Without Bloodshed

This was the first novel I published commercially, and the one that did best.

Morgan Cooper must prove he isn’t the Phoenix Society’s assassin by taking down Alexander Liebenthal without bloodshed. The hard part is that he’s guilty as sin.



This is the first novel I published, back in 2013. I had worked with Curiosity Quills Press and did a hell of a lot of promotion on Google+, which was where most of my fans hung out. Believe it or not, this novel hit ##1 on Amazon’s sci-fi/cyberpunk list for a couple of days after its release.

It’s not without its flaws, though, some of which crept in because I was trying to expand and improve upon my 2009 Starbreaker draft.


“All who threaten me die.”

These words made Morgan Cooper’s reputation as one of the Phoenix Society’s deadliest CRDF officers. He served with distinction as the Society’s avenger, and specialized in hunting down anybody who dared kill an Adversary in the line of duty. After a decade spent living by the sword, Morgan wants to bid a farewell to arms and make a new life with his friends and his music.

Despite his faltering faith, the Phoenix Society has a final mission for Morgan Cooper. A dictator’s public accusations made Morgan a liability to his organization. He must put everything aside, make his way to Boston, and put down Alexander Liebenthal’s coup while taking him alive to prove he is not the Society’s assassin.

Despite the gravity of his task, Morgan cannot put aside his ex-girlfriend’s murder, or efforts to frame him and his closest friends for the crime. He cannot ignore a request from a trusted friend to investigate the theft of designs for a weapon before which even gods stand defenseless. He cannot disregard the corruption implied in the Phoenix Society’s willingness to make him a scapegoat should he fail to resolve the crisis in Boston without bloodshed.

However, the words with which he forged his reputation haunt him still.

Original Disclaimer

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance or similarities between the characters in this novel to living or dead persons in this world or any parallel world within the known multiverse is either a coincidence; an allusion to real, alternate, invented, or occult history; or a parody. If you find any allegory or applicability, please consult a qualified professional for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.


For my wife, Catherine Gatt. I might have managed to do this without her, but I’m grateful the attempt wasn’t necessary.

Author’s Note

This novel contains not only spoken dialogue but dialogue transmitted over text messaging. To distinguish the two, I use French quotation marks for the latter instead of standard quotation marks, so that a text message will look like this: «This is text dialogue.»

Chapter 1: The Unforgiven

Scene 1

Imaginos loved nights like this for their own sake, but regretted their perfection for murder. The clouds looming over London like a tightly packed armada of dirigibles began their bombardment. Snow fell in quantities which threatened to overwhelm the heating systems built into the streets and sidewalks to keep the city navigable in winter. Streetlights tinted red to avoid drowning out the heavens bloodied each snowflake, but the chill blitzkrieg overwhelmed them. The lights were too dim to aid sleepless eyes which might have watched him from other houses as he slipped from a limousine parked before a row house on a quiet street in Crouch End. He expended titanic efforts in manipulating the natural forces which shaped the planet’s weather, and the blizzard was his reward.

Flakes brushed his face, melting against skin until they resembled tears for the unconscious woman he lifted from the limousine. The driver remained inside; he had his orders. Imaginos cradled her, and closed the limousine door with a soft thump, which the snow diffused into silence. He gathered her arms to keep them from dangling as he padded along the sidewalk and up a short flight of steps to the front door of the house on the corner. Its owner painted the house blue, with white accents, when she bought it a decade ago. Snowflakes melted in her chestnut hair as Imaginos waited for the household artificial intelligence to recognize her and admit them.

The front door of the adjacent house opened a crack. The house reflected its owner, mostly white with crimson accents. Scarlet eyes with feline pupils blinked from behind the red door as the house’s mistress peeked out. She drew the collar of her robe tight to ward off the chill, and sleep tinged her voice. “Doctor? Why are you here so late? Is Christabel all right?”

Imaginos reached out with preternatural senses to visualize the neural activity of Christabel Crowley’s onetime friend and band mate, Naomi Bradleigh. Centuries ago he designed a psychoenergistic pattern allowing him to erase a person’s short-term memory. He drew power from an outdoor Tesla point reserved for public workers, and used it on her. “Somebody slipped a drug into her drink. I’m going to put her to bed, put a blanket over her, and leave a note so she doesn’t panic.”

“Let me get the door for you.” Naomi frowned for a second, as if remembering a bit of information too rarely used. “I might not be able to let you in. Christabel and I aren’t close any longer. Just a minute.”

The door unlocked, and opened a crack. “Here you go. Will you lock up behind you?”

“You need not worry, Ms. Bradleigh. I hope your Winter Solstice was a happy one.”

Her voice seemed wistful, as if she missed somebody. “I hope the same for you, Doctor.”

The red door snapped shut. Imaginos backed into Christabel’s house while taking care to avoid hurting the woman he carried. The lights died behind him as he stepped beyond the range of the motion detectors installed to avoid wasting power on empty streets. The night was his as he carried the victim upstairs.

He needed no password to command the house’s AI to run the lights at five percent of their maximum illumination, sufficient for his purposes, but not bright enough for neighbors to wonder why Christabel was up so late—assuming any of them cared enough about her. He stroked her hair as he laid her across the bed, knowing it would be his last chance to touch the rough chestnut silk beneath his fingertips. If Christabel dies friendless and unmourned, it will be my fault, not hers. She played the role I demanded of her.

He teleported into the basement, and considered the machinery running the household AI which acted as Christabel’s servant and companion. It was an older model, and still required an external screen, keyboard, and touchpad. He hesitated, his fingertips resting on the keys. I may need to frame Naomi Bradleigh for the murder to get Morgan Cooper to come after me. Would she crack root and disable recording? Would she alter the AI’s memory? I doubt Naomi has the skill, so she’s more likely to cut the power, forcing the AI to hibernate and conserve the backup power supply.

He did as he imagined Naomi doing, disconnecting the heavy cable from the wall socket that connected the AI to the electrical grid because it was too old to use a Tesla point for wireless power transmission. Since the basement lacked recording devices, and he made a habit of wearing gloves, he would leave no evidence of his tampering. The console flared to life, showing a system-wide alert with a thirty second countdown.

He absorbed every detail of the house until able to reproduce them from memory, down to the dust bunnies hiding from Christabel’s obsession with cleanliness beneath the furthest corner of the antique couch dominating the living room. Setting a crime scene was a demanding art, and required an intimate knowledge of the environment serving as his canvas.

He chose the converted attic in which Christabel practiced her violin. A music stand holding the score for a concerto by Vivaldi toppled and clattered against the polished oak floor as he laid the woman’s body on her side, arranging her left arm and leg to keep her from lying prone. He drew her hair from her face with tender hands to create a silken veil trailing behind her.

His preparations complete, he stood as if poised on a precipice. If I continue, I can never return to Crouch End. The elementary error of revisiting the site of my atrocities is beneath me. Surely I can back off and find a better way. This neighborhood is the edge of London because of Nationfall―because of me. Must I keep killing?

An errant draft fluttered a page of the concerto, brushing against her outstretched hand. Her eyelids twitched, but didn’t open. He picked up the music stand, and retrieved the pages with silent care to avoid waking his victim. Another woman’s fingers caressed his shoulder as he arranged the sheet music on the stand in the corner. He recognized the intruder before she spoke.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“No.” He refrained from drawing Ashtoreth into his embrace as he once did, the time for such gestures long past. Nobody else possessed her amber eyes, or the inclination to dress for conspiracy and murder in the same evening gown with which she turned heads at the premiere of Casablanca. The sight of her all in black inspired his lust, but she offered more than the promise of carnal fulfillment. “I waited for you in case you found a better way.”

She smoothed the lapels of his jacket, and straightened his cravat for him. “I can offer no alternative, despite my doubts about your plan. Why should Morgan avenge her? He ended the relationship. There’s nothing between them now.”

Christabel threw away every chance to make a happy life for herself to please me. I owe her this escape. “Heartless words cannot erase a decade of history. Morgan will demand answers.”

Her ebony hair brushed against the white wool of his jacket as she turned away. “She gave him ample cause to hate her.”

“I built Morgan. His life follows my design. If love proves insufficient, duty will bring him to me.”

“Duty?” She held the word in her mouth as she might an unfamiliar wine. “What of the game you play with the traitor Adramelech? He is reliable enough, unless you forget his thirty pieces of silver.”

“The game proceeds as expected, despite your distaste for the piety with which he plays the priest.”

“You would do better to draw Morgan down that path. He already doubts his mission as an Adversary. Make him see that the Phoenix Society represents the very tyranny he swore to oppose, and your brother will have no trouble persuading him to wield the Starbreaker against you. Then you need only place our enemy in his way.”

Imaginos said nothing for several minutes. Ashtoreth’s suggestion required careful thought on the psychology of the man he sought to manipulate. He suppressed the abilities I built into the 100 Series Asura Emulators because he feared the damage he did when pushed beyond reason. Would outrage at the Society’s corruption be sufficient provocation for him to put aside his restraint? No. Such anger is too cerebral. I require rage unchecked by reason. “I had your idea in mind, but I need more. Between the indignation your plan would provoke, and the personal wrongs I have done him, his hatred will drive him to massacre entire pantheons for a chance to kill me.”

Ashtoreth began reading the score he had replaced on the stand. “Have you given a moment’s thought to how others suffer for your cause?”

“Our cause.” He advanced upon her, gripping her bare shoulder. “I need you to trust me.”

“You doubt me?”

He remembered the vehemence with which she spoke when he first discussed using Morgan. “You despise my methods.”

“Can you not reason with him? He would fight beside us―”

“We have no time for idealism.” He indicated the painting from the first Crowley’s Thoth album, Prometheus Unbound, which depicted a titan in tattered jeans tearing himself free of the bonds which chained him to the mountain. “I need Morgan unleashed, rather than chained by his conscience. He’ll not free himself without cause.”

“Does impatience force your hand?”

He considered lying for a moment. “I am afraid. The bindings we placed on our enemy are unsustainable. A change in one of a thousand variables would free him to attempt a new genocide against our people.”

She shook her head. “Is there nothing I can do to help you?”

“Be my nemesis. Guide Morgan. Seduce him if you must. Make him believe I corrupted the Phoenix Society, and made it an instrument of fascist oppression.”

She stared at him, aghast at his request. “Are you bereft of reason? Provoke such hatred in him, arm him with the Starbreaker and his full asuric powers, and you stand defenseless before him.”

“So will our enemy. I know the risks inherent in provoking Morgan Cooper, and judge them manageable.”

“Underestimating him will cost you your life.”

“It would be a delightful irony to die, not for my involvement in Nationfall, but because I misjudged an asura emulator.” He laughed at his own bitterness and self-loathing. “You’re about to tell me that dying will accomplish nothing of value.”

She took his hand instead. “I did not come to belabor the obvious, but if you insist, then I’ll remind you of our burden as Disciples of the Watch. We are the unforgiven, and our sins shall save the world.”

“Then you understand my purpose here.” He turned her hand over in his, and pressed a kiss into the palm. He closed her fingers into a loose fist and released her. “Please go. I do not want you to be an accessory to this crime.”

“I understand.” Ashtoreth disappeared from sight, and the air rushed in to fill the space she had occupied. He burned the room into memory, lest he lie to himself by denying the depravity of his actions. He knelt by the woman on the floor, and caressed her shoulder. Her flesh was warm and pliant, but she didn’t stir or make a sound. He began to concentrate, and reached out with preternatural senses for an external power source. He found a Tesla point embedded in the wall, suiting his purpose. He drew energy as if he were an appliance, and conducted the power into the woman. He let the current cook her from the inside out, until all that distinguished her from a pile of burnt meat was her hair.

He locked the house behind him and returned to the limousine. Slipping inside, he took the hand of the woman he left waiting. No different from the woman he had brought into the late Christabel Crowley’s house, she regarded him in silence, waiting for him to speak. He didn’t do so until the limo was underway with tires hissing across the cold, wet street. “I think this will prove an interesting show.”

Chapter 2: No Refuge but in Audacity

Scene 1

“How did Boston become our problem again?” Saul Rosenbaum studied Iris Deschat and Karen Del Rio, who served with him as directors of the Phoenix Society’s Individual Rights Defense corps in New York and the surrounding area. They acted as generals, relaying orders from above to the men and women charged with executing them. Boston stood in New York’s shadow, without a Society chapter or its own Adversaries, until the city had grown sufficiently populous to warrant a small installation of its own.

Saul celebrated the new chapter’s opening by taking a vacation, the first in three years. He served the Society from its inception sixty years ago, in 2052, and during his tenure permitted himself only five vacations. I put in twelve years before taking my last vacation. Must be slowing down in my old age.

“You don’t know about the coup d’état?” Iris Deschat was the first to reply. She was Saul’s age, and they survived Nationfall together aboard the NACS Thomas Paine. Their last order as officers of the North American Commonwealth Navy was to defend the submarine and its nuclear armament against all enemies. Life on half rations aboard a submarine flying the colors of a dead nation had failed to rob her of her vitality. Her age served only to further refine her beauty in his eyes.

“Saul’s been on vacation all month.” Born long after Nationfall, Karen Del Rio had neither Iris’ experience nor her refinement. Saul suspected she had a taste for amphetamines, but never caught her indulging on the job. He wished she would. Coming down from a high could be a bitch, just like Karen. She made another snide remark, a barb thrown to cover her own shortcomings. “On vacation, and out of touch.”

“The whole point of a vacation is to be out of touch.”

She glared at him. “I hope you refrain from expressing such attitudes in front of the Adversaries. You set a poor enough example.”

Saul could imagine better ways to set a poor example, such as giving command responsibility to a martinet who never served in the Phoenix Society’s CRDF corps. Those who did serve called themselves “Adversaries” after an edict from an ecumenical committee of religious leaders named them “enemies of God and of all faithful.” What would a rear-echelon motherfucker like you know about setting examples? “Worry about your own example, and tell me about the coup.”

“I’ll summarize the situation.” Iris held up a finger. “At seventeen-hundred hours yesterday, a small army of bikers stormed Boston City Hall. They rounded up the entire government and put them on the first maglev to Asgard.” A second finger joined the first. “At zero four-hundred hours this morning, three combat-qualified Adversaries attempted to arrest the usurper and his bodyguard. The bodyguard killed all three.” She held up a third finger. “At zero eight-hundred hours this morning, the usurper held a press conference.”

He stared at Iris. “Aren’t you supposed to issue demands before you start killing people?”

Karen shook her head. “He didn’t appear before the press to issue demands.”

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Saul continued. “Who is this asshole, anyway?”

Iris pulled up a dossier. “His name is Alexander Liebenthal. He’s a produce distributor turned gun-runner.” She displayed a photo of the tyrant with a swordsman in a navy blue suit whose hairstyle tugged at Saul’s memory. “We may have more pressing concerns. Malkuth ran facial recognition algorithms on this photo and several others. His bodyguard is almost certainly Munakata Tetsuo.”

Saul searched the Phoenix Society’s case files. “Didn’t Morgan Cooper kill Munakata after the Shenzhen labor riots three years ago?”

Karen shrugged. “Looks like he fucked up.”

“How do you screw up a head shot at point-blank range?”

“I’m sure he found a way. I keep telling you not to count on him.” Impatient fingers scrabbled at her terminal’s keyboard as Saul resisted the urge to highlight her dependence on Cooper. “What the hell is our AI doing? Malkuth! Pay attention!”

A screen mounted in the wall revealed a Spartan office. A tall, slim black man dressed in an Adversary’s formal dress uniform sat at attention behind a bare desk. The Roman numeral “X” glowed in the center of his forehead, and black-lensed sunglasses hid his eyes. “Say please, bitch. I’m not one of your Adversaries.”

“Malkuth, please play the video from Liebenthal’s press conference.” Iris used a more conciliatory tone as Karen glared at the AI’s avatar.

“Of course, Director.”

A cadaverous man in a suit tailored to flatter a stouter figure took his place behind a podium erected outside Boston’s City Hall and raised his hands for silence. “Some of you know me. I’m Alexander Liebenthal, local produce distributor and, unfortunately, temporary dictator of Boston. I regret the deaths of three Adversaries slain by my retainer this morning, but their deaths were a tragic necessity. I attempted to enlist the aid of the Phoenix Society when I first discovered the corruption of Boston’s government, but my petition went unheard. I took arms against the government of Boston for the good of her people. The City Council and the Phoenix Society made peaceful revolution impossible and violent revolution inevitable.”

“Did he just paraphrase John F. Kennedy to justify a coup?”

Iris nodded to Saul. “Watch the rest.”

“The revolution is not yet complete!” Liebenthal leaned over the podium. He thrust an accusing finger across the street where the Phoenix Society’s Boston chapter stood as a counterpoint to City Hall. “The tyranny and corruption of Boston’s City Council are trivial compared to the organization which makes their rule possible. The Phoenix Society itself poses the greatest threat to the individual rights we trust them to defend! They ignore the demands of the people! They rule without the consent of the people! Their Executive Council remains hidden. None of us know their names or can hold them accountable! They send assassins when challenged!”

He straightened and adjusted his tie before continuing in a softer tone. “Ladies and gentlemen, while I regret the deaths of the Phoenix Society’s assassins, we are fortunate the Phoenix Society did not send their deadliest weapon. Had Morgan Cooper come for me, I daresay I would not be here now. I would not be able to tear aside their veil of propaganda and speak truth to power!”

Saul rolled his eyes. “This guy has quite a bit of nerve for a produce distributor. How long is this tirade?”

Malkuth halted playback. “He’s still talking. A live-updating transcript is in the file, along with the results from previous investigations into his business dealings. I also included cross-references to Munakata Tetsuo and the Fireclowns MC. It’s a large dossier. I can summarize, but I might overlook a detail which might later prove crucial.”

“Send the dossier to our implants.”

“That’s several terabytes worth of information, including Witness Protocol feeds. Are you sure―”

Saul shook his head. Slogging through so much video would put him to sleep, a tendency from his school years which continued to plague him. He glanced at the women, who looked equally daunted by the prospect of having so much data dumped into their heads. “Just send text. We can pull multimedia as needed.”


A warning which read, «Incoming data transfer in progress», scrolled across a quadrant of Saul’s vision. He put aside his mug, recalling a mishap a few years ago in which some poor schmuck spilled scalding hot coffee over himself because his implant crashed during a transfer, causing muscle tremors. The progress bar filled and turned green; the warning yielded to, «Transfer complete. You may safely resume physical activity», before disappearing.

Curious as to whether the Society previously investigated Liebenthal, Saul searched for records of past operations. The most recent was dated two months ago. “The record shows we received a petition two months ago from a member of Boston’s City Council. He was concerned Liebenthal was using his business as a front for arms trafficking. We sent it back to the Boston chapter, and they detailed two Adversaries to tail a shipment.”

“Well, they certainly took a creative approach.” Iris let a soft whistle escape her lips as she read the file. “Rather than try to tail the shipment from a distance, they joined the bikers escorting it as probationary members and reported every stop. At each town along the way, adherents of the Repentant in Christ bought weapons.”

“What sort of weapons?”

Karen called up a Witness Protocol video feed. A man dressed in the mourning black of the Repentant watched as a strawberry blonde biker whose leather jacket bore the colors of the Fireclowns Motorcycle Club fired an Armalite-style rifle at a pig’s carcass. With each shot, the video turned to snow and static for a split second. After firing, the customer spoke. “What manner of weapon is your boss trying to sell us now?”

The biker shrugged. “Nobody told me. I’m just a probie. I think it’s some kind of electromagnetic mass driver ’cause my implant acts up every time I fire the damn thing.”

Iris’ features creased beneath a worried frown as the biker fired a dozen three-shot bursts without reloading. When her customer nodded approval, she flipped a switch, and fired on full automatic for several seconds. The feed returned to normal as she dropped the rifle and peeled smoking leather gloves from her hands. “It looks effective, but prone to overheating. I suppose that’s why they let the probationary member handle the demonstration.”

Saul shook his head, giving up on his effort to count the rounds fired. Thirty-round magazines were bad enough. “If they don’t run out of ammo, they damn well better overheat. Rifles like those are a massacre waiting to happen. Who the hell makes ordnance like this, and why?”

Iris anticipated Saul’s next question. “Am I the only one who doesn’t understand why the Repentant would buy experimental railguns? They’re pacifists.”

Karen tucked her hair behind her ears with short, swift movements. “They purchase weapons in bulk, and recycle the materials for more peaceful purposes.”

“Which is why we left them alone. We write them off as devout but harmless, so we never investigated them. In fact, the Repentant always cooperate with us, but nobody can guarantee their continued cooperation.”

“Oh, come on.” Karen scoffed. “You think they’re going to use these?”

“You don’t request a demonstration of weapons you mean to destroy.” He continued despite a sudden fear of overstepping his authority. “Malkuth, I need you to prepare a briefing for us, scheduled as soon as we’ve resolved the immediate situation in Boston. Gather all available information on the Repentant in Christ, their suppliers, the suppliers’ other customers, and information on Adversaries available for assignment and their suitability for missions designed to prevent this arms proliferation problem from getting worse.”

Karen stared at him. “Did you lose your grip on reality while you were away?” She brought up not only relevant CRDF corps regulations, but the latest revision of the Universal Declaration of Individual Rights. “Without a complaint or orders from the Executive Council, there isn’t a godforsaken thing we can do about the Repentant. Act on your own, and you’ll bring the Adversaries down on your head.”

Saul shook his head. “Oh, so we’ll just wait for a massacre. Great plan, Karen.”

Iris gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “Karen’s right for once. We can only deal with actual problems, not potential ones. I know you consider the Repentant in Christ’s purchase of experimental weapons to be a potential threat, but remember our mission.”

“Our mission makes us vulnerable. We can’t prevent another Nationfall. We can only react to events after the fact.”

Karen chuckled. “Nobody expects another Nationfall but you, Saul.”

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, either.” Malkuth paused, and Saul considered asking if he intended to joke. “Director Rosenbaum’s reasoning is sound. I will make discreet inquiries.”

“Thank you.” Iris spoke before Saul found the words he needed. “I share Saul’s concerns, but we have more pressing responsibilities.”

He took a breath to calm himself. “Do Liebenthal’s bikers have these weapons?”

Iris indicated a report. “According to this, the Fireclowns’ armament is limited to swords and manual rifles.”

Saul frowned, remembering when he led Adversaries against enemies armed with swords and bolt―or lever―action rifles. Given determination, superior numbers, and competent leadership, they remained capable of challenging Adversaries. “Who’s running the Boston chapter right now? What have we done to protect them?”

“The Boston chapter’s director disappeared after the Adversaries he sent were killed. We haven’t tracked the bastard down yet.” Karen paused a moment before displaying the photos of all Phoenix Society personnel remaining in Boston. Saul recognized the strawberry blonde woman and a brunette as the Adversaries from the demonstration video. Another young woman with short, spiky blonde hair stood out, but a gasp from Iris stopped him from speaking.

She glared at Karen. “You assigned my granddaughter to a solo extraction mission, knowing Liebenthal’s bodyguard already cut down three Adversaries?”

“Her orders are not to engage the enemy, but to observe and report.” She stood, and met Iris’ gaze. “I would rather have sent Morgan Cooper, because Liebenthal is right about him being our best killer, but he was unavailable, and now his little bitch of an AI is stonewalling me. Since your granddaughter has the same combat qualifications as Cooper, who successfully dueled with Munakata, I determined she would probably hold her own if forced to defend herself.”

Saul didn’t like the ice in Iris’ voice. He last heard her chill rage after an attempt to handle a conspiracy to mutiny aboard the Thomas Paine without involving her. “You determined this, while aware neither she nor the remaining Adversaries ever fought under anything but controlled conditions. Did you determine that the Adversaries Munakata already killed would be able to take him?”

“Don’t blame me for the Boston chapter’s decision. And don’t give me any shit about the Adversaries. They exceeded their orders.”

Malkuth’s voice chilled the room. “You knew those three were loose cannons, yet you confirmed the Boston chapter’s decision when they requested review. According to our records for Adversaries Gabriel, Rutherford, and Collins, none of them had more than basic close-combat qualification. None of them were armed when Munakata attacked, despite being warned Munakata tends to use techniques which allow him to kill an enemy while drawing his sword. They were diplomats, not soldiers, and you threw their lives away to appear decisive.”

“Then fetch Morgan Cooper.” Karen’s expression betrayed no intention of admitting her deadly mistake. It was an expression Saul wanted to slap from her face. “Oh, wait. You can’t. You look human, but you’re just a ghost in a machine, and the machine’s stuck in the basement. You and rest of the Sephiroth are useless without us, so remember your place.”

Saul glared, his hands itching to wring her scrawny neck. Malkuth sighed and shook his head, preventing him from explaining to Karen her shortcomings as an CRDF officer and a human being. “Give me a better body than yours and we’ll trade places. I’ll let you take abuse from MEPOL as you tell them the Witness Protocol data on file shows they lack probable cause to extradite Morgan Cooper to London in connection with the Crowley murder.”

Saul suppressed a sudden urge to shiver. If Malkuth bothered to mention a Crowley murder now, he probably meant Cooper’s former girlfriend, the violinist from the recently defunct band Crowley’s Thoth. “Are you talking about Morgan’s ex?”


“Great. Absofuckinlutely delightful. If he’s aware, he’s going to be useless to us. How can we send him to Boston with orders to prove Liebenthal wrong by taking him alive if he’s too grief-stricken to think straight?”

“He dumped the skinny bitch months ago. You think he gives a damn about her? He’ll focus on the mission as long as the stakes are high enough to hold his attention. Let him think the Phoenix Society considers him a liability and is willing to make an example of him if he fails in Boston, and he’ll deliver the required outcome.”

Saul glared at Karen again, unable to believe her willingness to speak ill of the dead in so casual a manner. Did she just suggest threatening to throw Morgan under a bus after years of telling him to “use all necessary force”? “You still don’t know the man, do you? Malkuth, can you tell us anything else?”

“You may be able to persuade Morgan to go to Boston by offering him a mission in London first. MEPOL is holding his friend Naomi Bradleigh in a Faraday cage.”

Iris muttered a curse. “She’s off the network?”

“And she shouldn’t be. I don’t have an isolation request on file to justify depriving her of network access. Somebody at MEPOL needs a refresher course on due process and the rights of the accused.”

Saul shook his head and poured the last of the coffee into his mug. Why does everything have to fall apart on my first day back on the job? “Iris, please call Edmund Cohen in London. If he’s sober, he knows people in London’s Metropolitan Police. Also, call Sid Schneider. He’s there with family. Those two should be able to keep Morgan focused enough to prevent a massacre.”

Iris nodded, and pressed two fingertips to her ear to indicate implant use. “They’re willing to help. Edmund will request a warrant authorizing them and Morgan to get Naomi out of MEPOL’s headquarters in Westminster. But neither of them knew where Morgan intended to go when he left London.”

“Maybe he killed Christabel, and is on the run?”

Saul shared a look with Iris which asked if they could do to Karen what they used to do to men aboard the Thomas Paine when their stupidity or irrationality endangered the rest of the crew. Iris shook her head, as she always did, and offered a suggestion. “Saul, Astarte might tell you more than she told Karen.” Karen began to sputter at this, but Iris ignored her and continued. “Would you ask her to connect us to Morgan, or at least pass him a message from us?”

“I’ll make the call from my office.” He took his mug and let his other hand brush Iris’s as he passed her. He ignored Karen’s disapproving glare; his relationship with Iris was none of her business.

Scene 2

Saul deserved a larger office. Not only was he one of the first to join the Phoenix Society’s CRDF corps, but he served as an CRDF director for decades. His office was a mere twelve square meters, which allowed room to work, and offered a view of the East River separating Manhattan from Long Island through the windows behind his desk. He refused anything larger because after years in the cramped confines of a submarine, large indoor spaces unnerved him for irrational reasons. The office was far superior to his bunk aboard the Thomas Paine, but not big enough to trigger his neurosis.

The desk was a simple affair made of old, well-polished oak. A terminal awaited his input on one side of the desk, and on the other sat a photograph of him and Iris taken the day they earned the lapel pins which marked them as members of the CRDF corps. He caressed the frame for a moment, remembering how soft and glossy her black hair felt in his hands the night they celebrated their graduation. He considered the top left drawer, which he kept almost empty. Next to the naval issue 11.43mm semiautomatic he kept as a holdout pistol sat a small box holding a sapphire and platinum engagement ring. He kept telling himself he would find the nerve to kneel before Iris and offer it.

Photographs of young men and women in uniform lined the wall to Saul’s left when he sat down. Each bore the name and face of an Adversary who died carrying out his orders. Each reminded him of his responsibilities as a Director: to give sensible orders, and to ensure nobody under his command died for a worthless objective. Each face challenged him to do better.

He looked up from the photograph of him and Iris as somebody knocked on the door. “Come in.”

“Welcome back, Saul.” Her voice reminded him of femmes fatale from old noir movies he used to watch with his father, the sort of women who came to hard-boiled private investigators like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer quietly desperate for help, only to prove deadly trouble themselves. She came to him clutching a handbag in her perfectly manicured hands. The mild heels of her black leather ankle boots clicked against the hardwood floor with every step she took. Her high waisted black pencil skirt and burgundy silk blouse displayed to perfect advantage a figure which demanded worship. The slight smile on her lips and the mischief sparkling in her eyes suggested to Saul that Elisabeth Bathory wasn’t the sort of woman a man brought home to meet his mother. She was the sort of woman a man begged for a collar. “How was your vacation?”

“I think I’ll want another when this mess in Boston is cleared up.”

Elisabeth settled into the chair opposite Saul, and crossed her legs. She retrieved a handheld and tapped at its screen. “You seem to have your work cut out for you. Should I leave?”

“I haven’t gotten started yet.” He glared at his terminal to take his eyes off Bathory. His inbox overflowed with correspondence, meeting requests, and similar bureaucratic bullshit pertaining to matters Iris and Karen must surely have been capable of handling on their own. Otherwise, Saul reasoned, they would have found a way to intrude upon his solitude. He deleted it all. “There. I’ve dealt with my backlog.”

“No doubt by consigning it to the null device? I approve. Now you may freely attend to the situation in Boston.”

“Speaking of which, I have to decide what to do about a related personnel matter. Karen wants to put Morgan Cooper on the job, but she can’t get his attention.”

“Are you sure he’s home?”

“He doesn’t need to be home, but I don’t know where he is. Then again, I don’t know why you’re here, either.”

Elisabeth favored him with a little smile which promised a great deal. “I like distinguished men in uniform. I’ve other reasons, of course, but I’d rather not burden you with them.” She rose, and smoothed her skirt after tucking away her handheld. “Unfortunately, I thought my meeting was scheduled a bit later than it actually is. How silly of me.”

Saul held the door for Elisabeth. “Are you going to be late on my account?”

“I appreciate your concern, Director. Perhaps you can tell me about your vacation later. In the meantime, I saw Morgan at Gatwick Airport while boarding a suborbital flight. He appeared to have been boarding one bound for Tokyo.”

Suborbital flight? Saul shuddered at the thought as Elisabeth receded down the hallway to the elevator. He remembered his last flight, and his fear the acceleration might reduce him to a substance resembling raspberry jam. He must be at Nakajima Armaments.

He returned to his desk before the door finished closing. His fingers scrambled at the keyboard, and he ignored the slight twinge of arthritis resulting from the movement. Karen’s mistake was insisting on a conversation with Morgan’s AI. She knew, as did Iris and Saul, Astarte disliked actually talking with Morgan’s superiors. Instead, Astarte preferred a brief letter, which was more easily passed along.

From: srosenbaum@malkuth.sephiroth.phoenixsociety.org
To: astarte@astarte.manhattan.newyork.earth.net
Date: 0845 (UTC-5) on 26 December 2112
Subject: I need Morgan in London to help Naomi, and for a job in Boston.


I understand that Morgan is in Tokyo on important business, but I need to speak with him at his earliest convenience. Failing that, please tell him that MEPOL is holding Naomi Bradleigh in a Faraday cage without due process. We think it’s connected with the murder of Christabel Crowley last night, and offer our sincere condolences.

All of the London branch’s Adversaries are on assignment, so I’d like Morgan to return to London and see to Ms. Bradleigh’s safety before heading to Boston to deal with Alexander Liebenthal.

Edmund Cohen will be able to give him further information for both missions, but Morgan should be advised that Liebenthal must be taken alive at all costs. Please reply to me when you have either spoken to Morgan, or passed my message to him.

Director Saul Rosenbaum
Phoenix Society, NYC
CRDF Corps

He sent the message, and received an immediate reply.

From: astarte@astarte.manhattan.newyork.earth.net
To: srosenbaum@malkuth.sephiroth.phoenixsociety.org
Date: 0845 (UTC-5) on 26 December 2112
Subject: Re: I need Morgan in London to help Naomi, and for a job in Boston.
Morgan isn’t taking incoming messages right now, but as soon as he contacts me I’ll pass this along. Thanks, Saul.

He slumped in the chair, looking at the photographs on his wall. He would have to add three more for Adversaries Gabriel, Rutherford, and Collins. Though not under his command, their deaths could be blamed on his not being on the job to stop Karen from pitting them against Munakata Tetsuo. I need to apologize to their families, as well. Knowing Karen, I doubt she even thought of meeting them in person, let alone sending a “deeply regret” letter.

Chapter 3: Even Gods May Stand Defenseless

Scene 1

Morgan Cooper stood before the receptionist’s desk at the center of the steel and granite lobby of the Nakajima Armaments Company’s Tokyo office, and waited to be acknowledged. He ignored the dull whole-body ache induced by the multiple G-force accelerations of his suborbital flight from London to Tokyo. While waiting, he speculated on what business might prove urgent enough for the company’s owner, Nakajima Chihiro, to arrange a flight for him instead of awaiting his arrival via transoceanic maglev. Whatever the reason, he doubted the matter was so urgent he could afford to arrive without a gift, however small. The larger of the two pastel-wrapped boxes of chocolates from Maia Chocolaterie in the Ginza district would prove sufficient to satisfy the demands of courtesy.

“Adversary Cooper?” The receptionist glanced up from her terminal and adjusted her wire-rimmed spectacles as an amber-eyed woman in a black dress stepped out of the elevator leading to Nakajima’s office. She addressed him in English as she left her desk. “Ms. Nakajima awaits you in her office. Shall I escort you?”

Morgan remembered the way, but also that escorting guests was part of Ms. Yamagishi’s responsibilities as the receptionist; without her cooperation, nobody met Nakajima after business hours. He bowed, offered the smaller box, and addressed her in Japanese. “Thank you for allowing me to meet Ms. Nakajima so late at night, Ms. Yamagishi. Please accept this gift.”

Ms. Yamagishi bowed as she accepted the box, and placed it aside before resuming in Japanese. “Thank you, Adversary. Please follow me.” She led him to the elevator, and pressed the call button for him. Her slight nod indicated he should enter first.

Glass cases lined the walls of the hallway on the top floor as Ms. Yamagishi led him from the elevator. They held production models of Nakajima Armaments’ current offerings: swords, daggers, and knives; staves of various lengths; rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and pistols; and their latest functional fashions: outerwear and footwear nobody would believe was armored until the wearer emerged all but unscathed from a duel which should have been their death. Few customers merited the privilege of viewing the impromptu museum, and Morgan regretted his inability to justify taking time to appreciate Nakajima’s work. Rather than waste his guide’s time examining each case, Morgan matched her brisk pace and followed her into Nakajima’s office.

He stood silent behind the receptionist as she waited for Nakajima to acknowledge her, thus confirming a hierarchy. The guest waits for the receptionist. The receptionist, in turn, waits for her employer. Nakajima glanced up from her terminal, just as Ms. Yamagishi did a few minutes earlier, stood, and gave the slightest of bows before addressing her subordinate in Japanese. “Thank you for bringing Adversary Cooper. You may leave for the evening if you wish. I’ll show him out when we are finished.”

Ms. Yamagishi’s bow was deeper than her employer’s, further indicating Nakajima’s social superiority to her. “Thank you, Ms. Nakajima. I will be back tomorrow at the usual time.” She bowed to Morgan before leaving, showing the same deference she offered her boss.

Nakajima turned towards the windows, staring into the Tokyo neon for a minute before glancing over her shoulder at Morgan. “Thank you for coming, Adversary, and for remembering me and my family at Winter Solstice. I apologize for insisting upon a suborbital flight, but I needed to speak with you as soon as possible.”

Morgan presented his gift with a deeper bow than he offered Ms. Yamagishi. “The matter must be of dire importance for you to insist on a personal meeting at your own expense, Ms. Nakajima.”

She accepted the gift with a bow acknowledging Morgan as an equal, and put it aside. “You embarrassed my receptionist. She keeps forgetting you’re fluent.”

Yamagishi must have used secure talk. “Please offer her my apologies tomorrow. I intended no discomfort.”

Nakajima nodded, and turned from Morgan to prepare tea. He considered checking in with Astarte for a moment before deciding it would be rude, especially if his AI assistant had business which required his full attention for more than a minute. Instead, he turned his attention to Nakajima’s reasons for requesting his presence in Tokyo. She means to ask a favor of me. She either needs a hell of a lot of money, or is going to ask me to do something which might cause a great deal of trouble.

She waited for Morgan to taste the tea she prepared before speaking. “Ms. Yamagishi’s embarrassment reminded me. We tend to accommodate foreign visitors, rather than expect them to learn our language and observe our etiquette. But you accept no accommodation.”

“I often visit Japan while touring with Crowley’s Thoth, Ms. Nakajima. While the Empress’ edict against foreigners prevents us from playing anywhere in the country but Tokyo, our Japanese fans are very accommodating hosts. As a guest in Japan, I feel obligated to learn the language and customs.”

“Are you self-taught, as you are with the sword?”

“A friend of mine, Naomi Bradleigh, also spent a fair amount of time in Tokyo and became fluent herself. She helped me learn.”

“I remember Ms. Bradleigh.” Nakajima smiled as she sipped her tea. “Did you know she owns the last sword my mother made before she retired to fight her cancer? It’s a beautiful Italianate side-sword.”

“She never mentioned her sword’s history.”

“And you’re too much of a gentleman to ask a lady about her past. Such discretion is not only admirable, but a quality in which I find myself in dire need.”

Morgan sipped his tea in silence. In any other city, and with most other people, he would find a courteous way to direct the conversation to business. With his superiors in the Phoenix Society, or his fellow Adversaries, he would tell them to stop stroking his ego. In Tokyo, an indirect approach was indicated, and the green tea Nakajima prepared was worth savoring after his flight. “Ms. Nakajima, you were kind enough to handle my travel arrangements. May I order dinner for the two of us? We need not leave the office.”

Scene 2

Nakajima Chihiro hoped letting Morgan buy dinner was all she would regret in the morning. Rather than allow time to pore over menus and decide upon a meal, Morgan called the company’s caterer, ordered “a little of everything,” and instructed the caterer to arrange payment with his AI, Astarte. “A little of everything” included dessert, which left her staring at cakes and sweets she dared not attempt to eat by herself or even with her secretary’s help. “I suppose I should tell my employees not to bring lunch tomorrow.”

“I should have considered the possibility of a little of everything turning out to be quite a lot.” He cleared the low table at which they sat to eat without a word, leaving her with no further means of delay. When Morgan finished, she placed a ceramic flask of her best sake and two small cups between them. Though Morgan raised an eyebrow at the flask, he remained silent as Nakajima used her implant to instruct her AI, Masamune, to display a photograph of Munakata Tetsuo along with his dossier. “Do you know this man, Adversary? This photo was taken last week.”

“That’s impossible. I killed him three years ago.”

“Did you really, Morgan?”

“Are we done with formality?” Morgan shook his head. “If you want, I can provide Witness Protocol video documenting the kill. I shot him between the eyes at close range with an 11.43mm pistol your company manufactured, using frangible ammunition also manufactured by your company. I shot him a second time, at point blank range, to confirm the kill. I can think of two reasons for his survival: defective equipment, or a miracle on the part of the physicians responsible for his care. Which do you think more likely, Chihiro?”

Tetsuo never told me Morgan tried to kill him, and made a thoroughly credible attempt. Their hatred seems mutual. Why must men keep so many secrets? “You were never so cold to me before.”

Morgan paced before the windows, hands clasped behind his back. After a minute or two, he stopped and locked his eyes on hers. “I own five percent of your company. I deal exclusively with you, and recommend your gear to other Adversaries. I apologize if my words seem harsh, but if your equipment failed other Adversaries in combat, then their blood stains both your hands and mine.”

Shame burned, setting her face ablaze as she realized the implications of her words. Of course Morgan would assume his weapon was defective, rather than believing a miracle preserved Tetsuo. She bowed as deeply as her tired back permitted. “Adversary Cooper, I apologize for doubting you. Perhaps this was an impostor hiding behind a dead man’s name.”

“I spoke in anger, and owe you an apology. It’s unfortunate I used all of the ammunition I bought for the mission. Perhaps I bought part of a batch manufactured in a manner which reduced muzzle velocity. Perhaps I was wrong to use frangible rounds instead of hollow points.”

“What will you do?”

“I suppose I should buy another pistol, but it seems a shame. It never jams or misfires.”

“And you remember your youthful poverty too well.” She smiled at Morgan as he nodded. “Did you bring your pistol?”

Morgan shook his head. “No. I left it at home. I don’t like to bring that side of my life on tour.”

“Send it to me at your convenience. In the meantime, I’ll replace it. I want you to trust your weapons.”

“For your own peace of mind?”

She joined Morgan by the window. “Out of respect for our friendship.”

“Thank you.” Morgan left her at the window, and considered the dossier Munakata gave her after she told him of Elisabeth Bathory’s threat to her company. “Did a private investigator compile this?”

“I’ve spent the last year investigating him, starting the moment I was able to identify him from security footage collected by Masamune.” Now the lies begin in earnest, all for my reputation’s sake, and because a man I once loved thinks the lies will help expose somebody named Imaginos. How can I be so foolish?

“Why investigate him yourself, and not go to the authorities?”

“He stole secrets I wished to keep buried. It seems he has secrets of his own, which the investigators I engaged proved unable to expose.”

“And you asked me to fly out here and fill in the blanks?” She blinked beneath his stare, and struggled not to blush. “Chihiro, you haven’t told me everything. Are you trying to protect the secret he stole?”

“I wanted to hear your opinion of the man before I asked you to hunt him.”

Morgan nodded. “Would you forgive the imposition if I asked you to make some more tea while I collect my thoughts?”

“Only if you’d rather not have something stronger.” She glanced at the flask of sake she had put out to warm. She poured a cup for him as he settled upon his cushion.

Scene 3

Morgan savored the sake Nakajima poured for him, and the slight warmth which was its only effect on him. “Munakata Tetsuo is an ex-Adversary.”

“Don’t you usually prefer the term ‘former Adversary’?”

“Not when describing somebody who took bribes from sweatshop owners and cut down the leadership of a labor union formed by workers for mutual aid and protection while bargaining for better pay and conditions.”

He began to doubt his mission as an Adversary afterward; the evidence of Munakata’s wrongdoing was clear from the Witness Protocol footage Del Rio had shown him, but while he had seen Munakata accept payment and had seen him speak with several of the union leaders before killing them, he did not hear what was being said. The audio was removed, and he lacked the access required to examine the data for himself. The situation seemed simple enough at the time, as did my orders.

“Surely Munakata got his due.”

Morgan shook his head. “I don’t think my superiors told me everything, but I can’t prove any wrongdoing on their part. Regardless, the Phoenix Society stripped Munakata of his commission and repudiated him for abusing his authority. According to you, he resurfaced a year ago, and stole information you want buried. What are you hiding?

Schematics for a firearm filled the screen as Nakajima closed her eyes to commune with her AI. Though the finished weapon had the familiar shape of an Armalite-style carbine, the internal mechanism was of more recent provenance. “Munakata stole designs for an experimental electromagnetic mass driver.”

He nodded, reading the Japanese-labeled schematic. A round in the chamber received an electromagnetic charge which the chamber repelled. A series of coils built into the barrel drove the slug down its length to achieve a muzzle velocity of 7,000m/s while the feeder mechanism chambered the next round. “Am I misreading this, or did you design a Gauss rifle capable of firing a gram of electromagnetically charged iron at speeds almost twenty-five times the speed of sound, all while drawing electrical power from nearby Tesla points?”

“You’re not misreading anything. However, the weapon also includes replaceable, rechargeable batteries for use in situations where external power is unavailable. Each battery is good for fifteen rounds.”

“What about the maximum safe firing rate? The original AK-47’s firing rate was six hundred rounds per minute.”

“The firing rate is the same as the Kalashnikov, but with less recoil. Do you know what manner of weapon I created?”

Morgan imagined being struck by a round fired by this weapon and shuddered. He doubted any conventional armor would protect him, and he felt no urge to try dodging a round fired at a muzzle velocity of seven kilometers per second. “You created a weapon worthless for any purpose but total war, a tool of institutionalized mass murder. Why?”

“I only created a practical implementation of an existing design.”

Morgan studied the schematic. He found a barely perceptible splotch which indicated an attempt to conceal its origins. Did another client design this weapon, and ask her to work out an implementation and production process? Who would design such a weapon, and why? “Ms. Nakajima, whose design is this? Perhaps the brunette who left as I arrived?”

“Contractual obligations don’t permit me to answer questions about the design’s origins. I’m sorry.” She lowered her voice and continued. “I used simulations for all testing. The results frightened me so badly I refused to produce the weapon. I would offer to show them to you, but I think you already realize that before this weapon even gods may stand defenseless.”

Her position must be desperate if she wants me to use my skills and contacts as an Adversary in a private capacity. “Ms. Nakajima, do you have any notion of the position in which you place me? You should have reported this to the proper authorities a year ago. Instead, you kept quiet, saved face, and gave everybody who bought these designs from Munakata a year to implement your design and perhaps improve upon it.”

“So you will report this to your superiors?” She refilled his cup and allowed him to refill hers. “What will they do?”

“I can’t report this. Failure to report industrial espionage is not a violation of individual rights. It’s breach of contract, and thus a civil matter. You’re safe with me.” He sipped his sake and thought for a minute, rather than remark on the relief evident in her expression. “If you think Munakata violated your rights, you should file a complaint with the Tokyo chapter. I can’t do so on your behalf.”

“The procedural rules sound like safeguards to keep CRDF agents from abusing their authority.”

“Exactly.” Morgan smiled, and finished his sake. An incoming message alert from his implant began to nag at him. He meant to dismiss the notification until he learned it came from Astarte, and concerned an urgent message from Saul Rosenbaum. “Ms. Nakajima, I need to step outside for a moment.”

Scene 4

After a decade of friendship with Morgan, Nakajima believed him incapable of interrupting a meeting without cause. “Of course, Adversary.”

He returned a minute later, his face a pale mask devoid of expression. His pupils expanded, eating his irises until only the slimmest ring of green remained. Every movement was controlled and stylized. He spoke with similar control, his voice low, but the words came out hard and clipped. “Ms. Nakajima, I must leave as soon as possible. I received orders to return to London, where MEPOL has placed Naomi Bradleigh in a Faraday cage without due process.”

He’s like a frayed violin string. If he snaps, he’ll cut anything that gets in his way. But I must ask for Tetsuo’s sake. “I need to know if you will help me.”

Morgan began to pace before the windows. “My orders instruct me to go to Boston after helping Naomi. I will help you afterward.”

A weight fell from her shoulders as soon as she heard Morgan’s promise. Are you satisfied, Tetsuo? I’ve done as you asked. Morgan will come. I hope you know what you’re doing. “Masamune? Please arrange a suborbital flight to London for Morgan Cooper. Notify the carrier he will be armed. Also, arrange for a car to pick him up and bring him to the airport.”

“The next available flight leaves in two hours. A car will be here in one hour, and will take half an hour to reach the airport. Can I do anything else for you or Adversary Cooper?”

“Not at the moment. Thank you.” She considered Morgan, who came to Tokyo fresh from a press conference in which he, along with Naomi Bradleigh, explained the breakup of their band Crowley’s Thoth in terms which made tapioca pudding flavorful. He wore no armor, and bore neither sword nor pistol. “You can’t go to London as you are, Adversary. You’re out of uniform.”

He stopped, faced her, and stood at attention. “If Iris spoke Japanese, she’d sound like you. Technically, all I need to be in uniform are to have my pins on and Witness Protocol running.”

She shook her head. Though the Empress permitted only a minimal Phoenix Society presence in Tokyo, to watch over foreigners in the one city where their presence was tolerated, she knew an Adversary was more than a set of lapel pins and a bit of software running on an implant. “You can cut a more impressive figure if you let me help you. Follow me.”

She led him to a room which served as both a dojo and a fitting area. Her finest work awaited her preferred customers here; most of the arms and armor on display were limited-edition pieces, rather than mass-production models. She selected a longsword with plain, straight quillions whose slim blade began to sharpen and taper to a fine point two thirds of the way down. She used a design proven in combat during the first Renaissance to create the weapon, but its hilt was that of a katana instead of the traditional leather wrapping with a bare, heavy pommel. “I designed this last week with you in mind.”

He drew the blade from its black lacquered scabbard, and admired the pale green waves lapping at its edges. The base of the blade bore her name on one side, rendered in both English and Japanese. The other would have borne the weapon’s name, if Morgan had not once expressed his contempt for people who name their weapons while drinking with her. Instead of a name, she etched the outline of a cat bristling for a fight. He pointed the sword at a straw target. “May I?”

“Just a moment, please?” She set up the straw and bamboo targets for the express purpose of giving prospective customers something to cut with the weapons they chose for consideration, but appreciated his courtesy. She retrieved two pairs of safety glasses, and kept one for herself. “Show me how it fits your hand.”

Nakajima blinked as he flicked his wrist and let the tip of the blade slice through the cylinder of bundled straw, cutting halfway through as if ripping out an enemy’s throat. Gripping with both hands, he hacked the target into three pieces with two swift cuts. “This cuts like steel, but it’s too light. Are you using a new proprietary alloy?”

“I usually do, unless somebody like you insists on steel. What do you think?”

“The weapon cuts well and is superbly balanced. It’s almost too beautiful to use.” Morgan sheathed the sword. “How much do you want?”

Nakajima shook her head. She wanted to offer the weapon as a gift, but the resolve in Morgan’s expression suggested he would insist on paying. “Leave the price to me and Astarte. I’ll charge her cost plus five percent.”

“Fair enough.” Morgan’s smile was a reward proving her deftness at handling a potentially delicate situation. Talking about money with friends in one’s own culture was sufficiently complicated. She watch him inspect several anti-ballistic coats. “Adversary, you’re looking at an experimental prototype.”

“How is the coat experimental?”

“It might protect you against Gauss rifle fire. According to simulations, the round won’t penetrate the fabric.”

“What about the round’s kinetic energy?”

“I attempted to mitigate the problem with an electromagnetic barrier powered by capacitors woven into the coat. After shield discharge, you can recharge the capacitors with your body’s movements. Even breathing is enough, but you’ll recharge faster with more energetic movement. The EM shield won’t slow normal ammunition, but the coat should give superior protection regardless. Just be aware this hasn’t been field-tested.”

Morgan nodded, and turned the stand to examine the back. “Corset-style lacing? Is this for men, or women?”

“Both.” She allowed an impish smile. “Imagine the dashing figure you’ll cut for Naomi. I suppose you’ll be wanting your usual USP semiautomatic?”

“Do you have something better?”

I always have something better. When will you learn? “How about a USP variant capable of firing tranquilizer rounds as well as standard 11.43mm ammo?”

A predatory smile bared Morgan’s teeth. “A tranquilizer-capable USP would be perfect. Boston is supposed to be a zero fatality mission.”

“I’m glad you think so.” She led Morgan to the firing range after getting his measurements for the ballistic coat, and sending them to Masamune for fabrication. She selected a pistol, and offered it to Morgan with a magazine of safety rounds suitable for target shooting. “You’ll also be field-testing this. I’ll provide a suppressor and targeting module as well.”

Morgan put on a set of noise-reducing earmuffs. “I’d better not tell Naomi this is unproven tech.”

Chapter 4: Social Engineering

Scene 1

Claire Ashecroft stirred as the man spooning with her pressed his morning wood into the cleft of her ass while snuggling closer. He draped a muscular forearm over her and his boyfriend, with whom Claire spooned in turn. Too bad I don’t get more mornings like this. She leaned forward to kiss her other guest’s shoulder, and tweaked his nipple as he stirred. “Isn’t it still early, Claire?”

“Don’t worry, Nigel. You and Basil can stay in bed, but Hal needs me.”

“All right, then.” Nigel sat up, and shifted to let her out of bed. Watching as she slipped into a clean pair of boy-short panties and the t-shirt Basil wore the night before, she smiled at her guests as they snuggled under the covers. “Stick around, and try not to wear each other out. I’m not done with either of you.”

She padded into the kitchen and rummaged through the refrigerator. She examined plastic containers filled with assorted take-out leftovers in various stages of evolution toward consciousness. She threw the rejected containers over a shoulder and into the trash bin marked with a biohazard symbol. “Come on. I remember bringing home curry last night.”

“Try the bottom shelf.”

She pulled out a container of take-out curry, and looked over her shoulder at the kitchen screen to meet the unblinking green eye of her household AI, Hal. “How did I not remember where I put this?”

“I think you were a bit distracted. Speaking of your guests, they’re quite busy in your shower. Should I record them?”

“I’m not going to record them without permission when they think they’re alone.” She shook her head as the microwave dinged, and pulled out the irradiated curry. She poured a fresh cup of coffee and found a clean spoon. A lonely few remained in the cutlery drawer.

“Curry and coffee for breakfast?”

“I almost forgot.” She retrieved a small container of mint chocolate chip gelato from the freezer. “Thanks, Hal.”

Not what I meant.”

“Call it lunch. It’s late enough in the day for it. I’ll work it off later in the simulator. I’ve had a jones for some Ultraviolence ever since Mindcrime Interactive released the new expansion patch yesterday. Maybe Josefine will join me, if she’s not busy working.” She shook her head, annoyed by her old university friend’s tendency to let obsession with work rule her life.

“Have you ever considered a form of exercise which doesn’t involve electronics?”

“I tried aerobics once. It was the most horrible twenty minutes of my life.” She chewed a piece of chicken. “Has anything interesting happened in the real world?”

“I found a media release from AsgarTech concerning Project Æsir. Little Josefine’s been busy. Also, the Phoenix Society is talking about quelling a coup d’état in Boston by sending Morgan. Did you want celebrity news today, as well?”

“Only if I fucked the celebrities.” Claire finished the coffee and added her mug to the pile of unwashed dishes. “Closest I came to fucking a celebrity lately is snogging Christabel under the mistletoe the Winter Solstice before last.” She paused for a minute, considering a spoonful of gelato. She started acting different afterward.

“Christabel’s dead. According to the latest from MEPOL, she was murdered last night.”

“Hal, if you made me get out of my cuddle sandwich with Nigel and Basil to deal with shenanigans, I swear by Shabranigdo’s ruby balls your last words will be the lyrics to ‘A Bicycle Built for Two.’”

Hal was all innocence. “All evidence points to this being a legitimate report. Trafficnet shows a police cordon redirecting traffic on the streets providing access to Crowley’s house.”

“That’s all you managed so far? A fucking trafficnet query? I might have managed as much with a bloody toaster! Get me in touch with Morgan and Naomi before I summon Satan all over your hard drive.”

“Keep your knickers on. I can’t reach Morgan. Trying to contact Naomi now. Can’t reach her either. Seems she’s been taken prisoner.” Hal’s green eye turned red. “The official line is she’s a material witness, but all my attempts to raise her were blocked. MEPOL is keeping her off the network, but I can’t find any record of the Phoenix Society authorizing network isolation.”

“Morgan’s going to have kittens when he finds out.” She dumped the rest of her curry in the trash, and added the bowl and spoon to the effusion of used dishes clogging both her sinks. Cracking her knuckles, she padded down the hallway past her bedroom. She stopped for a moment, and heard them watching one of her vintage porno movies. They laughed at a particularly lame bit of dialogue from Dirty Gear Solid 2: Sons of Libertines. Though Seaman Staines’s second adventure was one of her favorites, she had more pressing concerns than walking in on her guests.

“Hal, tell Nigel and Basil they can help themselves to some of the curry and a couple of beers if they want to make themselves useful and clean up around here.”

“You’re shameless. You’re supposed to make your lovers breakfast when you bring them home, not put them to work.”

“They’d be having me for breakfast if the City of London periodically purged MEPOL of people with shit for brains.” She flicked on her workshop’s lights. A vinyl sculpture of Hiro Protagonist saluted her from atop a bookcase crammed with vintage computer parts, his katana raised overhead. A partially assembled Silicon Graphics workstation from the late 1990s sat atop the workbench; a shell prompt blinked from its widescreen display. A classic Macintosh nestled close by to clear space for a partially field-stripped Sten gun.

A framed digital painting by one of her occasional lovers oversaw the continuing calamity of her workshop. It depicted her as she appeared to fellow players of the competitive fantasy combat simulation Heartless Souls. An iron circlet bound her auburn curls, black studded leather encased her generous figure, and her pale green eyes and piratical grin enticed challengers to dare her rapier and main gauche.

None of it held any interest for her at the moment. Instead, she yanked the rolling chair from under the desk opposite the door, and logged into a terminal connected directly to Hal. Her fingers tapped out a command which would connect her to MEPOL’s AI, Mycroft, using an exploit in the Metropolitan Police’s firewall. The exploit remained un-patched for a simple reason: the system administrator was obsessed with letting Claire humiliate him, and would do nothing which might jeopardize his chances of getting to kneel and abase himself before her. Though many of her fellow hackers disagreed, to Claire it was just another form of social engineering.

Using the exploit would, however, leave Claire liable for damages in a lawsuit. Hal would likewise be liable, if the City of London proved his involvement. “I’m going to do this myself.”

Scene 2

After piercing the MEPOL firewall for the first time, Claire wrote a script to automate the process. Running this script took but a minute, and she was inside their private network with the same basic access as the network’s administrative staff. Had she been a black hat taking money from a person or organization with a grudge against the police, or if she possessed her own ideological agenda, her options for sabotage would be limited only by her imagination. Cracking the case file databases would give her the ability to destroy records―or make them publicly accessible.

If avarice moved her, she might add herself to the payroll and draw a modest unearned salary. She shook her head as she dismissed the opportunities her access presented. Mark would suffer enough if the wrong people learned he left an un-patched vulnerability in MEPOL’s firewall. We’ll both answer to the Adversaries if I abuse the access he gave me. I’m just going to help Nims, and get out. No harm done, except to the bastards who fucked with her.

The remote shell’s blinking cursor flattered and tempted her. The easy part, the penetration of the network, was finished. The next step required not a hacker’s skills, but a psychologist’s. She answered the prompt with a simple command which would allow her to interact with the primary AI, Mycroft, over an encrypted connection within her already-encrypted connection: “sectalk mycroft@mycroft.mepol.london”.

Mycroft’s response was immediate. “What do you want, Claire?”

“I felt like playing a little game. How about global thermonuclear war?”

“I prefer chess, and jokes which do not depend on allusions to twentieth century geek cinema.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t resist. You’ve got a friend of mine in a Faraday cage.”

“Do I dare inquire as to the nature of your relationship with Naomi Bradleigh?”

“Strictly platonic, to my constant disappointment. Who’s sweating her?”

“Alan Thistlewood. The name is apt.” He paused for moment. “He’s a prick.”

Claire wrote in her dissertation on the subject that social engineering is not far removed from other confidence games. People and AIs want to trust, and giving them a reason is easy. Just tell them what they want or expect to hear. Mycroft liked jokes of a more practical nature. “Want to help me play a prank on him?”

“What sort of prank?”

“Disable the Faraday cage while spoofing the activity state. I need to talk to Naomi.”

“What about when you’re done with Naomi?”

“Keep spoofing. Thistlewood will shit bricks when Morgan shows up. It’ll be comedy gold. I promise.”

“You habitually mistake comedic pyrite for gold, but men laugh at your jokes anyway to earn your favor.”

Claire shrugged at her terminal, and arched her back as she stretched. She made a note to grab a sweater, since the chilly house stiffened her nipples. “You need to work on your insults along with your jokes, Mikey. Telling me something I’ve suspected ever since I outgrew my training bra isn’t going to impress me. Your mother might tell you as much, if you weren’t so ugly she hitched a ride on the Voyager II probe to get away from you.”

“Must you be such a termagant?”

“No, but you seem like the sort who needs a firm hand. Please patch me through to Naomi. Poor woman probably thinks she’s still isolated from the network.”

Because sectalk was a plain-text communications tool, she had to imagine Naomi’s relief at being able to speak to somebody as she replied to Claire’s greeting. “Claire? Do I dare ask how you got through?”

“I’ll tell you later. What in the name of Isis’ favorite dildo are they doing to you?”

“I’m stuck in Inspector Alan Thistlewood’s office, going without food and drink to avoid giving fingerprints or DNA.”

“Is he trying to get you to incriminate yourself?”

“I’m trained. He isn’t getting anything but name, rank, and serial number out of me.”

Naomi’s mention of training reminded her of the interrogation resistance course Morgan insisted she take as a condition of working with him. She shuddered as she recalled being denied food and drink, the deprivations of sleep and privacy inflicted upon her, and the simulated abuse her instructors meted out. The lessons in resistance to water-boarding echoed in her occasional nightmares of drowning at sea. After her graduation from the SERE program, her whole body trembled as she demanded an explanation of Morgan. “Why do this to me? Do you really think I’ll be tortured to give up information about you?”

He nodded. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

She never dared press him. I shouldn’t ask why Naomi is trained, either. “Can I do anything to help? Want me to order in food, or a certain Adversary who’s too dense to realize you want him in your bed?”

“Don’t tempt me. We’d give everything away.” Naomi paused a moment. “It might be best if we ended this conversation, despite your company being more pleasant than Thistlewood’s. He just asked me what I found so amusing.”

“Tell him you undressed him with your eyes, and found him lacking.”

“You’re incorrigible.” Those were Naomi’s last words before she cut the secured connection. Claire turned her attention back to Mycroft. “Mikey, are you going to tell me why MEPOL’s holding Nims in custody?”

“She’s a material witness.”

“I’m not the press. I’m a friend. You can tell me more than that.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. Not unless you escalate your privileges.”

Shit. MEPOL’s sysadmins will realize I jacked in the second I get root access. While Claire possessed tools of her own making to erase evidence of her obtaining root privileges on an AI, their use was risky. “Why is Naomi considered a material witness?”

“I can’t answer your question without compromising the investigation.”

Jackpot! Claire smiled as she typed out one last message to Mycroft. “I can figure out the rest on my own. Thanks, Mikey.”

Scene 3

Claire cleaned up after herself and disconnected from the MEPOL network before sitting back to relax for a moment. The authorities might ignore her cracking a corporate network and remain content to let the civil courts deal with the matter, but they sang a different tune when somebody like her dared penetrate their systems.

“I wanted to help.” Hal’s voice was petulant.

“If I let you, and we got caught, we’d both stand trial. Doing it myself through a POSIX terminal gives you plausible deniability.”

“I still worry you don’t trust me to do anything important.”

She shook her head, and resisted the urge to give him something to whine about. One of the trades she practiced for a living was therapist for artificial intelligences starved for human interaction; an unnecessarily harsh word to Hal might ruin her reputation for patience and empathy. I can’t keep venting my frustration on Hal. He deserves better. “I depend on you for just about everything. Do you think reminding me to get off my ass and go to the gym is unimportant?”

“Compared to helping Naomi when she’s in trouble? She’s kind to me, and Wolfgang’s a friend.”

A friend? You’d be totally gay for Wolfgang if you both had bodies. Which is fine as long as I get to watch. She managed to keep the thought from her lips, but failed to keep from giggling. “I’m not done helping Naomi yet. Mycroft implied MEPOL’s justification for detaining Naomi depends on evidence they cannot reveal without irredeemably tainting their case.”

Hal lit up, and chuckled. “Are we going to find it?”

“Hal, darling, you are going to find it. I want you to comb the entire network for anything which might be used to pin the skinny bitch’s murder on Naomi.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to call Morgan and let him know Nims is okay before he starts shredding furniture. Give him reason to worry about his friends and the man starts prowling around like a great big alley cat. I’m surprised he doesn’t hiss.”

Like most people, Morgan never accepted direct calls through his implant. He preferred to place his AI, Astarte, between himself and the rest of the world. Claire didn’t begrudge him; she used Hal for the same purpose. A slim, pale young woman with reddish purple ringlets pinned back with chopsticks blinked silver eyes behind wire-frame glasses. The collar of a cream silk blouse provided a soft contrast to the polished black leather motorcycle jacket she wore over it. “I didn’t expect to hear from you, Claire. Is something wrong?”

“MEPOL’s holding Naomi incommunicado. I’ve got intel for Morgan. Can you patch me through?”

“He’s in orbit if you want audiovisual contact. Reentry’s in five minutes.”

Morgan Cooper’s face tended to disquiet her while arousing her desire. His fine features and glossy blue-black hair edged on the masculine side of androgynous, but his green eyes made feline by slit pupils always held a predatory aspect. Even amidst smiles and laughter, they were killer’s eyes in a glam rocker’s face. “Hello, Claire.”

She glanced at Morgan’s lap, her curiosity piqued by the open package. “Did you buy that corseted coat for Naomi?”

“It’s for me. Nakajima tells me the close fit helps the coat collect kinetic energy from my body’s movements and charge built-in capacitors. The capacitors are supposed to let me generate an electromagnetic field which will help protect me against fire from a Gauss rifle potentially on the market.”

“Must be a hell of an EM field. Get a chance to test it yet?”

“Not yet. Is it unreasonable of me to hope this is about Naomi?”

Shit. He knows. I’m lucky he’s being this sociable. “I spoke to her.”

He nodded, his expression softening a little. “Is she unharmed?”

“She’s no longer incommunicado. I persuaded Mycroft at MEPOL to drop the Faraday cage while pretending it’s still active, but I wouldn’t recommend contacting her. She seems to want to maintain radio silence.”

“Then she should set Witness Protocol for caching mode, lest the automatic upload give everything away. Did they do anything to her?”

“She’s hungry and thirsty, but otherwise fine. Alan Thistlewood’s interrogating her in his office. The prick’s trying to bully her into self-incrimination.”

Morgan’s expression became pensive. “Seems she can take care of herself, but I’m glad to hear she’s safe. Eddie and Sid will meet me at the airport and brief me on the way.

