Chapter 44 GAME OF SHADOWS
“Coffee?” Kwame said and shook his scruffy old thermos at Balack.
“Mind if I do.” The older man held out his cup. “The stuff from the machine is hideous.”
Kwame began pouring the dark liquid into the waiting cup. “I know. That’s like the third machine the techs have installed down here. Each one as bad the others.”
“Thanks.” Balack cradled the full cup with both hands, savoring the fragrance. “It’s not the machine, you know. It’s the beans,” he said in his sage-voice. “They don’t grow them right up there.” He pointed a metal finger at the roof and the massive orbital greenhouses in orbit around New Venice.
“And the beans in the cafeteria are not from around here?” Kwame said, pretending not to have heard Balack rant about coffee a hundred times before.
“Nope. They are imported. Both the guests and the librarians know their coffee.” He sipped the coffee. “They won’t drink...damn!” he exclaimed as drops of coffee spilled onto his black uniform jacket. “It’s too hot. I burned my lip. And now there is coffee all over.”
Kwame smiled at Balack. “You want me to blow it for you? Or are you going to sue me?”
They both chuckled. Kwame handed Balack a piece of moist tissue.
“I’m such a klutz sometimes.” The older man started wiping the front of his jacket.
“That you are, chief. Old oafs frequently are. It’s a statistical fact. Good thing we guards wear black, or you’d have coffee stains all over.”
Balack ignored Kwame and finished wiping his uniform, and then balled up the tissue and threw it at Kwame’s face. The younger man snatched it out of the air, spun around, and tossed it right into the bin.
“Score!” Kwame shouted and put his arms into the air, fists balled.
“They have Imogen,” Balack said, his voice suddenly all business.
There was a brief pause as Kwame put down his arms and turned to look at his boss. He looked confused. Mouth half-open, eyes that couldn’t wholly focus. “Imogen? Your wife? I don’t understand.”
“Foreign agents. They have gotten to my wife. They are pretty much holding her hostage.”
Again it took Kwame several seconds to process the information. The kid just wasn’t that bright; he had trouble with the new and the unexpected. “What about security?”
“I haven’t told then. They can’t do anything.”
“I think they are Dragon Order agents, Kwame.”
“Oh.” The answer came without hesitation this time. Even Kwame’s mind was able to connect the dots when the Order was involved.
“They’re not on his team,” Balack said and pointed at one of the monitors where Marcus could be seen interfacing with the Maiden. “Another faction or something within the Order.”
“They have factions?”
“This is where I’d normally pretend to know something about the inner working of the Ordo Draconis, but to be honest: until they showed up in my living room, I had no idea. Guess they’re just humans, after all.”
“This is bad. Isn’t it?”
“It is,” Balack confirmed. “Thus far, they’ve only made me spy a little. They gave me a device that I connected to the security system.”
“How come I didn’t...so that’s the reason you told me to leave early?”
“How did you get it in here? And why didn’t it set off any alarms?” The crypt personnel was rigorously screened every time they came to work, and any tampering with the closed-circuit security systems would immediately set off all kinds of alarms.
“They fitted me with a subdermal pouch. And they had a legate; he put some spell on it. Made it undetectable. As for the alarms, I don’t know, but if Marcus has the Dark Omega, maybe they do too.”
“Do you have it? Can I see it?”
“I have it, but what for? You’re no technomancer.”
“I’ve never held a Dark Omega before. Isn’t that reason enough?”
“Sure. Don’t look,” Kwame said and started unfastening his black pants.
“They put it down there?”
“Yeah. The crotch is a good place to hide things. Lots of junk there already, and security is unlikely to take a close look.” He pulled out a small black object, a flattened cylinder about the length of his thumb, and gave it to Kwame.
“Doesn’t look like much. What does it do?”
“No idea. I twist the end, and a red light appears. I slot it in here, and if the connection is good, the light turns amber. It sits there for a little while. When the light turns green, it’s done. Only takes a couple of minutes. Then I put it back in the pouch, and after work, I’m supposed to do a dead drop. Only I haven’t been able to, on account of being locked in.”
“It probably downloads the security tapes.”
“That’s my guess too,” Balack confirmed.
“What are you going to do?”
“Tell you everything. After that, I don’t know.”
“So you’re dumping this on me?”
“I guess I am. I had pretty much decided not to tell you, not do anything. Wait and see.” Balack put his head in his metal fingers, rubbed his face, his neck, and the back of his head. “I couldn’t hold it inside anymore. I had to tell somebody. And you’re the only person I had any hope would listen.”
A long, painfully drawn-out silence followed. Balack could see that Kwame was thinking. Trying to process the shocking new information Balack had thrown right in his face. It’s too much for the poor kid. I shouldn’t have told him. But that cat’s out of the bag. No putting it back in.
