Chapter 20 WATCHERS
Marcus knew he was being watched before he stepped out onto the Plaza of Loremasters. He wasn’t the galaxy’s most talented tarot reader, that much was true, but he was highly skilled at immediate precognition.
He halted in the shadows of the Pentacle’s gilded portal arch. High above the words Timendi Causa Est Nescire—‘The cause of fear is ignorance’ in Common Dominion—was carved. Marcus knew a thing or two that he’d rather never have known. Sometimes knowledge is far more frightening than ignorance.
He stood there for a little while, hidden from view. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Marcus closed his eyes and reached out with his legate-given faculties—senses ordinary people lacked—overlaying a clairvoyance probe with a precognitive map of the most likely immediate futures.
The vastness of the Plaza, the monumental buildings, the majestic statues, and the bustling activity rushed into Marcus’s mind, merging with something more complex and sublime to form a view, not only of the now but of how the place would look a few minutes into the future. Not one possible future, but all of them, branching infinitely until they became too much even for a legate’s mind to keep track of.
The first team of watchers was revealed in an instant: two men and a woman, all wearing psy-warding gear. Like Cerberus Kwame’s helmet, it was enough to keep a legate from probing their minds. The warding would not, however, prevent Marcus from reading their futures. So they know I’m a legate for all the good that it will do them. Getting into their heads would be nice, but I can do without.
They were watching the plaza from the third floor of the nearby Temple of Horus-Who-Is-Ra, an edifice of metal and stone as tall as the Second Pentacle was deep. The team had taken up a concealed position on an exterior walkway, hidden by maintenance scaffolding and the holo-projectors that hid this ugly blemish upon the temple’s skin.
Selecting a future to his liking, Marcus counted to thirteen before stepping out into the plaza proper, just as a matte-black macro-hauler with security police markings slowly rumbled past, on its way to pick up rioters. He ducked in between its mammoth wheels and broke into a jog, staying low and well clear of the grasping rubber tires. Soon he had slipped past the first team of watchers. What good are spotters if they see nothing?
The second team was more elusive but could not avoid his precognitive abilities altogether. Marcus looked deeper into the future, straining to make sense of what he saw. There. Along one potential branch, he saw himself leave the police vehicle behind only to be seen by the next team. Two operatives, heavily augmented, were posing as menials, escaping Marcus’s attention in the present. That’s a new one. Most people wouldn’t even consider pretending to be a cyborg—there were too many taboos associated with mankind’s half-human-half-machine servants. The first of the sweeper teams, also serving as backup spotters. Standard procedure for a surveillance job.
Marcus reached out with his telepathic powers, shifting through nearby minds, looking for an advantage. He found one in the overseer in charge of the plaza’s maintenance. Martha Eisen’s job was a simple one: escort the chimaeras to the square, watch them as they spent all day keeping the place tidy and in working order, then escort them back to maintenance-storage. It was an unimportant, mind-numbingly tedious job, but it was a job and a full-time one at that. She was better off than the majority of commoners—and knew it. She was desperately afraid to screw up and get fired.
Marcus planted an idea in the overseer’s mind, underlining its importance with a jolt of panic. Martha suddenly realized—wrongly—she was missing two units now that the shift’s end was approaching. Marcus let the panic drain away as soon as she spotted her wayward charges. The woman couldn’t recall having ever seen these two units, and her mind balked, but Marcus crushed her objections with a mental thrust, compelling her to act. So weak. How do they make it through life?
The overseer’s panicked attempts at bringing the two covert operatives into line provided the distraction Marcus needed. The likely futures shifted, removing the second spotters from Marcus’s affairs.
He stayed in between the wheels until the hauler rumbled past a giant statue of a heroic-looking fellow. Marcus put up the hood of his cloak and stepped out from under the hauler, joining the small group of local citizens paying their respects by lighting candles and making small offerings of their own blood. The statue was probably one of the city’s patrons. Each of the floating cities of Nuovo Venezia had at least one local hero that they honored the way others might celebrate the Paragons of the Pantheon. Not unlike the ancestor-worship of Haides’s Akakios.
The third team—there was always a third—Marcus could not find despite his best efforts. He pierced the veil of time again, pushing himself to make sense beyond the next couple of minutes. Every prospective future had his enemies picking up his trail again. Try as he might, he could not find a path forward that would let him slip away. Active psychic screening—they have a legate.
