Chapter 37 LUNCH FOR TWO
Marcus and Calpurnia Pisonis sat around the table, eating a lunch of a faux beef stew, side salad, and white bread. The beef stew was passable. The texture of the meat was nice, but it was too bland to be called tasty. The vegetables, however, tasted as if they had come right off the farm. The bread was freshly baked, the crust crunchy and the inside still warm.
“Real veggies? Fresh bread?” Marcus said between bites.
“Yes. From one of the greenhouse orbitals. We get deliveries almost daily. And the Pentacle has a small bakery. They have wonderful pastries. Here,” Cal said and handed him a small container, “try the butter.”
“Butter?” Marcus reached for the box. “As in real butter, made from cow’s milk? Didn’t know you had flying cows here on New Venice.” He opened the lid, and indeed, there was butter inside, yellow and creamy.
“It’s from my treasure trove. It’s one of my—admittedly many—weaknesses. Wine is another,” she said and poured Marcus a glass of a deep red wine. She put the bottle down after filling her own.
“To the Dragon everlasting,” she said and lifted the glass in a toast.
“The Dragon everlasting,” Marcus replied, had a sip, and set his glass down. “Is there anything about me you do not know?”
Cal was sitting cross-legged next to him on the couch, exposing an elegant leg. She was wearing sandals with ankle ties. It was very ‘dressed like the ancients’ and made Marcus think of the mural of Athena.
“The signet ring is a dead giveaway for one. But really, no one but a Dragon Order agent could have gotten access to the Maiden the way you did. The Dark Omega means nothing on its own. Having the blessings of each of the Tetrarchs is no mean feat, but the approval of the Draconic Assembly...they would never give that to an outsider. I’m mildly surprised they could even agree on who to send.”
I wouldn’t say they agreed. The Assembly doesn’t know what I’m doing here—Xerza pretty much coerced the assembly into giving her carte blanche to pursue weapons that can be used against the Legions of Shadow.
“After we’re done eating, you have to leave,” Marcus said. There was no humor in his voice now, no leeway either. “I appreciate the extra service, but soon I’ll delve into something that I can’t share with outsiders.”
She ignored him, picking something out of the picnic basket instead, three disks of different sizes, each wrapped in waxed paper. “Cheese?”
“I’m serious, Cal. You leave after lunch—or you don’t leave at all.” The way he said it left no room for misunderstanding.
“Sorry, I should have identified myself earlier. But it was just too much fun,” Cal said and leaned forward to give Marcus a look down her cleavage. He caught a glimpse of rounded breasts wrapped in lace—and a golden dragon tattoo over her heart. “Would you like a taste,” she asked, not talking about the three pieces of cheese she was holding.
“I have one like it,” Marcus replied without humor and brought a clawed fist to his heart. “But it doesn’t prove anything. Dragon tattoos can be faked. Or you could be a real dragonsworn, but working for someone else. That we’re on the same side doesn’t mean we’re on the same team, if you catch my drift.”
“After wine and butter, cheese is my greatest weakness. Tall, dark men come on a good number four. I claim to have a fast metabolism, but it’s the Technocracy that lets me keep my figure,” she said. “And now that I’m older, I’m forced to actually exercise.”
“Stop fooling around, Cal,” Marcus ordered. “I’m serious. You walk away, or you end up on the floor. And that means exactly what you think it means, so don’t fuck around. That’s how important this mission is.”
“All right,” she said and put down the cheeses. “If you weren’t such a self-righteous, snotty bastard, you’d be the perfect man, Marcus. My name is Calpurnia Pisonis, asset Omicron-Tau. My handler is Alpha-Iota—I don’t know his real name.”
Alpha-Iota? That’s that idiot, Maximilian Eccard. Xerza had an agent on the inside, this highly placed, and didn’t see fit to tell me?
“Since you can’t verify my identity through telepathy, I have an authentication code that’s supposed to mean something to you.”
“Let’s hear it then.”
The code took the form of a stupid little haiku.
