Chapter 38 ONE KISS
“Did you have a nice lunch, Marcus,” the Maiden said. She wasn’t in her chair but sitting on top of the metal table with her legs crossed and her hands high up in the air—as if she had been caught in the middle of yoga class. The grey bodysuit left very little to the imagination.
“Very nice, thank you. Made a new friend, checked out a couple of things. Ate freshly baked bread made from real wheat flour, with real butter and real cheese on top.”
“Not bad for a day at the library.” She put her hands down. “Was it a man or a woman librarian?” She pushed out her chest. “Blonde or brunette?” She flung her hair. “Ponytail?” She pulled her hair together in a makeshift tail. “Glasses? Short skirt and high heels? Tell me, Marcus, I’m dying of boredom in here.” She let her hair fall back down.
Marcus stopped in front of the steps leading up to the podium. Behind him, the door shut with a barely audible thump, less of a sound and more of a shift in the air. It’s possible to enter, grab the Maiden, and make a run for it. The drones are immaterial and the plasma cannot be released until the portal has been sealed. But there will be no need for such a crude escape attempt. Nor would we get very far, I think.
“A woman, yes. Very beautiful. Older than me by far, but younger than you. Fake blonde, but well done. Probably to cover some dull, brown hair going grey. Nothing like your naturally perfect locks. No ponytail; would be a shame with such a mane. No glasses; nobody wears glasses anymore. Her eyes...brown, I think? Can’t remember. Librarian’s robes, though she wore them like a woman might an evening gown to a reception.”
Marcus watched the Maiden closely as he spoke. He needed to talk more with her, person to person, but before doing so, he needed to know how to read her. Aura reading and mind scans didn’t work on her the same way it did ordinary people. She had an aura, a faint one, but it was nothing like that of a living person. She had a mind too, but there was too much machine to read it telepathically. What Marcus needed to know was how to interpret her voice patterns and body language.
He’d deliberately structured and modulated his speech to make Cal sound attractive and exciting, while also praising the Maiden. She did react to some things, but it was so faint it was hard to be sure what it meant. When he’d mentioned her hair and said he didn’t remember Cal’s eye color, the Maiden had a more complex reaction that was readable. She doesn’t believe me, but she likes to hear me say it. I have her measure now.
“I think you’d like her. She even has access to the Ninth Tier, so maybe I’ll bring her along. Should we,” he said and pointed at the chairs.
“Do I have a choice?” the Maiden replied.
Marcus shrugged. “If you want to sit on the table, please do.”
He walked up the steps and sat down on the edge of his steel chair. It was a genuinely horrible chair. Maybe the Maiden had the right idea. Sitting on the table might be more comfortable in the long run.
“I checked some things while I had lunch,” he told her. “Everything the Gatekeeper has told me checked out. Not a single lie told, even about stuff buried so deep no one could hope to find out.”
“That’s a good thing, I guess?” the Maiden replied. “I can’t know what’s going on inside me, so I can’t help you.”
“I’m also checking your little stories. See if you’re as honest as Haides.”
“I haven’t told you anything that’s checkable.” It sounded like a challenge.
“I know. And why is that, I wonder? But don’t worry. I have top people looking into it. People with a particular interest in ancient history—and an extraordinary library to work from. If they can verify your story—or debunk it—that’s great. If they can’t, that also tells me something.
“Aren’t you the paranoid sort,” the Maiden said and put her arms around herself. It was a very defensive gesture. Marcus was sure it was genuine; he’d anticipated it. “I bet your ‘top people’ is just your new friend,” she continued. There was a hint of defiance in her voice.
“Kind of,” Marcus admitted. “But she’s the head of both the Fifth and the Ninth tiers of this place. She can get all the help she needs. Plus, ancient history is what interests her the most.”
“What a coincidence. You meet this dream librarian woman—by chance—during your lunch break. She throws herself at you, practically begs to let her help because she’s the best there is at exactly the thing you need. Did she give you a blowjob too?”
“Maybe,” he said and grinned at the Maiden.
“Bastard,” she said without smiling.
Marcus shook his head. “You had it coming, my dear. But no, no blowjobs. It wasn’t chance, you know. She was keeping an eye on me, practically ambushed me on my way to lunch.”
“Seems we’re on the same side. She even claims we’re on the same team.”
“What side? What team?”
Marcus ignored her questions. “But she only identified herself when I told her to get lost—or I’d kill her.”
“Kill her? That’s not a nice thing to say on a first date,” the Maiden said. “Would you have?” she added.
“If she had forced my hand, yes I would.”
“Like you beat me if I don’t do what you tell me?”
