by unauthorized persons because I backed them up to a remote server not under my physical control. So what choice do I have?”

“Keeping the hardware under your physical control is the only way to be sure,” Peter said soothingly. “What is the backup drive exactly?”

“A rather pricey off-the-shelf RAID 3 box, which I have placed inside of a safe that is bolted into the concrete wall and floor of the condo. When I am home, I open the safe and pull out the FireWire cable and connect it to my laptop long enough to accomplish the backup, then close it all up again.”

Peter considered it. “Unconventional but pretty logical” was his verdict. “To physically steal the box, someone would have to do huge damage to the safe and probably destroy the RAID.”

“That’s kind of my thinking.”

“Okay, so your first move on getting home was to open the safe and make a backup just like you said, so that if your laptop’s drive just happened to crash at that particular moment you’d still have a copy of the file I sold you.”

“You convinced me that it was the only copy extant,” said Wallace, sounding almost defensive.

“So in a world governed by Murphy’s law, making an immediate backup was the right move,” Peter agreed.

“He was expecting the file to show up on a particular server in Budapest no later than… translating to West Coast time, here… two A.M., and it was only midnight.”

“Plenty of time.”

“So I thought,” Wallace said. “Having set the backup in motion, I left the room, took a piss, and listened to the voice mail on my landline while I unpacked a few items and mixed myself a drink. I sorted through the mail. This might have taken all of about fifteen minutes. I went back to my study and sat down in front of my laptop and opened up a terminal window. When I am undertaking operations of this sort, I prefer to use SCP from the command line.”

“As you should,” Peter agreed.

“My first move was to check the contents of ‘Documents’ to remind myself of the filename and approximate size of the file that you sold me. And when I did that, I saw—well, see for yourself.”

Evidently Wallace’s laptop was already open on Peter’s workbench. There was a brief pause and then Peter said, “Hmm.”

“You need to understand that yesterday, ‘Documents’ contained a dozen or so subdirectories and maybe two score of files,” Wallace said.

“Including the file in question.”

“Yes.”

“And now it contains two files and two files only,” Peter said, “one of which is called troll.gpg, the other—”

“README,” Wallace said. “So I read the fucking thing.”

Peter snorted. “I think it’s supposed to be called README,” he said, “but there’s a typo. They transposed two letters, see?”

“REAMDE,” Wallace said.

“You’ve already opened it?”

“Perhaps stupidly, yeah.”

Peter double-clicked. There was a pause while (Zula imagined) he examined the contents of the REAMDE file.

The name had jogged a vague memory. Zula’s bag was leaning against the wall right next to her. Moving quietly, she reached into the padded laptop slot at its top and pulled out her computer. She set it on the floor, sat down next to it, and opened it up. Her first move was to hit the button that muted the sound. Within a few seconds it had attached itself to Peter’s Wi-Fi network. She clicked an icon that caused a VPN connection to be established to Corporation 9592’s network.

“We already established that you’re not a T’Rain player,” Wallace said.

“Never got into it,” Peter admitted.

“Well, that picture you’re looking at is of a troll. A particular type of mountain troll that lives in a particular region of T’Rain, rather inaccessible I’m afraid. Which might help you make sense of the caption.”

“‘Ha ha noob, you are powned by troll. I have encrypt all your file. Leave 1000 GP at below coordinates and I give you key.’ Ah, okay, I get it.”

“Well, I’m pretty fucking glad that you get it, my friend, because—”

“And now,” said Peter, cutting him off, “if we check out the contents of the other file, troll.gpg, we find that”—miscellaneous clicks—“one, it is huge, and two, it is a correctly formatted gpg file.”

“You call that correctly formatted!?”

“Yeah. A standard header and then several gigs of random-looking binary content.”

“Several gigs you say.”

“Yeah. This one file is big enough to contain, probably, all the files that were originally stored in your ‘Documents’ folder. But if we take the message in REAMDE at face value, it’s all been encrypted. Your files are being held for ransom.”

Zula had brought up Corporation 9592’s internal wiki, and now went to a page entitled MALWARE. Several trojans and viruses were listed. REAMDE wasn’t difficult to find; it was the first word on the page, it was large, and it was red. When she clicked through to the dedicated page for REAMDE and checked its history, she found that 90 percent of its content had been written during the last seventy-two hours. Corporation 9592’s security hackers had been toiling at it all weekend.

“How is this possible?” Wallace demanded.

Upstairs, Zula was already reading about how it was possible.

“It’s not just possible, it’s actually pretty easy, once your system has been rooted by a trojan,” Peter said. “This isn’t the first. People have been making malware that does this for a few years now. There’s a word for it: ‘ransomware.’”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It is hard to turn this kind of virus into a profitable operation,” Peter said, “because there has to be a financial transaction: the payment of the ransom. And that can be traced.”

“I see,” Wallace said. “So if you’re in the malware business, there are easier ways to make money.”

“By running botnets or whatever,” Peter agreed. “The new wrinkle here, apparently, is that the ransom is to be paid in the form of virtual gold pieces in T’Rain.”

“So until now, this has been a technical possibility, but few people have used it on a large scale,” Wallace said, working it through. “But these fuckers have figured out a way to use T’Rain as a money-laundering system.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “And I’m guessing, since you drove all the way down here and left, as I now see, eight voice mails on my phone, that your backup drive in the safe also got infected.”

“Yeah, it fucked everything it could reach,” Wallace said. “It must have passed into my system from that fucking thumb drive you handed me, and then—”

“Don’t try to make this my fault. I use Linux, remember? Different OS, different malware.”

“Then how did this fucking virus get on to my laptop?”

“I don’t know,” Peter said.

Zula did know, because she was skimming pages of technical analyses of the REAMDE virus. One of the ways it propagated was through thumb drives and other removable media. And Peter had borrowed one of Richard’s old thumb drives so that he could transfer something into Wallace’s computer. Richard’s machine must be infected with REAMDE; but he wouldn’t know or care, since he was protected by corporate IT.

“But it doesn’t matter,” Peter continued. “All that matters is—”

“It does matter for establishing culpability,” Wallace said. “Which may be of interest to him.”

“All I’m saying is, we have to address the problem,” Peter said.

“Brilliant analysis there, Petey boy. It’s quarter to three. I’m already forty-five minutes late. I bought myself a bit of time by sending an email with some bullshit to the effect that my car broke down in the Okanagans. But the clock is ticking. We have got to decrypt that file!”

“No,” Peter said, “we have to pay the ransom.”

“Fuck that.”

“It is not possible to decrypt the file,” Peter said. “If we had the NSA working on it, we could probably decrypt it. But as matters stand, you’re screwed unless you pay the ransom.”

We’re screwed,” Wallace corrected him, “since this is all much too complicated to explain to him. He is not a computer guy. Has never heard of T’Rain, or any other massively multiplayer online game, for that matter. Might just barely understand the concept of a computer virus. All he’ll understand is that he doesn’t have what he paid for.”

“Then it’s like I said. We pay the ransom.”

Quite a long silence.

“I was hoping,” Wallace said, “that there was another copy of the file.”

“I already told you—”

“I know what you fucking told me,” Wallace said. “I was hoping that you were lying.”

“Is this all just another ruse to find out whether or not I am lying?”

“You’re just clever enough to be stupider than if you weren’t clever at all,” Wallace said. “This is quite real. I very badly want you to tell me, right now, Peter, that you lied to me earlier and that you have a backup copy of the file on one of your machines here.”

And then Wallace dropped his voice to a low growl and talked for about two minutes. During this time, Zula could not make out a single word that Wallace was saying.

When he was finished, all Peter could say, for a minute or so, was the f-word. He said it in about a dozen different ways, like an actor searching for just the right reading.

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he finally said, very close to sobbing, “because I was telling you the truth before. There really is no other copy!”

Now it was Wallace’s turn to say the f-word a lot.

“So we have to pay the ransom,” Peter said. “A thousand gold pieces?”

“That’s what it says,” Wallace answered.

“How much is that in real money?”

“Seventy-three dollars.”

Peter, after a moment, let out a burst of laughter that sounded eerie to Zula. He was close to hysteria. “Seventy-three dollars? This whole problem can be solved for seventy-three bucks!?”

“Raising the funds isn’t the hard part,” Wallace said.

Something about the sound of Peter’s laugh told Zula it was time to call 911. Best to do it from a landline so that the dispatcher would have the building’s address. She got up as quietly as she could and padded around to the corner where Peter had all his kitchen stuff. A cordless phone was bracketed to the wall. She picked up the handset and turned it on, then put it to her ear to check for a dial tone.

Instead of which, she heard a series of touch-tone beeps.

Someone else was on the line, on another extension, dialing a different number.

“Welcome to Qwest directory assistance,” said a recorded voice.

“Good morning, Zula,” said Wallace on the other extension. “I know you’re in the building because your computer suddenly popped up on Peter’s network. I’ve been keeping an eye on the phone down here. It’s got a handy little indicator, tells me when another extension is in use.”

The phone went dead. Down below, Zula could hear ripping and snapping noises as Wallace did something violent to the line. “What are you doing!?” Peter exclaimed, more confused than anything else.

“Getting us all on the same level,” Wallace said. She could hear him bounding up the stairs.

ZULA CARRIED A bike messenger shoulder bag rather than a purse. She’d left it on the floor at the top of the stairs. Wallace stirred a hand through it, plucked out her phone, then her car keys. With his other hand he closed the lid on her laptop and picked it up. “When you’re feeling more sociable, I’d be pleased to see you below,” he announced, then turned and walked back down the stairs.

She heard her Prius beep as he unlocked it with the key fob. For some reason that broke her out of her paralysis. She walked over to her bag. She was starting to wish she’d listened to all her relatives in Iowa who thought of Seattle as being only one step above Mogadishu and who kept importuning her to get a concealed weapons permit and buy a handgun. In an outside pocket of the bag she did have a folding knife, which she now found and slipped into the back pocket of her jeans. Then she came down the stairs to see Wallace slamming the passenger door of the Prius and hitting the lock button. He pocketed the key chain. “Your mobile and Peter’s are safe and sound inside the car,” he announced. Zula didn’t understand this use of “mobile” until she reached the base of the steps and saw two phones resting side by side on the car’s dashboard.

“Fucking rude of me, ain’t it?” Wallace said, looking her hard in the eye. “But for us to solve this problem we need to trust each other and to focus, and you kids nowadays substitute communicating for thinking, don’t you? So let’s think.”

She could feel Peter’s gaze on her, knew that if she turned to face him, a channel would open up between them and he would try to say something, by a gesture or a look on his face, probably by way of apology. She did not do so. Peter needed to issue an apology much more than she needed to receive one, and, in keeping with Wallace’s suggestion, she wanted to focus on solving the problem and getting out of here.

“We need to deliver a thousand GP to a location in the western Torgai Foothills?” she said.

“And then pray that our virus writer is a nice honest criminal who’ll cough up the key promptly,” Wallace said.

“If we’re going to travel with that much gold, we are going to be a target for thieves,” she pointed out.

“It’s only seventy-three dollars,” Peter said.

“To a teenager,” Zula said, “in an Internet café in China, it’s huge. And stealing it from travelers on a road is much faster than mining it.”

“Not to mention more fun,” Wallace added.

“How will their characters even know that you’re carrying that much gold?” Peter asked.

“I have an idea,” Wallace announced brightly. He turned to face Peter and aimed a finger at him. “You: shut the fuck up. If you can make yourself useful in some other way, such as making coffee, please do so. But Zula and I don’t have time to explain every last fucking detail of T’Rain to you.” Wallace turned back to Zula. “Shall we make ourselves comfortable upstairs?”

“WHAT IS YOUR most powerful character?” Zula asked as she was plugging in her power adapter in what passed for Peter’s living room. Peter was in what passed for a kitchen, making coffee.

“I only have one,” Wallace said. “An Evil T’Kesh Metamorph.” He was logging on to T’Rain using Peter’s work-station.

“Let me see him,” Zula said. She launched the T’Rain app on her laptop and logged in. She was sitting in an office chair, which she now rolled over in Wallace’s direction as far as the power cord would let her go. Wallace’s T’Kesh Metamorph was visible on the screen of the workstation.

“What have you got?” Wallace asked, taking a peek at her laptop. “A whole zoo of characters, I’ll bet?”

“Employees don’t get in-game perks. We have to build our characters from scratch just like the customers.”

“Probably a wise corporate policy,” said Wallace, sounding a bit disappointed.

“I have two. Both Good,” Zula said. “But of course it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“The one on the left,” Wallace said, craning his neck sideways to look at her screen, “is a better match in these times, is it not?”

He was talking, of course, about palettes.

Until the week before Christmas, it would have been quite difficult for Zula’s and Wallace’s characters to do anything together in T’Rain, because hers were Good and his was Evil. Hers would not have been able to travel very far into Evil territory, or his into Good. They could have met up in some wilderness area or war zone, but that would not have helped them on this mission, since the western Torgai Foothills were an island of firmly Evil territory most easily approached from Good zones to the west.

But then, as millions of students had gone on Christmas break and found themselves with vast amounts of free time for playing T’Rain, the War of Realignment had been launched. This had been carefully prepared, for months in advance, by parties still unknown. It basically consisted of a hitherto unidentified group, consisting of both Good and Evil characters, launching a well-laid blitzkrieg against a different group, also mixed Good/Evil, that wasn’t even aware it was a group until the hammer fell on them. The aggressors had been dubbed, by Richard Forthrast, the Forces of Brightness. The victims of the attack were the Earthtone Coalition. These terms, initially used only for internal memos in Corporation 9592, had leaked out into the player community and were now being printed on T-shirts.

Wallace’s character was identifiable from a thousand yards away as belonging to the Earthtone Coalition. Zula’s first character—the one on the left—was also Earthtone. Her other character was markedly Brighter. She had created it on Christmas Eve when it had become obvious that large parts of the world of T’Rain were being rendered inaccessible to her Earthtone character because of the huge advances being made on all fronts by the numerically superior legions of the Forces of Brightness. In consequence, her Bright character—being newer—was much weaker. How much weaker was a matter of interpretation. In a radical break with role-playing game tradition, T’Rain did not use numerical levels to indicate the power of its characters; rather, it used Aura, which was a three-part score calculated from a number of statistics including the character’s rank in its vassal network, the size and overall power of that network, the amount of experience it had racked up, the number of things it knew how to do, and the quality of its equipment. As a character’s Aura expanded it acquired certain perks, but never in a wholly predictable way.

The world that Pluto’s software had created was almost exactly the same size as Earth, which meant that traveling around it using thematically appropriate (i.e., medieval) forms of transportation required a lot of time. In theory that might have been fixable by messing around with the very definition of time itself; one could imagine, for example, jump-cutting from the beginning of a three-month sea voyage to its end. This was fine in single-player games but totally unworkable in a multiplayer setting. The progress of time in T’Rain had been locked down to that of the real world.

Pluto’s solution had been to computer-generate a system of ley lines that crisscrossed the world with density comparable to that of the New York City subway system. This had been used as the basis of a teleportation system that worked by routing characters to intersections of ley lines. The number of lines and intersections was incredibly colossal and made far more complex by the fact that certain lines could only be accessed by certain types of characters. No one could really use the system without the aid of software that kept track of everything and provided suggestions on how to get from point A to point B.

And so with a few moments’ work, Zula and Wallace were able to teleport their characters to a city in the flatlands below the Torgai Foothills. Wallace’s character went to a moneychanger and acquired a thousand gold pieces, which would show up as a $73 charge on Wallace’s credit card. From there they teleported to the closest ley line intersection that they could find to the coordinates specified in the REAMDE ransom note, which, from there, would be a fifteen-minute ride on the swift mounts that both of them owned.

The ley line intersection point was marked by a simple cairn. This shimmered into view on both of their screens. Zula turned her character (a K’Shetriae mage) until she saw Wallace’s T’Kesh standing about a hundred feet away (the teleportation process involved some positional error).

The most notable feature of the landscape was that it was littered—no, paved—with corpses in varying stages of decomposition.

A boulder, about the size of an exercise ball, plunged out of the sky and struck the ground nearby. Since meteorites were no more common in T’Rain than they were on Earth, Zula suspected some artificial cause. Turning toward the nearest of the Torgai Foothills, a small peak a couple of hundred meters distant, she saw a battery of three trebuchets, one of which was being reloaded. The other two were just in the act of firing. Their dangling weights and hurling slings seemed ungainly, chaotic, and unlikely to work. But they did a fine job of hurling two additional boulders in her direction. Zula had to dodge one. Not far away was an outcropping of stone that looked like it might provide shelter. She ran to it and immediately came under fire from a squadron of horse archers hidden in tall grass nearby. She invoked some spells that should have protected her from the barrage of arrows, but one of them scored a lucky hit and killed her. Her character disappeared from the screen and went to Limbo.

Zula turned her head to see how Wallace was faring. Not much better. He was pinned under a boulder and had been surrounded by another squadron of horse archers, riding around him in a ring, firing inward. His health was low and dropping fast. “Don’t let yourself get captured,” she warned him. “I know,” he said, and clicked an icon on his screen, helpfully labeled FALL ON YOUR SWORD.

ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO FALL ON YOUR SWORD? asked a dialog box.

YES, clicked Wallace.

A few seconds later his character was in Limbo too.

“It’s so obvious,” Wallace said, after devoting a few moments to regaining his composure. “This REAMDE thing has infected—how many computers?”

“Estimated at a couple of hundred thousand,” said Peter, who’d been sitting in the corner with his laptop, doing research on it. But he could only see Internet rumors in the public domain. Zula, thanks to her access to the VPN, knew that the real figure was closer to a million.

“All the victims have to go to the same fucking place with a thousand gold pieces. So naturally, thieves are going to set up an ambush at the closest ley line intersection.”

“It would pay for itself pretty quickly,” Zula allowed.

“So those guys stole your money?” asked Peter, violating the rule, earlier laid down by Wallace, that he couldn’t ask stupid questions about how T’Rain worked.

“No, because I fell on my sword, and died, and went to Limbo with all my kit,” Wallace said. “If I’d gotten weak enough for them to capture me, then they could’ve made away with the gold and everything else. But I was lucky. What they’re doing is probably quite profitable.”

“So what do we do?” Zula asked.

“Get out of Limbo,” Wallace said. This was easy enough; there were half a dozen ways to bring a character back to life, each with its own pros and cons. “Find a less obvious ley line intersection. Go there and be ready to fight our way through.”

“We could recruit a larger party—”

“At three in the morning? Not enough time,” Wallace said. “You’re sure you can’t recruit a more… omniscient character?”

“You mean, wake up my uncle?” Zula responded. “Are you sure you want him involved?”

SO THEY GOT out of Limbo and tried again, teleporting to another, much less convenient ley line intersection an hour’s ride from the place they were trying to reach. Here they were immediately ambushed, and nearly overcame the thieves, but because of some unluckiness they ended up in Limbo again and had to try it a third time. First, though, Wallace got more gold pieces and used them to buy, at extortionate rates, some spells and potions that would keep them alive a bit longer. They teleported back in again and fought their way through the ambush and withdrew to higher ground a couple of thousand yards away—where they were set upon by another party of thieves before they could recover from wounds suffered in the first ambush. They fought back as hard as they could but ended up in Limbo once more.

Just before Zula’s character perished, though, she saw something a bit odd: some of their ambushers were going down with spears and arrows lodged in their backs. The ambushers had been counterambushed by some hostile group that had rushed to the scene of the fight but arrived too late.

“Let’s go back there,” she suggested. “I think we have help.”

“Saw them. It’s just another group of thieves,” Wallace said.

“So what? Let them kill each other.”

So they attempted to do the same thing, except this time they didn’t even make it past the first group of thieves. Again, though, their ambushers got ambushed.

Another potion-buying spree led to another attempt at the same location. This time—now that they knew something of the ambushers’ numbers and tactics—they dispatched the first group handily, and then retreated to a place where they would have a few minutes’ respite before the second group attacked them. And this time—because she knew what to watch for—Zula was distinctly able to see two separate groups converging on them: the bandits, and the bandit fighters. And her theory about the latter group was borne out when they focused all their fire on the bandits but left Zula’s and Wallace’s characters alone. One of them even cast a healing spell on Zula’s character when her health was beginning to run low.

But then they retreated into the woods with no explanation, no attempts to communicate.

“I get it,” Wallace finally said. “They work for the Troll.”

“Interesting,” Zula said.

“Their job is to help ransom carriers make it through.”

“Well,” said Zula, causing her character to mount up, “let’s make the most of it.”

And so began what they had expected to be an hour-long ride.

In practice, five hours of intense and difficult play got them most of the way there. The Torgai Foothills—which, only two weeks ago, had been some of the most desolate territory in all T’Rain—were tonight overrun by roving bands of characters Good and Evil, Bright and Earthtone. Every bit of open land was littered with skeletons of departed characters and infested by ransom thieves fighting pitched battles against hastily formed coalitions of ransom carriers. Zula and Wallace joined up with one such group that was carrying a total of eight thousand gold pieces. It was reduced to a quarter of that size by successive ambushes and then joined another coalition with ten members, which later split up because, as they belatedly found out, they were going to different places: apparently, different REAMDE files specified different coordinates. Everything was hard fought and required multiple scouting missions, feints, and probing attacks.

Zula was not a gamer. She avoided people who were (another reason she’d liked Peter). She’d fallen into the job at Corporation 9592 not out of any desire to work in that industry but because of the family connection and the accident of knowing how to do what Pluto wanted. The character she’d created in the world of T’Rain was her first personal exposure to this world, and it had taken some getting used to. She had learned to understand and appreciate the game’s addictive qualities without really being addicted herself. Devoting this much time—six hours and counting—to a game session was a new behavior for her. She was only doing it to extricate herself and Peter from this freak situation they had gotten into. She had assumed that it would take about fifteen minutes and that then she would go home and never see Peter again, never see Wallace again.

Now it was light outside. She’d been awake for twenty-four hours. There was something deeply wrong about the situation, and the only thing that had kept her from simply running out the door of the building and flagging down the first car she saw and asking them to call 911 was the addictive quality of the game itself, her own inability to pull herself out of the make-believe narrative that she and Wallace had found themselves in. She’d always scorned people who compulsively played these games when they should have been studying or exercising. Now she was playing the game when she should have been calling the cops. And yet none of this crossed her mind until Wallace’s phone began to emit a Klaxon alarm sound, and she looked up and noticed that it was daytime, that her bladder was about to explode, and that Peter was asleep on the couch.

It wasn’t the first time that Wallace’s phone had rung. He had it programmed to make different ring sounds for different people. Until now his calls had all been generic electronic chirps, which he had silenced and ignored. But this was the sound of battle stations on an aircraft carrier. He snatched it up immediately and answered “Hello.” Not “Hello?” with the rising inflection that meant To whom am I speaking? but “Hello” with the full stop that meant I was wondering when you’d call.

The sound of the Klaxon had awakened Peter, who sat up on the couch and was dismayed to see that last night hadn’t just been a bad dream.

Zula got up and went to the bathroom and peed. She was debating whether she ought to look in the mirror or just shield her eyes from the sight of herself. She heard Peter cursing about something. She decided not to look in the mirror. All her stuff was in the shoulder bag anyway.

She emerged from the bathroom to find Wallace sitting rigidly in his chair, quite pale, mostly just listening, almost as if the phone had been shoved up his arse. Peter was pounding away furiously on his laptop. The T’Rain game had vanished from the screen of the computer that Wallace had been using and from Zula’s as well. In its place was a message letting them know that their Internet connection had been lost.

She smelled cigarette smoke.

No one was smoking.

“Tigmaster’s down too,” Peter said, “and all the other Wi-Fi networks that I can reach from here are password protected.”

“Who’s smoking?” she asked.

“Yes, sir,” Wallace finally said into his phone. “I’m doing it now. I’m doing it now. No. No, sir. Only three of us.”

He had gotten to his feet and was lurching toward Peter and Zula. He came very close, as if he couldn’t see them and was about to walk right through them. Then he stopped himself awkwardly. He took the phone away from his head long enough for them to hear shouting coming from its earpiece. Then he put it briefly to his head again. “I’m doing it now. I’m putting you on speakerphone now, sir.”

He pressed a button on the telephone and then laid it on his outstretched palm.

“Good morning!” said a voice. “Ivanov speaking.” He was somewhere noisy: behind his voice was a whining roar. The pitch changed. He was calling from an airplane. A jet. “Ah, I see you now!”

“You… see us, sir?” Wallace asked.

“Your buildink. The buildink of Peter. Out window. Just like in Google Maps.”

Silence.

“I am flyink over you now!” Ivanov shouted, amused, rather than annoyed, at their slowness.

A plane flew low over the building. Planes flew low over the building all the time. They were on the landing path for Boeing Field.

“Soon I will be there for discussion of problem,” Ivanov continued. “Until then, you stay on line. Do not break connection. I have associates on street around your place.”

Ivanov said this as if the associates were there as a favor, to be at their service. Peter edged toward a window, looked down, focused on something, and got a stricken look.

Meanwhile another voice was speaking in Russian to Ivanov. Someone on the plane.

“Fuck!” Wallace mouthed, and turned his head away as if the phone were burning his eyes with arc light.

“What?” Zula asked.

“I have correction,” said Ivanov. “Associates are inside buildink. Not just in streets around. Very hard workers—enterprising. Wi-Fi is cut. Phone is cut. Stay calm. We are landink now. Be there in a few minutes.”

“Who the fuck is this person on the phone!?” Peter finally shouted.

“Mr. Ivanov and, if I’m not mistaken, Mr. Sokolov,” said Wallace.

“Yes, Sokolov is with me!” said Ivanov. “You have good hearink.”

“Flying over the building—from where?” Peter demanded.

“Toronto,” Wallace said.

“How—what—?—!”

“I gather,” Wallace said, “that while we were playing T’Rain, Mr. Ivanov chartered a flight from Toronto to Boeing Field.”

Peter stared out the window, watched a corporate jet—Ivanov’s?—landing.

“Google Maps? He knows my name?”

“Yes, Peter!” said Ivanov on the speakerphone.

“You might recall,” said Wallace, “that when I arrived, the first thing I did was to send an email message using the Tigmaster access point.”

“You lied to me, Wallace!” said Ivanov.

“I lied to Mr. Ivanov,” Wallace confirmed. “I told him that I was delayed in south-central British Columbia by car trouble and that I would email him the file of credit card numbers in a few hours.”

“Csongor was too smart for you!” Ivanov said.

“What the fuck is CHONGOR?” Peter asked.

“Who. Not what. A hacker who handles our affairs. My email message to Mr. Ivanov passed through Csongor’s servers. He noticed that the originating IP address was not, in fact, in British Columbia.”

“Csongor traced the message to this building by looking up the IP address,” Peter said in a dull voice.

Thunking noises from the phone. “We are in car,” said Ivanov, as if this would be a comfort to them.

“How can they already be in a fucking car?!” Peter asked.

“That’s how it is when you travel by private jet.”

“Don’t they have to go through customs?”

“They would have done that in Toronto.”

Peter made up his mind about something, strode across the loft, and pulled a hanging cloth aside to reveal a gun safe standing against the wall. He began to punch a number into its keypad.

“Oh holy shit,” Zula said.

Wallace hit the mute button on his phone. “What is Peter doing?”

“Getting his new toy,” Zula said.

“His snowboard?”

“Assault rifle.”

“I have lost connection to Wallace!” Ivanov said. “Wallace? WALLACE!”

“Peter? PETER!” Wallace shouted.

“Who is there?” Ivanov wanted to know. “I hear female voice sayink holy shit.” Then he switched to Russian.

Peter had got the safe open, revealing the assault rifle in question: the only thing he owned on which he had spent more time shopping than the snowboard. It had every kind of cool dingus hanging off it that money could buy: laser sight, folding bipod, and stuff of which Zula did not know the name.

Wallace said, “Peter. The gun. In other circumstances, maybe. These guys here, down on the street? You might have a chance. Local guys. Nobodies. But.” He waved the phone around. “He’s brought Sokolov with him.” As if this were totally conclusive.

“Who the fuck is Sokolov?” Peter wanted to know.

“A bad person to get into a gunfight with. Close the safe. Take it easy.”

Peter hesitated. On the speakerphone, Ivanov had escalated to shouting in Russian.

“I’m dead,” Wallace said. “I’m a dead man, Peter. You and Zula might live through this. If you close that safe.”

Peter seemingly couldn’t move.

Zula walked over to him. Her intention, in doing so, was to close the safe before anything crazy happened. But when she got there, she found herself taking a good long look at the assault rifle.

She knew how to use it better than Peter did.

On the speakerphone, the one called Sokolov began to speak in Russian. In contrast to Ivanov, he had all the emotional range of an air traffic controller.

“Zula?” Wallace asked, in a quiet voice.

Down in the bay, the voice of Sokolov was coming out of someone’s phone. Feet began to pound up the steps.

“Clips,” Peter said. “I don’t have any clips loaded. Just loose cartridges. Remember?”

Peter, that is not a home defense weapon, she had told him when he’d bought himself the gun for Christmas. If you fire that thing at a burglar, it’s going to kill some random person half a mile away.

“Well then,” Zula said, and slammed the door.

They turned to see a great big potato of a shaven-headed man reaching the top of the steps. He swiveled his head to take a census of the people in the room: Peter and Zula, then Wallace. Then his head snapped back to Peter and Zula as he took in the detail of the gun safe. The look on his face might have been comical in some other circumstances. Zula displayed the palms of her hands and, after a moment, so did Peter. They moved away from the gun safe. The big man hustled over and checked its door and verified that it was locked. He muttered something and they heard it echo, an instant later, on Wallace’s speakerphone.

Wallace unmuted it. “I am sorry, Mr. Ivanov,” he said. “We had a little argument.”

“Makink me nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about, sir.”

“This can’t just be about the credit card numbers,” Peter said. “No one would charter a private jet just because you lied to them in an email about when the credit card numbers would be available.”

“You’re right,” Wallace said. “It’s not just about the credit card numbers.”

“What’s it about then?”

“Larger issues raised by last night’s events.”

“Such as?”

“The integrity and security of all the other files that were on my laptop.”

“What kind of files were those?”

“It’s unbelievably fucking stupid for you to ask,” Wallace pointed out.

“Explanation is comink,” said Ivanov. “We are here.”

Zula stepped closer to one of the windows in the front of the building and saw a black town car pulling up.

Two men who had been loitering outside approached the car and opened its back doors.

From the passenger side emerged a stout man in a dinner jacket. From behind the driver emerged a lithe man in pajamas, a leather jacket thrown over the pajama top. Both had phones pressed to their heads, which they now, in perfect synchrony, folded shut and pocketed.

One of the two loiterers escorted the new arrivals to Peter’s front door. This opened into a corridor leading back to the groundfloor bay where the cars were parked.

The other loiterer was clad only in jeans and a T-shirt, which made him underdressed for the weather. He went over to a beat-up old van parked in front of the building. He opened the rear cargo doors, leaned in, and then heaved a long object onto his shoulder. He backed away and kicked the van’s doors shut. The object on his shoulder was a box about four feet in length and maybe a foot square, bearing the logo of the big home improvement store down the street, and labeled CONTRACTOR’S PLASTIC 6 MIL POLYETHYLENE SHEETING. He carried it into the bay and pulled the front door closed behind him.

THE MAN IN the pajamas came up the stairs first and spent a few moments strolling around the room looking at everything and everyone. “Vwallace,” he said to Wallace.

“Sokolov,” Wallace said in return.

From the way that Wallace had spoken of him, Zula had half expected Sokolov to be eight feet tall and carrying a chainsaw. She was pretty certain, though, that he was not carrying any weapons at all. He was wiry, looking perhaps like a shooting guard for the Red Army basketball team. His thinness made it easy to underestimate his age, which was probably in the middle forties. He had sandy hair with traces of gray. It looked as if it had been buzz cut about six months ago and little tended since then. His chin was stubbled, but he didn’t naturally grow whiskers on his cheeks. He had a big nose and a big Adam’s apple and large eyes whose color was difficult to pin down, as it depended on what he was looking at. When he looked at Zula, they were blue and showed no trace of personal connection, as if viewing her through a one-way mirror. Same with Peter. He went into the bathroom and looked behind the door. He checked the closets. He looked behind sofas and under beds. He found the door that led into the adjoining unit where Peter had been hanging sheetrock. He disappeared into it for a few moments, then emerged and said a word in Russian.

The word must have meant “all clear” because the man in the dinner jacket now came up the steps. Right behind him was the T-shirted man who had fetched the roll of plastic from the back of the van. After looking around the place, paying special attention to the vacant unit, Ivanov said something to this man that caused him to turn around and go back downstairs.

Ivanov was blue-eyed but his hair was dark, made darker yet by some sort of pomade or oil that he had used to slick it back from his forehead, which was an impressive round dome. His complexion was pale but flushed by the chilly air outside. Over his dinner jacket he was wearing a black overcoat well tailored to his frame, which, to put it charitably, was stocky. But he moved well, and Zula got the idea that he could have given a good account of himself in a hockey brawl. Probably had done so, many times, when younger, and prided himself on it. He paid considerably more notice to Peter and Zula than Sokolov had done. Wallace he almost ignored, as if keeping the speakerphone off the floor had been the most useful thing that the Scotsman could possibly achieve today. He sized Peter up and shook his hand. Over Zula, he made a bit of a fuss, because he was that kind of guy. It didn’t matter why he was here, what sort of business he had come to transact. Women just had to be treated in an altogether different way from men; the presence of a single woman in the room changed everything. He kissed her hand. He apologized for the trouble. He exclaimed over her beauty. He insisted that she make herself comfortable. He inquired, several times, whether the temperature in the room was not too chilly for a “beautiful African” and whether he might send one of his minions out to fetch her some hot coffee. All of this with meaningful glances at Peter, whose manners came off quite poorly by comparison.

The man in the T-shirt came up the stairs with the box of contractor plastic on his shoulder. Behind him was the other one who had been loitering on the street, carrying a staple gun. When they reached the top of the steps, they looked at Ivanov, who gestured with his head toward the door that led to the adjoining apartment. They went into it and closed the door behind them. Sokolov watched curiously.

Finally they were all sitting down together: Wallace, Peter, and Zula on the sofa, facing Ivanov, who was in the largest chair. Behind Ivanov was Sokolov, who sometimes stood with hands clasped behind his back and at other times paced quietly around the loft, gazing out the windows.

“I am confused,” Ivanov said, “as to why you send email complaining of car breakdown in southern part of B.C. when car works fine and is actually in warehouse of Peter, in Seattle—a man I have not had pleasure to meet before.”

Wallace tried and failed to speak, cleared his throat, tried again: “I lied to you, sir, because I knew that I would not be able to deliver the credit card numbers at the time promised. I could see that they would be a few hours late. I hoped that you would not mind a short delay.”

Ivanov pulled his sleeves back to reveal, and to examine, the largest wristwatch Zula had ever seen. “How many is ‘few’? Sometimes I have trouble with English.”

“The delay has turned out to be longer than I had expected.”

“What is nature of delay? Has Peter fucked us?”

Peter flinched.

“I apologize for language,” Ivanov said to Zula.

For a while, only a few muffled noises had been heard from the empty apartment next door, but now they heard the whoosh of plastic sheeting being pulled off the huge roll, followed by the sporadic thud/click of the staple gun, which came distinctly through the wall. This posed a distraction to Peter and Zula, which Ivanov noticed and misinterpreted. “Makink little kholes,” he said. “Not big kholes. Easy to fix. With a little—” He said a word in Russian, then looked to Sokolov. Sokolov, a bit distracted—maybe taken aback—by what was going on in the other room, missed the cue. Ivanov then looked to the giant potato-like man who was standing near the gun safe and asked him a question. This fellow was deeply apologetic that he was unable to help. But he did shout something downstairs to the smoker who was posted in the bay, who called back: “Spackle!”

“Spackle,” Ivanov repeated, and spread his hands, palms up, as if requesting forgiveness.

“It has nothing to do with Peter. Actually Peter has been working diligently to help me overcome the problem,” Wallace said.

“So Peter has not fucked us.”

“That is correct, sir.”

“You? Have you fucked me, Wallace?”

“This is not that kind of problem.”

“Oh really? What kind of problem is it?”

“A technical problem.”

“Ah, so you have drove your car to warehouse of Mr. Technical Genius, here, to get tech support.”

“Yes.”

“And he has given it?”

“Yes. And Zula as well.”

Ivanov blushed. “Yes, forgive me, of course, I do injustice.”

Silence, except for the whoosh-rustle-clunk of the plastic and the staple gun.

“And?” Ivanov asked, raising his eyebrows. “Still is problem?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Something is wrong with file?” This with a dark look at Peter.

“The file was fine.”

Was fine?”

“Now it’s been rendered inaccessible.”

“You did not make backup?”

“I was quite careful to make a backup, sir, but it too has been rendered inaccessible.”

“What is this word ‘inaccessible’? You have lost computer?”

“No, both it and the backup drive are under my control, but the data were encrypted.”

“You forgot key?”

“I never had it.”

Ivanov laughed. “I am not computer specialist, but… how can you never have key to file you encrypted?”

“I did not encrypt it.”

“Peter? Peter encrypted it?”

“No!” Peter exclaimed.

“Zula encrypted it?”

“No,” said Peter and Wallace in unison.

“She cannot speak for herself?”

“I did not encrypt it, Mr. Ivanov,” Zula said, earning her an appreciative nod, as if she had just stuck her landing at the Olympics.

“Is missink person? Someone not here who encrypted both file and backup?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Ivanov’s face crinkled up and he laughed. “Ah, here is good part! Finally we come to part where bullshit starts. Makes me feel needed.”

The door to the adjoining space opened and the two men came out, carrying the roll of plastic, considerably depleted. Through the open door Zula could see that the entire apartment had been lined in plastic. One sheet had been unrolled on the floor and folded up the walls, and then other sheets had been draped over that to cover the walls and even the ceiling. The two men walked wordlessly through the room and went downstairs into the bay.

“In a manner of speaking!” Ivanov slapped his thigh. “What fine expression.” The smile went away, and he fixed his gaze on Wallace. “Wallace?”

“Yes, sir?”

“How many people have touched your laptop this day?”

“One, sir. Only I.”

“How many have touched backup drive in nice expensive safe?”

“One.”

“Then khoo—in a manner of speaking—khoo encrypted file?”

“We don’t know. But we can get the key—” Wallace was trying to talk over Ivanov now. “With these people’s help we can get the key—”

Ivanov had put both of his hands to his temples and was staring at the floor between his feet.

One of the plastic staplers came back up the stairs carrying a cordless drill, a blowtorch, a roll of duct tape, and a length of piano wire. He went into the plasticked apartment and closed the door behind him.

“First thing I must understand: has someone fucked us or not?”

“Yes, someone has most certainly fucked us, sir,” Wallace answered.

“Apologize to Zula when you say such word!”

“Beg your pardon, Zula,” Wallace said.

“How bad?”

“Bad.”

“You have on laptop, on backup drive, many important files to us.”

“Yes.”

“Status of these files?”

“The same.”

“All encrypted?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Originals and backups?”

Here the tension had become so unbearable that Zula did not know whether she might faint or throw up.

Ivanov laughed.

“I know how to do this,” he said. “Someone fucks us extremely badly, I am familiar with situations of this type. Sokolov too. Peter!”

“Yes, Mr. Ivanov?”

“You know of Battle of Stalingrad?”

“No, sir.”

Ivanov was crestfallen.

“The biggest battle of all time, probably,” Zula said.

Ivanov brightened and gestured eloquently at her. “A wonderful and glorious victory for Mother Russia?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I’d call it that.”

“Vwy not!?” Ivanov demanded, in such a blustery tone that Zula was certain he was playing her.

“Because the Germans penetrated very deeply into Russia and inflicted horrendous losses.”

This was the correct answer. “Khorrendous losses!” Ivanov repeated. He turned to face Wallace, daring him to appreciate how clever Zula was. “Khorrendous losses! You hear Zula? She understands. Where are you from? Not from this ridiculous fucking country.”

“Eritrea.”

“Eritrea!”

“Yes.”

He held out his hand to her again. “Khorrendous losses! This girl understands nature of khorrendous losses. Where are your parents?”

“Dead.”

“Dead! Khorrendous losses indeed. But! Eritreans won war.”

“Yes.”

“You, here, in nice country—a victory of a kind, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Russians, after Stalingrad, marched to Berlin. DO YOU UNDERSTAND POINT, Wallace?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You said that these two, Peter and Zula, could solve technical problem and win our little battle in spite of khorrendous losses, yes?”

“Yes, we were working on it but—”

Ivanov held up his hand to shut him up. “Wallace, do favor and go through door.” He gestured toward the plastic-lined room.

