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January 1993

Luanda, Republic of Angola

As it turned out, the first big job that Administrative Actions got was in Angola. Following the breakdown of the elections, the country had descended back into civil war, and the government offered cash for help, which AA was happy to provide.

In January Jan visited Luanda, yet another of the things he’d never expected to do. Drinking in a bar in a downtown hotel had had its façade blown away by machine gun and grenade fire in the post-election fighting mere months before, he ran into Piter. His company had taken a contract with the Angolan government, too, it seemed.

It was comforting to talk to an old friend, but the talk itself about things back home (because for Jan the Transvaal would always be home) only rammed home the feeling that up was down, black was white, and nothing made sense anymore.

Here they were, South Africans, fighting against their old friends UNITA on behalf of their old enemy, the MPLA, to protect the investments of an American oil company doing business with a government that a mere year and a half earlier had called itself Marxist-Leninist. In doing so they were using equipment made by the Soviet Communists who’d been the MPLA’s backers (often, the very same equipment), sold to them by capitalist Russians, and much of it operated for them by ex-Soviet soldiers now turned mercenary. (One of them, a burly helicopter pilot named Ingvar, had actually been at the “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale,” on the other side.)

Human affairs seemed a maddening whirl, and there seemed nothing for him to do but cling to his Faith, though right now he remembered something an English South African had said to him – “Malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man.” Some poem, Jan guessed, from the ring of the words.

Jan and Piter drank to the sentiment.

March 1993

Westlake, Ohio

“The brain drain is on, and we’re milking it for all it’s worth,” Jorgenson told Russell. “It’s going to continue for a while, too. But we can only strip-mine the Soviet Union’s stocks of human and technical resources for so long. We have to be ready to move on to other objects if we’re going to stay viable.” Read: if you’re going to stay out of the unemployment line.

One of those objects was giving more attention to the wilder and more arcane corners of the “technological frontier.” Jorgenson had Wright check out a number of events that seemed promising. The latest was an invitation to a NASA-sponsored symposium in Westlake.

Having been raised in the Bay Area, gone to school there, got his first job there, and then crossed the continent east to work for the CIA in Virginia, it was for Russell a rare foray into the interior of the country, though not very far from the sorts of urban areas he’d spent his whole life in. Westlake was just a short drive from downtown Cleveland.

The symposium itself was held at the local Holiday Inn. There Wright listened to a mathematician going on about something he called “the Singularity,” which sounded rather like some of the things Jorgenson had talked to him about with increasing frequency since the ellipton affair.

It seemed to the speaker that there would be an “intelligence explosion,” with growing computing power appearing the most likely cause, though he didn’t rule out a biotechnological basis for the change. (A biotech “Singularity” seemed even less likely to Wright than a superhumanly intelligent computer. Despite what some of the talking heads were saying, he didn’t think they’d be cloning dinosaurs any time soon, either.) He then outlined an assortment of science fiction scenarios that managed to sound momentous while also appearing to be wild guesses founded on the validity of a presumption Russell didn’t buy.

After the presentation was over, Russell found himself speaking to a bearded attendee who wanted to know what he thought of it all.

“You mean the end of life as we know it by two thousand and five?” Russell asked. “It’s interesting, but I’m not convinced.”

“Frankly, I’m less worried about the machines taking over than what the people who control the machines might do at that stage,” the bearded man said. “Think about it. The rich who own everything won’t need anybody else anymore, not with all that artificial intelligence there to do the work. They’ll just become surplus population. And if history’s any guide, the haves are not going to be inclined to share the wealth. They just might get rid of the have-nots and keep everything to themselves.”

“I . . . haven’t really thought about it,” Wright said, uncomfortable with this line of reasoning. He had a feeling there was no arguing with this logic, but he didn’t want to agree with a stranger saying such things. Especially in public.

“Excuse me,” he said, seizing the first chance to get away, pretending he had somewhere else he had to be.

He felt embarrassed at ducking out this way, but the feeling didn’t last long. It was just too unreal, debating things like this at a conference, but then there was an air of unreality about the whole thing, that wacko Silicon Valley idea of techno-transcendence too heavy in the air. (Now that he thought about it, the bearded man was the only guy he’d met here who seemed to recognize there was a world outside their sleek and too-tidy little thought-universe.)

Maybe Jorgenson was right about the company needing new competencies to stay viable, Russell thought. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t think of a way to spin these predictions into a revenue stream.

Then again, the point wasn’t to come up with an idea that he found persuasive, but which might be convincing to a suitable mark. After all, how many times had he thought to himself that the game he’d played nearly his whole adult life was founded on the abundance of suckers in control of big budgets?

