The Studfindr Job: Draft

an outtake from Spiral Architect by Matthew Graybosch

This was the original draft for the first chapter of Spiral Architect. I might reuse it for something else.

caveat lector (let the reader beware)

The following is a work of fiction. The vast majority of the characters and events are fictitious. The vast majority of deviations from known scientific and historical fact are intentional and done either in service to the story or the author’s depraved sense of humor. Any resemblance to real places, persons living or dead, or events recorded in official or occult histories in this plane of the multiverse are a product of the reader’s imagination.

This work of fiction depicts actions, dialogue, and sentiments that may be inappropriate for readers under 16 years of age or offensive and upsetting to adult readers. Parents should preview before allowing children to read it. Adults should bear in mind while reading that the author does not necessarily endorse everything they depict.

This work of fiction is provided for entertainment purposes only. Read at your own risk.

Today is the day I get to ruin somebody’s life. Trust me; Chad Pembroke has it coming. Another entrepreneur with more success gathering venture capital than sound business advice or accurate market research, he decided to go all in on an online dating application even though such virtual meat markets died unlamented during Nationfall. When his big idea proved unable to survive contact with reality, he not only doubled down but cajoled, bullied, and blackmailed his hired help into putting in ever more hours on the job in the hope a miracle might happen.

Instead, one of his hired hackers died on the job. The city medical examiner said a heart attack caused by workplace stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise carried off Rama Chandragupta. Never mind that the poor bastard was only twenty-six years old and in perfect health before he took a contract with Studfindr. In the Phoenix Society we call that tyranny, wage theft, worker exploitation, and negligent homicide. Chandragupta had been putting in ninety-six hour weeks for months and not getting overtime pay, and he wasn’t the only one working under such conditions. He was just the one who brought Chad Pembroke to our attention, and that was only because the janitor who found him after midnight wasn’t bound by a non-disclosure agreement so he immediately reported the death to the Phoenix Society since hardly anybody dies on the job if they’re doing a standard fifteen-hour workweek.

Lucky me, it had not been my job to build the case against Pembroke. That had fallen to another Adversary while I was busy dealing with a landlord who had found a delightfully macabre means of making their rental properties more profitable: rent studio apartments to lonely young men, use the building’s resident daemon to lure them into fraudulent online romances that ended in suicide, and then pocket the first month’s rent, the last month’s rent, and the security deposit. Unfortunately for this filth, the very tenant churn that had been so profitable also flared like a supernova in a starless sky.

I should have been able to hang up my armored coat and lock away my blades for a couple of weeks once I had that slumlord in custody. The band I’m in, Crowley’s Thoth, is due to kick off a tour with a couple of shows at Carnegie Hall, and if you want to play that venue you’ve got to work for it. Instead, I got this job dropped in my lap because the Adversary initially assigned to the case found out the hard way that Pembroke thought himself some kind of high-tech gangster. Surrounded by hired muscle and packing heat of his own, he fought back when Catherine Gatto showed up to bust him.

Evidently Pembroke thought we’d go easy on him if he just kneecapped Gatto. Now she’s in Bellvue getting her legs worked on, and I’m picking up her slack instead of rehearsing with Christabel and Naomi. Christabel will be pissed, but I don’t mind. Attack one Adversary and you attack us all, and no one attacks me with impunity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire, hold a seat in the UN’s general assembly, or sit at the right hand of God Itself.

Besides, I’ve been itching for an excuse to kill somebody who had it coming all year, but none of the people I’ve had to bring in for the crimes of tyranny, corruption, exploitation, rape, or murder have been foolish enough to even think of striking the first blow and giving me the one reason that would stand up at a court-martial should I be accused of summarily executing an innocent person. I could only hope that Pembroke would give me that excuse.

Unlike Gatto and the rest of my colleagues in the Phoenix Society, I’m the sort of Adversary who can get away with bringing a sword to a gunfight. Assuming you get through my armor — of which I don’t wear that much because the UN doesn’t want civilians thinking the Phoenix Society is a paramilitary organization — any wound you inflict on me heals in the fraction of the time an ordinary person would need and leaves no scar1.