Wallace didn’t move.

“Just that door,” Ivanov repeated helpfully.

“Can we just get this done quick and simple?” Wallace asked.

“Not if you sit on couch. Quick and simple depends on how fast you move. And on what information I get from Peter and Zula. Now, go wait.”

Wallace, watched curiously by Sokolov, stood up and tottered into the adjoining room. One of the men in there stepped forward, moving carefully on the slick plastic, and closed the door behind him. Through it they could hear the screech of a length of duct tape being jerked off a roll.

“Mr. Ivanov,” Zula said, “Wallace is innocent.”

“You are beautiful girl, smart, I guess you know of computers. Convince me of this,” Ivanov pleaded. “Make me believe.”

ZULA TALKED FOR an hour.

She explained the nature and history of computer viruses. Talked about the particular subclass of viruses that encrypted hard drives and held their contents for ransom. About the difficulties of making money from ransomware. Explained the innovation that the unknown, anonymous creators of the REAMDE virus had apparently come up with. Ivanov had never heard of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, so she told him all about their history, their technology, their sociology, their growth as a major sector of the entertainment industry.

Ivanov listened raptly, breaking in from time to time. Half of the time this was to compliment her, since he seemed convinced that any female who did not receive a compliment every five minutes would stab him with an ice pick in his sleep. The other half of the time it was to ask a question. Some of these were keenly insightful, and others betrayed a disturbing lack of technical understanding.

Once these preliminaries were out of the way, Ivanov began to drill down on the question of Wallace’s culpability. Was the infection chargeable to any carelessness on his part? How, in other words, did the virus spread?

Zula told him what she’d learned, which was that REAMDE was actually spread through a security hole in Outlook, an extremely popular piece of software that, among other things, managed calendars, contacts, and whatnot. In order to do anything significant in T’Rain, you needed to run a reasonably deep vassal network. Coordinated group activities thus became an essential part of game play. Which meant that several of the players in your feudal hierarchy had to be online at the same time, to transact business and conduct war parties, dungeon raids, and the like. Those activities had to be scheduled around Little League practices, dentist appointments, studying for final exams, and so on, and so a stand-alone scheduling system, existing only inside of the T’Rain app, didn’t really serve. A third-party add-on had been created that built a tunnel between T’Rain and Outlook. Most T’Rain players used it. The add-on worked by sending messages back and forth, consisting of invitations to participate in group raids and the like. Most of these were pure text, but it was possible to attach images and other files to such invitations, and therein lay the security hole: REAMDE took advantage of a buffer overflow bug in Outlook to inject malicious code into the host operating system and establish root-level control of the computer, whereupon it could do anything it wanted, including encrypting the contents of all connected drives. First, though, it sent the virus onward to everyone in the victim’s T’Rain contact list.

There was another detail, mentioned on the internal wiki, that she did not share with Ivanov: the security hole in Outlook had been known for a while and most antivirus programs were hip to it. But hard-core gamers were still vulnerable since they ran T’Rain in fullscreen mode and so were oblivious to the increasingly hysterical warnings being hurled onto their screens by their virus-protection software.

Another detail she elected not to share: Wallace had almost certainly gotten the virus from Uncle Richard’s computer, spread via the thumb drive.

“So Wallace used this add-on,” Ivanov said, using air quotes, “and got infected by this virus.”

“Completely innocently, yes,” Zula said. During the first part of her lecture she’d been surfing on a burst of energy that had carried her most of the way through, but in the last ten minutes or so, exhaustion had come over her, and she had slowed down and begun to mumble her words and to begin sentences she didn’t know how to end. Now, she dimly realized that the upshot of all she’d said, in Ivanov’s mind, might be that Wallace had screwed up and deserved to be punished. This now left her almost paralyzed.

To her own considerable surprise and then shame, she began crying. She leaned forward and put her face in her hands.

“I am eediot!” Ivanov exclaimed. “I am stupidest man in world.” He stood up. Afraid that he was going to come over and comfort her, Zula tensed and forced herself to hold it in for a moment. She dared not look up. Through her tears and her fingers she could see Ivanov’s polished shoes moving around. He stepped out of the room. She let go of a train of little gasps and sobs, mixed now with self-anger and frustration that she was being such a stupid girl. She hadn’t cried in a serious way since her mother’s funeral.

Ivanov was back in the room after no more than fifteen seconds. She could hear his footsteps behind the sofa. She flinched as something limp and heavy fell across her shoulders. “What is wrong with you?” Ivanov wanted to know. He was addressing Peter. She realized that Ivanov had grabbed Peter’s arm and draped it over Zula’s shoulders and was now tamping it down into place like wet cement in a form. She got it under control then, certainly not because Peter had his arm around her shoulders but because of a kind of humor, albeit very dark, that was in the situation: the man Ivanov, whoever and whatever he was, jetting in from Toronto to give Peter lessons in how to be chivalrous to his girlfriend, and Peter trapped, unable to explain that they had just broken up.

Ivanov scattered orders to everyone in the room. People went into motion; phones were unfolded. Zula sat up straight, pushing back against the weight of Peter’s arm, and Peter, terrified of what would happen to him if he disobeyed Ivanov, left it where it was, a dead weasel draped over her shoulders.

“Only thing I actually believe is that someone fucked me,” Ivanov announced, with the customary nod of apology toward Zula. “You know any Russian? Kto Kvo. A saying of Lenin. It means ‘who whom?’ Today I am the whom. The one who is fucked. I am dead man. As dead as him.” He nodded toward the adjoining room. Zula heard her lungs filling with a gasp. Ivanov continued, “That is not question. Question is manner of my death. I have some time remainink. Maybe a fortnight. Would like to spend it well. It is too late for me to die gloriously. But I can die better than him.” Another nod. “I can die as a who, not as a whom. I can show my brothers that I was fighting for them to very end, in spite of khorrendous losses. I think they will understand this. I will be a forgiven dead man instead of a smashed insect. Only thing I need is: who is the who?”

Peter finally took his arm off Zula, who sat up fully straight and regarded Ivanov directly. Ivanov looked back at them—but mostly at her—with an interested expression. As if this were a highly formal, academic sort of drawing-room inquiry. “Do you understand question?”

“You want to know who did this to you?”

“I would use different verb but yes.”

They all sat there silently for a few moments. They could hear the engine of a vehicle starting down below, they could hear men talking on phones.

“You want the identity of the Troll. The person who created the virus,” Peter said.

“Yes!” Ivanov snapped, faintly irritated.

“And if we can give you that information, then… we’re cool?”

“Khool?” Ivanov demanded, clearly in no mood to be negotiating—if that was what this was called—with Peter.

“I mean, then it’s good? Between you and us?”

Now, kind of an interesting moment.

Though the whole situation was laden with implicit threat, Ivanov had not lifted a finger, nor intimated that he ever would, against Peter or Zula. His eyebrows went up and he regarded Peter, now, in a new light: as a man who had just, in a manner of speaking, issued a threat against himself. Volunteered that he owed Ivanov something and that consequences would be due him if he failed to deliver.

Ivanov made a little shrug, as if to say, The thought had never crossed my mind, but now that you mention it… “You are most generous.”

During this whole interlude, Peter had been realizing his mistake and was now trying to backpedal in quicksand. “You understand that the virus writer could be anywhere in the world, that he’s probably gone to great lengths to hide his identity, cover his tracks…”

“You confuse me,” Ivanov said. “Can you find Troll, or not?”

Peter looked at Zula.

“Why you look at Miss Zula? You are khacker genius, correct?”

Peter couldn’t get anything out.

ZULA WAS VERY tired, and her mind was in several places at once. The word “flashback” was much too fraught to describe what was happening in her mind. But it was the case that the mind pulled up memories that were germane to the impressions flooding into its sensory organs, and the first few years of her life related better to what was happening now than most of what she had experienced in small-town Iowa. She did not have the energy, the clarity, or what nerds denominated the “bandwidth” to deal with all aspects of this situation at once. Certainly the one that dominated was the sense that she was in danger. There was a technical side to it also. But neither of those explained the sick feeling that kept passing in waves through her abdomen. There was a moral aspect to this. She’d failed to see it at all until Wallace had been sent to the other room. For that, a man like Ivanov would probably see her as ridiculously naive. She could perhaps be forgiven that naïveté once.

Now, though, she was being asked to give up another person: a complete stranger, somewhere, who had created REAMDE. She had not volunteered for the job. Peter had betrayed her with a glance.

“Miss Zula? I apologize, I see that you are very tired,” Ivanov said. “But. You work at same company? Is possible?”

And the Iowa-girl response, of course, was always yes. Especially to a polite, older man in good clothes who had come such a long way.

For some reason she was remembering a moment when she had been something like fourteen years old, the apex of the crystal meth epidemic in Iowa. She had been home alone and had looked out the window to see a strange van coming down the road, very slowly. It had made a couple of passes by the house and then pulled into the driveway that led to their equipment shed. A couple of men had gotten out of the van, looking around nervously. Not knowing whether they might have come on a legitimate errand, Zula had made a phone call to Uncle John (as she called her second adopted dad), and Uncle John had extremely calmly talked her through the procedure of locking every door in the house, getting a shotgun and a box of shells, and hiding herself in the attic. His matter-of-fact instructions had been accompanied, and sometimes drowned out, by dim roaring, screeching, and thumping noises that, as she later understood, had resulted from his driving at a hundred miles an hour while he talked. Zula had barely gotten the attic stairs pulled up behind her when a lot of disturbing vehicular noises had ensued from outside, and she had peered out a gable vent to see Uncle John’s car in the middle of the front yard at the end of a long set of skid marks that completely surrounded the house (for he had orbited it once, checking for signs of forced entry) and John hobbling around it on his prosthetic legs to crouch behind and use it for cover while across the way the van screamed out onto the road with a door hanging open. A cloud of what she took for steam was rising from the side of the shed where they kept the anhydrous ammonia tank. A few minutes later the sheriff’s department was there in force, and Zula felt it safe to emerge from the attic. John yelled at her that she did not have permission to come down yet. Then he hugged her and told her that she was his wonderful girl. Then he asked about the whereabouts of the shotgun. Then he told her again how magnificent she was, and then he ordered her to go upstairs and not come out until he gave permission. She went upstairs and, peering out a window, saw what John did not want her to see: the ambulance men putting on their hazmat suits and placing a large brown wrinkled thing into a body bag. One of the thieves, startled, perhaps, by Uncle John’s sudden advent, had made a mistake with the anhydrous ammonia line and been sprayed with the chemical, which had sucked all the water out of his body.

It was in that moment, but never before and rarely since, that she had perceived a kind of subterranean through line, perhaps like one of those ley lines in T’Rain, running from her people in Eritrea to her people in Iowa.

“WITH A PHONE call,” Zula said, “I might be able to get more information about the Troll.”

Ivanov continued to gaze at her in an expectant way and, after a few moments, raised his eyebrows encouragingly.

“Then,” Zula added, “you could be on your way.”

Ivanov’s face stopped moving, as if hit by a blast of anhydrous ammonia.

“To continue solving your problem,” Zula added graciously, “or whatever it is you need to do.”

“A phone call,” Ivanov said, “to whom?”

“The company has a privacy policy.”

Ivanov’s face screwed up. “This sounds like bullshit.”

“There are rules,” Zula said. For Uncle Richard had explained to her, at the beginning of her employment at Corporation 9592, that most of the people she’d be working with were burdened with Y chromosomes and that what worked at Boy Scout camp should work here. Boys, he said, only want to know two things: who is in charge, and what are the rules. And indeed this worked magically. Ivanov nodded. “The company has information about names, addresses, demographics of its customers,” Zula continued. “But it doesn’t release that information. You don’t play the game under your own name—your real name. There’s no way that I, as a player, could ever track down the true real-world identity of the Troll or any other player.”

“But someone,” Ivanov said, “someone at company knows.”

“Yes, someone always knows.”

“Maybe rule gets broke sometimes, a little.”

“Generally not but…” Zula truncated the sentence since Ivanov was already making a this is bullshit gesture.

APPARENTLY SOMEONE WENT out for supplies, since their Russian was suddenly punctuated with phrases like “venti mocha.”

“Peter,” said Sokolov; the first sound he had made in a long time.

Peter looked up to find Sokolov nodding significantly at a webcam mounted at the top of the stairs, aimed down into the shop.

“You have two security cameras.”

Peter made no response.

“Or perhaps more?” Sokolov went on.

Peter considered it. “Three, actually,” he admitted.

“Ah,” Sokolov said.

For a few moments, Zula wondered how Sokolov could possibly have missed the third one. They were all pretty obvious: one aimed down the front hall at the street entrance; another in the shop, covering the alley doors; the third at the top of the stairs.

Then she got it. Sokolov was testing Peter.

Sokolov knew perfectly well that there were three cameras; he had gone over the whole place, seen everything. But he had said “two” just to see whether Peter would ’fess up to the existence of a third.

“Motion activated?” Sokolov asked.

“Yes.”

“Storing data where?”

“Here,” Peter said. “On my server.”

Sokolov made no sign that he had heard, but only stared into Peter’s eyes for several long seconds.

“And… on a backup drive,” Peter admitted. “Under the stairs.”

Sokolov finally took his gaze from Peter’s face and nodded. “Files will need to be erased.”

“Okay,” Peter said, sounding hugely relieved. He slapped his knees and rose to his feet. “Let’s do that.”

Watched carefully by Sokolov, Peter busied himself at a terminal for a while. In the meantime, a preposterous amount of car moving was going on. Peter’s Scion ended up parked on the street outside. Zula’s Prius was shifted deeper into the bay and Wallace’s sports car was moved in next to it, clearing the alley.

During these efforts, Zula’s phone was retrieved and presented to her, by Ivanov, as if it were a Swarovski necklace.

“ZULA.”

“C-plus, hi.”

“It’s not often that I have the pleasure of talking to someone in the magma department.”

“C-plus, that is because I am working on a side project here—long story—that Richard sort of put me on.”

“Management by founder,” Corvallis said, in a tone of ironic disapproval. Supposedly, “management by founder”—a term of art for Richard doing whatever struck his fancy—had been eradicated from Corporation 9592 a few years ago when professional executives had been parachuted in to run things.

“Yeah. So, an informal project. Call it research. Having to do with some, uh, unusual gold movements connected with a virus called REAMDE.”

“Funny. Had never heard of it until I came to work this morning. Now, it’s all anyone will talk about.”

“It exploded over the weekend. Look, I just need one piece of information.”

“Where should I look?”

“My log. Several hours ago.”

Typing. “Wow, you died a lot last night!”

“Sure did.”

Typing. “Then you unceremoniously logged out.”

“Power failure in Georgetown, the Internet went down.”

“Okay. You were having some fun in the Torgai hills, looks like.”

“Yeah. An ill-fated expedition.”

“I’ll say. So. What is it you need?”

“During the early part of it, someone cast a healing spell on me. Not a member of my group. It would have happened at maybe three in the morning our time, when my character was near a certain ley line intersection…”

“Well, only one healing spell was cast on you all night, so it’s pretty easy.”

“You’ve got the log entry?” For in the world of T’Rain, a little sparrow could not fall from its nest without the event being logged and time-stamped.

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” Zula couldn’t help but notice the effect that her half of the conversation was having on Ivanov. He turned and gestured to Sokolov, who stepped nearer, as if the Troll were about to jump out of Zula’s phone and make a run for it.

“Who cast that healing spell on me, C-plus?”

“Hard to say.”

“What do you mean?” Zula asked, a bit sharply.

“It’s literally hard to say. My Chinese is a little weak.”

“So the name of the character is in Chinese?”

Ivanov and Sokolov looked at each other as only Russians could look at each other when the Chinese came into it.

“Yeah, and he or she didn’t bother to slap a Western handle onto it.”

This was part of Richard and Nolan’s efforts to make T’Rain as Chinese friendly as possible. In other such games, each player had to use a name written in Latin characters, but in T’Rain it was optional.

“He or she—so, no demographics or personal data about the player?”

“It’s transparently a load of crap generated by a bot or something,” Corvallis said.

“Credit card?”

“It’s a self-sus.”

Another one of Richard and Nolan’s innovations. In most online games, you had to link your account to a credit card number to cover the monthly fees. Not so Chinese teen friendly. But since T’Rain had hard currency money plumbing built into its guts, this too was somewhat optional; if your character was turning a profit, for example, by selling gold, you could pay your monthly fee by having it deducted automatically from your character’s treasure chest. These were called self-sustaining accounts.

“Is there any way to get any hard information at all about who runs that character?”

Zula didn’t like the effect that this had on Ivanov’s face.

“I can give you the IP address that they were connected from.”

“That’d be fantastic!” Zula said, hoping that she was really selling its fantasticness to Ivanov. She gestured for something to write with. Sokolov wheeled and plucked a Sharpie from a mug on a side table. Perhaps it was a bit odd that he knew the location of every pen in the room better than Peter did, but maybe it was his job to spot everything in his vicinity that could be used as an improvised weapon. Sokolov bit the cap off and held out his palm for Zula to write on. She took the pen and rested her writing hand on Sokolov’s, which had taken a lot of abuse and was missing the end of one finger, yet was as warm as any other man’s.

“Ready?” Corvallis asked.

“Shoot,” said Zula, then cringed at the choice of word.

Corvallis, speaking extremely clearly and crisply, recited four numbers between 0 and 255: a dotted quad, or Internet Protocol address. Zula wrote them down on the palm of Sokolov’s hand. Ivanov watched with spectacular intensity, then gave her a wondering look.

He knew what it was.

It was the same sort of thing that Csongor had used to detect Wallace’s lie and route him to Peter’s place. And having seen it work perfectly once, Ivanov supposed it could not fail to work again.

“Thanks,” Zula said, “and my next question—”

Typing. “It’s one of a large block of addresses allocated to an ISP in Shyamen.”

“Come again?”

Corvallis spelled it, and she wrote it on Sokolov’s flesh: X-I-A-M-E-N.

This triggered furious but comically silent activity among Ivanov and his minions.

“You can google it yourself,” Corvallis said, and Zula—who was, in spite of everything, still being watched intently by Sokolov—resisted the temptation to say No, I can’t. “Formerly called Amoy,” he continued, in a singsongy voice to indicate that he had googled it. “A port city in southeastern China, at the mouth of the Nine Dragons River, just across the strait from Taiwan. Two and a half million people. Twenty-fifth largest port in the world, up from thirtieth. Blah, blah, blah. Pretty generic, for a Chinese city.”

“Thanks!”

“Sorry I couldn’t get more specific.”

“Gives me something to work on.”

“Anything else I can help you with?”

Yes. “No.”

“Have a good one!” And he was gone.

The word “Bye” was hardly past Zula’s lips when Sokolov had pulled the phone from her hand. He knew how to work it and pulled up its web browser and googled Xiamen.

She had been vaguely aware for a while of some gratifying smells in the room: flowers and coffee.

Ivanov, smiling, approached her with a vast bouquet of stargazer lilies cradled in his arms. They still bore the plastic wrap and barcode from the grocery store up the hill. “For you,” he announced, bestowing them on her. “For because I made you cry. Least I could do.”

“That is very sweet of you,” she said, trying through all her exhaustion to sell it.

“Latte?” he asked. For the T-shirted man was at his side with a cardboard tray crowded with cups from Starbucks world HQ, whose colossal green mermaid loomed over Georgetown like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

“Love one,” she said, and she didn’t have to lie about that.

Since the visitors were now all busy, she carried the flowers into the kitchen area and laid them on a cutting board so that she could cut the ends off the stems and put them in water. Idiotic. But it, like so many of her nice-Iowa-girl impulses, was like a brainstem reflex. It wasn’t the flowers’ fault that they’d been purchased by gangsters. The latte was enormously pleasurable, and she popped the lid off and threw it away so that she could sink her lips into the warm foam and gulp from it. Peter owned no vases, but she found an earthenware water pitcher that would support the flowers and filled it with water. Then she set about the messy business of tearing away the plastic wrappers and the rubber bands that held the flowers’ stems together.

Seeing large movement while she was doing this, she glanced up to see two of the men carrying a long, heavy, plastic-wrapped bundle out of the adjoining apartment.

She was on the floor before she was fully conscious of being light-headed.

WORLD OF WARCRAFT had been the toweringly dominant competitor in Corporation 9592’s industry for what seemed like forever, until you checked the dates and realized that it was only a few years old. Richard and Nolan had passed through several phases in their attitude toward it:

1. Abashed denial that they could ever even dream of competing with such an entrenched power as WoW

2. Certainty, growing into cockiness, that they could knock it off its perch in a coup de main

3. Crushing realization that it was impossible and that they were doomed to abject failure

4. Cautious optimism that maybe life wasn’t going to totally suck forever

5. Finally getting their shit together and coming up with a plan

Somewhere between Phases 4 and 5, Richard holed up at the Schloss during Mud Month—the weeks following the end of the ski season—and wrote out some ideas that had been brewing in his mind since the deepest and most lugubrious weeks of Phase 3. Reading them, Corvallis had identified this as an “inflection point,” which was another of those terms that meant nothing to Richard but that was—to judge from the vigorous shifts in body language it elicited in meetings—of infinite significance to math geeks. As far as Richard could make out, it denoted the hardly-obvious-at-the-time moment when, seen later in retrospect, everything had changed.

For a while the memo had rattled around the office like a dried-out whiteboard pen. Then Richard, with a bit of jargonic assistance from Corvallis, had given it an arresting title: Medieval Armed Combat as Universal Metaphor and All-Purpose Protocol Inter face Schema (MACUMAPPIS).

Since Medieval Armed Combat was the oxygen they breathed, even mentioning it seemed gratuitous, so this got shortened to UMAPPIS and then, since the “metaphor” thing made some of the business­people itchy, it became APPIS, which they liked enough to trademark. And since APPIS was one letter away from APIS, which was the Latin word for bee, they then went on to create and trademark some bee- and hive-related logo art. As Corvallis patiently told Richard, it was all a kind of high-tech in-joke. In that world, API stood for “application programming interface,” which meant the software control panels that tech geeks slapped onto their technologies in order to make it possible for other tech geeks to write programs that made use of them. All of which was one or two layers of abstraction beyond the point where Richard could give a shit. “All I am trying to say with this memo,” he told Corvallis, “is that anyone who feels like it ought to be able to grab hold of our game by the technological short hairs and make it solve problems for them.” And Corvallis assured him that this was precisely synonymous with having an API and that everything else was just marketing.

The problems Richard had in mind were not game- or even entertainment-related ones. Corporation 9592 had already covered as many of those bases as their most imaginative people could think of, and then they had paid lawyers to pore over the stuff that they’d thought of and extrapolate whole abstract categories of things that might be thought of later. And wherever they went, they found that the competition had been there five years earlier and patented everything that was patentable and, in one sense or another, pissed on everything that wasn’t. Which explained a lot about Phase 3.

The epiphany—if this wasn’t too fine a word for some crazy-ass shit that had popped up in Richard’s brain—had occurred in a brewpub at Sea-Tac. Richard had been marooned there for a couple of hours after his flight to Spokane had been delayed by a collision between a baggage truck and the plane: a strangely common occurrence at that airport, and one of those folksy touches that helped to preserve its small-town feel. Sitting there quaffing his pint and gazing at the shoeless and beltless travelers penguin-shuffling through the metal detectors, he had been struck by the sheer boringness of the work being performed by the screeners of the Transportation Security Administration: staring at those bags moving through the x-ray machines, trying to remain alert for that once-in-every-ten-years moment when someone would actually try to send a gun through.

Thus far, a commonplace observation. He had done a bit of research on it later and learned that the more sophisticated airports had hired psychologists to tackle the problem and devised some clever tricks. For example, they would digitally insert fake images of guns into the video feed from an x-ray machine, frequently enough that the screeners would see false-color silhouettes of revolvers and semiautomatics and IEDs glide across their visual fields several times a day, instead of once every ten years. That, according to the research, was enough to prevent their pattern-recognition neurons from being reclaimed and repurposed by brain processes that were more fruitful, or at least more entertaining.

The brain, as far as Richard could determine from haphazard skimming of whatever came up on Google, was sort of like the electrical system of Mogadishu. A whole lot was going on in Mogadishu that required copper wire for conveyance of power and information, but there was only so much copper to go around, and so what wasn’t being actively used tended to get pulled down by militias and taken crosstown to beef up some power-hungry warlord’s private, improvised power network. As with copper in Mogadishu, so with neurons in the brain. The brains of people who did unbelievably boring shit for a living showed dark patches in the zones responsible for job-related processes, since all those almost-never-exercised neurons got pulled down and trucked somewhere else and used to beef up the circuits used to keep track of NCAA tournament brackets and celebrity makeovers.

So the airport luggage scanner epiphany was simultaneously dis- and encouraging. Dis- because some occupational psychologists had already beaten him to it and come up with a fix, but en- because people with Ph.D.s had vouched for the basic idea.

In order to make the case for MACUMAPPIS, Richard had to, (a) find some other desperately boring job to use as his experimentum crucis, and (b) figure out a way to map its basic processes onto Medieval Armed Combat. Between his years as a slavering World of Warcraft addict and his years as a founder/creator of T’Rain, he had ripped out probably half of the neurons in his brain and dragged them over and soldered them on to the cortical centers responsible for two-handed axe wielding, shield bashing, arrow shooting, and spell casting. In an evening of random questing around the imaginary world that D-squared and Skeletor had created, Richard could fire more neurons than Einstein had used while coming up with the idea of general relativity. Certainly way more neurons than the average supermarket checkout clerk or private security guard fired during an eight-hour shift. And the power of the Internet ought to make all that neural activity reswitchable; you should be able to patch it all together so that it would work.

Around this time there was an airport security scare in which some fuckwit entered a concourse by walking upstream through an exit portal, bypassing the security checkpoint. As always happened in such cases, the entire airport had to be shut down. Planes waiting for takeoff had to taxi back to gates and unload all passengers and baggage. All the passengers had to be ejected from the sterile side of the airport and then turn around and pass through security again. Flights were delayed, and the delays ramified throughout the global air travel system, eventually racking up a cost of tens of millions of dollars. All of which could have been prevented had the one TSA employee posted by the exit—an employee whose sole purpose in being there was to just keep his fucking eyes open and stop people from walking the wrong way through a door—had actually done his job. Richard was fascinated. How could even the laziest and sloppiest employee screw this up? The answer, apparently, was that it had nothing to do with laziness or sloppiness. It was that Mogadishu copper thing all over again. The neural pathways required to accomplish the seemingly easy task of identifying a pedestrian walking the wrong way through a door had, in the brain of this employee, been uprooted a long time ago and zip-tied onto those used by some other, more important, or at least more frequently used, procedure.

And so they started up the first APPIS pilot project, which went something like this. They shot some consumer-grade video of Corporation 9592 employees walking down a hallway. They spun that up into a demo, which they showed to several regional airports that were too small and poorly funded to afford fancy, expensive, alarm-equipped one-way doors, and thus had to rely on the bored-employee-sitting-in-a-chair-by-the-door technology. They parlayed those meetings into a deal that gave them access to live 24/7 security camera footage from a couple of those airports. The footage, of course, just showed people walking through the exit.

They patched that footage into pattern recognition software that identified the shapes of the individual humans and translated them into vector data in 3D space. This made it possible to import all the data into the T’Rain game engine. The same positions and movements were conferred on avatars from the T’Rain world. The stream of human passengers walking down the corridor in their blazers, their high heels, their Chicago Bears sweatpants, became a stream of K’Shetriae, Dwinn, trolls, and other fantasy characters, dressed in chain mail, plate armor, and wizards’ robes, moving down a stone-lined passageway at the exit of the mighty Citadel of Garzantum.

The High Marshal of the Garzantian Empire then made an announcement to the effect that huge amounts of gold could be earned by, honor bestowed upon, and valuable weapons and armor handed out to anyone who nabbed a goblin attempting to sneak in through said passageway. Characters who volunteered for this duty were issued a special instrument, the Horn of Vigilance, and told to blow it whenever they spotted a wrong-way goblin. Extra points were handed out for actually confronting the goblin and (of course) engaging it in Medieval Armed Combat.

Now, in all the entire (real) world’s airports put together, the number of people who got into concourses by walking the wrong way through exit doors amounted to maybe one or two per year: not enough to hold the attention, or assure the vigilance, of even the most rabid T’Rain player. So the APPIS system now sweetened the pot by automatically generating fictitious, virtual wrong-way goblins and sending them up that tunnel at the rate of one every couple of minutes, every day, forever. Some balancing had to happen—the value of the rewards had to be tweaked relative to the frequency of wrong-way goblins—but with a minimal amount of adjustment they were able to set the system up in such a way that 100 percent of all the wrong-way goblins were apprehended. The total number of wrong-way goblins that had to be generated per year was about two hundred thousand—which was no problem, since generating them was free. The trick, of course, was that a tiny minority of those one-way goblins were not, in fact, computer-generated figments. They were representations of actual human forms that had been picked up by airport security cameras as they walked the wrong way into airport concourses. In reality, of course, this happened so rarely that testing the system was well-nigh impossible, and so they ran drills, several times a day, in which uniformed, badged TSA employees would present themselves at the exit and show credentials to the bored guard and then walk upstream into the concourse. In exactly 100 percent of all such cases, some T’Rain player, somewhere in the world (almost always a gold farmer in China) would instantly raise the Horn of Vigilance to his virtual lips and blow a mighty blast and rush out to confront the corresponding one-way goblin: an event that, through some artful cross-wiring between Corporation 9592’s servers and the airport security systems, would cause red lights to flash and horns to sound and doors to automatically lock at the airport in question.

Corvallis and most of the other techies hated this idea because of its sheer bogosity, which was screamingly obvious to any person of technical acumen who thought about it for more than a few seconds. If their pattern-recognition software could identify the moving travelers and vectorize their body positions well enough to translate their movements into T’Rain, then it could just as easily notice, automatically, with no human intervention, when one of those figures was walking the wrong way and sound the alarm. There was no need at all to have human players in the loop. They should just spin out the pattern-recognition part of it as a separate business.

Richard understood and acknowledged all of this—and did not care. “Did you, or did you not, tell me that this was all marketing? What part of your own statement did you not understand?” The purpose of the exercise was not really to build a rational, efficient airport security system. It was, rather (to use yet another of those portentous phrases cribbed from the math world), an existence proof. Once it was up and running, they could point to it and to its 100 percent success rate as vindicating the premise of APPIS, which was that real-world problems—especially problems that were difficult to solve because of hard-wired deficiencies of the human neurological system, such as the tendency to become bored when given a terrible job—could be tackled by metaphrasing them into Medieval Armed Combat scenarios, and then (here brandishing two searingly hip terms from high tech) putting them out on the cloud so that they could be crowdsourced.

The system, despite its bogosity—which was fundamental, evident, and frequently pointed out by huffy nerd bloggers—immediately became a darling of hip West Coast tech-industry conferences. APPIS had to be turned into a separate division and expanded onto a new floor of the office building in Seattle, which conveniently had been vacated by an imploding bank. New ideas and joint venture proposals rushed in, like so many wrong-way goblins, at such a pace that the APPIS staff could scarcely blow their Horns of Vigilance fast enough. The underemployed nerds of the world, impatient with the slow pace at which Corporation 9592’s in-house programmers bent to their demands, began to generate their own APPIS apps. The most popular of these was a system that would accept low-quality video of a corporate meeting room, supplied by a phone, and transmogrify the scene into a collection of hairy, armored warlords sitting around a massive plank table in a medieval fortress. Whenever a meeting participant lifted a bottle of vitamin water or a skinny nonfat latte to his or her lips, the corresponding avatar would quaff deeply from a five-liter tankard of ale and then belch deeply, and whenever someone took a nibble from a multigrain bar, the avatar would bite a steaming hunk of meat from a huge leg of lamb. PowerPoint presentations, in this scenario, were turned into vaporous apparitions hanging in numinous steam above a sorcerer’s kettle. In the first version of the app, the horn-helmeted avatars all said exactly the same things that the corresponding humans did in the real-world conference room, which made for some funny juxtapositions but wore thin after a while. But then people began to create add-ons so that if, for example, someone’s clever new proposal got trashed by a grouchy boss, the event could be rendered as a combat scene in which the hapless underling’s severed head wound up on the end of a spear. Large swaths of the global economy were, it now seemed, being remapped onto their T’Rain equivalents so that they could be transacted in a Medieval Armed Combat setting. Demonstrable improvements in productivity were being trumpeted every day on the relevant section of Corporation 9592’s website (by a medieval herald, naturally, and with an actual trumpet).

Richard insisted, only half in jest, that he wanted to see 10 percent of the global economy moved into T’Rain. Or at least 10 percent of the information economy. But since the information economy had now got its fingers into just about everything, this wasn’t much of a limitation. Factory workers watching widgets stream off the assembly line, inspecting them for defects, ought to be able to metaphrase their work into something way more neuron grabbing, such as flying up a river valley on a winged steed, gazing into its limpid waters at the rocks strewn up its channel, looking for the one that contained traces of some magical ore.

Which was also, as C-plus patiently explained, a ridiculous idea, since any machine-vision algorithm smart enough to convert a defective widget into an ore-containing boulder in a virtual river valley was smart enough to just sound a buzzer on the assembly line and flag the offending unit without involving human beings or virtual fantasy worlds. To which Richard responded, with equal if not greater patience, that he still didn’t give a shit because this was ultimately about marketing, and the crazy apps that random people on the Internet were writing were much better than anything he, Richard, could ever come up with.

Anyway, it had worked, after a shambling and chaotic fashion, and T’Rain had thus become far more intensively patched into the wiring diagram of the real world than a quasi-medieval fantasy world had any right or reason to be. Which was how they had ended up needing a calendar-and-contact-management app and diverse other add-ons that they had never dreamed of when they had been setting up the world ab initio.

Richard himself was not a user of the calendar app. He did most of his T’Rain questing solo, or in the company of one or two old friends, and so he didn’t need it; and the mere idea of needing to schedule his time that carefully made him dispirited. He used his phone for stuff like that, and the calendar app’s integration to the phone was clunky and not really worth putting up with. Even if it had worked, it just would have meant more crap showing up on his schedule, and fewer of the perfectly empty days that always gave him such a nice little endorphin rush when they appeared, as if by some act of divine grace, on his screen. Consequently, he was in no danger of being infected by REAMDE. And so, the morning after Peter and Zula had gone back to Seattle, when Richard woke up in his big, round, quasi-medieval bedchamber at the Schloss and checked his corporate email account, he was able to view the weekend’s spate of escalating SECURITY ALERT messages with some kind of detachment. There was a new virus; it was called REAMDE (sic), which was an accidental or deliberate/ironical misspelling of README; it had been simmering for a few weeks now, and in the last few days it had gone exponential, as these things commonly did. It was a consequence, really, of APPIS, and of all Richard’s efforts to turn T’Rain into a Profit Center above and beyond the mere world of hard-core gamers. As such, it was perfectly all right from a business and marketing standpoint; it would only generate stories in the tech press about how T’Rain had made the jump from a mere niche product for the prohibitively geeky to a business productivity app that mundanes felt that they had to have, along with their Excel and their PowerPoint, and Richard could already predict that at their next quarterly meeting they would see, in retrospect, a surge in sales precisely tracking the spike in free publicity generated by the advent of this terrible virus.

His calendar was clear for today, but prophesying a journey to Seattle tomorrow so that he could get up early on the following morning for another one of his whirlwind journeys to Nodaway and the Isle of Man. He considered using this REAMDE thing as a pretext for going to Seattle now, a day early. And he might have done just that, if more time had elapsed since his last interaction with Zula. But she had only just left, and he didn’t want to creep the poor girl out by turning into some kind of hovering stalker-uncle. Better for her to decide on her own that she was ready for a little more Richard time. So he left his schedule alone, reckoning he’d be busy all day anyway, with emails from friends and family members whose personal files were being held hostage by some mysterious troll on the Internet.

THERE WAS NO coming awake but a gradual reassembly of consciousness from parts that, while still functioning, had come unlinked. She was looking down on snow-spackled mountains as though seeing them in the opening screen of T’Rain and, at the same time, having a dream of walking barefoot through them. For it was barefoot that she and her group had walked most of the way from Eritrea to Sudan, and her dreams often took her back to that journey, as though the nerves in the soles of the feet were connected more tightly to the brain than any others. In her dream, the snow on the mountains was warm between her toes, which she knew made no sense; but it was explained as some magic that had been dreamed up by Devin Skraelin based on an oblique reference by Donald Cameron. And then she and Pluto had been given the job of making it real, rendering it from bits, and she was walking across it with a caravan of Eritrean refugees to make sure that it all held together.

When memory started working again, it told her that she had, for quite a long time, been lying on her side with eyes half open, gazing out a window. The mountains were passing by beneath her. The world was roaring and humming.

She was on a plane. Her seat smelled of good leather. It had been leaned all the way back to form a flat bed, and she had been covered with blankets. Nice ones. Not airline blankets.

She had not been raped or otherwise abused. A bandage was on her hand. She remembered the lilies and the knife.

And the latte. They had put Rohypnol in her latte.

She moved a little and found that her parts worked, though she was stiff from lying in one position too long.

She shifted her head away from the window and found herself looking down the barrel of a small plane’s fuselage.

Across the aisle was Peter, similarly reclined, gazing at her. She jumped a little when she saw that.

They were at the aft end of the cabin. At the forward end, Sokolov sat in a chair, reading glasses on the end of his nose, reviewing documents.

In the bulkhead that terminated the cabin just aft of them was a single door that, Zula guessed, led to a separate compartment. Since she couldn’t see Ivanov anywhere else, she assumed he must be in there.

“How long have you been awake?” Peter asked.

“A minute,” Zula said. “You?”

“Maybe half an hour. Hey, Zula!”

“What?”

“Do you have any idea where we’re going?”

Zula tossed off the blankets, got to her feet, and walked, a little unsteadily, up past Sokolov to the head of the plane. The cockpit door was closed, but beside it was another door leading to the lavatory.

Something scraped and thumped to the floor at her feet. She looked down to discover her shoulder bag. Sokolov had tossed it her way.

She looked up and locked eyes with him. “Thanks,” she said.

He gazed at her for a three-count and went back to his documents.

She went in, sat down, put her face in her hands, and peed.

Think.

How had Ivanov and company gotten them out of the country?

Uncle Richard sometimes flew in private jets when he went to the Isle of Man to pay court to Don Donald and wouldn’t stop talking about how easy, how “zipless” it was. No check-in. No security frisk. No wait. Just go straight to the plane and get on and go.

Zula didn’t know how the drug had affected her—had she been out cold? Merely groggy? Or in some compliant zombielike state? Anyway, the Russians could have bundled her and Peter into vehicles without anyone noticing and driven them straight onto the tarmac at Boeing Field and (if Uncle Richard was to be believed) right up to the side of the plane, where it wouldn’t have been that difficult to get them up the stairs and on board.

So really it would have been easy. Huge penalties would have obtained if they’d been noticed or caught, but these guys weren’t the type to concern themselves with such matters. In a sick way, she kind of liked that about them.

She went through her bag. Her passport was gone. The knife had been removed from her pocket. No car keys (not that they would have been of any use) or phone. There was a book she’d been reading, some of the odds and ends she’d collected from Peter’s place—cosmetics, tampons, hair stuff, hand sanitizer. A standard-issue Seattle fleece vest. Pens and pencils were all gone—because they were potential weapons? Because she could have used them to write a note calling for help? Someone had gone through her luggage—the larger bag she’d taken on the ski trip—and pulled out (thank God) underwear, a couple of T-shirts, a pair of shorts, and stuffed them into this bag.

So they were going someplace warm.

Think. When would her absence be noticed? It was common knowledge at work that she had gone skiing for the weekend. When she failed to show up for work today, people would assume she was sleeping in.

But eventually—in a few days, maybe?—people would get worried.

Then what?

Eventually they might look for her at Peter’s and find her car there, unless the Russians had taken it out and driven it into the murky waters of the Duwamish. But they would find no trace that anything had gone wrong.

She had vanished off the face of the earth.

That was upsetting, to the point of making her nose run a little, but she didn’t cry. She had cried at Peter’s place when things had gotten bad. Then she had stupidly believed that the problem was solved. As if you could really get out of such a bad situation so cheaply. Now she was back to square one, the place she’d been when she’d stopped crying at Peter’s and had started thinking about what to do.

She cleaned up and did a little bit of maintenance on the mascara. Didn’t want anyone to notice that she had been putting energy into makeup but didn’t want to visibly degenerate either, wanted to make the point, even if she made it subliminally, that she still had some pride, wasn’t falling apart. She performed a comb-out on her hair and then ponytailed it back. Changed into the cleanest clothes she could glean from the bag and went back to her bed, which she made back into a seat. Sat down and looked at more mountains.

