Chapter 56 FOOL ME THRICE
Marcus returned his consciousness to the outside world. He was weary to the bone, and the dizziness was back. Being surrounded by allies meant the legate didn’t need to maintain a separate mental compartment to handle external appearances. He was still running three internal divisions, however. He trusted Haides about as far as he could throw him. Three was a lot more doable than four, but still taxing—and Marcus was already in a state. I don’t think I could have done four today.
“You good, boss?” Kwame said. “You were in there a long time. We were starting to worry.”
“It was necessary to go deep—when I do, time passes more quickly,” Marcus said, as much for his own benefit as anyone else’s. He started getting to his feet but instantly regretted it.
“Careful there, boss,” Kwame said and moved in to give Marcus a hand.
The Dragon Order legate let him. It was better to get help than crash into the floor. “Thanks,” Marcus said. It was getting dark outside; the last rays of the setting sun was again painting the sky in reds, pinks, and greens. He checked his internal chronometer. That late? The entire day spent interfacing. I must have gone deep indeed.
Marcus pointed at the couch. Kwame guided him over. The legate sat down and let the expensive couch ease his aching muscles. He looked around. Balack was watching the door. Imogen was watching Cal. The Chief Librarian had been asleep on a recliner over by the window, but she was now wide awake and looking at Marcus.
“Water,” Marcus ordered. His throat was parched. As is sensing an opportunity, Marcus’ stomach growled. “And food, if there is anything.”
“We had some earlier. Saved some for you,” Kwame said and went over to the kitchenette.
Soon, Marcus was on his second glass of water and chowing down a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
“If you’re done with the Maiden, I’ll have her returned to storage,” Cal offered.
“If you would,” Marcus said between bites. “I’m done with this...thing,” he added, gesturing towards the Maiden.
“What? You promised Marcus. I gave you everything.”
“I lied,” Marcus said between bites. “If you can call it that. You’re a machine, a library, not a person. Now shut up, or you’ll taste the fire again.”
The Maiden’s head came down. Artificial tears spilled down her cheeks even as her lips changed into unbroken skin.
Marcus felt sorry for her but kept himself in check. They both had a role to play and could not afford to let emotions get in the way. “If you could also arrange for a car and a room at a decent hotel?”
“Of course,” the blonde librarian replied.
“Rooms,” Marcus added and reached for another sandwich, this one pastrami and a different kind of cheese. “Their apartment was ruined.”
Cal nodded. Her hand started creeping towards the injured ear. She flinched as soon as her fingers touched hair.
“Make that a two-bedroom suite for the boss man. He’s not fit to be on his own.”
“Any other requirements? You want me to escort you there? Tuck you in?”
“Actually, yes,” Marcus replied. “Not the tucking in, but the rest of it. You’ll see us there, a quality hotel, preferably downtown. A week pre-paid. Compliments of the Pentacle.”
“And if I refuse?” Cal said.
Defiance is starting to find its way back to her. Marcus smiled at her from where he was sitting. “I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t do this for me. It’s an excellent opportunity to try to make good again the injustices done. To me, in particular—and the Order in general. I’m sure the board would agree.”
The librarian deflated. “Fine. I’ll make the arrangements, escort you over. Then you and your new bum boy can get on with it.”
Marcus chuckled and shook his head. “And now she’s jealous. You were on my team, Cal, before him. I really enjoyed our lunch. But you opted out. Reap as you sow and all that.”
Cal got up, arranging her robes before striding over to the desk on high heels. “If I may?” she said to Imogen. The younger woman gave the librarian an icy look and moved away.
Cal made some calls, and soon the arrangements for prisoner removal, transportation, and hotel accommodations had been made. “There,” Cal said and turned away from the desk, facing Marcus, who was still sitting on the couch. “All set. The escort team will be ready in ten minutes.”
“And now I’d like my payment.”
“Of course,” Marcus replied and nodded to Imogen. Balack’s wife took a step forward, grabbed Cal’s lustrous blonde hair with one hand, yanked her backward, and pushed a subdermal injector against her neck with the other hand.
Cal yelped, her face a study of confusion and indignation. Then her eyes rolled back, and her legs failed. Imogen used the librarian’s golden mane to lower the older woman to the floor. Her hand came away with a fistful of blonde hair.
“The rest of the torpor cocktail?” Marcus asked.
“Here,” Imogen replied and brought out a vial from her medkit. “Made according to your specifications. But I have to say: the mixture is as likely to kill her as to keep her under. We only had so much to work with,” Imogen said. “I don’t want to kill anyone, not even her,” she added.