The United Nations paid for about six hundred and sixty-six people like me to be designed and built by the AsgarTech Corporation. Of all those einherjar, I’m one of thirty-two that bought into the UN’s propaganda and tried to join the Phoenix Society. I’m one of the only two to get through the training program and a testing gauntlet that ended with three days spent in a nightmare sequencer facing the Milgram Battery. I’m the only one still serving. The Society usually keeps me in reserve for jobs other Adversaries can’t handle.

My girlfriend Christabel calls me their resident superhero when she’s annoyed with me, which is ever more often of late. She’s not wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried to flaunt it. I don’t need armor, but I wear it anyway. I don’t need weapons, but I wield them anyway. I could dodge bullets instead of letting people shoot me, but even if it wasn’t easier to just let people shoot me and explain it away as having the best civilian-grade body armor money can buy the bullets I dodge have to go somewhere, and somewhere might be some civilian a block or two away. I might try to fight people on something resembling equal terms, but I wasn’t made to fight people.

I knew the purpose for which I was intended before I had enough of a mind of my own to rebel against it. My hands were meant to take up the sword, not a guitar. My voice was for battlecries, not power ballads ballads. Nevertheless, I sought resistance in music and the Phoenix Society sold me that resistance in exchange for the coin in which I alone could pay: be their avenging knife in the dark and they would make my dreams of rock stardom possible. It has been a reasonably good deal so far. I got everything I wanted, even though I didn’t know it at first.

So I kill demons. I usually kill the people in league with them as well because the UN doesn’t want to admit that demons are real. The latter should bother me more than it does because I am sworn to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and thus forbidden from summarily executing people regardless of their crimes, but these people almost never surrender. Furthermore, since the harshest punishment permitted by law is twenty years of exile to a penal habitat orbiting Uranus from which hardly anybody returns, I am reluctant to begrudge those who would rather die fighting than stand trial only to be convicted, made an unperson, and sent to the outer limits of the solar system to be worked to death. I figure I’m providing these assholes undeserved mercy.

There is more time than I would like to overthink my life. Another rail workers’ strike shutdown the subway. The bus is out because drivers have staged a sympathy strike; the buses still run, but they’re all crammed full because the drivers aren’t collecting fares. It’s easier to just walk from the UN Headquarters, which is also the main office for the Phoenix Society in New York, to the building in Rockefeller Center that housed Studfindr’s office.

Hell, these public transit strikes were probably the reason Gatto got stuck with Pembroke in the first place. Most of the more experienced Adversaries are busy making a show of force in support of the striking workers lest somebody wearing a NYPD uniform get nostalgic for the bad old days when they could make a little extra on the side busting heads as the thin blue line defending free enterprise. An Adversary capable of dealing with wannabe Pinkertons was most likely experienced enough to deal with a startup founder turned gangster and his hired goons.

I might have walked anyway, though; it was a good day for it. Even with all the glass, steel, and concrete trapping sunlight it doesn’t reflect, New York doesn’t get hotter than 21℃ even in summer. It hasn’t been warmer than that since before Nationfall, when some billionaire high on the stink of his own bullshit thought he was genius enough to solve climate change by sucking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth in the first place. Turns out he was right, but his solution worked entirely too well. The resulting crop failures and famines caused by this guy’s Second Little Ice Age was one of the precipitating factors leading to Nationfall.

It was nowhere near that warm today, but still warm for Imbolc. Most of the pedestrians I passed had taken off the cloth masks they wore to protect against viruses that had an easier time taking hold in the dead of winter. Some even smiled and waved at me, but none lingered long enough for me to greet them properly. They had their own concerns, as I had mine.

I should get the hell out of my own head instead of ruminating over my own origin story and the history of the world. It’s old hat to me, and not something I can share with the general public even if it was of general interest. Nevertheless, I keep doing it, and I know why. It’s stage fright. I’m going to be putting on a show soon, even if nobody outside the Phoenix Society will ever get to see it unless the footage is introduced into evidence and played for a judge and jury. If I were getting on stage I’d know what to do. I’d run through the set list. I’d review my lyrics for each song where I had backup vocals or gave Naomi a break by singing lead. I’d make sure I had my melody and bass lines down cold. If worst came to worst, I could help out the roadies.

But this isn’t that sort of performance. My instruments needed no tuning, and they’re already sharp enough that even a god wouldn’t feel the cut until he found himself strapped for cash when the psychopomp came to collect her fare. It was going to be a solo performance, slam poetry instead of music, with no lyrics save the rhetoric of violence. And unless I want to fuck it up, I need to get into the moment, because I’ve reached my destination and looks like Pembroke’s expecting me.

