SYNOPSIS: The Cardinal Rule

Alisha MacAleer is on the run. A mission’s gone badly, and when she gets the stolen data back to her handler, Greg Parker, it turns out the information on the disc is worse than she could have imagined: Brandon Parker, Greg’s son, has been verified as a clear and present danger to the security of the United States. A robotics expert, he’s developed a prototype artificial intelligence drone intended for combat–the next generation of weapons of mass destruction. Alisha is sent in to obtain the prototype, destroy Brandon’s research material, and, if necessary, eliminate Brandon himself.

Alisha enters the military complex where Brandon is doing his work as a prospective buyer for the AI drones. Brandon’s prototype proves to be not only closer to completion than the CIA estimated, but much more sophisticated. Their own AI programs are rudimentary; they anticipated Brandon producing the same.

Instead, Brandon’s developed a non-humanoid combat drone capable of dozens of fine-tuned decisions: his AI can determine approach routes based on satellite-provided topographical information, can deduce approximate numbers of enemy troops by infrared heat sensors that examine the air above suspected enemy locations; it even has a self-sacrifice protocol which will allow it to make a kamakazie run beneath tank wheels–and it has armor-piercing capabilities that will allow it to force grenades through the shell of the vehicle running over it. Best of all, Brandon very smugly shows her something that the CIA utterly failed to anticipate: a dozen of the prototypes.

Alisha watches a demo with the prototypes, which work together extremely well. They boost and lift one another over rough terrain, functioning as a single unit. Brandon explains that their artificial intelligence works over a self-contained wireless network, creating the communcation channels necessary for them to do their job. They are, he is convinced, perfect combat drones. His enthusiasm is almost enough to make Alisha forget he’s a possible target for elimination; he’s attractive, intelligent, and dedicated. Alisha retreats to consider how to proceed: it would be far more useful to bring Brandon in than to kill him. She decides to take the risk and try to convert him to the side of good. In the meantime, she’s got other problems.

The first is the fact that there are a dozen of the AIs. She’d anticipated having to steal one; now she’s got to steal one and destroy another eleven. Furthermore, with the dozen prototypes, a method of production seems likely, even if it’s not quite at mass-production levels. Alisha has to find the production factory and destroy it, as well.

She follows the money. The man financing the AI project is Laurie King, a reclusive British billionaire with a particular loathing for the waste created by war. It’s his hope that the AIs will at least reduce the human cost of war, too cynical to believe that humanity might actually cease fighting. Alisha asks to meet him and see the production facilities, as she believes her employers will want more than a mere dozen drones.

She’s brought to the production facility and discovers, to her dismay, that they’re on the verge of mass production. But even worse, a second operative arrives on the scene: Frank Reichart, a freelancer who sometimes works for the CIA. Alisha is certain he’ll blow her cover; her dealings with him in the past have been laced with bitterness and betrayal. At one time, in fact, they were engaged–but their breakup was explosive, quite literally. Alisha barely escaped with her life, and now wouldn’t trust Reichart with a dog she liked, much less weapons of mass destruction.

Reichart’s story is that he’s representing another buyer, which Alisha has no reason to disbelieve: Frank’s loyalty is to cash, not country. But within a few hours of Reichart’s arrival, Brandon confronts Alisha with the fact that she’s not only CIA, but that his father is her handler. Alisha, sure that Frank’s betrayed her–again–denies any CIA connections, as she must, but the rappaport she was beginning to share with Brandon is destroyed.

Brandon, testing Alisha’s loyalties, ‘lets slip’ a rumor about a third buyer. He names a secret organization primed to take world power and suggests that if she’s a freelancer prepared to work for the highest bidder–which is what she’s claimed in face of his accusations that she’s CIA–that she might want to sign on with this unnamed third party. Alisha mockingly calls it the Illuminati and agrees to listen to what Brandon has to say, hoping to re-establish trust.

Brandon suggests that the financier behind the AI project isn’t as driven by altruistic intentions as he pretends to be. Alisha, both to protect herself and her fictional employers’ interests, is obliged to see if Brandon has told the truth. He has: King works for a shadowy organization that does, in fact, seem to have things in common with the legendary Illuminati. But as she does her research, Brandon disappears, taking all his research–and the most advanced of the AI drones–with him. As she’s searching the production facility for him, Alisha overhears Frank making an urgent, quiet phone call to a CIA operative she thought dead. Feeling suddenly and wholly on her own, Alisha begins to wonder if she might just be up against something bigger than she can see.

Obliged to move even if she doesn’t understand everything that’s going on around her, Alisha goes after Brandon. Frank, in turn, goes after her. Alisha’s furious: no matter who he’s working for, Frank is using her trail to his own ends. They chase Brandon halfway around the globe, Frank claiming to be along to help her. They have a moment in Paris–the city they met in–where it seems Alisha might just believe him after all, and they share a passionate kiss.

Then Alisha cold-cocks him and leaves him in the gutter. She chases Brandon down, finally catching him in Moscow. Brandon’s desire to run seems to be shattered: exhausted, he agrees to give himself up and enter CIA protective custody. Alisha, relieved, moves to put him in cuffs–and is attacked by the combat drone Brandon brought with him. Alisha manages to disarm it by electrocuting it and frying its circuits, but as she struggles to her feet, Brandon lifts a gun on her.

A shot is fired, but it’s Brandon who falls. When Alisha turns in bewilderment, it’s to find Frank in the doorway behind her, crooked-smile with apology. Furious and confused, Alisha accuses Frank of working with the Illuminati, an accusation that’s turned on its ear when the warehouse is invaded by a dozen armed men wearing uniforms with a sunrise symbol emblazoned on them. Frank and Alisha are suddenly in a fight for their lives, and when Frank is shot, Alisha rides a blind fury that carries her through the battle and ultimately saves Frank’s life. Only a few of the Illuminati mercenaries escape, and they take Brandon’s body with them.

Alisha feels at a loss: Frank’s turned out to be the good guy and Brandon the bad guy. Worst of all, once the rage of battle wears off, she realizes that a disturbingly familiar voice was giving orders during the warehouse fight: she’s afraid it was her handler, Greg Parker.

Alisha doesn’t dare confront Greg with her fears, or report her suspicions to the CIA, until she has proof, but proof is still a long way away. Determined to learn the secrets behind the Illuminati, and uncertain of almost everyone around her, she returns to America and the CIA, distrustful of Greg but determined to find out who he’s really working for.

Ironically, the only person she now feels she can trust is Frank Reichart. Their romance is a long way from rekindled, but for once as far as Frank is concerned, Alisha sees nothing to lose, and perhaps everything to gain. She’s not convinced he’s not working for the Illuminati, but if he is, at least he’s a way for her to get inside without raising too much suspicion. It’s a cynical, dangerous game she’s playing, but Alisha would rather play than be played. Her story will be continued in THE FIREBIRD DECEPTION and THE PHOENIX LAW.