Something ancient

After that, Gutierrez switched into Quechua. The screen fired up stilted subtitles to cover. You are three hundred million kilometers away from me. That is a long way off for making threats. What will you do, take the long sleep? Come all the way back here, just to kill me? You don’t scare me anymore, Marsalis. You make me laugh. It went on, derisory, building the bravado up. It boiled down to fuck off and die.

It still rang false.

Marsalis watched it all with a thin, cold smile.

When the transmission ended, he leaned forward and started speaking, also in Quechua. Norton had no knowledge of the altiplano tongue beyond counting one to twenty and a handful of food items, but even through the blanket incomprehension, he felt a dry-ice cold coming off the black man and what he was saying. The words husked out of him, rustling and intent, like something reptilian breaking out of an egg. In the fog of sleeplessness that was gradually shutting down his senses, Norton had one moment of clarity so supreme he knew it had to be a lie; but in that moment it was as if something else was speaking through Marsalis, something ancient and not really human using his mouth and face as a mask and a launch point to hurl itself across the gulf between worlds, to reach out and take Franklin Gutierrez by the throat and heart, as if he were sitting across a desk and not a quarter of a billion kilometers of empty space.

It took little more than a minute to say, whatever it was, but for Norton the whole thing seemed to happen outside real time. When Marsalis was finished speaking, the COLIN exec opened his mouth to say something—say anything, to break the creaking, something-has-left-the-building silence—and then stopped because he saw that Marsalis had not thumbed for transmission. The message was still open, still waiting to be sealed, and for what seemed like a very long time the black man just looked into the facing lens and said nothing at all, just looked.

Then he touched the button and, in some way Norton could not define, he seemed to slump.

It was a solid minute before the COLIN exec found words of his own.

“What did you say?” he asked, through dry lips.

Marsalis twitched like someone waking from a doze. Shot him a normal, human look. Shrugged.

“I told him I’d go back to Mars and find him if he didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. Told him COLIN would fund the ticket, there and back. Told him I’d kill him and everyone he cares about.”

“You think he’ll buy it?”

The black man’s attention drifted back to the screen. He must also, Norton suddenly realized, be very tired. “Yes. He’ll buy it.”

“And if he doesn’t? If he calls your bluff?”

Marsalis glanced at him again, and Norton knew what the answer was going to be before the quiet, matter-of-fact words fell into the quiet room.

“This isn’t a bluff.”

Richard Morgan Black Man (p. 418)

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