Chapter 21 DUTY TO THE DRAGON
It had been a long day, more so because Moeral Princeps’s day was several hours longer than Earth’s twenty-four-hour standard. As one of the few prefects to have a Dark Omega clearance, it fell on Maximilian Eccard to arrange for the transmission—and reception—of highly classified communication.
His message to Asset Sigma Draconis—Lord-Commander Kaminsky and his merry band of outcasts—had been the most noteworthy of the day, but far from the only one. There had been a flurry of dispatches going out and in. For the most part, these were for Xerza’s eyes only. Private communication with fellow Quaestors and other highly placed individuals, and official correspondence with the Draconic Assembly, the Order’s ruling body.
The Dragon Order routinely used astral projection—it was the only practical means of interstellar communication not controlled by the Technocracy. While it was possible to write down a message or dictate to the projecting legate, that wasn’t how it was usually done. The standard procedure was to create a psychic recording. That way, the recipient would get a clear, unaltered message that left no doubts as to the true identity of the sender. The process allowed for encryption, meaning the transmitting legate need not know what was being sent, nor would an eavesdropper be able to decipher the contents.
With today’s dispatches finally done, Prefect Eccard shut down the terminal. The amanuensis—a highly specialized chimaera responsible for turning digital information into mnemonic conglomerates suitable for telepathic transmission—continued operating for a few seconds longer, encrypting and transfiguring the last messages before powering down. Maximilian took a moment to stretch out a budding cramp in his calf. His current schedule had forced him to skimp on physical exercise. He promised himself to remedy that with a good workout after his other duties were done. Maxi retrieved a jet-black cylinder from the back of the cyborg’s chromed skull and manually wiped its mind-buffer—standard procedure following any Dark Omega level communication—before locking himself out of the cubicle.
He stepped out into the muted bustle of Lady Xerza’s athenaeum. It wasn’t anything like the vast edifice of lore that was the Second Pentacle, but it still held quite a few secrets—and a lot of mundane information. The athenaeum was also their communications hub. The actual interstellar transmission was handled by the on-duty legate. Xerza had three indentured legates permanently attached to her headquarters, plus two more that served in a mobile role, accompanying the mistress when she went into the field or following her key agents on critical missions. Marcus’s mission hadn’t warranted any legates. Maybe that meant his mission wasn’t all that important. Prefect Aurelian was a legate himself, of course, but as far as Maximilian knew, he wasn’t certified for interstellar communication.
Old Amicus, stooped with age and nearly hairless save bushy eyebrows and a few white strands ringing his head, was on duty. He wasn’t the chatty type, so Maximilian just handed him the archive cylinder. The old man nodded but said nothing, turned around and began preparing to send his soul into the great void between the stars.
It was already late, yet Maximilian was nowhere near finished for the day. Xerza’s organization never slept, and by definition, the dragonsworn were always on duty, every hour of every day. The only break they got was death—waiting to be reborn to serve again. That was the theory, anyway. In reality, the servants of the Dragon worked hard but enjoyed more privileges than most people.
With artificial daylight wasting, Maxi headed for his next assignment. Deep within the Arcanum—both the name of Xerza’s base of operations and the organization she had inherited from her predecessor, Quaestor Tancred—lay a section informally know as ‘the Bastille.’ It was where suspects were brought in for interrogation and where prisoners were detained while waiting for processing. Maximilian knew the Bastille like the back of his hand. Before being promoted to Prefect of Communications, Maxi had served on the Bastille’s staff, working diligently to make sense of the confessions extracted from known or suspected recidivists. Information was usually obtained under severe physical and mental duress, making it imperative that the Bastille had a skilled staff, capable of filtering out real intel from all the non-consequential rubbish. Working as an interrogator required you to have a keen, analytical mind, unburdened by empathy or conscience.
Maximilian’s background made him a perfect fit for the job. He’d risen quickly through the ranks, eventually drawing the attention of mistress Xerza herself. All his life had been like that, crawling belly down in the darkest pits, dragging himself up, one handhold at a time until he reached the top—and was thrown back down. He’d started out as trash, an unwanted infant dumped on the endless streets for Moeral Princeps. Clawed his way to the top of the orphanage’s food chain. When he was turned out of that establishment, he’d become a vigilante, the protector of the common people, an avenger for those who got no justice from the law. They’d caught him in the end, the real police, despite their incompetence. He’d volunteered for reconditioning rather than serve his five times life without a chance of parole. It was, all things considered, a relatively mild sentence. He’d killed a lot of people, there was no denying that. They had all deserved death—and worse—but technically, it was murder.
