Kevin J. Anderson has more than 140 published books, 56 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, and Dune universes, as well as steampunk fantasy novels Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart, based on the concept album by the band Rush. His original works include the Saga of Seven Suns series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, the Saga of Shadows trilogy, and his humorous horror series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie PI. He has edited numerous anthologies, written comics and games, and penned the lyrics to two rock CDs. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta are the publishers of WordFire Press.
i write. i make up stuff. i adventure hard, so you don’t have to.
I just did a Hitchcock-style SF thriller for the Kindle Worlds program, an adventure in the universe of Marcus Sakey’s “Abnorm Chronicles,” which begins with the novel BRILLIANCE. Amazon is launching their Kindle Worlds program and they commissioned me to play in Sakey’s sandbox. This is a tangential story to the novel, another adventure with superior-intellect mutations in the human race; you can probably read it without knowing the original novel.
TWIST. A serial killer is murdering Brilliants in Denver…and Agent Nick Cooper believes the killer may also be a Brilliant. The only witness is disabled vet Adam Lee—wounded in a Special Forces mission to Cuba to destroy Fidel Castro’s secret Brilliant academy. Though wheelchair-bound and trapped in his seventh-story apartment, Adam Lee has a special skill, his ability as a Brilliant, that allows him to use hints and reflections to see around corners and through the smallest cracks. If he pushes his ability, he may be able to identify the murderer…but that also makes him a target. $3.99, only available in Kindle version (since it’s for the Kindle Worlds program).
Shadows were opportunities. Places to hide, secret routes for movement, chances for a hunt.
The streets were full of shadows.
The streets were full of opportunities.
Winding down after rush hour, traffic was sporadic around Denver’s Capitol hill. The sun had long since set, though the chill of night was just cutting its way through the air. Bright streetlights and buildings huddled together in an island of illumination, ceding the territory around alleys and side streets to the darkness.
A form flitted between pools of light. Shadow to shadow. Taking advantage of the opportunity.
On the edge of the neighborhood, apartment buildings thinned out to make way for ramshackle old homes that didn’t seem to know about Denver’s much talked-about facelift.
The form stopped, wavering in the darkness in front of a particular rundown house. Flaking paint barely covered the sun-bleached walls. The battered windows were covered with sagging screens.
Not a very impressive home for a supposedly superior Brilliant, someone who’d had a lifetime of undeserved advantages.
Inside, a man wandered around the living room, casting a shadow of his own against thin interior curtains. Decisions. Opportunities.
Stepping across half-dead grass of an untended lawn, the form climbed the porch steps, alert for the creak of wood, sticking to the shadows. But the porch light was too harsh, posing a problem.
A risk, but necessary—the form unscrewed the entryway bulb, ignoring the burn of hot glass on gloved fingertips, and welcome shadows descended like a stage curtain at the end of a play. Porch and door vanished into darkness, creating more opportunities.
Time to move on to the next step.
Throwing a rock onto the warped wood of the porch, the form melted into the deeper shadow between door and window, becoming a part of the grays and tans of the home’s faded paint. The rock bounced and clacked, just loud enough.
The interior curtain twitched aside. A man stared out of the living room, blinded by his own lights, scowling out at the mysterious noise but seeing nothing. Worthless Twist! His face turned, saw that the porch light was out. His lips moved, but the dingy glass pane muffled his curse. The curtain fell back into place. Footsteps moved toward the door.
Coiled and tense in the shadows on the porch, gripping the weapon . . . waiting. A smile.
The front door swung inward with a creak, and the man peered out, annoyed but not afraid. Big mistake. He reached up to check the light bulb in the entryway.
Spinning away from the wall, the form detached from the background as if being born from a womb of shadows. Each step of the attack perfectly planned, like a blueprint of assassination.
In the doorway, the victim was surrounded by a halo of dim light, blinded. Noticing the movement, he grunted in surprise. “Who the hell are you?” Instinct made him draw back into the doorway.
No hesitation, one chance, leverage the opportunity. The form darted forward, tracked the victim’s movement, compensated, and threw a right jab. It was all so fast, carefully coordinated, the victim wouldn’t have a chance.
But the Twist seemed to know the punch was coming and dodged out of the strike zone with astonishing speed.
Unnatural. Yes, another freak.
