-Winner of the John W Campbell Award 2015 for Best New Writer
-Nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 Finals for Best Science Fiction
-Winner of the Alex Award for the American Library Association's 2014 Youth Media Awards
When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn't. He now has a passenger in his brain - an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions - the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix - the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that's what it takes. Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that's going to end well...
Wesley Chu is a force to be reckoned with – I once called him the coolest writer in science fiction – and this explosive debut of his will grab you by the lapels and throw you across the room! In a good way, of course. – Lavie Tidhar
"Pure pleasure from beginning to end. Highly recommended!"– Ann Vandermeer, Hugo winning editor of Weird Tales
"I once wrote "Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he." The humans refer to that stronger being as God. I was referring to myself."
–Huchel, Genjix Council – Eastern Hemisphere, the Quasing of King Solomon
The five most egotistical personalities in history. Go.
"That's easy. You, Genghis, Alexander, Napoleon, and Kathy's nephew."
The one at Cambridge?
"He reminds me every time I see him."
Not a bad list, but I think Genghis Khan's inclusion is well deserved.
"Patting yourself on the back? I guess listing you and Genghis is a bit redundant."
Hardly. We should move to another spot. Our view here is obstructed.
Edward Blair looked at the sandy blond-haired woman in the charcoal suit sitting across the bar. Their eyes met, and a hint of dimples appeared on her face, accompanied by a small suggestive smile as she tugged on something around her waist and signaled the bartender. "The view's just fine where we're at, Tao." Edward swirled the golden brown liquid in his glass and sipped with confidence. He kept his gaze on her and winked. He was rewarded with a wink and a slight blush before the bartender arrived and blocked his view.
We have more important things to do than play this silly game.
Edward finished his scotch and ordered another. "Oh, I forgot. We're talking about how great Genghis was. Fact is, buddy, his work has been duplicated and expanded upon, just look at Alexander. And last time I checked, Mongolia plays a pretty insignificant role on the twenty-first century world stage."
Alexander is an unfair comparison. It is easy to build an empire when you inherit an army.
"Well, by size, the old British Empire won. At least they're still around. So there you go, bigger and longer. Size and durability count after all. Ask my wife." Edward turned away from the bar and looked out the window at the dizzying array of lights emanating from the streets below, a complex grid of bright lines reaching out as far as the eye could see. The night sky was growing darker as large rolling clouds smothered the moon and the stars.
He could feel the gentle swaying on the ninety-fifth floor as strong winds battered the John Hancock Center, rocking it ever so slightly. Springtime in Chicago half a klick above the ground was unpleasant at best. "Good thing we didn't glide in," he muttered, taking another sip of scotch and feeling its warmth spread through his body. "You'd think criminal mas- terminds would choose more isolated bases of operations than the top of skyscrapers. What happened to the good ol' days when they lived on deserted islands in the Pacific?"
Resorts and skyrocketing beachfront property prices happened. Besides, criminal masterminds are people too. They need groceries and cable like the rest of us. It also does not let us get cute with our plans.
Edward leaned forward and his eyes followed one of the metal beams that crisscrossed the building. That much was true. Sneaking into a base on top of a skyscraper in the center of a metropolis was just as difficult as infiltrating a remote island. Security on the ground level was tight, and the weather made an air drop too risky. Short of blowing up the building, Edward had limited options in their rules of engagement other than through the Signature room on the ninety-fifth floor, one above the Genjix base. "What about Napoleon?"
What about him? He should not even be on the list.
"He was crowned emperor. That's worth something."
Anyone can bestow a title upon himself. Calling yourself a genius does not make it so.
"You call yourself a genius all the time."
By human standards? Not hard.
"Napoleon didn't do too badly for himself. You're a bit biased; you two never got along."
Almost conquering Europe does not an emperor make. He was a brilliant general, but his short tenure disqualifies him for the hall of fame.
"You're penalizing him because of his administrative skills?"