But conceiving a racket wasn’t something that came naturally to him. At bottom, he just wasn’t a con artist. If Argus was to base a con on this idea, someone else would have to work it out.

October 1993

Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan

Emma and Magsud left the Defense Ministry building, got into their Mercedes and drove back to the hotel.

“I think someone got to them first,” Magsud said as they traveled along a shoreline gray with oil. (He was a recent hire for Argus, an Iranian-born Azeri-American who’d worked for American intelligence in the ’80s; here on the trip mainly because of his command of the local language.) “And they’ve got enough pull here to make sure they don’t get sold out afterward.”

Maybe the Russian intelligence services were locking them out, Emma knew, but that wasn’t the only possibility. There were so many parties out here cutting deals that any guessing game was bound to turn into a useless list of usual suspects.

Just moving through the city, listening to the languages spoken around them, looking at the faces in front of them, making a bit of small talk here and there, she’d encountered people from at least a dozen nationalities, and from every continent but Antarctica. It was their money that bought the other imported cars she saw on the streets, and paid the bills at the hotels and the restaurants and the bars with which Baku was already replete.

Of course, the vast majority of them weren’t the least bit interested in UFOs. They’d come for the same black gold that seemed to coat everything in this country, and permeate its air. They believed that the reserves underneath and around the Caspian remained considerable a hundred and twenty years after the first barrel of crude was pumped out of a well in this same city.

Even the war to the west, which had just seen the Armenians capture several provinces, didn’t stop them coming. Nor did the troubles to the north, where after two years of bitter wrangling the Russian President was in a stand-off against his own legislature, dominated by politicians who had never accepted the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin had dissolved the Duma, and refusing to recognize his action, they had invalidated his presidency. Supporters of the parliament had rallied to the defense of the White House, so that this time it was Yeltsin who was using the army and the police against the crowds in the streets.

The last she’d seen, some of the defenders of the parliament had stormed the City Hall, and the Ostankino television station. (She remembered footage from the day before of a man with a moustache who’d walked through a cheering throng, swinging a big key like a trophy.)

The spectacle made Emma nervous. She’d never expected to watch a coup in Moscow again from a country with Russian troops inside it, and likely at their mercy given its proven inability to defend itself.

“So what do we do now?” Magsud asked.

“I don’t know, but sticking around any longer is pointless,” Emma asked. “I’ll see about catching a flight out.”


They’d pass on what they’d learned, hope they could figure out who else was in on the game, and what their rivals so badly hoped to find, and maybe if they were just wasting their time or really onto something.

Emma’s bet was on the former. The only time she’d come close to anything that seemed important had been during the ellipton affair in Russia almost two years before, and right now she wasn’t sure how much the thing for which they’d risked their lives – and in some cases, lost their lives – actually mattered. (She didn’t expect her bosses to share those kinds of details, of course. But doing what she did, wouldn’t she have been bound to hear or see something, somewhere, if it was all as important as she’d been led to believe?)

Frankly, she didn’t know how much longer her assignment with Argus would continue, in light of the poor returns they’d been getting on their efforts, and Russia’s being a no-go area for her since her mission there in February 1992. As things were, Nick had already left the company, taking a job with an export firm doing business in Eastern Europe.

They pulled up in front of the hotel and went to their separate rooms. Back inside hers, Emma turned on the television, more for noise than anything else while she got her things together for the trip home.

She saw a shot of the Moscow White House on the screen.

An explosion crumbled part of the building’s façade.

She stopped what she was doing for a bit, sat down on the edge of the bed, and watched.

The blast had come from a shell fired by a tank gun. A tank in a unit that had taken Yeltsin’s side, the Russian President proving more resolute in his use of force than the coup plotters of August ’91 he’d so famously opposed, when it was Yeltsin who was barricaded inside that very building he now had his troops besieging.

Emma soon realized the images weren’t live. The building had already been stormed, the battle won, the recalcitrant parliamentarians taken into custody before she’d even turned on the telly. Soon enough the commentary got repetitive in that way that told her they had nothing left to add.

Now that it was all over Emma supposed this couldn’t have ended any other way, and that even if they had, the anti-reformist forces couldn’t have done things differently. As un-Marxist a moment as this seemed, Emma thought of a line she’d heard attributed to that philosopher: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, something like that. A farce was all the whole episode could have ever been . . .

Still, just as some could only see a bad joke in the hammer and sickle, there were plenty of people who had told her things were better before, and meant it, and she didn’t think they’d be going away soon. Neither were the discontents of the moment. The mess the Soviets had made was just that big, she supposed, bigger than even their biggest detractors had guessed.

