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1. an offering of value (such as a living creature or material good) to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.
2. yielding something prized or desired for the sake of something more important.
Two days to prepare!
Not much time left at all. This close to the event, maids and butlers and other assorted servants were rushing to and fro around the palace. Frenzied hands were readying decorations, preparing the food, sending out the invitations. Set to frenzy by the whimsy of one...
Who really had little to do with the event, beyond saying "Hey, I've a brilliant idea, why don't we..."
That was his job, at this stage in life. Have 'brilliant' ideas that send others into a tailspin of activity, all to satisfy his need for amusement. While the adults were off making money and planning the future of his empire, he was riding horses, enjoying the finest teas, taking lessons in foreign languages, and generally being a lazy excuse for a monarch.
The newspapers loved it, of course. His midnight journeys out of the palace to the wildest parties around town were the stuff of legend -- and how did he find out about those, living a sheltered life? He'd never tell. He'd been averaging one tabloid-friendly incident a week, and had done so for years now.
Of course, any week when he was too bored and listless to get anything going, the dirt sheets could fill in their own headlines. Rumor had it that he took to the sky on steam powered wings each night, and ate stray cats in the alleys. He was a black magician whose drunken antics were part of unholy rites. Given the disparity in age between him and his parents, he was actually the son of a secret concubine imported from Germany. His sarcastic rantings about the state of the union were proof that he was the head of a secret rebel alliance which would emerge from hiding the day he took the throne. He was secretly an alien from the stars, here to steal our women, or our money, or our precious bodily essences, or such...
Honestly, nobody knew why he did what he did. If there was some method to the madness, or if it was just a bored noble, doing anything he could to shake things up. For instance... demanding that a masquerade ball be thrown. No reason given. Just, "Hey, I've a brilliant idea."
So, Prince Edward IV slept in while underpaid palace staff rushed about making his dreams a reality. He slept, and did nothing of importance, and one day when his father finally gave in to the coughs and died, he would likely continue to do nothing of importance. Except he'd be wearing a crown while doing it.
It chafed at the servants, of course. It chafed at the population in general (while simultaneously amusing them with his antics). Why was the crown prince such a miscreant? Why didn't he have the dignity and regal air of his heirs? What ruin would he bring to the empire, when he eventually took the throne?
The answers would, as part of a strange sequence of events, fuel the fire that had begin to burn days before. A spark that lit in the basement of a nearly abandoned manor house... one which would burn away all Edward had assumed to be unchanging and eternal. One which would reshape the empire, and the world, as only one could have foreseen...
by stefan gagne
Two days to prepare.
When they were blitzing in and out of forsaken cities along the western shores, two days would be an eternity. Even this European jaunt had been moving along at a fair hop, before Gilbert slowed it down in his hesitation. But now, after all the cards were on the table, two days felt like barely enough time to get it all done...
Particularly for Jesse. If you came right down to it, she was not exactly the premiere witch of her age.
Generally humans had a rough time with the magic that seemed to come so naturally to Fae... that was the reason why kids were going to a multi-year school just to learn spellcraft, out in New Orleans. When you couldn't memorize spells, each casting was like seeing a spell for the very first time. There was no mental muscle memory to draw on, so you needed sharp reaction times and a quick wit to interpret the Word and the Way, before you even got to the Will. She knew the common english terms for the spells (Animate, Light, Shock, that sort of thing) but until they displayed on her monocle, she COULDN'T remember anything else about them...
It took years to master the art of cold casting. Jesse had mastered it. But even with cold casting, you could remember certain aspects of how to focus your Will, even if you couldn't remember the spell itself. She knew how to make objects dance to her tune with Animate, provided she allowed them to follow their own music as well. (Eggbeaters wanted to spin. Knives wanted to slash. Music players loaded with hiphop wanted to annoy the elderly.) She knew how to focus the colors in her mind to make an effective Light spell. And she certainly knew how to project her fierce will along the edge of a Spellblade, to turn a deadly rapier into a non-deadly but decidedly painful magical weapon...
What she didn't know was how to translate her Will into a good Glamour spell. She had cobbled together her memories, from the few times the subject came up in chat with Nelliwyn Myfanway, the world's unsung master of the artform. And the best the elf could manage was "You sort of have to convince yourself of what you want to be seeing before you can convince anyone else. But don't believe too hard or it'll overload and pop. Oh, and it's very difficult to do on people."
Not much to go on. The first step, at least that was clear -- have an image in mind, auditory and visual, to project onto another person. Brutal to do when you weren't just touching up imaginary makeup or hair color, but needed a complete and convincing identity replacement. Facial structure. Eye color. Voice tone. Mannerisms...
Penny had promised she'd look for appropriate "stand-ins," nobles of about the same height and build as the four who would be going on this mission. Wigs would also be available, and they had the advantage of going to a fancy masquerade, to cover up any magical slips. If Jesse had to focus on more than voices and faces, they would be sunk -- she couldn't master a full body replacement in two days.
Voices and faces. Difficult enough. And after a few hours of practice the following afternoon, trying to get her own tones to sound like voices she knew inside and out and instead getting various 'chipmunk' blasts of ear-piercing speech, she decided to vent her frustration on the outside world and go annoy the others with her presence.
First up: Benny.
Who didn't seem to be doing anything of importance.
He was in one of the old manor's many guest bedrooms, sitting at Chloe's bedside. The young wannabe angel was still comatose. And Benny, in his unending quest to wake her so she could pull her weight in this scene, was busy reading from a stack of newspapers.