“You know the time?”

Peter shook his head. “They took my phone.”

She sat there for a while.

“We’re going to Xiamen,” she announced.

“That’s on the other side of the Pacific!” he hissed.

“So?”

“So we’ve been flying over mountains the whole time!”

“A great circle route from Seattle doesn’t go across the Pacific. It goes north. Vancouver Island. Southeast Alaska. The Aleutians. Kamchatka.” She nodded out the window. “All mountains like those. Young. Steep. Subduction zone stuff.”

Sokolov, without looking up, spoke one word: “Vladivostok.”

“See?” Zula said.

“What’s that?”

“A city. Extreme eastern Siberia.”

“Siberia. Fantastic.”

“We’re going to Xiamen,” she insisted. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Maybe they’ll just take us into Russia and—”

“What?” Zula asked. “Kill us? They could have done that in Seattle.”

“I don’t know,” Peter said, “sell us into white slavery or something.”

“I’m not white.”

“You know what I mean.”

“You saw the way Ivanov was. There’s only one thing he cares about. Find the Troll. And”—she hesitated on the threshold of the word, but there was no point in being prissy—” kill him.”

“It would make sense,” Peter said, finally getting into the spirit. “Stop in Vladivostok. Take on supplies or whatever. Then on to Xiamen.”

For Zula the thread of the conversation had snapped when she had said “kill.” She was now party to a murder plot. The memory of the events in Peter’s apartment was seeping back. When she had made the phone call to Corvallis, she had felt certain that it was the only thing she could do, but now she was replaying it in her mind, questioning her decision.

The aft door opened and Ivanov burst out, wrapped in a bathrobe. Ignoring everyone else, he went to the toilet.

Peter pulled his feet up onto his seat so that his knees were in front of his face, wrapped his arms around them, and put his head down.

Zula had been irked by his overall attitude at first. But he had a head start; he’d awakened earlier, been thinking about their situation longer. As minutes went by and the novelty of being on a private jet wore off, Zula began to understand the same thing that Peter did, which was that they were not meant to get out of this alive.

Ivanov emerged from the bathroom groomed and walked down the aisle, sliding his eyes over Zula’s face but making no connection. All his courtesy in Peter’s apartment had been to serve a purpose that no longer existed.

Peter had turned his head to the side and was watching Zula watch Ivanov. After Ivanov had gone back into his compartment, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“No one could have foreseen it.”

“Still.”

“No. The thing with REAMDE was totally random. Bad luck is all.”

After a couple of minutes, she said, “Maybe it’s not what you think it is.”

“Huh?”

“You’re thinking, once they’ve got what they want—” And she made a subtle flicking motion of her thumb across her throat.

“That’s pretty much what I’m thinking, yes.”

“But that assumes that this thing is sort of… normal. Kind of an orderly procedure. I don’t think it’s that.”

Peter flicked his eyes back toward Sokolov, warning her to shut up.

The plane began to descend over more snowy mountains.

THEY LANDED ON a long and well-paved runway in a place that was otherwise forested, with lozenges of snow splattered among the trees. It seemed to be a serious commercial airport serving passenger jets both regional and intercontinental, with some cargo traffic as well. Various hangars and utility structures were visible from the runway, but they didn’t get a good view of the terminal building per se. The plane taxied to an apron where a few other smaller planes were parked, and the pilot chose a place as far as possible from the others. Sokolov walked up and down the aisle pulling down the shades on all the windows. The pilots, who spoke Russian, emerged from the cockpit and opened the door, letting in fresh but chilly air. Ivanov and Sokolov exited the plane, leaving Zula and Peter there alone.

“So those other guys in Seattle—” Peter began.

“Were just local yokels,” Zula said.

“Temps.”

“Yeah.”

They heard a vehicle pull up next to the plane. Some men got out, and Sokolov talked to them. The vehicle drove away. After that, they didn’t hear Ivanov’s voice, but the voices and the cigarette smoke of the new guys continued to infiltrate the cabin.

Zula said, “Ivanov said he was a dead man. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember that.”

“So all I’m saying is that this might not be a normal example of what he does for a living.”

“You think it’s what, then?”

“A suicide run.”

“Makes me feel a lot better.”

“No, seriously, Peter. It should.”

“How do you figure?”

“If he expected to survive this, he’d need to get rid of us to cover his tracks. But if he’s expecting to end up dead, then he’s not thinking that far ahead.”

“Maybe we can jump clear before the blast?”

“Why not? We don’t matter except insofar as we can help him find the Troll.”

“Correction. He believes we can help him find the Troll.”

“Well,” Zula said, “that is your department.”

“Yeah. And I’m telling you that it is pretty much hopeless unless we can somehow get inside that big ISP and look at their logs. Which would be difficult even in Seattle. For a bunch of Westerners to attempt that in China? Are you kidding me?” A trace of a smile came onto his face. “This is why I never wanted to work in a technology company.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is a classic Dilbert situation where the technical objectives are being set by management who are technically clueless and driven by these, I don’t know, inscrutable motives.”

“Then we just need to scrutinize them harder. Do what those guys in the high-tech companies do.”

“Which is what? Because that’s your department.”

“Set expectations. Look busy. File progress reports.”

“And when they lose patience?”

“How should I know?” Zula said. “I’m not claiming I know the answer.”

ANOTHER PLANE TAXIED alongside them and cut its engines. A few people came out of it, and there was more talking and smoking. Their plane began to flinch as heavy objects were loaded into its cargo space.

The whole aircraft shifted on its suspension as someone put his weight on the front stairway, and they could feel it bobbing slightly as he mounted each step.

He entered the plane. Zula’s instantaneous judgment was that the guy was another of Ivanov’s goons, like the ones who had showed up at Peter’s place in Seattle. This was based entirely on appearance: his size, build, and extremely close-cropped copper-blond hair, his coat—dark green canvas, hanging to midthigh, with a vaguely military cut about it, looking like it could conceal just about anything short of a bazooka—and his scuffed black steel-toed boots. As he reached the top of the steps he swung a large shoulder bag down to the deck. It was a somewhat hip bike messenger bag with a broad padded strap meant to go diagonally across the body.

The first thing he wanted to look at was the cockpit, and so all they could see for a few moments was the back of his head, supported by an unusually thick neck.

After he’d gotten his fill of looking at the plane’s control panel, which took a while, he turned to inspect the door of the lavatory. He pushed at it curiously, causing it to accordion open, and then gave it a curious up-and-down look. He had been standing in a somewhat hunched posture, as if afraid he would bang his head on something, and now tilted his head back, opening his mouth to reveal a set of stained, gapped, but structurally rock-solid teeth, and felt above him with one hand, checking the height of the ceiling, verifying that if he straightened his posture the top of his bristly, bullet-shaped head would slam into it. Then he noticed Zula and Peter and turned toward them. His eyes were pale blue and broad set in a wide, bony skull. But his complexion was florid and just a bit toasty. He was surprised, interested, but not at all troubled, to see Zula and Peter looking back at him.

“Hello,” he tried, and Zula understood that English was not his native tongue; but he was trying to find out whether Peter and Zula could communicate that way.

“Hello,” they responded.

“I am Csongor.”

“Csongor the hacker?” Peter inquired.

“Yes,” Csongor answered, amused, or at least bemused, that Peter had been able to identify him in this way. He stepped into the passenger cabin. He and his luggage were too wide to move abreast down the seat-row, so he held the messenger bag out at arm’s length and allowed it to precede him.

“I’m Peter. You’ve apparently heard of me,” said Peter in a tone that was sour, verging on openly hostile.

Csongor, seeming to take the matter very seriously, stepped forward and extended his hand. Peter, incredulous, shook it. Csongor then turned toward Zula and waited for his cue.

“This is Zula,” Peter announced, in a tone of voice suggesting that Csongor really ought to drop dead.

Zula extended her hand. Csongor bent forward and kissed it, not in an arch way, but as if hand kissing were a wholly routine procedure for him. He set his bag down on one of the leather-upholstered seats, carefully, suggesting that it contained something valuable and delicate, such as a laptop. Then he sat down next to it, facing Peter and Zula.

Peter shifted in his seat in a manner just short of writhing that spoke of discomfort with the new seating arrangement. He ended up squarely facing Csongor. Zula could almost smell his tension. He did not like facing people, he was an introvert, it wasn’t his way.

There was a long, awkward moment.

“Who wants to begin?” Zula asked.

Csongor looked at Peter, who apparently didn’t want to begin. So, with a small by your leave sort of gesture, he began to speak in distinctly accented but essentially perfect English. “Yesterday… this thing happened with Wallace’s email. A couple of hours later, I was asked to go to Moscow for a meeting. I went. There was no meeting. Instead I was recommended to get on this plane.” He nodded in the direction of the plane that had parked next to them. “I followed the recommendation. It was full of certain types of people. Now I am here. I know nothing.”

Neither Peter nor Zula said anything in response.

Csongor found this somewhere between funny and irksome. “You said who wants to begin,” he reminded Zula, “not end.”

Still nothing.

Csongor tried, “You guys have a similar story, I guess?”

“Not really that similar,” Zula said. “It started with Wallace being murdered in Peter’s apartment.”

Csongor’s blue eyes snapped over to appraise Peter. “You murdered Wallace?”

Zula was astonished to hear herself laughing. But it seemed that whatever neurological circuits were responsible for laughing took no account of what the higher brain might consider inappropriate. “No, no,” she said. “Some Russians murdered him. Then they brought us here.”

“Well, that’s not very good,” Csongor said.

“I know,” Zula said. “Whatever it was that Wallace did, he didn’t deserve—”

“No, I mean it’s not very good for us.”

Peter snorted. “We weren’t under any illusions that this was anything other than unbelievably bad for us.”

“Yes, but perhaps I was,” Csongor said. And now that he said this, Zula saw that he was quite sincerely taken aback.

As he might well be. He had just been made aware that he was complicit in a murder.

“That is too bad,” Peter said, “because I was kind of hoping that maybe you could tell us what the fuck is going on. Who are these people? We know nothing.”

Csongor’s face reconfigured itself in a way that suggested his wheels were turning now, he was thinking instead of merely reacting. “Nothing? Really?”

Peter drew breath as if to answer, then checked himself.

“You know nothing about playing certain types of games with other people’s credit card numbers?” Csongor asked. “Or is that rather the specialty of Zula?”

Peter sighed. “Zula has nothing to do with it. I did sell Wallace a database of credit card numbers.”

“The one that Ivanov is so angry about.”

“Yes.”

“Well then,” Csongor said. “Now we have basis for conversation. These kinds of guys—how much do you know about them?”

“You mean, Russian, er…” Having spit out the adjective, Peter couldn’t bring himself to utter the noun.

“Mafia or organized criminals or whatever you want to call them,” Csongor said, turning hands momentarily palms up to say it didn’t matter. “They are not like how you see them on TV and movies…”

“Really? Because showing up in the private jet, killing Wallace in my apartment, it all seems pretty much straight from the script.”

“Ah, but this is extremely unusual,” Csongor said. “I am amazed, frankly.”

“Comforting.”

“Almost all of what they do is very boring. They are trying to make a living in the context of this unbelievably fucked-up system. This is their only motive. Not excitement, not violence. How they got most of their revenue in Russia was not crazy shit like drug deals or arms trafficking. It was overcharging for cotton from Uzbekistan. And when they moved into the States and Canada, it was health insurance fraud, avoiding gasoline taxes, and credit cards. Lots of credit cards.”

“What’s your involvement with all this?” Zula asked. “If you don’t mind my asking?”

“No, I don’t mind your asking,” Csongor said. “But I do mind answering, since it is somewhat embarrassing. Not a thing to be proud of.”

“Okay, don’t answer, then.”

Csongor considered it. Zula had pegged his age in the early thirties at first, but now that she was getting a better look at him—the elasticity of his face, the openness of his feelings—she understood that he was more like a big-boned twenty-five. “I will answer a little bit now, maybe more later. How much do you know of the history of Hungary?”

“Nada.”

“Zip.”

Apparently Csongor was unfamiliar with these slang terms, so Zula just shrugged hugely. He nodded and looked a little dismayed, unsure where he should begin. “But you at least know it was a Warsaw Pact country. Until about 1999 or so. Controlled by Russians in a very severe way.” Peter and Zula had begun nodding as if they did know all these things, which encouraged him. “Today, it is fine. It is totally modern, with a high standard of living. But in the nineties, when I was a teenager, the economy was terrible—the Communist system had been dynamited, like an old statue of Stalin, but it took some years for a new system to be created. Bad unemployment during those years, inflation, poverty, and so on. My father was a schoolteacher. Overqualified for it. But that is another story. Anyway, in our family, we had very little money, and the only way we knew to make a living was using our brains. As it happens, I was not the smart one. My older brother is the smart one.”

“What does he do for a living?” Zula asked.

“Bartos is pursuing a postdoc in topology at UCLA.”

“Oh.” Zula looked at Peter and told him, “That’s a kind of math.”

“Thank you,” Peter snapped.

Csongor continued, “But I could tell that I was not like Bartos, so I looked for other ways to make a living using my brain. The teachers in my academy only wanted me to play hockey for the school team. I ignored my classes and taught myself to program computers. Then suddenly I was making money this way. When the economy got better, programmers were needed all over the place. Especially doing localization.”

“What is localization?” Zula asked. Peter sighed, letting her know it was a stupid question.

“Translating foreign software into Hungarian, making things work correctly in the special environment of Hungary,” Csongor explained, and Zula thought that she could glimpse, here, in the way that he contentedly explained things, Csongor’s father the school-teacher. “As an example, because of inflation, Hungarian currency is debased.” Warming to the task, he pulled a wallet out of his pocket and produced a sheaf of bills from Magyar Nemzeti Bank, illustrated with engravings of men Zula had never heard of with crazy hats and florid mustaches. The denominations were enormous; the smallest was 1,000, and some of them bore five digits. “So if you have some trivial app that is used in retail, like for a cash register, foreign software might not be suitable because it wants format consisting of decimal point followed by some number of cents. But we don’t have a decimal point or cents, just an integer. So minor rewriting of software is needed. I did this kind of thing for merchants.”

“Which led to credit card readers?” said Peter, who was finally showing some patience.

“Exactly. In Warsaw Pact times, merchants did not have credit card readers, but when the economy came to life in the late 1990s, everyone suddenly had to have them, and so when people learned that I could program such machines, I had lots of work to do. My father had died from cigarettes and my mother could not make so much money, so I made money to put Bartos through school and so on. All fine. But there is a little snag. You see, the last Soviet soldier left Hungary in 1991. But there were other Russians who came in during the Cold War who took a little bit longer to leave.”

“These guys,” Zula said, cocking her head in the direction of the neighboring plane.

“Mafia, yes,” said Csongor. “So Step 1 of the new economy was that everything got very bad. Step 2 was that things got better and everyone obtained credit cards. And Step 3—”

“Step 3 was credit card fraud,” said Peter.

“Yes, and this was attempted in a number of different ways. Some better than others. The best of all ways is like this. A waiter in a restaurant has a little credit card reader in his pocket. The customer wants to pay his bill. He hands his credit card to the waiter. The waiter takes it back to a place where he is not observed and swipes it once to pay the bill. So far, totally legitimate.”

Peter was already nodding, confident that he knew this material, so Csongor finished the story for Zula’s benefit. “However, then the waiter swipes the card through the illegitimate reader in his pocket and makes a copy of the credit card data. The reader stores the data of many such cards. These data are aggregated and then sold on the black market.”

“So you got involved in that racket,” Peter said.

Csongor hesitated, not completely happy with the phrasing. “I took a job to program the firmware of a device. I was perhaps naive. It became clear to me only slowly what the device was used for.”

Peter let out a tiny snort. Csongor caught it immediately, thought about it, finally shrugged his huge shoulders and met Zula’s eye. As if she had somehow been named the judge of all such matters. “So I am just the latest in a very long line of Hungarians being talked into extremely stupid adventures by Germans, Russians, whatever. But it took me into this culture”—he shifted his gaze onto Peter, and Zula understood that he was now talking about international hacker culture—” where I was cool. Respected. Powerful drugs for a teenager.”

Peter did not meet Csongor’s gaze, and so Csongor went on as if the point had been conceded.

“Then later the same client came back to me with a new problem: there was too much data. Thousands of these machines had been mass-produced and distributed to waiters, not only in Hungary but all over Europe, and the data storage problem was becoming an issue, there were security problems, and so on. Could I help with this? And by the way, if the answer was no, perhaps they would report me to the police or cause other trouble for me. So I became a systems programmer. I built the systems these people needed. And after that, they needed someone to keep the system running in a secure and reliable way. So, over years, I morphed into a kind of mostly freelance systems administrator. I run servers, set up email systems, websites, wikis—”

“I know what a systems administrator is,” Peter said.

“My clientele are small companies or sole proprietors who are not big enough to hire someone just for this purpose. But my specialty, my niche, is situations where privacy and security are very important.”

“You work for gangsters,” Peter said.

“As do you, Peter.”

“This part of it is boring for me,” Zula said.

Csongor turned to look at her, his face a mixture of curiosity and regret. “Systems administration?”

Zula shook her head and made a gesture of two fists banging into each other, looking between Peter and Csongor. They seemed to take her point. Zula continued, “So I’ll bet Wallace contacted you and said ‘I need secure email, no questions asked.’”

“Exactly,” Csongor said. “I knew he worked for Ivanov. But. A Scottish accountant in Vancouver. What could possibly go wrong?” He chuckled and slapped his thigh, hoping that the others would join him in a little round of ironic laughter, but Peter was having none of it.

“Who is Ivanov? What did Wallace do for him?” Peter asked.

Csongor leaned back in his seat, suddenly feeling tired, and rubbed his eyes. “I had been working for these people for six years before I ever met Ivanov. Then he showed up in Budapest one day and took me to a hockey game and dinner, and then it was obvious who was really the boss.”

“But it was too late then.”

“Yes, I already knew too much and so on. In Russia there are a few such groups as the one that Ivanov is part of. Some are ethnic Russians. Ivanov belongs to one of those. Others are Chechens or Uzbeks or what have you. The Russian ones are very old, dating back to perhaps Ivan the Terrible. If you are a member of such a group, you live your whole life in it.”

Peter snorted. “That’s not saying much.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If you’re a mobster, your life expectancy is what, thirty years?”

“On the contrary,” Csongor said. “Precisely because so many of their activities are routine and boring, many of the members die of old age. Which is the problem.”

“What problem?”

“It’s a problem for Ivanov, that is.”

“How so?”

“It has always been the practice for groups like this to have a fund, called the obshchak, which is a common pool of money that they use for all kinds of purposes, including benefits.”

Benefits!? Are you telling me that Russian mobsters get dental!?”

Csongor shrugged. “I don’t see why you are so surprised. A man who gets a toothache must have it seen to, no matter what he does for a living. In the system of these groups, the money for the dentist is paid out of the obshchak. When a member reaches the age of retirement, the obshchak takes care of him. And, of course, the obshchak is also used to fund…”—and Csongor looked around at the plane—” operations.”

“So we are guests of the obshchak right now,” Peter said.

“Yes, but I do not think that we are authorized guests,” Csongor returned.

“What do you mean?”

“I think that Ivanov is basically stealing the funds that are being used to rent this plane,” Csongor said. “Because this is not how these guys operate. They are extremely conservative investors for the most part. They don’t do crazy shit like this.”

Peter snorted.

Zula said, “A pension fund is a pension fund.”

“Precisely,” said Csongor, turning to her. “Most of the obshchak is invested in proper financial instruments. Wallace is a, here my vocabulary fails me—”

“Money manager?” Zula guessed.

“He is one who manages the money managers,” Csongor said. “He distributes his clients’ funds among several different professional managers, evaluates their performance, moves money from one account to another as necessary.”

“That’s not all he does,” Peter said. “When I met him, he was buying stolen credit card numbers from me.”

“This is unusual for Wallace.”

“I sort of got that impression.”

“Wallace’s boss is—was—Ivanov. I believe that Ivanov made some mistakes. Of the money he controlled, some was supposed to be invested legitimately. This he entrusted to Wallace. Other money was put into schemes that we would call organized crime. I can only guess, but I think that Ivanov got into trouble.”

“Some of his schemes failed,” Zula said.

“Or perhaps he simply embezzled from the obshchak,” Csongor said. “Maybe he was not the right man to be managing this money.”

Peter laughed.

Csongor allowed himself the barest trace of a wry smile and continued: “The quarterly numbers were looking not so good. He knew he was in trouble, needed to take some risks in order to bring those numbers up. Guys like him are maybe addicted to taking risks anyway. He and Wallace set up some complicated transactions and at the same time invested some of the money Wallace controlled in schemes such as your stolen credit card numbers. When Wallace lost all his files—”

“The house of cards collapsed,” Zula said.

“Yes.”

“So why haven’t they come down on Ivanov yet?”

“They don’t know,” Csongor said. “Ivanov has a long leash and has moved with too great speed. By the time his bosses know that something strange is going on, we’ll be in Xiamen.”

“So we are going to Xiamen,” Zula said.

“This is what I was told,” Csongor said. “To find the Troll.”

“Are they going to kill us?”

Csongor thought about it rather too long for Zula’s taste. “I think this depends on Sokolov.”

“What is the deal with him?”

“Another private contractor, like Wallace. Except that he does security.”

“I’m afraid to even ask about his background.”

“Twice a hero,” Csongor said. “Once in Afghanistan and once in Chechnya.”

“Military,” Peter translated. “Not a gangster.”

“There is a bit of a, what do you call it, revolving door. It’s complicated.”

“But if it’s true that Ivanov has gone off the reservation,” Zula said, “then a military man isn’t going to approve of that, is he? He doesn’t have to keep following orders if it’s clear that his boss has gone bananas.”

“I don’t know Sokolov” was all that Csongor said to that.

SOKOLOV STEPPED ABOARD and then backed halfway into the cockpit to let others go by him. One by one, short-haired Russian security consultants came aboard and distributed themselves around the cabin according to suggestions from Sokolov. These were younger than Sokolov, but not precisely young; their ages seemed to range from late twenties to late thirties. They all had interesting faces, but Zula was disinclined to gaze directly at them since she did not want to be caught looking. Peter, Zula, and Csongor were allowed to keep their own space in the aft part of the cabin. Sokolov’s crew filled up the other available spaces and, when all seats were taken, resorted to sitting on the floor in the aisle. There were seven of them including Sokolov.

A car pulled up alongside. The two Russian pilots came aboard and began doing paperwork. More stuff was loaded from the vehicle to the plane’s cargo hold, and when that got full, additional items were handed up from below and passed down into the passenger cabin and stuffed wherever they would fit. Ivanov came aboard, smelling of alcohol, and went into his compartment in the back. Sokolov handed Zula a shopping bag that turned out to contain a pair of Crocs, a few T-shirts, and underwear.

The pilots closed the door. Sokolov issued a directive to raise the window shades. The plane taxied to the runway, took off north, and banked south. Several minutes later, as they were climbing toward cruising altitude, Zula got a good long view of what she took to be Vladivostok: a sizable port city built around a long inlet, shaped like a crooked finger, at the end of a beefy peninsula.

They flew for a while in silence. The security consultants smoked: a behavior that Zula had never seen aboard an airplane.

“So if we are to find the Troll, perhaps we should conceive of a plan?” Csongor offered.

The security consultants looked at him curiously, but then their attention began to drift away, and they began to make wry comments and crack jokes in Russian. Every so often Sokolov would tell them to shut up and they would be quiet for a while. Or perhaps Sokolov was ruling out certain topics of conversation. Zula preferred not to speculate on what those topics might be.

“Well, for starters, do you know anything at all about Xiamen?” Zula asked.

“I had the opportunity to do a little googling,” Csongor said.

“We didn’t,” Peter said.

“It is a curious place,” Csongor said. “Maybe a little like Hungary.”

“What does that mean?”

“Too many neighbors.”

“I had never heard of it until yesterday,” Zula said.

“It’s the place with the terra-cotta warriors, right?” Peter said.

“You are thinking of Xi’an,” Csongor said, with a rueful smile indicating that he had made the same error. “That is inland. Xiamen is on the coast. A little bit up from Hong Kong. Directly across a, what do you call it, a narrow bit of water—”

“Strait,” Zula said.

“Yes, from Taiwan. So. Xiamen is the place where the Spanish silver used to come into China. Spanish brought it on galleons from Mexico to Manila, and from there, Chinese merchants brought it up to Xiamen, and then up the Nine Dragons River to the interior. But the Dutch found out about this, and so the place became infested with Dutch pirates who would hide behind all the little islands and come out and steal the silver. When they weren’t doing that, they would rob the Chinese people. Then Zheng Chenggong came and chased them away. This was an amazing man. His mother was Japanese. His father was a Chinese pirate. He was born in Japan. But he was raised by Muslim ex-slaves, freed by his father; so some people think he was secretly a Muslim. Anyway, he chased the Dutch out of Taiwan and made it part of China again. He’s a hero to both the mainland Chinese and to the Taiwanese. There is a huge statue of him in Xiamen.”

“And this relates to our problem how?” Peter asked, making an elaborate show of patience.

Csongor gave Peter an appraising look. “Like I said, I only had Internet access for a few minutes. Long enough to download some old books. Then they cut me off. So I have been reading the books on the plane.”

“So all your information is from old books,” Peter said.

“Yes. But there is a point, which is that the links between Xiamen and Taiwan are very old and complicated. Right in the harbor of Xiamen are two islands that actually belong to Taiwan! They are less than ten kilometers from Xiamen, but they are part of a different country and during the Cold War the Red Army used to shell them all the time with artillery.”

“So I’m getting the picture that Xiamen has got all kinds of links to Manila, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, it is a major port, et cetera,” Zula said. “Is this all just touristy background stuff or does it tell us anything regarding the Troll?”

Csongor shrugged. “Maybe not about the Troll but maybe about us. About our situation. I was trying to figure out how these guys were going to get us into the country. You need a visa to enter China. Did you know this?”

“No,” Zula said, and Peter shook his head.

“It’s not hard but it takes a little while, you have to do some paperwork, send in your passport. Obviously we do not have visas. So I was wondering, how are these guys even going to get us into the country?”

Zula and Peter were watching Csongor interestedly, waiting for the punch line.

“You ask why this is relevant to us. The answer, I think, is that if they were trying to get us into some place in the interior of the country they would have a more difficult time. But Xiamen is famous for smuggling and corruption. Something like ten percent of all foreign goods sold in China are smuggled in to the country. Traditionally a lot of that smuggling has happened through Xiamen. There was a huge smackdown there ten years ago—”

“Crackdown,” Peter and Zula said in unison.

“Yes. Many officials executed or sent to prison. But it is still the kind of place where a man like him”—Csongor, not wanting to utter the name, flicked his eyes toward the door of Ivanov’s compartment—“would be able to make connections with local officials who control the ports, the customs, et cetera, and get away with smuggling, shall we say, human cargo into the country.”

“Fine, so let’s suppose you’re right about all of that and he can get us in,” Peter said. “What do we do then?”

Csongor considered it for a few moments. Not just the technical problem of finding the Troll, but, perhaps, what he could get away with saying out loud. Ivanov could not hear them through the bulkhead, but the security consultants could, and at least one of them—Sokolov—spoke some English. As Csongor made these calculations his head remained still, and turned away from the Russians, but his eyes wandered about in a way that Zula found hugely expressive.

“The address that we are working with,” he began, referring, as Zula understood, to the dotted quad written on the palm of Sokolov’s hand.

“Is part of a huge block controlled by an ISP,” Peter said. “This we know.”

“What if we attempted to narrow it down geographically?” Csongor said.

“We can’t exactly break into the headquarters of the ISP and interrogate their sysadmins…” Peter said, following Csongor’s line of thought.

“But those sysadmins must have some scheme for allocating all those addresses to different parts of the city,” Csongor said. “It might not be perfect, but…”

“But it probably won’t be random,” Peter said. “We could at least get an idea.”

It was Zula’s turn to feel like kind of a dunderhead, but working in a tech company had taught her that it was better to just come out and ask the question than to play along and pretend you understood. “How are you going to get that information?” she asked.

“Pounding the pavement,” Peter said, and looked to Csongor for confirmation.

Zula could tell from the look on Csongor’s face that he was not familiar with the idiom. “Going out on the streets,” she said, “and doing what?”

“I’ve heard they have Internet cafés all over the place there,” Peter said, “and if that’s true, we should be able to go in, pay some money, log on to a computer, and check its IP address. We write it down and move on to the next Internet café.”

“Or we could wardrive,” Csongor said.

Zula was vaguely familiar with the term: driving around with a laptop, looking for and logging on to unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

“Hotel rooms,” Peter said, nodding.

“Or just lobbies, even.”

“We could then build a map giving us a picture of how the ISP has allocated its IP addresses around the city. And that should make it possible for us to zero in on a neighborhood where the Troll lives. Maybe, if we get lucky, an Internet café that the Troll uses.”

Zula thought about it. “What I like about it,” she said, “is that it is kind of systematic and gradual, and so it should prove to our host that we are working on the problem in a steady way and getting results.”

This—keeping Ivanov happy, keeping his paranoia in check—was an aspect of the problem that Peter and Csongor had evidently not been thinking about very hard, and they gaped at her. She shook off a wave of mild irritation. “In management-speak, there are metrics that we can use to set expectations and show progress toward a goal.”

They weren’t sure whether she was joking. She wasn’t sure herself.

Why was she annoyed with them?

Because they were actually trying to solve the technical problem of locating the Troll. Which might have been Ivanov’s problem, but it wasn’t theirs. Theirs was Ivanov.

If they succeeded in finding the Troll, they’d have a worse problem: they’d be complicit in a murder plot.

But she did not make any further trouble, because there was something about their plan that she liked: it would get them out on the street, where they might be able to summon help or even escape. It was not clear to her what would happen to them if they went to the police and admitted that they had entered the country without visas, but it was unlikely to be worse than whatever Ivanov had in mind.

During this, she had been watching Sokolov from the corner of her eye. He still had a document on his lap, but he had not turned a page in a long time. He kept shushing the members of his squad, sometimes angrily. He was listening to them, trying to follow their conversation.

“Do you think they’ll allow us to go out on the street like that?”

“That’s the question,” Csongor admitted.

“They have to,” Peter said, “if they want to find the Troll.”

“Then I’ll try to sell it,” Zula said. “I’ll try to make him understand that this is the only way.” She made sure Sokolov could hear that much.

IN CSONGOR, ZULA had begun to recognize something that she had also seen in Peter and, indeed, that probably accounted for her having been attracted to Peter in the first place. Neither of these men had much in the way of formal education, since each had decided, during his late teens, to simply go out into the world and begin doing something. And each of them had found his way from there, sometimes with good and sometimes with bad results. Consequently, neither had much in the way of money or prestige. But each had a kind of confidence about him that was not often found in young men who had followed the recommended path through high school to college and postgraduate training. If she had wanted to be cruel or catty about it, Zula might have likened those meticulously groomed boys to overgrown fetuses, waiting endlessly to be born. Which was absolutely fine given that the universities were well stocked with fetal women. But perhaps because of her background in refugee camps and the premature death of her adoptive mother, she could not bring herself to be interested in those men. This quality that she had seen in Peter and now saw in Csongor was—and she flinched from the word, but there seemed little point in trying to distance herself from it through layers of self-conscious irony—masculine. And along with it came both good and bad. She saw the same quality in some of the men of her family, most notably Uncle Richard. And what she knew of him was that he was basically a good man, that he had done some crazy shit, hurt some­people, felt bad about it, that he had gotten lucky, that he would die to protect her, and that his relations with women, overall, had not gone well.

THE PLANE DESCENDED for a while and then made a series of turns that seemed like a landing approach. In another half hour the sun would be down, but presently the light was shining almost horizontally across the landscape below them, casting distinct shadows and throwing the landforms and buildings into relief. That it was hot and humid was obvious even from up here. The physical geography was bewilderingly complicated: a lot of multipronged peninsulas groping toward a stew of large and small islands in a sprawling bay formed by the confluence of at least two major estuaries. With the exception of some silted-in bits and slabs of artificial land around the water’s edge, the landforms tended to be steep, mountainous, and green. As they descended it became easy to pick out Xiamen, which was a generally circular island, separated from the mainland by straits narrow enough that modern bridges had been thrown across, connecting it to what looked like industrial suburbs.

It was by far the largest island in the bay, with the exception of one, farther from the mainland, that rivaled it in size if not in population. For the round island of Xiamen was almost entirely developed, only the steepest bits in the interior remaining green. The big island east of it was shaped like a sponge that had been squeezed almost in half. It had some built-up areas, but they were scattered, low-lying towns separated by broad flat regions devoted to agriculture. Other parts of it were mountainous and appeared to be wilderness, albeit scarred by winding roads and speckled with curious installations, heavy on domes and antennas. “That’s the Taiwanese island, isn’t it?” Zula said.

“I would guess so,” said Csongor. “All that stuff is military; it looks like the crap that the Soviets used to build in Hungary.”

Another, smaller island passed under their wing. It too was notably underdeveloped compared to everything else. “The other one,” Csongor said. “One is Quemoy, the other is Matsu. I don’t know which is which.”

Moments later they were above Xiamen, and after another series of turns they came in for their landing.

The plane did not head for the terminal but instead taxied to a more low-slung part of the airport. This was crowded with other small private jets, and it was necessary to taxi past a score of them before finding a parking spot. Zula, of course, had no idea what Xiamen’s private jet terminal looked like on a normal day, but the scene that presented itself out the window looked extremely busy to her. Beyond the chain-link security fence, there were enough black cars jockeying for position that it was necessary for men in uniforms to stand about waving their arms and blowing whistles. Some of them were admitted onto the tarmac to pull up alongside parked jets.

The security consultants had taken an interest in the proceedings and were pressing their faces against windows. “Germaniya,” said one of them. “Yaponiya,” said another.

“Names of countries,” Csongor explained. For Zula was on the wrong side of the plane and having a difficult time getting a clear view. “Some of these jets belong to governments. There’s yours right there.” And he rolled clear of a window and pointed toward one marked UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

“What’s going on?” Zula asked.

Csongor shrugged. “Some kind of conference maybe?”

“Taiwan,” Peter said. “I heard about this! It’s something to do with Taiwan.”

Zula goggled, not out of skepticism but because she didn’t normally look to Peter to be up to speed on current events. He shrugged. “Slashdot. There’s been some kind of hassle, connected with this. Denial-of-service attacks against Taiwanese ISPs.”

“Okay, yes! I did hear something about this,” Csongor said. “They are having diplomatic talks. But I didn’t realize it was happening in Xiamen.”

But this was the last they saw before Sokolov ordered that all the shades be pulled down.

After they came to a stop, Ivanov emerged from the aft cabin, talking on a phone, and exited the plane.

They turned off all the lights and sat there for an hour before Zula fell asleep.

When she woke up, it was still dark. People were up and moving around, but not talking. Everyone was getting their stuff. Zula followed suit. Sokolov was lodged in the cockpit door again, slapping each of his men on the shoulder as they filed off.

Csongor, who had an actual wristwatch, said that six hours had passed since the plane had landed.

When Zula reached the head of the aisle, Sokolov held out a hand to stop her, then handed her a black bundle. It smelled like new clothing. She took it in both hands and let it unfold. It was a black hoodie printed with the name of a fashion designer, flagrantly bootleg.

“Not my style,” she said.

“Later we get you fur coat,” Sokolov said.

She locked eyes with him. He had perhaps the best poker face she had ever seen; she could not get the slightest hint as to whether he was engaging in deadpan humor, cruel sarcasm, or actually intending to get her a fur coat.

“That’s not my style either.”

He shrugged. “Put this on; we worry about style later.”

She put it on. He reached around behind her neck, grasped the hood, and pulled it up to cover her head, then forward so that her face was shrouded. Then he gave her a pat on her shoulder to let her know she could proceed. In a strange way that made her hate herself, she enjoyed the sensation of the pat.

Descending the stairs, she saw that two vans were idling right next to the plane. Standing next to the first one was a security consultant, watching her carefully. At the base of the stairs was another, who did not touch her but walked next to her as she proceeded to the van.

She was directed to the backseat where she sat in the middle between two security consultants who made sure that her seat belt was tightly fastened. Csongor ended up in front of her and Peter was, apparently, in the other van.

Sokolov gave a directive. The vans went into motion, driving through a gate in the security barrier and out onto an airport road. A black Mercedes pulled in ahead of them. Zula kept waiting for the moment when they’d roll up to a security checkpoint, but it didn’t happen. They never got checked at all. At some point they merged into traffic on a highway. They were in China.

CHET HAD TO drive into Elphinstone to pick up some supplies for the Mud Month shutdown, so he gave Richard a lift to the town’s one-runway airport. A twin-engine, propeller-driven airplane awaited him there, and Chet, who knew the drill, simply drove right up to it, rolled down his window, and exchanged some banter with the pilot while Richard pulled his bag out of the back of Chet’s truck and heaved it through the plane’s tiny door. Thirty seconds later they were in the air. Richard, who made this journey a couple of dozen times a year, had set up a deal with a flying service based out of the Seattle suburb of Renton, and so all this was as routine as it could be. The amount of time he would spend in the air was less than what some Corporation 9592 employees would spend in their cars this morning, stuck on floating bridges or bottled up behind random suburban fender benders.

The first and last thirds of the route were entirely over mountains. The middle third traversed the irrigated basin around Grand Coulee Dam. No matter how many times Richard flew it, he was always startled to see the ground suddenly level out and develop a rectilinear grid of section-line roads, just like in the Midwest. Early on, the pattern was imposed in fragments scattered over creviced and disjoint mesas separating mountain valleys, but presently these flowed together to form a coherent grid that held together until it lapped up against some terrain that was simply too rugged and wild to be subjected to such treatment. The only respect in which these green farm-squares differed from the ones in the Midwest was that here, many of them sported inscribed circles of green, the marks of center-pivot irrigation systems.

Richard could never look at them without thinking of Chet. For Chet was a midwestern boy too and had grown up in a small town in the eastern, neatly gridded part of South Dakota where he and his boyhood friends had formed a proto-motorcycle gang, riding around on homemade contraptions built from lawnmower engines. Later they had graduated to dirt bikes and then full-fledged motorcycles. The world’s unwillingness to supply Chet with all the resources he needed for upkeep and improvement of his fleet of bikes had led him into the business of small-town marijuana dealing, which must have seemed dark and dangerous at the time, but that now, in these days of crystal meth, seemed as wholesome as running a lemonade stand. Chet had logged a huge number of miles riding around on those section-line roads, which he preferred to the state highways and the interstates since there was less traffic and less of a police presence.

One evening in 1977 he had been riding south from a lucrative rendezvous in Pipestone, Minnesota. It was a warm summer night; the moon and the stars were out. He leaned back against his sissy bar and let the wind blow in his long hair and cranked up the throttle. Then he woke up in a long-term care facility in Minneapolis in February. As was slowly explained to him by the occupational therapists, he had been found in the middle of a cornfield by a farmer’s dog. It seemed that his nocturnal ride had been terminated by a sudden west-ward jog in the section-line road. Failing to jog, he had flown off straight into the cornfield, doing something like ninety miles an hour. The corn, which was eight feet tall at that time of the year, had brought him to a reasonably gentle stop, and so he had sustained surprisingly few injuries. The long, tough fibrous stalks had split and splintered as he tore through them, but his leathers had deflected most of it. Unfortunately, he had not been wearing a helmet, and one splinter had gone straight up his left nostril into his brain.

The recovery had taken a while. Chet had gotten most of his brain functions back. He had not lost any of his wits, unless discretion and social skills could be so designated, so he had devoted a lot of attention to the question of why the transit-brandishing pencil-necks who had laid out the section lines a hundred years ago had been so particular about sticking to a grid pattern and yet had perversely inserted these occasional sideways jogs into the grid. Examining maps, he noticed that the jogs only occurred in north-south roads, never east-west.

The answer, of course, was that the earth was a sphere and so it was geometrically impossible to cover it with a grid of squares. You could grid a good-sized patch of it, but eventually you would have to insert a little adjustment: move one row of sections east or west relative to the row beneath it.

It being the 1970s, and Chet being a high school dropout with a damaged brain, he could not help but perceive something huge in this discovery. Nor could he avoid coming to the conclusion that the mistake he had made on that beautiful moonlit night had been a sort of message from above, a warning that, during the grubby, day-to-day work of small-town pot dealing, he had been failing to attend to larger and more cosmic matters.

