1. a disk or wheel, having cut teeth of such form, size, and spacing that they mesh with teeth in another part to transmit or receive force and motion.
2. implements, tools, or apparatus, esp. as used for a particular occupation or activity.
3. armor or arms.
Failure by oversight was the worst form of failure Jesse could think of.
Making your best effort and coming up short was also unpleasant, but at least it was proactive, it was an attempt to overcome a challenge. That was an acceptable failure. Failure by circumstances completely beyond your control was also unpleasant but acceptable; acts of God were what they were, and could not be taken into consideration.
But when you COULD have seen something coming, and overlooked it in your rush to accomplish a goal... that was unacceptable. That was a complete failure, as it was avoidable, had you done due diligence. The losses from such a failure were doubly unacceptable.
So, when she was staggering to her feet, blood trickling out of her ears while trying to focus her eyes on the fallen and bloodied form of her husband, Jesse's first reaction was a pure wave of self loathing. They'd overlooked something, and paid the price. Possibly even with his life...
Second instinct was to immediately call up a Mending spell on her monocle, and try to heal his injuries. If that pulse of healing magic did any good, Jesse couldn't tell. Her sense of balance was so askew that the Will needed to properly understand and repair the wound simply wasn't there. Here she was, too dizzy to be a proper witch of power and grace, while her beloved was likely bleeding out on the paving stones outside a French shipyard. Unacceptable. Unacceptable...
Her inner ears betrayed her further, sending her back to the ground. Briefly, she cast an angry glare at the cause of their plight... the ruined casing of the "Grey Box," the Kraken friend-or-foe beacon they were trying to steal. The flames had scorched and warped its metal casing, scattering cogs, sprockets, and spindles everywhere. Including a few that had been explosively embedded in her husband's flesh, from the looks of it...
Voices were calling, in the distance. The guards, of course. They'd stealthily slipped past every guard tower, and were home free when disaster struck. Loud, obvious disaster that even the most underpaid security officer would've heard a mile away...
They'd managed to sneak into the facility in the dead of night with stupendous ease, using the security codes and blueprints provided by Randall Wellspring. A flawless plan, flawlessly executed. Everything was going fine... until they set foot outside the building with the footlocker sized casing filled with gears, sprockets, and cogs.
The instant the Grey Box crossed the threshold, it gave a decidedly electronic beep! and promptly burst into flames. A little countermeasure that Random didn't know about... or did know about, and had chosen to omit from his information. An oversight.
Oversight. They'd keyed in one of Randall's stolen access codes on the box lock to open it and make sure it was functioning, but hadn't searched the casing well enough. They could have waited until Benny was finished his task, and brought him with them to smuggle the box out through fire. (Sprinklers overhead. Riskier. Less sneaky.) They could have brought Jeeves along, and let HIM be blown to bits instead. (A giant clunky robot was also not sneaky.) They could have brought Chloe along, and she'd have warned them of the danger ahead of time. (But her odd ability didn't signal them quickly enough in Tortuga.)
Good reasons against, good reasons for. So many different ways this could have been handled. Instead, as usual, Jesse went right for the throat. Go in, grab it, get out. Incautious. Oversights. Failure...
Didn't matter now. She couldn't even sit up, much less save the life of her husband. They would be caught, and provided they survived, thrown in prison. If the empire was truly run with its famed ruthless efficiency, they'd be executed as enemies of the state before anyone could rescue them.
She was being dragged away, now. Hands grasping at her dress, pulling her along the ground. An unusually high pitched call... and more hands, now lifting her, carrying her away about a foot over the streets. Indistinct, blurry forms... but a bit short to be guards, when she thought of it...
Thinking would have to wait. Unconsciousness had priority right now, despite her best efforts.
If she awoke to find Gilbert was dead, then God have mercy on anyone in her near vicinity. But that could wait as well.
by stefan gagne
Gilbert's heart decided it was about time to quit.
Less than a minute later, a thousand volts shooting through his heart convinced it to beat properly again.
Thankfully, Jesse was still unconscious at the time, or she might've been worried about that. By the time she regained any sort of lucidity, it was only enough to decide: Oh, I seem to have a concussion.
The dim lighting of... wherever she'd ended up wasn't helping her properly assess the situation. The first thing she could clearly make out was a woman kneeling over her husband, putting away two metal paddles of some sort.
"Blessings of God upon you, child," the woman spoke, with a smile... and a comforting stroke of the back of her hand to Jesse's cheek. (Normally she'd've batted away such a silly gesture, but lacked the strength. That had to be why she didn't resist. Made sense.) "You are safe, you are well. Also, it seems your companion will pull through; thankfully, goodfellow Prevost's method has proven effective yet again--"
"Where am I?" she rasped, not liking how dry and crackly her voice sounded. "Is this a prison?"
"What? No, no -- well, we are underground and tucked away out of sight, I suppose," she woman admitted. "But no. This is my sanctuary. My children found you and brought you here, before Bonnechance Security could capture you... you shouldn't sit up so soon, child, you definitely have a head injury..."
Jesse powered through the pain in her head, forcing herself to alertness.
The first thing she saw were the eyes. Dozens of them, children all, ranging from little kids to teenagers. They'd gathered at a respectable distance to watch the show, apparently.
Next -- Gilbert. Still looking quite horrible and quite unconscious, but the addition of multiple bandages had done wonders to keep him stable. Good. She could tend to him once her head stopped throbbing.
The elderly woman wore the frock of a Christian nun. (Jesse didn't pay much attention to Eastusa religions, but had opted to browse a few books after it became clear they were traveling with a bona fide angel.) Of course, most nuns didn't wear welding goggles and insulated rubber gloves, nor did they have a belt dangling with voltmeters and soldering irons and such...
Voltmeters A shock to the heart. And, from what she could tell... electric lamps all around the room, at the outer edges...
"Electricity?" she asked. "I was under the impression it was banned..."
"It is," the nun said, pushing her goggles up, to show her bright blue eyes. "Quite so. However, this orphanage can't afford aetheric steam supplies. Instead... we make do with homemade batteries, generators, flashlights, space heaters, and ovens. --I'm sorry, I should've introduced myself. My name is Sister Jeanne de Tesla. This is my home, where I can provide for those who must do without, and spread the holy word of the lightning."
"A revolutionary, then?"
Sister Jeanne shook her head. "I'm merely a social worker. I'm not fighting a war. ...but judging from the way you and your friend brazenly broke into the Bonnechance Shipyard and stole their technology, I'd guess you are a revolutionary? And there's the, ah, matter of directly assaulting the Gatherer cell in Ibiza--"
"I'd love to know how you know about that, but before we continue with introductions, I need to tend to my husband," Jesse realized, cursing herself for going off track. "Thank you for stabilizing him. I'll take it from here."
The sister looked puzzled. "You are a medical doctor as well as a thief, then...?"
"My monocle, please?" Jesse asked, offering no further explanation.
"It took unusual effort to remove it," Jeanne said, pulling the simple glass lens from her pocket. "Apologies. I am no thief; I was concerned with it breaking and glass entering your eye..."
Jesse twisted the lens against her nose... letting the Orbital molecular bonding process activate, to hold it in place. A brief flicker of blue light across its surface signified the spell library was online and ready.
First of all, her concussion. Possibly too subtle a wound for Mending to clear up, and the wound itself got in the way of focusing her Will... but she would not risk harming Gilbert further with poor quality spell casting. Harming herself was an acceptable risk.
Focus. The Word. The Will. The Way.
It was like putting a huge electric fan in the room, to blow all the fog away. Clarity settled into place, happy to be back.
Perhaps she could make amends for their earlier failure, after all.
"This may take me some time, sister. I'll explain properly once I'm done, but for now, my love needs my attention," Jesse said. "Now, then. . ..."
Several of the street urchins were dispatched to track down Chloe and Benny, while Jesse focused on bringing Gilbert around to good health. Apparently despite being unwashed little brats, they were a coordinated network of spies and informants -- useful for gathering up anything on electric technology they could find, to bring back to their matron. They'd spotted Jesse and Gilbert sneaking into the shipyard, a feat even the Bonnechance security forces hadn't managed, and even recognized Jesse from her earlier exploits.
"Wireless radio, one of my namesake's greatest contributions to civilization," Sister Jeanne (not her birth name, of course) said. "I have ties to most of the pro-electric groups in the Empire. One of them said you, err... approached her in a state of undress and took her coat. It was notably strange, so it carried well across the network... plus, a child in Ibiza followed you to the Gatherer warehouse."
"Oh? You know of them, then?" Gilbert asked -- as he'd been brought around to a reasonable state of health, aside from occasionally coughing up blood.
"It's a difficult relationship. I encountered them early in my holy mission, when one of their agents was trying to steal my prototype generator. My children leapt to my defense, and we managed a truce... they would supply me with components if I supplied them with blueprints. They seem to be gathering technology from all across the Empire, but beyond that, I know nothing of their origins or goals. Very few know they exist at all."
Benny was still wincing at every mention of the Gatherers... as he had been since the 'mission debriefing' after Ibiza. "I've run afoul of them a few times, myself. Sold them items, obtained items from them. They're covetous little hoarder bastards... and as far as I can tell, they've been around for as long as I have. But I hadn't made the connection between them and the Orbitals until now..."
"Excuse me? The what?"
"Anyway," he said, eager to change the subject, "Looks like you two got ground into hamburger. Told you I should've come with you on this romp. You're lucky I'd just got back from my own task when the kid somehow got on board the Mermaid. I could've sworn we sealed the docking hatches..."
"My children are adept at being where they're not supposed to," Sister Jeanne noted. "It can be a sinful skill, or a divine one, depending on its application..."
"So, now what's the plan?" Benny asked, leaning back a bit in his chair. (Sister Jeanne was nice enough to set up a card table with folding chair for their impromptu war council session -- one which she was now included in, despite the team's uncertainty about her. Being tangled up in their business put her in danger, so there wasn't much else to be done.)
"The plan is... it's... well, honestly, I've no idea," Gilbert said. "We need a Grey Box to turn this fiasco into a proper machination. We've still got security codes to the entire shipyard, but my guess is that Bonnechance has bent the rules a bit and installed an RFID chip in all their boxes."
Sister Jeanne's eyes widened. "Radiofrequency identification? I've read old books about that," she said. "La Société de Bonnechance is breaking the taboo...?"
"They're one of the seven founding corporations of the Empire, madam. I doubt they care much for rules. RFID is the best explanation I can offer -- the box exploded the instant we walked out the door. That's no coincidence. I suppose we could try to disable the chip readers in the doorframes, but after this incident, no way will they resume normal guard patrols..."
"In other words, you blew your one shot at doing this quietly," Benny said. "Okay. You say the word, I can get you enough hardware to outfit a small army. Hell, you give me a few days, I can hire you a small army. Kick down the door, lay out the guards with high energy assault rifles, we grab a box, I bail with it through a bonfire. Then you make a run for the Mermaid, and--"
"I'm not ready to give up on a simple and peaceful solution," Gilbert said. "There may still be a way to sneak a box out the door. We have some in-roads remaining. We just need to be clever..."
"Yes, well, while you're being clever, I still have business to transact for part two of this clever operation. Chloe and I... Chloe? Pay attention, kiddo..."
The young woman who hadn't said a word continued not saying a word. She was busy staring at the ceiling.
"--what? Oh, sorry, sorry..." she apologized, when she realized Benny was giving her a funny look. "Just... um. Sister Jeanne, are we under a church...?"
"That's correct," Sister Jeanne de Tesla said. "My old parish. The true sanctuary is hidden away underneath it. I started this church-beneath-a-church when I received the holy message, instructing my path. ...not that I expect you to believe I was given a message from on high, of course. I understand the skept--"
"I think this crowd is a bit more open minded than most," Benny suggested. "And for the record, what exactly was that message...? Sorry to interrupt the mission planning, but given recent events, I'm not gonna overlook anything faith-y that we stumble across..."
Puzzled at the sudden display of open acceptance... Jeanne found herself summarizing. "I was visited by an angelic presence twenty four years ago, on the cold night of November 5th. It took control of my body, my voice. I was filled with a light I had no doubt was holy. It spoke onto me... 'Harness the lightning, for when the storm clouds pass.'"
