1. a gathering in a social context for entertainment, etc.
2. attachment or devotion to one side or faction.
Another day. Another marital disagreement.
Jesse was ready to hit them head on. Fly into France under guise of a nobleman's cruise vessel, locate the shipyards of the enemy fleet, destroy them completely. They had what they needed to enter the British Empire; why delay what needed to be done?
Gilbert wanted to research the target more, to find the best way of taking it down. He wanted insider knowledge into the enemy's defenses. Tactically sound, but a coward's move; the best way through an enemy's defenses is to destroy them utterly, to crush all resistance offered, and let them know they have been soundly defeated despite their best efforts. Particularly an enemy that was resorting to cowardly sabotage to try and slow them down. That enemy deserved no mercy, no quarter, no hesitation in the killing blow.
Sadly, with an Eastusian on board, with their silly ideas regarding representational democracy, the issue was put to a vote. 1-4, Jesse lost. Assuming the brass butler had any right to a vote, given it didn't even have a soul.
There was bickering, back and forthing, tete-a-teting. And in the end, since she couldn't exactly charge off into France by herself and wage a one woman march of destruction the likes of which weren't seen outside of summer blockbuster action movies, she went along with the majority consensus.
And ended up being grumbly and unpleasant towards her freshly acquired husband in the process.
She didn't WANT to be grumbly and unpleasant. Not now... not during what was allegedly doubling as their honeymoon holiday. And while Gilbert retained his smile and his good cheer, she could tell that it was... a bit forced. As if he didn't want to make a big issue out of it, wanted to take it in stride, but wasn't quite getting there.
The two exchanged few words during morning tea, after her workout with the fencing instruction automaton. Jeeves had taken to turning up the volume on the Clockwork Mermaid's sound system to make up for the silence, the tones of his gentleman's favorite album, the Abbey Road, replacing the nonexistent newlywed pleasantries.
The other two members of the raiding party had little to say, as well... they had been oddly comfortable AND uncomfortable around each other, since the apparent revelation that their resident FBI agent was pulling double duty as a messenger from God. She hadn't manifested glowing, hazy wing-like visages since that night in Africa, but it was hard to doubt it after her fireworks-from-above declaration of the Lord's Disappointment.
After several minutes of clattering teacups, crunching toast, and the Beatles discussing the residential merits of submersible vehicles with specific color schemes, Benny motioned for Jeeves to cut the audio.
"I think I need to brief you guys before we get where we're going," he explained. "I have a lot of contacts there and I don't want anybody screwing this up for me. You guys know Las Vegas, right? Well, Ibiza Town is a lot like Las Vegas. Only aimed more at the twentysomething clubgoer vacationing set than the morbidly obese retirees in sweatpants. Point is: what happens in Ibiza stays in Ibiza. It's hedonistic, it's fun, it's crazy, and it's going to take some getting used to."
"Seriously?" Gilbert asked. "You mean I spent all my life in the Gearhaus compound city, going to dreadfully boring parties and operas, when there was a party capital none too far away? Hmmh. If I'd known, maybe I would've gone there instead of fleeing across the entire Atlantic to find some fun..."
"Yeah, well, even the nobs need to get their knobs turned now and then," Benny said. "Especially the kids. When they wanna party, REALLY party, the 3/4ths time waltzes go out the window in favor of something a bit more wild. It's not like the 'old world' was COMPLETELY purged from memory; this is Europe. Memories last longer than they do out west. Fortunately for us... the individual Gilbert requested I find, well, he's reportedly pretty wild. To the point where even his corporate minders look the other way to keep him happy and crunching the numbers productively."
Jesse traced one finger along the rim of her teacup, mumbling a Perfectea spell under her breath. The onion-skin-printed magical glyph on her spell monocle burned away, as the cup filled to the brim with piping hot pleasantness.
"An Honored Calculator..." she considered. "One that's off the reservation. A rare opportunity, but even so... Gilbert. Are you certain about this? The last thing we need is the corporate overlords of England knowing our plans. If we go to your friend and ask him to help our cause, to help him commit treason against queen and country..."
Gilbert Gearhaus, former Honored Calculator (a pleasant name for 'brain-damaged math savant') shook his head. "Not to worry, love. Randall isn't exactly a patriot. If we meet his asking price he'd sell us the Queen Mum's unmentionables. ...I know you're not in favor of the plan, darling, but I believe this may be the difference maker. Randall's knowledge of the army's industry will prove invaluable. I've not a doubt."
Benny wandered to one of the vast windows that lined either side of the Great Hall of the Clockwork Mermaid, leaning against a bookcase, as he looked out at the city.
It was a haven for his sort of people. A chance to get away from the stuffiness of proper English living, to blow massive amounts of money on things you didn't really need, to make poor life decisions. Exactly the sort of client a Broker could run wild with. (Not that he ever backstabbed them, or provided shoddy goods just because the mark was easy. His professional pride wouldn't allow that.) Unfortunately, that also made it just the sort of shady town that could catch wind of their scheming little schemes... and maybe do something about it.
The city wasn't as outwardly hostile as Tortuga, of course. It was a tourism town. But that didn't make things any less dangerous. A hitter chick like Jesse could easily find a fight, a former noble like Gilbert could get stuck in a scandalous situation, and a wayward angel...
Benny traced Chloe's eyes, following them. She was looking out at the city, too, barely paying attention to the discussion at hand. Focused.
"I can hear a bell," she said, quietly.
"It's Ibiza. No doubt you'll be hearing bells, whistles, auto player pianos, portable victrolas, and anything else that makes some vaguely musical noise," he suggested.
"No. I think it's a church bell," Chloe said. "You mean you can't hear it...?"
The demon politely coughed his way out of the topic at hand, and returned to his tea.
Peace and quiet. He didn't really thrive on either of those things, but right here, right now... he wanted them. Before they hit the town, and everything hit the fan.
by stefan gagne
Tourism towns were very odd things, indeed.
For starters, the entirety of Ibiza Town sparkled. The predominant color scheme was white, a fine counterpart to the sandy beaches and turquoise seas surrounding the island. Unlike other urban landscapes, there was no trash lying about, be it of the discarded-object or discarded-person variety. Nothing to get in the way of a visitor's perfect experience in a perfect place.
Cities like these existed to cater to those who didn't belong there. The service industry was front and center -- no sooner had they stepped off the boat into the docking area than they were accosted by brightly colored vendor stalls offering everything from sausages in buns to "sun goggles." Which appeared to be the standard industrial-style round lensed goggles Gilbert wore whenever he had heavy welding work to do below decks, albeit made of cheaper materials and with tinted lenses to keep UV-rays out. A hipster doppelganger to a bit of practical gear.
Chloe kept looking for signs that this was a living, breathing city, and found none. The only housing in sight consisted of four star hotels for the tourists. The beachside restaurants and bars were catering to party seekers, not hard working locals who needed something to eat to keep them going. Briefly she entertained fanciful notions of Morlockian tunnels beneath Ibiza Town, where hunchbacked servants hustled to keep the beer and t-shirts flowing -- before smartly realizing that the actual city-behind-the-city was probably, well, behind the city. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Might be worth investigating, later. For now, they had a schedule to keep.
Benny had skipped ahead one day previous, using the Mermaid's fireplace as a travel conduit, to make the arrangements. By the time they docked at Ibiza, everything was prepared for them... space was pre-rented for the ship, now disguised as a Swedish nobleman's pleasure cruiser. A handsome cab with a steam-assist engine was ready to pick them up, to bring them the four city blocks they probably could've just walked, to their final destination... a club named Cosmos.
The music was loud enough to wash away conversation, and they hadn't even gotten in the door yet. Clubgoers were already lined up outside, waiting to get in -- and yet here they were, hopping out of a cab and immediately cutting ahead of the line, thanks to Benny exchanging handshakes and a few secret signals with the lead bouncer. He turned to wave the rest of the group in, and... then the sun went out.
It was a pleasant afternoon outside, but inside, the building had been completely sealed away from the light. After all, when it was always nighttime, that meant it was always the right time for a party. Despite the early hour Cosmos was in danger of rocking off its foundations from all the tightly compressed bodies dancing away inside. Fortunately, as guests of a guest of the club, the bouncer was on hand to help navigate through the throng.
It was a tough sell to her mind, picturing the idea of prim and proper neo-Victorian citizens of the Empire in a hot urban club dance party scenario. And yet... here they were. Before Chloe had even seen a more standardized example of this culture, she was being exposed to one of the weirdest segments of it.
True, there were waistcoats and pantaloons and corsets and bowler hats and so on, like she was expecting. Although... considerably LESS of them than she was expecting, as well. It was probably not considered gentlemanly to boogie down wearing nothing BUT your waistcoat, and yet, someone she deftly swerved to avoid was doing just that.
She called out some curiosity-powered question to Benny, who couldn't hear it. The music was as thick as the crowd. Another thing her mind hadn't been able to figure out was how you could do a dance club without electricity, which was innately tied to the concept in her Eastusaian mind. The answer was... well. Still unknown, as she couldn't see where the music was coming from. But to her ears, it sounded like a piano, an organ, a drum kit, and a wide variety of weird whistles and clunks and thunks and such that added up to simulate electronic dance music. In a purely unplugged fashion, mind.
Between the pounding music, the pulsating crowd, and a thick layer of mist from the fog machine which was making her cough... Chloe was about to decide she'd had more than enough of this experience. Three steps later, all of it went away.
It took a few eye blinks to adjust, before realizing they'd arrived at their destination. The VIP Lounge, situated off to the side of the dance floor. And, as she'd learn later, lined with a special design of wooden tiles designed to break up the noise and offer a zone of comfort for mixed drinks and light conversation.
The bouncer remained behind the group, positioned at the door to the lounge. Here on out, it was up to Gilbert and Benny to wrangle the situation.
Another Gilbert was sitting on a crushed velvet couch, having his wine refreshed by a red-headed lovely, who had been poured into a tiny red dress with considerable overflow. An identical red-headed lovely was busy flipping through his personal organizer, a tiny book written in tightly compressed code.
"Your three o'clock appointment, honey," the woman cooed, leaning up against her apparent boss. "Mister Benny and his companions."
Of course, the fellow was not actually a copy of Gilbert. In poor lighting, it'd be easy to mix them up... young, handsome, dangerously dapper. Bracers and trousers. Bright smiles and bright eyes. But for this bloke, Gilbert's dirty blonde hair was replaced with a dyed electric blue. Also... there was something about his cheerful smile that Chloe immediately didn't like. Particularly when it was flashed at her.
"Welly well. Gilbert Gearhaus, as I continue to live and breathe," he said, after sipping from his refilled wine. (And motioning for one of the twins at his sides to refill it again.) "When Benny told me you wanted to have a chat, I have to say, I was surprised. We all thought you'd run off to join the hippies at Stonehenge or something. Or maybe you took off with that darling whatsername, Penny Patel...? My friend, it is GOOD to see you alive and well. Come in, come in. Everybody, have a seat. Wine?"
Gilbert made the first move, walking right on over, to shake the fellow's hand. Of course, being Honored Calculators in arms, a few basic pumps were quickly followed by a rapid combination of finger exercises which no doubt represented some terribly complicated mathematical concept.
"It really HAS been too long," Gilbert agreed, taking the seat opposite him. "Friends, this is Randall Wellspring--"
"Please. I go by Random now. Stage name, of course," apparently Random corrected. "I'm doing some musical work on the side. Well, in addition to the usual round of blueprints and formulae for Société de Bonnechance."
"Hah! So you finally made it big? I knew you would, of course -- genius like yours can't be contained," Gilbert said, with a smile. "Alright, then. Friends, this is Random Wellspring--"
"--just Random, if you would kindly--"
"--and this is Chloe, Benny, you know Jeeves already, and my dearly beloved Jesse," Gilbert finished. "Random and I were both in the Honored Calculators program. I did mechanical engineering, he did acoustic engineering. Rival companies, of course. France and Germany. But all's fair in love and science, yes? Can't let a silly little thing like fiscal politics get in the way of a brotherhood of mathematics."
"Although I must say, you did me quite a favor in running away from home!" Random noted, raising his glass to Gilbert. "After that, the Gearhaus contracts went to Bonnechance. More opportunities for me to prove myself and my worth! And now look -- I've landed the finest position ever. It's being called 'telecommuting'. I send my work to Bonnechance each night, and in return, they let me live outside the company compound! I'm a resident of Ibiza. Honestly, Gilbert, if all you wanted was a taste of freedom, you probably could've applied yourself and earned it..."
"Ah... yes. The contracts," Gilbert said, his smile wavering momentarily. "That's what I wanted to discuss with you, honestly. Now. I trust this won't leave the room...? What with me being a fugitive, and all... one mathematician to another, I can trust in your discretion?"
"Of course," Random agreed, setting a now empty wineglass aside (or rather, handing it to one of the twins, who then set it aside.)
"Right. And your companions?"
"For the amount of money they charge by the hour, I'd like to think their discretion comes in the package," Random joked. A joke which apparently was amazingly amusing, as his assistants / companions / company-assigned concubines tittered away with girlish glee at the suggestion.
"Right. ...so. I take it you were the one who rebuilt the Kraken friend-or-foe beacon I stole," Gilbert said.
Random clapped once. "Guilty as charged! And thanks to that brilliant spot of engineering, which I may add took a few years of hard labor, I landed my Ibiza gig. You sort of have my thanks, Gilbert."
"Well, it was your project to begin with, Randall. All I did was pick it up after you declared the task impossible, and the contract shifted over to Gearhaus Industries. I don't know why you thought it couldn't be done, I mean, all you had to do was--"
"Yes. Yes, I know," Random said. His smile getting more painted on by the second. "I could have finished it, Gilbert. I put it aside because it bored me and I couldn't be bothered. And YOU had to go and show me up, by finishing it off, and making me look bad. Now, math is math, and brotherhood is brotherhood, but I have to say that it did peeve me off fiercely... even if in the end, I turned the situation around."
"Ahhh. Well. Apologies, then...? No hard feelings?" Gilbert offered, not sure what to make of the accusation. "Ah. Anyway. My point is... well. I stole the beacon for a reason, Randall. I knew once the empire got their hands on it, they'd gear up for a world invasion. I mean, the Kraken were the only things restricting the Queen's hand to one landmass..."
"And what of it? What does that matter to men like you and I?" Random asked. "We do our work. We do a bloody brilliant job on our work. Nothing outside that really matters, yes? Well, the pursuit of happiness and amusement, that goes without saying. But we're not men of politics, fiscal or otherwise."
"Random. I've an image to protect here, thank you very much."
"There's going to be a long and very nasty war thanks to your work finishing off the second beacon prototype," Gilbert continued. "It's a war I'd like to put a stop to. ...your role in this is over, yes? Why would you care what happens to the army, now that they've paid you for the finished product?"
"Oh, I'm not arguing one way or another. If you want to run off and join the idiots in the resistance, feel free," Random spoke, bringing his tone back around to Friendly. "And good on you, old chap. Have fun. Obviously, I won't be joining you, mind."
"Not asking that of you. But... I would like to know more about the project. The new design specifications. Military access codes. Any information that could help us," Gilbert said, bringing it around to the final pitch. "You worked hand in hand with the Empire's war machine. You built it, with your own two hands. You would be the one who knows how to bring it down. And, as you say, you don't care one way or another... so all you have to do is impart the knowledge to me. I'll do the rest. What say you, old friend?"
At this point, the Broker interjected himself. "We are prepared to negotiate for the release of this information," Benny stated, leaning forward in his chair. "I have considerable resources inside and outside the Empire. Anything you need, Benny the Broker can get for you. I know the middleman I reached you through has resources of his own... trust me when I say his pale in comparison to mine. Name your price, and we can make the arrangements."
The Calculator lounged in his lounge chair, a woman on either arm, as he considered their proposal.