“Sorry about that,” Marcus said, adding a little regret to his voice. Not too much, or she’ll notice. “I won’t do it again.” He left out ‘unless you force me to.’ “The ‘side’ you asked about: that’s the Dragon Order. The ‘team’ is Domina Xerza’s All-Stars.”
“But, your team didn’t tell you she was here?”
“They didn’t,” Marcus admitted. “It’s not that unusual to have sleeper agents—and have them activate if needed. He reached out and started to pry her arms away from her body. She resisted a little, but when he gently persisted—and smiled at her—she relented. Her shoulders came down, and she let him hold both her hands. “I’ve been thinking, Lizzie,” Marcus said, using her real name. “There are things about this whole situation that don’t add up.” When she looked like she was about to talk, he gently squeezed her hands. “Please, let me finish.” She nodded, and some of her hair fell across her face. Marcus reached out and pushed it out of the way. Isolate. Foster insecurity. Show my own vulnerabilities. Offer emotional support. Provide a common enemy. Reinforce communal world-view. Establish physical contact.
“I’ve spent years searching for you, Lizze, on my mistress’s orders. It’s been nearly ten years since the first time I was briefed on ‘the Maiden, a custom cyborg, holding the forbidden lore collected by rogue Quaestor Samael.’ I didn’t spend all of those years just looking for you, but I can say you’ve been my most important assignment.
“My first task was finding out if you existed at all. It wasn’t easy. So little information, so many false leads. What clues I did find seemed to indicate you had been ‘decommissioned.’ But finally, I was able to determine that the Conclave had taken you into custody—but had never taken you apart.
“As far as I can tell, you’ve been in the Conclave’s custody, held in stasis for many, many years. Not here,” he said and turned his head to indicate the Pentacle, “but somewhere else. Maybe Old Earth. It’s not important. What I just realized is that my Xerza knew about you all along, knew you had not been destroyed before I confirmed you still existed. I’m betting she knew, rather than suspected, the Conclave had you hidden away somewhere. She just chose not to tell me.”
“I can only speculate. To test me? To see if I was committed enough? To get me deeply involved in the case, far beyond what is the norm? All of those? After I knew you still existed and who had you, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to gain access. It was impossible. I couldn’t even find out exactly where you were being held. Finally, however, Xerza managed to have you moved here. Supposedly the only neutral place safe enough to hold you.”
“Neutral. I wonder what exactly Xerza did to persuade the Conclave...my bet is on promising them access to whatever I find inside you. But the Cardinals didn’t trust her enough to just let you go. So the Pontifex put you here, at the bottom of the Pentacle, the most secure location that doesn’t belong to the Dragon Order, or any of the Triumvirate factions.
“Here I have access to you, but I can’t take you with me. And everybody knows where we are, Lizze, so they can keep an eye on us.” He chuckled a little. “And here I thought my mission was of the utmost secrecy. I bet half the Order and half the Conclave knows I’m here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m exaggerating. But still. If more people than my mistress knows, it’s not a secret anymore. Chief Pisonis—the librarian woman—is involved. She’s on my side, and my team, but could be a double agent. I have no way of knowing because she happens to be a null. What’s the chance of that, Lizze? Still think I’m paranoid?”
She looked down, then back up again. “Yes. Because you try to force ulterior motives on me. That’s paranoid. But yeah, I can see you not trusting this woman.”
“I don’t trust her. Not one bit. But the real question is this: why did Xerza pick an agent that I can’t read? The risk of her being turned by another faction seems too great, given the stakes. So why?”
“Maybe she doesn’t trust you?” the Maiden suggested.
Marcus nodded. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Could also be she doesn’t know. If Cal is a sleeper agent, Xerza probably didn’t personally recruit her.”
“I don’t know. I never had reason to question my mistress until now. I do know who Cal’s handler is, though, and the man’s an idiot.”
Marcus let go of the Maiden’s hands. She seemed reluctant to let him go. He got out of the chair and paced the circumference of the podium. The Maiden remained cross-legged on the table.
“Xerza has an agenda. She’s told me we need you because of the secrets you hold can help us beat the Shadow. Ragnarök is coming, and we need all the help we can get. I believe that’s true, but not necessarily the whole truth.
“Other factions within the Order are almost certain to be involved. My mission was supposed to be secret because the word ‘Samael’ stirs up many bad memories for the Order. The Assembly—the Order’s ruling body—would probably tell Xerza to back the hell away if they knew.