The lobby at 45 Rockefeller Center is classic Art Deco, and if I were devout I’d be praying to any god listening that the muscle blocking the elevators aren’t carrying firearms. A firefight would not only put civilian lives at risk but damage art and architecture that just doesn’t get made any more because nobody wants to pay for it. There are seven men standing in front of the elevators, blocking my path. Six wore armored coats similar to mine with basket-hilted dueling swords on their hips. They’re the professionals; they even knew how to use the swords they wear.

Now that I can see their faces I recognize them. I’ve run into most of these guys before, sometimes serving other targets in the same capacity they now served Pembroke. A few of them even worked security at shows Christabel Crowley and I played before we hooked up with Naomi Bradleigh and started Crowley’s Thoth. Jacked into the Phoenix Society’s computers with my implant, I could run their faces through recognition algorithms and get all their vital statistics down to which way their dicks tended to hang; names were easy.

Scratch that. Names were hard. Knowing somebody’s name means you’ve got to dehumanize him again before you draw on him. You need a better reason than that he didn’t have the sense to stay out of your way, because even if they’re the foulest rat bastards you can imagine they still probably have at least one person who would mourn their passing, and they are innocent.

It’s the sort of moral dilemma that drove Edmond Dantès to stay his hand in the end. Is justice merely vengeance when those who have done no wrong suffer for their proximity to the guilty?

I glanced at Julio Diaz, a tall, lean, sleek pro with a bit of gray at the temples. He was the most senior of this crew and had probably recruited the others. I hadn’t seen him since Christabel and I were playing every club in the city to promote Shattered Harmonies II. “Been a while, Julio. What sort of orders have you got?”

“Nobody goes up. Especially not Adversaries. Anybody who wants to leave can.”

Hopefully that meant Pembroke’s only hostages were the schmucks on his payroll. “I’ve got orders of my own, you know.”

Diaz nodded. “You did the math, right?”

Of course I did. Seven against one. It might even be a fair fight; most of these guys had dueling scars. The one exception is bigger and taller than the rest. He was certainly taller than me, but not by much and certainly not enough to intimidate me. Malkuth wasn’t giving me anything on him, which suggested that he was new to his trade. As if I needed help figuring that out on his own.

He wore a trench coat with a fedora and had a ratty-looking ponytail trailing down one shoulder, but unlike others of his ilk his bulk appeared to be mostly muscle of the sort ill-gained through the use of anabolic steroids. He had a katana strapped to his waist, and had probably selected his weapon to match the rest of his costume. It wasn’t my preferred weapon, but the one einherjar who had passed the Milgram Battery beside me had favored it. Tetsuo always wore his with its cutting edge up, so that when he drew it he could rotate his wrist and have the blade facing his opponent. This edgelord wore it cutting edge down, and so he nearly fumbled the sword as he drew it.

I was now within my rights to draw my own longsword, but while the civilians in the lobby had all found cover there were still a lot of tight spaces where such a sword wasn’t the most practical choice. My dagger was much shorter, and still a match against a katana wielded inexpertly at best. Furthermore, if I cut this edgelord down his buddies might take exception and then it would be six swords against one.

Not that I minded, but the janitor who will get stuck cleaning up after the massacre hasn’t done me any wrong so why make their job harder? I glared at Diaz. “Care to explain why your new guy is determined to start a fight?”

“We figured the fight was already in progress. You don’t show up unless there’s already an Adversary down.”

“Been keeping up with my career?”

“Yeah,” said Diaz. “Both of ’em. I liked you better with your hair down. You’ve got no chill whatsofuckinever in that uniform.”

That was fair enough. I liked myself better with my hair down, too. And if Diaz would get his men under control and out of my way, I could get back to being the guy everybody likes better that much sooner. “The Phoenix Society isn’t paying me to be chill, but they know you didn’t shoot that other Adversary so my beef isn’t with you.”

Diaz was a smart guy; he knew an out when he saw one. He shot a glance at the Fedora Guy with the katana. “Hynes, put that fucking thing away before you get yourself killed. That’s Morgan Stormrider, dammit.”

