As you may know, BRILLIANCE, by Marcus Sakey was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, and Marcus was kind enough to provide me with Chapter 1 of the book to share with you here! Enjoy!
Chapter One of Brilliance
A novel by Marcus Sakey
Excerpted with permission
The radio host had said there was a war coming, said it like he was looking forward to it, and Cooper, coatless and chilly in the desert evening, was thinking that the radio man was an asshole.
He’d chased Vasquez for nine days now. Someone had warned the programmer just before Cooper got to the Boston walk-up, a brick rectangle where the only light had been a window onto an airshaft and the glowing red eyes of power indicators on computers and routers and surge protectors. The desk chair had been against the far wall as if someone had leaped out of it, and steam still rose from an abandoned bowl of ramen.
Vasquez had run, and Cooper had followed.
He’d gotten a hit on a forged credit card in Cleveland. Two days later a security camera tagged Vasquez renting a car in Knoxville. Nothing for a while, then he’d picked up the trail briefly in Missouri, then nothing again, then a near-miss this morning in a tiny Arkansas town called Hope.
The last twelve hours had been tense, everyone seeing the Mexican border looming large, and beyond it, the wide world into which someone like Vasquez could vanish. But with each move the abnorm made, Cooper got better at predicting the next. Like peeling away layers of tissue paper to reveal the object beneath, a vague form began to resolve into the pattern that defined his target.
Alex Vasquez, twenty-three, five eight, a face you wouldn’t notice and a mind that could see the logic of computer programs unfolding in three dimensions, who didn’t so much write code as transcribe it. Who had waltzed through MIT’s graduate program at age fifteen. Vasquez had a talent of wondrous power, the kind they used to say happened only once a generation.
They didn’t say that anymore.
The bar was in the first floor of a small hotel on the outskirts of San Antonio. Cooper made himself a bet as he walked in. Neon signs for Shiner Bock, smoke-stained drop ceiling, jukebox in the corner, pool table with worn felt, chalkboard with specials. Female bartender, a blonde showing dark roots.
The specials turned out to be on a dry-erase board, and the bartendress was a redhead. Cooper smiled. About half the tables were occupied, mostly men but a few women too. The tabletops held plastic pitchers and cigarette packs and cell phones. The music was too loud, some country-rock act he didn’t know:
Normal was good enough for my grand-daddee,
Normal’s all I want to be,
Normal men built the USA,
Normal men taught me how to play.
Cooper pulled out a high-backed stool, sat down, tapped out the beat on the bar with his fingertips. He’d heard once that the essence of country music was three chords and the truth. Well, the three chords part still stands.
“What can I get you, hon?” The roots of her red hair were dark.
“Just coffee.” He glanced sideways. “And get her another Bud, would you? She’s about done with that one.”
The woman on the stool beside him was peeling the label off her longneck. The knuckles of her right hand brightened for a moment, and her T-shirt tightened at the shoulders. “Thanks, but no.”
“Don’t worry.” Cooper flashed a wide smile. “I’m not hitting on you. Just had a good day, thought I’d share the mood.”
She hesitated, then nodded, the motion catching light on a slender gold necklace. “Thanks.”
They went back to looking straight ahead. A row of bottles lined the back of the bar, and behind them faded snapshots had been tacked up in a collage. A lot of smiling strangers hanging on each other, holding up beer bottles, all of them seeming to be having a great time. He wondered how old the photos were, how many of the people in them still drank here, how their lives had changed, which had died. Photographs were a funny thing. They were out of date the moment they were taken, and a single photograph rarely revealed much of anything. But put a series together and patterns emerged. Some were obvious: haircuts, weight gained or lost, fashion trends. Others required a particular kind of eyes to see. “You staying here?”
“Your accent. You don’t sound local.”
“Neither do you.”
“Nope,” Cooper said. “Just passing through. Be gone tonight, everything goes well.”
The redhead returned with his coffee, then pulled a beer from a cooler, the bottle dripping ice water. She spun an opener from her back pocket with easy grace. “Four dollars.”
Cooper set a ten on the bar, watched the woman make change. She was a pro, returned six singles rather than a five and a one, made it easy for him to tip extra. Someone at the other end of the bar yelled, “Sheila, sweetheart, I’m dying here,” and the bartendress headed away with a practiced smile.
Cooper took a sip of coffee. It was burned and watery. “You hear there was another bombing? Philadelphia this time. I was listening to the radio on the way in. Talk radio, some redneck. He said a war was coming. Told us to open our eyes.”
“Who’s us?” The woman spoke to her hands.
“Around here, I’m pretty sure ‘us’ means Texans, and ‘them’ means the other seven billion on the planet.”