“The Conclave certainly has an interest in our meeting. If the Pontifex and the Cardinals know, who else has been informed? The Techno-Tetrarch and the Incantatrix both cosigned my permits to help sway the Pontifex. Who knows who our watchers,” he looked at the drones overhead, “are really reporting to?” He stopped, his back turned towards her. “Everybody has an agenda. Xerza. The Assembly. The Conclave. The Technocracy and the Collegium. The noble houses. Even Haides, a shadow of a man, living inside your head, has an agenda. You probably do too,” he said and turned towards her. Will this lead anywhere. Can I win her over?
“Me?” Lizzie said, sounding surprised. She turned her hands inwards to point at herself. It was a very human gesture that went well with her voice and facial expression. She’s way more human that I believed. Everything that made her a person has been retained. I can read her as well as I can a normal person.
Marcus nodded. “You are more than a cyborg, more than a repository of forbidden lore,” he said and walked back to the table. “You have the body of a machine, and an entire library inside your head, but every moment we spend together, I become more and more certain you’re a person.” He knelt before her, reached out, gently cupping her chin with both hands. Too much? Too fast?
“I...” she had trouble meeting his eyes. “Yes, I have an agenda. Or I used to have one. I...Marcus...” tears started rolling down her cheeks, spilling onto Marcus’s hands.
“Take your time,” he told her. So very human. She even cries.
“I’m so scared,” she said with great intensity. “Nothing makes any sense anymore. It’s like I woke up from deep sleep, but I’m not fully awake, more like in a daze. And I remember so much—and so very little of it makes any sense. I remember my first life. Some of it. Bits and pieces of other lives, when I wasn’t me. Then I remember my life with Sam—Samael, my death by his hand, my rebirth. But something happened. Something unplanned. Maybe I died again. And Haides. I should remember him, but those memories were stolen from me. I should know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t.” Her voice was frantic, close to panic; her hands were on his shoulders.
“I can help,” Marcus said, wiping away her tears. It was a compelling moment. He had to continually purge his emotional buffer to avoid becoming attached to the chimera. If I give in, could I fall in love with this...machine?
“You can?” she said, her eyes looking for confirmation in the depths of his soul.
“I’m the best at what I do,” he told her. “And what I do is uncover deeply buried secrets and piece together impossible puzzles. I’m the right man for you.” He leaned forward a tiny bit, going through the motions of a kiss barely restrained.
The Maiden did it for him, touching her perfect red lips to his, and everything came rushing into his mind. Got you.
“Would you look at that,” Kwame said, voice thick with emotion. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you ever saw, Balack?”
Balack used a cybernetic hand to wipe away something in his eye. “I’ll tell you one thing, Kwame: I didn’t see that one coming,” the older security guard said after clearing his throat.
“It’s love at first sight,” Kwame exclaimed. As usual, the younger man was the most passionate and outspoken of the pair.
“Or it’s the most excellent acting I ever saw. Those two should either get married or get into the entertainment industry,” Balack added.
“We should keep a recording of this,” Kwame said and started looking for an external storage device. Then he remembered none were allowed in the crypt.
“Definitely not,” his superior told him with as much authority as his overly emotional voice could convey. “Not only is it against security policy, but I bet it would upset that Marcus fellow.”
Balack gestured empathically, a trait the Venetians were well known for. “Didn’t you hear any of the stuff he was talking about? The power struggles within the Dragon Order? The Pontifex and Cardinals being involved. The Technocracy and the Collegium. His own mistress keeping things from him. And Chief Pisonis being a dragonsworn—and a psychic null?”
“Yeah, well, I guess I did. But...”
“Kwame. You have to pay attention, or your career—and your life—will be short indeed. He knows we’re in here, right? Knows we’re watching. So he’s saying these things out loud—for a reason.”
“I met him yesterday.”
“You what?” Balack sat bolt upright and bored his eyes into the younger man.
“Met him,” Kwame said and pointed at a screen where Marcus’s was frozen mid-kiss. “Bumped into him in the reception area. He was leaving, and I...you know...Amaya and me.”
“You screwed the young lady in a closet or something? Good for you. Go on.”
“And for her,” Kwame tried to joke, but the look on his superior’s face told him to knock it off. “He looked kind of lost, so I asked if I could help him. He just wondered why the hall was empty. I told him that because of the riots, we have a lot fewer visitors than usual, and most of those had left for the day. Didn’t mention there was no receptionist because she was, uh, in the closet getting dressed.”
“What did he say?”
“He said it was cool. He had accommodations nearby, he could walk.”
“Did you have your helmet on?”
“He’s a fucking telepath, is why. The helmet blocks that shit. If you hadn’t, I’d have to report this to security control. Not knowing what he did to your head.”