Except he wasn't really considering it. He had his answer already, and Benny could tell -- he was enjoying drawing the moment out, making them stew and wait. Even his twins knew, as the cuddled in next to their master, and grinned nasty little grins.
"Sure," Random agreed. "I'll tell everything you need to know about Britain's war efforts. For one price, and one price only. No negotiations."
Gilbert coughed. "I'm... not entirely sure I'm going to like the answer, but what would that price be, exactly?"
"I want another crack at defeating you," Random said. "You nearly destroyed my career, Gilbert, when you took advantage of a moment of complacency and made me look the fool. If you hadn't coincidentally fled your corporate owners, I'd never have recovered from that slight. But you see, I never really defeated you, did I? The contract went back to me by default, not because I was the better man, but because you weren't available. No. I won't be satisfied until I've proven that you are my lesser. A friendly mathematical rivalry, of course. A simple matter between gentlemen."
Gilbert Gearhaus wrinkled his nose, in distaste. "Really now, Randall? I'm talking matters of global importance here, wars and death, and... you're hinging this off a bit of sport?"
"A bit of--? You. Nearly. RUINED me," Random spurted, all traces of playful friendliness tossed aside. "And the sick of it is you didn't know and you didn't care. You just did what you always do... show me up and skip along on your merry way. Not this time. You want to go on this little rebellion of yours? Fine. But you're going to NEED to know what I know, or you will fail. That is assured. Therefore, you and I will do battle, and ONLY if you beat me again will I lend aid. Understood?"
"So, what, then? Fencing? Pistols at dawn?" Gilbert asked, with a mock yawn. "I left my court to get away from silliness like this, you know--"
"Battle of the bands. One audience, two musicians. One falls, one rises," he declared... gesturing to the dancers, far below them. "Right here, in two evenings time. ...I believe you once had a few piano lessons, yes? Perhaps you could entertain them with Chopsticks, while I show you what a TRUE master of acoustic engineering is capable of. What say you, Gilbert Gearhaus?"
The gauntlet had been thrown down.
Although it didn't get the reaction Random was hoping for.
Jesse was to her feet, one hand resting menacingly on the hilt of her... parasol.
"Assuming this isn't a colossal joke, you are hinging the future of the world on... dueling banjos?" she asked. "That is quite possibly the stupidest thing I have heard in my life. And I have faced down some of the most cliched living cliches mankind has ever encountered!"
Random groaned. "Gilbert? Control your arm candy, please. This is a man's matter."
"I am his WIFE," Jesse declared, grip tightening on the handle.
"--wait, seriously? You got married, Gilbert?" he asked, not bothering to look in her direction. "My, how the mighty have fallen. You never did know a good thing when you had it, mind. I mean, look at me, a charmer for each arm! You could've had that if you stayed. Sure, you canoodled with that Indian whore quite a bit, but--"
"Honey, if you kill him, not only is our mission over but no doubt we'll be skinned alive before we even leave the building," Gilbert quickly supplied, before Jesse could spring into a blood frenzy of taking offense.
"I'll add that if I don't send my day's calculations by tube to the Bonnechance corporate masters every night, they'll know something's happened to me, and you and your rebel friends will become VERY well known," Random added.
"I could probably extract what we need to know and be gone within a single afternoon," Jesse suggested.
The Broker stepped in. Literally, blocking the crazy sword witch in case she decided to step into the man, blade first.
"I'm sure that this can be negotiated. There's more than one price for everything in this world," Benny suggested.
"Nope!" Random declared, with a laugh (echoed in stereo from his girls). "You show me up in my world, of which I am master and commander, or you get nothing. No other price."
"Surely, sir, there can be--"
"Nothing. Honor demands no less."
"You consider this HONORABLE?!" Jesse shouted. "You filthy little chauvinist thug, I'll have your--"
Chloe, next. "Whoa, wait, no fighting! We're in the middle of a public space. There's a bouncer right outside! We've got to--"
"Don't tell me what to do, you--"
"--please, this situation CAN be resolved, we just need to take deep breaths and--"
"--greatly looking forward to humiliating you, you know--"
"--cutting it off and ramming it lengthwise up your--"
"OKAY!" Gilbert shouted -- loud enough to become slightly muffled by the soundproofing of the room. "Okay. I'll accept the duel. It's utterly childish, but... fine. There's more at stake here than my dignity. ...evening after next, I'll be here, ready to fight. What are the ground rules?"
"Fairly standard battle of the bands. Ibiza has its own unwritten laws about these things," Random explained, his grin genuine, in face of his enemy's bowing to whimsy. "Two rounds. I play for three minutes, you play for three, back to me, back to you again. Winner is determined by audience applause. I don't care WHAT music you play; it won't matter. I am the reigning champion in the club dance scene. I will bring the house down around you with superior acoustic technology, Gilbert Gearhaus."
"And I have your word that the information we seek is ours if the crowd topples your throne? Your bitterness is foul to taste, Randall. I've no doubt treachery may be afoot."
"All I want is to prove once and for all who is the better in this particular science. If you win, that will be that," Random declared. "You'll get what you need and I'll tell nary a soul of your intentions. ...I've only a year, maybe two, before the steam finally takes me. Your naughtiness goes to the grave with me. Not that it'll come to that. I WILL win."
Gilbert rose to his feet... tugging at his bracers, straightening up.
"I'm disappointed in you, Randall," he said. "But I'll play the game, if I must. A gentleman does not cower before a challenge, no matter how absurd. To use the vernacular of my new adoptive homeland... prepare to get served."
Outside the club... Ibiza Town carried on, unknowing and uncaring of their plight. Hot young people wandered the streets, being hot and young. A few passers by might have noticed the sour mood of the group emerging from Cosmos, but took no note of it, in favor of the more interesting sights and sounds of the city.
He headed off any argument by being the first to speak.
"I know our chances here are quite bad, but I'd rather do this than beat the information out of him," Gilbert said. "That's a coward's way through and through. I'll figure out some way to best him, or... we'll carry on as Jesse suggested, proceeding despite our lack of information. One way or another, we WILL stop the war machine. I'd hope we could do it cleanly and quietly with the knowledge in Randall's head, but if not, so be it. Leave this burden to me. ...no doubt I've disappointed you, Jesse."
"What? What for?" she asked, puzzled.
"For accepting a fool's errand, yes?"
"A challenge is a challenge," she decided. "Even the foolish ones. While I would enjoy doing unspeakable things to that misogynist, and do feel this is quite silly, I'm not one to intrude on another's right to duel. ...however. Can you, in fact, actually... PLAY music?"
Gilbert waggled his fingers in the air.
"I might remember 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat,'" he said, smiling weakly. "It's kind of been a while since the obligatory piano lessons of my youth. I suppose music is all mathematics in the end, so no doubt I can... improvise, I suppose? Somehow?"
Jesse rubbed her chin, considering the problem.
"Flank the enemy," she suggested. "Approach the problem sideways. If you try to become a piano master in two days, you will fail. You're going to need to come up with something very... unorthodox. But I've no doubt you will succeed. Of course, I will assist--"
"No, no. Flailing around in amateur musicianship is going to be embarrassing enough to my own ears," he said. "We've got two days in the party capital of the world, home of beaches, spas, bars, and every sort of relaxation we could need. Honestly... we're going to war, soon. I suggest we take advantage of this time while we have it. I suggest YOU take advantage of this time, darling. You've been a bit... high strung, since we left."
"What?! How dare-- ah. Yes. Well. ...if you like, I suppose I can find some entertainment while you bang away on the ivories," Jesse mumbled.
"Right. I'm off to obtain some manner of musical instrument," Gilbert declared, motioning for Jeeves to follow. "We'll reconvene on the Mermaid tonight. Meanwhile, well... have some fun. I think we bloody well deserve some fun, after recent events. Ta for now."
The group watched, as genius boy wandered down the street, intent on finding some way to become a musical god in two days or die trying.
"...okay. That's it, I'm going to go get completely smashed," Benny declared. "Obviously my negotiating skills aren't needed here, so I think it's ale and whores time. Besides, I've got an old contact to catch up with. Nobody follow me. Headed to the bad part of town. See you."
"Girls night on the town?" Jesse suggested. "Although admittedly I loathed those back in my witching school days, what with the others fawning over passing bards and such, and I dislike alcohol, but..."
"I'm going to find a church," Chloe decided.
"Ah. Rather the opposite of girl's night on the town. Very well. Hmm. Relaxation. I suspect Gilbert didn't mean fencing practice when he said that, did he."
"I wouldn't think so, no," Chloe agreed. "What do you do for fun, normally? I mean... non-violent fun..."
It took Jesse a few moments to detangle that particular puzzle.
"I like... reading?" she tried on for size.
"Grab a book and hit the beach, then?" Chloe suggested. "Sounds relaxing to me. I might join you later, just... I've got something to look into, first. Um. Later."
And then there was one.
Jesse had heard of the concept of "hobbies." She'd always thought she'd look into them one day, when she wasn't busy saving the world or feverishly bettering herself physically and mentally. The idea of spending one's time doing nothing of importance or consequence didn't SOUND enjoyable, but most of the living world seemed to think otherwise, so maybe they had a point.
Of course, even in a relatively cool spring-like breeze, wearing her full concealed-combat dress probably wasn't suitable for the "beach." She would need "beach wear." Problematic. But an achievable goal, no doubt.
Being one step removed from the middleman wasn't a normal situation for the Broker. Normally, he held the supplier in one hand, the client in the other, and was the indirect handshake that brought them together. Today, the chain had an additional link. Perhaps that's why he completely failed to close the deal.
Regardless, he'd made a promise -- a friendly one, but even friendly promises merited strong professionalism. In return for information on the location of one Randall Wellspring, Benny would visit the off-center-middleman in this chain at his earliest convenience for drinks and social chat. Fair enough. And honestly... he could do with a friendly face. Or what passed for one.
The man slightly right of middle, the one who passed on information about Randall, ran one of Ibiza's best drug parlors. There were plenty of two-bit hustlers, ones who distributed goods cooked up back on the mainland to tourists who wanted a little extra kick at their parties. But his old "friend" was the real deal. He cooked, he distributed, he provided facilities to sample and enjoy his product in privacy. His prices were quite reasonable, and the negotiating table was always open for business.
In short, he was a Broker. Just like Benny. And from the same school, for that matter, down under.
Benny picked his way through the piles of sleeping, half-naked drugged out humans that decorated the opium den like so many throw rugs. A nearby victrola was pumping out some sort of soothing music, very repetitive, with a steady beat... combined with whatever nastiness was coursing through their veins, it was enough to zombie-out all those present in the room.
Of course, this was just the showroom floor. Benny he had business in the back office, with the owner of this fine establishment.
The other Broker looked different. Then again, he tended to change up his appearance and his name with frequency. He had a tendency to burn his clients for self-amusement value, since, well. Demon. Which meant he had to shuffle identities on a regular basis.
His demon-in-arms turned around in his swivel chair, peering over the tops of his round hippy glasses at the incoming man of wealth and taste.
"Been a long time, Doc Feelgood," Benny said, extending a hand to shake.
"Please, I dumped that moniker a while ago," the demon said, accepting the hand with a firm grasp. "Too much bad rep attached to it, after a while. Lately, I go by the King of Pain. This lovely establishment is the little black spot on the sun, today. Like it?"
"More song references?" Benny asked, having a seat across from the drug kingpin's desk. "Seriously?"
"What's the fun of changing up your entire persona on a regular basis if you stick to dull names, like 'Bob' or 'John' or 'Benny'? Oh, right -- you wanted something that sounded like your original name. Ben'ai. THAT name had style. You could tell from the apostrophe..."
"Ben'ai fell from Heaven. Didn't feel right to keep using that exact name," Benny mumbled.
"Ooooh? A guilty conscience?"
"No, it's more like not wanting to wear a oversized fur coat in the middle of the Gobi Desert. It doesn't fit and just leaves you uncomfortable. Benny fits me more. Benny the Broker. Finally with purpose, other than sitting around all day listening to Raph's speeches about compassion and healing humanity's ills..."
Pain gave a snorting laugh. "I swear, it was worth the fall just to get out from under Raphael's thumb," he agreed. "All the crap we went through, all the revenge schemes after the Morningstar's coup flopped... all worth it, just so we could go indie. Had to wait until we got yanked to alternative material plane, but hey. Better to reign on Earth than serve in Heaven... get people things they want, play with 'em, have a good time."
"And your sources don't disappoint, as usual. I owe you thanks for the hookup with Randall Wellspring," Benny acknowledged, with a tip of an imaginary hat towards the King. "Mind you, would've helped if I knew he was one of my client's blood enemies. And a complete nutter."
The drug lord shrugged, arms wide. "Hey, buy the ticket, take the ride. The King isn't known for giving you what you need, just what you want. Usually. I owed you, anyway, for keeping me off the radar of that little bastard, The Mister. I swear, someone gets one rung lower on the ladder than you, they think they're your lord and master... how's he doing, by the way?"
"He's dead, actually. Got exorcised."
The King of Pain slid open a drawer in his desk, withdrawing a bottle of whiskey. "Well, then, a toast to the poor dead bastard," he proposed. "Couldn't have happened to a nastier fellow. I admired his ambitions. True, if he got his heart's desire, I'd have nobody left to play with..."
Benny reached over, to accept the bottle and sling back a measure. Bitter and nasty, and likely cut with something unpleasant, but whatever. "I hear that. Mister wins, everybody dies. No more work for the Brokers. Know the fun part? My doing. I backstabbed him. It felt... it felt DAMN good, too."
Polite mocking applause followed, the King of Pain tapping his fingertips into an open palm. "Bra-vo. Knife in the back, very much in line with the company motto. You think the others will crawl out of hiding, knowing that the only one lower on the ladder than us is gone now...?"
The Broker flinched. He hadn't considered that. "Mmmmaybe. Not many of them have our ambition and drive, though. After two hundred years off the leash, odds are most of them just wanna be left alone. Not make waves."
"Pity. Well, then here's to us -- last of the red hot devils. You know what? That is NOT gonna be enough," Pain said, pointing to the bottle in Benny's hand. "This is Ibiza. This is the court of the King of Pain. If we're gonna celebrate the demise of the little crapstain and delight in absolute freedom, we gotta go balls out, you know?"
"I was thinking that same thing on my way here," Benny admitted, with a grin. "You got the sources. Line up some good substances, grab a color swatch of girls, let's pick and choose all night and have a REAL party. Man, Pain, you have NO idea how badly I need that. This stupid mission I got tangled up in, this... this girl I'm..."
The Broker paused. He wasn't intending to let anything slip about his circumstances... because now what he feared would happen was happening.
Pain took a morbid curious interest. And when Pain needled at you, he really needled.
"Benny, Benny...! Woman troubles? YOU?" the King asked. "Dish, girlfriend. This I HAVE to hear."
"Ugh. Drop it, okay? It's nothing," Benny dismissed.
"No, no, no, no... nooo," the King said, waggling a finger. "Every time you say something is nothing, it's absolutely something. Come on, now. I won't interfere, you've got my word. You know I don't go after another dude's HOPA."
"She's not-- alright. Look. I'm going to hold you to that, understand?" Benny said, focusing his eyes on the King's, sharpening the gaze. "This is serious business. If I tell you... honestly, I wouldn't mind telling someone who'd actually understand my situation, for a change... you have to swear by all that's unholy you'll stay out. This is between us only."
The King of Pain held up a two-fingered scout's honor salute.
"Right. Okay. ...there's an angel on Earth."
"Hah! Eaaarth angel, earth angel, ooohhohhhwhoa..."
"Not like that. I'm talking literal, now," Benny clarified, cutting the song off before it could get any further. "You can relax, though. She's not a threat to us -- until recently, she thought she was totally human, for that matter. I'm not sure she's 'fully' angel, if that's possible... I don't know WHAT she is. Influenced, half breed, possessed, who knows, but... she's in the little merry band of misfits I am sadly stuck with for the duration. And it is freaking me out."
