Chapter 17 THE OTHERS
Marcus pulled his hand away from the Maiden’s elegant fingers. He sat back, feeling the cold, uncomfortable metal of the chair press against his body once more.
The deeper his connection to Haides, the harder it was to resist the flood of memories. Foreign thoughts and emotions threatened to drown out Marcus’s past and replace it with something else. If Marcus hadn’t been trained to resist such things, he could have been overwhelmed. Indeed, had he not compartmentalized his mind and separated his ego—his inner self—from the interactive mind, there was no telling what the gatekeeper could have done to his head.
But there was more: the longer he walked in the boy’s shoes, the harder it became it tell the present apart from what had happened on Akakios long ago. Like a quagmire, it tried to suck Marcus in. Memories and emotions, perhaps more real than those that remained of the legate’s own life, before he was recruited by the Order. This other life kept him occupied, while his mind sunk further and further until, at one point, there would be no going back. If Marcus gave in, he’d effectively become Haides, living out his life—for as long as the connection was maintained.
With Shiloh and Jarra, it was different. He could step into their heads, see what they had seen, feel what they had felt, but they had no egos, nothing that could influence Marcus. The gatekeeper certainly did have an ego—a powerful one, almost a match for Marcus’s own. It’s almost as if part of his soul is trapped in here. That he is more than a recording, more than a shadow of a dead man. How can this be? If he was indeed Dragonsworn, he must go to the Eyrie after death. If not, he should be in Hades—or the Abyss.
Marcus decided to keep his in-depth sessions with Haides’s past brief. As an added precaution, he scheduled more frequent monitoring of the cognitive buffer that regulated the interface between the legate’s mental compartments. Together, those measures should prevent the interactive mind from being overwhelmed
Samael. The Maiden. Haides. Shilo. Jarra. Kaminsky. The Word of Light. It’s all connected somehow. Why are you showing me these things, Gatekeeper? Are you stalling while you try to get into my head? Or is there more to it? What about Vern’s talk of Dante? Meaningful or meaningless? Marcus had very many questions—and few real answers. In fact, Marcus knew less now than he had thought he knew when he arrived. He’d expected security, psychic security, wards to be broken, defenses to be penetrated, but nothing like this gatekeeper. It was unexpected and quite frustrating. I must keep an open mind and be wary both. There is literally more than meets the inner eye going on here.
Marcus looked at the chimera, studying her face. There was no sign of the crack in her shell. In place of the blackened gash, she had a perfectly shaped mouth, lips painted red in that ageless style that transcended time and space. Self-repair systems. Adaptive outer layer. What else did Samael hide beneath your perfect façade, my Maiden fair?
“Let’s go back to your first life,” Marcus said out loud. “You were telling me about the Last War.”
“The Last War. That’s what they called it, those that survived.”
Marcus shook his head. “There will never be an end to war.”
The Maiden shrugged. “Nevertheless, that’s what they called it: the Last War. It was so much more gruesome than all the wars that came before it. I suppose they really meant for it to be the last.”
“Yet here we are, and there have been many wars since, no?”
The Maiden nodded. “Of course. Only a few generations before the Last War, we had the Second World War—after which the victors became enemies and launched the decades-long Cold War. And this Second World War, it followed right on the heels of the Great War—another War to End All Wars.”
“Let’s stick with the Last War. I’ve no interest in what came before.”
“How about you tell me what you think you know, and I’ll fill in the blanks? That might be easier and faster.”
“That’s not how this works.”
The Maiden shrugged. “This is more of a history lesson than an interrogation at the moment.”
Marcus suppressed a sigh. “Very well. The Last War. It was the first nuclear holocaust on Earth. This is well known. No one—except you, it seems—knows how it started or for what reason. Whatever folly lay behind the war, the bombs nearly ended the human species.”
“It was indeed the folly of man that nearly ended us,” the Maiden said softly. “But the gods must bear part of the blame. When they fell from the heavens, they caused immense destruction, far greater than any bomb could have. The very Earth was rent asunder, causing massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions across the globe—as I’ve already told you.
“All over the world, politicians and generals interpreted this as an attack by old enemies, so they retaliated. That’s how it began, the nuclear holocaust that burned the already broken land.”
This wasn’t how the story was told in the annals of the Dragon Order. To the Ordo Draconis, everything started with Starfall—the fall of the gods—and the First Shadow War that followed immediately after. The Last War was something near-mythical that had happened before recorded history, the trigger that had convinced the gods, long removed from human affairs, to return to Earth.