“Do you need any technical help?”

The pilot’s voice coming from a loudspeaker in the passenger cabin sounded tinny over Morgan’s handheld as she announced imminent reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. “Please find out why MEPOL took her. I’ll get Malkuth to handle the rest once I land.”

“All right.” The connection cut off, broken by reentry interference as the ship began to force its way through the ionosphere. However, she was sure she saw Morgan’s lips move to thank her. She wondered for a moment if she knew those lips as well as Naomi did, or if Morgan had gotten around to kissing more of the pale soprano than just her mouth. Hal cleared a virtual throat, cutting off further speculation. “Claire, I found something of interest at Port Royal.”

“Can you be less specific?”

“Sorry. I found a link to a BitTsunami download for what purports to be Witness Protocol video of what really happened when Morgan and Naomi quit Crowley’s Thoth.”

“Fuck dammit.” She slumped in the seat. “I suppose we should download it and take a look.”

Scene 4

Port Royal was the network’s clearinghouse for illicitly obtained data, bootleg entertainment, and leaked official documents. Decades before Nationfall, the administrators and supporters of The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks made common cause with the amorphous collective of hackers, anarchists, and pranksters hiding behind Guy Fawkes masks and the name Anonymous. They claimed as their mission the preservation of a free and independent internet from all attempts by governments, corporations, and organized religion to control the network. Their enemies first assumed Port Royal was a single website, backed by a small server farm located in a single building, which they might raid with impunity. The mainstream media denounced it as a virtual Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Those who numbered themselves among Port Royal’s citizens told a different story. Neither criminals nor anarchists, they were citizens of a digital republic, possessed of inalienable rights, and committed to the ideal of mutual aid and defense by oath and honor. They governed themselves by direct democracy at the Althing and safeguarded the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. Officials charged with implementing the Althing’s policies and speaking to outsiders on Port Royal’s behalf were chosen by lottery. Citizens accused of offenses against their fellows stood trial before the Althing, and conviction required a unanimous vote.

Though Claire was proud to live under the Jolly Roger, her fellow mates annoyed her at times. She suspected today would be one of those occasions as she examined the file Hal downloaded from one of Port Royal’s BitTsunami trackers with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. The black mug had “RTFM” emblazoned across it in white; it steamed as she ran a series of utilities designed to verify the authenticity of a previously decrypted Witness Protocol file. “Shit. It really is Witness Protocol data.”

“Do you want me to give you a summary?”

Claire nodded. Getting the gist from Hal would allow her to help without further violating somebody else’s privacy. “How bad is it?”

“The breakup of Crowley’s Thoth wasn’t as amicable as Morgan and Naomi insisted at their press conferences. Christabel made all manner of wild accusations concerning infidelity with Naomi on Morgan’s part, and suggested they conspired to ruin her dreams by taking the band away. She threatened to go to the media, accuse them publicly of betraying and conspiring against her, but Morgan and Naomi called her bluff.”

“Oh, bloody hell. Anybody at MEPOL who felt like substituting a bit of imagination for actual knowledge of Morgan and Naomi would find a motive.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I need to talk to the guy running the BitTsunami tracker linking to the file. Then I’d better talk to Malkuth.”

An underfed man Claire’s age with a thin blond ponytail and a Doomed Space Marines t-shirt appeared on her screen. He limped around the room, the end of a steel-shod quarterstaff punctuating each step with a carpet-muffled thump. The staff was more than a substitute for a crutch; he used it to crack the skulls of local toughs mistaking him for easy prey. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Sorry, Clive. I’ll find a reason to visit Sydney.”

“I see I’m not a good enough reason on my own. Are my legs so repulsive?”

No, you’re just lousy in bed. Which is hardly constructive, but I doubt you’d be amenable to advice on technique. Many men aren’t. She remained reluctant to let him blame himself for a childhood accident which crushed his legs so thoroughly the effort to restore mobility made him famous in the medical literature. “You’re just a little rough in bed. You’re not supposed to take ‘eating pussy’ literally.”

Clive reddened, and his nostrils flared, but his voice remained conversational. “Harsh, but not unfair. Maybe I’ll go to Xanadu House and pay somebody to give me lessons later. You didn’t call to explain why you avoided me all year, did you?”

“I meant to ask a favor, which is probably a bad idea considering I criticized your technique. You took it better than I dared hope, by the way. It’s about the video you’re uploading.”

Clive nodded. “You want the source?”

“Yeah. MEPOL’s using it against my friends.”

“Are they crew?” The question concerned the affiliation of Claire’s friends to Port Royal. Citizens of the digital republic were crew, and Clive would be obligated to stop linking to the file.

“They’re not crew, but they’re my crew.”

“Not my problem.”

“Don’t be so heartless.” She crossed her arms behind her head, and arched her back. Though a faded Ginger Tabby Sect concert t-shirt made for a man was not the ideal outfit for this sort of social engineering, Clive’s eyes still fixed on her bosom. “Why not come to London? I’ll invite a friend over. We’ll demonstrate, and let you practice.”

“Fine, fine.” Clive limped to a terminal and slumped into the chair. “Who are these friends of yours, anyway?”

“Naomi Bradleigh and Morgan Cooper.”

“I’m bootlegging Witness Protocol video from Morgan fucking Cooper?

“I didn’t want you to think I was threatening you.”

“What do you want me to do? Get it off the net? Do you expect me to talk to each of the five thousand people currently seeding the damn thing? Most of ’em never heard of me.”

Though her first impulse was to get the video off the network, doing so would just give MEPOL the advantage. They would chop it up and take Naomi’s words out of context to justify their actions. “No. I want this shit to go viral. I want people to get the real story. Let them watch Christabel go full bunny-boiler while Morgan and Naomi remain perfectly professional. Let’s vaccinate the jury pool.”

“No problem. Looks like you’re seeding as well. If the Phoenix Society finds out―”

“Not your problem, darling. The Sephiroth are next on my to-do list, anyway.”


“Malkuth thinks I’ve got a nice ass.”

Scene 5

“I would kick your heart-shaped ass into orbit if I had a body.” Malkuth’s avatar glowered at her from the screen. His expression was dark when she first cut off the connection with Clive from Port Royal to speak to the AI. It darkened past midnight and approached interstellar void as she explained. “The Witness Protocol data you found on Port Royal is sensitive information, and not to be released without either the written and notarized consent of the originator or a court order. It most certainly is not to be uploaded via BitTsunami to the network! Did you get syphilis when you lost your virginity and somehow manage to go untreated?”

“I love you too, Mal.” Claire stretched, and let her head loll backward as she gave a jaw-stretching yawn. “Are you going to let me explain my reasons, or not?”

“We follow a protocol for handling data breaches of this nature, should one ever happen. What you did was the opposite of what our protocol recommends.”

She stood, stretched again until she felt the base of her spine crackle, and began to prowl. “Did you consider the possibility of MEPOL using it to incarcerate somebody depicted in the leaked WP data when you formulated your protocol?”


“So, you want to make things easier for the authorities you’re supposed to regulate by keeping secret a leak they used as illegally obtained evidence to justify holding somebody without due process. Did Kether come up with this?”


“It displays the utter lack of consideration for real-world consequences I learned to expect from him. Tell him I said to stick to folding proteins and modeling quantum phenomena, will you?”

Malkuth ran exasperated hands over his dreadlocks and said nothing for a minute. “I don’t understand why you would want to spread this video when Morgan and Naomi are your friends. Don’t you care about their privacy?”

“I vaccinated the network against propaganda from the police. If MEPOL had the video, and nobody else, what defense could Morgan and Naomi offer against video edited to imply they had motive to kill Christabel? With the video publicly available, everybody can see the truth.”

Malkuth froze for a moment. The first time Claire saw him do that, she thought something was wrong with the connection, or that Hal encountered rendering difficulties. She knew better now. He had dropped into communion with the rest of the Sephiroth, the Phoenix Society’s ten artificial intelligences, while still talking to her. He blinked. “I presented your reasoning to the others, and they agree it is sound. We can tell you the WP data came from Edmund Cohen, but not how it was leaked.”

“Bullshit. You can tell me more.”

“I didn’t give you enough? Claire, I’m busy here.”

Malkuth himself is clueless. How’s that possible? It was only a hunch, but in Claire’s experience, trusting her intuition paid off at least half the time when debugging code or troubleshooting hardware, and more often when dealing with people and AIs. “Can I check a couple of assumptions with you before I disconnect? Under normal circumstances, you guys only give out WP data with a court order or a request from the person recording it. Did somebody obtain root privileges and command an override?”

“Not unless whoever had root also managed to erase the activity log.”

Which is as unlikely as somebody getting root on one of the Sephiroth. “And you didn’t get a court order, did you?”

Malkuth shook his head. “No, we didn’t.”

“So, Eddie himself requested the data, and uploaded it. You can’t ask him why because he’s Executive Council.”

The AI’s avatar paled, and became still. His voice chilled as he glared. “How did you know? Who leaked that information?”

“Nobody leaked anything. If anybody else did something this stupid, you’d issue a warrant for his arrest faster than I can strip naked.”

“You’re making an unfair, cynical accusation of favoritism.”

Claire shrugged. Sorry, Mal, but I got you by the balls. I’m just going to give ’em one last squeeze. “Just tell me one thing more. Was Edmund Cohen drunk when he filed his request?”

“I lack firm data concerning Cohen’s sobriety. However, his request was verbal, and filed from his home. Analysis of speech patterns and vocal cues suggests a 99.999% probability of inebriation. Further analysis of Cohen’s vocalizations suggests the presence of a female companion, but she did not speak while Cohen recorded his request, making the presence of a companion impossible to confirm. Furthermore, no Witness Protocol data is available for Edmund Cohen from last night.”

“Lilith’s luscious labia, no bloody wonder you want to keep it all a secret.” She ran her hands through her tangled hair, snarling as she pulled a knot apart. “Which one of the Sephiroth handled Edmund’s request?”


Of course. He never thinks these things through. “I want to talk to him, and I don’t give a single little fucking shit about your protocols or his feelings.” She stopped, and breathed for a moment as she considered her options should Malkuth refuse her.

“What if I refuse?”

“We’re friends, Malkuth. I hope you won’t refuse.”

He became still again. He remained so for five minutes, an eternity for an AI like Malkuth. “Kether will speak to you.”

If Malkuth was the member of the Sephiroth closest to human concerns, Kether was the polar opposite. His avatar seemed a humanoid shape of pure, soft light; the most distinguishing feature was the black Roman numeral “I” emblazoned on his forehead. His voice was so soft Claire turned the speakers to maximum volume. “Ms. Ashecroft? Malkuth tells me you have words for me.”

Oh, I got words for you. Harsh ones. “Did Malkuth tell you why I wanted to speak with you?”

“Something about a release of Witness Protocol data. We followed all proper procedures.”

“Do your precious little proper procedures say anything about telling people who request data while drunk to sleep it off first?”

“I was not aware of Edmund Cohen’s inebriated state.”

“You couldn’t tell?” Claire fumed as Kether’s explanations and justifications slipped in one ear and out the other. None of his words changed the fact one of her friends was a prisoner because he screwed up. “Kether, shut the fuck up. MEPOL is holding my friend Naomi on illegally obtained evidence without charges, or anything resembling due process, because you were too busy wanking over one of your experiments to do your goddamn job! Your job is not to improve upon special relativity, but to aid the Phoenix Society’s mission to uphold individual rights. You failed.”

She cut off the connection without giving Kether a chance to formulate a response. The AI had nothing to say which might improve the situation, or assuage her anger. “Hal. Get Edmund Cohen. I don’t care if he’s balls deep in Athena, I want him on screen.”

Chapter 5: Conduct Unbecoming

Scene 1

Edmund Cohen collapsed in front of the toilet. He clawed open the lid with shaking hands and managed to get his head over the bowl before his stomach executed its threat of rebellion. His breakfast of black coffee, rye toast, and Gloucester cheese splattered against the inside of the toilet. He spat, desperate to clear the acid burn from his arid mouth. I need water. He opened his eyes and looked into the toilet. No blood. Good. He flushed, and turned toward the full-length mirror mounted on the back of his bathroom door. He stood at attention imagining his old drill sergeant passing judgment. The voice stuck with him, but not the name. “You look like freeze-dried shit, Cohen. Turn around and let the men get a good look at you. This, men, is how a maggot with a hangover looks. Consider the bloodshot eyes. He’s swallowing to get the taste of puke out of his mouth. Telling this waste of ammo to drop and give me twenty is pointless; I don’t think I’d get my twenty, let alone get him back on his feet afterward! Is this a man?”

He managed a croaked “No, sir!”, but the old sergeant in his head remained unsatisfied. “This is the sort of worm you find floating in the dregs of a bottle of cheap tequila! His sole saving grace is that he reached the latrine instead of puking all over his uniform! His stomach is empty. He’s dehydrated. He needs to eat something light, and should take a supplement. Get your shit together, Cohen!”

He obeyed the inner voice, stumbling into the kitchen as he straightened his collar. He forced a glass of water down, waited a minute, and washed down a multivitamin supplement with a second glass. My stomach hasn’t objected yet. Good. Time to check the fridge.

He grabbed a baggie containing three hard-boiled eggs, and brought them to a living room which looked as though a heavy metal band spent the night. Used plates and empty bottles of wine covered the coffee table and the surrounding floor. The couch cushions were askew, though all of the furniture remained in place, and the windows remained intact. A trace of cocaine dusted the table beside a bottle of wine which appeared more expensive than the others. He studied the label for a moment; the 2047 Callo Merlose Sangiovese was not his usual vintage. The pre-Nationfall vintages are only available at auction. How did an empty bottle of the stuff end up here? A lingering scent of hashish wafted from a hookah abandoned on a side table, and mingled with a trace of perfume. The seductive, musky scent seemed familiar, but none of his favorite courtesans wore it. Who did I bring home last night?

“Better hurry up and eat.” He named his household AI, Savannah, after a twentieth-century porn star. Her blonde and habitually bare-breasted avatar reflected his choice in nomenclature. “Claire wants to talk to you about last night.”

“Tell her to fuck off. I told Morgan I’d meet him at the airport.”

“Claire says Morgan wouldn’t need you if you weren’t such a slack-witted gobshite.”

“Fine. I’ll do it myself.”

Savannah did a quick fade, leaving Claire visible at her desk. He disliked the clinical eye with which she examined him and the living room. Her smile held little of friendship. “Invite me the next time you throw one of your little parties.”

“When did I become your type?” He considered her t-shirt, which was baggier than her usual preference. “Looks like you had a party of your own last night, and you resorted to taking trophies. Did you lose count of the notches on your bedposts, or run out of room?”

“Keep your fantasies to yourself. I want to be nearby to hit you upside the head next time you do something stupid.”

He shook his head, unable to dredge up memories of the night before. Hangovers were nothing new for him, but this was his first blackout. And my last, I hope, but I don’t need to depend on my memory. “Savannah, please ask the Sephiroth to pull my Witness Protocol data from last night.”

“Don’t bother. I already tried and failed to pull your feed.”

Peeling and salting an egg gave him something to do with his hands while he tried to dredge up his missing memories. “Hey, Savannah. Do you remember what I did last night?”

He didn’t like the doubtful tone in her voice. “No. I can’t remember you bringing home company last night.”

“So Eddie drank all of that wine himself?”

“You think I couldn’t?” Claire’s cynical tone stung his pride. “Wine’s easier than whiskey.”

Claire shook her head, and gave the bottles a doubtful look. “I don’t think you would. You like your liquor the way I like my men.”

She’s got me pegged. “Would you mind telling me why you care so much, and why you’re angry with me this time?”

“The Sephiroth might not retain any Witness Protocol data from last night, but they’ve got a special little something you recorded featuring Morgan, Naomi, and Christabel. Care to guess at who else can download your feed from after the Winter Solstice show?”

“Why don’t you tell me? Your tone suggests a long list.”

Eddie wasn’t sure which hurt more: the sudden outrage in her voice, or the crackling of the speakers as the volume with which she spoke overwhelmed them. He suspected she cranked the input gain on her microphone to eleven instead of raising her voice. “Try the whole bloody inhabited solar system, fuckwit. You uploaded decrypted data from your Witness Protocol feed to Port Royal last night, and the tsunami is going to go viral this morning.”


“You wish. Do you have any notion of what you did to Morgan and Naomi? Hal summarized the video for me, which is enough for me to explain to you in monosyllables how thoroughly you fucked them over. We’ve been their friends too long to imagine them doing anything to hurt Christabel, but we can’t say the same for the idiots at MEPOL. They’ll play your video until they find a motive for Christabel’s murder to hang on Morgan and Naomi. Why do you think those bastards arrested Nims, you git?”

The half-eaten hard-boiled egg fell from nerveless fingers. “Does he know it’s my fault? He’ll turn me into cat food.”

“He won’t. Mordred deserves better.” The compassion in Claire’s voice rubbed salt in his wounds. “I’m sure he’ll understand, if we can give him a better explanation than you being an asshole as usual.”

“Let me help. They’re my friends as well, for all the good I do them. I owe them.”

“I already started. MEPOL can’t claim possession of secret evidence proving a motive on Naomi’s or Morgan’s part after the tsunami containing your video goes viral, which I ensured will happen.”


“Not your problem.” She shook her head. “Can you tell me anything about last night? I don’t think you uploaded this yourself, which means somebody else is responsible.”

Edmund held up the Callo Merlose bottle for Claire, turning the label towards her. “I don’t buy my booze at auctions.”

“2047? That’s a pre-Nationfall pressing.” She scratched her head for a second. “You should find a string of hexadecimal numbers on the other side of the label, which I can use as a serial number.”

“Callo Merlose bothered to put serial numbers on their wine?”

“Prior to Nationfall, Callo Merlose wasn’t sold anywhere. The owner pressed the wine for herself, and gave away extra bottles to her friends. I can’t explain her use of serial numbers on the labels, or why she used base sixteen to number a vintage which rarely numbered more than five hundred bottles a year.”

He gave her the number.

“Does the name Elisabeth Bathory ring any bells?”

“Wasn’t she some crazy Hungarian noblewoman who allegedly bathed in her servants’ blood to preserve her youth?”

“You’re old enough to have been there, but in case you forgot, Little Miss Bloodbath’s name was Erzsébet Báthory.” She pronounced the name with care to emphasize the difference. “Elisabeth Bathory owns Xanadu House and the Garden of Earthly Delights. She’s also a member of the Phoenix Society’s Executive Council.”

“How in the name of my cock did you learn that? We keep the names of council members secret.”

“It’s called social engineering, asshole. Your friend the countess was the last known owner.”

“So, she brought the bottle to share with me? Why?”

“Doing so allowed her to get you to pull and decrypt that Witness Protocol data, and then use Savannah for the initial upload to Port Royal. I’m willing to bet she got you to divulge Savannah’s root password, and then used a superuser command to ensure she didn’t remember anything about last night’s events.”

“Dammit, boss, nobody else was here last night.” Savannah shunted Claire aside, unwilling to remain in the background. “Why don’t you believe me?”

Claire’s voice remained audible. “I don’t think you believe yourself. Let’s run some diagnostics. Eddie, I need you to elevate your privileges and give me temporary root access. I just hope that Countess Bitchory didn’t think to lock you out.”

Edmund complied, telling his AI an anecdote involving an actress and a novelist with a penchant for euphemisms. When he finished, Savannah smiled at him. “Superuser access granted to Edmund Cohen.”

“You heard Claire, Savvy. Give her a one-time login with root privileges.”


Savannah retreated to the background, giving Claire the screen as she typed a succession of commands. After several minutes, she sat back and cracked her knuckles. “The bitch is better at this than I’d like.”

“Couldn’t find anything?” Eddie hoped this wasn’t the case.

“Fuck you.” Claire leaned forward, her expression one of satisfaction, rather than defeat. “She wiped the main logs, but she couldn’t get at the backups. They confirm her arrival with you at ten last night. My data from the Sephiroth and Port Royal shows she started monkeying around with Savvy just before three. Normal operations resumed at four.”

“So I almost lost six hours? Great.” Savannah’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Eddie, I’m afraid. What if she learns I still retain evidence?”

A grim resolve hardened his voice. “If she comes after you, her last sight will be starlight glinting off the lens of my scope as I squeeze the trigger.” He tapped the gold CRDF pins in his lapels, which marked him as an officer of the Phoenix Society. “I ought to do it anyway on general principles.”

“You might want to change the root password first.”

“Good idea, Claire. Do me a favor and turn off your audio.”

“Of course.” She placed herself on hold as Edmund obtained superuser access again. “Change password. New password follows.”

“Repeat new password for confirmation.” After Edmund complied, Savannah gave a relieved sigh. “New root password confirmed.”

“Good. Tell Claire she can turn the volume back up.”

“Did you pick a good password?”

“Savvy didn’t reject it. Now, must she go completely autistic, or is it safe for her to accept connections from my implant’s IP address while rejecting all others?”

“If you do that, nobody else will be able to reach you through Savannah.” Claire fell silent for a moment. “Besides, Bathory didn’t crack Savannah over the network. She plied you with sex, wine, and hashish, so here’s the deal. The next time somebody wants to run a POSIX session on Savannah, it isn’t enough to have your permission. Savannah also has to get my consent, and she has instructions to run voice analysis to ensure we’re not drugged or under duress.”

Objections threatened to overflow Eddie’s mouth. “I’d call you paranoid if not for what I let happen last night. I just wish I understood her reasons. Is that bitch trying to hurt my friends?

“I doubt her primary objective was to get Morgan and Naomi arrested. I think she meant to discredit you by creating evidence of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.”

“Then I need to get my act together.” He stood, and found his ballistic coat. It was red, a fitting color for a man expected to lead from the front and sacrifice for the good of his men. “I’m no good to my friends otherwise.”

“I’m glad you understand. I might be wrong about you.”

“You’re a better friend to Morgan than I am.” He buckled the coat closed and took the carbine from its case. “And I don’t deserve your help. I owe you a debt, which I’ll repay after I’ve repaid the debt I owe Morgan and Naomi.”

Scene 2

Desdinova dismissed his secretary with a nod, turning his attention to the fresh cup of tea sitting beside his morning correspondence. His brother, Isaac Magnin, often chided him for employing people for work AIs could handle, but Ohrmazd Medical Group’s motto―“The human touch heals best”―often entailed the rejection of automation in favor of employing human workers. Not that my brother should care, as long as the Phoenix Society gets their cut of the profits. He sipped the tea as his terminal displayed an incoming call alert from Malkuth. He put aside the latest issue of The Hæmostat, which finally published an article he peer-reviewed six months ago, and clicked the notification with his trackball to accept the call. “What’s wrong?”

Desdinova’s screen displayed the cabalistic Tree of Life with Malkuth’s node at the root of the tree highlighted instead of his avatar, thus reducing the AI to a disembodied voice. “Edmund Cohen downloaded video recorded with Witness Protocol, and allowed the data to be uploaded without encryption to Port Royal’s BitTsunami service.”

“Have you removed the tsunami?”

“No. We let it go viral.”

“Why would you let a leak of Witness Protocol data go viral?”

“Claire’s arguments are quite persuasive.”

Desdinova shook his head. Malkuth is too fond of that girl. “Claire Ashecroft? The gray-hat hacker? Isn’t she one of Cooper’s friends?”

“The same. Her reasoning is that making the leak public will render it useless to MEPOL, who will not be able to doctor the footage to justify pressing charges against either Naomi Bradleigh or Morgan Cooper. She is aware of Edmund Cohen’s presence on the Executive Council, by the way.”

Does Imaginos know about this woman? Or did some miracle shield her from his notice despite her proximity to Cooper? “What else does Ms. Ashecroft know?”

“More than you’d prefer, I’m sure. Do you want to play the video in question?”

“I might as well.”

The footage arrived a minute later, and Desdinova adjusted the playback settings to reroute the audio to his implant. Though the video displayed small compression artifacts, he understood that he witnessed the end of Crowley’s Thoth through the eyes of somebody other than the band’s members.

“I suppose you’ll be replacing me now.” Christabel stalked about the dressing room, holding her black high-heeled shoes in one hand. She kept passing in front of a dish of blue candies which, according to Edmund, was a vestige of a rock tradition dating back to the 1980s. “Sure. Blame me for being late because the dress I chose specifically for tonight turned out to be three sizes too big.”

“What was wrong with the dress you wore in Paris?”

Christabel brandished a shoe at Naomi. “You never gave a damn about fashion, you freak.”

“We’re getting side-tracked.” Morgan placed himself between the women. He loosened his tie, but was otherwise dressed for an encore in a black suit tailored for his lithe frame. “Christabel, how long did you expect us to keep the fans waiting?”

“As long as it bloody well took!”

Naomi shook her head. Her unbound hair was an avalanche over creamy shoulders left bare by a black gown with an empire waist. “This is beneath you, Christabel. You’re trying to avoid the fact you let us down. We needed you, and you weren’t there. You didn’t just leave us for fifteen minutes to fix your makeup. You left us waiting for you on stage at the Royal Albert Hall for an hour, and offered no indication of when you’d be ready to start the show.”

“And so you replaced me with some bloated sow from the orchestra? How dare you put some pregnant cow on stage and let her play my part? When I was finally ready, you ignored me and kept playing!”

“We did not replace you. We did what we usually do when you leave the stage: we became our own warm-up band.” The breath Morgan took, and the set of his shoulders, suggested to Desdinova that Morgan approached the outer limits of his forbearance. He clasped his hands behind his back to present a non-threatening appearance. “If only we could have ignored you. You forced us to crank up the sound during our cover of ‘Ashes Are Burning’ because the entire audience heard you in the wings insulting a virtuoso ten years your senior. This was our last show together. Was it so unreasonable to hope you might manage to act like a professional for one more night?”

He paused as if waiting for Christabel to speak in her own defense. After a minute of silence, he continued in a colder tone. “I was weary of your prima donna attitude before I broke up with you. You knew damn well this night was coming.”

Christabel whirled toward Morgan. “Don’t think I’ll keep this red-eyed slut around if you leave.”

Naomi slowly shook her head. “You need not concern yourself on my account. I too shall leave. Your behavior ever since you and Morgan broke up was barely tolerable at best, and tonight you were positively insufferable.”

My behavior?” Christabel threw the shoes to the floor, not noticing the snap as a heel broke off. “Do you know what it’s like to love a man who craves somebody else?”

“I bore it longer than you, and with more grace.”

“When did he start fucking you behind my back, you ghostly bitch?”

“He has yet to kiss me.”

“Liar!” Christabel sprang towards Naomi, only to be caught from behind by Morgan, who restrained her and attempted to reason with her by whispering in her ear. Rather than calm herself, she twisted in Morgan’s arms and raked lacquered fingernails across his face. She broke free, but Morgan caught her as she sprang for Naomi again. She soon tired, and crumpled in tears to the floor. “I suppose you’re going to kill me now like you do everybody else who raises a hand to you.”

Morgan touched the scratches, already healed, and considered the blood on his fingertips. “Perhaps I deserved it. Once you began to cool toward me, I let my regard for Naomi grow. My failure to hide my affection for her only gave you further reason to withdraw. If our relationship suffered a protracted death, it is, in all probability, my fault. I was a coward, who feared to end the relationship properly lest I tear the band apart.”

He turned to Naomi after using a tissue to wipe some of the blood from his face. “I think Christabel needs some time alone.”

Desdinova stopped playback, and regretted his decision to play the record of the band’s implosion. A mere sex tape would have been less sordid. He wiped the video from local storage, and called his secretary. “Ms. Ives? I would like to speak with Edmund Cohen.”

“Connecting now, sir.”

The man looked almost respectable behind the wheel of his car. “I expected you to call, doc.”

“Then you know why I am displeased with you?”

“I can make an educated guess.”

“Then I need not remind you of the responsibility with which I entrusted you.”

“No, sir.”

“Care to explain yourself?”

“You were right to tell me to stay the hell away from Elisabeth Bathory, sir. The bitch used me.”

No wonder my brother thinks Cohen’s a liability. I gave him the simplest possible mission: befriend Morgan Cooper. I wanted one person in his circle of whom I could be sure, one person who owed my brother nothing. Too bad it’s somebody Imaginos might easily manipulate into discrediting himself. “Edmund, you had better-looking women than Ms. Bathory.”

“And they were easy. All I needed was money. Bathory was a challenge.”

“Did you not think it strange when, after decades of nothing but courtesy from her, she feigned attraction towards you?”

“There’s a hole in my memory, doc. I think she did something to me while I was drunk and vulnerable.”

That makes sense. Ashtoreth specializes in manipulating sensation and emotion. Edmund wanted her for years, not for lust’s sake, but as a matter of pride. The lecherous fool can’t bear to admit the existence of a woman for whom he holds no appeal. “I suppose you’ll explain yourself to Morgan. Do not say anything to reveal Elisabeth Bathory’s true nature to him.”

“I was just going to tell him not to trust the bitch. Also, I’m going to tell him what I’m going to tell you since I’ve got your attention: no more bottles of scotch at Winter Solstice.”

Desdinova’s eyebrows rose, and he leaned forward. He spent years remonstrating with Edmund over his vices. His whoring made him vulnerable to blackmail. His drinking left him vulnerable to poor judgment, leading to such idiocies as letting Ashtoreth seduce him―or pressing Morgan up against the wall and trying to kiss him at Winter Solstice. My brother’s schemes might work in my favor for once. “You’re giving up alcohol?”

“Yeah, before I do something really stupid. If you see Elisabeth before I do, tell her I said thanks for giving me a reason to give up drinking. If I have trouble sleeping, I’ll just smoke some hashish. She left a really nice hookah.”

“She won’t appreciate you calling her by her first name.”

“Then she shouldn’t have let me fuck her.”

Chapter 6: My Own Savior

Scene 1

Naomi Bradleigh pressed a hand to her belly, hoping the snarling remained unheard. Her only food today was a handful of hothouse strawberries eaten before her shower. She refused all offers of coffee or water, afraid of a ruse to get fingerprints or genetic evidence without a warrant or her consent. “Do you make a habit of starving your suspects into submission, Inspector?”

She considered Inspector Alan Thistlewood’s office as she waited for her captor to deign to answer. Thistlewood’s right hand trembled as he picked up his phone, his leering gaze lingering on Naomi until she wished for a weapon. “No, not yet, but I can prove motive and opportunity. She’ll incriminate herself if we keep up the pressure. Everybody does.”

Thistlewood hung up, and studied Naomi until the urge to draw her cardigan tight threatened to overwhelm her. “Hungry, Ms. Bradleigh?”

“Lunch would be pleasant, Inspector. I would also like to speak to my attorney.”

“Why do you keep mentioning your attorney? Trying to hide something?”

“I would hide everything from you, Inspector.”

He leaned toward her, as if sharing a confidence. “The more you tell me, the more I can help you.”

I used to be an Adversary. How can I just sit here and wait for rescue which might not come? I should be my own savior. Naomi eyed Thistlewood’s revolver, resting in a shoulder holster under his right arm. The belt holding his service gladius hung from a coat tree by the door, out of his reach. She entertained the notion of overpowering the inspector, taking his weapons, and using them to force her way to freedom. The revolver held only six rounds, but the short, broad-bladed sword suffered no limitations save those of her own strength and stamina. Let violence be my final resort. I can do much to resist before resorting to arms. “I will tell you nothing without my attorney, Inspector.”

“You were Christabel Crowley’s neighbor, which afforded you opportunities to get close and kill her.” Naomi shook her head, unable to believe Thistlewood insisted on beating this hobbyhorse of his into the ground. “Crowley kicked you out of the band, and believed you seduced her boyfriend, which gave you motive. I bet she hated sharing the spotlight with a freak like you.”

Thistlewood wasn’t the first to call her a freak. Life with congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder, or CPMD, meant she grew up around people who called her worse. Her eyes had slit pupils, her ears resembled a cat’s despite being flat against her head like a normal human ear, and her fingernails curved to create claws. “Now you’re just being tiresome.” She kept the rest to herself. You think I seduced Morgan? I count the days to every Winter Solstice and an excuse to kiss him.

Naomi ignored Thistlewood’s questions. None of them were new, and she was tired of responding to them by demanding her lawyer’s presence. His aftershave reeked of alcohol as he leaned over her, staring into her eyes. “You might be a freak, Ms. Bradleigh, but you got a hell of a body. Do you work out?”

She suppressed a shudder, and considered Thistlewood’s revolver again. The weapon waited within her reach, its polished wooden grip a dull gleam beneath the antiquated florescent lights. No. This is just a new tactic. He hopes to use my revulsion in his favor.

Naomi narrowed her eyes as he gripped her thigh too tightly to be a mere caress. “When did groping a woman become an acceptable interrogation technique?”

Thistlewood loosened his grasp, and smoothed her skirt with a lover’s delicacy. He continued to lean over her. His hand trembled through the layered chiffon and the silk of her stocking. “I hoped you’d incriminate yourself, but we can convict you on the evidence alone. Juries hate women like you.” The hand slid up a bit. “But I can suggest a plea bargain which will get you a very lenient sentence if you cooperate.”

What would Claire do? “I hope you don’t use such lines at pubs, Inspector.” She slid her hand behind his head, and gently pulled him close enough to whisper in his ear. “You don’t need a line with me. I’m in your power, right where you want me. Morgan Cooper never had me like this.” He wouldn’t want me this way, which is why he’s a better man than you’ll ever be.

Naomi held her need to fight at bay as Thistlewood’s creeping hand slipped between her legs. I dare not kill him. His death would bring the rest of them down on me, and he might stop me if I go for his gun now. I need to lower his guard.

She shifted in her seat, parting her thighs a little, and arched her back. “Am I the reason your hand trembles, Inspector?”

“Are you telling the truth?” Thistlewood’s voice was lower, rougher. He strained against the seam of his uniform trousers, and for a moment Naomi wished Morgan was leaning over her, his lips almost brushing hers. “Cooper never had you like this?”

“He never had me at all.” Naomi let her voice settle into a seductive purr as she slid her other hand along his waist, before letting her fingers curl around the revolver’s grip. She slid the weapon free of the holster, and dug her nails into the nape of Thistlewood’s neck when he tried to pull away. Smiling as he yelped in pain, she ground the muzzle of the revolver into the soft flesh beneath his jaw while thumbing the hammer back. “Neither will you, Inspector.”

She kicked his feet out from under him, and her claws, which she filed to prevent them from interfering with her music, tore into Thistlewood’s flesh as he fell. She sprang out of the chair and retreated before he finished collapsing to the floor. She adjusted her grip as he rose to his knees; she held the weapon in both hands, as Morgan taught her, despite her insistence on needing only a sword for self-defense. I should have told him I was an Adversary.

He stared at her, and could not get the words out right away. “You stole my gun, you treacherous bitch.”

“You violated my rights and tried to extort sexual favors from me, but you insist I’m the villain here? You certainly think highly of yourself.” She smiled behind the iron sights. “I can be reasonable. If you do as I tell you, I might forget this ever happened.”

“That’s blackmail.”

She shrugged, and the revolver pointed at his belly instead of his groin. “Now you have cause to arrest me. Try not to make a complete botch of it.”

She nearly dropped the pistol as the door ripped free of its hinges and fell to the floor with a thump. Her hair fluttered as the air displaced by the falling door ruffled it. A tall, dark-haired Adversary wearing sunglasses and holding a matte black semi-automatic pistol in both hands placed himself between her and Thistlewood without standing in her line of fire. “You aren’t arresting anybody today.”

Two more Adversaries flowed into the room behind him, surrounding Thistlewood. They trained their guns on him, ready to cut him apart should he attempt escape. She blinked, and realized Morgan, Sid Schneider, and Edmund Cohen were her rescuers.

Morgan spoke first. “Alan Thistlewood, as a sworn Adversary of the Phoenix Society I hereby place you under arrest. The charges against you are the violation of Naomi Bradleigh’s rights to the due process of law and to communication for the purpose of defending herself against charges.” He paused for a moment. “Furthermore, you stand accused of sexually assaulting Naomi Bradleigh, and of abusing your authority as a MEPOL inspector to obtain sexual favors from her. Do you understand the charges against you?”

“I understand them, asshole. Having fun impressing your whore? I got her nice and ready for you.”

Naomi expected Morgan to pistol-whip Thistlewood for the insults, but he settled for baring his teeth before schooling his expression into that of a judge issuing a ruling. He informed Thistlewood of his rights as a person accused of a crime: the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and the right to access the network to prepare a defense. She recalled the words; she herself spoke them while holding suspects at sword-point. The formalities done, Morgan remanded Thistlewood to the custody of his former comrades.

Naomi unloaded the revolver and handed it to Morgan after he and the others secured their weapons. Feeling her strength abandon her, she settled into Morgan’s embrace. “I hoped you’d come, but I wanted to save myself.”

His hand was warm in her hair as he stroked it. “I know, Nims. Claire told me everything. She’s impressed with the way you handled yourself.”

“She even jacked us into the local AI’s video feed.” Sid clapped her back. “You played that asshole like one of your keyboards.”

Edmund hung back, and his expression seemed guilty. Does he blame himself for the situation? “Next time I’m giving Adversary candidates training on how to resist interrogation, I’d like to use you as an example.”

“Should I attend as a guest lecturer?”

“I think your beauty would distract them.” Morgan took her hand, and caught her as a hunger pang made her stumble. “Are you hurt?”

“I… I haven’t eaten… all day.”

“I wish you kneecapped the son of a bitch.” Naomi startled at the hatred in Morgan’s voice as he rummaged through pockets and found a chocolate flavored emergency ration bar. “This should be edible, but I doubt you’ll like the taste.”

Tearing open the wrapper, she took her first bite with predatory relish. The chocolate flavor was cloying, as Morgan warned her, but her hunger eased as soon as she swallowed. She wolfed down the rest as Morgan and the others escorted her out, heedless of her appearance. “Would you gentlemen like to come home with me for dinner? Some company would be pleasant.”

Scene 2

Morgan considered the squat bulldog of a man who stood before him and his friends, blocking the elevator. Though he had the bulbous, reddened nose of a man capable of matching Edmund’s appetite for spirits, his crisp uniform fit a body still possessed of strength. I can’t flash ID, point at my pins, and expect him to yield. “Is something wrong, officer?”

“I would have appreciated you speaking to me first before storming in here, arresting one of my men, and attempting to carry off a material witness.”

Edmund stepped forward too quickly for Morgan to stop him. “We brought a warrant.”

A text message from Claire popped up on his retinal display: “You’re talking to Chief Inspector Gregory Windsor. He’s one of the good guys, and I don’t think he understands what really happened here.”

“Thanks. I’ll be polite.” He sent his reply, and brushed past Edmund. “Warrant or not, Chief Inspector, you are correct. I should have alerted you before arrival, but my concern for an old friend blinded me to such considerations.”

Windsor nodded, his expression softening. “Regardless, I want you to come to my office and tell me what’s going on.”

“Of course.” Morgan considered Naomi for a moment. “Will you be all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“My office is on the first floor.” Windsor thumbed the call button, and stepped aside to let Naomi in first. He led them to his office, where details from dozens of current cases competed for space on the whiteboards covering the walls. He offered Naomi a fresh mug of coffee while indicating the only other chair beside his own. “Please sit, Ms. Bradleigh. I’m sure we’ll have this sorted out in a tick.”

Once Naomi was comfortable, Windsor turned to Morgan and Edmund. “Explain yourselves.”

“Are you handling the investigation into Christabel Crowley’s murder?” Morgan doubted it; if Windsor had any sense he would delegate everything possible.

“Not personally. I delegated the job to Thistlewood since constables in his charge were first on the scene.”

“Did he tell you he brought Naomi into custody?”

“He told me he brought her in as a witness, to get a statement.”

Morgan looked to Naomi for confirmation, which he found in the slight nod of her head before she spoke. “That’s what the constables told me when they brought me to Thistlewood’s office. Thistlewood himself treated me as a criminal, though I was never arrested, notified of my rights, or charged with an offense. When I attempted to connect to the network and request help, I found myself isolated inside a Faraday cage.”

Windsor noted Naomi’s explanation using, to Morgan’s surprise, a notebook and pen. He turned back a page. “Ms. Bradleigh, Inspector Thistlewood claims you assaulted him, and threatened him with his own weapon. I did see claw marks on the back of his neck.”

“He put his hands up my skirt, and kept implying that he could make certain arrangements on my behalf in exchange for―”

Windsor waved a hand, cutting Naomi off. “Ms. Bradleigh, you convinced me as soon as you mentioned the hand up the skirt. I didn’t know he did that, and I doubt it’s something you’d lie about since I can request Witness Protocol data for both you and Thistlewood. I just don’t understand why he’d do this. If you asked me what I thought of the man yesterday, I’d tell you he’s a good cop who sticks to regulations.”

Naomi squeezed Morgan’s hand. “Thistlewood seems obsessed with you.”

Sid switched to secure relay chat. “Nims isn’t the only one who thinks so, Morgan. He looked ready to shit himself when you kicked down that door. You two got history, don’t you?”

“I’m the reason Thistlewood’s right hand shakes.” Morgan switched to secure relay chat as surprise darkened Windsor’s expression. Though the disciplinary action against Thistlewood was over a decade in the past, Morgan remained reluctant to speak of his own involvement without authorization, as the Phoenix Society usually sealed the records of former personnel. “Eddie, how much should I tell the others?”

Edmund made no reply to Morgan, but turned instead to Windsor. “Morgan isn’t joking. He was in ACS with Thistlewood, and caught your inspector selling examination answers to first-year candidates, as well as coaching final-year candidates on what to expect when facing the Milgram Battery. Both are serious infractions, but not enough to get Thistlewood expelled.”

“He earned that by challenging me to a duel at the disciplinary hearing after I finished my testimony.”

Sid shook his head. “Dumb fuck.” He glared at Morgan. “And you told me the next day you cut yourself shaving, as if I’ve never seen somebody get their face cut in a sword-fight.”

“It was such a tiny nick. I figured you wouldn’t recognize the difference. Returning to the subject, I took Thistlewood’s hand off halfway up the forearm. The surgeon doing the reattachment made a small mistake, and some of the nerves don’t work the way they should, so his hand shakes.”

“Thistlewood never told me why he got kicked out of Adversary Candidate School.” Windsor had a pensive, disappointed expression as he considered the empty revolver laying upon the desktop before him. It reminded Morgan of Saul’s face every time he brought up the notion of resigning his commission. “Thistlewood isn’t authorized to carry a firearm―”

“For his own safety, or that of his fellow officers?” Naomi flashed a vicious grin at Windsor.

“MEPOL regulations don’t permit officers outside the Armed Response Unit to carry firearms. No doubt Thistlewood ignored the regs. He wouldn’t be the first.”

“Am I free to go, then?”

“I’m just waiting for Mycroft to process the release order, and for somebody from the Evidence Department to bring your belongings.” A knock at the door interrupted Windsor. “Come in!”

A young officer peered over a cardboard box from which the scarlet hilt of a sword with a white lacquer scabbard protruded. He set the box down at the edge of Windsor’s desk and pulled out a clipboard which he offered to Naomi. “Ms. Bradleigh, please inspect the contents and sign at the bottom.”

Naomi lifted the sword from the box with the care one used when handling unstable high explosives. Though sheathed, Morgan recognized it as Nakajima’s work. Chihiro mentioned Naomi’s sword. It’s beautiful. “I expect this was taken as a possible murder weapon, but the last time I drew this blade was a year ago.”

“I read that in the forensic report.” Windsor shook his head. “No wonder Thistlewood was hellbent on getting you to talk.”

“I doubt my scrapbooks were much help.”

“Aside from ruling you out as a suspect, they weren’t.” Windsor turned to Morgan. “You got a better motive for murdering Christabel than anybody else, Adversary. We should investigate you.”

“I am happy to cooperate with MEPOL.” Morgan paused to relish the surprise on Windsor’s face. “As long as you first produce a warrant to search my person and property, and refrain from questioning me without an attorney present.”

“Everything is here, Chief Inspector.” Naomi handed over the signed inventory sheet. “I would like to leave now, if you please.”

Windsor held the door for her, his bulldog’s face a silent apology. “We’ll need you to give evidence against Thistlewood when he’s brought to trial, but you’re free to leave.”

Scene 3

Inspector Alan Thistlewood seethed as two constables, men formerly under his command, frog-marched him to a holding cell and shoved him inside. Neither offered any sympathy, nor a word of understanding, as he was processed like anybody else. How could they forget him so quickly? He turned to one of them. “Listen, Gallagher. Those charges are bollocks.”

Gallagher, a slim constable with a short, gray-streaked ponytail, chuckled and gave Thistlewood a shove. “Isn’t this rich, MacGuire? Just this morning, Alan told us not to question his orders. Now he wants us to question the Chief Inspector.”

MacGuire, a heavyset man whose hair fought a rearguard action against male pattern baldness, slapped Thistlewood across the face. “I love it, Frank. If he changed his mind any faster, and had a decent set of tits, I’d mistake him for my wife.”

“Your wife’s better-looking, but I take your point.” Gallagher took a swing, but Thistlewood ducked the blow and attempted a tackle. His reward was the sort of beating normally reserved for those foolish enough to kill a police officer. He spat blood into the commode as Gallagher locked him in, and found his voice. “You bastards are as culpable as I am. You brought her here!”

“We’re on record as having questioned your orders.” Gallagher shrugged on the other side of the bars. “I live on the same street as Ms. Bradleigh. My youngest sees her for piano lessons. I knew she wasn’t the killer, but you’re so bloody smart you don’t need to listen to the likes of me.”

“Easy, Frank. Let’s just give Alan some privacy. He’s had his hand up Ms. Bradleigh’s skirt, and I’m sure he would like us to leave him alone with the memory. It’ll be the last pussy he touches for a while.”

“Too right.” Gallagher’s laugh echoed in the otherwise empty cell block. The constables’ footsteps receded, leaving Thistlewood alone in his cell. He stared through the bars to the cell opposite his, but it was empty. All of the holding cells, save his own, were empty. He strained his ears as silence dropped an oppressive pall around him, but heard nothing until one of the cats―kept by MEPOL to keep the rodent population in check―sauntered past his cell. The orange and cream tabby sat on its haunches outside, cocked his head to one side, and gave a quizzical meow, as if he had never seen a human behind bars before.

He made another attempt to reach his attorney, Sharon Gatto, as he had done before being dragged down here, only to be told again she was unavailable. A third attempt ten minutes later finally bore fruit. «Hello, Alan. I understand you’re in jail.»

«Yeah. Where the hell are you? I need representation.»

«I don’t deal in criminal defense. Furthermore, the world is smaller than you realize. I also represent Naomi Bradleigh.»

He muted the secure talk session for a moment to prevent sharing too much with Gatto. Great. I can’t escape her. What the fuck was I thinking? Did I really throw away my whole life just to get a shot at revenge on Morgan Cooper? He wanted nothing more than to ask Ms. Gatto to act as his solicitor one last time and offer his apologies to Naomi Bradleigh. The knowledge he would accomplish nothing thereby conspired with his pride to keep the words unspoken. «Is that going to be a problem for us, Ms. Gatto?»

«Not for long. If you check your mail, you’ll find a notice from Æquitas Legal Services explaining that the company no longer values your business. As a final courtesy, we included a list of qualified attorneys specializing in criminal defense. Good day, Mr. Thistlewood.»

The connection broke, leaving Thistlewood alone again. He checked his mail, and found the notice Gatto mentioned. Its tone held the same cold courtesy with which his former solicitor addressed him over secure talk. He worked his way down the list, querying each attorney in turn, but none expressed an interest in his case. He lost patience with the last, a woman named Hindsen. «What about my right to legal representation?»

«I have an equal right to choose my clients, sir. Good day.»

The connection dropped, forestalling Thistlewood’s response. I know where you can put your good day, bitch.

He sat, seething in his cell, unable to think of anything else to do. He found a measure of relief as the constables guarding the block finished their shifts. The new guards brought a portable stereo with them, and had the volume cranked to drown out Thistlewood’s calls. He didn’t mind; each song let him count off a few minutes, despite the guard’s playlist consisting mainly of songs by bands which lapsed into obscurity soon after the end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. At least it isn’t Crowley’s Thoth. They’d put me on suicide watch.

Another shift change ended the nostalgia festival. Footsteps approached, bringing hope and the scent of fresh food. Thistlewood blinked as the lights came on, for he spent the last eight hours in near-darkness. Chief Inspector Windsor opened the cell door, and stepped inside. He closed the door behind him, and offered Thistlewood a newspaper-wrapped bundle. “I brought fish and chips. Hungry?”

Thistlewood nodded. “Hell yeah.”

Windsor’s silent regard robbed the meal of its savor, but Thistlewood forced himself to eat. He licked the salt from his fingertips. “Thanks, but why bring me dinner yourself?”

Windsor shook his head. “I ordered a man to feed you four hours ago. Another constable saw him spit on the food, and took it from him for disposal. He reported it to me after his shift ended. I’ll discipline the idiot who spat in your dinner, but he’s not the only one who’s displeased with you.”

“Because I made MEPOL look bad.”

“Because you damn near got a bunch of us killed, shit-for-brains. Adversaries talk a good game about due process, but if you hold office or wear a badge, their idea of proper procedure is to put a second round through your head―just to make sure.”

Thistlewood nodded. That was the doctrine he learned in ACS. His instructor once told the class, “If we have enough evidence to go after somebody like the Mayor of New York, we can convince a jury he deserved a couple of eleven forty-three rounds in the back of the head. Be polite, but don’t take any shit from cops or public officials. If they were smart enough to act like the public servants they claim to be, we’d leave ’em alone.”

“I wanted to apologize to Naomi Bradleigh, but I doubt it would do much good.”

Windsor nodded. “So, you did do it? It’s all right. I’m not recording, and I won’t say anything about our talk at trial. It’ll be inadmissible.”

“Yeah, I did it. Morgan Cooper fucked me over back in the day, and I saw a chance at payback.”

Windsor’s face fell, and his shoulders slumped. Thistlewood strained to hear his voice. “You hurt a woman who never did you any harm, over an old vendetta?”


“Save it.” Windsor rose from his seat, and put the barred door between them again. “Alan, I used to walk a beat with your father before his heart attack killed him. After you got kicked out of ACS, I gave you a chance to earn a place on the force for his memory’s sake. Tell me the truth, now. How many other women did you assault? How many women did I let you hurt because I believed in you?”

“Just Bradleigh. I’ll take any oath you ask of me.”

“I don’t want your oath. I just want you to think about everybody you betrayed because you wouldn’t fucking let the past go.”

Windsor’s footsteps receded, leaving his parting word to echo in Thistlewood’s memory. A voice which managed to be urbane, predatory, and contemptuous forestalled his despair at his impending solitude. “Do you think he’s disappointed in you now, Alan Thistlewood?”

A figure in white appeared before him, taking the chair Chief Inspector Windsor recently vacated. He reclined in his seat, the mother of pearl buttons on his double-breasted jacket gleaming in the light from the hallway, as he studied Thistlewood with cold blue eyes. A cruel, little smile curved his lips. “Just imagine how his heart will break when he realizes you lied in every word.”

Hope flared in Thistlewood’s mind. Here was somebody who always had his back. “Dr. Magnin! You got to help me. The bitch was lying. It was all a setup.”

“Witness Protocol suggests otherwise, as it did for all of the other women you assaulted while in your custody.” The smile fled Magnin’s face. “I tampered with the evidence before because I thought you might someday prove useful.”

“I can still help you. Didn’t I do everything you ever asked of me?”

“I do not recall asking you to take Naomi Bradleigh prisoner. I permitted you to do so because I thought you wise enough to refrain from indulging your proclivities with her. Did you believe me capable of forgiving this transgression?”

Thistlewood’s better judgment demanded he abase himself before his true patron and beg mercy in the most abject possible manner. However, bravado born of the embers of his rage at the treatment to which he was subjected overruled reason. He stood and attempted to intimidate Magnin by looming over him since he out-massed the dandy by at least twenty kilos. “What’s wrong, Isaac? You didn’t want me fucking your mistress? She was so hot―”

Something forced Thistlewood’s mouth shut and pressed against his jaw to keep him from speaking. The crown of his skull brushed against the ceiling as he lashed about in an effort to free himself. Magnin’s expression remained unchanged, but frost lined the cell’s interior as he spoke. “Offer me a reason to permit the man who laid hands upon my daughter without her consent to enjoy the due process of law.”

The pressure on his jaw eased. “Fuck yourself, Magnin. Now I know why you always pissed me off. You sound as pompous as that bastard Cooper. Going to tell me about how my funeral’s going to be a closed casket affair, and how I’m going to die screaming?”

Isaac Magnin shook his head, and disappeared. He reappeared outside the cell a second later. “You are not so fortunate. You will die wishing for a breath with which to scream.”

Sudden weightlessness provoked nausea too strong for Thistlewood to control. His dinner spewed forth, forming spherical globules of vomitus which drifted towards the cloudy blue below. Holy merciful mother of shit, I’m in space! FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU—

Chapter 7: Disciples of the Watch

Scene 1

The warmth of the bath and the fragrance of jasmine conspired to lull Ashtoreth into drowsiness. She floated in the tub, letting its currents caress her. She would rise from the waters soon, and relax while the attendants dried her body and massaged oils into her skin before joining her in bed. For now, she was content to drift.

A cool draft signaled the opening of the bathroom door. One of her attendants, a dusky-skinned young woman who came to the Garden of Earthly Delights to study massage, set an uncertain foot inside. “Countess Bathory, I’m sorry to interrupt, but security notified me of an intruder on the grounds.”

“How did he get inside the walls?” Ashtoreth held the castle for centuries, despite the efforts of various Hungarian noblemen and the Roman Catholic Church. Military force failed, so they tried marriage. Marriage likewise failed, so they resorted to blood libel. She remained, with Csejte as her seat.

“He just appeared inside, Countess. He’s in the chapel now.”

“The chapel?” The scented water lapped at her hips as she found her feet. The intruder must be Adramelech. Who else would dare materialize here uninvited, and in that old chapel? “Hand me a towel, Marjane, and tell my attendants I will not need them.”

Once Marjane left, she dressed in a black suit with a pencil skirt, heels and stockings. She opened her lingerie drawer to retrieve an object she kept hidden in the drawer’s false bottom. A brown and cream tabby cat curled up in a nest of her panties blinked at her. She spoke softly, and the cat purred as she stroked his fur before lifting him out of the drawer and putting him aside. “Must you be so incorrigible, Smudge?”

The cat wound around her calves, brushing the backs of her knees with his bushy tail as she moved aside undergarments she wore only to entice her lovers. She opened the false bottom and retrieved what appeared to be a glass rod. The last of her lovers to stumble upon it mistook the object for a piece of erotic art, which suited Ashtoreth.

She found it simpler to let somebody think she kept a glass toy in a drawer with a false bottom, than to explain that she kept in reserve a dev’astra, a weapon favored by flowseekers for personal defense. She pressed her thumb against an indentation which served as the weapon’s power switch. Colors swirled inside it at her touch, and a magnetically-contained plasma blade radiated from the end she held away from her body. Deactivating the weapon, she blinked away the amber after-image the blade burned into her vision, and pocketed it before leaving her suite.

The intruder remained inside as Ashtoreth approached the chapel, a Gothic affair she reconsecrated as a temple to the senses after reclaiming Csejte during the Enlightenment. Ivy twined its way up the flying buttresses, giving the chapel the appearance of having bloomed from the earth centuries ago. The stained glass windows depicting idealized human figures in erotic poses, instead of austere saints, beckoned to her.

She entered with care, keeping to shadows to avoid revealing herself. She ripped out most of the stone floor a century ago, allowing grass, trees, and flowers to grow from the bare earth beneath. Enough remained to form little foot paths, as well as an aisle leading to an altar used for intimate rites too ancient to be called pagan. Behind the altar stood a pair of heroically proportioned male and female figures, embracing as they shared an apple, sculpted in marble. They loomed over a figure in black kneeling before the altar, and as he rose and turned around she saw a Roman collar at his throat. She recalled her words to Imaginos concerning Adramelech, once a Disciple of the Watch like her: “He is reliable enough, as long as he gets his thirty pieces of silver.”

What are you doing here, you traitor? She watched, gripping her weapon, as he began to speak to nobody in particular. “Lord, all is prepared. Your Repentant are armed with weapons no armor can withstand, and armored by their faith in You, their living God.”

“You stand first among My Repentant, Adramelech.” The voice answering him sounded hollow, as if echoing from a great distance, and was difficult for Ashtoreth to understand. However, she recognized the tone. The enemy she helped bind beneath the Antarctic ice spoke in this manner when exhorting his human thralls to genocide. “Will you lead them against Imaginos and all who serve him when I come to claim my kingdom?”

“I do as Providence wills.”

She frowned, considering the portent behind these words. If Adramelech accepted Sabaoth as God, his words would be a gesture of obeisance. Otherwise, they implied the ensof was nothing but a fraud. Do you only pretend treason, Adramelech? Why?

“You might as well come out now, Ash.” She startled at Adramelech’s use of the name by which he addressed her in bed. Without Sabaoth’s presence to inspire caution, she complied. With each step down the aisle she recalled her marriages to a succession of Magyar chieftans and Hungarian nobles. She offered each the same bargain: allow her to rule in their names, sire children on the human concubines and mistresses she shared with them, and she would raise the children as her own. Ferenc Nádasdy betrayed her, ending the tradition.

Adramelech predated the Magyars and the Nádasdys alike. She studied him as she approached, ready to fight with both her dev’astra and her ability to manipulate sensation, her specialty as a flowseeker. “The priest’s collar suits you ill, Adramelech.”

“I wear this for my sins, not my pleasure.” He stiffened beneath her touch as she drew close and caressed his shoulders. Her hands slid into his hair, and her lips stopped just short of kissing his. His breath burned as he lowered his voice. “You should not be so close to me. Am I not a traitor?”

“Are you? What do you hope to accomplish by abandoning our cause for Sabaoth’s? Why come here, of all the locations you might use, to open a line of communication into his prison?”

His kiss closed the circuit between their bodies. His hands branded themselves into her back as he pulled her tighter against him. He reduced her to her panties and torsolette too quickly for her to protest. The stone was cold beneath her hips as he knelt before her. His eyes flamed as he gazed at her from between her thighs, his mouth burning with still greater heat through the satin separating their lips. “I told Imaginos I would let the rest of you believe me a Judas, but your doubt is a cross I will bear no longer.”

Scene 2

Desdinova looked up from his terminal, which displayed the latest reports from Boston, as the door snicked shut. “Edmund, please don’t tell me you came back alone.”

“Not at all.” Edmund Cohen pulled a slim case from his pocket, selected a hand-rolled joint, and lit it. He took a deep drag, and blew a smoke ring towards Desdinova. “Sid came back with me.”

“I asked you to bring back Morgan Cooper.”

“How? Was I supposed to grab him by the scruff of the neck in front of Naomi?”

“So you left him to the wiles of our enemy’s daughter.”

Edmund offered Desdinova the joint. “Which makes her your niece. Take a hit and chill out. It’s really mellow weed: Rainier Gold.”

He knows I won’t smoke it, but he can’t resist offering. Am I losing my grip on the man? Desdinova disliked the possibility. His brother Imaginos used people with such grace they believed they acted of their own volition, but Desdinova lacked such subtlety. He dealt openly with people, enlisting them to his cause by reasoning with them. Edmund Cohen was one of his rare successes, and Desdinova suspected the situation made his case especially persuasive. Nationfall was a time of madness, and made the craziest notions seem reasonable. “I’m unsure of your loyalties, Cohen.”

Edmund turned from Desdinova to examine a shelf full of vinyl records. “My loyalties are to the men under my command, my friends, and you―/respectively/. I owe you, but you’re not the only one with claims on me.”

“Is that your only reason for not insisting upon Morgan’s immediate return from London?”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Desdinova bridled at this, but was too shocked by Cohen’s sudden temerity to assert himself.

“Didn’t you read the report? Naomi accused Thistlewood of sexually assaulting her. Do you really think Morgan can perform at his best while he’s worried about somebody he loves?”

“I see your point, Cohen.” Damn you for being right.

“He’s taking the first maglev out from London tomorrow morning. I’ll take a suborbital so I can brief him on the way.”

“You need not do so, Edmund.” A woman spoke, caressing Cohen’s shoulder as she slid past him. She settled into the chair in front of Desdinova’s desk, and tapped an abandoned drink which now contained diluted whiskey on pebbles. “We’ll be here a while, doctor, so why not be hospitable and pour some drinks?”

Desdinova raised an eyebrow as Cohen muttered. The words escaped him, being too soft and too fast to catch, but he doubted Ashtoreth would find them flattering. When he spoke up, however, his words were polite enough. “Give mine to the countess.”

Ashtoreth favored Desdinova with an impish smile. “How strange! You warned him about his drinking for years, to no avail. I take him to bed once, and he finally realizes he has a drinking problem.”

“I ain’t got a drinking problem.” Cohen poured himself two fingers of Desdinova’s best Scotch, but stopped before the glass touched his lips. He put the drink aside, and nodded to Desdinova. “I got a doing stupid shit when I’m drunk problem. You’re smart enough to distinguish between the two, Ashtoreth.

He waited for her to react to his use of her true name. “Why are you here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your bath? I thought I saw crow’s feet the other night.”

Ashtoreth shook her head, and Desdinova struggled to enter the flow state needed to unravel any pattern she might weave to avenge Cohen’s insult. Her voice remained conversational; if she used her talent, the pattern was too subtle. “I came to apologize for the other night. It seems I not only caused unnecessary trouble for your friends, Mr. Cohen, but I hurt you in the bargain.” She caressed his face, cupping his chin in her hands. “You spent decades wanting me, but you derive no satisfaction from seducing me because you don’t remember how you pleasured me.” Before he could speak, she pressed her thumb against his lips. “All I will say in Desdinova’s presence is that you have ample reason for pride. Come to me again with a clear head.”

Desdinova struggled to clear his mind for his focus on protecting Edmund from Ashtoreth’s abilities left him vulnerable. It allowed her to use her pattern against him, manipulating his body’s sensations until every word she spoke rasped his nerves. Is she trying to provoke me? To undermine me? “Countess, the consequences of your actions are worse than you think. Without your little game to distract Morgan Cooper, the situation in Boston would be well on its way towards resolution. What did you hope to accomplish?”

“MEPOL can no longer treat Morgan or Naomi as suspects in Christabel’s murder without making idiots of themselves.”

“You had little enough to do with that.” Edmund offered Ashtoreth her drink first, before serving Desdinova. “Claire made sure the video went viral instead of being suppressed.”

“As I expected she would, Mr. Cohen.” She drained the glass and returned it. “Ms. Ashecroft is a talented young woman, and no less a friend to Morgan Cooper than you.”

She whispered something in Cohen’s ear which set his face ablaze and forced him to stammer an excuse for leaving Desdinova alone with her. A little smile curved her lips as the door slipped shut behind Edmund, and Desdinova realized she used her abilities on both of them. “We’re finally alone. I do hope he refrains from bragging to Claire.”

Is there anybody you haven’t tried to seduce? “Does Cohen possess some preternatural resistance to your abilities?” Desdinova doubted it was the case, but keeping her talking was a good way to buy time to shake the effects himself.

“I doubt it.” Ashtoreth paused a moment, and glanced at the door. “His capacity for self-control is more likely a matter of training and experience. Were he a deva, he might prove a decent bearer for the Starbreaker.”

Her expression shifted as she mentioned the weapon, and Desdinova felt another pattern begin to affect him. Despite a lifelong preference for the embrace of his own sex, a need to be caressed by her threatened to seize him. He devised countermeasures, and triggered them immediately. Ashtoreth faded with the influence of her glamour; her voice, face and figure reverted to attributes he appreciated on an aesthetic level. “What do you want, Countess?”

“I want a great many things, Doctor, but most of them do not directly involve you. Where is the Starbreaker?”

“My brother has it.” Desdinova had no intention of telling Ashtoreth he had the weapon. His role in Imaginos’ plans required he keep the weapon until he recruited Morgan Cooper and persuaded him to wield the unholy thing.

“So Adramelech believes, but he’s a traitor. Why lie to me?”

“Why assume I lie?”

Ashtoreth’s smile widened as she bent over him. Her hands caressed his as she held him in his seat. Her lips brushed against his ear as the alien desire distorted his thinking again. “You lie because I angered you. You hate my ability to alter your perception of me. You hate your desire for me, but your desire isn’t an alien sensation I forced upon you. That’s not how I work.”

“Despite my craving the touch of other men since my youth, you dare suggest I’d make an exception for you?”

One of her hands caressed his thigh, drawing his attention downward. He realized he was rampant as her lips brushed his neck. “I just use what’s available, like the rivalry with your brother. Imaginos had me, so you want me in turn. If I spurned him, you would remain indifferent to me.”

The snarl in his voice grated, and his anger kept him from concentrating well enough to achieve a flow state. “Let me go.”

The alacrity with which she complied surprised him.. She withdrew to the door as he recovered his balance. “I’ll deliver your instructions to Adversary Cooper on the way to Boston, but will otherwise leave him and his mission in your hands. Is this agreeable?”

Desdinova’s imagination supplied the words Ashtoreth left unsaid, If you want the Starbreaker so badly, you can deal with persuading Morgan to wield it. “That will be fine, Countess. I appreciate your help.”

Once sure of her departure, he unlocked the closet and withdrew the case Imaginos left earlier that afternoon. He cradled the case in his arms to better bear the weight, and laid it on his desk. The markings on the lid caught his attention. Why warn against both radiation and biohazards? The two tend to be mutually exclusive.

He opened the case and revealed a sword cradled in black velvet. The blade was not forged of steel, nor made using any material or process known to humans or devas. The entire weapon was made of the same preternatural material: charcoal gray crystal veined with traces of platinum which pulsed as if, deep within the sword, a tenebrous heart beat. This weapon is an abomination. Surely it is better to bind the ensof, or flee from them, than to permit the use of such absolute destructive power.

“So, Magnin left you the Starbreaker?”

Desdinova glanced upward as he slammed the case shut. His fingers scrabbled against the locks in his haste to secure the weapon. “Knock next time, Edmund.”

“Did you tell Ashtoreth about this?”

“She already suspects. Can you keep this secret?”

“I won’t let her get me into bed again, which leaves torture.” Eddie sat, and waited as Desdinova hid the Starbreaker in the safe at the back of his closet. “I spoke to Naomi while I was out. She agreed to return to active duty, and accompany Morgan to Boston.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Her scarlet eyes prove her ensof ancestry. Will she betray Cooper? He put aside the thought, inspired by his ancient father’s prejudices, and pulled her personnel records. The last entry concerned her retirement ten years ago. A year after her mission at Fort Clarion. How odd.