Marcus would have liked to try to find a way through the screen, a way to probe the other legate’s mind, but doing so would alert the enemy to his presence. And the rest of his merry little band will descend upon me.
Wishing to avoid a confrontation at this time, Marcus instilled the group of worshippers with an urge to finish up and get moving. Not all of them together—that would look conspicuous—but in several smaller groups, leaving in different directions, at slightly different times. Marcus blended in with one group of six people heading away from the statue, going towards the market edge of the plaza. A marketplace where one could find anything from religious mementos and paraphernalia, via token offerings and scented candles, to digi-styluses and dataslates.
He had timed the final leg of his escape well. Just as he started to move, another figure left the Second Pentacle, drawing the attention of the spotter teams. Marcus slipped in among the stalls and merchants of the bazaar. A quick peek into the future confirmed that the third team had not seen him. They didn’t even realize I gave them the slip. Amateurs.
There was no reason for celebration, however. Marcus had evaded them, but he had to go back to the Pentacle, so they would have a chance of reacquiring him. I can give them the slip again, but sooner or later, they will get lucky.
He needed to plan for that eventuality. A pre-emptive strike might be required to resolve the situation. But not today. And not tomorrow. Today, such as remained, was for rest. Tomorrow was for the Maiden and Haides. But after that, he’d have to waste precious time figuring out who they were, what they wanted, and what their capabilities were. And remove them from my future. From all my possible futures. Violently, if need be.
Marcus considered stopping at an eating establishment—the paradise cities of New Venice were renowned for their excellent restaurants—on his way back to the Coalition consulate, but hunger got the better of him. He grabbed some food and a quad of Zhangee—what passed for beer around these parts—from a street-side food court. The greasy lumps of non-descript vat-meat were absolutely delicious. The perfectly chilled beer was even better. Marcus finished one self-cooling bottle with the meat. He tossed the empty bottle and the food container into a recycling bin. Twisted the cap of another beer. One for the road.
Marcus walked the bustling streets of the metal-and-glass city for a while, taking in the sights and the bustling nightlife. Every building was a high-rise, alive with a thousand lights. Space was a limited commodity in a floating city. Even at this late hour, millions of citizens were out and about, enjoying themselves after a hard day’s work—or desperately seeking entertainment to fill their empty lives. They have no inkling of what hides in their midst. To them, the Pentacle is nothing more than a library—if they’ve even heard of it all. Only the powers that be will have any inkling of the knowledge hidden within its underground walls. But why should the commoners care? The dark secrets of the universe are not for them. Their ignorance is bliss.
The Dragon Order legate opened the third bottle, waiting a few seconds to let the contents cool before drinking. He watched a trio of young girls—if they weren’t old hags remotely running their familiars from across town—in skimpy costumes prance around. One was dressed as an angel, all in white and pearl, with a pair of feathery wings spliced into her back. It was a blatant breach of decorum, wearing such obviously non-human enhancements in public. If you’re rich and powerful enough, you can get away with everything.
The second girl was the angel’s dark twin, a succubus with midnight hair, dark clothes, and black feathers instead of white. The last woman was a fierce amazon from a lost age. She had misplaced her armor and weapons—and most of her clothes. The warrior woman didn’t have wings, but in her own way, she was as unnatural as the other two. She was too tall, too slender, too curved, and too toned—all at the same time. Only retroviral gene therapy and nanite surgery could produce such an unnatural blend of characteristics in one body. She reminded Marcus a little bit of Xerza. The domina was also improbably beautiful, but where Xerza struck the perfect balance, this young woman missed it entirely and became a sad caricature.
A wealthy-looking lad of indeterminate age hovered nearby, his massive bodyguard a dark shadow against the neon backdrop of the night city. The man had no apparent enhancements, but that didn’t mean anything. The truly rich never flaunted their upgrades as the upstarts and pretenders did. Privileged girls out on the town with a rich boy. Hoping for an adventure to take their minds off the dreariness of privileged life.
The girl with white wings noticed Marcus watching. She tossed back her platinum blonde hair and pointed at him. Her two friends turned to look. Marcus lifted his beer in salute. Playing with girls. It’s been a while. I should get out more. A grin appeared on his face, unbidden. Haides, Haides. What have you done to me?
The rich boy had seen him too. He spoke in hushed tones to the bodyguard, pointing at Marcus. Taking offense at my presence? Marcus sipped his beer, pretending not to care. Another bodyguard stepped out of the shadows, and the pair of them moved towards the legate.