Seeing no doubting looks in her audience... Jeanne swallowed, and continued her memory.
"After a week of prayer and consideration, I decided this meant I was to learn the ways of electricity," she explained. "It was a forbidden art... one which my brother was arrested for meddling in. I've not seen him since, and have no doubt of his fate. I knew the dangers. But if the Lord needed His people to harness the lightning, so it would be. I changed my name and established the sanctuary soon after. ...ah. I realize you've only my word to go on, and I've only my faith to guide me in terms of believing it was a presence--"
"Funny that the Word didn't send an actual messenger from the Silver City, choosing to speak through her from afar," Benny mused aloud, cleaving any skepticism in half. "That's only standard protocol in a hostile situation, where sending an angel to the mortal plane would put it at risk. But given that we seem to have a stalker who knows angelic glyphs and wants to get rid of Chloe, I guess celestial safety is an issue around these parts... oh. Damn. I think I confused the virgin. Chloe, can you deal with this? I've got calls to make. ...Chloe? Hello?"
"I was born twenty four years ago," Chloe spoke, quietly. "On November 5th."
With several world views quietly upended and torn apart around them, stunned silence was perfectly reasonable.
It was broken only when Gilbert banged a fist on the table.
"Eureka!" he declared. "That's the answer! Like Sister Jeanne, I need change my name! With that, a Grey Box shall be ours! It all makes perfect sense!"
"...your announcement timing is crappy, man," Benny mumbled.
"Sorry, sorry, but... it's all coming together, see," Gilbert said, pointing to his head with a wobbly finger (which unfortunately doubled as the international sign of 'I'm crazy'). "All in my head. I think I've got it. I'm going to need a cloth cape preferably midnight black in color but I suppose crimson will also do and I'll need Jesse's talents I think your spellwork will be perfect for this and come to think of it I could really use your army of loveable scamps, Sister. Okay! Let's get to work! For startersghaaack--"
A fresh blood splat landed on the foldaway table that comprised her impromptu war room.
"For starters, I am getting back to Mending you, and then you are sleeping here," Jesse declared. "You're in no shape to be moved back to the Mermaid. I suggest we bunk down for the night. ...and various people have various things to discuss, to put us all on the same page. Although I suspect, Sister, that you may regret getting involved in our story."
One day removed from the disasters of the previous night. Not that the rest of the city even noticed anything amiss.
Marseilles wasn't a town that noticed much of anything. The thrum and hum of business kept the city moving; it was easy to overlook the occasional fumble, amidst the rumble of steam-driven commuter trams and the chatter of commerce through its streets. While Paris remained the seat of government and major tourist centre for the French district of the British Empire... Marseilles was the pumping heart that kept the territory going.
By and large, that was thanks to La Société de Bonnechance.
Gearhaus Industries, which for all intents and purposes ran most of the German district, might have been wealthier. They certainly were more innovative, being the finest designers of steam powered technology around. Other corporations in the empire were stronger than Bonnechance in just about every way, in fact... but they considered themselves "above" the trivial daily grind which kept the empire going. Industrial mass manufacturing, infrastructure development, basic needs. All things that La Société de Bonnechance kept in their pocket as a trump over the competition.
In short: When you wanted a spectacular airship designed, you turned to Gearhaus. When you wanted a spectacular airship hammered out of a cookie cutter factory over and over again with ruthless efficiency, that was Bonnechance's turf. They did the boring part so you didn't have to.
They made toilets. They made staplers. They made spatulas. They made mechanical toothbrushes, most notably, as the company got its start with plumbing and personal hygiene devices. Those things still got made, more out of a sense of tradition than anything... but here and now, this year, the focus was on military production. Warships. And building warships meant a LOT of manpower.
La Société de Bonnechance currently employed nearly 40% of Marseilles's working population, in some form or another. Everything from project directors to unskilled labor flowed through Bonnechance's offices and production facilities. Smaller support corporations popped up in the city, usually tied to Bonnechance in one way or another -- even basic services like barber shops and restaurants were there to keep Bonnechance employees trimmed and fed. The ones who could afford it, at least.
For instance, the Director of Shipyard Operations (DSO for short), Henri Durand, was immaculately coiffed and quite well fed.
He got that way by fine tuning his factories... always with an eye on the big picture and the smaller details. Some called him a control freak, although rarely to his face -- although Durand might have taken it as a compliment. He revolutionized the end-to-end manufacturing by personally cutting every corner imaginable, skirting the edge between efficiency and inefficiency, coming up green each time.
Reducing the clerical staff by 40%, and doubling their hours? That was him. Employing unskilled and barely paid child labor to handle polishing inside gun barrels and engine rooms? That was him. Eliminating all major holidays in favor of a once a month beer festival to keep morale up and to weed out the least stable drunken employees for firing? That was certainly him. Every snip, every trim, kept his profit margins up.
He was also the one to cut 56% of the security staff, in favor of automated protocols... namely, RFID technology. Banned, of course, but it wasn't like anyone would call La Société de Bonnechance to the carpet on it. They were one of the seven founders of steam technology, and the seven signers of the ban on this world's electrical technology. No one would dare persecute them for it, so why not? It was cheaper to make stolen goods self destruct than to hire a bunch of croissant munching desk jockeys to MAYBE spot a Grey Box walking out the door.
DSO Durand should have been commended for this. The loss of a single Grey Box was regrettable, but more than made up for in the cut salaries of the guards who wouldn't have been able to stop the theft anyway. (The way the thieves apparently waltzed through every locked door was concerning, but as they ultimately failed, Henri was not concerned.)
His superior, the CEO and owner of Bonnechance -- that drunken sot, Gustave Bonnechance himself -- apparently didn't see it that way.
A single pneumatic messenger tube connected Durand's office directly to the office of Gustave Bonnechance. It had no junctions, no connections to the tube network... a straight line, to ensure secure and speedy communication from head office to its most important project. It was this tube that carried a simple and rather unpleasant message to Henri Durand's desk that morning.
LOSS OF A GREY BOX IS UNACCEPTABLE. THE EYES OF THE EMPIRE ARE UPON US. EVEN A CONTAINED FAILURE IS A FAILURE. IF ANOTHER BOX GOES MISSING OR IS DAMAGED YOU WILL BE REPLACED. THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS WAS FIRM ON THIS.
Obviously not written by the man himself. Gustave was far too flowery in his speech and his prose for that; no doubt one of his assistants was passing word along from the board, stamping it with his seal to emphasize its importance. Gustave would be in his ivory tower nursing a hangover about now, after all.
It didn't matter who typed it up. The paper was a Damocles blade over DSO Durand's head. Here he'd saved them money, he prevented the loss of classified technology -- and they were issuing threats? ...which had better be taken seriously, if he wanted to salvage his spotless record, mind you...
Henri Durand crumpled up the message before tossing it in his personal incinerator chute. Which was inefficient, wasted energy ruining the message before it was ruined again. He simply felt like burning off his anger into waste energy. That made it efficient. And justifiable.
He blasted through the usual wave of petitioners outside his office, playing his role as The Decider. Despite trimming the clerical staff, there were still far too many of them, far too many of them presenting him with far too many issues every morning. He didn't bother learning their names or faces; they were replaceable gears, after all.
"Sir, the new water coolers have arrived, but they're the King size ones, not the Queens you requested--"
"Sending them back would be wasteful. Install them and drain every tank slightly until its contents are Queen sized," DSO Durand decided. "I won't have my workers wasting time at the coolers all day."
"The head office is suggesting we donate some of our surplus mechanical toothbrushes to the homeless," some lovely clerk read from her clipboard. "I have the authorization here for you to sign. I was thinking we could have the kids crate up a few today and ship them out by COB--"
"Yes, whatever, print out the shipping labels and make it happen," Durand agreed, signing off on the offered forms. "Dental care is beneath my consideration today."
"Shipment of your kinetrope video conferencing apparatus was delayed due to a snowstorm in Switzerland, sir," a nebbishy clerk said. "That's the second one lost this month, after the first was waylaid by pirates..."
"Let the R&D department at Gearhaus know I won't be able to attend tomorrow's meeting, and thank God above for that," Henri mumbled. "Sometimes losing resources has a bright side."
"Sir, there's the matter of the figureheads on the ships, the sculptor is asking for--"
"I don't care if it's considered bad luck, we're not affixing those accursed statues to our warships anymore. They serve no functional purpose and are a waste of perfectly good pounds sterling."
"Sir! There's a man standing in the rafters at Shipyard One declaring that he's going to steal a Grey Box!"
"Have him shot and-- wait. What?"
Clerks were diving out of the way as the DSO made a beeline for Shipyard One, following the most efficient path possible. Regardless of who was in his way.
Whatever tension was bubbling away under Chloe's skin was met with cheerful indifference by the rest of Marseilles.
Her part in this plan was comparatively minor. Honestly, she was only here because she had nothing to do, and felt the need to interject herself somehow. Benny would've preferred to make this transaction alone... but sitting around the Mermaid all day, even with the comforting company of Jeeves, wasn't going to work for her. Not after revelation after revelation had been piling up on top of her lately, like a horrible chain reaction car accident...
She didn't have to browbeat her demonic apparent-brother into letting her come. Well, it took a little pestering, but he gave in quicker than he might have a week ago. And without the exasperated frustration he was showing back in Florida, for that matter.
Although he did warn she wouldn't like where they were going.
It wasn't some seedy back alley warehouse, or a gambling den of thieves and whores. At least, not literally. The item Benny had spent all of yesterday tracking down was going to be sold to a man of wealth and taste... Gustave Bonnechance, CEO of La Société de Bonnechance. From how Benny explained it, he was a very personable fellow, and certainly kept to upscale surroundings.
Which was the problem.
They'd taken a tramway from the tourist docks at Vieux Port, a short ways across the city and uphill... to Notre-Dame de la Garde. The finest cathedral in all of Marseilles. Built and re-built and surviving through multiple wars, from the Great War before Pandora to the Mutant War that followed Pandora. It was a holy place of majesty and beauty, the Good Mother of Marseilles.
And it had been bought out by a corporation, renovated to become their new company offices.
Oh, there was still the majestic grand hall of the chapel, and rows of pews. But petitioners didn't come seeking redress for sins -- they sat here waiting for the secretary at her desk to wave them through, so they could attend meetings, have power lunches, and discuss matters of business with the higher ups of La Société. It was for this reason that Benny could set foot on sacred ground without feeling any discomfort... anything truly sacred left this place generations ago, when the company bought the structure after the Mutant War, and rebuilt it in their image.
"It's all wrong," Chloe mumbled to herself, while sitting in a pew, watching the chatty secretary talk into a voice tube.
"Y'know, you've got a perverse obsession with churches lately," Benny commented. "I thought you weren't much of a Jesus freak back in Eastusa...?"
"I went now and then with my family, but I made pastors nervous. Wasn't really a believer, either. I guess 'belief' goes out the window, though, when you find out it's all factually true," she said, with a sigh. "So, still not very faithful. But this is supposed to be my sort of turf, isn't it? Where I can feel safe. And I feel jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory."
"You could just go back to the ship. A lightweight like Gustave isn't going to be much of a challenge for the Broker, anyway..."
"No... I want to be useful. Somehow. I mean... it helps your reputation if you have a Lovely Assistant with you, right? So. I'm arm candy. I can at least do that."
"Normally no, since the Broker has a rep for being a man alone... but I guess our chances Gustave goes for the deal increase if there's a distraction around. He appreciates a classical feminine form -- which is ponce talk for being a dedicated womanizer. Mind you, if he paws my little sis, I'll tear his arms out. --no, I won't actually do that, don't freak. Just... sayin'."
Chloe winced. "It's still a bit weird having a new big brother, you know..."
"Sorry. From my perspective... I mean, I always HAD a kid sister. Somewhere out there. I saw to it she would be safe, after all," Benny said. "What's new and crazy for you is a pleasant reunion for me. ...go figure, me being sentimental. Next thing you know I'll be buying greeting cards with kittens on them-- ah. Looks like we're up."