“You won’t. My calculations are precise. Cal won’t die, but her powers will be suppressed.”
“What power?” Balack objected. “She isn’t a legate. You said she’s a null.”
“Nulls are legates—after a fashion,” Marcus explained. “We don’t have time to go into detail, but they essentially give up access to all other disciplines to master abolition.”
“So, you can read her mind?” Balack added.
“No.” Marcus shook his head. “That would require a dose of professional-grade torpor big enough to kill her ten times over. What this does is suppress her ability to cancel external psychics.”
“Why?” Balack said.
“So I can do this,” Marcus said and looked into the Realm of Ideals, searching for the pure form of the Maiden. He found it, called it into the world, as he had done with There Will Be Death, and draped it over Cal’s unconscious form.
“I’ll be damned,” Balack exclaimed as the blonde woman in front of him turned into an exact copy of the Maiden.
Marcus turned his attention to Lizze. The chimaera was in the chair, watching the proceedings intently. “I assume Haides spoke with you? I asked him to explain the situation,” Marcus said.
“Yes,” the Maiden said and smiled. “Prison break. I’m in. Anything is preferable to going back to oblivion.”
As they watched, the Maiden turned into Calpurnia Pisonis, Chief Librarian of the Fifth and Ninth Tiers of the Second Pentacle.
“Holy Pantheon,” Balack muttered.
“Something to tell the grandchildren about,” Kwame said and smiled at his old boss.
“Only if I want to scare them into behaving,” Balack said and shook his head.
“Put the chains and the collar on Cal,” Marcus said to Kwame and pointed at the false Maiden lying on the floor. “Everybody gets ready to leave. The guards will come to take her away soon. I will accompany them to the storage vaults, then meet the rest of you in the vehicle bay.
“Kwame, you’re my most seasoned acolyte. You’re in charge of the group until I get back. Try to not get into any trouble. If you do, handle it expertly like you did the last time.”
“Let’s do this,” Kwame said, face beaming with pride.
The gold-cloaked Cerberi returned in force to escort the Maiden back to storage.
“What’s wrong with her,” the leader said when he saw the Maiden’s unconscious form on the floor.
“She’s dangerous,” Marcus replied. “I have deactivated her. She will have to be carried.”
“Telepathic scan shows nothing,” one of the face-less guards said after scanning the immobile cyborg. “Is that normal?”
“It’s a machine, isn’t it?” Marcus replied.
“A psychically receptive machine,” the guard captain objected.
“She’s been fed torpor,” Marcus explained. “My investigations have revealed that she’s much too dangerous to be left active. By Order of the Draconic Assembly, she is to remain in stasis indefinitely. To make sure you don’t screw this up, I’m coming with you to verify she goes into storage.”
The guard captain looked at Chief Librarian Pisonis, who looked at Marcus. The captain then nodded and ordered up a grav-trolley.
“Chief Librarian Pisonis?” Marcus said.
“Yes?” the Maiden replied.
“Would you take these people to the vehicle pool and wait there for me to return? Then we’ll proceed to the hotel.”
“Of course, Quaestor Aurelian. I’ll await you there.”
A cargo lift carried Marcus, the false Maiden, and eight guards in armored cloaks and warded helmets, from the above-ground levels of the Pentacle down to the ground floor. From there, the route was more convoluted, especially as they closed in on the Ninth and final tier of the inverted underground pyramid.
Security was high, to begin with, and after the attack on Marcus, it had been further increased. With every additional security measure, extra time was required to move from tier to tier.
Marcus’s main concern was the makeshift torpor injection wearing off before the disguised Chief Librarian was put into the stasis pod. The cocktail had been cooked together in the bathroom, using medkit drugs, office supplies, some of Cal’s beauty products, and a few items Marcus had requested from the Pentacle staff. Marcus had done the numbers himself, but with ingredients like that, there was an element of chance involved. Marcus didn’t like chance—he preferred certainty. Without certainty, you were left with only hope and faith.
If the torpor wore off, Cal’s anti-psychic aura would reassert itself and banish the false appearance Marcus had conjured. That would be awkward.
But nothing untoward happened. There wasn’t a need for additional injections. The makeshift drug continued to do its job, and after an hour so, the fake Maiden was finally pushed into the waiting stasis pod. Inside the pod, time did not flow, and entropy had no hold. It was a spinoff product of the machinery that propelled starships at superluminal speeds. Only the Technocracy knew how they worked and how to build them. To anybody else, Marcus included, it was so advanced it might as well be magic.
