Chapter 1 CONNECTION
Marcus Aurelian walked along the deserted stone corridors of the Pentacle’s deepest level. The steady beat of his polished boots against the granite flagstones was the only sound bold enough to cut through the graveyard silence. Like whipcracks, they echoed down the dimly lit passageways, heralding his coming, but there was no one there to hear.
There were no physical or virtual infosigns on the deeper levels. Still, Marcus knew precisely where he was going, courtesy of the floor plans he had committed to computer-assisted memory. Satisfied he’d reached his destination, he halted in front of a massive bronze door. The portal was perfectly circular, edges flush with the walls, looking more like a seal than an actual door. The likeness of Apep, the Great Serpent of the Abyss, was worked into the burnished metal, coiling round and round in ever-smaller circles. Its head sat in the middle, snout pointed down, dull eyes staring blindly into the gloom.
Marcus’s hands rose from beneath the folds of the cloak. Strong, dexterous fingers, unadorned save a golden signet with a stylized dragon rampant: the ancient symbol of the Ordo Draconis—the Dragon Order. He pulled down the hood, revealing a handsome face, with sharp, symmetrical features. Jet-black hair, neatly slicked back, shaved at each temple to accommodate a pair of cranial cyber-implants.
By any standards, Marcus was an attractive man. But there was something more, beyond the physical, that set him apart: an intangible aura of superiority and confidence, such as is found only among the divinely descended ruling caste of the Dominion. He was a scion, with the blood of ancient gods, however diluted, flowing through his veins.
The serpent’s eyes came alive, glowing with an inner light. A red-tinged scanning beam lanced out, playing across the dark-clad visitor. Marcus lifted his head, eyes rising to meet the beam. For a moment, their gazes remained locked, stony-eyed human and metal serpent. The serpent was first to look away, ruby ray fading to nothingness.
“State your identity, clearance level, and purpose,” a voice droned from hidden speakers.
“Marcus Aurelian. Clearance: Dark Omega. I have come to interrogate the prisoner,” Marcus stated in a firm voice and pulled out an Omega-shaped pendant of darkest black on a golden chain. “As you already know.”
“Proceed,” came the reply. “At your soul’s peril,” it added half a second later.
The sound was the same throughout, flat and mechanical, but there had been two speakers, Marcus was sure. The first had been professional and to the point. The second was either a joker or a true believer. The information was not immediately useful, so Marcus filed it away for later, starting a mental dossier on each of his two watchers.
The metacomposite surface of the portal started to change. The snake looked like it was melting. Then it was gone, leaving a perfectly smooth metal surface. The seal slid backward before rolling into the wall on quiet force-bearings. The door itself was exceptionally sturdy, made of thick armor laminate, tough enough to endure the bite of a war titan’s weapons. For all practical purposes, it was impervious to physical assault, and the thick nanocrete walls offered no respite for a would-be intruder.
Without delay, Marcus swept forward into the chamber beyond, black cloak billowing in his wake. The door slid shut behind him with hardly a sound, wiping away all signs of his passing, leaving only shadows to crowd the silent stone corridors.
The room on the other side was one of several ultra-secure chambers within the Ninth Tier of the Second Pentacle. The ninth—and final—underground level of the inverse pyramid that lay buried beneath the metal surface of Aphrodite-Eta, one of the great floating cities of Nuovo Venezia, capital world of the Venetian sector.
The Second Pentacle—named in honor of the original Pentacle, the penultimate edifice of knowledge lost during the Titanomachy—was one of the most secure facilities, not only in Coalition space, but in the entirety of humanity’s once-great dominion. Not many people knew of the Pentacle’s existence, fewer still were allowed inside, and access to the secrets of the final tier was restricted to a small elite.
Getting in without the proper clearances was well into the realm of the impossible, even for one such as Marcus. Good thing Lady Xerza arranged for the Dark Omega and the necessary permissions. I would have trouble breaking into this place. Even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to break out again, not with the prize in tow.