There were some prominent Russian nationalists who even thought the damage had even been genetic, that all the killing under Stalin had wiped out the most vital elements in the gene pool. She didn’t think population genetics worked that way, and frankly that kind of talk made her very uncomfortable indeed, but it was the sort of thing being said all the same. And it reminded her that even if there was no going back, the places they might yet go could be very dark indeed.

March 1994

Moscow, R.F.

Konstantin Gubin knew a former colleague who talked unceasingly about the “good old days.” About his big office and the Mercedes and driver he’d rated, and the in-house Finnish masseuse chased out by the wives of the senior men in the organization. About his comfortable postings in Brussels, Copenhagen, Bonn, and the privileges that went with them.

He was driving a cab now without a license, and calling himself a “security consultant,” but he wasn’t getting ahead, how could he? He may have been an adequate operative abroad, maybe even a good one, but he didn’t have what it took to get ahead right here, right now (which was probably why that pretty farm girl he’d married took off). At heart the man wasn’t a New Russian.

Not like me, Gubin thought as he walked out of the American-style steakhouse, into a hotel lobby full of large men with gun bulges under their leather jackets, or that straighter than usual posture that hinted at a weapon tucked into their pants at the small of their back. Passing the floor-to-ceiling window fronting the health club he noticed a tall, runway model-like blond on a stair-climbing machine on the other side of the glass. She was wearing a white T-shirt over her leotard that read MAFIA, the letters stenciled in black across her chest.

That was something to flaunt, now. Moscow was like Chicago in the days of Prohibition, he thought. Or the Miami he’d seen in Scarface. That Tony Montana – he was nobody, just a refugee off the boat, who’d probably come from the bottom of Cuban society. He wasn’t an especially strong man, or particularly smart. (Frankly, he was a crude, none-too-bright oaf.) He wasn’t a natural-born leader. But he was hungry, and that hunger took him all the way to the top.

Gubin got into his newly imported Audi and drove to his next meet, over at the Up and Down Club. He’d been there just once before. During his visit he was surprised at being made to walk through a metal detector at the door and turn over his gun before entering the premises. He was surprised by the prices too – a hundred American dollars for a cognac, and more than a working stiff made in a year just for the appetizers (beluga, oysters, foie gras, lobster charlotte) spread over his host’s table. Surprised, and intimidated. But he wouldn’t be that for much longer. He was making a deal this time, the deal which would set him for life.

* * *

Colonel Zuyev had never believed the promises of those who said things would get better, and every single day he saw his mistrust validated. The price rises just went on and on until everyone’s savings and paychecks turned to dust. Not that many people were getting paychecks, because everyone was out of a job, or if they still had a job, had their wages in arrears.

Driving down the street he saw the people on the sidewalks, especially the pensioners, the panhandlers – one an old man selling the medals his grandchildren were probably ashamed of (such was the corruption of their historical memory), a middle-aged woman hawking underwear, probably what her employers paid her with instead of currency. At the crosswalk he noticed a headscarf-wearing babushka standing on a street corner, squinting through thick glasses at the passing traffic with a crate of fruit under her arm like she’d made up her mind to sell it but didn’t know how to go about it, and maybe never would, while the listless little boy apparently in her care sat on the pavement.

He noticed, too that the young men in the military uniforms were begging; conscripts who were robbed by corrupt officers of the little money they got their hands on, some of whom made them stand out there like this to make them still more money.

It was unthinkable that this could go on, but go on it did, he remembered, driving past the White House. He’d been away at the time of the attack on the building, in Kaliningrad on an assignment for General Biriuzov, so he’d only seen the events at a distance.

He’d wished he was standing on the barricades in defense of the Supreme Soviet, and he’d had an idea that he’d join the building’s defenders when he returned, but the confrontation was all over by then. There was just the wreck of the building, smashed by the army’s tanks on the orders of the “democrat” so beloved by the West who didn’t find the “rule of law” to his liking at that particular moment. And so the reign of the criminals went on, the other people he saw in the streets walking in and out of fancy hotels and restaurants and clubs, riding by in luxurious Western cars. The “winners” in the game, people who’d been well-connected, and unscrupulous, and embraced the “market” with all the fervor of converts.

“Good” Communist managers who simply decided the State property they’d been charged with was their personal property, and quite obscure persons who somehow acquired vast state enterprises for a song. Architects of pyramid schemes, and currency speculators who cleaned up while the value of the ruble people lived on dropped through the floor. Peddlers of drugs and flesh and stolen guns (he thought again of that bastard Stepanenkov, out of the armed forces but now heading up a private military services company, “Etna Enterprises”) and pilfered natural resources and what was euphemistically called “protection.” All of them, burning their money with all the abandon of the nouveau riche they were, all as Western bankers, economists and journalists lionized them as culture heroes and sang the glories of this “democracy.”

