It's pouring. It's vertical water with slots in and Ryan McAdamis isn't carrying an umbrella to put up or he would. Being soaked to the skin is macho and hardcore and adds emotional weight to a scene, but he's a practical man and if he was carrying an umbrella he'd put it up, even if it meant shooting with one hand. It's been alternately spitting and cats-and-dogs for the entire long weekend and it looks like the populace of this rough Chicago outskirt have elected to just wait it out indoors. Barred windows and locked doors ("CLOSED") and steel-shuttered shop fronts. It's a miserable excuse for a day and it's getting colder as the Sun goes down.
When he got off the train at Central, McAdamis bought a coffee and he's been sipping it as he walks, walking in pretty much a straight line out of the city to be here. When he finished it he was within spitting distance of another Costa and went in and got another one. Now he's almost where he's going, and he chucks the second empty paper cup in a trash can and ducks into a sheltered doorway. He runs through the same checklist he's run through maybe three to ten times a day since he first laid it out for himself in paper a decade ago. Gadgets, weapons, motives, means, self. A decade? Christ, make that three. Or round it up to four.
He rubs a rough layer of stubble on his chin and an expanding bald spot on his scalp, the latter of which he has long ago sworn never to comb over. Grey, shrivelling. Not as good looking as Harrison Ford or George Clooney at this age, is his evaluation. It has visibly been a long and rough and busy and, quite bluntly, lucky-to-have-been-so-long life. But then, the staggeringly attractive make terrible secret agents. They stand out a mile off. "Did you see the exquisite blond skinny chick who ran through here?" "Why, yes, I could barely keep my eyes off her. She ran that way, towards the helipad. And I think she was carrying some sort of shiny, blinking MacGuffin."
McAdamis has been procrastinating, something he never did when he ran the Agency. The journey more important than the destination, he asks himself? Enjoying the methodical search, the return to the old school of espionage? Or maybe just plain old and scared.
Seven years ago a doomsday device went off in Chicago, punching a ten-mile-wide spherical hole out of the city and causing another quarter-mile of it to slide into the hole afterwards. There had been time in the final countdown to see through an evacuation, and, for what it's worth, the Crystal Annihilation Matrix had been all but defused; without timely intervention, the crater would have been a hundred times wider and deeper, and the upheaval of continents resettling afterwards would have meant the end of world civilisation. All things considered, McAdamis counts that one as a success. The warehouse he's waiting across the street from is about as close to the Hole as architecturally-sound buildings get, and has a prime view of the Lake which formed after the disaster.
McAdamis knows he lives in a world of off-the-shelf nuclear technology, of kids with supercomputers in the palms of their hands. Grad students postulate theoretical hyperviruses in their final-year essays, get collected by private intelligence agencies the day after graduation and mass-produce them in reality. Boy Scouts synthesise radium and for a few million dollars (Monopoly money when these are the stakes) you can put one tonne of literally anything you like into space, no questions asked, and have the chance to rain anything you like down on any spot in the world from orbit. Simply expressed as a percentage of the global population, the number of people in the world who are, at any given time, Up To No Good would horrify the typical civilian, and the number of half-baked or fully-cooked or even cooked-boxed-and-almost-delivered megadeath plots McAdamis has personally been involved with foiling in his time with Dark Central would make world-spanning headlines. "Hungarian Plot Would Have Destroyed UN From Space". "'Designer Virus' Threat To North America-- Foiled With Seconds To Spare". "Nuclear Landmines Found Under New York, London, Tokyo". Nobody has even invented nanotechnology yet. With a bit of luck, he'll be dead before that happens and it'll be the next generation's problem. Damned if he knows how to quell such a thing. In a world of contagious ideas, how? The world may yet end any day. It's a miracle there's anything still left to save.
His eyesight has always been razor-sharp and with the special shades he can make out stuff an eagle would need to squint at, so he sees the three CCTV cameras, two of them pointing in his direction from discreet locations. There's nobody about and no traffic so he unholsters the smaller, quieter of his two peashooters and puts bullets right through all three of their lenses, first time. There was a time when he was the best shot he'd ever met, but in a deliberate attempt to scale back on his rash, youthful cockiness, his handler of the time had introduced him to a succession of Olympic gold-medalist marksmen and markswomen whose skills put his to shame. It had been humbling, but instructive.
He puts the weapon away and checks both ways before crossing the street to the big roller shutter over the main entrance to the warehouse. He leans down to the padlock and does something which looks like pulling a key out of his pocket and unlocking it. Actually, a small telltale flash of crimson light would reveal to a closer observer that what he actually did was melt the mechanism with a pocket laser. Still, the result is the same and he is in.