"Catching up on current events?" Jesse asked in a mocking tone, leaning in the doorframe.
"Yes, I am," Benny replied, ignoring the mockery. "I asked Penny's henchmen to grab me one of every paper they could find this morning. I've got state-run propaganda, gossipy dirt sheets, underground press, you name it. I'll be repeating this tomorrow, and the morning of the raid itself."
"Very systematic. May I ask why this is more important than reviving our celestial?"
"It's not. It's equally important," he said, setting aside a crime-focused scare paper, the Daily Inquisitor. (Today's headline: Grisly Twin Maiden Murders in Ibiza Remain Unsolved! Skulking Criminal At Large!) "Right now, I'm doing everything I can and should be doing. With these papers, I'm loading up on information about the state of the empire. Who's moving, what's shaking, where the problem spots are. Without demonic powers, my best weapon is the skill of a Broker plus the knowledge of an insider. We're about to go to a social event starring the cream of the empire's crop; I am not going in sounding like an outsider."
"No doubt you will be the king of small talk, then. And as for Chloe...?"
"Demons get the toys. Angels get jack and squat," Benny said. "Can't teleport, can't pull a miracle cure out of their pocket, can't even change my clothes on demand anymore. I certainly don't have some holy healing spell I can slap on her. But putting on the halo doesn't make me any less formidable. I said my weapon was information -- which I used to call in a specialist who's going to help me rouse her. Given his usual travel times, coupled with the need to approach in a roundabout way to avoid being followed, I think he'll be here about--"
"--now. Jesse, if you mind...?"
Curious, she turned... and got an eyeful of the dreadful fellow behind her.
Oh, he wore colorful clothes, tye-dye waistcoats and big, round sunglasses the color of roses and sunshine. But something in the smile, barely visible behind his droopy moustache and sideburns, spoke of something other than peace and love. But given the smell from the doctor's bag he carried with him... dope could be found aplenty, even if peace and love were suspect offerings.
"I'm reasonably sure the 1960s were several generations ago," Jesse commented.
"Hey, I'm bringing it back, toots," the King of Pain said, with a mock peace sign made with slender fingers. "Benny, you rang? You're lucky the King makes house calls. And doesn't hold a grudge..."
"I'll leave you to... whatever this is," she said, stepping away from the door. "If you say this will help Chloe, then very well. I'll be downstairs, practicing."
The King adjusted his shades, to make sure he couldn't be spotted watching her hips sway on the way out.
"She's married," Benny warned.
"An angry husband never stopped me before, Benny my man. Never."
"Actually, in this case, you should be more worried about the angry wife if you try anything. I need you alive and un-dismembered if I'm going to get my patient up and on her feet," Benny said, waving him in. "C'mon in. You got my payment, I trust?"
"Up front and with several zeroes, as I insisted. Although it's not like you to have a proxy tube cash around," the King of Pain said, setting his medical bag at the foot of the bed, and opening it. A vast array of tiny glass bottles clinked around, on clockwork shelves, which expanded and swiveled around into place once exposed.
"Lost my bag of tricks. Sorry. I neglected to mention, but I'm playing for the other side now," Benny admitted. "I got my harp back. Wasn't easy or fun, believe me."
"...you're kidding," the King said, after the idea squished around in his head some. "You must be tripping balls, son. I know your attitude barely qualifies you as a proper demon, but... nobody goes back across the firewall. Nobody."
"Nobody except me. I made Him an offer He couldn't refuse."
The King of Pain tapped his foot, the squishy idea sliding around... and settling into place. His smile widened.
"You pushed around the Word?" he asked. "Ohhhh. Ohh, man. Okay. That's almost a justifiable treason, there, if you got to make the unspoken one dance to your tune..."
"Remains to be seen who's dancing and who's playing the tune. But right now, my patient isn't moving at all, much less dancing," Benny reminded him. "Alright. You know the girl I told you about? The one I was going on at length about? That's her. My sister. You remember Cha'ai, right? This is her multigenerational mortal incarnation. She was sent here to help us rescue Raphael, who's being held prisoner by the British Empire. ...I'll give you a moment to swallow all this, out of professional courtesy."
Not very long ago, the King of Pain was being slammed against walls by the rage of Benny the Broker. And he laughed it off, mocked him, called him weak and feeble. Today... Benny the Broker was perfectly calm, sitting in a chair, making no threats.
And this time, the King was seriously considering making a run for it.
"Benny, I... uh..." he tried to say. "Y'know..."
"You're understandably concerned that getting mixed up in the Word's business is unhealthy for someone of your nature," Benny filled in. "Pain, I don't think that helping out a couple of angels here is gonna hurt you. ...I really don't want to make threats, but if you flip that around and think about it, NOT helping out a couple of angels may end up hurting you, in the end. You know how the Word is about His ineffability, and all. Doesn't like to be let down."
"Look, it's not... I'm not saying I'm not gonna help," the King said. "You paid me. Paid me a hell of a lot, actually, so I guess that satisfies the 'greed' sin requirement. It's a suitable sacrifice. ...but... level with me, man. You two, and now Raphael's here...? Is my adoptive homeland about to get seriously unhealthy for me? Should I be looking for change of address forms once we're done?"