The woman behind the colossal desk was waving them in, much like a preacher gesticulating wildly to the nonexistent flock. Benny rose, straightening his rumply old coat, adjusting his power tie. Getting ready to do his thing.
"Just smile and nod along," he explained. "We need him to buy this item if we're gonna sabotage the factory. 'No Sale' is not an option. Go into this with that attitude, be a true Broker, and we'll nail the bastard's wallet to the ground."
Chloe tried to look presentable as well, adjusting her little hat... and making sure the Orbital blaster on its springloaded arm was tucked away in her billowing sleeve. "Of course, if we sell off the Mermaid's Kraken beacon, and Gilbert can't steal a replacement Grey Box for it... we'll be stranded in France."
"I can think of worse places to be stranded. Good wine, pleasant company, and amazing cheese. Now, come on. Maintain a positive attitude. We've got a deal to negotiate."
The vast warehouse of the Bonnechance Shipyard made the hangar hideaway of the Dreadnacht look like a broom closet.
It covered over half of the industrial port of Marseilles -- a massive structure, housing over two dozen warships, in various states of construction. None of them had their airbags inflated, which would've made the height of the building impossible instead of merely implausible... but you still couldn't cross from one end to the other without stopping for several breathers.
Security checkpoints had been installed at all three major gates into the building. Employees, from the underpaid street urchins to the most expert steam power specialist, were extensively searched by security for any contraband on the way in and any company property on the way out. Nobody got into the building without authorization. Nothing got out of the building without authorization. Despite the gargantuan size, DSO Durand was pleased to say it was as safe as a vault.
...except that someone somehow got in at the dead of night and carried a Grey Box out the door.
...and there was a madman in a black cloak and a mask perched in the rafters over the West Checkpoint, who could not possibly have snuck in during working hours, freely ranting to the crowd of workers below.
"The hubris of Bonnechance and its sister corporations will be the downfall of the empire!" the man standing in the least safety-compliant section of the overhead rigging called out. "You shuffle in and shuffle out, barely making enough money to keep your families fed, while the masters of the steam grow fat on pork and butter! They make you build warships so that they can conquer more and more territory, more lands to harvest for wealth -- while you see not a tuppence!"
It was a familiar rant, of course. At any given time, you could find three or four street corner preachers pumping out the same "revealing truths" about the empire. Basic anti-corporate wingnuts, saying nothing new, nothing of importance. But this wasn't a street corner -- this was a madman inside the factory floor. HIS factory floor...
A few of the clerks had followed Henri Durand, to see what all the fuss was about. In fact, more and more workers were leaving their posts, eager to join the mob. Few of them were taking it seriously, of course; watching the local crackpots was akin to bread and circuses.
But... a few of them, from where Durand could see the crowd, had personal filmers out.
Those blasted things had started popping up a few years ago. Small enough to fit in your pocket, perfect for amateur auteurs. They were astoundingly low quality, capable of capturing blurry video and tinny audio onto the cheapest film stock imaginable. You couldn't record more than a few minutes, either, before the reel was spent.
Which was the problem. Combined with a similarly cheap playback unit, and the tube network... a simple video of a man falling off a unicycle or a cat playing a clavichord could go far. It'd be mailed off to a friend, who'd duplicate the film and mail it off again, and again...
If he didn't put a stop to this now, the madman's rantings -- clearly and identifiably coming from INSIDE his secure facility -- would be a laughingstock as far away as Brussels by evening...
"Gentlemen and gentlewomen, I am here to show you that their power is nothing more than a facade!" the fool continued. "Mark my words, and let them echo across the empire... by midnight tonight, I will have stolen one of their top secret Grey Boxes! The beating heart of their pointless war machine. I do this to mock them as much as I do it to wound them. For I am the voice of the disaffected, the destitute! I am you, I am legion, I am L'Anonyme, and I neither forgive nor forget the sins of the empire!"
Enough of that, Henri decided.
He marched over to the nearest security officer -- who was busy standing there slackjawed and watching the spectacle -- and snapped his fingers in front of the man's eyes, for attention.
"Shoot him already!" Henri ordered. "He's an intruder in a Bonnechance facility!"
"What?" the guard asked, puzzled. "Fire on an unarmed loony? Sir... he's got to climb down at some point. We'll take him into custody then. It's the most prudent measure to take. A trespasser he may be, but that's hardly worthy of a death sentence..."
"He knows about the Grey Boxes. We never even told our own wage slaves that name! The only way he could know that is if he had inside information. That's treason against the empire!"
"If a magistrate agrees, yes. He'll stand for his crimes, once we pull off his ridiculous looking cape behind and arrest him," the guard replied. "He's an unarmed civilian, and other than uncivil chatter, he's posing no direct threat to public safety--"
"You're fired," Durand decided. Then turned to the nearest non-fired guard. "You're promoted to head of security, whoever you are. Now open fire on that man."
The second guard, a company man for two decades who knew where his bread was buttered and who held his pension cheque, raised his rifle.
Without even looking down to notice his life was in peril... the man calling himself L'Anonyme apparently knew to throw down a flash bomb. The spot in the rafters where he stood was enveloped in an intensely bright light, blasting right down the brass sights of the guard's rifle, throwing off the shot... and by the time the spots cleared from his vision, the intruder was gone.
From the perch, the black cape and mask dropped into the crowd below.
Durand briefly spotted the mocking smile of a traditional Guy Fawkes mask, as one of the workers triumphantly held his new trophy aloft.
"I want that costume confiscated, searched for clues, and then incinerated," DSO Durand declared. "Search the crowd for filmers of any make and model; they are to be confiscated and destroyed as well. I'm hereby banning any sort of recording devices in the shipyards. I want no evidence of this intrusion leaving these walls. Am I clear, newly promoted whoever you are?"
"Y-Yes sir, sir!" the new captain of the guard promised, with a sloppy salute.
"Search the entire warehouse for loose panels, open windows, anything the intruder could've entered through," Durand continued. "And... as insane as it sounds, I want all checkpoints reinforced and keeping an eye out for any Grey Boxes being smuggled out. Although Lord above knows how this nameless charlatan plans to sneak a giant metal box out of here. ...I need to go back to my office. To think about this. He must be planning something clever; nothing I can't handle, nothing I can't keep under control..."
The officer wandered off, muttering to himself... while keeping an eye on everyone around him. Looking for suspicious activity. Just in case.
The crowd, most of which had only gathered for a good excuse to take a break from work, thinned out after all the fun was said and done.
One man, busy trying to tug a pair of overalls that weren't quite fitting him, paused an aetheric steam tank refilling station to tie his boots.
Standing next to his rough and cheap workboots were a far more expensive pair of high heels. Which contained feet. Which led up to a woman in proper office attire, arms folded and looking quite sour.
"G'day to you, miss," the worker said, with a smile. "And how's your first day on the job, then...?"
"I thought we agreed you were going to be Le Chat Noir," Jesse replied. "International cat burglar."
"Oh, come on, this is far more entertaining," Gilbert said, with a wry grin. "I get to mix my work with my pleasure -- subterfuge against the bloated and warmongering empire I left behind, mixed with my study into ancient Eastusa Internet cultures. I'm introducing the continent to a wonderful and terrible new concept in groupthink!"
"You're lucky I was able to cast a Light spell that far away," she chided. "And lucky I spotted the guard getting ready to put a bullet in your heart. It already stopped once recently, I'd rather it not stop again..."
"What have I to fear, with my fierce and lovely warrior queen in my corner?" Gilbert asked. "Now, then. We've all day to terrorize Durand with random mishaps, driving him batty with paranoia. Then, when he's at the peak of madness... L'Anonyme will strike!"
"A pointless gesture."
"Which is the point, if you recall."
"I'm changing the plan," Jesse stated. "You are still in terrible health, and I'm not having you scale the building again in that ridiculous costume of yours. Especially with armed thugs about."
"Love, we need all the distraction we can get here. If L'Anonyme doesn't show for his audience, where will that get us?"
"Make no mistake, he will be present," she said. "And in a way befitting of his status. I said I was changing the plan... not canceling it. The show, which you have forced this to become, must go on."
Contrary to common belief, Gustave Bonnechance did not have a hangover every single morning. It depended on how his evening's celebrations went... which pubs he visited, what company he kept, what direction his emotional lever happened to be swinging that evening.
Benny the Broker had greased a few palms to ensure that Gustave had a miserable evening, one day previous. It wasn't that hard; the street gangs in the Empire were always looking for easy and safe money, since the coppers tended to crack down on any serious organized crime. Plus, they were generally professional when you treated them with professionalism, and the Broker was nothing if not a consummate professional. Paying a gang to tag along behind a rich corporate bastard and ruin his evening? They were ALL for that.
So, when the close-of-business bell sounded at Notre-Dame de la Garde (a bell once used to call the faithful to prayer), Gustave hit the town in search of some distraction from his life. And instead of finding comely French lasses and good times, he found bar room brawls, terrible tasting beer, and bar stools covered in some sort of weird, sticky substance. Eventually he gave up and went home, to sleep off the night properly.
All this put him in a foul mood, but Benny knew his target. Gustave didn't take out his anger on his employees. He was, at least in his own mind, a problem solver. He'd solve his own emotional doldrums, using the one solution that always worked. Money. His family wealth always put things right for him, in the end.
That much was obvious even to Chloe, as they entered his office... a square chamber with a vast ceiling, lined on all sides by glass windows. Lined on all sides by glass cases, each one containing a priceless treasure... some token attempt at buying happiness, courtesy of Gustave Bonnechance.
If the man's taste in bling had been ordinary, with diamonds and jewels and the like, that'd merely be tacky and tasteless. Unfortunately... he was quite possibly the world's biggest fanboy of Christian relics.
Golden crosses and chalices aplenty. Ornaments that had once adorned papal staves. Items from every stripe and walk of Christianity, from every sect and order. Things that did not belong in someone's private collection. Truly holy things... but also plenty of generic tokens of church greed, made doubly greedy by their ultimate destination in a rich man's menagerie....
To make the situation doubly worse, his office was once the bell tower atop the cathedral. He'd gutted it and turned it into his personal haven, at the highest point above sea level in all the city, spread out around him on all sides through the window walls. A lord above his subjects.
Chloe had to fight hard to keep from grinding her teeth at it all.
Of course, that could've been all in her head. She wouldn't have batted an eye at this a few weeks ago. ROLLED her eyes, maybe, but it wouldn't unsettle her. Was this a paranormal reaction, due to her awakening angelic nature? Or was she just assuming she had to have a reaction, and was twitching inside for no real reason...?
Didn't matter. In the end, she decided she did not like it here, regardless of why.
Fortunately, whatever power these items might've had over Benny had either been sapped away, or he was simply maintaining a strong front in the face of a concentrated pile of holiness. He was all smiles and courtesy, as Gustave's personal secretary led them into his office.
"Mr. Bonnechance, greetings on this fine day in your home," Benny the Broker spoke, with a little bow.
The rotund fellow with the immaculate helmet of hair waddled forward to greet him, shaking his head... with a smile.
"Benny, Benny! Please. I think we're on a first name basis by now," Gustave Bonnechance said. "Well. Not that I've had the honor of meeting you in person, but my buyers speak highly of you. You have indirectly helped me acquire quite a few pieces of my wonderful collection!"
"It's my pleasure as a Broker to ensure the items found a good home," Benny said.
"No need to be so serious. The pleasure's all on this side of the room, believe me," Gustave said, waving a hand behind himself. "Hmmm. And who is the heavenly creature at your side, then?"
(Chloe twitched, before realizing he wasn't being literal.)
"Ah... Chloe Manchester. Personal assistant to Benny... to Benny," Chloe added, hoping the slip wasn't noticed. If Benny was using a family name, he hadn't told anyone. Other than 'The Broker,' of course. "I'm here to observe and assist in the transaction in any way possible."
"Expanding your operations! A smart move, a smart move indeed!" Gustave said, taking it in stride. "You have a reputation for personal attention, I know, but you could be making so much more money if you had agents working under your wings, Benny. If you like, I can make a few suggestions. I've worked with all sorts of traders and relic hunters and tomb raiders, after all..."
