Chapter 14 BEFORE THE WAR
Marcus sat back, the stainless steel of the chair cold and hard through his clothes. Decidedly less comfortable than Haides’s upholstery. He licked at dry lips. I’m parched. The legate tilted his head back to look at the three drones hovering overhead. They had not moved since the rebuke. “I require a drink. Water. Chilled and carbonated. Immediately.”
Within seconds a service hatch concealed in the stone wall slid open. One of the drones floated down, grabbed an oblong container of brushed aluminum, and brought it over to the podium. Marcus took the thermos, unscrewed the top—which also served as a cup—filled it, and drained the cold water in three big swallows. He refilled the cup, put the bottle on the table, and waved the drone away.
Marcus checked his internal chronometer. Nearly four hours had passed since he entered the chamber, much longer than expected. When last he checked, he’d spent no more than half an hour interfaced. Time flies when in Thira. The deeper I go, the faster time passes in the outside world.
His stomach grumbled loudly. Should have eaten more than a pair of sandwiches. And I need to take a piss. But I can’t take a break now—I’m finally getting somewhere. He put the cup of water down on the small table. Well, I’ve had worse. I’ll just have to soldier on.
The Draconic envoy turned his attention back to the Maiden. If he hadn’t known already, he wouldn’t have guessed she was a machine. You are more beautiful than any woman of flesh and blood, Lady Xerza included. I’d say Vern knows many things, including the secrets of the female form. You even have a mind I can connect with.
The Maiden looked back at Marcus, expectant, but not afraid.
“You’ve given me your flesh name, Rakel Elizaveta Taylor, aka ‘Lizzie.’ I’ve decided to accept it for the time being,” Marcus said and lifted his arm. The chimera flinched, despite the lack of flames. Marcus tilted his head slightly. “Easy now. I won’t hurt you again. Not unless I have to.”
She didn’t reply, just kept watching his hand.
“Furthermore, you’ve told me about your first life.”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“Your other memories are less clear, at least up until the time when you met Samael. Is that correct?”
“You also told me Samael called you ‘my love,’ and that you willingly became a chimera. You gave up your humanity. Out of love, out of need. Correct?”
“Yes,” the reply came again, quick and to the point. The Maiden looked at Marcus, perfect green eyes glittering. The charred crack in her shell became a smile of sorts. Her cheeks were those of a blushing bride. Or am I imagining things?
“I would know more of Samael. The Gatekeeper is…slippery. He doesn’t lie outright, but he omits some things and twists others. I don’t trust him. I want it from you, Lizzie, from the source. You can start by telling me when you first met.”
Her eyes no longer sparkled. “I’m not at liberty to discuss Samael. Torture me all you want, but I will not, cannot, speak of him.” When Marcus looked like he might object, she hurried to add: “I tried to tell you. It’s hardcoded into me. It’s part of my memory, but I cannot access it. I know it’s there, but most of it eludes me.”
“You cannot consciously remember Samael?”
“Only what Vern designed me to remember. And some bits and pieces here and there. The love we shared. The longing. But nothing that suits your purpose.”
“Clever,” Marcus admitted.
“I’m sorry, but only Haides can tell you about Samael. They made me that way. Difficult though it might be, you have to speak to the Gatekeeper if you would know more.”
“After we’re done with this session, I will speak to him again,” Marcus replied, unsmiling. “But I would like to get to know you better first.”
“I just can’t imagine what it’ll be like when you’re gone. It never crossed my mind. Who will they partner me with? Some boring asshole with a halberd up their ass?”
“I’m not getting any younger, Kwame. And I’d rather spend my days with Imogen than down here with you. No offense intended.”
“None taken. But I’ll miss you, you know that.”
“Who knows, maybe they’ll put you in charge of a rookie?”
Kwame spun his eyes around. “Now, there is a sobering thought. Gods forbid.”
Balack was starting to regret having mentioned his upcoming retirement. Usually, they talked in bursts, with periods of silence in between. Now Kwame had talked almost non-stop for hours, repeating himself endlessly when his companion failed to reply.