Another reactive right jab, harder this time, but the victim raised his hands, pivoted to the side, and grabbed the attacker by elbow and shoulder, tried to throw the assailant into the entryway. The scuffle was fast, silent, desperate. Reassess the attack plan, adjust alternatives. The angle and momentum of the move would put the victim in control—and slam the attacker’s head into the wall as a bonus.
Can’t let that happen.
Panic wasn’t an option. Fight or flight was an unevolved response. Finish the job.
The victim could never have guessed beforehand that he would be a target, could not have anticipated this assault, but he defended himself smoothly with reflexes as fast as a cobra’s.
Damned freak born with a DNA silver spoon in his mouth.
Some people called them Brilliants, winners of an unfair genetic lottery, with mental gifts that made them feel oh so superior. A part of this man’s brain had developed abnormally in utero, allowing him to analyze patterns and predictively react. One percent of the population were born with the savant genes turned on. Without paying the price of Asperger’s or autism, he was a genius savant, rather than an idiot savant.
And that one percent thought they could lord it over the rest of the ninety-nine percenters.
The smug confidence showed in his reaction, as if he just assumed he was superior to any mere normal attacker. And that fact alone presented opportunities. So predictable. Time to even out the percentages.
As the Brilliant victim caught the punch and moved with the force of the strike, the attacker rolled in a follow-through, and momentum of defense concealed the real attack—the jagged broken whiskey bottle in the left hand. Jab, thrust, twist. Twist.
Glass parted flesh. The killer floated through the air, everything seemed to slow to half speed. Like shark’s teeth, the bottle’s jagged sawblade ripped into the Brilliant’s throat. He reacted, but even freakish mental powers couldn’t reassemble spurting arteries.
The victim grabbed at his neck, coughing, his words nothing more than a liquid bubbling red. He seemed to be asking Why me? What did I do? Who are you? But a Twist didn’t deserve answers.
The man staggered backward into the house, still bleeding, still thrashing, but he was already dead. Maybe the freak thought it was important to live one percent longer than a normal human.
The killer crouched, recovered, and watched with fascination, careful to avoid the spreading pool of blood. “Worthless, worthless, worthless.”
As the victim took his time dying, blood spurted across the walls. He sagged to his knees.
The killer gave an assessment. “One at a time. One at a time.” Even with his superior mental powers, the victim did not seem able to do the math. He fell forward into his own blood.
Done with the kill, the form dropped the broken bottle and left the house to rejoin the shadows outside. Upping the percentages, a little bit at a time.
What a name, thought Adam.
The elegance of the derogatory word was not lost to him, sitting as he was, trapped and isolated in his chair on the seventh floor, forced to live his life through other people, other actions. As a label, Brilliants sounded better, but Twists seemed more applicable to his own situation.
He stared out the window, letting his one good hand slowly trail against the warm glass, lower and lower until the fingers touched his wheelchair. Watching—that’s all I can do now. Behind him, the main room of his apartment was open, with bookshelves on the walls but no furniture other than a comfy chair and coffee table in the middle of the room, nothing much to impede the movement of the motorized chair.
Colorado sunshine pushed its way through the glass, but the warmth stopped at his skin. Inside, he felt cold. He gazed down the seventy-seven feet to the ground below, watching pedestrians who bustled through their days, ignorant of his gaze. He watched the rippling flutter of leaves on the nearest aspen—sixteen feet from the corner. Based on the movement of the leaves, the wind was moving at 4.5 miles an hour, maybe 4.3. He could also immediately estimate the speed of the traffic, from the silver Prius (17 mph), to the black Ford Expedition (an aggressive 31 mph), to the bicycle messenger (21 mph in short bursts as he wove among pedestrians and cars).
Shaking his head, Adam tried to let go, but it was hard to shake military training. Special Ops had appreciated his gift as a Brilliant, once upon a time. Now that the use of those skills were programmed in, he would always notice the full suite of details, would always factor them into his observations. It was the only way he could force the world to make sense. It was the only thing he could do, trapped here in his apartment.
That was the snapshot of Adam’s life now: observation and inaction. Vicarious living through other realities that were not his own.
Last week his therapist, Ingrid Wolverton, had brought him an article from the New York Times. It was a summation of groundbreaking work from the 1980s, research done by Dr. Eugene Bryce, who had first discovered the phenomenon of Brilliants. Since Ingrid’s last house call, Adam had read the article ninety-four times, though he had memorized it in ten. One particular section had caught his attention, and he couldn’t get those words out of his head:
Historically, the term savant was generally paired with another word, to form an unkind, but not inaccurate phrase; idiot savant. Those rare individuals with superhuman gifts were generally crippled in some way. Broken geniuses, they were able to recreate the lemon skyline after only a moment’s glance, yet unable to order a cup of tea; able to intuit string theory or noncommutative geometry and yet be baffled by their mother’s smile. It was as though evolution was maintaining equilibrium, giving here, taking there.