"You know what you said about dancing, earlier?" Benny asked. "Think back. When have we ever NOT danced to the Word's tune? Would He have allowed the Fall if it wasn't cool with it, if it wasn't all part of his plan? He set the entire cosmos, the entire multiverse apparently, into motion. Big bang onward. The ultimate forward thinker. So, maybe it'll annoy the Morningstar, back home... but Lucifer's just as much a puppet as you and I. Embrace the strings, Pain. It's good for you. And we don't get much of a say, anyway."
Benny took a few moments to peruse the crime sheet rags, while the King of Pain made up his mind.
Soon, the King was extending a collapsible IV bottle hanger from the depths of his bag, a mechanical drip feeder connected to a sterilized brass needle.
"She's definitely in a medical coma," he agreed, based on the original request Benny made by tube messages. "Sort of a mix of natural biological complications endured by her mortal form, and supernatural trauma. I can't directly bring her out. But I specialize in consciousness expansion, man. Blending the natural sciences and the unnatural influences. I can sync your consciousness to hers, and YOU can bring her out."
"Ugh. Is this going to be another one of those vastly symbolic representational dream sequence trip kind of things?" Benny asked. "Not that it changes my mind, but I'd like a fifth of jack before I go into another one of those annoying things..."
"Naw. You're just going to slip into a coma, that's all," Pain explained, while tapping air bubbles out of the line. "Synced to her coma. Too deep to see cows crossing the rainbow bridge over a sea of phallic objects or anything like that. Assuming you survive, you won't even remember anything."
"This is your cure, Pain? I go into a coma... and either we both come out or neither of us do?"
"Safety in numbers, man. Only way to roll," the King of Pain said. "Maybe she'll find her own way out, but it ain't likely happening any year soon. So. If you can hold your willpower strong enough, if you want it bad enough, you can dip down into that sea just long enough to find her and come back. You game? ...I'm not a Dealbreaker, today. I know better than that; there's a time for pranking an old friend, and a time to roll up your sleeves and get it done..."
On cue... Benny rolled up his sleeve, holding his arm out for the needle.
"I went to Hell and back for her," he noted, as the painful lance slid its way into a vein of his own mortal incarnate form. "I'll go right to the edge of death for her, if I have to. Let's go."
The King of Pain's finger hovered over a small button. One push, and off he'd go. Possibly, never to return.
So, no time like the present...
"Why?" he asked.
"...because I paid you a hefty fee?" Benny offered. "Because of ineffability? Didn't we cover this?"
"Why all of this? Why her?" he asked. "I've never understood it. Back in the day, I didn't understand it, and it makes even less sense now. You were one of the most heartless bastards I knew, Ben'ai. Charged to watch over the mortals, but siding with the rebels because you didn't care about anyone. Never really cared for your clients, even if you wouldn't mess with them. I thought there wasn't an ounce of love in you. Cold and clinical, professional. So. Why Cha'ai?"
"I'm not in the mind set to play Freud with Doctor Feelgood--"
"I can pack up my medicine bag and go play shaman somewhere else," the King reminded him. "You need me more than I need you. A proper demonic jackass would tease and toy with you until he is satisfied, and I am a proper demonic jackass. ...but mostly, I just gotta know, man. Why do you care for this chick?"
"Because she cares."
The King waited for him to finish that sentence. Apparently, it was finished already.
"That's it?" he asked. "Because 'she cares'? That's a bit sappy and sentimental, isn't it--"
"No. It's an honest evaluation," Benny explained. "You know what we were like. The fallen didn't care. The ones who stayed by the Word's side? Most of that lot didn't care, either. They upheld under blind obedience, out of some self-righteousness, not because they actually cared. ...Cha'ai isn't my real sister, any more than you're my real brother, or anyone else created from the same clay of the choir."
"And that's my point! What made her different from any other angel in the faceless mass of winged bootlicks?"
"Because she wasn't a winged bootlick! She cared about how things were, and put serious thought to it. Not mindless compassion, but thoughtful compassion. She cares so much that it's bled through every mortal incarnation she's had for the last two hundred years, through all the nightmares humanity's shown her. Pain... she's genuine. Probably one of the only genuine angels to ever be. But she's got one critical flaw."
"Wait. I can guess this one, given your attitude," the King said. "She cares for others more than she'll ever care for herself. Right?"
"Hole in one. Did you know she might have fallen right alongside us, because of that? Seriously. She was ready to sign on with the Morningstar, just because she saw ME headed for disaster, and wanted to make sure I'd be okay. Zero points for smart thinking, but plus one million for sheer willpower and compassion. How can I not respect that, Pain? How could I not love that? How could I not want to protect that? ...she deserved better than our lot ever got, on either side of the fence. And if I need to chase her down right to the ragged edge to keep that flame alight, then... fine. I'm willing."
The square peg of an idea tried to fit in the little round hole with devil horns on it in the King of Pain's mind. No go. Still, he knew OF square pegs, and their role in things. Enough to decide to push the button, and start the drugs flowing.
"You're a better man than I, Ben'ai," the King of Pain decided. "A better man than I'd ever want to be, honestly. Sweet dreams, old buddy."
Focus the Will.
I believe my voice sounds like Emily's. She is in a higher register than me. She is practical and has a dry but compassionate humor in her words. I believe my voice sounds like Emily's but I know this is a mask. When I speak, I will hear her voice, not mine.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
"ThE QuICK BroWN fOx JuMPs O-- oh, blast it all," the wobbly voice muttered, snapping back harshly to normal at the last utterance.