This is exactly what I needed today. I don’t use that name at my day job. I got saddled with that ridiculous stage name in the first place because my day job followed me backstage and pulled a gun on Christabel, and it damn near broke up my relationship with Christabel and damn near broke up Crowley’s Thoth. Just don’t ask me where she got the name with which she saddled me; even I have no idea and in all honesty I suspect it’s one of those Lovecraftian questions best left unasked — to say nothing of unanswered — because sometimes ignorance is sanity.

The real problem might be that Morgan Stormrider is a stage name and not a nom de guerre. My job might be easier, and fewer Adversaries might get hurt, if I were better known as the sort to put out fires with gasoline. I’ve already had a sword pulled on me, and thanks to my implant it’s all on video. Most of the civilians were outside now; even if there weren’t reflective surfaces everywhere my implant can passively monitor the network and determine the positions of anybody on the network within a kilometer-wide sphere with a margin of error of a few centimeters. Unfortunately, that meant I knew more civilians were coming. Show me a sincere atheist and I’ll show you a person with a life so boring that the gods can’t be bothered to prove him wrong by fucking them over. Never mind the arguments from motion, causation, and contingency; here’s the argument from Murphy and Thomas Aquinas can damn well eat his heart out.

The stairwell door opened, and a young man in an open-collar shirt and slacks held it open as children began to troop out and gather around him. Adult civilians underfoot were bad enough, but a demon-ridden school field trip was just a gratuitous little squeeze of the balls from whatever malign deity had chosen me as their chew toy today. What the hell was I going to do now, flip out and kill Pembroke’s goons in front of these kids just because one of them pulled a cheap-looking sword on me?

Yeah, that would be a great look: an Adversary committing a massacre in front of kids so young they’d have to sound the word out if they read it in the newspaper. The Phoenix Society needs that sort of press as badly as I do, which is about as badly as I’d need the second asshole I was guaranteed to get if I set aside restraint.

Except that Hynes still had his katana out, so I turned my attention to him. “I’ve got orders to get through, and you are not getting paid nearly enough to stand in my way.” I stepped forward, and spread my empty hands in a welcoming gesture. “But if you’ve got more pride than sense I’m willing to oblige you. I’m supposed to be on vacation and my girlfriend is probably already pissed off, so I’m easy.”

Hynes gave a contemptious huff and twirled his blade in what was meant to be an intimidating display. I was only a little impressed; he had managed not to drop his sword or cut himself. “You’re gonna take me on bare-handed? When I outmass you by at least thirty kilos?”

“Stop flirting with me and make your move. Sometime before Ragnarok would be nice.”

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but it’s hard to resist. The band I’m in plays progressive rock, and thus we’ve got a taste for the theatrical.

I had suspected that Hynes had no notion of what the hell he was doing before, but now I was sure of it. His grip was all wrong; it was as if he had a white-knuckle grip on a baseball bat or a length of lead pipe instead. His stance was no good, either; his feet were parallel and his legs straight with locked knees, and he stood there holding his sword so that it jutted from his groin like he was compensating for other shortcomings.

He came at me without any finesse, raising his sword overhead and all but daring me to step into his guard and take his pathetic excuse for a life. It was easy to sidestep him as he brought his sword down with entirely too much force. If I had been there he might have gotten his sword stuck in my head or torso, but I was behind him and his follow-through shattered his blade against the lobby floor.

My boot in his ass sent him sprawling face-first across the tile, and I had kicked the useless hilt away from him and bound his hands behind him with strip-cuffs before he had time to realize how badly his had miscalculated. Looking up at Diaz, I said, “Anybody else feel like going above and beyond for Pembroke? I went easy on this one because you had using him as bait. You had figured I’d go all out on him and give you an excuse to come down on me, right?”

“Shit.” Diaz seemed almost disappointed that I had seen through him, but it had been a guess. It was an old trick. “I told Pembroke it was too obvious.”

“Oh, so it wasn’t your idea? I suppose that makes it better, but not better enough. I said it before: you aren’t getting paid enough to fuck with me, and I’m not going to dirty my sword on you.”

“You think you can take us all bare-handed?” That was one of Diaz’ other guys talking. Kowalsky, I think, not that it mattered.

What mattered was that if I had wanted to, I could. The preternatural weapons built into einherjar like me were made for fighting demons, but they worked a treat against humans. The shield of rage I could project was even better than Balder’s; it wouldn’t let mistletoe through, let alone an anti-materiel round. The knife of my hatred could cut through steel, ceramic, and Kevlar. Then there was my demon speeding; I could hold my place in time and act within space at will, though only for a few subjective moments. I could rip these men apart in half a second as far as anybody else was concerned.