“Sure. Because there aren’t any brilliants in Texas.”
Cooper shrugged, took another sip of his coffee. “Fewer than some other places. The same percentage are born here, but they tend to move to more liberal areas with larger population density. Greater tolerance, and more chance to be with their own kind. There are gifted in Texas, but you’ll find more per capita in Los Angeles or New York.” He paused. “Or Boston.”
Alex Vasquez’s fingers went white around her bottle of Bud. She’d been slouching before, the lousy posture of a programmer who spent whole days plugged in, but now she straightened. For a long moment she stared straight ahead.
“You’re not a cop.”
“I’m with the DAR. Equitable Services.”
“A gas man?” Her pupils dilated, and the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
“We turn out the lights.”
“How did you find me?”
“We almost had you in Arkansas this morning. That’s ten hours and change from the border, too far to make in daylight. You’re smart enough to plan to cross during the day, when it’s crowded and the guards are sloppier. And since you’re more comfortable in cities, and San Antonio is the last big one before the border…” He shrugged.
“I could have just hidden somewhere, laid low.”
“You should have. But I knew you wouldn’t.” He smiled. “Your patterns give you away. You’re running from us, but you’re also running toward something.”
Vasquez tried to keep a straight face, but the truth was revealed in half a hundred tiny tells that glowed like neon signs to his eyes. You could give this up and play poker, Natalie had once told him, if anyone played poker anymore. “I thought so. Not working alone, are you?”
Vasquez shook her head, a tight, controlled gesture. “You’re awfully pleased with yourself.”
Cooper shrugged. “Pleased would have been catching you in Boston. But keeping you from releasing your virus counts as a win. How close were you?”
“A couple of days.” She sighed, lifted the beer bottle, and tilted it to her lips. “Maybe a week.”
“You know how many innocent people that could have killed?”
“It only targeted guidance systems on military aircraft. No civilian casualties. Just soldiers.” Vasquez turned to look at him. “There’s a war, remember?”
“Not yet there isn’t.”
“Fuck you.” Vasquez spat the words. The bartender, Sheila, glanced over, and so did a couple of people at nearby tables. “Tell that to the people you’ve murdered.”
“I’ve never murdered anybody,” Cooper said. “I’ve killed them.”
“It isn’t murder because they were different?”
“It isn’t murder because they were terrorists. They hurt innocent people.”
“They were innocent people. They could just do things you couldn’t imagine. I can see code, do you get it? Algorithms that confound straights are just patterns to me. They come in my dreams. I dream the most beautiful programs never written.”
“Come in with me. Do your dreaming for us. It’s not too late.”
She spun on her stool, clutching the beer bottle by its neck. “I bet. Pay my debt to society, right? Stay alive, but as a slave, betraying my own people.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Cooper smiled. “Are you sure?”
Her eyes sparked and then narrowed. She drew a shallow breath. Her lips moved as if she were whispering, but no words came out. Finally, she said, “You’re a gifted?”
“Hey. You all right, ma’am?”
Cooper broke the gaze for the split second he needed to take the man in. Six one, two twenty, fat over hard muscle that came from working, not the gym. His hands in front of him, half raised, knees slightly bent, balance good. Ready to fight if it came to that, but not anticipating it would. Cowboy boots.
Then he turned back to Alex Vasquez and saw what he had expected when he noticed the way she was holding the beer bottle. She had taken advantage of the distraction to swing at him backhanded. Her elbow was up and she put her back into it, and the bottle was whistling around to shatter on his skull.
But he was no longer there.
All right, then. No way to know for sure how the cowboy would react. Better to be safe. Cooper slipped sideways and snapped a left hook into the cowboy’s jaw. The man took it well, rolling with the impact, then lashed out himself. It wasn’t a bad punch, probably would have laid a normal man out. But Cooper saw the flicker of motion at the man’s eye, the tightening of the deltoid, the twist of the obliques, caught it all in an instant the way a straight might recognize a stop sign, and the meaning was as clear to him. The punch was a jackhammer, but for Cooper, who could see where it would be, avoiding it was the easiest thing in the world. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vasquez slide off the stool and sprint for a door on the far wall.
Enough of this. He stepped in close, cocked his elbow and slammed it into the cowboy’s throat. All the fight went out of the man in an instant. Both hands flew to his neck, the fingers clawing at the skin, carving blood trails. His knees wobbled and gave.