The reconditioning was an extraordinary experience. It didn’t wipe your mind as the street rumors would have you believe. It didn’t even delete your memories. What it did was rearrange your head. Remove some connections, create new ones. In the end, you were still you, but changed, in a manner no amount of personal improvement training or psych-therapy could accomplish. But one thing remained unchanged. However many times life sent him crashing down, Maximilian would never give up.
One day a street legend, a few years later, a highly respected N-tac operative, tasked with bringing down the worst cases of Nexus psychosis. Thugs with so much metal in them, they were not even remotely human. The rich kids that had taken one experimental procedure too much, only to discover their N-tolerance was way below average. Dope heads that sucked up every new substance to hit the streets until one day they exploded into a murderous rage. But the worst was the legates that drunk too deep of Khaos. Some of them could kill a man with a thought, and all of them were utterly insane and completely unpredictable.
Maximilian had done really well in N-tac. Moeral Princeps was his playground. He was set for further promotion. Who knew how far he could reach. The very top of the commoner food chain, perhaps. Then everything fell apart again. Someone within N-tac had sold him out. Tipped the Conclave—of all things—that Maximilian was into illegal geneering and life-extension procedures. It was bullshit. He’d been bending the rules a little, sure. Using more force than strictly necessary. Lining his own pockets with money seized from criminals. Planted some evidence. Everything he had done, he’d done to make sure the bad guys got what they deserved.
Utter bullshit—but Maximilian’s enemies had made sure it was bullshit that stuck. He was arrested and expelled from the force in disgrace before any kind of investigation had been carried out. He was put through interrogation and made to undergo a hundred medical tests. The results of those tests had been faked, coming up positive this and positive that. But Maxi had never had any geneering done, let alone all the crap they accused him of. The truth was immaterial, justice an illusion. It was a trap, and he’d been set up good. What evidence they wanted, they found, simple as that.
In the eyes of the Conclave, Maximilian wasn’t just a criminal; he was an affront to the gods. He had tried to be more than human, to ape the Gods, without being of their blood. He had even—and that was the worst part apparently—tried to give himself an unnaturally long life. Humans were mortal; only the gods were forever. They would have burned him, had not Xerza intervened. Not personally, but she’d sent Golden Boy to wave the Dragon sigil in the Conclave’s face and invoke the Right of Conscription. Maximilian remembered that day very well indeed. He’d been isolated in his cell for what felt forever. When they came for him, he was sure it was all over. But rather than the pyre, he’d found a tall, dark-haired stranger with dangerous eyes waiting for him. Maximilian had met enough scions—children of the old gods—in his life to know the stranger was one. His dislike for the privileged piece of shit was as instant as it was enduring.
“I am Prefect-Magister Marcus Aurelian, Ordo Draconis,” the stranger had said, voice perfectly level. He had lifted his hand to show Maximilian the golden dragon rampant cut into his signet ring. “My mistress, Domina Quaestor Xerza, Ordo Draconis, requires your service. I hereby invoke the Right of Conscription. Do you, Maximilian Eccard, freely and willingly enter into the service of Deus Draco—the Celestial Dragon?” When Maximilian didn’t immediately reply, the stranger added: “It’s either that or the pyre. Death by fire is painful but mercifully quick. Service to the dragon is eternal. Choose wisely.”
Maximilian had no particular wish to die by fire and did not, at the time, fully understand that eternal was meant literally. “I do,” he’d finally croaked.
“Pitty,” the stranger had replied. Not until much later did Maximilian learn that Marcus was a pyrokine and that the legate would have burned him then and there had he said no.
“Good evening, Maximilian,” said a tall woman in a smartly tailored prefect’s uniform that showed off her lovely legs, bringing Prefect Eccard back to the present.
“You too, Callista,” he replied and quickened his pace. “We should grab a coffee or something, but I’ve got a date in the Bastille tonight.”
Callista smiled faintly, looked away, shook her head, and moved off.
They’d been a thing for like half a year, but it was over now. It had been fun, but truth be told, Maximilian had quickly grown bored once the novelty value had worn off. The woman had killer legs, and the relationship had been too convenient to break it off, so he’d stayed attached longer than he should have.
Maxi passed through the first checkpoint, from Athenaeum to the Bastille accessway. Many of the prisoners within were already insane—or very nearly so—when they arrived at the Bastille. Some were just homicidal maniacs, others were deep in Nexus psychosis—or worse. The tainted ones, the things some of them had seen—and done. Maximilian could scarcely believe half of it, and he was in charge of interrogation. Few prisoners remained for very long. Most lasted a handful of days, a few weeks at the most. Only hardened heretics, men and women who had fallen to Shadow, possessed the unnatural fortitude required to resist the ministrations of the Order for much longer than that.