To his credit, Pain didn't look the least bit alarmed. He knew Benny better than to think the fellow demon would lie about the situation.
"Okay. I hear you, I hear you," the King said, processing it. "Okay. So if she's not here to hunt you down and exorcise you... what's the problem?"
"SHE'S the problem! That she even exists is the problem!" Benny declared. "This is hard to explain, just... something about this situation, about her... it's got me on edge. Worried. She felt familiar, even back before I knew what she was! Pain... as near as I can tell, she's a guardian angel. That means Raphael's choir, or at least descended from it. That means OUR old stomping grounds. What the hell do I do about that?"
"I dunno. You hot for her? She hot for you? Demon bonking an angel, that's one of the oldest literary cliches, but doesn't make it any less awesome..."
"Don't be a pig, Pain. Of course not. Besides, even her wings are enough to melt my skin. I'm not dipping my wick into that even if had any inclination to, which I do NOT."
"Being a responsible adult, you could just use protection," Pain suggested, with a lecherous grin. "Safety first. Wrap it up and go to town. --hey, if you don't want to jump her bones, can I? Does she have a hot sister? I could go for that. You know, among other party favors, I helped hook Randall up with his twin hotties. They do EVERYTHING... simultaneously. ...Benny? Benny, I'm not liking that look in your eye."
The Broker didn't even realize his gaze was borderline murderous until he was called out on it. He coughed politely, and glanced aside.
"You promised not to get involved, remember," Benny pointed out. "So back the hell off. Just... leave it be, alright? This is my problem to deal with. The Broker is ready for any problem he faces. Now can we PLEASE have some hardcore drugs and loose women before I start to develop an ulcer from all this worrying? Please?"
The King's laughter failed to break the tension. Nevertheless, the demon chuckled away... raising his hands, in a surrender position.
"Uncle, uncle. The King of Pain is always ready to supply his subjects with what they crave," he promised. "I've got just the thing for a basket case of nerves like you. You know the lumps of pus out in the main room? They're all on my special house blend, 'Trance.' Very hot in Ibiza; snort up the dust during a dance party, and you ARE the beat. At least, until the beat stops. 'til then, nothing else matters. Very euphoric. Custom tailored to your needs, my uptight brother in arms."
"I don't need a downer. I want uppers and lots and lots of women," Benny protested.
"Trust the King of Pain, okay? You don't want to get more wired, you're already plenty wired. And the sex is, as always, your coping mechanism. This will work much better," the King promised, already rooting around his drawers for the drug in question... coming up with a tiny bottle, rattling it around to loosen the dust inside. "You just have a seat right there, sniff this up, you're gonna come out the other side a changed man. I promise. Ready?"
Right now, any sort of altered state would be preferable to continuing this prattling conversation.
Benny snatched away the bottle, uncorking it, and inhaling the fine dusty mist inside. Corked it back up and tossed the empty to the King of Pain.
"Now what?" he asked. "I'm not feeling euphoric. Bring on the euphoria, already. And the strippers and the sex acts that are illegal in fifty countries. I gotta wash away all this crap I'm going through, Pain. Get it out of my hair and be something else..."
The King stepped away from the desk, walking across the room. He waggled a finger, motioning for Benny to turn his chair, to follow. "Easy, partner. Easy. Give it a minute..."
With a flourish, the demon pulled away a tea cozy that was draped over something in the corner of the room... which turned out to be an ancient and likely completely busted cathode ray tube based television set. The kind with knobs and rabbit ears.
"You want me to watch TV?" Benny asked, not buying it.
"Just sit back, man, and focus on the screen. It helps to have a focus, for what you're about to experience," the King explained. "A context. A framework. Make it all fit together, and just let it HAPPEN..."
After rolling his eyes a sufficient amount, Benny leaned back in his chair to watch the nonexistent television show.
The Broker wasn't big into television. Stories were for people who didn't live lives of excitement and adventure. The simulated excitement and adventure of the silver screen (or its modern counterpart, the video stream), all shiny and happy, disgusted him.
The last show he actually sat through a reasonable amount of was some terrible old movie, pre-Pandora. It was on streams while he was trying to ignore the chattering prostitute at his side, unable to get proper sleep. A silly story. Two gangs of street toughs who 'danced' at each other rather than doing drivebys. Some romance caught in the middle. Musical numbers. Very, very stupid...
There was a time when he was in a gang.
Not really, no. That wasn't how it was; not some Jets and Sharks thing. How it was, how the fall TRULY was, couldn't be put into mortal metaphor. The screen applied context anyway, as Benny stared into the static which wasn't actually there, and drifted...
In this context...
In this context, he'd had it with the cops, with his parents, with the whole system. He was sick of being told how the perfect plan of the Word was gonna go down. The head of the food chain, the principal of his school... no, wait, no, it wasn't a school, he wasn't a principal, the... Principal Raphael, he was always talking down at Ben'ai, telling him about how this new "humanity" had to be nurtured and cared for. The angels had a duty. This was what the Word made him for...
"It all stinks like old cheese, I tell yah."
His upperclassman. Ben'ai looked up to him, the one who liked to make up funny names for himself whenever he got caught busting up a soda fountain, or spraying graffiti on the side of the gym. "Oh, I'm Mister Jones." "That's me, Mister Smith." "You must have me confused with someone else." The gang just called him The Mister, now. The gang liked him, especially the guy who ran the show, the Morningstar. The Mister was goin' places, and Ben'ai would be goin' places too, if he played his cards right...
"They say these ugly little bags of water and chemicals are the cat's meow? I say it's a loada succotash!" The Mister declared, sitting on the stoop of their slum apartment building. "What makes 'em any better than the zebras, or the dragonflies? Because they're gonna learn to use tools and kill each other? THAT'S the thing that deserves to control the world we've been working so hard on? Nuts ta that! Morningstar's got it right. We gotta do somethin'."
"Yeah!" Ben'ai agreed. Because it was the right thing to do, agreeing with The Mister.
(Honestly, he didn't see why they couldn't just talk it over with Raphael, or maybe even the Word. There wasn't anything to be afraid of. Surely negotiation was possible, finding some other role for this Human creature, or at least some other role for the angels that wasn't second class to them. But the Morningstar insisted the Word wouldn't bend about this, that this was the Plan, and the only way to change it was by force...)
"I recruited Jabezelek the other day, you know," The Mister said. "The medicine man. He's sick of Ralphy's hogwash, too. I think we could get most of the choir under the Morningstar's banner, if we try. Ben'ai, my man. You know how to talk to people, how to move and shake. You think you can sway a few more? Maybe Ik'ai? He's always a barrel of laughs. We're gonna need all hands on deck for this..."
"Leave it to me," Ben'ai the Guardian promised. "I'm gonna recruit as many as I can. You taught me, and I got learned from the best. If the Word's not going to be reasonable about this, if he won't talk the talk, we'll walk the walk. Walk all over him!"
The young turk got up from his stoop, ready to head off and start tempting angels into their gang's influence, when he ran headfirst into the counter example.
Ben'ai staggered backwards, before regaining his balance. "HEY! Watch where yer goin', ya little ...."
He got lucky; all he did was stumble. She fell flat on her rear. Her misty wings flared briefly in surprise, as she looked up at him...
"Hey, it's Cha'ai!" The Mister laughed. "How ya doin', kiddo? Off to pick up some more scrolls at the corner mart? Good little girl, of course, as always..."
Grumbling... Ben'ai offered his hand, pulling her up to her feet. "Just... watch where yer goin', okay?" he mumbled. "Now, beat it. This is Morningstar's turf. You shouldn't be wandering around here..."
The clumsy angel folded her wings up, to appear smaller in front of her upperclassmen. "B-But that's why I'm here," Cha'ai said. "I... I want to join. I wanna join the gang. Um. Down with the Word! The Word's a big jerk!"
"Wow, Ben'ai, you weren't kidding when you said you're the best recruiter ever," The Mister mocked. "Two seconds into the drive and you've got your first foot soldier. 'course, we'll have to start her out with a practice flaming sword, to make sure she doesn't lop anyone's head off..."
Without a word, without hesitation... Ben'ai grabbed Cha'ai's arm, dragging her off. The Mister catcalled a few more mocking blows after them, which he ignored, just as he ignored her hey, lemme got, get off protests...
He didn't stop until they were safely in a nearby alley, out of earshot.
"Go home," he ordered.
"But, but I want to join the gang," Cha'ai insisted. "You're rebelling, right? I want to rebel with you. I'll be good at it! I promise you I won't screw it up--"
"This isn't for you. None of this... look. You don't hate the Word. You don't hate Raphael. You don't actually care about what the gang cares about, do you? Why are you really doing this?"
"Because you are!" she blurted out... before looking embarrassed to have said it.
"Yeah, well... I don't want this for you. So you ain't joining," Ben'ai declared. "And I'm gonna make sure the rest of the gang knows that. They wanna pull you in on this they do it over my ... what's the word we're using for mortal cessation of existence now? Dead? Dead body. Over that. Now beat it, kiddo."
"Why do you get to join the gang and I don't?" she asked, pouting at him. "What makes you better than me, huh?"
"It's not like that! It's just... I don't agree with the Plan. So--"
"So you're gonna fight the Word? You don't hate the Word. You don't even hate Raphael! It's all that jerk, that one calling himself The Mister, isn't it? If you're gonna go along with that, I gotta go along to. To... um... protect you. As your guardian angel."
It wasn't anger. Not exactly. Words weren't easy to come by, in that day, since most of them hadn't been invented yet -- particularly the emotions, nebulous concepts the angels were learning, to better understand the humans they would one day oversee. No, not anger. More... frustration. And concern.
With that frustration, which felt much like anger... he grabbed Cha'ai, and shoved her roughly out of the alley. The girl yelped, tripping over the sidewalk, as Ben'ai stood over her.
"Go home," he ordered. "Don't follow me. GO. HOME."
Because, in his mind, he knew. He'd always known, despite agreeing to join the gang, despite giving it lip service.
The plan is going to fail. We're going to Fall. I can't let her fall with me. I won't let my little sister fall from Heaven and suffer what I'm going to suffer. I'm her guardian angel, even if I'm no one else's.
First thing the Broker heard as the static on the television screen began to fade was the laughter of the King of Pain.
"You're crying! Good lord above, you're actually crying!" the King mocked, doing the full point-and-laugh routine, doubled over with mirth. "Devil below, that was SO worth it. You get it? You got punked! You didn't dose up on Trance. I swapped the bottle. You got a nasty dash of Truth. April fools, Benny! HA HA HA H--"
The force at which the King of Pain was slammed up against the wall of his office was enough to make a round crater in the plaster. Despite this, he kept laughing away, right in the blazing red eyes of the demon he'd tricked.
"WHY," Benny growled. "WHY did--"
"For laughs, man. Just for the laughs. Easy, now," Pain said, trying to calm him, without losing his self-amused smile. "Come on, it's just a joke. Just pointing out how wound up you are. You really gotta chill, man, and I don't mean with drugs..."
Benny dropped the King like a sack of potatoes. He slid down the broken wall, still giggling to himself, even as he slumped to the floor awkwardly.
"I made a deal with you -- drugs to take my pain away -- and you screwed me over," Benny said. "I'm a Broker. I don't screw over my clients. I'm a goddamned professional."
"This is just... just TOO rich...! See, that's why I wonder if you ever really fell, Benny, when you say stupid things like that," the King replied. "Hello? You're a DEMON. You're supposed to break your word, to wreck your clients, to make the world a worse place! Remember? We decided to put the screws to humanity when the Word chose them over us. Just like Lucifer's constant revenge scheming. Just like the Mister's omnicidal bent. If there's no cruel irony that ruins the mortal plane, it's hardly a deal with the devil! Man... where'd you lose your way?"
With pride... Benny straightened his beloved overcoat. Adjusted his tie. And stood tall, over the disheveled and constantly shifting King of Pain.
"Don't. DON'T presume to tell me what I should be," Benny warned. "The Mister made the same mistake, and you know what? He's dead. I am my own creature."
That was enough to break the King's mirth. Despite being looked down upon, he returned it with a look of disgust.
"As long as you keep trying to HELP the mortals, Benny... you're everyone's creature," he said.
"...that may be. But in the end, you've got an empty court, King of Pain. Me? The world is my client. I'm still coming out ahead in the bargain."
The Broker turned his back on the one who presumed to be his kind, and took his leave of the King's throne room.
It took a while to explain where she wanted to go.
The cabbie only spoke Spanish. Chloe knew a bit of Spanish, since it was immensely helpful in the reclaimed zones of Los Angeles, but not nearly enough to articulate herself beyond the basics. Inversely, the cabbie clearly knew the basics of English... usually brand names for local dance clubs, restaurants, and hotels. Places normal people wanted to go. People unlike Chloe, who wanted to go to "a church, there's this one with a white bell tower, I saw it when were were flying in, I'm sorry, it's hard to describe, I think it's up there somewhere."
The horse-drawn buggy took a while to poke its way through the crowded streets of Ibiza Town's tourist-flavored sections, before finally breaking free into the city behind the city. Here, the roads were clear... the occasional person walking to and from a job near the beach line, maybe some peasants hauling supplies or groceries up the mountainside, towards distant villages.
This was the true beating heart of Ibiza -- without the normalcy of the island's locals, the craziness of the island's attractions couldn't exist. It stood in stark contrast; the buildings were still coated in Ibiza's shining white, but it was more off-white, or speckled in spots. Appearances didn't matter as much out here, and the money wasn't there to polish things up, anyway. Not that she was visiting slums, precisely... the rest of the town was simply normal. Which looked shabby compared to the splendor she rolled in from. Harshly shabby.
A pang, there. Memories.
She grew up in the suburbs. They were something of a living lie. Ancestral memory said there should be a peaceful, clean, crime-free area of middle class affluence for families to safely raise their children. Therefore, there had to be suburbs, and they had to be picturesque. But that meant living in areas that, if not ON the Fringe, were at least close to it. Encroaching on Faerie domains. The peace of today didn't exist back then -- these suburbs had a bit more military presence than the suburbs of a pre-Pandora world. Smiling faces, friendly people, not a care in the world, don't mind the occasional jeep armed with a minigun turret...
Chloe couldn't ignore the ugly side of the suburbs. The security checkpoints, which made sure you had your ID papers. The homeless, rustled and corralled away from public areas. Rumors said that secretly, they were driven out of the burbs and deep into the Fringe, where nobody cared what happened to them. When you voluntarily wear blinders, anything it took to make what's in front of you perfect was acceptable...
Her pretty little black dress helped her sulk away into the shadows of the horse drawn cabbie, all the way to their destination.
An empty church.
Well, that was reasonable. It was a Thursday afternoon. Hardly prime time hours for the House of God.
The parking lot outside the white structure was empty, save for two bicycles and a horse. Curiously, there were a few painted off spaces that looked large enough for a motorcar... which meant there was presumably a steam-powered hot rod or two elsewhere on the island, belonging to devout churchgoers. Ones with enough money or power to afford that luxury.
Despite serving the peasant quarters behind the city, the church was well kept. Stained glass windows lined the left and right hand walls, colorful murals depicting angels and saints alike. The pews were finely polished, standing fine and proud in two columns, leading up to the pulpit... over which hung a large cross, a simple wooden representation of their Savior.
In fact, if not for the human-shaped brass automaton merrily scrubbing away at the windows with some sort of smelly alcohol based cleanser, it'd look like any church back in Eastusa. More importantly, it felt like any church back in Eastusa.
Part of her was hoping that the moment she set foot on holy ground... there'd be, well, something. Some reaction. A beam of light, a memory unlocking itself. If she was really an angel, or part angel, or whatever, then this should be her home turf. Even if nothing dramatic happened, at least she should feel some sense of security and well being, right? Some comfort...
