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Superagent Alix Nico returns in a new Shadowstorm thriller from the author of Blades of Winter, which was hailed as “a hell-bent-for-leather mash-up of spy novel and science fiction” by Jason Bourne novelist Eric Van Lustbader. Alix Nico, code-named Scarlet, is a one-woman demolition derby. As a top American Level, she’s a cybernetically and biologically enhanced operative fighting a Cold War among the forces of freedom, a Soviet Union that never fell, a China hungry for power, and a Germany that emerged from World War II more powerful than ever.
There’s a mole within ExOps, the covert agency responsible for the security of the United States, who has been working to decapitate the organization’s leadership. And when treason strikes, Scarlet and her partner, Darwin, find themselves matched against a rogue Level known as Talon, a merciless killing machine whose augmentations place her in a league of her own. But behind Talon lurks the real enemy, a traitor whose thirst for control threatens to upset the fragile balance of mutually assured destruction that has kept the four Great Powers from breaking into open warfare—until now.
Praise for G. T. Almasi’s Blades of Winter “Almasi handles his high-octane blend of espionage, alternate history, and coming-of-kick-ass-age debut with an impressively steady hand. . . . The story leaps into immediate action like Alix going after an adversary and maintains its breakneck pace to the very end, with blood dripping from every page.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“First-rate . . . a hell-bent-for-leather mash-up of spy novel and science fiction, set in a well-realized alternate history, starring a snarky, hormonal nineteen-year-old named Scarlet, who will capture your heart as well as your imagination.”—Eric Van Lustbader, New York Times bestselling author of Robert Ludlum’s™ The Bourne Enigma
“Smart, sassy, and seriously appealing, Blades of Winter is a fully realized alternate history with extraordinary detailing and high-velocity writing.”—Jeff Long, New York Times bestselling author of The Descent “A fun, fast-moving alt-history romp!”—S. M. Stirling, New York Times bestselling author of Prince of Outcasts
Look for all of G. T. Almasi’s riveting Shadowstorm novels: BLADES OF WINTER | HAMMER OF ANGELS | TALON OF SCORPIO
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Talon of Scorpio
01 Tuesday, September 1, 1981, 2:30 p.m. EDT Extreme Operations Division Headquarters, Washington, D.C., USA
Everybody in the spy biz knows Levels run like champion Thoroughbreds and fight like Bengal tigers. Known only to those closest to us is the way we eat like wild pigs—normally, anyway. When we don’t, things get a bit growly. My stomach rumbles like a choking bullfrog, and I gently press my midsection to muffle the reptile’s death rattle. My dad’s Bulova tells me it’s been seven hours since I ate breakfast. That’s four hours too long for someone with my turbocharged metabolism. My Mods and Enhances make me burn a few thousand calories just standing still. Cyrus, my Front Desk, quietly acknowledges my digestive system’s plaintive snurls and rowls.
“We’ll be done soon, Scarlet,” he says.
Soon, my ass. We’ve still got three hours to go. I oughta rig my Nerve Jet neuroinjector to include ground beef, alcohol, and nicotine instead of just Kalmers, Overkaine, and Madrenaline. I shift from one foot to the other, rolling my shoulders to loosen my muscles.
“No problem, boss.”
I’m helping Cyrus interview new field agents. We’re reeling in operatives from all over Washington as part of America’s response to the civil unrest swirling across Greater Germany. Our covert-action agency, Extreme Operations Division, has been appointed to lead the clandestine side of this great mobilization.
This assignment comes despite ExOps’s recent misadventures. It probably helps that we’re getting a new chief to replace our disgraced former honcho, Director Chanez. The man’s motives were honorable, but his goose was cooked when he sent me to kidnap a foreign national without asking permission from our overlords in Langley. CIA’s top dog, Director William Webster, never forgave Chanez because the collateral damage from that snatch mission got Webster dragged into a probationary hearing with his supervisor, Executive Intelligence Chairman George H. W. Bush.