Paper-pushing is an integral part of empire ruling. Consider– "Excuse me, sir, the general manager would like to buy you a drink," the bartender said, placing another glass of scotch onto the counter.
Edward turned back toward the bar and smiled again as the woman sitting across the room earlier moved to the seat next to him, one hand on a martini and the other extended.
"Simone," she purred. "I hope you don't mind. I ordered you an eighteen instead of the twelve."
Edward looked down at his drink and grinned. He took her hand and shook it, lingering longer than appropriate. "Blake Emanuel. I'll have to return the favor in some other way." The two chatted intimately for the next twenty minutes, moving closer and closer together.
Edward, I hate to ruin your sport, but our window is closing. The codes expire in two days, and we are not getting anywhere here. I regret not insisting on gliding in.
"In this weather? You must have more faith in my flying skills than I do. Now, keep quiet and let me focus on Simone here. I need to keep my architect story straight."
Twenty years together now and you are still incorrigible.
"Intergalactic civil war wasn't exactly on my career track out of West Point, Tao."
Wish I never found you?
"You know the answer to that."
His earpiece crackled. "Abelard, are you in position?"
"That's cute. Remind me to have a few words with Marc about these dumb code names when I get back."
I find it fitting. Quite a compliment actually.
"Things didn't exactly end well for Abelard and Heloise, if I remember how that tragedy went. I hate it when he listens in."
It is Jeo's nature. Marc just picked up the habit.
Smiling all the while, Edward excused himself and left Simone at the bar, walking to the back of the lounge toward the restrooms. He waited until he was alone in the hallway before entering a door marked "Personnel Only." In the kitchen, he hurried past the workers before they had a chance to stop him and exited through another door into a back room. "Roger, Marc. Stand by." He pulled out a set of keys attached to a band and began to try them on the locked door.
How did you know she was the manager with the keys?
"They were dangling on her waist, and she was far too authoritative with the bartender."
Clever, Edward. I stand corrected.
"Twenty years together, Tao. Have a little faith."
The door clicked open and Edward sprinted through a bar- ren hallway past a bank of elevators on one side to the stairwell on the other. He hurried down several flights to a non-descript metal door. He slipped on a pair of thin black gloves and broke a small vial over the handle. Edward watched the corrosive acid burn through the lock and whispered, "Marc, green to proceed. How's it looking topside?"
"It's bumpy up here, but we're taking a nice scenic tour of the skyline. Rendezvous on the roof at your go. You have one shot at this, so make it count."
"Evac 0100. Don't be late."
"Acknowledged, Abelard. Over and out."
"Tao, you keeping track of the time?"
As always, I am your alarm clock.
"Is something up with Marc? Past couple of missions, he seemed ambivalent about everything. Like the time we guarded the Spanish prime minister, I don't think Marc cared if the man died."
That is Jeo for you. He hates this planet more than the rest of us, but I have known him for a long time. He has always been reliable.
"You hate Earth, Tao?"
You have to put it in perspective to where we came from. Kind of like visiting your tax accountant.
"Got it. Still, I wish he wasn't such a downer." Edward caught the handle as it burned off and placed it on the floor. He opened the door a sliver and scanned the area inside. Dark Brazilian wood floors, antique lamps, and plush Victorian furniture decorated both sides of a long hallway. Books filled rows of shelves on one wall; a large polished marble bust of Plato was prominently displayed between two elevator doors. "Did we get the right floor?"
I believe so. Chiyva's fingerprints are all over it. How typical of him to have a bust of himself. And I see his taste has not changed much since the nineteenth century.
Staying flat to the wall, Edward crept to the end of the corridor and peered around the corner.
Two guards to the right side. Surveillance camera moving at twenty- second sweeps in the corner.
"Twenty seconds, huh? Not a lot of room for error. Gun?"
No, keep it quiet. No need to raise a fuss yet. Camera is moving now. Go!