The setting sun had begun making shadows in the dusty old manor grow long and dreary. Perfectly matching Jesse's mood, as she failed again and again at a magic even elven children were capable of playing with...
At first, she assumed the problem was her solo work. If she had a third party around to hear her, maybe it'd be easier, as if she was performing proudly before an audience. But sitting on the stoop of the winding stairwell of this tasteful if slightly abandoned home, with a peanut gallery, wasn't helping. In fact, her ultra-supportive husband had begun to grate on her nerves. She loved him all the same for it, and expected nothing less than a nerve grating, but its usual endearing qualities were starting to grate in a different way. Two cheese graters, going in opposite directions.
"You almost had it that time, love," Gilbert offered. "That last bit especially sounded like Emily!"
"That was my normal voice," she said, flatly.
"Ahh. Well... um... maybe it'd help if you tried to sound like me?" he suggested. "Maybe the farther away from the norm, the easier to believe, because it's so absurd...? Wait, no, that doesn't make sense. Hmh. I wish I had time to decode the spell, perhaps find some mathematical base to it. I've done a decent amount of audio engineering, and--"
A series of wooden tumblers and gears squeaked away, behind her. The back door. They never used the front door; no need for the neighbors to know who REALLY owned this house...
Ah. As if her day wasn't going poorly enough already...
Penny skipped into the foyer through the kitchens. She was dressed in undercover garb, fairly ordinary civilian wear, rather than donning her preferred piratey dressings. She didn't come alone... her squadron of slightly rectangular, muscle bound minions were entering, as well.
"We've got our stand-ins!" Penny declared. "I think you're mostly going to like them. First up: the Duchess and Duke of Lisbon, who will be replaced by you and your hubby..."
A young couple, wearing slightly rumpled noble finery, were hustled in by minions. Each had a beefy hand clamped over their upper arms; they were nearly carried, rather than led, into the room.
"Oh, woe to me, woe!" the Duchess declared. "To be made away with by mysterious pirates! Such a dreadful and unfortunate fate. You brutes shall have no satisfaction from me, I say! Even if I am to be bathed and dressed in stolen silks, and ravished by your no doubt staggeringly handsome captain--"
"You see? You see what I have to live with?" the Duke declared. "It's all those bloody books she reads. No proper hobby for a noblewoman, reading--"
"Yes, that's nice, thank you, we have a pleasant room waiting for you upstairs and an autobutler to cater to your whims. ...most of your whims," Penny corrected, motioning for their guard minions to whisk them away. "Gilbert? Please tell me Jeeves isn't physically capable of catering to all their whims..."
Jesse wrinkled her nose. "I suppose I'm going to need to spend time with the happy couple, to learn their voices and characteristics," she realized. "Woe to me, woe..."
"Right. Putting that horribleness behind us... prepare to enjoy the prize of prizes!" Penny declared, stepping back and making a sweeping arm gesture, to usher in the next kidnappees. "Representing Benny and Chloe, although Chloe's double is a bit shorter and I'm sorry about that but this was an opportunity I simply couldn't pass up... I give you Mendel Gearhaus, research and design lead for Gearhaus Heavy Industries, and his latest protégé, Honored Calculator Elizabeth Gearhaus!"
Why am I standing up? Gilbert wondered.
Because when you were but a wee boy, you knew better than to slouch around Mendel Gearhaus, if you wanted to avoid a birch rod, Gilbert recalled.
The next two prisoners didn't carry on and cause a scene.
The girl, perhaps nine years old, was an adorable moppet in pigtails and thick lensed corrective goggles. She wasn't fussing or crying, despite being kidnapped by pirates. Gearhaus Industries didn't raise their Honored Calculators to give into uncalculated fear; she knew that she was being kept alive for a reason, and the clearer her head was, the more likely she could get out of the situation.
As for the man, the hunched over old man with the diamond-cut eyes of disdain who Benny was apparently going to be replacing...
He greeted Gilbert with a familiar and very sour look.
"Boy," he acknowledged.
"S-Sir," Gilbert blurted, before catching himself. "--Mendel. Well. Hmm. Pardon my culture shock, sir. Wasn't expecting to come face to face by my teacher, my director, my supposed but not much of a father figure, and my prison warden all in one package..."
"Heard they impounded my ship," Mendel Gearhaus muttered. "MY ship. The one you stole, years ago. Then they told me you were a traitor, here to do harm to the empire, and were to be shot on sight. I can't say I'm surprised. You were always a bit of a disappointment, after all... fussing about with that old robot, mucking around in contraband. Distracting yourself from your studies--"
"No. I'm really not in the mood for this," Gilbert decided.
"Don't you talk back to me, boy," the elder spat. "I made you, don't you forget--"
The unflappable charismatic wonder, the gentleman of gentlemen, the one who was more likely to turn a razor wit upon an enemy than a haymaker, smashed a haymaker right across the jaw of his former mentor.
Granted, he wasn't much of a prizefighter, so the punch didn't knock the old man silly. But it did knock some surprise into him.
"You were ruining my life," Gilbert declared... coldly, an ice cold stance learned from his wife. "Stripping away my future, burning away my years with that accursed breathing mask! And why? To increase shareholder value! You didn't care about my well being, you didn't care about my betterment. Nothing you or anyone in that filthy 'family' did was done out of the slightest bit of compassion!"
The old man spat up blood. And more verbal bile.