Chloe was never comfortable in church. Her family was only religious when it mattered, the big-ticket holidays, and only to satisfy the whims of her grandmother. Granny was devout as devout could be. Never with an unkind word, but always nudging, trying to guide Chloe without directly expressing disappointment. A rosary or a prayer card dropped in her purse during family visits. A comment about how pretty she'd look without all that eyeshadow. Things like that.
So, for Granny's sake, the family got dressed up nice and went to mass a few times a year. It never sat well with Chloe. Too much of the lore and mythology (and she knew many Christians hated it being called "lore and mythology") just made no sense to her. Too many contradictions, too many roots of various flavors of hate. Too much that defied reality. But... she did frequently do community service and charity work. That often crossed her path with the church, and with the parts of it that DID feel comfortable to her. That was enough to keep her from avoiding the issue entirely.
Here she stood, in a church on distant shores, and it was just as awkward as ever. The motorized scrub-a-dub of the brass janitor being the only sound ringing in her ears didn't help...
The voice distracted her from staring at the robot.
An elderly priest had snuck up on her, like a holy ninja with a kind smile instead of a venomous blade. Still, the surprise was enough to make Chloe jump internally.
"Ahhh... no hab-lah very much Español, señor," Chloe clarified... adding in a polite curtsey, tugging at her dress to do so. "Sorry."
"It is fine, my child. I speak English as well," the priest clarified, his smile adding more wrinkles to his wrinkled face. "If you're here for services, you're a few hours early... we're doing some routine upkeep on the church right now. Perhaps if you came back later...?"
"I heard the bell," Chloe said quickly, before she could consider not saying it. "a while ago. I guess I missed afternoon services...?"
"The bell...? ¿Qué?"
"The big brass one, in the tower...? I could see it from a ways away," Chloe indicated, pointing in a general upward direction.
"I'm afraid you must be mistaken, my child. The clapper for the bell is off being repaired right now," the priest pointed out. Much to Chloe's horror. "Is... something wrong?"
"Yes. Maybe. I'm not entirely sure," Chloe said, tugging at her ear. "Father, um... I'm... not very religious. At least, not yours, specifically, I suppose. I mean... is this Roman Catholic or Church of England, actually? I've been wondering-- um. Look, point is, there's a lot I don't know and... maybe you can help me? Do you have some time to talk? I mean, if you aren't busy with the renovations. I can just come back later. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude--"
"No, no; it's alright. Honestly, it's alright," he insisted. "You're troubled, child, it's clear as day. I'm not one to turn down a soul in need, regardless of faith. Come along, come along. I've got fresh baked bread in my office, if you'd like some."
Regardless of her existential crisis and questions of faith, Chloe's stomach very much wanted some calories. It cast the deciding vote.
She'd never been in a priest's sanctuary before. Chloe had no idea what to expect.
There were books, and nice furniture, and pictures of Jesus and so on. That was reasonable to expect, really. What she didn't expect were the various apparatuses.
Pneumatic message tubes jutted out of a metal work desk. Most of them were sealed, but a few had door-like hatches hanging open, with empty tubes inside. An array of buttons and levers sent the communications off to wherever they were apparently going to go, she guessed. How you told them where to go was anybody's guess.
Also, perhaps in a nod towards the pleasantries of Ibiza's offerings... a large cappuccino machine had been installed. It was a weird make, with far more tubes and valves than she had ever seen at a corner coffee shop back home. It had been engraved with images of angels and saints, much like the windows outside. What really made her head spin was the thought that maybe it was part of a holy rite. Would you like your host with a half-caf latte, sir...?
The priest lifted the cover off a tray of breads, and took a small rack of jellies and jams off the work bench behind him. Gratefully, Chloe began making herself a jelly sandwich... comfort food, from her elementary school days. Anything comforting was very much welcome.
"So, are you on vacation?" the priest began.
"Hmmf?" Chloe replied, mouth half-full of deliciousness.
"I have a fairly consistent flock, local residents. But now and then, a tourist will wander by, on a tour of the farmlands and villages," he explained. "From your accent, I would guess you're from the main British isles?"
Oh, right. I'm doing the accent, aren't I, Chloe thought. It was second nature, by now. She'd started doing it in her teens, after hearing her ancestors were from England. And also to set herself apart from everybody else. Just because.
"I'm visiting from far away, yes," she agreed, without going into specifics. It was probably a bad idea, lying to a priest.
"Are you enjoying your time on our fair island, then?"
"It's... sort of a working vacation. And I don't have a lot of work to do. My friends are the ones who... huh."
"My friends. I hadn't really thought of them like that before," she realized. "Um. Anyway, they're busy doing their own things. So I'm just... wandering. Sorting things out for myself."
"Ibiza is a fine place to sort things out. The atmosphere is very conducive to it -- and this church is a place for peaceful contemplation. I'm glad you were able to find your way here. Tell me, child... what troubles you? What mess is on your mind that requires such thinking?"
Deep breath. You can do this.
"Father, what do you know about angels?" she asked.
"The angels are messengers of God, of course," the priest spoke. "The concept is universal, across the Abrahamic faiths. The angels have appeared before humanity many times, to announce the coming of the Lord, or to set forth decrees from the Word of God."
"Yeah, I know-- I mean, I know the basics. Everybody does. Or can at least take an educated guess," Chloe said, immediately regretting how trivializing that sounded. "I mean... okay. What I'm wondering is this. Do you believe that angels could be here with us? On Earth."
The priest considered how best to answer the question, steepling his fingers. "There are many examples where an angel appeared on Earth. As noted, they are primarily messengers. They come with purpose, and each visitation is of great importance. ...are you saying that you believe you've seen an angel, young one?"
Another deep breath.
"You could say that, yes," Chloe said. "I know this is going to sound crazy, but... I think I am one. I'm an angel, father. And I have no idea why."
The following silence was as thick as the jam in her sandwich.
"Child... it's not uncommon, what you're going through," the priest said... quietly, and compassionately. "I understand your confusion. I think I can help."
"Really? I mean -- really? You understand?"
"Many young people have unfortunate experiences with illicit substances, on their first visit to Ibiza," he added. "You have to realize these experiences, no matter how real they feel at the time, are not real--"
"You think I'm high?"
"I didn't mean it in an accusatory sense, child. As I said, this is quite common. I can get you the help you need, I promise you that. With repentance, the Lord will forgive you for this mistake, and proper medical treatment will take care of the rest. Can you tell me what you took? Do you remember?"
Chloe slumped in the visitor's chair. This, THIS felt just as familiar as the rest of the church. Obviously, the goth chick is constantly high on something, it's the only explanation for why she's depressed all the time...
"Okay. I'm going to take one more crack at this," Chloe decided, saying aloud mostly to convince herself. "Father. I'm not on any drugs. I'm not drunk. I'm of completely sound mind, if slightly hungry because I missed lunch. And I am, as far as I can tell, an angel. I need to know how that's possible. One of my friends promised me he'd figure it out, and then he ran off looking for drugs and hookers. --which is besides the point. Is it possible for an angel to be an angel and not remember it...?"
"Miss... you claim you heard a bell that can't make a sound, you believe you're an immortal holy spirit from Heaven, and if you'll pardon the use of your nation's slang, you appear to have the 'munchies,'" the priest pointed out. "You understand how this looks from my perspective, yes...?"
"...yes. I know it looks nuts," Chloe admitted.
"I didn't say that, now. I want to help you sort this out, the help you requested. If I assume you are telling the truth, if you are an angel... why are you on Earth? The angels are sent from the Lord with purpose. What is your purpose? Why were you sent to this world?"
"I don't know."
"You also said you don't remember being an angel, but you know you are one now? Do you remember having a father, a mother, a childhood?"
"Yes, of course! I'm not insane, either. But I sprouted glowing wings and got a bunch of people to kill each other. And my friend, the one apparently doing blow off a hooker's butt right now and used to be an angel too before he fell and became a demon said that means I'm an angel. This is not helping my case, is it."
"Not especially, no," the priest said, with a sad smile.
"Okay. Let me ask one more question, then," Chloe said, in her final effort. "Earlier I apparently heard a bell that never chimed. Does that mean that the smoke I'm smelling right now doesn't exist, either?"
On cue... an alarm bell rang out, loud and true. A fire alarm bell.
What they saw on returning to the church proper was enough to make the old man fall to his knees, with a cry of terror.
The cross was burning.
It hung on wires over the pulpit, the holy symbol of faith. A simple wooden crossbeam -- polished, from how Chloe remembered it, but simple enough. And now, it was ablaze, bright enough to illuminate the church brighter than the sun setting behind the stained glass windows...
The fire wasn't limited to symbols. A message had been left behind, in burning letters, upon the stone floor before the pulpit.
While the priest grasped at his rosary, mumbling words Chloe wasn't paying attention to, she was busy looking for a fire extinguisher. It was part of the standard encounter kit, in the Anachronism Task Force. Ancient artifacts of strange and unusual power had a disturbing tendency to create fire hazards, the FBI had realized, and thus all teams were given basic emergency fire containment training.
She found the extinguisher two seconds later.
In the hands of Benny the Broker, who begun to spray down the fires with nitrogen, to snuff out the flames.
Several seconds later, all that remained was the smoke and the scorched marks where the fire used to be.
"Papa's little helper," Benny said, patting the side of the metal cylinder. "Always handy when you make entrances and exits through the nearest convenient combustion. You okay there?"
"All clear," Chloe replied, using the standard FBI phrasing out of adrenaline and instinct. "--wait. Please tell me you didn't--"
"I used the front door. It was like this when I got here, I swear," Benny promised. "Father? You're going to want to message the cops and the fire brigade. They'll need to check the crime scene to find out who did this. Don't touch anything; just go tube them."
A voice of reason was enough to clear the priest's shock. Or at least clear it enough for him to nod mutely, and slip away to the back room.
"...right. We've got a few minutes here," Benny said, once he saw the door close. He stuffed the extinguisher back into his jacket, sending it back to the infernal pocket where he stored all his toys. "Chloe? Focus. It's FBI agent time. Work the scene. What happened here? And make it fast -- we don't want to be around when the authorities show, for obvious reasons. Plus, uh. It kinda hurts like hell for me to be standing on holy ground..."
Most people, when confronted with a burning cross and a threatening message, would not be in an emotional state capable of playing CSI.
Chloe was not most people. Oh, she was in shock, but it was a shock that was being used to empower a detached perspective to the insanity around her. For now.
So, Agent Chloe Manchester stepped around the scorched floor... studying it, intently. This was her job, even if it was a job she got more or less drafted into, a scant few years ago. She had the training. She could do this, despite the quiet internal panic at the implications...
"The message was burned on the floor using an accelerant. Probably the same one the cross got soaked in; there's splashes of it behind the cross, from where it was sprayed. For the floor, they took their time and wrote the message very carefully," she recognized. "Smells like... --the janitor. Did you see a robot janitor? I don't see him now..."
"Place was empty when I got in," Benny said. "Figured you'd be here, and I wanted to come talk to you, so here I am. I saw the cross on fire, I stepped up to take action, you stepped out, here we are. No robot janitor."
"His cleaning fluid had an alcohol base. I'm not much of a chemist but I trust my nose when I say it's the same stuff," Chloe decided. "Are other robots in the Empire as capable as Jeeves? My little automated vacuum cleaner back home couldn't have done this. Could someone have programmed the janitor to desecrate the church for some reason...?"
"Your running buddy's spookdroid is a bit more free willed and sophisticated than most automatons. They don't make them like that anymore; he's an antique. 'course, that means it'd be even easier to make a janitor do this. Load a new punchcard program into its memory pins, set it to work... was anybody else in the church earlier?"
"No, just me, the priest, and the robot," Chloe said. "So. Had to be done fast while I was in the back room--"
"Apparently you've never loaded a punch card. Takes a while for the program to kick in."
"--and then it wrote out 'Turn Back' on the floor for some reason, lit the fire, and ran away. ...and... that's all I can tell, here. I'm not really a crime scene tech, you know."
"Obviously not, since you've missed a big glaring pile of W-T-F," Benny said, pointing to the message.
"What, 'Turn Back'?" Chloe asked. "Maybe it's the saboteur we've been dealing with, warning me off. So?"
"Chloe. Look again. That's not the romanic alphabet."
Super FBI Analyst Chloe followed Benny's finger, pointing at the...
...mash of unreadable glyphs.
It said "Turn Back." She knew that's what it said. Which was impossible, given it looked like a mess of scribbles, all curves and strange angles and fancy dot notation. That wasn't language, or at least, not any language she could possibly have known...
That was a thought. It was her thought, which popped into her head. Not from some other source, not from some second person riding her consciousness or anything. That would have actually been a relief, if she was just a mundane puppet for a divine force. Sadly, no. Chloe knew they were angelic glyphs. CHLOE knew this and instantly knew what they meant...
Whatever detachment she had came crashing down in an instant. A burning message, intended for her, in a language only she could read...
The air smelled too much like ash and chemicals and not enough like normalcy. Her viewpoint slid around, then rushed for the double doors of the church, emerging into the darkening skies of the Ibiza sunset.
Benny found her down the road a ways, sitting at a cabbie stop's bench. Just far enough to get the church out of sight. Which was a good thing, as soon it would be swarming with authorities... but he doubted she chose this spot out of practical need. Beyond the practical need to get away, far away, as fast as possible...
Slowly, he sat down next to her. Didn't interrupt her, as she cried. Important to let these things out.
It was equally important to offer her a hanky when she seemed to finish up. A professional is a gentleman, after all. In some respects.
Once she'd composed herself enough, she asked the question.
"You're a guardian angel," Benny explained. "That was the first form of written communication, used by the angels when crafting the world according to the Plan of the Word. The Silver City needed interoffice memos too, after all."
"I don't want to be a guardian angel. I'm just... I was happy just being the mopey girl who worked in the soup kitchen and listened to gloomy pop music. That made sense. It fit into the little corner I made for myself," Chloe said. "And then you show up, and turn everything on its head. Then the President wants me to be an FBI agent, which is as insane as it sounds. And now... now I'm thousands of miles away, and I'm turning into an angel, and nothing makes sense anymore..."
"Is it always sunshine and roses, working in a soup kitchen?"
"The homeless are often homeless for sad reasons. Some can't fit easily into society," Benny explained. "Mental illness. Violent tendencies. No fault of their own, but interacting with them is something nobody wants to do, and so they get marginalized. Shoved aside. But you're there, with your shiny ladle and stained apron, to feed them. And they aren't always easy to work with, right? How many times have you seen someone go into a rage, throwing soup bowls around? How difficult is it to do social work with someone who has serious personal problems?"
"I... I don't see what that has to do with anything, Benny..."
"Humor me. Am I right, or am I right?"
Chloe slumped against the bench. "It's not always easy, no," she said. "It's rarely shiny and happy. It's depressing, honestly, to see how some people are forced to live. I... feel for them. I'm sympathetic. I want to help..."
"Exactly. You want to help, despite it being a difficult road. Despite coming into contact with the darkest corners of humanity, you do what you do because of what you are. Chloe... just because you sprout wings and can read glyphs doesn't mean you're THAT different from the girl that came out of an Eastusa suburb. You're not turning into an angel. You always were one; nothing's seriously changed. How can you be afraid of what you've always been? It'd be like being scared of your own reflection."
"And... and the supernatural powers...?"
"Honestly, it's not that vast of a toolkit to work with," Benny admitted. "I'm the one who traded in the wings for phenomenal cosmic power, and even my badass demonic self can be snuffed out by a falling piano. You've got even less spooky on your hands. You're a messenger from God... that means when you want to be noticed, when you've got something to say, people take notice. You deliver warnings, and try to shield them from danger. ...and that's roughly it. Big whoop. So don't let this freak you out. You're Chloe. You're still Chloe. ...and... uh..."