However, this was not the case with the “brilliance.” Dr. Bryce estimates that as many as one in a hundred children born since 1980 have these advantages, and that these children are otherwise statistically normal. They are smart, or not. Social, or not. Talented, or not. In other words apart from their wondrous gifts they are exactly as children have been since the dawn of man.
In his lap, the fingers of his hand curled into a fist as he repeated the words to himself: “as though evolution was maintaining equilibrium, giving here, taking there.” Evolution may have given Adam a gift of hyper-acute vision and kinesthetic sensitivity, but life itself had evened the scales, taking just as much away from him, if not more. Losing the use of three limbs? That seemed like an overpayment to him.
Staring at his clenched fist, he ground his jaw together. The one available escape from his this hell came through the same gift that had cost him such a high price. “Micro detail analysis and projection,” his therapist—and the military—had called it.
Others might have used the term voyeurism.
But it was so much more than that to him. Adam’s special ability gave him a way out of his nonresponsive physical prison. He placed his one palm against the windowpane again, waiting. It was almost time.
She would be getting off the bus soon. She would be walking down the street. Of all the needs to be filled in his vicarious life, Chloe trumped them all. How could she not?
Adam’s ocular muscles began to twitch with anticipation. Spasming faster than he could voluntarily control, the ciliary muscles responded to his Brilliant subconscious as his brain hunted for details, assembled information, zooming in, zooming out, never giving his conscious mind a chance to catch up. Three dimensional constructs, models of the streets and apartments, formed in his mind’s eye. A reflection off of that window on the ground floor refracting from a man’s sunglasses, then caught in the rear-view mirror of a passing car, which in turn bounced off the store front window around the corner and down the street.
Combined with the optical clues, subtle vibrations against Adam’s palm indicated how the outside world spoke to him through his window. For all the couldn’ts, for all the wouldn’ts, and for all the wasted wishes in Adam’s life, there was one thing he could do. He could see.
Two and a half blocks away, around the corner and up the street from his window, the bus arrived. He smiled.
She was home.
Cooper tried to spread the files across his desk, but there just wasn’t enough room. The sparse offices of Equitable Services were cramped, implying that the task force had not yet attained the importance and visibility it deserved. Even as part of the larger Department of Analysis and Response, Equitable Services was less than a year old and had not yet earned the office space it needed to operate.
For now, the task force assigned to track and monitor potentially dangerous Brilliants had been shoved into the equivalent of a storage closet just off Capitol Hill in DC. If the ES team could crack enough cases and get a few high-profile wins, however, maybe the agents would get a little more elbow room.
Cooper tried to make more desk space by sliding the framed photograph of his wife and three-year-old son to the edge of the desk. Sorry, Natalie and Todd. When that didn’t make enough room, Cooper pushed the lamp in the other direction. Finally, he cleared sufficient real estate to spread out the case files of the killings in Denver.
While others in the DAR hadn’t—yet—paid much attention to the random murders in Colorado, Cooper had spotted an emerging pattern, and that was his specialty.
In his mind, thanks to his own genetic gift, everything from muscle motions to the decisions made by a fleeing suspect interlocked in a gigantic puzzle. The ability to recognize patterns from grand generalities to the subtlest twitch of a suspect’s cheek was what made him so perfect for this job.
Precariously balanced on the edge of the desk, the lamp shed insufficient light on the spread of case paraphernalia, so he adjusted the angle to illuminate the photos. By seeing more detail, he could make more connections. four days ago, in Denver, the third murder of its kind had occurred in as many weeks. Every Thursday night, a new body was found, throat slashed open with a broken bottle, the murder weapon left at the scene, no fingerprints. The Denver PD had found no connection among the victims.
Because of the randomness of the killings—and only three data points so far in a city where hundreds of violent crimes occurred each month, including a murder or two per week—the local police had trouble digging in and finding a pattern to link the murders. And they lacked the resources to give this an appropriate level of urgency.
The crime-scene techs had found no trace evidence, no shoe prints, no surveillance video footage, no prints. Nothing connected the victims other than the fact that each was a military veteran, though of different times and different services.