"...bloody ungrateful little son of a whore," he declared. "Pulled you out of poverty, gave you the finest things in life, would've given you any toy you wanted if only you'd do as you were told. And you bit the hand that feeds you--"
"Get him out of here," Gilbert declared. "He provides a fine object lesson for why we must succeed in our endeavors, but beyond that, I've no use for this sadistic old windbag."
The pair of pirates hauling around their wheezing old prize hustled, double time, up the stairs. They didn't need a glance to their pirate queen for confirmation that it'd be a good idea to keep these two apart.
...and with him gone... Gilbert's breathing shallowed. Flattened out, as he closed his eyes, and ran through some exercises to calm the nerves. Exercises, ironically enough, learned through Gearhaus Heavy Industries' Honored Calculator training.
Once centered... he slowly went to one knee. And took the young lady's hand, to kiss her fingers.
"I apologize for that outburst, young missus," he spoke to Elizabeth Gearhaus. "It was an unfitting response for a gentleman, no matter how provoked, no matter how justified. But I rather needed that, on an emotional level. Certainly you can understand how behavioral variables must be taken into account in any social scenario equation, yes...?"
The redheaded mopped cocked her head, curiously. Unafraid.
"So yoo're Gilbert Gearhaus?" she asked, with edges of a German accent. (Obviously they hadn't finished crushing her home culture out of her yet.)
"That would be me, m'lady," he spoke... rising and flowing into a formal bow. "At your service, and apologetic for this interruption in your studies."
"What're the colonies like?" she asked. "I've always been curious. They say you haff been there. You stole a nice ship an went exploring. Did you have any adventures? Were there Sea Dragons? I've never seen one. You can call me Lizzy, I like that better. My arms are tired. Can I have some ice cream? I saw a freezer on the way in und there's a 78% chance it's well stocked, as the caffeine and sugar jitters I observed in the pirate lady suggest she has a sweet tooth which needs satiating after a long day of kidnapping folks. I promise I won't escape, at least until after I hear your stories, ja?"
A rip roaring laugh echoed throughout the dry and dusty house.
"Jesse, dearest? You're looking into our future," Gilbert declared, as he hoisted the girl away from her keepers. "Come then, Lady Lizzy! Let us retrieve the Rocky Road, and I will tell the epic tale of Gilbert Gearhaus Versus The Shadows From Out of Time! And then we'll discuss your eventual and clever escape from a life of servitude..."
It was only a minute after the jovial little party retired to the kitchen that Jesse understood his words.
Looking into our future...
At our daughter. Of course.
Jesse never thought much of children, until recently. Or even of her own childhood. It wasn't the worst or the best of years, to be fair... she was the timid one, the weak one, the one who hesitated before doing anything risky. Polar opposite of what she became, when given the chance to blossom...
Lizzy Gearhaus was much more like Emily than she was like Jesse, in that context. Little Emily, Alpha Girl of the village, was adventurous. She feared nothing, particularly the unknown; she always wanted to know. She idolized the Fae as a great big mysterious unknown, full of wonder and splendor. ...in later years, troubles and the bitterness that followed tempered her considerably, but...
I am ten years old, I am Emily Moonthistle, and I believe that when I speak, it will be Emily's voice that emerges from Jesse's lips. I believe this because I believe in the magic OF magic. Magic is not just a utility -- it's a mystery, a wonder, and it will be splendid.
"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," Emily read aloud.
Jesse's resulting smile was one of satisfaction... and youthful delight. To a degree.
The ancient cathode ray tube crackled under the strain, as images fuzzily scattered themselves via an electron gun onto the reactive screen.
It took several calls to known Gatherer cells to find a personal computer that matched Gilbert's recollection of the one used for fingerprint scanning at Buckingham Palace. The problem wasn't finding A computer; the Gatherers had been sampling from that digital genome for decades, as mankind, particularly in the Eastusa region, continued their rapid development of smaller and higher performance computers. There were a few hundred models on record, all Sub-Artifacts of their official Artifact designation, #14. One of the first strains of living technology the Gatherers looked for, when they had arrived on this world...
But finding a very, very specific Sub-Artifact... one which used the same display technology as a vaguely known system they would be expected to trick using hypertechnology... that took calling in some favors. Favors were not a currency Jim and Bob had much of. Honestly, most of the Gatherers didn't even know their Ibiza cell existed. Not because they were dangerous covert agents working a secretive assignment, they just hadn't made any mark whatsoever in the society's history.
With luck, the wheezing old box they'd managed to have delivered to the manor was a close enough match. Except that they'd nearly blown out its monitor twice now, trying to find the appropriate power level for the "Reverse Van Eck Phreak," to use primitive local lingo.
"Circle. Square. Triangle. --wait, no. More of a... wobbly... prism?" Bob suggested. "Focus the EM band, you're losing image coherency..."
"This is like trying to paint the Mona Lisa in human waste products!" Jim grumbled, as he fumbled with the gestural interface on his wristbound electromagnetic manipulator. "We're masters of the finest hypertechnology seen anywhere in the multiverse, and they're asking us to bang rocks together to make fire! It's beneath us!"
"But if we use an energy blaster to start a fire, we could burn down the entire house," Bob suggested.
"Hmm. Yes, that is an apt metaphor for our current predicament. Very good turn of phrase, Bob!"
"Metaphor?" he asked, confused.