Cooper thought about telling the man he’d be all right, that he hadn’t crushed the trachea, but Vasquez was already vanishing through the far door. The cowboy would have to figure it out for himself. Cooper pushed past and wove through the crowd, most of them frozen and staring, a few starting to move but too slowly. A stool was toppling as a man leaped off, and he read the pattern of the man’s muscles and the arc of the falling stool and split the difference, jumping the metal legs without engaging the guy. The jukebox had switched to Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant asking for three steps, mister, gimme three steps toward the door, which would have made him laugh if he could’ve spared the time.
The door had a sign that read HOTEL GUESTS ONLY. Cooper caught it just before it closed, yanked it all the way open to be sure Vasquez wasn’t waiting on the other side—he would have noticed a weapon on her, but she could have stowed it before she came into the bar—and then, seeing it was clear, spun around the frame. The hallway continued forward to another door, probably the lobby. A staircase carpeted in a bland pattern of orange and gray went up. He took the stairs, the music and bar sound fading, leaving the sound of his breathing echoing off the cinderblock walls. Another door led to a hallway, hotel rooms lined up on both sides.
He raised his right foot to take a step down the—
One: An unplanned panic sprint. But she’s a programmer; programmers deal in logic and anticipated possibility.
Two: She’s thinking of taking a hostage. Unlikely; she wouldn’t have time to try more than one room, and no guarantee she could handle the occupant.
Three: Going for a hidden weapon. But that doesn’t change the equation; if you can see her, she won’t be able to hit you.
Four: Escape. Of course, the building was surrounded, but she would have known that. Which means an alternate route.
—hall. Eleven doors, ten of them identical except for the room number. The door at the end was plainer and unmarked. Janitor’s closet. Cooper ran to it, tried the handle, found it unlocked. The room was a dingy five by five. Inside was a cart of cleaning supplies and mini-toiletries, a vacuum, a steel rack of folded towels, a deep sink, and bolted to the near wall, an iron ladder to a roof hatch. The hatch was open, and through the square he could see the night sky.
She must have set this up after checking in. The hatch had probably been locked; Vasquez must have cut it or broken it, leaving herself a neat little escape. Clever. The hotel was a squat two-story in a row of similar buildings, and it wouldn’t be hard to move from one to the next, then climb down a fire escape and stroll away.
He reached for one of the slender rungs and hauled himself up. Spared a moment to be sure she wasn’t waiting at the top to brain him with a rock, then grabbed the lip and crawled onto the roof. Sludgy tar clung to his feet. Even through the wash of city lights, stars spilled across the horizon. He could hear traffic from the street below, and yelling as his team moved into the bar. Staying low, he glanced left and then right, saw a slender figure with her back to him, hands planted on a three-foot abutment that marked the edge of the roof. Vasquez pushed herself up, hooked a knee on the ledge, then rose to stand.
“Alex!” Cooper drew his sidearm as he stood but kept it low. “Stop.”
The programmer froze. Cooper took a few careful steps closer as she turned slowly, her posture conveying a mix of frustration and resignation. “Goddamn DAR.”
“Get off the ledge, then put your hands behind your head.”
Light from the street revealed her face, eyes hard, lips set in a sneer. “So you’re gifted, huh?” Another glint of gold from her necklace, a delicately wrought bird. “What is it for you?”
“Pattern recognition, especially body language.” He moved up until only half a dozen paces separated them. Kept the Beretta lowered.
“That’s how you moved so fast.”
“I don’t move any faster than you. I just know where you’re going to hit.”
“Isn’t that sweet. And you use that to hunt your own kind. Do you like it?” She put her hands on her hips. “Does it make you feel powerful? I bet it does. Do your masters pat you on the head for every one of us you catch?”
“Get down, Alex.”
“Or you’ll shoot me?” She glanced across the narrow alley at the building opposite. The leap was far but doable, maybe six feet.
“It doesn’t have to go this way. You haven’t hurt anyone yet.” He read the hesitation in her body, the tremble in her calf and the tension in her shoulders. “Get down and let’s talk.”
“Talk.” She snorted. “I know how you DAR boys talk. What’s that term the politicians like? ‘Enhanced interrogation.’ Very pretty. It sounds so much nicer than torture. Just like the Department of Analysis and Response sounds so much nicer than the Bureau of Abnorm Control.” Her body told him she was making up her mind.
“It doesn’t have to go this way,” he repeated.
“What’s your first name?” Her voice soft.
“The man on the radio was right, Nick. About a war. That’s our future.” A strange resolve came over her, and she slipped her hands into her pockets. “You can’t stop the future. All you can do is pick a side.” She turned, glancing back at the alley.
Cooper saw what she intended and started forward, but before he’d taken two steps, Alex Vasquez, hands tucked deep in her pockets, dove off the roof.