Benny allowed a smile to crack his professional demeanor. (The client wanted friendly? Benny could deliver friendly. He could be anyone's best friend, if it sealed the deal.) "Pardon my saying so, Gustave, but... most of your contacts are small time. I didn't want to offend, but as we are on a first name basis, I'd be remiss in staying quiet about this..."
...and he began to walk along the rows of cases, browsing the menagerie.
"Fake," he declared, pointing to the Cross of Coronado. "The real one's in South America, I'm afraid, and inaccessible. And that chalice? Benedict the Fifteenth didn't really own it. Wrong style for the era. The seller must've assumed you wouldn't recognize an item from this world's alternative history. As for this..."
He paused, in front of a highly secured glass case, complete with its own complicated air filtration system purring away in its base.
The placard simply read PIECE OF THE TRUE CROSS.
"The truth is a bit less true than you'd want it to be, I'd wager," Benny said. "That type of wood didn't even exist in the region at the time the Christ was sacrificed. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Gustave, but these charlatans have taken your money and given you fool's gold."
Inwardly... Chloe enjoyed a brief moment of panic. Benny had walked into this man's home, and immediately declared all his prized possessions to be fraudulent. Would he fly into a rage? Would it hurt their chances? Would it...
...help quite a bit. Of course it would. Benny didn't act without thought. Already, she saw helplessness and defeat dancing around Gustave's features, as the joyfully tubby man sagged slightly.
"I suppose I always knew, really," he admitted. "I've no reason to doubt your claims, Benny. You are reputedly a man of honesty and worth... whereas those I work with would have to be a bit shady, to get me the things I crave. ...you are a man who has tastes that must be satisfied, yes? Thirsts that must be slaked. I'm afraid I'm a bit too loose with my pursestrings when offered something I desire. I've no one to blame but myself for this failure..."
"But they're the ones who ripped you off!" Chloe blurted out.
Derp, she thought, as she was immediately moved from background to foreground. It was instinctive... the need to speak out, to give someone hope. Badly timed, but...
She decided to carry on, anyway.
"We all make mistakes, Mr. Bonnechance, but... they did take advantage of you. They aren't blameless in this," Chloe continued. "I'd like to think wanting to believe isn't a bad thing. I mean... it's good to have faith in something. Those who would prey on someone with faith, exploiting it, well. They're the lowest, I mean. Uh. Just saying."
And now... Gustave was moving forward, towards her. Unreadable. Did she blunder? Did she blunder by continuing with her blunder? Did she--
--find her hands clasped by his.
"You've a beautiful soul in you, young woman," Gustave declared. "Benny? You have fine taste in assistants. If all dealmakers were as wise and forthright as this one, perhaps this dirty business wouldn't feel quite so dirty, after all..."
"Th-thanks," she mumbled, pulling her hands back.
Benny stepped in smoothly... and physically, to get between the fellow and his sister.
"And on the note of being forthright," he said, "Let us turn to the matter of my proposed sale. ...hmm. Windows everywhere, no walls... do you have a pulldown projector screen I can use?"
"Do I--? My good man, I am of the Bonnechance family!" Gustave declared. "We have the finest technology in all the empire! Observe...!"
The client-to-be crossed the room, to a pushbutton panel... and after a few moments of sorting through two rows of identical glass buttons strewn across the brass console, pressed one.
A nearby bookcase swiveled around, on pneumatic motors, to reveal a fully stocked wet bar displaying a wide variety of expensive liqueurs.
"Ah. Wrong button," Gustave admitted.
After two more false starts, one of which unfolded the couch in the conversation pit into a bed, a white canvas screen finally extended itself through the floor.
Satisfied, Benny reached into the depths of his coat... withdrawing a small tin box with a hand crank on the side, a funny looking device like a child's jack-in-the-box. He plugged a cylinder onto the side of it, faced the screen, and began to turn the handle on the mechanism...
Light flickered against the canvas... the lens on the front of the box eventually focusing, to display a filmstrip.
In the strip... a glass case was on display. The cameraman, presumably Benny himself, slowly tracked along the length of the case. Inside, some sort of cloth was visible, the length of a man... and with the undeniable impression of a man's body, arms folded and at rest...
The filmstrip clacked to a halt, light within the personal projector shutting off at the same time.
"The Shroud of Turin," Benny the Broker declared. "All yours, if the price is right."
This time, both Chloe and Gustave shared the same open-mouthed expression of shock. Difference being, Gustave recovered faster, in order to appear composed before the Broker... playing at indifference.
"I see," he said, because he saw, and he certainly did see. "And... you can vouch for its authenticity? Last I heard, it was on display in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist..."
"The copy for tourists is on display in Italy," Benny explained. "This one is the genuine article. What's more... it's from this Earth. Not the one your ancestors were stolen away from. If there was ever proof that the strange multi-verse we find ourselves in is an inexplicable aspect of the Word's plan for us all... this would be it. Of all the cross-dimensional relics you've found, this would be the crown jewel, Mr. Bonnechance."
"Gustave," the man corrected, unable to take his eyes off the screen, despite the image having flickered away. "I said before you were an honest man. The things you sell... they are not often very holy, I am told. You have sold weapons. You have sold horrors... but you sell what you sell, and have never defrauded a client..."
"It's time to put aside all the times you were ripped off. All the regrets and failures," Benny enticed. "This item, this one pure and true thing... this will make amends for it all. With this, you can truly call yourself a successful collector of all things Christ. ...so. Can I assume you have an interest...?"
"Name your price," Gustave declared.
"Fifteen million. Preferably in the form of precious metals or gems. They're more universally accepted, in my line of work. Don't worry about transport of the funds, I can handle that myself."
Gustave Bonnechance's spine straightened immediately.
"I'm going to need to tube certain parties," he declared. "Make some arrangements. Please, have a seat, relax. Make use of the bar, if you like. I will return as soon as possible."
Without another word, he marched out of the office, to start liquidating some assets.
...and Benny relaxed. Well, he'd appeared relaxed before, fluid and ready to bargain. Now he was genuinely relaxed.
"I think that went pretty well," he declared.
Chloe was not relaxed.
"You're charging one of the seven most powerful tycoons in the empire fifteen million pounds for a fake Turin Shroud!" Chloe pointed out... remembering to keep her voice down, mid-sentence. "So not only are we swindling him, but he might not go for the deal given you're asking for so--"
"The only way he's going to take me seriously is if I come at him with a serious number," Benny the Broker spoke, educating his sibling in the ways of the trade. "If I quoted a lower figure, then even with my reputation behind me, he could get suspicious. On top of that, the amount of hands I had to shake and sub-deals I had to make... I damn well expect appropriate compensation. You think it's easy to get your hands on the Shroud of Turin, particularly when it'd melt my demonic hands off if I actually touched it?"
"...it's... it's real?" Chloe asked, horrified. "You're going to sell him the actual burial cloth of--"
"It's just cloth, in the end. It only has as much power as you mortals... as the mortals put in it," Benny said. "You may have forgotten, but I'm a DEMON. I've no respect for the trappings of the church."
Speechless was an apt descriptor for Chloe.
"Think of me what you want," he offered, with a shrug. "You knew I was a bad guy. Even if I am your brother. ...I don't expect you to approve of the things I do. That'd be asking too much. But above it all, beyond what I'm selling or why, even if this is all part of a scheme to trick Bonnechance into doing our work for us...? I'm a Broker. A TRUE Broker, unlike the Dealbreakers I worked with. My word is my bond. If I say I'm selling someone the Shroud of Turin, I am damn well selling them the Shroud of Turin. I won't cheat."
I really shouldn't care, Chloe had to remind herself. A week ago, I wasn't an angel. Well. I was one, but it didn't matter. I wasn't a church girl, not like the others in the burbs. This shouldn't freak me out. It's just cloth...
"Is all this part of the plan?" she found herself saying aloud.
"The plan of the Word," she clarified, as the thought unfolded itself in her head, unbidden. "That a demon should carry the cloth, to make this deal, to stop the army, to keep the world from descending into chaos. Did He set all of that up? That's the only way this could make sense, I mean. Make any sense and be the right thing to do..."
Benny gave a rolling shrug of his shoulders.
"Honestly? I gave up trying to figure out what the Word really wanted long ago," he said. "Even to the angels, the mysterious ways remained mysterious. Selling the Shroud? Maybe. Hell, how about the rise of the empire itself, taking control of this world's Europe? They did drive back the Mutant hordes, remember, the ones that would've run wild over a continent hammered back to the stone age by EMP blasts. A genuine menace, once upon a time."
"But... but that wouldn't have been a menace to this world if not for Pandora!"
"I know. Makes you think, right? Do the Orbitals have a role in His puppet show? Was the Pandora Event planned from day zero, destined to happen? ...personally, I've always wondered about the Morningstar's rebellion. Were we set up to fail for a cosmic reason? How far back you wanna take this, Chloe?"
The Broker crossed the room, to fix himself a martini. Because he felt like one, all of the sudden. Maybe two.
"I've got no more clue than anyone else," Benny admitted. "I just do what I do. ...if it ends up actually being what He wanted from me, well. That's just how it is. If you wanna have faith, go ahead. I'll stick to what I can see in front of me. In the end, I suspect we'll both end up doing His work."
To say the factory floor was abuzz with debate would be a lie. By lunchtime, most of the workers had lost interested in the raving madman that was so damned entertaining before. As long as they got their paycheck, no matter how small, there wasn't much point in pondering socio-economics. The world simply was as it was and the work in front of them mattered more than bigger questions.
That wasn't to say that the incident was completely overlooked, though. Around the newly installed water coolers, during one of the few designated break times they had (which were shrinking in size and number each year), L'Anonyme was worth chatting about.
"I can't say I'm surprised we're gearin' up for war," a riveter admitted, using a rough low-class bent on French. (Like most of the workers, he was bilingual... but only bothered with the empire's official tongue when an official was around.) "Been two decades since the empire tried t'grab more territory. Just wish they'd admit it, is all. Nobody outside London and the Big Seven knows WHY we're building this fleet. All this French blood, sweat, and tears going into a project and we're not going to see any of the benefits..."
"Is there really any benefit to war, though?" the young fellow in the overalls asked, waggling his empty cup between his fingers. "I mean, putting aside the moral issues, it's at the very least impractical. More territory means more resources, but also more resources needed to pacify it and integrate it into the empire, too. The steam only goes so far, and tanks get more and more expensive each year... seems a bit counterproductive to expand."
The two made way for a passing file clerk, trying to squeeze through the crowd in the break room... with the riveter letting his eyes stray to her form a bit, as it was quite pleasant. She brushed by him in a way that would probably make his wife go for the rolling pin, as she slipped between the worker and the water cooler, and was on her way.
"Guess you're right, but so? It's not like we've got a say," the riveter said, while refilling his cup. "The crown does what the crown does. L'Anonyme has a point, I agree. And my great grandfather's probably spinnin' in his grave, with his nation turned into the British Empire's French District. But... ain't enough to make me risk my neck. I'm not joining one of those sad little rebel groups just 'cause King Wheezy's up for another war. My life's decent enough alrghkp--?"
The worker began coughing violently, as some of his drink went down the wrong way. The younger fellow helpfully patted him on the back, helping him along.
Once he recovered... the riveter took another sip, to make sure.
"It's... I think this is tea," he said. "The water in the cooler's turned into tea! Piping hot tea!"
"What? Come on now, that's impossible..."
"Have a taste, see for yourself!"
The lunch crowd started to take notice now, as the younger worker filled his cup, and sipped... and others began to fill up, as well. The clear water in the cooler had indeed taken on a pleasant hue of green tea -- and was filled to the top, despite someone deliberately coming through earlier to empty out some of the water for some crazy reason.
"Mais, que c'est bon...!" the riveter admitted, pulling a second cupful, having to fight to get to the spigot, as others moved in to sample it. "This is the finest tea I've ever had!"
"It's hardly water into wine, but... I'd call that quite strange all the same," the young man said, pondering his cup. "Maybe management's decided to be generous--?"
The murmur of the working crowd was shattered by a sharp blast from a crowd control air horn.
Parting way (with gentle to not so gentle pushes, if need be) the gathered factory fellows allowed passage for DSO Durand, flanked by two non-fired guards. Guards who had already drawn their weapons, matching their employer's increasingly suspicious approach to the day's events...