He had moved west, as Americans did in those days when they were searching for the cosmic. A few hundred miles short of the Pacific, he had fallen in with the biker group that collaborated with Richard on his backpack smuggling scheme. Among them he had acquired a sort of shamanistic aura and become the high priest of a breakaway faction calling itself the Septentrion Paladins to distinguish themselves from their predominantly Californian parent group. They had moved north of the border and established themselves in southern B.C. A second, near-fatal crash had only enhanced Chet’s mystical reputation.

Not long after Chet had been released from the hospital after the second crash, the Septentrion Paladins had embarked on a project to, as Chet put it, “get in touch with our masculinity.”

When this policy initiative had abruptly been made known to Richard in the middle of a barroom conversation on seemingly unrelated topics, awe and horror had struggled for supremacy in his mammalian brain as his reptilian had begun to tally all exits, conventional and un-, from the bar; lubricated his whole body with sweat; and jacked his pulse rate up into a frequency range that had probably jammed Mounties’ radar guns out on Highway 22. For he had known these men all too well in their premasculine days and could not imagine what they were about to get up to now. Over the course of the next few minutes’ marginally coherent discussion, however, he pieced together that what Chet really meant was that they would stay in touch with their masculinity but with a more modest body count. The change in emphasis seemed to coincide with some of the surviving principals’ getting married and having kids. They got rid of most of their guns and took advantage of Canada’s surprisingly easygoing sword laws, riding around the provincial byways with five-foot claymores strapped to their backs. They met in forest clearings to engage in mock duels and jousts with foam weapons, and they went to Ren Faires to hoist tankards with their newfound soul brothers in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Roaring down the byways of southern B.C. with the cross hilts of their claymores projecting above their shoulders, they had become a familiar feature of that self-consciously quirky part of the world. Barely visible behind concentric shells of tinted glass and perforated sunscreens, children in minivans had pointed to them and waved with lavish enthusiasm. The Septentrion Paladins had become the subjects of offbeat-slash-heartwarming featurettes on regional television news broad-casts, and they had ceased to commit crimes.

TURNING HIS ATTENTION back to matters inside the plane’s cabin, Richard resumed reading the T’Rain Gazette, a daily newspaper (electronic format, of course), created by a microdepartment operating out of the Seattle office, which summarized what had been going on all over T’Rain during the preceding twenty-four hours: notable achievements, wars, duels, sackings, mortality statistics, plagues, famines, untoward spikes in commodity prices.

TORGAI MORTALITY HITS 1,000,000% MARK

(compiled from reports by Gazette correspondents Gresh’nakh the Forsaken, Erikk Blöodmace, and Lady Lacewing of Faërie)

Torgai Foothills—The mortality rate in this unexpectedly war-ravaged region today skyrocketed through one million percent. Local observers attributed the unusual figure to an “epochal” influx of outsiders, compelled, by as yet unexplained astral phenomena, to pay tribute to a local troll. The visitors or, as they have come to be known to locals, “Meat,” are laden with tribute and hence make tempting targets for highwaymen (the one million percent benchmark is considered by analysts to be an important psychological barrier that separates a war-ravaged inferno from a chiliastic gore storm).

Steadying himself on an eight-foot wizard’s staff as he waded through a knee-high river of blood washing down the market street of Bagpipe Gulch—a community that once prized its status as the “Gateway to Torgai”—Shekondar the Fearsome, a local alchemist, denied that the trend was a negative influence on the town’s image, insisting that the influx of “Meat,” and the bandits, land pirates, and cutthroats who had come to prey on them, had been a boon to the region’s economic development and a bonanza for local merchants, especially those who, like Shekondar, dealt in goods, such as healing potions and magically enhanced whetstones, that were in demand among the newcomers.

In the Wayfarer Inn, a popular local watering hole situated on the precipitous road leading up out of Bagpipe Gulch into the foothills, a more nuanced view of the situation could be heard in the remarks of a muffled voice barely audible through a wall of corpses stacked all the way to the taproom’s ceiling, and identifying itself as Goodman Bustle, the barkeep. Suggesting that all the visitors and attention might be “too much of a good thing,” the voice identifying itself as Bustle complained that many customers, citing as an excuse the towering rampart of decaying flesh that had completely blocked access to the bar, had departed the premises without paying their tabs.

The compilers of this document all sported advanced liberal arts degrees from very expensive institutions of higher learning and wrote in this style, as Richard had belatedly realized, as a form of job security. Upper management had grown accustomed to reading the Gazette every morning over their lattes and would probably have paid these people to write it even if it hadn’t been an official part of Corporation 9592’s budget.

The phrase “as yet unexplained astral phenomena” was a hyperlink leading to a separate article on the internal wiki. For it was an iron law of Gazette editorial policy that the world of T’Rain as seen through the screens of players must be treated as the ground truth, the only reality observable or reportable by its correspondents. Oddities due to the choices made by players were attributed to “strange lights in the sky,” “eldritch influences beyond the ken of even the most erudite local observers,” “unlooked-for syzygy,” “what was most likely the intervention of a capricious local demigod,” “bolt from the blue,” or, in one case, “an unexpected reversal of fortune that even the most wizened local gaffers agreed was without precedent and that, indeed, if seen in a work of literature, would have been derided as a heavy-handed example of deus ex machina.” But of course it was one of the Gazette staff’s most important tasks to report on player behavior, that is, on things that happened in the real world, and so such phrases were always linked to non-Gazette articles written in a sort of corporate memo-speak that always disheartened Richard when he clicked through to it.

In this case, the explanatory memo supplied the information that the Torgai Foothills were the turf of a band calling themselves the da G shou, probably an abbreviation of da G[old] shou, “makers of gold,” where the truncation of “Gold” to “G” was either due to the influence of gangsta rap, or because it was easier to type. They had been running the place for years. All pretty normal. There were many little enclaves like this. Nothing in the rules prevented a sufficiently dedicated and well-organized band of players from conquering and holding a particular stretch of ground. The “Meat” were there because of REAMDE, which had been present at background levels for several weeks now but that recently had pinballed through the elbow in its exponential growth curve and for about twelve hours had looked as though it might completely take over all computing power in the Universe, until its own size and rapid growth had caused it to run afoul of the sorts of real-world friction that always befell seemingly exponential phenomena and bent those hockey-stick graphs over into lazy S plots. Which was not to say that it wasn’t still a very serious problem and that scores of programmers and sysadmins were not working eighteen-hour shifts crawling all over the thing. But it wasn’t going to take over the world and it wasn’t going to bring the whole company to a stop, and in the meantime, thousands of characters were racking up experience points slaying each other in Goodman Bustle’s pub.

CORVALLIS KAWASAKI PICKED him up on the tarmac of the Renton airport. He was driving the inevitable Prius. “I could have had a friggin’ Lincoln town car,” Richard complained, as he stuffed himself into its front seat.

“Just wanted to bend your ear a little,” C-plus explained, fussing with the intermittent wiper knob, trying to dial in that elusive setting, always so difficult to find in Seattle, that would keep the windshield visually transparent but not drag shuddering blades across dry glass. They were staring straight down the runway at the southern bight of Lake Washington, which was flecked with whitecaps. It had been a choppy landing, and Richard felt a bit clammy.

Corvallis had grown up in the town after which he was named, the son of a Japanese-American cog sci professor and an Indian biotech researcher, but culturally he was pure Oregonian. No one at the company knew exactly what he did for a living. But it was hard to imagine the place without him. He shifted the Prius into gear, or whatever it was called when you pulled the lever that made it go forward, and proceeded at a safe and sane speed among the parked airplanes, dripping and rocking against their tie-downs, and out through a gate and onto something that looked like an actual street. “I know you’re going to see Devin tomorrow and mostly what’s on your mind is the war.”

He paused slightly before saying “war,” and he said it funny, with a long O and heavy emphasis.

“Woe-er?” Richard repeated.

“W-O-R,” C-plus explained, “the War of Realignment.”

“Is that what the cool kids are calling it now?”

“Yeah. I guess it works better in email than in conversation. Anyway, I know you’re going to be prepping for that, but also you need to know that there are some interesting technolegal issues coming up around REAMDE.”

“God, that sounds like just the sort of can of worms that I retired to get away from.”

“I don’t think you are actually retired,” Corvallis pointed out mildly. “I mean, you just flew in from Elphinstone and tomorrow you’re taking a jet to Missouri and from there—”

“It’s a selective retirement,” Richard explained, “a retirement from boring shit.”

“I think that’s called a promotion.”

“Well, whatever you call it, I don’t want to ‘drill down’—is that the expression you use?”

“You know perfectly well that it is.”

“Into nasty details of REAMDE’s legal consequences. I mean, we’ve had viruses before, right?”

“We have 281 active viruses as of the last time I checked, which was an hour ago.”

Richard drew breath but C-plus cut him off. “And before you go where you’re going, let me just point out that most of them don’t actually make use of our technology as a payment mechanism. So REAMDE is not just another virus. It presents new issues.”

“Because our servers are actually being used to transfer the booty.”

“Turns out,” Corvallis warned him, “that federal law enforcement types haven’t yet bought into the whole APPIS mind-set, and so they aren’t real big on terms like ‘booty,’ ‘swag,’ ‘hoard,’ ‘treasure,’ or anything that is evocative of a fictitious Medieval Armed Combat scenario. To them, it’s all payments. And since our system uses real money, it’s all—well—real.”

“I always knew that that was going to swing around and bite me in the ass someday,” Richard said. “I just didn’t know how or when.”

“Well, it’s bitten you in the ass lots of times, actually.”

“I know, but each one feels like the first.”

“The creator of the REAMDE virus has made some… interesting choices.”

“Interesting in a way that’s bad for us?” Richard asked. Because this was clearly implied by Corvallis’s tone.

“Well, that depends on whether we want to be the avenging sword of the Justice Department, here, or sort of cop out and say it’s not our problem.”

“Go on.”

“The instructions in the eponymous file just state that the gold pieces are to be left at a particular location in the Torgai Foothills. They do not say that the gold is to be mailed or transferred to any one specific character.”

“Obviously,” Richard said, “because in that case we could just shut down that character’s account.”

“Right. So the way that the virus creator takes possession of the gold is by simply picking it up off the ground where it has been dropped by the victim.”

“Which is something that any character in the game could do.”

“Theoretically,” Corvallis said. “In practice, obviously, you can’t pick the gold up unless you can actually get to that location in the Torgai Foothills. And in order to turn those gold pieces into real-world money, you have to then physically get them out to a town with an M.C.”

“Not ‘physically,’” Richard corrected him. “You guys always make that mistake. It’s a game, remember?”

“Okay, physically in the game world,” Corvallis said, his tone of voice suggesting that Richard was being just a little pedantic. “You know what I mean. Your character has to be capable of surviving the journey from the drop point, through the foothills, to the nearest town or ley line intersection, and to an M.C.”

For, as C-plus didn’t need to explain to Richard, virtual gold pieces in the game could not be converted into real-world cash without the services of a moneychanger—an M.C.—and you couldn’t find those guys just anywhere. For techno-legal reasons Richard had forgotten, they had limited the number of moneychangers, inserted some friction and delay into the system.

Richard said, “So the creators of the virus were leveraging their physical control of the—goddamn it!” For Corvallis had gotten a mischievous look on his face and raised an index finger from his steering wheel. Richard corrected himself, “They were leveraging their virtual, in-the-game-world military dominance of that region to create a payment mechanism that would be more difficult for us to shut down.”

“As far as we can tell, they are using as many as a thousand different characters to go into that region and pick up the gold and act as mules.”

“All self-sus, no doubt.”

“You got it.”

“But how are they extracting real money from self-sus accounts?” Because the usual way of turning your pretend gold pieces into real money was to have it show up as a payment to a credit card account.

“Western Union money transfers, through a bank in Taiwan.”

Richard got a blank look.

“It’s an option we added,” Corvallis explained. “Nolan’s always looking for ways to make the system more transparent to Chinese kids who don’t have credit cards.”

“Fine. Where is the drop point?”

“Drop point?”

“Where are the victims depositing the ransom money?”

“Interesting question. Turns out that there’s not just one place for that. The REAMDE files are all a little bit different—apparently they were generated by a script that inserts a different set of coordinates each time. So far we have identified more than three hundred different drop locations that are specified in different versions of the file.”

“You’re telling me the gold is scattered all over the place.”

“Yeah.”

“They anticipated we might make moves to shut them down,” Richard said, “so they spread things out.”

“Apparently. So it’s analogous to a situation in the real world where caches of gold have been scattered all over a rugged wilderness area, hundreds of square kilometers.”

“If that happened in the real world,” Richard said, “the cops would just cordon off the area.”

“And that is exactly what cops of various nationalities are asking us to do in this case,” C-plus said. “Just write a script that will eject or log out every character in the Torgai Foothills and prevent them from logging back in. Then go in there and collect evidence.”

“By ‘go in there’ you just mean run a program that will identify all gold pieces, or piles or containers thereof, in that region.”

“Yes.”

“And are we telling them to fuck themselves?” This seemed the obvious thing to do, but Richard wouldn’t put anything past Corporation 9592’s current CEO.

“We don’t have any choice!” C-plus said.

Richard was struck mute with admiration at the way C-plus had answered the question while imputing nothing except helplessness to the CEO.

Corvallis went on, “REAMDE has affected users from at least forty-three different countries that we know about. If we say yes to one, we have to say yes to all of them.”

“And then our company is being micromanaged by the United Nations,” Richard said. “Awesome.” He was way too old to use this all-purpose adjective sincerely but was not above throwing it into a sentence for ironic effect.

“The legal issues are just fantastically complex,” C-plus said, “given all the different nationalities. So I’m not here to tell you that we’ve got an answer. But it helps that each individual event is a very small crime. Seventy-three dollars at current exchange rates. Under the radar as far as serious criminal prosecution is concerned.”

“I have a headache already,” Richard said. “Is there anything you actually need me to do? Or are you just…”

“Just cluing you in,” C-plus said. “I’m sure that the PR staff will want some quality time with you before you go on the road.”

“They just want to tell me to shut up,” Richard said. “I already know that.”

“That is not the actual point. They just want to be seen as having done their jobs.”

Richard fell silent for a while, wondering whether there was any way that he could delegate to an underling all meetings whose sole purpose was for the people he was meeting with to demonstrate that they were doing their jobs. Then he realized he should have just stayed in the Schloss if that was what he really wanted.

Half an hour later they were at Corporation 9592’s headquarters, chilling out in a small conference room with an over-sized LCD video screen. Corvallis offered to “drive,” meaning that he would operate the mouse and keyboard, but Richard asserted his prerogative, dragging the controls over to his side of the table and then logging in using his personal account. All his characters were listed on the splash screen. Compared to some players, he didn’t have that many: only eight. Even though he understood, intellectually, that they were just software bots, it made him feel somehow guilty to know that they were all sitting in their home zones twenty-four hours a day, executing their bothaviors, and waiting for the master to log in and exercise them.

He scanned the list of names and decided, what the hell, he would just unlimber Egdod.

Egdod was the first player-character that had ever been created in T’Rain, not counting a number of titans, gods, demigods, and so on that had been set up in order to build the world and that were not owned by any one player. He had his own personal home zone, a towering fortress of solitude constructed on the top of one of T’Rain’s highest mountains and decorated with artifacts that Egdod had looted from various palaces and ruins that he’d had a hand in conquering. Egdod was so famous that Richard could not even take him out of doors without first concealing his identity behind a many-layered screen of spells, wards, disguises, and enchantments whose purpose was to make him look like a much less powerful, but still way-too-puissant-to-fuck-with character. Even the simplest of these spells was far beyond the powers of all but a few hundred of T’Rain’s most powerful denizens. Richard had written a script that invoked them all automatically, with a single keystroke; otherwise it would have taken him half an hour. Each spell triggered its own custom-designed light show and sound effects extravaganza, the latter propagating through the building thanks to the oversized subwoofers with which this conference room had been supplied, and so awareness that Egdod was being aired out spread through neighboring offices by subsonic vibration and then throughout the rest of the building by text message, and curious employees began to congregate in the doorway of the conference room, not daring to cross its threshold, just wanting to catch a glimpse of the event, in somewhat the same spirit that navy veterans would gather on the shore to watch the battle-ship Missouri being towed to a new berth. Which was not to imply that a warship of that class would have stood much of a chance against the firepower of an Egdod. A direct hit from an ICBM might have mussed Egdod’s hair—which, predictably, was white, in a God of the Old Testament do. Richard longed to swap it for something a little more against-the-grain, and when Egdod was in disguise, he always did. But once in a blue moon, Egdod had to appear in his true avatar to kill a god, divert a comet, or carry out some ceremonial function, and at those times it was necessary that he look the part. As the successive magic wrappers were laid down, however, this awe-inspiring figure and his harbingers and vanguards, his encloaking energy-nimbi and meteorological accoutrements, got stripped away and snuffed out, and finally Egdod himself altered his appearance to that of a somewhat pixieish, vaguely elven-looking young female with spiky dark hair. At this point the crowd in the doorway dispersed, except for a few who wanted to linger and get a view of Egdod’s fortress from inside.

Gravity was of no more concern to Egdod than crabgrass to an archangel, so he could have taken flight directly from any balcony or open window, but the Torgai Foothills were six thousand miles away, which was a long trip even at the supersonic velocities of which Egdod was capable. So instead he made use of the ley line intersection that was directly beneath the mountain. Wary of being followed out of the Bagpipe Gulch intersection, he went to another LLI about a hundred miles away, underneath a large city that bestrode a great river flowing down out of the mountain range above the Torgai. But even this place had been thrown all out of whack by REAMDE, with long queues outside the moneychangers’ kiosks and healing potions at such a premium that they were being auctioned in the town square for ten times their usual market price. On his way to the city gates, Egdod was accosted several times by bands of warriors who assumed that he, or rather the spiky-haired pixie he was pretending to be, had come here to pay ransom in the Torgai Foothills. Don’t even think of going up there alone, was the general tenor of their remarks; pay us enough and we’ll escort you to the proper coordinates. Richard got rid of them quickly just by claiming that his/her errand had nothing to do with REAMDE. At the first opportunity, he made the character invisible and then, just in case he was being followed, superinvisible and then double-super and then hyperinvisible. For run-of-the-mill invisibility spells could be penetrated by countermeasures of varying strengths. Satisfied that no one could plausibly see him/her, he/she took to the air and flew the hundred miles to Torgai in a few minutes, plunging to treetop level at the end and flying nap-of-the-earth to get a better view of what was going on down there.

A lot was the quick answer.

Not that Richard didn’t already know this; but there was something about actually seeing it.

And besides, this was almost kind of like his job now. The CEO, who had actual responsibilities, could get by with reading the summaries and maybe allow himself to be seen checking out the T’Rain Gazette during his coffee break. But actually going to the place was a waste of his shockingly expensive time. Richard, however, as founder/chairman, receiving only token compensation, was almost expected to go and view spectacles of this kind, in roughly the same way that the Queen of England was expected to fly over derailments in a chopper.

A key difference was that he got to have inappropriate emotional responses. “This is fucking cool,” he remarked, gazing down from an altitude of perhaps a thousand feet at a corpse- and skeleton-strewn meadow where something like twenty different Medieval Armed Combat encounters were going on simultaneously. “We should pay these guys to do this all the time.”

“Which guys?”

“Whoever created this virus.”

“Oh.”

“Who did create it, by the way?”

“Unknown,” C-plus said, “but thanks to your niece, we’re pretty sure he’s in Xiamen.”

“The place with the terra-cotta soldiers?”

“No, you’re thinking of Xian.”

“Zula’s been helping you track these guys down?”

C-plus looked a bit taken aback. “I thought you were aware of it.”

“Of what?”

“Her participation. She said it was a side project that you had put her on.”

Had it been anyone else, Richard would have said, I have no idea what the hell you are talking about, but since it was family, his instinct was to cover for her. “There may have been some mission drift,” he speculated.

“Whatever. Anyway, we have an IP address in Xiamen, but nothing else.”

Richard put Egdod into auto-hover mode, then leaned back and took his hands off the controls. “Are the Chinese cops among those who have been pestering us to do something about this?”

“They were among the first to do so, is my understanding.”

“Then one way to shut them up—”

“—is to ask them to trace down this IP address for us. Yes, I agree; we would never hear from them again.”

“So are we going to do that?”

“I doubt it,” C-plus said, “because we’d be giving up information about our own internal procedures. And I’m pretty sure Nolan doesn’t want to do that.”

“And, come to think of it, I’m sure Nolan’s right,” Richard said. “I’m an idiot. Let’s not tell the Chinese government anything.”

“Are you asking me to pass that on to our CEO?” Corvallis said, in a tone of voice making it clear that, if flat out asked, he’d flat out refuse.

“Nah,” Richard said, “I have other reasons to ruin his day.”

Day 2

In the dark, driving through Xiamen was like driving through any other modern city, save that they were more exuberant, here, about lighting things up; the highway was illuminated with dashed lines of blue neon, and bright signs, some familiar corporate logos and others unreadable by Zula, erupted from the tops of buildings.

They stopped at a brand-new Hyatt not far from the airport and dropped off the two pilots. Then they followed what she took to be a ring road, since water was always on their right, until they were in the middle of what had to be the most crowded and built-up part of the island. This was more than a match for Seattle. The waterfront to their right was an unbroken series of low-slung passenger ferry terminals. To their left was a mixture of buildings: some brand-new skyscrapers, some pre-economic-miracle hotels and office structures rising to perhaps ten or fifteen stories, some vacant lots-cum-construction-sites, and a few tenacious patches of old three- to seven-story residential neighborhood buildings.

They turned off the ring road into a place that had been landscaped recently. A huge steel door raised, and they descended into a parking structure beneath an office tower. The parking spaces hadn’t been striped yet, and the lighting was temporary. Construction tools and supplies were piled around.

The two vans had caravanned the whole way behind the black Mercedes. A Chinese man, dressed informally, but seeming to wield great authority, climbed out of the backseat of the Mercedes. Ivanov, who had been sitting next to him, climbed out of the other side. The Chinese man used a key card to summon an elevator. He held the door open as Ivanov, the seven security consultants, Zula, Peter, and Csongor crammed themselves aboard. Then he pushed himself in, swiped his card, and hit the button for the forty-third floor. All told, the building seemed to have fifty stories.

Standing in an elevator with a bunch of strangers felt a little awkward even in the best of circumstances. Never more so than now. Zula, and most of the others, stared at the control panel, which was ostentatiously high tech; above it was an electroluminescent screen that flashed the numbers of the floors as they went by and occasionally displayed Chinese characters as well, synchronized with a lush female voice speaking canned phrases in Mandarin.

Floor 43 sported a reasonably nice elevator lobby, lined in expensive-looking polished stone and equipped with men’s and women’s bathrooms. Beyond that, it consisted of two large office suites of equal size. The one to the left, as they stepped off the elevators, was completely unfinished. The floors were bare concrete. The ceilings were just the underside of Floor 44: corrugated steel deck frosted with foamy stuff and supported at wide intervals by huge zigzagging trusses. The suite to the right seemed to have been built out recently but never occupied. Double doors of plate glass, set in a plate-glass wall, gave way to a reception area containing a built-in desk but no furniture. Beyond that was an open space about the size of a tennis court, obviously destined to become a warren of cubicles. Around the perimeter were glass-walled offices of various sizes, each with a window. The largest of these was a conference room with a large built-in table and sprays of unconnected Ethernet cables hanging out of hatches in its center. Other than that there was no furniture in the whole place. The floor was covered in brown-gray carpet, and the ceiling was a grid of acoustical panels interrupted here and there by light fixtures and vent louvers.

It was, in other words, the most perfectly generic office environment that could be imagined.

“Safe house,” Sokolov announced, and he indicated by gestures that Zula, Peter, and Csongor might wish to make themselves comfortable in the middle of the open space.

Ivanov departed in the company of the Chinese man.

Three of the security consultants set to work bringing up all the cargo that had been flown in on the plane and packed into the vans. They had been supplied with elevator key cards and so were free to come and go as they wished.

One of the security consultants was stationed at the reception desk, thereby controlling entry to and exit from the suite. As soon as all the cargo had been brought up, he connected the entry doors together with a cable lock.

One security consultant went into the men’s room, which was off the elevator lobby, and apparently bathed as best he could in the sink. Certain of the bags coming up from below contained bedrolls and personal effects. He selected one of these and carried it into a vacant office, where he rolled out a sleeping bag and lay down and stopped moving. Two of the cargo movers followed his lead as soon as they were finished with their job, while the third, after rooting around in bags for a while, distributed some thick black plastic packets that turned out to contain military rations. He assembled a portable stove on the floor, ignited it, and began to heat water.

Sokolov and one other security consultant made a thoroughgoing reconnaissance of the forty-third floor. They began by clambering up on the conference table. The consultant gave Sokolov a leg up, enabling his boss to pop up through a ceiling tile and commence an exploration of the crawl space above the ceiling. The ceiling grid itself was made of flimsy aluminum extrusions, suspended from the true ceiling by a web of wires, and completely incapable of supporting a person’s weight. Assuming that this half of the building was a mirror image of the vacant suite next door, however, there were heavy steel trusses at regular intervals, consisting of T-shaped beams connected by zigzagging rods of steel, and a reasonably acrobatic person could use those as monkey bars to travel around above the ceiling. Zula, Peter, and Csongor, sitting on the floor and eating their rations in the middle of the vacant space, heard Sokolov and scraping and clanging as he made his way overhead, and heard him thumping in an exploratory way on the walls that defined the boundary between this suite and the elevator lobby/bathroom core. The conclusion seemed to be that those walls went all the way up to the underside of Floor 44 and that this suite, therefore, could neither be escaped nor infiltrated by the common action-movie trick of moving around above the ceiling. In the same spirit, Zula looked around at the ventilation louvers and noted that they were all far too small to admit a human body.

Apparently satisfied that there were no tricky ways out of the safe house, Sokolov allocated offices. Zula got one all to herself. Peter and Csongor each got to share one with a security consultant.

“I need to use the bathroom,” Zula announced. Sokolov drew himself up and made a sort of bow and escorted her to the lobby, where the guard undid the cable lock and opened the doors. Sokolov went into the women’s room ahead of Zula, vaulted up on the counter, popped a ceiling tile, and reconnoitered. Apparently he did not entirely like what he saw because he came back down in a pensive mood. After thinking about it for a few moments, he withdrew into one of the toilet stalls, closed the door, made himself comfortable on the toilet, and said, “Okay, I wait. Is okay!”

She went into a different stall and peed. She could hear Sokolov thumbing away on a PDA or something. She emerged from the stall, stood before a sink, and took off all her clothes. Using a bar of soap from her bag and a roll of paper towels issued by Sokolov, she gave herself a stand-up sponge bath. Then—fuck it, Sokolov was trapped—she bent over and shampooed her hair. This took a good long time because of the difficulties entailed in rinsing. As she was finishing up she jumped a little, hearing male voices, but then she realized that Sokolov had opened up communications on some kind of walkie-talkie system.

The result of this procedure was going to be extreme frizziness, but there was little point in concerning herself with that. A now useless instinct warned her that if Peter took a picture of her tomorrow, it would make a hilarious and embarrassing Facebook posting. She wondered how long she would have to go without posting on Facebook before that silence, in and of itself, warned her friends that something was amiss. Then she remembered it would boot her absolutely nothing even if they did realize that something was wrong.

That, she now realized, was the point of the black hoodie. The airport probably had security cameras. Supposing that her friends and family were able to put out a worldwide all-points bulletin for her, the Xiamen authorities would not be able to pick out her face on their security footage.

She pulled on some clean clothes, brushed her teeth, pulled all her stuff together, and called out “Okay.” Sokolov emerged from the stall. They went back into the office suite. The cable lock was reinstated behind them. Zula had noted the location of a door off the elevator lobby that apparently led to a fire stair, and she wondered how many flights down she could get before a security consultant would catch up with her. They were probably practiced at vaulting over the railings, or some other high-speed stair-descending technique that she didn’t know about.

Peter had tried to talk her into taking a parkour class in Seattle. She wished she’d said yes.

Sokolov extended a hand, reminding her of the location of her private office, and she heard “Thank you” coming out of her mouth before it occurred to her how stupid that was.

The office had floor-to-ceiling windows with views inland, though if she got her face close to the glass she could also see toward the water. The closest building of comparable height was half a mile away, and she reckoned she might be able to get someone’s attention by dancing naked in front of the window, or using her light switch to blink S-O-S in Morse code. Since her office had a glass wall on its inner side, though, any such antics would have been obvious to the security consultants drinking coffee a few feet away.

So for now she decided that she would actually try to sleep instead of hatching any Nancy Drew/Scooby-Doo-style escape plots. And to her surprise she found herself being rousted out of bed some time later by Peter. As usual she had no idea what time it was, but it was broad daylight outside. “In twenty minutes we are havink meetink,” Peter said.

She made another trip to the bathroom, supervised using the same procedure as before. While she was standing in front of the mirror, changing into a different T-shirt, she caught sight of herself for a moment, and this for some reason caused an irresistible wave of grief and melancholy to break over her. She turned on both faucets, rested the heels of her hands on the counter, and put her weight on them, then allowed herself a sobbing fit that went on for maybe half a minute.

Then she splashed water on her face and announced, to her own reflection, “Okay.”

SOKOLOV HAD BEEN doing a lot of thinking about insanity: what it was. Its causes. When Ivanov had begun to suffer from it. Whether it had completely taken Ivanov’s mind or rather came and went in waves. Every so often Ivanov would blink and look about him with a surprised, almost childlike expression, as though a sane part of his mind had come awake, regained control of the body, and found itself in a predicament concocted, while it had been asleep, by the part of Ivanov that was completely out of his fucking mind.

But on the other hand Sokolov owed his life—his survival in Afghanistan, in Chechnya—to his ability to see things through the eyes of the adversary, and in this case that meant trying to put himself in Ivanov’s shoes. This reversal of perspective was not always easy. One frequently had to work at it for some days, observing the other, gathering data, even conducting little experiments to see how the other reacted to things. His men in Chechnya had thought that he, Sokolov, was crazy because he had sometimes taken actions that made no evident tactical sense, solely as a way of proving or disproving a hypothesis as to what the Chechens were thinking, what they wanted, what they were most afraid of.

What they considered normal.

This was always the hard part. If you knew what was normal to the enemy, then everything became easy: you could lull them to sleep by feeding them normal, and you could scare the hell out of them by suddenly taking normal away. But normal to Afghans and Chechens was so different from normal to Russians that it took a bit of work for a man like Sokolov to establish what it was.

Applied to the current situation, the question was: Could it be considered normal to divert rather large amounts of obshchak funds to charter a private jet from Toronto to Seattle and thence to Xiamen in order to track down and liquidate a person—probably a kid—who had written a virus and held some files hostage for $73?

UNTIL SOKOLOV WOKE up that morning in the safe house and literally smelled the coffee—for the day shift had awakened at 0600 local time and begun to brew it on the camp stove—he did not understand how completely fucked he was, how interesting the situation had become. And then he felt astonished and ashamed that he’d let events get so far ahead of him. He had been defeated by Ivanov at the game of Normal. Getting on a plane and flying somewhere to do a job: What could be more normal than that? But Ivanov had not shared with him any information about how they would actually get into the country. Now men nominally under Sokolov’s control had done murder in the United States and they were in China illegally, and at the mercy of whatever local gangsters or officials Ivanov had cut a deal with.

Though, to be fair, those people were at Ivanov’s mercy as well, because they didn’t understand that Ivanov was crazy. And once they came to understand that Ivanov was not only crazy but traveling in the company of seven warriors and three hackers, they would begin having nightmares about all the consequences that would fall on their heads if those people actually began to do the sorts of things that they were in the habit of doing.

What kind of bullshit had Ivanov told them? Probably that he wanted to smuggle some high-value goods into the country through the private jet terminal. Two vanloads’ worth of stuff. Bootleg caviar or something else expensive enough to justify leasing a private jet.

No. Prostitutes. High-value specialty prostitutes. That’s what he must have told them.

The office in which Sokolov was sleeping had a whiteboard mounted to its wall, and he longed to stand up and begin drawing a diagram of the situation. It would be a complicated diagram. Fortunately, no markers were available; drawing diagrams probably was not a smart idea. He had to carry everything in his head. He lay there, smelling the coffee and staring up at the ceiling tiles. There were nine of them, a three-by-three grid, making up most of the office’s ceiling. He assigned himself the one in the middle. The rest of the grid looked something like this:

Ivanov

Ivanov’s Chinese contacts

The Troll

Sokolov’s employer

Sokolov

The Squad

Csongor

Peter

Zula

This grid didn’t come into existence without some iterations, some failed attempts. Wallace, for example, and the local talent Ivanov had called up in Seattle. Zula’s uncle. None of these was worth thinking about right now.

So he went through the grid evaluating each part of it in turn.

IVANOV:

Sokolov badly wanted to get connected to Vikipediya and learn about strokes. Also about certain medications he had seen among Ivanov’s personal effects, whose names he had memorized. He knew that Internet usage in China was monitored by the PSB, the Public Security Bureau, and wondered whether the mere act of accessing Vikipediya as opposed to Wikipedia would cause a red thumbtack, or its modern, digital equivalent, to be stuck into a map at the local PSB headquarters as a way of saying Russians here. How many Russians were in Xiamen legitimately, that is, with visas? Probably not all that many, and so if the red thumbtack appeared in an unexpected part of town, it could lead to trouble. Pavel Pavlovich, one of his platoon-mates in Afghanistan, had taken mortar shrapnel in the forehead, going into his brain, and had seemingly recovered; but afterward his personality was different: he seemed a little crazy, unable to control certain impulses, and after a regrettable incident involving a rocket-propelled grenade, they had sent him home. Sokolov was developing a theory that Ivanov suffered from high blood pressure—a theory that could easily be confirmed if he could look up the names of those medications—and that it had been worse than usual recently because of the trouble he had gotten into with the obshchak. When he had received the phone call from Csongor, alerting him to the inconsistency in Wallace’s story, his already high blood pressure had spiked and—according to this theory—he had suffered a little stroke that had damaged him in the same way as the shrapnel had done poor Pavel Pavlovich. On the flight from Toronto to Seattle, Ivanov had slept most of the way, and Sokolov, looking at him, had thought he seemed sunken, damaged, exhausted. But when he was awake, he was a demon.

IVANOV’S CHINESE CONTACTS:

Probably no longer relevant, but they deserved a ceiling tile all their own because they were mysterious. Had they simply arranged for Ivanov to drive those two vans through security and then forgotten about him, moving on to other corrupt activities? Or were they now actively paying attention to Ivanov and his crew, worrying about Ivanov? Because if these faceless, nameless Chinese were worried about Ivanov, then they would soon have plenty to worry about; and if they became sufficiently worried, there might be some effort to liquidate Ivanov and everyone with him. Since Sokolov knew nothing of how Ivanov had managed all this, there seemed little he could do about it other than make certain that their activities remained innocuous for as long as possible. The very strangeness of their errand would be enormously helpful in that regard. Speaking of which…

THE TROLL:

Nothing to worry about in and of himself, since he was almost certainly just a lone teenager working out of his bedroom, and so this ceiling tile was more a placeholder for Troll-related issues and questions; for example, what the hell would they do when they actually found him? Perhaps even more worrisome: What would they do if they couldn’t find him?

SOKOLOV’S EMPLOYER:

Sokolov worked for a security consultancy based out of St. Petersburg, with discreet branch offices in Toronto, New York, and London, that derived much of its income from working for people like Ivanov. As in any business, customer satisfaction was of paramount importance. Usually this meant doing whatever one was told to do by the client to whom one was assigned. At least in theory there ought to be exceptions in the rules for brain-damaged clients. But, to keep things simple, the company’s founders, all retired Spetsnaz brass, had carried over the chain of command, culture, and traditions from the military unit where they had built their careers and from which they hired most of their employees. Going over the boss’s head was frowned on and could lead to miserable repercussions on Sokolov. He might find out the hard way, for example, that Ivanov wasn’t crazy at all and was actually carrying out direct orders from higher up. If so, the mission—whatever the hell it was—was important, and screwing it up would cause only that much more trouble for Sokolov.

SOKOLOV:

He had taken this job because he thought it would be simple and easy compared to being active-duty military. Until recently he had not been wrong. For exactly that reason he had been somewhat bored. Now he was far from bored but feeling many of the same stresses that had caused him to retire from active duty in the first place. Was it possible to find a station in life with just the right level of interest? Was it possible to be normal without being someone’s dupe?

THE SQUAD:

Sokolov had worked with most of them before, and they would carry out his orders professionally and with no questions asked. Though rumors did circulate that sometimes the higher-ups would plant a spy in such a unit, reporting home via a back channel, and this might be especially true in very strange situations like this one. He had summoned them on extremely short notice and had been unable to supply an explanation of where they were going or what the mission might be.

CSONGOR:

The least of Sokolov’s worries. Obviously the Hungarian did not want to be here, but he knew the rules of the game, had been tangled up with Ivanov for a long time, and would be docile as long as he believed he would get out of the situation alive.

PETER:

Sokolov put the odds at 100 percent that Peter would, sooner or later, do something stupid and cause enormous trouble. Peter would do this because he believed he was clever and because he thought only of himself. It would be safer to take him out and shoot him now, but disposing of the body would be difficult and the shock of it would probably disturb the equilibrium of Zula.

ZULA:

The only person here whom Sokolov might be able to deal with productively. “Productive” being the operative word here in that she seemed like one who might do something not utterly predictable and not capable of being done by Sokolov himself.

She was also a problem of large proportions in that Ivanov would almost certainly want to liquidate her, and she was the only person involved in this clusterfuck who didn’t actually deserve it. Waging war on his enemies had been Sokolov’s habit and his professsion for a long time, but being chivalrous to everyone else was simply a basic tenet of having your shit together as a human and as a man. He had always been worried that he might get into a situation like this one. It had never happened until now.

HE GOT COFFEE and went into the meeting room before anyone else got there. He spent a while looking out the window, appraising the battleground.

From this remove it did not look hugely different from other places; just more crowded. Humidity and smog caused buildings that were only a few blocks away to be shrouded in mist, like matte paintings in the background of an old Soviet movie, creating the feeling that everything was farther away than it really was. This made it difficult to get a sense of how far the city sprawled. The hot and humid climate was inconvenient, since it limited the sorts of things that one could carry in one’s clothing, or else forced one to go about conspicuously and suspiciously bundled up. This, however, would not really be a problem until they set out to liquidate the Troll, and based on what Zula and Peter and Csongor had been saying on the plane, they wouldn’t have that information for a few days at least.

This building was situated on the inland side of the six-lane avenue that ran along the waterfront. Across that avenue was an arcade of ferry terminals that stretched along the shore for at least a kilometer, fronting on a waterway that was as busy as any that Sokolov had ever seen. Because he had been looking at maps, he knew that this body of water was a strait separating Xiamen from a smaller island about a thousand meters away, but it was impossible not to read it as a river: a mighty river like the Volga or the Danube. But the docks were linked to the terminals by hinged gangways, confirming that this water was salt and that it rose and fell with the tides. Plying the strait was an astoundingly dense and various traffic, ranging from skiffs up to freighters, but dominated by two types of craft: tubby, double-decker passenger ferries, and a type of vessel that he hadn’t seen before but that was evidently the traditional working craft of these waters: an open, flat-decked boat rising no more than a meter above the waterline, shingled along both sides with old tires, averaging maybe ten meters long, with a little boathouse, or at least an awning, toward the stern, sheltering the engine, the steering gear, and the operator. These were so densely packed in some areas that it was a wonder they could move at all, and each was carrying something different: passengers, a drum of lubricant, a pallet of shrink-wrapped cargo, a cooler packed with ice and fish. Weaving and zipping among these larger, slower vessels were white speedboats carrying passengers in orange life vests: fast water taxis for the well-heeled, he guessed. Some of them were headed directly across the strait to the little island, which was steep and green and seemed to consist largely of parks and villas. Obviously it was older and more affluent than the suburbs that Sokolov could see reaching toward Xiamen from every direction, difficult to resolve through the haze, but much more heavily built up.