Sheds a coat of snow
Divine wind rustles its fur
A young wolf rises.
As soon as Marcus heard it, a dedicated processor in his cranial implants checked it against a heavily encrypted bio-database buried deep inside his brain. It took less than a tenth of a second before the words ‘Identity verified’ was relayed into Marcus’s mind.
“It seems we’re on the same team, after all, Lady Pisonis.” Marcus wasn’t entirely convinced. They were on the same side—and the same team. But she could still be a double agent. That she had that oaf Maximilian as her handler didn’t inspire any confidence.
“Does that mean I don’t end up on the floor?”
“Maybe. Depends on what you can do for me—and the Dragon.”
“I could start by helping you with whatever you’re trying to find out.”
“You can start by passing the cheese.” She passed all three. “I’m trying to find out if someone is lying or telling the truth. I’m inclined to think he’s lying, but his story is as consistent as it’s exotic, so I’m not sure.” Marcus cut some thick slices of white, creamy cheese, putting it on top of a piece of bread already covered by a generous spread of butter.
“Who is this ‘someone’ if I may ask?”
Marcus picked up his wine glass with one hand and the bread in the other and sat back. “His name was Haides Guillaume. He’s long dead, but someone made a psychic copy of him and stuck him inside the Maiden’s head.” He sipped the wine. It was decent but too heavy for a light meal this early in the day. “To access her archives, I have to deal with this guy, and he’s a handful. I also have this feeling he’s lying to me, but at the same time, he seems sincere to a fault. Like he’s honor-bound—or incapable of—lying.” He had a big bite of bread, butter, and cheese.
“You’re not supposed to put butter and cheese together...”
Marcus finished chewing and swallowed. “If I can confirm he’s lying—or not—I will know more about how to proceed.”
“Tell me what I can do to help.”
“First, I want to know if there was ever a collapsar gate in the green-tinged area.” He nodded towards the hologram.
Cal got out of the couch and walked over to the three-dimensional image suspended in mid-air.
“I think you’re right, Marcus. Something is missing. Here,” she said and stuck her arm into the hologram, distorting the projection. She pulled back, and the image returned to normal. “Computer,” she said, “display the Tucana collapsar.”
“There is no reference to the ‘Tucana collapsar’ in the data-vaults, Chief Librarian.”
“Search again,” she said, “using his Dark Omega clearance. I know it’s there. The Dominion used it to access the Tucana Reach, out in the Magellanic Clouds.”
A green dot lit up inside the green haze. “The Tucana gateway was not registered as a collapsar. Do you want to write a correction to the archives?”
“No writing. Explain,” Marcus ordered the computer.
“The Tucana gateway is not a collapsar in the traditional sense, but an artificial gateway. It was not constructed by the Revenants, but by some unidentified precursor race, predating the human spaceflight by at least a million years. The Dominion studied it and was able to activate the conduit and reach the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, among other places.”
“Other places? Explain.”
“The gateway had variable geometry and could be configured to connect to other gateway structures or naturally-occurring collapsars with a margin of error two orders of magnitude greater than standard.”
“That’s it,” Marcus said and got up to stand next to Cal, bringing wine and bread along. “That’s how the Absalom got back: it stumbled across the Tucana gateway. If what the computer says is correct, this gateway has such a big footprint Haides’s story goes from impossible to highly unlikely.” Marcus was genuinely excited now. Unraveling mysteries always did that to him. “Computer, add the Tucana gateway to the Absalom simulation, and rerun.”
After a few seconds, the flight of the Absalom was recreated in the hologram. The gateway, the trip via Akakios-Protasia, and finally, Amalfi.
“Is the language analysis ready?”
“Yes. Both dialects of Archaic share the same root. They likely originated from the same colony ship. Further analysis suggests that the dialects developed independently for quite some time.”
“So Protasia wasn’t the first colony of Amalfi. It was the first colony of the Absalom. The place they dropped off Nik and the other volunteers before proceeding to Amalfi. That’s why the Amalfians—and later the Dominion—called the place Protasia, rather than Akakios. I really was first.”