However, that was a vulgar display of power and Christabel already gave me enough shit about being the Phoenix Society’s resident superhero. Besides, if people knew I could do all of that they’d go to even greater extremes when resisting me. Instead of goons with swords I might find myself facing a could of fireteams complete with automatic weapons and grenade launchers. I don’t need that kind of hassle; it’s a great way to get civilians killed, and if I was willing to accept collateral damage I could show up with a Kalashnikov, gun down every motherfucker in my way, and ask questions later. “You think I’ll be empty-handed long? The first of you to pull a sword on me is going to die on it.”

One of the other pros spoke up. “You’re between us and the exit.”

“I can step aside easily enough if you want to walk out. You can even take your friend with you. I only bound him so he wouldn’t compound his stupidity.”

Diaz stared at me. “Everybody says you kill people who threaten you. You’ve got some sort of Latin motto engraved on your fuckin’ sword.”

As a matter of fact, I did. Nemo me impune lacessit2. It wasn’t my idea; when Nakjima Chihiro forged a set of custom blades for me she had wanted to give them names. I had flatly refused; it seemed pretentious to give a weapon a name when it is not the blade itself that kills but the person who wields it. The engraved motto were her revenge. Or perhaps it was a compromise; she honestly believed that if those I faced as an Adversary feared my blade they’d be more reluctant to give me cause to draw it.

At least, that’s what she had told me afterward. I didn’t buy it then and I still believe that thinking in terms of being given cause to draw a weapon credits people with more power than they possess or deserve. If I had chosen to draw my sword and cut down Hynes, it wouldn’t have been because of anything he said or did. It would have been my decision alone — and my responsibility.

Rather than explain any of this to Diaz, I stepped aside. “Told you before, man. I don’t have a beef with you or your crew. I want your boss.”

“Ain’t my boss anymore.” As his men gathered up Hynes and carried him out of the lobby, Diaz stopped and made as if to touch my shoulder before thinking better of it. “Thanks for not living up to your reputation.”

I raked my gaze across the children huddled by the stairwell. “It wasn’t for your sake.”

Rather than wait for him to say something I could use as an excuse to change my mind, I left him behind. «Talk to me, Claire. Does Pembroke have more muscle waiting upstairs?»

Claire Ashecroft was a gray hat I used for odd electronic warfare jobs. I could have done it myself, but she’s Naomi’s honorary niece and Nims had asked me to send work her way to keep her somewhat honest. She wasn’t above taking on the odd penetration testing job when she wasn’t working for me, but at least she wasn’t going to do anything truly nefarious. It helped that she was into guns. The bigger, the better. «Checking CCTV now. He’s got two men guarding the entrance to the Studfindr suite. No other security. One of ’em is packing an old M4 carbine with a grenade launcher. Other one’s got a belt-fed light machine gun — looks like a M27.»

Only two men? Even with that black-market weaponry that had probably been looted from a pre-Nationfall armory the Phoenix Society hadn’t yet dealt with, that wasn’t enough. What the hell was Pembroke thinking? If I had been him and knew an Adversary was coming — any Adversary, not necessarily me — I’d have at least sixteen mercs divided into four person fire teams watching me and each other. Was he overconfident, broke, or just plain suicidal?

«I’m surprised he had any muscle at all,» said Claire over the encrypted chat link. «Not like his app was worth a damn. You know how much cock I got using it? As much as I’ve gotten off of you.»

This was the downside of using Claire. This was her idea of flirting. Fortunately, she understands that she’s not my type. Unfortunately, I’m hers.

«Surprised you even tried it. I thought you knew better.»

«You think I fed them real data? I thought you knew better. So, you gonna sneak ’em?»

The smart play would have been to take a stairwell that would get me to the thirteenth floor and allow me to sneak into the Studfindr offices without dealing with the two guarding the main entrance, but I was short of patience before I got here and running shorter by the minute. I was damn well going to take the elevator and walk right in like I owned the place. «Hell no. If nobody else is up there I think it’s time Pembroke found out who’s come calling. You can spoof the cameras, right?»

Messing with the building’s CCTV system was only a half-measure. If the opposition had implants, which they almost certainly did, they might still be able to make their own recordings using Witness Protocol. But those would go to the Phoenix Society, which would probably suppress them so that they could continue to maintain the pretense that I was only human after all.