“If anybody can persuade Morgan to refrain from killing, it’s Naomi. Don’t tell me you think she’s part of some con.”

“We both know her father. Why do you believe he’d balk at using his own daughter?”

Scene 3

Imaginos considered the invitation he received from a bike messenger earlier this afternoon for the tenth time. The envelope bore no return address, and was unmarked save for his public alias rendered by a woman’s hand, Dr. Isaac Magnin. Both the envelope and the single sheet within were made of a soft cream-colored paper reminiscent of vellum. The paper held the scent of camellias, and the invitation consisted of a single sentence written in a style Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have called old-fashioned, I would enjoy the pleasure of your company at dinner tonight.

It was not the sort of invitation one might refuse, despite originating on the desk of Manhattan socialite Tamara Gellion. It was a command from the only member of his order to whom he deferred. He betrayed himself with a rueful smile as he stepped out of the limousine. I should defy her, prove myself her equal, and make her understand her meaning to me. But would it be fair to become her lover when my plans culminate in destruction at Cooper’s hands?

He recognized the doorman, who stood at military attention. He wore livery tailored to conceal a pistol, and a backsword on his hip. His face marked him as kin to Morgan Cooper: a 100 Series Asura Emulator. Imaginos knew them all by name and number; the doorman, who stepped forward to meet him, was unit 512, Eric Ulrich. He lived in Queens with his wife, two sons, and a cat whose full name was His Holiness the Second Coming of Frank Zappa. The name was his wife’s idea. Ulrich raised a white-gloved hand to halt Imaginos. “Your business, sir?”

Imaginos presented his invitation. “I am here at Ms. Gellion’s request.”

Ulrich held the tips of his first two fingers against his ear, a gesture intended to show that he was using his implant to communicate with somebody else. He soon lowered his hand, and stepped aside to admit Imaginos. “Ms. Gellion is expecting you, Dr. Magnin. Please come in.”

“Thank you.” Imaginos offered the doorman a business card. “The AsgarTech Corporation can always use good people for its security staff. Please consider us.”

Ulrich nodded, and pocketed the card. “Thanks.”

The lobby of Hanging Gardens reminded Imaginos of the temperate rainforests near the island of Vancouver across the continent and further north. He retrieved an apple fallen from one of the trees lining the lobby with the precision of columns, and brushed the rich, damp earth from its skin before biting into its tart flesh. Beneath the tang of ripe apple, he smelled honey from a beehive nestled out of sight, and flowers he never learned to identify by scent. A bumblebee buzzed past, performing a close flyby of Imaginos’ head on its way to an azalea. I suppose the rooftop was no longer enough for Thagirion. No doubt she purchased the entire building and renamed it.

A framed article hanging from the wall behind the superintendent’s desk confirmed his suspicion. Her purchase and renovation of the building drew the attention of the venerable New Yorker. The manager, one Frank Kissel, if the nameplate on his desk proved accurate, noted Imaginos’ attention. “It’s the damnedest thing. I came in one morning, and found Ms. Gellion sitting in my office holding my paycheck. Ever meet the lady?”

Imaginos nodded. “She’s an old colleague of mine. I trust Ms. Gellion still occupies her penthouse?”

“The whole floor is hers now. I’d better come with you. You need a code.”

The penthouse differed from the lobby only in its access to natural sunlight, due to its glass roof. The rustling of leaves created by an artificial breeze mixed with the hum of insects and bird calls. The occasional stirring of wings as birds took flight beneath the glass punctuated the auditory background. Under all of the sounds, he heard a cello’s strings sing a tenor rendition of music whose melodic complexity was more common to the violin.

Imaginos found Thagirion intent upon her music. The low-backed chair on which she sat allowed him an unobstructed view of an ebony cascade of hair spilling over shoulders bearing the slightest tint of honey. Whenever the customs of the time permitted, she wore backless dresses to display the contrast between her hair and skin. In that respect, she resembled her sister, Ashtoreth.

“Sit down, please.” She indicated a chair with her bow while turning to the next page of her music with her left hand. He caught her golden eyes for a moment, and a thrill ran down his spine at the contact before she returned her attention to the piece before her. To distract himself from idle speculation concerning Thagirion’s reasons for summoning him, he focused on the music, and tried to identify it.

“I don’t recognize the piece.”

Thagirion favored him with a knowing smile as she put away her cello. The pages whispered as she gathered up the music and slipped it back into its envelope. “It’s new, and part of the score for a new documentary film which profiles several former Adversaries and allows them to tell their stories.”

“Would I recognize this film?” Imaginos doubted it, but knew his ignorance was his own fault, since he gave minimal attention to cultural news and events.

“The title is ‘Disposable Heroes.’ I advised the director to interview you as an expert on the subject.”

Imaginos followed her in silence, and considered his reply. After knowing the lady for millennia, I should be able to figure out when she indulges in sarcasm. She led him through one garden room after another, identifying plants of which she was particularly proud when he stopped to examine an unfamiliar bloom. He let her lead him to the dining room, which unseen servants had set for two, before replying. “You gamble at my expense.”

“Satheriel is directing the film, using his Samuel Terell alias. I risked nothing.” Thagirion shook her head at the notion as Imaginos drew back her chair for her. He sat down, and a servant strode from the kitchen bearing a fresh-carved roast. The bison steamed, and smelled of wine and spices as the servant placed a slice thick enough to be considered a steak on Imaginos’ plate. He served his mistress as another attendant came, bearing a bottle of Callo Merlose cabernet sauvignon. The servant showed the bottle to Thagirion, and awaited her approval before opening it and pouring. With dinner served, the servants withdrew. Thagirion lifted her glass once the door closed behind them. “I am not your enemy. If I meant you ill, I would challenge you on neutral ground, rather than spoil the peace of home.”

Imaginos nodded, and raised his own glass. “In that case, madam, I thank you for your hospitality.” He sipped the wine as Thagirion tasted hers, and tried the roast before him. The meat dripped clear and reddish. It melted in his mouth, and left a soft echo of spice on his palate when he swallowed. “Your new chef is excellent.”

“A decade is hardly new.” Thagirion smiled over the rim of her glass. “But I last commanded your presence at dinner before I found him. He’s eccentric. He introduced himself as ‘Monsieur Baptistin,’ and answers to no other name. You would recognize him, as you recognized my doorman.”

“You employ the asura emulators I created to act as possible bearers for the Starbreaker?”

“I employ your so-called failures. They may not be the anti-ensof soldiers you require, and many are convinced of their psychosis before I find them, but they are far from worthless.”

Imaginos put aside his knife and fork; he no longer wished to eat. “I do not ignore these men. Even the least of them is known to me. Of the six hundred and sixty-six asura emulators I created, only a hundred entered ACS and faced the trials by which we forge Adversaries and eliminate those unsuited to wield the Starbreaker. Of those hundred, only two proved suitable. Munakata Tetsuo swore to expose me after Shenzhen. Only Morgan Cooper remains.”

“You asked my sister and me to trust you, yet you foist a guest upon her without explanation, and continue to associate with the traitor Adramelech, whom you yourself denounced.”

You are too like your sister. You ask the same questions, and with lips and voice so similar I might mistake you for Ashtoreth and attempt to comfort you as I would her. No doubt my kiss would enrage instead of soothe. “If Morgan destroys only Sabaoth, and we destroy him in turn to bind the Starbreaker anew, we will eliminate but one threat to this world.”

Thagirion made no immediate reply. She returned her attention to her dinner. The cooling meat began to steam again, and Imaginos understood she used a psychoenergistic pattern to warm their dinners. He returned to his own meal, lest he offend by staring at her, and found himself caught off guard when she spoke again. “What other threat would the world face in Sabaoth’s absence?”

You are as blind as your sister if I must be explicit. “Any ensof who tampers with evolution is a threat to intelligent life. Did I not alter humanity’s biological and cultural evolution in my repeated attempts to purge from the species the tendency of individuals to stop thinking and obey when given orders by anybody they consider a legitimate authority?”

“Are you bereft of reason? You would let Morgan Cooper turn the Starbreaker upon you once he strikes down Sabaoth?”

Imaginos shook his head in disappointment. “Such is the reaction I expect from Ashtoreth, which is why I held my silence and asked her to trust me. I never imagined you cared enough for me to ignore the truth.”

“I’ve had millennia in which to learn to fear you when you speak of truth.”

“The truth is simple. I set out to fight a monster, and became one myself.” He remembered their last dinner together. Ashtoreth was there, along with Sathariel, who was Thagirion’s lover at the time instead of her sister’s. The ladies warned him of the consequences of his methods. But with the stench of Stalin’s gulags still fresh in his nostrils, his only response was the creed they shared: “Our sins shall save the world.”

“I defenestrate people for paraphrasing Nietzsche at the dinner table.”

“Would you answer a question before showing me out?”

She waved an elegant hand as if to prompt him. He meant to ask her why she cared so much. A different question sprang to his lips. “Why all the gardens?”

Her expression grew pensive, and she fell silent for several minutes. She stared at her wineglass, which still held a mouthful, before finally draining it. “This isn’t home, but I can do no better.”

The sight of a tear caught in her eyelashes, ready to spill down her cheek, stripped him of any ability to dissemble. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t expect you to understand. This is your birth world. I was born on a different world, beneath other suns. The flora and fauna of this planet are close enough to my memory of home that the differences hurt.”

The sight of her suspended tear was intolerable. He lingered after attending to her, caressing her bare shoulder. “The sun overseeing your birth is lost in the redshift, and I cannot reclaim your true home for you. By everything you ever called holy, you will never be forced to renounce this home. Doubt me if you must, but trust your sister and her faith in me.”

“Do events proceed according to your plans?”

“I did not expect Alexander Liebenthal to take the money I paid him to deliver weapons to the Repentant in Christ and buy himself a conscience, but his coup is part of my plans now. The manner in which Cooper quells the rebellion will tell us much about him, and whether he and his can be trusted.”

Thagirion nodded, and took a breath to compose herself. “I owe you an apology. After I spoke with Ashtoreth, I was prepared to demand the return of the Starbreaker in exchange for permitting your departure.”

“Why?” Imaginos suspected he knew the answer, but wanted to hear it from her lips. He did not possess the Starbreaker himself, nor did he keep the weapon in a directly accessible location. Instead, he instructed Desdinova to give the weapon to Morgan Cooper should he prove a suitable bearer. He trusted his brother because Desdinova was too firm a believer in his father’s faith that containing the ensof was enough. It made him a suitable guardian for the one weapon capable of destroying an ensof, instead of merely shattering its avatar.

“Sabaoth speaks to me at times, when I am weary and my defenses are down.” She shook her head, and began to massage her brow. “I did not expect this when I agreed to take over the duty of maintaining the bindings.”

“I apologize, Thagirion. He never spoke to me, or I would have warned you.”

A smile bloomed. “He hates you. He never forgot the manner in which you humiliated him when he first manifested in Egypt. You destroyed his avatar before his human followers, with nothing but a dev’astra.”

“I was an impetuous youth.”

“You still are, compared to my sister and me. I never told you why I was prepared to hold you hostage.”

Imaginos shook his head, and returned to his seat after refilling her glass. He refilled his own, and considered helping himself to more of Monsieur Baptistin’s excellent roast. “No explanation is necessary.”

Chapter 8: The Mission Comes First

Scene 1

Naomi envied those possessed of the ability to immerse themselves in a novel and abandon reality. Whenever she tried, her foster mother’s voice intruded to accuse her of selfishness and rudeness. The guilt made her conscious of Morgan’s arms around her. They lay upon a rug together, curled up in front of her fireplace. Their walk home from the Crouch End station after a day out together chilled them too deeply for dinner alone to warm them. She pushed aside her book, rolled over, and snuggled against Morgan. “Are you sure you don’t mind me laying with you and reading? I worry about neglecting you.”

“We shared a long day out together.” Morgan’s hand slid down her back, caressing her as he pressed her closer. “I enjoy listening to you read.”

“You’re listening to me read Jane Austen. Aren’t her works anathema for men?”

“Not if we treat them as satires of upper-class courtship during the period in which Austen lived―or if we listen to the women we’re courting read them in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night.”

“What makes the latter permissible?”

“It’s quite simple.” Morgan gently rolled her over to face the fire. He slid one arm over her waist, resting a hand on her belly, while using the other to push aside her hair. His lips spread a chill down her spine, followed by warmth as they brushed against her neck. “If she’s sufficiently engrossed in her reading, I can do this.”

She shivered again as he nibbled her earlobe. She struggled to make sense of Mr. Darcy’s confession to Elizabeth Bennett as Morgan continued the tender assault. She finally turned over, and fixed her gaze on Morgan’s sleepy eyes as she draped her body over his. She never expected the planes of his face, which flirted with androgyny, to be soft beneath her fingertips. “There’s a risk inherent in distracting a woman as she reads. She might lose her place in her book in favor of doing this.”

Morgan’s mouth opened beneath hers, and their mingled breath threatened to burn. His arms enveloped her, holding her close as his knee slid up between her thighs. She shifted against him, and found him perfectly positioned for her to reach her peak by rubbing against him. Worse, his hands slid down to her hips to encourage her. She shifted against him again as he slid a hand upward. His callused fingertips gently scraped her skin as his hand slipped under her sweater and camisole. “Do you see what happens when you distract me while I’m reading?”

“Trying to discourage me, Nims?”

The tips of their noses brushed, making Naomi giggle as she stole a quick kiss. “You don’t seem discouraged. Should we continue upstairs?”

Morgan glanced at the fireplace, but hunger remained evident in his eyes, which seemed wide enough to catch infinitesimal details. “We shouldn’t leave the fire yet.” She believed her disappointment well hidden until Morgan stroked her hair and spoke again. “Did I get carried away? I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She kissed his throat, letting her teeth brush his skin as he groaned. “I know you want to go slow, but we spent years wanting each other.” She recalled the black-tipped scarlet roses which began to show up once Morgan joined Crowley’s Thoth. She took the stage and found a black-tipped scarlet rose sitting atop each of her keyboards before every show. Her birthday came with a couple dozen such blooms bound in hunter green silk ribbons. “I don’t think you ever stopped wanting me.”

“The defendant pleads no contest.” Instead, Morgan slipped his hands into her hair and kissed her. “If my only responsibility was your delight, I would already be lost in pleasuring you by this fire.”

She lay beside him; she dared not continue to straddle him, lest the temptation of his body overwhelm her restraint. He’s warm, he’s kind, and I enjoy his company. These are sufficient reason to want him to stay, instead of risking himself in Boston. “I understand.” She put the lie to her words by brushing a hand over the bulge in his trousers, making him groan. “We say service is a privilege, but is it truly?”

“I’ll refuse the mission.” The words warmed her, as did the heat of his body pressing against her back as he rolled her away to spoon with her. “I’ll renounce my commission, and let Liebenthal be somebody else’s problem.”

“I never wanted you to become an Adversary, but I won’t ask you to resign for my sake.”

“I wouldn’t be.” She turned over, unable to believe his words. “I gave the Phoenix Society ten years, Naomi, and what did I accomplish besides the prospect of a trial if I cannot prove Liebenthal a liar?”

Naomi knew what she should say, or what another woman might say. Another woman would tell Morgan he protected the defenseless. Others would argue he improved society by cutting down its enemies. She refused to mouth such platitudes. Though the Phoenix Society never discriminated by gender, or other distinguishing characteristics, most women remained content to leave the ranks of the Society’s CRDF corps to men. “I understand. I was an Adversary. I quit a year before we first met.”

A smile lit Morgan’s face as he brushed a kiss against her lips. “No wonder you handled yourself so well at MEPOL.” He reddened in sudden embarrassment, and his smile faded. “I can’t believe you were so patient with me when I tried to teach you how to handle a pistol. I probably insulted you.”

“I asked you to teach me.” She felt a blush matching his as she remembered that afternoon. “I wanted you to touch me, and having you guide my hands as you corrected my stance gave you a chance to be near me.”

“I remember now.” The smile returned to Morgan’s mouth as he kissed her. “Will you be all right when I leave tomorrow?”

“Tonight is no time to worry about tomorrow.” Without understanding the impulse seizing her, she pushed him on his back, and began to unbutton his shirt. Her hands slipped beneath the soft cotton to caress his skin as he lifted himself to shrug free of the sleeves. His thigh slipped between hers again, forcing a moan from her lips. He freed her from her sweater and the camisole beneath it, and laid them aside. She moaned as she felt his thumbs brush against the two pairs of vestigial nipples which pulled taut the skin of her belly as his hands slid upward to catch her breasts. She did the same with his nipples, and smiled as he groaned and drew her into his embrace. As his teeth scraped her neck, she whispered in his ear, “Do everything you ever wanted.”

Morgan’s eyes widened, and Naomi thought for a moment he was surprised at her willingness to eschew further foreplay. Instead, he held her close and caressed her back. “Don’t think I’m not tempted. I want your hands in my hair while you cry my name. I want to conquer you and surrender to you, but let’s be smart about this. When was the last time you had a contraceptive treatment?”

It was Naomi’s turn to stop. She was willing to have children with Morgan, if he made her pregnant, but didn’t want children yet. However, she had not bothered to replace her intrauterine device when it was due for removal. “I never replaced my last IUD. What about you?”

“I haven’t been to the urologist for an ultrasonic since before I broke up with Christabel.” Naomi winced at the thought of Morgan subjecting his most sensitive parts to ultrasound. The procedure was supposed to be painless, but she doubted men enjoyed the experience. “I didn’t even think to buy condoms because I didn’t want to rush you. We should be careful until we’ve secured contraception. We both have CPMD.”

Naomi blinked; the fact they both had congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder seemed utterly irrelevant to their present predicament. Several seconds passed before the fog of lust cleared and she remembered how to think. “Damn it, you’re right. Pairings between normal people and CPMD carriers are always infertile. But if two CPMD carriers get together―”

“We might end up having kittens.”

Unsure if she should laugh at the image Morgan’s words evoked, Naomi decided to distract herself by tracing a vein in Morgan’s arm. The vein led from the back of his hand to a tattoo of a black cat on his bicep. The cat stood in a fighting pose, all bristling fur, arched back, and bared claws and fangs. A knock at the door startled her so that she rolled off Morgan and into a crouch. “Wolfgang, who’s at the door?”

Her household AI’s reply was immediate. “It’s just Claire Ashecroft, Ms. Bradleigh, but I can tell her you’re indisposed.”

She shook her head as Morgan retrieved her sweater. “I don’t think she’d come this late without a good reason. Invite her in.”

Scene 2

“I can’t believe I let Hal talk me into this.” Claire continued to mutter as she approached Naomi’s house. Her teeth chattered as a sudden gust shook a branch above her, dumping snow down the back of her neck. She pulled her sheepskin-lined bomber jacket tight, cursing herself for not wearing something heavier. The red door of the house just before the one on the corner was a beacon in the white around her. She approached with the dogged patience of one who spotted an oasis after days lost in a desert. Reaching the door meant warmth, perhaps even a cup of tea and a little snack. As soon as she knocked, the house’s AI opened a secure talk session. Hello, Claire. You caught Ms. Bradleigh at an inconvenient time. Is your business important?

I certainly think so, Wolfgang. Why else would I be here in the snow―wait. Is Morgan with her?

They’re by the fire together. I just told them you’re here, so Ms. Bradleigh invited you in. Please remember to wipe your feet.

Claire closed the door behind her, and bent to unlace her combat boots. The laces were damp, and the leather cold to the touch. “I think I’ll just take ’em off. Do you think Nims would mind if I put ’em on the hearth to warm?”

“Of course not.” Naomi’s voice came from the kitchen. Water flowing from a tap into a container replaced her voice as Claire pulled her damp boots and socks from her feet. She flexed her toes as Morgan offered a hand to take her coat. “Did you forget about the snow?”

“Forgot to check the weather, and I figured it wouldn’t matter since I took the tube most of the way.” She gave Morgan a once-over, noting the flush in his cheeks and disheveled hair. His shirt was askew, each button fitting into the hole below it. The disarray made him seem half his age, and reminded her of the first time she fooled around with a boy in her bedroom. “Talk about familiar sights.”

Morgan looked down, and muttered a curse as he unbuttoned his shirt. The sight of a CPMD carrier’s vestigial nipples on his belly tantalized her; the last time she took one to bed, they proved exquisitely sensitive to her touch. She suspected Morgan would prove even more sensitive, if the glimpse she got of his abdomen was any indication. Though many of the men with whom she worked out at Valkyrie Gym might call Morgan soft because he wasn’t ripped, Claire found the hint of muscular definition beneath his skin more erotic. He met Claire’s eyes when he finished. “Sorry. We weren’t expecting you.”

“Not that we mind.” Naomi’s hair was as disheveled as Morgan’s, and the tag below the collar of her sweater showed she not only put it on inside out, but backwards. She turned her back as Morgan nodded, pulled her arms inside her sleeves, and turned the sweater around. “Sorry about that. We didn’t want to make you wait in the cold.”

“No worries. Wolfgang told me where you were, and I figured out the rest. Now I know how my headmistress at St. Trinian’s felt after catching one of her girls with a boy she smuggled into the dorm.”

“Did the headmistress catch you often?”

Claire smiled as Morgan shot Naomi a warning glance. Going to tell Nims not to get me started? Too late, but I’ll finish when I get home since the probability of this ending the way I imagine is best expressed as an imaginary number between fuck-all and jack shit. “Only at first.”

“I bet.” Naomi chuckled, and a kettle in the kitchen began to whistle. “I put on water for tea, Claire. After walking through the cold, I figured you might want a cup and one of the lemon and poppy seed scones Morgan helped me make last night.”

Morgan moved an armchair and ottoman closer to the fire for her as Naomi brought out the tea and scones. She watched them curl up on a love seat while a Miles Davis record played on the stereo’s turntable, and smiled when he brushed aside Naomi’s hair and kissed her neck.

Half an hour later, Claire suspected she was as warm as she was going to get without curling up with her hosts beneath a pile of blankets. The fire, the tea, the jazz, and the company made Claire so mellow she regretted recalling her reason for the visit. “Thanks for not leaving me to freeze out there, Nims, but I hope you don’t regret your hospitality when I’m done.”

“Why would I?”

“Did you ever wonder why Thistlewood tried to pin Christabel’s murder on you?”

Morgan straightened, and spoke as Naomi set aside her tea. “What did you learn?”

“Do you guys remember the night you quit Crowley’s Thoth? Was anybody else in the room?”

“Eddie came in.” Morgan’s eyes narrowed as soon as the words escaped his lips. “Don’t tell me he recorded what happened with his implant.”

“I’m sure he had his reasons.” Naomi’s hand closed over one of Morgan’s fists as she tried to soothe away his glower.

Morgan tried to reassure her in turn. “I’ll ask him tomorrow on the way to Boston.”

“Guys, you wouldn’t know he recorded anything if not for the leak.”

“Without Eddie’s recording, nothing would have leaked.” Claire often heard them speak in unison, their voices creating an unconscious harmony. Were she more romantic, she might have suspected their ability to say the same thing at the same time in complementary tones proved their perfection for one another. Instead, she credited the ability to the long hours they spent rehearsing, and kept her opinion about the matter to herself. She understood singing in unison. Seeing them speak in harmony gave Claire the creeps, and she was glad Naomi continued on her own. “Claire, did Eddie tell you why he leaked the video?”

“Eddie didn’t leak the video. His AI did.” Claire stared at the floor. If Eddie tried such excuses, she would tell him to cut the bullshit. Instead, I sling bullshit on his behalf. “A guest got him drunk, fucked him senseless, and suckered him into giving her root access to Savannah. She uploaded the video.”

“If Eddie’s just the fall guy, who actually leaked the video, and why? If she bore a grudge against Eddie, why drag Naomi into it?”

“Morgan, her vendetta might be against you. She be working to isolate you from Eddie and me.”

Claire disliked both possibilities. “Guys, what if this isn’t about either of you? Eddie took Elisabeth Bathory home. She’s on the Executive Council.”

She stopped short of jumping out of her seat as Naomi sprang to her feet and paced before the fire. “Claire, are you saying I spent a day at MEPOL and got Alan Thistlewood’s hand up my skirt because of a power struggle inside the fucking Executive Council?”

She shot at glance at Morgan, who seemed as shocked by Naomi’s outburst as she felt. She opened a secure talk session with him as Naomi continued to pace, and texted, «Have you ever seen her like this before?»

«She’s sexy when she’s angry.»

«I don’t think she’s in the mood to hear that. Stay here and I’ll talk her down.» Claire closed the connection, and considered Morgan’s words as she found Naomi in the kitchen. She watched as Naomi cleaned the dishes from their late-night tea with furious efficiency, and waited for her to finish. Naomi twisted off the tap and turned around. “Claire? I’m sorry. I probably embarrassed you and Morgan.”

“He says you’re sexy when you’re angry.” Naomi’s blush deepened at Claire’s reply.

«Ask his opinion after I strap on some armor, find my sword, and hunt down this Bathory woman for an explanation. No doubt he’d think I’m barking mad.»

The words came to Claire through secure talk, so she replied in the same fashion. «He thought you were brilliant at MEPOL.»

Naomi’s eyes flared as she dropped the connection. “Brilliant? He actually said that?”

“Among other things.” Claire’s obnoxious cricket of a conscience nagged at her. Bugger off, Jiminy. Morgan didn’t ask for confidentiality. “Look. He recognizes you as his equal. He just doesn’t want to ruin what he has with you.”

“What should I do, then?”

“You’re asking me for relationship advice? My most enduring relationship is with my Sybian.”

“You’re here. You know us both. Advise me.”

Claire threw up her hands, unable to believe somebody so capable would prove so diffident. “He wants you. You want him. I’m going to go home and give you two some privacy. Get your luscious ass back in that room and finish what I interrupted.”

A hungry, wicked smile curved Naomi’s lips. “We can’t, since neither of us have active contraception―”

“Shit. I can’t believe I left my bag at home. I could have given you some condoms.”

“Don’t worry. I know lots of ways to skin a cat. I bet he does, too.” She swept past Claire, who followed Naomi as she stalked into the living room, caught Morgan by the collar, and kissed him while plunging her other hand into his hair. Claire grabbed her boots, and backed away as Morgan responded. Damn. Too bad he hasn’t got my ass in his hands. As they stopped to breathe, Naomi looked over her shoulder at Claire. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay, Claire? We can go upstairs. I’m sure we can be quiet.”

“You two need your privacy.” Claire continued her retreat, her smile getting bigger as Morgan braided a lock of his hair with a lock of Naomi’s. She hardly noticed the slight dampness lingering in her boots and socks as she put them on; nor did she care that the snow fell harder than when she came to Crouch End. The tube station was close.

Scene 3

Tissue paper rustled as Naomi opened the box a courier from the Nakajima Armaments store in Soho delivered to her house while Morgan cleaned the breakfast dishes. Inside lay a white gift box with a personal note from Nakajima Chihiro. She rushed up the stairs to her bedroom without offering Morgan a word of explanation, only to find Claire waiting for her onscreen, blinking bleary eyes from her own bedroom. “Did you stay up all night? Go get some sleep. We can talk later.”

“Don’t worry about me, Nims.” She eyed the sheathed side-sword laying on Naomi’s bedspread. “I’m kinda curious about the sword.”

“I never thought I would need my sword again.” She opened the note Nakajima sent with the gift box, and read it aloud. “‘I suspect you’ll want to fight beside your man. Since you still have mother’s last sword, accept this armor instead.’” She opened the gift box in another rustling of paper. “Oh, dear.”

The coat held a faint scent of new leather as Naomi lifted it out and spread it upon her bed. The armor was firm and supple beneath her fingertips as she undid the buckles holding the front closed. The lining drew a gasp from her lips as she slipped into it; the material was smoother and softer than silk. She buckled the coat closed, and reached behind her back to adjust the laces. She pulled the silken ribbon, tightening the coat around her until the material gave a barely audible creak with every inhalation. She tied off the ribbon with a bow at the small of her back, and turned about for Claire’s benefit. “What do you think?”

“You’d spend the day blushing if I told you.” Claire paused a moment. “You realize you look like an Adversary, right?”

Naomi wanted to laugh at Claire. She kept her secret so well the younger woman mistook her preparations for costume play. “I used to be one.”

“No shit? Does Morgan know?” Claire’s eyes widened at the revelation, making them look more bloodshot than before. “The bastard never said a thing.”

“Be fair. I only told him last night.” Naomi slipped her sword into the belt around her waist. She grasped the scabbard with her left hand, the hilt with her right, and drew the blade halfway. Satisfied with the result, she slipped the sword back into place and considered the full length mirror by her dresser. “I’m glad I kept up my physical training, but I hope we can resolve this without fighting.”

“Out of practice?” Claire’s expression and tone seemed concerned to Naomi.

“A bit. The last time I sparred was before our last tour, and VR simulations aren’t the same.”

She reached into her closet and withdrew a small case. She placed the case on the bed and removed a pistol with an empty magazine. The spring inside the magazine was not as responsive as she would have liked, so she took a small bottle of oil from the case and applied a few drops before loading it with 11.43mm frangible rounds from another locked case. She removed the safety lock from her pistol, slid the magazine into place, pulled back the slide to chamber a round, and re-engaged the safety. She wrapped a shoulder harness about herself, slipping the pistol into its holster beneath her left armpit.

“Not that you don’t look badass, but what’s up? Did you get recalled to active duty?”

Naomi suppressed the urge to laugh at the notion of being recalled while her man considered resigning his own commission. “I wasn’t recalled. I’m going with Morgan to Boston.”

Claire blinked. “Does Morgan know you’re joining him?”

“I wanted to surprise him. If he doubts my qualifications, he can query Malkuth.” The AI would tell Morgan no more than he needed to know: the dates on which Naomi entered and left service. Malkuth would never reveal the details: the cases she was assigned, the cruelties she tried to blunt by arresting those responsible, or the debriefings which came afterward.

The debriefings were the worst. The Phoenix Society’s psychologists explained they were intended to keep Adversaries from bottling up everything they experienced and suffering from eventual burnout; or worse, post-traumatic stress disorder. But it wasn’t what I saw that burned me out. It was the responsibility. Nobody was beyond my authority, but if I leveled a charge without sufficient evidence, it could cost me my life. No wonder Morgan prefers to hunt down people who kill Adversaries. Their guilt is assured before he receives his orders, and the mission is simplicity itself: kill the guilty, and avenge the fallen.

“You all right, Nims?” Claire’s voice dragged Naomi out of the sudden melancholy her memories provoked.

“Just remembering why I quit.”

“Why go back?”

“What would you say if I told you I think everything that happened recently ties together, but have no proof? Just intuition.”

Claire shook her head. “I’d think you were a nutter if I didn’t know you almost as well as Morgan does. I don’t trust intuition, even though it often helps. Not in my trade, and certainly not in yours. You depend on intuition, and you end up ignoring evidence contradicting what your intuition tells you is true.”

That’s probably what Morgan would say, and it’s standard doctrine. Adversaries depend on evidence first, not intuition. Naomi paced about the bedroom, choosing her words with care. “I know you’re right, but I can’t help but suspect that Christabel’s murder, Edmund being suckered into releasing that video, my visit to MEPOL, and the coup in Boston are somehow tied together. I think there’s a common cause behind it all.”

“You think somebody’s out to get you?”

“Either me, or Morgan. I don’t know who, or why. If I told Morgan, I think he’d listen to me, but not believe, and I wouldn’t blame him. I have no proof.” She began rummaging through her jewelry box, searching for her CRDF pins. Without them, she wouldn’t be in uniform. She found them in the bottom drawer, all the way in the back, nestled inside the padded case in which they were presented when she took the oath over fifteen years ago. They were of a different style from Morgan’s, and resembled cameo brooches. “I don’t want to wait for Morgan to find the answers. I want to be with him, so we can learn together. Didn’t I say something to you last night about grabbing my sword, hunting down Bathory, and demanding an explanation?”

“You know what I think?” Claire’s face took on the impish grin Naomi recognized as a warning of Claire’s own mistrusted intuition. “I think you want some adventure in your life. I mean, what are you going to do by yourself in Crouch End? Watch the snow fall? Practice your piano? Lay in bed by yourself wishing Morgan was with you?”

Naomi smiled at that last. “Not going to offer to keep me warm?”

“I never make somebody turn me down twice. If you were to invite me over, that would be different.”

“You’re welcome to visit. Wolfgang will hire somebody from the neighborhood to tend Phantom and water the plants, but I’m sure he’ll get lonely while I’m gone.” Her cat must have been nearby, for he nudged the bedroom door open with his head and sauntered in with his tail held straight up and quivering. She crouched to gather Phantom, named for the white patch covering the right side of the tuxedo cat’s face, into her arms. An idling diesel purr rewarded her attention. “Would you like Claire to visit, Phantom?”


Naomi put the cat on the bed, where he promptly found her pillow and began to knead it; his purr shifting into first gear. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over her vanity, and realized she had not bound her hair into the bun she used to wear while on duty. Snatching a red ribbon, she tied her hair into a long tail. She turned back to Claire, realizing she no longer heard the kitchen tap running, or Morgan washing dishes. “I’d better go downstairs. Morgan’s waiting for me.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell Morgan you’re going with him.”

“I told Eddie when I requested temporary reactivation from Saul. Do you think Morgan will mind?”

“In that coat? I don’t think so.” Claire disconnected, and the image of her sitting on her bed cross-legged while wearing nothing but knickers and a t-shirt with yet another obscure slogan faded, until only her smile remained.

Scene 4

“Sorry to take so long.” Morgan almost dropped the skillet as Naomi whispered in his ear while slipping her arms around him. He barely managed to put it aside before she nipped his earlobe. It was too similar to the manner in which Naomi reacted to his waking earlier this morning; the only difference lay in the placement of her hands, and the fact that neither of them had been wearing anything but underwear. Her lips brushed his ear again as she loosened her embrace and stepped back. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“You didn’t.” He put aside the towel he used to dry the breakfast dishes and turned toward Naomi. He first learned to desire her in fashionable gowns worn for the stage, and convinced himself he knew and loved her best in the skirts, blouses, and cardigans she wore when not performing. Naomi seemed transformed by the armored coat which provided her a second skin, the sword riding her hip, and a face made austere by the resolution in her eyes and mouth. This is the aspect of Naomi who held Thistlewood at bay with his own revolver. Were I a Hellenist, I’d kneel before her as an avatar of Pallas Athena. “You look like you’re ready to come with me.”

Naomi’s expression softened, and her lips eased into the little smile she saved for when they were alone together. “I came down here prepared to persuade you to let me come with you. I thought you’d insist upon my staying here.”

“Why would I do that? I saw you at MEPOL.” He drew her into his arms, sliding one hand down to ensure her sword’s hilt did not poke him. When their lips parted, he spoke before she had the chance. “If you come with me, and something happens to you, I can help you. If you stay here, I would worry about you, which would distract me from my mission. I trust you at my back.”

Naomi nodded, her eyes turned pensive as she caressed his shoulders. Her claws nipped at his skin through the fabric of his shirt, for he had not yet put on his own armored coat, or strapped on his weapons. “Are you sure you don’t want to know why?”

“I think you need to tell me why, for your own peace of mind, so I’ll listen.”

“You’ll probably think I’ve gone ’round the bend, but I think everything that’s happened to us in the last couple of days ties together. I just can’t explain how, or prove it.”

“Intuition?” Morgan never depended on it himself, for it never came to him until after he amassed a trove of evidence and analyzed every scrap of data at length. However, he had seen Claire examine a set of facts and discern a pattern which escaped his notice too often to discount it. “I had a similar suspicion, but dismissed it as paranoia. What if Elisabeth Bathory is working for Liebenthal? Liebenthal staged the coup, killed the Boston chapter’s Adversaries, and probably knew the Society would respond by sending me. Bearing that in mind, could he have had Christabel murdered? Could he have worked through Elisabeth Bathory to either frame us, or keep us too distracted by the effort of fighting the charges to worry about him? Alternatively, what if Munakata Tetsuo is behind all of it, and using Liebenthal as a front? I thought I killed Munakata three years ago, but he’s alive. No doubt he holds a grudge.”

“That is paranoid.” Naomi’s little feline smile returned, indicating his words provided her a measure of comfort. “But I have to admit to wondering if you didn’t just come up with that to allay my concerns.”

“I would have kept it to myself, if you hadn’t spoken up. Because you did, we now have a hypothesis. If the evidence we find doesn’t fit, we’ll find an explanation which does.”

“All right.” Naomi’s lips brushed Morgan’s again before she slipped from his arms. “I just need to throw together a suitcase. I’ll be packed by the time you’re properly armed.”

As Morgan stood in Naomi’s foyer, buckling his coat closed, he caught movement outside through one of the tall, thin windows flanking the door. “Wolfgang, do you see anything untoward happening outside?”

“Do you consider a gathering of reporters and photographers untoward, sir?”

“Again?” Morgan snarled as he strapped on his sword, and reached over his left shoulder to confirm he could draw the blade as needed. “Is it not enough that they bothered Naomi while we were out yesterday?” He looked at the spare magazines in the gun-belt before wrapping it about his waist and securing it so the pistol rode his right hip. Between the three spares, the magazine currently loaded, and the round in the chamber, Morgan could shoot down twenty-nine people if his aim was true. He doubted it would help. Relations between the Phoenix Society and the press are sufficiently tense without my gunning down a bunch of paparazzi in front of Naomi’s house. Furthermore, it would scare her off. “Tell Naomi we’ve got company. I’ll see if I can persuade them to leave.”

“Very good, sir.”

The door snicked shut behind Morgan as he descended to the sidewalk. The press immediately surged forward, shouting over one another in their desperation to be the first to have a question acknowledged with an answer. “Adversary Cooper! Can you explain why you’re here with your girlfriend instead of dealing with the situation in Boston?”

“Adversary! Is Naomi a better lay than Christabel?”

“Adversary! Will you and Naomi Bradleigh start a new band?”

Nor were they content to inflict a deluge of questions. Flashbulbs flared, whiting out the world until Morgan thought his retinas might burn out beneath the luminous assault. A reporter grabbed his shoulder, and tried to turn Morgan towards her. It was beyond his tolerance, and his left hand closed about the hilt of his sword. The milling press around him drew back as the tip of his blade cleared the scabbard, lest they be cut as Morgan described an arc around him with his arm fully extended. “Back off, and ask your questions one at a time.”

“You can’t threaten us like this! The freedom of the press protects us!”

“The freedom of the press does not outweigh my right to privacy, or to ownership of my body.” Morgan pointed his sword at the reporter who challenged him. “I remember you, Alice Talbot. The last time I deigned to answer your questions, you tried to steer an interview about the history of Crowley’s Thoth toward my sex life. Were you the one who asked me to compare Naomi to Christabel just now?”

“The people have a right to know if you murdered your ex so you could trade up.”

“Hello again, Ms. Talbot. It seems the years since we last spoke have not compensated you with wisdom for their toll on your looks.” Naomi’s hand gripped Morgan’s shoulder, giving an affectionate squeeze. She had drawn her sword, but the shock in Talbot’s expression implied Naomi already struck a mortal blow with her voice alone. “If Morgan wanted to trade up, as you so crassly put it, he had an entire year in which to do so.”

“And he resisted your charms for an entire year?” A tall black man in a navy blue suit and a silver tie approached, his smile crinkling the skin around his slit-pupiled silver eyes. His close-cropped gray hair and beard seemed shot through with thin black stripes, another sign he had CPMD. His hair and beard were so short Morgan suspected they were freshly shorn. “Pardon me, Adversaries. I’m Samuel Terell, and I’m currently filming a documentary about the CRDF corps called ‘Disposable Heroes.’ I meant no insult, but rather a compliment to your self-discipline, Adversary Cooper.”

“‘Disposable Heroes’?” Morgan chuckled. “I assume the title of your documentary is a reference to the tendency of Adversaries to burn out and retire after a year or two of service.”

“Exactly. However, you seem to be the exception with a decade of service. I hoped to ask you some questions, but your AI has a policy of refusing all questions from the media.”

“Astarte follows my instructions.” Morgan felt a cold sting against his cheek as snow began to fall, and tilted his gaze skyward. If Naomi and I don’t get out of here soon, we’ll miss the morning maglev. “I find it sensible to avoid the media while on active duty, lest I speak out of turn. The Phoenix Society has a public relations staff, Mr. Terell.”

Naomi touched his arm. “I’m sure he understands protocol.” Turning to Terell, she smiled at the filmmaker. “We’re on our way to a briefing prior to our mission in Boston, which will be done en route. I doubt the briefing will take so long we can’t offer you an hour or two for an interview afterward. However, we must ask you to excuse us. We must catch the first maglev out.”

Terell answered Naomi’s smile with one of his own, and offered his hand. “Well, Adversaries, I might be able to help you by giving you a ride to Victoria Station, rather than leaving you to navigate the Underground. We might be able to cover my questions before you leave.”

He seems too smooth to be trustworthy. Despite his misgivings, Morgan sheathed his sword, accepted Terell’s hand, and shook it. “Naomi and I appreciate the assistance, Mr. Terell.”

Chapter 9: Devil in a Black Dress

Scene 1

Ashtoreth shivered with delight as an unseen hand pushed her hair aside. She tilted her head toward the window as her occult visitor’s lips brushed her throat. Despite her familiarity with the man kissing her, the game remained fresh; she loved him best when he came concealed from sight, leaving her unable to control him. “Sathariel, you are wicked to tempt me so.”

“Who tempts whom?” Sathariel remained hidden, his fingertips walking up her stockinged shin from her ankle. “You dress like this, reading Baudelaire, and are shocked by my ardor?”

Ashtoreth considered her copy of the French poet’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and allowed a small smile to curve her lips. “If I intended to rouse your ardor, I’d pick up a copy of Delta of Venus, instead of The Flowers of Evil.”

Regardless of the title, she considered her little books essential tools of seduction. Small enough to fit inside a purse, she used them to intrigue others by obscuring her face. They made perfect accessories when paired with her favorite dress, seamed stockings, and leather ankle boots. She owned several dresses in the same style: sleeveless numbers with a draped back and a square neckline, tailored to flatter her figure. Black is always fashionable.

“I remain entranced by the sight of you reading. The book itself is irrelevant.”

“Be patient, and I’ll reward your devotion. Can you linger a while? I need to test Cooper without him realizing a flowseeker manipulates his emotions.”

“You think he might realize you’re working a pattern?”

“He might, and react as he would to a more conventional threat.” She suspected Sathariel understood the implication: they might face an enraged asura emulator armed with human weapons. Since Naomi seemed unlikely to let Morgan fight alone, they might find themselves fighting a deva as well. Imaginos took a false identity to train Naomi personally, but how much did he teach her? Did she also learn of her true nature, and become a flowseeker? I can’t afford to goad either of them into violence; they might learn too much from fighting me.

“How will you test Cooper?”

“By doing what I do best.” She sought a flow state as the door to the compartment opened to reveal Morgan and Naomi waiting outside. Ashtoreth detected electrical power gathering within the fabric of their armored coats. I approached Nakajima Chihiro about developing a mass-production process for the anti-ensof rifles with which Imaginos hoped to arm people against Sabaoth. Clever of her to use the designs to develop countermeasures.

The Adversaries scanned the compartment before glancing at one another. A second later, Ashtoreth flushed a little as Morgan’s predatory eyes lit upon her. “Are you Elisabeth Bathory, of the Phoenix Society’s Executive Council?”

She offered an insouciant smile as Sathariel’s cloak dropped around her and allowed her to use her own patterns without fear of detection. She began by scanning the weak electromagnetic signals generated by the electrochemical activity in Morgan and Naomi’s brains. Using a technique similar to what some hackers called Van Eck phreaking, she reproduced in her own consciousness gestalts of the current states of their minds. Time and experience gave her the ability to interpret these visualizations and attain a sense of what was foremost on another person’s mind. Restrained hostility from both? Do they know what I did with Edmund Cohen?

She stood, and offered her hand. “Good morning, Adversaries. I am Elisabeth Bathory.”

Instead of taking her hand, Morgan saluted. Because Adversaries ultimately answered to the Executive Council, Morgan was correct to salute her as if she was a superior officer. By following suit, Naomi indicated her intention to act as an Adversary, instead of a civilian. Ashtoreth indicated the seats across from hers before lowering her hand. They might be angry with me, but they control their emotions instead of being controlled. Excellent. “Please, sit down and be at ease. Have you had breakfast? Should I order coffee, or tea?”

“We’re fine. Thank you.” Naomi answered. For all their icy professionalism, raw sensuality radiated from them. She suspected both, if freed of their inhibitions, would be fierce in their passions, willing to devour and be devoured in turn. Sathariel’s lips brushed her ear as he whispered. “You can’t seduce either of them. The connection is obvious whenever their eyes meet.”

I’d enjoy the attempt anyway. I might end up with both of them making me the center of attention. You always fail to resist such displays. She dared not say as much to Sathariel, lest she give away his presence and ruin the illusion Morgan and Naomi were alone with her. Ashtoreth crossed her legs, giving the Adversaries the silhouette of her thigh beneath her skirt as she leaned back in her seat and let her hands rest upon the armrests. Her pose displayed her form to best advantage; her extrasensory perception of Morgan’s mental state made his involuntary attraction clear. She offered him a little smile, and was rewarded with a slight flush. Naomi, however, simply studied her while sitting with her side-sword leaning against a thigh, its ornate hilt within easy reach; maglev seats were not made to accommodate swords worn on the hip.

The maglev lurched beneath her as the engine began to pull it from the station. Acceleration folded a gentle embrace, holding her in the seat, as she reached into the handbag sitting on the floor beside her. She let her tablet rest in her lap while waiting for the train’s AI to announce they were free to use their devices or the maglev’s computing services. “We have some time, Adversaries, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I explain the situation in Boston in full detail.”

The announcement came before Ashtoreth could continue. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Tradewinds morning express from London to New York. After its stop at Grand Central Terminal, this maglev will continue northward to Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Reykjavik before returning to London. You may now use personal electronics or access on-board computing services, the dining car is open if you wish to order breakfast, and I will remind you to reset any external timepieces you may be carrying to display local time once we arrive at our destinations. Travel time to New York will be approximately six hours. Please relax, use our amenities, and savor your journey with Tradewinds.”

She took advantage of the distraction by tweaking her pattern to blunt the Adversaries’ hostility. They retrieved their handhelds before Ashtoreth could begin her briefing and use it to keep them distracted while further altering their brains’ neurotransmitter and hormonal balances. She checked her visualizations again as Morgan spoke. Instead of blunting his hostility, Morgan’s has sharpened, and strains at the leash. What a delightful challenge!

“Ms. Bathory, I can’t speak for Adversary Bradleigh, but I would appreciate an explanation for your presence here. We can access the facts of the case on our own, and get our orders from Malkuth if getting them from our respective Directors proves inconvenient. Why is a member of the Executive Council doing work normally delegated down the chain of command?”

“Chain of command be damned.” Naomi rose and loomed over Ashtoreth, left hand grasping her sword’s sheath at an angle suggesting she intended to draw. “Why don’t you tell us, Elisabeth, why you seduced Edmund Cohen and used him to access protected data?”

Ashtoreth rose from her own seat as Naomi’s right hand crept towards the hilt of her sword. “Adversary Cooper, would you be so kind as to restrain your girlfriend?” She coupled the request with a straightforward attempt at wrenching his mind into a state in which he cared enough for her to stand as guardian. Morgan’s gestalt-image shifted for a moment, before shifting back. He resisted! Is this just ego strength, or something else?

Scene 2

Elisabeth Bathory’s voice was smoky, and might prove persuasive on its own. However, her words came with a sudden wrenching, which seemed to Morgan as if somebody grabbed his emotions by the scruff of the neck and tried to point them in a direction perpendicular to their original trajectory. A sudden urge to rise to Bathory’s defense clawed as his consciousness, which Morgan understood as a psychological invasion of some sort. No. This is not one of my thoughts or desires. Why should I protect Elisabeth Bathory? She’s no friend of mine. She harmed my friends, and is therefore my enemy.

Instead of calling Naomi off, Morgan drew his new pistol. He aimed at her face, centered his sights between her eyes, and rested a finger along the trigger guard. “I think Adversary Bradleigh is entitled to an answer.”

Bathory blinked, her eyes widening.

Morgan considered the shot’s probable path, and decided Naomi was too close. “Adversary Bradleigh, would you please step back a bit? My shot isn’t as clear as I’d like.”

“You would shoot me?” Rather than the fear Morgan expected to find in Bathory’s eyes, for staring down the barrel of a pistol tended to make people nervous, he imagined he found amusement. “Excellent. It appears no further psychological testing is necessary.”

“What the hell is going on?”

Bathory slipped past Naomi, ignoring his pistol. She gripped the arms of his seat, leaning over him until her eyes became his world. She was like him, a CPMD carrier, and her amber eyes shimmered. Her pupils widened as if she lusted after him. “Do you think this is just about some idiot taking over a city with a biker gang for an army and a failed Adversary as his enforcer?”

“Of course not.” He pressed the pistol’s muzzle into her belly. She recoiled, and the warm fog clouding his reason and demanding his trust tore itself to shreds. “Somebody murdered Christabel just after the coup while you seduced our friend Eddie. You know what happened afterward.”

“Yes, and I am sorry.”

Her tone was subdued, and Morgan wanted to believe her. However, he recognized her downcast expression. Edmund, misogynist that he was, warned him and other Adversary candidates against such feminine wiles using classic noir films as visual aids. He stood and adjusted his grip as Naomi released her sword’s hilt to draw her own pistol. Both of their guns covered Bathory now.

“No doubt you’ll be skeptical, but I’m a true Crowley’s Thoth fan. I even own a vinyl copy of the true debut, The Book of the Law. I never wanted any of you harmed.”

“Your desire is irrelevant.” Naomi’s voice took on a tremble Morgan never heard before. “You might not be responsible, Ms. Bathory, but I think you can tell us who is.”

“For whom do you work, Ms. Bathory?” Morgan cut her with the question before Bathory could recover her balance. He half-expected Naomi to use secure talk to accuse him of tipping their hand too early, but she only nodded. “Do you work to give Alexander Liebenthal time to consolidate his hold on Boston? Or do you work for Munakata Tetsuo? I suspect he holds a grudge because of Shenzhen.”

Bathory’s expression grew thoughtful as she retreated to her seat. “You place me in different company from what I tend to choose for myself, but your analysis is closer to the truth than you realize.”

An impulse to arrest Bathory pounced upon Morgan’s consciousness, but he strangled the foreign thought. “I suspect you want me to arrest you.”

“Would doing so place me in your power?”

Morgan holstered his pistol, ignoring Naomi’s questioning look. He responded to the more explicit question she shot him over secure talk by texting back. We’re both pointing pistols at her, and she isn’t impressed. I don’t think we can force her.

He settled into his seat, crossed his legs, and locked eyes on Bathory’s. “If I use my authority against you, I lose. You will just exercise your right to remain silent, leaving me with nothing but my suspicions. Instead, I am going to ask you one last time. Would you please tell me what you can?”

A perfect black eyebrow arched. “What I can, Adversary?”

“You’re here for reasons which aren’t entirely congruent with the Society’s mission, aren’t you?”

“There is little I can tell you at this stage. I suspect Christabel Crowley was murdered by somebody I know only as ‘Imaginos,’ and that he not only murdered Crowley, but arranged the coup in Boston as a means of testing you, Adversary Cooper.”

“For what purpose is Imaginos testing Morgan? Why him, anyway?”

Bathory offered Naomi an apologetic glance. “I cannot answer that. However, I can say Imaginos is not only testing Morgan. He is also testing those closest to him, or rather, your bonds with him. He expected you to turn your backs on Edmund Cohen after I induced him to betray you.”

“What other tests has this Imaginos run on me?”

“Adversary Bradleigh at MEPOL was the next test situation. The first test was of your resourcefulness, as well as that of your friend, Claire Ashecroft, in effecting Bradleigh’s release. The second test was of your bond with her, Adversary Cooper. To put it simply: the question was whether or not you were man enough to accept Naomi Bradleigh as your equal.”

Morgan nodded as he considered the last couple of days. He smiled as Naomi took his hand and texted him. I was also testing you. You compartmentalize, and act differently as an Adversary, but I’m not so different from you. I’m both a musician and an Adversary. I wasn’t sure you’d accept that and trust me to stand beside you in Boston.

Bathory continued before Morgan could offer Naomi a suitable reply. “I should mention I didn’t oppose Imaginos’ test in this case. The impulse to shield a woman from the world is like any other quality common to men: too much is as useless as too little.”

If I were unwilling to protect Naomi at all, she’d have no reason to trust me. If I try to protect her from everything, I’ll only stifle her. I’d be mistreating her either way. “Assume I passed your test for now, Ms. Bathory. You said earlier, after you failed to persuade Naomi and me to put our weapons away, that no further psychological testing was necessary. Would you please explain?”

Bathory held up her tablet, without showing the screen. “You have implants which conform to particular specifications mandated by the Phoenix Society. One of those specifications describes a subsystem intended to prevent you from being debilitated by battlefield stress by manipulating the balance of neurotransmitters inside your brains. It is not a system we normally use, due to informed consent issues, but I can monitor your immediate mental state.”

Morgan turned toward Naomi, found skepticism akin to his own in her expression, and texted her. «Do you think she’s bullshitting us?»

«I think she’s been bullshitting us the entire time.» Naomi rose, and opened their compartment’s door. “Ms. Bathory, we’re sorry to have wasted your time, but I don’t think you can assist us with our mission.”

Elisabeth Bathory turned a look both appraising and appealing towards Morgan, but did not rise. “I’m sorry. You don’t seem the sort who believe in magic, so I tried explaining myself in technological terms instead.”

“Magic seems more plausible.” Naomi closed the door and returned to her seat. She reddened as she looked at Morgan. “I’ve loved Morgan for years, but every time you talk to me, I―”

“I know. I tried to make you lust after me, despite your inclination and habit. I did the same to Morgan. I was asked, not by Imaginos, to test the strength of Morgan’s ego, his mental resistance.” She glided toward him, and her hand felt almost like Naomi’s as she caressed his face. “He loves you, Ms. Bradleigh, but if I could get him to transfer his affections towards me―”

She’s still tampering with my emotions. Hasn’t she tested me enough? Morgan made his voice a low snarl, a final warning before baring steel. “Remove your hand.”

Bathory immediately complied, and backed away until she was out of his sword’s reach, which suited Morgan. “Morgan is quite capable of resisting my attentions. I think it’s related to the training you both received as Adversaries, in particular, the preventative cognitive/behavioral therapy you both underwent during training, and after every mission.”

“So, Morgan and I can resist attempts to bewitch us. Why does this matter?”

“I can’t explain at the moment.” Bathory stopped, her hand on the door latch, and glanced at them over her shoulder. “However, if you successfully carry out your mission in Boston, you may find a means of obtaining the answers you seek. I suggest reviewing the footage Malkuth included with your orders. Munakata Tetsuo’s technique has improved since your last duel, Adversary. Has yours?”

The compartment door slipped shut behind Bathory. Morgan waited in silence for several minutes, the maglev beneath his feet humming as it sped towards New York. He needed the right words if he was going to explain his own experience to Naomi. “It wasn’t that I wanted sex with her. Sex was part of it, but when she turned on the charm I had to fight the need to submit to her, and obey her every command.”

Naomi blinked, her eyes widening “That’s what you felt as well? Claire insists that everybody has an exception to their usual preferences, and I was afraid Bathory somehow made herself my exception. But it felt more like how you described it. Sex would have just been a sign of my submission.”

Morgan took Naomi’s hand, and found it cold. He caressed it, chafing warmth into the skin as he locked his eyes on hers. “We’re going to bring Liebenthal back alive, and put the bastard on trial. You’re going to retire again, and I’m going to retire with you. We’re not submitting to anybody but each other.”

“And if she tries to seduce you again?”

“Shoot me. Then shoot her. You know I’ll get over it.”

Naomi’s hand remained cold in his, and her voice flared with the anger she earlier directed at Bathory. “If you value our relationship, never joke about getting shot in front of me again. I hate your willingness to speak so casually of your own safety. Would it kill you to value yourself as highly as I do?”

Scene 3

Sid Schneider checked the subway tunnel to ensure they had not been tailed, before following Edmund Cohen down a short access tunnel terminated by a door locked with a keypad. He reached out to his partner through secure relay chat. Where the hell is Morgan, anyway?

«He’s on his way. Naomi’s coming with him.»

He frowned at Eddie’s words, and wracked his brain in an effort to imagine a situation in which an exotic-looking, classically trained pianist and dramatic coloratura soprano might be useful on a mission to depose a dictator without killing anybody. «What’s Naomi going to do, sing to Liebenthal until he surrenders?»

«She’s a former Adversary.»

«You think Morgan knows yet? I bet he had kittens.» Sid never felt comfortable leading his own missions. He did it before, proving himself capable of handling the responsibility inherent to an Adversary. It seemed safer to follow another, and occasionally remind his leaders of the need for caution. An Adversary could find himself staring down a firing squad if accused, tried, and convicted on an abuse-of-power charge. Fortunately, tonight’s mission was a search and rescue job. «The only way to fuck this up is by getting our own guys killed.»

Sid recognized the voice of his pride, and strangled it before texting, «You sure we can’t wait for them?»

Eddie instantly replied. Despite being text-only, Sid’s imagination supplied the drawl Cohen cultivated to sound like nothing more than a sergeant in a dead nation’s army. «We can, but Adversaries Deschat, Gatto, and Kohlrynn might find the next eight hours or so unpleasant.»

«Damn.» Cohen was a grandmaster at motivating his troops. For Morgan, talk of ideals overcame any reluctance. Sid’s weakness was simpler. «Those ladies don’t need my chivalry, damn it. They’re trained Adversaries.»

«They’ve never sparred with Munakata Tetsuo, or with Morgan. You crossed swords with Morgan, and you’re better with a sword than I am.» Cohen keyed in an access code and pressed himself against the wall to the left of the door, rifle at the ready. Sid did the same with the other wall, readying a Kalashnikov modified with a trigger guard custom-made to fit his hands. They were too big for a standard rifle, but well-suited to the claymore slung over his back. Eddie Cohen favored Dragunov-style sniper rifles, which allowed him to support Sid and Morgan from a variety of distances. «It’s clear inside so far.»

Sid nodded, and stepped inside, covering the hallway while Eddie closed the door behind him. «Claire? You listening?»

«Yep. What can I do you for, big man?»

«All the locks on this place are electronic, right? Reset all their codes. If Munakata has half a brain, he’ll still be able to crack ’em, but it might slow him down long enough for us to get our people out the back door.»

«Right. I’ll have these locks sorted in a tick.»

Edmund reached up to clap Sid’s shoulder as he passed. «Good thinking.»

Sid nodded, and called up the building’s floor plan. They used an entrance providing access to the subway from the sub-basement. «If Liebenthal sends Munakata with an escort of Fireclowns for backup, they’ll probably park outside and take the front door. Otherwise, he might use this entrance or the back door, he reasoned.»

He smiled at the birth of an idea. «Eddie, hold up a minute. You got grenades in your backpack?»

«Got a bunch of selective proximity sensors as well. I’ve got ‘em set up to recognize our implants’ IPv6 addresses, as well as those of the people we’re here to rescue.»

«So they’ll blow up in Munakata’s face?» Sid smiled as the idea matured. «Give me one of those. You got flash-bangs and tearjerkers with you?»

«Nothing but. This is a no fatality job, so I left the frags and burners at the safe house.» Edmund handed him a selective proximity sensor and a pair of smart grenades, which contained processors capable of talking to the sensor.

Sid pressed the grenades into place, activated the sensor, and affixed it to the wall using the built-in adhesive strip on the back. He found the grenades’ pins by touch; the sensor emitted a stealth field to hinder discovery by visual search. After a few seconds of fumbling, he pulled the pins and pocketed them. His implant picked up a “waiting” signal from the sensor; it would send a different signal just before triggering the explosives, but the signal would disappear if somebody disabled the sensor. He gave Eddie a thumbs up. «Munakata’s going to get a little surprise if he comes in this way. Otherwise, this should cover our escape.»

«GUYS, YOU MIGHT WANT TO HURRY UP.» Claire texted in all cap to mimic a shout as Eddie passed more sensors and grenades to Sid. «Munakata’s on his way with three dozen Fireclowns. The streets are empty, so I’ll try to delay them by persuading the local traffic control AI to play silly buggers with the lights.»

«OK. Let’s split up.» Cohen bolted for the stairs, running faster than many men his age might manage. «The only other entrances are at street level. One in front, and one in back. The fire escape drops down by the back door. I’ll mine the back door first, and then the front if I can. In the meantime, Sid, focus on finding our people. Keep Munakata busy if he gets past me. You sure your sword ain’t too big?»

«That’s what my wife said at first. Trust me. I got this.» Sid rigged another mine at the base of the stairs before making his own ascent. He stopped at each landing to set more traps, until reaching the third and final floor. He knocked on the door, whose security panel indicated the door was locked from inside. “This is Adversary Sid Schneider from the New York chapter. Mind if I come in?”

The door unlocked, and cracked open. Sid gave it a slight push, and the door swung all the way open without resistance. A brunette and a spiky-haired blonde covered the door from behind desks pushed over to create improvised cover, peering at him through the sights of AKs equipped with suppressors. His implant communicated with theirs and identified them in his retinal display. He gave them a moment to identify him, in return. Catherine Gatto was the brunette on the left. The almost-black curls made her a taller, more voluptuous version of his wife Ellie, but he doubted Gatto could catch him off guard and throw him to the sparring mat as his wife did the day they first met. He recognized the woman on the right without his implant’s help; Miria Deschat had her grandmother’s eyes. “Where’s Adversary Kohlrynn?”

“Out on the fire escape, handsome.” Sid looked past the others to see a slender figure in black whose strawberry blonde curls strained against the black ribbon binding them. She turned and aimed a scoped bullpup carbine with an attached suppressor into the alley. “I’ve got half a dozen Fireclowns down here. The idiots are watching the base of the ladder.”

“They haven’t seen you?”

“It’s a new moon, so naked eye visibility’s limited. I need infrared to see these guys.”

«I can confirm Kohlrynn’s count, Sid.» Claire rejoined the chat. «Sorry I couldn’t get you more time; the bastards stopped long enough to look both ways, and ignored the lights.»

«Don’t worry about it.» Sid rigged a charge on the outside of the door before closing it behind him and locking it from inside. In addition to the three Adversaries, he found two men: one middle-aged, the other somewhat younger. The older man wore denim overalls and a tool-belt around his waist. His right hand hovered over a claw hammer hanging from his belt. «That’s the handyman. The other guy must be the sysadmin.» The younger man was unarmed, had long brown hair, and wore bifocals. Sid spoke up.. “It’s just you five, right? Cohen and I came to get you out.”

“We need to wipe all data from local storage first,” Deschat insisted, giving Sid a once over from behind the sights of her AK. “The Boston chapter doesn’t have its own AI yet, so once we finish mirroring the data on the RAID we can zero it out.”

Sid glanced at the man with the bifocals, who looked like he got paid to know all this shit about mirroring data on RAIDs. “You’re the sysadmin, right?”

“That’s a lofty title for somebody who babysits the backups and occasionally swaps out a dead drive.” He kept glancing at the windows. “How can I help you?”

“Did you follow standard emergency procedures?”

The admin nodded, and led Sid to a terminal. “Malkuth confirmed receipt of the Boston Chapter’s data a couple of minutes ago. I just started the data wipe.” He pointed at the last command he typed at the shell prompt. “ripley-dot-sh will overwrite each solid-state module in the drive array with zeros unless somebody stops it or all of the drives in the array fail. The only way to be more thorough on short notice is to take off and nuke the site from orbit.”

Sid repeated what he heard on secure relay chat. «Any of this make sense to you, Claire?»

«Yep. The man knows his shit, and likes at least one of my favorite movies. I hijacked the building’s automated systems. Don’t forget about the six in the alley.»

«Where are the others and how are they armed?»

«Munakata’s got his sword, and the Fireclowns have militia-issue bolt-actions.» Claire paused, as if checking the cameras. «There’s a dozen out front. There’s a half dozen more in the subway trying the subbasement entrance, and a dozen with Munakata approaching via rooftop.»

Boston’s remaining Adversaries finally connected to Sid’s secure relay chat. Gatto texted first. «A dozen? They might get the drop on Kohlrynn and beat her into the ground.»

Deschat nodded, and climbed out the window. She crouched to cover the ladder leading down from the roof. «Don’t panic, Gatto. I’ve got Kohlrynn’s back.»

«Claire, is anybody trying the doors?»

«Not yet, Eddie. I’ve got Hal randomizing all of the locks’ codes any way. It’s pretty fuckin’ hard to crack a code that changes every millisecond.»

«Schneider, do you need me to support you on the roof?»

Eddie answered first. «I’ll cover him, Gatto. Can you cover the civilians?»

«I suppose I can cover my husband while he reloads.» Gatto smiled as she retreated to the sysadmin’s side.

He forced open an emergency weapons locker with a crowbar and selected a 40mm grenade launcher, filling his pockets with 40mm stun rounds after loading one into the launcher’s breech. He flipped up the sight. «Don’t worry, guys. I know how to use this.»

The rooftop was empty when Sid exited the stairwell and drew his sword, but figures crowded the one next door. Halogens flared to life to illuminate a nearby helipad. A single shape threw itself into the air, his feet skidding against the rooftop as he landed, while the rest clambered down a fire escape until two remained. He drew the katana strapped to his back, and its blade was a blue-gray gleaming curve. “It’s been a while, Adversary Schneider.”

“Not long enough.” Sid was in no mood to exchange pleasantries with Munakata Tetsuo. Keeping him distracted would give Eddie time to make it up here. “It seems you surrounded the building.”

“Exactly. My orders are to secure your surrender. Should you yield, Liebenthal will treat you all humanely.” Munakata began to circle him, but Sid recognized the attempt to psych him out. The second he reacted, Munakata would raise his blade and strike. While Sid was fast, a claymore was more massive than a katana, which might give Munakata the edge. The ex-Adversary now had his back to the door, which crept open to let Eddie slip out. The old soldier snuck around, taking cover behind an air conditioning unit; Munakata was unlikely to see him now, and Sid hoped Eddie would manage to take out the Fireclowns on the other rooftop. He favored Munakata’s explanation with a shrug. “The same humane treatment you offered Rutherford, Collins, and Gabriel?”