“Make note that this pod is sealed under the authority of the Draconic Assembly,” Marcus repeated. “Only an envoy of the Assembly is allowed to reopen it.”
“You already said so, Sir,” the guard captain replied. Marcus could tell he was annoyed. The helmet’s voice modulator couldn’t conceal the fact.
“Knock it off, Captain. I was told this was a secure facility, but assassins, at least four of them, got inside. Impossible without inside aid, wouldn’t you say?”
“If you say so.”
The man was reacting as if the whole affair was a personal attack on him. It was in his voice, in his stance. He didn’t even try to conceal it. The man in charge of security. Takes this as a personal slight. And he’s been ordered to attend to this personally, which for him is another slap in the face. Marcus stepped in close, looking straight into the helmet’s eyepieces. “Any luck finding out who done it? No? I’m not surprised,” Marcus said and watched the Cerberus leader tense up even more.
“It’s not your fault,” he continued. “Nothing you could have done to prevent it. The intruders were using a Dragon Order cover, and appeared to have the necessary clearances, including Dark Omega-level security protocols.” Marcus flashed the black override cylinder he’d gotten from Balack. The captain relaxed a little bit. “And I know who their inside man was. Or should I say, woman? A hasty, ill-informed decision, but one that was taken with the best interests of all in mind. I, for one, do not blame her. Let’s just put this thing behind us, Captain. I didn’t die. The Maiden wasn’t compromised. The assassins paid with their lives. The traitor was redeemed. The Dragon is satisfied, I’m satisfied, and I’ll make sure the board knows this. In fact,” Marcus added, “I’ll make sure to mention how smoothly things have proceeded after you personally took charge.” The captain’s shoulders came down an inch. “Thank you for your help, Captain. I’ll show myself out.”
Marcus went back upstairs, using the secret way and staff-only passages he had lifted from Kawme’s head, heading for the vehicle bay on the second above-ground floor. He had to fight the urge to run. He had remained outwardly calm throughout his stay, despite all challenges thrown at him. But now, so close to being able to extract the Maiden, his human heritage threatened to overpower his self-control.
What if the Maiden tried to run? Would Balack and Kwame be able to hold on to her, without destroying the cyber-shell? Could they even deal with her if she got violent? If even half of what Haides hinted at, they probably couldn’t. Marcus Aurelian, the prodigal legate. It turns out he’s the same as everybody else. Hope, not logic, is what he’s left with at the end of the day. If Haides could see me now...
The Maiden had neither run nor gotten violent.
Instead, she was standing in her custom tailor-made white librarian’s robes, next to a polished black limousine. A gold rose, with the words ‘Rose Royal’ in golden filigree next to the emblem. The symbol of the number one hotel brand in the Coalition. The aircar even came with a human driver—a clear luxury statement—dressed in the blue-and-gold livery of the hotel.
Marcus walked over. He could see his three Dragonsworn sitting inside the limo. Where they not supposed to watch her, not have her stand watch?
The Maiden smiled at him as he drew closer. “Were you afraid I’d run away?” she whispered and took his hand.
“A little,” he admitted. “I hoped you wouldn’t. My heart was sure, but my head wasn’t.”
“You’re so cute, Marcus,” she said and kissed him on the cheek.
“Don’t overdo it,” he whispered back. “They could be watching.”
“Cal is a man-eater, isn’t she? You already had a romantic lunch on your first date, didn’t you? Flirting is in character for her.”
“In that case,” Marcus said and pulled the Maiden closer. He kissed her on the mouth. She kissed him back.
“You’re attracted to her,” the Maiden said after they pulled apart. Her voice was accusing, but her eyes playful.
“I was,” he admitted. “Until she tried to have me killed. That complicated our relationship. We’re on a break now.”
Kwame popped the door from the inside. “Boss. Library lady. We should be going. You can make out in the car if you need to.”
Still holding Marcus, the Maiden got into the car and pulled him after her. There was no making out in the back seat, but the Maiden sat close and didn’t let go of his hand.
The flying vehicle sped out of the hangar bay and into the night traffic. It was nice to be able to sit back and relax rather than go full speed straight into oncoming traffic. The limo climbed up high, above the topmost of the level of the triple-trapezoid floating city, so the passengers had an unobstructed view. The sun had disappeared beneath the cloudy horizon, but the city was awash with light. The Rose Royal towered high above the block structure of the layer below, dressed in rose-hued gold and polished to perfection. The limousine headed for the landing area in front of the reception.
“Clear,” the first team leader reported.