I suspected that Claire was sitting in her flat in London muttering all kinds of unflattering things about me right now, because there was a pause before she replied. «You’re lucky Mordred’s here. If I wasn’t busy petting your pussy I’d be thinking of how best to kick your arse for implying that I can’t make sure you can go one-winged angel without footage going viral on the network.»

That was another of Claire’s downsides. Naomi and I haven’t figured out if Claire actually thinks she’s living in an anime or a role-playing game or if that’s another way for her to play with people’s heads, and neither of us are particularly eager to settle the question. All of the answers carry with them disquieting implications.

I was in the elevator with three floors to go when Claire came back. «I’ve got the PA system, too. Want me to announce you?»

«Please don’t.»

«Or you’ll paddle me?»

«I know better than to threaten you with a good time.» Damn. Now I was flirting with her.

The soft chime of the elevator arriving at its destination was the only sound. I had set the doors to manually open because I expected the guards to be smart enough to open up on full auto as soon as the elevator announced its arrival, but they were holding their fire. They were going to pay for that.

Once I had breathed myself into a flow state and brought up my shield, I opened the doors and stepped out. They closed behind me, but still no gunfire. The guards had their rifles trained on me, but they knew that I had options. If I stepped forward they could enfilade me in a narrow hallway, but a couple of steps to either the left or the right would take me out of the line of fire. They were waiting for me to commit.

Might not do any harm to try talking to them. “You two with Julio Diaz?”

No answer. I was sure they had heard me, but if they had refused to answer it might because they suspected I was trying to psyche them out.

Such discipline and tactical sense deserved a better reward than I could give, but I did the best I could. I stepped forward, into a full metal hailstorm. Every slug shattered with a scream as it struck my shield, and the automatic thunder rolled down the hallway as I strode forward. I could have rushed them, could have dodged every round, but that wasn’t the show I wanted to put on for these two. I wanted them to see that they had done their best and it hadn’t been worth a damn.

I wanted to break their morale so badly that they wouldn’t even be able to think of touching another firearm without breaking into a cold sweat.

The guard with the carbine had held his fire while the machine gunner tried to rip me apart, and had begun to fire bursts while his partner grabbed a fresh belt to reload. Despite his admirable fire discpline, he had used up his magazine before the other weapon could be brought to bear again, so he used his grenade launcher before I could get any closer.

A firerose of concussive flame bloomed from the 40mm bud striking my shield, but I stepped out of the explosion unscathed. I would be ravenous when this was over, though. Maintaining the shield not only demanded concentration, but an outrageous caloric expenditure. The power had to come from somewhere, and it wasn’t like I could plug myself into the electrical grid.

The tinnitus faded along with the fire and smoke. “Hey, did we get him?”

“Probably. Crazy motherfucker walked right into it.”

“Cover me. I’ll go check.”

“The hell you will. I’ve heard about this guy. He doesn’t bring knives to gunfights because he’s crazy or stupid. He does it because he can get away with it.”

“He just got a frag in the face. Nobody human survives that.”

“What if Morgan Cooper ain’t human?”

Well, shit. Seems like one of these guys knows about einherjar. Better still, he at least suspects that I’m one of them. This could be fun, despite my prior concern about encouraging my opposition to bring ever heavier weaponry to bear against me.

The smoke was clearing. Time to move things along. “You two want to try another volley, or are you going to drop your weapons and get out of my way?”

“Sweet honey-roasted fucknuts.” The rifleman certainly had an interesting turn of phrase. If Claire was watching this she’ll probably save that one for later. “What the hell are you?”

The machine gunner got a fresh belt loaded. “Whatever the fuck he is, I’m gonna hose ’im again.”

“No, you’re not.” I was behind him in a blink thanks to my demon speeding, and had drawn my sword so that I could press the tip into the nape of his neck. “Playtime’s over. Lower your weapons if you want to live.”

The other guy had his finger on the trigger of his grenade launcher, and got my second-best murderous grin. “You and your partner won’t survive the explosion. Not at this range. Think it through.”

“You’re gonna kill us anyway.” That from the machine gunner, who had ever so carefully lowered his weapon to the floor after engaging the safety. “We just did everything we could to kill you short of having the building nuked from orbit.”