They were dangerous opponents. Heavy with cybernetic implants and muscle enhancements. Faster and more potent than unaugmented humans. Immune to nuisances like pain—or fear. Built-in melee weapons that could shred a person in an instant. I’ll teach you a lesson in what it means to be dangerous.
Marcus took a final sip of beer, split his mind into three parts, and reached into the head of the thugs. They were both fitted with off-the-shelf mind buffers designed to prevent telepathic manipulation. But hardly fireproof. He called the witchfire and turned their bio-circuitry into useless ash. The two brutes stopped in their tracks, momentarily stunned as psychic energy coursed through their neural pathways.
He threw the half-empty beer bottle at them, willing the liquid inside to be not a watery beverage, but a flammable cocktail of thermite and gasoline. An instant before impact, Marcus touched the contents of the bottle with the fiery part of his mind. The bottle blew apart in a rain of fire, showering the thugs. Both men started screaming, primal fear consuming them now that the warding circuitry was gone. Relax, boys, your dermal armor means it will only be a skin job.
Rich boy started to pull something from under his jacket, but Marcus was having none of it. The legate raised his ring hand, touched his thumb to the metal, and called the power of Khaos. It answered his call, like it always did, a primeval force without purpose beyond change, always change. Marcus fashioned it into an orderly pattern by force of will alone, projecting its new and purposeful form through the Dragon signet and into the mind of its target. There was resistance, more than expected, but the Dragon Order legate’s ego was stronger. The man in the hideously expensive suit of Revenant silk collapsed, unconscious before he hit the pavement. Another scion. A descendant of the old gods, like me, but weaker was his blood.
Marcus got up, twisted the cap of the last beer bottle, and drank deep without waiting for it to cool. He smiled at the girls one last time. The looks he got in return were a mix of fear, awe, and disbelief.
He reached out—and wiped away their memories of the past few minutes. They would have no recollection of ever seeing a dark, handsome stranger work his magic on their scion-daddy and his insolent bodyguards.
Walking away from the scene, Marcus decided he’d like some dessert. He purchased a couple of sweet-pies from a grossly overweight vendor. Being that fat should be a crime. He chuckled at his own joke. The pies were delicious. If I eat enough of them, I will also be fat.
By the time the consulate—many interstellar powers maintained offices in the vicinity of the Pentacle—loomed above him, Marcus was licking pastry and sticky jam of his fingers. He went in by a side entrance customarily used only by embassy staff. The League trooper standing guard outside gave Marcus a quizzical look. I’m in no mood for this.
A mental jab left the man stunned and dumbfounded. He would remember little of the event afterward, just that he saw someone coming in and that he had a dizzy spell. He’d avoid reporting it, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
Marcus swiped the Dragon signet across the security scanner. There would be no trace of his entry in the access logs. The Dark Omega protocols embedded in the ring—which also doubled as Marcus’s psychic focus—would see to that.
He took care to remain unnoticed as he made his way to his quarters. The fewer people knew who he was or where he stayed, the better. He opened the door, got in, and locked it. It wasn’t much, just a small cubicle with a narrow window overlooking the consulate’s gardens, and a private bathroom. Marcus pulled off his shoes and sat down on the cot. Four beers in no time. A fight I could have avoided. Haides would be proud of me. He let his weary body slump down on the mattress.
Marcus had known they would send someone. Xerza has enemies. Other Quaestors who hate her guts. Rivals that would interfere just to spite or frustrate her. But there had been no indication that anyone was hot on his heels. I thought I had more time. Yet here they are. He wondered how they had acquired his scent. He’d only recently arrived on Nuovo Venezia, yet they were waiting for him on the very first day he’d gone to the Pentacle.
Maybe they were already watching before he arrived. For him specifically—or just for anyone making contact with the Maiden. It was not impossible. Was there a mole in Xerza’s cadre? That Maximilian guy, for example? Marcus didn’t trust him. He was too young, too brash, and had advanced too quickly. The man wasn’t even a legate, just some scum Xerza had picked off the streets. Marcus couldn’t understand what the mistress saw in the guy.
Or had the other team arrived on Nuovo Venezia based on separate intelligence? Who did they work for? Were they Dragon Order or not?
His eyelids began to flutter. Damn, I’m tired. He tried to fight sleep, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. Marcus’s eyes closed of their own volition, and his spirit drifted away into the dreamlands.