The chamber was round, precisely eleven-point-four meters across according to Marcus’s cranial processor. Tiles of dark slate, polished to a mirror finish, on the floor. White-and-gold alabaster covered the walls and the domed ceiling, richly carved with images of demigods and heroes slaying twisted monsters—scenes taken straight from the epic Legends of the Shadow Wars. And—somewhat out of place—one very lustful lady, her body confoundingly petite and shapely at the same time, frolicking through an array of lovers, male and female alike.
The images carved into the rock reminded Marcus of some of the scenes from this morning’s reading of the Oculus Draconis—the Dragon’s Eye, more commonly known as the Tarot. The oracular deck of cards had foretold this moment in some detail. To what end? I see no deeper meaning, nothing beyond the obvious. Always the glimpses, the hints. So rarely anything useful.
The tarot cards had—if used by a properly trained legate—prophetic powers. Simply put, a skilled reader could use them to foretell the future. Unfortunately, it was tricky to get straight answers out of the cards. They provided vague hints and fleeting visions, stuff that made sense only after the fact and therefore of limited value. It required a lot of experience to get accurate readings. It’s an old man’s game, fit to pass the time while you wait to die, not a tool for the living. Is that what they do, the legates that grow too old to be useful? Try to predict the future while they wait to die?
Still, he would do a reading every morning. It was a matter of tradition, drilled into Marcus by his Collegium teachers, long before he was drafted by the Order. To the Dragonsworn, the Tarot was more than fortune-telling; it was a sacrament. It was said that the Celestial Dragon made his Will known through the cards. Most of the time, Marcus did get glimpses of the future, but only rarely did he receive a premonition that made a difference. And he had never felt the presence of the Dragon through the tarot. Why do I even bother? I learn nothing of value. The Dragon never speaks through the cards—it’s just something the Keepers say to impress the uninitiated.
Marcus cleared his mind. This was not the time for distraction. He had been given a task of the utmost importance: to retrieve the information stored within the cyborg known as ‘the Maiden,’ the demi-human repository for the forbidden lore collected by the rogue Quaestor Samael, and bring it to his mistress, the Lady Xerza.
Finding the Maiden had taken years and spanned countless lightyears. Just confirming the existence of the chimera had been a monumental piece of work, prying away layer after layer of subterfuge to learn the truth: that the Maiden hadn’t been destroyed, but put into stasis, just like Xerza had suspected. It became more complicated after that. An epic quest had taken Marcus from the Union court on distant Neo-York, via the streets and libraries of Solomon, to the magnificent temples of Old Earth.
Gaining access to the cyborg had proven impossible as long as it remained in the custody of the Conclave. Much wrangling and subterfuge had been required to make the Pontifex transfer the thing into the care of the Second Pentacle, rather than keep it locked up in the basement. To get Marcus into the Pentacle with permission to interrogate the Maiden had cost Xerza a fortune in livres—Coalition credits—paid and favors collected. Exactly how much he didn’t know, but it hardly mattered anymore. Whatever the cost, it will be worth it. The promise of victory over the Shadow—you cannot put a price on that.
Marcus ascended the steps leading up to the low stone platform in the center of the chamber. The podium held three pieces of furniture: a small, rectangular table and two uncomfortable-looking chairs, all made from the same stainless steel.
The chairs faced one another, a scant meter between them, with the table slightly to one side, barren and unused. The closer chair was empty, but the far one was occupied—and bolted to the floor. Marcus pushed the empty chair out of the way and stood in front of the prisoner. It sat there, wreathed in shadows, silent and immobile, mysteries kept safe inside its half-human, half-machine body. I’ll have them soon enough.
Marcus beckoned for light. Three spherical drones hovering above the platform realigned themselves on silent anti-grav coils, increased the power of their illuminators, bathing the podium in a circle of cold, white radiance. The drones were more than glorified lamps. They were the eyes and ears of the unseen auditors Marcus knew watched his every move from the safety of the security crypt.