Quietly... Henri Durand took a tin cup, and sampled the contents of the miracle water cooler. Then spat it on the ground, in case it was poisoned.
"Guards, empty every single water cooler in the building and shut down the pipes for the day," Henri declared. (In English, of course; he hadn't had a need for French in weeks.) "Yes, even the toilets. Can't trust the water. This has to be his work. Possibly intercepted shipments before they got to the building... I certainly didn't authorize the expense of tea for the workers... what could this possibly..."
Muttering to himself, he left the way he came, with the guards keeping the way clear for him. The crowd assumed its regularly unorganized shape after his passing... albeit with more mutterings of discontent.
"...tell you one thing," the riveter admitted, under his breath. "Far too many bigwigs in the empire think like that bastard. Won't give us one damn inch if it costs them. Control freaks, all. L'Anonyme's right about that."
"Hey -- you guys hear he confiscated all the filmers?" another worker asked, who hadn't spoke up until now. "My wife got me that thing for my birthday. Guards smashed it right in front of me and took the film. Said if I had a problem with that, I could take it up with Human Resources..."
"Some days... the paycheck isn't worth the crap they put us through," the riveter decided. "Hmph. I hope L'Anonyme shows that fool up and he gets replaced with someone better."
The young man scratched his chin, in thought. "You know, if you want better treatment... maybe you COULD take it up with Human Resources. Dare I suggest unioniz--"
A round of laughter bounced around the lunchroom before he'd even finished his suggestion.
"You want to get shot, boy?" the riveter asked... half joking. "How long have you been on the job, anyway, kid? ...you know, your accent's a bit odd..."
"Ah... it's English by way of Germany before I ended up in France. I've been around a bit," he said, which was factually true.
"An educated boy, from the sound of it. How'd you end up in this dead end? You've got to learn the ropes if you're going to make it. How to handle the bigwigs. 'Union' is an obscenity to them. Just... keep your head down, do your job, and don't make trouble. It's not worth losing your salary. Or worse."
"So... basically, we're all servants of the empire, and we'd best suck it up and like it?" the kid asked.
"Well... I wouldn't put it like THAT, but--"
"How would you put it, then?"
The riveter tried to hunt around for the words. He couldn't find any appropriate in French, so he switched to his master's voice.
"Keep calm and carry on," he recited, from memory. "...the alternative's worse. You'll learn, in time."
"Only because nobody's daring enough to embrace a real alternative," the kid said... with a little scowl, cutting through his previous smiles and friendly debate. "Excuse me. I've work to attend to."
With that, he hung up his empty tin cup, and slipped away with far more grace than a working stiff should've had.
The riveter scratched his own chin, much as the young man had moments before.
Anyone can get one of those silly masks at a party store, he thought. And that voice of his was plenty familiar. I could report this to one of the guards. Might even get a thank you from Durand. ...or more likely, he'd brush me off, or call me a co-conspirator, or worse.
"Let the kid have his fun," he decided.
There was work to be done on the ships, after all. No reason to poke his head up. Although he would enjoy watching the show, quietly.
After sitting around his office for a considerable amount of time with nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs, Gustave finally sent his secretary around to suggest that Benny and Chloe go get some dinner. He'd also sent word that payment wasn't going to be a problem... but that it would take a few hours to arrange, and there was no sense in them going hungry.
(Unsaid was that security wasn't happy with Gustave dropping his entire daily schedule and leaving two guests unmonitored in the CEO's office. Fortunately, being the owner of the company meant security could be as unhappy as it wanted to be, and he could do as he pleased.)
One short tramway ride later, one explanation to the maître d'hôtel, and the two were enjoying some of the finest food France had to offer complete with a lovely view of Vieux Port.
Perfectly folded napkins. Spotless silverware, arranged just so. Crystal wine glasses so fine they looked like they'd shatter at the slightest touch. Delicious steaks that had been lovingly sculpted from a cow's hind flanks with a scalpel. All highlighted by the lazily setting sun, across the mixed industrial and commercial landscape of Marseilles... it was a tableau straight out of a tourist brochure.
All of it suited Benny quite well, as he tucked into his meet with gleeful abandon (but thankfully without making a mess of it).
"See, this is more my speed," he was explaining, between sampling ridiculously expensive cuts of beef. "I'm an international jetsetter. Go here, go there. Shake this hand, make that deal. Fine hotels, the finest things in life... and deservedly so, I'd say, considering the amount of legwork I put into my job. It's about time this ridiculous sabotage mission paid dividends..."
"Mmm," Chloe mumbled in half-agreement, sipping free water from an expensive glass.
"...you can't enjoy this at all, can you," he recognized, finally noticing she hadn't been particularly responsive. "Come on. What is it now? The socio-economic divide? Issues of blasphemy? Existential angst? Or did you put your panties on backwards or something?"
"Yes. No. Some of that. Maybe all of it. Except the panties thank you very much," she added. "I don't know... it's just... melancholy. That's all."
"And that's no explanation. Nobody is sad in a non-specific way without serious brain chemistry issues, which I don't think you have. Something's eating you, given you aren't eating one of the most delicious meals you've ever had in front of you," he said, gesturing with his fork.
She tried to brush it off, leaning an elbow on the table, to look out across the harbor. "I don't really know how to talk about it, okay?" she said. "Just... you know, enjoy your dinner and let's get this deal with Bonnechance over with."
"Chloe. I want to help."
"I'm not some problem client you need to make a deal with, you know--"
"I want to help," Benny emphasized. "Think about that for a second. Me. I want to help, out of the goodness of my black little heart, because I don't like seeing my sister unhappy. Does that sound like a very 'Benny' thing to do? Am I emphasizing the importance of this enough, because I should note it's freaking me out a bit, too? Do me a favor. Go with it, for both our sakes. I want to help. So. What's wrong, Chloe?"
She considered the familiar man sitting across from her... the one with an unfamiliar expression. Far more open, more honest... no poise to it, no stern confidence. Simply sitting there, ready to listen to whatever she wanted to offer...
Problem was... she had nothing concrete to offer him.
"I just feel off, I guess," she tried. "No appetite. Sorry."
"Fine. We'll run down the list, then," he said. "Good a starting point as any. First: is it the way the empire treats its territories as a farm to be sowed and reaped and worked into the ground?"
"I can't say I approve of that, no, but..."
"So, it's Gustave and his fixation on the cross," Benny guessed. "You know, if it helps, I think he genuinely believes. He's not nearly as nasty as the other six heads of house in the empire. Now, his father, THAT bastard was a bastard's bastard..."
"It's a tasteless gallery, and I'm not pleased we're helping it grow, but I'm not upset at him. Not really."
"Then you're puzzled at your place in the grand scheme of things, where the Word wants you, and what He wants from you. Your simple little suburban life's been completely uprooted and you've got to deal with that along with being an international superspy, which would be a tall order for anyone."
"Would've been easier if I could have a quiet week or so to sort through the mess, yes, but..."
"You're SURE your underwear's not on inside out?"
"London," Chloe decided. As good a word as any. "It's London."
"Ah. So back to the class struggle, then," Benny decided. "Would it help if I found you a nice soup kitchen to work at while we finish up this leg of the trip? Ladle a few bowls for the downtrodden, that sort of thing?"
The thought bubbled around on the tip of her mind, trying to turn itself into words. Chloe closed her eyes, trying to focus on it... on memories, ideas, things that may or may not have been her own ideas and memories...
"We're supposed to be in London," she declared. "It was right after the incident in Ibiza. When you got me to manifest my... my wings. In a flash, I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I need to go to London."
The Broker knew better than to ignore an omen. After all, he'd worked on the blueprints for quite a few of them, back in the day before days existed. He picked up his wineglass, swirling it a bit, using the liquid as a meditative focus.
"The war fleet's in France. Why do we need to be in London?" he asked. "If we're going to force peace upon this world it has to happen here, I thought."
"I don't know why we... why I need to be in London. Not we, just me," Chloe realized, tacking that word against the previous word, trying the pair together. Felt right. "I just know I need to go to London."
"Once we're done our two-part scheme to spoil the war machine, we're taking you home. I don't think we have time for a jaunt to foggy old London town. Nor would I recommend it, given that's the beating heart of this lovely industrial nightmare..."
"Believe me, I'm looking forward to going home!" Chloe said, feeling the need to assert herself for a change, rather than let funny feelings do the asserting around here. "I want to go back to the States. At least there, all I have to worry about is getting killed by some crazy artifact on Petersen's Anachronism Task Force. ...but I also know I have to go to London. Maybe not in this trip. Maybe not right away. But it's going to happen, whether I like it or not."
Quiet, after that. She hadn't considered why she wouldn't like going to London. It just felt like the right phrase to say. Which had unpleasant implications... a fact not lost on the demon across from her.
He swirled his wine one more time... then took a sip, and set it down. And pointed to her steak.
"Eat up," he suggested.
"Benny, how can I--"
"It's delicious, and you should enjoy it," he said. "Just... enjoy it. Don't focus on the future. Don't fret the Word's plans for you. Right here, right now, you are in France, you have one of this nation's greatest experiences on a polished plate before you, and you owe it to yourself to enjoy it. Chloe... you're alive. Live your life. Not out of selfishness, or denial. Just do it because He gave you a life and you should cherish that treasure. Everything else will be... however the hell it's going to be. For now, enjoy what you've got."
The young angel looked down at her mostly uneaten meal.
And, for the first time that night, realized she was actually quite hungry.
Slowly, she took up her knife and fork. But did pause, a second.
"Can I... have some apple pie, too, before we go?" she asked. "I always enjoyed having pie whenever mom and dad took me out to eat, as a kid..."
"I am a major advocate of apples," Benny announced, with a grin. "Healthy AND tasty. Perfect fruit, really. I think it can be arranged."
Close of business.
Technically, the whistle should've sounded two hours ago. But with the pressure on from up top to get the fleet ship-shape, they'd kept moving the goalposts, making "close of business" later and later. No dinner breaks, either. After all, if a shipwright or metal worker wanted to work eight hours a day, he could go work for some other company. Except that Bonnechance was the only company in town for those occupations...
So, with stomachs rumbling, the workers began to clock out. The security checkpoint had been redoubled since yesterday's break-in and the morning's incident... customary pat-downs for company property were no longer quick and dirty affairs. Pockets were being turned out. Pants were being removed, in some cases. (Fortunately, Durand hadn't gone so far as to demand the child laborers be de-pantsed. But they were searched thoroughly for any metal objects, all the same.)
Nobody was happy with this, but if they were truly unhappy, they could always go work for some other company. Except that... and so on.
In the crush of disgruntled workers, eager to get out of the building and head home for dinner, a young clerk was talking to a mechanist.
"I've no right to be disappointed, of course," he admitted. "We came here to sow confusion and chaos, not to spark a proletariat revolution. But... I'd hoped for more of a reaction. More than laughter behind management's backs."
"I'd argue the laughter is a far better weapon than open revolt," the clerk suggested. "Consider. This L'Anonyme character you cooked up mocked one of the seven houses openly. Continuing incidents all day long interfered in productivity. 'Perfect Tea' in the water coolers. Clocks running backwards. Tools misplacing themselves."
"Requisition forms turned into paper airplanes and flying all over the place," he said, with a wry grin. "That was a clever one, love. Good choice."
"Actually, I wasn't involved in that."
"What? It wasn't an Animate spell--?"
"Given I spent most of my time with the paper slaves upstairs, I'd say they took the initiative on that one themselves," she suggested. "L'Anonyme was a good excuse for those poor fellows to blow off some steam at Durand's expense. Hence, an impromptu paper airplane race--"
"You saw the race too?"
The co-conspirators hushed the sensitive chatter, on noticing someone in the crowd had noticed them in turn.
One of the younger workers, a metal polisher, flashed a tin cylinder briefly.
"I smuggled my filmer around from friend to friend while they were searching for 'em earlier," he admitted. "We've been secretly doing films of each prank today. I've got a pal on the security crew, too. Rather peeved that they sacked Brian for not shooting at L'Anonyme, so he's going to get us through the checkpoint with our movies intact. Any luck, it'll go viral across the tubes by morning!"