Pulling out a knife from its holster, Edward exhaled, rounded the corner, and took off running. Hugging the right wall, he stayed low, covering ground quickly as he charged the two un- suspecting men. Once in range, he shifted to the left wall for a better angle and, with a flick of his wrist, threw the knife. It whistled as it shot past the first guard and into the neck of the second. The man gasped and went limp. The remaining guard turned to look at his fallen companion just as Edward closed in and rammed his fist into the man's ribcage.
Fifteen seconds on the camera.
The guard doubled over as Edward grabbed his head and snapped his neck. Before the body had fallen to the floor, Ed- ward had already moved to the other body and pulled out his knife.
Not bad for a forty year-old dog.
"Like I said, durability counts."
Touché. Get the bodies in. Ten seconds on the camera.
Edward took out a modified keycard, slid it through the electronic lock, and opened it with a soft click. He dragged the bodies with him into a darkened room filled with rows of computers. The room was cool and hummed with a low resonance from dozens of machines and a loud ventilation shaft. "Did the camera catch anything?"
Two seconds and change. The mark is Trixlix GeTr715.
Edward's eyes ran down the list of servers until he found GeTr715 tucked near the rear of the third row on the bottom rack. "Hello, mark," he whispered in satisfaction. "Let's see if you're worth leaving Simone upstairs." Edward pulled out a small cable from his belt and plugged it into the server. "Codes accepted. Starting extraction now." The monitor above the server blinked to life, and Edward's fingers blurred as he typed, digging for the information he needed. His trained eyes jumped from directory to directory, grabbing bits and pieces of different files. "It seems the rumors about this fabled Penetra program are true. It does exist."
Edward went into the folder and opened the files inside. "Hmm," he paused, shaking his head. "My secretary can organize information better than this."
Worry about their formatting skills another time. Copy the blue- prints and get out of here.
Edward's eyes widened as he scanned the contents. "Found the blueprints, but look at this provisions list and these chemical stockpiles. I thought this was a surveillance prototype. Could it be a biological weapon? How are they getting past customs? I wish we had lobbyists this good. Initiating upload. Wait, backup access control list just tripped. We're getting kicked out."
The security file probably just alerted a platoon of guards. Get what we have and go.
His earpiece crackled, "Edward, we've just confirmed the data stream. On our way to pick you up now."
"Confirmed. Over and out." Edward unplugged the cord and scrambled toward the exit. Hearing heavy footsteps, he stopped and retreated back to the rows of servers just as a group of guards entered the room.
No armor. 1911s by the looks of it. Laser scopes. Three, no, four guards. None appear to be Genjix.
"Must be the hired help."
Take them out fast.
One of the guards turned on the lights and the rest fanned out, each moving from aisle to aisle. Shouts of "Clear!" could be heard as they made their way toward him. Edward pulled out his Glock pistol and crept toward the edge of an aisle. As an arm came into view, he trapped it with one hand and threw his elbow into the guard's face, dropping him to the floor. The scuffle alerted the others and they converged on his position.
Another guard appeared at the other end of the aisle and opened fire. Bullets ricocheted off the metal frames of the shelves. A searing pain erupted in Edward's left arm and his hand went numb. Falling flat to the floor, he took quick aim and finished his target with three quick shots to the chest.
Grazing shot. Shake it off. Get to the extraction point!
Edward reloaded the Glock and ran out to the hallway. Sirens blared all around him. He sprinted back toward the stairwell, hearing sounds of approaching footsteps close be- hind. He burst through the door and ran up the stairs. A group of guards soon followed close behind. Bullets flying past his head, Edward craned his neck over the railing, grabbed a grenade from his side, pushed the timer for one second, and tossed it over the railing. The resulting explosion knocked him off his feet and everything went dark for a split second. Water sprinklers activated and began to spray the room. Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, Edward pulled himself up and continued up the stairs.
"I'm getting too old for this."
What happened to "durability counts"? We can worry about put- ting you out to pasture after this mission.
Another group of guards appeared two flights above him and opened fire. Edward threw himself against the wall just as gunfire rained down upon him. "Get me another way up to the top."
Through the door. Get to the roof from the other stairwell.