Later, during Operation ANGEL, Director Webster wasn’t exactly thrilled by our unprecedented destructiveness. We were supposed to create a phantom slave uprising in Greater Germany to provide leverage for our diplomats. However, nobody told us field people about the “phantom” part, so we whipped up an honest-to-God real slave uprising.
This rebellion led to the Jewish Emancipation and now threatens to metastasize into a continent-wide game of murderball. Whichever side the U.S. chooses, there’ll almost certainly be violence in biblical quantities, and Director Webster has seen how nobody perpetrates pandemonium like CIA’s best black-baggers, Extreme Operations Division.
So, here I am. Cyrus sits in his chair, finishing his notes about the previous applicant. Then he leans forward to buzz his secretary.
The office door opens. A late-teens girl marches in. She shoulders a green backpack, holds a manila folder, and wears a scowling puss that could curdle crude oil. Framing her unpleasant expression are scars below her eyebrows and across the tops of both of her cheeks. It’s like she got burned by a pair of aviator goggles.
As Cyrus reaches for her file, he pauses to study her face. He does this for much longer than with the other applicants before he takes her folder.
“Name,” he grunts.
The new chick sets her backpack on the floor and stands with her hands tightly clasped behind her back. “Talon,” she declares.
My boss flips her folder open. “Take a seat, Talon.”
Cyrus holds the girl’s file in mid-flip and glares at her.
Talon clears her throat. “Ha-hm; sorry. I’m fine, sir.” The girl’s voice is low, like Lauren Bacall’s. She fidgets her hands to her sides, nearly slides them into the front pockets of her black jeans, then tangles her fingers into a knot below her belt buckle.
My boss waits. I can almost hear his big hairy eyebrows brushing together. Finally, the girl sits in one of the guest chairs.
The Eyebrows continue to frown at her as he slides a thin sheaf of documents from the folder. I lean against the window, observing the interview process and resisting the temptation to rewatch last night’s Love Boat on my Eyes-Up display. Cyrus has me attending these interviews because he wants to prepare me for—get this—a leadership role.
When my boss first mentioned this wacky idea a few weeks ago, he didn’t think it was nearly as funny as I did. Cyrus solemnly told me that as a Level 10 agent I’ll be expected to run complex missions with multiple agents, assets, and other resources. Since then I’ve played along, but so far leadership has meant endless brain-flattening meetings about nothing.
I peek over my boss’s shoulder at Talon’s file. Portions of her records have been censored with a thick black marker. The dark stripes grow more frequent the deeper into her file Cyrus goes. The last page is almost completely black. I see “Secret Service” in the top left corner.
Cyrus looks up from the sanitized sheet. “What was your most recent assignment with the Secret Service?”
“It was classified.”
My boss lowers The Brows at Talon again.
“Sir,” she adds.
Cyrus stonily returns to the front of the folder. While our Front Desk re-reads her file, Talon looks at me. Her eyelids narrow and her irises shift from medium-frump-hazel to dark-bitch-brown. I stare her down with my arms crossed over my chest. My right elbow presses my holstered pistol, Li’l Bertha, against my ribs.
Cyrus closes the folder. “All right, Talon. Tell me what you can about your development and deployments.”
Talon shifts her gaze to Cyrus and pretends to smile. “After graduating from AGOGE Atlanta, I joined the First Lady’s Secret Service detail. In 1980, after the election, I was put on special assignment.”
“Your file says you graduated as a Protector, but your Skill Ratings look more like an Interceptor’s.”
“Yes.” She glances at me. “I switched Development Cycles.”
That explains the scars on her face. Protectors are surgically augmented with an optics Mod that from a distance resembles giant sunglasses. We all call them Bug-Eyes. If Talon switched from Protector to Interceptor, the Med-Techs would have had to remove her big lenses.
“When did you change classes?” Cyrus asks.
“When I went on special assignment.” Pause. “Sir.”