“She’s damn hot,” Balack said, hoping to distract his colleague. He couldn’t stand to hear more about a retirement that might never come or a wife that could be gone tomorrow. “If we for a moment pretend she’s a woman, that is. Marcus is handsome enough, I guess, just not my type. And I don’t like telepaths too much. Makes me want to keep my helmet on.”
“I wouldn’t mind interrogating her a little,” Kwame said. “She looks human enough. Hell, she looks more human than most people.”
“It’s good craftsmanship,” Balack admitted. “Best I’ve ever seen—by a long shot. Must have cost a fortune. She’s also high-functioning, with human-level intelligence and self-motivation. That sort of thing is highly illegal in any type of menial.”
Kwame didn’t reply, but the smirk on the younger man’s face told Balack he’d just said something he would regret.
“You called the chimaera a ‘she,’ not an ‘it.’”
“I did not,” Balack protested.
“Sure did. At least twice. I can replay the crypt’s internal security log if you’d like.”
“Shit. I guess I did,” Balack admitted. “Easy mistake to make—she does look awfully human. Expensive gynoids often do.” The low-end models looked like the machines they were, which made mannequins—the biological equivalent of robots—a more popular choice.
“She does. But she’s more than a sex toy, isn’t she? And, I think, more than an illegal familiar in a cyborg body.”
Balack considered what to say next. The older officer knew what the chimaera was a psychic archive, that she held some extremely valuable information. They had told him as much. But how much did Kwame know? The man was a master at gossip and frequently knew things that were none of his business. Balack didn’t want to say too much, nor too little. “Apparently, she’s a walking, talking library, with lots of secret information stored. Too valuable to destroy, too dangerous to let walk around. So, she was sent here to the Second Pentacle for safekeeping. Protecting restricted information, that’s what we do best.”
“Makes sense,” Kwame agreed. “Until this guy Marcus comes waving his Dark Omega, demanding to speak with her. Not speaking much, though, is he? Been here,” he looked at the wall-mounted timepiece, “four hours, and has learned what secrets?”
“He’s probing her. I told you before.”
“Probing? As in…”
“Don’t be daft, Kwame. He’s a magisterial legate. Almost all of them can read minds.” Balack didn’t have the exact percentage, but telepathy was by far the most common legate ability. So commonplace, it was nearly universal.
“I knew that,” Kwame said, sounding offended. “But most can only read surface thoughts—the stuff you’re thinking about.”
Balack fought down the temptation to come clean and tell Kwame everything. “I don’t think Marcus is in the ‘most legates’ category. I think we got us a real, live Magister or something.” The title of Magister was the psychic equivalent of a master’s rank. It was only granted to legates of great power and skill.
“That strong, huh?”
A minute of blessed silence passed.
“So basically, he’s physically interrogating her in there,” Kwame pointed at the banks of displays showing imagery from the chamber, “while also looking into her mind?”
“Yes. Both at the same time is my guess.”
“That’s…how does he do it?”
This was better. As long as Balack was pontificating, Kwame wouldn’t have the opportunity to dwell too long on matters best left alone. “Magisters can split their minds. Each mind can then do a separate task, almost like having multiple copies of yourself.”
Kwame was thinking hard now, brows furrowed, hands balled into fists. Strange how the man looked ready to fight whenever he was forced to use his head.
“That’s why he was so still,” the younger officer finally said, voice triumphant. “In the beginning. He hadn’t split his mind. He was speaking to her, mind to mind, and forgot all about his body.”
Balack nodded. “Correct.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? Did you know all along? You just pretended to be concerned?”
Maybe the boy wasn’t so stupid after all. Or at least he had good instincts. “I’ll be honest with you,” Balack said. “I only just realized. I’m not always so cocksure as I sound. Your superior officer is an old fart that likes to pretend he knows more than he does. There, I said it.”
“I…” Kwame began, but his voice trailed away, leaving whatever was on his mind unsaid.
“This double, two-mind interrogation might take a while. If you’d like to run along and play with Amaya before she leaves for the day, I’m good with that.” Having Kwame leave the room would also make it easier for Balack to do what he needed to do.