"We need to find the right band to work on, and the right output level. Just enough to change the image on the security system remotely, without making it look like a glitch. I just hope we can isolate the frequency before it's time to leave tonight..."
Bob groaned, cracking his neck back and forth. Sitting at the little folding wooden table they'd perched their ancient computer on wasn't helping his posture.
"I could go for some ice cream," he suggested. "Could you go for some ice cream? I like it. It's like Cold Fun."
"Except for all the fat and sugars and complex carbohydrates and nasty things, yes. I'm not going near the stuff. I need to be healthy to be vigilant for the Gatherer cause!"
"Yeah, but... Penny got sprinkles when she went shopping today," Bob pointed out, dreamily. "Sprinkles, Jim! Decorative particles!"
The slightly-by-degrees more serious of the two waved the other away. He took Bob's place at the computer, plugging a silvery module onto the side of the module, to perform another scan of the wretched device's innards. How could such a simple tool be so evasive to scans, so susceptible to the chaos of EM interference all around it...?
A minute later, Bob returned, without ice cream or Cold Fun or any sort of decorative particle.
"What, were they out of your preferred taste bud manipulations?" Jim asked. "Or just out of the 'sprinkles'?"
"No more sprinkles. The young genius child consumed them all, apparently. Ice cream's not as much fun without sprinkles," Bob said, with a pout. He leaned in, to study the screen. "Any luck with that yet?"
"Bob, you know that there is no such thing as luck. There is only the infinitely complicated mathematics of quantum physics and chaos, which inevitably resolve themselves to understandable and predictable patterns. Even if those patterns are practically unknowable until after the the waveform has collapsed."
"Maybe we should reach out to other Gatherer cells again," Bob suggested. "Get some help. Of course, as interdimensional genius scientists, we're fully capable of accomplishing this feeble task ourselves! But, um, a few more interdimensional genius scientists might not be amiss, right?"
"Really? And who do you propose we contact?" Jim asked. "Mel in Islington wants nothing to do with us. Jan and Pol from the Archive in the alps won't talk to us after what you did at our last annual inter-cell winter solstice team building social event. She still can't go near stuffed animals without serious facial tics."
"I know this is going to sound a bit extreme, Jim, but... maybe we should get in touch with Tier Zero again," Bob said. "Archivist Sen. He seems to have an interest in all this, right? He would want us to succeed. He'd give us anything we need! I mean, he's sitting on top of a horde of Artifacts, right?"
Jim wanted to bash his head into the CRT, to make the Bob-ache go away. He flipped the device off, to cycle its power and reset the scan process, before turning to his comrade in arms.
"Tier Zero," Jim repeated. "Tier Zero, who's already in a highly agitated state that we let that neoprimitive pagan magus know that the Gatherers even exist. Tier Zero, who's got his own problems to deal with, and needs no further burdens. --and how in the irrational belief in an infernal afterlife for those who violate moral codes do you expect Sen to SEND us any Artifacts? Carrier pigeon from the primary Archive in Pennsylvania?"
"I think any avian transport would be eaten by Kraken, Jim," Bob helpfully pointed out.
Murder was beneath a highly evolved civilization such as the Orbitals. This was a fact Jim had to repeat to himself on a near daily basis.
After a micro-breathing exercise to retain his proper rational stance, he lowered his voice. No need for this already dangerous debate to echo off the walls of this primitive wooden dwelling.
"Look... we are walking a VERY fine line, here," Jim reminded him. "The Gatherers have been operating in secret ever since the Pandora Event. Everything Proctor Hel worked to build here is on the line with us. We cannot reveal our works to the locals -- you've seen their laughable 'science' fiction. They're already having enough trouble trusting #A076; what if they knew a secret society of aliens was stealing away samples of their magic, their technology, their mysterious mysteries? Well, guess what? Queen Emily of the Fae knows now, thanks to us crossing paths with that aggravating female!"
"Well, yes, but... but..." Bob stammered. "I'm just saying, this seems important, so--"
"You think this is important? This is nothing!" Jim exclaimed. (As quietly as he could.) "You and I both know that whoever runs England, and how they run it, is ultimately meaningless. One day, some day soon, the stars are going to fall. The conspiracy's already been unmasked; Hel said that would be the first sign! This exposure could compromise us, weaken our stance, at such a critical time! So. The less contact she has with the Gatherers, direct or indirect, the better. You and me. We are all she gets. Understand?"
"Understand what, Jim?" Bob asked, in between spoonfuls of ice cream with sprinkles. "And why am I already here?"
In moments... Jim was cast deep within the murky, jagged chasms of his worst nightmare.
That is not actually possible, his rational mind told him.
Thankfully, with the introduction of the second Bob... the first one melted away.
Unthankfully, when the glamour faded, all that remained was a very, very perturbed witch.
"I would like to point out," Jesse said, arms folded for now, "That this 'neoprimitive pagan magus' just fooled an interdimensional genius scientist. And said 'aggravating female' is not pleased at the unkind words you used to describe her."
"please don't turn us into frogs please oh please don't" Jim mumbled semicoherently.
"As I still require your services for my mission, you will not be eating flies for the rest of your lives," Jesse declared. "I suggest you return to work. I dislike all these last minute details that remain unfinished. Now, we leave within a few hours for the party, we still need our security screen bypass, we still need to rouse the sleeping siblings, we still need our costumes, and..."
And one detail had finished itself off.