She turned her head, studying the man as he faltered at the end of his reassuring speech.
"And...?" she prompted.
"This may not be the best moment for a new revelation, but I'm pretty sure you're my kid sister," Benny said. "Or at least you share her legacy. I had a bit of a flashback earlier, and recognized the shape of your wings; same as hers. I mean, not that a genderless race of angels had 'kid sisters,' but there's a hierarchy, and... and this is far too technical go into right now. You said one of your ancestors claimed to be from England, right? Did she have a name like... 'Chaya' or 'Chell', or something? Or just Chloe, and you're named after her?"
"I'm going to assume from your stunned silence that I guessed correctly," Benny decided. "Makes sense, though. I looked after her when she was in trouble, just like I've felt compelled to do for you. And I've had absolutely no interest in having sex with you, any more than I wanted to do the horizontal lambada with my sister. --and that phrasing probably was more blunt than I should have gone for, given the mess you went through today. I'll apologize right now: Sorry. There, apologized. Okay. Right. Say something. ...please?"
"You're doing a bad job at convincing me not to let this freak me out."
Benny ruffled a hand through his hair. "Yeeeah. I was never very good at being nice. Sorry. Wanna head back to the Clockwork Mermaid now?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," Chloe said. "Um. ...and it's okay if I just call you 'Benny' instead of 'Big Brother', right?"
"Cool by me. Uh. Can I still call you 'kiddo' now and then?"
She considered it.
"I don't think I'd mind," she decided. Allowing herself a tiny, tiny smile to go with the decision.
The sun would be setting in a matter of hours. If she was to enjoy her chosen leisure activity, she needed to accomplish her goal in a swift and effective manner. Namely: Obtaining swimwear.
It took approximately a half hour. She worked as fast as she could... but her initial idea, grabbing the nearest one-piece swimsuit from one of the many clothing shops in the tourist district, was foiled because her first sample was unflattering to her hips when tried on. The next one was a sharp red color, and definitely accentuated her figure well, but the frills around the edges were quite tacky and thus unacceptable. And so on, and so on...
In the end, she went with a flattering dark blue bikini. The top was more of a wrap than a top, with a tropical print, and was just snug enough to highlight her assets.
Not that any of that mattered, of course. Not at all. She was intending to sit down on a newly acquired beach blanket and read the war drama novel she'd selected from Gilbert's bookshelves -- that was all. Jesse had no intention of entertaining the passers by with her admittedly astoundingly well sculpted form. Therefore, there was no real REASON to make sure she looked good when a burlap sack would've accomplished the same result.
She went with the bikini instead of a burlap sack, anyway.
The cabbie she flagged down barely spoke English. Hopefully "Take me to the finest beach this city has to offer, one befitting of my person" came through okay with accompanying hand gestures. She opened her book to read as the horse drawn buggy bounced about on the asphalt paved road... for about seven pages. Apparently, the best beach in the city wasn't that far from the best beachwear store in the city.
With a book under one arm and her parasol rolled up in a beach blanket under the other, she departed the cab, which immediately took on another fare and rolled off. Granted, the parasol was a bit out of place with her newly acquired beach garb... and for that matter, her near-invisible glass circle of a monocle was also odd... but Jesse didn't make it a habit of leaving home unarmed. A hidden sword and a magical library in a lens were arms aplenty.
Taking in a pleasant breath of that ocean air, she set out over the barrier dune and onto the beach itself and realized immediately that she was completely inappropriately dressed.
Honestly, Jesse was surprised to see such revealing swimwear on sale, given the Neo-Victorian approach to propriety. So, when she got an eyeful of the beach dwellers, it was enough to halt her in her tracks.
Apparently the finest beach the city had to offer, one befitting of her person, was clothing optional. In fact, from the looks of it, it was in fact a mandatory au naturale experience.
It was truthfully the highest quantity of naked people Jesse had ever seen in her life. Even the occasional full moon circle dance back in witching school didn't stack up to this. And, to be frank, it was the first time she'd seen a naked guy who was not in fact her husband.
Mumbling seven curses under her breath, she turned to walk back up the barrier dune and go find the cabbie, to give him a tongue lashing.
Such impropriety was beneath her, of course. She was a witch, and witches did not take with this sort of scandalous behavior. They did NOT... well, okay, sometimes they enjoyed a circle dance, but that was a beautiful and natural witchy rite of passage and she'd run through the first person who suggested otherwise. That didn't count. This did. A proper witch wouldn't stay around a place like this...
And why not? Does it really matter?
None of her coworkers were here; there were no image repercussions to consider. Her enemies weren't here; no chance of damaging the terrifying reputation she'd cultivated. Who was going to know?
And besides... the beachgoers were QUITE attractive. And that was a problem. She wasn't attracted to the happy bounding bodies that were frolicking away on the sand -- rather, she felt that the fact that they were here and showing off and quite pleasant to the eye and not even NOTICING that they were so lovely was something of an affront.
It was the same competitive envy that led to dog shows and lowrider showdowns... the drive to show up someone who's showing you up. No way could she back down from that sort of challenge.
And so, the proper lady of war set foot onto the beach with more tucked under her arm than a blanket, a book, and a parasol. The only article of clothing she kept on, in fact, was her wedding ring. Just to make sure no funny ideas were gotten.
With a smug smile, she set up her blanket, took out her monocle, and sat down to read.
There! See? I am just as beautiful as you all, and I don't even care if you're looking. I'm going to sit here, and enjoy my book, and end up with a simply fabulous tan that will knock my husband silly next time we have an evening in, and you're just going to have to deal with it.
It was difficult to restrain a haughty chortle at the thought, but she somehow managed.
Around her, laughter and chatter. Volleyball being played. Fun in the sun.
She read her book.
A couple wandered by, carrying drinks that had so many bits of fruit and paper umbrellas that it impeded their ability to actually drink, and they were having too good of a time to care.
Jesse continued to read.
Some college group outing gathered for an impromptu photograph, for the sheer giggles of it and to annoy their parents. They were having an incredibly good time.
Pages were turned.
The problem with having nobody around that cares if you're beautiful and naked is that nobody's around that cares. In fact, having nobody around that cares in general, naked or not, was proving to be rather irritating when everybody around her was having the time of their young lives.
Boredom. Jesse Runeblade was bored to tears, sitting in the epicenter of the wildest and most outgoing party environment Ibiza had to offer. She could be reading back on the Clockwork Mermaid for all the entertainment value this experience was offering... where it was quiet, and peaceful, and oddly just as lonely as this was.
She was about ready to snap the book shut, get dressed, and march back home when a fruity drink with multiple umbrellas was held in front of her face.
It was easy to focus on without her monocle, fortunately. She set the book aside, grasping it, curiously.
"Hi. This is for you," the tall gent wearing a bow tie and nothing else indicated.
"I see. May I ask what it is? --no. May I ask why it is for me?" Jesse asked, turning the glass around, trying to figure out which side was physically possible to drink from.
"That guy at the bar ordered it for you," the apparently-a-bartender indicated, pointing his thumb in the general direct of the thatched hut which housed the beach's open bar. "Paid for. Enjoy. I've got to get back to work now, so..."
"A perfect stranger saw me and decided to order me a drink?" Jesse asked aloud, surprised at the idea of it.
"That's kind of how this works, yes. If you'll excuse me..."
"I am flattered and annoyed and very pleased that something interesting happened on an otherwise dull afternoon," Jesse decided. "Thank you. You have apparently made my day."
The bartender wandered off in a state of Being Weirded Out, as Jesse got to her feet and stretched out, limbering up. Without a pause, she marched off to the bar hut, stepping gingerly around sunbathers and sand castles, her tropical drink in hand.
Her would-be suitor looked up as she approached. His leer was actually quite amusing.
"Ah, guten tag," he greeted. "You got my drink, yeah?"
"This one?" Jesse asked, holding it up for confirmation.
"That's the one! So. Hoi! My name is Franz. I'm with the Sturmundrang Conglomerate -- junior executive," he greeted, flashing pearly whites. "What's your name, fraulein?"
Jesse raised the glass, and slowly, very slowly, poured it over the head of Junior Executive Franz.
"My name is MRS. Runeblade," she indicated, flashing her wedding ring.
The dripping wet executive with several slices of lemon in his hair sputtered lightly. "Ah. My apologies, madame," he offered. "Many apologies. I didn't know, I just... well, they said you'd been making the eyes at me, and that it would be advisable to 'go for it' and buy you a drink, so--"
"I have been doing no such thing. I don't 'make eyes' at anyone other than my darling husband," Jesse accused, setting the glass aside. "Very well; as you were duped, I apologize for the upending of my drink. Now, explain. What prankster spoke such lies, so that I may express my ire in a pointed fashion?"
"Ah... it was these two guys," Franz explained. "One lean, one stocky? Bleached hair? Came in from the street a while ago for a drink. They were just here a minute ago, I am uncertain where they could've..."
Alarm tickled the back of Jesse's mind.
I've been distracted from my position by a false summonings.
A quick turn, scanning the crowded beach...
...her blanket was gone. As was her parasol, her monocle, her book. Everything.
Cursing, she beat feet against the sand, skidding to a stop at her previous relaxation station. She studied the sand with keen eyes, searching for footprints...
There. Those weren't bare feet; someone with shoes had been here. They'd swooped in, shuffled around in a panic gathering up her things, and ran for it back to the dunes...
Jesse sprinted across the beach, taking a running leap across a pack of sunbathers rather than waste time going around them. She emerged to the other side of the dune, and--
She was about to charge into the streets of Ibiza buck naked.
It was one thing to show off at the beach to fit in with the crowd (and look considerably more beautiful than the lot of them) but it was another thing to streak through the city in a literal fashion. Urgency fought impropriety and lost the battle almost immediately. She was going to need something, anything, to cover up before she gave chase...
"End the electronics ban now! End the electronics ban now!"
Her eyes snapped to the source of the shouting.
A young woman, standing around in the heat of Ibiza... in, for some reason, a yellow full body rain slicker. Perfect.
She kept as close to the dunes as possible, slinking along their length until she was in shouting range.
"Excuse me!" she called out. "Sorry, I was just on the beach, and I couldn't help but overhear you..."
"Hello? Oh! Um, good day to you, ma'am," the woman said, wandering over to the protective sand barrier. "Uh. From the nude beach? Sorry to interrupt your fun, but, are you interested in signing my petition? I'm wearing this insulated rubber coat to symbolically show that electricity is not the enemy! We must fight against the crown's ban on electronic devices. The Empire can't surpass its worldwide rivals if we voluntarily cripple our technological progress--"
"I'd like to buy your coat," Jesse said. "Some jackanape has stolen my clothes and I'm not wandering out like this. Please. I don't have any money on me right now but I swear I will find you and give you whatever you require after I get my revenge on the thieves."
"...uh... and... there hasn't been a Mutant EMP blast attack on the Empire of any noteworthy strength in decades, and... it's sort of a phantom threat being trumped up by-- seriously? Someone stole your clothes? Honestly, the crime in this society is being far too ignored by the crown!"
"Yes, and every moment I wait, the thieves get further away, so if you would please...?"
The clipboard was thrust between them. Partly so the embarrassed protestor could have her view of Jesse blocked.
"S-Sign the petition and I'll give you my coat," she decided. "Please? The future of the British Empire means more to me than money, anyway. If there's ever going to be any real progress we need to say NO! to trumped up claims of terrorism and--"
Jesse snatched up the clipboard and scribbled out her birth name. 'Runeblade' or 'Gearhaus' wouldn't be safe to use here, after all.
"Ah, right, Missus... Ventura. Thank you," the protestor said, with a curtsey. She undid the buttons on her coat, peeling it off and handing it over. "I'm afraid it's a little smelly since, well, wearing a raincoat in the middle of this heat wasn't one of my best ideas, but--"
The new bearer of The Coat was off like a bullet, putting it on in the middle of her flat-out sprint into the heart of Ibiza.
Everything has to be stored somewhere. Ibiza consumed and consumed... food, drinks, occasionally illegal substances. It all had to go somewhere, away from the hustle and bustle, because you needed the floor space for more hustling and bustling up front.
The warehouses that existed behind the city were nice and quiet, with neither hustle nor bustle. Workers would sometimes show up to wheel away stacks of crates, to be unpacked and distributed for vast sums of money up front. But nobody showed up to this particular warehouse... it claimed to be a feed storage unit for the villages elsewhere on the island, rented out by a pair of gentleman entrepreneurs. They paid the rent on time, every time, and appreciated a little discretion from their landlord and neighbors. Nobody minded.
If someone had minded, they might've noticed that what was stored here was considerably more unusual than a bunch of animal chow.
Strange crystal spheres. Glowing wineglasses. Piles and piles of books on ancient and forbidden subjects. Various long tube-shaped devices with handles and triggers, one of which was in fact the second surviving electric blunderbuss from the Napoleonic faction, which Benny would've paid considerable sums to obtain. And, in a very odd display of defiance against the laws of physics, a blacksmith's anvil that hovered two feet off the ground and continually rotated around its Y axis.
The latest addition to the hoard of oddities was being turned over and over in the lanky gentleman's hands, as he studied it through a pair of enhanced goggles.
After a few passes, he pushed the specs up, messing up his snow white bangs.
The stocky gentleman, who had been busy pacing around nervously, paused in his perpetual oval of worry. "...and?" he asked. "Jim? Is it or isn't it...?"
"Bad news is, it's definitely code blue, Bob," the one named Jim confirmed. "That's not the most unusual aspect, however. While there is in fact a micro-capacitor powering the lens, the surface is coated in... I am unsure as to WHAT it is coated in. But it's red shift. Mixed technologies! What was that woman doing with this...? Faerie magic doesn't even EXIST on this side of the Atlantic!"
"We are thoroughly and completely intercoursed," Bob complained. "Do you hear me? Utterly intercoursed! Cover blown! Operations exposed! Or worse... we might have stepped on the toes of a Tier 3 operator!"
"She was at a nude beach! How many times have we lifted promising items off some irresponsible young nobleperson at that beach?"
"...never, Jim. All we get are coins of unusual types and the occasional billfold. Never an artifact."
"Yes, but, in theory, it's a prime hunting ground," Jim complained. "And look, we finally have some results! She can't be an operator. They wouldn't be stupid enough to leave an artifact behind so they could achieve sexual congress with a local..."
"Oh, that's rich, coming from Mister I Go Out Every Night Clubbing And Drinking And Unsuccessfully Courting Women. Who other than an operator would have a device powered by a MASS CAPACITOR, Jim!? We are going to catch all kinds of infernal afterlife representation over this..."
"Now, look, it's not going to come to that," Jim promised, setting the spell monocle down at his workbench. "As far as the woman knows, we're just petty thieves, right? This island's covered in them; it's how we get our work done. All we have to do is... um... put it back. In a sneaky manner. Right?"
"Put it back. Really. Just like that."
"I am not observing you coming up with a superior plan of action, Bob!" Jim grumbled. "Your neck is placed on the symbolic linear vector as much as mine is, here! We have to act fast. If she somehow tracks us down, our cover's blown. --excuse me, do you hear squeaking of some sort?"
"Local fauna. Vermin. They're all over the place lately."
"No no, it's more like rain boots, or someth--"
Despite its placement upon the 'line,' Jim's neck did not in fact come to harm. The descending figure which dropped from the rafters, a vision of terror in yellow rubber, was very careful to use him to break her fall without actually breaking him in half. Not that the experience was particularly fun for Jim, either way.
The woman grasped for the spell monocle while Bob was fumbling for his sidearm. One split second later, and the lens flared to life, a glyph snapping into focus on its surface...
...while her enemy pointed a silver energy blaster at her, with shaking hands.
"Y-You stop right there!" Bob demanded.