One notable exception was prisoner Xi-Rho 1113. As far as Maximilian could tell, the elderly savant had been held in detention for many years, decades even—the exact details were restricted even from the Bastille’s staff. X-R 1113 had been convicted of consorting with Abyssal entities and sentenced to die by incineration. But mistress Xerza had put his execution on indefinite hold: he was to be spared as long as he gave the Dragon Order full access to his encyclopedic memory.
As part of his duties, Maximilian had been put in charge of X-R 1113′s interrogation. Rather than accept that the old man probably knew little of value that he hadn’t already shared, Maximilian had thrown himself at the new task with great determination, hoping to wrap it up quickly and efficiently. It had taken a great deal of skill and persistence, but eventually, the old heretic had relented and begun talking. That the prisoner still had relevant information to offer was a feather in the hat for his new interrogator. Xerza herself had commended him for a job well done.
Maximilian passed through two more checkpoints before reaching his destination—this was the Bastille’s most secure level. He identified himself a fourth time to a faceless guard—one of Xerza’s cloned security mannequins—and was let into the prisoner’s cell. The door seal slammed firmly shut behind him as soon as he stepped over the threshold.
X-R 1113 was chained to the walls of his cell, as were all those convicted for trafficking with Shadow, but in his case, it was mostly a matter of tradition, not necessity. Once upon a time, the elderly savant had enjoyed the benefits of a fully armored and augmented exoskeleton. The Bastille’s staff had ripped away the armored plates and gutted the locomotive system, but left the life-support and load-bearing structure intact. The prisoner was effectively immobilized: he was nowhere near strong enough to move without the powered assist, and he could not abandon his life-support systems without perishing.
“Good day, Prefect,” the prisoner said without being prompted. “Is it time for old Vern to share his wisdom again?” he continued before Maximilian had a chance to reply.
Prisoners, recidivists, in particular, were not allowed to speak unless questioned. If they spoke out of turn, they would be disciplined until they learned. Maximilian had tried that with X-R 1113, but found it was pointless: the old man was too frail to be physically processed and too resilient to break down mentally. In the end, Maximilian had chosen to ignore the man’s little quibbles. As long as the prisoner continued to cooperate, there was no need for more drastic action.
Maximilian brought up his data ledger and activated the auto-transcriber. “We’ll continue where we left off last session: The Word of Light heresy and its involvement with the Protasian Equation.”
“It will be my pleasure to indulge your curiosity, young Maximilian,” the heretic said, his wide grin threatening to tear apart the paper-thin, almost translucent skin that looked like it had been stretched too tightly across his bony face. The disfigured Eye of Horus over the prisoner’s right eye leered at the interrogator like the maw of a hungering beast.
Today’s session with X-R 1113, or ‘Vern’ as he kept calling himself, had been exhausting. The old revenant had been all over the place, seemingly unable to focus on the questions posed. Maxi was close to giving up when suddenly the old man had started to make sense. It was as if all the little things the madman had said over the past months came together over a few hours.
Maximilian now had complete insight into the particulars of the Portasian Equation—or as much as was possible to learn about events that were centuries into the past, knowledge of which had been thoroughly purged by an Edict of Excommunication. He knew how the Word of Light had first arrived on Protasia—then called Akakios—how it had taken root, how it had spread, how it had been careful not to grow so much as to threaten its host.
It was an insidious heresy, always spreading, but never taking action that would draw attention. The faithful brethren were waiting. In the shadows, they waited, with endless patience. Waiting for the call to arms to be issued by their dark Prophet in preparation for Ragnarök, the final battle. The implications were enormous. Protasia had been purged, but what of the rest of the sector? The Word could potentially be present on many worlds, and no one, not even the Order, seemed to be aware of it. How many societies infiltrated? How many heretics? Does the Order know? They tell us the Dragon is wise and clear-sighted, but his followers aren’t infallible. I cracked the case. I bet Xerza will be very pleased. This is my big break.
Maximilian was impressed by this new enemy. They had the most ingenious setup he’d come across: only a select few, the Bishops and their closest confidantes, knew the true nature of the heresy. Even the Brethren, the name used by their most zealous converts, had no clue that the Word of ‘Light’ and its Prophet were linked to the deepest pits of the Abyss. They earnestly believed they were faithful followers of the Pantheon. And beyond the Brethren was a large pool of ordinary people, peaceful and cooperative, who sincerely believed in a superficial version of the Word’s teachings. The perfect cover.