“Still mankind endured—we are a tough breed. Then the dark spirits of the Abyss—the tartaruchi—came. From great rifts in the Earth, they poured forth, killing and defiling as they spread across the land. We would have been helpless, had it not been for the rise of the scions. Each carried a portion of the divine might of one of the fallen gods. Only they had the power to fight the encroaching darkness.
“Yet for all their might and courage, they could not defeat the Shadow. Not until the Dragon Order revealed its presence and offered them the weapons they needed.”
“Is this all you have? And old fable, with some bits turned on their heads?”
“You didn’t know how the war started, did you? No one but me does. The annals of the Dominion have it all backward.”
“Maybe. Conveniently, there are no witnesses left to gainsay you.”
“I know many things, Marcus. I have many skills. I could teach you, show you,” she said, licking carmine lips.
Is she for real? First Haides, and now this? Samael certainly had a twisted sense of humor. “Enough of this. Tell me about the others instead.”
“The other visitors,” Marcus said, clenching and unclenching his fist.
“I can’t tell you much,” she replied quickly, not taking her eyes from Marcus’s hand. “Because there isn’t much to tell. Seven people, all told, have interfaced with me telepathically. Four were turned away, presumably by the Gatekeeper. Two had their minds subtly altered and walked away, never realizing what had happened. The final one had a severe case of brain hemorrhaging while connected.”
“So none of them came away with anything?”
The Maiden tossed her hair back. “You mean: except for getting to spend time with me?”
Marcus nearly laughed at that. “Yes. Except for that.”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t know what transpires inside my archives. They are entirely separate from the rest of my being. I cannot access them—they cannot access me. It’s the way I was designed.”
“Is there any way to access the archives without interfacing psychically? A back door of some kind, an emergency protocol perhaps? Something to get me around security.” If something like it existed, the Maiden wouldn’t know, but Marcus had to ask.
“No. The archives are entirely separate from my conscious self. To access them, you must initiate a telepathic connection. It’s the only way.”
Another option was to download the archives into a suitable receptacle—not that Marcus had any on hand, but possibly one could be built—and spin them up from there, negating the need for the Maiden altogether. That would give a lot more room for experimentation.
“I know what you’re going to ask next: if you can copy me.”
“I wasn’t going to ask it, but I was thinking about it,” Marcus admitted. “If I could make a copy, I could try and bypass the gatekeeper without risk of damage to you.”
“How sweet of you,” she replied. “It won’t work, sorry. Everything is encrypted—and you’ll never break that encryption.”
“And you’re the decryption key, aren’t you? Without you, the archives are worthless.”
“Yes. Aren’t you the cleverest, Marcus.” She smiled at him with young, sweet lips. “Samael was a careful sort—paranoid even.” The lips became a stern line.
“So I’ve learned. I just wanted to hear your version.”
“Only happy to serve,” she said. The word ‘serve’ was heavy. Marcus caught himself wondering what it would be like to make love to this machine. He killed the line of thought before it had any chance of putting down roots in his psyche.
“Can you speak of the gatekeeper? Haides Guillaume. What can you tell me about him?”
“The others asked that question too. I told them I knew nothing.”
“But you lied,” Marcus finished for her. “Why?”
“Because I didn’t like them.”
This time Marcus could not avoid laughing. “You’re full of surprises, Lizzie. I’ll grant you that. Me you do like? You have strange preferences.”
She held his gaze with her perfect green eyes. “You have your flaws, Marcus. Pride. Haughtiness. A brutal streak. But still: you’ve treated me like a person, not a wrench. None of the others did.”
Maybe I have. I keep thinking of her as a ‘she.’ Very well. Let us see where this takes us.
“Plus, you’re damned hot, Marcus. I always had a soft spot for the tall, dark, arrogant ones.”
“Very well, Rakel Elizaveta Taylor of Montana, Earth. What can you tell me about Haides Guillaume, the Gatekeeper?”
“Not as much as I’d like to. I mean, I’m not supposed to know anything about Haides. Nothing at all. But I do. Some things. Bits and pieces. But most of all, I know that I knew a great deal more about him. There are these voids in my mind. I know they are there, but I can’t access them. It is maddening.” Her voice was emotional now, almost frantic.
Her memories have been altered. The question is: have then been destroyed—or merely incised. If the latter, perhaps I can bring them back, bridge the gaps, like Haides did mine. Could provide me with an advantage, a way around the Gatekeeper.