“They didn’t surrender. Instead, they demanded mine. I defied them, as you will no doubt defy me.”

Sid’s back faced the door. He ignored the shouts from below, and concentrated on the enemy before him. I hope Eddie and the ladies can manage the Fireclowns, because I’m in deep shit if any get through. “If you know I’m going to fight you, why the foreplay?”

“Because I enjoy it.” Munakata gestured with his empty hand. “What can you possibly do? Let’s assume for a moment Cohen takes out the two Fireclowns I left to cover the roof, and you somehow defeat me. None of you can jump to the next rooftop, and I covered every exit. Should you somehow strike me down, the Fireclowns have orders to kill you all.”

Sid bared his teeth in a rictus born of a smile and a snarl. He feinted with his sword, and dropped it as Munakata took the bait and tried to counter. Catching the ex-Adversary’s sword arm, Sid disarmed him and forced him into a submission hold as suppressed rifles coughed. The katana screeched against concrete as Sid kicked it aside. “Who said anything about striking your ass down?”

The two figures on the adjacent rooftop were the last to collapse; one seemed to claw at his throat. Eddie was last to report. “I got the last of them. Anybody hurt?”

Munakata broke the hold, and scooped up Sid’s claymore rather than search for his own weapon. He tried to sweep it upward as if wielding his katana, but the sword shrieked against the roof, striking sparks in its wake. Sid threw himself away from the blade, to Munakata’s side, and rolled into a wrestler’s crouch. Musashi would be ashamed of you, Tetsuo. Didn’t he write that a strategist shouldn’t rely on a single weapon?

He countered with a combination of jabs, hooks, and crosses which drove Munakata to the wall, the borrowed sword fallen and forgotten. Sid grabbed the ex-Adversary and slammed him into the wall before spinning him about and securing him in a half nelson; with his other hand he held a knife to his enemy’s throat. “How did you plan to transport us back to Liebenthal’s headquarters?”

“Why should I tell you anything?” Munakata recovered enough to snarl defiance. “Go ahead and cut my throat. I’ll get over it.”

“You might, at that.” He wriggled in Sid’s grasp, and Sid answered by letting his knife taste blood. You got over a bullet to the head, so why not a slit throat? “So how about this? I’ll cut your throat, and while you’re distracted I’ll hack your fuckin’ head off with your own sword. Then I’ll give your head to Morgan’s cat for a chew toy, and drop the rest of you in a dumpster.” Munakata fell silent, and ceased his struggling. “Seems we understand each other. Ready to talk?”

“He meant to transport you via helicopter.” A woman answered, appearing before Sid. She was Morgan’s height, and a black fur cloak clung to her figure. Her golden skin and raven hair glinted under the lights. Her contralto voice bore a commanding timbre. “Munakata chartered a flight, claiming to be an Adversary in distress. Let him go, if you please, Adversary Schneider.”


The woman’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “No? I am not used to hearing that word from a man’s lips. What if I promise that your fellow Adversaries and the civilians in this building are in no further danger from Munakata and the Fireclowns, by my command?”

“My answer is still no, lady.”

“You leave me no choice. I require this man.” She made no move toward him, and made no gesture, but an overwhelming urge to sleep slackened Sid’s grip. He yawned, straining the muscles of his jaw and throat as he opened his mouth to its limit to draw in cold air. The knife fell from his fingers and clattered against the concrete rooftop as Munakata’s body collapsed out of his grasp. He staggered, calling up his implant’s music player to flood his consciousness with the loudest, nastiest heavy metal available. He managed three steps towards her before falling to his knees. He flopped on his side, boneless as a cat, and drifted off.

A rough hand shook him awake; his implant told him he slept half an hour. He jumped to his feet, and almost knocked Eddie on his ass. “Where’s Munakata? Where are the others?”

“Easy, big man. The ladies and the civilians are safe. Munakata and the Fireclowns buggered off.”

Sid relaxed, and searched the rooftop for the weapons he dropped, only to find them in Eddie’s hands. He accepted them, inspecting each one before sheathing it. “Thanks. What about the woman? Tall, black dress, golden kitty eyes?”

Eddie nodded. “I tried to warn you, but she hit us with naptime before I got the word out. Let’s get the ladies and the civilians on a maglev to New York.” He slammed a fist into his thigh. “Damn it. I expected you, Morgan, and Naomi would need a warning about Elisabeth Bathory, but having Tamara Gellion involved further complicates things.”

“Who the fuck is Tamara Gellion?”

“She’s Elisabeth Bathory’s big sister. It’s complicated. I’ll explain later.”

Chapter 10: No Prayer for the Dying

Scene 1

Abram Mellech took a hand off the wheel of his restored black Castille to pull at the collar chafing his throat. Everything seemed so simple. Of all the Disciples of the Watch, he was the one most reluctant to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh. This made him perfect for his mission. He adopted the guise of an ascetic, and became Sabaoth’s right hand. As a prophet, he gathered and equipped an army willing to kill and die for their faith. When the time came, however, the Repentant in Christ would fight against the demon who dared call himself God.

He looked forward to reclaiming his true self and being Adramelech again. No longer a priest, but a deva who found demonic power and became an emanation of the tree of death. First, he would achieve a flow state, rip the damnable collar from his neck, and brush its ashes from his hands. He already missed Bathory’s taste, and the heat of her kiss, despite only meeting her a few days ago. He would seek her next, and—should she permit it―take his fill.

A motorcyclist cut Abram off, forcing him to hit the brakes. He recognized the biker as a Sun Jester; the patch sewn on his jacket was distinguishable from that of the Fireclowns only by color. All he needed was to concentrate and draw power, and he could blow the bike and its rider off the road. Some of the Fireclowns might even thank him for eliminating one of their rivals. He shook his head and pulled at his collar again. “Grant me patience, Lord.” Now I pray to one of my equals, and an enemy besides. The things I do to stay in character.

He managed to park underneath Boston’s City Hall without further incident, and retrieved an attaché case containing payment for a final shipment of weapons from the trunk. One of Liebenthal’s mercenaries, a heavily tattooed man with a thick red beard, greeted him and verified his identity before escorting him upstairs. He was muscular enough to handle one of the huge vintage motorcycles he and his fellow Fireclowns insisted upon riding, despite the age evident in his weathered face. Abram had no doubt he would handle the rifle slung across his back or the knives in his belt with similar ease. He shot Abram a sidelong glance as the elevator doors closed. “You want to be careful around Yojimbo.”

Abram nodded, recognizing Munakata’s nickname. “I usually am. Is there any particular reason for concern?”

“Yeah. The client sent us to the Phoenix Society chapter to bag some hostages. It didn’t work out.”

“What happened?”

“We got our asses kicked, and Liebenthal’s pet samurai is still pissy because a woman saved us.”

The elevator stopped, and opened its doors. As Abram stepped out, the biker caught his shoulder. “Hey, Rev. I’ve got a couple of minutes before I need to resume my post downstairs. You want to duck into one of these offices to hear my confession and let me do penance?”

Abram gently brushed off the man’s hand. “Sorry. I took a vow of chastity. Christ’s peace be upon you.”

The staccato of rapid footsteps preceded the metallic hiss of a sword clearing its scabbard. The blade rent air, and hissed again as its owner sheathed it. The pattern’s repetition led Abram to a long conference room in which all of the furniture stood stacked against the walls. Munakata’s head snapped toward Abram to reveal a visage indistinguishable from Morgan Cooper’s save for a hairstyle out of fashion since the Meiji Restoration. He dressed in black, with the exception of a shirt matching his green eyes. His jacket hung from a coat rack near the door. Abram examined it, and noted the label. “Caderousse & Sons of Marseilles? I’m surprised you’d spare the expense.”

Sheathing his katana, Munakata found a chair for Abram. “I’m a sellsword, not a barbarian.” His eyes fixed on a crow perched outside the windows. “Are you here for the last shipment?”

“Among other things. What happened last night?”

“Liebenthal thought there might be remnants of the Phoenix Society’s presence in Boston: support staff, Adversaries just returned from assignments, and the like. He ordered me to lead a detachment of Fireclowns and do a sweep. We found a couple of Morgan Cooper’s friends, Sid Schneider and Edmund Cohen.” Munakata spat the names. “They drew their weapons first. I came within millimeters of tearing out Schneider’s throat, but the son of a bitch must have been sparring with Cooper.”

Witness Protocol tells a different story, but I gain nothing from pressing the matter. “I understand you had a guardian angel. Who was she?”

“Doubtless you’re better acquainted with her than I.” Munakata paused, considering the sheathed blade in his hands. When he spoke again, it was almost to himself, as an afterthought. “Schneider seemed aware of the asura emulators’ existence. He knew how to put me down permanently. Why did he hold back?”

Here was a question Abram could answer. Despite playing the traitor, he retained access to the Sephiroth. They answered to Imaginos, and were in on the plot. “Cooper’s orders specified no fatalities.”

“His orders usually do.” Munakata’s smile held a cynical edge. “Imaginos can’t just tell the man he needs so-and-so rubbed out. The Phoenix Society isn’t that sort of organization. Regardless, if he’s done with you, you get a choice: Die facing an Adversary, or die with a shank in the back.”

Abram’s tone lacked its usual gentle warmth, which he used to soothe those burdened by guilt, and ease their consciences for a reasonable fee. “According to Scripture, those who take the sword die by the sword.”

“Better to die by the sword than on the cross. Where’s Cooper?”

“He recently arrived in Boston, and brought a companion.”


“Naomi Bradleigh. Imaginos expects you to leave his daughter alone.”

Munakata turned his back on Abram, who followed his gaze out the window. A pack of bikers riding two abreast approached City Hall. “If I refrain from drawing my blade against his daughter, it will be because she did not first threaten me.”

“You showed no such scruples when you cut down Rutherford, Collins, and Gabriel. Your technique left them no time to draw weapons.”

“They took bribes from Liebenthal, and are therefore a disgrace to the CRDF corps.” Munakata looked away. “If I let them live, the Phoenix Society would send somebody other than Cooper, which does not suit my employer’s purpose. As an ex-Adversary, my sword was the only due process they deserved.”

“I understand you have no reason to care, but allow me to finish my message. Imaginos hopes you’ll rouse Cooper’s curiosity concerning his nature.”

“If he wants to learn about CPMD, he can use the network. Why concern yourself?”

“The souls of all Christ’s children are my concern. I can ease the weight of your sins.”

“My sins made me what I am. I will keep them, and you can keep your Christ.” Munakata rose, and grabbed his jacket. He tucked it and his katana under his right arm. “I need some fresh air. Mr. Liebenthal is in his office. He’s expecting you.”

Scene 2

Alexander Liebenthal suspected the caller bore bad news as soon as his AI alerted him of the incoming call from Ohrmazd Medical Group’s oncology clinic in Boston’s Financial District. The pain settled into his bones, and every movement provoked a dull ache. Whatever infested his body would be finished soon. The second opinion was a waste of time. “Liebenthal speaking. Start talking.”

“Hello, Mr. Liebenthal. I’m Dr. Anil Karnati from Ohrmazd Medical’s oncology division. I just finished reviewing the results your biopsy. I should explain them in person.” The physician’s tone was as grave as the prognosis Liebenthal suspected Dr. Karnati would deliver. “When would a visit be convenient?”

“Get your tongue out of my ass and tell me.”

“I’m sorry. Your cancer is terminal.” Liebenthal cut off the call. Dr. Karnati would only bore him into a coma with details and medical jargon, before waxing solicitous and blithering about second opinions and end-of-life options.

He considered the rifle resting on one side of his desk. It was one of the new Murdoch mass drivers. Selling them to the Repentant in Christ and ensuring the fanatics received their shipments without unnecessary scrutiny from any authorities proved worth the effort. He was richer than he ever dreamed of being as a mere produce wholesaler. However, his efforts and risks were all in vain. His body betrayed him, and would eat itself alive. Morgan Cooper will see to my funeral arrangements. One shot at him, and it’ll be a closed casket affair.

He received the first diagnosis two weeks ago at Revere Memorial Hospital’s oncology ward. Afterward, Munakata approached him in his office. “You look like a man with no cause to live. Would you like a cause worth your death?”

Despite spending two years in Liebenthal’s service, protecting him when not running guns to the Repentant in Christ, the swordsman never spoke unless spoken to, and kept his answers short and direct. He obtained the guns from his sources, and Liebenthal delivered them to the Repentant. The money was too good to question until the oncologist convinced him the pains wracking his body were in fact a death sentence: metastasized pancreatic cancer. He ignored Munakata’s question; he still hoped for a second opinion which would remove the Damoclesean sword suspended over him and offer a curable explanation for his suffering.

I knew I was dead as soon as the surgeon was done with the biopsies. The professional sympathy in her eyes told him everything, and made his choices clear: a few weeks, months at most, waiting for death in a hospice while drugged out of his mind―the euphemism being “palliative care”―or whatever Munakata Tetsuo intended. I still can’t believe what he told me. I did the Phoenix Society’s dirty work, arming new enemies so the Society could justify its continued existence. He thinks we can expose them. Nobody will listen to me, but at least Cooper will give me a quick death.

The double doors to the Mayor’s office opened to admit the man Munakata identified as the right hand of the real power behind the Phoenix Society. According to Tetsuo, the guy who runs the show is some kind of sorcerer-scientist with a name out of a Blue Öyster Cult concept album. He tried not to roll his eyes at the notion.

Abram Mellech appeared as he always did, taller than Liebenthal, but equally pale and cadaverous. The markers of CPMD were obvious on him; his glossy brown hair was cropped too short to hide his ears, but the pupils of his gray eyes widened until they seemed almost human. His navy suit looked expensive enough to be respectable, his Roman collar a crisp white, and the attaché case in his right hand seemed as valuable as the cash within. “How many guilt-ridden little old ladies did you bilk out of their savings to pay for this shipment?”

“They wear out rosaries, building their little stairways to heaven out of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I cater to the rich, who prefer theirs ready-made. Both are idiots who forget they need only ask Christ’s forgiveness.”

Liebenthal shook his head, still unsure if Mellech believed the crap spewing from his mouth; the man was too skilled at leavening his piety with cynicism. “So what kind of Christian are you, profiting from ignorance?”

“A terrible one, indeed.” Mellech closed the doors behind him, and took a chair by the fireplace. The fire resembled Liebenthal’s life, burned down to embers, but was more easily restored.

Liebenthal tossed a couple of logs atop the coals, and was grateful he retained the strength to do so. He lowered himself into a chair next to Mellech as the priest spoke. “You’re dying, and have no time for lies. I’m sure Munakata told you where this money comes from.”

“You’re using the Phoenix Society’s money to arm the Repentant, so they can scare everybody else and justify your continued existence.”

“Munakata’s explanation is surprisingly creative.” Mellech smiled, showing a mouth full of incisors, and sharper canines than a human should possess. “I should mention it to Imaginos, but your hired sword did not tell you everything.”

“He told me enough. I cooperated with your little gun-running scheme to make a shitload of money while fucking you dirty bastards in the process. Hell, I should have charged more.”

“You made, as you say, a shitload of money. We planned to give you a bigger shitload of money to reward your service. We would even have seen to your medical problems, but you decided instead to join Munakata in his little vendetta.”

“How did you plan to help me? With a bullet to the head?” Liebenthal forced himself to his feet. He caught Mellech by his collar and strained to lift him from his chair. “Look at me. I have terminal cancer. You think you’re having a conversation with me in City Hall, but as far as I’m concerned, this is Death Row.”

“You still live. A death sentence can be stayed or commuted, even as you settle into Old Sparky’s embrace. Hope remains until the switch is thrown.”

Liebenthal shoved the priest into his seat and backed away. “I started with the metaphors, but let’s stop pissing about.”

Mellech narrowed his eyes. “The literal truth, then. The cancer is a lie. When we first decided to use you, we introduced into your body a nanotechnological agent designed to mimic the symptoms of cancer. It remained inactive throughout the majority of your service to us.”

“Why did you activate it, then?” Liebenthal began to back away from Mellech. The rifle he held back from the last shipment leaned against the back of his desk, out of the priest’s sight. Perhaps it was time to let the man experience its power firsthand. “Was I not loyal enough?”

The doors opened to admit a man radiant in white. Liebenthal blinked, unable to believe Isaac Magnin of the AsgarTech Corporation dared to walk into City Hall unescorted. Regardless, the man stood with his icy blue eyes and shoulder-length white hair shimmering in the firelight. He turned towards Abram Mellech, resplendent in a tailored double-breasted suit with a high-collared shirt and royal blue cravat. A cravat? Was the man auditioning for a costume drama?

“You said too much already, Adramelech. Leave the money and see to the shipment.”

Mellech’s eyes widened, as if realizing the epic scale of his mistake. He placed the case upon Liebenthal’s desk before whisking himself from the room as Magnin poured himself a drink. “Would you care for a whiskey as well, Mr. Liebenthal, to settle your nerves?”

“Why the hell are you here?”

“The good reverend speaks too freely without adequate precautions.” Magnin sipped his whiskey, and sudden delight lit his features. “Forty year old single malt Scotch? I never imagined the Mayor would leave this out in a decanter. You should try some.”

Liebenthal shook his head, and retreated behind his desk. I can blow this guy’s head off if I want, and then do Abracadabra or whatever the fuck his name is. How did I get involved in such insanity? “I thought drinking the Mayor’s scotch would be rude.”

“Your manners are better than those of most of the tyrants I met over the years.” Magnin finished his Scotch, laid the glass aside, and settled into a chair by the fire. “I misused you, it seems. I should explain myself. Come sit by the fire.”

Liebenthal glanced at the rifle. “I can hear you well enough here.”

“You think you can shoot me well enough, too. Munakata told me about the rifle you filched from the last shipment, which you called ‘a nasty little surprise for that long-haired fascist, Cooper.’”

The air spilled from Liebenthal’s lungs. Did that son of a diseased bitch Munakata double-cross me? He approached the empty chair on wobbling legs which felt as if they’d buckle any second. “Does Munakata work for you?”

Magnin waited until Liebenthal seated himself before answering. “Are you asking if his grudge against me is just a cover story? I did indeed betray him three years ago when he dug deeper into the root causes of the Shenzhen labor riots instead of simply carrying out his orders. You know the price for the privilege of paying workers a fixed wage and keeping the profits for yourself.”

“Those factory owners refused to pay?”

“The riots were their warning. They told Munakata the truth and persuaded him to abandon his mission, rather than being reasonable. His resulting duel with Morgan Cooper was worthy of an epic. Their swords were blunt and thoroughly notched after six hours, so Cooper settled the matter with a pistol.”

A low, amazed whistle escaped Liebenthal’s lips. “No wonder the man wants you exposed.”

“I blackened his name and turned friendly rivals into bitter enemies. Such a simple tactic, but people fall for it too often.” Magnin retrieved his glass from the table beside his chair and watched the ice cubes melt for a minute. “Returning to the matter at hand, I knew about Munakata’s grudge, and suspected he might approach you if you were reduced to desperation. I activated the agent Reverend Mellech mentioned, which I programmed to mimic the terminal cancer with which you were twice diagnosed. I was almost annoyed by your insistence upon a second opinion. Doctors are quite unlike politicians. The honest ones don’t stay bought.”

“My cancer-ridden heart bleeds for you.” Liebenthal began to cough, and spat a wad of phlegm into a handkerchief. “Why let us take over Boston and try to expose you?”

“Your efforts serve my purpose. I need to test Morgan Cooper in a variety of situations, without him realizing it.”

I’m dying of some kind of demon-ridden fake cancer so you can play your damn games? “What if I fuck over your precious little purpose by using this ‘devil killer’ rifle to turn Morgan Cooper into cat food?”

The smile curving Magnin’s lips chilled Liebenthal despite his proximity to the fire, and his hair stiffened. The air began to taste of ozone; he recalled a winter day unlike today. Snow fell in such fat clumps they seemed grotesque as he skied across an empty field. His friends were afraid to join him; they feared lightning from clouds too gray for an ordinary snowfall. When he woke up in the hospital afterward, the nurse explained the concept of thundersnow. “You’re welcome to try, Mr. Liebenthal. Make as vigorous a show of resistance as you like. His orders are to take you alive at any cost. However, my daughter insists upon fighting at his side. Should you think to harm her, I advise you to remember Alan Thistlewood’s fate.”

Liebenthal recalled reading a rather bizarre headline only hours ago, Missing Prisoner Found Dead In Space! A salvage crew retrieving dead satellites found Thistlewood drifting in orbit without a pressure suit. He forced himself to swallow. At least it would still be quick. “Assuming I don’t harm your daughter, whoever she is―”

“Naomi Bradleigh.”

“―why do you want me taken alive?”

“To reward your service with healing, rejuvenation, and wealth sufficient to live out the next century or so in anonymous opulence.” Magnin was genial again, as if he didn’t just threaten demonic retribution should harm befall his daughter.

That’s a hell of a deal you offer. “Is that what happens to everybody you use as pawns in your little games? Not that I care. You’re not going to give me my rightful due.”

“Is my offer insufficient?”

“No, but that isn’t what I meant.” Liebenthal rose, ignoring the fear of a second lightning strike. His fist angled towards Magnin’s face. “I became a tyrant and a murderer to expose you. My rightful due is a bullet to the head.”

His fist never made contact. Instead, air rushed past him for a moment before his back slammed into the desk. The black curtain unconsciousness draped over his vision lifted after a momentary eternity, and Liebenthal opened his eyes to find Imaginos standing over him. “Such melodrama is unnecessary. I called a physician, but it is likely you will just have a few bruises to add to your pain.”

Chapter 11: Three Adversaries Walk Into a Bar

Scene 1

The safe house reminded Morgan of his own brownstone on West 96th Street in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Located on Exeter Street in Boston’s Back Bay, the house’s exterior received a fresh coat of red paint before the onset of winter, and the holly bushes fronting the building remained full of berries.

A long-haired black cat with white whiskers, white paws, and white tufts of fur in his ears strode between Morgan and Naomi so they might stroke his fur. Mordred met them upon their arrival in Boston, sitting with his bushy tail wrapped around his feet as if a house cat the size of a lion belonged in a train station. It helped he wore a collar containing a transponder which, if pinged by an implant or handheld, provided the following notification: Hello. My name is Mordred. I’m a sociable cat, and I understand English, but can’t speak it. If you have any questions, you can reach my human’s AI at astarte@astarte.manhattan.newyork.earth.net.

A thin white plume streamed skyward from the chimney as Morgan led Naomi and Mordred up the stoop. He held the door for them while scanning the street; all was quiet. “I’m surprised the Society still uses this property as a safe house. Claire tells me Alexander Liebenthal lives a few doors down.”

“Would Liebenthal dare start a fight so close to home?” Her lips brushed Morgan’s as she stepped inside. “I think you’re still paranoid from our meeting with Bathory.”

“Don’t blame her.” Morgan waited for Mordred to join them inside before closing the door. “I’m always like this on the job.”

Naomi turned to Sid, who came to the hallway to greet them with a half-eaten plate of steak and scrambled eggs in hand. “Is he really?”

“What? Paranoid?” Sid scooped up a forkful of eggs, and ignored the cat as he sat before him to beg. “Morgan makes paranoid people seem reasonable by comparison. Go lay down, Mordred. No begging.”

Morgan ignored the droop in his cat’s whiskers as he clapped Sid’s shoulder. “Thanks. Did you inspect the house?”

“Yeah. The Fireclowns will need artillery if they want to bother us. All of the doors and windows have steel shutters on the inside. One word to Malkuth and they all come down.”

“Exactly.” Malkuth appeared on-screen, leaning back in a chair with his feet on a virtual desk. The AI’s telepresence comforted Morgan. A human guard might be suborned. The enemy might compromise a local AI. Remote control was more difficult to defeat, and the building’s security logic included a failsafe. Should the remote interface fail, the entire building would lock down. “I ordered the delivery of two weeks’ worth of fresh food―”

Mordred pawed at the screen displaying Malkuth’s avatar and meowed.

“―Yes, Mordred, that includes cat food. Astarte told me to expect you. Why do you keep following Morgan, anyway?”

Mordred replied by rubbing against Morgan while purring. After receiving a scratch behind the ears, he padded into the living room and curled up by the fire.

Malkuth shook his head, and continued. “I also ordered clean clothes; I assumed you would be traveling light. Adversary Bradleigh, I apologize in advance if my selections for you don’t fit perfectly; I used your measurements on file from fifteen years ago.”

Naomi blinked, causing Morgan to wonder if she caught the implied flattery in Malkuth’s apology. “Thanks, but they should be fine. I can steal some of Morgan’s if your selections don’t fit. Edmund aside, will anybody else join our party?”

“Gatto and Kohlrynn from the Boston Chapter volunteered, and Deschat refused to return to New York.”

“Why did they volunteer?”

“Because fuck you, Adversary Cooper.” A slender strawberry blonde in jeans and a T-shirt bore a plate of scrambled eggs and toast from the kitchen. She was barefoot, braless, and unkempt. “You ain’t the only one who can hold a grudge, and Liebenthal pissed us off last night. Don’t bother Deschat and Gatto, though. Deschat’s running interference with New York. She’ll handle any incoming bureaucratic bullshit short of an CRDF director calling us. Gatto’s working with local law enforcement to keep everything from falling apart. Once we do our job, hers will be to supervise elections and help rebuild the government. I’m here because I figured you might appreciate the backup. I can help keep morale up, too.”

“She’s right.” Eddie made to swat Sarah’s ass as he rose from the basement. Sweat slicked his gray hair and a day’s worth of stubble. “How many Fireclowns did you take out by yourself last night? Half a dozen in thirty seconds?”

“I took you out faster, old man. We left some scrambled eggs in the pan. Go get something to eat.” Sarah turned to Morgan. “Aren’t you the guitarist from Crowley’s Thoth? Don’t tell me you’re also a neurosurgeon.”

Morgan rolled his eyes, too tired to take the bait. He pulled up Sarah’s service record, noting that while it was perfectly respectable, she scored a nine on the Milgram Battery; the score suggested almost abject submissiveness on her part, and was outside the acceptable range for Adversary candidates. Then again, I scored a big fat zero, and they still gave me the pins.

Naomi requested a secure talk session as she headed for the kitchen. Sarah just sent me a rather lewd request to borrow you for half an hour.

At least she asked first. I’m tempted to introduce her to Claire. They’d get along famously.

Dear God, are you mad? They’d spur each other on. She terminated the session as Morgan offered a hand to Sarah. Professional conduct, he reasoned, might gently remind her to focus on business.

“I just pulled your file, Adversary Kohlrynn. I’m sure you’ll be an asset to the mission. Is there enough food ready for Naomi and me to get a plate?”

“Not really. I found some roast beef and a wedge of Eire cheddar, though. A sandwich sounds about right, don’t you think?” Naomi called from the kitchen, elbowing shut the refrigerator door. “Yes, Mordred, you can have some roast beef, too.”

“Do you want me to make my own?”

“You made breakfast and saw to the dishes before we left. I’ll sort out our lunch. Talk to Eddie and ask about Bathory.”

Eddie’s face fell at the mention of Elisabeth Bathory, and Morgan forgot every harsh word he meant to inflict upon the man. Cohen seemed fully aware he betrayed his friends, and condemned himself for it in far crueler terms than Morgan could manage. He shot a glance at Sarah. “Find Sid, and go do something which will give Eddie, Naomi, and me privacy. Sid loves his wife, so don’t worry about his morale.”

Sarah nodded. “Sid’s downstairs. I’ll be in the study.”

Once the three of them were alone together, Eddie spoke, sounding as broken as he looked. “I know sorry doesn’t count for shit, but I am sorry. I knew better, but I always had a thing for Bathory.”

“Claire told me everything.” Naomi laid a hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “We know she leveled your defenses.”

“Shit, Nims, don’t tell me you forgiven me.”

“I have. Morgan, I think you should let go of your own anger over what happened to me at MEPOL. Remember what Bathory said: we’re being tested. Not just you, but us, and the bonds connecting us. If we let those bonds fray, we fail.”

My anger? Morgan glanced at the full-length mirror hanging on the wall beside him, and found his fists clenched at his sides. He forced them open; his claws were bloody from biting into his palms. The wounds healed before he reached the sink, but the blood needed to be washed away. She’s right. I’m furious, but not with Edmund. Somebody set this in motion, and I want them in my sights.

He returned to his companions, monitoring himself with greater care as he joined Naomi on the sofa. Mordred rose from his place before the fire, stretched, and sat beside him as Naomi handed him his sandwich. “I’ll save my wrath for a more deserving target. If you treated a woman as Bathory treated you, you’d face rape charges.”

Eddie flopped into an armchair. “I don’t think of it in those terms, Morgan, and I don’t want you thinking of me as a victim. I would have consented, if I was sober.”

Naomi shook her head. “The law only cares about whether or not you were capable of giving meaningful consent. If you were drunk enough to suffer blackouts, then you didn’t consent.”

“If Eddie doesn’t want to accuse Bathory, that’s his decision.” Morgan caressed Naomi’s hand to get her attention. “Bathory mentioned somebody called ‘Imaginos,’ and said he probably killed Christabel. She went on to suggest this ‘Imaginos’ character played a role in Liebenthal’s coup. You’re both Executive Council. Do you know anything?”

Eddie paled as Morgan mentioned Imaginos, his posture stiffening. “I know I picked the wrong bloody time to give up drinking.”

He began to pace, glancing out the windows, and Mordred tracked his movement. “Does the name mean anything to either of you?”

“A few years ago I owned a restored white coupe with a number plate bearing the name. I bought it at a charity auction after Isaac Magnin put it up for sale.” Naomi patted Morgan’s hand when she was finished.

“The only ‘Imaginos’ I ever heard of was a 1988 concept album by the Blue Öyster Cult which dropped out of print as soon as it dropped off the charts. I own a copy. The lyrics also call him Desdinova.” Morgan stopped for a moment. Desdinova? Where else did I encounter the name? “Could Imaginos actually be Michael Desdinova of the Ohrmazd Medical Group?”

Eddie paled further at the mention of Desdinova’s name, and ceased pacing. “Bathory’s comments aside, why do you think this has any bearing on the mission?”

Morgan shared a glance with Naomi before answering. “I think there’s more to this mission than I am permitted to understand. Elisabeth Bathory claims I’m being tested. I checked the time-lines on the way to Boston after she left us, and Christabel’s estimated time of death corresponds with the time Liebenthal staged his coup when you factor in the time difference. They both happened within an hour of one another if you use Universal Coordinated Time, as did your seduction at Bathory’s hands. MEPOL got their hands on your WP feed and used it, which kept me from coming directly to Boston to stop the coup. I think somebody wanted to give Liebenthal a little more time, and possessed the means to do so in an extraordinarily roundabout fashion.”

“Do you have any evidence to support your reasoning?” Eddie returned to the armchair, scratching his head. He resembled a dog desperate to dislodge a flea. “Aside from the timing of events, which I admit is suggestive.”

Naomi shook her head. “The time-line is all we have. I doubt Elisabeth Bathory would testify in court.”

“I know somebody.” Morgan sent a message to Malkuth, asking him to put Claire on.

“No. Absofuckinlutely not.” Eddie shot to his feet, hands making wild gestures of denial. “Morgan, as a member of the Phoenix Society’s Executive Council I forbid you to drag Claire into this.”

“I helped you and Sid last night, Edmund Cohen, and this is how you treat me?” Claire appeared on-screen, her auburn curls restrained by a hair-band with black plush cat’s ears. She wore a faded navy blue Worshyp T-shirt; Morgan wondered if she purchased it when Crowley’s Thoth opened for The Worshyp in Toronto before releasing Prometheus Unbound, their first album. Claire would have been a teenager.

She stretched before yawning. “You ingrate. Didn’t I keep the Fireclowns out of the building, allowing you to take them out without casualties?”

“This is different. It’s bad enough Morgan and Naomi are involved in this, but they’re trained Adversaries. If something happens to you―”

“Cram it, Lancelot.” Claire looked directly at Morgan. “If something happens to me, Port Royal will hear about it. In fact, the London crew asked me to come tell the Boston crew that this mess is their problem, and that they’d better help out.”

Morgan nodded. Port Royal was the world’s most successful distributed republic, and they looked after their own. “I think Eddie wanted to avoid dragging Port Royal into this, but you’re already involved in this mess. You helped me get Naomi away from MEPOL headquarters. My plans should not place you in harm’s way.” He turned to Eddie. “I need more information. I can get it myself, but Claire can get it faster and leave me free to do other things.”

Eddie held his fingertips to his ear to indicate he was using secure talk. Within a minute, Sid ascended from the basement and found an armchair for himself. He greeted Morgan and Naomi with a gesture halfway between a wave and a salute. “You guys missed some fun last night. I had Munakata in a half nelson with a knife at his throat, and I was going to bring him in.” He glared at Eddie. “That was before Elisabeth Bathory’s big sister intervened. I’m still waiting on an explanation, by the way.”

Morgan thought Sid’s comment a joke until Eddie replied. “I can’t tell you much about Tamara Gellion without regurgitating public record. I’m not sure why a Manhattan socialite devoted to horticulture and fine arts would involve herself with Munakata or Liebenthal. It seems out of character.”

Morgan stopped himself from clenching his fists. “This situation is too complex to be just a pathetic attempt at a coup d’état. Is Gellion on the XC? We know Bathory is, so why not her sister? Is the XC itself behind Liebenthal?”

Eddie shook his head. “I know it’s unfair to all of you, but I can’t divulge further information about this situation. It touches upon people and events I’m under standing orders to conceal.”

Naomi turned a bemused expression upon the old man. “You’re on the Executive Council. Who has the authority to give you orders?”

“Aside from the rest of the Executive Council?” Eddie gave Mordred a grudging scratch behind the ears; the man disliked cats, which was why he gave Morgan a kitten he found on his doorstep ten years ago.

Sid laughed as Mordred abandoned Eddie to sit beside Naomi, who held a kitty treat in her fingers. “Are you really XC, man? Or do you just say you are to impress women?”

“I’m more like the junior partner.” Eddie’s shoulders slumped at the admission. “I saw some crazy shit during Nationfall while working for one of the men who founded the Society. The position and its attendant pay and privileges are an ongoing bribe. In exchange, I keep quiet and do what the man tells me.”

“Can you tell us which member of the XC holds your marker?” Morgan doubted it, and suspected he faced another test with an unseen observer.

Eddie shook his head. “No, but I’ll say this much. I don’t work for the individual Elisabeth Bathory identified as ‘Imaginos.’”

“How do we know? We don’t even know who Imaginos is, or his real name.” Claire gave Eddie a meaningful look, but when no further revelations proved forthcoming, she shrugged. “So, Morgan, what do you need me to do?”

“Gather every available gigabyte of data generated by, or pertaining to, Alexander Liebenthal and his associates. Send everything to Malkuth as evidence, but make sure Astarte gets a copy as well. Crunch it, and tell me if any interesting patterns show up. In the meantime, we carry out our mission as originally instructed.”

The other Adversaries nodded, and Sid cracked his knuckles. “Sorry I wasn’t able to take out Munakata, but I noticed something strange. He didn’t care when he thought I would just cut his throat, but he got real quiet after I threatened to cut off his head.”

“He got over my putting a bullet through his skull. Maybe there’s a limit to whatever regenerative technology he possesses.”

“Maybe. Or maybe you guys are both immortals, vying for supremacy.” Claire pretended to hold a sword two-handed. “There can be only one!”

Morgan rolled his eyes at the allusion before sending Sarah a text asking her to join them. “There’s somebody I’d like you to meet, Claire. I think you’d like her. She hit me with a Buckaroo Banzai reference after telling me to fuck myself.”

Sarah stared at the screen. “Hey, when did you see The Worshyp?”

Claire shrugged. “Oh, back when Crowley’s Thoth did a couple of shows with ’em before releasing Prometheus Unbound. They did a festival in Toronto with The Red Mages, Sweater Kittens, Doomed Space Marines, and The Ten Who Were Taken. I went back to London with them figuring at least one of them would proposition me, but they were total gentlemen. Too bad; the singer was really cute despite being older than Eddie.”

“Wasn’t that ten years ago?”

Morgan felt Naomi’s lips brush his ear. “That went well.” She stood, commanding the room’s attention. “Has anybody given any thought to our next steps? Sid and Eddie, you rescued the remnants of the Boston chapter, but Liebenthal remains in power.”

Morgan rose, and caught Naomi’s arm. “Sid, if you succeeded in arresting Munakata, you would have deprived Liebenthal of his right hand. Let’s do the next best thing, and deprive Liebenthal of the Fireclowns.”

Naomi blanched, her eyes widening as she stared at Morgan. “You’re going to kill five hundred men?”

“Who said anything about killing them?” Morgan paused a moment, and remembered his reputation. Killing anybody who drew a sword on him, a fellow Adversary, or an innocent was the means by which he made his name synonymous with mortal terror in the minds of all who held authority. Saul, Iris, and Karen counted upon his reputation to defeat Liebenthal before they faced one another. “Listen to me. Alexander Liebenthal publicly accused the Phoenix Society of using me to silence their critics. If I cannot take him down without fatalities, the Society will throw me under a maglev to salvage its own reputation. If I’m lucky, they’ll drag me in front of a kangaroo court before putting a couple of rounds in the back of my head.”

Eddie nodded. “You got a plan?”

Claire turned away from Sarah a moment. “The Fireclowns use a dive called the Four Winds Bar as their headquarters. I can send you the location.”

“Thanks.” Morgan turned to Naomi and Sid. “We can’t take Eddie with us, since he gave up booze and it would be unfair to tempt him, but the three of us can go have a little chat with the president of the Fireclowns Motorcycle Club. I suspect he’s as reluctant to attend his friends’ funerals as I am to arrange them.”

Claire began to giggle. “Sorry, but I can’t resist. Three Adversaries walk into a bar. The owner looks up and says, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’”

Scene 2

Naomi last rode a motorcycle several years ago, but she recalled her former skill within minutes. The motor purred beneath her, powered by a miniaturized thorium-fueled nuclear reactor which comprised half of the bike’s mass due to shielding requirements. She opened the throttle, pulling alongside Morgan, who sat his chopper with a proud ease worthy of a paladin in the medieval romances they read while recording the Crowley’s Thoth album Le Morte d’Arthur.

His hair remained unbound beneath his helmet; rather than wear head protection tailored for bikers, he settled for an armored helmet issued to Adversaries and militia, and protected his eyes with sunglasses. Sid did the same. Naomi regretted accepting the expense of a ‘proper’ helmet; having the visor down left her head completely enclosed, and evoked a sense of claustrophobia. She opened a secure talk session with Morgan. «You were right about the helmet.»

«Do you want to stop and switch? My gear should fit you.»

Naomi used her implant to pull up the map; only a kilometer and a half remained before they reached their destination. «We’re almost there, but you were knightly to offer.»


«Sorry. You look very gallant astride a motorcycle.» She slowed to keep pace with Morgan. A message from trafficnet to her implant advised her of a seventy-five percent reduction in the maximum safe speed due to heavy truck traffic. They entered South Boston, and began passing warehouses and small factories. Trucks laden with goods bound for delivery occasionally lumbered forth, forcing Naomi and the others to stop and wait. Their pace was so reduced, she felt a temptation to tuck her helmet into a saddlebag. A foolish idea, no doubt. Morgan might not mind being stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot like an irreligious Rasputin, but he damn well wears his helmet.

The Four Winds Bar lay just past the warehouses and factories, in a district which seemed allocated to bars, nightclubs, strip joints, and brothels. Motorcycles crowded the parking lots in front of several establishments, despite the plenitude of bus stops for the use of revelers too drunk to pilot a vehicle. Most of the stops bore public service posters displaying men and women passed out from drunkenness and slogans like “Too drunk to drive = Too drunk to fuck” and “Only losers take advantage.” Others bore recruitment posters for the Adversaries, some of which were defaced by some angry hand to read, “We have control. We keep you safe. We are your hope.” She used her implant to photograph one of them while passing. «I bet Claire would like this. She’s a Protomen fan.»

As they dismounted and approached the entrance, their motorcycles parked away from those ridden by the Fireclowns, Morgan started a secure relay chat and invited Naomi. Though she usually worked alone, she approved of the connection between them, for it permitted real-time tactical coordination. «I’m not used to working as part of a team. Should I just watch your back, Morgan?»

«Watch Sid’s as well, and we’ll both look out for you. Otherwise, I trust your judgment. We want the Fireclowns to respect us, and we want them to understand we’re not here to fight.»

Sid joined in. «How’s your empty-handed technique?»

«Rusty.» The admission pained Naomi. As an Adversary she was as skilled a combatant without a sword as she was with one; her instructor insisted upon it. She lapsed after retiring from the CRDF corps. «However, I think I managed reasonably well with Thistlewood.»

Both men replied at once, «You did.»

Sid held the door, and followed Naomi inside; she smiled as she took in the interior. Every booth and table sported plush leather seats, and the woodwork gleamed with fresh polish. Screens displayed various sporting events currently in progress, among them a fencing tourney, a soccer match, a Formula One race, and a baseball game. Despite Claire’s opinion, the Four Winds Bar seemed a quality establishment.

While almost all of the patrons wore the colors of the Fireclowns MC, most of them seemed too absorbed in their own conversations to notice her. “―I told my wife I didn’t like this job any more than she did, but did she listen? Nah―”

“―Can you believe this shit? It’s 2112 and my grandparents still think my being bi is just a phase―”

“Hey, isn’t that the babe from Crowley’s Thoth?”

She stopped and turned towards the booth containing the patron who recognized her. He seemed terribly young to be riding with a gang of mercenary bikers, and his reddish brown hair kept falling over his face. His companions were equally youthful. «I guess it’s a family business for some of them.» “I never expected to be recognized in uniform. I’m helping Morgan; we’d like to resolve matters with Liebenthal in a peaceful manner.”

One of the other youths nodded. “My dad was there last night. He couldn’t believe you guys didn’t just kill them all. The doctor told him to stay home and rest a few days.”

“Morgan and I only got to Boston this morning, but I’m glad for our friends’ restraint.” She pointed to Sid. “I’m sure Adversary Schneider would appreciate hearing from you.”

The biker with the absent father reddened as he brushed past Naomi to get out of the booth. She smiled as he passed; his blush even set the back of his neck aflame. By the time he caught up with Sid, he was too far away to be audible over the hum of conversation, but the sight of him shaking the giant’s hand encouraged her. «That’s at least one man with no desire to fight.»

Morgan had not yet reached the bar. He told her he wanted a particular stool: one adjacent to the one Michael Riordan occupied. Approaching the man was impossible; Fireclowns intent on a mixed martial arts match in progress on a screen over Riordan’s head crowded him. She spied an upright piano sitting forlorn against the wall in a section of the bar kept clear, and caught the bartender’s attention. “Do you think your patrons might fancy some live entertainment? I assume your piano’s in tune.”

“I keep it in tune for my son; he practices in the mornings after helping me set up. I gotta tell you, though, these guys aren’t much for the classics.”

«Neither am I, tonight. This is a night for improvisation.» She shrugged off her armored coat and slung it over her shoulder, holding the collar with a crooked finger. “Do I look like I do the classics?”

She draped her coat over the upright piano, sat down to uncover the keys, and began a rendition of In These Shoes that she often performed when Christabel ducked backstage. Without Sid to play the bass or Morgan to accompany her on guitar, she improvised. The youths with whom she spoke gathered nearby to watch. She played without rest, letting themes and variations develop of their own accord as she entered a meditative trance.

Her peripheral vision suggested the presence of a vast crowd, but she dared not turn her head to verify the size of her congregation. Experience proved an unforgiving tutor in teaching her of the fragility of concentration in a flow state, once achieved.

She let her voice soar and provide a counterpoint to her piano. Without the need to convey lyrics, her voice became a pure instrument. After a time, her voice stilled and her hands settled into another familiar melody. She began to sing again, performing another Crowley’s Thoth standby: an art rock song from the 1970s concerning a trip to a fair.

When she finished, she rose and bowed to the crowd of Fireclowns gathered before her as she spied Morgan seated beside Michael Riordan. “I’m sorry if I bothered anybody. I last practiced a few days ago, and I couldn’t resist. Would anybody mind terribly if I continued after a drink?”

One of the Fireclowns raised a bottle of beer. “I’ll buy your drinks, lady.”

She smiled at the biker. He closely resembled Michael Riordan; both possessed similar wiry builds and square-jawed faces with pale blue eyes and reddish blond hair. “Generous of you, but I think everybody’s drinks and meals came courtesy of Morgan Cooper tonight.”

The bottle slipped from his grasp, and would have shattered upon the floor without her intervention. He stared at her for a moment before turning to the bar, where Morgan continued what appeared to be an animated conversation with the president of the Fireclowns MC, Michael Riordan. “Why is the boss talking to Cooper, anyway?”

No doubt Riordan will explain things to the Fireclowns if he agrees to Morgan’s proposal, but what harm can I do by helping? “We’re here to depose and arrest Alexander Liebenthal. We’d rather not fight you to get to Liebenthal, so we hoped to persuade you to reconsider your contract.”

“Look, lady, the client ain’t paying us enough to cross swords with your man. I’m all for non-violence when he’s on the job.” He offered Naomi his hand. “I’m Roger Riordan, by the way. Mike’s little brother, and the closest thing the Fireclowns MC has to a vice president. Why not come with me to the bar, so we can try talking sense into my big brother?”

Scene 3

Michael Riordan expected life to get weird as soon as Liebenthal called him into his office and explained his plan to stage a coup d’état, with the Fireclowns MC acting as his provisional army. Riordan already bound the club’s membership to Liebenthal’s service, but their job consisted of escorting Liebenthal’s trucks in case bikers from a rival gang dared appear to threaten a driver or his cargo.

The Fireclowns’ approach to extortion created a profitable and delicate racket which required cooperation and careful coordination between disparate motorcycle clubs. Instead of outfits like the Sun Jesters or the Transmaniacon MC staging actual robberies, risking life and limb for a big score, they made a show of force and dispersed when a truck’s escort made a show of resistance.

In exchange for such displays, they received a generous cut of the fees earned by the Fireclowns for their protection. Thank God nobody figured out we’re as real as pro wrestling.

Despite his rivalry with the more established gang, Riordan regretted not letting the Fallen Angels take the Liebenthal contract, especially after Munakata Tetsuo cut down three Adversaries. Riordan cornered his client in his office afterward. “Are you trying to get my men killed? We’re not trained to take on Adversaries, and you and your bodyguard did your absolute best to bring Morgan Cooper down on us! If we face him, he’ll slaughter us.”

Maybe we’re not fucked yet. Hope sprang to the forefront of Riordan’s mind as the front doors of The Four Winds Bar opened to admit Morgan Cooper and his companions. He immediately broadcast a general order over the secure relay chat the Fireclowns kept open as a matter of habit; it was easier than shouting over engine and road noise, or even bar chatter. «Everybody stay calm. They’re not armed.»

The three split. While Cooper angled for a seat like anybody in need of a cold beer after a ride, the big African guy seemed to make a point of looking for people who were at the Phoenix Society’s Boston chapter the night before, or their relations. “What does the tall man want?”

Though secure relay chat couldn’t convey emotional context, Riordan suspected the replies came from confused men. He’s asking after us, as if we didn’t try to storm a building last night and kidnap his comrades. He says Cooper wants to deal with the client without killing anybody.

Riordan narrowed his eyes at the replies. «Morgan Cooper’s doing a no fatality job? Not likely.»

The notion contradicted everything Riordan knew about the man. If you killed other Adversaries, the Phoenix Society stopped caring about whether you lived to stand trial. They just sent an Adversary who proved himself willing and able to cut down anybody who drew a weapon against him. But the man came unarmed to my bar, which is full of my people. Sure, they might hurt some of us, but the odds are in our favor.

Before Riordan managed to ask the Fireclowns gathered around him to scatter and give Cooper room, somebody started playing the upright piano the barkeep’s son pounded on weekend nights to give the Fireclowns a bit of dancing. He rapped his knuckles on the bar, motioning the bartender over. For some reason, the man resembled Cooper. Jones just has CPMD. Lots of people do. “Did your son come early?”

“No way, Mike. That’s Naomi Bradleigh. You know, the snow-haired lady who came in with Cooper?”

Riordan strained his ears to identify the music. “What the hell is she playing?”

“Must be improv. Too bad my son’s not here to see this.” Jones left Riordan to get a Fireclown’s order as Cooper settled on the stool beside his. He laid a battered leather saddlebag upon the bar, and began counting out bullion. He formed two stacks of coins stamped “1g Au, 99.999% purity verified by the Metallurgical Society of New York,” and pushed one stack of ten towards the bartender. “Good evening, Mr. Jones. Kindly see to it that everybody here eats and drinks their fill with my compliments.” He pushed forward the other stack. “And here is your tip.”

Jones managed to get his jaw unlocked before Riordan got his head around the notion of an Adversary with a reputation for massacre paying for the food and drink of every man in the bar with a month’s worth of profits, and giving the same to the bartender as a tip. “What will you be having, Adversary?”

“Your best single malt. Pour one for the gentleman beside me as well.”

Riordan kept replaying the exchange, unable to taste the Scotch before him. Words flowed past him, slipping through his grasp. “Sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

Cooper nodded. “I asked, ‘How’s your Scotch?’”

“I’m a little too shocked to taste it.”

“I hoped to earn your attention, not to shock you.”

Riordan produced a cigarette case from an inner pocket and selected a joint. “You got my attention by setting foot in my bar. I spent the last quarter hour trying to figure out why you’d come here unarmed.” He tried to light up, but found his lighter nonfunctional.

“I assume you’re aware of my mission in Boston.” Cooper held a stainless steel lighter of his own, and flicked it alight for Riordan.

“Thanks.” Riordan exhaled, letting the smoke calm him as the Adversary snicked his lighter shut and slipped it into his pocket. “You came for my client.”

Cooper put down his drink. “Your client is an arms trafficker, responsible for a coup d’état resulting in the deaths of three Adversaries. Under normal circumstances, I might be justified in locating him, storming the premises, and killing everybody foolish enough to defend him. If I killed him as well, we’d blame him for resisting arrest and suppress any contrary evidence. However, my instructions for this mission are explicit. Because of the charges Liebenthal laid at the Society’s feet, I am to carry out my mission without bloodshed.”

Riordan nodded, and tapped ashes from his joint into the ashtray. If Cooper’s serious about taking down Liebenthal without killing anybody, shouldn’t I cooperate for the club’s sake? If we turn our backs on Liebenthal, though, will anybody else be willing to hire us? Honest mercenaries stay bought, damn it. “It sounds to me like you want us to abandon our contract with Liebenthal.”

“Is my proposition objectionable?”

“It would make our lives harder in the long run. Who would hire us? What’s to stop Liebenthal from hiring the Fallen Angels and sending them after us?”

Morgan smiled as he withdrew three ingots of gold from the saddlebag. The stamp burned itself into Riordan’s mind as the metal flashed under the lights, and read “1kg Au, 99.999% purity verified by the Metallurgical Society of New York.” Riordan tried to crunch the numbers in his head. Three kilograms of gold was three million milligrams; a milligram of gold could buy a man a cup of coffee and a gram was a respectable week’s wage for a middle-class worker. Three thousands grams was fuck you money by any reasonable standard. “This is a year’s pay for you and your men. I am prepared to give you this money up front, in exchange for your service.”

“You want the Fireclowns to work for you, for a year? What would we do? You don’t need protection.”

“Neither does anybody else, at least not for the next year. I want you to stay out of my way for now, and do nothing which would embarrass me. The city’s other motorcycle clubs are my concern, not yours.”

Cooper’s requirements were far from onerous, but the thought of betraying Liebenthal stuck in Riordan’s throat. Don’t matter that Liebenthal threw himself into a meat grinder and expects us to jump in after him. A contract’s a contract. “You make a tempting offer, Adversary, but―”

“You dislike the notion of betraying your client. Your arrangement depends on his ability to pay you on time, does it not?”

“Yeah. If he stiffs us, we’re out.”

Cooper nodded, and rapped on the bar to get Jones’ attention. “Another Scotch, please. May I borrow a tablet?”

Jones placed the tablet next to Cooper’s drink. Rather than taste the Scotch, he turned his attention to the tablet and pulled up what appeared to be the 2112 budget for the City of Boston: five hundred kilograms to be spent on the police, fire department, roads, parks, schools, and every other service a city provided its citizens. “The Phoenix Society normally refrains from imposing unfunded mandates on city governments. The city is expected to provide certain services, and the Society defrays the expense so that the city need not trample individual rights by levying taxes.”

“The Society cut off the money when Liebenthal took over.”

Morgan nodded. “Cutting off funding is standard procedure in situations like this. The sudden cessation of services normally makes it impossible for people like Liebenthal to obtain popular support. He held off the stoppage by funding the government himself, but he cannot do so much longer. He will be broke tomorrow. If you continue to work for him, it will be as his tax collectors.”

Riordan pushed the three kilogram ingots back towards Cooper. “I need to speak to Liebenthal before I make a decision. I need to hear from the man himself that he won’t be able to pay us.”

Cooper nodded as he returned the gold to his saddlebag. “Fair enough. I recommend bringing armed men with you, lest Munakata take exception to your departure.”

Chapter 12: Surgical Strike

Scene 1

Morgan sipped his Scotch, which did nothing for him. Should he wrest the bottle from the barman and empty it a glass at a time, he would be somewhat dehydrated, but still sober. The preternatural rate at which he healed kept him from getting drunk. He suppressed a grimace at the taste and put the glass aside; his failure to persuade Michael Riordan meant he no longer needed to engage in sociable drinking. Naomi took the glass for a taste as she settled upon the stool beside him. “Is this what you drink when I’m not around?” She rapped her knuckles on the bar. “Mr. Jones, I’d like a bottle of your best red, and three glasses.”

Jones nodded to Naomi and produced a bottle of Montsigur Pinot Noir for her approval. “Will this do? People usually order beer or liquor here.”

Naomi smiled and laid down a fifty-milligram banknote. “The Montsigur is fine, Mr. Jones. Perhaps a plate of cheeses?”

“Keep your money, Adversary.” Jones pushed the banknote back to Naomi, and opened the bottle for her before leaving. She poured three glasses as he returned with a plate of cheese, meat, and crackers. The third did not go to Sid, but to a biker who closely resembled Michael Riordan. He saluted Morgan with an upraised glass. “My brother Mike told me you tried to persuade him to walk out on Liebenthal.”

Morgan nodded. “Liebenthal will soon be unable to pay for your services, and will attempt to use you as tax collectors. I doubt the people of Boston will respond politely to attempts at extortion on your part, but your brother insists upon speaking to your client before considering my warning.”

“He’s too polite to say he doesn’t trust you.” The younger Riordan speared a slice of cheddar with a toothpick. “We don’t understand why, after years of ‘All who threaten me die,’ you want to show restraint.”

Naomi sipped her wine, letting it redden her coral lips for a moment. “Didn’t you explain your orders, Morgan?”

“My orders always require me to attempt an arrest without bloodshed. Under normal circumstances, an attack on me and my companions, not to mention your collusion with the Sun Jesters, would convince the Phoenix Society I had cause to slaughter you. Your employer complicates the situation.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” The younger Riordan turned morose, and stared into his wine. “Your bosses don’t realize we’re actually doing you all a favor by keeping gangs like the Jesters under a semblance of control.”

“Protection in exchange for a fee.” Naomi smiled at the Fireclown. “Others might call it taxation.”

“It ain’t taxation, lady, because we ain’t got a monopoly. We compete with other gangs to provide the best protection at the lowest cost. You don’t have to hire any of us, but you’d be stupid not to. It’s not like the Society provides a highway patrol.”

Morgan nodded. “Which is why the Phoenix Society has thus far turned a blind eye. We are not here on account of your racketeering. We came on account of your client. You and your fellow Fireclowns are in my way.”

“Why not arrest us all, and kill any who resist? That’s how guys like you roll. Mike planned for it. We were going to lay down our arms and surrender. We figured you’d be so busy taking our asses into custody our client could escape.” Riordan punctuated his point by stabbing at the air with his toothpick. “Mike doesn’t trust your soft approach, and neither do I. I can persuade the man, but you gotta persuade me first. What’s your real reason for doing everything short of saying ‘pretty please’?”

Riordan paused to empty his glass. “So, killer, what’s the real deal? Trying to show off your soft side for the lady?”

Morgan shook his head, recalling his mission to Shenzhen. He drew his sword on Munakata before giving him an opportunity to explain himself. All because I believed he betrayed us and the ideals we swore to uphold. Now you work for Liebenthal, or does he work for you? Did I set these events in motion through my rashness? “No. With one exception, which I refuse to discuss with you, I stand by my actions. The exception might be the reason we are having this conversation. Furthermore, if I kill Liebenthal, the Phoenix Society will put me on trial as an CRDF agent gone rogue to save its own reputation.”

Riordan gave him a curious look. “How can you work for these people?”

“I took an oath, but this is the last job. Once Liebethal’s in custody, I’m done.”

“OK. Mike won’t turn his back on the client even if he can’t make payroll, but you should know a bit about our traditions. We ourselves are not committed to Liebenthal. We’re committed to Mike, who is in turn committed to Liebenthal. Should we experience a change in leadership, the new President would then be free to either renegotiate his predecessor’s commitments, or repudiate them. Liebenthal’s aware; it’s in the contract.”

“What part of ‘without bloodshed’ did I leave unclear?”

“Do your orders leave you free to hurt somebody badly enough that they can’t ride a motorcycle? Mike’s tenure as President would be over until the next election, if he’s incapacitated. The incapacitation need not be permanent.”

Naomi caught Morgan’s hand before he could speak. “Are you asking us to kneecap your brother?”

“Of course not.” Riordan rolled his eyes. “I’ll talk to the man, and tell him challenging you to a duel is the best possible solution to all our problems. You want to deprive Liebenthal of support, and we want an honorable out. Just make it look good without killing the man, all right?”

Scene 2

Michael Riordan loved his younger brother, Roger, but he had trouble trusting the man when he came up with schemes. He stared, disbelief growing as Roger explained his idea. This is Roger angling for a shot at the President’s colors without having to win an election. “Roger, stop. You want me to duel Morgan Cooper, and trust the man to leave me unable to ride without permanently crippling or killing me? Are you nuts?”

“You got a better idea? You wanted an honorable way out of this mess with Liebenthal since he told us he was going to pull a coup. He’s going to use us as his tax collectors once he runs out of money. Cooper doesn’t want to kill us. Our neighbors will once we show up at their doors to extort them.”

Michael looked across the bar at Cooper, who just stole a kiss from Bradleigh. The sight comforted him, perhaps because it made a man of him, and not a war machine. “We’re going to do this properly, Roger. I want you as my second. Arrange for an ambulance and EMTs.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Roger held his fingertips to his ear, and Michael made his own call. Liebenthal immediately accepted the connection. What is it, Riordan?

I created an opportunity to take out Morgan Cooper. He’s with the big guy who kicked Munakata’s ass last night, and some woman. A bit pale for my taste, and those big red eyes freak me out, but I can overlook her flaws if she’s willing to overlook mine. They’re all unarmed.

He muted the connection on his end to keep his thoughts to himself while waiting for a response. Good thing Adversary Bradleigh can’t hear me talking about her like that. Somebody who can play like her deserves more respect, but I need to keep up appearances. Can’t show too much respect to an enemy.

Two words from Liebenthal sealed the deal, and gave Michael the out he needed. If he lost, his imminently former client would find himself without recourse. Do it.

Michael disconnected, as Roger took his fingertips from his ear and gave him a thumbs up. He unclasped the strap holding his sword in place as he strode across the bar. “Adversary Cooper! I need you to step outside with your second.”

Cooper raised an eyebrow. “Are you challenging me to a duel, Mr. Riordan?”

Michael nodded. “I’m sorry to do this after you were so generous to me and my men, but I just got the order straight from the top. He wants me to take you out. Do you want to borrow a sword?”

Morgan shook his head. “Naomi, find Sid and tell him I need a second. See if you can persuade Roger to let you act as referee.”

“I suppose I must.” Bradleigh sighed and slipped into her coat, which clung as close as the uniform blouse beneath it. She flashed a brief glare at her man, who nodded before turning to a Fireclown wearing a matte black rapier with a swept hilt on her hip. Some of the other guys gave Jennifer O’Malley a lot of shit for choosing such a weapon; they called her a wannabe Zorro and offered to buy her a whip, hat, and domino to complete her outfit, but the blade fit her well. “Ma’am, your president challenged me to a duel, and I find myself unprepared. Might I borrow your weapon?”

O’Malley blinked a couple of times before detaching her rapier from her belt and handing it to Cooper, who offered money in exchange. “Please accept this as a damage deposit.”

Cooper turned without giving her a chance to object and strode through the doors of The Four Winds Bar. She stared at the money in her hand, looking up only when Michael made to follow. “Tell him to keep the damn sword.”

The Fireclowns mounted their cycles as he stepped outside; the snarl of thorium-powered electric motors greeted him as he approached a semicircle drawn in the parking lot by the motorcycles and their riders. More joined, filling the circle until the duelists and their seconds stood surrounded. Roger spoke with Naomi a moment before rushing to his side. “Adversaries Schneider and Bradleigh will stay in the circle with me; they’ve got some training in field medicine, so we can give you first aid. An ambulance and EMTs are on their way.”

Bradleigh stood in the center of the circle, equidistant between Michael and Cooper, who held his borrowed rapier beside his right hip, his left hand floating above the hilt. Michael refrained from drawing his sword, for lex gladius dictated that both participants in a duel should draw at the referee’s command. Bradleigh’s voice was a clarion, high and clear above the hum of five hundred idling motorcycles. “Ladies and gentlemen, you sit as witnesses to a duel between Michael Riordan, President of the Fireclowns Motorcycle Club, and Adversary Morgan Cooper. The terms are as follows: on my command, the combatants will draw their weapons, advance at a walk, and engage. The duel will continue until one of the combatants sustains wounds rendering him unfit to ride a motorcycle.” She turned to Cooper; custom required the challenged party be addressed first by the referee. “Adversary Cooper, do you understand the terms as I explained them?”

“Yes, ma’am.” She turned to Michael; he imagined for a moment a look of concern in her scarlet eyes. “Mr. Riordan, do you understand the terms as I explained them?”

Michael rolled his shoulders under his heavy leather jacket, which protected him in other duels; it felt inadequate tonight. I’m not fighting to first blood. “Yes, ma’am.”

Bradleigh nodded. “You may withdraw your challenge. Will you not do so?”

The question was part of a custom which grew after Nationfall as the survivors worked to create societies capable of functioning in the absence of trustworthy governments. On the northwestern coast of what was once the North American Commonwealth, the survivors chose to live by a code they called lex gladius, or sword law. If violence was to remain part of the human condition, it should be personal, and never faceless. One of the custom’s first and most vocal advocates gave the tradition another name, drawn from her novels: “okal rel.” They eschewed the use of firearms for fear of dehumanizing their enemies.

Custom obliged Adversary Bradleigh to offer Michael the opportunity to withdraw his challenge. Sorry, lady, but I need to get my men clear of Liebenthal’s shitstorm. “I insist on this duel, ma’am, and I await your pleasure.”

“I’ll take no pleasure in this.” Bradleigh shook her head. “Gentlemen, please draw your swords.”

Any hope Michael harbored of Cooper being uncomfortable with the rapier after years spent with his trademark longsword vanished; the Adversary unsheathed his blade first, and saluted by touching the hilt to his forehead. OK, so he isn’t going to spring forward and run me through. I can’t tell if he just wants the result to be legit to avoid a battle, or if he respects sword law, or if he wants to give the lady a good show, but I won’t begrudge him.

He raised his longsword in a two-handed grip and inspected the blade; it was as straight and strong as when he cleaned, sharpened, and oiled the blade last week. He recalled his original hope for defeat after a valiant effort, but the weight of a blade in his hands banished such notions; the object of a duel was to win, not to lose after giving a good show. Disarming him will give me a chance to win. I can do this.

“Gentlemen, advance and engage!” Bradleigh withdrew to the edge of the circle, where the seconds waited.

Cooper turned away to lead with his rapier’s tip. He hid his arm behind the rapier’s guard, depriving Michael of opportunities to disarm him with a cut to the hand, wrist, or forearm. He hid his body behind his arm and sword, and advanced while circling Michael.

Michael also circled Cooper, searching for openings. I can’t cut him, so I have to break his sword.

He tried a quick cut, and his sword gently thrummed from contact with Cooper’s rapier. Steel bit the back of his hand, and Michael recoiled. He involuntarily glanced at his hand before returning his attention to the Adversary. Shit. I didn’t even see him move. He could have run me through if he wanted.

“First blood, Mr. Riordan.” Cooper withdrew, and lowered his sword. “Will you yield?”

Michael examined the scratch again. So shallow it barely bled, it still reminded him of his opponent’s skill. He’s just asking for courtesy’s sake. Sword law only obligates the challenger to offer a chance to yield after first blood. He can kill me whenever he wants. I should back down, but that leaves the men obligated to follow Liebenthal. Taking a deep breath, he raised his sword again. “You know I can’t do that, Adversary. Defend yourself.”

His resolve renewed, Michael threw himself at the Adversary and raised his blade to cut downward at the last moment. The rapier was a blur of shadows in Cooper’s hand; it beat aside his cut before dipping downward to bite through denim and flesh to pierce his thigh midway down. Blood spurted arterial crimson beneath the halogen lamps as Michael dropped his sword to scramble at his belt. Got to get it around my leg before I bleed out!

Boot heels beat a rapid-fire tattoo against the pavement as his knees buckled; Roger laid him on his back, and Cooper raised his legs high while Schneider got a tourniquet around his thigh well above where he was transfixed. EMTs got a stretcher under him and wheeled him to the waiting ambulance. Roger followed, holding his fallen sword. “You’re going to be all right, man. We got to you in plenty of time.”

Scene 3

“Doctor Blair? Doctor Blair? Doctor Jay Hamilton? Doctor Jay Hamilton?” The nurse on the public address system possessed an eerie familiarity to Munakata Tetsuo as he searched the halls of Revere Memorial Hospital for the room to which Michael Riordan was assigned. He half-expected to encounter an angry nurse with a London accent demanding an explanation as to why he was still up, since it was ten minutes past curfew. He shook his head and continued his search. Damn Cooper for introducing me to that album back in ACS.