This bitch’s struggle with basic etiquette tells me she didn’t graduate from jack squat. The first thing Camp A-Go-Go pounded into me and my classmates was to end practically every f***ing sentence with “sir.” Cyrus places her file on top of the tall stack of folders next to his desk lamp. Each folder represents a recently transferred field agent. This sudden influx of personnel has overwhelmed ExOps’s administrative processes, and we’ve had to trust other offices’ records much more than we normally would. This runs counter to our belief that—as my partner Patrick puts it—“everyone’s an idiot but us.”
I expect Cyrus to reject Slag-Face’s transfer. Instead he sighs. “Very well, Talon. I’ll contact your former supervisors for more details. Have you been examined by anyone from Med-Tech?”
She shakes her head.
“Go see them. We need to make sure your gear is up to spec.”
Talon stands. “Yes, sir.”
Well, at least she’s getting the hang of that.
The girl spins on her heel and leaves the office in a cloud of bad attitude.
Cyrus waits a few seconds, brushing his fingers against his chin. He swivels his chair to face me. His thumb jerks toward where Talon was sitting. “What do you think, Scarlet?”
“I don’t like her.”
“Good. Now tell me why.”
I hesitate. Talon and I should get along famously. We’re both badass, mid-tier Interceptor Levels. The steeply ascending lines in her Development Cycle indicate progress nearly as rapid as mine. Each of us has a stunning array of Mods and Enhances implanted all over our bodies. We’re both built like gymnasts: small, athletic, and wiry as springs. At five foot four, she’s got an inch or so on me. The most obvious difference is our hair. Mine is red, like my mom’s. Talon’s is dark as pitch, like . . .
“I don’t know,” I mutter. “Something doesn’t add up. I’ve never heard of anyone switching Level classes.”
“It’s very rare, yes. What else?”
“She sucks at saying ‘sir.’”
“She does,” Cyrus agrees.
I think for another moment. “She kind of reminds me of those three black-haired girls Fredericks sent after me.”
“Exactly.” Cyrus gently nods. “Very good, Scarlet.”
I tilt my head a little and raise my eyebrows, waiting for him to continue.
He says, “Those three competitors were clones of Talon.”
“Or clone-sisters, I suppose, if they all had the same Original.” He quickly draws a rectangle in front of his nose. “Take a closer look at her in your Day Loop.”
One of the many capabilities my Mods give me is the ability to record everything I see and hear. This feature is called a Day Loop, since the system automatically saves the last twenty-four hours. This goes on even when I sleep or get knocked out, although then there’s no visual. I’ve wondered if Day Loops continue to function when their host is dead, but I’ve never been morbid enough to ask a Med-Tech.
I use my Eyes-Up display to access my Loop. A video of what just happened appears to float in front of Cyrus. I rewind the recording and freeze the playback on Talon’s face.
“Damn,” I mutter, imagining her without scars. “She does look like them.” I archive the still image in case I need it later.
Cyrus, behind my virtual video screen, rolls his chair to one side of his desk and reaches into a filing cabinet. “Fredericks sent her, I’m sure of it,” he says, facing the drawers full of paper. “I want you to follow her. If we can prove Jakob is trying to insert a mole, it could finally force those pussies at Justice to indict the son-of-a-bitch.”
Jakob Fredericks. Two decades ago he was the brightest, fastest-rising star in the American clandestine community. Jakob served as a founding officer of Extreme Operations Division and helped invent the modern covert-action operative. Even the name “Level” came from him. This is why we’re having so much trouble convincing people he’s a traitor.
We seem to be the only group who know that since his days of wine and roses Fredericks has betrayed every oath he took. His crimes include murder, kidnapping, selling classified intel to the krauts, and running an illegal espionage boutique. Much of his criminal catalog has been directed at ExOps, and some specifically at me.
We’ve been trying to nail the shit-bum for a year, but no matter how loudly Cyrus and the other chiefs demand action, Attorney General James Brady won’t file charges because Fredericks weaseled himself into a job where he’s too important to bust. Jakob runs a federal think tank called the Strategic Services Council, and he’s the primary author of America’s response to Operation ANGEL’s chaotic aftermath.