No doubt, the drones carried weapons inside their silvery hulls, ready to be deployed if a remote command was transmitted. Sliver guns, firing crystalline darts impregnated with synthesized toxins, some designed to knock out, others to kill. And something more drastic, should ultimate sanction be required: disintegrators, implosion devices, or hyper-fragmentation warheads. If that wasn’t enough, the chamber could be flooded with high-energy plasma that would incinerate anything caught inside. Both the prisoner and the interrogator would be destroyed, but the rest of the Pentacle would remain untouched. Sacrifice one piece so that the rest might survive.
Marcus considered the threats. Drones he could deal with, no matter what weapons they carried. And when death finally came for him, it would not be by fire. The blood of dead Apollo flowed through Marcus’s veins, and flames would never cause him harm. The Maiden, however, would burn, and with that, his mission would have failed. I will give them no reason to resort to violence.
The chimera—the cyborg prisoner—was wearing a tight-fitting grey bodysuit that left little to the imagination. She—it—had a full-body artificial shell that closely resembled the natural human form to the point where a casual observer would have trouble telling her apart from a flesh and blood woman. The Maiden was undeniably feminine: the sensuous curves of a red-blooded woman, the graceful lines of a trained dancer, and the elegance of a professional courtesan. Her skin was silken smooth, features perfectly sculpted—the designer had even given her magnificent-looking chestnut hair. If anything, she’s too perfect to be real.
Perfect, save one thing: the prisoner lacked a mouth. There was no orifice, no lips. Just smooth, unbroken skin where the mouth should have been. Symbolic—or practical? A little of both? Cyborgs communicated with other machines through a wireless bit-link. If they were intended to talk to people, they came equipped with a vocal synthesizer. Nutrients were ingested through a sustenance port. A mouth was useless extravaganza, a waste of space and resources. The Technocracy doesn’t care for waste. Always marching to the cadence of soulless efficiency.
Yet most chimeras still had mouths, even if they had no real need for them. Humans interacted more easily with those they perceived as similar to themselves. As long as cyborgs looked human, people had less trouble dealing with them.
This particular model, however, didn’t just lack an actual mouth. It didn’t even pretend to have one, not even a pair of painted lines made to look like a pair of pinched-shut lips. Fitting for a machine that handles the most delicate of secrets. No mouth, no telling.
Marcus examined the prisoner more carefully. Despite its very human-like appearance, it contained little flesh, perhaps just the brain and the central nervous system, plus some supporting biomass. The rest was made from alloys, composites, and synthetics. For a moment, he wondered where the flesh had come from. A vat-grown clone? A criminal sentenced to death? An unusually indiscreet body servant? It doesn’t matter. Whatever its origins, it is a machine now. It looks like a woman, but it is no more human than a wrench.
The Maiden was not just any old cyborg, however. She was a walking, talking library of forbidden knowledge. Her mind had been enhanced by a hugely complex matrix of psy-crystal, similar to the stuff artificers used to make psychic foci and Tarot decks. There are none quite like her. She is a work of genius, something unique in a galaxy filled with multitudes of everything. Embedded inside the chimera’s psy-matrix was the prize: a psychic archive, accessible to a legate with the right skills, and the desire to hear what lore the late Samael had concealed therein. Secrets deemed so perilous they were banned, hidden away. But now that Ragnarök draws near, we can no longer afford to be cautious. We must grasp at anything that might grant us victory over the Legions of Shadow.
Psychic recorders weren’t all that rare, but the one embedded inside the chimera was at least two orders of magnitude more complex than any Marcus had come across. The ruler of a modestly wealthy star system would be hard-pressed to finance such a thing. If he could get hold of the psychoactive materials at all—the mighty Collegium of Magisters maintained a tight grip on the production and distribution of such things. How did Samael amass what amounts to components for hundreds of psychic foci? Where did he find someone with the skills required to make it? Marcus had never found out, and not for lack of trying. Ultimately none of it mattered: who had made it, how it had been done, or in what manner it had been financed. The chimera is here. I am here. That is all that matters.