Marc's voice came through the earpiece so loud Edward winced. "We've landed on the roof. Resistance heavier than anticipated. Hurry!"
"I'm working on it!" Edward yelled as he burst through the door out of the stairwell and came face to face with an attractive young woman. She wore an expensive tan suit and had her hair tied in a high ponytail. If it was any other time, he would stop and try to chat her up. But it wasn't any other time. He grabbed her and jammed the Glock into her side. "Sorry, darling, this probably isn't the best way to make a first impression."
It is Yrrika.
Edward sighed. "Really? Yrrika always picks the pretty ones." Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger. She had only a moment to gasp before falling to the floor. Her body shimmered as the Genjix emerged and floated into the air.
Let us hope Yrrika does not find a new host in time. Down to the end of the hallway, make a right, third door on the left.
"Do you remember the time I tried to pick up Yrrika's previous host?"
In Istanbul? I warned you not to. You were a fresh twenty-five year-old agent and she was sixty. How did that work out for you?
"You could have told me she was a judo champion."
She was not. You just were not that good back then. Some of the hardest lessons are the best.
Edward took off running. The alarm was getting on his nerves and he heard footsteps all around him. There was no telling how many other Genjix hosts were here. He sprinted down the hall to the other stairwell and scrambled up to the roof. With the amount of heat behind him, Marc better be ready to take off any second. Edward slammed his body into the exterior door and barreled onto the rooftop. Losing his balance, he tumbled forward and rolled into a kneeling position, pistol trained forward.
The roof of the John Hancock Center in Chicago was a mess of black shadows and cluttered metal structures bathed in ghostly red by lights from its two towering antennas. To his left was a row of large fans; in front a set of stairs that led up to another platform; and to his right the helicopter. Cold winds howled overhead. Edward stayed low and made his way toward his ride home, slipping from shadow to shadow.
Where are the other agents and why is the helicopter not prepped to leave? Something is wrong.
Edward ran to the cockpit and found two of his agents slumped over the controls. One more was dead outside. The windshield was shattered, the cockpit smashed, and a small fire raged in the holding area.
Is it operable?
"Of course not, there's no cockpit anymore! Let's see if the emergency chute's still there."
Fortunately, the compartment in the rear housing the para- chutes was intact. He strapped on a chute, tied it around his waist, and checked the release.
Are any of the bodies Marc? If so, we need to see if Jeo survived. We cannot leave him here.
Edward turned the bodies over and tore off their helmets. Then he went back outside and checked the lone agent there. "They're all standards. Where's Marc, damn it!"
Edward, all three died of headshots.
A chill shot down Edward's spine. He didn't care if he was up against James friggin' Bond. No one was good enough to tap three headshots in rapid succession... unless he was at close range. The only body missing was Marc. Was it possible? Faction changing was a time-honored tradition in the war, but Tao and Jeo had been comrades since Rome was nothing more than a bunch of huts on a muddy hill. However, as much as Edward hated to admit it, he couldn't come up with an explanation other than betrayal, and he didn't have the luxury at this moment to unravel the mystery. If this was true, he was in immediate danger.
Edward ducked behind the wreckage and blended into the darkness. Staying low, he made his way to the eastern side of the roof, using the assorted structures, ventilation generators, and air ducts as cover until he reached the edge of the building. He looked out at the black void that was Lake Michigan. The John Hancock Center was not tall enough for a safe paradrop, so his only chance would be a water landing. It would be frigid this time of year. "Base jumping is not my idea of a solid escape plan," he muttered, looking over the edge at the streets below.
There has been worse. Remember Budapest and the sewage tunnels?
Edward shuddered. "Don't remind me." He stepped up to the ledge and prepared to jump. Suddenly, sharp jabs of pain exploded in his back, nearly knocking him over the side. He collapsed onto the roof. Only the parachute and his body armor saved his life. Edward groaned as he tried to lift his head.
"Don't move, Edward," a familiar voice said from behind him. "I can't let you escape."