If they had managed to call in an orbital strike I might be bit put out. It’s the little things that drive me wild, after all, little things like collateral damage and civilian casualties. But I wasn’t even rumpled, just hungry, and the Phoenix Society wasn’t paying me to give a single little fucking shit about mere property damage. “I’m trying to be a better person lately. For my girlfriend.”

They stared at me like I had grown a second head out of my unzipped fly.

I met their stare. “Why are you still here? Does Pembroke pay you that well? Run.

The rifleman finally laid down his weapon. He and his partner were down the hall and pounding on the call button in seconds, as if they thought I might change my mind and nail them to the wall — perhaps with the weapons they had abandoned.

«Why did you say you were trying to be a better person for Christabel?»

«It seemed like the right thing to say at the time.»

«You’re already a better person than she deserves.»

She might have been right. It had been a long time since Christabel and I had honestly been happy together or good for each other, but if I let her go I’d have to leave Crowley’s Thoth, and Christabel wouldn’t have kept Naomi around if I had left, and this was the longest and most stable gig Naomi had ever had. I wasn’t about to hurt her just because Christabel was determined to be a miserable asshole whenever I was around. If she wanted free of me she could damned well use her words and dump me. I wasn’t going to be the bad guy for her. «It’s not about what Christabel deserves.»

«No shit. Otherwise you’d have your boot up her arse.»

Speaking of boots up arses, I was glad Claire wasn’t here saying this to my face. Otherwise— No. Wait. This isn’t the first time she’s tried to talk sense to me about my relationship with Christabel. She’s not wrong, either; she just doesn’t have the whole picture because there are things I’m not willing to tell her about Christabel, Naomi, and me. Discretion forbids it. But her frankness has never angered me thus before. What changed?

It must be because I had entered the Studfindr suite. The atmosphere is different here. The air feels somehow charged, like there’s something emitting electromagnetic interference. It feels cold here, too, even though the HVAC systems are working and the ambient temperature is typical for an office. There’s something here that shouldn’t be. Something I’ve encountered before.

One expects the offices of a business like Studfindr to exude a certain atmosphere. The men working here — and it is almost always entirely men — are typically young, boisterous, and possessed of a sort of machismo based not on mere physical prowess or even intellectual prowess but a willingness to obsess over minutia and trivia to a degree that people outside their trade would find intolerable. These are men who would burn up dozens of hours arguing over whether the bikeshed should be white with blue trim or blue with white trim before they’ve even built the damned thing and think all the while that they were having fun.

Claire once told me that applications programmers like the ones working for Studfindr are often like this as a coping mechanism; they’re frequently called upon to build cathedrals atop quicksand from blueprints sketched on bar napkins. Their work is often as lacking in meaning as it is in permanence, so — like any self-respecting would-be existentialist might — they try to invest their work with meaning of their own making. If Sisyphus can find peace and happiness in his endless toil then what’s your excuse? That rock isn’t going to roll itself uphill!

The developers I found here were nothing like what I had come to expect. They were silent save for the tapping of fingers on keyboards and trackballs. Without cubicles, let alone actual offices, they sought the isolation they needed to do their work by hiding behind their flat displays and clamping studio-size headphones over their ears. They were all of the same brand and design, as if they were standard issue equipment. Being open-back headphones, they did not isolate their wearers at all or keep what they listened to from leaking out. Since they were all listening to the same bland corporate-friendly Muzak that I was sure the UN had declared a crime against humanity before Nationfall these poor fools would been better served by a communal stereo or a lector paid to read to them. Then again, arguments over what to listen to or have read to them might make an entertaining change from the usual technical bikeshedding.

There was a spare set of headphones plugged into an unused workstation, so out of a sense of morbid curiosity I put them on. The Muzak was bad enough, a bland arrangement of a public-domain heavy metal song for a chamber orchestra of chimpanzees, but beneath the bloodless rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Killing Yourself to Live” was a subliminal, infrasonic undercurrent. Straining my ears, I could almost make out a message: “Your purpose is suffering. Your pain is a sacrament. Your sighs are prayers. Offer your misery to the Lord thy God.”


I stopped at this point after my wife saw what I was writing and suggested that nobody was going to give a single little fucking shit about what was going on here. But maybe I can salvage it and find a use for it elsewhere; just not as part of Spiral Architect

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at contact@starbreaker.org.