All of which was unusual and picturesque but probably did not bear directly on the mission. Sokolov turned his attention to the picket line of buildings like this one that stood along the inland side of the big avenue. There were a few other modern blue-glass skyscrapers, and some construction sites where new ones were being erected. But at least half of the frontage was claimed by buildings of older vintage, sporting the logos of hotels and Western food chains. Directly below them was a building of perhaps a dozen stories with a huge KFC sign on its top. Its entryway was choked by taxis, which made Sokolov think that it must be a hotel, probably catering not to Westerners but to Chinese business travelers. It fronted on a traffic exchange. In the center was a raised circle in the middle with traffic lights on it, but other than that, this was just a hectare or so of pavement that—as was obvious from Sokolov’s point of view—had, over and over again, been slit open and trenched and cabled and repaved. It supported a steady flow of taxis, buses, motor scooters, the occasional Lexus or Mercedes. On the opposite side of the exchange was a curving building with a panoramic billboard, colorful photos of fashion models and liquor bottles, offices fronting on the intersection, their nature unguessable by Sokolov since they didn’t have any English in their signs. The architects of these buildings had lavished a huge amount of attention on rooftop antenna masts, which were far more massive and squat and wide-stanced than was really called for by pure engineering considerations. They must have been trained in the Soviet Union and been steeped in the mid-twentieth-century statist mindset that a building without a radio transmitter was like a battleship without guns. It was a technology and a reason largely forgotten now but preserved in the architecture in the same way as church steeples. What really mattered to the mission at hand was not radio transmitters. It was that zany web of patched pavement cuts splattered all over the streets below, where Internet had been laid down.

He kept noticing basketball courts and realized that, from where he stood, he could see four of them, all new and well tended.

On patches of open ground here and there, he saw people executing slow, formalized movements, then recalled that Chinese liked to do calisthenics.

Not far away, a broad street led away from the water for at least two kilometers. It was lined with expensive-looking Western-style storefronts. It ran along ground that was table flat, but off to its right a kilometer or so, spines of gray stone rose out of the ground, supporting tufts and copses of dark green vegetation. Remnants of ancient fortifications, steep and ivy matted, were grafted onto the rock, and newer buildings grew out of those.

These parts of the city—the ferry terminals, the skyscrapers and skyscrapers-to-be, the older generation of high-rise buildings, the basketball courts, the shopping street, the outcroppings of stone—were the special bits. All told, they accounted for perhaps 25 percent of the city’s surface area. The remainder was all the same: an undifferentiated expanse of close-packed buildings, four or five stories high, often with blue roofs (why blue?) built on a warren of streets so narrow that, in general, he could not see the pavement, but had to infer, from the pattern of crevices between buildings, that streets must exist. In the rare places where such streets aligned with his sight lines, enabling him to see all the way to the bottom, they appeared to be paved not with asphalt but with human beings in motion, and vehicles marooned in the sea of people.

He felt certain that the Troll lived in a neighborhood very much like one of these. He needed to know what it would be like to move and fight in such a place. His initial thought was “more like Grozny than Jalalabad,” but he would have to do much better than that. He did not even know, for example, whether Xiamen had any sort of underground mass transit system that could be put to use.

A faint humming sound alerted him to the approach of wheeled luggage. He turned to see Ivanov approaching from the direction of the elevator lobby, towing a black rollaway bag. One of the squaddies jumped up and offered to help him with it, but Ivanov brushed him off with a flicking gesture and came straight for the conference room. Sokolov opened the door. Ivanov entered without breaking stride, heaved the bag up, and slammed it down on the conference table. “You may open it.”

Sokolov unzipped the top flap and peeled it back. The entire bag was filled with magenta currency.

“Our obshchak,” Ivanov joked. At least Sokolov hoped he was joking.

All the notes were the same denomination: 100 RMB. They were printed in an uneasy mixture of purplish reds, and each bore a portrait of the young Mao Zedong. None of the bills was loose; they had been stacked into bundles of various sizes. Sokolov picked up a small one.

“Ridiculous country,” Ivanov said. “One hundred is the largest denomination that exists. You know how much it is worth? Fourteen dollars. They print nothing larger because if they did, it would be counterfeited instantly. So changing money is a huge problem. I am already tired.”

The small bundle consisted of nine 100-RMB notes with a tenth wrapped around it.

“So that is the local equivalent of a C-note,” Ivanov said.

Sokolov replaced it, reached deeper into the bag, and pulled out a stack of bills having the approximate proportions of a brick. He looked questioningly at Ivanov.

Ivanov shrugged. “Ten thousand dollars or something.” Then he shook his finger at Sokolov. “But remember: money goes a long way in China!”

“How do they carry it around?” Sokolov asked wonderingly.

“Purses,” said Ivanov.

Sokolov replaced the brick.

“What are your orders?” he asked.

“Get the hackers in here and make a plan for finding the Troll.”

“They have been talking about it,” Sokolov said. “They want to go out on the streets. Pound the pavement.” He gave the expression in English.

“Will they make trouble? Try to run off?”

“Peter might.”

“Always keep one here as insurance.”

“That one can’t be Csongor,” Sokolov, “since they don’t really know him.”

“Then either Peter or Zula always stays here. Unless—?”

“Zula will not create trouble if she knows Peter is hostage,” Sokolov began. “However, if the situation is reversed—”

“I knew it!” Ivanov slammed the table, and his face turned red. To him, Sokolov’s vague suspicion that Peter might be the kind of guy who would betray Zula was ontologically the same as a You-Tube video of him actually doing it. He seemed ready to kill Peter on the spot. Sokolov, for his part, was gratified that Ivanov trusted his intuitions in this way, but he could not help wondering if he’d judged Peter unfairly.

“This is just my guess,” Sokolov said.

“No, you are right! Peter stays here then. Zula goes out with Csongor. And you send two of your men with them at all times.”

“Sir, I request permission to go out with them alone,” Sokolov said.

“Why?”

“Because I have seen nothing of the city other than what I can see from this window.”

“Fine. Good idea. Go out and learn more of the place. You’ll see more than you want to see, I can tell you that.”

Sokolov turned toward the window. The hackers, as Ivanov called them, were standing outside, awaiting orders. He indicated with a movement of his head that they should enter.

Csongor, Zula, and Peter filed into the room and stood across the conference table from Ivanov, pretending they had not noticed the sack full of currency. Ivanov switched to English. “Much time has gone by sleepink, flyink, sleepink. Easy to forget nature of mission. Do you recall mission?”

“Figure out who the Troll is,” Peter said.

Ivanov stared at Peter as if he had said something deeply offensive. And in truth, there was nothing Peter could have said that would have helped him.

“Find motherfucker who fucked me!” Ivanov shouted, so loudly that he could have been heard in Vladivostok.

He let that one ring in their ears for a few moments. The hackers were physically shriveling, like raisins.

“You need to pound pavement!” Ivanov asserted.

Peter’s eyes flicked toward Sokolov.

“You look at me!” Ivanov shouted.

“Yes, sir,” Peter said. “Yes. We need to move around the city, get on the Internet in different places, check the IP addresses—”

“And send distress call home to mama!?” Ivanov inquired.

Peter’s face had been red from the beginning, but now it got redder.

“You, stay here,” Ivanov said. “Help make map or somethink.” He looked at Zula. “Lovely Zula, you pound pavement in company of Csongor.” He turned his attention to Csongor. “Csongor, you are only person who touches computer.” He shook his finger. “No email, no Facebook, no Twitter. And if there is some other such thing I have not heard of yet—none of that either!”

In English, Ivanov said, “Only exception to rule: Zula can play T’Rain if necessary. Csongor, Sokolov will watch carefully, make sure nothink funny happens.”

Zula and Csongor nodded.

Ivanov half turned and extended a hand toward Sokolov. “Sokolov will be present at all times to protect you from harm and ensure rules are followed. If rules are broken in serious way, if Zula goes to powder room and never comes back, any other such problem, then I must have extremely serious conversation with Root of All Evil here.” He extended his hands toward Peter in a gesture whose natural conclusion would have been out-and-out strangulation.

“Everyone understand rules?” Ivanov said.

Everyone nodded.

“Go pound pavement.” He reached into the bag, pulled out as many stacks of bills as he could grab in a single hand, and slid them down the table to Sokolov. “Except for Peter. You.” He gestured toward Peter as if the room contained more than one person of that name. “Stay for brief discussion.”

Sokolov picked up the money, then backed to the door and held it open as Zula and Csongor exited the room. No one could look at Peter, who had become a nearly unbearable sight on grounds of posture alone: shoulders drawn together, body trembling, back of neck brilliant red. Sokolov was favorably impressed by the fact that he had not yet shit his pants. Men always made crude jokes about people pissing their pants with fear, but in Sokolov’s experience, shitting the pants was more common if it was a straightforward matter of extreme emotional stress. Pants pissing was completely unproductive and suggested a total breakdown of elemental control. Pants shitting, on the other hand, voided the bowels and thereby made blood available to the brain and the large muscle groups that otherwise would have gone to the lower-priority activity of digestion. Sokolov could have forgiven Peter for shitting his pants, but if he had pissed his pants, then it really would have been necessary to get rid of him. In any case, Peter had done neither of these things yet.

A minute or two later, though, after they had gathered near the reception area with their water bottles and day packs, Sokolov noted Zula—who had kept a stony face through most of this—looking with concern through the glass wall of the conference room at Peter, who was still being arraigned, or something, by Ivanov.

Something had changed, though. Ivanov was still gesturing, but instead of punching and strangling, his hands were making neat little chopping gestures on the tabletop, sketching concentric circles, reaching out toward the city beyond the window and gathering in imaginary stuff and pouring it out on the table. Peter was nodding his head and even moving his jaw from time to time.

Peter was interested.

“Is okay,” Sokolov said. “He works for Ivanov now.”

IVANOV HAD OFFERED to rent them a car and driver, but Sokolov guessed they would learn more by using taxis. They took the elevator down to the parking garage, found a fire exit, climbed up a windowless concrete stairway, and emerged into a strip of landscaping. This led along the side of the building out to the edge of the waterfront avenue. Sokolov pivoted and took a phone picture of the building from which they had just emerged. Later, when he wanted to go back to the safe house, he could show it to a taxi driver. They were already perspiring freely, or perhaps that was just the humidity condensing on their artificially chilled skin. Sokolov had acquired a blazer from an airport shop in Vladivostok, which he now removed, folded, and placed in his shoulder bag on top of the magenta bundles.

The drivers of the taxis that flocked and schooled in the plaza before the KFC-topped hotel were confounded by, and almost indignant at, the manner in which the three Westerners had seemingly teleported into existence in this normally unfrequented corner. It was clearly their habit to keep an eye on every place from which a possible customer could sortie. Westerners on foot, unnoticed and unpestered, were as much an affront to civic order as gushing fire hydrants and warbling car alarms. Sokolov had the feeling that the next time they came out of that fire exit, there would be at least one taxi waiting for them. It was not a good feeling.

He took pictures of the plaza and the hotel. Ostensibly. In truth, of course, what he was really doing was using the viewfinder of his phone to stare back at all the Chinese people who were staring at them.

Sokolov had never been a spy per se, but he had undergone a bit of training in basic spycraft as part of his transition into private commerce. Spies were supposed to have a strong intuitive sense of when they had been noticed, when someone else’s eyes were on them. Or at least that was the line of bullshit that the spycraft trainers liked to lay on their students. If true, then no Western spy could tolerate even a few seconds’ exposure to a Chinese street, since that internal sense would be setting off alarms continuously—and by no means false alarms. If they had dressed up in clown suits, strapped strobe lights to their foreheads, and sprinted out into traffic firing tommy guns into the air, they would not have drawn more immediate and intense scrutiny than they did simply by entering this public space as non-Chinese persons. Sokolov could only laugh. He had thought it might be otherwise, simply because Xiamen had such a long history of contact with the outside world.

Of course, it would be that way everywhere. They were not merely noticed. They were famous.

And, because he did everything in the backseat of a car with tinted windows, Ivanov did not understand these realities. Sokolov would never be able to explain to him the difficulty of doing anything discreetly in this city.

“Into hotel. Use Internet,” Sokolov said. Shrugging off propositions from taxi drivers, they trudged along the edge of the plaza to the hotel, leaving in their wake a hundred ordinary Chinese citizens who stopped in their tracks to stare at them as they went by. A fair proportion of these literally had their mouths hanging open. Sokolov, determinedly not meeting their eyes, looked at other things and counted eight security cameras that he could see.

Observed from various distances by at least six uniformed members of the security forces, operating in pairs, they trudged up the steps of the hotel. Two dozen taxi drivers, sitting in their vehicles outside, watched their every move through the hotel’s glass doors, in case they might change their minds and come back out.

As he’d expected, most of the hotel’s clientele were Chinese, and so their little party came in for further inspection as they stood around uncertainly in the lobby. He’d imagined that they might be able to sit down on some comfortable chairs and order tea and look at newspapers. But this was not that sort of lobby. Rather than make an ongoing spectacle of themselves, Sokolov led the others straight to the elevators and hit the button with the image of Colonel Sanders next to it. A minute later they were on the roof. But the restaurant wasn’t open yet.

“I got Wi-Fi,” said Csongor, looking at the screen of his PDA.

“Fine,” Sokolov said. “We leave.”

They took the elevator back down, walked out the front doors, and got into a taxi. “Hyatt,” Sokolov said. He knew there was a Hyatt because the pilots were lodged there. It was out near the airport.

“Okay, so we have one IP address at least,” Csongor said, during the drive.

Sokolov was taking phone pictures out the window, getting shots mostly of hotels. This five-minute adventure had told him that Western-style business hotels were the only places in Xiamen where they could do so much as draw breath without being the talk of the town for weeks afterward.

“Anywhere near the address space we’re interested in?” asked Zula.

“In fact, yes!” said Csongor. “They use the same ISP. Which isn’t saying much, of course.”

“It’s a start,” Zula said.

They went to the Hyatt and ordered breakfast.

In the vicinity of the airport, vast development projects were under way: a number of commercial real estate parks and one international conference center with a giant windowed sphere in front of it. Sokolov longed to hide himself in their anonymity and emptiness. But they were so disconnected from the city proper that he might as well have tried to hunt down the Troll from a shopping mall in Toronto.

Banners on every lamppost sported pictures of the local hero, Zheng Chenggong. A similar but much larger banner had been mounted to the front of the new conference center. Apparently this image was the official logo of the conference that had attracted the multinational fleet of small jets: something to do with patching up relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

As they picked at their omelets, Sokolov asked Csongor (who had logged on to the Hyatt’s Wi-Fi network) to google up a list of four- and five-star hotels. Csongor not only did that; he figured out a way to patch in to the Hyatt’s business center and printed out the list. A member of the hotel staff brought it to their table on a little tray.

They went outside and got in a taxi. Sokolov pointed to a hotel on Csongor’s printout, and the taxi took them there. It was back in the middle of town, closer to the waterfront. They went into the lobby and found a place to sit down. While Csongor got on the Internet, Sokolov watched the way guests interacted with the front desk staff and the concierge.

They did the same thing eight times at eight different hotels. It took them until midafternoon.

Then they took a taxi back to the hotel that had the best concierge. Sokolov had Zula go to the concierge, a young woman who spoke excellent English and gave every impression of actually enjoying her job. Zula explained that she and her friends wanted to go on a leisurely drive around town and see some of the less touristy sites, maybe go shopping in local markets.

The concierge led them out front and explained as much to a taxi driver. Sokolov, Zula, and Csongor crammed themselves into the taxi’s backseat. The driver offered to let Sokolov ride up front, but Sokolov wanted to remain partly concealed behind the tinted windows in the rear.

Until now they had never seen anything other than modern commercial districts, but within twenty seconds of their pulling out of the hotel drive, the taxi was deep in one of those older neighborhoods that had attracted Sokolov’s interest.

Csongor had a laptop open and was continually scanning for available Wi-Fi stations. Most of these were password protected, but every so often he found one that was open and checked its IP address.

Zula meanwhile was using Csongor’s phone, which had built-in GPS, to keep track of their latitude and longitude. This wouldn’t have been necessary in New York or some other city where they could have made sense of the street grid, but here it was the only way that they could tally Csongor’s observations against the physical geography of the city.

If the taxi moved much faster than walking pace, Wi-Fi stations came and went too quickly for Csongor to establish connections, but this rarely happened. Whenever a clear place opened up in traffic, it would be seized by a gaunt man in a conical hat pulling a two-wheeled cart. Those guys were all over the place; they seemed to have a stranglehold on transport of all goods weighing less than a ton. If the taxi driver honked for long enough, the offending carter would eventually pull aside and make way.

After they had been driving around somewhat aimlessly for twenty minutes, the taxi driver made a phone call and then handed his phone back to Zula. With a nervous glance toward Sokolov, Zula accepted the phone.

Then she smiled and took the phone away from her head. “It’s the concierge,” she explained. “She hopes we are enjoying the tour so far, and she wants to know what sorts of things we would like to shop for.”

“Some of the men carry small bags, like purses,” Sokolov said. “I want one.”

Zula relayed that into the phone and then handed it back to the taxi driver, who listened for a few moments, then snapped the phone shut and effected a course change. Ten minutes later they had pulled up in front of a little storefront piled high with leather goods. Sokolov and Zula got out of the taxi, leaving Csongor in the vehicle with his laptop.

As Sokolov had come to expect, this was the most sensational thing that had happened in this district of Xiamen since Zheng Chenggong had chased away the Dutch pirates and so, as they shopped for luggage, they were enjoyed by a vast audience of fascinated neighbors, aged family members of the proprietors who had been hastily summoned from upstairs via phone, random passersby, flabbergasted carters, and professional beggars who carefully tracked their every movement, talked about them, and found sudden humor in details so minor that Sokolov was not entirely sure what they were reacting to. He quickly settled on a leather man-purse that looked as if it could comfortably accommodate several currency bricks, with plenty of room left over for some ammo clips and a ­couple of stun grenades, and he was about to pay the quoted price when Zula intervened and proposed a somewhat lower figure. This led to haggling, which, as it turned out, Zula was good at. Not in the sense of being an absolute bitch about it but in the sense of remaining on good terms with the proprietor even while firmly insisting that the price was too high. And so finally Sokolov was granted an unbroken stretch of twenty or thirty seconds in which he could actually turn his attention to the neighborhood and try to gather in some impressions of the place.

All the buildings were made of concrete, or perhaps bricks or stone blocks with mortar troweled over them. It didn’t really matter. The point was that the walls would stop low-velocity rounds and shotgun pellets, and you couldn’t kick your way through them. They would not burn very easily. Depending on how much rebar had been used—and his guess was that the builders had cut plenty of corners in that department—these structures, compared to wood- or steel-framed ones, would be more vulnerable to collapse under the exceptionally stressful conditions that frequently obtained when men like Sokolov were earning their pay. They were four or five stories high, which meant that they did not have elevators and that, if it was like Europe, the highest floors would house the poorest people. Ground floors tended to be retail; upper stories were offices (on larger streets) or apartments (smaller). Apartments quite frequently sported small balconies, but these had invariably been retrofitted with grids of steel bars, even on the upper floors—apparently burglars here climbed walls and abseiled from rooftops. The grids themselves looked eminently climbable and so might be handy for gaining access to a roof when doors were locked, or to depart from a building when stairwells were filled with products of combustion or men with guns who wanted to kill him. Some ropes might come in handy. But really, when wasn’t that the case?

Street widths ranged from one meter (pedestrians only) to perhaps eight meters (all traffic).

Wiring was external and informal in the extreme. Some of the bundles strung across streets were as thick as his torso, and it was obvious that they had begun as one individual wire that had accreted more wires over time.

“Okay,” Zula said, “one hundred.” She was looking at him. So was the shopkeeper.

Sokolov pulled a C-note equivalent ten-stack from his pocket, peeled off a bill, and handed it over. The man-purse was his. The audience began to disperse. Show was over.

Back in the taxi, Sokolov said: “Same procedure. Buy some other stuff.”

“What would you like to buy?”

“Does not matter.”

“Tea? There seem to be a lot of people selling tea.”

“Tea then.”

“Teapot to make it in?”

“Yes.”

“I need to hit a drugstore.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a girl.”

“Fine. Hit drugstore. Repeat procedure.”

They repeated procedure for a while. Zula bought tea from a small, energetic woman in blue boots and a tea service from an old lady in a side alley. It became somewhat routine, and Sokolov even began to feel somewhat comfortable standing in the open bays of the shops as Zula haggled. It seemed to work for Csongor, who reported that he was gathering more data the whole time. But Sokolov did not see much more during the last hour than he had during the first ten minutes. The physical layout of these neighborhoods did not vary much from one block to the next. But it would be easy to get lost, and only a lifelong resident would be able to find his way out. The hazy conditions made it difficult to get a fix on the location of the sun, so celestial navigation was out.

He had the taxi driver take them back to where they’d started, and he slipped the concierge a C-note wad. Then they walked home along the waterfront, giving Sokolov a chance to see how the ferry lines operated and Csongor a chance to wardrive some of the Wi-Fi hotspots in the terminals’ various waiting rooms and snack bars. When Colonel Sanders hove into view, Sokolov called ahead to warn his squad that they were coming, and when they reached the office building, the steel door was already open for them.

“Home sweet home,” Zula said.

HOME SWEET HOME looked a bit different. Some chairs—injection molded, bright pink—had been brought up. Peter was ensconced behind a brand-new computer, still reeking with the ammoniacal smell of new electronics. To all appearances, this was connected to the Internet.

“I worked out a deal with Ivanov,” he explained, after Zula had taken another stand-up sponge bath and grabbed a slice of pizza (for there was a Pizza Hut somewhere within delivery range). “He’s got a sysadmin back in Moscow that he trusts. This machine is connected over a VPN to that guy’s system in Moscow, so he can monitor my use of the Internet and make sure I’m not sending out any distress calls.”

Zula was divided between thinking that this was a clever solution and finding it weird that Peter would put up with it. And indeed the look on his face was not proud. But he had an explanation ready. “We are totally handcuffed if we don’t have access to Internet,” he pointed out. “We can’t even use Google Maps. I’ve been able to make a lot of progress this way.”

“Such as?”

“Well, for one thing, I downloaded a copy of the REAMDE executable that someone posted on a security blog,” he said. “And I decompiled it.”

“How’d that work for you?” she asked. Peter was proud, almost desperately so, of what he’d done, and she felt obligated to let him speak of it.

“Well, I was afraid that they might have used obfuscated code,” he said, “but they didn’t.”

“Meaning?”

“Some compilers will mess with the object code to make it harder to decompile. Whoever created REAMDE didn’t do that. So I was able to get some pretty clean source code files. Then I looked for unusual character sequences in those files and googled them.”

“You wanted to see if anyone else had gone down the same path before you,” Zula said, “and posted their results.”

“Exactly. And what I found was a little unexpected. I found a security discussion group where someone had indeed posted some decompiled code that matched what I got. But it wasn’t from REAMDE. It was another, older virus called CALKULATOR that made a little bit of a splash about three years ago.”

“Okay,” Zula said, “so you’re thinking that the creators of REAMDE recycled some of the source code from CALKULATOR.”

“They must have. There’s no way this could have happened by accident. And the interesting thing is that the CALKULATOR source code was never found—it’s never been posted.”

“So it’s not the case,” Zula said, “that the Troll just downloaded the CALKULATOR source files from a server somewhere and then incorporated them into REAMDE.”

Peter was nodding, and a smile was on his lips. Zula continued: “REAMDE and CALKULATOR were made by the same people.”

“Or at least people who know each other, who privately exchange files with each other.”

“So the obvious question then becomes—”

“What do we know about the creators of CALKULATOR?” Peter said. “Well, it was a far more devastating virus than REAMDE because it infected anyone who used Outlook—whereas REAMDE is endemic to hard-core T’Rain users. For about a week, it was the virus du jour, it made quite a sensation, and there was a big law enforcement effort devoted to tracking down its creators. They weren’t nearly as clever about hiding their tracks as the Troll has been, and so it was eventually traced to a group in Manila.”

“Hmm. That’s a twist.”

“Yeah, we’re focusing on Xiamen and suddenly we get this clue in Manila. But here’s the thing. A couple members of the Manila group were caught and prosecuted. But everyone knows that most of those involved were never identified, never caught. And then the other thing is that a lot of Filipinos are ethnic Chinese and still have family ties to China.”

“So maybe the Troll is a Chinese hacker living in Xiamen,” Zula said, “but he’s got family ties in Manila…”

“…and that’s how the source code ended up here and got recycled into REAMDE.”

Zula had been keeping an eye on the safe house as this conversation had proceeded. Csongor was closeted in an office with today’s notes, doing some data entry work on his laptop. Sokolov was in the conference room being debriefed by Ivanov. Two of the security consultants were sleeping, two were playing Xbox, and two were on duty. But all the Russians who were awake were casting occasional glances in their direction. Keeping an eye on the hackers, wondering what they were talking about. Perhaps guessing from their body language and the expressions on their faces that they were focused on the problem at hand and making some progress.

And that, as she kept having to remind herself, was the only thing that mattered. Not catching the Troll. But making Ivanov believe that they were making progress toward catching the Troll, stringing him along, long enough for them to think their way out of this.

Long enough for Zula to do so, anyway. Because she didn’t get any vibe at all from Peter that he was interested in leaving. He had become too fascinated by the Troll hunt.

He believed that if they caught the Troll, Ivanov would be nice to them.

And maybe he was right. Maybe this was how Ivanov recruited.

Or maybe making them think so was how he kept people docile until it was time to kill them.

“What’s next?” she asked. “What do we do with this information?”

“One of my thoughts was, we have a jet at our disposal, we could shoot down to Manila and try to find some of the CALKULATOR crew, ask them questions.”

When Zula considered the meanings of those verbs “find” and “ask,” all she could think of was Wallace and the 6 mil polyethylene sheeting. Was that what Peter had in mind? Or did he really think that the hackers in Manila would voluntarily rat out their blood relatives in Xiamen? Zula didn’t want to ask that hard question of Peter because she was afraid of what she might learn about the man she’d been sleeping with. “To Ivanov that’s going to feel like a wild-goose chase,” she pointed out. “He prefers the direct approach.”

This was meant as kind of a joke, but Peter nodded soberly. “We might also look for a Filipino expat community in Xiamen. In Seattle they have their own grocery stores and hair salons. Maybe it’s the same here.”

Zula, who unlike Peter had actually seen Xiamen, was pretty sure that this was hopeless. But she stifled the urge to say as much. “Have you reported this to Ivanov?”

“I’ve been feeding him little updates.”

Zula tried to ignore the way he’d phrased this. “He knows about the possible Manila connection?”

“Not yet.”

“If we can turn it into an excuse for more pavement pounding,” Zula suggested, “it might help us.”

“Help you how?”

“Help us,” she repeated.

She realized that she kind of wanted to kill him. She was sure that the feeling would pass. But she was also sure that it would come back. “Do whatever you want with the information,” she said, and walked away.

“ARE YOU INSANE?” Ivanov asked him.

Sokolov was flummoxed. Ivanov accusing him, Sokolov, of being insane. So unexpected. He could not think of anything to say.

He had been telling the story of the day. At first he had merely summarized, which was generally what superiors wanted their subordinates to do for them, but Ivanov had insisted on hearing everything in great detail. And so, after suffering quite a few interruptions, Sokolov had settled into a much more detailed storytelling style, and Ivanov had listened carefully all the way through the account of the “shopping” expedition, tipping the concierge, and walking home along the waterfront.

It would not be the first time Sokolov had been tongue lashed by the boss, so he just stood there at attention and waited for it.

Ivanov laughed. “I do not care,” he said, “what the fucking buildings are made of. Whether the walls can, or cannot, be penetrated by number 4 buckshot. About the options for escaping the building in the event of a tactical retreat. What the fuck are you thinking, Sokolov? Are you thinking that this is the Siege of Grozny? This is not the Siege of Grozny! It is very simple. Find the Troll. Go to where he lives. Enter his apartment. Take him out of there and bring him to me.”

Sokolov had nothing to say.

“Did I hire the wrong guy?”

“That is possible, sir,” Sokolov said. “Those guys you found in Seattle—the ones who did Wallace—they are more the type for this kind of job.”

“Well, those guys in Seattle ARE NOT HERE!” Ivanov said, crescendoing, during that sentence, from a mild conversational tone to a shout that could detonate stored ammunition. “Instead, I have YOU! And your extremely expensive guys out there!”

Sokolov might have pointed out that he and his expensive guys were security consultants and that Ivanov had lately been asking them to do some pretty weird things. But he didn’t see how it would improve Ivanov’s mood.

“Another thing,” Ivanov continued, “what the fuck was the point of coming back along the waterfront? Are you under the impression that the Troll lives in a ferry terminal?”

“Reconnoitering the ground,” Sokolov said. “Getting to know the field of operations.”

Ivanov was nonplussed. “The ground—the field of operations—is where the Troll lives. And he doesn’t live in a ferry terminal.”

Sokolov said nothing.

“I don’t get it, Sokolov. Explain your thinking to me.”

“Tactical maneuver in this city is going to be nearly impossible,” Sokolov said. He nodded at a window. “Just look at it. All the space is taken up. But the water is a different story. It’s crowded, yes. But it’s the only option we’ve got if we need to—”

“To what, Sokolov?”

“To fall back. Improvise. Move creatively.”

There was now a silence of perhaps thirty seconds as Ivanov marshaled every resource of energy and strength at his disposal to control his rage.

Sokolov wasn’t the least bit worried about what would happen when Ivanov lost that struggle and blew his stack. He was much more worried about what was going on in the boss’s circulatory system in the meantime. For during all their comings and goings today, he had managed to spend a few minutes on some hotel lobby Internet terminals, and he had confirmed that Ivanov was on two varieties of blood pressure medication.

Assuming, of course, that he was still actually taking his pills.

So what really worried Sokolov was that this visible struggle to hold in his fury was driving Ivanov’s blood pressure up to levels normally seen only in deep-sea oil wells. Flaking off more bits of stuff that were going straight to his brain.

If Ivanov dropped dead, how the hell would they get out of this country?

So lost did Sokolov get in these ruminations that he forgot that Ivanov was still alive, still in the room, and still in the middle of a conversation with him.

“Your job,” Ivanov finally said, extremely quietly, “is not to move creatively. There will be no falling back. No improvising.”

“I understand, sir,” Sokolov said, “but it is simply a normal practice to be familiar with the area and to have some kind of backup plan.”

It felt like a reasonable thing to say, but it seemed to disturb Ivanov more deeply than anything Sokolov had done during the entire interview. It was not merely that Ivanov thought a backup plan was unnecessary. He actually thought Sokolov was up to something fishy. Sokolov’s interest in a backup plan made him actively suspicious.

But Sokolov was not above doing some tactical maneuvering, some falling back, even here. He shrugged, as if the backup plan remark had been mere whimsy. “Anyway,” he said, “I got an idea.”

“Yes? What kind of idea?”

Sokolov took a few steps over to the window and looked down toward the waterfront. It was only about seven in the evening and so people were still flooding and surging by the thousands in and out of the ferry terminals’ gates. Ivanov turned to the window as well, tried to see whatever it was that Sokolov was looking at.

“Yes?” Ivanov prompted him, after a few moments.

“I can’t see any just now,” Sokolov said. “They are not that numerous compared to the commuters, the students, and so on.”

“Who are these people you can’t see any of?”

“Fishermen.”

“They would use a different terminal,” Ivanov growled.

“No, I’m not speaking of commercial fishermen. I mean hobbyists. Anglers. I saw a few of them earlier. Just regular Chinese guys. Retirees. They were coming home from a day out fishing, I suppose on one of those little islands out there.” He turned to Ivanov and caught his eye. “They wear funny hats.”

“I have seen them. Coolie hats,” Ivanov said.

“No, not those. The guys I’m talking about wear huge hats made out of light-colored cloth. Big bills sticking out the front to keep the sun off their faces. With skirts hanging down the sides and the back, all the way to the shoulders. Like what an Arab would wear in a sandstorm. The head and face are almost totally hidden. More so if they wear big sunglasses.”

“They sit out in the sun all day,” Ivanov said, getting it. “You can’t hold a parasol while you are fishing.”

“Yes. The other thing about them is that they have these fancy cases to hold their rods.” Sokolov held his hands about a meter apart, indicating the length. “With a bulge at one end to make room for the reel.”

Ivanov’s face relaxed and he began to nod.

“Better yet,” Sokolov said, “each one of them is carrying a little cooler.”

“Perfect,” Ivanov said.

“Everyone ignores these guys.”

“Of course,” Ivanov said, “just like you or I would ignore an old fisherman on a bridge in Moscow.”

“Sometimes you see one all alone,” Sokolov said, “but it’s not unusual for them to travel in a group—they’ll hire one of those boats to take them to their favorite fishing hole.”

“I see.”

“Now. We can’t walk around all day in such costumes without someone figuring out that we’re not Chinese,” Sokolov said. “But we don’t need to. We just need to get from a vehicle into a building, or to walk down a street for half a block, without every fucking Chinese person in a kilometer radius taking phone pictures of us and calling home to Mama.”

“Very good,” Ivanov said. “Very good.”

Sokolov decided not to mention his other observation, which was that the only other category of person who went completely ignored were the beggars who lay down flat on the ground in crowded pedestrian districts.

“We will make a plan,” Ivanov said. “One plan. And it will work.”

There’ll be no more talk of backup plans.

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring in the others,” Ivanov said. “We will discuss, and make preparations for tomorrow.”

THEY HAD ALL—FOUNDERS, executives, engineers, Creatives, toilers in Weird Stuff—been trying to think about big long-term issues raised by the Wor: the War of Realignment. Without a doubt T’Rain was making money from the Wor in the short term, but the question that was bothering the hell out of all of them was: Will it last? Because they had making money before, when the story of the world had actually made sense. Now it had mutated into something that seemed to lack exactly the kind of coherent overarching narrative that they had hired the likes of Skeletor and D-squared to supply.

All their meetings since the beginning of the Wor had been circular and pointless, even more so than meetings generally. Much of it came down to idle speculation about the internal mental states and processes of Devin Skraelin. Could the Wor really be laid at his feet? Suppose they could prove that he had orchestrated the whole thing, should they charge him with breach of contract? Or should they just lean on him to write his way out of the problem? In which case, Skeletor had only succeeded in drumming up more business for himself. Or was Devin helpless in the toss of cultural-historical forces beyond his ken? In which case, should they fire him and hire one of the thousands of ambitious, eager, and perfectly qualified young writers all hoping for an opportunity to take his place?

These meetings tended to start out with confident PowerPoint presentations and gradually trail off into quasi-philosophical management-speak aphorisms, more and more eyes turning to Richard as if to say, Please O please help us. Because Corporation 9592, at bottom, didn’t make anything in the way that a steel mill did. And it didn’t even really sell anything in the sense that, say, Amazon.com did. It just extracted cash flow from the players’ desire to own virtual goods that would confer status on their fictional characters as they ran around T’Rain acting out greater or lesser parts in a story. And they all suspected, though they couldn’t really prove, that a good story was as foundational to that business as, say, a blast furnace was to a steel mill. But you could slap a white hard hat onto an investor and take him into the plant and let him verify that the blast furnace was still there. Whereas a fantasy world was—well—a fantasy world. This had not prevented a lot of investors from entrusting many steel mills’ worth of capital to the board of directors of Corporation 9592 and the CEO they had hired to look after the business. And in normal times, it made money and everyone was happy, probably because they weren’t thinking about this potentially troublesome fantasy-world-based aspect of the business. But now they were thinking about it quite hard, and the more they thought about it, the more troubled they became. Corporation 9592 seemed to be undergoing an ontogenical retroversion to something like a start-up company. Richard was the only link back to that phase of the company’s development, the only one who could think and function in that environment. The rabid dog they kept locked in the basement. Most of the time.

Anyway, now Richard was on the plane over eastern Montana. Pluto was sitting across the aisle in a backward-facing seat, regarding the eastern foothills of the Rockies like a plumber gazing into a torn-open wall. Not that Pluto could really be of much direct use when it came to story issues. But it comforted Richard to have a God of Olympus on the plane with him. Pluto was a reminder that there were more elemental principles even than whatever it was Devin Skraelin did for a living. Pluto tended to view all Narrative Dynamics as nothing more than benign growths on his work, kind of like those microbes embedded on Martian meteorites. And indeed Richard supposed that, if it came down to that, Pluto could probably summon up a planetary catastrophe that would eradicate all life and history on T’Rain’s surface, and then start over again. But he would have a hard time sliding that one by the board of directors.

Enough of this woolgathering. He forced himself to look back down at the Devin Skraelin novel open on his lap.

Gnawed to a perilous weakness by the ravening flames, the drawbridge juddered under the footfalls of the massive Kar’doq. Its clenching talons pierced the carbonized wood of the failing timbers like nails driven into cheese. Peering down through a swirling nimbus of smoke, dyed all the lurid hues of Al’kazian silk by the particolored tongues of eldritch fire that lapped all around, its thin lips drew back to expose a silvery rictus of gibbering fangs. Staggered by the heat, which blasted his flesh like that of a swordsmith’s forge, Lord Kandador—knowing that his loyal guardsmen and guardswomen suffered yet worse agony—yet knowing that they would uncomplainingly go to their deaths before showing even the smallest hint of fear—gave the order to fall back. No sooner had the command escaped his parched throat than his young herald, Galtimorn, raised the glittering Horn of Iphtar to his cracked and bleeding lips and began to sound the melancholy tocsin of retreat. A few notes rang forth above the din of battle, then faltered, and Lord Kandador looked down to see Galtimorn crumpling to the smoking planks like a marionette with its strings cut, a stubby black iron arrow projecting obscenely from his chest. Had his guardsmen and guardswomen heard the signal? A sudden drawing-back, felt, rather than seen, suggested that they had. Transferring the full weight of his double-handed sword Glamnir to his right hand, Kandador reached down and in a single mighty gesture heaved the stricken young herald up onto his back. “To the keep!” he bellowed; and turning toward a phantom that had suddenly loomed in the corner of his eye, severed a Wraq’s bestial head from its gristly neck with a casual-seeming flick of the hungry blade.

This (Volume 11 of T’Rain Origins: Chronicles of the Sundered: The Forsaken Magicks), and the many others like it, had to be understood as Devin’s implementation of a general world mythos that had been drawn up on the back of a napkin, as it were, by Don Donald after a five-hour lunch, heavy on liquids, with Richard and Pluto, way back in what Richard now thought of as the good old days of the company.

The original plan had been that it was just going to be Richard and D-squared getting to know each other, serious meetings to happen later. But D-squared had ended up going from zero to seven hundred miles an hour in two pints. Richard ought to have foreseen this. But he’d had no idea, in those days, how guys like Don Donald and Devin Skraelin actually worked. He had guessed that they must be kind of like engineers, meaning that you had to have lots of meetings with them and explain the problem in PowerPoint presentations and get preliminary scoping meetings and contractual hoo-ha out of the way before they would actually begin to ply their trade per se.

Richard picked Don Donald up at Sea-Tac and drove him to his downtown hotel, assuming he’d want to crash for at least a day to recover from jet lag and whatnot, but he ended up leaving his Land Cruiser at valet parking and stepping into the hotel restaurant with his guest for “a bite,” which, after D-squared noticed the row of tap handles projecting above the bar, improved to “a pint,” during which Richard basically explained the entire premise of the game. This led to a second pint during which Don Donald, showing zero symptoms of jet lag or intoxication, achieved missile lock on what he had identified as the central matter of interest, namely Pluto’s terrain-generating code, and plunged into that topic so deeply that Richard had been obliged to begin making phone calls to Pluto and eventually sent a taxi around to collect him. Pint number 3 was all about getting to know Pluto (who drank club soda). After a pause for a trip to what D-squared identified as “the W. C.—it is an abbreviation for water closet—the toilet, if you please,” he devoted pint numbers 4 and 5 to disgorging an entire cosmogonical schema that he had either just made up or been carrying around in his hip pocket in case someone asked for one.

During the first part of this feat or whatever you wanted to call it, Richard, somewhat addled, labored under the misconception that he was listening to the plot of a book that D-squared had already written. But the Don kept working in details from what he had just learned ten minutes ago about T’Rain, which obliged Richard to the belated, stuporous recognition that D-squared was just making it all up on the spot. He was doing it. Now. At 12:38 he had been waiting in line at Sea-Tac to have his retina scanned by Homeland Security, and at 2:24 he was slamming back pints in the hotel restaurant and getting the job done. The job that they had paid him for. Or rather, that they were proposing to pay him for, since no actual written agreement was in place.

Donald Cameron was sort of a one-stop shopping operation in that he supplied critical exegesis of his own work even as he was hurling it into the space around him. “You will have noticed that many if not most works of fantasy literature revolve around physical objects, usually ancient, imbued with numinous power. The Rings in the works of Tolkien being the best-known example.”

Richard, hiding his face behind his pint for a moment, made a plausible guess as to the meaning of the word “numinous” and nodded agreement.

“There is nearly always a chthonic link. The object-imbued-with-numinous-power tends to be of mineral origin: gold, perhaps mined from a special vein, or a jewel of extraordinary rarity, or a sword forged from a shooting star. I am merely describing,” D-squared added, with a flick of the fingers, “pulp. But the vast popularity of, say, a Devin Skraelin, attests to the power of these motifs to seize the reader’s attention, down at the level of the reptilian brain, even as the cerebrum is getting sick.”