"You're not going to use that," Jesse declared.
"Don't test my resolve, whoever you are! I happen to be an expert marksm--"
The gun yanked itself from Bob's hands, twisting around in the air and landing in Jesse's outstretched hand.
She slowly got off of the crumpled form of Jim, stepping back, to give them some room.
"Now that you understand who's in charge of this scenario, perhaps we can talk some reason," Jesse suggested. "Before we begin: my parasol. And my book. Please."
If Bob wasn't sweating before, he was sweating profusely now. Slowly, he raised his hands, in the universal gesture of surrender. "Ma'am, um... we were just... your effects are behind the workbench. Listen, we didn't mean to intrude on your operation, far from it, I mean, Jim and I are only Tier 4, but..."
"You have no idea what you have done, do you?" Jesse asked... playing along, for now. "How dare you steal from me! Do you even know who you're dealing with?!"
"We didn't know! It was a mistake!" Jim protested, weakly crawling away from her, hanging onto Bob now for dear life. "Just some inter-cell communication error, that's all. If we knew you were operating in Ibiza, we would've avoided interfering! Please don't report us to Sen! It was an honest accident!"
"...very well. I suppose I can stay mum on the subject," Jesse declared, lowering the energy blaster.
"Right. --wait, stay what?"
"I will refrain from commenting regarding our encounter to any persons of note," she quickly amended, forgetting the problems they would have with even the most common of slang. "Now, then. ...what Orbital Arcology are you two from?"
The two exchanged a strange look, as Jim was shakily getting to his feet.
"Ah... #C812? It was years and years ago, I think it was #C812, I mean..."
"#CB12," Bob corrected.
"Ah, right. I always mix the eight and the B up... ma'am, which one are you from, then? Are you a new recruit to the Gatherers?"
I'm learning far too much about... whatever this is to let my ruse drop now, Jesse decided. She took the risk head on.
"I'm Jez zero point one. From Arcology #A076," she declared, since it was the only code number she actually knew.
The brothers wouldn't have reacted more if she'd lit them on fire.
"You're undercover in New Orleans?!" they exclaimed together.
"Yes, and I'd thank you not to spread that around," she warned. "I'm on a special assignment here. You never saw me. You don't report this back to Sen. Understand? ...good. Now. I have some questions of my own. As I am a Tier 3, you are going to tell me what I want to know, yes...?"
"Yes, yes, of course, of course!" Bob promised. "Anything!"
"Good. ...are you or another in the Gatherers responsible for sabotaging the Clockwork Mermaid?"
"The... excuse me? The what?"
"My vessel. It has been... inconvenienced, recently. Assaulted and sabotaged by enemies unknown. If I find out you or your kin DARED to--"
"Wait, wait! I know this one!" Jim blurted out -- rushing to his workbench, frantically searching the scattered message tubes that had been haphazardly arrayed there. He fumbled at their hatches, looking for a piece of paper... and coming up victorious. "Right! Here it is. I remembered we got this memo the other day. Attention all cells operating in the British Empire! This is a direct order from Tier Zero. A vessel known as the Clockwork Mermaid will be in your theatre of operation; do not interfere in its mission and do not break its cover story. ...wow! Orders right from Archivist Sen himself! --how did we manage to lose this message?"
"You were too smashed on highballs and pizza when it came in," Bob grumbled.
"Both of you are a complete disgrace to the Gatherers," Jesse declared, beginning to enjoy her apparent authority role in this situation. "Now. I am taking what is mine, and returning to my mission. Do not follow, do not interfere. Do not report this back to Tier Zero. Secrecy is to remain absolute. Am I understood?"
The two wayward Orbitals snapped to attention.
"YES, MA'AM!" they declared, in unison.
"Right. ...while I am here, I have one last request," she said. "What information do you have on the shipyards in France, where the British Empire is gathering its armies? It would help my mission to have any intel you may have gathered."
The brothers looked at each other uncomfortably.
"Sorry. Don't know much about the operations in France. We've been very busy working Ibiza for a while now," Bob explained. "I swear we are not simply using this assignment as an excuse to fraternize with the locals and imbibe toxicating liqueurs! We are furthering the cause of the Gatherers!"
"This Earth is the key to the future!" Jim declared. "Gather its powers. Keep them secret, keep them safe. Prepare for the inevitable fall. And always watch the stars! --wait, no, wasn't it 'watch for the inevitable, and prepare for the falling stars'? How does the motto go?"
Bob scratched his head. "I never understood that part. I mean, a star is a massive ball of nuclear matter millions of light years away. They aren't going anywhere. Well, except in a generalized sense, what with the ongoing entropy of the universe and all--"
"I've no time for this foolishness," Jesse dismissed, waving for them to return at ease, before gathering up her clothes and weapon. "I'll be going now. See to it that I don't see you again."
As she hurried from the anonymous warehouse... she was finally able to breathe easily.
It was a risky move, pretending to be one of their group. Fortunately, she'd stumbled across what were hopefully the two least competent members of these "Gatherers" on Earth.
...which was an organization of Orbitals, unlikely as that was. Spread all across the world, it seemed. Tracking down artifacts of power, like her monocle, and hoarding them for purposes unknown.
Did Una know about this? They said assumed Jesse was 'undercover' in New Orleans; that meant few of the Orbitals in #A076 likely knew. These Gatherers had to have come to this world independently of the official arcologies assigned to hover over the planet, years ago. So... did anyone back home know about this, until now...?
Troubling. But at the very least, they didn't seem to be related to the recent troubles she'd been dealing with. This was a completely unrelated secret conspiracy, one she'd managed to stumble across without even trying. One which would be addressed, in time. After they were done laying waste to the armies of England.
The sun had set by the time she reached the docking ramp of the Clockwork Mermaid.
"Why are you wearing a raincoat?" Benny asked.
"Where did you get an Orbital energy blaster?" Chloe asked.
"I have been having a very surreal day and would like a hot meal and a long bath and my husband's company," Jesse stated. "Please hold all other questions for the time being. Now. Let's get aboard and see what musical silliness Gilbert has been getting up to."
It wasn't that Gilbert Gearhaus didn't know how to play piano. He could play anything you put in front of him. It just wouldn't be music, in the end.
As part of his Young Gentleman's Proper Upbringing, Gearhaus Industries had assigned him tutors for fencing and classical piano. He found the latter insufferably boring. Playing piano was just a matter of translating the notation placed in front of you into the right finger exercises, pounding out notes as per the notation. It was no more interesting than a punchcard being processed by an analytical engine... a series of coded instructions with a predetermined output.
Of course, when you approach piano like an automaton, the end result is not music. It's not alive. It's no better than a player-piano, reading off the little punch holes in a sheet of paper to produce a frenzy of notes. Technically proficient, but lacking soul. Soul was something Gilbert simply couldn't infuse into the piano, no matter how hard he tried, and it showed in his recitals.
Fencing, however... THAT was music he could understand. The 'notation' consisted of your opponent's moves, and his tactics. Instead of hammering your way through the same motions over and over in a linear fashion, you had to mix up your technique. React. Seize advantages. It was true competition, and Gilbert savored it, because it wasn't something he could master in a matter of days.
Now, here he was, locked into a musician's battle. All he had in his pocket was a basic compiler-like mentality towards sheet music, which would certainly not dazzle an Ibiza party crowd. Within two days time... he had to become a true master. Which was not going to happen.
Approach the problem sideways, Jesse had suggested. You're going to need to come up with something very... unorthodox.
"Now I wish I'd bothered attending more parties," Gilbert mumbled to himself, as he stood on the sidewalk outside Ichabod Turner's Fine Music Shoppe, pondering if he should even bother setting foot inside.
He wasn't like Randall Wellspring. Randall adored parties. He loved being the center of attention, and when you're an Honored Calculator, you're either the center of attention or those around you are paid to fake it. He relished it, fed off the energy of a crowd, and translated it back into his musical style. He invented his own instruments and brought them along, always pulling out some bizarre amalgam squeezebox / stringed device to wow the crowd.
Not that Gilbert paid much attention, at the time... letting him take the spotlight, so Gilbert could stay in the background, and enjoy being unnoticed. A decision which, in hindsight, meant he had no recollection of exactly how Randall did what Gilbert was expected to do tomorrow night...
No helping it now. He took a deep breath, and set foot into the shop.
The showpieces were out front, and he had to step gingerly around racks and stacks of trumpets, trombones, violins, and drum kits. It wasn't a particularly large shop -- it was flanked by a hair stylist and a haberdashery, making this hole in the wall shop an unlikely addition to the fashion district. Likely it had been here some time (judging from the dust and cobwebs) while commercial styles shifted and changed around it over the years.
Gilbert slipped past the traditional instruments. He could probably learn their notation and hand motions, but the end result would be as lifeless as his piano playing. Unsuitable for the task ahead.
The back half of the shop consisted of row after row of wooden boxes... each filled with waxed paper sleeves, pressing discs of wax together in cardboard envelopes. Victrola records, no doubt. The music industry didn't lose an ounce of steam when it switched from electricity to, well, steam... the instruments changed, the styles blended, and artists carried on. If anything, it was a boon, being able to leave behind digital music piracy and forcing the youth to hand over their pennies for recordings.
Behind the instruments, behind the records, behind layers of dust and gaslamps that had been out of repair for years... an old man snored. Ichabod Turner, likely.
He sat slumped in a rocking chair, behind the mechanical cash register. A dapper fellow, with a fine white powdered wig and wide-brimmed hat, the brown of his coat blending into the grime of the shop nicely. His snoring was almost musical in itself... a long wheezing pitch, followed by a series of three sharp snorts. Fweee, snrt snrt snrt. Fwee, snrt snrt, snrt...
As he slept, a hand-lettered signs presented the man's greeting to any who wandered into his shop while he napped.
"These premises protected by Regulators. We regulate any theft of this person's properties; we are exquisitely skilled in this process, it should be noted."
It took several polite clearings of the throat, followed by a less polite clearing of the throat, to wake the fellow up.
"Snnrt--? Hh. What unpleasantness is this, that brings you to rouse me from my daydreams?" Mister Turner asked, squinting to focus on Gilbert. "No doubt some hooligan who seeks to deprive me of my earned profits. Mine eagle eye would have spotted your tomfoolerly before it could transpire, of course. My thoughts are concentrated 'pon my currency, and my currency occupies my thoughts!"
Gilbert held up his hands to show they were empty, before putting them safely in his pockets. "Wouldn't dream of it, my good sir. No, I am in the market for... hmm. Well. A musical instrument of some kind, I suppose."
"If you're wanting one of those repulsive electro-magnetic guitars, they're illegal. I don't carry them in mine stock," Ichabod Turner grumbled. "Accursed lodestones! What is the manner of their function, I say?"
"No, nothing like that. Honestly, I've no idea what instrument I should get, and I was hoping you might have some ideas," Gilbert professed. "I need to make something of an impact. To stand out."
"If you seek some young company woman's hand, I suggest a lute. A romantic serenade is a classical icon," the shopkeep suggested. "Although the sorts that visit this island, they would desire a solid gold lute far more than the notes that be plucked from one. Far be it from me to imply they are covetous ladies, but they do not trifle with the destitute..."
"While I suppose I would enjoy wooing my beloved with a gentle tune, my current task is quite the opposite afraid. I am apparently to do battle, in a musical sense. An old friend has challenged me to a 'battle of the bands,' and I'm afraid that my skill would produce little better than a wind-up music box. I need an instrument which will, even if I cannot truly master it, at least impress the crowd."
The old man scratched at his chin, contemplating this scenario.
"Tell me... who is your opponent in this duel of musicianship, precisely?" he asked.
"Are you familiar with Randall Wellspring? Goes by the moniker of Random nowadays, mind."
"Random!" Ichabod spat. Literally, a gob letting fly and smacking into a nearby spittoon, with a musical pang!. "A common dandy, nothing more. His watered down music-machinery is a blight 'pon this island's vivid culture. Pushing buttons, pfah! No skill at all. If I were twenty years the younger, I would unleash a round from my peppergun into his posterior!"
"Well, then it seems to me you've got a vested interest into making me into something interesting!" Gilbert proposed. "I think you'll find I'm a quick study; if you would keep this on the 'Down Low'... I am in fact an Honored Calculator."
Ichabod rocked gently in his chair, inhaling with a sharp fwee of a whistle. "My condolences," the man offered.
"Oh, I've some years left in me, don't worry. Although right now, I'm primarily focused on the following two days... after which I shall be in the spotlight, and had best do a song and dance worthy of kings to survive. Tell me. Show me. What instrument do I need to defeat mine enemy, good sir?"
The shopkeep considered the question... or rather, he had the answer. He was simply considering if he wanted to share his secrets. Gilbert watched behind his eyes, as the man's thought processes slowly clicked into place... a lot like fencing, reading another's reactions.
"I have spent the majority of my days living in a paradise for hooligans," he admitted. "I may not look the part now, but in my heyday, I was known as the almighty 'Turner of Tables'... a dapper and dashing young delight of many a damsel. However, as my master taught me: the money and the fame, they are merely the trimmings. At the beating heart... there is the holy trinity of my craft. ...what I am to show you, I have shown none other. You have a spark to you, goodfellow. Also, I would appreciate you kicking that ruffian's teeth in. Do we have an accord?"
Immediately... Gilbert took to one knee, bowing his head in respect.
"Show me your ways, my master, so that I may beat Randall like a redheaded stepchild," he humbly requested.
Amazingly, the already tiny music shop had a tiny little back room. It took the senior Turner a solid minute of fumbling at a vast key ring to find the ornate brass key that unlocked his private treasure trove... and a few moments of frantic coughing as a dust cloud was kicked up from the unearthing of this musical tomb of kings.
Albums. Shelves and shelves of albums, lining every wall, with no room for any pleasantries. The only light came from a single hanging gaslamp, which Ichabod lit with a tug at its drawstring, which sparked the flint inside.
In the center of the room stood a lumpy pile of... something, upon a table. A protective tarp covered it from the ravages of age that tormented the shop.
"The holy trinity," the former Turner of Tables promised, grasping the cloth, and pulling it off to reveal...
Two victrolas and a megaphone.
Gilbert tried to make sense of this, and failed despite his towering intellect.
"You play records for people, then?" he asked.
"Play--?! Sully not the ancient art, lest you taste mine backhand!" Ichabod threatened. "I speak of the majestic craft of the disk jockey, child! It is not merely the playing of records. Any fool, notably the one you have challenged, is capable of that. Not any fellow is capable of... hmmh. Perhaps you require a demonstration..."
The old man shuffled around the small room, running his fingers across the spines of countless albums. He mumbled a bit as he went, eyes flashing across the tiny print... until he found what he wanted. He withdrew the ancient album, pulling the wax disk from its sleeve with practiced ease. But one record was not enough; a second, from a completely different album set, joined its companion on the second turntable.
It took some hand cranking to get the playback mechanisms rolling. And that's when Gilbert noticed the strange box affixed to the side of each turntable, joining them together...
And the performance began.
Neither album was being played directly. They played simultaneously, cutting back and forth as the old man played his fingers across switches and dials on the box -- valves shunting the audio from one victrola and the other to the echo chamber array underneath the table. Beats were juggled against each other, melodies clashing and merging as one... all while the man's hands moved with uncanny speed, rewinding and skipping the discs back and forth across the needle...
After a minute of furious mixing, the end result was a song which was neither of the original songs, but something wholly new and wonderful. A sound that was evoked from canned audio, much like a player-piano roll, but then twisted into a creative work of its own.
He slapped the crossfader back into place as the records slid to a halt.
"DJing," he spoke, with as much reverence as he could muster for the acronym. "You say you have been challenged to single combat? This is the perfect combat art. Once, before the merging of the two Britains, DJ battles raged across Ibiza and beyond. With remarkable intensity, these young lads did strike forth and lay waste to their enemies not with buckshot... but with bass, beats, and bravado!"