But Cooper had discovered a link that local police were unable to spot, due to confidential records. All three victims were Brilliants.
But that registry was not available to the public. The killer must have known, somehow.
DAR Crime Watch, a sophisticated software system designed by Brilliants working for the Department, had flagged these killings. Cooper paged through dozens of flags a day, searching for patterns that would let him notice any Brilliant who might be causing trouble. A watchdog. A safety net. That was what Equitable Services was designed to do.
Denver’s throat slasher had caught his eye, though. Each large city had numerous murders, and this string of killings had not raised a particular hue and cry, at least not yet. The victimology was scattershot—male, female, young, old—though it was reasonably obvious that it was the same killer.
When he pointed out the possible pattern, suggesting that the killings warranted further attention, Director Peters was skeptical. “So you think somebody is hunting down and killing Brilliants, specifically?”
“Yes, sir. Rowdies could use broken bottles in a bar fight, but these victims were stalked and attacked. Killed in their homes. It’s statistically impossible—at least highly unlikely—that three random victims of a throat slasher would just happen to be Brilliants. We’re only one percent of the population.”
Peters had folded his hands across the desk in his office, which was much larger than Cooper’s. “Nick, I understand your concern, but the mission of Equitable Services is to make sure Brilliants don’t cause trouble for the rest of society, not to protect them from some human-supremacist vigilante.”
Cooper, though, had continued to study the case, mulling over the details. Victim three, Dennis Bordki, retired Marine, was the one that had caught his eye. DAR databases logged him as a tier three kinesthetic reader. Cooper knew that no one but another Brilliant would be able to take down a kinesthetic reader in combat—especially not one with military training.
And if the murderer was himself a Brilliant, then this case would indeed fit the criteria for an Equitable Services investigation. Cooper wanted to chase this flag, go to Denver so he could have a look around and use his particular skill to spot underlying threads.
So far, however, Director Peters had denied Cooper the funding for the travel and the off-site operation. The man was his mentor, someone who wanted to encourage Cooper, maybe even indulge him. But there were budgetary constraints. Operating on a shoestring and fighting for every nickel, Equitable Services had to choose their cases carefully.
“For the time being, we need to build the department’s track record,” Peters explained. “We need sure wins, not gut feelings. Something that’ll put a spotlight on us—and then we’ll be able to accomplish so much more.”
Through his pattern sense, Cooper already knew this was a sure thing, and relevant to the ES mission, and he could see he was close to convincing the Director. He just needed a little more leverage.
The task force had been created to find Brilliants, then expanded to track them down and stop those who would use their genetic abnormality to harm normals. Cooper believed in his job as a loyal member of Equitable Services with every inch of his being and every ounce of his will.
Find new Brilliants, catalogue them, keep an eye out to spot the ones who meant to do damage. Who better to track down a Brilliant than another Brilliant? None of the advanced humans were registered anywhere other than the DAR, and Cooper was sure the killer didn’t come from inside the DAR.
“Definitely not,” he said to himself now, sliding the photos around. He would keep his eyes and ears open. Thursday was coming up in a few days.
If Cooper was right, another Brilliant would turn up dead. If the body count reached four, all Brilliants, he would have a better shot of convincing Director Peters to let him go to Denver.
A detail in the case photos caught his eye, and he brought out his personal datapad. Someday, if Cooper and his fellow agents did their job well and brought sufficient prominence to the team, then Equitable Services would be able to provide high-end datapads for all agents. Right now, he was one of only six agents left in the field. Without a sufficient budget even for adequate staff, no way could the DAR equip the agents with the technology they needed to do the job. Cooper provided his own datapad.
He tapped the apps, calling up what he needed, while musing about the short-lived history of Equitable Services. It was an inauspicious beginning, with only twelve agents to start. Two had died, four had quit. But Cooper stuck around because he believed in their mission.
The photo-library app finished loading, and he swiped through images of the previous two crime scenes, using the photo processing software to enlarge and enhance the details. Despite the grisly nature of the work, he zoomed in on each of the cut throats, putting the pieces together in analytical mode, studying the angle and depth of the wound, torn skin and blood spatter that could provide the tiniest hint that might shed light on the killer’s height and weight.
He needed every piece of information, every insight, preparing himself. He was sure that after Thursday there would be a fourth victim. Which would mean that—next piece of the puzzle—he would be headed to Denver before the week was out.
You may also be interested in the original novel, BRILLIANCE, by Marcus Sakey