“Clear,” the second call came half a second later.
Two seconds more passed.
“Clear,” the last of her strike team leaders called in. Too slow. These mercs are not up to Order standards. If we find Marcus, unless we take him by surprise—which we won’t—many will die. She made a mental note to hire more muscle. The three teams already on retainer might not be enough.
“Striker Leader to Actual,” Zofia said into her comms unit, using the encrypted command channel.
“Is Actual. Go.” Doonican’s voice was loud and clear.
“The rooms are empty, Sir.”
“What do you mean, empty?”
“No one here. No trace of anyone staying here at all.”
“Find them!” Doonican snapped. The line went dead.
Not for the first time, Zofia caught herself wondering why she’d saved her pig-eyes superior from a fiery death. If she had let him fall, she’d been in charge now and doing a better job than he ever could.
It was her loyalty to the Order—and his legate abilities—that had made her do it. Much as she’d like to see him burn, he was dragonsworn, like her—and their last, best chance of standing up to Marcus fucking Aurelian. Without a legate of their own, they might as well jump over the edge of the city and be done with it. Maybe the Dragon would find a better use for them in the next life. With Doonican, they could still salvage the situation. Or die trying. Which was fine with Zofia—she didn’t fear death, only failure
It hadn’t taken Zofia long to figure out what had happened: Marcus had fooled them again. His intelligence, his foresight, his combat skills...the sheer balls of the man. He had to be stopped, the Dragon demanded it, but Zofia had no problem admitting to herself she admired her enemy.
She pulled open the door to the black-windowed airvan that served as their mobile command post.
“Sir,” she said to Doonican and took a seat facing her superior. Behind him, two merc techs were busy with their computers.
“They arrived with Chief Pisonis aboard a hotel limo. They checked in and went to their rooms. Cal went with them. None of them ever left the hotel. I’ve verified it personally.”
“Two-timing bitch. Should never have trusted a traitor,” Doonican hissed. “Where are they?”
“My guess is they had someone with an aircar pick them up. The suite has a balcony. There is no trace of this in the traffic logs, but Marcus has the Dark Omega.”
“I hate that guy.”
“One of my teams is talking to other guests now. Maybe someone saw them leave. But regardless: it’s the logical assumption.”
“Yes, I concur. What are we doing to reacquire?”
“We are tapped into all the feeds and databases: police, port authority, traffic control, utilities, hotels. You name it, and we’re monitoring it.”
“Pardon me for not getting excited. The fucker is too smart and too well-equipped to fall for that.”
“We’re also looking for known associates. Balack is a senior security officer, close to retirement. He’s married to Imogen, who is more than twenty years his junior. Their apartment was ruined, so they are not staying there. We’re checking their connections, but it’s going to take time.”
“And the last man? The partner?”
“Kwame? He’s single, around Imogen’s age. Former army grunt turned cop-for-hire. He may have served alongside Imogen at some point. Still checking up on that.”
“The wife is a soldier?”
“Paramedic. Four years of active duty. Saved up funds, paid for her own education. She’s an AI shrink now. Pretty advanced stuff.”
“I fucking hate those high-functioning AI. They are abominations.”
“Yes, Sir,” Zofia replied. She didn’t feel like pointing out that AIs were simply too valuable to do without. Trying to reason with Doonican was about as worthwhile as banging her head into a wall.
“The Kwame guy. Does he have a family? Wife? Girlfriend?”
“No local family. They are on another platform or off-planet. Not married. Lots of girlfriends, but no one special.”
“Keep at it,” Doonican said. “I’ve been trying to reach Chief Pisonis, but she’s not responding. Pretty much proves she switched sides again. Shoot to kill on sight. She’s betrayed the Dragon one time too many.”
Zofia didn’t like it. The entire situation didn’t make a whole lot of sense. She had this feeling they were being played for the third time, but couldn’t narrow it down to something useful, so she nodded instead. “With your permission, Sir, I’d like to go to the Pentacle. Lean on them a bit.”
“Just some things that don’t add up. Call it a hunch.”
“We have orders not to interfere with the Conclave. The Assembly wouldn’t like it.”
“With all due respect, Sir, but fuck the Assembly. We have the Cabal’s blessing, do we not? They’ll handle any fallout for us. As long as we get results, we’re good.”
“All right. Do it then, but if you cock it up, you’re going to take the fall, not me.”
“Of course, Sir. Wouldn’t have it any other way.” She saluted, clawed fist over heart, and got out of the car. Bloody coward. Should have let him fall.