Excerpt: The Firebird Deception

Book Two of the Strongbox Chronicles

A shadow separated itself from the darkness, black against the shaded greys and browns of a mountaintop night. Human in size, male in form, moving quickly and all but silently over stone and rubble. A dip in the craggy rock highlighted his profile against rich midnight blue sky, the faint colors of stars glittering as if caught in his hair.

Alisha went absolutely still, muscles in her arms trembling with the strain of holding herself from a ledge, fingertips dug into the stone. As long as she remained motionless she would be no more than he had been, one undiscovered shadow amongst thousands. She could see the path he took from the corner of her eye, could watch him cross further into her line of vision. In a moment he passed out of it, blocked from sight by her own aching biceps. Alisha curled her upper lip and cautiously lowered herself until her feet touched the earth, her weight barely disturbing the loose stone. She remained where she was a few seconds, forehead pressed against her still-uplifted arm while she tried to find a curse that was worth mouthing in the silence of the Pyrenees night.

There was a promise of winter in the air, coming earlier to the mountains than to the Spanish lowlands beneath them. That promise made each breath crisper than it might have in warmer climes, chill settling into her lungs and spreading through her body until her fingers tingled with the rush of extra oxygen.

It would be easy to forget who she was in the silence of the mountain night. Easy to become nothing more than what she appeared, a young woman hiking and climbing alone. Sunset was hours past, the night sky blue with darkness. That she chose to climb alone at such an hour said things about her. An adventurer, or a woman so intent on earning solitude that safety was a secondary concern.

It would be easy to forget, at least, if there was not another climber on the mountain, moving as quietly and quickly as Alisha herself was. He had no more business there than she did, which meant it was extremely likely that his business was the same as her own.

Somewhere not far ahead of her lay the black box from a downed American military spycraft, injured by a hand-carried earth-to-sky missile and wrecked in the Spanish mountains. The CIA was not supposed to be spying on its allies, and outside discovery of the craft’s remains would cause a furor at best. At worst it would re-open the breach made between so-called Old Europe and the United States. All she had to do was retrieve the black box. Any other remains were expected to be sufficiently cremated by the crash as to be unidentifiable.

It was supposed to be a routine mission, Alisha thought wryly. No complications. Get in, get the goods, get out.

What was supposed to be almost never was.

Alisha pushed away from the rock face, turning her attention to the shale and granite beneath her feet. This high up, there was comparatively little loose stone, which was good: it would allow her to approach her competitor with almost no warning.

She ran on her toes, gaze flickering from the ground in front of her to the shadows ahead of her, watching for the man’s movements in the darkness. A pack hugged her back, what gear she required huddled there, muffled so metal couldn’t clang and echo against the mountainsides, announcing her presence to whomever might be listening.

And someone was. Alisha hesitated at a sharp bend in the stone, calming her breathing before she cautiously glanced around the edge of rock. A run-off channel, left by millennia of melting snow water, bent around a switchback. It was the easiest course to take: her goal lay just beyond the switchback, only a little higher up on the mountainside. Had she been there first, it was the track she’d have taken. She could see the shape of her rival’s body further up that trail, and slipped behind the outcropping again, examining her other options.

The cliff that the switchback snaked around wasn’t quite sheer. Alisha studied it from her vantage point in the shadows, then curled her lip again and slipped her backpack off. When she’d had all night and no competition, climbing with only the faint light of the crescent moon and her own judgment had been a challenge. With someone already ahead of her, it was wiser, if less thrilling, to rely on the technology she had at hand. Night goggles fit snugly over her face, little more than sunglasses in weight.

The world went vividly green. Alisha took a few seconds, waiting until she was confident of the oddly colored brights and darknesses. She didn’t dare risk the metal crampons that were in her pack; the mountain wind shrieked noisily enough most of the time, but when it fell silent it was as if the world had paused to listen to every action she took. One clank of metal against rock would warn her predecessor of her arrival.

Alisha wriggled her toes in the boots she already wore. Form-fitting, they were poorly padded, not intended for running in, but the rubber pebbles that covered the bottoms were made up of microfilaments that stuck, lizard-like, to surfaces. It was first-generation technology, nowhere near strong enough to hold a woman’s full weight. The boots themselves would stick to the ceiling, and a rashly hopeful Alisha had found out the hard way that they wouldn’t do the same when she was in them. Even so, they provided a surety that had given her enough confidence to free-climb this far.

Her gloves were covered with the same pebbled microfilament. Alisha shrugged her backpack on again, fastening it around her waist with a knot instead of the plastic clip meant to hold it. Another question of quietness over practicality, just as her choice to go radio silent hours earlier had been. Climbing steep mountainsides was not a place to be interrupted by unexpected voices in her ear. Alisha grinned a little and stretched tall to work her fingers over a ledge hardly deeper than her first knuckle.