The mechanist blinked a few times. An unexpected result -- and given his leaning towards predictive mathematics in complex systems, anything unexpected was welcome. "...impressive," he admitted. "But won't they sack you when they find out you're the producer of the movie?"
"That's the beauty of it. I'm going to sign it off as a L'Anonyme production," the amateur filmmaker whispered, through his wide grin. "Few others are going to do the same. I was thinking of chopping in a quick intro with one of those masks that nutjob was wearing, too. Maybe do a funny voice... forward it around the tubes a lot, keep it moving, so nobody can tell it's me. We're all L'Anonyme. And we don't forget, yeah?"
"I... suppose not," Gilbert the Mechanist said, before the filmmaker slipped through the crowd, headed to the secured exit. Where, presumably, co-conspirators were awaiting him.
Jesse the Clerk nodded once, in satisfaction, at the fellow's departure. "Instead of revolution, you seem to have introduced the nation to... what is that horrible little concept from your history books? 'Trolling for the lollys'?"
"Lulz," Gilbert corrected. "And... it seems you're right. Perhaps some good will come out of this, after all. The first step to tearing down any corrupt regime is to render its number one weapon useless."
"The war fleet?"
"Fear. You keep the population in check with fear. Implied threats, systemic threats, subtle threats. Rarely are they moustache twirling, baby eating, direct physical threats... but it's all fear, in the end. And the first step to conquering something you fear is to be able to laugh at it."
"Then it seems my plans for our final midnight caper will work wonders. Shame no one will be around to film it."
Gilbert shuffled forward a bit, as the crowd pressed towards the exit.
"Love, would you mind terribly if I dismantle the telescope in the Mermaid's library?" Gilbert asked. "I've suddenly developed a passion for high powered optical lenses."
The deal was done.
One confirmed genuine Shroud of Turin, for one fantastically expensive diamond-encrusted platinum doodad. Gustave Bonnechance wasn't able to get liquid cash, but the directors approved him swapping one pointless bauble in the family's archives for another; it had no useful purpose, compared to their normal operating funds.
This worked just fine for the Broker, who preferred universally valuable things to local currency, anyway. A fistful of expensive gems could be tucked neatly away in an infernal pocket space, accessible only to Benny, for later use.
"And now, as promised... the shroud," Benny declared in a deep and commanding tone, to add a little drama and spectacle to the proceedings. The client adored spectacle, after all...
The actual reveal of the artifact wasn't as dramatic. Jeeves had been waiting in a secret location for the signal, and after the deal was done, promptly rolled in the glass case containing the Shroud of Turin. Benny knew his client; he knew that a display case would fit in nicely alongside the other display cases.
Which was the key to the entire scheme.
"Don't remove the shroud for more than a few minutes, if you remove it at all," Benny warned, while Gustave practically pressed his face against the glass, drooling over it. "I've installed a state of the art air filtration system in the base, which will preserve the fabric for generations to come. If you ever need it repaired, come to me first; I can find you discreet mechanics."
And with that... Phase Two of the plan was complete.
Because, and without actually lying to his client (it was a very expensive air filter) Benny neglected to mention the extra gearwork inside the metal case.
To most, it would simply resemble part of the filtration system. Nobody would know that they had gutted the Kraken friend-or-foe beacon of the Clockwork Mermaid, reassembling it in a new configuration.
(Which is why Phase One of the plan, Jesse and Gilbert's antics, involved stealing a replacement. By sacrificing their own machine, they had no means of going home safely.)
This bastardized beacon would rest comfortably for years to come, gears and miniature echo chambers humming away merrily, with the obsessive Gustave refusing to remove the Trojan Display Case from his private office...
...an office which had a direct messenger tube link straight to the shipyard. No offshoots, no connections to the network. Nothing to disrupt the signal. A perfect way to deliver a precise sonic frequency all the way across town, with a pulse pattern designed by Gilbert, that would poison every single Grey Box currently in production and all future boxes as well.
Nobody would notice as the gears within those boxes were vibrated every so slightly out of alignment. England's war fleet would launch, and much as had happened to the Mermaid, eventually go into critical failure partway across the Atlantic. From there, the Krakens would take care of the rest. Without any communication method such as the Elfstars, the empire wouldn't know what went wrong, until they sent scouts to check on the fleet's progress. Scouts that would meet the same doom... again and again, until they gave up.
There was some debate about the morality of this plan. Gilbert himself wasn't entirely happy with it, Chloe certainly wasn't. Jesse and Benny could care less. This was war, after all. Bloodless wars were implausible.
Assassinating every soldier that boarded those ships may not have been gentlemanly... but it would work. Even if England eventually figured out what was going on, it would be far too late, and either America would be ready for war or peace negotiations could begin properly. This move would buy them either victory or time enough for victory.
Right there, right then... all Gustave Bonnechance knew or cared about was that he had a new crown jewel in his holy collection.
It was cause for celebration.
"Drinks!" he insisted. "We absolutely must have champagne. And only the finest in my stocks! And wines, and absinthes, and more!"
"A night on the town?" Benny suggested. "Sounds good here!"
"No, absolutely not. Not after the horrible night I had previous," Gustave said. "The night life of France has displeased me. I shall throw my own private party, with you two as my guests of honor! Oh, security likely won't appreciate after hours visitors, but they're used to it by now..."
Chloe wasn't shy about bowing out. Even if she wasn't skilled at it. "I'm not really a partying sort. Well, I mean, I go to clubs now and then, but I'm not really partying, exactly, and..."
"Well, then! Allow me to show you a pleasant evening of fine spirits and delightful conversation!" Gustave suggested -- taking both her hands in his, and opening the 'Charm' valve on full blast. "Benny, it is quite alright, yes? After all, she is your assistant. And celebration is something all dealmakers must learn!"
The twitch suggested Benny was not entirely alright with it... but he was too deep into the Broker to disagree with a client. "Sounds fine here," he said. "As a Broker, she needs to learn to enjoy living life to the fullest, anyway. So, what's on tap? I'm ready to be impressed."
An hour and a half and many, many drunken songs in French later, and Chloe was not having much fun living life to the fullest. She was as stoic as Jeeves, who busied himself refilling drinks and adding nothing else to the proceedings.
She'd decided early on to be the designated driver. Years of practice had prepared her for the art of holding a drink at a party without going overboard emptying and refilling it; while suburban kiddies loved to booze it up just to annoy their parents and look cool, Chloe never fell into those peer pressure traps. She was quite familiar with being the only sensible one left in the house by the time the cops showed up, ready to help people make their escape and get home safely...
Which she may very well have to do, in Benny's case. She knew he was a drunken, whoremongering, drug-riddled party animal, but had never seen it up close and personal. It wasn't pleasant.
Oh, he was acting pleasant enough. A fun drunk, not an angry one. But wild, and loud, letting something off the chain he normally kept restrained for purposes of professionalism. Just boisterous enough to be slightly dangerous, from an outside perspective. It was a good opportunity to embody the demonic temptation machine, encouraging folks around him, one more drink, one more song, let's go do the horizontal lambada one more time, what have you...
It didn't fit him.
It seemed like it should. Demon = Bad Boy, everybody knew that.
But the Benny that Chloe knew... that Benny was obviously defensive. Guarding his moodiness. Early on, he would get very frustrated with her, letting those walls down to show his worries and his concerns. Each time he did, the more irritable he got when he had to face the things he didn't want to face... the more likely he'd go "Screw it, I'm gonna go get pissed" and bail, seeking to indulge in the company store's stock trade in sins.
Just a coping mechanism, nothing more. Simplify your life down to the raw and nasty basics. It made sense, now that she saw it with her own eyes.
Pity? Sorrow for the demon's plight? That was right up her alley. So while Benny and Gustave laughed and laughed... she sat quietly, sipping her drink, trying to fade into the background. This wasn't the time or place to call him out on it, after all.
That attempt to be stealthy flopped, as she had to quickly scoot to the other end of the couch, avoiding Benny's impressive arc of projectile vomit.
"Ghhaarglghh," Benny enunciated, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his ratty old coat. "Hah! Thash a good one, washntit, Chll..."
For one moment... he caught her look, before she managed to hide it.
The things Benny hated thinking about managed to push through the heavy sauce he'd voluntarily poured over his brain. He couldn't meet that look, even after Chloe changed it to a neutral expression.
"I'm... gonna..." he said, trying to decide his next action on the fly. "Go. Bathroom. I gotta sober up. I can do that, y'know. Just burn it out. When I want. Don't gotta... party all the time. Don't gotta at all--"
"Mhm," she said, to confirm she heard his words and understood them and nothing more.
That should have been the end of the night. It certainly was a mood killer... Gustave's rosy-cheeked cheer had been dampened, as if a cloth was tossed over it. He coughed and sputtered, trying to compose himself, not wanting to look the drunken sot in front of the lady before him...
"'suppose I'll have to ask for extra forgiveness for this spot of silliness in my prayers tonight," he mumbled. "Apologies. Thousand... one hundred thousand apologies."
"Ah... it's fine, it's fine," Chloe insisted, not wanting this to go sour. She even faked a smile. (Deal or no deal, upsetting Gustave wouldn't help extract themselves from this mess.) "We're all only human, I mean. We make mistakes. I'm... sure the Lord forgives, yes?"
"The sins of gluttony... minor, maybe. Maybe," Gustave said... dropping himself down onto the couch. Into the sick. And not caring. "There are... far, far greater sins. Inherited sins. I drink to forget them. I know I do. I do. Such a dark and black sin... one which may condemn me, I fear, no matter my piety..."
The young woman said nothing. Trying to look away. To discourage the conversation... and found herself facing him, as he forcibly turned her shoulders, trying, pleading with earnest eyes, to speak his mind...
"No matter how many crosses I buy, no matter how hard I try to venerate Him, it won't be enough, will it?" Gustave asked. "Not for this. Not my sin. Inherited, from my father's father's... father's... from long ago. Black family sin, so horrid..."
Immediately, Jeeves ceased being a background detail. He moved to intercept -- but stood his ground, following a frightened shake of the head from Chloe. Don't hurt him, he's just drunk, I'm going to be fine, it's okay...
"All of this, every bit of it, built on that one sin," he continued mumbling away. "And I can do nothing. I saw him, once. I saw him just once and it's haunted me all my days. The weak and pitiable one in the chains, in the mask. Seven golden chains. The seven sacred keys... how I wish my father hadn't melted ours down, so I could use it, try to free him... do you understand? Do you?"
"N-No," she said.
Because, well, she didn't. And as much as she wanted to pull away... now, she couldn't. Not because of his hands, but because of the strange familiarity of it...
"The entire empire was forged on a single sin, long before we came to this world," Gustave Bonnechance confessed. "The steam. The source. They did it. They imprisoned an angel beneath the palace, binding it with seven locks. We drain its very breath of life to drive the empire's industry."
I have to go to London. I have to deliver a message.
I have to end this madness.
The wings manifested instantly.
The heir to the Bonnechance empire, direct descendant of one of the seven wardens, fell to his knees. Covered in sick, tears wetting his cheeks, everything he'd ever feared made manifest before the thing he innately recognized... the winged messenger from God.
His pleas were wordless, blubbering noises. It was a moment he had expected in his nightmares, a moment of judgment... and he could say nothing in his defense.
But the proclamation didn't come from whatever empowered Chloe. It simply came from Chloe.
"It wasn't your decision, but you're benefiting from it every day," she said. "You know that, and it hurts to know it. I'm sorry... but buying artifacts and praying isn't going to make things right."
Gustave buried his face in her hands, soaking them, pleading. "What do I do? What do I do?" he asked. Over and over. "What do I do for forgiveness...?"
"Y-You control the company, right?" she asked, despite the hypothetical nature of it. "You can use that! You can work to improve the world around you. Help your workers, help your city, do what it takes to make things better. ...I think you can still be a good person, Gustave, no matter the... situation you inherited."
It was enough. His pleading turned to thankful babblings... sinking lower and lower in his kneel. Until he gently slipped, face first, to the floor.
Chloe realized belatedly her heart rate had skyrocketed higher than the tip of Notre-Dame de la Garde itself. Closing her eyes... she forced that terror down. Forced the wings to go away.