Marcus cleared his mind. The Chimaera sat there, motionless, mouthless, flawless, eyes closed. He was about to speak when he thought he heard something. What was that? Marcus listened more intently. There it was: a faint cacophony of whispers, carried into the chamber on a soft summer’s breeze. There is no wind in the metal netherworld. He focused, extending his hearing to include sounds not entirely of this world. The whispers became more pronounced. Marcus strained to make sense of the words. “Vitae ante acta,” the wind seemed to whisper in High Dominion. Lives done before—past experiences. “Vita incerta, mors certissima,” the wind continued. The most certain thing in life is death. He had no quarrel with that. “The shortness of life prevents us from entertaining distant hopes,” the breeze sang into his mind. Something out of a poem, so old no one knew who had written it, only that it was a timeless classic.
There were other phrases, all of them equally esoteric, repeating over and over, intermingling, overlapping, interfering—a barrage of ancient quotes and forgotten idioms. It was pure nonsense. Unless you knew what the whispers were alluding to. Rebirth, reincarnation, ascension, apotheosis. Call it what you will. ‘Immortality’ will do nicely. The great secret of the late Samael. Guess it didn’t work out for him.
“Enough,” Marcus called out with his mind. “Your parlor tricks are wasted on me: I am a Draconic Legate. Save them for the weak-minded.” The whispers stilled. It cooperates. Good. That will save time. Marcus towered over the sitting chimera. “I know you can hear me,” he said in his flesh voice. “There is no need to act coy.”
The construct’s chin came up. It opened its eyes, and Marcus peered down into their emerald depths. Perfection. Are they flesh or machine? With good cybernetics, it was hard to tell the difference.
“I can hear you,” the chimaera said, in a clear, feminine voice. No mouth, but her synthesizer is working just fine.
“Good,” he replied. “I am Marcus Aurelian, your interrogator. I carry the Dark Omega. I’ve come a long way to speak with you.”
“Hello Marcus,” she replied, making a minute nod with her head, “I hope you didn’t go through too much trouble to find me?” the Maiden finished, still in the same perfectly calm tone.
“Trouble? No. It was no trouble at all,” Marcus lied. He pulled up the other chair, sat down at the edge of it, and regarded the chimera intently. Did she look this good in life, or did the technomancers work their magic on her at Samael’s urging? Did he use her for things other than storage? If not, why bother with the looks?
“Do you have a name or a designation?”
“Yes, I do, both a name and a designation. Which is it that you want?”
“I’ll have them both.”
“I was born a Rachel, with a ‘k,’ not the ‘ch,’ but that’s optional. No one ever remembered, so I stopped bothering long ago. My middle name was ‘Elizaveta,’ which is pretty close to ‘Elisabeth,’ but not exactly the same. Lizzie, my friends me. Rakel Elizaveta Taylor: that was what my mother screamed when she was cross with me. The ‘Taylor’ became something of a swear word after she divorced my father. I have also…”
“You’re telling me you remember your past life, your flesh life?”
The chimera seemed to think for a bit before replying. “Enough to remember my name anyway,” she said and shrugged—as far as her bonds allowed.
“And your designation,” he pressed.
“The Maiden,” she replied, spreading her legs just a little. Not entirely innocent.
“The Maiden? What does that allude to?”
“What do you think?” she said. Marcus imagined she would have licked her lips if she had any.
At this rate, the interview will take forever. I don’t have forever. The end of the world draws near, I cannot afford to dally. Marcus reached forward and cupped the chimera’s chin. The instant his fingers brushed against the Maiden’s skin, the psychic connection was made, and everything came rushing into the legate’s mind.