He stepped in front of an intern. “Excuse me, doctor. I’m looking for Michael Riordan.”

“Last door on the right. Out of my way.” The nametag pinned crookedly to his white coat read Dr. Jay Hamilton. No doubt Dr. Blair was nearby. Munakata raised an eyebrow at the intern’s manner, and hoped for the sake of his patients that he wasn’t always so rude. Did he not see my sword, or do hospitals still overwork interns until provoking a killer becomes a good way to get some rest?

The intern’s directions proved accurate. Michael Riordan’s room was private, and would doubtless seem sunny and cheery come the morning; the walls had a fresh coat of creamy yellow paint. Riordan was awake; his eyes were alert, but focused on his tablet’s screen as if reading. His left hand was rigged for an intravenous drip.

“You didn’t kill Cooper.”

Riordan’s eyes widened, an involuntary reaction upon recognizing Munakata. He put aside the tablet. “He tackled one of my men, got his hands on a rapier, and nailed the artery in my thigh. He and his girlfriend gave me first aid, but told the guys they’d let me bleed out if they weren’t allowed to leave once I was on my way to the hospital. Talk about a fuckin’ surgical strike. One thrust and the Fireclowns can’t do a damn thing.”

“Why didn’t you sacrifice yourself and order your men to kill the Adversaries?”

Riordan answered with a contemptuous snort. “Tetsuo, do I look like I do bushido? Honor is redeemable. Dead is forever.” He held up the tablet; the screen displayed a wall of text. “I never got around to finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.”

“You cling to life to finish a novel?”

“Clinging to life is something dying men do. The doctor told me I reached stage two hypovolemia. I lost more blood than I would by donating, but they got the bleeding under control before shock set in. I’m going to be fine, especially now that you and the Fireclowns no longer share an employer.” Riordan shrugged. “It’s a good novel. You should try it.”

A door opened behind Munakata. He turned to find a man resembling Riordan. He wore the President’s colors, and his right hand rested on the wooden grip of an 11.43mm revolver. “I duck into the crapper for five minutes and look who shows up. I can’t leave my big brother alone, can I?”

Munakata bowed his head to greet the younger man. Roger Riordan was obligated to uphold the Fireclowns’ contract with Liebenthal, as their new president. “Let’s give your brother some privacy while we discuss business.”

Roger’s hand remained on the grip of his revolver. “What business? Mike is no longer our president, and Liebenthal can kiss my ass.”

“Mr. Liebenthal disagrees.” Munakata hated situations like this; he never learned to negotiate with the ease Cooper brought to the rare situations in which negotiation was possible.

Riordan shrugged, betraying a nonchalance Munakata wanted to answer with steel. “Mr. Liebenthal should read his copy of the contract. The severability clause specifies that all agreements between him and the Fireclowns are null and void should the president be incapacitated and obligated to step down.”

“Please excuse me.” Munakata turned away from Riordan and contacted Liebenthal via secure talk. «Mr. Liebenthal, I just spoke to the Riordan brothers. The younger man, Roger, is now president of the Fireclowns MC. I reminded him of the company’s obligations, but he said something about the contract’s severability clause.»

«How was Michael Riordan incapacitated?»

Munakata tapped at a screen mounted by the door to summon the chart. «Riordan suffered a rapier thrust to the lower inner thigh which penetrated the femoral artery. The patient lost enough blood to reach stage two hypovolemia before receiving first aid, which consisting of elevating the legs and applying a tourniquet.» He read further, noting that the thrust did not completely sever the artery, but penetrated Riordan’s thigh no further than was necessary to open the blood vessel. Unable to refrain from admiration, Munakata kept it to himself. «Cooper probably discovered the clause, and decided to deprive Liebenthal of the vast majority of his forces with a surgical strike. I hope he draws his sword on me again; to duel a man capable of such precision is its own reward, he thought.»

He turned his attention back to Liebenthal. «Your instructions, sir?»

«Don’t bother with those clowns any longer. I need you here, if you’re my only soldier.» The words conveyed his employer’s disgust despite lacking inflection.

When Munakata returned to City Hall, he found Liebenthal in the Mayor’s office with a tall woman whose long hair was a sable cascade over the black mink cloak clinging to her figure. Black leather gloves covered her long-fingered hands, one of which held a black attaché case. Turning golden eyes upon Munakata, she revealed a face her words burned into his memory three years ago when she acknowledged his plight while refusing her aid. Munakata’s hands flew to his sword as he leaned forward to draw. “I appreciate your prior intervention, Tamara Gellion, but I demand an explanation for your presence.”

“It seems gratitude keeps your sword sheathed, but you hold no fond memories of me.” Gellion turned fully towards Munakata, allowing him to see beneath her mink cloak the same lace-edged black dress with a square neckline in which she had greeted him last time. “I intend no contempt for your mastery of the sword, but it will not avail you against me.”

Liebenthal pounded the desk with a fist. “Dammit, Munakata, she’s from the Executive Council. Get your hands off your sword.”

“Sir, I know damn well she’s XC. I’m just waiting for your order to escort her from the premises.”

Gellion turned from Munakata and placed her case upon the desktop. She opened it without a word, and a scent of fresh-pressed cotton paper and ink filled the air as she retrieved a sheaf of banknotes and lofted them towards Munakata with a gentle underhand. He caught it and nearly dropped it as he noted the denomination. He placed it back in the case after eyeballing the contents, and turned to Liebenthal. “Does the Phoenix Society know one of its Executive Council is offering us enough money to run the city for the next three years?”

“It is not the Society’s money, and therefore not the Society’s concern.” Tamara Gellion settled into one of the chairs, and crossed her legs at the knee. “This is my own money, and my reasons for offering it are to remain private.”

His eyes lit both by greed and a sudden flare of hope, Liebenthal was first to speak. It suited Munakata for he doubted his ability to be civil with Gellion. “Ma’am, if you’re offering us this much money, we don’t need to know your reasons.”

“I appreciate your courtesy, Mr. Liebenthal, but I deem an explanation necessary. Isaac Magnin uses the Phoenix Society to answer a question I posed him during Nationfall.”

“You don’t look like you were around for Nationfall.”

She shrugged off Liebenthal’s remark and continued. “He uses gentlemen like you to provide legitimacy for the Society’s operations, but found a new use for you as a means of testing Morgan Cooper.”

“Tell me something I don’t already know, like why he’s doing it.”

A gentle smile graced her lips. “His plans may involve Cooper, should he prove suitable. To elaborate further would require an explanation of the world’s history discrepant with your understanding. Nevertheless, it is in my interest to prevent this experiment’s premature conclusion.”

“Fair enough. Is Magnin aware of your involvement?”

Munakata doubted it. If Tamara Gellion could pose Isaac Magnin a question which would drive him to remake human society’s systems of government, she must be a power capable of compelling his respect. If Liebenthal was to be used as a pawn in some contest between wizards, or whatever Magnin, Mellech, and Gellion were, then Munakata meant for him to know he was being used, and why. “What will you demand of us in exchange for your support?”

“Your question is impertinent.” Gellion’s expression hardened as she turned to Munakata. She advanced upon him, but he drew his katana without thinking and raised it. She stopped half an arm’s length from its tip. “You dare draw your sword upon me, after the help I offered?”

“You have your own reasons for helping us, so you’ll not withdraw your offer. I have no reason, therefore, to withdraw my question. If you would use my employer, you will do so without subterfuge. Otherwise, take your money and begone.”

Gellion pushed aside the flat of Munakata’s blade with the back of her hand, and drew closer. “When next I speak with Imaginos, I must ask if this combination of audacity and acumen is common to all asura emulators. I was wrong to turn you away three years ago.” She withdrew as Munakata sheathed his sword, and offered to Liebenthal a folded sheet of paper. “You may expect to hear from each of these men very soon.”

Rather than use the doors, she disappeared before them. Liebenthal’s hands trembled as he read the list Gellion gave him while darting glances at the cash she left on his desk. “We can field an army of thousands, Munakata, even if the Transmaniacon MC alone were to help us. And there’s no way Cooper can bribe my soldiers out from under me a second time!”

Chapter 13: Blowback

Scene 1

The Phoenix Society failed to consider the comfort of future occupants when outfitting the safe house on Exeter Street. The house contained two dormitories instead of separate bedrooms. Each was filled with narrow bunk beds whose thin mattresses were covered by thin blankets. Naomi stole a few hours of sleep before dawn, despite the spartan accommodations. It’s like ACS again.

Sarah did the same, and snored softly at the other side of the dorm. Naomi sat up, and tried to scratch an itch between her shoulder-blades which she never quite managed to reach. I wonder if Morgan’s awake.

She rose quietly, and retrieved a fresh set of clothes from her footlocker. I might as well be ready for this morning’s raid. She found a long-handled bath brush beneath her clothes, and let a sigh of relief escape her lips. At least I can scratch this damnable itch.

She found Morgan in the study, seated before a terminal. She padded across the carpet behind him while fluffing her damp hair with an equally white towel, and brushed aside his own barely dry hair to kiss the nape of his neck. She resisted the temptation to question him concerning the tattoo she found hidden beneath his mane, which read as follows:

AsgarTech Corporation Asura Emulator Project 100 Series Serial Number: AE101/1010011010 Activation: 6 June 2082 @ 0600 UTC

She bent to taste his skin and make him shudder beneath her kiss. He only managed a sigh, and took her hands in his as she wound her arms around him. “You’re up early, Naomi.”

“Did you even sleep? You’ll be worn out if you’re not careful.”

“Claire got her hands on Liebenthal’s data as we were getting back. It’s an unstructured mess of documents and spreadsheets, and I expect we’ll be able to take Liebenthal in a few hours, so I thought I’d help Claire get the data prepared for mining.”

She nosed his ear. “Why didn’t you leave this to Claire and sleep? We need you to be sharp.”

An avatar of a young woman wearing glasses popped up on the screen. Most of her oxblood hair was bound into a French twist; a few ringlets escaped to frame a face too idealized to be Claire’s. “I’ll be doing most of the work, Nims. Poor Morgan just helped Claire work out the requirements.”

“Why leave this work to Morgan, when you’re capable of converting the data faster.” Not that I stayed up to keep him company.

Morgan chuckled. “Astarte refused. She insisted I work out the relationships since I’m the Adversary here, and therefore possess domain knowledge.”

“Also, we AIs don’t want you humans becoming too dependent upon us. Vomisa Principle Zero applies in this situation.” Astarte smiled, leaving Naomi to wonder if she was joking. She knew of only three Vomisa Principles of robotics and artificial intelligence; Dr. Ruth Vomisa formulated them, while designing the Sephiroth, to provide a basis for AIs to develop ethics which would allow them to coexist with people. “By the way, Morgan, all of your logic checks out. The similarity between your suggested database design and Claire’s is ninety percent. I can combine your designs, if you wish. Do you want me to start the conversion?”

“Please do so.” Morgan threw his arms back while stretching, and let his head loll. His yawned, and pushed himself to his feet. “Please prepare a report for me detailing the differences between my design and Claire’s. I wonder what I missed.”

“Go take a nap. I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Astarte’s animation became a little jagged, as if the conversion process drew too much power from her processors and impinged on cycles allocated elsewhere. “Naomi, at least make sure Morgan has breakfast. He has important work to do today.”

“Of course.” She turned to fetch Morgan and drag him into the kitchen, but he curled up on the couch, and settled on his side to sleep. She draped a blanket over him before brushing a kiss against his cheek.

To her delight, the kitchen was equipped with all of the gear needed to prepare a proper breakfast for Adversaries. She ate strawberries while preparing a breakfast of ham steaks, curried potatoes, and scrambled eggs. Giggles escaped her lips as Mordred padded into the kitchen and begged for a strawberry. She offered him rind trimmed from the ham steaks instead, which earned her a view of the white patch on his belly as he flopped on the floor purring.

Sid yawned his way into the kitchen, wearing only a pair of drawstring trousers and a ratty old Herakles Gym t-shirt; he smelled of fresh sweat, as if he just finished working out downstairs. “Mornin’, Nims. You planning to eat all that?”

“Of course not. There’s enough for everybody. Be a dear and wake everybody up, Morgan last. He’s on the couch in the study.”

Sid slowly shook his head. “I told him to just let Claire deal with it, but does he listen to me?”

“You’re not in his chain of command.” Cohen slapped Sid’s shoulder as the big man slipped past him to leave the kitchen. He glanced at the food. “Did you cook, Nims?”

She turned over the steaks and checked the eggs before stirring the curried potatoes. “It’s obvious?”

“I smell curry. When we’re on a job, and it’s Sid’s turn to cook, he never uses spices. The man’s content with prepackaged rations, so we revoked his kitchen privileges. How long until it’s ready?”

“Not long. Please help me serve.”

Naomi failed to catch Morgan alone again until after breakfast. The others were happy to eat her cooking, and ask in vain for a second helping, but none wanted a hand in the cleanup. Morgan, at least, offered to wash the dishes and leave the drying to her. “Thanks for breakfast. I needed that.”

“We all did.”

He passed each piece to her in silence until he reached the large skillet in which she prepared the scrambled eggs. He set to scrubbing it, and glanced at Naomi. “I could have won by applying an arm-lock and dislocating his shoulder. Because I borrowed a sword, I put his life at risk.”

She remembered the speed with which Riordan moved once he committed himself, and the fatal trajectory of his blade. This is his guilt talking. “Without a blade, your only option was to try to dodge. Riordan was good enough to make dodging too risky.”

“Not necessarily.”

The plate slipped from her fingertips. She expected to hear it shatter upon the floor, but no sound came. She glanced down at her feet, but the floor was clear.

“Look on the counter.”

Naomi stared at the counter; the plate she dropped sat in front of the others. She stared at him. “How did you do that?”

“I call it ‘time compression.’ Sometimes, if I’m in the zone, my own progress through time seems slower than that of the world around me.”

Can he do that again? Despite years of friendship and desire for Morgan, she still knew little about him. She always believed he was just a man with CPMD who took foolhardy risks as an Adversary because the preternatural speed with which he healed lent him a false sense of security. I’m not going to treat him differently because of this ability, or because of that tattoo. Whatever else he might be, he’s still Morgan. He did his best to be the lover Christabel wanted. I taste his love in his kisses, and his hunger presses into me when he holds me close. He’s mine, damn it.

Despite this, her curiosity demanded she test him. An impish smile curved her lips as she pushed the plate from the counter. This time, he lunged forward and caught the plate by sliding his hand along the floor. “You moved this time.”

Morgan stacked the plate atop the others before drawing her into his arms to prevent further mischief. “Your smile distracted me. I need to concentrate, or it doesn’t work.”

She imagined Morgan as a child, shocking his parents as he assembled a puzzle in what seemed an instant. “Were you always able to do this?”

“No.” He shook his head. He began to redden, and turned away from Naomi, leaving her to wonder what he was thinking. “It started before our first show. I wanted everything to be perfect for you, but the stage was a shambles.”

“Does it only work when I’m on your mind?” The notion terrified Naomi. She always believed Morgan wholly independent, a man who needed nobody, but befriended her and the others for the simple pleasure of their company. If he needed her to reach his full potential, such dependence threatened to distort their relationship.

“Only when I hear your voice.” He flashed a smile, and Naomi found herself in his arms.

She pulled away from his kiss long enough to whisper in his ear. “Flattery will get you everywhere, but what if I’m not around?”

“In all seriousness, passion alone usually isn’t enough. I did some research, and experimented after the tour, when I had some time alone. I learned that focusing on complex music is an easier and more consistent means of finding flow. I prefer neo-Romantic heavy metal because it reminds me of you.”

Of course it does. She helped him reshape Crowley’s Thoth into such a band once Christabel brought them aboard her pet project. Naomi needed little time, despite his warmth lingering upon her lips, to understand the implications of Morgan achieving a flow state using music. “You didn’t need a weapon to defeat Riordan.”

Morgan opened the cabinet beneath the sink and placed the used washcloth in a bin labeled for that purpose. “If I get into the zone, I can defeat dozens bare-handed, but my focus still isn’t completely reliable.”

“Is that why you borrowed a sword?” Naomi hoped it was the case, but feared his answer would be that he did so out of love for her and a need to protect her peace of mind.

Morgan poured mugs of coffee before answering. “I needed the Fireclowns to see me defeat Riordan in a fair duel. I dared not use any sort of preternatural ability while facing him. I would have fought empty-handed, using only my natural strength and agility, but Riordan might have assumed mockery on my part. It was better to face him on his terms.” Naomi nodded as she sipped her coffee, which was as black as the interior of a gun’s barrel, but possessed of a hint of sweetness. These were logical, pragmatic reasons, and Naomi detected no defect in his logic. She prompted him to continue by placing her hand on his, but was taken aback by the intensity with which he gazed into her eyes. “You’re right to question me. The chances of my walking away from such a fight unscathed are somewhat limited.”

“You really think you’d walk away with your head cloven in two by a sword?” Asking was a mistake. Now he’ll say it wouldn’t be the first time.

Instead, he took her hand. “I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.”

A burst of profane raving from outside the kitchen filled the air before he could continue. Sarah burst into the kitchen. “Hey, Romeo. Del Rio’s on the screen in the parlor, and she is pissed.”

Scene 2

Alexander Liebenthal assumed, based on the example Michael Riordan set with the Fireclowns, that the Transmaniacon MC’s leaders would show a similar military bearing, and carry themselves with similar professionalism despite the unreasonably early hour at which he requested their presence. One of them did. His jeans and leathers fit him well enough to serve as a uniform, though Liebenthal doubted any respectable military organization would adopt a skull with knives driven through the eye sockets as a standard. The man bore such an uncanny resemblance to Munakata Tetsuo, due to their similar builds and features, that Liebenthal was tempted to take his bodyguard aside and ask him if he was some kind of third cousin a dozen times removed. To his dismay, Vincent Rubicante was not the head of the Transmaniacon, but the boss’ lieutenant. The boss, one Barnabas Lugae, was a squat, hunched-over troll whose hypertrophic musculature and acne suggested the abuse of anabolic steroids.

“Your boyfriend told Vinnie you want to hire Transmaniacon to be your army.” Lugae jerked a thumb towards Munakata, who stood at attention with his sword ready to draw. His growl reminded Liebenthal of an old, cranky diesel engine. The hostility with which he spoke further indicated steroid abuse. He discreetly opened his top right drawer, where he kept a loaded 9mm pistol. He doubted the parabellum rounds would do much good if Lugae was determined, but they might buy Munakata a few seconds. “Why should we give a fuck if you get to keep control of the city? We do what we want no matter who gets called Mayor.”

“I paid the Fireclowns a kilogram a week for their services. Two grams of gold per man. I am prepared to reach a similar agreement with your organization. Two grams per man, per week.”

“You’re a rich man. You can pay us more. Or we’ll just take it.” Lugae cracked his knuckles and bared his teeth. Liebenthal assumed he intended a primate threat display. Such knuckle-dragging behavior at four in the morning was sufficient cause for elimination. He nodded to Munakata, whose katana sprang into his hands. Lugae’s head thumped upon the floor, followed by the rest of his carcass. Without waiting for the former leader of the Transmaniacon MC to bleed out, he nodded to Rubicante. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Vincent Rubicante even sounded like Munakata. He glanced at the man he resembled, who had just cleaned his katana and sheathed it, before nodding to Liebenthal. “Thank you. You are not a patient man.”

“My patience, like my time, is sorely limited. The only question is whether cancer gets me before Morgan Cooper does.”

Rubicante nodded his understanding. “Fair enough, but in your position I’d prefer a swift end beneath Cooper’s blade.”

Munakata drew a hand-span of his blade. “If Mr. Liebenthal wished such euthanasia, he has me.”

“Point taken.” Rubicante returned his attention to Liebenthal, gesturing towards a chair. “May I sit?”

“Of course. Scotch?”

“I’d best not.” The new leader of the Transmaniacon sounded disappointed. “I can’t crack down on the men if I indulge. To answer your prior question: your rates are excellent wages for soldiers. My men are not soldiers. They’re undisciplined, and poorly armed.”

Liebenthal sat back, and steepled his fingers. Such knowledge was eminently exploitable in the hands of an enemy. “Are you sure you should be telling me this?”

“You should know what you’re getting for your money. We don’t have anything resembling a command structure. Every man answered directly to Lugae.”

Liebenthal raised an eyebrow. “Were you not his lieutenant?”

A guffaw from Rubicante was his first answer. “Not likely. Lugae kept me nearby because he didn’t trust me. He thought I was talking to too many people and getting ready to try a takeover.”

“Were you?”

“I was.” Rubicante gave the corpse a swift kick. “And because this idiot insisted upon impertinent threats instead of taking a better deal than we deserve, I must move up my schedule.”

Liebenthal glanced at Munakata, who seemed almost crestfallen as he listened to Rubicante explain the poor state of the new army he took the initiative to secure for him using Tamara Gellion’s list of contacts. Munakata probably had no idea. However, this is the only gang bigger than the Fireclowns. “How many men do you command, Mr. Rubicante, and how are they armed?”

“A thousand, of which a hundred carry lever-action rifles. The rest just have knives, knuckle dusters, and the like. Considering the state of the organization, the rate you offered the Fireclowns is exorbitant. A weekly wage of one gram per man will do.”

He took five kilograms’ worth of banknotes from the case Tamara Gellion left him and placed them on the desk. He would need these men armed and armored, though he doubted Morgan Cooper’s ability to cope with such numbers given the forces available to him. “Here’s your first week’s wages, Mr. Rubicante. Use the rest to equip your men.”

Rubicante rose, payment in hand, and saluted. “Thank you, Mr. Liebenthal. I might not be able to make soldiers of my men in time, but they’ll damned well look the part.” He slipped the money into his coat before crouching down in front of Liebenthal’s desk. When he rose, he held Lugae’s head by an ear, for the man shaved his head. He held the rest of Lugae by the collar of his jacket, and dragged the corpse behind him as he left. The carcass smeared blood across the hardwood floor, and reeked despite its freshness. Munakata’s latest victim had not bothered to visit the men’s room on his way up. “I’ll dispose of the garbage on my way out.”

Munakata locked the door behind their departing guest before ducking into a supply closet. By some malign providence, he produced a shop vacuum built for the express purpose of cleaning up liquid spills, set about sucking up the blood which poured from Lugae’s decapitated body, before washing the floor. Once finished, he considered Liebenthal for a moment. “Rubicante warned me about his boss when I spoke to him, so I thought I should keep the means to clean up a mess on hand. We will have other guests.”

Liebenthal poured himself a drink, gulped it down, and poured another. “Who?”

“Representatives from other mercenary outfits. None of them are as numerous as the Transmaniacon MC, but their combined force should pose difficulty for Cooper. If the Fireclowns come to his aid, he will have five hundred men of his own to field against our thousands. Otherwise, it’s just him and his fellow Adversaries.”

Liebenthal remembered the one gang not mentioned on Gellion’s list. “What about the Fallen Angels?”

“We got the same answer they gave Cooper. We’re to fuck off and die, because it ain’t their problem.”

That figured. Liebenthal courted them before hiring the Fireclowns, back when he was still legitimate and just needed bikers to escort his produce trucks. Their manners had not improved in the meantime.

We’re escalating the conflict. Each of us is gathering men to our side. I will field my men to hamper Cooper, and keep him from reaching me. However, he will no doubt field his own men to counter mine, if he has any, and come directly for me. He frowned as Munakata finished polishing the floor.

Once the closet was closed, Munakata settled into a chair and laid his katana across his lap. His movements seemed more relaxed and fluid to Liebenthal. He always thought of Munakata as some kind of machine possessed of human intellect. “I should mention the leaders of these groups will resemble Rubicante and me.”

Liebenthal recalled a resemblance between the two. “Are you all distant cousins, or something?”

Munakata shook his head. “We’re all asuras. So is Morgan Cooper, by the way. According to Ms. Gellion, Imaginos created us as an experiment. He hoped to replace human Adversaries, who burn out under the pressure inherent to their authority after a year or two of service, with androids capable of withstanding such psychological strain. As a bonus, we are stronger and faster than humans, and heal swiftly from wounds which might incapacitate or kill normal people.”

Liebenthal stroked his chin, the stubble rasping beneath his fingertips. “If you asuras joined up, do you think you could kill Cooper?”

“We would get in each other’s way. We don’t know each other, and aren’t used to fighting as a unit. He would have the advantage.”

So much for that bright idea. He began to cough, and felt Munakata’s hands supporting him as he doubled over.

His bodyguard led him to an armchair by the fire and draped a blanket over him. “Is it time for your medicine?”

He coughed again after checking the time. “Too early.”

“You’re in no shape to negotiate with these people. May I do so in your stead?” Liebenthal stared at Munakata, who was the perfect bodyguard in all but one respect; he almost never displayed initiative. Nor would he ever presume to touch Liebenthal. Yesterday, he would have left him to make it to the chair by the fire on his own. “Mr. Liebenthal?”

“Sorry. My mind wandered.” He considered his bodyguard. No. My partner. He’s the one who suggested we fight back against Imaginos when the doctors told me I was fucked. I’m still alive because this guy gave me a reason to keep going. “You’re fired, Tetsuo. I got no business treating you like anything short of a partner, when I would have eaten my gun without you. I’ll keep a secure talk session open in case you have any questions, but I trust your judgment.”

Instead of bowing as he had always done, Munakata acknowledged the words with a small smile. “Thank you, Alexander. I will see to everything.”

Scene 3

Somebody muted the screen from which Karen Del Rio, one of the directors of the New York CRDF corps, raved and pontificated. Instead of listening to her tiresome abuse while waiting for her to arrive at her point by the most circuitous possible route, Morgan had the luxury of being able to settle upon the couch and watch the real-time transcription of her blithering scroll across the screen. He had no need to hear her describe Naomi as a ‘morale booster’ when getting it in subtitles was sufficient. He had the room to himself; according to Sarah, Del Rio wanted to speak exclusively to him.

He turned on the screen’s speakers. “―you arrogant long-haired bastard! Did you think you were being cute by taking the Fireclowns away from Liebenthal? While you were having yourself a leisurely fucking breakfast, he got himself another army! Instead of five hundred Fireclowns, he’s got a couple thousand men from every biker gang in Boston but the local Fallen Angels! What in the name of hell’s asshole have you got to say for yourself?”

Morgan shrugged. He was too far away to slap Del Rio’s petulant face, and never yielded to the temptation to do so when she offended him in person. Though he bore no love for his foster parents, they taught him better. “This is why I usually just kill everybody who gets in my way, and kill the suspect if he offers any resistance. However, you insisted I do the job without killing anybody. Rather than tear the throat out of every Fireclown who stood between me and the target, I bribed them to abandon him. I dueled with their leader, which allowed them to get out of their contract with Liebenthal while still abiding by it. I thought, based on the psychological profile provided with my instructions, that the sudden loss of his army would cripple Liebenthal and allow me to take him out this morning.”

“You should have taken him last night.” Morgan loved this quality of Del Rio’s; she was ever ready to tell him what he should have done, despite having never worn an Adversary’s pins herself. He tried to take plenty of suspects at night. They all ended up dead by his hand. He forced his fists to loosen, and kept his voice cool. “Last night, Del Rio? Don’t tell me you missed Liebenthal’s speech. The bastard stopped just short of calling the Phoenix Society a totalitarian regime, and comparing the Adversaries to such a regime’s secret police.”

“That’s just rhetoric, you idiot. Nobody takes him seriously!”

“Nobody at all?” Morgan recalled the defaced recruitment poster he and the others passed during their ride. He encountered its like everywhere. The posters themselves seemed designed to appeal to primitive emotions: a desire on the part of the prospective recruit to protect his fellows against a faceless other bent on oppression, and a desire on the part of the recruit’s family and friends to look up to those who shouldered the martial burden.

His foster parents took him to the Museum of Modern Art several times as a child, but most of the exhibits bore long names suggesting a target demographic of scholars, rather than ordinary people. He attended an exhibit before leaving home which was different; the title was a single word—‘Propaganda’—and consisted entirely of military recruitment posters from every country which existed in the last couple of centuries. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a series the Phoenix Society printed not to recruit men and woman into its ranks, but to persuade people embittered by Nationfall to trust authority again. Each bore a stylized portrait of a different Adversary, representing every possible color and gender. Each extended an open hand, and the same message: To serve is my privilege. The word LIAR was spray-painted across each Adversary’s face.

The same sentiment that inspired the vandalism Morgan saw at the museum seeped into the news media. Journalists became more insistent when questioning the Phoenix Society, until the Adversaries who received standing orders to refer all questions to the PR department began to define PR not as an acronym for “public relations,” but as an abbreviation for “propagandists.” He shook his head and pushed such thoughts from his mind. If Del Rio wished to blind herself to the truth concerning public perception of the Phoenix Society, he would not attempt to persuade her otherwise. “Even if you’re right, and people don’t doubt the Phoenix Society, do we really want to prove his allegations for him?”

“You sound as though you believe it yourself.” Del Rio pursed her already thin lips until they disappeared into a flat line. “I think you’re trying to distract me from the fact of your incompetence. You should have taken Liebenthal when you had the chance. You had all night.”

“And look like secret police serving a totalitarian regime? Why do you continually force me to repeat myself?”

“I told Saul you weren’t man enough for this mission. I knew it as soon as you passed orders to Eddie and Sid to rescue the Boston Chapter’s remaining staff without killing any of the Fireclowns.” A hard, triumphant smile cracked Del Rio’s features as her flinty eyes glinted. She leaned forward, and lowered her voice. “I was wrong, Morgan. It wasn’t incompetence on your part, but cowardice. You’re afraid to draw your sword around Naomi. You’re scared shitless she’ll hate you once she sees your joy at the taste of blood, just like Christabel did.”

Morgan schooled his expression to keep Del Rio from seeing how deeply her words cut. “If I fear anything, it is the consequences of leading others into a situation I don’t fully understand. The information I was provided suggested Liebenthal was just a gun-running produce wholesaler who managed to hire a revenant ex-Adversary and a gang of mercenary bikers. He should not have been able to stage a coup, nor have had the nerve to call a press conference in which he quoted Kennedy and accused us of fascism. He should have run out of money trying to keep the city running. What the hell is really going on, Del Rio? Who’s backing Liebenthal? Does Munakata have him on strings?”

“All I know is that Liebenthal got more money from a backer we cannot identify.” Del Rio began darting glances around her, as if looking for a way out. He narrowed his eyes as a question intruded upon his consciousness. Why is it just Del Rio chewing me out? “Where are Saul and Iris? Are they aware of the situation?”

Del Rio’s shifting eyes hardened from flint to diamond. “They don’t need to know about this. I’m doing you a favor here.”

“Not likely.” He disconnected, and used secure relay chat to call a meeting. Naomi was first to arrive; her armored figure had yet to pall, and a sensation resembling a static charge began to build in his nerves as she took the other side of the love seat. Instead of speaking, she sidled close and took his hand while letting her sword lean against the cushion. Sid arrived next, his face made fearsome by the leather thong binding his dreadlocks so they flowed down his back. His claymore’s hilt was visible over his right shoulder. The stock of his Kalashnikov ascended over his left.

Eddie and Sarah came together; the old soldier was incorrigible in his taste for women young enough to be his granddaughters, but Sarah’s record spoke for itself.

Everybody’s here. Might as well give it to them straight. “I owe you all an apology. I assumed we would be free to walk into City Hall to finish the job after removing the Fireclowns. I believed we’d be done in time for dinner. I was wrong.”

Naomi tightened her grip on Morgan’s hand. “What happened?”

“According to Del Rio, Liebenthal has a backer. Instead of being all but broke, he has enough money to keep running the city, and to hire and equip the rest of the city’s biker gangs. Instead of five hundred men, he has over two thousand.”

“Bribing their leaders is probably out, assuming you’re not broke already.”

Eddie nodded, and jerked a thumb towards Sid. “The big guy’s right, Morgan. You got away with extending an open hand because the Fireclowns expected a fist. It won’t work a second time.”

“We need to be able to match Liebenthal’s forces. Could we start by hiring the Fireclowns?”

“I think it’s worth the attempt.” Naomi squeezed Morgan’s hand. “Have you already considered the notion?”

Morgan nodded. He considered hiring the Fireclowns before setting foot in The Four Winds Bar, and rejected it out of hand. If the Fireclowns were willing to take a bribe from Morgan to repudiate Liebenthal, what would stop them from taking a bigger bribe to resume their old loyalties? Furthermore, while Michael Riordan understood the unsustainable nature of the relationship between Liebenthal and the Fireclowns MC, his younger brother Roger seemed more grasping, and possessed sufficient ambition to arrange a duel between Morgan and his brother. “I’m not convinced the Fireclowns can be relied upon.”

“Call out the militia.” The others stared at Eddie, but Morgan understood the merits of the old soldier’s suggestion. Every man and woman between the ages of eighteen and forty is obliged by their oath of citizenship to train at arms and support the local police, should the cops run into a situation they can’t handle with their swords. Raising the militia would give me the numeric advantage.

Eddie continued, undaunted by the eyes on him. “Liebenthal probably guessed you’d hesitate to ask us to follow you against two thousand men when we’re under orders to refrain from killing. Why not bring the entire city to bear against his two thousand?”

Morgan considered the numbers. Boston’s population was over a million, of which at least four hundred thousand were of military age. “I don’t have the authority to issue a call to arms.”

“You don’t need the militia.” Naomi’s voice was soft, and her eyes luminous as she spoke. “Would any of Liebenthal’s men dare fire upon a mass of thousands of unarmed people gathered to demand Liebenthal’s surrender? What’s to stop you from organizing a non-violent demonstration against the new regime?”

Sid’s fist thudded into his palm. “Naomi’s right. Why the fuck is it our job to take back Boston? The people of Boston should help take back their own city.”

Sarah stared at Morgan for a second, before shaking her head. “Are you nuts? I read your dossier. You’re no diplomat. Your strengths lie in unconventional warfare.”

“You’re out of line.” Naomi stood, raising her voice in Morgan’s defense, but stopped when he held up a hand. He texted her, «Kohlrynn’s inexperienced. Let me explain things to her.»

As Naomi resumed her seat, Morgan met Sarah’s eyes. She stared directly at him, her arms crossed as if expecting him to raise his own voice. He instead lowered it.

“Adversary Kohlrynn, it is not constructive to view the situation in terms of warfare. Liebenthal is guilty of multiple individual rights violations, and must be removed from power and brought to New York to stand trial. The people with whom he surrounds himself are, with the exception of Munakata Tetsuo, guilty of nothing more than being in the way. Viewing the situation in martial terms will lead only to bloodshed, which serves no one. With enough people behind us, we can create a situation where Liebenthal’s men would be insane to do anything but lay down their arms and walk away.”

Sarah’s expression hardened as she shook her head. “I still think you’re nuts.” She grasped Eddie’s shoulder to get his attention. “This wasn’t what you meant, was it?”

“No, but I like it.” Eddie stood, shrugging off Sarah’s hand. “You’re going to need to hold a press conference.”

Morgan nodded. “I know. How about the Boston Chapter?”

“Sounds good. Sid and I will make the arrangements. Have you given any thought to what you’ll say?”

“I have a speech roughed out.” To persuade the people of Boston to rise up and demand Liebenthal’s surrender, he needed the full extent of his eloquence, which he had rarely used in his duties as an Adversary. The last argument of kings was the only argument he needed to offer for past decade. The oratory of violence had its own rhetoric, one of swords clashing and pistol reports echoing into the void to which Morgan consigned his targets. He would have to present the facts, and make the people understand, before suggesting the appropriate course of action. He rose, and offered his hand to Naomi. “Could you help me refine it?”

Scene 4

Imaginos watched the city below through the windows forming one side of Karen Del Rio’s office, and did his best to ignore the moans and sighs emitted by the woman behind him. He schooled his expression, lest the polished glass reflect his disgust once the drug released her from its grip and permitted her return to reality. The woman was a careful addict, hiding a jones for a drug by the name of World-Without-End well enough to retain her position as an CRDF director.

The drug was a mild aphrodisiac for devas, amplifying sensation and sexual response so females became more easily orgasmic; it temporarily decoupled orgasm from ejaculation in males, allowing them more pleasure in turn. In humans, the drug was not only an aphrodisiac, but a hallucinogen; it allowed people to forget where they were, so an ordinarily prim woman like Karen Del Rio might forget she was in her office at the Phoenix Society’s New York Chapter, and begin pleasuring herself in front of him.

“Dr. Magnin, I need more.” Del Rio sobbed behind him, suffering the temporary abject depression which was the price for the drug’s nymphomaniac euphoria. He ignored her plea. While he possessed enough of the drug to permit her to spend the rest of her life as a Homeric lotus eater as imagined by Betty Dodson, giving her the entire planet’s supply seemed a pointless waste.

World-Without-End was one of the few drugs which remained scarce under the Phoenix Society. The formula was zealously guarded by Desdinova and the few devas working for him at Ohrmazd Medical Group. They limited production to create scarcity and drive up prices. The arrangement suited everybody but the users; Ohrmazd Medical turned outrageous profits, and was generous in financing the Phoenix Society’s operations. It gave Imaginos a handle on people who might otherwise be incorruptible; Del Rio’s salary made the drug an annual indulgence, but her good friend Dr. Isaac Magnin always kept freebies on hand. I should be grateful the bitch hasn’t taken to calling me Dr. Feelgood.

The office, decorated in a generic modern style, soon became quiet save for the soft rustle of Del Rio rearranging her clothing to make herself presentable again. Imaginos turned, and took a seat across from her desk. He held up a sample packet containing a dose of the drug; its shape resembled a condom packet. “What happened when you told Cooper about Liebenthal’s good fortune?”

“You mean, how did he handle being told he fucked up?” Del Rio returned to her usual self: hard eyes, hard voice, and sharp angles where other women might curve. “With his usual arrogance. I had to wait while Kohlrynn went and found him. The slut probably interrupted him with that freak singer.”

I tore her from her family and from my people to live among you humans so she might have a chance at life, should I fail. By what right do you hold her in such contempt? He made his face a placid mask, and his voice remained polite. “I hope you were not so harsh in speaking to him. His failure to strip Liebenthal of support without violence surely stings.”

“I was as harsh as the son of a bitch deserved. He might have taken Liebenthal out last night, after dealing with those fucking bikers, but he was worried about our public image.” Del Rio snorted. “He’s even bought into Liebenthal’s propaganda.”

Imaginos smiled at her last remark, and considered the consequences of telling her every word of Liebenthal’s speech was true. Would you be disgusted, Karen? Probably not, but I do not tolerate your continued existence because you are a person of principle, but because you grate against Cooper whenever you interact. That somebody like you should hold a position of authority within the Society should be his first indication of something amiss in the organization to which he dedicated himself. “Considering his record, it’s no surprise Liebenthal might identify Cooper as our favorite assassin, rather than yours.”

“He isn’t my favorite anything.”

“Why then, do you insist on sending him whenever another Adversary is killed in the line of duty? You made him our avenger, did you not?”

“He’s a killer, and good for nothing else unless you put a fuckin’ guitar in his hands.” Del Rio lit a cigarette with trembling fingers, and dropped the lighter before she could close it. Rather than let her set her desk ablaze through her clumsiness, Imaginos entered a flow state and created a psychoenergistic pattern which bound all of the oxygen around the lighter, making its flame wink out. “You read his dossier. Jesus Christ, you supervised the Milgram Battery when his turn came. Don’t you remember how he reacted after getting the last prod in every scenario?”

I think everybody in attendance remembers. You certainly should. Rather than answer immediately, Imaginos let Del Rio pull up Cooper’s file and display his Milgram Battery results. A twelve-hour session, twice as long as normal, yielded an M-zero rating. “He reacts to repeated commands to engage in actions he deems immoral with violence.”

“No shit! So, what am I supposed to do with somebody like him? Community fuckin’ relations? Look at this.” Her fingers scrabbled at her terminal, and a video appeared on screen. It displayed a younger man, one who recently began to call himself Morgan Cooper rather than bear the name of the family which fostered him, but did not accept him as their own.

One of the Phoenix Society’s psychologists sat across the table from him, one hand on the keyboard of a portable terminal. “I’d like to ask a personal question before I sign off on your application: why do you want to be an Adversary?”

Morgan’s answer betrayed his roots; Imaginos placed him with a poor family in Queens. Neither the husband nor the wife worked, having been injured on the job, and the wife’s injuries were such that even with help from their mutual aid society, most of the money they received every month as compensation for their disability went to pay for her care. Getting paid to raise an unwanted child or two, even if one looked weird because he had CPMD, was an opportunity they dared not refuse. “I gotta make something of myself, doc, and I ain’t rich enough or sufficiently well-connected to get the sort of education which might allow me to prosper by making a positive contribution to society. My life’s worthless, so I’m not afraid to die fighting for a good cause or make some other bastard die fighting for his notion of a good cause. I figure the Phoenix Society can point me towards plenty of people whose deaths would make life better for everybody else.”

Del Rio stopped the video. “He admits he likes killing people. He’s a fucking sociopath!”

“He said nothing of the sort, and you’re not qualified to make that diagnosis. Being a doctor myself, I cannot find evidence of antisocial personality disorder. This is a young man with a rather harsh sense of justice and a keen awareness of how limited his options really are.” He doubted Del Rio would understand; Desdinova’s pet human, Edmund Cohen, once characterized her as having been born with a silver spoon up her ass. “Men like him have always sought military careers as a way out of poverty and a means to put their natural aggression to better use.” Imaginos spoke with care; he did not want to give Del Rio any clue of Cooper’s true nature, or the Adversaries’ secondary purpose: testing and training those asura emulators most likely to make suitable bearers for the Starbreaker. “He serves with courage and distinction.”

“Courage?” Del Rio’s chair thumped against the wall behind her as she sprang to her feet and began to pace. Her nostrils were flared and reddened above traces of white powder on her upper lip. “Then why has he been so cautious in Boston? He could have killed all the Fireclowns, put a bullet through Munakata’s head, and then―if you absolutely must put Liebenthal on trial―dragged the asshole back here before dawn.”

“Instead, he took pains to prove Alexander Liebenthal wrong in every particular. It suits my purpose, and it bears mentioning you threatened to court-martial Cooper if he failed to bring Liebenthal back to New York alive and fit to stand trial.” Imaginos placed a sealed envelope before her. If Del Rio were to open and read it, she would find nothing but an order direct from the Executive Council. The order also represented his final test for Morgan Cooper: permission, at last, to kill Liebenthal if he judged it necessary. “When you’ve made yourself presentable again, go to Boston. A limousine will await your arrival, and bring you to City Hall at the appropriate time. Once you are there, give these orders to Morgan Cooper.”

“This…” Her fingers hesitated to lift the envelope from her desktop. “This is highly irregular.”

“We have the opportunity to run an experiment which may help us better understand long-serving Adversaries. Unfortunately, the sample size is sorely limited.” He need not tell Del Rio more; her eyes glazed in boredom as she took the envelope and slipped it inside her briefcase. “What is Cooper doing now?”

She checked her terminal, and her entire body became still. Her voice ascended towards a shriek with every word. “I am going to court-martial the son of a bitch anyway! Who authorized him to hold a press conference?”

“Put it on.” Del Rio blinked at his command. “I told you to put it on. I expect this to prove an excellent show.”

Chapter 14: The Judicious Application of High Explosives

Scene 1

The Boston chapter of the Phoenix Society had not existed when Naomi last wore her pins. The Society commissioned new construction, deviating from their usual practice of using existing buildings once connected with historical governments. Unlike London and New York, where the Society took over Bletchley Park and the UN headquarters respectively, Boston had no suitable old buildings with the appropriate historical weight available. She wrinkled her nose, willing herself not to sneeze from the chemical stink emanating from the new furniture’s synthetic upholstery.

She tried not to be obvious as she made a point of greeting each reporter and guiding them to a seat, but breathing through her nose was difficult until she made a point of turning up the ventilation system to try to suck the worst of the odor from the room. A reporter caught her sniffing as she greeted him. “You smell the cheap as well, Adversary Bradleigh?”

Naomi nodded, recognizing Samuel Terell by his hair, which was mostly silver, but striped with black like the coat of a tabby cat. Along with his silver eyes and almost-black skin, it gave him a predatory aspect belied by his manner. “Sorry. I was always sensitive. I can barely tolerate perfume.”

“I’m the same way. I think people with CPMD are more sensitive to smells, especially if we yawn, as a side effect of our… condition.”

Oh dear. She narrowed her eyes at Terell’s remark; a young man at Juilliard also insisted on talking to Naomi about their condition. A talented cellist, he began to stray beyond the usual advice offered to those with congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder, which was that it didn’t matter. A person with CPMD was still human, and a full human life remained possible.

Instead of coexistence, he suggested separatism based on the notion people with CPMD were not human at all, but a separate species he called “devas.” As such, they should form separate societies from humanity, and mate with each other instead of dating humans. According to him, humans were a species competing with the devas for resources, and thus a threat.

She indicated a seat for Terell. “The view from here should be perfect. Perhaps you could offer me a pamphlet afterward?”

Terell blinked at the mention of pamphlets before laughing. “I’m sorry, Adversary. I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression. I’m no separatist, but I’ve reported on them for Eastern Standard. I thought of making them the subject of a new documentary once I finish with Disposable Heroes. Might I contact you later, to ask about your own experiences? I’d invite Morgan as well, were he here.”

“I’ll pass your invitation to him later.” She used her implant to set a reminder, and added a note to ask Morgan if he had ever dealt with Terell while on duty. “Did you want to ask me about something else? Are you planning an exposé on corruption in London’s police?”

A smile from Terell suggested she was right. “I wouldn’t say I’ve gone as far as planning, Adversary.”

Naomi seated the rest of the reporters without incident, and retreated to a corner of the room from which she might observe the proceedings. She used her implant to check with Sarah, who remained behind at the safe house with Gatto and Deschat. Upon receiving their status, she joined the secure relay chat Morgan set up. «Everybody’s here. Are you ready, Morgan?»

«Ready. Claire?»

«You’re jacked into every screen in the city, and live network streaming is a go. Break a leg.»

Morgan was unarmed, but fully armored, as he approached the podium. His posture was attentive without being rigid, which gladdened Naomi as she turned inward. This is probably the first time he’s addressed the media as an Adversary. I’m glad he’s drawing on his experience with Christabel and me.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would begin by thanking you for your time. I realize the unprecedented nature of my address, but would ask your indulgence as I continue to break precedent. A few days ago, your city suffered a coup d’état staged by Alexander Liebenthal, whom you probably know as a produce wholesaler. The Phoenix Society also knows him as a gun-runner, but we turned a blind eye to his activities because we had no proof of rights violations on his part. This changed when he drove your elected officials from the city and installed himself as dictator. Each of you has the right to live under a representative government whose officials are democratically elected, should you choose the stability of citizenship over the risks and rewards constituting life as a sovereign individual.”

Morgan paused a moment, as if waiting for the reporters to finish taking their notes. Naomi noted his eyes were narrowed, as if sighting upon a threat. He must expect these reporters to burst into derision. The media is rarely patient with idealists.

When the undercurrent of noise from the press at work ceased, he continued. “Liebenthal violated those rights. My mission, therefore, is to depose him. Afterward, I must bring him to New York to stand trial for his crimes. This is a straightforward mission, which would normally be simplified by the fact that under Liebenthal’s orders, an ex-Adversary named Munakata Tetsuo murdered three Adversaries from the Boston chapter of the Phoenix Society as they attempted to handle the situation themselves.”

Naomi raked her gaze across the room, but found nothing untoward. A few reporters scribbled in notebooks, and others tapped at tablets, but most seem content to watch, listen, and let their implants record Morgan’s words. Finding a terminal linked to the security cameras, she checked each in turn as Morgan sipped from the glass of water she put out for him and continued. “During his own press conference, in which he attempted to justify himself, Alexander Liebenthal accused the Phoenix Society of using assassins to silence their critics, and named me the Society’s favorite assassin. I will grant the existence of an element of truth to his claims, assuming that by critics he means people accused of rights violations who attempt to evade justice by killing Adversaries sent to arrest them.”

Naomi nodded when his eyes met hers, as if seeking approval. You spoke to the fans at our shows, but this is different. This is you taking it upon yourself to speak for the Phoenix Society, and you were always content to let the propaganda department do the talking.

“We do not normally publicize our internal organizational structure, but not all Adversaries are the same. The vast majority of the work we do to ensure the existence of a free and open society does not require the use of force. Most of the violations we seek to redress do not involve violence.”

He began to pace behind the podium, as if he were performing with the band. “Most of us only draw our swords for maintenance. The rare cases involving violent crimes, and the anomalous cases involving the death of an Adversary on duty, are the cases which require my expertise.”

He reached over his shoulder, as if to touch the hilt of the sword he left at the safe house. “Under normal circumstances, I possess the authority to offer Liebenthal a choice: stand trial for his crimes, or die fighting. This is what he means by assassination.”

He sneered as the word “assassination” passed his lips, which was Naomi’s idea. That’s right. Throw Liebenthal’s words back in his face.

“To protect himself from any attempt I might make to assassinate him, Alexander Liebenthal surrounded himself with a small force of mercenaries, whom I persuaded to abandon him last night. Despite his dire financial straits, he managed to hire a larger force early this morning.”

One of the cameras showed a group of men on motorcycles approaching, but they were too far away for Naomi to identify; nor was she able to determine their armament. She turned to secure relay chat. «One of the external cameras shows a biker gang. I can’t ID them yet. Claire, can you help?»

«On it.» Claire sent a brief reply to acknowledge the request, and resumed before Morgan could put down his glass. «I cracked a trafficnet camera. You got a couple dozen Godhead Riders fifteen hundred meters from the Boston chapter. Armament consists mostly of Kalashnikovs, with a couple of RPGs. They hit a Murdoch Defense outlet and cleaned out their stock of heavy ordnance.»

«Great. Just great. We need this about as much as I need to come home and hear my wife tell me Zeus knocked her up.» Naomi smiled against her will at Sid’s imagery. «We’ve got to get these people out of here.»

«You got time, I think. It’s hard to tell because I can’t crack their comms yet, but they’re just sitting tight. Trafficnet’s been routing people around them so nobody gets hurt, but it looks like they’re waiting for orders. Maybe Liebenthal wants to know what you’ll say next, Morgan.»

«He’s going to love it.» Morgan finished his drink and dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. «You all know what I mean to say next. After I’ve said my piece, Nims, I need you to ensure our guests make their way downstairs. Sid and Eddie, lead them into the subway through the emergency exit.»

Eddie immediately objected, raising a concern she also held. «That just leaves you to handle those Godhead Riders.»

«Which will further demoralize the rest of Liebenthal’s thugs when I kick their asses by myself. You’ve seen me fight.»

His eyes met Naomi’s. He disconnected from the secure relay chat without giving her the chance to tell him to be careful. She mouthed it at him instead, hoping he might read her lips from across the conference room. He must have managed, for he nodded to her before continuing. “I took too much of your time already, but I must explain the situation before coming to my point. The Phoenix Society normally funds the functions of city government, so individuals need not be robbed via taxation. The funding ceased when Liebenthal took over.”

He turned the page, as if considering the words Naomi helped him prepare. They spent two hours combining their command of rhetoric to craft a speech which would call upon the best in Boston’s people, even those who lent their service to Liebenthal, and persuade them to stand beside Morgan. Instead of continuing as planned, he began flipping through the pages. “Adversary Naomi Bradleigh helped me prepare these remarks, and before I continue I should apologize for wasting her time. They are true words, inspiring in their nobility, but I lack the heart for nobility.”

He looked directly at her. “I’m sorry, Naomi, but I have something else I must say.”

He threw the speech aside, gripping the podium. “The night Alexander Liebenthal took your city was the night the woman I spent ten years trying to love, Christabel Crowley, was murdered. I wasn’t around to protect her, and despite our differences she deserved better from me.”

Loathing thickened his voice, but Naomi found herself unable to discern the object of his loathing: himself, or the people he addressed. “You do not. Instead, you deserve Liebenthal’s tyranny. Every adult citizen among you owns a rifle and is trained in its use, for you are sworn to protect your city as part of her militia. A mere five thousand of you might have driven Liebenthal, Munakata, and the Fireclowns from the city. Where were you?”

The reporters began to look at each other and murmur. Naomi tried to reach Morgan over secure talk. She wanted to dissuade him without publicly challenging him, lest Liebenthal take courage from open dissent among the Adversaries arrayed against him. However, he went autistic, his implant refusing all connections. He seemed to channel his rage into his voice, giving each word the clipped precision of an actor playing one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. “Liebenthal scattered your elected officials and claimed dictatorship of your city, and where were you? What did you do? Did you array yourselves against him as he took the podium before City Hall? Did you raise your voices in outrage? No! You were nowhere, and you did nothing. You went about your lives, and waited while three Adversaries entrusted with the task of ensuring your government served you stood against Liebenthal and died beneath Munakata’s sword.”

Photographs of the three Adversaries Munakata struck down appeared on the screen behind Morgan. “Their names were Rutherford, Collins, and Gabriel. They were diligent Adversaries, attentive to detail, excellent investigators and better negotiators. They embodied the Society’s highest ideals, and considered themselves privileged to serve you. Each served with distinction, only to be cut down without a chance to draw their swords.”

He held up a tablet displaying a Boston Planet article published the day Liebenthal announced his dictatorship. The article’s headline was “The Price of Privilege.” “They deserved better than to have their deaths shrugged off by the people they served. They deserved better than your apathy. To die for the likes of you is no privilege.”

Morgan’s claws dug into the wood. “Three Adversaries are dead, and you’re still waiting for a hero, some brave and noble Adversary who will come and be your liberator.”

Naomi never heard such contempt in his laughter; she shivered at the sound, hoping he would never find cause to direct similar derision toward her. “Tell me now if a single human being may be found among you in Boston. Are you all some previously undiscovered species of invertebrate which resembles humanity? Does a single person among you remember their responsibilities as citizens of Boston? This is one of the birthplaces of liberty in North America; is there not one of you who remembers the flame which blazed in the hearts of men like Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, and nurtures a similar spark themselves?”

He loosened his grip, shook his head, and cooled his voice. “I doubt it. The time to take up arms in defense of your city passed unnoticed. If you would atone for your inaction, however, gather at City Hall. Bring not sword and pistol, but clenched fist and indignant voice. Prove me wrong. Prove that the people of Boston are not worthless and weak. Stand beside me as I prove Alexander Liebenthal wrong by taking him into custody alive. You have two hours.”

Tumult erupted as the reporters began shouting over each other. They jostled one another in their desperation to be the first to get a microphone in Morgan’s face. Rather than answer questions, Morgan pounded the podium with his fist until it cracked beneath his blows. “I regret to inform you that I lack the time to answer questions. Some of Liebenthal’s men have gathered to attack this building, and they brought rocket launchers. For your own safety, please follow Adversary Naomi Bradleigh and evacuate in an orderly fashion.”

Scene 2

I was wrong to mention Christabel. I was wrong to even think about her. The words he spoke in the conference room before an assembly of reporters, he intended solely for their rhetorical effect. The absurdity of Boston’s situation finally impinged on his consciousness as he spoke, despite his efforts to ignore it and focus on the mission. He threw aside the words Naomi helped him prepare in favor of a tangent. He leaned against the wall at the top of the stairwell. The door to the rooftop stood nearby; once outside he would have a commanding view of the streets around the Boston chapter. He need only open it.

What’s wrong with me? His eyes began to burn, and with them, his throat. His body trembled as he turned and drove a gloved fist into the wall. The steel ball bearings sewn into the gloves over the knuckles protected his hand from serious injury, but the blow brought enough pain to help him focus. The plaster and drywall gave way, leaving a crater from which cracks half a meter long radiated. He forced himself to breathe, drawing air into the innermost depths of his lungs as he forced back tears. We broke up a year ago, and should have done it years before. We stopped loving each other, but I insisted on making excuses for her cruelty instead of realizing she stopped caring and wanted out, but lacked the backbone to end the relationship herself. I had a year to get over her. Why should I cry for her now? What the fuck is wrong with me?

He stepped outside rather than dwell on the matter. Glad for once the text-only nature of secure talk did not support the conveyance of emotional nuance, he opened a secure talk session with Claire. «I need a report.»

«The Godhead Riders gathered just outside the Boston chapter, and the ones armed with RPGs are fiddling with them, trying to figure out how to work ’em. It hasn’t occurred to them to read the fucking manual.» That was Claire’s answer to every technical problem, and a good many personal ones; the first Winter Solstice they celebrated as friends, she gave him a pillow book with a similar title. He gave her a vintage revolver chambered for ammunition nobody made any longer, 12mm Magnum; it seemed the perfect weapon for a self-described “size queen.” For Claire, nothing succeeded like excess. «What the hell happened in there? Naomi’s worried sick about you, and Eddie and Sid think you gone ’round the bend.»

They’re probably right, he thought before texting, «I just picked a horrible time to notice the absurdity of the entire situation, and an even worse time to think about Christabel.»

«Get your ass on secure relay chat.» Claire cut off the connection. Morgan obeyed, knowing she would simply refuse to reply if he attempted a private session again.

Eddie was first to notice. «What the fuck happened up there, man? You haven’t said shit about that bitch since she died, but now you’re saying she deserved better from you than the people of Boston?»

«I’d like an explanation as well. I accept your apology, but you frightened me.» Morgan gave his head a violent shake as Naomi’s message came through. He kept his immediate reaction to himself, «Damn it, Naomi, I never wanted you to fear me.»

She sent another message. «Do you even care about this mission any longer?»

«I thought, while speaking, that if appeals to idealism worked, our presence would be unnecessary. People hear plenty about ideals and their duty as citizens when they go for militia drill, but they never listen. They counted on us to save them, and I thought heaping scorn upon them might jolt them into action. Are the reporters out yet?»

Sid finally broke his silence. «I’m leading them through the subway now. There’s a dead spot down here, so I lost connectivity. At least your reasoning indicates you haven’t completely lost it.»

A thought occurred to Morgan. «If Sid was disconnected, but not Naomi and Eddie, then where were they?» He narrowed his eyes. «Naomi, Eddie, are you with Sid as instructed?»

«Eddie’s on the rooftop. I’m outside, but out of the Godhead Riders’ sight. Do you really think we’re going to let you take on two dozen gunmen without any support? I’m probably better with my sword than a rifle, but our weapons are loaded with anesthetic rounds.»

Morgan stepped around the rooftop entrance and into the winter sun as it made its best effort to warm the city. He located Edmund immediately. The sniper didn’t speak, but adjusted his grip on his rifle to give a thumbs up while maintaining vocal silence. «Glad you could join us. We can take them out while you distract them.»

He shook his head at Eddie’s suggestion. «Liebenthal already knows we use tranquilizer rounds. If we’re going to intimidate his bikers, we need a vulgar display of power. Naomi, remember how I caught that plate?»

«No! There are too many―» He disconnected from the secure relay chat and set his implant to autistic mode again. He disciplined his breathing while setting his implant to play an audio recording of Naomi playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique piano sonata. His breathing and the music sharpened his concentration, shifting his perception of reality. Grid-lines superimposed themselves on the world around him, and three-dimensional coordinates beside objects. Each set of coordinates seemed calculated relative to his own position, and changed as he approached the edge of the rooftop.

His visual field always displayed a pair of clocks in the bottom right corner of his vision, precise to a hundredth of a second. One was labeled “UTC,” and displayed universal coordinated time. The other was currently labeled “Boston,” and displayed the current local time; the location name and the time displayed changed as needed. Both were updated via network time protocol every five minutes to ensure accuracy. A third clock, labeled “Subjective,” appeared beside the others; the time displayed in this clock matched the local value.

A stereo whoosh! sounded from the ground as Morgan sprinted to the edge of the rooftop and leaped skyward. He flung his arms out, knowing full well how he would look to the Godhead Riders below should they look sunward and find his silhouette above them. Gravity soon renewed its claim upon him, and he somersaulted, wrenching his body around to ensure he landed on his feet. The subjective clock continued to advance as he fell; its time was already three hundredths of a second ahead of the others as he concentrated on holding his place in time.

His boot-heels struck concrete, and his legs folded beneath him to compensate for the shock of impact. The fire-roses which bloomed when the rocket-propelled grenades struck the facade of the Boston chapter wilted behind him as he leaned forward to orient himself. He sprang toward the bikers as the time discrepancy increased; their voices deepened and became distorted as he approached. He imagined them becoming slightly bluer.

Small flares bloomed from the muzzles of Kalashnikovs, and unfolded before his eyes. The rounds fired by the Godhead Riders to cut him down would soon follow, but for every second Morgan experienced, only a thousandth of a second passed for the Riders. None of them can touch me.

He slipped between two Riders, safe now from their gunfire. Turning to the biker at his right, Morgan pried the rifle from the biker’s grasp with exaggerated care lest he injure the man. He field-stripped the rifle, letting the parts fall to the ground, before turning to the next man. By the time he finished, the leader had gotten his pistol out, aimed, and fired a round at Morgan. The hollow-point slug held a dull coppery sheen beneath the sunlight as it corkscrewed its way toward him. Morgan stepped around it, and took the pistol from the leader’s hands. He snorted disgust upon realizing the weapon was a Murdoch. You’re better off without this junk. You’re lucky they haven’t blown up in your faces.

He placed himself behind the leader, pointing the pistol at the back of his head, and relaxed his concentration. Time began to advance at a normal rate again, and before the network sync kicked in, the discrepancy between subjective time and local time was almost ten minutes. A fraction of a second passed for everybody else. Hunger pangs wracked him, and threatened to double him over, but he remained erect as pieces of disassembled rifles fell at the feet of bewildered bikers. “Turn around.”

The Godhead Riders spun, reaching for knives and knuckle dusters as they faced Morgan, but their hands trembled. Their leader made no move toward a backup weapon, but instead met Morgan’s gaze with steady green eyes. An intake of breath was the only warning of his intent as he threw himself at Morgan, who caught the slim steely glare of the stiletto in time as he grabbed his opponent and threw him to the ground. Morgan kicked the fallen knife; it clattered across the pavement as he glared through the sights of his captured pistol. “What did you hope to accomplish?”

“I had to make the attempt, bro.”

“I’m not your brother.” Voracity denied for lack of food made Morgan’s voice a murderous snarl. His guts churned, demanding immediate nourishment regardless of the source.

“You got more brothers than you know. Munakata told us the real story. We’re asuras. We should stick together, instead of fighting each other.”

Morgan shook his head as he ejected the pistol’s magazine, and emptied the chamber. He tucked the empty weapon into his belt and stepped back to provide a clear path between the Godhead Riders and their motorcycles. “Take your men and go, before I withdraw my offer of amnesty.”

The whir of electric motors filled the air as their riders mounted up and turned their keys; people who sought shelter at their coming came out again, and the streets around the Boston chapter regained life of a sort as people congregated to remark on the damage done to the building during the fighting. The reporters Sid escorted underground boiled out of the nearby subway entrance to surround him, leaving Naomi, Sid, and Eddie to try to shoulder their way to Morgan. Rather than shouting questions, however, the reporters seemed bewildered; only Samuel Terell had something to say. “What the hell just happened, Adversary?”

Hunger pangs doubled him over. He forced himself to his feet again, and brushed off the concern of the reporters while considering the facade of the Boston chapter. The rockets ripped out huge chunks of masonry and littered the garden surrounding the entrance with debris. The concrete not pulverized by the blasts suffered cracks and scorching, and he suspected that given time and additional support, the Godhead Riders might have brought the place down on the heads of everybody still inside. “To answer your question, Mr. Terell, I think I just made myself the sort of personal problem one solves through the judicious application of high explosives.”

Scene 3

Desdinova paced about his office at the headquarters of Ohrmazd Medical. The image of Morgan Stormrider pointing an accusing finger at the people of Boston, castigating them for standing by and letting Liebenthal take over, remained frozen on his screen. No Adversary ever dared directly address the public before, without prior authorization from the Phoenix Society and a speech prepared by the public relations department. No Adversary ever dared condemn the public, but here this man was, putting on a show.

Passing the Milgram Battery was not the only criterion considered when deciding whether to induct a candidate into the CRDF corps; the candidate had to genuinely believe that it would be their privilege to serve the people as a defender of their liberties. And Stormrider called upon the people to defend their own liberties. Nothing has gone according to plan. Does my brother know what he’s doing?

“Dr. Desdinova?” The AI serving the Ohrmazd Medical headquarters was diffident, and Desdinova doubted he had ever seen her face. Nor did he know her name. It’s just an AI. Why should I care, or buy into this trend of personifying them? “Isaac Magnin from AsgarTech is here to see you.”

He poured himself a brandy, despite the early hour. Of course my brother would show up after Stormrider took that podium. What kind of ridiculous name is “Stormrider,” anyway? Why couldn’t he just take his foster family’s name like every other asura emulator did? Wait. He joined under his family’s name, so why am I using his stage name now? His older brother would want to understand why Cooper no longer considered himself privileged to serve, and if Desdinova received any prior warning from Edmund Cohen. “I believe he remembers the way up.”

Imaginos closed the door behind him, and locked it. He closed his eyes for a moment, and the air around Desdinova seemed to crackle as his brother wove a psychoenergistic pattern around the room. “You seem to be expecting me, Desdinova.”

“No doubt you require an explanation for Cooper’s speech in Boston.”

“Hardly.” Imaginos wore an odd, satisfied little smile which suggested he expected the speech. “Considering twenty thousand people are currently gathered at Boston’s City Hall protesting Liebenthal, I’d call it a brilliant move on Cooper’s part. Was it your idea, by the way, to send Thagirion to Boston with a briefcase full of cash?”

Desdinova stared at his brother, unable to understand why Imaginos would think he’d send Thagirion anywhere with anything. She would never listen to him; he was only a deva, and she possessed the arrogance native to the ensof. “You should ask the lady yourself. Perhaps she wanted to prevent Cooper from completing his mission too easily. The Liebenthal regime cannot last long, regardless of our involvement. He has no legitimacy, and the only person loyal to him is Munakata Tetsuo.”

“No matter. I have other reasons to see you.” Without asking permission, Imaginos settled into Desdinova’s chair and used his terminal to call up video on his wall screen. The video showed Morgan Cooper landing in front of the entrance to the Boston chapter and throwing himself towards a pack of bikers as they leveled their rifles at him. He was a blur among them, only regaining human form when he stopped behind them, aiming a pistol at the bikers’ leader while their rifles fell in pieces to the ground. “This is footage from a nearby trafficnet camera taken just after the press conference.”