“Ah, uh, well...Amaya didn’t have a helmet.”
“No, but she didn’t speak to him, did she. You told him goodbye, and he walked. Tell me that’s what happened.”
“Well, no. Marcus and I chatted for a bit, and then Amaya came over—she was the receptionist on duty—so I walked away. And then they chatted a little. That’s all. He didn’t mind-control her or anything.”
“No? How do you know that? He didn’t wave his magic wand or say the secret words? Do you know anything about telepaths?”
“I took the course on anti-psy security,” Kwame said, but they both knew his actual experience with psychics was close to nil.
“Even if he didn’t do anything to her mind, he probably knows you two are lovers. He knows your name, where you work—in here, looking at him all day—who your partner is. Gods know how many other things? You think that was a random encounter? You forgot that some legates can read the future using the tarot?”
“Now you’re paranoid.”
“Maybe. But remember: this guy isn’t just any legate. He’s a Magister, handpicked by the Dragon Order for this mission. I heard him say he’s spent ten years working to see the Maiden. That level of dedication is rare, to say the least. I wouldn’t put anything beyond this guy.”
“I guess,” Kwame said but didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“Kwame,” Balack said and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “You just watched the guy make a machine fall in love with him. That’s as impossible as it is sick. Be afraid, Kwame, be very afraid.”
What Balack didn’t say was that he, too, was terrified. He hadn’t been a hundred percent sure before, now he was: the people who held his wife hostage were Dragon Order. And they were not on Marcus’s team. There would be a showdown, and Balack had no idea which side would come out on top, or what the collateral might be. Reason suggested the numerically superior team, but there was something to this Marcus Aurelian, a sense of quality that Balack had only come across once or twice before during his long and colorful life.
He desperately wanted to tell Kwame everything. Beg him for help. But what could the boy do? Never the smartest kid to begin with, he’d probably get himself killed—or worse, get Imogen killed.
Maybe Balack should come clean to Marcus? But he had no idea how the man would react. Marcus might invoke the Right of Incision and kill everyone Balack cared for. He couldn’t risk that.
By the Gods of the Pantheon, what should I do?
“You’re back,” Haides said. “Took your sweet time.” He was standing by the table, having decanted a dark red wine. Happy with the result, he picked up the carafe and began pouring wine into matching crystal glasses.
“I had things to do in the real world,” Marcus said and accepted the offered wine glass. “People stuff.”
“Really? And what would that be? Ogling the female staff? Trying to catch me at lies? Both of the above?”
“Sorry, Haides, we’re not playing your little mind-games. Your guesswork is, as always, accurate. But no, I’m not fearful that you’ve crept inside my mental fortress. I’m done doubting my mental architecture; it’s quite good enough. If you try to work your way around it, I will compensate.”
Marcus was confident he could protect his mind this time around. He’d adopted a more agile architecture. Superficially the same as the previous two sessions, the same compartmentalization, but the underlying mechanics were dynamic, not static. It would tax his abilities, but he could do it. Best in my class. Seven mental compartments. Recruited by the Dragon Order. You’re not outdoing me, little assassin.
Haides lifted his glass, inspecting the color. “You’re growing on me, Marcus, I’ll give you that.” He had a sip of the wine. “Lurrian elderberry berries are extremely poisonous, but if treated correctly, they can be made into a marvelous drink.”
Marcus had a sip of wine. “The taste is different from ordinary wine, complex, challenging. Truly excellent. You do know your liquor Haides, I’ll give you that.”
Haides gave Marcus the not-smile again. “Well, thank you, Marcus. I’ve worked quite hard at becoming a proper gentleman. One cannot expect to be accepted into polite society as a peer of the realm, without having a certain appreciation for self-intoxication.”
“You would know more about such things than me.”
“I know more than you about a great many things.”
“Speaking of knowledge: I stopped by to look at the memories of the Maiden of Amalfi’s captain—and your brother Jan’s—before I disconnected. In part to see if I could look up stuff without you, but mostly because I was curious.”
“So, you admit my life isn’t all boring and irrelevant?” Before Marcus could reply, Haides continued. “Did you like my brother?”
“I did. Jan’s taller than you, Haides, about my own height. And quite a bit more sociable.” The brothers were so very different; it was hard to imagine they had evolved from the same mother and father. Janus was down to earth, polite, and hard-working. He’d made mistakes, but he’d acknowledged them and grown as a person. He’s got the kindness that Haides is missing—and none of the madness.