Benny, himself looking pale and weak, was helping a pale and weak Chloe ease herself down the steps. Both of them looked like living death... being comatose for days would do that, of course.
(Jesse was not pleased to learn that Benny's grand scheme had been to knock himself out for the count. But, the deed done, she and the others could do little but wait and see...)
"We're up," Benny noted, for the record. "And feel like hell. Please don't ask where we've been, because I don't think I want to remember. Just another damn hurdle the Word put up for us to clear... but we're back. I filled Chloe in on the plan. How long do we have until the shindig?"
"Not long," Jesse informed. "Although if Penny doesn't get back with your costumes, we're--"
Ahh. That squeaking sound would be the back door opening. The trampling of boots would be pirates, hauling in a fresh load of stolen fancy dresses and tuxedos and the like...
Sure enough, the foyer was a flood of frills and finery in no time flat. Penny walked in triumphantly, lightly tossing a cloth ball loaded with pins of various sizes, ready to play amateur seamstress.
"Fitting time!" Penny the Pirate declared. "Wait'll you see what we got for you! I considered some hidden compartments for weapons, but didn't want to risk it. Still, the disguise kits I got are state of the art! You might not even NEED any witchcraft! Well, except to knock Chloe down a few inches..."
"Time to go, then?"
And that would be her husband. Of course. Once once surprise visitor popped into a scene in Jesse's life, there's often another, and another, and another...
"Very dapper, Penny good choices," Gilbert agreed, surveying the silken threads that the rough and tumble pirates were holding up. "I like the little paper wings for Chloe's angel costume, although I must admit, that's something of a big red bullseye when you're going undercover..."
"I had to get something childlike that'd still fit her. This was all they had," Penny said. "Sorry."
"Ahhh, we'll manage, I suppose. So! Magic's been studied, hostages are being cared for by Jeeves, costumes are here, angels are awake... what're we missing?" Gilbert asked. "How's the security system hack going?"
"This stupid primitive monitor keeps losing its focus," Jim complained.
Gilbert banged a fist on the top of its plastic frame.
The image snapped into sharp relief.
"Good enough, I'd wager," Gilbert decided. "Right. Ladies and gentlemen? We've a party to attend. You all know your roles. You know what's at stake. I have nothing but the utmost faith in our success, and your triumph. No more dallying, no more scheming... it's time to stop the war before it can start. Time to overthrow England's seat of power. Are you ready? --ah, wait, not in the verification sense, I meant to declare that in an enthusiastic sense, as in, 'Are! You! Ready?!' to encourage and cheer you on. Hmm. Jesse, love, should I start over? Speeches sometimes have a habit of getting away from me after they've--"
"Let's go save the world," Jesse declared.
"Yes, that'll do nicely, thank you. Let's do that."
Once, it stood as a combination tourist trap and novelty locale for visiting dignitaries and social events. That was back when Parliament ruled over a single island sized nation -- before the coming of "The Strangeness," before the merging of the two Englands. When one emerged as the dominant flavor, in no small part due to beating back the mutant hordes, its royalty married the local royalty to form one unified family tree. And then augmentation of the palace commenced.
The tourists were shown the boot, for starters. On their side of the veil between worlds, the Empire held all critical corporate meetings and diplomatic sessions within the palace -- it also housed the core of the royal family. All things worth protecting, right to the death if need be.
The modern day palace very much resembled the palace of old... but with far more military might, and with more fortifications than even the most heavily defended Mediterranean border cities. Unless you were a member of the ruling elite, on either by money or by bloodline or both, you were not getting in.
Curiously... the palace also had a heavy duty network of steam pipes, running in and around its structure. These pipes quickly terminated in the ground, out of sight, to kill off any speculation beyond the heavy power needs of the palace's normal functions. What few knew was that aetheric steam wasn't being mainlined in to the palace... but out of the palace. Unless you were actually inside the tubes (which would be utterly fatal, this close to the raw source) you wouldn't know the directional flow.
It was the everpresent hum and thrum of these tubes that Chloe first heard, as their autocar rolled up to the palace. Mild, of course -- the king and his family wouldn't want a noisy palace -- but for an outsider, not used to the constant background noise, it stood out considerably. Even a short ways away from their dinner date with destiny...
A glance in the glass window of the automobile startled her. She wasn't expecting the red hair in her reflection.
"You're nine, remember," the wheezing old mathematician in the top hat and tails at her side reminded. (Benny's disguise. Very unsettling, this glamour business.) "A precocious genius nine year old. The spell should keep your raised eye line convincing, even though you're taller, but try not to bump into anyone. Don't take off your mask for any reason; it's got fake corrective lenses built in, just like Elizabeth Gearhaus would need--"
"Lizzy," Chloe corrected. "It's... uf. Lizzy Gearhaus. I need to be annoyed and insist people call me that and pout when people correct me..." She had to steady herself, briefly, to avoid slumping against the door.
"Easy. We're both pretty worn out from that mess," Benny reminded. "Just take it easy. Conserve yourself."
Chloe did her best to ignore the exhaustion from her earlier... whatever it was. Not a small task.
"Benny... where were we, back there?" she asked. "I keep trying to remember back, but... it's all a blank. I recall Jeeves being coerced into hurting me, and then..."