It was enough to give her purchase; enough to allow her the slow burn of muscle in her biceps as she drew herself higher with upper body strength alone. She liked to think of it as her gift, her secret weapon, a physical capability beyond most women. There were few enough opportunities to show it off: the point of a secret weapon was to only use it when necessary. Crushing a contact’s hand in a show of strength told him far more about her than it could tell her about him. But the mountainside would remain silent about her lapse into the sheer pleasure of physical exertion. Alisha jammed her toes into a crevasse in the rock, feeling the solid microfilament grip reduce some of the strain on her arms. Muscle trembled all the way to her spine, her core tightening to support her extremities as she pulled herself higher on the mountainside. Free climbing, the riskiest way to climb.

Risky, but silent, no more sound to it than her deliberately controlled breathing and the occasional chip of rock falling away as her fingers or feet brushed rubble from a ledge. There were no pieces of metal that might catch an unexpected light and betray her presence to a watcher, no partner to converse with and warn about bad pieces of rock. There was only herself and the mountain, one determined and the other uncaring. Each incremental upward movement took all of her physical attention, eyes and hands focused wholly on the task at hand, feet always testing and supporting her weight.

It left her mind surprisingly clear for thought. She saw it as a kind of Zen, her body wholly occupied and her thoughts separated from that. It was an ideal she sought through the practice of yoga–the art that was at least partly responsible for her strength–and that she found far more often in the midst of her job than any other time.
She hadn’t waited to see if her handler had approved her going radio silent. Alisha found another faint smile in herself, rather than the stab of guilt she suspected her handler would have preferred. Agents were intended to be self-reliant, but Alisha thought Gregory Parker would rather she was slightly more concerned with his directions.
She had been, once upon a time. Not that long ago, she reminded herself; not more than fifteen months ago. A mission had gone badly, leaving Alisha uncertain of where anyone’s loyalties lay, even her own.

Badly, she thought with a snort that bounced off the rock face, almost inaudible beneath the sound of the wind. More like disastrously, its final confrontation leaving more than one man dead and allowing a–

Alisha made another sound beneath her breath, more of a growl than she wanted to admit to. There were no words for Frank Reichart. Scoundrel was the kindest one she could think of, but it suggested a playful, loveable quality. There was truth to it: sometimes it seemed like only hours earlier that she’d been in love with him, found his roguish tendencies to be exciting and charming. But it had been over six years since they’d broken up–if Reichart shooting her qualified as something as mundane as “breaking up”–and now the term didn’t seem strong enough. The others she came up with lapsed into profanity.

Alisha cast her glance up the rock face, watching stars edging against stone, and let out her breath with calm deliberation. Reichart had made off with a piece of valuable robotics software and then gone to ground so thoroughly that in fifteen months no one, not the CIA, not MI6 and not the Russian FSB, had verifiably reported his whereabouts.
Which might have been just as well, Alisha thought, not for the first time. As a CIA agent she was supposed to be emotionally distant from her missions and the contacts she made during them. Alisha only felt that distance in what she considered to be her worst moments: she wanted to feel. Anything else seemed to be a half-life to her, even dangerous as emotional involvement might be.

But to admit to that would be openly compromising her position as an agent. She’d found a way to deal with it, albeit a way that was far from Agency-sanctioned. The notebooks that tallied her own missions were locked in safety deposit boxes around the world, emotional missives that gave truth to the woman behind the dry mission reports that the CIA expected. The idea that her personal journals of the espionage world as she encountered it might someday be discovered by someone else gave Alisha a peculiar satisfaction, for all that it was unlikely. The safety deposit boxes were opened under her aliases, and she never returned for the journals once they were put away, but it felt like leaving her mark: a way in which she could let the world know she’d existed, and what she’d done with her time.

One of the more recent ones lay safely in Milan, and would tell any reader how much emotion had been revived when Frank Reichart had come back into her life.

Gravel slipped under her fingers, sending her jolting down several inches before her feet caught the last ledge she’d stood on. Alisha’s heart rate soared, sending tremors through her hands and making her stomach sour with bile as she listened to the sound of rock bouncing against the cliff face she climbed, finally bumping and rolling to a clattering stop somewhere below her. She leaned into the cool rock face, trying to breathe steadily instead of taking gulps of air past the knot of panic in her throat. There would be no new Strongbox Chronicle if she wasn’t careful. There would be no completed mission at all, especially with her radio already off and no way for her handler to trace her beyond the last location he’d had. And clumsiness like that would warn her rival that someone else was on the mountain.

Alisha turned her head just far enough to look over her shoulder at the drop below her. No more than dozens of feet, but the distance was swallowed by darkness, even with the night goggles on. A fall might finish her before morning came.

Look up, she whispered to herself, silently. Focusing on the fall was a sure way to work herself into making it. Alisha turned her gaze upward again, examining the crevasses and juts of the stone. The cliff tilted inward a few degrees only several feet higher, the slope more visible thanks to the changing line of visible stars than to a real ability to see in the dark. Nearly to the top, she promised herself. And then she’d see what there was to be seen.
There wouldn’t be much, from the briefing she’d been given. Alisha dug her toes into the rock face again and pushed herself up, searching for purchase for her hands. The surveillance aircraft had crashed into the mountainside through careless handling, but the box was thought to have survived, and was considered to carry critical enough information to retrieve it.