“Do you wish to write to the archives?” the computer said.
“No. Everything we do here is to be deleted at the end of the session. Nothing to be written back. Now talk to me about Akakios.”
“Fragmentary data located. Unable to confirm the existence of ‘Akakios’ as a Dominion world, past or present. Conflicting and/or missing entries. Unable to comply.”
“But you had enough fragments of Archaic to compare dialects?”
“Sufficient data for a language analysis exists, but unable to build knowledge base due to conflicting and/or missing entries. Please provide additional parameters.”
“Build virtual framework: Assume Akakios is an older name for Protasia. The two worlds are the same place. Assume Akakios was settled by the Absalom by a smaller group before primary settlement on Amalfi. Assume Akakios retained civilization until peaceful entry into Dominion, facilitated by Mikael I. Assume Akakios refuses to submit to Coalition rule in 4019, and is invaded by the Coalition shortly after that. Assume an Edict of Excommunication was issued, and the name Protasia was retained, and the world entered as a colony world in the archives. Execute and populate, then report.”
“Fragmentary data complies with assumptions. Building knowledge base ‘Akakios.’ Time to completion: fifteen seconds.” Fifteen seconds of silence passed. “Knowledgebase complete,” the computer droned.
“Cross-reference knowledgebase with the following: any major military expansion and redeployment around the time of the Akakian Rebellion, focusing on the following ships and units,” Marcus said and transmitted a brief burst of data via his cranial unit to the computer. It contained a list of all the military formations Haides had mentioned, or Marcus had seen. “Do the same with the following persons: Prelate Zhukov, High Priest of Protasia, Viscount Verrigan of Thira, aka Athens, and Count-Planetar June Grimaldi, later June I Othrys.” He transmitted the rest of the names he had, from the lowest infantryman all the way up to Lord-Marshal Maximus. “See if that expands the framework a bit.”
Chief Librarian Pisonis was watching Marcus work, clearly fascinated by what he was doing.
“I want everything you have on the Tucana gateway, and the Tucana Reach on the left,” he nodded in acknowledgment to Cal, “and anything you have on the Maiden of Amalfi, a Pro Patria-class sprint freighter owned by a Starwalker by the name Corben of House Orvar, on the right. On the center display: show me anything you have on Haides Guillaume, born 4009 on Akakios-Protasia. Execute.”
“Executing. Estimated time to completion: three minutes.”
“That was very impressive, Marcus,” Cal said. She had crossed her arms and looked very serious. Gone were the fliting and the kidding around.
“It’s more impressive if it produces anything worthwhile. And without my Dark Omega, what Haides told me and your aid, this wouldn’t be possible.”
“True,” Cal admitted, “but it was still impressive. You make investigating old records look sexy.” Silence followed. “You wouldn’t have killed me, would you? For real, I mean.”
“I would if I had to,” Marcus confirmed. “I wouldn’t like it,” he added, “but I do what needs to be done.”
They waited for the rest of the three minutes in perfect silence.
“Completed,” the computer said. “Displaying.”
Marcus dropped into the chair, his eyes flowing across the three screens. “Scroll all,” he said, and all three screens began scrolling, displaying page after page of data. Marcus Collegium-trained mind had no trouble taking it all in: He’d split his mind in four, one for keeping an eye on Cal, one for each of the three info-feeds. “Faster.”
Cal had come to stand behind him. “You can read that? All three? I can’t even follow one,” she said.
“I can. All three, talk to you—and stand on my head all at the same time. They train us well.”
“You’re funny,” she said and started to reach for his shoulder.
“Don’t,” Marcus said. The hand halted mid-air. “If you touch me again, I’ll take it as an attack and break your arm. Understood?” It was bad enough that Cal was a null, immune to telepathy and invisible to his second sight, but if she was close enough to touch Marcus, she might interfere with his other psychic powers.
“Quite,” she said softly and crossed her arms again.