Time to go, she decided. Benny or no Benny. I need to get out of here.
Fortunately, Jeeves was there... resting a comforting brass hand on her shoulder, ready to escort her away from this unfortunate place.
By midnight tonight, I will have stolen one of their top secret Grey Boxes.
Obviously, the madman calling himself L'Anonyme (oh, how Henri Durand wanted to pull off that mask and put a name to the face!) had not stolen a Grey Box. Security had been tightened, and tightened again. Even if it wasn't already an impossible task, he'd shut down every potential leak in or out of the building, checked everything going in or out for pilfered Grey Boxes.
And, this being the most damning evidence of L'Anonyme's failure... no Grey Boxes had gone unaccounted for. The guards counted and re-counted them, the number always coming back the same. Every single ship in the fleet had a single box, no more, no less. Nicely sealed up and un-missing, each one.
Chaos had swept across his neat and orderly factory today. Dozens of seemingly unrelated incidents, ranging from minor disruptions to things that made no sense according to the physical laws of the universe. L'Anonyme wasn't busy trying to steal anything... he was pranking Durand. And each prank Durand chased down and laid a countermeasure against, two more popped up...
Distractions. All of it. He couldn't be distracted. Not now. Not at five minutes to midnight.
None of the guards got to go home -- day watch or night watch, all of them were here, surrounding and patrolling the building. He'd pulled guards from less critical areas of the facility, like the storage warehouses. If some street hoodlum wanted to make off with a crate of toothbrushes and toilet parts, that was an acceptable loss to Henri Durand. The Grey Boxes were all that mattered, now.
He walked the floor himself, between the silent ships, each supported by steel beams and harnesses. Every guard he passed by got a suspicious eye... was the guard a L'Anonyme conspirator? (Too many incidents. They couldn't all be the work of one man. And inside the building, well after the fool had vanished...) Food for thought. Bitter, caffiene-and-jitters loaded fruit--
Something pink and yellow caught his eye. Which was odd, since there was nothing pink or yellow in the building.
One moment later and he was screaming for the guards.
They converged on the object, rifles and blunderbusses drawn. Bayonets screwed neatly into place. Forming a circle of death from which nothing could escape.
There was no way, no way whatsoever that a giant gift-wrapped box decorated with a dainty bow could have been smuggled into the factory. It had no business being here, and yet... there it was. Five feet to a side, elegantly papered with gold foil pressed holiday designs all over it.
"Get some explosives," Henri decided. "Grenades, thrown dynamite. Blow it up. I don't care what's in it -- I want it destroyed. No man comes within a dozen paces of the thing--"
Before anyone could ponder detonating anything... with a sound like a hundred party noisemakers going off, the lid blew upwards, the four sides of the box blowing outwards.
In the center stood the man in the black cloak, his form completely concealed. Save for the Guy Fawkes mask, peeking out from the hood, rosy-cheeked and smiling away with empty eyes. Smiling away right at Durand...
He didn't need to give the order to open fire. The guards could figure that bit out for themselves. Unfortunately, being private security guards and not a crack tactical military unit, they hadn't quite figured out what 'crossfire' meant. After the first few shots zipped right by L'Anonyme and thankfully only winged and/or freaked out the guards, they scattered, looking for cover...
...while L'Anonyme split into a dozen of himself, sprinting in all directions. Swooping towards the panicking guards. Swooping out... and up.
Apparently, the man could not only copy himself, but he could fly...
"Get them! GET OFF YOUR ASSES AND GET THEM!" Durand ordered, waving his arms frantically, trying to rally the troops. "This is no phantom! He's flesh and blood and I want him out of my factory, NOW!"
As quickly as the guards had gathered around the box (Where was the box now? It had vanished? How was that possible?!) they began to scatter, chasing down the Anonymes in twos and threes. The sharp crack of gunshots rang out... followed by the unpleasant thunks of bullets into the hulls of unfinished warships, or bouncing off steel beams. Judging from the lack of screams of pain or "I got him!" "He's down!" "We did it!" sorts of responses... the fight was not going well.
A shadow form silently slid into place behind Henri. The corner of his eye tickled..."
"Having fun yet, Monsieur Durand?" that oh so familiar voice taunted. Not from behind him, but... from everywhere, echoing off the walls...
With a snarl, Henri span, to lay a vengeful upper-management haymaker on the object of his frustrations. Being the immaculately coiffed and quite well fed sort of fellow, it wasn't a very GOOD punch, but he was proud of it all the same.
He felt cloth along his fist, as it whirled straight through the cloak that hung in the air behind him. There was no man inside the costume, none at all...
And then it was gone. Ascending straight into the air.
"What's wrong, my good man, what's wrong!?" L'Anonyme taunted... and now he understood. The voice was coming across the factory's loudspeakers, through its echo chambers. Everywhere at once... "How like the empire, chasing at phantom menaces, while its people starve! Banning the spark of electricity when the mutants who threatened that spark ceased to be an issue, long ago. Look at how silly they make themselves, how futile their efforts truly are!"
"Someone get to the control room and shut that bloody racket up!" Durand screamed... before realizing he had nobody to order around. The guards were all over the place, busy chasing cloaks, failing miserably at it...
"All day long I've made a mockery of your efforts at control, haven't I?" the voice continued... with one cloak dancing away above Durand's head, the mask grinning down at him. "All this money and effort, and you couldn't stop me from having my fun. You couldn't stop me from stealing a Grey Box. Do you see now, Durand? It's over. I stole it HOURS ago."
"He's lying! Don't believe him!" Henri shouted to nobody in particular. "The boxes are all accounted for! We beat him! He's nothing more than a jester--"
"Oh, Henri, Henri, Henri. I never said I needed the actual box itself," the voice interrupted. "I can buy a big metal box anywhere. So, while you tried to step all over my fun today... I was busy stealing what was INSIDE a box... piece... by... piece."
And the Director of Shipyard Operations froze.
The boxes were sealed, he thought. With a numeric code lock. There wasn't any need to look in them. We were just making sure the boxes didn't vanish...
"The nuts and bolts of a Grey Box are mine, now, and what's more -- you even helped me steal what I needed! You signed the approval orders to deliver my prize right to me. It's over, Durand. The people have won the day, have shown that the armor is not quite as bulletproof as advertised. So, to the seven mighty houses of the British Empire, I declare thusly... you fail at tyranny, forever. Je vous souhaite une bonne soirée, Monsieur!"
The mask dropped first, with the billowing empty cloak falling after. It bounced nicely off the top of Durand's head, settling to the floor at his feet... smiling upward at him.
Slowly, the guards returned, reporting the same thing. All the animated cloaks fell to the ground at the same time. Whatever was puppeting them had its string severed.
Little by little, as Durand sleepwalked through the post-operation investigation, everything came to light.
L'Anonyme was never here. They found a recording device in the ops center, which had been set on a timer to play his taunting speech.
Whoever was teasing them with the puppet-cloaks was long gone, and whatever means they used to defy physics remained unknown.
As for the Grey Boxes... Durand ordered every box unsealed and examined. It didn't take long to find one which had every single unique gear and sprocket and cog stripped from it. Whoever did the theft knew exactly what parts couldn't be easily replaced, and left the cruft behind. And... the thief, or rather thieves, had left tiny little handprints in the dust all over the case.
The child workers. The ones that scrambled about underfoot and made a nuisance of themselves, getting in and out of the ships to polish the small working parts, where burly blue collar workers couldn't fit. Each one, smuggling out one gear at a time...
But they searched the children. No gears go out of the building... in fact, as the logs showed, only one thing left the building all day.
Early that morning, a particularly attractive clerk had put a form in front his eyes. Toothbrushes for the poor. Good PR move. Orders from the top. He'd signed off on the shipment immediately, as he had more important things to think about that day.
Nothing left the building except a series of crates, each of which ostensibly held toothbrushes. Each of which likely held toothbrushes... and a number of gears, slipped into them by the children. After all, the warehouse was part of the complex. Moving the parts from the factory to storage didn't involve crossing any checkpoints.
The next day, further investigation would show that all of the crates arrived at their destinations, churches and orphanages around the city. Each one held toothbrushes... and a single Guy Fawkes mask. Someone had removed the gears before the final deliveries were made.
None of this mattered, of course. It wasn't like there were any witnesses; the security staff would be fired without pension if they mentioned anything about the incident, and the police wouldn't be brought in to investigate. Nobody had to know.
Two days later, a series of anonymous films called "Tyranny Fail" and "échec de securité mdr!" and "L'Anonyme Strikes!" were circulating around the tube networks. Someone had filmed the entire affair from afar, through a telephoto lens. All the wacky Benny Hill-esque antics of the guards chasing down ghosts, slipping and falling, shooting and missing. Each video had L'Anonyme's voiceover recording included as a bonus.
Of course, Marseilles wasn't a town that noticed much of anything. The thrum and hum of business kept the city moving; it was easy to overlook the occasional fumble, amidst the rumble of steam-driven commuter trams and the chatter of commerce through its streets.
It was not easy to overlook a fumble of this magnitude. And none involved knew exactly how far reaching the pranks and failures were going to be.
Across town, while Jesse was gleefully applying Animate spells and glamours while Gilbert filmed the entire thing from a nearby rooftop... Chloe was fumbling her way towards safety.
Notre-Dame de la Garde was virtually empty. The corrupted splendor of the cathedral / corporate office complex was muted now, darkened... most gaslamps extinguished, the traditional candles (for atmosphere) snuffed out. The only people left were a handful of janitors, busy mopping up in the back hallways, and light from the occasional office where a clerk was putting in overtime.
She could have waited for Benny, who was no doubt smacking some sobriety into himself in a men's john. She didn't want to wait. She wanted out, back to the safe and familiar. Back to America, if it was possible. Back to the Mermaid, as it was the only option available to her.
Jeeves clanked along behind her, as she tried to find her way through the rat's nest of cubicles and hallways. A janitor thankfully pointed the way to the main cathedral entrance hall. She mumbled a thank-you in French and upgraded from Trot to Sprint.
Emerging into the main hall... all was silent and dark. The wide desk where a secretary was only hours ago mumbling away into voice tubes and filling message cylinders sat empty, a lump of stylish metal where an altar should have gone. The pews were...
An elderly gentleman in a well tailored overcoat sat, a few rows back from the front. His hands folded in front of himself, in quiet prayer.
Curious. But Chloe was not curious tonight. She'd had more than enough surprises.
But as she passed by the pew... the man spoke. Didn't move, simply spoke.
"Good evening, madam," he greeted. "Are you here for forgiveness?"
"No, and I must be going," she replied, quickly. "Besides, I don't think this is really a church anymore."
"Make no mistake, this is a house of worship. It simply worships... a different capital G than it once did. A shame, really, when a beautiful thing falls from grace..."
The man rose. He wasn't particularly tall, not very menacing. Barely a hand higher than Chloe herself. And despite that nonthreatening appearance... she found herself taking a few steps back. While Jeeves took one forward, to partially block her...
For his part, he took no notice of the defensive gestures. He would have his say.
"If I may make a suggestion?" he offered. "Turn back. You need to go home, m'lady. It's not safe for you, not in this late hour."
"That's my intention, yes, to go back to my ship, thanks," she said, taking a few more steps back -- and bumping into the opposite pew in the process.
"I would suggest going further than that, actually," he spoke. "You've traveled far too far, far too far indeed. You see... my employer has been kind, has tried to turn you away from your path. But mercy is no longer an affordable luxury. We tried to warn you in Ibiza. Turn back, young child of grace, before it's too late. Don't force his hand."
The metal spring snapped, as Chloe filled her palm with cold Orbital metal. A shining weapon, no longer hidden up her sleeve, but in full play. For his part, Jeeves raised a pair of massive brass fists, ready to take part, should this come to blows...
But the man, despite his threatening words, made no threatening gestures. He stood in place, unmoving. Watching.
I should run, Chloe thought.
"Who are you? Who do you work for?" she asked, instead.