Besides, Alisha thought, humping over the tilt in the cliff face, it would be embarrassing if some Spanish intelligence agent or tourist happened on it instead of the CIA. The flyer was believed to have been destroyed in the impact, but the United States wasn’t supposed to be spying on its ally, so the nearly indestructible black box still required retrieval.

Alisha pulled herself up the last few centimeters, using the edge of the ridge as her cover as she studied the ground below. The brilliant greens lent to the scene by the night goggles made it look like an alien landscape, glowing softly with scattered pieces of wreckage.

Scattered pieces, but not enough. Caution crept down Alisha’s spine and over her skin in a series of prickles that settled in her stomach, curdling into a warning nausea there. Too much was wrong with the scene below her. Skid marks blackened a stretch of mountain stone, the ancient tumble of erosion undone by a man-made object leaving its mark. A fire had scored the mountainside where that object had stopped, but the aircraft’s crescent was lodged into the wall, only partially damaged.

Nor was it the blunt-winged aerial surveillance design she’d expected. The machine, even half-wrecked, was sleek and brilliantly white in the peculiar light afforded by the night goggles. The curve of its wing was as much artistic as functional, bringing the idea of a death glider to Alisha’s mind. The technology behind it was clearly not from any CIA or U.S. military-sanctioned specs or programs.

But she recognized it with a painful jolt, a familiarity that made her heart feel as though it’d been yanked lower into her chest. The damaged blasters that dangled from the aircraft’s wings brought visceral memory to mind, blood-pounding fear and excitement of facing those same lasers on a ground-based combat machine called an Attengee. That drone had been the handiwork of Brandon Parker, her handler’s son. The Attengee drones had a frightening lifelikeness to them, not in their spherical metallic bodies or the long ratcheting legs that propelled them, but in the artificial intelligence that drove them. The AI had been built for the purpose of warfare, and was remorseless in its dedication.
The smashed glider in the mountain gully below was younger brother to the Attengee drones, the next generation of intelligent combat machines.

Alisha’s fingers cramped against the cold stone, making her aware she was holding onto the earth as if she might fly away from it. Brandon Parker had been taken into custody over a year ago, pending an investigation of his loyalties. Greg had never mentioned Brandon’s release from custody, or that he might be working again. Had never mentioned the outcome of the investigation, even though his own allegiance had been in question. His resumption of his duties as her handler indicated that he’d been cleared, even if Brandon, whose purported mission was much deeper than Greg’s, hadn’t yet been. Bureaucracies moved slowly, so Alisha hadn’t pressed the point.

Bureaucracies moved slowly, she thought now. Military tribunals–which was much more like what Brandon would have faced–often moved very quickly indeed. It was possible it had been concluded months ago.

More than possible. The shattered drone in the gorge told her it was almost a certainty. The only other possibility was that someone else entirely had developed the new robot. That someone might be the man whose trail had forged ahead of hers, and her mission cover might be nothing more than that: a cover, because she didn’t need to know. Alisha flattened her mouth in annoyance, then let it go with a shrug. It was one of the prices paid for working in espionage. She didn’t always know the truth behind what she did, and had to put her faith in the hierarchy she belonged to, trusting that her actions were for the greater good.

And for the moment, she had a mission. She drew herself over the ravine’s edge, muscles relaxing in a moment’s relief for the change of position. Even slithering her full length down the canyon’s side left her several feet above its floor. Alisha cast a glance over her shoulder, judging the texture of the rocky earth. A boulder was lodged near the mouth of the gully, a few smaller stones scattered around it, but no shale; perhaps winter run-off had taken all the broken rock away long ago. Alisha gave a brief nod and pushed back from the wall, making a jump to reach the ground. She grunted out a soft breath as she landed, absorbing the impact with her knees, and took another instant to study the gulch.

She was alone. The switchback trail must have been longer than she’d guessed it to be: the man hadn’t yet reappeared. Alisha pressed her lips together, deciding on a course of patience. Whatever her rival wanted, she didn’t like the option of leaving her back to him as she scavenged the aircraft’s remains. She could keep the element of surprise by hanging back now, and disable him once he’d gotten what he wanted from the glider. If it was delicate, all the better: he’d react like someone with something to protect, making it easier for her to achieve victory.

Footsteps, almost noiseless against the rock, sounded behind her. Alisha faded further into the shadows, hidden behind the boulder. Peering out afforded her a view of most of the canyon. It was only moments before the man appeared, dark-haired and broad-shouldered in the green vision of Alisha’s night goggles. He hesitated just beyond the boulder, studying the ravine just as Alisha had done. She drew in her next breath slowly, deliberately, as if doing so might turn her invisible to his gaze and ears.

Instead he turned toward her more fully, still examining the canyon, as if she’d betrayed herself with that breath.
And she did, as his profile came into focus, pale against the dark green sky and mountains. Good sense and training were thrown away in a wash of anger and disbelief. Alisha stood, yanking the night goggles off and throwing them to the side in pure outrage.