“We tell Marcus,” Kwame said abruptly. “He’s our only hope. We can’t move against the Dragon Order. But he can. And I bet he’d be interested to know his own friends are spying on him.”
Balack turned his head to look at his colleague, his metal hands still clutching his head. This time he was the one slow to reply. “That was my first idea, as well. Well, my very first idea was shooting them in the face, but when I realized who they were, that went out the window.”
“You always were the smarter one, Balack.” Kwame was trying to relieve some of the pressure with humor. It didn’t help Balack one bit. Too much stress, too many things could go wrong.
“Don’t feel too smart right now. All I wanted to do was finish here, retire, and spend my remaining days with a wife I do not deserve. But instead, I get this?”
“We tell Marcus. He will know what to do.”
“You know why I didn’t do that in the first place? He’s one man. They are at least five, probably more. He looks capable, but so did they. Five against one? Ten against one? They have the element of surprise too.”
“Not if we tell him.”
“They could have people on the inside. Agents. Assassins. Who knows?” Balack could feel panic starting to rise. It usually took a lot to get him stressed. But this? This freaks me out.
“I dunno. You should have seen Marcus last night, Balack, up in the lobby. You’re the smart one, sure, but I’ve been a warrior all my life. I know combat.”
“I was wearing my helmet and my gold,” he gestured towards the armored cloak hanging from its peg near the exit. “I had a halberd. He had nothing. And yet he looked at me like I was a bug. He knew he could take me down. I believed him. I could see it in his eyes. True, as Horus is the King of Gods. Plus, he’s got that creepy witchfire.”
Balack nodded. “I agree. But these were dangerous guys too—and they had their own legate.”
Kwame shrugged. “We could argue all day. Marcus is still our best bet. Anyway, it’s my call. You said so yourself,” he said and looked at Balack.
Balack slumped into his chair, cyberarms folded in his lap. He closed his eyes. Opened them again. “We need to do this right. Everything that happens in there gets recorded. And I have to bring them that recording again tonight. We have to wait until he’s left the chamber before we speak to him. One of us will have to catch him as he leaves. Before he has the chance to go anywhere or speak with anyone else.”
“I’ll do it. He’s met me already. I’ll take off my helmet and everything. Let him read my mind. Then he’ll know we’re sincere. If anyone sees me, I’m just on my way to fuck Amaya in the closet again.”
“I don’t like it. It’s too simple.”
“Simple plans are the best plans. It also beats having no plan at all.”
“You’re right about that, Kwame. Maybe you’re the smart one after all?”
They both had a good laugh about that one. They sat in silence for a while after.
“Yes?” Balack could hear the energy and excitement in his colleague’s voice.
“By Loki and every other tricksy God: this is the most exciting thing ever. Working with the Dragon Order—against the Dragon Order. Something to tell the grandchildren about, eh?”
Balack didn’t bother trying to suppress the involuntary groan of emotional and mental pain that burst out of his mouth. He really is dumb as a brick. But the kid’s got a heart of gold. Gotta love the guy.
Chief Librarian Pisonis waited impatiently for the security chamber to cycle. It shared form and function with the cargo airlocks found on starships and space stations—a way to safely move men and materiel from one environment to another, without compromising either. In the case of the Second Pentacle, it was also a security checkpoint, a safeguard against outside intrusion and theft. It was no accident Cal was the Chief of the Fifth Tier. It was the lowest level that had direct access to the outside. It hadn’t always been that way. When the Pentacle was first constructed, it had been completely isolated from the rest of the floating city’s underground. An inverse arcology, wholly independent and self-sufficient, save for the visitor’s entrance on the surface, a personnel entrance, and a cargo access point. But as the Pentacle grew in size and prominence, they had been forced to expand underground—and to open access to the outside world. It was no longer possible to have everything pass through the undersized entrances up top.
She glanced through the armored window of the inner door. Four people. Four Dragon Order agents. Members of a Reaper squad—one of the Cabal’s elite kill-teams—rightly feared throughout the Successor Kingdoms. Four, plus the two men already on the inside, masquerading as Pentacle gold-cloaks.
The door rumbled open, and the group stepped forward as one.
“Welcome to the Second Pentacle, Prefect Doonican,” she said to the leader and extended her hand. Doonican was a short, heavy-set man with fiery hair and a matching beard that had begun to turn grey. He was dressed in the service uniform of a Pentacle security officer, black with emerald trim.
“The Cabal thanks you, Lady Pisonis,” he replied and ignored her hand. His eyes were close-set and made him look like a pig in Cal’s opinion. A callous pig that would kill you in an instant at the slightest provocation.