“Then tell me what you remember. Perhaps more will come back to you.” Marcus gave her a smile of encouragement.
“He was a killer for hire. I’m sure about that. I think he worked for Samael. They were close, I think. Could be blood-related. Perhaps Haides became Samael’s apprentice. I can’t remember. He was the only one the Quaestor trusted, that I’m sure of. So when the time came to create the archives, only Haides would do as the gatekeeper.”
“So Haides is in charge? Not Vern?”
“Vern? Who is Vern?” the Maiden replied.
“Never mind. I thought as much. Anything else?”
“I think I loved him,” she said, her voice thick with longing.
“Yes. No. Haides, I mean.”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t think your memory is as good as you believe it is. Samael died long before Haides was born. He was hunted down by the Order and executed on the Assembly’s orders. Haides never worked for Samael—they never even met. He’s in there all right, there is no faking such a presence, but he was put in after, and not by Samael.
“I don’t understand,” she replied. Her voice was frantic no more, but heavy with uncertainty.
“Vernissimon—Vern—a scholar that worked for Samael. He put you together, Maiden. I can scarcely begin to understand how it was done, but the man is brilliant—a true genius.
“He also knew Haides in life. A coincidence? I don’t think so. He’s the one that made Haides the Gatekeeper. I’m positively sure of it. No one but your maker could have done such a thing. Why? I do not yet know. But don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. I always do.”
“My memories…” the Maiden said in a thick voice.
“I think someone messed with your head, Lizzie. Perhaps by accident, but probably on purpose, to confuse, to misdirect. Maybe it was Vern, but if so, I don’t understand why. But that too, I will learn.”
“Would you touch me again, Marcus?” the Maiden said, her voice husky. “I haven’t had a man in years, and you look like you could use a good fuck.”
“I will,” he said, put his hand on her knee, and headed back in for the final session of the day. “But, we’ll keep it friendly.”
When Marcus returned to the ring of light, Haides was standing to the side of the desk with Vern, talking in hushed tones with a third figure. She was one of the biggest women Marcus had laid eyes on, standing nearly two meters tall, heavy with muscle. I know you, Jarra. But where is your lover? Did you misplace him?
The few mesomorphs Marcus had encountered had all been big, burly males. Hulking brutes from Nightshade or Tanganyika or another world like them, possessing nearly limitless strength and fortitude, but little in the way of intelligence or social skills.
Mesos were metahumans, a subspecies of homo sapiens—homo mesomorphus. Geneered—before such practices were forbidden by the Conclave—to survive on borderline garden worlds. Places with high gravity, forbidding terrain, or hostile biospheres. Supposedly they had been as smart as everybody else, but during the long years of the Interregnum, their socio-mental faculties had deteriorated.
Jarra is different. It wasn’t just her gender that set her apart. She’s pretty. Blonde hair—longer than it had been on Akakios—framing a heart-shaped face. Her toned body was curved in all the right places. She looked right back at Marcus. Her eyes weren’t cute at all; hard and angry as hell. And smart. The mind behind those eyes was as sharp as any Marcus had touched. He nodded at Jarra as he would greet an acquaintance. She glared back.
Sensing Marcus’s presence, Haides dismissed both Vern and Jarra with a gesture. There was an undeniable aura of authority around the black-armored assassin in the crimson cloak: both the warrior woman and the loremaster deferred to him. Is the gatekeeper not just the doorman, but something more? Is he, not the architect, the master of all the circles?
“Please, Marcus, have a seat.” Haides gestured politely towards Marcus’s chair. “It is good to see you again. I feel we have grown closer of late. I’d hate for you to leave me now that we stand on the threshold to greatness.”
Marcus moved over to the chair but did not sit down. “I must admit: my curiosity is piqued. I came seeking Samael, but what do I find? More than I bargained for. The Maiden. You. Vern. Shiloh. Jarra. It’s all connected, I sense, and I must know how and why.”
Haides picked up the decanter. It had been refilled with a green-and-gold liquid, and the glasses replaced. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you: listen to my story, or should I say walk in my shoes, and all will be revealed. Please have a seat, Marcus,” the Gatekeeper waved towards the empty chair.” When Marcus did not immediately sit, he added, “please.”
Marcus inclined his head and sat.
“Jarra isn’t just a memory. She’s also part of the security detachment. We know what you’re trying to do out there. If you try to break in, try to bypass me, she will be there, waiting for you.” Haides gave Marcus a dark look, but his eyes twinkled.