"In simpler times, I known as Ik'ai: The Laughter of God," he declared. Without a smile. "I know, I know. You wouldn't think it to see me now, so dreary and dry; but such is the path of repentance. Now, I am but a humble Broker. ...do you intend to shoot me, Cha'ai? Will your guardian tear me apart? As you see, I have no weapon to defend myself. I'm not here to harm you. My task is only to warn you of harm to come, if you do not turn back."
Her finger squeezed the trigger. Just a little. Not firing, but getting used to the idea of firing. It was an Orbital energy blaster, it wouldn't kill him, it was safe to just zap and stun him and run for it. Assuming that'd work on a demon...
"Your 'employer' will be happy to know I'm 'turning back' by morning, then," she said. "We're done here."
The man emitted a dry little sigh, a raspy sound from his old throat.
"No secrets between angels, former or otherwise, please. We both know where you're truly going, Cha'ai. You're going to London. You endeavor to release Archangel Raphael from his burdens."
The trigger pressed down further. Her shaking hands probably would've ensured a misfire, though.
"I beseech you, child. In the name of mercy, leave your companions," he requested. "Do it tonight. Walk away, and I can promise you will soon find your way home. I will see to that, in a quiet and simple manner. Safe and sound, back in America. Because... if you stay with them, after they decide to go north, you will be dead."
"Not if I shoot you down where you stand," she tried to threaten. "Don't move. I know you can't teleport except through fire, and there's no fire around. You're pinned."
"I said I wasn't going to harm you," Ik'ai reminded. "That's not my task; I am merely a messenger. Much like you. My message is that your mercy will end, soon. You see... you have experienced my employer's mercy many times, already. He deflected you to the colonies upon your arrival to this world. He let you persist for nearly two centuries through the bloodline of your adoptive mortal family. But now... he can no longer afford you his mercy. A shame, really, when a beautiful thing falls from grace..."
Very slowly... his hand reached up, to side into his coat.
The blaster round skimmed across his shoulder, leaving an electrical burn mark on the fabric. Ik'ai didn't even react.
"S-Stay back!" Chloe threatened, as Jeeves moved to intervene, to get between the two. "I'm warning--"
"I suggest you stay back, actually," Ik'ai said... withdrawing a bottle of some sort. "For your safety during my departure. After all... I'm not the agent of your murder. I'm only a messenger."
The glass shattered at his feet, and exploded upward in flame.
Immediately, she was pressed flat to the floor, with a wall of metal guarding her. By the time her eyes adjusted... the iris behind Jeeve's monocle focused on her, to check her for injuries. Once satisfied, he offered a gentlemanly hand, to help her to her feet.
The fire had already burned itself out, leaving behind only a mildly scorched pew as evidence it was ever there. Ik'ai the Broker was gone.
In his place... Benny the Broker, running at a flat sprint, towards the light show.
"What? What happened?" he asked. "Are you okay? Is everything--"
He found himself with an armful of angel. Weeping into his coat, clinging onto her brother, wishing for all of this to go away.
It wasn't a problem Benny the Broker could do anything about. The best he could offer was to return the embrace, for however long she needed him to.
The last gear snapped into place with a soft metallic clink.
Now rebuilt, the stolen Grey Box came to life for its test run. The complicated nest of machinery whirled away perfectly; a pile of sonic resonators, physical machines, and steam valves. All of it made sense, under certain interpretations of the laws of physics, ones that every Honored Calculator knew by heart. Even if they didn't understand that the laws it forged while breaking other laws were only possible through a literal deus ex machina...
"Humming like a kitten, and purring like a bird! Excellent!" Gilbert declared, before shutting down the system. "With this, we can make our departure from Europe, and all the better for it. I told you all that my plan would work swimmingly."
The group had gathered one last time in the underground headquarters of Sister Jeanne de Tesla, so they could lie low until the heat died off. Also, so the kids who were so instrumental in their success could see the fruits of their pilfering labors.
Despite Gilbert's celebratory mood, and the cheers of the children when they saw those hundreds of gears meshing and spinning and ticking away... the dark cloud that hung over Chloe and Benny was enough to bring them down to practical reality.
"Right. So. We've managed to poison all the Grey Boxes and shut down the war fleet of Marseilles. Mission accomplished and time to leave," Gilbert declared. "Sister Jeanne, thank you for your help. We couldn't have done it without your flock."
"The pleasure is all mine, Monsieur!" the nun declared, grasping Gilbert Gearhaus's hand to shake vigorously. "I am glad I could help you in your path to halt this war machine. The last thing the empire needs is more hardship, more despair, and more strife..."
"With Bonnechance unable to produce a single working ship, I believe we've accomplished that goal," Gilbert said, with a smile.
"Well, yes -- all you have to do now is repeat this trickery six more times, and it'll all be over!" she said, with a smile. "So, where are you going next? Munich or Cardiff? Ah... those are the only two shipyards I know of, but word over the aerials says there's one in Yugoslavia, too..."
The only smile remaining was Gilbert's. And it was only there because he was too puzzled to realize he should stop smiling.
"I'm sorry, did you say six more shipyards?" Gilbert asked, just to be sure.
"Ahh... yes? You didn't know?" she asked. "Each one of the seven houses has a shipyard, after all. When you told me this morning they were making a war fleet to attack your nation, I got curious, and asked around on the wireless radio... and apparently each company's facilities started work on more ships just this week. So, you'll be shutting down the others as well, oui?"
"No no, see, that can't be, because, we have this fancy eye in the sky," Gilbert protested, pointing up at the ceiling. "And it only saw one facility, and--"
"Ah, I said, it just started this week. Bonnechance was developing the prototypes, but the others apparently got underway a few days ago, see... err... monsieur? Are you alright?"
"Oh, yes, I'm lovely, thank you," Gilbert Gearhaus said, still smiling. "I'm just realizing what an utter bastard Randall Wellspring is. I asked him for the security details on Bonnechance's fleet, see. I didn't actually ask him for details on the war fleets in general. It's a delicious thing, isn't it? Selective interpretation of language? Ha ha, ha! Excuse me while I hate my life."
Finally, his head sank. Even the chattering children allowed him a moment's quiet, after that.
Seconds later, he came up with a considerably tighter smile.
"Right. Okay, then. New plan!" he declared. "Plan... well. I can't call it Plan B, since it's a bit far out there. Plan Q, perhaps. It was actually my first suggestion, but Emily didn't want to go through with it, considering it far too cruel a blow to the empire -- as well as far too impossible a task..."
Not liking where this was going, the others felt the need to speak up. First, the Broker.
"Please tell me you're not talking about weapons of mass destruction," he said, since it was the first thing that came to his mind. "I can't rustle those up for you on short notice, despite what you may have heard about me..."
"No... although in the long term, what we will do to the Empire may be far worse, and have far more fatalities than a nuclear bomb would," Gilbert said, quietly. "No choice left, you see. Only condition under which Emily would authorize Plan Q. If we cannot stop the war machine peacefully... we must snuff out the fire that fuels it. We have to destroy the source of all aetheric steam."
There wasn't time for a dramatic scare chord. Benny's groan would have to do.
"You're kidding. Destroy the source? When nobody knows what the steam source is, because it's a state secret that's been kept for hundreds of years? Great Plan Q, Gilbert. What's Plan Z, giving everybody a free magical unicorn that farts rainbows?"
"I didn't say this would be easy. Merely necessary," Gilbert explained. "The steam is the power base upon which the empire was founded. The seven corporations, in tandem with the crown of England, holding tight control on the source. With the source gone... the reserves will deplete quickly enough, as the entire empire is based on steam technology."
"Yeah. I know. Meaning even if you somehow manage it, you're not just crippling the army... you're crippling the entire empire. Dropping millions of people into the stone age."
"Correct. Hence, Plan Q, the thing we did not want to have to do," Gilbert said. "This will not only render the army useless, but everything else as well. It could... it will result in chaos. Anarchy. Lives lost... just like the days after Pandora, when the Mutants disabled the old world's electricity across the continent with EMP blasts..."
The two arguing fellows slowly noticed the look of horror and realization on the elderly nun's face.
"Err... Sister?" Gilbert asked. "Everything alright, ma'am?"
"M-My vision," she spoke. "The angelic visitation I told you about earlier. 'Harness the lightning, for when the storm clouds pass.' ...I understand, now. God anticipated the breaking of the steam tyranny. That's why I've been studying electricity, so that I can help restore it once the steam is gone... --but you are correct, about the chaos. I'd always anticipated the transition back to electricity to be gradual. I can only hope I'm ready to spread the gospel of alternating current in wake of that kind of disaster..."
"Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, ma'am, I should say that as Benny has pointed out... we've no idea how to do it," Gilbert noted. "Plan Q is a theory, one which can't be easily put into practice. The source of the steam is a state secret, and likely guarded nine ways to sunday. Everybody knows it's bottled up somewhere in London, but beyond that--"
"It's a trapped angel. The Archangel Raphael is chained beneath Buckingham Palace, and his breath is being drained to make the steam. Gustave told me all about it."
Chloe wasn't expecting them to believe her. She barely believed it, herself, even if she knew it was true. Confusion, doubt, horror, shock... these things passed through the room immediately, as was expected. For her part... she sat mutely, having already gone through all four earlier that evening. Chloe was too exhausted to feel much of anything, anymore.
In contrast... Benny muttered an obscenity in angelic tongue that was so horrible it was probably for the best nobody present understood it.
"Steamy mists. Like an angel's wings, or an angel's breath," he recognized. "Special gift of the choir of Raphael, the demiurgic archangel, healer and scholar. It was right in my face for two hundred years! Oh, I knew I didn't like aetheric steam, it burns my skin something fierce and makes physics its bitch. Did I ever really consider WHY? No, of course not, it's just hot water, right? Two centuries, and I didn't recognize what it was! ...I don't like where this is going. I don't like this at all."
"We need to free Raphael from his captors," Chloe informed, flatly, factually. "This is where we were always going. I'm sorry..."
Gilbert ran a hair through his rumply hair. "Well... I suppose that confirms it. We are go for Plan Q," he declared. "We take the road where it leads us, for the sake of world peace. We'll launch the Mermaid tonight, and head north... to London."
TURN BACK. In glyphs of fire on the floor of a church. From the lips of a former angel. Turn back, or die.
"To London," Chloe agreed.
Final goodbyes were said to Sister de Tesla, who apparently was going to start widely broadcasting her information on electronics by the next morning. Their path had been set in stone, now; the rest of Europe would have to cope with losing Raphael, one way or another.
Very little else was said that night. Gilbert stole away to the captain's chair of the Mermaid, to undock and send it northward, plotting out a course that would avoid any major urban centers. Jesse apparently decided this would be a fine time to start practicing again with the ship's combat training dummy... as they may very well be fighting for their lives, in a few days time.
Chloe went to bed. "Exhausted" didn't even begin to describe her state.
"Uh... you gonna be okay?" was the best her brother could offer. She didn't fault him for that, as she mumbled some sort of affirmative, before shutting the door to her personal cabin.
All Chloe ever wanted was to know why she never really fit in. She couldn't not see the troubles around her, she couldn't accept common truths at face value. She had to know the truth under the truth. None of which had made her a happier person, once those revelations came to light...
Now she was off to finish what she apparently started hundreds of years ago, what some sleeping part of her had started. Either she'd deliver her message, or die trying. Neither was an appealing outcome, but either way, at least this would all be over...
Light sleep drifted over her mind, for an hour or so.
It was the gentle clank of brass on brass that woke her.
It took a few moments to adjust to the early morning darkness, to see the shape before her. The first thing she could see clearly was the monocle... the lens, glowing a bright white, brighter than Jeeves normally glowed.
"Hmwhuh?" she asked. "Jeeves? ...what time is it? Is something wrong?"
His voice processors rumbled slightly with the word.
"Sorrow," he spoke.
Leaning over her, he pressed his metal hands to her neck, and began to squeeze.
Chloe didn't even resist, at first. She couldn't comprehend that this was happening. Jeeves, the gentle giant, who had somehow destroyed The Mister ages ago to save his gentleman. He'd even saved Chloe, despite being offline, back in the mutant camp. Jeeves was always there to help her feel comfortable. The helpful companion of the entire crew.
He was strangling her to death.
And then Chloe Manchester was dead, before she could even understand why.
to be continued
copyright 2011 stefan gagne