Gilbert was still processing the hand movements he had just witnessed... his analytical mind breaking them down, assigning various gestures to various sound effects. That could happen in the background of his brain, however, while he conversed.
"So... I have to craft a new song from two other songs. And this will entertain a crowd more than Random's music?" he asked. "Are you certain?"
"Random only knows how to play dancey type swill!" the Turner of Tables spat -- again into a spittoon, which was thankfully waiting nearby. "Unh tiss unh tiss unh tiss. A good beat for shaking one's backside, but no spark, no power! Battle DJs embody the fury of the storm, young Calculator. You cannot maintain the fury for very long... but in a battle of the bands, against some mere club DJ? You will dominate."
"It would be enjoyable, to splash this back in his face," Gilbert agreed. "Honestly, this entire challenge is so very childish and petty of him..."
"Do not despise the sportsman," the master warned. "Instead, despise his sport."
"Right. So. How do I begin to learn this?"
"You don't. It took me years under the tutelage of one of the finest DJs in Europe to gain my skill," Ichabod said. "But you are a Calculator, yes? Put your sizeable gray matter to dark purposes. I will demonstrate. You will study. And then you will show me that you can not only repeat what I have done... but improve upon it. There is no sheet music, boy... descend or tread the waters by your own creative prowess alone. Understand?"
"It's a bit like fencing, isn't it?"
Ichabod cocked his head, wondering if his bad ear was acting up. "What?"
"My weapon is the music. There's no simple mechanical process here -- I must twist and turn the course of the battle, until I find the finest approach to strike from. Improvisation. Creation. Yes... I think I can do this. Let us start immediately!"
Hours later, Gilbert was busy rocking the turntables aboard the Clockwork Mermaid.
It had been a frenzied tutorial, studying each technique Mister Turner had in his library of moves. At first, Gilbert had trouble keeping the beats matched up, until he started applying new mathematical constructs to it. Soon... he could almost SEE the sound in the grooves of the record, timed by the rotation speed of each disk. When Gilbert wanted a specific sound, he knew where it was based on the variables calculating away in his head...
But he still wasn't much of a DJ. Repeating the tricks didn't mean he could make them into something that sounded good. They were merely a string of tricks, without soul.
Ichabod had a large number of very creative insults to hurl at Gilbert by the end of the training session. But he wasn't giving up.
"Go back to your vessel, neophyte, and practice until the dawn's light," he'd ordered. "Return the following day and we will continue, right up to the time of your challenge if need be. I will make you a DJ, or I will snap your bones in half from the effort!"
The threat would've been enough to encourage Gilbert... but it came with a suggestion. One he'd been turning over and over in his head.
"A battle DJ is no mere technician," Ichabod had warned, between demonstrations. "You must come with bravado, child. If you seek to win the favor of the audience... you must take what you have learned and throw it in your enemy's face. Everybody loves a cocky young hooligan."
Now, surrounded by his own albums, with his freshly obtained music mixing table... he had time to ponder the word.
A way to destroy Randall that relied more on a clever riposte than on technical skill...
Ohhh. Ohhh, yes, that WILL work.
Soon after formulating his nasty little plan, his wife arrived, wearing a raincoat for some inexplicable reason. With her were the other two companions of his journeys.
She took a quick evaluation of his progress -- notably sitting behind a pair of turntables with Jeeves sorting through a pile of classical albums -- and came up doubting.
"I trust this is your unorthodox approach to the battle?" she asked. "Playing records for people?"
"Sully not the ancient art, lest you taste-- well, that part isn't important," Gilbert quickly corrected. "And yes, I assure you I have a plan. ...one which just came together a few moments ago in my head, in fact. Benny? I'm going to need your skills in barter and commerce. I am in need of... a secret weapon to utilize against Randall. One which will destroy him utterly!"
"Anthrax?" Benny suggested. "Car bomb? Ninjas?"
"Nnnnot quite. I plan to put one well placed round of buckshot directly in the backside of his pride and ego. And for that... well, we can discuss the specifics in the morning. First things first..."
The neophyte disk jockey put his tabletop toys aside, walking up to give his wife a belated welcoming kiss. And no gentle peck, either -- this was a full dip and swoon affair, which nearly made Jesse fall out of her raincoat.
Once she was upright and slightly dazed, he continued.
"...challenge or no challenge, mission or no mission, far too much time has been spent on worrying and preparing for the road ahead," Gilbert decided. "It's made the two of us rather tetchy and unpleasant. My practicing for the battle can wait; matters of greater import are afoot. I suggest we spend this evening being very pleasant to each other. In the double entendre sense."
Briefly, Jesse considered scolding him for wasting the sliver of time available to him before this battle on personal frivolities. He needed all the practice time he could get, if he was to defeat his enemy. In all practical terms, she had no business intruding on that time.
"I've had a very long and strange day, and I intend to draw myself a bath and retire to bed," she announced.
She allowed her husband to look disappointed for a moment, for the fun of it.
"You are, of course, coming with me," she decided, grasping his suspenders and dragging him along. "I'm uncertain if your bathtub is large enough for two, but I believe if we limber up first, we can accomplish this task. Come along, now."
Jesse led the fellow with the goofy grin onward, towards the crew cabins and washroom. Leaving the newly realized brother and sister behind.
Benny perked an ear to the little musical tone he heard. Specifically, Chloe's giggle.
"What?" he asked.
"Just... young love. It's cute," Chloe said. "Hey, don't give me that weirded out look. Just because I get mopey a lot doesn't mean I can't smile, too. And yeah, I know you're hardly into romance, but... I dunno. It's cute, is all. ...so. You headed out for the night?"
"Considering my last attempt at rustling up some of my usual fun ended in disaster... no. I'm staying in," Benny decided. "Ibiza may be a party town, but I'm not in a partying mood. Which is kind of disturbing, for me. But I'm going with it."
"I think I'm going to hit the town," Chloe decided. "I'll probably end up wallflowering the darkest and most dreary club I can find, but--"
"--this town doesn't specialize in graveyard shift mentalities, you know--"
"--honestly I could go for wrapping myself up in some humanity after today," she finished. "A few drinks and dancing around a little might help. I'll be back later."
"Be careful, alright? It's a wild town out there."
"I've been out clubbing before," Chloe said, with a pout. "And besides... I've got Jesse's hand-me-down, if I run into trouble. Don't worry about me."
She patted her long, droopy black sleeve... under which she'd replaced her extremely lethal FBI issued handgun for the non-lethal energy blaster Jesse'd somehow procured earlier that day.
With confidence, she headed back down the stairs, to depart the Clockwork Mermaid and go looking for a reasonably good time.
Ten minutes later Benny was out the door and following her. It wasn't like Chloe had forbidden him from doing so, after all, and the Broker was a firm believer in following the letter of a contract. Not worrying about her, as requested... but still, watching from the shadows, avoiding being seen. Just to be sure. After all, he was her guardian angel, if no one else's.
The city had been abuzz with excitement all day, from when the first posters went up around dawn, to the announced time of the battle.
Battle of the Bands wasn't that common in Ibiza these days. Vertical integration was the problem; musicians had contracts with various clubs, which had contracts with various corporations. Rarely did house musicians stray from their patron's home turf. That one would wander across town to challenge an artist-in-residence was unthinkable -- the corporate merrymakers wouldn't be allowed to do that, as no matter who wins or loses, someone's brand would be hurt. The challenger had to be an independent... and any champion accepting such a challenge would have to be willing to risk the ire of his or her masters, which meant a serious image boost if they won. IF they won.
No one in Ibiza knew the true story, the tale of quasi-friends and semi-brothers struggling over the future of the world stage. All they knew was that it was exciting, it was intriguing, and they simply HAD to be there.
The challenger and his compatriots blended in perfectly at Cosmos. After all, they were complete unknowns, hanging out at a side table away from the dance floor. Easily overlooked, as stagehands set up the gear for the big showdown. The gear was far more interesting to stare at.
Everybody at Cosmos was familiar with Random's usual instruments. They were devices of his own making... squeezeboxes, player pianos, complicated echo chambers with a variety of footpedals for special effects. A circle of gadgetry, in the center of which would stand the Master of Ceremonies himself, Random the Calculator. The street value of his gear was incalculable, however; it was all unique and bizarre, unavailable for sale anywhere in the world.
In contrast... the challenger apparently was using two ratty old record players, linked into a simple mixing box. That was it. Well, there was a fourth gadget, hidden under a white silken dropcloth, but it looked far too small to be anything impressive. The Mystery Challenger was, for all intents and purposes, going up against an established master loaded with ridiculously priceless equipment and was doing it with something you could nab for a couple pounds at a corner store.
The musicians themselves were M.I.A., while roadies handled their machinery. It was traditional in a Battle of the Bands for the performers to avoid being seen until the big show.
Even though Gilbert was in plain sight, at his side table.
"Love, don't worry, I'm going to be wearing a disguise," Gilbert promised. "There's no way the crown will link this little spectacle to our future efforts. Not until it's too late, anyway."
Jesse fidgeted on her uncomfortable upholstered stool. "I'm more worried about your rival's loose lips," she said. "How can we trust this Random miscreant to keep his word? Once we depart, he could easily send a message to his masters, warning them of our arrival. And even if we win, he may not even give us the information we seek, or could give us tainted intelligence..."
"It's worth the risk," Gilbert had decided, one day previous. "At worst, I look the fool and we make haste for France. At best... we could be done with this mission cleanly and painlessly, and on our way home in a few days time. --no, wait. Not the right thinking. I will win this competition. Bravado is the key, you see. Bravado and braggadocio. I can't go in assuming any chance of failure."
"A suitable attitude to take," Jesse agreed, stretching her arms over her head, unkinking them after an hour of sitting around idly. "Jeeves? More tea, please."
As the brass manservant poured a measure from his internal stocks... Gilbert cocked his head, comparing the tone of his butler's 'skin' to that of his wife. Difficult, in the poor lighting of Cosmos.
"Love, did you acquire a tan? You seem a bit more golden than yesterday..."
"I was at the beach again today, while you were busy finalizing your music," Jesse explained... with a smile, pleased that he had noticed. "It took a few hours, but I think I've attained a proper bronzing, yes. The strange thing is that Chloe was there with me, and she's still as pale as ever..."
"Oh? You two had a girl's day out, then?"
Despite said paleness, Chloe immediately proved her ability to blush.
"I realized that a fine outing to the beach simply wasn't as enjoyable without someone to share it with," Jesse explained, without going into finer details. "If we were to stay in Ibiza any longer, I'd go there with you next. Shame we're departing so soon..."
The final member of their roving band made his appearance, from the shadows. Not through any dark and ominous means, it was simply a bit dark at the moment.
"All done," Benny the Broker announced. "I hooked it into your mixing box. The timing unit's still in development, so the pitch may not be right unless you can maintain a steady pace..."
"Won't be a problem for me," Gilbert boasted. "And the price...?"
"Considering it's a prototype which isn't even supposed to be out of its lab? Rather steep," Benny noted. "I had to pull a few albums from your personal library in trade. Including your reproduction pressing of Blue Monday. Sorry. I can hook you up with a replacement later, when I've got time for a proper intercontinental chain of trading."
"Tch," the calculator said, biting his lip. "I'll miss that one. --wait, what about--"
"Didn't touch any of the albums you wanted for tonight, don't worry," Benny clarified. "Abbey Road's in your crate and ready to go. Are YOU ready to go?"
"Just about. I've got to sneak backstage and get my costume on. It's something of a hand-me-down, but should fit well enough. Why is Chloe blushing and looking like she's staring at the headlights of an oncoming truck?"
"She's been like that ever since our beach trip. It's tiresome, really," Jesse said, with a shrug. "Eastusa folk. So repressed. You'd think she'd never enjoyed surf and turf before..."
"I'd love to stay and chat, but I'd best scoot along," Gilbert spoke, downing the last of his tea. "Kiss for luck, love?"
"No," she replied. "Because you do not need luck. Destroy him without mercy, my dearest."
Jesse kept her eyes on her husband, all the while, until he finally slipped too deep into the thick of the crowd to be seen again.
Benny allowed the annoying robot to pour him some tea.
And then asked.
"...so, uh... surf and--?"
"Not talking about it," Chloe announced.
"Right. Just checking."
Ten in the evening.
The network of echo chambers and audio repeaters strung throughout Cosmos, pipes and tubes that ran alongside the fog machines and the lighting rigs, crackled to life. This little piffle of noise and air cut through the crowd's chatter like a scythe -- immediately followed by wild cheering, loud enough to nearly drown out the announcement that followed.
"¡Atención, atención!" the disembodied voice began. "Attention, attention! Cosmos is proud to present, for your auditory pleasures, a Battle of the Bands! In the finest traditions of our fair island, two competitors shall demonstrate their skills!"
The walls of the building started to rumble with the movement of the crowd. They hadn't seen a battle in a long time, despite those finest traditions. By this point, two five year olds with kazoos would've gotten a hero's welcome.
"The rules of this gentleman's duel are simple. The champion shall play for three minutes, followed by the challenger. One three minute response will be allowed to the champion, and then a final three minute closing song by the challenger. Two rounds! Two songs, each! The volume of your reactions to each song shall be measured and tallied, and the musician to garner the loudest applause will be declared the victor. Cosmos! Are you prepared for this spectacle of musical prowess?!"
Ask a rhetorical question, get a rousing rhetorical cheer in answer. For her part, on the edge of the madness, Jesse was glad to be using a simple personal sound-muffling spell from her monocle.
"Your reigning champion... from the Société de Bonnechance, and Cosmos's very own artist in residence... Random the Calculator!"
NOW the spectacle began.
Random wasn't pulling any punches. The lighting, the fog machines, all timed to the pulsating thrum of a slowly building chord of doom... all of it designed to slowly announce his arrival.
Slowly, he rose into the center of the Mission Control array of buttons and switches surrounding him, raised into view by a hydraulic platform designed for maximum drama. With a confident smirk... he threw his arms wide, bathing himself in the adoration of his fans... while simultaneously pointing to the two "Go-Go" style cages, to his right and left. Where his personal assistants / secretaries / groupies / paid company were ready and waiting and wearing extremely complicated Neo-Victorian lingerie.
"Tasteless," Jesse declared, with a frown. Before immediately deciding she needed to do a shopping run at the next opportunity.
The performer made a splashy show of cracking his knuckles, warming up his fingers for what was to come...
...and then tapped a single button.
Instantly, his apparatus flared to life. Air bladders were compressed down by mechanical levers. Organ pipes blasted out finely controlled air bursts. Player-pianos cranked away at preprogrammed rolls, as did special drumkits hooked up to analytical engines, laid in with punchcard codes to play beats no human was capable of playing. All of it worked in flawless predetermined harmony, producing a sound that normally could only be achieved by electronic devices... now achieved by analog, steam powered means.
It wasn't like the music took no effort to produce. Sure, all he did was press a button, but someone (presumably Random himself) had to set the wheels up precisely so they could be set in motion. The symphony that blasted out across the crowd, a steady pulsing thump of drums and bass, got them moving. REALLY moving, the building's indiscriminate rocking from before turning into a rolling wave. Jesse could see the tea in her cup slosh back and forth in time with the music, the cup itself threatening to rattle all the way off the edge of the table...
".. . . .. ...," Chloe said.
Jesse shifted her Will, to expand the cone of muffling across the table. "What was that?"
"It's not really that bad," Chloe admitted. "I was in a club last night listening to something similar. It's got a great beat and you can dance to it, and there's certainly hooks aplenty..."
"It's all meaningless noise to me," Jesse declared. "And for all the gyrations of those stereotypically caged harlots, the little bastard has done nothing to earn my respect. I cannot grasp why the crowd's enjoying this dog and pony show..."