So it is possible then, to force entry—or to bypass security. Of course, it is. Static countermeasures cannot keep a determined intruder out forever. Force entry—and fight the ghost of Jarra, and who knows what else.
“I would also like for you to meet Venus, our resident Technomancer.” Haides peered into the darkness beyond the edge of the light. Marcus turned his head to look, but no one appeared. “But your constant manipulation of the interface has her running ragged to compensate.”
“Another time, perhaps?”
“I should hope so. She, too, is part of my story.”
“The Keeper without a face. That is Lord-Commander Kaminsky, is it not?”
Haides shrugged. “It’s not for me to comment on what you saw in another person’s head. But yes, it kind of has to be Kaminsky. No mistaking that ugly face.”
“Is he in here as well?”
“He’s not. You only see him as the others saw him.”
“I suspected as much. I just wanted to be sure.”
“But from your question, I infer that you know him? That he is alive and well in your time? They made a Keeper into an officer? What is the Order coming to.”
Marcus considered lying, but there was no point denying it. “Yes, he’s very much alive. Is he well? That’s harder to quantify. He’s a living legend within the Order. Famous or infamous, depending on who you ask. He commands the Harbingers now, such as remain.”
“He’s not as clever as he likes to think,” Haides said.
“You knew him in life?”
“We’ve met, yes. I helped the man on occasion—as he helped me.” Haides didn’t sound like he was going to elaborate.
“About Jarra and Shiloh: how much of their story is in here? Or Vern’s, for that matter. And this Venus I’ve yet to meet.”
Haides smiled, ever so faintly. “A most interesting question. The answer is: everything that matters. Meaning anything that relates to my story. But you had guessed that already.” It was not a question.
Marcus put on a faint smile, mirroring Haides’s. “You mentioned other visitors. I would know more about them,” the legate said, not really expecting much of an answer.
“I’m sure you would,” Haides replied. “Another drink perhaps?”
“Not really,” Marcus replied. “Unless it helps persuade you to tell me some of what I want to know?”
“It might at that,” Haides answered. “This one is an Artesian brandy, brewed on some variety of pears and carefully fortified with a mild herbal narcotic the locals call Souldust nectar.” He held out the decanter for Marcus to examine.
“Very well, then. But make it a small one. And with some information on the side.”
“Well,” Haides began reluctantly, “there have been other visitors. Not many, seven all told—just like the Maiden said. Seeking either the secrets of Samael for their own gain or wishing to catalog the Maiden’s knowledge on behalf of a powerful patron. Or both at the same time.”
Marcus considered the information. Haides could perceive what the Maiden sensed. A stark contrast to her claim that she was entirely separate from the archives. If Haides can look outside, there must be ways she can look inside. Here, perhaps, is my way in—a bridge built through her memories, straight into the archives, without going through Haides’s circles. And since I’ll be using her mind, decryption should be possible. It seemed an auspicious course of action. Too good to be true, perhaps. The gatekeeper hadn’t revealed it by accident—everything Haides did had a purpose.
“None were able to reach the center, claim the prize. They were incompetent, lacked security clearances, had odious personalities, were morally corrupted, in various combinations thereof. Most disconnected voluntarily or were shut out. A couple had their minds hacked. One—an insufferable legate in the employ of the Conclave, one of their so-called ‘theurges’—got her brain fried.”
“Interesting. Could you be more specific?” Marcus asked.
“No. Not at this time, anyway. When you get to the next Circle, maybe.” Haides poured the drink and hands it to Marcus. “Go ahead, tell me what you think.” Haides waited for him to take the first sip.
Marcus considered pressing for details. Maybe later. He raised the glass to his lips and gently tasted the liquid. Most unusual, fresh, and spicy at the same time. A pleasant warmth started spreading from Marcus’s belly, seeping into every corner of his body and mind. He had another, larger sip for good measure. “This really is something special,” he exclaimed.
Haides put the glass to his lips and drained half of it in two large swigs. “Aye,” he said, sounding like an old Starwalker captain out of a lousy holo-play. “Not vintage conniaco, but definitely special. Popular with trader captains. Warms the soul on those long and lonely starflights. A few bottles of this and a couple of hussies to warm the body, and a man need never be cold again.”
He took his seat and looked at Marcus. “Are you quite comfortable? Shall we proceed?”
“Aye,” Marcus said, trying to ape Haides’ outrageous space-pirate imitation, but failing miserably.