But there was another element to consider: Vern’s sublime manipulative skills. It had been a fantastic display of intellect and eloquence. Maximilian had no clue until the whole truth blossomed before his eyes. No wonder the old savant had been locked up and access to him restricted. He represented a grave danger, able to sublimely inject the weak-minded with his foul teachings. Had Vern been left free to wander the worlds of the Dominion, he would no doubt have become the locus of a charismatic cult.
Maximilian wasn’t sure what kind of cult—Vern knew a whole lot about the Word of Light, but he didn’t seem to be one of the Brethren—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Vern was dangerous, an agent of Shadow, waiting to prey upon unsuspecting, weak-willed citizens of the successor kingdoms.
The interrogation dragged out well into the night, but given their progress, Maximilian was reluctant to call it a day. At just over zero two hundred hours, however, X-R 1113 bowed his head and fell silent, as if suddenly dead or asleep. Before Maximilian had a chance to check the prisoner’s vitals, a rasping sound, half-mocking laughter, half something utterly inhuman, emerged from his lolling lips. When prodded, he had lifted his head and regarded the interrogator with oddly mismatched eyes.
“So it begins, Aaron,” the heretic said, his voice no longer entirely his own. “So you begin.”
That word, ‘Aaron’ hit Maximilian so hard it nearly sent him crashing to his knees. Only with great difficulty did he remaining upright, the room spinning around them like a giant centrifuge. Prefect Eccard was not one to suffer prisoners spewing insanity and abuse, but Vern’s words had touched something deep inside his soul. Aaron. I’ve been called that before, many times. Aaron. It is my name, the one that rings true. How is it that I cannot remember a single person ever calling me that to my face?
He cuffed the prisoner. Not very hard, but X-R 1113’s skin was so frail the strike opened a wide gash across the old man’s face. There was no blood, only pale, pinkish foam that quickly gathered to make the tear look like a wet sponge.
“What do you mean ‘begins’?” Maximilian said too loudly, regretting the words before they left his lips.
In a voice more his own, the prisoner replied. “Your genesis Aaron, your rebirth! All hail Osiris. Welcome to the real you!”
Maximilian struck him. Harder. That made X-R 1113 begin laughing again. So Maximilian had struck him repeatedly until there was nothing left of the prisoner’s face. Nothing but chrome, monosteel, torn strips of synth-flesh, and pinkish foam. The laughter was gone, replaced by a soft gurgling noise. Maximilian stopped hitting and looked at his hands. His own knuckles were bloody and raw, torn skin and shredded flesh showing white bone covered in red. Aaron. Maximilian. Aaron. I can’t get it out of my head! What did he do to me?
He fled the cell, caring not whether the prisoner lived or died. He wanted to go to Xerza and report but didn’t. Waking the mistress in the wee hours in his current state would not reflect well upon him. Better he called upon the Lady Quaestor in the morning. They used to call me Aaron. Why did they do it? Why don’t they anymore? Who are ‘they’? Where did they go? Why can’t I remember?
He went to the gymnasium instead. He wanted to do some martial arts training, but the only opponents available were sparring-menials. Maximilian didn’t feel like hitting any more cyborgs, so he ended up doing katas instead. That hadn’t been fulfilling at all, so he had quit after a few half-hearted ones. I used to spar with someone. He called me Aaron. We were friends. No, enemies. Why can’t I remember? Why!
Maximilian knew what he needed was good night’s sleep; he also knew he wasn’t going to get any. I remember his face, but not his name. A quick glance at the ornate chronometer around his wrist told him as much: it was well past four. Plus, he could feel the onset of a monstrous headache. Fair hair. Those cold, cold blue eyes. The lips that only smiled when he hurt someone. How could I forget someone like that?
He went to the cloakroom, peeled off his gi, grabbed a couple of stimulants and some pain-killers from his locker, and headed for the aquarium. Haides. His name was Haides. Maximilian considered pulling on a pair of swimming trunks, but there was no point. The only company at this time of night was going to be of the aquatic kind.
Maximilian threw himself into the water and let the memories flow freely. I remember you now, Haides. The red right hand, we called you behind your back and tried to laugh away the fear we felt for walking in death’s shadow. I remember all of you: Jarra and Shiloh and little Venus and Vern…old friend, how far you have fallen. And Xerza. You, I remember most of all.