Snap out of it. Voice coming from behind you to the left. An image of a generator Edward passed moments before flashed in his head.
Edward rolled over and looked at his partner of the past two years. "Isolated rooftop; nice trap. What's going on, Marc? We're not paying you enough?"
With a stony expression, Marc shook his head and motioned with his rifle. "It's not that I don't believe in the Prophus cause anymore, it's just that I don't care. I'm tired of this stupid war."
"We're all tired of this war," Edward yelled over the howl of the wind. "It doesn't mean we just throw in the towel and change teams, you dumb bastard." He inched himself up to a sitting position.
Marc's face contorted in anger. "And you know what? You're right; I'm not getting paid enough. At least the Genjix know how to treat their people right. We don't get paid crap! No one bothered to tell me that I'd be working for nothing, so a bunch of aliens can return to some mud-ball planet! There's nothing in it for any of us. Not you, not me. Hell, I didn't even have a choice. I just got drafted by Jeo when he decided I was his type! Why are we even up here doing this crap if we'll be long dead before anything happens?"
"It's not just about you, Marc. You know what happens if we lose. Does Jeo feel the same way?"
Marc chuckled nervously. "Jeo? Hell, he's the one that convinced me that it's all a bloody waste." His face softened, showing a small semblance of remorse. "Look, man, it's not personal. I'm sure you and Tao know that. But if I have to be involved, I want to be on the winning side, and since no one trusts anyone anymore, you're my ticket in. I have to deliver you to Sean. He asked for you specifically."
Edward's body throbbed from the pain and his left arm felt useless. However, he wasn't about to surrender to this junior varsity agent. He watched Marc's breathing, pacing his nervous quick breaths and the slight up and down motions of the rifle. Then just as Marc inhaled, Edward lurched to the side and fired. Bullets sprayed the spot where he'd been moments before and he heard a satisfying cry of pain as Marc dropped his rifle and fell to one knee.
Edward crept behind a generator, grimacing. He had a couple of cracked ribs for sure. Peering over the top, he saw an injured Marc retreat back into the shadows, holding onto his bleeding shoulder. Edward took off the backpack and inspected the contents. The parachute was riddled with bullets.
"We're in trouble, Tao. We just lost our escape route."
I am working on a backup plan now.
"Work faster, Tao! We got more peons coming." Indeed, the door opened and several guards poured onto the roof. He would be discovered in moments. Marc limped out of his hiding spot and joined the guards as they fanned out to search for Edward.
We seem to be out of options. Surrender.
"That's your backup plan? You know I can't do that. If I sur- render, they'll kill me anyway just to get to you. You'll die."
Then we go down fighting.
"No, that's not an option either. If I die here, you'll be trapped on the roof and be lost. They'll know if you take one of the guards and just kill him as well."
"Edward," Marc shouted. "You've got one way out. Let's not waste your life. Come on, we can discuss terms. You don't need to die up here."
"Think they'll spare our lives as part of the terms?"
Jeo would. Chiyva or Zoras will stab you with whatever utensil they are eating with the instant you are in arm's reach.
"Price of fame, I guess." Edward peered over the side of the generator at the floating beams from the flashlights dancing over the roof's surface. It was just a matter of time. "There's one other choice then."
No, Edward. We will find another way.
Edward sighed and looked at the sky. The clouds had passed and a single star came out of hiding, sparkling in the otherwise black night. The harsh wind had died down as well and he felt a calmness come over him. "Tao, it's the only way. At least one of us will make it out of here. You'll have a much better chance of surviving if there are potential hosts around."
There has to be another way.
"We don't have time for another way. You know this is the right thing to do. Just promise me you'll get that son of a bitch Marc someday."
There was a brief silence.
I swear it by the Eternal Sea.
"Say goodbye to Kathy for me. Tell her I love her."
I will, my friend.
Without another word, Edward stood up and sprinted toward the edge. His heart was beating out of his chest as he reached the edge of the roof and leaped out as far as he could. The city opened beneath him to an explosion of lights.