“Who or what is Devin Skraelin?” Richard asked.

“A colleague who has distinguished himself by the sheer vastness of what you computer chaps like to call his output.”

Richard looked down into his pint and rotated the glass gently between the palms of his hands, wondering how much stuff a person would have to write to be pegged, by Donald Cameron, of all people, as remarkably prolific.

“You were saying something about the mineral origin,” said Pluto, crestfallen and maybe even a bit offended by the digression.

“Indeed yes,” said D-squared. “I daresay it is an archetype.” He paused for a swallow. “One can only speculate as to its origins. Why is the serpent an archetype? Because snakes have been biting our ancestors for millions of years: long enough for our fear of them to have been ensconced in our brainstems by the processes of natural selection.” Another swallow. Then a shrug. “Hominids have been making stone tools since long before Homo sapiens existed. They must have noticed that certain types of stone made better tools than others.”

“Granite doesn’t fracture the right way,” Pluto allowed. “The grain size is—”

“Even troglodytes must have noticed that certain outcroppings of stone made wondrously effective weapons.”

Especially troglodytes!” Pluto corrected him.

“For them it would have been a commonplace observation of the natural world, not nearly as ancient as ‘snakes are dangerous,’ and yet ancient enough that it must have played some role in the processes of natural selection that led to the development of human consciousness. Culture. And, loosely defined, literature.”

Richard was more than happy to sit and listen. It was the weirdest business meeting of his career so far, even using an elastic definition of “business,” and he saw that was good.

“The point is,” said Don Donald, “that it works. Put a magic gem in a story and it grabs the reader. This can be done shamelessly, or with more or less artfulness, according to the tastes and talents of the author. I should say that Tolkien got it right by layering atop it a story about good and evil. The numinous mineral object is now also a technology; it has been imbued with power by a sentient will who possesses some sort of arcane wizardry. It can only be unmade by exposing it to a certain geological process that, being geological, is prior to, and takes precedence over, any work of culture.”

Don Donald was clearly accustomed to addressing people whose only way of responding was to nod worshipfully and take notes. He did not, in other words, leave a lot of breaks in his testimony to allow for discussion. For the moment, that was fine, since it made it easier for Richard to drink.

“If I have correctly understood your company and its technology, you possess a command of the geological underpinnings of your world that far exceeds that of any competitor. It would seem the natural and obvious step, then, to capitalize on this, by creating, or providing a facility for the creation of, numinous objects of mineral origin.”

“NOMOs,” coined Pluto.

D-squared looked taken aback until he got it.

Richard put in: “Among geeks, the cool-soundingness of the acronym is more important than the existence of what it refers to.”

“I might then be of service,” said D-squared, “by erecting a cultural (ahem) story atop that geological basement. The cultures would have artisans, metallurgists, gemologists, and so forth who would create the—er—NOMOs that would presumably be of central importance to the game.”

“I was thinking about the formation of the moon the other day,” Pluto put in.

“Pluto, would you care to expand on what you just said, since we do not understand it?” Richard asked.

“There’s a theory that the moon was made when young Earth got sideswiped by something huge, almost planet sized. We don’t know where that thing went.” He shrugged. “It’s kind of weird. You’d think that if we got hit by something big enough to knock the moon off, it would still be around somewhere, orbiting the sun. But I was thinking: what if it fell back into Earth later and merged with it?”

“What if it did?” Richard asked.

“It would be a very strange situation,” Pluto said. He pointed out the window of the restaurant, up into the sky. “A piece of Earth is up there. Sundered. Separated forever. Not coming back.” Then he lowered his aim and pointed down at the floor. “While down inside the earth is alien stuff. Stuff that doesn’t belong. The residue of the thing that hit us and sundered the world.”

Richard had been worried that D-squared would find Pluto incomprehensible and that the entire interview would be one long series of excruciating faux pas. But, perhaps because Cameron lived and dined with Premier League nerds at Cambridge, he seemed perfectly at ease with the shaggy Alaskan demiurge. He was either fascinated by Pluto’s idea, or putting forth a commendable effort to feign fascination, and it didn’t matter which. “Is it your idea that this alien planetesimal remains intact and hidden below the surface?”

“Way deep down, a big chunk of it might be intact,” Pluto said, “but some of it would have been melted and carried away by magma flows. But not dissolved. It would manifest on the surface of T’Rain as veins of special ores and so on.”

“Of course!” said Don Donald. “And the cultures that arose on the planet’s surface, knowing nothing of the geological facts, would come to recognize the special properties of these ores, whatever they might be.”

“If the physics of the planetesimal were different, like because it came through a wormhole from another universe or something, then that would provide a basis for what we call magic,” said Pluto, “and the metallurgists, or whatever, who learned how to exploit it would become alchemists, brewers of potions, sorcerers—”

“And they would get busy manufacturing lots of NOMOs,” Richard put in, just in case anyone was losing sight of this. Because he had played enough games to know that NOMOs equaled valuable virtual property which equaled cash flow for Corporation 9592. “I think my work here is done,” he said, rising to his feet by the always-safe drunken expedient of leaning against a wall as he straightened his legs. “I shall leave you two to work out the details.”

Not for the first time, the future survival and prosperity of the company was secured by Pluto’s memory. After talking to D-squared for another couple of hours, he went home and wrote it all down in an emacs document entitled “it.txt,” which was later transmogrified into “it.docx” and thereby founded a lineage of more discursive documents and wiki pages, and a project and then a department that were all called “it” until one of the professional managers who had begun to infiltrate the company raised her eyebrows and it all had to be renamed Narrative Dynamics. The first major initiative of which had been to hire Devin Skraelin.

The gist of “it,” as Richard only found out much later (he was a big believer in delegating responsibilities to people who actually cared about them), was that the T’Rainian biosphere supported two distinct types of DNA, one made exclusively out of original T’Rain elements, the other commingled with trace amounts of stuff from the swallowed planetesimal and therefore imbued with “magic,” where “magic” was now a social construct invented by T’Rain’s sentient races to explain the different physics that governed the alien atoms. Some species were made entirely of the mundane DNA, some were hybridized with a bit of the alien stuff, and a very few were made of 100 percent alien material and consequently had angelic/demonic/godlike qualities, though these had trouble reproducing since it was difficult to round up a sufficient biomass of the right kind of stuff.

Of course. it was way more complicated than this made it sound; and it wasn’t long before tables and tree diagrams had to drawn up to keep it all straight, but this was the gist of it.docx, which, in its fully fledged, nine-point-seven-megabyte incarnation, they had handed off to Devin when they had made him the first, and the last, Writer in Residence.

“HOW’S ZULA DOING?” Richard asked, trying to get a conversation started with Pluto. They were over the High Plains now and he supposed that his traveling companion might have less to gaze at.

“I haven’t seen her in a few days,” Pluto said, without taking his eyes off the window. Perhaps his attention had been seized by the meanderings of the Platte.

So that gambit had failed. Richard considered his options. Other people would want to sentimentalize about the old days, but the great thing about traveling with Pluto was that he only cared about you to the extent that you were interesting to him now. In that way he kept you on your toes. No aspect of the relationship could be counterfeited when it was being minted anew from moment to moment.

“I meant,” Richard said, “how’s she doing in the job?”

“As best as anyone can given the nature of the problem,” Pluto said, finally glancing Richard’s way for a fraction of a second.

During the Titanian phase of the game’s development, when they had been laying down great slabs of world and story from one day to the next, Richard had pushed Pluto, hard, to supply them with material even before it was “ready,” which, for Pluto, meant that every cubic millimeter of solid matter in the world had to have a detailed backstory stretching 4.5 billion years. Pluto’s diligence in this and other matters had become a bottleneck delaying millions of dollars’ worth of efforts by other contributors. Richard had demanded that Pluto supply maps stipulating the locations of certain ore veins and gem deposits by fiat. In a thirteen-hour meeting, the memory of which still sent palpable horrors running up and down Pluto’s spine, Richard had stood at a whiteboard drawing out maps of the mineral deposits by hand. Photographs of the whiteboard had then been used to generate the actual maps used in the game. Much of Pluto’s work since then had been in the newly created discipline of Teleological Tectonics, meaning that he started with Richard’s maps and then ran the tectonics and the magma flow simulations backward in time so that everything could be knit together into a lava narrative that made sense by Pluto’s lights. This project had perked along in the background for several years and only recently got to the place where serious computing resources could be thrown at it. That job had fallen to Zula. “The nature of the problem” was Pluto petulantly reminding Richard that Richard had been the originator of said problem.

“How’s the Divine Intervention Queue looking?” said Richard, trying another tack.

For there were limits to what Teleological Tectonics could achieve. They had discovered a number of irresolvable conflicts between what the simulations insisted ought to be there, and what was already present in T’Rain. These were simply going to have to be fixed through acts of divine intervention. In and of itself, this wasn’t a problem. There were lots of divinities in T’Rain. But even the craziest divinity didn’t just go around altering landforms at random, and so it had become part of Zula’s job to act as a liaison between the Departments of Teleological Tectonics and of Narrative Dynamics, cajoling the latter into cranking out storylines to explain why this or that god had decided to move a volcano three miles to the south-southeast, or transmute a vein of copper into limestone.

“You know the URL,” Pluto pointed out, meaning the link that Richard only needed to click on if he wanted to inspect the Divine Intervention Queue himself.

Pluto seemed to be in an extrapissy mood, so Richard asked the flight attendant for another tray of sushi and turned to gaze out the window. It was a clear day. They were well into square-road-grid territory now. From here—he guessed Nebraska—the grid would continue eastward until it lapped up against, and discharged into, the finer scratchings of the Great Lakes’ industrial conurbations: places that Richard’s people never went to, save as beggars or conquerors. But before getting there the jet would plunge down into thicker air and home in on the K’Shetriae Kingdom.

SOMETIMES HE USED the FBO, the private jet terminal, at Omaha, and drove from there to the Possum Walk Trailer Park, a trip of about two hours. Today, however, they were pressed for time, and so they landed at a small regional airport only about half an hour from their destination.

Richard was oppressed by a desire to get clear of the airport and out into open country. In a big place like Omaha they could slip out of the FBO and quickly blend in with the mundanes, but here the arrival of a private jet was a big deal, and everyone in the place knew about it. Just inside the little pilots’ waiting room in the terminal, a plate of Rice Krispie Treats had been set out for them. Richard absentmindedly stuffed one into his mouth as they waited for their ride. Presently they were collected by a very polite young man named Dale, who drove them on a hilariously tortuous route around the airport to the car rental lot. Dale guessed out loud that they had come to pay a call on “Mr. Skraelin,” and Richard agreed that it was so. Dale paid Richard an elaborate compliment on the success and the sheer entertainment value of his game and, warming to the task, told Richard a few things about his band of raiders, a group of local kids who had gone to high school together and now spent every Friday evening sitting around in someone’s basement conducting bloodthirsty incursions against the Earthtone Coalition, whom Dale hated so much that he seemed almost offended that he had to go to the trouble of killing them. Almost all Dale’s friends’ characters belonged to the Var’ species.

Richard knew better than to draw actionable conclusions from this one chance encounter. Corporation 9592 had an entire department full of people with advanced degrees in statistics, managing a code base that monitored a million Dales per second, analyzing them six ways from Sunday. Any wisdom that proceeded from this sketchy conversation with Dale would be listened to, politely but incredulously, and then classified as “anecdotal” and forgotten. But Richard couldn’t help himself. Unlike the K’Shetriae, which were basically elves, and the Dwinn, which were basically dwarves, the Var’ had no discernible antecedents in folklore, unless you counted focus groups of nerds as folk. They were technologically primitive but capable of channeling the forces of weather, for example, shooting lightning bolts at their enemies but only during thunderstorms, freezing them to death but only during blizzards, and so on. A perfect match, in other words, for midwesterners. Just like Republicans or Democrats who spent so much time socializing with others of their kind that they could not believe any normal-seeming, mentally sound person could possibly belong to the opposite faction, Dale was a rock-ribbed Forces of Brightness man. As such, he exemplified a trend that had already been analyzed to exhaustion by the demographers. The Earthtone Coalition was 99 percent Anthrons, K’Shetriae, and Dwinn: the old-school races found in the works of Tolkien and his legion of imitators. Players who opted to belong to the newfangled races such as the Var’, on the other hand, tended to join up with the Forces of Brightness.

He was working on a theory that it was all related to the Rice Krispie Treats.

Bear with me, he said (not out loud, of course), showing his palms to the Furious Muses. Just hear me out.

Having now lived for a few decades in parts of the United States and Canada where cooking was treated quite seriously, and having actually employed professional chefs, he was fascinated by the midwestern/middle American phenomenon of recombinant cuisine. Rice Krispie Treats being a prototypical example in that they were made by repurposing other foods that had already been prepared (to wit, breakfast cereal and marshmallows). And of course any recipe that called for a can of cream of mushroom soup fell into the same category. The unifying principle behind all recombinant cuisine seemed to be indifference, if not outright hostility, to the use of anything that a coastal foodie would define as an ingredient. Was it too much of a stretch to think that the rejection, by the Dales of the world, of traditional fantasy-world races such as elves and dwarves was motivated by the same deep, mysterious cultural mojo as their spurning of onions and salt in favor of onion salt?

The recombinant food thing was a declaration of mental bankruptcy in the complexity of modern material culture. Likewise, Dale and his friends, living in a world where libraries were already stuffed with hundreds of thousands of decaying novels that would never again be read, where any television program or movie ever filmed could be downloaded and viewed, simply did not have the bandwidth to absorb a vast amount of detailed background material about fictitious races on a made-up planet. They just wanted to kick ass.

Anyway, Dale got them to their rental car, not before pumping Richard for a few tips about the latest from the Torgai Foothills. Weather in that region could be violent, which was a good thing for Var’ raiders, and so Dale’s group had been hanging out on some windy crag and staging raids on the freebooters who had been raiding the ransom bearers. Richard allowed as how “nothing lasts forever” and “the situation is fluid” before shaking Dale’s hand and thanking him and closing the rental car’s door.

The largest and newest billboard on the airport access road sported a huge picture of a blue-haired elf and said KSHETRIAE KINGDOM in ten-foot-high block letters. Beyond that, the roadsides were mercifully free of T’Rain-related clutter until they hove in view of the theme park itself. Taking advantage of the digital map on the car’s GPS device, Richard diverted onto a gravel road about half a mile short of the main entrance and gave the whole complex a wide berth; he had remembered that the park included some fiberglass terrain features—mountains with painted-on snow, dotted with fanciful K’Shetriae temple architecture—that most certainly would not pass muster with Pluto, and he didn’t want the rest of the day to be about that. The GPS unit became almost equally obstreperous, though, over Richard’s unauthorized route change, until they finally passed over some invisible cybernetic watershed between two possible ways of getting to their destination, and it changed its fickle little mind and began calmly telling him which way to proceed as if this had been its idea all along.

A straight shot down a paved state highway took them to the gate of the Possum Walk Trailer Park, which had been beefed up and connected to an electronic security system. Childish as the emotion was, Richard could not help but feel resentful over being interrogated by an electronic box thrust out on a pipe. He had come to this place several years ago when it had still reeked of exploded meth factories and hog confinement facilities. In those days, Devin had been a mere tenant, living alone in a thirty-year-old mobile home that gave and groaned beneath his weight whenever he troubled himself to get up and move around. Of course, he had long since bought the entire property, as well as a ­couple of adjoining lots, and evicted his erstwhile neighbors and sold their trailers on eBay. His original trailer stood alone, a weird hybrid of Little House on the Prairie and Grapes of Wrath. A prefab steel roof had been erected above it to protect it from vengeful elements. Farther back from the highway, concrete pads had been poured and steel buildings erected to form a U-shaped compound embracing the small, separate building, little different from a mobile home in size and layout, where Devin worked and lived. The purpose of the U was to house his lawyers, accountants, managers, and sous-novelists.

The gate droned aside. As Richard drove through it, the GPS unit announced: “You have arrived!” Idling past the old mobile home, Richard gazed at its front door for a few moments and let himself be that guy from several years ago who had come up those rotten wooden steps to knock on that door and offer Devin a job. Then he snapped out of it and turned his attention to a woman just emerging from the closest prong of the U. She was struggling with her weight, and was dressed and coiffed in a way that, seen on the streets of Seattle, would have been incontrovertible proof of Sapphism. But Richard knew he had to be careful about making such assumptions here. As he parked in one of about seven thousand available spaces, she drifted over toward the driver’s side of the car and began simpering at him through the window. Richard prepared himself to receive disagreeable news manfully.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Forthrast, I’m Wendy.”

“Nice to meet you, Wendy.” Until a ­couple of years ago, he’d have gone through the ritual of insisting that she address him as Richard, but the fact was that he had flown here from Seattle in a private jet and she had driven her Subaru.

“He just went into F. S. about fifteen minutes ago,” she said apologetically. “Would you like to come in and make yourself comfortable?”

The first of these sentences meant that, according to the biometric sensors on Devin’s body, he had just entered into what psychologists referred to as the flow state, and he was not to be disturbed until he emerged from it of his own volition.

The second of these sentences meant sitting around and eating. As Richard knew all too well, there was a waiting room stocked with bowls of Chex Party Mix and recombinant gorp, with fridges along the walls replete with soft drinks, and a coffee urn. Sitting in that room, using the free Wi-Fi, was an inevitable prelude to any meeting with Devin, who had an uncanny knack for ascending into the flow state only minutes before any scheduled visit. As a way to head off tiresome, repetitive objections from visitors who could not be placated with gorp and sugar water, Devin’s staff had printed up copies of a complimentary handout sheet, “Flow State FAQ,” and scattered them around the feeding troughs. Pluto, who had never been here before, picked one of them up and went into the flow state himself as he learned all about this amazingly productive psychological/physiological regimen and how all history’s greatest artists and geniuses had done their best work while immersed in it. Richard, who’d had plenty of opportunities to familiarize himself with the document’s contents, knew that it contained only one operative phrase, which was that interruptions were inimical to the flow state and had to be prevented at all costs. It was the most passive-aggressive way imaginable for Devin Skraelin to tell people that he was in the middle of something and fuck off.

Having already committed an unpardonable sin against his body by eating the Rice Krispie Treat at the airport, Richard forced himself to ignore the proffered food. He opened his laptop and checked his email.

• As far as T’Rain was concerned, he saw nothing that couldn’t wait. Everyone who mattered at Corporation 9592 knew that he was doing this and so they weren’t bothering him.

• There was a little uptick of traffic on his Schloss Hundschüttler email address. The weather had turned warm during the last few days, as they’d expected, and the skiing, which had been marginal during Peter and Zula’s visit, had gone decisively to hell. The long-range forecast looked worse. So Chet had declared that Mud Month would commence in two days. This was a mandatory four-week break in the Schloss’s operations, when all the employees got to go home, and the place sat empty.

• Brother John had posted an update on Dad’s latest round of visits to medical specialists. Nothing huge to report on that front.

Richard closed his laptop. He reached over and took one of the free “Flow State FAQ” handouts and flipped it over so that he was looking at its back side, which was blank. He reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a Sharpie and used it to write

DEVIN

FUCKING KNOCK IT OFF

on the back of the FAQ. Then he got up and walked out of the waiting area and back across the parking area, passing the old trailer again, all the way to the entrance gate. He slapped an override button that caused the gate to pull open, then went outside and positioned himself in front of the video camera that monitored incoming cars. He held up the sheet of paper in view of the video camera and stood there while he counted to twenty. Then he walked back through the gate and returned to his position in the waiting area.

Five minutes later, Wendy came in and announced that Devin had emerged from the flow state earlier than was his wont and that they were welcome to go in and see him.

“I know the way,” Richard said.

THE SPACE WAS windowless. Or, if you were willing to consider giant flat-panel screens as being windows into other worlds, it was a greenhouse. In the middle was Devin’s elliptical trainer, or rather one of a pool of treadmills, elliptical trainers, and other such gadgets that were swapped in and out as he ruined or got sick of them. Depending from the ceiling was a massive articulated structure: an industrial robot arm, capable of being programmed to move along and rotate around a myriad of axes with the silence of a panther and the precision of a knife fighter. It supported an additional large flat-panel screen and a framework that held up an array of input devices: an ergonomic keyboard, trackballs, and other devices of which Richard knew not the names. Devin, naked except for a pair of gym shorts emblazoned with the logo of one of his favorite charities, was stirring the air with his legs, working the reciprocating paddles of the trainer. Invisible streams of cool wind impinged on his body from perfectly silent high-tech fans, not quite evaporating a sheen of perspiration that caused all his veins and tendons, and his twelve-pack abs, to pop out through his skin, as though the epidermis were shrink wrap laid directly over nerve and bone. According to this morning’s stats, Devin’s body fat percentage was an astonishing 4.5, which placed him into a serious calorie debt situation that in theory should extend his life span beyond 110 years. The slight up-and-down bobbing of his head and upper body was compensated for by equal movements of the robot arm, which used a machine vision control loop to track his attitude through a camera and to calculate the vector of translations and rotations needed to keep the huge screen exactly 22.5 inches away from his laser-sculpted corneas and the keyboard and other input devices within easy and comfortable reach of his fingers. A custom-made headset, with flip-down 3D lenses (currently flipped up and out of the way) and a microphone enabled him to dictate ideas or take phone calls as necessary. A chest harness tracked his pulse and sent immediate notification of any flipped T-waves to an on-call cardiologist sitting in an office suite two miles down the road. A defibrillator hung on the wall, blinking green.

You laugh, Richard had once said to a colleague, after they’d visited the place, but all he’s doing is applying scientific management principles to a hundred-million-dollar production facility (i.e., Devin) with an astronomical profit margin.

“Hello, Dodge!” he called out, only a little short of breath. The system was programmed to keep his pulse between 75 percent and 80 percent of its recommended maximum, so he was working hard but not gasping for air.

“Good afternoon, Devin,” said Richard, suddenly wishing he’d remembered to bring a hat, since it was chilly in here. “I apologize if our arrival came as a surprise.”

“Not a problem!”

“I had been assuming that with all your support staff and whatnot, someone here might have made you aware of the schedule.” This for the benefit of the half-dozen members of said staff who, unaccountably, had crowded into the room.

“No worries!” And he sounded like he meant it. If it was true that exercise jacked up one’s endorphin levels, Devin must live his whole life on something like an intravenous fentanyl drip.

“You remember Pluto.”

“Of course! Hello, Pluto.”

“Hello,” said Pluto, looking put out that he was actually being chivvied through this meaningless program of social pleasantries.

“Can we talk about something?” Richard said.

“Sure! What’s on your mind?”

We,” Richard stressed, “as in, you and me.”

“You and I are both here, Richard,” said Devin.

Richard held eye contact for a few moments, then broke it and scanned the faces of everyone else in the room. “This is not material,” he said. “Devin and I are not going to be generating intellectual property. And neither is it some kind of a brainstorming or strategizing effort in which we will be wanting ideas and input from amazingly bright and helpful people whose job it is to supply that. No record of the conversation needs to be made.” Richard could see people’s faces falling as he ticked his way down the list. Finally he looked back at Devin. “I’ll see you in the trailer,” he said, “just for old time’s sake.”

THE TRAILER WAS cleaner and, at the same time, even more of a dump than he remembered. Someone had definitely hit all its surfaces with a diluted bleach solution. The place probably did not contain a single intact strand of DNA. As always, the information technology had aged badly: the plastic shell of Devin’s elephantine cathode-ray-tube monitor had turned the color of dead algae. To his credit, he had a cheerful red diner table in the kitchen, and three chairs to go with it. Richard sat down in one of these and looked out the window as Devin, now in a tracksuit, strode across the lot followed by a train of rattled and nettled assistants. The caboose of that train was Pluto, forgotten and bemused.

Devin’s sleek elven frame made scarcely an impression on the structurally compromised stairs. He banged the door shut and came in looking pissed.

“I’m sorry,” Richard said, “but there is some stuff that we have to sort out.”

Skeletor had not been expecting Richard to lead off with an apology and so this shortened his stride. “The wo-er,” he said.

“Yeah. You know, the last time I came here, the day after Thanksgiving, I was playing the game at a Hy-Vee on my way down and I saw some stuff going on that looked funny to me at the time. But a month later, when the Wor started, it was obvious in retrospect that I had been seeing certain preparations. The creation of a fifth column. Probing been preparing for the Wor one month in advance, who’s to say they weren’t preparing for it six months or even twelve in advance?”

Devin shrugged. “Beats me.” Not the most adroit answer and yet richard was wrong-footed by its sincerity. He had known Devin for a long time and thought he could read the man’s body language reasonably well.

Another tack. “The thing is,” Richard said, “not half an hour ago I’m pulling out of the airport with Pluto and I see that huge billboard for K’Shetriae Kingdom, with the blue-haired guy on it, and in the light of all that has been going on, I can’t help seeing that as dog whistle politics.”

“Dog whistle politics?”

“A signal that only certain people can hear. The very blueness of that hair is a shout-out to the Forces of Brightness. Earthtone Coalition people see it and don’t go any further than to shudder at its tastelessness and look the other way. But Forces of Brightness people see it as a rallying point.”

“I think it’s just that a blue-haired humanoid is more eye-catching. And the purpose of a billboard is to be eye-catching.”

Richard could hardly contest those points. He leaned forward, put his elbows on the red Formica of the diner table, clamped his head between his fingertips. “What bothers me is the trivialization,” he said. “T’Rain is one huge virtual killing machine. It is just warriors with poleaxes and magicians with fireballs fighting this endless series of duels to the death. Not real death, of course, since they all just go to Limbo and get respawned, but still, the engine that makes the whole system run—and by that, I mean generate revenue—is the excitement and sense of competition that comes out of these mano a mano confrontations. Which is why we had Good vs. Evil. Okay, it wasn’t very original, but at least it was an explanation for all the conflict that drives our revenue stream. And now, because of the Wor, Good vs. Evil has been replaced by—what? Primaries vs. Pastels?”

Devin shrugged again. “It works for the Crips and the Bloods.”

“But is that the story you’ve been writing?”

“It’s every bit as good as what we had before.”

“How so?”

“What we had before wasn’t really Good vs. Evil. Those were just names pasted on two different factions.”

“Okay,” Richard said, “I’ll admit I’ve often had similar thoughts myself.”

“The people who called themselves Evil weren’t really doing evil stuff, and the people who called themselves Good were no better. It’s not like the Good people were, for example, sacrificing points in the game world so that they could take the time to help little old ladies across the street.”

“We didn’t give them the opportunity to help little old ladies across the street,” Richard said.

“Exactly, we set them certain tasks or quests that had the ‘Good’ label slapped on them; but, art direction aside, they were indiscernible from ‘Evil’ tasks.”

“So the Wor is our customers calling bullshit on our ‘Good/Evil’ branding strategy, you’re saying,” Richard said.

“Not so much that as finding something that feels more real to them, more visceral.”

“Which is what exactly?”

“The Other,” said Skeletor.

“Say what!?”

“Oh come on, you did it yourself when you saw the billboard at the airport. ‘Ugh! Blue hair! How tasteless!’ When you did that, you identified, you categorized that character as belonging to the Other. And once you have done that, attacking it, murdering it, becomes easier. Perhaps even an urgent need.”

“Wow.” Richard was seriously taken aback because Furious Muse number 5, a comparative literature graduate student at the University of Washington who had toiled in Corporation 9592’s creative salt mines for a summer, had barely been able to make it through a paragraph without invoking the O-word. Hearing it from the mouth of Skeletor had taken Richard right out of the here-and-nowness of the conversation and left him wondering if he had fallen asleep on the business jet and was only dreaming this. He made a mental note to google F.M. number 5 at the next opportunity and find out if she had moved to Nodaway.

Richard had always writhed uncomfortably during O-word conversations, since he had the general feeling, which he could not quite prove, that certain people used it as a kind of intellectual duct tape. And yet any resistance to it on Richard’s part led to the accusation that he was classifying people who liked to talk about the Other as themselves belonging to the Other.

And so the general result of Skeletor’s invocation of the O-word at this point was to make Richard want to pull the rip cord on this whole conversation.

But no. There were shareholders to think of. At some level he had to justify spending a bazillion dollars on jet fuel just to translocate his ass to this diner chair.

On one level this was stressful and pressure-laden, but on another he could not have been more comfortable. Richard knew a few people who, like himself, basically could not stop making money no matter what they did; they could be kicked out the door of a moving taxi anywhere in the world and be operating a successful business within weeks or months. It usually took a few tries to get the hang of it. Beyond that, it was possible to succeed beyond all reasonable bounds if one kept at it. Some found an adequately successful business early enough in life that they were golden-handcuffed; others only figured out how to make money as they were approaching the age of retirement. After the smuggling and the Schloss, Richard had gotten to the place where he just knew how to do it, in the sense that every teenaged tinkerer who played with electricity knew that in order to make anything happen you had to connect a wire to each terminal of the battery. At some level, making any business run was that simple. Everything else was fussing with the knobs.

“Say more about the Crips and the Bloods,” Richard said, stalling for time while he tried to get his mental house in order.

“To us they look the same. Urban black kids with similar demographics and tastes. Seems like they all ought to pull together. But that’s not where they’re at. They are shooting each other to death because they see the Other as less than human. And I’m saying it has been the case for a long time in T’Rain that those people we have lately started calling the Earthtone Coalition have always looked at the ones we now call the Forces of Brightness and seen them as tacky, uncultured, not really playing the game in character. And what happened in the last few months was that the F.O.B. types just got tired of it and rose up and, you know, asserted their pride in their identity, kind of like the gay rights movement with those goddamned rainbow flags. And as long as it’s possible for those two groups to identify each other on sight, each one of them is going to see the other as, well, the Other, and killing people based on that is way more ingrained than killing them on this completely bogus and flimsy fake-Good and fake-Evil dichotomy that we were working with before.”

“I get it,” Richard said. “But is that all we are? Just digital Crips and Bloods?”

“What if it’s true?” Devin shrugged.

“Then you’re not doing your fucking job,” Richard said. “Because the world is supposed to have a real story to it. Not just people killing each other over color schemes.”

“Maybe you’re not doing yours,” Devin said. “How can I write a story about Good and Evil in a world where those concepts have no real meaning—no consequences?”

“What sort of consequences do you have in mind? We can’t send people’s characters to virtual Hell.”

“I know. Only Limbo.”

They both laughed.

Devin thought about it a little more. “I don’t know. I think you have to create an existential threat to the world.”

“Such as?”

“Comparable to a nuclear holocaust or what would have happened if Sauron had gotten his hands on the One Ring.”

“I’m going to have all kinds of fun getting that idea past the shareholders.”

“Well, maybe the shareholders have a point. The company is making money, right?”

“Yeah, but the reason I’m here is that there is some concern that this may not continue to be the case. If the F.O.B. kill all the Earthtone Coalition, which they are likely to do, then what is there left to do in that world?”

Devin shrugged. “Kill each other?”

“There’s always that.”

Day 3

“Homegirl, this is the third time you come by here, let me put you out of your misery!”

The voice was a confident alto: someone with an excellent ear for pronunciation, even if her command of certain idioms was a little shaky. Zula spun around on her heel, then dropped her gaze twenty degrees to discover a face—somewhat familiar—smiling back at her from five feet and two inches above street level.

This was the woman—no, girl—no, woman—who had sold her a kilogram of green tea on the street yesterday afternoon. A kilogram being a rather huge amount. But she had made it seem like such a reasonable idea at the time.

The girl/woman confusion was irresolvable. She was petite and trim, traits hardly unusual among Chinese females. She had a pixie haircut, which was unusual. But this did not seem to be a fashion statement, given that she was wearing blue jeans and a pair of knee-high, bright blue pull-on boots—the kind of boots that working people used when scrubbing a boat deck or sloshing around in a rice paddy. A black T-shirt and a black vest completed the ensemble. No makeup. No jewelry except for a man’s watch, clunky on her wrist. She was rooted to the ground in a way that kept catching Zula’s eye: she planted those boots shoulder width apart on the pavement and stood square to whomever she was talking to, occasionally bounced a little on the balls of her feet when she was amused or excited by something. Her confidence made her seem forty but her skin was that of a twenty-year-old, so Zula concluded that she was young but odd in some way that would take Zula a little while to sort out.

Not all young women around here wore high heels and dresses, but it was certainly common enough that this tea-selling woman was placing herself miles outside of the mainstream by looking the way she did. And yet Zula didn’t get any sense of in-your-face nonconformism. She was not consciously making any kind of statement. This was who she was.

She had approached Zula and struck up a conversation yesterday afternoon. Zula, Csongor, and Sokolov had found their way to a street where a number of tea sellers had their shops, and Zula had been eyeing them, trying to decide which one she would approach, psyching herself up for another round of bargaining. And then suddenly this woman had been in front of her, blue boots planted, smiling confidently, and striking up a conversation in oddly colloquial English. And after a minute or two she had produced this huge bolus of green tea, seemingly from nowhere, and told Zula a story about it. How she and her people—Zula had forgotten the name of the group, but Blue Boots wanted it understood that it was a separate ethnicity—lived way up in the mountains of western Fujian. They had been chased up there a zillion years ago and lived in forts on misty mountaintops. Consequently, no one was upstream of them—the water ran clean from the sky, there was no industrial runoff contaminating their soil, and there never would be. Blue Boots had gone on to enumerate several other virtues of the place and to explain how these superlative qualities had been impregnated into the tea leaves at the molecular level and could be transferred into the bodies, minds, and souls of people condemned to live in not-so-blessed realms simply by drinking vast quantities of said tea. A kilogram of the stuff would vanish in no time and Zula would be begging for more. But it would be hard to buy more in America. Speaking of which, Blue Boots was keen on finding a Western Hemisphere distributor for this product, and Zula seemed like a fine candidate…

If Zula had actually been a tourist, just wanting to be left alone, she’d have grown tired of Blue Boots. But as it was she felt so happy to see a quasi-familiar face that she had to hold back an impulse to gather the tiny thing in her arms.

“Good morning,” Zula said. “You were right. I drank all that tea.”

“Ha, ha, you are full of shit!” said Blue Boots delightedly.

“You’re right. I don’t need any more today, thank you.”

“You want a distributorship?”

“No,” Zula began, but then perceived that Blue Boots was only teasing her and broke it off.

“You are so fricking lost it’s sad,” said Blue Boots. “Everyone on the street is talking about it.”

“We are trying to find a wangba,” Zula said.

“A turtle egg? That is a very bad insult. Be careful who you say it to.”

“Maybe I’m pronouncing it wrong.”

“In English?”

“We are trying to find an Internet café,” Zula said.

Blue Boots wrinkled her nose in a way that from most other females her age would have seemed like an effort to be cutesy but from her seemed as pure as the mountain waters of her native region. “What does Internet and coffee have to do with each other?”

“Café,” Zula said, “not coffee.”

“Café is a place where you drink coffee!”

“Yes, but—”to do with each

“This is China,” said Blue Boots, as if Zula might not have noticed. “We drink tea. Have you forgotten our conversation of yesterday? I know we all look the same to you but—”

“I’m from Eritrea. We grow coffee there,” Zula said, thinking fast.

“Here instead of a café we would have a teahouse.”

“I get it. But we are not looking for something to drink. We are looking for Internet.”

“Come again?”

Zula looked to Csongor who wearily held up a piece of paper with the Chinese characters for wangba printed on it. They had been showing it to random people on the street for the last half hour or so. Everyone they talked to seemed to have at least a vague idea of where such a thing could be found and pointed them in one direction or another while speaking earnestly, usually in Chinese but sometimes in English.

“Why didn’t you say so?” said Blue Boots. She pointed. “It’s that way, just above the—”

Zula shook her head. “How do you think we got so fricking lost?”

“Come on, I’ll take you there.” And she took Zula’s hand in hers and began walking with her. The gesture was a bit familiar but, at least for now, it felt nice to be holding anyone’s hand and so Zula laced her fingers together with her guide’s and let her arm swing freely.

It seemed inconceivable that any of them, even Sokolov, would defy her, so Csongor and Sokolov dutifully fell in behind.

The pixie haircut was shaking in dismay. “You need translator, man.”

“Agreed.”

“Excellent!” And Blue Boots let go of Zula’s hand, stopped, pivoted, and thrust out her right. Zula, out of habit, began to extend her hand, then realized she was about to enter into a binding contract and hesitated.

“Awwa!” said Blue Boots, and snapped her fingers in frustration. “Almost had you over a barrel.”

“We don’t even know your name.”

“I don’t know yours.”

“Zula Forthrast,” said Zula quietly. She looked back at Sokolov, who was distractedly gazing around with his habitual, posttraumatic, thousand-yard stare. A trace of a grin came onto her face.

“What?” Blue Boots wanted to know.

Zula killed the smile and shook her head. She had passed her name on to someone. And if that someone were to google the name, what might come up? Perhaps an article from the Seattle Times about a young woman who had inexplicably gone missing.

“I am Qian Yuxia.”

Zula, who had spent her life with her nose pressed up against the window of the straight-haired world, was growingly obsessed with Qian Yuxia’s haircut, which was one of those wedgy, short-on-top, longer-on-the-bottom productions. Someone who loved Qian Yuxia and who was very good with sharp objects had been maintaining this, and Qian Yuxia had just as determinedly been ignoring it.

“Is that a common name where you are from?” Zula asked, just making conversation.

“Yongding,” Yuxia reminded her. “Where the Big-Footed Women make the gaoshan cha. High mountain tea.”

“Are you a Big-Footed Woman?”

Yuxia looked at her like she was an idiot and extended a blue boot.

Zula shrugged. “But you might have a very small foot inside there!”

“I am Hakka,” said Qian Yuxia, as if that should put this entire part of the conversation to rest immediately. “I told you yesterday.”

“Sorry, I forgot the name.”

“What is up? Why are you here?”

Sokolov had now drawn close enough that Zula felt it best to stick to the script. Because they had worked out a script yesterday. “You’ve heard about the conference? About Taiwan?”

“Yes, what are you, the ambassador of Eritrea?”

“I’m here with the American delegation,” Zula said. “Csongor, here, is with the Hungarians and—”

“Ivan Ivanovich,” said Sokolov, with a courtly nod.

“Ivan is with the Russians. We have a couple of days off and so we are just—”

“Chillin’?”

“Yes. Chillin’.”

“Is one of these guys your boyfriend?”

“No. Why?”

Qian Yuxia gave Zula a playful backhanded slap on the arm, as if to chide her for being a slow pupil. “I want to know if it is cool to flirt with them!”

“Sure, go ahead!” Zula had been kind of assuming that Qian Yuxia was a dyke. Maybe she wasn’t. Or maybe she was a dyke who found it amusing to flirt with heterosexual males.

“Your hotel doesn’t have Internet!?”

“Of course it does.” Which did not answer the implicit question. “Csongor is such a nerd that he can’t go a whole hour without checking his email.”

“Hmm. Well, here is a place.”

Yuxia had led them across an intersection and down a side street lined with little shops. Next to one of these, a stairway led up and into the interior of a building. It was unmarked except for an old piece of World of Warcraft paraphernalia, the head of a creature called a Tauren, pasted to the wall. Like a medieval tavern sign, almost.

They paused there for a moment.

“They are called stairs,” said Qian Yuxia.

YESTERDAY IT HAD seemed as though they were harvesting an impressively large number of IP addresses and latitude/longitude pairs. When Csongor had actually produced a map of these, though, and overlaid it on an image of Xiamen, it had looked discouraging: their data somehow managed to be sparse and clumpy at the same time. A few trends had been evident, though, and had given them reason to believe that the IP address still written in fading ink on Sokolov’s hand was assigned to an access point, not way out in the suburbs, not near the university, and not even in one of the more far-flung parts of the island, but within a kilometer or two of the safe house.

They could probably see the Troll’s building from their window. Which was a little bit like saying that you could see Earth from the moon. But it was a kind of progress.

The general plan for today, then, was to visit all the Internet cafés they could find that lay in the general zone of interest, and try to get some finer-grained data.

While making this plan in the presence, and under the close supervision, of Ivanov, they had all spoken confidently of Internet cafés, as if it were a subject on which they were knowledgeable. And why not? They were hackers; they were from Seattle; Peter’s loft was all of about a mile from the world headquarters of Starbucks, an organization that had shotgunned the planet with coffee bars featuring Wi-Fi.

They had, in other words, been assuming three things of Chinese Internet cafés: (1) that they were all over the place, (2) that they were easy to find, and (3) that they served coffee; that is, that they were literally cafés, as in small cozy places where customers could curl up with a laptop to check their email.