We need something to bring to the Justice Department so they’ll rethink Fredericks’s immunity. If we can prove Talon is infiltrating on Fredericks’s behalf, they’ll have to act.
I fast-forward my Day Loop to the present, but something catches my eye. I rewind it again.
I lean down to look under Cyrus’s desk. The green backpack is still on the floor.
“Boss,” I comm. “Talon left her—”
The blast blows me out the window. From seven stories below the street rushes up to greet me. I turn myself around just in time to grab a branch on one of Franklin Park’s stately oaks. I only weigh a buck twenty, but my momentum bends the thick branch until it snaps off at the trunk.
I tumble past the lower branches and splash spread-eagled into the park’s oval fountain, accompanied by several twisted chairs, a burning desk, a fog of broken glass, and a blizzard of scorched papers. I gasp to the fountain’s surface while panicked civilians carry on like the floor show at a village idiot convention.
I slosh out of the water and weave back to headquarters. Smoke pours from Cyrus’s office, and squealing fire alarms overscore everyone’s terrified bellowing. I dog it across the front lobby and hustle up the stairs. ExOps staffers swiftly clatter down the steps past me.
I barge onto the seventh floor. “Cyrus!”
His office has disappeared. All six surfaces—walls, windows, floor, and ceiling—are gone. Fire sprinklers spray cold water everywhere. Much of my boss’s office furniture followed me out the window. The rest spilled into the sixth-floor office below. From beneath the tumbled heap of file cabinets and bookcases, someone’s muffled voice calls for help.
I drop into the room and begin dragging and tossing the pile into the sixth-floor hallway. Near the bottom, a man’s unshod foot sticks out from under a warped office door. I lift the door. It’s Frank Bell, Front Desk of the Russian Section.
I help Mr. Bell to his feet. He’s stunned, naturally—but besides a few bumps and a dusty coating of pulverized ceiling tile, he appears unhurt. Spraying water soaks into his hair and pulls white rivulets down his face. He looses a giant sneeze, then looks up at his shredded ceiling. “Good God,” he cries.
Cyrus comms, “Scarlet, where are you?”
“Where are you?”
“Up here, kiddo.”
I take a deep breath, squat down low, and sproing myself upstairs. I activate my millimeter-wave radar vision to see beyond the smoke and water. There! A shimmering green someone lies on the floor in the office next door under a jumble of mangled chairs and strips of burned carpet. My soaked boots advance through a snowstorm of shredded paperwork and tangled electric cable. Cyrus lies flat on his face.
“Hang on, boss. I’m here.” I lift a length of smoldering drywall off him.
He props himself on his elbows, coughs, and rolls onto his back. I drag him away from the gaping view of downtown D.C. His lifeless legs leave dark trails on the carpet. After I set him against a wall, he turns his burned face to me. “Scarlet,” he growls. “Go catch her.”
“No way, you need a Med-Tech.” I press one hand on each of his thighs to slow his bleeding. He’s got a neuroinjector, too, but CoAgs can’t clog wounds this big.
Cyrus shuts his eyes. “I thought there’d be more foreplay.” He hisses between his teeth. The dirt on his face is streaked by saliva. Cyrus comms, “Jakob’s never done anything so carelessly.”
I look around. Smashed ceiling lights shower sparks on the melted carpeting. Wind blows past the instant veranda ripped in the seventh floor.
G. T. Almasi graduated from RISD and moved to Boston to pursue a career as a graphic designer. While he built his design portfolio, he joined a band as the bass player, and wrote and designed the band’s newsletter. Once his career as an art director took off, he continued to supplement his design talents by writing copy for his clients. As a novelist, his literary influences include Robert Ludlum, Neal Stephenson, and Hunter S. Thompson. He also draws inspiration from John Woo’s movies and Todd Howard’s videogames. Almasi lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with his wife, Natalie, and their lovably stubborn dog, Ella.