“That’s against the regs.”
“Yeah, but as I said, I’m gonna retire, so…”
“They could give me a hard time, though.”
“It’s just an offer. You don’t have to take it. But the wife is waiting for me at home. A younger woman might not want to wait around for someone as ugly as you, Kwame. You should enjoy it while it lasts. Sooner, rather than later, she’ll wise up and dump you.”
Pure bullshit—and they both knew it. Chike Kwame was tall, dark, handsome, and built like one of the prime studs his homeworld was famous for. The younger man had no shortage of lovers.
“That’s very generous of you, boss. Might take you up on it.”
“You do that. It’s not like we can do anything about this guy anyway—he’s Dragon Order. If things get out of hand, it will only take one metal finger to push the ‘purge’ button.”
“There is one caveat, though.”
“You have to come over for dinner someday.”
“Dinner, with you?”
“And the wife. And you have to bring a date. This Amaya will do—if she’s real.”
“That’s…I guess…it’s not as if we…”
“If I’m retiring, I need to start networking. Otherwise, I’ll end up a bitter old man with no one to talk to. So I figure I’ll start throwing some dinner parties.”
“This isn’t going to turn into some cringey swinger shit, Balack? I mean, your wife is nice, but you and Amaya…I couldn’t live with myself.”
They both started laughing. Of all the people Balack had ever partnered with, Kwame was his favorite by far. He’d really miss him when all this was over, but it would be impossible to remain on Nuovo Venezia afterward.
“What world were you born on?”
“I’m Earthborn, from a particularly obstinate part of a particularly headstrong nation.”
“Earth?” Marcus said, barely able to keep the surprise out of his voice. “That’s a bold claim—you don’t strike me as the Earther type.”
“And you don’t seem the type to know much about Earth,” she countered.
She forgets her place quickly. Marcus called forth the hellfire again.
She winced and pulled at her bonds. “Don’t do that,” she said feverishly, “you will end up damaging my psycho-somatic matrix.”
Marcus gave her a small jolt. She writhed for a few seconds, moaned a little. “I believe you,” he said. “I really do. But you see,” he spoke with deliberate slowness, “that’s a chance I’m willing to take.”
The writhing subsided, becoming little more than shaking. The moans became sobs, but there were no tears. It would look more convincing with tears. But machines don’t cry, little one.
She became angry. Shouted abuse at Marcus. Prick this, son of a whore that, Dragon take your dark soul. He’d heard it all before. Sooner or later, they all curse me. She even tried to spit at him—but of course, she had no mouth, only a crack in her shell. Quite the human gesture, though. He gave her another shot of hellfire, one meant to cause real agony. That shut her up—once she was done screaming.
“I’m a servant of Dragon—and we don’t react kindly to that sort of nonsense. On top of that, I’m a proud man, high-born, and used to having my way. You deny me? I’m not above burning you out of pure spite. And to the Abyss with your secrets.” Not true. I will not chance damaging her archives, but she must not know that. “Or you can cut the crap, and we can have us a decent conversation, a prisoner to her keeper. What’s it to be?”
She nodded weakly. Marcus let hellfire engulf his hand.
“I’ll talk dammit!” she cried, her voice frantic. “Just don’t do it again.”
“That’s entirely up to you, my dear,” Marcus said and put on his falsest friendly smile. Haides would be proud if he could see me now. “Let’s go back to your beginning, your flesh beginning, which you seem to remember well enough. Yes?”
“Yes. I remember my youth well enough. Not all of it, not every detail, but I remember the essentials.”
“Do you have any idea why Samael might have left you with these memories?”
“Why would he not?” was the reply. “I meant no disrespect,” she added to forestall more discipline, “but I’m not the gynoid slave you think I am.”
“No? He treated you like a person then, did he, Maiden?”
She nodded in return, her magnificent hair falling forward to conceal part of her face. Marcus resisted the urge to touch it, to tuck it back to expose her lovely neck and the curve of her shoulder. Aren’t you something. But nothing real can be that perfect. You are false, within and without. “You’re having delusions of grandeur, but we’ll get back to that. Now tell me about Earth,” Marcus said.