Everything about Haides’ story seemed to check out. There were still gaping holes in the knowledge base. Yet, with the framework Marcus had provided, the massive computers of the Pentacle had been able to combine a million small fragments of data into a greater whole.
The Heart of Fury was a good example. One year it was a Coalition flagship. The next year it was gone from the fleet registers, decommissioned suddenly without any explanation. The 57th Loches was another piece of the puzzle. The computer found references to the unit fighting in the Perseus campaign. Recall orders to Versailles. Then all of a sudden, it had been disbanded on a colony world called Protasia. The list of such circumstantial evidence went on and on.
“He’s telling the truth,” Marcus said aloud, partially for Cal’s benefit, partly out of genuine surprise. “Every single word the bastard has told me is true. You sneaky little fuck.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If I knew he was lying, it would be easier to just ignore what Haides is saying. If he’s telling the truth...”
The Tucana gate query had less substance. Marcus was sure the Absalom had come that way. It also appeared some sort of military campaign had gone through there decades before Haides was born on Akakios. But he couldn’t find any mention of what had happened to the fleet that went through. Only that the gate itself had disappeared, dismantled and removed—or destroyed. He had no way of knowing.
The Maiden of Amalfi was definitely a thing. It’s Captain, Starwalker Corben of House Orvar, had come to Nuovo Venezia several times to unload cargo during the period he was plundering Protasia. He’d even let off refugees here, on this very planet. The infovaults had records of thousands of living descendants of those refugees. Later entries listed one Janus Orvar—possibly, likely even, Haides’s brother, adopted by the old captain—as the ship’s Master and Commander.
There were other things Marcus would have loved to look into, but time was flying, and he had to return to his primary mission. “Cal, would you do me a favor?”
“If it’s within my power.”
“Maybe. Do you know anything about the Last War on Earth?”
The chief librarian’s face lit up. “Are you serious? It’s my field of expertise. I like to think I know more about it than anybody else alive.”
That’s quite a coincidence. I don’t trust you, Cal, but maybe you can be useful. Let’s put you to work. Marcus made himself laugh. “I’m serious. I need to know everything there is to know about that war, especially how it started. I know it’s a long shot but bear with me. If you can correlate it with stories of Starfall and the First Shadow War?”
“We don’t have a lot of good sources. It’s mostly legends and myths. Half-truths at best. If I knew what I should be looking for?”
“I want to know if the Fall was what triggered the Last War—and opened the road for the tartaruchi. If you can also find out about a place called San Angeles that sank into the ocean, and a place called Yellowstone that erupted and covered half of the Northern Americas in ash?”
“San Angeles, I know. It was the primary metropolis on the southwestern coast of the Northern Americas. The city was utterly devastated by massive earthquakes. The crust moved so much that large parts of the area were submerged. But I don’t think the War was to blame—San Angeles sat on a major fault line. It was only a matter of time before it had to happen.
“I’ve never heard of Yellowstone. However, the Northern Americas were covered in a layer of volcanic ash around the Last War—excavations have confirmed as much. Could be related to the tectonic activity that sank your city. This was on top of the fallout from nuclear weapons. The entire northern continent was nearly depopulated.
“The rest...there have been so many theories about the Fall and the Last War, but truth be told, we don’t have enough data to say what’s true or not. Plus, the Conclave doesn’t like scholars poking their noses into ‘matters of the gods,’ so it’s not exactly a popular field of research. So unless you’ve something more for me, I don’t think I’ll be able to say more.”
“It’s not important,” Marcus said. “Whether or not the Fall triggered the war or the other way around, the end result was the same: evil crept out of the deep and nearly ended the human race.”
“I’ll reexamine my own papers and my primary data sources, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Computer, pack, and transfer all assembled data to my cranial unit, then burn all memory units associated with this session—Dark Omega authority. Then eject local memory stack. Execute.”
“Data transfer complete. Memory-burn complete. Stack ejected.”
Marcus pulled the memory unit out of its socket. He called the witchfire and watched the crystalline deck turn to ash. “Computer, end session. Cal, let’s go.”