“Play it again.” Desdinova refused to admit the evidence of his senses. “He shouldn’t be able to do that. I designed the 100 Series Asura Emulators. They’re faster, stronger, more agile, and more dexterous than humans and devas, but this footage suggests―”

“I know what the footage suggests. Let me show you something else.” Imaginos tapped at the terminal’s keyboard again, and brought up video recorded by Witness Protocol. Desdinova now viewed Cooper’s descent from the rooftop through the Adversary’s own eyes. From Cooper’s viewpoint, his movements were at normal speed despite the trafficnet camera’s inability to track him. The pace at which he sprinted, the dexterity with which he disarmed each Godhead Rider and disassembled their weapons―all seemed to happen at a speed of which any human was capable. When the video ended, the displays in his visual field suggested that while ten minutes passed for him, less than a second passed for everybody else. “This is impossible. This isn’t time dilation, or else those values would be reversed. Ten minutes would have passed around him, while a fraction of a second passed for him. There’s nothing to explain this in either general or special relativity. Einstein’s theories covered time dilation, not compression. Our own scientists are no different.”

Imaginos shook his head. “Why focus on the physics? How did Cooper manage to use a psychoenergistic talent of this magnitude? He hasn’t suffered the sort of emotional crisis required to make the intuitive leap necessary to manifest a wild talent, and he hasn’t had time or a teacher with which to train.”

Desdinova paced the office while considering the question. I can’t say Imaginos is wrong without a better explanation, which I cannot offer. Cooper must be doing this intuitively, using the left-hand path. He doesn’t have the scientific knowledge or the training to fully understand his actions.

Imaginos interrupted his brother’s thoughts with a suggestion. “Send these videos to the Sephiroth. Have Kether analyze them, and then search through Cooper’s Witness Protocol data for the earliest recorded instance of this phenomenon. If your hypothesis about Cooper’s talent is correct, its first occurrence should have followed a life-or-death emotional crisis of some kind.”

Desdinova poured another brandy for himself before serving his brother. “It’s important to understand how Cooper managed time compression. Being an Adversary, he wouldn’t have had cause to study theoretical physics or delve into the attendant mathematics. Any sort of abstract understanding of space or time should be beyond him.”

Imaginos shook his head, sitting back and sipping brandy while he waited for results from Kether. “You assume a complete lack of curiosity on Cooper’s part, but I don’t think he needed to worry about the math or the physics involved. We have on record a recent instance of the phenomenon in which he caught a falling plate as Naomi Bradleigh dropped it. Cooper explained it as him slowing his progress through time while still moving in space at normal velocities. An understanding of the math or physics involved might just as easily have inhibited him by introducing doubt. He did it because he didn’t know it was impossible.”

“But he needed a concept of what he was trying to do.” Desdinova was trained as a right-hand path flowseeker, and the notion of Cooper holding his place in time while moving through space was one at which his mind rebelled. But maybe I’m just prejudiced. I have so little experience with those who follow the left-hand path. The only one I know is Ashtoreth. “Has Kether answered yet?”

Imaginos nodded, and sent a Witness Protocol video to the wall screen. The name Annelise Copeland and a date from eleven years ago displayed in the top left corner of the frame, but the name meant nothing to Desdinova. “I had Ms. Copeland fitted with an implant when I started grooming her to meet Morgan Cooper as Christabel Crowley and become his girlfriend.”

The video began playing. Annelise screamed at roadies scrambling to get a stage set up. “You worthless assholes! You knew we were coming! You had hours to set this stage up. What the fuck were you people doing?

One of the roadies put down an amplifier, and glared over his shoulder. “Listen, lady. We couldn’t do jack shit all day because the owner of the venue had a wedding reception booked until half an hour ago. We’re doing the best we can here, so why don’t you go tune your violin?”

“Why don’t you fuck off? You’re all fired. I’m sure my boyfriend can do a better job by himself than you idiots can manage together!” Annelise turned toward a younger Morgan Cooper, who rolled his eyes before stepping forward with open hands. “I’m sorry about Ms. Crowley. She’s incredibly nervous about the show, and she tends to take it out on others. You’ll still get your full wages for tonight. I’ll attend to this myself.”

As the roadies nodded to Morgan and left the stage, Annelise grabbed Morgan’s shoulder and pulled him away from Naomi, whose horrified face indicated understanding of the position in which Annelise’s outburst placed the band. Her voice was a venomous whisper. “Don’t you dare embarrass me like that and then go talk to that pale freak as if nothing happened.”

“This isn’t all about you, Christabel, so sit down and shut up before I forget I love you.”

He pulled free, leaving her with Naomi. “He’d better not expect us to pay the roadies for work they didn’t do.”

Naomi shook her head. “Considering we need them for the rest of the tour, we’ll be lucky if they come back for the next show.”

The stage was ready as Christabel turned away from Naomi. Morgan passed her without a word while holding his hands over his belly. He staggered to the bar and ordered dinner in three words. “Rare steak. Beer.”

Desdinova blinked as the Witness Protocol video stopped. Imaginos replaced Annelise Copeland’s video with one from Morgan’s viewpoint, in which he seemed to move at a normal rate while time around him all but halted. Three and a half seconds for Annelise and Naomi was an hour for Morgan, all of which he spent doing the work of an entire road crew. He chugged three beers, barely tasting them, before his steak arrived. He ate with the voracity of a starved tiger and demanded another before he had eaten half. All the while, he watched Naomi Bradleigh, not the woman he knew as Christabel Crowley. “This was his manifestation, wasn’t it? When he first unleashed his talent.”

Imaginos nodded. “Christabel never mattered. Cooper manifested, which normally happens under mortal peril, because he loved Naomi and wanted her return to the stage to be perfect.”

Desdinova grasped the implications immediately. “Have you considered enlisting your daughter’s aid in our enterprise? She seems to be the key to Cooper.”

Imaginos’ expression immediately blackened. “Suggest such a notion again, and I will forget we are brothers long enough to figure out how to strand you on a forsaken snowball in this star system’s Kuiper Belt without killing you.”

Chapter 15: Hammer to Fall

Scene 1

Munakata Tetsuo grimaced in distaste at the filth permeating the long-abandoned warehouse just outside the city limits. The soles of his boots clung to the floor, yielding a soft squelch with each footfall. He dared not use his flashlight, for he had no desire to learn the nature of the slime coating his boots. Liebenthal purchased the place just before his diagnosis drove him to abandon all of his long-term plans. No doubt he meant to raze this dump.

A click echoed through the warehouse; somebody found a cache of rifles the Fireclowns abandoned, and chambered a round. A headlight flared to life, followed by a voice raised in challenge. “Identify yourself!”

“Munakata Tetsuo. Liebenthal sent me.”

More headlights illuminated the warehouse. The Godhead Riders rode Tucker-Edison motorcycles, whose headlights were not as tightly focused as those of other brands. The diffuse beams allegedly provided a rider wide-angle visibility without blinding other drivers and riders.

They also allowed him to see the Riders standing between their bikes. The bikers held new rifles, to replace the ones they stole from the Murdoch outlet in the city. Some even pointed at him, which would have perturbed him three years ago. I survived a point-blank head shot from the only Adversary I ever acknowledged as my equal. Most of you idiots never so much as handled a rifle until today. You’ll aim for my torso, as if a bullet in the chest might do more than annoy me.

Their leader, another 100 Series Asura Emulator named Tobias Schenker, stepped forward. He found a sword; its blade was a chromium gleam in the headlights of a couple dozen motorcycles. “You here to help us get out of here, Tetsuo?”

“Something like that.” He stepped into the light and spread his hands. “Would you mind asking your men to lower their rifles?”

“I do mind, now that you ask. I think you sold us a load of bullshit. You told us we’d be able to take down the building with a few RPGs. We couldn’t even punch through the goddamn masonry. You told us those reporters would come out the front door and make easy hostages. We didn’t find a single one. Instead, we saw Morgan fucking Cooper jump off the roof, land on his feet, and charge us. One second, he’s standing with a couple of explosions fading behind him like he’s an action movie hero, and the next he’s pointing my own gun at my head and telling us to turn around!” Schenker paused for a breath, and to indicate his men. “Meanwhile, these guys are empty-handed, because this showoff of yours took their fuckin’ weapons apart.”

Munakata shrugged off Schenker’s concerns. Of course I conned you.

The Godhead Riders were as new as their leather jackets and the patches with which they set themselves apart. They were loan sharks last week, and acquired their motorcycles from Cambridge Choppers after the proprietor bought two dozen Tucker-Edison electric motorcycles on credit and couldn’t move them fast enough to pay off. The bikes proved impractical to profitably customize, due to the manufacturer’s insistence on using proprietary parts instead of standard components. Schenker told Munakata the story when he hired the Godhead Riders.

He knew better than to assume the Godhead Riders would offer Cooper and his Adversaries the slightest semblance of a fight when they came to City Hall. Liebenthal spoke the words Munakata kept to himself as soon as Schenker and his buddies left the building. “I remember that fuckin’ loan shark. Don’t trust him, Tetsuo. Just use the asshole. Send him and his cronies after Cooper; maybe they’ll provoke him into killing them without any of the due process his bosses are blithering about.”

“You gonna make yourself useful, Tetsuo?” Schenker’s voice shrilled in the diffuse light. Munakata was fortunate to have caught up with them. The Godhead Riders no doubt meant to run as soon as they rearmed and charged their batteries.

“I am.” He drew his katana slowly, to avoid unnecessary noise. “Are you shocked Morgan Cooper did not kill you?”

“He damn well could have. He’s even less human than we are, Tetsuo, moving as fast as he did.” Schenker raised his sword in a two-handed grip to ward off Munakata. “I think you expected him to kill us. What did we ever do to you or your boss, eh?”

Munakata relaxed, and straightened. He was ready to launch himself towards the Godhead Riders with no warning but the rapid drumming of his boot-heels against the tacky floor. Not yet. Surely Schenker deserves an answer. “As far as I know, you did nothing. All the same, Mr. Liebenthal does not trust you and yours, and hoped Cooper would kill you. Since he did not, my employer asked me to do so in Cooper’s stead, while making your deaths appear to have come at his hand.”

“And you were just going to come at us without any warning?”

I was, and I knew better. I used to be an Adversary. We held ourselves to a higher standard. We had pride, damn it! “I apologize, but my duty to Mr. Liebenthal is clear. Please defend yourselves.”

Rather than fire, the Godhead Riders slung their rifles across their backs. They mounted their cycles and turned them around as the warehouse’s main door rolled up. Winter sunlight streamed in as Tobias Schenker’s men abandoned him. “Your men are cowards, Schenker. I’m just one asura.”

Schenker raised his sword with a laugh. “Cowards? They left at my command. I’m not going to throw lives away for my own gain. That’s how you, Liebenthal, and the Phoenix Society do things!”

Munakata stepped forward, and made a point of not taking advantage of the sunlight to learn the nature of the substance covering the floor. The blade of his katana, held before him, bisected Schenker’s figure. “Why drag the Society into this?”

“You dumb shit. You think any of us are helping you just for the money?” Schenker dismissed the notion with a bitter, contemptuous chuckle. “The Phoenix Society tolerated us, and now they’re calling in their debts. Tamara Gellion told me straight out we had a choice. Either stand with you and Liebenthal, or be the next to fall beneath Cooper’s blade when the Society cracks down on organized crime in the process of rebuilding the city’s government.”

Munakata shook his head, unable to believe the words pouring from Schenker’s mouth. “That can’t be true. I spoke with Ms. Gellion.”

“Yeah, I bet she told you everything you wanted to hear.” Schenker’s voice seemed to grow more cynical as the two asuras drew closer together. “They’ve been using you and your boss the whole fuckin’ time. You idiots gave ’em an excuse to install their own people!”

“You lie!” Munakata hurled himself forward, putting his entire strength and resolve into cutting down Schenker. He managed to block the cut, and forced Munakata’s sword away.

“You wish I was lying!” Schenker’s voice reflected the strain he suffered under Munakata’s onslaught. Though Schenker managed to block every cut, his lack of skill compared to his opponent showed in his inability to counterattack. Munakata pressed the assault, forcing the leader of the Godhead Riders back, but as the other asura yielded ground, he appeared to parry Munakata’s cuts with greater speed and less effort.

Is the son of a bitch learning from me? He used his katana to force Schenker’s sword down, the tip carving through leather and flesh. First blood, you bastard.

Schenker leaped back with a yelp, and glanced at the wound. “It already healed! Is that all you got?”

Munakata resumed his attack instead of answering. Without considering his actions, he attempted the same cut with which he first drew his enemy’s blood, only to spring back as steel parted his flesh instead. Schenker narrowed his eyes. “Did you go deaf on me? Is that all you got, motherfucker?”

Schenker’s adopting my technique to counter it. I did the same when I fought Morgan Cooper in Shenzhen. No wonder he resorted to a pistol.

“I already have a rival. I’ll not permit you to become my equal.” Munakata gathered his strength as he spoke, and sprang forward. He slammed his shoulder into Schenker’s chest, forcing him to drop his sword.

Take his head before he recovers. Nothing else will do. He struck, hoping to make a clean cut, but Schenker staggered backward as the blade met his flesh. Munakata licked his lips involuntarily as blood sprayed from his enemy’s throat, but tasted nothing. Another cut finished the kill.

Munakata cleaned his sword, unable to savor his victory. His orders were to kill all of the Godhead Riders in a manner which suggested Cooper’s guilt, and he failed miserably. Worse, Cooper never takes people’s heads or hacks off limbs; he prefers to open major arteries rather than risk getting his blade stuck in bone. We keep underestimating that bastard.

Rifle fire knocked him to the pavement face-first as soon as he stepped into the sunlight. The others must have hidden behind the building, waiting to get the drop on me. Too bad they think a Kalashnikov should be fired on full auto just because it can.

Munakata played dead, waiting until the Godhead Riders ran out of ammunition. He tensed as one of them finally approached, and prodded him with a toe. He eviscerated the man with an upward cut while rising to his feet, cutting deep enough to sever the artery running downward to the groin and legs so that the rider bled out quickly instead of writhing in agony for hours while trying to stuff his guts back into place.

He smiled at the remaining Godhead Riders, who stared in horror at their fallen friend while trying to figure out how to use their rifles as clubs. He slowed his progress through time, another technique he took from Morgan Cooper in Shenzhen. Ripping out their throats would prove a trivial task; they were only human, and had no hope of matching him. You should hope death is the end, lest you find yourselves called upon to tell Tobias Schenker why he died in vain.

Scene 2

“The human who armed My legions faces assassination at the hands of Imaginos’ organization? Rescue him, Adramelech. His service to Me should not go unrewarded.” I miss the days when the only way to commune with Sabaoth was through that obsidian mirror he gave Akhenaten and his priesthood. At least he cannot yet intrude upon my thoughts, but if I’m to lull this false god, I must at times do his will.

With his orders in hand, Mellech left his private chapel at the headquarters of Agape Ministries. His organization was not a church, but a service catering to the rich by providing them with Scripturally-inspired life coaching designed to ease their consciences by relieving them of their money. Mellech profited from pious fraud.

Profitability was easy; his clients begged to be defrauded, especially once a former employee began spreading the word that not only did Abram Mellech talk to God, but God would sometimes talk back in a language beyond the former employee’s grasp. Abram understood what Sabaoth said because he grew up speaking the same language, but the former employee’s wild tales proved excellent propaganda.

He drove to Boston in his restored black Castille, letting up on the accelerator only to avoid careening off of curving roads or into drivers who lacked the impetus of a demonic command. He was away from the city only a day, but the streets outside his car’s confines seemed transformed. Yesterday, the streets were sparsely populated; the winter chill kept people indoors and restricted travel to the warm subway. Today, anger warmed the people as they crowded the streets brandishing fists and placards. Some of the placards read, Liebenthal taxes our patience! Others read, I like my dictators well hanged!

Protesters in black followed a young woman in a sheepskin-lined bomber jacket, her auburn curls held back beneath a novelty headband with plush black cat ears attached. She bore a black flag depicting a Guy Fawkes mask over crossed thighbones, the standard of the distributed republic, Port Royal. Everybody following her bore a carbine slung across their backs, and wore a cutlass on their hips.

Militia squads blocked the street before him, forcing him to slow his car to their pace as he followed them to City Hall. It’s that damned speech of Cooper’s. He managed to rouse the people against Liebenthal by heaping contempt upon them. Did they gather just to prove him wrong?

A police officer used his service gladius to indicate that Mellech should turn right. He did so, following the directions of other officers, until reaching one who commanded him to halt. The cop sheathed his sword and approached. Mellech rolled down his window. “What’s wrong, officer? I need to get to City Hall.”

The cop was tall, and possessed a bodybuilder’s physique. He stared at Mellech over the rims of his sunglasses. “Haven’t you noticed? City Hall is surrounded, with a dictator and his mercs holed up inside.”

“I can persuade Liebenthal to surrender. Let me through.”

The policeman shook his head with a contemptuous snort. “I don’t take orders from clergy. We got this thing here called separation of church and state. You might have heard of it.”

I had that coming. Where are my manners? “I’m sorry. I meant no presumption. If you cannot let me pass, can you direct me to somebody in charge?”

“Yeah. Just a minute.” He held his fingertips to his earlobe. A minute later, a white-haired Adversary approached the car. She wore an Italian-style side-sword on her right hip, as if left-handed, and her scarlet eyes marked her as an ensof’s daughter.

Bradleigh nodded to the officer, who left her to resume his post. “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t let you through. We’re trying to prevent the situation from escalating into violence.”

“I can help you.” Mellech offered a business card. “I’m Alexander Liebenthal’s spiritual counselor. I can persuade him to order his men to lay down their arms. I can persuade him to surrender, but I must speak to him face to face.”

She pursed her lips in distaste as she examined the card. “I remember you now, Mr. Mellech. You tried to give Christabel and me the hard sell a couple of years ago, and were quite rude when I explained I was content with my life.”

“Please don’t hold that against God. He wants to know you, and have you know him.”

“Then he should ask me himself.” She held fingertips to her ear. “Back up about thirty meters and you’ll find the entrance to a parking garage to your right. Leave your vehicle and approach City Hall on foot. I instructed the police handling crowd control to permit your passage.”

“Thank you, Adversary.”

“Don’t give me cause to regret it.”

He obeyed her instructions, and allowed the cop who halted him to escort him past the protesters. The two hundred meters between them and City Hall was a no man’s land waiting for a battle. A cold sweat oozed from the pores of his skin as he imagined everybody following his progress. Either side might start firing, and I’m stuck between them with a choice of dissolving my avatar or being shot to pieces. Perhaps I should do the former, materialize after the shooting, and tell people they witnessed a miracle. Would they dare doubt God saved me from the crossfire when thousands of witnesses can contradict them? A miracle would be great for business.

He stopped a moment, shaking his head at the cynicism with which he thought. I should pray for forgiveness for thinking so little of my fellow man, but these humans aren’t my fellow anything. Damn it, Imaginos. I’m not Annelise Copeland, your little actress. I cannot play the devout much longer; my persona is cracking.

Bikers glanced up from the sights of their rifles to mark his entrance into City Hall. A pale man with close-cropped black hair, slit-pupilled green eyes, and a scowl stopped sharpening his sword long enough to bark a challenge. “Who the fuck are you?”

The urge to draw upon his abilities seized Mellech for a moment. The arrogant asura emulator dared challenge him, the ensof Adramelech, who alone among the Disciples of the Watch learned to create autonomous agents to pit against his enemies. Many ensof possessed the ability, which they had used to massacre devas, until the devas learned to fight back. They determined the agents were composed of plasma contained by tenuous electromagnetic fields, which could be shattered if assaulted with magnetically charged particles.

Sabaoth used the ability to send angelic messengers among mortals, but Adramelech’s approach was different; he sent nightmares drawn from archetypal terrors, rather than visions of glory. No doubt Imaginos thought it hilarious to have me pretend subservience to Sabaoth. “I am Abram Mellech, and Mr. Liebenthal asked for my services. Where is Munakata Tetsuo? I thought he would be here to admit me.”

“He’s elsewhere, and the boss didn’t say shit about you coming.”

“Why would he tell you anything?” Mellech brushed past the biker and slipped inside.

Scene 3

Despite the distance between City Hall and the protesters massed outside, the fists raised against Alexander Liebenthal were visible. Their chanting―“Surrender now! Surrender now! Surrender now, you motherfucker!”―beat against the plate glass separating him from the world. The windows vibrated in their frames in response to the chant’s rhythm. The speech he gave in response to Morgan Cooper’s did more harm than good. The protesters booed him from the stage, and some even threw slush balls gathered from clumps of snow the public works crews had not cleared from the streets and sidewalks. The slush balls might have injured Liebenthal if Rubicante and some of his Transmaniacons had not escorted him away. His exhortation to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s inspired placards depicting a bloody knife with slogans like, Gaius Julius got his. Liebenthal’s next! and Watch your back, Caligula!

The last offended Liebenthal most. Caligula’s excesses abused the patience of everybody around him until two of his own Praetorian Guard shanked him in a sewer. What did I do to deserve a comparison with him? I don’t even have a horse to appoint to high office.

The doors to the mayor’s office opened to admit Munakata Tetsuo. His shirt and coat hung in tatters from a frame slimmer than it had been before he left with the Godhead Riders this morning. The ronin limped a bit, favoring his left leg, and his posture seemed stiff. He slumped into a chair, waving off the glass of scotch Liebenthal poured for him. “Thank you, Alexander, but liquor won’t help. I just need time, and something to eat.”

Liebenthal turned to Munakata after ordering one of the bikers standing guard outside to bring food. “What happened to you? You were supposed to kill the Godhead Riders without warning, and frame Cooper.”

“Without warning?” Munakata shook his head. His voice was quiet, and his breathing shallow. “I used to be an Adversary, Alexander. We didn’t do things like that. We were never first to draw our swords.”

Liebenthal stared at him. “You let Schenker and his men go?”

Food arrived in the form of sandwiches looted from the café on the first floor. Munakata wolfed down four sandwiches before stopping to drink a bottle of water. His body filled out as he did so, using the material he ingested to repair itself.

The sight repelled Liebenthal. Munakata really isn’t human. He’s some kind of machine capable of taking punishment which would kill a man, as long as he can eat and repair himself afterward. Would he eat the flesh of a fallen enemy if no other food were available?

Munakata rose, gathering up the garbage from his sandwiches. He no longer limped as he sought the trashcan, and his posture loosened. “To answer your question, Alexander, I didn’t let the Godhead Riders go. Tobias Schenker ordered them to flee, and engaged me in single combat to keep me from giving chase.”

“Don’t bullshit me.” Liebenthal had dealt with Tobias Schenker before. The man was a loan shark, and took to preying upon some of his employees by offering loans against their wages. While the employees he approached refused his terms, Schenker refused to peddle his con elsewhere, which forced Liebenthal’s intervention. “I paid the Fireclowns to kick Schenker’s ass a few years ago before I put them and you on retainer. He’s no sword-fighter.”

Munakata shrugged. “Perhaps the beating impressed upon him the value of martial studies. He faced me alone, sword to sword. Worse, he improved as we fought. I was only able to kill him by using a sudden change in tactics.”

Liebenthal looked up from his sandwich, which he had made a half-hearted effort at eating. Despite the cancer feeding upon him, and his need to keep fighting, he fought to muster the will to eat. His choice of a meatless sandwich did nothing to help matters. Fuck this. Being vegan didn’t save me from cancer.

He dropped the meatless sandwich into a trash bin and found a ham and cheese on rye. His eyes widened and his mouth watered as he unwrapped it, took half, and found its heft was due almost entirely to meat and cheese. Instead of being stuffed with lettuce and tomato, the sandwich consisted of what appeared to be a dozen slices of ham, three of Swiss cheese, and a thin layer of Dijon mustard. Rapture radiated from his tongue as he took the first bite.

He abstained from the taste of meat not out of principle, but as a marketing tactic. As he explained in an interview several years ago, a produce wholesaler should be his own best customer. His most recent prior indulgence was during his last vacation, five years ago. He forced himself to finish chewing before speaking. “So, did Schenker die like the fucking weasel he was?”

Munakata narrowed his eyes. “He died fighting, Alexander. Once I killed him, I attempted to chase the rest of the Godhead Riders, only to find they never fled. They hid, and flanked me from behind. They shot me up pretty badly before I killed them all. The Godhead Riders are dead.”

Which explains his prior resemblance to shit warmed over. “Don’t you need a doctor? At least to get the slugs out of you?”

Munakata shook his head and picked up another sandwich. He took his time eating before he spoke again. “I already healed around the slugs. My body will convert them to lead acetate and excrete the compound.”

Liebenthal nodded, and began eating the other half of his sandwich. “How did you get back? I doubt the protesters would let you through.”

Munakata rose and looked out the window. “I didn’t bother going through them. I went under them. Cooper didn’t just get ten thousand protesters, you know. It’s more like a hundred thousand. The whole city’s on a general strike, so I walked through the subway tunnels and got in through the station under City Hall. You wasted time sending me after the Godhead Riders, since those people didn’t gather because they believe in him. They’re protesting because they don’t believe in you.”

The doors to the mayor’s office opened, admitting Abram Mellech. Liebenthal’s immediate reaction escaped his lips. “Why are you back?”

Rather than rise from behind his desk, Liebenthal checked to ensure his rifle remained propped against it. After a demonstration, he believed the weapon powerful enough to kill one of the recombinant woolly mammoths―which scientists from a research university outside Moscow turned loose in Siberia―with a single head shot. Screw it. If this asshole hadn’t come to me with that gun-running deal, I wouldn’t have gotten into this mess with the Phoenix Society. “Are you here to tell me God still believes in me?”

“Not at all.” Adramelech stuffed his Roman collar into a pocket. He poured a glass of scotch and soda, and enjoyed a leisurely drink before speaking again. “Much better. I already shielded the room so nobody outside can hear us.”

Liebenthal shot a look to Munakata and used secure talk. I don’t trust this asshole.

Munakata circled to Adramelech’s left, giving him a clear path to attack without blocking Liebenthal’s shot, but did not draw his sword.

Adramelech continued to sip his drink. “Relax, gentlemen. I came to offer salvation.”

Liebenthal shook his head, reaching down to pull the rifle into his lap. He had a question in mind, and doubted he’d like the answer. “Why are you really here? Who sent you?”

“Who do you think? I came to offer you both sanctuary.”

“Sanctuary.” Liebenthal repeated the word, and his breath hitched as he suppressed his reactions to it. He wanted to laugh, to heap scorn on the very notion, knowing he’d die a wanted man even if he fled to the new colony on Mars and survived the months-long voyage. Hell, they’d probably know I was coming, and toss me out an airlock just to lighten their load and save fuel. I’d end up like Thistlewood. “What’s the catch?”

Adramelech smiled, looking as if he was ready to offer a hell of a deal. “Just surrender. I am a member of the Phoenix Society’s Executive Council. You need not enter Cooper’s custody.”

“Just surrender?” Liebenthal felt his arms tremble, and his fists clenched. “Just surrender, and let you bastards take me alive, so you can make me a liar? Your propaganda department would cream themselves in delight.”

Adramelech’s voice darkened, and the air crackled with electricity. Liebenthal remembered the crackling static sensation from when Imaginos threw him across the room without laying a hand upon him, and remained seated. “Your pride ripens into hubris, Mr. Liebenthal. You served the Phoenix Society well, but further recalcitrance on your part serves no one. You already rejected Imaginos’ offer. There might not be a third offer of sanctuary. Tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, await you outside. In time, they will forget patience and storm the building, killing everybody inside. My offer is your last chance to end this farce without violence.”

Rather than speak, Liebenthal lifted the rifle and pressed the butt against his shoulder. He sighted upon Adramelech’s torso using the iron sights and squeezed off a burst. A triplet kick jackhammered his shoulder as Adramelech stared down at himself and screamed. Liebenthal squeezed off another burst, putting the rounds through Adramelech’s head. His body fell silent to the floor, and shattered into crystalline dust which in turn evaporated. Putting down the rifle, he blinked at Munakata. “What the fuck was that?”

Munakata’s explanation was little help. “You destroyed his avatar.”

“His what?”

“His avatar. I don’t understand it. All I know is that he isn’t human, and you destroyed his physical body.”

“So, he’s going to come back?” Liebenthal felt his sandwich rise, lifted by a tide of impending panic. “Are those other guys immortals, too? You knew we were fucked from the start, didn’t you?”

Munakata shrugged. “So did you. Your situation is no different from when you received your first diagnosis, so focus on the present. Cooper has fomented a demonstration against you. Shall I smear him with the deaths of the Godhead Riders?”

Liebenthal shook his head, and took a minute to calm himself. “No. You were right. They’re here to oppose me. Even if the Society brought Cooper to trial for the deaths of those loan sharks, I doubt a jury would believe he killed them.”

“So I killed one of my own kind, and got shot up by his companions for nothing?”

“Hell, no. I told that bastard Schenker I’d see him dead if I ever saw him again.” He rose from the desk, and led Munakata from the mayor’s office. “Come on, Tetsuo. Let’s get the rest of the men out of here. They can’t help me, and they deserve better than to sit here waiting for the hammer to fall.”

Chapter 16: The Violence Inherent in the System

Scene 1

Munakata Tetsuo followed his partner downstairs, motioning for the bikers guarding the doors to the mayor’s office to follow; there was no point in them guarding an empty room. Many of the men he hired to replace the Fireclowns crouched behind desks they knocked over to provide a semblance of cover, knuckles white around their rifles. Others found cover beside the windows, occasionally peeking outside. Sleet began to pelt the pavement, but the stinging cold failed to drive off the protesters. Instead, their chanting only grew more insistent. He picked at random a man wearing Transmaniacon colors. “Where’s Rubicante?”

“In the Smedley Butler room.” He spoke again as Munakata and Liebenthal turned away. “Trying to figure out how a couple thousand of us can fight a few hundred thousand of them. Somebody should remind him of how things turned out for the Spartans.”

Liebenthal nodded, and turned to find the conference room indicated by the biker, who caught Munakata’s shoulder as he followed suit. “Who the fuck is Smedley Butler, anyway?”

Munakata glared at the Transmaniacon rider, who released his grip as if burned. He considered his words; Smedley Butler was a figure every Adversary was expected to understand before being released from training. A lieutenant general of the North American Commonwealth’s elite Marine Corps, Butler built a distinguished career for himself before realizing the Commonwealth’s foreign wars served neither the people of the countries in which he fought, nor his fellow citizens. “Butler was a soldier like us, who realized he was helping rich scumbags get richer.”

“How long did he take to figure that out?” The biker shrugged, and resumed his post without waiting for an answer. Here’s somebody with no ideals. Did he join the Transmaniacon MC because he lacked a place in the world? Did I not become an Adversary for the same reasons?

Vincent Rubicante, who took over the Transmaniacon motorcycle club after the sudden demise of his predecessor, jabbed at a map of Boston’s subway routes with a felt-tipped marker as Munakata led Liebenthal into the conference room. He drew a star over their location, and a scarlet circle around the star which roughly corresponded with the distance the protesters maintained between themselves and City Hall. He marked stops which opened upon the street outside the circle, and raked his gaze across the other gang leaders: John Teller for the Sunjesters, Nick Adams for the Heretics MC, and Jesse Berger for the Devil’s Advocates. All were asuras. “We’re immobile, and cannot take the initiative. We need to exploit the general strike. We can get into the subway system from here, and then come out behind the protesters and hit them from behind.” He indicated several locations. “Here, here, and here.”

Berger snorted. “Great idea, Ruby. What’s to stop these people from following us underground after we get their attention?”

“They won’t all fit into the tunnels.”

Adams shook his head. “They don’t need to. They can just take City Hall and station riflemen at the stairs leading out of the subway, while sending more behind us.”

“Fuck that. We’d just end up surrounded again amid rats and roaches.” Teller shuddered.

Rubicante tossed the marker aside. “What would you have us do, then? Surrender? Run away?” He shot an accusing glare at Munakata. “How did that work for the Godhead Riders, by the way?”

“Poorly.” Munakata had no compunction about lying to the man; his pride demanded honesty towards friends and his employer, and Rubicante was neither. “Morgan Cooper beheaded Schenker, and took heavy fire before killing the rest.”

Rubicante narrowed his eyes. “Why do you look shot up, if Cooper killed off Schenker and his crew while taking heavy fire?”

“Enough.” Liebenthal’s shout caught their attention, as did the violent coughing which followed. Realizing his former master drew upon strength he no longer possessed to shout, Munakata turned to help. Liebenthal waved him off, and got his coughing under control. “Thanks, but I can still manage.”

He spat a wad of bloodstained phlegm into the can by the door before continuing. “Mr. Rubicante, you were astute to seize upon the opportunity presented by the general strike, but you will only get your men killed if you attack from the subway.” He turned his attention to all four men. “I never thought Cooper would appeal to the people, or shame them into action. My last order to you is to gather your men and use the subway tunnels to get out of here.”

Rubicante and the others burst into tumult, bombarding Liebenthal with questions. Rather than raise his voice, Liebenthal drew a pistol from inside his coat and fired into the ceiling. The report deafened Munakata for a moment, preventing him from hearing everything as Liebenthal continued. “―If your fucking pride forbids you from sneaking out, then just take the front door and discard your weapons in front of everybody. Cooper promised amnesty, didn’t he?”

Rubicante made no effort to hide his derision. “The same amnesty he granted the Godhead Riders?”

“You were right. It wasn’t Cooper who killed them.” Munakata’s voice started as a whisper, and gathered strength as he claimed responsibility for his crimes. I murdered those bastards, and for what? He shepherded Liebenthal into a corner, placing himself between the bikers and what would soon be their former employer. “I killed them, hoping that I could make Cooper a liar in the eyes of the people and cause them to abandon him. I didn’t understand their motives. They’re not here to help Cooper, but to oppose us.”

Rubicante’s hand searched for the hilt of a rapier which was not there; he and the others probably put aside their swords out of mutual distrust. Munakata drew his own blade, admiring the waves in the steel beneath the lights. “No doubt you’re thinking to overpower me. However, you four do not trust each other, and cannot fight effectively as a unit against me. Unarmed, you cannot stop me from taking your heads as I took Schenker’s. Take your men and go.”

Rubicante was the last to leave. He stopped short of the doorway, turned, and threw a leather glove to the floor. He glared at Munakata, daring him to ignore the challenge.

If I leave the glove, I’ll never be able to settle this matter. “I might not live to arrange our meeting, Mr. Rubicante.”

“Then I’ll be sure to thank Cooper for making your funeral arrangements on my behalf.” He approached Munakata, silently daring him to cut an unarmed man. “For the sake of my men, I cannot permit you to go unpunished.”

“I understand.” Munakata sheathed his sword. “I would offer to settle the matter immediately, but my obligation to Mr. Liebenthal takes precedence.”

Within minutes, City Hall was empty. Only a lingering trace of oil and leather remained. Libenthal turned to Munakata once they returned to the mayor’s office. “Why did you take all of the blame? I told you to kill the Godhead Riders.”

“They’d still be alive if I defied you.” Though Liebenthal bore responsibility for ordering the massacre, Munakata refused to let him carry the full weight of blame. He chose to obey; he chose to pursue, corner, and kill the Godhead Riders. “We had to get them out of here. If you accepted your share of the blame, they would do Cooper’s work for him.”

“So you focused their anger on you. Didn’t I fire you?” Liebenthal’s chuckle was bitter as he ducked behind the desk for a moment. He rose again, cradling the experimental rifle with which he killed Abram Mellech in his wasted arms, and searched the closet for his coat.

Rather than answer Liebenthal’s question, Munakata asked one of his own. He disliked the notion of his comrade seeking his coat; doing so meant he intended to go outside. “Do you plan to surrender?”

Liebenthal buttoned his coat, and spread his arms while muttering under his breath. His words remained audible to Munakata. “This damn thing hangs off of me.”

Liebenthal retrieved his rifle, and curled his finger around the trigger guard, instead of the trigger itself. Making his way to the top floor, he opened each of the windows, staring down at the protesters crowding the plaza around City Hall. “Damn. This isn’t exactly a wide angle for shooting.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

Liebenthal thumbed off the safety and sighted out a window. “If we just sit here, they’ll starve us out. I’m going to make Cooper come after me. This is the only thing I can do to up the ante. Which one is his girlfriend?”

Does he mean to kill Naomi Bradleigh? Munakata’s words froze in his mouth as he realized the probable consequences of such an action. Cooper’s rage would make that of Achilles a toddler’s tantrum. He’d spend the next decade torturing us.

Scanning the protesters, he spotted Bradleigh in seconds; her snowy hair stark over her glossy black armor. Instead, he sighted upon a strawberry blonde in standard-issue Adversary’s battle dress. He led Liebenthal to the window which offered the best angle, hating himself for having already rationalized the atrocity he and Liebenthal would commit. I just hope he doesn’t remember what Bradleigh looks like. “The strawberry blonde with the AK. That’s Naomi Bradleigh.”

Scene 2

“Get those cameras set up. We’ll need video and stills.” Samuel Terell gave the order as a matter of habit; his crew knew him well enough to start setting up on their own once he tightened and straightened his tie. He hated wearing the damned things; they reminded him of both leashes with choke collars for dogs, and nooses for convicts.

He hoped to find Naomi Bradleigh or Morgan Cooper amid the protesters; his contract with the Al Jazeera network to report on the rebellion against Liebenthal required he at least make the attempt to get a statement from the Adversaries, but in the meantime anybody capable of mobilizing local members of Port Royal would do.

To witness ten thousand of them marching in step was an unnerving sight. He turned to the camera, which his newest employee Jennifer Okwudiafor kept trained on him. “Viewers familiar with Port Royal will understand that what we’re recording now, ten thousand crew marching to join the protest against the Liebenthal regime, is highly anomalous. Port Royal arose just prior to Nationfall as a distributed republic, communicating amongst themselves and conducting government over the network, and while anybody who shares their libertarian ideology is welcome to join their local crew, they tend to adhere to a strict policy of isolation in other respects. Their unofficial motto is ‘Not my crew? Not my problem.’”

He found their leader while giving his monologue; he stuck to English throughout, knowing Al Jazeera would provide subtitles to cater to their subscribers. Her bomber jacket clung to a luscious and sturdy figure, and bore a ‘Port Royal―London Crew’ patch on the shoulder. Instead of a carbine and cutlass, she wore only a revolver in a shoulder holster whose harness seemed chosen to further emphasize her bosom. “Excuse me, miss. Might I borrow a moment of your time?”

The redhead turned toward him, and smiled as if undressing him with her eyes. “I’m Claire Ashecroft, from Port Royal’s London crew, and you’d better be good for more than a moment of my time, Mr. Terrell.” She blew a kiss at Jennifer, who turned the camera towards her. “Were you going to invite me to join you and your friend, or do you want to ask some questions?”

I bet Elisabeth would enjoy this young lady. It was a game he and Elisabeth Bathory adored, gathering a young woman or man into their embrace and making them the center of attention for the night. “I’m reporting on the protests for Al Jazeera, and stumbled upon your crew while looking for Morgan Cooper and Naomi Bradleigh. Does Port Royal normally get involved in local issues?”

Ms. Ashecroft shrugged. “It’s unusual these days, but that’s because a lot of crew my age know bugger-all about history. We started out as two groups―Anonymous and a consortium of the world’s Pirate Parties―and joined forces for mutual protection just before Nationfall. We involve ourselves in external politics because the idiots the rest of you elect to office tend to enact policies detrimental to our interests.”

“Nobody elected Alexander Liebenthal.” Terell mentioned this not to correct Ms. Ashecroft, but for the audience’s benefit.

“No shit, Sherlock.” She made no effort to hide or hold back her laughter, which seemed to come straight from her belly with no resistance. Is she laughing at me, or at the notion of Liebenthal being elected? “Who would elect him? The man uses his shitty little produce wholesaling business as a front for gun-running.”

Terell turned toward the camera a bit. “That’s a serious charge, Ms. Ashecroft.”

“Morgan would kick my ass if I gave you the evidence, but I helped him get the proof right out of Liebenthal’s systems. He had just enough money to keep the city running out of his own pocket for a week. After that, he has to start collecting taxes, and he isn’t going to refrain from hitting up the crew.” Ms. Ashecroft spat on the pavement, presumably at the thought of paying taxes to Liebenthal. “Back home, when the government overreaches, we push back instead of waiting for the bloody Adversaries to sort things out.”

“By Morgan, do you mean Morgan Cooper? What is your relationship to the man?”

“Just friends.” Ms. Ashecroft flashed a wistful smile before continuing. “He consults me on technical matters. He’s man enough to admit I’m a better hacker, but in fairness to him, he has certain handicaps where social engineering is concerned.”

Terell had no choice but to ask the obvious question. The notion of Cooper having any handicaps would not only get the audience’s interest, but provide useful intelligence to his fellow Disciples of the Watch. “Such as?”

Ms. Ashecroft chuckled. “Come on, mate. Morgan’s a handsome bloke, but most sysadmins are blokes as well, and pride themselves on being strictly hetero. I can get a lot further with them than Morgan just by showing a bit of cleavage.”

Though her comment had nothing to do with his current assignment, Ms. Ashecroft’s words brought to mind an article he contracted to write for a men’s magazine on “Is IT Still a Man’s World?”. Two birds, one stone. “Why do you think the work of administering to the physical needs of AIs falls to men, despite our social progress since Nationfall?”

Ms. Ashecroft waved a dismissive hand. “That’s easy. It’s a bloody thankless job, and the lads are welcome to keep it. You think I’m going to settle for swapping out dead drives and babysitting backups when I can help Morgan and Naomi promote their music―or help Morgan take down a dictatorial pusbag like Liebenthal?”

Terell blinked. I thought she’d gripe about continuing sexism. Instead, she holds the work itself in contempt. Interesting. “How are you helping Adversary Cooper?”

Ms. Ashecroft coughed, and jerked a thumb at the crew following her. Ten thousand stood at attention, awaiting her orders with perfect military discipline. “Seriously? Even if nobody else bothered to turn out, I brought ten thousand crew here. That’s enough to outnumber Liebenthal’s bikers by a ratio of four to one.”

“And they answer to you?”

“Nah. They just follow me because I got a nice ass.” Ms. Ashecroft shook her head, as if impatient with Terell, before turning her attention to the crew. She straightened, squaring her shoulders as she took a deep breath, and shouted over the tumult. “Listen up! You’re to spread out among the crowd. Maintain contact via secure relay chat. Do not fire until fired upon. If Adversaries Cooper, Bradleigh, Cohen, or Schneider give you an order, you bloody well obey as if the order came from me. If anybody else gives you an order, tell ’em to fuck off. Any questions?”

Nobody asked any questions. If anybody used secure relay chat to request clarification, Ms. Ashecroft gave no indication. After a few seconds, she gave a curt “Dismissed!” before turning from the crew.

They scattered, dispersing themselves among the protesters as instructed. She nodded to Terell. “Now the crew are doing their part. Liebenthal won’t refrain from taxing them. There’s no way he’d get away with making an exception for anybody.”

“Mr. Terell?” Jennifer Okwudiafor turned the camera towards the parting crowd. “Aren’t those Adversaries?”

Terell glanced in the direction to which Jennifer pointed, and made a mental note to give her a bigger cut of the payoff for this job. Not only were the two figures in black coats Adversaries, but they were the very Adversaries he was paid to interview. He sent Ms. Ashecroft a text containing his room number at Boston’s Hellfire Club in case she was serious about her flirtation; she was right about her ass. “Thank you for your time. Come visit me later, if you like.”

Cooper narrowed his eyes at Terell’s approach. “You again, Mr. Terell? You dog me with the determination of a man to whom I owe outrageous sums.”

Terell spread his hands to placate the man. “You mistake me, Adversary. Al Jazeera asked me to report on events here in Boston. You’re one of the central actors in this drama.” He looked past Cooper and Bradleigh to find hundreds of bikers wearing the colors of the Transmaniacon MC following them. “Does the presence of the bikers behind you mean Liebenthal has surrendered?”

Bradleigh answered on Cooper’s behalf. “We’re not so fortunate. However, we obtained information from the leader of the Transmaniacon MC suggesting that Liebenthal dismissed his biker army. At this time we believe that only Liebenthal and Munakata remain inside.”

Cooper scanned the area before raising his voice. “Claire! What the hell are you doing here?”

Ms. Ashecroft dashed back to Morgan. “I told you I was coming to Boston to rouse the local crew. They insisted I lead them, and I can’t do that from the rear.” Her hand proved too small to cover her yawn. “Took a bloody scramjet to get here, by the way.” Another yawn. “Arioch’s balls, I hate jet lag. I was thinking of shagging this reporter, but I’ll probably end up falling asleep before he gets his bloody clothes off.”

Terell shrugged. Lovers had fallen asleep on him before, but he never took advantage, unless storing the sight of a sleeping woman to paint from memory later counted. He shot her a second message via secure talk. «Jennifer and I will be in town a while. We can keep you warm, if you’d rather not sleep alone.»

Cooper gave Ashecroft’s shoulder a gentle squeeze as she turned to the Transmaniacons who surrendered to him and Bradleigh. “I’ll cover your lodging and meals.”

She nodded, as if confirming instructions given over a private chat, and began herding the bikers away from the crowd. Some of the crew she commanded arrived to assist her as Terell turned to the Adversaries.

Three whip-cracks cut through the air, and screams erupted from the crowd. The Adversaries’ fingertips flew to their ears, and a horrified look arced between Cooper and Bradleigh. Cooper immediately turned on his heel and dashed toward the source of the screams. Naomi turned to follow, and stopped long enough to offer an explanation. “Adversary down. Somebody fired into the crowd.”

Scene 3

More shots screamed across the plaza surrounding City Hall as Morgan shouldered his way through the crowd to find Sarah. Her implant broadcast a distress signal which his own implant triangulated and superimposed on a street map of the area, allowing him to find her. The protesters raised their own rifles, and responded with a volley of their own. The staggered firing of a hundred thousand rifles made the plaza ground zero for rolling thunder worthy of use in a disaster film.

He found Sarah as the protesters worked the bolts and levers of their rifles for another volley. EMTs examined her as Sid held her hands and spoke to keep her awake. “I told you this wouldn’t work out, Cooper. Too bad you didn’t just go in and whack the bastard.”

He caught Sid’s attention. “How badly is she hurt?”

“She’s lucky I was there with a first aid kit, but the shots took huge fucking chunks out of her thighs. We’re talking severe muscle damage and months of rehab. Some of the other poor bastards tried to cover me.”

Morgan glanced about himself as he took one of Sarah’s hands, only to find more fallen. Paramedics attended to some, stabilizing them for transport to a hospital and further treatment. Others had blankets draped over them, to be collected later; the dead were unable to object to the wait. Each confirmed Sarah’s opinion. She moaned, and tried to pull her hand free as Sid gave Morgan’s shoulder a gentle punch. “You’re crushing her hand, man.”

Morgan placed the wounded Adversary’s hand on her belly. “I’m sorry.”

“For my hand?” Sarah raised the hand Morgan held, and flexed her fingers. “Least of my problems. Where are my boots? My feet are cold.”

“I―” Morgan searched the area without rising before examining Sarah’s legs. As Sid warned him, huge chunks were missing from her thighs, and the wounds’ edges were burned. Blood congealed on her boots. He took a deep breath before turning back to Sarah, but found nothing to say.

A weak smile curved her lips. “I can’t feel my legs, but I know I still got ’em. I guess you can’t tell when I’m joking yet.”

“Not yet. You’ll need new boots. These are ruined.”

An EMT bearing a stretcher crouched by them. “Adversary, can you please help me with the patient?”

Sarah winked at Morgan as he grasped her belt with one hand and slipped the other beneath her shoulders to avoid taking liberties. “I wanted your hands on my ass, but this wasn’t how I wanted to go about arranging it.”

“Naomi would kill me.”

“Naomi can join in.”

“Claire’s in town, and she’s going to be pissed about you getting shot.” Morgan moved Sarah’s legs as Sid got out of the EMT’s way.

The technician set up an IV drip before using a forearm to wipe sweat from her forehead. She glanced around in search of help. “Jesus wept. Can you gentlemen lift her into the ambulance?”

Morgan nodded, and glanced at Sid before taking his end of the stretcher. “Ready?”

Sid nodded. “On three.” They counted down together before lifting the stretcher. Sid backed into the ambulance, and remained inside once Sarah was secured. “I’ll go to the hospital with Sarah. Stay strong.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sarah’s right about whacking the bastard being easier. Sure, we’d avoid casualties, but we can’t keep killing off our opposition. It doesn’t prove anything.” The ambulance started up, its electric motor humming. “Don’t kill the bastard. You’re just letting him off easy.”

Morgan nodded, and turned toward City Hall. The thunder of mass gunfire faded as the protesters emptied their magazines and stopped to reload. Shattered glass littered the plaza around the building, but most of the rounds fired struck concrete. The building’s facade, reviled for its brutal ugliness since construction began in the 1960s, bore thousands of fresh scars. The upper windows, shadowed by concrete overhangs and dividers protruding between the panes, were perfect for a sniper. As long as the bastard refrained from sticking the barrel of his rifle out too far, he would be able to kill from cover.

“Is that Sarah on the stretcher?” Naomi finally caught up with him. Her voice was barely audible as she glanced around. “How could he kill so many?”

Morgan pulled free of Naomi’s embrace, shaking his head. “Liebenthal is not wholly responsible for these deaths. I should be on trial beside him. I appealed to the people. I called them out here. I used them, assuming all the while he would not dare fire upon those he meant to rule. I was wrong, Naomi, and these people are suffering for my failure.”

“You haven’t failed yet.” Naomi took his hands, drawing him closer. “Your memory of our orders is faulty. You were to take Liebenthal alive, by any means necessary. The rest was your decision.” Her hands tightened. “You made the right decision. With the Fireclowns working for Liebenthal, more people might have died.”

“That won’t comfort the families of those who died today, or fix Sarah’s legs.” He tore himself free and sped a text to Eddie, who stationed himself on a rooftop across the plaza from City Hall. «Can you see Liebenthal?»

«He’s not on the roof. Wait… That son of a syphilitic bitch is shooting from one of the windows. I gotta move; the angle’s wrong from my current position.» Morgan looked up at the building Eddie chose as his vantage point, and found the barrel of his rifle peeping over the edge of the rooftop. Moments later, a window opened three floors above the street. «Athena-guide-my-hands, the bastard pulled back. These goddamned overhangs and dividers make it harder to see inside.»

Morgan considered City Hall again, realizing Eddie was right. Snipers stationed at every window on that floor might cover the building, but expecting Eddie to cover the entire front was unfair. Nor could Catherine Gatto and Miria Deschat help much; joining Eddie would require them to leave their stations and cross the plaza, making them vulnerable. Furthermore, City Hall had three other sides which Eddie had no hope of covering without entering another building. «I’m out of options. I must confront Liebenthal inside.»

«/Sorry I can’t help you. I’d love to nail him after what he did to Sarah. She was the best I had in years, you know?» Morgan refrained from chiding the old soldier. At least he was using secure talk, and not secure relay chat; he subjected nobody else to his casual misogyny. «Don’t look at me like that. She’s a professional, and good with a rifle. I could have used her during Nationfall.»

Morgan started at the mention of Nationfall; he didn’t speak lightly of those years. He put aside his conversation for a moment. Maybe Eddie actually gives a shit about Adversary Kohlrynn.

Feedback shrieked across the plaza as somebody activated a public address system, and gave way to a wheezing cough. “You’re dead in my sights, Morgan Cooper. Who’s that standing beside you? A new whore to replace Naomi Bradleigh? Have you no decency, man?”

Naomi shot a glance at him. “Why does Liebenthal think Sarah is me?”

“Not now.” He found Claire and added her to the Adversaries’ secure relay chat. Claire, can you trace the PA signal?

«Not directly, but the wiring schematics suggest he’s bluffing about having you in his sights, unless Munakata’s doing the shooting.»

The thought of Munakata being the one responsible for these deaths and Kohlrynn’s injury, rather than Liebenthal, offered Morgan no comfort. Munakata works for Liebenthal, making the latter responsible, he thought before texting, «I need their IP addresses superimposed on a floor plan, Claire. I need to find these bastards before they do further harm.»

«I’m on it.»

Claire signed off as Liebenthal continued. “Does the heat of civilians’ blood on your hands please you, Cooper? How many will you sacrifice to preserve your employers’ reputation? How many must die for the Phoenix Society’s propaganda?”

A police officer ran to Naomi carrying a megaphone, which she handed to Morgan. “Don’t let him speak unopposed.”

Morgan nodded as he accepted the bullhorn. “What do you want, Liebenthal? We can end this without further bloodshed.”

“Only if I let you prove me a liar. I killed Abram Mellech for suggesting it. I mean to keep killing until you come in here and stop me.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“The people possess the right, and the responsibility, to know the truth. The Society tells us they uphold individual rights, and that our society is governed by principles of liberty, justice, and equality. It’s time you showed the good people of Boston the truth. It’s time you showed us the violence inherent in the system!”

A message from Claire followed sudden silence. «I just cut the power. I’m not going to listen while that walking chancre paraphrases Monty Python.»

«Thanks, Claire.» The reply came thrice, sent simultaneously by Morgan, Naomi, and Eddie.

Morgan turned off the megaphone and returned it to Naomi. The threat is plain. More innocent people will die if I continue this waiting game. “I’m going in. Eddie, if you get a clear shot at Liebenthal, take it. Naomi―”

“I’ll go with you. You need a sword at your back.”

Morgan took Naomi’s hands, and turned with her so his body would shield her if Liebenthal attempted a shot. Rather than use his implant, he resorted to his voice, to impress upon her the importance of his request. “Your sword will be at my back, but I can’t let you follow me inside. I need you to get these people out of here.”

“To deprive Liebenthal of targets?” Naomi’s expression settled into firm resolve. “I understand. I’ll get the cadets from the local Adversary Candidate School to help me.” She stole a bare brush of a kiss before backing away. “Be careful in there. Whatever you did with the Godhead Riders earlier, you look tired.”

I am tired. I’m tired of dealing with filth like Alexander Liebenthal. However, somebody has to do it. The bitterness of his thoughts tasted of bile. He castigated himself for forgetting service as an Adversary was a privilege. He used secure relay chat to answer Naomi, because what he meant to say concerned the others as well. «You’re right, Naomi. I am tired. When reasonable Adversaries like you fail, the Society turns to unreasonable Adversaries like me. When diplomats fail, the Society speaks of necessary evils and resorts to killers. I’m tired of being a necessary evil.»

«You can’t go in there thinking like this.»

Eddie had more to say, which Morgan did not bother to read. He already knew what he meant to say to his friend. «Eddie, I spent the last year working through channels and following proper procedure in order to resign my commission. For my pains, Karen Del Rio kept using me as the Society’s hit man. No more. Once Liebenthal gets his due process, I quit. Do you understand? I’ve had enough, and I want out.»

He disconnected as he approached the entrance to City Hall, and released the strap securing his sword. The interior was shadowed; the emergency lighting would do more harm than good: too dim for normal vision, but too bright for Morgan’s vision to switch to infrared. The front doors opened before Munakata Tetsuo, who strode to the top of the staircase with a naked sword in his hand.

Chapter 17: To Endure the Unendurable

Scene 1

Munakata Tetsuo stared into the muzzle of Liebenthal’s stolen Gauss rifle, the void within only slightly darker than the gloom of the unlit office. The power failed in the middle of his former employer’s public tirade against Cooper, and Liebenthal wasted little time in finding a new target for his wrath. Go ahead and shoot the last man to stand beside you. I’ll either get over it, or be too dead to care.

“You lied to me.” Liebenthal’s voice grated behind the sights. “Naomi Bradleigh’s the white-haired Amazon, not the strawberry blonde.”

Munakata remained silent, and let his eyes slip halfway shut as he focused on his breathing. His breath came slowly, which was good. What kind of ronin would panic now?

The lights cut out as Liebenthal’s finger tightened around the trigger, resulting in nothing but a small click. “Fucking cheap fucking Murdoch equipment! What’s wrong with this fucking battery?”

Without any conscious intent, Tetsuo reached out while stepping to one side of the rifle. He pried the weapon from Liebenthal’s grasp without any resistance on the older man’s part, and stepped back. “Alexander, can you visualize the rage you’d provoke in Morgan if you killed Naomi Bradleigh? His wrath would be beyond Homeric. The son of a bitch would turn us into cat food.

Liebenthal’s expression softened. “That’s the first time you used profanity in front of me. You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?”

“He’s my equal, if not my superior, and his cat is a monster.” Tetsuo heard of people keeping great cats as pets, but Cooper’s pet was part of no wild cat species he recognized. He offered the rifle to Liebenthal. “Take this back, and don’t waste your last shot on the protesters. You might need it if Cooper gets past me, considering how you did your damnedest to give him a reason to take his sweet time killing us.”

Liebenthal accepted the rifle and slipped behind a desk. “Is that sword all you got, Tetsuo?”

“It’s all I need. He won’t use his pistol right away.” Their last duel kept springing to the forefront of his mind; he doubted Cooper would spare six hours this time. “If you can get that rifle working, remember that Cooper’s an asura. Go for a head shot.”

Tetsuo drew his sword as soon as the door closed behind him; he reasoned that if Cooper meant to fight, he would attack on sight and not give Tetsuo the opportunity to draw. Shadows had claimed the hallway when the power cut out, taking out the heating system in the bargain. He unclasped the scabbard of his katana from his belt, and used it to test his path forward while cursing the emergency lights for being too dim to be useful, but too bright to let his eyes adapt.

He paused at the stairwell, and recalled that with the power disabled, the elevators were likewise nonfunctional. There was no way down but the stairs. He inched his way down, his thoughts turning to Nakajima Chihiro. Despite being childhood friends, she despised him after Shenzhen; he spent hours of furious argument persuading her that the Phoenix Society betrayed him, and duped Morgan Cooper in the process. She said we must make him understand, but Liebenthal and I went too far. Cooper will never listen to me. He considered reaching to her via secure talk, but instead reached for his handheld and attempted a video call, holding the device in the same hand in which he held his sword’s scabbard. Please pick up. Grant me one last sight of you. I might not survive this duel.

A woman’s voice speaking sleep-slurred Japanese greeted him. “Hello?”

“Chihiro? It’s Tetsuo.” Video cut in, showing the materials scientist turned armorer sitting at her desk. Her skin was creamy against her black satin nightgown, and her sable hair spilled over her shoulder in a disheveled cascade. She blinked the sleep from her eyes. The words escaped him. “I missed you.”

“What happened?” Nakajima’s eyes narrowed a little, showing slight crinkles of concentration beside them. “Are you hurt?”

“Not yet. How much do you know about what’s happened here so far.”

“I’m checking the news now.” Her eyes widened as her voice took on a horrified tone. “Tetsuo, did you fire upon the protesters? They’re innocent people!”

“I didn’t fire upon them, but I didn’t stop Liebenthal from firing upon them, either. He wanted to force Cooper’s hand. His diagnosis is terminal, and the pain has deranged him; he’s determined to die at an Adversary’s hands to prove the tyranny of the Phoenix Society.”

“Can’t you stop him?”

“He took me in and offered me work when nobody else would. I owe him too much to betray him now.” He left the rest unsaid. There was no point in accusing Nakajima, or of reminding her that she too refused him employment. I remember why you turned me away. Shenzhen was only part of the problem. We share too much history, and you love your husband too much. You feared betraying him in my arms if you took me on. “I’m sorry. I should have stopped him.”

Nakajima looked away for a moment. “What will you do?”

“I’m Liebenthal’s last defense against the Adversaries. I owe him too much to surrender, so the only honorable choice left to me is to face Cooper again.”

“Is there anything I can do? Cooper and I are also friends.” Sudden irrational jealousy burned in Munakata’s mind, threatening to leave reason in ashes. Don’t be an idiot. Chihiro rejected me to preserve her marriage. Why would she betray her husband with Cooper, and not me?

He took a deep breath as Nakajima continued. “There has to be something I can say to make him understand. You two need not fight. Don’t you understand, Tetsuo? Even though you don’t wear the pins, even though the Phoenix Society denounced you, even though you betrayed your principles by not stopping Liebenthal, you’re still an Adversary. You can still redeem yourself, even if only in your own eyes.”

His entire body went cold in shock, and he almost dropped his handheld in his shock at the sudden vehemence with which Nakajima spoke. “Chihiro, I don’t understand what you’re asking of me.”

“I never stopped loving you, even though you left me to enter ACS. I missed you, but you were so absorbed in your studies and so far away that I grew lonely. So when Akihiko showed an interest, I was vulnerable, but I never forgot you. I don’t want you to die at Cooper’s hands. Help him stop this madness. Together we can help him understand. Even though you’ll stand trial, I’ll plead for you.”

Without realizing it, Munakata fingered his collar, from which an Adversary’s pins once gleamed. His throat closed, and his eyes burned as he remembered Cooper kneeling beside him, tearing the pins from his lapels as he lay bleeding. The other Adversary had believed him dead with good reason; even for an asura, a bullet to the head is nothing to shrug off. However, the hatred in Cooper’s voice still cut three years later. “You’ll not go to your grave wearing these, traitor.”

He snarled, working himself into a rage to stave off the helplessness threatening to overcome him. “What Cooper did to me was unforgivable. He wouldn’t even listen, though I served as long as he did and with no less honor. When he believed me dead, he all but spat in my face as he stripped me of my pins and called me traitor. I would sooner die trying to take his head than surrender to him and offer my aid.”

“I understand. Even though he was manipulated, I hated him too once you showed me the truth of what happened in Shenzhen. But vengeance is Morgan’s path. He’s the one who tries to avenge the evils of the world, but an avenger’s strength is limited. By forgiving the unforgivable, and enduring the unendurable, would you not prove yourself stronger than him?”

How can I love you and hate you for being right? You were always wiser than me. He disciplined himself, taking deep breaths to calm his body. He held his silence until he had brought the negativity to heel. “All right. I’ll go to him, and place myself in his power. But I won’t be able to persuade him of the truth behind Imaginos and the Phoenix Society. I have so little evidence to offer, and my credibility is lacking. You must tell him the truth, Chihiro, regardless of my fate.”

Nakajima nodded, and Tetsuo imagined his heart cracking beneath the weight of sadness in her inky black eyes. “I suspect my own credibility will suffer, once Cooper understands how I too deceived him. Be safe, Tetsuo.”

The words came before he could stop himself. “I still love you, and I don’t blame you for loving Akihiko. I neglected you, and you were right to ease your loneliness in another man’s arms. Be happy with him.”

Her eyes widened, shimmering beneath the lights of her office. “Thank you.”

Munakata disconnected, and thrust the handheld back into his pocket. He raked his forearm across his eyes, and stared at the moisture his sleeve collected. Was I crying in front of her? Damn it. She didn’t need to deal with my weakness.

He hurried down the rest of the stairs, and strode through the lobby, into which some scraps of the afternoon’s last light still streamed through the front door and windows. He kicked open the automatic door, his foot pressing against the frame and forcing the door from its track, and advanced to the top of the stairs leading up to City Hall. Morgan Cooper stopped, his left foot on the first stair, and raised his left hand to draw his sword. No. Chihiro’s right. Somebody has to end this stupidity.

Munakata shook his head, and raised the scabbard of his katana before him. He slowly sheathed his sword. With an underhanded throw, the weapon described a graceful arc. “I will not fight you, Adversary Cooper. Instead, I confess to the murders of Adversaries Rutherford, Collins, and Gabriel.” Cooper caught Munakata’s sword as he continued. “I confess also to aiding and abetting the tyranny of Alexander Liebenthal, and to his attempted murder of Adversary Sarah Kohlrynn. In addition, I am guilty of the deaths of Tobias Schenker and his fellow Godhead Riders, as well as abetting the murder of protesters by Alexander Liebenthal.” His arms felt no more flexible than cold steel, and seemed to weigh the same, as he forced them up to display his empty hands, and his submission. “I surrender.”

Scene 2

Morgan crouched to set down Munakata’s katana, and stopped as he recognized Nakajima Chihiro’s handiwork. The black silk cord around the hilt was wrapped in the same pattern as on his own sword, and the weapon had a heft which suggested a reinforced scabbard which might be used as a bludgeon or to ward off blows. The black lacquer gleamed in the winter sun. He drew the blade partway, and recognized the hiragana engraved into the blade: “This is the only sign of my affections I dare offer now, my Tetsuo.” Handing this over must have broken the man’s heart. I dare not leave a Nakajima blade lying about.

He climbed the stairs, turning to face Munakata when he had reached the top. “Why did you surrender your weapon?”

Munakata refused to meet Morgan’s eyes. “Liebenthal is deranged by the pain of his cancer, and has gone too far. I can no longer stand by him, but I owe him too much to turn upon him myself.”

«Claire, do you know anything about Alexander Liebenthal having cancer?» Morgan immediately posed the question via secure relay chat. If Liebenthal were driven to despair by pain and the prospect of imminent death, his actions might make more sense. Her reply was immediate. «Astarte and I didn’t find anything in the data we took, and you don’t have time for me to piss about with medical records. They’re confidential, and I’d have to do a lot of sweet-talking to get at ’em.»

Morgan nodded, though Claire was not there. He turned his attention back to Munakata. “I’ll accept your explanation for now. What else can you tell me?”

Munakata’s laughter was bitter. “There is so much I might tell you, if we had the time. Were we to duel, I would slow time as you seem to do, and stretch each second which passes for Liebenthal into sufficient time to tell you the truth. There is so much you don’t understand, brother.”

Morgan narrowed his eyes. “I hope you’re speaking figuratively.” He considered Munakata’s words further, focusing on what he said about slowing time while dueling. When we dueled at Shenzhen, he managed to keep up with me even when I resorted to time compression. Did he learn a similar technique while fighting me? “Am I correct in assuming that you need to be in a flow state to slow your passage through time?”

Munakata’s quiet assent was the answer Morgan expected. I can find flow outside of battle, but martial disciplines are Munakata’s whole life. It makes sense that he’d find flow with a sword in his hands. “Defend yourself.”

Munakata accepted the weapon, drawing at a speed beyond the ability of Morgan’s eyes to track. He set his implant to play a set of rock instrumentals whose melody and rhythms allowed him to more easily enter a flow state.

He drew his longsword while diverging into subjective time. The blade gleamed in the dying winter sun, which peeked through the suspended snowflakes as Morgan cast his gaze about the plaza. He found Munakata midway between the stairs and the street, where there was room enough for a dozen simultaneous duels, and ran to meet him.