The pathetic naïveté and Seattle-centrism of these assumptions had already begun to infiltrate Zula’s awareness but clobbered her in the teeth as she followed Qian Yuxia to the top of the stairs. The helpful strangers who had been giving them useless directions always seemed to be saying that the Internet café was “upstairs of” or “in the back of” such-and-such a business, and this had given Zula the idea that they were talking about tiny backroom enterprises.

Now she understood that these business had to be upstairs of, or in the back of, other enterprises because they were so enormous. This one occupied an entire floor of the building. Brand-new PCs with flat-panel screens were packed in together as tightly as the laws of thermodynamics would allow, and essentially all of them were in use. There were at least a hundred people in here, all wearing headphones and therefore weirdly silent.

“Holy Jesus,” Csongor said.

“What?” asked Yuxia.

“It is ten times as big as the biggest one we have ever seen,” Zula explained.

“This is only half of it,” said Yuxia, nodding toward another stair that led up to an additional story. “How many you want?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How many of you want to use computer?”

“One,” said Zula, “unless—?” She looked at Sokolov, who had been staring at more decorative swag posted on the wall. It was one of a series of promotional posters that Corporation 9592’s marketing department had produced shortly after the launch of the game, when they were making a ferocious effort to steal customers away from World of Warcraft. They were fake travel posters, rendered in photorealistic detail. This particular one showed a Dwinn perched on a boulder at the edge of a pristine mountain lake, fishing rod in hand, battling it out with a toothy, prehistoric-looking beast that could be seen breaching from the surface in the middle distance with a lure hooked through its lip. The real purpose of the poster had been to show off the incredible realism of Pluto’s landform-generating software, which was on spectacular display in the mountain slopes on the far side of the lake. But the riggers and animators, not to be outdone, had lavished a lot of time and energy on getting the Dwinn’s posture exactly right: leaning back against the tension on the line, one foot planted, the other just coming up off the ground. It was as good, for Zula, as seeing a snapshot of home and hit her hard; she’d not been ready for it here.

Conveniently, Sokolov chose this of all moments to wax talkative. He slowly turned his head to gaze at Zula, then Yuxia. “Maybe I google fishing equipment store.”

Zula was still contending with a sizable knot in her throat, and Yuxia had no idea what to make of Sokolov.

“Fishing,” Sokolov repeated, nodding at the poster and pantomiming a cast and a reel-in. “My boss wants to go fishing. But we did not bring matériel.”

“When?” Yuxia asked.

Sokolov shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next day. Depends. But today I could be getting equipment. Need to google store.”

“That’s not going to work,” Yuxia said, “if you can’t read Chinese.”

“Need help then. Need to buy special hats. Little iceboxes. Case for rod.” He shrugged. “Usual.”

Yuxia turned away and approached the front counter of the wangba, which was a pretty sizable installation in its own right, spanning about twenty feet and sporting two tills. The wall behind it was filled with a couple of glass-fronted refrigerator cases, jammed with beverages, and some shelves stocked with instant dried noodle bowls, sealed with disks of foil and printed all over in eye-grabbing colors. Behind the counter were three people: two employees, both men in their twenties, and one Public Security Bureau officer in his light blue shirt, necktie, and dark slacks. The latter was seated with his back to them and was paying attention to a pair of flat-panel screens subdivided into four panes each. Zula assumed that these were showing security camera footage, but on a second look she saw that each one of them was showing a half-size image of a computer screen. Some of those were displaying windowed user interfaces, such as a person might use to surf the web or check Facebook, but most were running video games. Each pane changed every few seconds.

She looked at Csongor, who had become fixated on the same thing. He turned to look at her. Their eyes met and they both laughed.

“What is funny?” Sokolov asked.

Csongor turned to him. “This guy is looking over everyone’s shoulder,” he said. “Making sure they don’t look at porn, or whatever.”

Sokolov got it but didn’t see the humor.

Qian Yuxia had in the meantime stomped up to the counter and addressed one of the employees in the style of a drill sergeant greeting a trainee who had showed up drunk and disheveled. The employee, for his part, began and ended the conversation by looking her carefully up and down, which confirmed in Zula’s mind that Yuxia was a bit of an unusual customer, and yet not wholly unprecedented. The PSB officer turned away from his screens long enough to examine the three Westerners, then glanced at Yuxia, then turned back to the screens. Apparently being a Westerner wasn’t such a big deal if you had a Chinese minder to lead you around; it was the unaccompanied and clueless Westerners who drew all the attention.

Some kind of transaction took place. Yuxia summoned Sokolov forward with a snap of the fingers and compelled him to produce money, which disappeared into the till. The employee handed over two strips of paper with alphanumeric strings printed on them: user IDs and passwords.

They proceeded into the main floor of the wangba, which reminded Zula of the part of a casino where the slot machines are lined up, except without the noise: densely packed humans in a dark, low-ceilinged room, sitting on identical chairs and focused on machines. And indeed the slot machine comparison was not a bad one in that most of these people were playing video games. A few of them were playing World of Warcraft, Counterstrike, and Aoba Jianghu, which was the all-Chinese game that Nolan Xu had created prior to cofounding Corporation 9592 and that lived on in the wangba world as an oldie but goodie, frequently imitated, always pirated (its copy protection scheme had been annihilated twenty-two hours after its release), never equaled. But the clear majority of them were playing T’Rain, which meant that most of them were here for business and not pleasure. Zula had enough experience with the game by this point that she could identify, at a glance, most of the landscapes and situations that passed beneath her eye as she followed Yuxia down an aisle toward the stairway. Taking in a longer view of the wangba, she saw just a few heads that had popped up, gopher style, above the low half walls that separated one row of workstations from the next. Some of these were young men slurping noodles from bowls and watching their friends play games, but she also saw another PSB officer making his rounds.

The next floor up was a repeat of the first, with more terminals vacant. A third PSB officer was stationed here, sitting on a chair at the top of the stairs, drinking tea from a big glass thermos and bored out of his mind. Csongor sat down at one terminal and Sokolov sat at the next. Csongor pretended to check his email while Yuxia helped Sokolov search for fishing gear providers in downtown Xiamen.

Once Csongor was logged on to a computer it took him only a few moments to establish its IP address and a few moments more to snoop around the local network getting an idea of what IP addresses might be assigned to neighboring machines. So “checking his email” took only a few seconds, and then he was logged off and ready to go. He walked toward Zula, breaking stride as soon as he got within about a meter of her, and then turned sideways. For he had not approached her to talk, or for any reason other than to be in her presence. This had become his habit. Zula had grown accustomed to it. She felt better when he was there, just on the edge of her personal space. It appeared that he felt better there too.

Sokolov had taken some phone pictures of fishermen traipsing out of a ferry terminal yesterday afternoon and showed them to Yuxia, zooming in on their heads and urging her to get a load of their hats. They were the most retarded-looking hats Zula had ever seen, and she didn’t believe for a moment that Sokolov wanted to go fishing. He had some other plan in mind and had realized on the spur of the moment that Yuxia could help him with it.

The somewhat comforting feeling she got from Csongor’s proximity was now wrecked by a sort of icicle-through-the-heart sensation as she realized that Yuxia was about to get tangled up in this. And that was at least partly Zula’s fault.

Yuxia and Sokolov finished their business and logged off. “We go to buy hats,” Sokolov announced, and then he stood to one side, as was his habit, waiting for the ladies to go first.

YUXIA WAS GOING to make finding wangbas a million times easier, but there was a price to be paid, which was that they could not simply go straight from one to the next while maintaining the pretext that they were only doing it so that Csongor could check his email. No one needed to check his email that frequently; and if he did, it would be easier to just hang out in one wangba rather than flitting from one to the next.

Sokolov’s plan—whatever the hell it was—concerning the fishing equipment helped to solve this problem. For they devoted about forty-five minutes now to walking to a store where it was possible to buy the goofy-looking cloth hats favored by septuagenarian Chinese anglers. During the walk, Zula got to know Yuxia a little better. In fact, she pestered Yuxia with questions, because she was a little bit nervous that Yuxia might start asking her questions that, given the circumstances, would be difficult to answer. The script that they were working from was flimsy and would not stand up to scrutiny from the lively mind of Qian Yuxia.

She learned that Yuxia lived in a town up in Yongding that was something of a tourist attraction because of its tulou: huge round fortresslike buildings of rammed earth, constructed centuries ago by the Hakka people. Most of the tourists were Chinese who came up in buses from Xiamen. But the place did attract some Western travelers, mostly backpacker types, and so during the tourist season she worked for a hotel that catered to such people. She hung around at the bus station and wandered about the main tourist game trails, and when she saw Westerners who looked lost, she greeted them, talked to them, and steered them to the hotel. She drove them around the region in a van so that they could see some of the off-the-beaten-track tulous. That, and watching movies, and reading books left at the hotel by the backpackers, was how she had learned her English. During the off-season she drove the van to the distant outskirts of Xiamen and made arrangements to park it somewhere, then rode the bus into Xiamen, stayed at a hostel, and plied her trade as an itinerant tea merchant. Mostly this was a matter of wholesaling tea to established retail shops, but she was not above approaching end users directly, as she’d done yesterday with Zula.

That got them as far as the hat shop, where Sokolov purchased an even dozen of the shapeless hats that he wanted. Then it was time for Csongor to “check his email” again. So they found another wangba and Csongor did that while Zula slurped noodles and Yuxia helped Sokolov find a store that traded in rod-and-reel cases.

Then they repeated the cycle: they set out on foot to a place where Sokolov was able to purchase some rod-and-reel cases, and then they found the nearest wangba so that Csongor could “check his email” yet again.

Zula asked Yuxia what a Hakka was and learned that they were the only Chinese who had refused to take up the practice of foot binding. So “Big-Footed Woman” was not just a throwaway line. Not only that, but they would buy the unwanted female children of their Cantonese-speaking neighbors and raise them. Yuxia was not the type to deploy terminology like “feminist” or “matriarchal,” but the picture was clear enough to Zula. She was able to draw comparisons to her early years being raised by Marxist-feminist teachers in caves in Eritrea, which provided a safe topic for time-consuming chitchat as they wandered about in the streets.

This third wangba was on the top story of a four-story commercial building that fronted on a side street, perhaps wide enough to carry a car going in each direction if uncomplicated by pedestrians, bicyclists, or carters. It was a bit smaller than the first two they’d visited and had a younger clientele and a somewhat seedier vibe about it. There was a single PSB officer stationed at the entrance, but he didn’t have the high-tech system for monitoring what was shown on the customers’ terminals. A few mirrors were planted about the place, theoretically making it possible for him to look over people’s shoulders, but in order for it to work, he would have to care and he would have to look up from his glossy magazine (in Chinese, but exclusively concerned with the personnel and doings of the National Basketball Association), neither of which obtained. This wangba was considerably louder, not with music or with game sound tracks but with conversation. As they perceived after they paid their way in, the hubbub all emanated from one corner, where a dozen or so teenagers had locked down a cluster of terminals and were playing a game together, looking over each other’s shoulders and calling out warnings, orders, encouragement, mockery, and wails of despair.

As usual, Csongor went to one terminal while Yuxia and Sokolov went to another. Zula drifted over toward the corner where the young men were all playing. As soon as their screens came into view she recognized that they were playing T’Rain. The style in which they were communicating told her that they must all be part of a raiding party going on an adventure together; their characters were all in the same place in the T’Rain world, probably conducting a dungeon raid or fighting it out with a rival gang, and so a warrior might be calling out to a priest that he needed to be healed or a mage might be requesting protection from a menacing beast while he cast his spells. It was a common enough play style.

She could tell that they were badass. This was confirmed when she got into position for a better look at their characters: massively powerful and expensively equipped.

The landscape in which they were fighting looked strikingly familiar.

It was the Torgai Foothills.

They were fighting near the ley line intersection with the trebuchets.

She became aware, suddenly, that she had been watching for a few minutes and that Sokolov was right next to her, close enough that she could sense his warmth. He’d read the look on her face, come over to see what had transfixed her.

Feeling suddenly conspicuous, she turned away and walked back toward where Csongor was sitting. He was looking aghast at the screen of his terminal.

“What is going down?” Qian Yuxia wanted to know. “What is you guys’ problem?”

Sokolov turned to look at her. “Tomorrow we go fishing,” he announced. “Need iceboxes.”

HALF AN HOUR later Zula was chained to a sink in the women’s bathroom at the safe house.

When Sokolov had understood that the young men in the corner were in league with the Troll—that one of them might even be the Troll—when Csongor had beckoned him over and shown him an IP address on his screen that matched the one written on Sokolov’s hand—the Russian had acted with a combination of extreme dispatch and perfect calm that in other circumstances Zula would have admired. He had made a phone call. A few minutes later he had escorted Zula out to the street just as a taxi containing four security consultants had pulled up. One of these had remained in the taxi, and the others had stood around Zula in a manner that was not overtly threatening but that made it obvious she had no choice but to climb into the backseat. A few minutes later she and the security consultant were in the parking garage of the skyscraper, and a minute after that they were in the ladies’ room. The Russians, tired of escorting her to the bathroom and waiting in a stall, had somehow procured a length of chain about twenty feet long and padlocked one end of it to the U-bend of a drain trap beneath one of the sinks. The other end of the chain had a handcuff locked onto it, which ended up snapped around Zula’s ankle. Her luggage and her sleeping bag had already been deposited on the floor, along with a stack of rations, a modest heap of junk food, and a roll of paper towels. She had enough slack to reach the toilet, and she could get water from the sink. What more could a girl ask for?

This was the one time that she just went out of her mind crying. Fetal position, head banging on the floor. It was being chained that did it. She’d been through a lot of weird stuff, but no one had ever thought to chain her before.

Eventually she came up onto her hands and knees and made use of the paper towels.

Then she escaped.

During college she’d rented a house with some other girls. The kitchen drain kept getting clogged. They didn’t have money to hire a plumber. Zula had not grown up on an Iowa farm for nothing. The key thing you had to know was that the pipe nuts that held drain traps in place, though they looked huge and immovable, were generally applied finger-tight, since all that was necessary was to compress an internal O-ring around the pipe, and cranking it down with a wrench would not make it seal any better, in fact would only inflict damage.

The plumber who had installed the drain trap to which Zula had been chained had stronger hands than Zula did, but she was eventually able to move the nuts and yank out the U-bend.

She piled the loose chain into her shoulder bag and then slung that over her shoulder.

She then climbed up on a toilet and from there to the top of one of the partitions between the stalls and moved a ceiling tile aside. She had a flashlight in her bag—another Iowa-farm-girl residual habit—and used it to look around for whatever it was that had made Sokolov so concerned when he had first seen it.

This was not totally obvious at first, and so she clambered up into the space above the ceiling and got a grip on one of those zigzaggy trusses and used it to crab-walk away from the safe house and toward the core of the building. The elevator shafts were nearby, but they were clad in concrete and there was no obvious way to get inside of them; even if she had been able to do so, it wasn’t clear how that would have helped her.

When she was certain that she must have passed beyond the limits of the ladies’ room, she reached down, pried up a ceiling tile, and looked into the space below. It seemed to be a utility corridor, dark at the moment.

She let herself down onto the upper surface of the metal grid in which the ceiling tiles were fixed. This supported her weight but was destroyed in the process: the flimsy extrusions bent downward and the adjoining tiles folded and cracked. It didn’t matter. She got a grip on the ruined grid and let herself down until her feet were dangling maybe three feet above the floor, then let herself drop.

As she had guessed from looking at the arrangement of the concrete verticals passing through the ceiling space, the fire stairway was just on the other side of a wall, and all she had to do, in order to get into it, was to exit from this corridor into the elevator lobby and then pass through an adjoining door. During those few moments she would be in clear view of any guard who was posted at the reception desk of the safe house—but she knew that at least four of the seven security consultants were deployed outside the building, and she hoped that the desk might be unattended. It was easy enough to check this by pushing the door open slightly and peering through the crack.

No one was there. Deeper inside the suite she could see other security consultants pacing around, talking on phones, ransacking their luggage, but no one was looking out into the elevator lobby.

She exited, made two strides across the polished marble floor, opened the doorway to the fire stairs, and slipped in. Restraining the urge to just make a break for it, she used her butt to soften the closure of the door. Then she began to descend the stairway as fast as she could with twenty pounds of chain jangling in the bag around her neck and one end of it cuffed to her ankle.

The descent of forty-three floors gave her plenty of time to think about this in a way she hadn’t when she had just made the decision to do it. To the extent she’d thought about it at all, she had been thinking, What would Qian Yuxia do? or perhaps, What would Qian Yuxia think of me if she could see me curled up on the floor sobbing like a little girl?

Until now her complicity in all of this had been based on a certain kind of unspoken bargain that had been struck between her and Ivanov, a bargain that amounted to “we are treating you badly and will probably kill you but we could treat you a lot worse and we could kill you sooner.” Not much of a bargain, but then she hadn’t had much choice in negotiating the terms. The way she had been sucked into this terrible situation was bad enough, but the thought that she was now partly responsible for getting Yuxia ensnared in it too was intolerable.

In theory, Peter was being held hostage and might be answerable for her escape, but she doubted it. Peter had gone over to the other side. He was being useful to them. Killing him wouldn’t get her back. And as for Csongor—she hoped nothing bad would happen to Csongor, but she was also entitled to think of herself and her own survival.

Which was all she was thinking of when she hit the bottom of the stairwell, rounded a corner at speed, and caromed off a man who was standing right there for some reason. She spun away from him instinctively. He grabbed at her but had to settle for her shoulder bag. She left it in his grasp and kept running, the chain dragging out behind her as it uncoiled from the bag.

Then her leg was yanked out from under her, spinning her back and around as she fell so that, as she went down on the concrete floor, she could see a man standing twenty feet away, holding her empty shoulder bag, one foot stomped down on the end of the chain.

Sokolov.

He picked up the end of the chain. With his free hand he then made a one-word call on his mobile phone.

And then back up to the ladies’ room where the chain was detached from Sokolov, passed up into the ceiling space, and padlocked around a cast-iron pipe six inches in diameter.

RICHARD WAS IN the hammerbeam hall of a red sandstone castle on the Isle of Man, being announced by D-squared’s herald in a language that sounded vaguely French.

Once again his arrival had been unexpected (though not, as it turned out, unheralded). This time, the element of surprise was down to a backup that had developed in D-squared’s email pipeline. Don Donald used email when he was at Cambridge and when he was traveling, but he had banned Internet in his castle, and even installed a phone jammer in the dovecote. He came here to read, to write, to drink, to dine, and to have conversations, none of which activities could be improved by electronic devices. And yet he had this awkward problem that much of his livelihood was derived from T’Rain. And even though he did not play the game himself, professing to find the very ideal “frightful,” he couldn’t really ply that trade without communicating rather frequently with people at Corporation 9592.

Richard had once looked D-squared up on Wikipedia and learned that he was a laird or an archduke or something. This castle, however, was not his ancestral demesne. He had bought it, cash on the barrelhead. At first his staff had made use of a trailer parked outside its south bastion, placed there to serve as a portable office for the contractors who were fixing the place up. It was equipped with Internet and a laser printer on which emails that merited the attention of the lord of the manor could be printed up on A4 paper and conducted into the donjon in a leather wallet. Later the white paper was discontinued in favor of light brown pseudoparchment. This was a simple matter of taste. Modern paper, with its eye-searing 95 percent albedo, simply ruined the look that was slowly coming together inside the walls. The sans-serif typefaces were swapped out for faux-ancient ones. But it was not as if a man of Donald Cameron’s erudition could be taken in by a scripty-looking typeface chosen by an assistant from Word’s mile-long font menu. And the style and content of these messages from Seattle were every bit as jarring as the paper they were printed on. A medievalist, he quite liked being in a medieval frame of mind; in fact, had to be, in order to write. Sitting in his tower “with prospects, on a fair day, west to Donaghadee and north to Cairngaan,” writing with a dip pen at a thousand-year-old desk, he entered into a flow state whose productivity was rivaled only by that of Devin Skraelin. Suddenly to be confronted by a hard copy of an email in which a twenty-four-year-old Seattleite with a nose ring wrote something like “we r totally stressing out cuz chapter 27 is not resonating with 16 yo gamer demographic” was, to say the least, inimical to progress. Some way needed to be devised for important communications to get through to him without disturbing the requisite ambience.

Fortunately he had, without really trying, attracted a coterie of people who, depending on the point of view of the observer, might have been described as hangers-on, lackeys, squatters, parasites, or acolytes. They were of divers ages and backgrounds, but all of them shared D-squared’s fascination with the medieval. Some were blue-collar autodidacts who had made their way up through the ranks of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and others had multiple Ph.D.s and were fluent in extinct dialects. They had begun to show up at his doorstep, or rather his portcullis, when word had got out that he was considering the possibility of turning some parts of the castle into a reenactment site as a way to generate a bit of coin and to keep the castle from falling victim to the subtle but annihilating hazards of desuetude. In those days the plan had been to maintain a sort of firewall between the part of the manor where he lived and the part where the reenactment was to happen. But a few years’ experience had taught him that as long as one paid a bit of attention to weeding out the drunks and the mental defectives, the sorts of people who were willing to live in medieval style 24/7 were just the ones he needed to have around.

As easy and as tempting as it was to have some fun at the expense of D-squared and his band of medievalists, Richard had to admit that several of them were as serious and dedicated and competent as anyone he’d ever worked with in twenty-first-century settings; and in some very enjoyable conversations shared over mead or ale (brewed on-site, of course) they had managed to convince him that the medieval world wasn’t worse or more primitive than the modern, just different.

And so the email pipeline now worked like this: down in Douglas, which was the primary city of the Isle of Man, the girlfriend of one of the medievalists, who dwelled in a flat there (“I happen to rather like tampons”), would read D-squared’s email as it came in, filter out the obvious junk, and print out a hard copy of anything that seemed important, and zip it up in a waterproof messenger bag. When it came time to walk her dog, she would stroll up the waterfront promenade until she reached the wee elven train station at its northern end, where she would hand the bag to the station agent, who would later hand it over to the conductor of the narrow-gauge electrical train that wound its way from there up into the interior of the island. At a certain point along the line it would be tossed out onto the siding and later picked up by D-squared’s gamekeeper, who would carry it up the hill and place its contents on the desk of the in-house troubadour, who would translate it into medieval Occitan and then sing and/or recite it to D-squared at mealtime. The lord of the manor would then dictate a response that would follow the reverse route back down the hill to the girlfriend’s laptop and the Internet.

Ludicrous? Yes. All done with a straight face? Of course not. Having taken a few meals there, Richard could tell, from the reactions of those present—at least, the ones who understood Occitan—that the troubadour was a laff riot. Much of the laughter seemed to be at the expense of American cubicle fauna who thought in Power-Point and typed with their thumbs, and so Richard was now careful to phrase all his emails to Don Donald in such a way as to make it clear that he was on to the joke.

The one in which he’d announced his imminent arrival at IOM was still being translated.

And yet for Don Donald to receive a surprise visit was much less of a problem than it was for Skeletor. This was the medieval world. Communications were miserable. Most visits were surprise visits. As long as the visitors didn’t have poleaxes or buboes, it was fine. There was plenty of room in the castle, and there were buffers in place, which was to say, servant-reenactors, who made Richard and Pluto comfortable as word percolated inward to the donjon. When D-squared next descended his perilous, zillion-year-old stone spiral staircase to the hall to take a meal, Richard and Pluto were announced, courteously and a bit pompously, by the herald—actually (since the place was a bit understaffed) a man who shuttled among the roles of Herald, Brewer, and Third Drunk.

“THERE MIGHT BE a need to confer extraordinary powers upon the Earthtone Coalition,” Richard proposed.

Don Donald leaned back in his chair and began messing around with his pipe. When Richard had been a boy, all men had smoked pipes. Now, as far as he could discern, D-squared was the only pipe smoker remaining in the entire world.

“To keep them from being wiped out, you’re saying.”

“Yes.”

“How could such a thing be done,” D-squared wondered, biting his pipe stem and squinting at something above Richard’s right shoulder, “without ratifying an invidious distinction?”

“Are you speaking Occitan? Because I have to tell you that between the jet lag and the delicious claret—”

“There is no basis in the game world,” said D-squared, “for any of what has happened during the last four months. Town guards, military units, raiding parties fissured, without warning, into two moieties, at daggers drawn. Or perhaps I should say dagger drawn since, if the reports I’ve heard are to be credited, a good many of what you call the Earthtone Coalition found themselves suddenly and inexplicably in Limbo with particolored bodkins in their backs.”

“There’s no doubt it was a well-planned Pearl Harbor–ish kind of event,” Richard said.

“And many of your customers appear to be having great fun with it. Bully for them. But it poses a problem, doesn’t it, in that this extraordinary fission of the society is in no way justified, prefigured, even hinted at, in any of the Canon that Mr. Skraelin and I and the other writers have supplied.”

D-squared’s feelings were hurt, and he didn’t care who knew it. He went on, “I daresay you ought to just roll it back. It is really a hack, isn’t it? As though someone hacked into your website and defaced it with childish scrawlings. When such a thing happens, you don’t incorporate the vandalism into your website. You set it to rights and carry on.”

“Too much has happened,” Richard said. “Since the beginning of the Wor we have registered a quarter of a million new players. Everything they know about the world and the game has been post-Wor. To roll the world back would be to unmake every single one of their characters.”

“So your strategy is to put your thumb on the scale. Grant special powers to the characters you’d see win. Like Athena with Diomedes.”

Richard shrugged. “It’s an idea. I am not here to lay stuff on you ex cathedra. This is a collaboration.”

“All I mean to say is that, if you help the Earthtone Coalition, then you are, implicitly, admitting that such a thing as the Earthtone Coalition exists. You are conferring legitimacy on this ridiculous distinction that has been created by mischief makers.”

“It was a groundswell. An enormous flocking behavior, a phase transition.”

“No respect shown for the integrity of the world.”

“All we can do,” Richard said, “is move faster than the other guys. Lunge ahead of them. Surprise them with just how cool, how adaptable we can be. Delight them by incorporating their creation into the Canon. Show them what we’re made of.”

“Well that puts me on the spot, doesn’t it? How can I decline, on those terms?”

“I apologize for my choice of words,” Richard said. “I am really not trying to corner you. But I do believe that with a bit of thought you could actually come up with something that you would not be so unhappy with.”

Don Donald looked like he was thinking about it.

“Otherwise, it’s just going to veer. Like an airplane with its control surfaces shot off.”

“Oh. I’m the empennage?”

Richard threw up his hands.

“The tail feathers on the arrow,” explained D-squared, “that make it fly straight. Made of quills. Like the ones—”

“That writers used to write with, I get it.”

“Trailing behind…”

“But guiding the warhead. Yup. Hey, are you a writer or something?”

D-squared chuckled forcibly.

“They want it,” Richard said. “They didn’t at first. They were thrilled to be off on their own, making up their own story.”

“The players, you mean.”

“Yes. This was very clear in the chat rooms, the third-party websites. Now that’s faded. They’re saying they want some direction back, they want the story of the world to make sense again.”

Something occurred to Don Donald, and he jabbed the stem of his pipe at Richard. “What language do they speak, in these chat rooms? Is it all English?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’d like to know who these people are. The instigators, the ringleaders. Are they Asians?”

“That is a common misconception,” Richard said. “That the Asians, less fluent in English, less conversant with European mythology, don’t cotton to the sorts of stories and characters that you like to write—but they are attracted by bright colors.” He shook his head. “We have analyzed this to death. It’s completely without foundation. Between the Chinese, with their Confucian background, and the Japanese, they are second to no one in their respect and maybe even awe for COBS.”

“COBS?”

“Crusty Old Brown Stuff. Sorry.”

“Another one of your internal acronyms?”

“A whole department. When you go into the world—which you never do—but when you go, for example, to the hut of Galdoromin the Hermit, at the End of the Fell Path, and get past his two-headed wolf and go inside and look around, all that shit hanging on the walls was produced by COBS.” Richard decided not to share the fact that the decor of Galdoromin’s hut had been inspired by a T.G.I. Friday’s in Issaquah. “Top-level design happens in Seattle, but the detailed modeling of the actual stuff all happened in China. They did a great job of it too.”

Don Donald appeared to be thinking about it. Richard tried shutting up for a change. He drained his tankard and stepped out to the garderobe. Then, back with an idea: “I was sleeping on the plane and a line came into my head: ‘We’ve all been made fools of!’ Kind of reflected the whole way I felt about the Wor. But later I was thinking, Why not turn it around and put it into the mouths of those people we find most annoying?

D-squared, sitting in profile to Richard, one elbow on the table cradling his pipe, turned to meet his eye. The pipe, supported by the hand, remained motionless, making it look as though cartoon character physics was in effect. “Make them out to be the dupes?”

“Yes, erect some kind of backstory where they had been seduced into this massive act of betrayal by fast talkers of some stripe who later turned out to be not what they seemed.”

“What about the blue hair?”

“We might have to finesse that a little, but the gist of it is that the people who signed up for this rebellion were told to wear gaudy clothes and adornments as a badge, so that they would know who was in on the conspiracy.”

“‘We’ve all been made fools of!’” the Don repeated. “Seems almost like sour grapes, doesn’t it, when you put it into the mouths of people you’re not especially fond of.”

“Again. Finesse.”

“What sorts of emergency powers might you be willing to put in the hands of the—it pains me, Richard, to hear these words coming from my own lips—Earthtone Coalition?”

“A full answer could get obnoxiously technical. The game stats are very complicated. So, if we wanted to be sneaky about it, there are all sorts of ways we could put our thumb on the scale, as you said earlier. Or we could just be obvious about it and invoke some new deity or previously unknown deep feature of the world’s history.”

“Which would need to be written.”

“Which would need to be written.”

Day 4

A side effect of being chained in the powder room was being out of the loop. Zula had no idea what was going on. She ate her military rations and slept surprisingly well and woke up in good spirits. Not that her situation had improved. But at least she had tried something. She could hear people coming and going via the elevators. Since she had no windows, no phone, and no watch, she couldn’t tell what time it was.

She had managed to sneak a ballpoint pen into her pocket yesterday, so she wrote a letter to her family on paper towels, rolled it up, and stuffed it into the drainpipe she had disconnected yesterday. Maybe some plumber would see it when he came to fix the drain, and bring it to the attention of a supervisor, and eventually it would make its way to someone who could read English. She hoped so. She was proud of that letter. It was not devoid of humor.

Sokolov knocked once, then entered the ladies’ room and bid her good morning. He removed the handcuff from her ankle and escorted her out. “Leaving forever,” he said, “bring your stuff.”

They took the elevator to the ground floor and walked out the main entrance of the office building onto the front drive, a sweeping horseshoe partially covered by an awning, where a van was waiting for them with its engine idling and its rear doors splayed open. Standing behind it were four of the security consultants, wearing stupid hats, variously smoking or fussing with a stack of plastic coolers and rod-and-reel cases that had been packed in the back. As was invariably the case, they were being observed by a thousand Chinese people and an unknowable number of security cameras. But all the people doing tai chi in the shade of the trees, the uniformed schoolgirls streaming out of the ferry terminals, the taxi drivers killing time in the adjoining square, the paired PSB officers, the carters, the construction workers showing up to work on the skyscraper, all these people just looked at the scene around the van for a few seconds and reckoned that it was a bunch of crazy foreign visitors going fishing.

Peter and Csongor were in the backseat. Qian Yuxia was behind the wheel. Next to her, riding shotgun, was Ivanov, talking to Yuxia in the charming style of which he had exhibited flashes during the interview in Peter’s loft in Seattle. They were talking about gaoshan cha, high mountain tea, and Ivanov’s plan to distribute it in Russia, where he was certain it would be enormously successful.

Zula was strongly encouraged to enter the van by its side door and sit in the back between Peter and Csongor. As she climbed in Yuxia greeted her with, “Good morning, girlfriend, you ready to catch some lunkers?” and Zula nodded back at her, wondering if there was anything she could say at this moment that would persuade Yuxia to put the van in gear and shove the gas pedal all the way to the floor. That would lead to a situation where they were far away from the security consultants but Ivanov would still be in the van with them. It seemed almost inconceivable that he wasn’t carrying a weapon of some kind. So what would it boot them unless Yuxia had the presence of mind to drive straight to a Public Security Bureau station and crash its front gates?

“Lots to talk about,” Peter remarked, fixing her with a dirty look.

“What the hell is she doing here?” Zula asked Csongor.

“For this operation, a van was necessary,” Csongor said. “When Ivanov heard about Yuxia, he said, ‘She’s perfect, give me her phone number,’ and then he called her and talked her into this.”

“Okay.” Zula said, not in the sense of I accept this but rather I see how horrible this is. She had a fretful feeling, now, of having missed a hell of a lot during her captivity in the ladies’ room. “But yesterday—what happened?”

“After Sokolov put you in the taxi at the wangba, he told Yuxia that it was time to buy ice chests now, and so the two of them left.” Csongor paused, maybe looking for a way to say the next part diplomatically. “I think it was on his way back from that errand that he ran into you.”

“Actually, I ran into him,” Zula said, “but go on.”

“What was that about anyway?” Peter demanded. “You could have gotten us killed!”

A new thing happened now, which was that Csongor torqued his great barrel-shaped torso toward Zula and leaned forward so that he could get a clear view of Peter. He braced one hand against the seat in front of him. The other he let fall on the top of the seat close to Zula’s head, carefully not touching her but making her feel half enveloped. He fixed Peter with a gaze that Zula would have found intimidating had it been aimed at her. Csongor’s head seemed as big as a basketball and his eyes were wide open and unblinking and aimed at Peter’s face as if connected by steel guy wires. “It was about her having her shit together,” Csongor said.

“But the Russians—” Peter began, shocked by the sudden turn in Csongor’s personality.

“The Russians loved it,” Csongor said flatly. Then, looking at Zula: “They were talking about you half the evening. You can be sure there are no hard feelings on their account. Or on mine.”

“What about him, though!?” Peter demanded, with a glance up at Ivanov. “His are the only feelings we have to worry about.”

“I’m not so sure that is the case—”

Zula held up both hands between them, then made the fists-crashing-together gesture again. “Let’s go back to the wangba if you don’t mind, since I know nothing.”

“Okay,” Csongor said. “The other Russians came upstairs and hung around with me for a while and kept an eye on the T’Rain players you spotted. We were there for six hours watching those guys. It became sort of obvious that one of them was the boss. Tall guy, a little older than the others, in a Manu jersey.”

“Manu jersey?”

“Manu Ginobili,” Peter said, almost angry that Zula did not understand the reference. “He plays for the Spurs.”

“Manu, as we called him, never played T’Rain himself, he didn’t get into it emotionally, just watched what was going on and talked on his phone constantly and told the other guys where they should send their characters and what they should do. So one of those guys”—Csongor pointed with his chin at the security consultants behind the van—“went down to the street and kept hailing taxis until he got one whose driver spoke a little bit of English. He handed the driver a stack of money and said, ‘You can keep this if you help me.’ And what he told the driver was that they were going to sit there for a while, possibly all night long, but that eventually a kid in a Manu jersey was going to emerge and then they were going to follow him.”

“I’ve never heard of Manu Ginobili,” Zula said. “Is he really such a common cultural referent that—”

“Yes,” said Peter and Csongor in unison.

“So,” Csongor continued, “after another few hours, Manu came out of the wangba, and the taxi driver followed him into one of those backstreet neighborhoods and Manu went into a certain building. The Russian and the taxi driver stayed there for another couple of hours, just watching the building, and Manu didn’t come out again. But later we did see him up on the roof shooting hoops with some other young men.”

“There’s a basketball court on the roof?”

“Not a court,” Peter said, again fuming over what he saw as an inane question. “Just a hoop! We can see it clearly from the safe house.”

“Really?”

“Really. It is all of half a mile from here, as the crow flies.”

“We can look right down on it. We were up half the night watching them through binoculars,” Csongor said.

“So it’s an office building? Apartments?” Zula asked.

“Strictly apartments,” Csongor said.

“A dump,” said Peter. “Half the block is vacant.”

“How can anything be vacant in this town?”

“One block away is a construction site,” Csongor said. “The area is under development. The building and the ones around it are probably going to be demolished within a year.”

“The taxi driver was extremely helpful once he saw the wad of cash,” Peter said. “He got out of the taxi for a smoke, asked around on the street a little bit, learned some more about the building.”

“And?”

“And it has kind of a seedy reputation. The landlord can’t write long-term leases in a building that he’s itching to tear down. But he hates leaving money on the table. So he rents on a month-to-month basis to anyone who’s willing to pay in cash, no questions asked.”

“I get the picture,” Zula said.

“So, as an example, there are various foreign tenants,” Csongor said.

“Like Filipinos?”

“No,” Csongor said with a laugh, “internal foreigners.”

“What does that mean?”

“Chinese people who come from parts of China that are so far away and so different that they might as well be foreign countries.”

“Economic migrants,” Peter said. “Their equivalent of Mexicans.”

“Okay,” Zula said, “but Manu is not one of those.”

“It appears that Manu and a few other young guys are living together in one of the units. We don’t know which one,” Peter said. “They put up the basketball hoop on the roof. They go up there and hang around drinking beer and smoking and playing ball until all hours.”

“With laptops,” Csongor said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Yeah, even at two in the morning they have the laptops going. Their real office is somewhere down below, but they’ve obviously set up Wi-Fi to the roof.”

“So it’s believed that the Troll is one of these guys,” Zula said, trying to put this all together, “or that maybe they all, collectively, are the Troll. They’re running REAMDE out of this apartment. They’re having a problem with bandits attacking their victims when they go to the ley line intersection with ransom and so they are paying mostly younger kids to hang out at the wangba all day killing the bandits. Manu goes to the wangba to oversee them, but he’s constantly in touch with the apartment by phone.”

“Five minutes after Manu departed from the wangba,” Csongor said, “another guy showed up dribbling a basketball and took his place.”

“The bandit-killers work in shifts around the clock,” Zula said, translating that.

During the last minute or so, the security consultants had been climbing into the van and taking seats one by one. There weren’t enough seats and so one of them ended up sort of wedged into the space between the driver’s and passenger’s buckets up front. Sokolov slammed the rear doors closed and got in last and claimed a space that had been reserved for him.

“Everyone ready?” Yuxia called out, in a voice that easily penetrated to the back row.

Response was muted but affirmative.

Ivanov looked to the security consultant seated between him and Yuxia, and they exchanged a nod. Ivanov reached out with his left hand and placed it over Yuxia’s right hand, clamping it in place on the steering wheel. At the same moment, the security consultant reached forward and slapped a handcuff down over Yuxia’s wrist. A moment after that he had snapped the other half of the cuff over the steering wheel. Ivanov removed his hand.

“What the fuck!?” Yuxia exclaimed, pulling her hand back, testing the cuff, still convincing herself that this was really happening.

“For your benefit,” Ivanov explained.

Benefit!?

“When there is investigation by PSB, they will see handcuff, see that you had no choice, find you innocent.”

“Innocent of fishing?”

Ivanov opened his jacket, letting Yuxia see a shoulder holster. “Huntink.” He snapped his fingers and Sokolov handed him a map printed, apparently, from Google. It showed a satellite photo of Xiamen with streets superimposed.

“Zula! What is going on, girlfriend?” Yuxia called.

“They kidnapped me,” Zula said. “I tried to escape last night and warn you but they caught me. I am sorry you got mixed up in this.” She had told herself last night that this would be the last of crying, but tears came freely to her eyes now.

Yuxia caught that detail in the rearview mirror. “I am going to fuck you up, motherfucker!” she told Ivanov.

“Perhaps later,” Ivanov said dryly.

“It won’t help to talk to him like that, Bigfoot,” Zula said.

“We go now,” Ivanov said, “and all will be fine at end of day, exception being for Troll.” He reached over and shifted the van into drive, then gave Yuxia an expectant look.

“Who is Troll?” Yuxia said in a sullen voice. But she gave it some gas and pulled out onto the waterfront road.

Now that they were in movement toward a destination only half a mile away, a fairly basic question occurred to Zula: “Why are we even being brought along on this? Anyone know?”

“Apparently the building contains something like eighty separate units,” Peter said. “Some vacant, some not. These guys don’t know which unit the Troll is living in. They can’t just go down the hallways kicking in eighty doors; somebody will call the cops.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Zula said.

“They have convinced themselves,” Csongor said, “that if the three of us get inside the building, we can determine which unit contains the Troll.”

“Why do they believe that?”

“Because we are hackers,” Csongor said, “and they have seen movies.”

THE DRIVE TOOK a little while; they could have done it faster on foot. Sokolov was in occasional touch with other Russians on his walkie-talkie, which Zula had to assume was some kind of whiz-bang encrypted device, otherwise the PSB would be all over them. Since two of the Russians were missing from the van, she reckoned that Sokolov had sent out an advance party.