There were a lot of the type where Zuyev was heading, a club called the Up and Down, not far from which he parked and watched and waited.

He’d heard of it long before this assignment, same as everyone else. Stupid, vulgar place, he’d thought from what he’d read in the newspaper article, with its little museum of Hollywood memorabilia, and its disgusting little entertainments, like feeding live animals to crocodiles and predatory fish kept in tanks for the entertainment of the mobsters and their cronies and their whores.

To go by what Zuyev had seen of the man his team was following, a traitor in their own organization named Konstantin Gubin, the place suited him.

Of course, stupidity and vulgarity weren’t actionable offenses.

However, trafficking in nuclear materials was.

Zuyev’s bosses decided Gubin’s activities couldn’t be tolerated anymore, but didn’t want him prosecuted in a formal trial either. He was to be eliminated instead, in what was supposed to look like a gangland slaying.

He viewed an action with even the appearance of adding to the city’s run of mob-related killing with considerable distaste, but to stop Gubin and his compatriots it seemed by far the lesser evil.

Zuyev watched Gubin leave the club and radioed word of the departure. One of his people would follow Gubin for a stretch, perhaps the man’s last drive. When he got back to his apartment building one of Zuyev’s men would be there waiting in the lobby. He’d do the job quick and quiet and clean, with a garrote.

A week after that, nobody would even remember the man. Gubin probably wouldn’t even be a memory.

August 1995

New York City

Nicholas McNab drove a Lexus now, the trade-up from his old car when it came time to get a replacement one of his few indulgences.

Even with more money coming in, they stayed in the same house. They had to pay for Kate’s classes, after all, and while she was most of the way to her degree and her new career, there was the kids’ college to think of too. (Kevin was going next year, and he was intent on heading out of state.) They were putting money aside for that, and for all the other things they hadn’t been able to think of for a long time.

They were actually turning some of that money over to a broker. Kate had been hesitant, but he’d managed to talk her into it. After all, the last few quarters had been good ones, and the Dow Jones and NASDAQ both continued to move in the right direction.

Just the other day he’d told his guy at Merrill Lynch to buy shares in that company he’d been hearing so much about lately. The one putting out that new software operating system.

It seemed like he couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about it, and looking out at the city skyline from his rooftop restaurant he was surprised to see the Empire State Building – the Empire State Building – lit up in the red, yellow and green of their product’s logo.

It all gave him the feeling that something big was happening, bigger even than when he’d had a front-row seat to the revolution that toppled Ceausescu.

The talk of ultra-nationalist and neo-Communist take-over in Russia bringing on a New Cold War was fading; those guys had had their shot, and they’d blown it. The same went for the anxiety about the industrial world fragmenting into hostile trading blocs, and the gloomy talk of an America in decline in the face of superior foreign management. The brief preoccupation with industrial espionage as a successor to the Cold War spy game accordingly proved short-lived.

Geopolitics had had its day, Nick thought, even that later form in which business was war. Among the people Nick met in the airport lounges and on his flights, in the hotels and the restaurants, in the meetings and conferences, there was something else instead. It was a vision of a thriving, humane global village knit together by the new communications technologies symbolized by the very colors that now decorated that famous New York skyscraper.

Nick remembered in particular a plane ride during which he’d sat next to a newspaper columnist who casually tossed around an assortment of theories about the new shape of the world. He noted that no two countries that had a McDonald’s in them had ever fought a war against each other; that two countries so well-integrated into the global economy as to host the franchise necessarily rejected such warfare as not in their best interest.

It had initially seemed facetious to Nick, but he found himself thinking of his visit to Moscow, during which he’d sat in the big Golden Arches on Pushkin Square, and how despite all the bumps in the road, Russia was still basically at peace with the West, and making peace with its Asian neighbors as well.

“It’s like a modern-day olive branch,” the columnist went on. “Except that McDonald’s has spread farther and wider than the Romans ever dreamed.”

So Europe integrated (he saw it himself, every time the company sent him), and Asia boomed, while Latin America picked up steam, and it seemed impossible that even Africa would be left behind for very long. The world had discovered the secret of getting rich, after all, just a matter of properly opening up economies to investment – the “Golden Herd” as that portly, mustached newspaperman called it, letting the latent entrepreneurial talent come forth and realize itself. Just by doing that, the most benighted parts of the world had shown that they could multiply their income tenfold in a generation’s time, lifting themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps.

A nationalist whack job in some backward part of the world might make noises, a terrorist might set off a bomb, but the march toward the brave new world of which Davos dreamed was unstoppable.

Looking at the Windows logo Nick felt, more than he ever had before that not only had they beat the Cold War enemy, but that they’d won the war, and his chest swelled with pride at the part he played in that victory.

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