All the windows of the warehouse have been blacked out and all the lighting inside is artificial. In the centre are two motor vehicles, a monstrous black bull-like SUV with tinted windows and a sizable white moving van. The van's rear door is open with the freight lift lowered and waiting for more equipment to be loaded into it. It already has a big pile of stuff inside, mostly closely-packed crates and computing equipment. To one far corner is a half-deconstructed server farm inside a soundproofed glass room of its own. Nearby is a generator for emergencies. To another corner is a desk with a stack of paperwork, a long shelf of books, and very impressive-looking arrangement of at least ten huge flat monitors all with static or live-updated data displayed. In a third corner is a garden of small black cacti with yellow spines, in ceramic pots under a cluster of sun lamps. Next to this is a chemistry workbench. And in a fourth corner is a door leading to the building's other few rooms. As McAdamis is taking in the panorama a man walks in through this door, drying his hands on a paper towel, with an audible hissing of a refilling cistern following him. The man is medium-built, has short ash-blonde hair streaked with grey, and could be any age. He wears a black button-up shirt and dark trousers. For a few seconds he doesn't even notice McAdamis in the room (it's a large room) and then, halfway to his desk, he reacts. "Oh my God." McAdamis now has his second, larger gun out and pointed right at him, so the man, whose name is Will Coltrane, doesn't move.
"How long were you dead for?"
Coltrane's mind races. "Wow. Uh. We're picking up right where we left off, huh? How long has it been, Ryan? Or is it FBI Agent Terry Dominguez? Or how about we go back to those ridiculous codenames?"
"It was years before I even realised that your fingerprints were reappearing on the world. It was years before I convinced myself that you were back."
"There was a gap, of course. The technology wasn't perfect back then and it still isn't. From an electromagnetic perspective it was about twenty-five minutes between you shooting me and my people getting hold of my body and retrieving my memory engrams. Growing a clone body, however, was time-consuming, so you'd be forgiven for not noticing that I spent a decade or two working my way towards maturity in a cavern under St. Petersburg... I have to be honest, you were lucky there was anything to find, you'd have torn the world apart looking for me if I wasn't really here."
"I thought about what you said."
"Refresh my memory, McAdamis. It's been so long. What did I say which stuck with you?"
McAdamis is still pointing his gun at Coltrane's head. "Oh, some nonsense about the inevitability of doomsday. The impracticality of outright preventing evil in the world. The statistical fact that, as time goes to infinity, one day some bent, bigoted something-ist will coincidentally make a real impact on the world and really will conquer half of it and destroy the other half. Human civilisation will go down the toilet and never recover. That my people are fighting a losing battle. Boot, human face, yada yada. Yet that was in the 1980s. Look how we've done. Okay so far!"
"The holy status quo," says Coltrane. "Ah, yes, that was it. And my suggestion to you was that somebody is bound to take control of the world one day, and I was the most educated and trustworthy quote-villain-unquote you'd ever encountered, so you might as well let me do it, correct? I was the only good guy you ever fought."
"Other than all the other self-proclaimed good guys, of course."
"Oh, but you must have seen that I was a real human, McAdamis. You saw I was genuine and on the level and honest. There's a certain distillation of the southeast Asian cactus cactaceae hylocereus obscurus which can be used to inflict very powerful and long-lived and complex hypnotic suggestions on subjects. It would be very, very easy to take control of the world, I just needed time to figure out the World Order to move towards. I'd have made my move by now if I'd done that. But a manifesto takes time to construct, of course. You know, a thought occurs. I held you prisoner for some hours before our final confrontation when you killed all my people and killed me and sank the oil rig."
"This is a poor excuse for a lair, by the way."
"A flair for the dramatic is useless unless you expect to be tracked down, McAdamis. You're not seeing me at my best. But anyway, it would be stupid to think I didn't remember the time I died for the first time. I've just been stalling until I could remember the keyword I implanted. Omicron cirrus verboten, surface and float."
McAdamis considers putting on a show, keeling over, clutching his brain and screaming, theatrically fighting Coltrane's mental control, but decides to just snigger. "I had those post-hypnotic suggestions pulled out of my brain by a certified psychologist the week after I killed you. But don't look so shattered and appalled. You were right. You were right all along. ...I spend a lifetime overthrowing nascent totalitarian dictatorships, I fight for the nebulously-defined World Order As We Know It. And why? I'm here facing retirement and I spent a lifetime risking my life and others', running uphill to stand still? What's the point, William?"
There's a pause.
"I asked you a question."
"Ideological confusion?" Coltrane suggests, hesitantly. "The desire to do passive, unambiguous good. Blow up potentially useful ideas for the sake of conservative safety. Are you seriously moving towards the... the proactive? The risky? The interventionist?"
"Finish that thought." McAdamis still has the gun. Coltrane has none.
In a low voice, Coltrane asks him, "In three more years I'll be ready. Are you going to stand aside and let me rule the world?"
"No, Will. I'm going to rule the world. Because I know what's best."
Horror. "What? What?"
The larger, louder of McAdamis' two guns echoes around the building, but in this neighbourhood, it probably won't get "heard" in any serious way.
McAdamis finds the silent alarm in the bathroom. So: Coltrane did see him coming.
In the corridor outside, he also finds the engram headset, discarded hurriedly, with wet handprints on it, as if used recently, by someone without time for finesse. The cable runs into a nearby ethernet port, into the network and then out across the Net. An infuriatingly wise precaution. Coltrane'll be back.
The cactus was believed extinct, but thirty litres of processed obscurus toxin will go a long way -- potentially thousands of well-chosen people -- and there's the garden to produce more. He knows every traditional method by which he could be apprehended and stopped from carrying out the mind-control master plan. Fifty percent of those approaches are his own original concepts. And he'll be prepared against them all, if anybody from his former organisation even figures out that anything is happening. Yes, he tells himself. I am still a hero.