"It sounds good, and that's all most people are gonna care about. I hate to say it, Jesse, but I think Gilbert's in trouble here."
Determined to remain the outsider, she watched impassively as the crowd moved and swayed to the music. Yes, her finger did tap against the table in time, but that was an involuntary reaction. She was NOT enjoying this.
All the while... Random did what he did best. Namely, soak in the spotlight. He had nothing more to do, so he pumped his fist in the air, waved to the crowd to egg them on, and wore his smile like a shield. The man exuded confidence... which he did every night he 'played' to the crowd, but tonight, especially. He had to be confident, and they had to see him be confident.
His lovelies did far more physical work, performing a choreographed routine to excite at least half the crowd. It was a dance sequence they'd practiced the previous night when Random changed up his music selection at the last minute, in a desperate attempt to find something absolutely perfect that would fit within the traditional three minutes. Not that the audience knew he was scrambling at the very end to ensure he defeated his enemy... no, no. Always appear perfect, and they'll assume you were perfect all along...
The beats rose, climaxed, fell, rose, climaxed, and finally washed away like the seas against the sand beyond the club. Random took an overly-fancy bow, first to the center of the applauding crowd, then to the left, then to the right. His work be done.
"Random the Calculator, ladies and gentlemen!" the announcer declared... all while the sensitive instruments behind the scenes measured the volume of the room. (If Jesse had been a cheating sort, she could have put mental focus into muffling the whole crowd, but that wouldn't be proper.) "And now... the challenger. One who dares to challenge Random, here in his place of power! Who is this mysterious man? He is only known as... the Turner of Tables."
No smoke machine. No lighting, aside from a single spotlight. But those trimmings weren't needed, as the figure stepped up to his archaic musical equipment... a lone figure, in a brown overcoat with wide-brimmed hat. Darkened goggles and a bandanna, to obscure his face. A question wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a conundrum...
It can't be him. I thought he was dead.
Didn't he retire in Germany?
Could it be an heir to the legacy?
You haven't heard of the Turner of Tables?!
A new Turner of Tables! That's impossible...!
Confusion wasn't as thrilling of a crowd reaction as wild applause... but it certainly was A reaction. And one which spread quickly through the crowd, with those in the know standing on edge of anticipation, and those not in the know desperately wanting to be in the know...
The young fellow lifted a megaphone, and addressed the crowd.
"Good people of Ibiza! I am here today to demonstrate for you one irrefutable truth..." he declared. "I am plagued by four score and nineteen difficulties -- but among them, not a charlatan is to be found!"
And then his hands fell to the turntables.
Which produced a sound unlike anything they had heard before.
It had the intensity of Random's machinery... but was delivered raw, with the scratches and dust of the recordings it came from. His fingers blurred, backing the discs up, accelerating them, skipping back and forth. The beats reassembled themselves, the syncopated vocals juggled around... classics of years gone by rearranged into something wholly strange and wonderful...
It wasn't dance music. They couldn't tune out and mindlessly bounce around to it. Nevertheless... the crowd began to pulse with energy. Excitement. Every new second the mystery man played was a new sound, a new trick to the ears. The unexpected delivered itself with expected regularity.
And despite working from two prerecorded sources... everything they were hearing was happening live, right in front of them. It was like going to a five star restaurant, ordering the most complicated dish on the menu, and having the head chef assemble and cook it right in front of you. It would've been a delicacy even if it was served whole, but seeing the process made it all the more impressive, as you knew every bite you savored had an intense amount of skill and care put into it.
No dancing girls. No special effects. Just one man, and the music he was crafting for them. A unique experience that would never be repeated...
...and after three minutes of this glorious feast, the performer slapped his crossfader hard to the left, to let the record speak for itself. All while pointing an imaginary finger-pistol at Random the Calculator, issuing his declarative challenge...
I've got ninety nine problems, the album announced, but bein' a bitch ain't one.
At that accusation, the Turner of Tables snapped off an imaginary bullet at Random... then blew smoke off his finger, and tucked it away in his pocket.
The crowd promptly exploded. Figuratively, thankfully. The flavor of the battle was permanently changed; this wasn't just a matter of what song they liked best. This was a straight up attack on Random's image... and would demand one in turn. Which was going to be difficult, given Random only came to play a song, not to fight an aggressive assailant.
All eyes were on the champion, now... to see if he'd react, to see how he'd react.
Random's confident smirk was gone. Now, hate filled his eyes. He wasn't expecting Gilbert to actually succeed on any level whatsoever; the whole idea was preposterous.
But that wasn't to say he didn't have a plan. A response.
The champion raised a hand, to silence the crowd, to signify that it was time for them to pay attention to him...
...as he pressed a second button.
The fog machines resumed, this time dousing the crowd in a lightly pink colored haze, switching up the mood. The programmed instruments didn't all activate at once, as before... this time, the beat was simple, played over a continuing organ chord.
Slowly... the crowd began to sway, moving as one, entranced by the music. It wasn't the frenzy of before, and in fact left them quite muted in comparison. Nevertheless, they were in the grip of the Calculator now, pulsing with the beat...
Jesse had to adjust her muffling spell, to make sure she was hearing this right.
"I don't get it," she said aloud. "It's just a beat. There's no melody, there's no variation. It's nothing. Why..."
Why were Chloe and Benny nodding along, as well?
Why was GILBERT nodding along, deep in his silly disguise?
Danger warnings went off in Jesse's head. A head which had been laced with a special spell, a "curse" which was actually a blessing... preventing her from memorizing mind-damaging spells. One which had, some years ago, also protected her against the mind control of an alien scourge calling itself President of Alaska.
Quickly, she took her cup of tea, and threw it in Benny's face.
"Spleargh!" Benny replied. "Whh... What're..."
"You're being controlled!" Jesse spoke, loud enough to be heard over the beat. "Snap out of it, man! We've got to do something!"
But in his head, he thought: That's stupid. This is great music. It's washing away all my worries, all my fears. All the self loathing. All the things I want to forget, every time I wander off in search of sex and drugs and good times. Everything goes away and all that's left is the beat...
You know, among other party favors, I helped hook Randall up with his twin hotties.
Among other party favors...
...my special house blend, 'Trance.' Very hot in Ibiza; snort up the dust during a dance party, and you ARE the beat. At least, until the beat stops. 'til then, nothing else matters.
"That filthy little Dealbreaker was actually helping me," Benny realized.
"Nevermind," he dismissed -- while focusing, to let his demonic metabolism burn through the drug. "It's the fog machines. Random's drugged up the crowd. We've got to break them out of the trance; otherwise all they're gonna remember is that they just had the best three minutes of their lives! You have a spell for that?"
"Not with me right now. I've heard of Detoxification spells, but..."
"Okay. Okay. Work the problem..." Benny said, rubbing his eyes, trying to get the dust out. "They need a distraction. They need... --right."
He stood up... and pulled the entranced Chloe to her feet, supporting her by the shoulders.
"Sis, come on, wake up..." he pleaded. "It's angel time. C'mon!"
The young woman tried to focus on the blob in front of her. "...wh...?"
"Random's enslaved them all," he explained, pointing her towards the crowd. "You're a guardian angel. They WILL sit up and take notice, if you do your thing. They're in trouble and right now you're the only one who can help. Come on. Do it!"
He could see it in her eyes... that fight for focus. But it wasn't a willing enough fight; she was readily slipping back into the trance.
"...I don't..." she mumbled. "I don't want to be..."
"Do you want to save people?" he asked. "That's the only question. Do you? Then do it. Wings. NOW."
And the Word was present. In a minute fashion, a tiny sliver, but it was more than enough.
The messengers from above are never overlooked. They come to make proclamations, to announce events of importance to all humanity. They are heralded by the light and the sound of grace, and they are not to be ignored.
Even the visitors to Cosmos who weren't looking in the direction of the brilliant splendor, the strange shapes that flashed into existence for a split second, felt their presence. It was enough.
Suddenly, everybody was wondering why they thought this half-hearted 'song' was anything special.
Two minutes were gone in Random's final shot at the prize before he realized he'd lost the crowd. They weren't swaying in unison, they were milling about in confusion. Wondering if he'd even started his song yet, or if he had, why he was wasting time with this intro piece when the clock was ticking away...
Panic. Immediately, he was rummaging through his controls, flipping switches, pushing buttons. Trying to fire up some music despite having nothing more in his tank. He accidentally started the drumline from one song against the melody of another, wincing at the clash, before getting them synced up again...
Too late. A buzzer sounded, indicating he'd gone over the limit.
"Er... let's hear it for Random the Calculator, ladies and gentlemen...?" the announcer's voice suggested.
It wasn't like the reaction was silent. Some of Random's diehard fans were here, and determined not to look like fools, they carried on through with the adoration of their idol. If anything, they applauded twice as hard as usual, to make up for the halfhearted polite applause from the rest of the crowd. It was enough volume, added to the volume of his first song, to keep him in the running even if he'd taken a serious wounding in the process.
"And with the final rebuttal... your attention, please, for the Turner of Tables!"
Who was waiting, and ready.
"Weep not for your fallen star, gentlefolk!" Gilbert called out, through his megaphone. "For I shall singlehandedly vindicate his works. Join with me! Raise your hands into the air and flail them about as if there were no repercussions!"
With a flick of his wrist... the white dropcloth was removed from his secret weapon.
It wasn't as dramatic of an impact as he wanted, but that was understandable. A wax cylinder attached to a complicated series of tubes and cogs wasn't by itself anything special. The realization only hit them when he cranked it to life... and the sound it made echoed throughout Cosmos.
It was playing Random's song.
Specifically, his first one, the dance club staple he'd blown their minds with. The Turner of Tables had been secretly recording it from six minutes previous, using an experimental high fidelity sampling device.
And now, the Turner of Tables placed his hand upon the cylinder... and worked it just as he had worked the turntables, before. Remixing Random's own song right back in his face. And improving upon it.
THAT earned the desired reaction. It started with a knowing "OOooooOOOHHH!", at the viciousness of the attack, the giant middle finger it represented. The fact that his final three minute performance only grew from there... layering in an intense classical music track, rocking away with guitar and bass and harmony alongside the programmed beats of his enemy... that was icing on the cake. A very, very tasty cake of spite and skill.
The intensity of Random's best effort, coupled with the intensity of the well-known song being played in perfect sync with it, and the intensity of the DJ in the spotlight... it was enough to drive the crowd quite batty.
Finally, as the three minutes of sand wound their way out of the hourglass... the Turner of Tables let the last words of the album on his victrola speak for him.
And in the end... the love you take is equal to the love you make.
The final rising chords were drowned out in the roar of the crowd.
Lost in the mess, far away from the cheering and the triumph, Benny was cradling a near unconscious angel in his arms.
Chloe whispered something so quietly that it was nearly lost in all the excitement.
"I've got to go to London," she realized. "I was supposed to deliver a message."
And then she blacked out.
There was no "after hours" at Cosmos. It was only closed for a few hours a day, to mop up and prepare for the next onslaught. So, a replacement musician stepped in to keep the crowd entertained, while stage hands packed away the battle equipment.
The backstage area was the closest one could get to an aftermath of peace and quiet. It was there that Gilbert's companions met up with him.
"I know, I know," Gilbert said. "Not exactly a fifth of Beethoven. But... did you like it?"
His wife responded with an intense embrace and kiss.
"You were glorious," she stated. "A champion's champion, regardless of the battle. I'm proud of you, dearest."
"Ahhh... well, I had a good teacher," he professed. "Honestly, it was probably quite crummy, but it helps when the audience hasn't heard a style in years, and... erm..."
Whatever glory he had faded, at the sight of his rival. Without his fabled twin companions, for that matter.
Randall Wellspring thrust a small wooden box of punchcards at Gilbert.
"Take it and get out of here," he demanded... without much strength behind it, more of a plea. "You've inadvertently ruined my life again. I've only got a year left to live, and you've ensured I can't live it in Ibiza. Take what you came for and go away."
Jeeves was there to accept the box, as Gilbert has his arms full.
"Ah... thank you?" he offered. "I'm... Randall, I'm sorry. I wasn't... I mean, I wasn't maliciously trying to make things harder for you. Not now, or any previous time..."
"I know," Randall agreed. "And that's the sick of it."
The defeated Calculator turned and walked away, without another word.
To which Jesse stepped in. "You're just as much to blame, you know," she accused. "You could've helped us right off. YOU insisted on the battle. And you were the one who decided to try and cheat--"
"Jesse... let it go," Gilbert whispered, stopping her, as his rival turned the corner in the backstage hallway and was gone. "He's had enough, the poor sod. ...let's go. We need to set sail for France right away."
"What we need isn't in France. It's in London."
Both looked to the sullen girl, who was certainly not in a celebratory mood.
"It doesn't matter what we do in France," Chloe said. "Whether we can stop the war there or not. In the end, we're going to London. That's where I'm supposed to be. Where I was supposed to be going in the first place."
Jesse studied her, for a moment. "And... what does that mean, exactly?" she asked.
"I don't know. That's all I know," Chloe said, with a shrug. "Sorry."
"Yes, well... we've a strike mission to plan for in France, regardless of your funny feelings," Jesse decided. "We'd best return to the Mermaid, study those punch cards, and get on top of that. But not before I show my husband the hidden feature of my newly acquired tan."
Gilbert's ears twitched. "Oooh? What would that be, then?" he asked.
"It goes everywhere. So, shall we depart?"
Back to work.
Every day, the same mathematical grind. Crunch the numbers, work on the blueprints. Send proof of progress back to the bastards at Bonnechance, to prove he wasn't wasting their time teleworking this far away from his corporate masters.
After his complete bungling, it seemed all he had in front of him for the rest of his short life was math. The girls were still around, true, but they were paid to be around. They didn't matter. None of it was really fun. May as well close the door to his studio apartment and lock it, then focus on the work until he slept and never awoke...
He was reasonably sure he'd locked the door to his apartment when he left. And yet, there was the elderly gentleman, sitting at his work desk.
"It's good stuff, I have to admit," he said. "I've seen Calculators come and go, but you're something special. It'd be a real shame to lose you."
"Who the hell are you and how'd you get in here?" Randall Wellspring asked.
"Who the hell I am is what I in fact am," the man said, extending his well-manicured hand, for a shake. "How I got in isn't as important as why I am here. I represent an interested party in London who wishes to contract your services."
Randall groaned. Not now, not this headache on top of his headache. "Look, I'm already under contract, and I don't do freelance jobs. The Society would have my head. If you don't mind, I need to get back to work..."
"The paperwork's already been filed to buy you from the Société de Bonnechance. If you agree, we can fly you up north and you can start preparing my employer's defenses immediately. Don't worry about the girls; we can buy you better ones."
The Calculator stared, incredulous. It wasn't... impossible, not exactly. After all, he got his start in Gearhaus Industries, before being bought at a young age, but it took considerable political sway to transfer a Calculator this late in his career. And besides that...
"...what does it matter?" Randall asked. "I'm dead in a year, two years tops. I can't do much for you. I'm burning out."
The man chuckled... and pulled on a pair of gloves, embroidered with strange symbols and glyphs. Once they were properly fitted, he reached into a pocket of his well tailored overcoat...
And withdrew a knife. Already stained with blood. And glowing, with a misty steamlike haze over it.
"That's not a concern, young master," he explained. "As I said... don't worry about the girls. We can buy you better ones. And with their sacrifice, my employer's gift will extend your lifeline."
...how? How did Randall not notice the twins, lying dead not twenty feet away, in his bedroom...? A sideways glance would have been enough. Enough warning to get him running, running as fast as he could run...
Not fast enough to evade the man. Who was already behind him.
"No need to thank me, really," he explained, while sinking the knife into Randall's back, right into his heart. "I'm only the middleman, here. Just a Broker."
to be continued
copyright 2010 stefan gagne