“I was born in a place called Montana. I grew up there, but we moved to San Angeles when I was thirteen.”
Montana? San Angeles? “Those place names mean nothing to me. Elaborate.”
“Montana. Meaning ‘mountain’ in Spanish,” she explained. “A long-dead Earther language, she added for Marcus benefit. “Centrally located—Montana, not the language—in the Northern Americas. San Angeles lay on the western coast. One of the great cities of its time.”
“And when was this?” Marcus said.
“Before the Fall. Before the Last War.”
“To San Angeles, you mean? It was destroyed, swallowed up by the ocean.”
“That sounds like something out of the Conclave’s scriptures.”
“There was a war…”
“The Last War?”
“That’s what history calls it,” the Maiden said. “We just called it ‘the War.’ When the bombs were launched, it didn’t really matter what it was called. Have you lived through a thermonuclear war, Marcus?”
“No. Not many have. It’s been many years since the Titanomachy, many years since last such weapons were used in any number,” Marcus said. With the possible exception of Akakios. “Tell me about the city. No bomb is powerful enough to make the sea swallow a city.”
“It was the Fall that broke the Earth—the ancient gods falling from the heavens like shooting stars, crashing into the ground. The world tore itself apart. That was what caused San Angeles and millions of people to sink into the sea. The bombs came after, Marcus dear, as a reaction to the unimaginable.”
“But you survived?”
“I was in Montana at the time. To see my father.”
“And Montana was safe?”
“From the sea, yes, it lay far inland, beyond great mountains. But it was not safe. There was a cataclysmic eruption in a place called Yellowstone. It blanketed Montana in soot and ash. Many perished. I did not.”
Marcus towered over her, arms at his sides. “You claim to be more than four thousand years old, Maiden? A survivor from the Old Era?” It was an outrageous claim, to have lived on Earth, before the ancient Gods fell from the heavens, before the world was broken, before the Shadow rose from the deep. And, according to both the Order and the Conclave, the bombs had come first. The ancient gods had descended to aid humanity, only to crash due to some Abyssal plot. It cannot be true. None of it. Cannot. Can it?
“No,” she said. “Sorry,” she hastened to add. “I did not mean to confuse you. “I only meant that my first memory is of that life. I remember other things from other flesh lives, but none as clearly as from that first one.”
“You claim blood memories then,” Marcus said from high above. “That’s a rare trait. Are you a scion, little one?” This was entirely unexpected. The Maiden was supposed to be a chimera, a machine forged from flesh and metal both. There had been no mention of any of this—of ancient memories, of divine heritage. What am I to believe? How am I to confirm or refute claims such as these? How do I apply logic to myths?
“I’m not sure, Marcus,” she said.
“Go on,” Marcus prodded.
“But my descendants were surely scions, even if I wasn’t.”
“Because you married a scion and carried his children?”
“Yes,” she said and smiled—as well as the crack in her shell allowed her to.
“No. Definitely not. If you remember that life when you were Lizzie, that’s when your bloodline began. Not in a later generation. It’s not your life you remember, though, but that of your first blooded ancestor.”
“Sam said that’s not the case.”
“Sam? You mean Samael? Did he say more?”
“He said it’s not memories of the blood, but of the soul, reborn throughout the ages. A soul can remember its past lives. He also said all souls are divine, no matter what the Conclave says.”
“You are reborn with your memories intact?”
“Yes. I mean, not all of it. I only remember that first life, then bits and pieces here and there.”
“And you believe this to be true?” For his own part, Marcus wasn’t entirely sure of anything. Her claims could be all lies—or they could be the truth. I have no way of knowing.
“Yes. Why would I not?”
“And your current body, how old is it?” Marcus changed the subject, steering her towards something more tangible.
She shrugged. “A few centuries.”
“But this incarnation, the flesh life before your transformation: she knew Samael in living life?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“What can you tell me about him?”
“Nothing. Only the Gatekeeper can. I already told you.”
“We will speak more about this later,” Marcus said. He reached forward and touched his fingers to her forehead.