Csongor, who had reasonable command of Russian, supplied running translation of the walkie-talkie traffic: “He sent two guys there when it was still dark. They found a way into the building. They have been hanging out in a room in the cellar that no one uses. Accessible by a back entrance. That is where we are going.”

Yuxia, following directions from Sokolov, steered them down a street so narrow that both rearview mirrors had to be folded in against the sides of the van, and local residents had to run out into the street to pull caged poultry and large flat baskets of green tea out of their path. After a few agonizingly slow and controversial minutes of this kind of progress, they came athwart of an alley, no wider than a doorway, on their right side. The Russian on the other end of the walkie-talkie connection yelped out a single word. “Stop,” Sokolov said.

They opened the right side door of the van. The Russians filed out of it into the alley and made a bucket brigade: Peter reached behind the seat and pulled out coolers and other gear, which he handed forward to Sokolov who tossed them a few feet to one of his men in the alley, and in this fashion the equipment was moved into the building’s back entrance. This was impossible to see clearly, back there in the darkness, but seemed to be twenty or thirty feet distant, on the alley’s left side. Meanwhile Zula tried to make sense of her surroundings as best she could from twisting around in her seat and craning her neck out the windows.

If the alley to their right was the back entrance, then this street ran along the side of the Troll’s building, and they were now parked at its back corner. The ground floor sported some large openings sealed off by grimy steel roll-up doors. Above those were some corrugated metal awnings, holed with rust, that stretched partway across the street above the van and made it impossible for her to see much of the upper stories.

Looking out the windshield, she could see an intersection about fifty feet ahead of them where this side street was crossed by a wider one that was crammed with the usual flow of mostly pedestrian and bicycle traffic. That street seemed to belong to a more well-illuminated part of the universe, and Zula guessed it was because construction was under way on the far side of it: the building across the street was covered with scaffolding and blue tarps, and beyond it was a gaping cavity in the city’s fabric where an arcology or something was being thrown up.

That was all Zula could see before Sokolov indicated it was time for them to make themselves useful. Csongor, Zula, and Peter clambered out over a folded-down van seat and exited into the alley. Sokolov closed the side door of the van, then followed them down the alley toward the back entrance. Yuxia, presumably following instructions from Ivanov who was still riding shotgun, pulled forward and out of view.

A minor controversy was under way in the alley, where an old lady was leaning out of her second-floor window hollering some kind of invective down at the Russians. Zula enjoyed a moment’s hope that this woman would call the PSB. Sokolov looked up at her for a few moments, then reached into his man-purse, pulled out a half-inch-thick stack of money, let her see it—this shut her up—and then hurled it at her. It shot past her through the window and thumped against something inside. She withdrew her head and closed the window. Sokolov never broke stride.

A half flight of concrete stairs descended into a basement corridor lit by a few bare lightbulbs. The security consultants waved them down a corridor for twenty paces or so, and into a room filled with blue-gray light sifting in through a couple of dirty sidewalk-level windows. This was situated adjacent to the bottom of what Zula guessed was the building’s main stairway. It wasn’t difficult to see that the building had been designed around a central core that included not only the stairway but all the other stuff that had to run vertically: the plumbing, the power, the sewer lines. So this room was replete with pipes, valves, meters, crazy electrical wiring, and fuse panels. There was no Internet gear—in fact, no post–Second World War technology at all—which was hardly surprising, but did raise the question as to where the REAMDE guys were getting their connectivity. But all the buildings in China were webbed together with improvised wire and so they were probably pirating it from somewhere else.

“Can we go to the roof?” Peter asked.

A scout ascended to the roof and reported back via walkie-talkie that none of the REAMDE boys were hanging out there at the moment. So Peter and Zula, accompanied by Sokolov, climbed six stories to the top of the stairway. Access to the roof had formerly been sealed off by a door, but the lock had been jimmied.

The Troll’s terrace consisted of half a dozen plastic injection-molded chairs, a rusty folding table, a basketball hoop held up by a scaffolding made from plumbing parts, a tea service, a plastic tub containing a stack of magazines about the NBA, and an extension cord that trailed across the roof into the stairwell and was patched into the remains of a light fixture.

From that same light fixture, a length of cheap two-strand lamp cable ran up to the roof of the little shack that topped the stairwell, where it disappeared under a plastic bucket held in place with a brick. A blue Ethernet cable also went under that bucket.

Peter got a leg up from Sokolov, vaulted to the top of the shack, squirmed over to the bucket, removed the brick, and tilted it back to reveal a Wi-Fi device, green LEDs twinkling merrily.

The blue Ethernet cable ran from it across the roof to the front of the building, then disappeared through a drain hole in the roughly meter-high parapet. Zula followed the cable to the edge, leaned over the parapet, and peered down. She was now standing near the corner of the building diagonally opposite to where they had exited the van.

Sixty feet below her, she could see the van parked in front of the building’s main entrance, blocking traffic and creating controversy.

The blue cable had been tucked in alongside a vertical drainpipe that ran from the drain hole in the parapet down the front of the building. At some point the cable presumably peeled away from the drainpipe and entered the building through a window or some other opening, and that would mark the location of the Troll’s apartment. In a perfect world they would have been able to see that place from this vantage point and immediately pick out the apartment in question, but no such luck; it must be hidden beneath some horizontal feature that was blocking their view. And what with all the balconies, clotheslines, awnings, and external plumbing, there were plenty of those.

Not for the first time, Zula corrected herself: no, it was good luck, not bad, that they couldn’t figure it out; turning the Troll over to Ivanov would be a bad thing. She was a little perturbed by how easy it was for her to get caught up in the excitement of the hunt.

Peter drifted over to her, fixated on the screen of a PDA. “The name Golgaras mean anything to you?”

“It is the name of one of the continents of T’Rain,” Zula said.

“How about Atheron?”

“Same.”

“I’m picking up four Wi-Fi access points,” Peter said. “Two of them are set to the default names and have really weak signals—I’ll bet they are in that building across the street. Golgaras is very strong, and Atheron is considerably weaker.”

“Try unplugging that Wi-Fi unit under the bucket,” Zula suggested, “and see if one of them goes dead.”

Peter turned and headed back to the stairwell to try the experiment.

Zula had become interested in a bundle of improvised wiring that joined this building to the one across the street with the scaffolding and the blue tarps. It was connected to the front wall almost directly below her between the fourth and fifth stories. It was not attached at any one point but rather involved with the building through a spreading and ramifying root system. Zula was able to make out a single strand of blue Ethernet cable spiraling lazily around the outside of the bundle: the last piece of wire to have been added.

“Ivanov requests status report,” said Sokolov, who had crunched up behind her on the pea gravel. He had plugged an earpiece into his walkie-talkie.

“I think it’s in this corner of the building,” Zula said. “Below us somewhere. I’m going to guess it’s on the fourth or the fifth floor.”

Sokolov relayed this into a microphone clipped to his shirt collar.

“Golgaras went dead,” Peter reported. “Atheron is still transmitting.”

“Meaning?” Sokolov asked.

“We think that they have two WAPs,” Peter said. “One up here on the roof and probably one in their apartment.”

Sokolov put his hand to his ear and listened, then asked: “Ivanov asks: What is basis for guess of this corner?”

Zula directed his attention to the wire bundle below them. Peter and Sokolov bent over the parapet and saw what she had seen.

“We could narrow it down more,” Peter volunteered, “if we could get a look at the building from the front. See where the blue wires enter the structure.”

Sokolov relayed that. There was a short pause.

“Fuck,” Sokolov said in English, and looked down. On his face, anger was mixed with something like embarrassment.

Zula and Peter followed his gaze and saw Ivanov emerging from the passenger seat of the van. He went around to the side door, opened it up, rummaged around for a minute, and pulled out a pair of binoculars, which he pressed to his face and aimed up their way.

Sokolov recoiled from the parapet and reached out to grab Peter and Zula, but they were already following, dropping down low where they couldn’t be seen from the street.

“He is insane,” Sokolov said, quite matter-of-factly, as though remarking that Ivanov was 1.8 meters in height. He certainly did not say it in the ironic admiring way that a certain type of young American male might have done. But before he could elaborate on the topic, his eyes went out of focus as he received a transmission from Ivanov.

“We go down now,” Sokolov said.

They met Ivanov in the cellar. He had taken a phone picture of what, from his standpoint, had been the upper left quadrant of the building’s façade. Of course the screen of his phone could not even come close to resolving an object as slender as an Ethernet cable from that distance, but he was able to point out the place where, with the help of his binoculars, he had seen both of the blue wires entering the building: a small hole, most likely a vent for a kitchen fan, above the fourth story and below the fifth.

They counted the windows between the corner of the building and the location of that hole. Then they sent a security consultant up to one of the lower floors (assuming that they all had the same layout) and had him go all the way to the end of the corridor and then count doors back from there, noting the apartment numbers on the doors.

As this was going on, Zula managed to peel Csongor off from the center of discussion. “Yuxia is out there alone in the van!” she exclaimed. “If we could get to her—”

Csongor shook his head. “Ivanov took the keys from the ignition,” he said. “They are in his pocket.”

“Oh.”

“His left front trouser pocket, should that information become somehow relevant.”

“Still, she could honk the horn—call for help—”

“One of the Russians raised the same issue,” Csongor said, and fell silent.

“And?”

“Ivanov is not worried.”

“Why not?”

“Yuxia called you ‘girlfriend.’ ”

“So?”

“So they think maybe you and Yuxia are lesbians.” Csongor blushed to an extent visible even in the dimly and bluely lit basement.

“Holy crap,” Zula said. “Tomorrow remind me to have a good laugh about that if I haven’t been tortured to death.”

“But I think that this ‘girlfriend’ is a way that black women greet each other, even if they are heterosexuals.” Something about the look on Csongor’s face indicated that this wasn’t just a foray into urban American slang but that it was of possible direct bearing on his future happiness. Zula permitted herself a moment of amazement on how the male reproductive drive could obtrude on situations where it was worse than useless. She even considered telling a little white lie.

“You are correct,” Zula finally said. “She just picked up the expression from a movie or something.”

“You and Yuxia are just friends,” Csongor said with relief so evident that Zula felt her face heat up.

“Just friends who have known each other for all of, like, twenty-four hours,” Zula said.

“Ivanov believes otherwise,” Csongor said, “and he told Yuxia that if she made any trouble, he would do bad things to you.”

“Well,” Zula said, “that much might be true.”

Csongor didn’t enjoy hearing this.

“But even though Yuxia and I are not lovers,” Zula pointed out, “threatening me might still change the way she makes decisions.”

The door-counting Russian came back with a rough sketch. From this and the phone image of the front of the building, they were able to figure out which door would give access to the unit in question, supposing they knew whether it was on the fourth or the fifth floor. But there was no way to settle that question by looking at the building from the outside. The upshot was that the Troll probably lived in unit 405 or unit 505.

This seemed like excellent progress (if you wanted to look at it that way) to Zula, considering that they had been in the building for all of about twenty minutes. But it only seemed to make Ivanov more pissed off.

She stepped over to the large, rusty steel box that, as anyone could see from all the cables and conduits diving into it, served as the building’s main electrical panel. Its door was hanging askew. She kicked it open. Uncle John had taught her to keep her hands in her pockets when approaching mysterious electrical equipment. She did so now.

The panel sported an array of flat round objects with little windows in them. These were planted in round sockets. Some of these were empty, revealing screw threads and electrodes similar to lightbulb sockets. Most of them, though, were occupied by the little windowed buttons. These tended to be labeled with strips of paper on which Chinese characters had been written by hand.

“What are those?” Peter asked. He had followed her over.

“Fuses,” Zula said. “I’ve heard of them.”

“Instead of circuit breakers?”

“I think so.”

“Okay, I see where you’re going,” Peter said, with a rush of geek energy.

Zula hadn’t been going anywhere, just wandering around looking at stuff. She looked at Peter. He had pulled out his PDA again. “Yup,” he said, “I can still see Atheron.” He looked up at her brightly, then glanced back to see whether Sokolov and Ivanov were paying attention. They weren’t. He checked the PDA again and his faced clouded over. “Shit, I lost it. Signal’s really weak.”

Csongor had drawn closer, so Peter explained: “Zula and I did this before, up on the roof. Atheron is their WAP in the apartment. I can’t log on—they put a password on it—but I can see the signal. If we cut the power by pulling the fuse, it should go off the air.”

Csongor’s eyes flicked over to the fuse panel. “Each apartment has a unique fuse?”

“So it would seem,” Zula said. “Labeled in Chinese.”

“Can anyone here read Chinese numbers?”

“Sort of,” Zula said.

Ivanov came over and asked a question in Russian. His eyes jumped from Peter to the fuse panel to Zula as words poured out of Csongor. Peter added the caution that his PDA could not quite pick up Atheron from here in the cellar and so, with a lot more talking than really seemed necessary, the following arrangement was worked out. Most of the security consultants stayed in the cellar doing what they’d been doing the whole time anyway, which was tinkering with weapons and ammunition from the rod-and-reel cases and the coolers. Peter ascended partway up the stairs with the PDA, getting more centrally located in the building so that he could pick up a consistent signal from Atheron. Ivanov was sticking to Peter; he wanted to see this thing happen with his own eyes and so he would be looming over Peter’s shoulder through the entire experiment. Csongor remained at the base of the stairs where he could see and talk to Zula, who was stationed at the fuse panel, and Sokolov was in the stairwell somewhere between Csongor and Ivanov, so that he could exchange hand signals with both of them.

While all of this was being worked out, Zula prepared to bullshit her way through the project of reading, or pretending to be able to read, Chinese numerals.

The numbers actually mounted on the doors of the apartments were Arabic. But whatever electrician or custodian had labeled these fuses in the cellar had used the Chinese system.

Zero was a circle. One, two, and three were represented by the appropriate number of horizontal lines. Four could be remembered because it was a square with some extra stuff inside of it. Beyond that, however, the numerals were nonobvious. With a bit of help from Yuxia, she had been trying to learn them. In some contexts, where numbers were arranged in a predictable order, this was easy. Reading random numbers would have been impossible for her. The situation with this fuse box was somewhere between those extremes. At the top of the box she was seeing some labels that weren’t numbers at all—she guessed that they must say things like “cellar” or “laundry room.” Below that she began to see numbers that began with a single horizontal line, meaning 1, and after several of those she saw some with two horizontal lines, and after that a bunch with three lines, and so on. So it seemed that the fuses were laid out in a somewhat logical fashion according to floor and apartment number. But all of this was more in the nature of general trends than absolute rules; it was obvious that the building had been rewired several times and that available fuse sockets had been put to use willy-nilly. She had to carry out a kind of archaeological dig in her head to reconstruct how it had come to be this way. Toward the bottom of the panel she began to see the squarish character that meant four, and below that, the less obvious glyph that she was pretty sure meant five. So the fuse that would kill the Atheron signal was probably in the bottom half-dozen or so rows of the grid. But this was the part of the box that had been most heavily exploited by opportunistic rewirers in more recent decades and so there was a lot more noise and misdirection for her to sift through here.

“They are ready,” Csongor said. “You can begin pulling fuses.”

“Explain to them that the box is a mess, and it’s just going to take me a little bit longer to make sense of it.”

Csongor looked as if he really didn’t want to be the bearer of that message.

“If I just start pulling fuses indiscriminately,” Zula pointed out, “tenants are going to start coming down here to find out what’s wrong.”

Csongor went up the stairs and relayed that to Sokolov.

Zula was noticing that the newer circuits all had fuses in them but that several of the sockets for what she took to be fifth-floor apartments were vacant. She reckoned that empty sockets were probably a marker for vacant apartments. To discourage squatters and to prevent other tenants from pirating electricity, they would pull the fuse, thereby shutting off the power, to any unit that was not occupied. Scanning the whole panel, she saw that every floor had at least one or two vacant units but that they were most common on the fifth floor: not surprising since, in a building with no elevator, those were the least desirable apartments.

Her eye fell on a socket labeled with the character for 5, then 0, then the 5 character again; 505 was one of the two most likely candidates, the other being 405. But this socket didn’t have a fuse plugged into it.

She scanned up the panel until she found the sequence of characters that, she was fairly certain, represented 405. It had a fuse.

She reached out and unscrewed the fuse, then turned to Csongor and held the fuse up in the air. He gave a hand signal to Sokolov, who apparently relayed it up the steps.

But none of this was even necessary. Peter and Ivanov were already on their way down.

Zula screwed the fuse back in as they descended, restoring power to 405.

“Got it on the first try!” Peter announced, wiggling the PDA in the air in a triumphant style that Zula found a little chilling. “We found the Troll!”

“Zula,” said Ivanov, “nicely done.” As if she had removed a brain tumor. Then Ivanov drew up short, in a way that was almost funny. “Which apartment?” For he had realized that this information was still lacking. Only Zula knew the answer.

It had been a while since that many people had looked at her that raptly.

“It’s 505,” she said.

Sokolov spoke to Ivanov in Russian, raising some kind of objection. Or perhaps that was too strong a word. He was mentioning an interesting point.

Ivanov considered it and discussed it with Sokolov, but he had his eye on Zula the whole time.

He knew. She had done something wrong—given herself away somehow.

“Sokolov worries,” explained Csongor, “that the procedure is imperfect. Some additional scouting is recommended. But Ivanov counters that if we are too obvious, we may give warning to the Troll who might escape.”

Ivanov nodded, though, as if he had taken Sokolov’s point. He then spoke in Russian to the security consultants.

Three of them put their hands to their belts, unsnapped little black pouches and pulled out handcuffs. One of them approached Zula. He snapped a cuff around a heavy steel conduit that ran out of the floor, carrying power cables up to the fusebox. He grabbed Zula’s left hand and whacked the other manacle down across her wrist. Meanwhile Csongor was being handcuffed to a cold water pipe in another part of the room. A third consultant cuffed Peter to the iron banister at the base of the stairs.

The other security consultants were on their feet, checking their gear and concealing their weapons. “We go to visit Troll in 505,” said Ivanov. “If you have spoken truthfully, then we achieve our goal and be on our way, everyone happy. If you have made little mistake, then we shall return to this room and have discussion of consequences. So. Is 505 the correct place? Or is it perhaps 405?”

“It’s 505,” Zula said.

“Very well,” said Ivanov, and issued orders. Sokolov, all the security consultants, and Ivanov began to ascend the stairs.

THE BIG FAT Russian had been trying to create feelings of terror in Qian Yuxia’s heart and had been partly successful, but as she sat there alone, handcuffed to the steering wheel, the terror receded quickly and she was left feeling disappointed and offended. When he had called her yesterday and asked her to go fetch the van and organize a fishing trip, she had been flattered to have been chosen, from all the people in Xiamen, to be given such a responsibility. She had been up half the night riding buses into the little town in the country where she had parked the van, driving it back into Xiamen, and making preparations. As a special gesture to demonstrate how much she appreciated this opportunity, she had showed up early this morning with cups of coffee and muffins from a Western-style bakery.

The worst part, though, was that the big man had sweet-talked her by telling big stories about how he would help her sell gaoshan cha in Europe, and she had fallen for it completely. These ­people, it seemed, had sized her up as some sort of country bumpkin. An opportunistic country bumpkin who would swallow any sort of lie if she thought it would help her sell tea.

That much was merely offensive. But what really hurt was the fact that they had been right.

All she had to do was roll the window down and start screaming and those people would spend the rest of their lives in prison.

But the big man was powerful—he had money, he had soldiers, and all of them were armed.

But if he was all that powerful, why did he have to get help from someone like Qian Yuxia in order to perform the simple act of borrowing a van?

Because she was disposable. That was why. She was a nobody, all alone in the big city. No one would notice she had gone missing.

So it was time to roll the window down and start screaming.

But if she did that, the big man would do terrible things to Zula. He had promised it. Yuxia liked Zula and felt a sort of loyalty to her simply based on the fact that tears of shame had come into Zula’s eyes when she had spoken of her failure to warn Yuxia.

Maybe there were some small things that she could do, short of screaming, to improve the situation a little bit. She surveyed her surroundings. Not her immediate surroundings, which tended to consist of people screaming at her for blocking the street, but more the middle distance. It was busy with people plying their trades and going about their errands. Carters went to and fro pulling their two-wheeled wagons piled with all sorts of goods. One carter, whose wagon was empty, had pulled up a couple of meters away from the van and had been keeping a close eye on Yuxia. Like a certain number of these guys he was gaunt and looked about ninety years old, which probably meant that it was difficult for him to compete against the younger, burlier carters. He had to make up for that with street smarts. He had seen them earlier, unloading stuff from the back of the van and passing it down the alley. He had seen the big man climb out of the van a minute ago and look at the front of the place with his binoculars. He knew that there were several Westerners inside the building and that something was going on in there. Like everyone else on this street he was always thinking about how to make things work to his advantage, and he had made the calculation that if he hung around in the vicinity of the van, flaunting his availability, then someone connected with this operation might dispatch him on some sort of errand.

Yuxia rolled down the window. She didn’t need to catch the carter’s eye because he was already staring right at her. “I need a locksmith,” she complained. “But my phone is dead.”

Then she glanced at the front of the apartment building just to make sure that the big man wasn’t seeing any of this. When she turned her attention back, the carter was gone.

WHEN IVANOV’S HEAVY footsteps had receded, Peter muttered, “Thank God. We did it. Yes! We did it. This thing is over.”

Zula just could not summon the energy to break the news to him that they hadn’t done it and that it wasn’t over. She found the fuse for Apartment 405 again and started to unscrew it.

“What are you doing, Zula?” Csongor asked.

Peter swiveled to look at her. “Yeah,” he said, “what are you doing?”

“Warning them.”

“Warning who!?”

“The hackers in Apartment 405.” She pulled the fuse out, then stuck it back in. Then repeated. Each time she reestablished contact, she heard a little pop as a spark bridged the gap. “I wonder if they know Morse code,” she said, and began to jiggle the fuse in and out, making a little pattern: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. Just like Girl Scout camp.

“You just told Ivanov that they were in 505,” Peter said in a freakishly calm and thick voice, as though he had been gargling molasses.

“Understandable confusion,” Zula said. “This panel is a mess. And who can read these Chinese numbers?”

She found it impossible to talk and do the Morse code thing at the same time, and so she pulled the fuse away and looked around the cellar.

Peter and Csongor were both just staring at her. Hoping, perhaps, that she was just pulling their legs? Hard to tell.

It was important for them to understand. Zula sighed and looked at each of them in turn. “First of all, Ivanov is planning to kill us no matter what happens. That’s just obvious.” She let that hang in the still air of the cellar for a few moments. “Which doesn’t mean that we are going to die. Because Sokolov thinks Ivanov is crazy and he will intervene to prevent Ivanov from killing us. All of that is out of our hands. We’ve been asked to give up these hackers, who are basically just a bunch of harmless kids, so that Ivanov can kill them. And we just simply can’t do that. It’s just wrong. It’s not how people behave. So I lied to the Russians.”

Peter said “Shit!” and dropped to his hands and knees—or rather hand and knee since one hand was fixed to a banister—and began feeling around on the floor like a man who’d lost a contact lens. But he couldn’t seem to find it. “Zula!” he hissed. “You have a bobby pin in there?”

“You mean, in my hair?”

“Yeah.”

Zula could not hold back a sigh and an eye roll, but then she pulled a bobby pin from her hair and flung it at Peter.

“Do you have any more?” asked Csongor.

Zula threw him another one.

People who watched too many movies about hackers had all sorts of ludicrous ideas about what they were capable of. In general, they hugely overestimated hackers’ ability to do certain things. But there was one area in which hackers were routinely underestimated, and that was lock picking. For them, picking locks was a nice way to kick back and relax after a long day of doing pen tests on corporate networks. No hacker loft was complete without a shoebox full of old locks, handcuffs, and so on, that these guys would sit around and pick just for the fun of it. Zula had always been a spectator, not a participant, and now wished that she had paid more attention. But she was pretty sure that Peter and Csongor would have this part of the problem solved rather soon and that they could then run out the door and free Yuxia from her captivity in the van.

“The Russians will go to 505 and kick the door down and probably make some noise,” Zula said. “I am hoping that this will alert the kids in 405 and that they’ll have a chance to get out of there.” Having nothing else to do, she went back to jiggling the fuse in the socket.

“What about the people who are actually living in Apartment 505?” Peter asked. “Did you ever think of that?”

“It’s vacant,” Zula said. But Peter’s question had made her nervous that she might have made a mistake, so she found the label that, she was pretty sure, read “505” and verified that the fuse socket was empty.

Which it was. But this time she noticed a detail she’d missed the first time around. There was no fuse screwed into the socket, that much was true. But there was something gleaming in there, something other than an empty socket. She dropped to one knee to get a better look at it.

A disk of silver metal was lodged in the socket.

The fuse had been bypassed; someone had jammed a coin into it, which was a very unsafe thing to do for a number of reasons.

“What are you seeing?” Csongor asked.

“I wonder if 505 might actually have some squatters living in it?” Zula said. “Can I borrow your flashlight?”

Csongor tossed her the tiny LED flashlight that he carried in his pocket. She aimed it into the hole and verified that the gap between the contacts had in fact been bridged by a silver coin stuffed into the hole.

It was not a Chinese coin, or any kind of coin that Zula had ever seen. It was stamped, not with an image of a person’s profile or any other sort of normal coin art, but a crescent moon with a little star between its horns.

THE CARTER RETURNED after a few minutes. A small, bald man was trotting behind him, carrying a bag of tools.

As he drew closer Yuxia got his attention through the windshield and waved him over toward the passenger’s seat. She unlocked the door. He opened it and climbed in, a bit tentatively, since it might be considered improper for a strange man to enter a vehicle with a solitary female.

“Close the door please, I need to talk to you for a moment,” Yuxia said.

He closed the door, giving her a weird look, as if Yuxia might be running the world’s most complicated and opaque scam. Which perhaps she was. For the time being, though, she was not allowing him to see her handcuffed wrist.

The carter had pulled up close along the driver’s side of the van. “Go over there please and wait,” Yuxia said, nodding at the front of the building. “I will pay you for your trouble once my problem is solved.”

The carter, somewhat suspicious and somewhat reluctant, withdrew a couple of meters.

Yuxia turned to the locksmith and gave him a big smile. “Surprise!” she exclaimed, and displayed the handcuff.

She was afraid that the poor man might have a heart attack. Yuxia had her left hand on the lock button, ready to lock him in the van if he tried to bolt. He probably would have done exactly that if she had been a man, but because she was a young woman he apparently felt that the decent thing was to hear her out.

“A bad man did this to me,” she said, “and so, as you can see, it is probably a matter for the police. I will call them once I am free. But right now I really need to get this thing off my wrist. Can you help me, please?”

He hesitated.

“It’s hurting me very badly,” she whined. Talking this way was not her style, but she had seen other women do it with effect.

The locksmith cursed under his breath and unzipped his bag.

LIKE ANY RUSSIAN, Sokolov enjoyed a game of chess. At some level he was never not playing it! Every morning he woke up and looked at the tiles on the ceiling of the office that was his bedroom and reviewed the positions of all the pieces and thought about all the moves that they might make today, what countermoves he would have to make to maximize his chances of survival.

He had heard somewhere, though, that, mathematically speaking, the game of Go was more difficult than chess, in the sense that the tree of possible moves and countermoves was much vaster: far too vast even for a supercomputer to work through all the possibilities. Computer chess programs had been written that could challenge a Kasparov, but no computer program could give a high-level Go player a game that was even moderately challenging. Supposedly you couldn’t even think about Go as a logical series of specific moves and countermoves; you had to think visually, recognizing patterns and developing intuitions.

As of thirty seconds ago—when Zula had done whatever the hell she had done—this had changed from a game of chess into a game of Go.

It might be that Zula had made the decision to give Ivanov what he wanted, sell out the Troll, and hope for Ivanov’s mercy. If that were the case, then a few seconds from now they would be invading an apartment full of terrified Chinese hackers and something regrettable was going to happen. Why, oh why, had Ivanov come in from the van? Why was he following them up the stairs? If he’d simply stayed down in the van, Sokolov might have been able to finesse the situation, perhaps emerge from the building with one hacker in tow while letting the others escape. Perhaps Ivanov would have been satisfied with scaring the hell out of that one hacker, roughing him up a little bit. After which Sokolov would have had to divine the boss’s intentions regarding Zula. He’d already made up his mind that he would, if necessary, physically intervene to protect her. Even if it meant killing Ivanov.

On the other hand, it might be that Zula had sent them on a wild goose chase. That they were about to break into a vacant apartment. In which case all hell was going to break loose when Ivanov realized that Zula had fucked him and that the hackers who had fucked him earlier were escaping from the building. That was really the point where it turned into a game of Go, because Sokolov couldn’t even begin to think rationally about the tree of moves and countermoves that would branch out from such an event.

So he didn’t. He gave it up and accepted the fact that he would have to work intuitively, like a Go player. Even though he had never played Go in his life.

For now he had to operate on the assumption that Zula had given them correct information and that Apartment 505 would contain something like ten young male hackers, mostly asleep. They would not be armed in any significant way. He had gone over this with his squad the night before and reminded them of it this morning before leaving the safe house: their tactical approach must be to flood the apartment in the first five seconds after breaching the door. Every one of those hackers had to be found and divested of his phone and his computer before he could send out distress calls. The landlines had to be found and cut. The entire apartment had to be explored. It might be one single space or it might be a warren of smaller rooms. Some of those back rooms might have means of escape: ways out onto fire escapes or balconies. The plan, then, was to pile through the door the moment it was knocked down and leave one man to secure the center while the other six scattered as far and as deep into the apartment’s recesses as they could go. Once they had found and secured the periphery they would work their way back into the center, driving the hackers before them. Everyone would end up in the same place, and then a conversation could begin.

All the men knew that plan, were equipped for it, were ready for it. From the stairs they trooped out into the fifth-floor corridor, which conveniently for them was empty at the moment. Sokolov was leading the way, but as they passed 503 he looked over his shoulder and made room for Kautsky, the biggest man in the squad, the door breaker. Kautsky was armed with a combination sledge-hammer/ax/crowbar that could make short work of any door. The ones in this building looked particularly flimsy, so Sokolov had no worries about getting through rapidly. Kautsky would be their man in the middle, the first one through, who would hold the center and block the exit while the others flooded in behind him and flowed to the edges. Ivanov had no scripted part in this plan, since he was supposed to be waiting down in the van, but Sokolov hoped that he would have the good sense to stay well to the rear, in the hallway, long enough for things to get under control. Then he could come in and wreak whatever revenge it was that he had been dreaming of.

Kautsky planted himself in front of 505 and wound up with the hammer, then looked back at Sokolov, awaiting his cue. Sokolov looked back toward Ivanov. He needn’t have worried. Climbing stairs was not Ivanov’s strong point, and he was only just now emerging from the stairway, breathing heavily, still a good twenty meters away from them. Before Ivanov could catch up with them and fuck up the entire operation, Sokolov gave Kautsky a nod, and the hammer fell.

AS THE LOCKSMITH worked on the manacle around Yuxia’s wrist, she chewed the nail of her free thumb and scanned the street and the front of the building.

In a minute, she’d be free to get out of the van. The easiest thing then would be simply to disappear into the crowd on the street and hope that the PSB did not somehow follow her. A dubious gamble, considering that a PSB officer had been standing half a block away looking suspiciously at the van for the last couple of minutes.

But the van belonged to the family enterprise in Yongding. If she abandoned it here, it would be traced to her immediately.

She could go into that building and try to figure out what was going on. That was what a plucky heroine would do in a movie, but it didn’t seem like a very wise idea in real life.

Or she could summon the PSB herself. But funny things sometimes happened when the PSB got involved. It wasn’t always about punishing the wrongdoers and helping the victims. Everyone knew that there were all sorts of connections between criminal groups and the government. Yuxia knew very little about these Russians. Less than an hour had passed since they’d put the cuff on her wrist and she hadn’t had time yet to sift through her memories of them and piece together a theory as to what they were really up to. But they had to be either spies or gangsters. If they were the latter, they might have connections with local gangsters, and if that were the case, there was no telling what bad things might happen to Yuxia if she ratted them out to the PSB and some mole within the PSB ratted her out in turn.

She had to get the van out of here.

The manacle came off her wrist.

“Thank you, sir. Now can you start the engine?” she asked. “I don’t have the keys.”

The locksmith’s eyes jumped down to the ignition switch on the steering column, then back up to hers. He said nothing, but she could see in his face that he could do it. Just as plain, though, was that he really didn’t want to. He knew that something was profoundly wrong about this situation and he wanted out of here.

“No,” he said, and he began putting his tools back in his bag.

She glanced out the windshield to see the PSB cop looking her way, ignoring an angry woman who was haranguing him while gesturing irritably at the van.

Yuxia waved at him in the windshield and beckoned him over.

The locksmith was closing up his bag now. “I am doing this one for free,” he said. “I am getting out of here now and I don’t want to see you again, I don’t want to hear from you again.”

The van’s power windows did not function with the engine off, so Yuxia half opened the door, forcing the cop to step around it. “Good morning, Officer!” she said brightly, which had the effect of freezing the locksmith. She pushed the door a little farther open, turning toward the cop, and blocking his view of the handcuff dangling from the steering wheel while giving him a nice big smile to look at. But he was not much taken with the smile. He looked her up and down, paying special attention to the blue boots.

“Move this van!” he said.

“I lost my keys,” she said.

“How could you lose your keys!?”

Everything about this cop was reminding Yuxia of another reason why she didn’t want any dealings with the PSB. She was a Big-Footed Woman from the mountains and they were Han lowlanders and that did not make for easy dealings.

“The keys fell out of my hand and went down there,” she answered, pointing at a sewer grate a few meters up the street. “The locksmith is starting the engine for me. As soon as he’s finished, I’ll be on my way.”

The cop stepped toward her, wanting to look inside the van. Yuxia scooted back on the seat and leaned against the steering wheel, concealing the handcuff but giving the cop a clear view of the locksmith’s face and his bag of tools. The cop nodded. This was his beat; he recognized the face of every merchant in the neighborhood, including this one.

“What are you waiting for!?” the cop demanded. “This vehicle is blocking traffic! Stop sitting around flirting with this girl! Get the engine started and get it out of here or we’ll have it towed!”

The locksmith made some calculation of his own as to whether he should cry for help and turn this into a full-fledged PSB investigation. Yuxia had no way of knowing what elements went into that calculation.

“Yes, Officer!” the locksmith replied. “It should only be a couple of minutes!”

“Very well.” The cop stepped back from the van and sauntered out in front of the vehicle to direct traffic and keep an eye on things. Yuxia closed the door.

THE DOOR GAVE after two blows, and Kautsky blew through it. The rest of the squad, poised like sprinters at the starting line, rushed through after him, diverting around him like water flowing around a derelict tank in an Afghan river.

Sokolov had spoken to them of the need to sever the loop: the loop of observing, thinking, deciding, and acting. In normal circumstances the loop was a good thing but not now; they had to act without thinking for a few moments, and only then could they observe and think and decide. Sokolov, never one to ask his men to do something he wouldn’t do himself, followed the rule pretty faithfully even though some part of his brain was already telling him that something was wrong, something didn’t make sense. The apartment was indeed a warren of smaller rooms, which was bad for them, but not unexpected, nothing they couldn’t cope with. But he wasn’t seeing computers and he wasn’t seeing young Chinese men. He was seeing sleeping bags and mattresses on the floor, rather closely spaced, with men sleeping on them. Lots of men. Some looked Chinese but some didn’t. A migrant laborer squat? They were hairy and somewhat older than he’d been expecting. Stuff was piled all over the place: burners, thermometers, pots and pans, jars of ingredients he couldn’t identify just now, big rectangular cans of the type used to hold industrial solvents. God, there were a lot of people living here! Sokolov’s squad was certainly outnumbered, perhaps by as much as two to one. Not that it mattered since the Russians were all strapped with multiple semiautomatic weapons and, in Kautsky’s case, an autoloading shotgun. Whereas China was not one of those places where ordinary people had weapons.

Which only made him more surprised and disoriented when, after that first five seconds had passed, and the loop had started running again, Sokolov noticed that the apartment was full of Kalashnikov assault rifles. These, and their banana-shaped ammunition magazines, were simply all over the place.

You couldn’t look at everything at once, and so Sokolov ended up looking at one noteworthy thing in particular. He was in a relatively large room, cut almost in half by a long table consisting of planks set up on oil drums. His mind had first pegged the table as a kitchen counter, since it looked as though things were being mixed up there in bowls, but on second thought, the stuff they were mixing up was not food. It was a concoction he had seen and smelled before. Hell, he’d even made it before. It was fuel oil and ammonium nitrate. Everyone’s favorite cheap simple high explosive. Standing on the opposite side of the table was a rather tall man, a Negro with a beard, wearing the T-shirt and jeans he had apparently just been sleeping in. But now he was up on his feet and looking around brightly. Behind him, an inconveniently placed window had been sealed off by covering it with a cheaply printed poster of Osama bin Laden.

There was a silence throughout the apartment as all the Russians’ loops started running again and as the occupants, who had mostly been sleeping, came awake to discover the Russians among them.

Sokolov must have had an astonished look on his face because the tall Negro was looking at him with a certain degree of amusement. The Negro’s hands and arms were largely concealed by the clutter of explosives-making stuff on the table, but they went into motion now, and Sokolov heard the very familiar snick-chunk of a Kalashnikov being charged; this being the last thing that one generally did preparatory to pulling the trigger.

Two very loud booms sounded from another room: Kautsky opening up with his semiautomatic shotgun.

Swinging the rifle upward, the Negro spoke in a calm, quiet, and matter-of-fact tone: “Allahu akbar.”

“I JUST CAN’T fucking believe it,” Peter muttered, as he worked the bobby pin in the manacle. “I can’t believe what you did.”

“Really.”

“Yeah, really.”

“Well, I can’t believe what everyone else is doing,” Zula said. “As far as I’m concerned I’m the only one here being reasonable.”

“You think it’s reasonable to fuck with a guy like Ivanov?”

“What kind of a guy is Ivanov anyway?” Zula asked. “What do we really know about him?”

“He’s a pretty tough guy,” Csongor put in. Zula glared at him, and he looked somewhat apologetic for having taken Peter’s side.

“Do you know that of your own knowledge, or just by reputation?” Zula asked.

Csongor didn’t answer.

“Did you not see what happened to Wallace in my building?” Peter demanded.

“That’s a good way of putting it. I did not see what happened to Wallace. I saw Wallace go into a room. I saw a long bundle being carried out. Obviously we were meant to think it was Wallace’s dead body. I’ll bet it was fake.”

Fake!?

“Yeah. They took him in there and said, ‘Listen, Wallace, we need to scare the crap out of these two Americans, so play along. Shut up and go limp for a minute and we’ll roll you up in a piece of plastic and carry you out and make it look like we just killed you.’ He’s probably sitting in his flat in Vancouver right now playing T’Rain.”

“I doubt it,” Csongor said.

“I suppose that is theoretically possible,” Peter said, “but I think it is insane and irresponsible of you to bet our lives on it.”

“None of this is real,” Zula said. “It is all gangster theater.”

A couple of loud booms echoed down the stairway.

After a brief silence, they heard several different fully automatic weapons firing at the same time.

Peter swiveled his head around and fixed Zula with a look.

“Either that, or I’m wrong,” Zula said.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” THE locksmith exclaimed, barely audible above the sound of gunfire and of stray pieces of broken glass and debris rattling down onto the roof of the van. “I’ve had it!” He was half lying, half sitting on the floor of the van, legs folded up in front of the passenger seat, body wedged in under the radio, reaching up to work on the ignition lock. His brain was telling him to hurl himself out of the vehicle and run as fast as he could, but it was going to take a little while to extricate his body.

Yuxia looked out the windshield. The PSB cop was backing away from the building, looking up just like everyone else on the street.

Something really bad was happening, and Qian Yuxia was an accomplice to it.

She reached down and slipped her hand into the locksmith’s as if she were going to help pull him up. Instead of which she pinned it against the steering wheel. She used her other hand to grab the dangling manacle and snap it over his wrist.

“You can try to pick that handcuff while I’ve got my fingernails in your eyes,” she said, “or you can start the engine while I sit here quietly. Your choice.”

IN THE WHOLE world, there might have been as many as ten thousand people who were better than Sokolov at falling and rolling around on hard surfaces. Circus acrobats and aikido masters, mostly. Also included in that group would have been many of the younger Spetsnaz men. The remaining six billion or so living humans did not even enter the picture.

Sokolov had come to it a bit late, since he had not been recruited into Spetsnaz until after serving a couple of tours in Afg