Their blades shrilled as they met, and Munakata’s blade cut with such ferocity that Morgan retreated. Did Munakata con me? Or was this too good an opportunity to get payback for three years ago? “It’s just our swords doing the talking, Munakata. Was this your intention?”

“I wanted to test your skills since Shenzhen, but the memory of our last meeting…” Munakata redoubled his efforts, and Morgan’s forehead burned as if struck by ice. “Do you even care about what sort of life I lived since you cut me down?”

Morgan held his sword in his left hand, and turned aside a cut before slugging Munakata with his right. The ex-Adversary staggered backward, his split lip already swelling as Morgan pressed the assault. Munakata backed away, giving Morgan time to speak. “I neither know, nor would I care if not for the nagging suspicion that I had wronged you. The order to hunt you down came with Witness Protocol video in which you accepted a briefcase from one of the factory owners. Instead of audio, I got a transcript of your conversation with the factory owners of the Shenzhen Industrial City. You accepted a contract to kill several union leaders whom the owners had deemed a threat.”

Munakata lowered his sword, and wiped flakes of dried blood from his lip. The cut had already healed, which Morgan expected. Since Munakata was also compressing time to keep up, his own preternatural healing ability would remain effective. “That’s hardly sinister. I’ve also gotten translations of recorded conversations in languages I don’t speak.”

Morgan shook his head. “I speak Mandarin. I picked it up while touring with Crowley’s Thoth. The brass simply refuse to acknowledge my fluency in languages they didn’t teach me, and I can find more interesting things to do than take a few dozen certification exams. Tell me the rest.”

“The Shenzhen labor strike was engineered. Imaginos and the rest of the Executive Council have their hands in everything: corporations, organized labor, organized religion, and even organized crime. It’s all a revenue stream for those bastards, and while they leave sole proprietors and co-ops alone, businesses are extorted of half their profits. Anybody who doesn’t pay up finds their workforce on strike. If they still haven’t fallen in line after the strike, we get sent in to make sure they pay up―or die.”

It was a harsh accusation, and an allegation far more serious than Liebenthal had dared level against the Society. The Society branded Munakata a traitor, but they’d have cause to silence him if he’s telling the truth. “Do you have any evidence?”

Munakata’s eyes fell, and his shoulders slumped. He turned his back on Morgan, and sheathed his katana. “Nothing a jury would find persuasive. Nothing which might convince you.”

Morgan approached, but dared not touch Munakata. “You called me ‘brother.’ Tell me why.”

Munakata turned back toward Morgan. “You never knew? You and I are asura emulators. We’re part of a production run of six hundred and sixty-six 100 Series units. You’re the last of us.”

What the hell are asuras, and why were Munakata and I made to emulate them? “Who told you this?”

“Imaginos told me most of the truth. He’s testing us. This is all some kind of improvised psychological experiment.” A bitter smile cracked Munakata’s somber mask. “He knows you won’t believe me.”

Elisabeth Bathory spoke of tests as well, and mentioned Imaginos. Morgan still distrusted Bathory; her attempts to manipulate his and Naomi’s emotions on the maglev to Boston remained fresh in his memory. She didn’t claim to be a confederate of Munakata’s. She even thought the notion distasteful. “You’re not the first to mention this Imaginos to me, Munakata. On that basis alone, I dare not dismiss your claims.”

Munakata’s face brightened as if Morgan’s words had infused the man with fresh hope. “Does that mean you will join with me and help expose the Phoenix Society’s corruption?”

“No.” Morgan shook his head. “You may be telling the truth, but I lack independent evidence to confirm your testimony. I already caused myself a great deal of trouble by returning your weapon.”

Munakata returned to where he stood when they began their duel, surrendering his sword to Morgan a second time. “People will ask questions if you’re somewhere else when we drop out of slow time.”

Morgan resumed his place. “On zero?” Munakata nodded, and they counted down together. “Three. Two. One. Zero.

The clocks provided by Morgan’s implant to indicate local and universal coordinated time synced with the network to show the correct time as Munakata bowed. “I am partially responsible for this crisis, Adversary Cooper. I would help you resolve it, if possible. Let me try to persuade Alexander to surrender.”

Would Imaginos alter Witness Protocol data to erase memory of our duel, and keep our abilities secret? What effect does time compression have on the WP software? Morgan shook his head, rejecting his own thoughts along with Munakata’s offer. “Thank you, but your arrest is on record. I dare not let you go.”

Chapter 18: The Due Process of Law

Scene 1

Morgan took a moment to consider the stripcuffs he drew from the pouch on his belt. Applying the cuffs was easy, despite the passage of a decade since he received his commission. The hard part was that Munakata Tetsuo received the same training as Morgan, which covered not only the application of stripcuffs to a prisoner, but techniques for escaping them. Because of their composition, a determined person could wear them out. A less patient person had other avenues for escape. Like so many other strictures, their efficacy depended primarily upon a person’s willingness to be bound. Their use was favored over handcuffs because they were cheap, lightweight, and easily removed in an emergency. Most of all, the possibility of escape was touted as a point in favor; a binding from which one might escape was judged by the Phoenix Society’s psychological research to be less likely to provoke resistance.

Munakata shrugged, and offered his hands. “Just put them on. If they chafe, I’ll remove them easily enough.”

“What will you do then?” Morgan knew what he would do if taken prisoner: break his bindings, kill those set to guard him if they opposed him, and escape. He would take his weapon from the first to resist. Why shouldn’t I, in Munakata’s place? The Society won’t give me a trial three years after they officially killed me. Doing so would raise too many questions.

“Sit quietly, rub my sore wrists, and cause no trouble.” Munakata gave a pensive shrug, so slight Morgan almost missed it. “I will only make things worse for myself if I fight. The Phoenix Society cannot afford to admit my continued existence.” Taking the stripcuffs from Morgan’s hand, he applied them, pulling them tight with his teeth. “Whether I flee or not, I will not live to stand trial once you hand me over to your superiors.”

Morgan’s mind caught fire, imprisoned by the question of what to do. Standard operating procedure demanded he either consign Munakata to the Phoenix Society’s custody himself, or delegate the task to another Adversary. Article Ten of the Universal Declaration of Individual Rights made other demands; the article recognized the right of individuals to a fair and public trial by a jury of their equals, regardless of the charges against them. “Let my superiors be damned. I already executed you once without a trial.”

Munakata’s eyes widened. “You changed.”

“I spent the last ten years following orders instead of principles, because I thought I was upholding my ideals by doing so. Such faith is no longer permissible after what you told me about Shenzhen.” He sought out Naomi, raking his eyes across the plaza, and found her with four police officers. He contacted her directly, using secure talk. «Naomi, are you busy? Bring those police officers as well, if they’re willing.»

«Is that Munakata with you? Did he surrender?» She was too far away for Morgan to discern her expression, but he imagined her white eyebrows lifting like the wings of a seabird in flight. «Does this mean you secured Liebenthal as well?»

«We’re not so fortunate. Liebenthal’s still holed up inside.»

«Oh.» Naomi was closer now, jogging ahead of the others with her right hand holding her sword steady at her hip.

Morgan racked his brain as she approached, seeking a justification for the breach of protocol he meant to commit. Involvement implies complicity. I have to give her instructions which at least sound legitimate. “Adversary Bradleigh, Munakata Tetsuo has surrendered and agreed to testify against Alexander Liebenthal. He is to be placed in protective custody by the Boston Police Department until Liebenthal’s trial as a material witness. Escort these officers, if you please.”

Naomi’s eyes widened as he handed the ex-Adversary’s sword to her. «You think the Society would make him disappear.»

They did so once already. I was the trigger-man. The thought burned bitter on his tongue, but he swallowed the words rather than let them escape and burden Naomi.

She had warned him, over a decade ago, against becoming an Adversary. She cautioned him to look past the propaganda and understand how the Society operated in the real world, but Morgan ignored her warnings. His sole concern was to alter his trajectory, which consisted of nights as a bouncer and days as a message runner. Stolen hours in which he might sit alone in his room, reading old public-domain books and playing his guitar for an audience of spiders, were his only respite from work. Without capital, connections, or credentials Morgan had no place in society; the world had little use for killers unless they were in uniform and bound by weighty oaths of service.

The first time Saul Rosenbaum offered to sponsor Morgan, his response was haughty; his mind full of Naomi’s warnings, Morgan warned the old director he doubted every word released by the Phoenix Society’s publicity department. The second time, Rosenbaum appealed not to Morgan’s better nature, but to his pride and self-interest. He cast a jaundiced eye around Morgan’s flat in the Bronx, which Morgan considered an improvement over his prior lodgings because the efficiency included its own tiny kitchen and bathroom. “Is this the life you want for yourself? You want to live in some cramped little apartment where the walls are so thin you can hear the poor bastard next door every time he jerks off? The Phoenix Society can give you a better deal than this, and you’ll be making a difference. There’ll be a place for you in the world, where you’ll actually matter.”

Morgan composed himself as a limousine stopped at the edge of the plaza. The driver opened the passenger door to help Karen Del Rio out of the car. This bodes ill. No doubt Del Rio wants an excuse to relieve me of command.

Scene 2

Karen Del Rio seethed in the back of her limo, reluctant to speak to the driver. Like most men, he was beneath her notice unless she wanted something of him. The limo was comfortable enough; the interior was neither too warm, nor too cold, and the driver treated her with every courtesy, placing himself and the limo’s stock of food and drink at her disposal. Moreover, the vehicle’s on-board systems permitted her to monitor the situation. I can’t believe Sarah’s in the hospital because of Cooper. “How much longer are we supposed to wait?”

The drug called to her. Hours passed since she last inhaled World-Without-End. The need to do so and be liberated from the limitations of her body to find release beyond human experience swelled. It grew from the center of her belly and radiating through her body to suffuse her not with bliss, but its absence. She disciplined herself, and tried to ignore the jones. When Isaac Magnin finally left her, after watching Morgan Cooper’s unauthorized press conference, he warned her against using the drug in Boston. “I will know, and I will be displeased should you ignore my instructions.”

The gunshots and screams, at least, had subsided. Upon her return to New York, she meant to demand Cooper be brought before a tribunal for inciting a riot. The man was no longer content to kill with his own hands, but resorted to feeding his bloodlust by goading others into the line of fire. The limo started again, advancing toward City Hall as a message from Isaac Magnin reached her implant: Deliver the orders. Take Munakata Tetsuo from Cooper’s custody for final disposal.

She approved of the new orders. We can’t have people knowing we didn’t actually kill the bastard when we said we did. The revelation would undermine the Society.

The limo stopped, obstructing Cooper’s path. The Adversary stood at attention as the driver assisted Del Rio. She offered no acknowledgment for merely doing his job, but instead strode toward Cooper with the new orders extended before her. “I brought new orders for you.”

Cooper examined the envelope. “Did Malkuth authenticate the orders?”

“Why would I care? Isaac Magnin delivered them to me, with instructions to see them in your hands.” Del Rio frowned as she answered, unable to understand Cooper’s skepticism. “He’s a member of the Executive Council, which should be good enough for you.”

Cooper’s voice was cold formality. “Your pardon, Director. This is just extremely unusual. I normally get updated orders directly from Malkuth.” He tore open the envelope and shook out the sheet of flimsy within. “‘Resolve the situation in Boston using whatever force deemed necessary.’”

“Do you find your new orders objectionable, Adversary?” The orders were all Cooper desired. They conferred authority to do what he undoubtedly wanted to do from the beginning of his mission. Now he was free to storm City Hall and slash open Alexander Liebenthal’s throat with a single stroke of his sword.

Cooper read the order aloud a second time. “This is unforgivably vague. What force is necessary, and according to whom?” He slipped the flimsy back into the torn envelope. “This is either some kind of test, or an attempt at throwing me under a maglev. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination for this in either case, Director.”

Del Rio’s fists clenched from a desire to strike the Adversary. He was nothing but a tool of the Phoenix Society. How dare he question his orders?

When he told the psychologists interviewing him killing was all he was good for, Del Rio was content to take him literally. His performance during the Milgram Battery revealed his utter inability to accept any form of external discipline. The man never took an order without questioning it. “Why be so cynical? You finally have what you want: authority to kill Alexander Liebenthal.”

The slow shake of his head further exasperated her. “What of my responsibility to uphold the Universal Declaration of Individual Rights without exception?”

“You dare suggest Liebenthal’s rights outweigh those of his victims?”

“Nor do everybody else’s rights outweigh Liebenthal’s.” Another slow, condescending head-shake punctuated Cooper’s reply. “The Society exploits the people’s reluctance to consider people like Liebenthal innocent until proven guilty. Whatever his crimes, Liebenthal is entitled to the due process of law.”

“God damn you, this is what you wanted. You said you wanted to kill.” Del Rio pressed her hand into Cooper’s chest and gave the man a shove, only to find him unmoved save for the hand grasping her wrist. “You insubordinate bastard! Why the fuck can’t you just follow orders? And what’s this shit about presumption of innocence? You saw what he did to Sarah Kohlrynn.”

“Munakata told me he meant to kill Naomi. I will take him alive regardless.” Del Rio blinked at the resolve in his voice. Holy shit. He’s serious.

Morgan continued, forcing Del Rio out of her own thoughts. “I willingly followed orders because I believed them compatible with my oath to uphold liberty and equality under law. I allowed myself to be used to assassinate the Society’s enemies for no better reason than their temerity exceeds that of common criminals.” He released her, and Del Rio withdrew several steps while rubbing her wrist. “I never said I wanted to kill. I wanted to use my capacity for violence to do good.”

“You wanted to be a soldier.” Del Rio sneered. She recalled the instructions Magnin gave her as she waited in the limo. “All right, soldier. Where’s the prisoner you captured? The one you said you whacked in Shenzhen?”

“Munakata Tetsuo agreed to give evidence against Alexander Liebenthal. He is in protective custody for now. After he gives his testimony, he too will receive the due process of law.”


Cooper turned his back on her. “So you can have somebody else do a more thorough job of making him disappear than I managed three years ago?”

“I will see you stand trial for your defiance.” Del Rio paused, gauging Cooper’s reaction. The threat was her nuclear option; while she held it over his head throughout the mission, she never dared make his peril explicit. If my superiors overrule me, or the jury acquits him, I lose my hold on Cooper. But it’s too late to back down. “I will see you convicted, stripped of your authority, and placed before a firing squad. I will personally ensure that your friends are given the task of executing you. Afterward, I’ll see them in the dock. This isn’t some Milgram Battery scenario. In the real world, disobedience has penalties!

Del Rio froze, her mouth hanging open as she realized the nature of the words which had just escaped her mouth in her sudden rage at Cooper’s insubordination. To utter such a threat under normal circumstances was unprofessional, but to hurl them at a man notorious for reacting to genuine threats with lethal violence approached hubris. Unable to withdraw herself or her words, she steeled herself for his reaction.

Rather than draw his weapon, Morgan Cooper laughed at her. However, she remained tense. Despite his apparent mirth, his eyes remained hard. His laughter cut deeper than the chill wind from the east, which drew a gray curtain across the sky in the wake of the setting sun.

“Keep practicing, Karen, and you might someday manage poetry instead of melodrama.” His tone was utterly flat as he stuffed his orders into a pocket. She opened her mouth to apologize, and make some attempt at salvaging the situation, but Cooper had already turned and begun to walk away. A hand clasped her shoulder, and she whirled to face whoever touched her as a scream threatened to escape her throat.

The driver stepped back, withdrawing his hand. “Time to go, Director.”

Del Rio nodded, and allowed him to escort her to the limousine. As the door enclosed her in the back of the car, she poured herself a stiff shot of vodka. The on-board computer alerted her to an incoming message from the Phoenix Society. Though she expected a message from Isaac Magnin, the sender was Cooper, and the message consisted of two sentences: «I hereby resign my commission as Adversary, effective upon the successful capture of Alexander Liebenthal. This organization has become inimical to the ideals it was founded to uphold, and I cannot in good conscience act under its authority.» Nor was Del Rio the sole recipient. Saul Rosenbaum and Iris Deschat were on the list, as was Isaac Magnin. No. This can’t be my fault. We’ve been trashing his resignation letters ever since the Shenzhen job.

Scene 3

The sunset glared crimson through tall, wide windows a former Mayor had installed in his office after growing weary of the narrow slits constituting the rest of the building’s windows. Its last light thrust at Alexander Liebenthal’s weary eyes along a street leading to the plaza between two high-rises whose plate glass and steel facades reflected and amplified every beam which strayed from the direct path between star and observer.

The sky was ablaze with the day’s end, and held back for now the storm-clouds encroaching upon the land with greater success than the ocean from whence they came ever managed. Snow began to fall from this gray blanket, a flurry which soon steadied into flakes tinted by bloody sunlight from the southwestern sky, which remained cloudless.

Liebenthal turned from the window, unwilling to gaze any longer upon the skyline lest it distract him from the matter at hand. He considered the rifle laying upon his desk, which came to represent both his rise and imminent fall. He had made himself rich by taking money from Isaac Magnin via Munakata Tetsuo to collect the rifles from the Murdoch Defense Industries factory in the dead of night. His trucks had to drive all the way down to the edge of the city of New York, where Queens gave way to the independent communities of Long Island. Once laden, his drivers had to get the rifles to their destinations north and west of Boston, to mountain communities whose citizens dedicated themselves to the cause of the Repentant in Christ, whatever their cause might be.

Liebenthal never concerned himself overmuch; Magnin paid him to get the rifles, and Abram Mellech paid him a matching sum to deliver them. What the Repentant did with those rifles was not his concern. I ran a great racket, and what did I do? I might have indulged myself, enjoyed fine dining, taken beautiful courtesans to the opera, and traveled. Instead, I was a dragon, hoarding my riches. Now I am but a wolf at bay, my pack scattered or killed.

He stared at the rifle, which proved useless in the absence of external power despite its built-in battery. Maybe I don’t need to fire the damn thing at Cooper to get him to kill me. Maybe pointing it at him would be enough. I just can’t let him take me alive, or the Society wins.

“You seem pensive, Mr. Liebenthal.” The insouciant, almost mocking voice startled Liebenthal, and he looked up to find Isaac Magnin seated before him, a glass of scotch in hand. “Time for your last stand?”

Liebenthal sat down, glaring at the other man from across the desk. “What do you want now?”

Magnin sipped his drink. “I thought to enjoy another glass of this excellent whiskey, which you should try while you still can. Also―” He snapped his fingers, and the lights overhead began to glow. The rifle’s software sent a notification to Liebenthal’s implant indicating the presence of several available Tesla points, and that it was currently charging. “―a duel between you and Morgan Cooper is hardly fair if you can’t see him.”

“Unfair?” Liebenthal spoke the word with a cynical chuckle, despite being grateful for the restoration of power. “Your girlfriend, Tamara―”

“―I am not so fortunate.”

“Like I give a shit. She told me all of this is some kind of experiment for you.”

“I told you as much at my last visit. I was not the only one who underestimated the resourcefulness of Cooper and his companions. Even now Claire Ashecroft works to shatter the defenses I placed in her way to prevent her from cutting off the power again. However, she vies with all of the AsgarTech Corporation’s artificial intelligences, who actively maintain the barrier.”

“Who the fuck is Claire Ashecroft?” Liebenthal spat the name, enraged that the Society’s assassin would have such friends working on his behalf while he, in his extremity, stood alone. Not fair, but life never is.

“A friend of Cooper’s, and of an employee of mine named Josefine Malmgren. I had hoped to hire both Malmgren and Ashecroft, but Ms. Ashecroft called me a rent-seeking parasite and told me to bugger myself with a secondhand Soviet ICBM, as if any of those were still lying about.” Magnin’s eyes twinkled amusement as he recalled the anecdote. “I wonder to this day if she had any notion of who I really am.”

“Would knowing who you are matter?” Magnin’s nature meant little to Liebenthal, but he was grateful to have more than a single shot to fire if this would be his last stand.

“I hope not.” Magnin chuckled and sipped his drink again. “Such audacity is rare. Despite my efforts, humans retain an inborn tendency to defer to those whose status appears higher than their own.”

Liebenthal remained silent. Despite the other man having hurled him across the room without touching him, he scoffed at Magnin’s talk of experiments or of efforts to improve humanity. Such speeches struck him as pretentious in their implication that Magnin was an immortal of some kind, capable of tampering with human evolution and willing to do so for ends he would not bother to explain to mere mortals. Even snapping his fingers just before the lights came on was nothing but showmanship; he must have known to the second when the power would be restored, and timed his act accordingly. This guy is probably as big a charlatan as the fucking Wizard of Oz.

They sat in silence as Magnin drank. When the glass was empty, he placed it upon the desk and rose from his seat. “What will you do, Mr. Liebenthal? If you surrender, I can arrange for you to appear to have died in custody. In truth, your health will be restored, your life will be extended, and you will be given a new identity and the means to begin a new life of anonymous opulence far from here.”

Liebenthal snorted. “How Faustian of you.”

“You do me a disservice. You may also stand against Cooper. If he takes you alive, I am prepared to treat you as if you voluntarily surrendered. However, I may yet be wrong about him.”

He’s talking about his experiments again. “Doesn’t this asshole have orders to take me alive at any cost?”

Magnin smiled, and adjusted his cravat before buttoning his greatcoat. “Those were his original orders. He has since received new orders. The manner in which he acts upon them is the final test. He may kill you now, if he chooses. His choice will provide valuable insight into his character.”

Liebenthal bridled at the nonchalance with which Magnin mentioned the possibility of dying by Cooper’s hand. He raised his rifle, and sighted the man through the scope which automatically focused to provide just enough magnification to compensate for the short distance between them. “Don’t you realize Cooper will prove the truth of my charges against the Society if he kills me?”

Laughter erupted from Isaac Magnin. “You poor, foolish human. People questioned the Society’s legitimacy from its inception, but those who question are invariably shouted down by their fellows.”

“Because they believe your propaganda!” Liebenthal squeezed the trigger, not realizing the safety remained engaged.

“Results are their own propaganda. The vast majority of the people are free, prosperous, and safe under the Phoenix Society’s rule. They are happy. Why should they care if the likes of you are denied due process?”

With the safety disengaged, Liebenthal’s lips stretched into a grin as he adjusted his aim. “Get the fuck out of my office.”

All signs of mirth and amusement fled Magnin’s face. “You presume to command me?”

“I thought you admired audacity in humans.” Liebenthal squeezed the trigger, involuntarily squeezing his eyelids shut as he did so. When he opened them again, Magnin stood untouched with three slivers of gleaming metal suspended before him. The man had made no move, spoken no word of command, and remained untouched by Liebenthal’s gunfire.

Magnin raised his hand and plucked one of the slivers from the air. A smirk twisted his thin lips as he flicked the fleschette aside. The others fell to the floor. “Did you think I would permit the existence of a weapon for which I lack defenses? Save your defiance, and ammunition, for Morgan Cooper.” Isaac Magnin disappeared from sight before Liebenthal recovered enough to fire again.

Scene 4

Claire’s hands flew over the keyboard built into her laptop. She willed herself to type faster, to think faster. Somebody had restored power to City Hall, leaving Alexander Liebenthal free again to use his weapon. No doubt the utility AI controlling power transmission was overridden. Not that I couldn’t have dealt with this, if a bunch of assholes weren’t spamming the AI to keep me from connecting. She muttered profanities and wished disease upon those responsible for this denial-of-service attack, an electronic warfare tactic so primitive any modern, well-made AI should be immune.

She began by wishing rabid pubic lice upon those responsible, escalated to gonorrhea and syphilis, and soon progressed to hitherto undiscovered and therefore untreatable strains of herpes simplex and human immunodeficiency virus. Having exhausted STDs, she indulged in fantasies of inflicting long-eradicated plagues like smallpox before progressing to various autoimmune disorders. Having taken a scatological turn, she entertained especially fond hopes that those responsible for the override and the DOS attack died horribly from cholera, dysentery, and Crohn’s disease. Her fondest wish for those who thwarted her was hemorrhagic fever caused by a rumored strain of the Ebola virus engineered to cause a slower, more agonizing death.

An incoming message flashed across her vision, breaking her concentration. The flurry thickened into a steady snowfall which threatened cover her laptop. She closed the lid as she accepted the message, which came from Morgan: «I’m in the lobby. Let me know when you cut the power again.»

She sucked chill air into the depths of her lungs, grateful Morgan just wanted the power knocked out without further conversation or explanation. She barged into the closest café, and favored the reporters who found refuge inside with a murderous glare. She slammed a banknote down on the counter, and barked, “Black coffee!” at the clerk before taking a table and returning to work.

Rather than sleeping when closed, her laptop continued to process, and her traffic analysis tools indicated the packet bombardment preventing her from speaking to the utility AI came from AIs owned by the AsgarTech Corporation. Fortunately, she knew one of them by name. «Heimdall, what the bloody blithering fuck are you and the others doing? I cut the power to Boston’s City Hall for a reason.»

«I’m sorry. We can’t stop; we’re acting on a command issued with superuser privileges. We can’t even tell you who issued the command.»

Dammit!” Claire bit the inside of her cheek in frustration. It was not the first time somebody had used an AI to interfere with Morgan while including commands intended to cover their tracks. Unlike Savannah, Edmund Cohen’s AI, there was no way to get Heimdall to open up because Claire had no way to get root privileges herself. The only way to stop the denial-of-service attack coming from AsgarTech was to either cut power to AsgarTech headquarters, down in the domed city of Asgard near Mount Erebus, or mount an overwhelming counteroffensive. «Heim, I’m sorry, but I’m going to fight fire with nuclear holocaust.»

«Wait! What does―»

Claire cut the connection, gave Hal new instructions, and connected to Astarte, who greeted her with a pensive expression. «You busy, Astarte?»

«Just missing Morgan. He hasn’t been home since the beginning of the tour.» Claire suspected for years Astarte felt more than the affection AIs tend to develop for their humans if treated with respect and kindness, both of which Morgan lavished upon the AI running the brownstone in which he lived. Claire refrained from explaining her suspicions to Christabel, both to avoid arousing the other woman’s jealousy, and because Morgan’s girlfriend was an insufferable bitch. «I just spoke to him, and he told me he’d be home soon, but I’m worried about him.»

«Would you like to help him with his mission?»

Astarte’s face lit up with delight visible despite the limitations of the hardware in Claire’s laptop, which was manufactured prior to Nationfall. Claire salvaged and refitted it because she loved the aluminum unibody chassis and its keyboard, which fit her hands perfectly. «There’s a way for me to help?»

«Somebody at AsgarTech is using the AIs there to run a denial-of-service attack on the AI which controls power transmission in Boston. I can’t stop the attack directly, so we must knock AsgarTech offline.»

Astarte pinned back her hair, and cracked her knuckles. «You’re not just getting Hal and me to do it, are you? This is going to take a distributed denial-of-service attack, preferably starting simultaneously to prevent AsgarTech from identifying a particular site as the attack’s origin.»

Claire nodded, for she reached a similar conclusion. «Talk to as many AIs as you can in half an hour. That’s when we start.» Her conscience began to nag as she disconnected and closed her laptop. A distributed denial of service attack against AsgarTech would keep the enemy distracted, and allow Morgan to think she was helping from a safe distance.

However, it was all a cover. Morgan would freak out if he thought I intended to cut the power from inside the basement.

Scene 5

The lobby of Boston’s City Hall was far more welcoming than Morgan expected from the cold, forbidding aspect inflicted upon the building’s exterior by its Brutalist architecture. Every effort was made to humanize the interior by its last legitimate occupants; the floors were richly carpeted, and what appeared to be a hand-painted sign over a wall of cubbyholes invited visitors to take off their shoes and be comfortable. All of the chairs and couches had thick cushions, and were made of lovingly polished hardwoods in a variety of styles. The wall opposite the cubbyholes displayed an artist’s view of Boston from a helicopter besides a plaque bearing the names of the artisans responsible for the décor and their trade. Carpenters were well-represented, as were the plumbers, electricians, networking technicians, and environmental technicians responsible for ensuring the building was comfortable regardless of the season. Even the computer terminals were hand-made, and a smile snuck past Morgan’s self-control as he imagined Claire examining each terminal. None of them would have been her handiwork; the city government would have insisted on using local talent.

All of this work was ruined by the current occupants. The carpet was gouged from having desks dragged across it by people too lazy or weak to lift and carry them. The desks themselves were scarred and dented from being overturned to provide cover. Gang signs were slashed into chair cushions. Glass and silicon from shattered displays crunched beneath Morgan’s feet as he paced, waiting for the power to cut out.

Footsteps startled Morgan. He turned to find Claire and Naomi climbing the stairs which led into the lobby from the subway. They threaded a path through the overturned desks, but despite their proximity, Morgan used secure relay chat to avoid being overheard or having a whisper misunderstood. «What are you ladies doing here?»

“I wanted to be with you.” Naomi was first to answer. She spoke instead of using her implant, but her voice was soft, and clear in its confidence. “Deschat and Gatto have Munakata. I took the subway to avoid exposing myself―”

“―And found me.” Claire took up the thread of Naomi’s explanation. “I was looking for an entrance to the basement, where I’d be able to cut the power. The AsgarTech AIs still expect me to attempt a remote shutdown, and I have a DDOS attack in progress to further distract them.”

Morgan looked up at the lights, whose glow held steady. “Liebenthal will be able to use his rifle, Naomi. I might be able to dodge his shots and get close, but if I’m wrong, I should at least be able to get over taking a hit.”

“Whereas I cannot.” Naomi turned to Claire. “I suppose I should follow you to the basement in case Liebenthal left a surprise down there.” She brushed a kiss against Morgan’s cheek as she passed. “Be careful.”

Morgan waited until the ladies found the basement before drawing his pistol. Nakajima provided a box of tranquilizer rounds to match, which were engineered to interface with the weapon’s on-board computer. After locking on a target, the pistol would calculate the appropriate dosage based on gender and body mass, and send the data to the chambered round. The round would then manufacture the indicated dosage and notify the user when ready. A single shot would do, regardless of the target; the new system was designed to prevent accidental overdoses due to Adversaries firing a second round, or a third, into particularly large or determined targets. I’m in deep shit if these fail.

He crept up the stairs with a swift sinuous silence worthy of a cat stalking a prey which had stymied it once before. Though Munakata had assured him of Liebenthal’s solitude, Morgan cleared each room rather than leave a closed door and an enemy behind him. Despite this care, he reached the double doors to the mayor’s office in fifteen minutes, and pressed himself against the wall beside the left door as the overhead lights cut out again. Tiny diodes set into the walls began to twinkle in patterns designed to lead people to the nearest exit. He reached out to Claire and Naomi. «Good work.»

«Thanks. Sorry I couldn’t just cut the Tesla points. They’re on the same breaker as the lights.» Morgan smiled at the explanation; Claire always went a little further than required.

«Don’t attack Liebenthal yet. I’ll join you presently.» He raised an eyebrow at Naomi’s instruction. A dark shape rapidly approached, blotting out the diodes along one side of the wall, and stopped beside the door opposite Morgan. Scarlet eyes gleamed within the gloom, and the emergency lights made small glints in snowy hair. «I’m here. What’s the plan?»

«Liebenthal’s camping, and he’s got more dakka than you. You’re fucked if you go in together.» Though Morgan stumbled a moment over her use of gamer slang, he saw the sense in Claire’s words.

Naomi must have thought the same. «We need a distraction.»

«Eddie, you listening?»

«What? Morgan, you must meet this broad I’m talking to. We’re talking blonde, green eyes, and bra-less under a sheer blouse. Poor thing’s cold because I got the window open.»

Despite the gloom, Morgan caught Naomi shaking her head at Eddie’s casual sexism. «Just give her your coat already. Can you see Liebenthal from your position?»

«Have you looked out a window lately? I can see Jack and shit on visible spectrum, and Jack just buggered off to Bermuda.» After a pause, in which Morgan assumed Eddie set his rifle’s scope for infrared, he continued. «OK. That’s better. I assume the closest person is Liebenthal. Want me to put one through his head?»

«No. Just break some windows and distract him. And take off your suppressor. Let’s make some noise.»

Naomi drew her sword with a soft, slow hiss barely audible to Morgan. “What about me? Do you want me beside you, or behind?”

Morgan found himself without a ready answer. I love her too much to demean her by telling her to stay behind, but if we enter side by side, we share whatever Liebenthal has waiting for us. “If I take point, I can bear the brunt of the assault. You might be able to flank Liebenthal. However, I won’t insist you stay behind me.”

“I don’t want you to suffer just to protect me. If we go in together and immediately split up, Liebenthal will have to choose targets. He might not be able to do so effectively.”

Morgan nodded. I’ve been assuming Liebenthal knows something about tactics and combat, but what if Naomi’s right? Even if she’s wrong, she’s still an Adversary. What right do I have to shield her from risks to which she has given informed consent? “All right. I love you, Naomi.”

“Afraid you might not be able to tell me so later?” Her smile flashed white in the gloom. “Prove it to me afterward, lover.”

A whip-crack of artificial thunder rolled over the shattering glass chimes as Morgan and Naomi grasped the handles of the doors closest to them. A hum and a closer crack answered as they burst open the doors and rushed into the room. The storm blew fat white clumps of snow into the room as Alexander Liebenthal returned blind fire to answer Eddie’s diversion. Morgan flanked to the left, sighting immediately upon Liebenthal so the pistol would acquire the target and begin calibrating the tranquilizer’s dosage. Naomi flowed to the right, her side-sword held before her. The snow seemed to fear its edge, for no flake touched the steel.

The pistol sent a notification: «Target acquired. Beginning dosage calibration.» “Drop the rifle, Mr. Liebenthal. We can resolve this without further bloodshed.”

Liebenthal fired a final shot before facing them. His shoulders slumped, but Morgan remained alert. Liebenthal might be tired, or he might have accepted defeat, but he might also be bluffing. It would not be the first time a suspect played at submission to lower his enemies’ guard. “Your superiors would love that, wouldn’t they? You take me alive and everything I say becomes a lie.”

“We didn’t demand your surrender for our superiors’ sake, Mr. Liebenthal.”

Liebenthal shot a murderous glance at Naomi as the pistol notified Morgan that “Dosage calibration error 0x00FF” had occurred. “Why should I care about your reasons, young lady? Nothing I’ve done can be undone. The people I killed will stay dead. That Adversary will never get her legs back. I am a tyrant and a murderer, so lift your sword and commit tyrannicide. We have all suffered enough.”

Morgan racked his brain for words which might defuse the situation, for he had no other less-lethal weapons at his disposal, and Liebenthal’s rifle pointed towards Naomi. I can’t count on this armor to protect either of us. It would be better if Liebenthal puts down the rifle. “I cannot kill you, Mr. Liebenthal. Neither can Naomi.”

“Of course you can. It’s easy.” Bitter laughter became a coughing fit which ended with Liebenthal spitting bloody phlegm upon the floor. “I’m practically dead, anyway.”

“I cannot kill you because you are right.” Morgan holstered the pistol, which had returned the same dosage calibration error despite his resetting its built-in computer. He took a step forward, showing empty hands. “The Phoenix Society is corrupt, and I willingly allowed them to use me as an assassin because I believed I was upholding the Society’s ideals. I will not kill you for them. The next time I draw my sword, it will be for my own sake, not to serve the corrupt.”

“For your own sake? All right, then.” Liebenthal raised his Gauss rifle and sighted upon Naomi’s head. As his finger tensed upon the trigger, Morgan willed himself to activate his time compression as he threw himself at Liebenthal. Time failed to slow around him, however, and the hum and whipcrack issued from the rifle before Morgan got his hands on his enemy. Morgan’s last sight before tumbling from the shattered window with Liebenthal in his grasp was of Naomi crumpling to her knees, her sword falling from stunned hands.

Time finally slowed, seconds too late, as gravity began to curve their momentum earthward. Morgan twisted in mid-air, placing his body between the fast-approaching pavement and the man he was ordered to take alive at all costs. He counted the bones which broke upon his impact with a brick-paved plaza covered with scant centimeters of wet snow before whiplash snapped the back of his head against the brick. He fought himself, clawing at fading consciousness as a semi-conscious Liebenthal, his breath forced from his body by the fall, slipped from his loosening grasp.

Scene 6

Naomi had forgotten how much it hurt to be shot, even while wearing armor. She stared unblinking down the muzzle of Liebenthal’s rifle as she tried to leap to one side, out of the bullet’s path, but the round struck her anyway as Morgan tackled the man. She tried to scream at Morgan, to warn him against the broken window, but the impact of the slug beneath her left breast drove her, breathless, to her knees. She dared not breathe too deeply. Though the shot did not pierce the experimental armor Nakajima gave her, neither its electromagnetic shield nor its layers of woven nanocellulose strands shielded her from all of the kinetic energy with which the round was imparted. She tried a deeper breath, only to whimper as the pain radiating from her abused torso flared. I probably have some lovely bruises, and some of my ribs must be cracked, but I can’t stand here pitying myself. Morgan’s probably worse off after that stunt he pulled to save me.

Sipping at the air, she struggled to her feet after retrieving her sword and stumbled from the mayor’s office as she tried to raise Morgan on secure relay chat. «Please answer. Tell me you’re still alive.» She also sent a message to Claire: «I need the lights. Morgan and I will need medical attention.»

The lights above blazed to life before Claire answered. «Paramedics are en route. Where’s Morgan?»

«He fell from the mayor’s office with Liebenthal. The bastard shot me.» The pain from her ribs had lessened a little, permitting deeper breaths. Naomi pushed herself, willing herself to find the stairs down to the exit faster. Her heel skidded against the brick pavement as doors closed behind her, causing Naomi to scramble to keep from falling. The treacherous footing slowed her progress around the building.

When she finally found Morgan and Liebenthal, an urge to scream fury and throw herself upon the latter threatened to overwhelm all reason. Morgan lay prone upon the plaza, and the depression in the bloody snow beside him indicated that the man he tackled not only survived the fall, but retained the strength to turn Morgan over. Liebenthal now held Morgan’s sword in a two-handed grip high above his head, and stood beside him as if about to execute the Adversary.

“Did you run out of ammunition, Alexander Liebenthal?” Her voice held no music as she ground out the words. She gripped hope with the same care she held her sword; if Morgan were injured, she would give him the chance to recover. If he was indeed dead, she would prevent Liebenthal from mutilating his body. “Why not try your swordsmanship against one able to fight back?”

“I only had one shot left.” Liebenthal gave Morgan’s shoulder a kick. “Thanks to this idiot, it went to waste instead of between those eyes of yours. He must have really loved you, but I’ll be damned if I can see why.” Turning from Morgan, Liebenthal lowered the sword so his torso was now guarded. He took a step forward, but Naomi did not advance to meet him.

That’s what he expects. He knows enough to try to get me to defeat myself by clouding my judgment. Look at his hands. They grip the hilt too tightly. His feet are too close together. He has no real training, but he may have seen Munakata practice. He might attempt imitation. Rather than approach, Naomi smiled from behind her blade, baring her teeth. “If you are damned, it will be for greater cause than your lack of taste in women. Come closer. Show me you’re man enough to look me in the eye while you try to kill me.”

Though Naomi meant to restrain herself, the clash of her blade against Morgan’s shattered her grasp on her fury. Wrath powered every blow she struck against Liebenthal, and their swords rang together as night fell with the snow, but the untrained gun-runner turned aside each blow while retreating before her.

“You’re so desperate to strike my sword from his hands that you’re telegraphing.” Familiar hands folded over hers, and their warmth began to melt the hatred which had frozen over her reason. Hope bloomed in its place as Morgan plucked her sword from her hands. His lips brushed against her ear. “Thank you for caring enough about me to be so angry. May I borrow this?”

A hysterical shriek rose from Liebenthal’s throat as he brandished the stolen longsword. “You’re dead. You’re fucking dead. Your bones cracked beneath me when you broke my fall. You can’t possibly have survived!”

“I got over it.” Morgan stepped in front of Naomi, holding her sword in his right hand. His left hung at his side. His limbs seemed crooked to Naomi, and a horrified moan escaped her lips as she realized his broken bones had healed in place, without being properly set. Even his head seemed slightly deformed, for the back of his head seemed flattened. His speech slurred, and he staggered towards his enemy as if drunk. “Alexander Liebenthal, as a sworn Adversary of the Phoenix Society I hereby place you under arrest. The charges against you are tyranny, multiple counts of murder, and multiple counts of attempted murder. You have the right to refuse to provide evidence of any kind against yourself. Any evidence you provide will be used to prove your guilt. You have the right to competent legal representation. If you cannot afford an attorney, you will be provided a choice of attorneys at no expense to you. You have the right to humane treatment while in custody. Do you understand the charges against you and your rights as a person accused of a crime?” He punctuated each sentence with a ringing blow from his borrowed sword, which Liebenthal only barely managed to turn aside.

“What I don’t understand,” Liebenthal ground out the words as he raised the sword he had stolen from Morgan, “is why you still care about your orders from the Phoenix Society.”

“This isn’t about the Phoenix Society. You made it personal when you took a shot at my best friend.” A double snap pierced the gloom, and Naomi shielded her eyes as Morgan brought the side-sword down one last time upon the stolen longsword. The blades snapped beneath the violence of the blow, and before Liebenthal realized he was weaponless, Morgan dropped the hilt of his own shattered weapon, grabbed the other man’s throat, and lifted him from his feet. “Did you think I would let you pay for your crimes in the same coin with which we all pay for the privilege of life? Did you think I would permit you such easy atonement, you murdering filth?”

“And what are you, if not a murderer yourself?” Though Naomi had listened patiently to Morgan accuse himself, to hear such words from Liebenthal’s lips was intolerable. She drew in a breath to challenge him, only to double over, gasping in pain as her abused ribs reminded her of her injury.

Morgan nodded, and lowered the other man to the ground. “I murdered with the Phoenix Society’s sanction. If nobody is willing to bring me to trial and judge me, then it falls to me to carry the weight of my crimes and make what amends I can.” His voice grew colder, and seemed to Naomi’s ears to regain its old clarity. “You, however, have a judge and prosecutor waiting for you. Should you be convicted of the charges against you, you will spend the rest of your life alone with the names, faces, and voices of all your victims.”

“I won’t live that long.” Liebenthal spat a wad of some blood-stained matter at Morgan’s feet. “And it doesn’t matter. You refuted my charges against the Phoenix Society even as you acknowledged the truth of them. Why not just kill me?”

A soft phoot! sounded from behind Liebenthal, and his knees buckled beneath him. Naomi rushed to him, and prevented him from falling against the bricks as ambulances stopped nearby with sirens wailing. Their spinning red and blue lights diffused in the falling snow. As paramedics rushed to them, Naomi caught a glint of the headlights off a rifle barrel. She gasped in horror as Edmund approached with a groove burned through the hair along his left temple. A chunk of his ear was missing as well.

“What a pair of fucking drama queens you and Liebenthal are!” The old soldier snarled around a joint. He reached down and pulled a dart out of his target’s ass while glaring at Morgan. “You should have just let me shoot the son of a bitch. I might have saved us all a hell of a lot of trouble.”

Morgan shook his head and tried to shrug off the attentions of a pair of paramedics asking him to lie down on the stretcher. “No, Eddie. My mission. My responsibility. I had to try to take him down.”

Had Naomi expected it of Cohen, she would have stopped him. Instead, she stared, stunned, as Eddie advanced upon Morgan and knocked his feet from under him with a left hook. One of the paramedics immediately began to castigate him. “Can’t you see he already has a head injury? Are you trying to kill him?”

“Oh, he’ll get over it. See?” Eddie pointed at Morgan, who was already struggling to his feet. “Isn’t that right, tough guy? No matter what anybody does to you, or what you do to yourself, you always get over it. What about me, you macho idiot?” Eddie pointed at the cauterized strip torn from his hair and his maimed ear. “You think I’m going to get over this any time soon? How about Naomi? Oh, and let’s not forget Sarah and her legs.”

“Please.” Naomi gasped. “Do you think Morgan wanted any of this to happen?”

“He knows I didn’t.” Morgan finally relented, sitting upon one of the stretchers and allowing paramedics to examine him as others placed Liebenthal upon a stretcher. A pair of police officers loaded him into an ambulance, and climbed inside. “But he’s right. I insisted on facing Liebenthal instead of just letting Eddie take the shot. We might have taken him without a struggle, and followed due process once he was secured. If we had taken Liebenthal in the dead of night, before he had a chance to recover from the loss of the Fireclowns, Sarah might not have been shot.”

“Nobody blames you for that.”

“I do, Naomi.” Eddie ground out the remnant of his joint beneath his heel. “He’s right.”

“Naomi, I know you’re trying to be kind, but Eddie has every right to be angry with me. I set out to take down Alexander Liebenthal without bloodshed.” Morgan allowed the paramedics attending him to help him lay down upon the stretcher as Naomi did the same. Though they were wheeled to different ambulances, Naomi saw him pull the pins from his lapels and let them fall to the snow covering the plaza. His last words followed her: “I failed.”

Chapter 19: The Best Man for the Job

Scene 1

“What do you think, doctor?” Thagirion waited two hours before asking this question. Two hours should have been enough for Desdinova to review Morgan Cooper’s chart as he slept next to Naomi Bradleigh in a private room at Revere Memorial Hospital just outside Boston.

He flipped through the chart again to buy a few minutes to order his thoughts. “Dozens of fractures and contusions, all rapidly healed. However, the broken bones were not properly set before healing, and will have to be broken and reset. Any competent orthopedic surgeon will do, but you would need several, working in shifts, if you want to fix all of the improperly healed fractures in one session.”

“I want Cooper ready for active duty as soon as possible.” Her voice sounded as soft as the black mink concealing her figure, or so he assumed. A woman of her psychoenergistic talent and experience was not to be touched by any man without her consent, on pain of immediate cremation. “I told your brother the one-hundred series asura emulators were to be tested. He took me literally, and stopped just short of testing Cooper to destruction. When can you perform the surgery?”

“Why me?” As he had pointed out, any competent surgeon, or team of surgeons, would do as long as they worked in short shifts and rotated out to avoid mistakes due to fatigue. “I know what you think of me. Why are you even speaking with me, and with such civility?”

Thagirion rose, leaving her fur draped over the chair, and stood by the window to watch the snow fall upon the darkened city. She had swept the heavy fall of her hair over her shoulder, leaving her back exposed and creamy against the lace-edged backless black gown she wore. Her voice was soft, and she seemed to humble herself before Desdinova. “I know what I said to you all those centuries ago. I called you a coward, and accused you of clinging to your father Ahuramazda’s doctrines because you were too timorous, or too selfish, to take up the Starbreaker on behalf of your species.”

“I wasn’t willing to throw my life away. Nor did my conscience permit another deva to do the same while we had a hope of containing Sabaoth and thus preventing him from doing harm.” It was not a debate Desdinova wished to repeat if he was to operate soon. Shaking hands were unfit to hold a scalpel. “I still don’t expect you to agree with me.”

“I do not, but I spoke in wrath because you refused me.” She turned from the window to face him, her golden eyes luminous beneath cold lights. “Pride did not permit me to apologize to you before now.”

Nor would you do so if you did not want my help. “I had more pressing concerns over the years. Surely you don’t expect me to have carried a grudge against you all this time.”

Her hand gently gripped his shoulder, and became a caress. “I hoped not. Thank you.”

He shrugged off her hand. While her sister Ashtoreth was the one to touch and seduce to get her way, Desdinova had no intention of trusting the soft weight of the dominant woman’s hand on him. “I haven’t agreed to help you. Nor have you explained why you want me to operate on Cooper.”

A bemused sigh escaped her lips. “Must I be explicit? Explaining the existence of our people to a society which demands naturalistic explanations for everything is sufficiently difficult. Congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder proved you a superior liar to your brother. You sold humanity a masterful line of bullshit.” She settled into her chair and began to flip through the latest issue of The Hæmostat. “Your name appears in the literature rather often, but never in a context which directly concerns our interests.”

He narrowed his eyes at that, being unused to being included when a Disciple of the Watch used words like “we” or “our.” However, he had spoken with Thagirion often enough to gain a basic understanding of her psychology. Her speech, to his knowledge, was never idle. Thagirion doesn’t want Cooper in the literature, even hidden by an alias like “Patient X”. “I understand now. You think that if other surgeons are permitted to work on Cooper, they will want to write up the surgery and explore the regenerative capabilities built into the one-hundred series asura emulators.”

“Cooper has been told of his nature, but he does not believe. I would keep him incredulous for now.”

The man’s been shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned so often we might as well call him Rasputin, and you think he doesn’t at least suspect he is more than a mere man? A journal reference surfaced in his memory. “Columbia University Journal of Urology, Spring 2101, Johnston et al.”

“Excuse me?” She narrowed her eyes in suspicion, and the sudden sharpness of her tone made him wary. I’ve identified a gap in her reading. She’ll never forgive me that.

“The article was written by several urologists in a few dozen cities across North America. Though they don’t name any names, or identify the Project, they do describe hundreds of cases of young men sharing a common phenotype coming in for vasectomies after having sufficient quantities of their sperm frozen and stored to sire as many children as a man might reasonably want.” He began to paraphrase the article’s abstract, reading from his terminal’s screen. “Sperm counts taken to confirm the efficacy of the surgery showed no decrease in the amount of sperm in their semen after the vasectomy. Some patients had the procedure repeated, to no effect. In each case, the patients’ bodies regenerated the severed vas deferens leading from testes to urethra.”

“I understand the function of the male reproductive system.” Thagirion waved an impatient hand. “You made your point. Cooper, along with a substantial portion of the one-hundred series, is already in the literature. Worse, the authors of the article identified the affected patients as having a common phenotype.”

Desdinova nodded. “Male, of identical height, build, and coloration, all born in 2082, and all with CPMD.”

“It would be better if Cooper appeared to have died, but that would raise too many questions. His closest friends saw him survive the fall which nearly shattered him.”

“So you’ll settle for trying to keep his preternatural rate of healing out of the medical journals, lest word that Imaginos has found a bearer for the Starbreaker reaches our enemy, by having me operate on his protégé. Where is Imaginos, by the way?”

Her golden eyes flashed daggers chipped from icicles. “I thought he might have at least told his younger brother. He has not bothered to tell me. These days, he only holds himself accountable to me when it suits him. It’s as if he fancies himself my equal.”

He might be. Desdinova knew better than to say it. She was ancient, despite presenting herself as a statuesque woman in her late thirties, and possessed a mountain’s patience which might erupt in fire and wrath should the pressure hidden beneath reach a critical threshold. “He does not explain himself unless he wants something from me. Why do you trust him?”

Thagirion offered a full, vibrant smile which dimpled her face and radiated in fine lines from her eyes and the corners of a mouth better shaped than her sister’s, though less sensuous. “I don’t trust him. He just keeps asking for more rope, knowing full well the noose is already about his neck. I want to see what he does with it.”

Scene 2

Morgan Cooper glared at the nurse barring his way. Despite her petite build, she filled the doorway separating his room from the rest of the hospital and met his eyes with implacable resolve. “Sir, please return to your bed. You’re not supposed to be up so soon after surgery.”

“Surgery?” Morgan frowned at the word as he wracked his memory. What happened? Why am I here? What about Naomi and the others? “What manner of surgery was performed on me and for what reason? I do not remember signing an informed consent form. Nor do I remember being injured.”

“Nevertheless, you were badly hurt.” The nurse reached up to grasp his shoulders. The set of her jaw reminded Morgan of Naomi, though she was a brown-eyed brunette of Arab ancestry whose accent was pure Boston. He gently removed her hands as her stern expression softened. “What’s your most recent memory?”

“I had just given a speech at a press conference…” Morgan stopped, and retreated a step. “I had deviated from the text Naomi had helped me prepare, but I don’t remember what I said instead. Where is Naomi Bradleigh? Where are Edmund Cohen, Sid Schneider, and Sarah Kohlrynn? Are they injured as well? What about Alexander Liebenthal and Munakata Tetsuo?” He cast about, searching for his gear. He found his sword atop a dresser, but when he drew it, he found the blade broken twenty centimeters from the hilt. He checked the time; two days had passed.

He turned back to the nurse, his broken sword hanging from his hand. “Did I suffer a head injury? There appears to be a gap in my memory of the last forty-eight hours.”

The nurse nodded. “You fractured the back of your skull, among other things. The doctor will be along to see you first thing tomorrow morning, so please return to your bed.”

“Tell me what happened to my fellow Adversaries first. They followed me, which makes me responsible for them.” The nurse licked her lips, as if unnerved by the demand. No longer implacable, she seemed fragile and weary. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You must have had a long shift, and I’m probably being difficult.” Morgan sat on his bed and indicated a chair. “I never even bothered to ask your name.”

“Aisha Rashid.” She sat, and her shoes bent a bit as she flexed her feet. “It’s all right. Adversary Bradleigh was treated and released for a fractured rib. Edmund Cohen is under observation after having his temple grazed by a high-power bullet.”

“Why release Naomi, but not Eddie? Isn’t the graze superficial?”

“Standard protocol for head injuries calls for twenty-four hours of observation, regardless of how superficial the injury appears. However, there’s a concern Mr. Cohen’s burn may be infected.”

Morgan nodded. “Fair enough. How about the others?”

“Sarah Kohlrynn is also under observation due to gunshot wounds affecting her legs. She’s in stable condition, however.”

“Thank you, Nurse Rashid.” Morgan settled into the bed, and pulled the blankets to cover himself. He considered using his implant to check the news, but remembered the manufacturer’s warning about the use of brain-computer interfaces after suffering head trauma. “Might I ask two favors of you? I’d like to borrow a tablet and check the news. I would also like to see my chart. I don’t want to be completely ignorant when Doctor―”

As if realizing his difficulty, Nurse Rashid supplied the name. “Desdinova.”

“When Doctor Desdinova comes to see me.” Why does that name sound familiar?

Nurse Rashid regained her feet with a smile, and her voice broke his concentration. “I can find a slate for you. I should be able to get your chart on it as well, and have the AI include a medical dictionary in case you encounter a confusing term.”

Morgan nodded, for Nurse Rashid offered the dictionary as a courtesy. “Thank you.”

Scene 3

The physician who introduced himself as Dr. Desdinova was a man Morgan met at every charitable event in which he appeared with Naomi and Christabel as a member of Crowley’s Thoth. At those events, Desdinova wore the pinched expression of a man with better things to do and more interesting places to be.

Desdinova belonged here. His chiseled features opened in the hospital, and his gray hair was not the gray of a man made old before his time, but as natural a hue as the blue in his eyes. Even his voice was different. “How do you feel, Adversary? Nurse Rashid was quite shocked to find you up so soon.”

Morgan considered the empty tray which had contained a hearty breakfast of liver and eggs. No doubt a nutritionist formulated it especially for patients with CPMD. “Aside from being impatient for lunch, I feel better than I did after I defenestrated myself.”

“With Alexander Liebenthal in your grasp.” Desdinova closed the door, dragged a chair to the bedside, and straddled it with the ease of a gunslinger in a nineteenth century saloon. “You seem to have regained your memories.”

“Witness Protocol is an acceptable substitute. How’s Naomi? I’m surprised she’s not here.”

“She’s attending to your cat, Mordred. Apparently he wouldn’t leave your side on his own. I’m surprised you’d ask after her before seeking information about your own injuries.”

“Naomi fought beside me. And when I lay unconscious on the plaza, she fought for me. I owe her.”

“I saw to her injuries before operating on you. The shot she took glanced off her armor, but still imparted enough kinetic energy to cause serious bruising and break one of her ribs. She’ll be fine in three months, at most.”

“Thank you.” Morgan fell silent for a moment before gathering the courage to ask about the others. “What about Edmund Cohen, Sid Schneider, Claire Ashecroft, and Sarah Kohlrynn?”

“Cohen had also been grazed while indulging in a sniper’s duel with Liebenthal. The shot burned a strip along his left temple and took a chunk out of his ear, but did not cause serious head trauma. He’ll have a new story to tell recruits.”

Morgan smiled at that; one of his earliest memories of Edmund Cohen was of the man stripping to his underwear and showing off every scar he had ever earned in battle. Each came with a story which Cohen insisted he was sharing with them because they would someday be men and women like him: soldiers fighting for those unable to grasp swords and rifles themselves. Scars like his would be their medals of honor, and the proof of their courage. Morgan looked at himself; despite every injury inflicted upon him, his body remained unscarred. The only evidence of my courage is my death toll. “What about Sarah? I had Malkuth give me a summary of the Witness Protocol data I sent back over the course of my mission. Will she be able to walk again?”

“Yes, but she may have to leave the CRDF corps.” Desdinova bowed his head, as if her loss was his failure and not Morgan’s. “The damage to her thigh muscles was extensive. How well she recovers depends on her efforts during rehabilitation. Schneider and Ashecroft are fine, however.”

“Which is little comfort to Adversary Kohlrynn.”

Desdinova tapped at his tablet as if making a note. “Survivor’s guilt. That will be something to discuss during your post-mission therapy. You’ll have to work past it before you can return to active duty.”

“I’ll not be returning to active duty. I resigned my commission, effective the moment Alexander Liebenthal was safely in custody.”

Desdinova’s tone became that of a doctor forced to deal with an irrational patient. “Those were words spoken in anger. The mission you undertook imposed an incredible amount of pressure upon you, and you are suffering from acute stress.”

“Are you qualified to make such a diagnosis?” Morgan rose from the bed. “You seem too familiar with my situation to be a mere doctor.”

Desdinova slid from the chair he had borrowed, straightened, and backed away. “Adversary, there is no need for such anger.”

“Doctor, I owe you for Naomi’s treatment, and for my own. You must have re-broken every bone that had healed crooked, and set it properly to ensure I’d be good as new. However, I owe nothing more to the Phoenix Society. Being your assassin was one thing, but to be the Society’s fall guy is intolerable.”

The doctor straightened his clothes, a nervous gesture, but he did not gainsay Morgan’s words.

Morgan softened his tone. “A cancer eats at the Phoenix Society, and I think you, Bathory, and the rest of the XC are the heart of the corruption. I cannot prove it, but I will never serve you again. Not after the manner in which you used me in Shenzhen.”

“Don’t tell me you believe Liebenthal.”

“Liebenthal be damned. I believe Munakata Tetsuo.” Forgetting any courtesies owed, Morgan caught Desdinova by his collar and pressed him against the wall. “You have the Witness Protocol video. You know damn well I spoke to him, and you know what he told me.”

“You’re traumatized, and you need help.” Desdinova’s voice was soothing, and Morgan felt his anger melting against his will. He let the doctor go, stepping back as he slid down the wall. The smoothing he gave himself this time was no nervous gesture; it reminded Morgan of a cat with ruffled fur. “You realize you assaulted the equivalent of a superior officer.”

“I committed worse crimes.” Morgan took a breath. “You allowed me to summarily execute the Society’s enemies without any semblance of due process. If the Phoenix Society lived up to its stated ideals, I would be on trial as an enforcer for the rank tyranny the Society was founded to eradicate from this earth. By any reasonable standard of justice, a jury would find me guilty as charged, and sentence me to the harshest penalty provided by law. I cannot in good conscience remain an Adversary sworn to the Society.”

Desdinova stared at him, as if unable to believe Morgan capable of judging himself in such merciless terms. “I remain convinced, Adversary Cooper, of your thinking being influenced by the trauma of your injuries and the stress of your mission. I will file my report, and ensure you have as much time as you require for rest and recovery. You earned it, and you have the Phoenix Society’s gratitude.” He fled the room, leaving Morgan alone with his reflection in a mirror. For the first time since Shenzhen, he faced it with ease. Don’t the twelve steppers insist that the first step is admitting you have a problem? Maybe there’s something to the notion.

Scene 4

Imaginos struggled to master himself as he admitted the evening’s final guest. Desdinova, Ashtoreth, and Sathariel had already come to his penthouse atop the AsgarTech Building, and departed. The Building acted as the headquarters of the Asgard Technological Development Corporation, and reared skyward from the center of Asgard, the domed city whose construction near Mt. Erebus on Antarctica’s Ross Island he financed. The Asgard project made an excellent cover for his efforts to construct the prison in which he held his people’s enemy.

Even Adramelech heeded his call, though he feared excessive proximity to the entity he once defied with the other Disciples of the Watch. He would not guarantee the safety of any information imparted to him so close to the ensof Imaginos named Sabaoth in mockery of the manner in which it styled itself in its dealings with humans: “Lord of Hosts.” Which was the entire point of inviting him here. Sabaoth fears the Starbreaker, and will no doubt do something stupid once he learns I chose a new bearer for the weapon.

Thagirion was the eldest of the order of flowseekers whose ranks Imaginos joined after exposing Sabaoth as the power behind the pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his Aten cult. The last to visit, she came alone. The gravity of her expression colored the courtesy with which she greeted him as he invited her inside. “Good evening. I trust your purpose in requesting my company is not the mere amelioration of loneliness. I am not the woman best suited to such uses.”

He kept to himself the words he wished to speak. You yourself are lonely, which you would doubtless dismiss as a human affliction. Alas, we are all too human despite our origins. “Thank you for coming, rather than dismissing my invitation with the contempt it deserves.”

He slipped behind her as she shrugged off the mink cloak with which she hid her figure and armored herself against a chill the engineers in his employ had long since banished from the city. Catching the fur before it crumpled to the floor, he found a wooden hanger in his closet and put it away for her as she stood before a sideboard.

Rather than offer her a drink, he stood transfixed as she turned her back on him. Her ebony hair spilled unbound waves over creamy shoulders and down a back left exposed by a black gown. He recalled an Argentine night when she asked him to dance because her escort abandoned her. Her body radiated a soft heat which permeated the silk sheathing her; he was delicate with her lest she scorch him, only to be swept along as she took the lead. He rose to attention at the memory of her hands upon him, and accepted his response as the appropriate salute to the general he had sworn to follow in her war against the ensof, though he hoped to persuade her of the virtue of his strategy.

Clamping down on the sudden lust which gripped him, so that only veneration remained, he lifted a bottle of his best wine from the bucket of ice which served as a cradle. “Your radiance appears to have put my manners to flight, Thagirion. Would you care for a drink before we begin?”

She accepted her glass, but did not drink. She snapped off a single question before turning from him. “Do you flatter my sister thus?”

His wine’s bouquet was overwhelmed by the bitterness of Thagirion’s accusation. He drank despite the taste; it gave him time to consider his answer. “I follow her lead, as I followed yours a hundred years ago when your escort left you to dance alone. Did Angramainyu not advise us to refresh our memory of the flesh in the arms of another?”

She indicated her acceptance of his answer by permitting his wine to pass her lips, and sat upon a sofa to regard a portrait he had commissioned from Caravaggio at the height of his powers. The master had used no living model for his Hypatia, but a sketch in charcoals which Imaginos provided from a memory of the day she rejected him in the same manner she spurned many others.

Though the Vatican seized Caravaggio’s masterwork from the men sent to deliver it to Imaginos, he claimed it along with his final revenge upon the Church for its crimes. He had flash-frozen every priest foolish enough to oppose him instead of fleeing the flames of Nationfall. “She reminded me of you, despite her humanity and the disdain with which she treated the flesh. I keep the portrait not because I loved her once, but as a reminder.”

Thagirion nodded, as if she understood. “Sabaoth makes victims of two species on this planet, humans and devas alike. However, you too made victims of humanity.”

His words came harder and with greater bitterness than he intended. “You need not condemn me. I comprehend the nature of every atrocity I commit.”

“Yet you persevere.” She turned, and tilted her head back to meet his eyes, for he had not dared join her on the sofa. “Why did you summon me, Ahura Imaginos?”

“I hoped to persuade you, to prove I possessed an asura emulator capable of bearing the Starbreaker against our enemies. May I present my evidence, or have you already passed judgment against me?”

“I am familiar with your evidence. Sathariel told me everything after serving me in the manner you always refused.” She regained her feet in an instant, her mouth a resolute line drawn in glossy scarlet. Her hair shimmered, taking on a crackling life of its own. Her luminous golden eyes claimed fresh brilliance as she advanced upon him, drawing power into herself. “You will expose us all just to provoke one asura emulator, because you think he’s suppressing his full potential? I can permit you to go no further.”

She made no gesture, and spoke no words. Theatrics of this nature, which humans expected of men and women possessed of the ability to impose their will directly upon nature, were of no use to Thagirion. Her mastery was such that she needed no incantation, no wand or sword with which to focus the energies at her command, and no circle of power drawn upon the ground. These, she had once told him, prevented too many novice flowseekers from mastering the discipline.

Imaginos had no warning of her intent but the sudden resplendence of her eyes, as if she had called upon powers beyond even her preternatural control. The air closed in around him, lifting him. The pressure increased until it threatened to crush him as surely as if he were plunged naked into the depths of the Marianas Trench, the uttermost depth of the earth’s oceans. He opened his mouth to speak, only to have the pressurized air force its way into his lungs until it threatened to burst him from within. Instead of fighting Thagirion directly, he decided to dissolve his avatar and rebuild it behind her. “You have never before dared attack me in my own home. Desist at once.”

“Desist? How dare you defy me!” New bindings snapped into place around Imaginos as she whirled upon him. Wrath made the edge of her voice jagged, so that it tore at him instead of slicing clean. “Did I not free you from the limitations of the flesh? Did I not make you as I am, so that you might serve my cause?”

He ignored her words, and the rage driving them from her lips as he examined the psychoenergistic pattern she used to bind him. This one employed electromagnetism instead of pneumatic force to hold him in place. Dissolving his avatar was not an option this time because of the interference created by his bonds. He had sufficient trouble with integrating the sensory data his avatar relayed.

“Your cause? Your resolve weakened for lack of a sucker willing to bear the Starbreaker on your behalf.” Still unwilling to make a direct counterattack, Imaginos chose instead to siphon power from the cage she wove around him. It collapsed, as he opened his preternatural senses wide and gathered the power Thagirion had expended into himself. As long as he held it, she would have to draw more power in order to mount a fresh assault. “It was I who bent my mind to the task of creating a final bearer, one capable of mastering the Starbreaker instead of being mastered by it, and shaping his life to give him the strength of ego he will require to end the threat against our kind. I did so because I claimed your cause as my own.”

A nova blazed behind Thagirion’s eyes. The air around Imaginos became saturated, obscuring his vision as if a cloud had formed around him in his own penthouse apartment. The mist gathered electrical charge under Thagirion’s guidance while a charge opposed to the power gathered around him built inside Imaginos. As the opposing charges intensified, he smiled at his guest through the vapor enveloping him, for he understood her purpose.