“I don’t want thanks. I want to have what Lady Xerza has. I want a body that never gets old, and a face that gets prettier with every passing year. Not this mess,” she said, indicating her own body.
The pig-eyes blinked once at her. “You don’t look too bad, your age considering,” Doonican said and moved past her to speak to the two gold-cloaked guards that, in reality, were part of his team.
It might have been a compliment coming from another person, but the way he said it made it sound like an insult. Like she was nothing more than an old, wrinkled woman, waiting to die. Well, old age would soon be a thing of the past.
Doonican’s three companions were more polite. August, his legate, a middle-aged man with rotten teeth—he was probably not having them replaced for fear of triggering Nexus psychosis, which meant he was balancing on the edge of oblivion already—made an effort to shake her hand. She could sense the discomfort it caused him—legates didn’t touch abolitionists if they could help it—and appreciated the effort. August was dressed in the librarian robes of a minor functionary, same as Valeria, a tough-looking woman with dark skin and oddly mismatched eyes. She was August’s bodyguard and handler. Cal wanted to like Valeria, but couldn’t. If only she’d made an effort to dress and act like a woman, they would have gotten along famously. But Valeria insisted on being as masculine as possible. Cal shook her hand too.
The last member of the group she did quite like: Zofia, Doonican’s second in command, was tall and robust, but also very feminine. Her hair was a little short, cut at shoulder length, but she wore makeup and high heels to work, so Cal was inclined to forgive her. She was also smart and witty. She’d make a much better squad leader than Doonican in Cal’s opinion. Today she was dressed in a smart business suit to act the part of a wealthy visitor. Cal would have picked a skirt, but Zofia was more of a trousers person—they were better than skirts and dresses when it came to running and fighting.
“Evening, Cal,” Zofia said and moved in to kiss Cal on the cheek, rather than shake her hand. Cal would much rather have been kissed on the mouth, but that would have to wait until later.
“Evening, Zofia,” she replied and kissed her visitor on the cheek in return. “Good to see you.”
“On me,” Doonican said in a too-loud voice. His squad assembled even as the inner door rumbled shut. Cal took the opportunity to remove the Dark Omega scrambler from the control panel. As far as Security was concerned, the doors had never opened. She moved over to the other six people in the corridor.
“Chief Pisonis,” Doonican said and locked her with his pig-eyes. That the man was a scion of Tyr’s blood, and a warrior-legate was hard to believe. He had none of the charisma and majesty that Prefect Marcus had. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the chamber, with the Maiden, psychically interfaced. I believe he’s run into some sort of security measure. He was talking about a ′ gatekeeper’ and the need to circumvent him.”
“You’ve been in direct contact with the mark?” The pig-eyes narrowed. She imagined she was being weighed on the scales of life and death.
“I had to. I had an astral message from my handler. Ordered me to approach the mark and make myself available to him. Apparently, there is a Reaper cell here on Nuovo Venezia. Would you believe it?”
Pig-eyes stroked his greying beard. “Good.” The scaled tipped towards ‘life.’ Cal tried not to let her relief show. “What was your impression of the mark?”
“Competent. Dangerous. Smart. Loyal—but admitted to doubting his mission and suspecting his mistress has an agenda she’s not let him in on.”
“Talkative and inquisitive,” Doonican concluded. “Won’t help the guy in a fight. We’ll take him out immediately, then take the Maiden with us.”
“Not possible. The chamber cannot be opened while Marcus’s in there, not without his authorization. Not even the Dark Omega can change that.”
“All right. I sense you have a suggestion?”
“You stay here until he’s on the move. Then you take him on this level. He’ll have to come this way. The exit is close, so after the deed is done, you can easily slip away. You also don’t have to make your way to the lower levels—by force or stealth, it gets more difficult with every level.”
“How does this give us the Maiden?” Pig-eyes was squinting. He knew the answer already. He just wanted to hear Cal say it.
“You don’t. There is no scenario where the six of you can get the Maiden out of that chamber. Dragon Order or not, they’ll kill you all. And the Dark Omega won’t help one bit.”
Cal took a chance and interrupted him. “When Marcus is dead, the Maiden will be moved to storage, to be put into stasis again. That’s our window. If we do it right, they won’t even know she’s been taken.”
The pig-eyes twinkled with realization. And maybe a bit of respect? More likely, he was thinking about his inevitable promotion and rise to greatness.
“Excellent work, Cal. Your idea is so good I couldn’t have come up with better myself. It almost makes up for yesterday.”