“You’ve got that right. Of us kids, he was the only normal one. Guess that’s why I hated him so much back then, and why it took me so long to accept he wasn’t the bad guy—that it was me, not him. He regretted what had happened between us, accepted what he had done wrong, and was willing to make up for it. That’s not something I would have been capable of.”
“Can I do anything with my improved access level, other than reliving the memories of dead people? Where are the juicy secrets, the weapons, the path to immortality?”
“So, where did we leave off?” Haides replied, ignoring Marcus’s questions.
“At the very end. You were about to reveal to show me the ultimate weapon and tell me the secret of immortality.”
Haides didn’t immediately reply, taking time to study the dwindling contents of his glass. “Very well, Marcus. I’ll throw you some crumbs. It’s in there, everything that you seek: immortality—and more. But there are no weapons in the classical sense. Immortality is the weapon, so to speak. I know how daft that sounds, but don’t fret over it, as soon as we get there, you’ll understand.
“The Antechamber is just that: the entrance, meet and greet, then get on with the journey. I’m the Gatekeeper and your guide. I’m also the personification of the First Circle. My whole life’s story is here, as are bits and pieces of other people’s legacies. There is a kind of immortality in having your saga told. The Second Circle is much the same. It’s personified by Vern and all the lore he’s collected. That’s his legacy, useless though it may be, he’d like to pass it on. There is other knowledge in here as well, stuff collected by different sages.
“The Third level teaches you how love transcends all boundaries of time and space. How two souls joined together in true love can seek out each other in life after life, thus denying death—after a fashion. Not what you’re after?”
“You’re talking about Jarra and Shiloh?”
“They personify the level, yes: Lady Jarruvela and Lord Ajax of the Third. But there are other examples if you care to have a look. If you were to look long enough, maybe you’ll find the truth behind Mikael and Andraste.”
How did he know? Another chink in my armor? Marcus started yet another review of his mental architecture, looking for flaws, but did not find any.
“On the Fourth, you’ll see how Abyssal energies can be harnessed to live forever. The price is terrible, however. I suggest you proceed with caution if you really want to go down that path.”
“Your brother gave up his soul?”
“Not Jan, silly. Captain Corben. Jan is the good guy in that particular story. It would have been revealed to you, in due time, if you had remained faithful to my account. But when you wander around on your own—I can’t be held responsible for what happens.
“Then, in the Fifth Circle, you’ll be taught how to convert your mind into machine code and how to transfer it to a synthetic body—or multiple bodies—or exists as an incorporeal entity.”
“The engineer girl. Venus.”
“Kind of, but again you do not see the full picture because you try to skip ahead. I don’t like repeating myself, but I’ll make an exception and spell it out for you: my tale is a journey towards understanding.”
Marcus gestured for Haides to continue.
“On the Sixth, all the knowledge about cloning and ancestral memories is kept. Copy your body, then follow those instructions to have the body remember where it came from. Soul-shifting, without the disadvantages of sorcery. No more to it than changing your clothes.
“It gets amusing on the Seventh. It teaches you how to use psychics to suck the life-force out of other people, so that you may live forever, no love or body swaps required. As an added bonus, you’ll learn how to use life-force to supercharge your powers. It’s actually safer than drawing upon Khaos energies. Have your minions give up—literally—their lives in your service. Once they’re dead, they’ll stop complaining.
“Once you get to the Eighth Circle, you can learn the deeper mysteries. How to combine two or more techniques to produce something unique. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is the stuff that made the Maiden possible. She’s more than a mind transferred into a machine body. An amalgamation of flesh and chrome, made possible by the fusion of magic and science. But I think you knew that already.”
“And when Vergil has guided Dante all the way to the Ninth Circle, what do they find there?”
“What you’re really after: Apotheosis. Godhood. Samael.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before? Access level?”
“Would you have reason to believe me before? Do you believe me now?”
“Point taken,” Marcus conceded.
“Ha,” Haides exclaimed. “Humility, would you believe. And you’ve started developing a sense of humor. Next thing you know, Ragnarök is over. We’ve won, and everyone lives happily ever after.”
Marcus had another sip of wine. “I guess I deserved that one, didn’t I? I do not know what my master intends to do with the lore of immortality, except that it is indeed for use against the Shadow. We need all the weapons we can get for Ragnarök.”
“You don’t know what your master will do with the recipe to godhood? You can’t be that daft, Marcus.”
Marcus emptied his glass and put it down on the table, looked the Gatekeeper straight in the eye. “You were about to tell me how sorry you felt for yourself. After having been betrayed. After you had murdered your precious dog.”
“Indeed, I was. Come, let’s go back and watch the rest. It gets even better.”