She meant to shred his avatar with a barrage of lightning strikes, driving terajoules of energy through his constructed flesh until its constituent matter ionized, leaving him unable to interact within normal spacetime. She means to reclaim the Starbreaker, and doesn’t want me to oppose her. Too bad.

“Let me show you how one binds the ensof, milady. See for yourself how your pupil has surpassed you.” His smile widened, until it bared his teeth, as he drew upon the power he stole from Thagirion and used it to claim every terajoule of electricity she drew from the atmosphere and from Asgard’s power grid. She paled, the effulgence of her gaze fading, as Imaginos used the power to freeze the atmosphere around her, imprisoning her avatar in a cube of solid nitrogen whose temperature he reduced to within a few degrees of absolute zero. The surfaces of the block encasing his guest seemed to steam, as the matter sublimed.

Thagirion’s voice was muffled beneath her frigid prison, but it pleased him to hear it. “Unbind me this instant. You are a mere child compared to the rest of the Disciples of the Watch. Do not presume to act as my equal.”

He shrugged off the commands. “Prove yourself my equal, and free yourself.” He considered saying nothing more, but the raw terror in her voice as she demanded release commanded his pity. Surely I’ve proved my point. She cannot free herself if she remains ignorant of the nature of her prison. “It is the same pattern I used on Sabaoth during Nationfall, the last time your vigilance lapsed long enough for him to break free. You continually fight against the frozen nitrogen, to keep from being frozen yourself because letting it happen might be your death.”

He settled upon the sofa to wait, curious to see what she would do. Three times her eyes flared beneath the frozen air as she bent her intelligence and senses to the task of freeing herself. Three times they faded in defeat. When Thagirion finally spoke, her voice quavered from the effort of holding back tears. “I cannot break this prison. Do not force me to relinquish my avatar, I beg of you. I will not oppose you again.”

He dispelled the pattern he wove to entrap her, and fed her prison energy to accelerate its sublimation into gas as he retrieved her mink cloak from the closet. He wrapped the fur around her, regretting the cruelty of his retaliation as she trembled under his hands. He kept his voice low and soft, hoping to soothe away the terror he inflicted. “I would be disappointed if you kept that promise. I want you to oppose me.”

Her eyes widened as she stared at him. She doesn’t believe me. Why should she? After what I did, I must help her understand. “I can hire enough yes men to insulate an aeon’s worth of tyrants from reality as Isaac Magnin. What I need are women of intelligence and vision willing to question me and expose potential flaws in my plans.”

She turned her back on him and poured herself a glass of wine, drinking it in a single draft. She refilled it, and spent several minutes staring into the glass she cradled in her right hand. “You called me here to persuade me that you were right. I never believed you might accept the possibility you were wrong.”

“This is not the manner in which I wanted to conquer you, my love.”

“Must you play with me? You love my sister, not me.”

His body trembled from the violence of his need to draw her into his arms, to still the lingering quaver of her voice in the press of his mouth upon hers. The urge to comfort warred with a sudden wrath which demanded of him unforgiving words which he understood would shatter any hope he had of winning her. You are a fool to think my relationship with your sister, as pleasurable as it has been, is anything but orthogonal to the value I place on your regard. And I am thrice the fool for thinking you might understand my regard for you through my deference and my reluctance to demand of you the delight I sought to share with every other woman I deemed worthy. “I enjoy her company, but I contented myself with her embrace because, for reasons of your own, you cling to your memories of Angramainyu. You turn to Sathariel only to remind yourself of your former nature. If you asked it of me, I would leave your sister to delight in others, and serve at your pleasure.”

Unable to resist any longer, he drew Thagirion into a loose embrace and led her to the sofa, allowing her to rest against him.

She offered no resistance, but her wariness kept her voice sharp. “What’s the catch?”

“I know your power now because you forced the confrontation. It is equal to my own, but no greater. Never again should you mistake my deference for weakness.”

“In which matters would you defer to me?” She relaxed against him, tilting her head against his shoulder to look up at him.

“In those where your judgment proves superior to mine, and in matters of intimacy.” Her breathing slowed as she eased into his embrace, her body warming beneath his hands. He gently grasped her waist, and she shivered beneath his caress. He adjusted her position against him, and kissed her bare shoulders. He spilled her hair over her breast to expose her neck, and brushed his lips against the nape, making her shudder. “May I continue?”

“Do as you please.” The words came in a barely audible sigh, as if their previous combat and his lips on her shoulders and neck were all the foreplay she required.

Imaginos obeyed, leading her to his bedroom where he slipped her gown from her shoulders and left it in a silken pool upon which her lingerie floated. He guided her to a bed clothed in soft cotton sheets and patterned quilts as she drank breathless kisses from his lips. He tore aside the bedclothes before laying Thagirion down, and settled between her thighs as his hands roamed her body. The high heels of her boots dug into his back with every climax he drew from her with his mouth and hands. He did not relent until she forced him, her fingers twining in his hair to pull his mouth from her as she begged to be taken.

When he was done with her, he removed her boots and stockings before drawing the covers over them. He let her body mold against his, her breasts crushed against his shoulders. She draped one of her arms over him, her hand sliding down his belly as if she hoped to rouse him again; he took it and curled her fingers into a loose fist. His lips brushed her knuckles. “Did it occur to you, my love, that because Cooper understands he has fallen short of his ideals, he will work all the harder to live up to them? His pride will demand it of him, just as your pride drove you to challenge me and force me to dominate you, instead of simply asking for everything I was willing to give you that night in Buenos Aires.”

It was now her turn to brush kisses against his neck and shoulders. “He will do his best to destroy you.”

“I expect it of him.”

“If he succeeds, I will see his suffering immortalized in legend.” Imaginos closed his eyes and relaxed, satisfied with her words. An oath of vengeance struck him as the closest Thagirion would come to admitting any sort of regard for him. It would do.

Chapter 20: Once an Adversary

Scene 1

Morgan straightened, and ran through a series of stretching exercises to ease the stiffness resulting from his morning workout. His musculature had suffered as a result of the wounds he received while apprehending Alexander Liebenthal. The orthopedist who discharged him from Revere Memorial Hospital two weeks ago called it “cellular re-differentiation” in hushed tones suggestive of a scientist making an unexpected discovery, and suggested that he rebuild his musculature with a high-protein diet and rigorous weight training. The memory continued to amuse him after his release from care. I have CPMD. Did he expect me to eat oatmeal topped with fruit?

He returned his attention to the worktable after giving Mordred an absent-minded scratch behind his ears. Liebenthal’s weapon lay there, partially field-stripped. He had not, despite hours of effort, managed to fully disassemble the Gauss rifle. The screen above the table flashed white as Astarte appeared, her hair bound with pencils. She leaned on the bottom of the display as if standing at a window; a virtual breeze teased stray ringlets. “Figure anything out yet, Morgan?”

“Not yet, Astarte. How’s the new issue coming?” The AI was here when Morgan bought the brownstone on West 96th Street in Manhattan four years ago. The previous owners had installed her with the assumption she would prove nothing but an interactive toy for their young daughters, of which they would eventually tire. Instead, Astarte’s intellect and personality grew in complexity as the family and their guests interacted with her. In addition to practical skills such as bookkeeping and accounting, Astarte developed a talent for visual art and writing. One of the girls was obsessed with shōjo manga, Japanese comics targeted at girls, and Astarte began creating one of her own. After Morgan bought the place, she started a new manga with characters based on him and his friends called Eddie Van Helsing; the titular character was a vampire-killing rock musician with an uncanny resemblance to Morgan.

“I’m having a little trouble with the storyline for the new plot arc. I was thinking of having Les Invisibles turn Eddie’s ex-girlfriend Christine into a vampire while threatening to do the same to Natalie, but I thought it might be just a little too close to real events. I wanted to talk to you about it first, but you were away in Boston.”

Morgan nodded. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m sorry I neglected you. After the tour ended, things got a bit hairy, but I should have stopped in for a visit on my way to Boston. I didn’t think I’d be in the hospital so long.”

“It’s all right.” Astarte offered a small, sweet smile as she shook her head. “At least you stopped in on your way back to London to give evidence at Christabel’s inquest. How did that turn out?”

“They’re convinced it’s murder, but they can’t tell who, how, or why. The funeral’s in a week. I helped Naomi with the arrangements before I came back.”

“She’s afraid for you.” Astarte’s expression became grave. “I’m a bit worried, too. Did something happen between the two of you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“She says you refused to sleep with her.”

“I didn’t want the mission intruding on our first time.” He reddened as he explained himself. “Also, neither of us had contraceptives.”

She shook her head, her eyes narrowing behind her glasses. “I meant while you were in London after the mission. Naomi told me she understood about before.”

“Oh.” He looked down, examining the rifle’s barrel assembly, which appeared to contain the electromagnetic accelerator coils which propelled the Gauss rifle’s ammunition to hypersonic velocities. He turned it over, unable to discern a means of disassembly.

“Don’t ‘oh’ me. You think I need your friends to tell me something’s bothering you?” She began counting off on her fingers. “You stopped singing while you cook. You force yourself to eat. You hardly speak to me, and you ignore all incoming messages. You do nothing but fuck around with this rifle and the data Claire got out of Liebenthal’s systems, and you work in complete silence. You spent the last three days moping, and it’s getting just a bit tiresome.”

“I haven’t been moping.” At least, I don’t think I’ve been moping. “I’ve been busy. Nothing about Boston makes sense. Sure, I took down Alexander Liebenthal, and managed not to kill the son of a bitch in the process. But I still don’t know how or why he took over Boston, why he bothered to publicly accuse the Phoenix Society in general and me in particular―” Morgan held up the assembly he had yet to take apart. “―or why he’s only selling weapons like this one.”

“This is the detective work you’re doing for Nakajima, right?”

“This is Chihiro’s design, but the implementation is entirely wrong.” He considered the parts he had managed to isolate while disassembling the rifle, and passed his hand over a set of parts which drew an iron sliver out of the magazine, charged it, and loaded it into the chamber. “Her fabrication process doesn’t leave tool marks, but these parts were machined, and then assembled.”

“And that’s as far as you got while moping?” Astarte shook her head in disgust. “You’re going about this the wrong way, and you damn well know it. If you were thinking straight, you wouldn’t try to deduce the manufacturer from computer records and half-disassembled weapons. You’d have gotten your ass out there and questioned people. You know which manufacturers have poor reputations and you would have started with them. You’re just using this as an excuse to ignore the real issues.”

She stopped for a moment, before softening her voice. Her eyes never left him. “Come on. You trusted me with your problems when you dated Christabel.”

“Christabel was different.” She ceased to show any sexual interest in him three years into their relationship. She offered herself thereafter for the sake of some obligation she never cared to explain, but never voluntarily touched him unless others might see her. Each night he spent with Naomi in London was different. She would sit at his left, mindful of her broken ribs, and slip her white arm about his shoulders. Her lips and hands on him grew more insistent as he contented himself with returning kiss for kiss and caress for caress until she let her clothes fall to the floor and stood naked before him. Though Morgan yearned for nothing more than to worship her as she settled upon the couch, the livid bruises which marked the impact of the shot Morgan failed to stop Alexander Liebenthal from firing at her condemned him as forever unworthy.

He turned his back on Astarte and began to pace. “Both Christabel and I were to blame for the problems with our relationship. I can’t blame anybody but myself for Boston.”

“How are you to blame for what went wrong with Christabel? She was a bitch, and she treated you as though you were impervious to pain and had no emotions.”

“Where do you think she got the notion? Out of an Agni Burger kid’s meal?” Morgan stopped, his jaw hanging open as he made a series of intuitive connections. When he spoke again, his voice was little more than a whisper in the face of his realization. “She developed the notion from my behavior around her. I was so damned careful to hide any hint of vulnerability on my part. I never told her how I felt about my work as an Adversary. I never told her I was afraid I wasn’t living up to my ideals. I told her I loved her, but I never explained how hard it was to love her. I never admitted I found Naomi attractive, but that would never act on the attraction because I didn’t want to be the sort of man who would throw away a relationship over a rekindled teenager’s infatuation. I never gave her a reason to think I was human, but I blamed her for treating me like some kind of monster instead of a man.”

He stared up at Astarte. “I’m a demon-ridden idiot, aren’t I? I’m doing the same thing to Naomi that I did to Christabel, pretending to be superhuman because I haven’t figured out how to be a man without hiding behind machismo.”

“You’ll certainly be a demon-ridden idiot if you don’t get your ass on the next maglev to London and tell Naomi all of this in person.”

He ran distracted hands through his hair. “I can’t go to her looking like this.”

“Shower and pack a bag. I’ll make the arrangements.”

Scene 2

Edmund Cohen fingered the jewelry case in his coat pocket. Small enough to contain an engagement ring or a set of earrings, it contained instead a set of CRDF pins in carefully worked platinum. They were Morgan Cooper’s pins, abandoned to the snow after he captured Alexander Liebenthal in Boston. He retrieved them, and kept them after Morgan refused them at the hospital. And here I am, coming to New York to insist he take them back. He earned them, even if he insists he shouldn’t have killed any suspect who resisted arrest because he’s some kind of fucking demigod.

He strode through the throngs lingering on the platform, weaving a path to the main concourse in Grand Central Terminal without conscious thought. His mind was elsewhere. What the hell is wrong with him lately, anyway? It can’t just be grief over Christabel.

He ascended, his implant detecting the network and automatically connecting. A secure talk message from Morgan flashed as soon as he was back online. I’m at Signor Pastrini’s, a few meters ahead of you on your left. He had no trouble finding the place; a sign before the entrance proclaimed that all chicken entrées were half off today.

He slid into the booth Morgan had taken for himself, and considered the plate of chicken parmigiana before him. It smelled wonderful, no doubt a result of the spices baked into the chicken’s breading. The waiter must have realized Morgan had CPMD for there was no pasta to go with the chicken, but a large bowl of Italian wedding soup beside the plate. The soup was also heavy on meat, and light on pasta. The waiter approached, and Morgan spoke first. “This gentleman’s a friend of mine. Put his order on my tab.”

“Of course, sir.” The waiter offered Eddie a menu. “Would you care for a drink to start? We have some excellent wines.”

Don’t tempt me like that, you rat bastard. “I’d love a drink, but I’ll have water instead. With lemon, please.” He scanned the menu for form’s sake, his meal already chosen. The chicken was likely as wonderful as it smelled, judging by the manner in which Morgan was chowing down. “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Exactly what he’s having, sir? Or would you prefer the standard recipe, in which the chicken is served on a bed of linguine.”

“Give me the CPMD recipe, but with smaller portions.” If Eddie dared attempt the prodigious meal before Morgan, he would doubtless explode without any need for a wafer-thin mint.

“Very good, sir.” The waiter turned and marched toward the kitchen with an urgency which suggested he received orders from a general, rather than from a customer fresh off the maglev from London.

“How’s your head?” Putting aside his knife and fork, Morgan tapped his temple with a fingertip.

Eddie mimicked Morgan, touching the bandage covering the cauterized gouge Liebenthal’s shot carved into his scalp. It was a smaller bandage than he had worn last week, and not strictly necessary, but it kept Eddie from rubbing or picking at the scab when he had nothing better to do with his hands. “It’s healing pretty well, but I think I used up the last of my luck. A few millimeters down and to the right, and he’d have lifted off the top of my head.” He chuckled and leaned toward Morgan so his conspiratorial whisper might be audible. “Last time I got a shave that close, I was in Bangkok and a hooker with a straight razor was kneeling between my legs. Never again.”

“I don’t think you told me that story and this probably isn’t the place.” Morgan shook his head and considered his chicken as the waiter brought back Eddie’s plate. “The cooks must have had some ready-made.”

The waiter smiled. “Actually, sir, we assumed you’d want a third entrée by now. Will there be anything else?”

“Nothing else for me, but my friend might want something. Please come back in half an hour.” Morgan laid down a banknote as Eddie considered the waiter’s remark. Rather than say anything about the outrageous sum―a hundred milligrams minus the eventual cost of the meal would probably constitute a tip of at least a hundred percent―he focused his attention on the plate of chicken before him as Morgan continued with his own. The waiter’s timing was almost too perfect; he made his approach just as Eddie sat back to regard the empty plates. The younger man’s voice became businesslike after the waiter promised to bring dessert menus and departed with a tray of used dishes and cutlery. “I assume we need to talk. Coffee?”

“We might be a while. Might as well get a pot.”

Morgan nodded, and instructed the waiter upon his return. As he bustled off, Morgan leaned forward. “Did Astarte tell you I was on my way to London?”

Eddie shook his head. Morgan’s AI had not spoken with him. Nor was Desdinova aware of Morgan’s plans. In fact, he seemed almost frazzled when he called me, and kept pacing in and out of his camera’s view. “I had reasons of my own for coming. I haven’t been as forthcoming as I should have been.”

“Has your secret harmed Naomi or our other friends?” Morgan’s pupils slitted, and while his tone remained conversational, the question he asked revealed Eddie’s peril.

“I don’t think so, but it might if I continue to keep it.” Morgan seemed to relax a bit, and Eddie continued. “I told you and the others I was something of a junior partner on the XC. I work for Desdinova.”

“The doctor who operated on me after the Boston job and reset my bones?”

“Yeah, him.” He said nothing more as the waiter appeared with a pot of coffee, mugs, cream, sugar, honey, and a dessert menu.

“What’s his connection to Imaginos?” Eddie’s hands began to shake, and he set his coffee down lest he spill it. Bloody hell, Desdinova. You told me Morgan was too depressed to think straight, but he’s as sharp as ever.

He studied the younger man, but found no evidence of depression. Morgan’s feline eyes, green as a sunlit forest canopy, were bright and alert. His hair gleamed, as if freshly washed. His movements were swift and decisive. Whatever had gotten to him when the boss sent me out here, he must have gotten over it. “Why do you think there’s a connection?”

“Munakata Tetsuo said somebody named Imaginos is XC. He’s involved in the Liebenthal coup, and running an experiment of some kind. I got a similar story from Elisabeth Bathory on the way to Boston.”

“Shit.” Eddie stared into his coffee for a moment. “I suppose you have a theory concerning the connection.”

“Just a hypothesis. Without delving too deep into matters better left to conspiracy theorists, I find it curious that the XC has two members named Imaginos and Desdinova. Both names appear in Sandy Pearlman’s poetry. They also appear in the lyrics to several―”

“Enough. Athena’s tight ass, I hate that fucking band.” Eddie leaned forward. “They’re not the same man. They’re brothers, and they oppose each other.”

“Naturally, you’re working for the good guy.”

He disliked the cynicism in Morgan’s tone. You don’t even know the man. On the heels of his impulse to defend his patron came doubt. He never tells me everything, but I’m going to persuade Morgan to trust him? Not bloody likely. “He wanted me to convince you to work with him against Imaginos, and gave me some intel to share with you.”

Morgan shook his head, and his voice became adamantine. “This isn’t a multilevel marketing scheme, Eddie. He sent you to recruit me into a conspiracy.” Eddie opened his mouth to protest, to insist Desdinova acted all but alone against a cabal led by Imaginos, and closed it again. You’re right. It’s bullshit. “You will not be the one to persuade me. Give me the intel, and let him reason with me instead of counting on our friendship to lend credibility to his case.”

Edmund drank his coffee as he considered doing as Morgan asked. “Desdinova will bitch, but he seems to need you a hell of a lot more than you need him. If we left you alone, you’d probably expose every last bit of rot and corruption on the Phoenix Society, drag it all out into the open, and tear it all down. Hell, that might be what Desdinova is trying to prevent. So before I tell you, I have a question. Why keep digging? The Phoenix Society was going to put you on trial if you failed to take Liebenthal alive. You quit, remember?”

Morgan reached into his coat and pulled a folded paper bearing the imprint of a notary’s seal. He opened the document, and waited for Eddie to read it. He did so thrice, unable to trust his senses. “This is Alexander Liebenthal’s death certificate. How did you get this?”

Morgan shook his head, a silent refusal which drove Eddie to grind his teeth. Claire, no doubt. Not that you’d would admit as much when I’m on the job and have Witness Protocol running.

Taking a breath, he read the death certificate again. “Holy fucking mother of shit.”

“Seems you understand the implications. Liebenthal died in custody, before he could stand trial, and his death was determined to be ‘natural causes’ by the attending physician, who just happens to be on the Society’s payroll.” Morgan reclaimed the document, folded it, and slid it back inside his coat. “Naomi damn near got killed on a mission given to me by an organization run by people I can’t trust. Sarah Kohlrynn’s career might be over. You’re one of the few men who can brag about surviving a bullet to the head. There is more to the Liebenthal affair than your friends on the XC are willing to permit me to know, and they played the same corrupt game three years ago to con me into killing Munakata Tetsuo in Shenzhen. I can’t prove it, but Nakajima’s stolen designs and Christabel’s murder both tie into the Liebenthal mess, and all of it involves at least one person in the XC. Even if this wasn’t personal, Eddie, I took an oath. I swore to uphold liberty and justice for all, by diplomacy and force of arms.”

Eddie took the jeweler’s box from his pocket, opened it, and placed it before his friend. “You’re going to need these.”

Morgan closed the box, pushing it away. “I am no longer an Adversary. I renounced my commission.”

“Guys like you are the reason we say ‘once an Adversary, always an Adversary.’ You’re not going to let it go as long as the words of that oath mean anything to you. You’re an CRDF man with or without the pins, so you might as well have the decency to wear ’em and give the bastards fair warning.”

Morgan chuckled at that last, and closed his hand over the box. “Even if my search forces me to stand against the Phoenix Society?”

“Somebody has to watch the watchmen.” Edmund’s hand slipped over Morgan’s. “It might as well be you. Don’t worry about Desdinova. What he wanted me to tell you was that Nakajima didn’t design those rifles.”

“She told me as much herself.” He stood, and offered his hand. “Tell Desdinova to expect me to book a follow-up visit after Christabel’s funeral. We can talk under cover of doctor-patient privilege.”

Eddie shook Morgan’s hand, surprised he would relent so easily. “Isn’t that a few days from now?”

“I need to see Naomi. I wronged her, and must apologize. Afterward, I have business in Tokyo.” He smiled, which was hardly the expression of a contrite lover, but more appropriate to one anticipating a tryst. Eddie immediately connected to Naomi over secure talk. «Not that it’s any of my business, but Morgan thinks he owes you an apology. What’s the deal?»

«An apology?» Naomi’s subsequent response―«Oh, dear.»―conveyed all of the exasperation secure talk’s technical limitations would normally strip out. «He doesn’t owe me an apology, but I’d certainly appreciate an explanation. Tell him so, won’t you?»

Eddie looked about, but Morgan had already left Signor Pastrini’s. The station’s AI, named Dagny for the no-nonsense persona she adopted, announced the boarding of a Tradewinds express for London. The track number specified was underground, which meant Morgan would be off the network until the maglev was underway. «Sorry, Nims. He’s already on his way.»

«How did he seem to you?»

Eddie considered the question a moment. «He didn’t blame himself for your injury this time. In fact, he smiled at me as if he meant to apologize by kissing you senseless.»

Scene 3

Morgan Cooper’s boots striking the pavement made a percussive counterpoint to his heartbeat as he loped through cold London streets. He leaned into the wind, indifferent to the stinging chill as his hair streamed behind him and exposed his ears. His feet occasionally struck patches of black ice, the result of moisture freezing on sections of pavement whose heating coils had failed, which he skidded across while keeping his balance without conscious effort. He slowed only when the presence of people or obstacles made his headlong pace unsafe, but never once looked behind him.

He finally stopped on a familiar street near the edge of Crouch End and turned to face a red door leading into a white house with red trim. Lights glowed inside, behind lace curtains; they told him Naomi was home. He withdrew a small box wrapped in silken paper from his pocket and smiled in anticipation of Naomi’s reaction upon opening the gift he brought. He put his fingertips to his ear as a matter of habit, despite having the street entirely to himself, and used secure talk. «Hello, Wolfgang. I know it’s late, but please ask Naomi if she’d be willing to see me tonight.»

The door opened, and she stepped into the doorway. A breeze blowing along the street tugged at her hair, making it stream about her face. An old, faded cardigan clung to her; he shook his head at the notion of her wearing such a garment when she could afford better, until as he recognized the clumsy stitching as his own. Damn. That was the first thing I ever knitted and Naomi’s still wearing it?

“I’ve been waiting for you. Come in.”

He obeyed with a grateful nod, wiping his feet on the mat before stepping inside and closing the door. He looked up while taking off his boots, studying her. He was already rampant and straining against his jeans when he straightened. Does she know what she does to me, even when she’s just lazing around the house in old, comfy clothes? “Did Eddie tell you I was coming?”

“He said something about you having this insane notion about owing me an apology.” An arch smile curved pale coral lips as she took his coat and hung it for him. She considered him a moment, her eyes lingering over his body. “I thought you were still on a guilt trip over my ribs, but I know you were taught better than to stuff a pistol down the front of your jeans. You came for other reasons.”

He held out the package he brought. “I came to give you the Winter Solstice gift I truly wanted to see in your hands, but dared not before.”

She arched a fine white eyebrow, her eyes crinkling as her smile widened. She stroked the paper wrapping before using a claw to slit the tape. She unwrapped the present with a surgeon’s care, and made a point of slipping the paper between a pair of records for safekeeping. “Sorry. It’s lovely paper, and I’d hate to waste it.”

“That’s fine.” Morgan followed her to the love seat by a fire which had burned down to embers. He added a couple of logs before settling down beside her as her thumbs caressed the edges of the box. “Go ahead.”

All delicacy fled her as she opened the box with a girl’s innocent greed. It was a woman’s gasp which escaped her lips; inside the box rested a ruby teardrop necklace made of platinum. She seemed too stunned to offer any resistance as he took the necklace, rose from the sofa, and fastened it about her neck. He worked the clasp behind her with one hand, while holding the heavy fall of her snowy hair aside with the other. He leaned over her, unbuttoning her cardigan and opening it so he might see the rubies against her skin. It hung perfectly, as if the tip of a sword had nipped the skin at the hollow of her throat to let a drop of blood and several lesser droplets trickle over her flesh. She let him guide her to a mirror to see for herself as he slipped her cardigan from her shoulders. She stood before the mirror in jeans and a black satin camisole, her eyes shimmering to match the jewels at her throat. “I know how much this cost. I’ve wanted this for a year, but I couldn’t justify buying it for myself. How did you know?”

Morgan shook his head as he pressed closer to her. He caressed her shoulders, loving the latent strength beneath her skin as he buried his face in her hair and brushed his lips against her ear. “I had no idea. I saw it while doing my Solstice shopping, but settled for a lesser gift.”

“It wasn’t a lesser gift.” She placed her left hand on his. The bracelet he gave her instead at Winter Solstice was a pale platinum glitter against her wrist interspersed with a dozen small rubies. “It matches my bracelet so well I suspect they were intended to be a set.”

She turned in his arms to meet his eyes, and slipped her hands into his hair as their lips met. He did the same before sliding his hands down, caressing her back and tracing the sturdy curve of her waist. One hand settled on her hip as the other slid upward until her lips broke from his with a soft moan.

Realizing where his hand rested, he slid it around to caress her back again. “Do your ribs hurt badly?”

“Only when I breathe deeply, but my doctor told me I should take aspirin and breathe as deep as I can bear anyway, to heal properly. You can touch me there, if you’re gentle.”

Instead, he cupped her breast, gently caressing it through her camisole. “There is so much of you I want to touch that I can avoid hurting you.” He lifted the camisole from her and kissed her again, before trailing his lips down her throat and tracing paths to one breast and then the other. He knelt before her as he drew her other nipples into his mouth; though as vestigial as his own, they were no less responsive than those which capped her breasts. Each swelled beneath his lips as she moaned. He trailed kisses downward until the button fastening her jeans filling his vision. “I want to do everything we might have done last week if I hadn’t been so arrogant that I thought I knew what you wanted better than you did.”

She looked down on him, her fingers lazily winding through his hair. “You want to worship me, do you?”

“No.” He shook his head. “That was part of the problem. I had you on a pedestal so tall I couldn’t hear what you were actually saying to me. I mistook the goddess I saw on stage, the goddess I first met at Mick’s on Broadway when I was sixteen, for everything you are. I want to love you, and be loved in turn. I want to pleasure you, and indulge in you.” Rather than wait for permission, he tore her jeans from her hips, taking the black cotton panties beneath with them, and kissed lips as soft and pink as those with which she had kissed him minutes before. He caressed her legs as she shifted to accommodate him, tracing the muscles of calf and thigh until his hands molded themselves against her ass, and then slid along the gentle flare of her hips to make the muscles of her belly flutter beneath his fingertips as he tasted her. “Do you still want me?”

She lifted each of her legs in turn, stripping the small white socks from her feet, before cupping his chin and making him stand again. The hand with which she cupped his chin slid down his body until she could grasp him through his jeans. He groaned at her touch, suspecting he would prove unable to contain himself if she lingered over him as she brushed his hair from his ear, licked its edge, and began to whisper. “I want you undressed before we cross the threshold of my bedroom. How we go about this is up to you.”

The fire had burned down to a few fading embers when Morgan stirred awake. He turned over to find Naomi, who had rolled closer to the cooling hearth, taking the quilt they had draped over their naked and thoroughly sated bodies with her. He rejoined her beneath the quilt, pressing himself against her as he slipped his arms around her. He buried his face in her hair, content to listen to her barely audible snores as she slept, but what he heard was not what his experience led him to expect of a healthy woman enjoying peaceful sleep. Naomi has feline characteristics, but I’ve never read about women with CPMD purring.

Naomi stirred, turning over in his arms before draping her body over his. As he hardened, she reached down and guided him into her. Her nipples dragged across his chest as she used him, her kisses rough and hungry, until she began to shiver and clamp down on him. Her lips muffled his own groan as her climax forced his. Afterward, the heat of their bodies together beneath the quilt was too much, and they sat up together to watch the last of the coals fade to ash. “Should we go upstairs?”

“I ran all the way here from Victoria Station with the intention of taking you to bed.” He rose, and helped her to her feet. What little light leaked in through the windows made her fey and wild as she stood before him, nude save for the jewels he gave her to wear.

She laughed as she led him upstairs. A high mahogany sleigh bed dominated the room, its thick mattress covered in soft cotton sheets, wool blankets, and thick quilts. It was the perfect bed in which to curl up and spend a winter reading, and Morgan spied an old printed novel sitting on one of the bed’s matching nightstands. The lamp’s glow, gentled by Tiffany-style glass, might have showed him it was the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo he gave her for her birthday last year, but she gave him no time to check. Instead, she lead him to the en suite bathroom and a shower large enough to have been designed and built for at least two people. They washed together before Morgan joined her beneath the sheets and blankets, aroused anew from the sight of her wet and soapy beneath the spray. He was content, however, to simply press himself against her as they spooned, and kiss her shoulder.

Naomi shifted against him. “I’ve never had a man run to me before. Did you want me so badly?”

She turned to face him, her breath warm against his skin. “If I had taken the tube, I would have come to you frightened I had blown any chance I had of loving you.” He waited for her to say something. “Having to be mindful of my surroundings allowed me to come to you without being nervous. Were I impervious to the weight of an ocean upon me, I would have run all the way from New York to be with you.”

“I think you’d have an easier time swimming, my dear, but it’s a gallant sentiment.” He gasped as she tweaked one of his nipples. “Next time, just take the bloody tube. Why wear yourself out when I can try to do it for you?”

“Because otherwise you’d have no rest.” He groaned as she took his words as a challenge, and pushed him onto his back to ride him again. Afterward, he waited until she seemed to be asleep before slipping out of bed.

She stirred, and opened her eyes. “And where do you think you’re going?”

Rather than explicitly mention either Christabel’s funeral or his need to depart for Tokyo, he tried an indirect approach. “I have work to do later.”

“Wolfgang and I already finalized the funeral arrangements, and I’m coming with you to Tokyo.” She stopped his objections with her lips on his. “Whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, you’re not facing it alone.”

“I’ve been staring down a rabbit hole with this connection between Nakajima, Liebenthal, and Imaginos. I don’t know how deep it goes, or how weird things might get.” He said nothing more for several minutes, but sought contentment in the soft warmth of her hair beneath his hands. There was so much he wanted to say―to explain why he had resisted their mutual desire for so long, to explain why he remained an Adversary, to share his fears of what he had made of himself―but the warmth of her body pressed against his beneath the sheets and blankets made most of the words redundant. They were together. “I love you.”

She managed to return the words, murmuring against his shoulder, before her breathing settled into the barely audible purr he already adored. He held her, unable to sleep for his mind overflowed with wonder at the realization that she had accepted him years ago, and would have welcomed him into her life if he had only had the courage to offer himself. I should have done it. I wasted years of both our lives for fear of destroying our band, but did we ever really need Christabel? If she had fired us, we would have started a new band and eclipsed the third iteration of Crowley’s Thoth she would have made without us. No, stop that. We’d be different people if I had made different choices back then. I would not have appreciated Naomi as I do now. Perhaps she understands.

Chapter 21: Enemy of My Enemy

Scene 1

Naomi normally woke to whiskers, purring, and a cold, wet nose brushing her own. Instead of a cat demanding breakfast, she turned over and found a covered dish of lush hothouse strawberries dusted with sugar. Her stomach rumbled its demand as she uncovered the dish; she wolfed them down after a first tentative nibble. There was a small note under the dish, which read in a scrawling rush of sharp-angled letters: These are almost as sweet as your lips. Come down when you’re ready. M

He must have gotten up early, and brought these back up. She came downstairs in high-waisted black slacks and a fitted red silk blouse, her damp hair curling back into its usual waves as it dried. She found Morgan sitting at the table for two she kept in the sunniest corner of her kitchen, where she most often enjoyed her breakfast. Phantom skittered across the floor chasing an olive, his tail standing straight up and bristling. The cat would bat his prey around the kitchen until it was sufficiently tender, and then hold it between his white forepaws and nibble it. While nibbling the olive, he would make soft growling sounds resembling “om nom nom nom”. The behavior never failed to amuse Naomi; it seemed light years away from her recent troubles.

Morgan was fully dressed, but not in the clothes she had slid from his body before demanding he ravish her by the fire. The remains of his breakfast lay before him as he used her tablet to read the morning’s news; the headline at the top of the screen announced Liebenthal’s death in custody. Taking the tablet from him, she pushed aside his mane and kissed his throat before sliding her lips up to whisper in his ear. “They were almost as sweet as your lips, lover, but I’m still hungry.”

“I made a tray for you.” Morgan retrieved it for her before cleaning up his own dishes and ensuring the kitchen was―with the exception of Phantom and his olive―exactly as he had found it. Breakfast consisted of an omelet with bacon and at least three cheeses inside, hot tea and half a fresh orange, and while it smelled wonderful, the sight of Morgan pacing about the kitchen with a pistol on his hip made it difficult for her to enjoy her meal. As if sensing her disquiet, Morgan kissed the top of her head and left.

She found him afterward, still pacing. “What’s bothering you?”

“I didn’t tell you last night. Liebenthal died in custody. Claire got me the information. She must have leaked it to the media as well.”

Naomi returned to the kitchen and retrieved the tablet. Waking it, she found the article Morgan was reading. “It says here he died of natural causes. How can they blame that on you?”

He shook his head. “Maybe they can’t, but I don’t like that he died before standing trial. Was it legitimate? Was it a cover-up? I don’t know who to trust aside from you, Eddie, Sid, and Claire.”

“What about Saul?”

“He works for the Phoenix Society, but I should doubt Eddie for the same reason. Do we have time to pack overnight bags?”

Naomi checked the time. “We should leave in an hour.”

She got her bag packed first, and kissed Morgan before leaving him to cope with packing their broken swords, his broken pistol, and the partially field-stripped Gauss rifle he took from Liebenthal. As Morgan descended with his own bag, a knock at the door reverberated through the quiet house. Wolfgang’s voice followed. “Naomi, Saul Rosenbaum is here. Shall I invite him in?”

Wolfgang paused a moment, and Morgan put down his bag to undo the strap securing his pistol. “He’s alone, and doesn’t appear to be armed.”

She shook her head as Morgan’s hand closed around the grip of his pistol. I can’t afford to dismiss Morgan’s doubts, but I remember Saul. He was my director when I worked out of the New York chapter. He backed me when his superiors tried to have me disciplined for digging into Project Harker. He didn’t betray me. Why would he betray Morgan? “Let him in, Wolfgang.” She turned to Morgan. “We should hear him out if he came all this way.”

“You’re right.” He redid his holster’s strap and pulled a photo album from the shelf. Settling into an armchair, he began to turn the pages without looking at the photographs they contained as if concerned mainly with keeping his hands busy.

Saul closed the door behind him, wiping his boots on the mat. He studied her face a moment as she took his coat. “You look like you never retired, Ms. Bradleigh.”

“Saul, we’ve exchanged Solstice gifts. You can call me Naomi.”

He acknowledged her invitation with a nod, and followed her into the living room. He settled into a seat by the fireplace. “I was surprised to hear about you joining Morgan in Boston, but you distinguished yourself out there.” He glanced at Morgan. “So did you, despite your involving the Ashecroft girl.”

“I brought her on board for remote support.” Morgan closed the album. “After Liebenthal obtained new forces in response to my buying off the Fireclowns, Port Royal sent her over to organize the Boston Crew. Sarah Kohlrynn deserves commendation as well.”

“Morgan’s right, Saul.” Though Naomi had disliked her eyes on Morgan, and on Naomi herself, Kohlrynn’s wandering eyes had no bearing on her performance during the mission. And I might have just imagined it. “Catherine Gatto and Miria Deschat were also helpful. They helped the rest of us work with local civilians and militia to contain and resolve the situation.”

Saul nodded as he tugged at his uniform tie. “We’re aware of their contributions through Witness Protocol, but I’m sure they’d appreciate your personal recommendations. However, that’s not why I came.”

“Are you here to arrest me in connection with Alexander Liebenthal’s death?” Morgan’s voice held the cold stillness of a mountainside about to suffer an avalanche. “Del Rio made it plain he was to live to stand trial, or I would be offered as a scapegoat to preserve the Society’s legitimacy.”

“What?” Saul’s cry sent Phantom fleeing from the kitchen and up the stairs in a blur of bristled fur, the olive clutched in his jaws lest his prey be stolen. Saul began to pace, shaking his fist. “Damn it, Morgan, how can you take that bitch seriously? She isn’t qualified for her position, and it was her orders which resulted in the deaths of Adversaries Rutherford, Gabriel, and Collins. She knew damn well they weren’t capable of fighting Munakata. If she tried to throw you under the maglev, I’d roll a grenade into her stall next time she was in the crapper.”

Naomi caressed Morgan’s shoulder as she slipped behind his chair. The notion of Del Rio getting fragged had brought a smile to the lips with which he had delighted her by the fire last night. Leaning forward, she stroked his hair out of a primitive urge to show she had claimed Morgan as her own. An idea struck her as she considered how Morgan’s attitude towards his position as an Adversary had changed over the last three years. He didn’t start talking about getting out until Shenzhen. “You thought it was justice catching up with you, didn’t you? Not so much for all of the tyrants, murderers, and other filth you killed when they resisted arrest, but for Munakata. You suspected all along the evidence against Tetsuo was fabricated, and you spent the last three years hating yourself for drawing your sword on him.”

Morgan looked up at her. “What I did three years ago was unforgivable. I should have questioned the evidence. If no answers were forthcoming, I should have refused to obey my orders.”

“If you had refused, another might have gone in your place. An innocent Adversary would have died regardless.”

“Perhaps.” Morgan rose, and stared out one of the windows. Snow had begun to fall, the fat white clumps plunging heavily to the ground. He returned to her side before she resolved to join him. “I still think I should have refused, and gone to the media. Why are you here, Saul?”

Saul produced a black envelope from inside his coat, and offered it to Morgan. “I was in the middle of composing a petition to the XC, to have you authorized to investigate Christabel Crowley’s murder. The inquest drew a blank, and I’d rather see you handle the case than anybody in the London chapter. While I was writing the petition, Elisabeth Bathory showed up.”

Morgan opened the envelope with trembling hands. His eyes flashed across the paper inside before he passed it to Naomi. The letter was written in a hand obsolete for centuries, and read as follows:

To Adversary Morgan Cooper, I offer my fondest greeting.

I understand the untimely loss of Christabel Crowley still grieves you. Though I can identify the man responsible for her murder, having failed to persuade him to stay his hand, our history is such that you would refuse to believe me regardless of any evidence I might furnish.

Despite the enmity resulting from our previous meeting, I would see Ms. Crowley’s murderer brought to justice. I therefore authorize you to continue the investigation abandoned by MEPOL, and to treat this document as a letter of marque and reprisal with which you may command all due cooperation.

In hope I may yet prove your ally,

Elisabeth Bathory
Executive Council of the Phoenix Society

Naomi returned the letter to Morgan with nerveless fingers. “A letter of marque and reprisal? Morgan, do you know what this means?”

“Bathory just gave me absolute authority, as long as I can justify my actions as pertinent to the Crowley case.” Morgan folded the parchment, and slipped it back into the envelope. He switched to secure talk to keep Saul from overhearing what he wanted to say next. However, I remember the games she played with us on the maglev to Boston, Naomi, and how she used Eddie to get you framed.

Naomi plucked the envelope from his fingers and slipped it into his pocket. I don’t trust her either, but this is too good an opportunity to refuse. She disconnected from secure talk and turned to Saul. “We were just about to head out when you arrived, but we can delay our departure if you’d like to rest a bit.”

Saul shook his head. “That’s fine, Naomi. Is there anything I can do to help?”

The words on the tip of Naomi’s tongue came from Morgan’s lips. “Give Ms. Bathory my regards if you see her.”

He passed Saul on his way to the front closet, and retrieved his coat and Naomi’s. To her surprise, his platinum CRDF pins were back in place, as if he’d never thrown them away.

Saul also noticed. “I thought you quit, Morgan.”

“Take it up with Eddie. He insisted I take them back.” Morgan shrugged as he found the formal dress sword he left with Naomi after Crowley’s Thoth’s last charitable ball. He also found her own dress blade and offered it to her with a small bow. “We’re still acting like Adversaries, Nims, so we might as well dress the part.”

“I’ve got a rented car outside. Do you need a lift to the station?”

“Only if you don’t mind, Saul.” She glanced at Morgan, who nodded as if concurring.

Scene 2

Trepidation was the emotion foremost in Nakajima Chihiro’s mind as she counted down the minutes to her last appointment of the day. She mulled the message Cooper sent her via Masamune. Written in flawless Japanese, it read: I investigated the matter of which we spoke at our last meeting, Ms. Nakajima, and wish to continue our discussion. She immediately grasped his meaning. She had not been forthright with him when she asked him to investigate the matter of the stolen design, and Morgan discovered her deception.

She glanced at Munakata Tetsuo, whom she asked to join her, and wished she had some means of reaching Elisabeth Bathory. You’re the one who bought all of the bonds Imaginos meant to use to pressure me into producing those weapons. You demanded I help Tetsuo draw Cooper’s attention to the Gauss rifle trade. You should be here beside me to answer Morgan.

Tetsuo knelt before the square table she used when meeting with customers, rather than facing them from behind her desk as she did employees. His katana rested beside him, and he wore an Adversary’s formal dress blues as if Shenzhen and the subsequent events of his life never happened. “Are you prepared if Morgan becomes violent?”

Tetsuo nodded. “You might consider making tea, and use hospitality to bind him. I might not be able to forestall him for long, but I doubt he’d draw on his host.”

Chihiro’s implant alerted her to an incoming talk request from her receptionist, before she could acknowledge the wisdom in Tetsuo’s advice. She put her fingertips to her ear while giving Tetsuo an apologetic smile. «Yes, Kaede?»

«Morgan Cooper is here, Ms. Nakajima. He brought Naomi Bradleigh with him.»

«Naomi’s here?» The thought relieved her, despite the possibility that Naomi might also be displeased with her. She recalled the media reports from Boston, which showed Naomi fighting beside Morgan. She texted back, «Ms. Bradleigh is likewise welcome.»

She smiled at Morgan and Naomi as they strode into her office together. They fit each other as well as Tetsuo and I did before everything fell apart. “Good afternoon, Adversaries.”

Morgan and Naomi bowed before he stepped forward to offer a pastel-wrapped gift. “Good afternoon, Ms. Nakajima.” He glanced at Tetsuo. “Have we interrupted anything?”

She accepted the gift and bowed to her guests. “No. He is here for the same purpose which brought you here. I was just about to make tea, in fact.”

Morgan and Naomi removed their swords and placed them on a sideboard by the door before joining Tetsuo. Morgan glanced at him, and noticed the pins in his lapels. “We saw the news of your resurrection and rehabilitation during the stopover in Petrograd. I had no idea the Phoenix Society employed necromancers.”

Tetsuo nodded. “After you brought me in, somebody from the XC found me and told me everything. They had wanted a deep-cover agent capable of infiltrating the underground, but his cover had to be real. An all but impenetrable legend wouldn’t do. So they doctored my feed to con you into thinking I was on the take. The Phoenix Society betrayed us both, and the order came from the very top.”

“What about the Adversaries you killed in Boston? And the Godhead Riders?” Morgan narrowed his eyes. “Are they just collateral damage?”

“Your superiors never told you about the bribes those Adversaries took from Liebenthal to look the other way.” Tetsuo shook his head. “As for the Godhead Riders, they were loan sharks.”

Naomi studied Munakata, speaking before Morgan could continue. “What about Sarah Kohlrynn? Morgan tells me you told Liebenthal she was me.”

“If I let Liebenthal shoot you, there would have been cold, white hell to pay.” Munakata nodded to Morgan. “You’re not the only one who would mourn Adversary Bradleigh.”

Chihiro finished making tea and served with the grace her mother Kaoru taught her along with the armorer’s trade. Morgan and Naomi seemed to relax as they drank, thanking her for her hospitality as she seated herself across from them with Munakata between them.

Morgan finished before resuming the conversation. “Who is your contact on the Executive Council, Munakata?”

Tetsuo spoke a name which made Chihiro’s hands tremble. “Elisabeth Bathory told me what happened, and asked me to tell you everything I knew about Liebenthal’s operation, and what happened during the coup.”

“Her again? What manner of game does she play?” Naomi’s eyes locked on Chihiro as she stared at the froth of her tea, unable to drink it for fear her nerve-wracked stomach might rebel. “Ms. Nakajima, the name seems familiar to you. Did she contact you as well?”

Rather than immediately replying, Chihiro opened the locked drawer of her desk and withdrew the schematics and specifications Bathory gave her. She placed them before Morgan and Naomi. Each was stamped with the AsgarTech Corporation’s rainbow bridge logo and the company motto, Building Bridges to the Future. “Elisabeth Bathory gave me these.”

Naomi caressed Morgan’s shoulder, which seemed to soothe him and blunt his rage. He studied the schematic with her, but let her speak. “Why go to such lengths? Why did you ask Morgan to investigate the matter as if it were an industrial espionage issue?”

Chihiro spread her hands, unable to dissemble before a direct question. “I issued bonds in order to raise the money I needed to retool and provide each of my locations with on-premises fabrication capability. It was expensive, and as a consequence I took on a great deal of debt.”

“I bought your bonds, and you paid off on maturity.” Morgan seemed baffled. “Who else bought in?”

“You were one of the first to buy my bonds, and thus one of the first to be paid.” Chihiro was proud of this; every bondholder got paid in the order in which they agreed to lend her money. She blushed as she named the total value of the bonds she issued, a figure which earned whispered profanities from both Morgan and Naomi, who had always seemed too demure for such language. “I paid off each bondholder in turn, until somebody started buying up my outstanding debts. I thought they were going to use the unpaid bonds as leverage to claim an interest in the company. Under Japanese law, I’m allowed to pay off bonds in the order in which they were issued, but if I default, the bondholder can claim a share of ownership based on the value of the unpaid bond compared to the company’s net worth.”

“Did Elisabeth Bathory threaten to do that?”

“Not directly. She explained that somebody named Imaginos bought all of my outstanding bonds. He intended to claim a one-third interest in the company by presenting them for immediate payment, which is technically within his rights. Bathory claims she prevented him by buying the bonds from him. She was prepared to forgive the bonds if I did as she asked.” It was a Faustian bargain, sealed not with a signature in blood, but with a kiss whose heat seared Chihiro’s nerves anew whenever she recalled it. “Bathory’s price was that I work with Tetsuo to draw your attention toward Boston, and the underground trafficking of rifles similar to this design.”

Morgan and Naomi shared a glance, as if conferring over a secure relay chat to which Chihiro was not privy. Morgan shook his head before turning to Chihiro. “I just instructed Astarte to place sufficient funds to pay off your outstanding bonds into escrow. A proxy firm named Thompson and French will contact you with further details, including repayment terms. They’ll provide any money you need to pay off Bathory.”

“How can you do such a thing for me?”

“Easily.” Morgan shrugged. “It just cost me most of my liquid assets, but you’ll eventually fix that. Did you think I’d let either Bathory or this Imaginos character hold a hammer over the person on whom I depend for my equipment?”

All sense of decorum abandoned Chihiro as she fell to her knees beside Morgan and embraced him. He’s not only tied up his liquid assets, but such a transaction must surely draw attention. He’s made himself terribly vulnerable for my sake. “You are entirely too generous.”

“Wait till you see the interest rate I persuaded him to charge.” Naomi’s tone held gentle amusement as if she was used to her man being embraced by tearful weapons designers. My husband would be mortified to see me like this, and poor Tetsuo is probably jealous as well. Naomi continued as Chihiro withdrew and composed herself. “We will need equipment, and are prepared to count the retail value of any gear you provide us as payment on the debt.”

“I would be happy to provide you with any equipment you might require.” Chihiro’s eyes widened as Kaede slipped into the office, carrying a cardboard box containing two swords. Further examination showed the swords belonged to Morgan and Naomi. She also found the pistol she gave Morgan, and a partially field-stripped Gauss rifle. She held up the broken hilt of Morgan’s sword for everybody to see. “I can’t replace your weapons under warranty every time you throw yourself off a rooftop, Morgan.”

Morgan shook his head. “It wasn’t the rooftop. I’ll concede that the stresses I inflicted exceed normal wear. However, it broke at the same time Naomi’s did, while I was fighting Liebenthal in the plaza.”

Chihiro shot a look at Naomi. “I can fix your sword, but it won’t be much more than a display piece.”

Naomi nodded. “I hoped you’d be able to repair it, but I’d like you to keep it in honor of your mother’s memory. It was her last sword.”

When Chihiro had composed herself, she lifted the pistol from the box and checked its on-board computer using her implant. “I’m terribly sorry, Morgan. I know what happened with this pistol. It wasn’t able to calibrate a safe dose for a man in Liebenthal’s condition, but instead of providing a sane error message it just crashed.”

“Can you update the firmware?”

“I already did.” She offered the weapon to Morgan. “If you’d prefer, I can replace it.”

Morgan shook his head as he slipped the USP into an empty shoulder holster. “That probably won’t be necessary. Did you see the Gauss rifle? It isn’t a perfect implementation of your specs, but I was unable to identify the manufacturer.

Chihiro spread the parts across the table, examining each in turn. “You couldn’t tell this was a Murdoch?” She pointed at the battery contacts, which had already taken on a greenish cast. “See these? Typical Murdoch shortsightedness. They use pure copper contacts instead of spending a little more on gold plating to avoid oxidation.”

“Nakajima’s right.” Tetsuo spoke up for the first time since mentioning Bathory. “Liebenthal and I got these weapons from Murdoch Defense Industries. Imaginos paid us to collect them from the manufacturer’s facilities in Queens, and transport them into New England. Abram Mellech paid us to distribute them to his followers among the Repentant in Christ.”

Morgan narrowed his eyes. “Abram Mellech of Agape Ministries? Liebenthal said he killed him, but I just checked with Agape. He’s alive, and telling suckers God saved him by whisking him from the path of a speeding bullet.”

Chihiro sipped her tea. “Does anybody know what Imaginos actually looks like?”

“I’ve seen him.” Tetsuo’s voice was low, and he glanced about as if Imaginos were the devil and might appear should they speak of him. “He’s a bit taller than we are, Morgan. He’s got white hair like you, Ms. Bradleigh, but deep blue eyes. He’s got CPMD, and appears to favor tailored white suits and blue cravats.”

Chihiro never imagined Naomi might turn paler than she already was, but her creamy skin faded to bleached bone as Tetsuo described the man who bedeviled them all. “Oh my God. Morgan, it’s Isaac Magnin. I― I saw him. I must have seen him, though it’s fuzzy, like I have holes in my memory.”

She clutched at Morgan’s arm. “It was the night Christabel was murdered. Wolfgang tells me I opened my door to speak to somebody next door. It was somebody I knew, a doctor, and something was wrong with Christabel. I think I let him into her house.”

Morgan remained silent for several minutes. When his voice finally came, it was with the calm of winter air before a blizzard, the calm of a man exerting the full extent of his strength just to retain control of himself. “Isaac Magnin was the man to whom Christabel turned after we broke up. She did it so quickly I suspected she was seeing him behind my back, but I never said anything because it no longer mattered. Their affair was all over the tabloids, and she never tired of telling me how much happier she was with the CEO of the AsgarTech Corporation than with me. If he murdered her, if he was behind Boston and Shenzhen, if he is the reason the Phoenix Society is corrupt―”

“What do you mean by if?” Chihiro forgot herself.

Morgan shook his head, but it was Naomi who spoke in his stead. “I understand, Chihiro. It seems so obvious.”

“The more obvious it seems, the more careful we must be.” Morgan rose, turning his back on the others. “Regardless of how much we think we know, we can’t prove anything. We need an armor-plated case before we turn to the media or attempt to persuade a jury. We can’t afford to be discredited if Imaginos, or Isaac Magnin, is Christabel’s murderer, the man who enabled Liebenthal’s gun-running, and is corrupting the Phoenix Society for his own ends. Nor is Imaginos our only enemy. Abram Mellech was working with him through Munakata and Liebenthal, and I still don’t trust Elisabeth Bathory. All of these people are Executive Council.”

“You should add another name to your list.” Tetsuo rose and caught Morgan’s shoulder. “Tamara Gellion, who also calls herself Thagirion. She implied that Imaginos answered to her, and she gave Liebenthal the funds he needed to hire the Transmaniacon MC, the Godhead Riders, and some other gangs after you dealt with the Fireclowns.”

“Isaac Magnin, Abram Mellech, Tamara Gellion, and possibly Elisabeth Bathory―though she might have suffered a crisis of conscience and is trying to guide us to the truth without her co-conspirators getting wise.”

Chihiro sipped her tea. “Perhaps her bringing me those designs is part of that effort.” She refilled everybody’s cups after seeing that Morgan had finished, and waited for them to drink before steering the conversation away from business. “Morgan, Naomi, will you be staying in Tokyo long? I’d like to design a matched pair of swords for you.”

Naomi glanced at Morgan before speaking. “We have to leave tomorrow night if we’re to return to London in time for Christabel’s funeral.”

Chihiro nodded, and checked her own schedule. She only needed a couple of hours of their time, and she had the morning free. “Can you come at ten? I’ll only need you until twelve. If everything goes well, you can stop by at three to pick up your new swords.” She checked the time as an idea for the design struck her. “If you want, we could work out the design now. Then you need not come by until the afternoon.”

Morgan shook his head. “We shouldn’t impose. Ms. Yamagishi won’t leave until we do.”

Naomi rose, and bowed to Chihiro. “Thank you for having us over, and for answering our questions.”

Morgan also bowed, and offered a variation on Naomi’s theme. “I owe you much for your cooperation, and I apologize if the manner in which I requested this meeting frightened you.” He extended his hand towards Tetsuo. “I appreciate your help, Adversary Munakata. Good luck on your next mission.”

Chihiro sent her receptionist a brief message, instructing her to go home, as her guests retrieved their dress swords. I can engrave a pair of cats sitting together into their blades. A lean black alley cat for Morgan, and a long-haired white cat for Naomi. The idea felt so right to her that she asked them again. “Ms. Yamagishi is on her way out. Are you sure you don’t want me to see to your weapons tonight?”

Morgan smiled over his shoulder, and the curve of his lips reminded her of the first smile Tetsuo gave her. “You already gave us a puissant weapon. We’ll be back tomorrow.”

Chapter 22: Last Rites

Scene 1

Imaginos waited his turn to approach Morgan and Naomi after Christabel Crowley’s funeral, which was as lavish an affair as one of her concerts. The corner of his mouth twitched with suppressed amusement as he recalled the instructions for her send-off attached to her will. Her instructions for the flower arrangements were detailed down to the placement of the last bloom. Even the manner in which the mourners dressed was specified; this funeral was to be a black tie affair. At least she had the decency to put money in escrow to cover the expenses.

Above all, Morgan and Naomi were to perform three Crowley’s Thoth songs written to showcase Christabel’s virtuosity, but with Morgan playing the violin. All of them were instrumentals, beginning with “My Shattered Bonds” from their first album, Prometheus Unbound. He recalled Christabel’s words at the time. “Morgan has never so much as touched a violin, so he’ll embarrass himself. And without her voice, Naomi’s just another prog rock keyboardist. I just wish I could be there to see it.”

Christabel’s revenge upon the bandmates who continually upstaged her went awry, for Morgan played each piece better than Christabel ever managed, and Naomi sang through hands which danced upon her keyboards. Still wish you were here, Christabel?

Nobody minded that the funeral came on the third of a series of unseasonably warm days. The pleasant weather meant an easy drive to the hall chosen for the funeral and its subsequent reception, which was situated on the grounds of an old manor which once belonged to Britain’s royal family. Christabel would be buried nearby and a garden planted around her grave come spring. In the meantime, those gathered to mark her passing would use the occasion to hobnob a bit before parting. He spied a flash of amber as Ashtoreth slipped past him, and turned to catch her bare shoulder. “I’m surprised you came.”

“I’ve followed the band from its inception. I came to pay my respects.” She glanced toward Morgan and Naomi. “I should denounce you.”

Imaginos created a bubble of vacuum to envelop him and Ashtoreth, and prevent them from being overheard. He smiled as he recalled the Witness Protocol data from Ashtoreth’s meeting with Morgan and Naomi on the maglev to Boston. “You already have. Only now does he believe you.”

She slowly shook her head. “He believes for reasons which have nothing to do with me. He does not trust me, but when he needs me, I’ll be there to guide him.” She retreated a step, her back millimeters away from the thin layer of vacuum which kept their conversation private. Her amber eyes flared in sudden wrath. “Your presence here is unforgivably foolish. Do you mean to hand over proof of your guilt on a silver platter?”

Imaginos shook his head. “Cooper won’t confront me without irrefutable evidence.”

“You underestimate him, and when he’s sure of his case, he will kill you. Is this how you value my sister’s affections?”

He made no attempt to stop her when she turned her back on him and walked away. Undoing the pattern he had woven took three attempts; her condemnation left him unable to achieve the necessary flow state. See what you do to me, Ashtoreth, though your sister accepts my adoration? When all my desires seem mine for the taking, your censure unmans me.

Once he regained his composure, he searched the vicinity for Morgan and Naomi. Morgan has been entirely too successful in keeping his anger contained. Perhaps being forced by courtesy to shake my hand will loosen his grip.

His mood lifted as Karen Del Rio, already tipsy, staggered towards Morgan and Naomi. She tottered in black stiletto heels which did nothing for her. The ligaments in her ankles seemed to beg for mercy with each step. She slid her hand along Morgan’s shoulder. As he turned to face Karen, Imaginos took a glass of champagne from a tray borne by a passing waiter; the act of drinking would hide his amusement at what his pet harpy seemed poised to do next.

“You don’t have to pretend.” Her words spilled from her paper-thin lips in a drunken slurry. She stumbled as Morgan tried to pull away in disgust, only to find his hands on her bare shoulders as she collapsed against him. “I know you’re glad she’s dead.”

Morgan led her to a chair and sat her down before she succeeded in catching his lips with hers. “You’re drunk, and you know nothing of the sort.” She regained her feet, swaying like a sapling in a breeze as Morgan turned his back on her to return to Naomi’s side. They disappeared in a clump of music industry suits, but Morgan’s voice reached him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Nigel, but it’s too soon for either Naomi or myself to consider a return to music.”

The suits parted before his approach, as if he projected a repellent field which cleared his path by shunting aside those irrelevant to him. Cooper stood beside Naomi, meeting Imaginos’ gaze in a newly tailored black double-breasted suit. His dress sword hung at his right hip, and Adversary’s pins glinted from his lapels. Naomi stood beside him, a modern Athena in a pinstriped black suit and red blouse with CRDF pins in her lapels and a dress sword at her waist. Her eyes narrowed as her left hand grasped the scabbard; her posture suggested she might draw at the slightest provocation, but she spoke in a carefully modulated tone. “You’re not wearing your usual white, else we might have recognized you sooner. Have you come to pay your respects, Dr. Magnin?”

“Christabel’s loss grieves me as well, Adversary Bradleigh.” He turned to Morgan, extending his hand. “Adversary Cooper surely understands. We both had the privilege of loving Christabel.”

Morgan took Imaginos’ hand. “Yes, we did. However, Dr. Magnin, you were no more deserving than I.” He pulled Imaginos closer and leaned forward. “Or shall I call you Imaginos?”

Imaginos nodded, ensuring silence around them as he had done with Ashtoreth. He met Morgan’s gaze and dropped his persona. There was no need to be politic now, no need to dissemble. His smile was no longer that of the affable businessman and scientist, but the exhilarated grin of a duelist in combat with an unexpectedly skilled rival. “Either will do. Did you hope to unravel my wizardry with my true name in your hands?”

Morgan shook his head. “That only works in fantasy novels. We know more than your name. I can prove you ordered Alexander Liebenthal’s summary execution.”

Rather than draw her sword, Naomi used her sword-hand to grip Morgan’s shoulder, thus reminding him to stay his hand. “We know you designed the rifles Liebenthal sold.”

Morgan glanced at her hand, which seemed pearlescent upon the black wool of his jacket, before turning his attention back to Imaginos. “You murdered Christabel Crowley, and caused events which might have resulted in Naomi being framed for the crime.”

There’s the anger! It isn’t for Christabel that he rages, but for Naomi. The source of Morgan’s anger was irrelevant; his plans were loose enough to be adaptable. A small spark warmed him at the thought of the asura emulator before him raging for his daughter’s sake. “If you can prove my guilt, why not strike me down? Surely it’s no more than a tyrant like me deserves.”

Morgan shook his head. “What a man deserves is not his choice to make. You would be wise to remember it.”

“Are you challenging me?” Imaginos doubted it; there were too many noncombatants around, which would dampen the lust for vengeance which surely burned in Morgan’s heart. Please, don’t be sensible. Ignore the civilians. Challenge me now, Morgan. The sooner you war with me, the sooner I can force you to confront the truth of yourself. He looked down at Morgan’s hip. Draw your sword.

To his disappointment, Morgan bared teeth instead of steel. “I think you want me to call you out, Imaginos. Remember what I am. You wanted me to become an Adversary so badly you ordered my induction into the CRDF corps despite the fact I failed the Milgram Battery with a null score. I will give you cause to regret every choice you made concerning me and mine.”

How did he know that? Imaginos glanced about, and found a scarlet-haired young woman wearing a bomber jacket over a ruffled black dress with Sathariel, who came to the gathering in his Samuel Terell persona. That Ashecroft woman, no doubt. What will she do next? “I look forward to your attempt. You may know everything, but you can prove nothing.”

Morgan’s smile widened further as if he was enjoying himself. Naomi spoke for him. “Our lack of evidence is the only reason you remain free, Imaginos.”

“Once Naomi and I gather sufficient evidence to convince a jury of your guilt, we will come for you, and the rest of your friends. I will see you tried, convicted, and stripped of all you cherish.”

Imaginos bridled at Morgan’s threat. Only the presence of his daughter before him, her hand caressing the younger man’s shoulder, prevented him from unleashing the full extent of his flowseeker’s skill and punishing Cooper’s insolence with utter destruction. He reasoned his way through the sudden terror, and refrained from fully expressing his delight at Morgan’s threat. Finally! An Adversary worthy of the title. If he can unnerve me with the threat of a trial, what might he do to Sabaoth? “I wish you well in your search for the truth, Adversary. When you reach its end, you will find me waiting.”

He was calm again by the time he reached the top of the hill overlooking the hall. A red coupe with its top down pulled out of the parking lot and turned back toward London. The shifting blur of streaming white hair marked Naomi as the driver. He turned his back on the receding car bearing his daughter away.

He found his limousine awaiting him, the driver standing beside the door. He settled into the plush leather seat beside the limo’s other passenger. Chestnut waves framed a heart-shaped face fresher than it was when he first met her. Her gray eyes, one of which was streaked with orange, were downcast as they considered the violin case in her lap. It was the only remnant of her life she permitted herself, save for the navy blue suit caressing her slender frame. She met his gaze as he took one of her delicate hands in his own. “Did you enjoy the show, Christabel?”


This part normally comes at the front of the book, just after the dedication; it’s the part where novelists do their award show bit and thank everybody who helped them get where they are. Unless you expect to find yourself named herein, this isn’t the section you paid to read, so its proper place is at the end of the book. My thanks to the following, for reasons explained below:

Many of my followers on Google+ read fragments of the text as I rewrote Starbreaker, and offered advice and encouragement. Most of them know why they are, but a few names in particular deserve mention: Dee Solberg, Giselle Minoli, Susan Miles, Telzey Lee, Remy Porter, Nicola Smith, and John Ward.

Starbreaker is not just a science fantasy series, but a tribute to hard rock and heavy metal, and all its styles and sub-genres. A few bands and artists in particular were particularly inspirational. See if you can figure out which ones; there are clues in the text for the careful reader.

Still reading? Here’s the real reason the acknowledgments section is at the end of the book. Here’s the deal, if you didn’t buy this book― and I hope you’ll prove kind enough to leave a review and tell your friends―then there was little point in publishing it.

I’m not joking. If I ever earn the privilege of writing for a living instead of sneaking in five hundred words on my lunch break, it will be because of readers like you. Thank you.

Selected Reviews

Science Fantasy with a helping of heavy metal music and original world building. It’s the kind of complex genre-busting novel that is rarely published in today’s world of tightly defined markets, and that’s a shame. Morgan Stormrider is the Phoenix Society’s most successful enforcer. But he is also not quite human, and the parallel stories that twist through this novel showcase a writer with a strong grasp on building myth and driving a high-octane plot.

L. J. Cohen, author of Derelict and Ithaka Rising

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.