Cal wanted to punch pig-eyes in the face. She was the one who had brought them here in the first place. She was the one who had given them Marcus. They knew what he looked like, knew exactly what time he left the Pentacle yesterday. And still, they had failed, hadn’t even seen him leaving the building. It should have been impossible. A lone man exiting through a large door, into an open plaza, with six people watching. Cal didn’t know how he’d done it. Maybe he was just smarter than all the Reapers put together. Now there was a sobering thought.
“One small change: we do it on the Sixth Tier. I don’t want Pentacle security to get suspicious of you. You are to stay away from Marcus from now on. If your handler projects to you again, contact me. We have astral assets in place now.”
She considered telling Doonican about the EPC messages she had exchanged with her handler, but decided against it. Why give the prick anything for free?
“We have a plan.” He turned his head to look at the two fake guards. “Masimba, Apsara, you’re Spear. August, Valeria, you’re Blade. Zofia, you’re with me, we’re Hammer. Shield remains where they are. You know what to do. Pisonis, you’re Sparrow. Your job is to tell us when he’s on the move. Copy?”
“Copy,” she replied, as did everybody else.
“Readiness check,” Doonican.
The squad quickly checked their own gear, then that of their partner. Within seconds all had reported ready.
“Is that a pistol?” Cal said. Valeria had a compact autopistol in her hand.
“Don’t worry,” Zofia replied. “There won’t be any alarms. It doesn’t show up on scans. It’s made that way. And August will put obfuscating patterns on us, to make sure we’re not seen until we strike.”
“Enough talk. Let’s do this. Duty to the Dragon,” pig-eyes said.
“Always and forever,” his squad replied.
“Valour in Life.”
“Surrender none,” Cal joined in.”
“Honor in Death,” Doonican called out.
“The Dragon eternal,” they all shouted.
Marcus waited for the Maiden to break the kiss.
“You like to kiss when you’re inside me?” she said, smiling. There was no doubt what she was talking about. He knew her well enough to be sure.
“I do,” he told her. It was valid even, from a certain point of view. He wasn’t as smitten as he’d let her believe, but Marcus could admit to himself that he was attracted to her. Just a little bit, even though he knew she was a machine. And the kiss had, objectively, been a perfect kiss. “And who knows, maybe we can someday soon do what you’re alluding to? Unless you’re just toying with me?”
“Maybe,” she said and leaned forward again. Marcus let her kiss him again, but this time he ended it quickly.
“We don’t have much time here. Time flies when I’m inside you.”
“I could come with you.”
“I’d like that, but no. It’s not allowed. Not even for me. The collective Conclave would have a meltdown if you did. And security here would try and stop me, and I’d have to kill a lot of them.” He wasn’t joking.
“Once you’re done with me, once I’ve given it up, you’ll dump me? And they will haul me back to oblivion?”
“I’m afraid so,” he admitted. “I wish it weren’t so, but it’s out of my hands.”
“Please, Marcus, please,” she said, her voice urgent.
“Perhaps I can do something for you. My mistress willing, perhaps you can be kept out of stasis. It’s a small boon, but I will talk to her.”
“It’s all I ask, Marcus. Thank you,” she said and kissed his hands like a commoner would his lord. “Oblivion...it scares me. It’s not as empty as they would have you believe. There are shapes there. And voices...I cannot get away.”
“I’ll speak to her as soon as I can. Actually, the quicker we can get this over with, the faster I can get in touch with her.”
The Maiden didn’t say anything, but she didn’t look convinced.
“It’s a long shot, I know, but if there is anything, anything at all you can tell me to speed things along?”
She moved forward, straddling him, placing her arms across his shoulder, letting her fingers glide through his hair. She leaned forward, chest to chest, her mouth to his ear. He could feel fake heat from synthetic skin, the warmth of her artificial breath as she whispered into his ear. “I know you’re just leading me on, Marcus, but I do like you. And you are my only hope—of ever getting out of here. Make love to me. Here, now. Go down on me on the table, take me against the wall—I’ll even ride you on this horrible chair.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” he replied.
“Then, my answer is no. Figure it out yourself. The longer it takes, the longer I get to stay here. I hope you never get to the bottom of it!”
She began pulling away, but Marcus put her arms around her and drew her into a kiss. She struggled a little, but it was only for show, and it didn’t take long before she was on the table. The things I do for you, my Dragon.
“I’m sorry about your wife and everything. And we’ll probably be dead by midnight, at the latest. But this is the best day at work. Ever. No. It’s the best day ever. I can die happy after this.”
“Glad you think so, son. Me, I’d rather live to tell the grandchildren.”
“You don’t even have children, old man.”
“How about you put on some music? If we’re going to watch this, I would rather listen to some Vlada than your panting.”
“Valda coming up, boss.”
They sat together in silence, with Vlada on the speakers, watching the Dragon Order agent make love to the robot girl. It really wasn’t something you could tell your grandchildren about.