"No clue. Hopefully, just in some psychosurreal medical passion play, courtesy of the good doctor. Just that, and nothing more. ...we don't have time to ponder. This is what's happening, right here, right now. Focus, Chloe. Once we're inside, don't mingle, don't play around, just locate Gustave Bonnechance and bring him to the corner of the room where Gilbert and Jesse will be chatting. They're going to play the arguing couple, so people will keep their distance. Minor nobles are usually overlooked at these parties, anyway."
"I know the plan. What about you, though?" she asked.
The old man rolled his shoulders, assuming a posture of age and weariness. "I'm a miserable old coot who hates children and has no patience for fools," Benny described. "I know Mendel. I've never had him as a client, but my job is to know people, all the same. He'd be expected to wander around and annoy people, so, that's what I'm going to do. I'll keep them distracted with my ornery bastard act, so they don't bother you. Don't worry. I've been preparing for this, I won't get caught..."
The steam-driven engine clattered slower and slower, as the autocar pulled up to the front of the palace. The doors opened automatically; the entire thing had been driven by a humanoid robot valet, a far simpler and more purpose-driven thing than Jeeves. (Which made it a lot easier for Penny and Gilbert to re-route one from the parade of nobles heading to the palace, so they could get the rides intended for their hostages.)
To her left... the palace. A gilded fortress, hiding its strength behind opulence and classical design.
To her right, in the distance... she could see the angel statue of the Victoria Memorial. The counter-party would be starting soon. A group of students and pranksters and activists, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, and trying to grab the attention of the media. Odds are, especially with Penny somewhere in the mix stirring things up, they'd draw more than the eyes of the fourth estate...
"Out, child," Benny croaked, in his stolen voice. "No dallying, now! Let's get this ridiculousness over with so you can get back to your studies."
Chloe swallowed, hard. Then put on her best 'I'm a kid and I'm bored at an adult dinner party' attitude. "Ja, ja," she agreed, sliding out of the car, smoothing out her pretty little sparkly angel dress after landing on her feet.
At first... she assumed the gig was up. The ceremonial guards (here to look nice, while the REAL guards stayed out of sight) were staring at her chest. A chest which certainly did not belong to a little girl...
Except, of course, that was where her eyes were, according to the disguise. Meaning all was well. She couldn't see her new scale, despite seeing her new features. The glamour wasn't exactly a masterwork, but it was working. Hopefully.
She spared one glance to the car pulling in behind them. A sour looking couple wearing ordinary evening wear and masks, along with with colored sashes identifying them as nobles from Portugal, disembarked -- in the middle of some hot blooded argument. That would be Gilbert and Jesse, doing their best to improvise, to be a walking little pile of hostility and infighting. Few would want to interrupt them... for fear of that anger being unified and directed at an outsider.
Elephant in the room, Chloe thought, smirking inwardly at it. Just like the statuette she had in her purse.
It had taken some debate, but Benny negotiated for her to be the one who held their best means of escape, in case of disastrous failure. Jesse had wanted to commandeer it, but Benny argued that the job of rescuing Raphael was entrusted to Chloe by a higher power... and if they all died, she at least had to get away, so she could return and try again. That was a hard sell, but he managed to debate circles around Jesse, until there wasn't any time left to talk about it. Chloe won by default.
The path into the palace was lined with ceremonial guards... bowing, in order, to each noble and head of corporate power as they entered. Nobody bowed to Chloe and Benny... they were here as a matter of business association, not because either held real power. Good for their cover, to be unimportant.
Then, it was through the doors... and into the palace itself.
No turning back, Chloe thought, trying not to let her trembling nerves or weak constitution show through her disguise. I agreed to come to England because I knew I had to be here. I didn't know why, at the time, but I knew it had to be done. So... here I am. We don't know exactly what's ahead of us, and never have. But here I am. I'll do what I have to do, whatever it is.
Just hope I get to leave on my feet once I'm done.
Presumably, it wasn't ALL gold. It'd be a complete waste, using that much gold just for decorating the trimmings of the palace. The trimmings of picture frames, the edges of tables and chairs, every pillar and every corner... not plated in gold, which would be gaudy, but laced with it delicately. Silks and golds and the finest woods. Everything built for elegance and taste, if not any sort of reasonable budget...
And this was just the entrance hall. Was the rest of the palace this opulent? Would she visit the smallest room and find a solid gold toilet with an ivory handled flush--?
She bumped right into Benny, who had come to dead stop, as she was lost in the thought of what the toilet paper might've been made of.
"Hmph. Clumsy girl," he muttered. In character, always.
Clinging to the evening cape of his disguise, Chloe peeked around him, much as a little girl would... less out of a sense of method acting, and more out of timidness at her situation.
They were in line, waiting to be reviewed by security. A checkpoint had been installed, complete with velvet ropes and silver posts, to process visitors and ensure their identities. At the head of the line... was a highly illegal 1990s era personal computer, which had been repaired and re-repaired and re-re-repaired over the years with makeshift components. Eastusa had jumped so far ahead of that thing, it looked like a dinosaur even to Chloe...
A dinosaur attached to a fingerprint scanner, which had records on every guest who would be visiting tonight. Better safe than sorry, after all.
The guards waved a couple from Switzerland through, then motioned for Benny and Chloe to go next. An illuminated glass fingerprinting box had been installed to the left and right, so they could process two guests at a time.
Benny confidently stepped forward, pressing his thumb to the glass. Chloe followed in turn, albeit with less confidence.
The clack and rattle of ancient magnetic hard drives could be heard, even above the annoyed chatter of nobles waiting in line behind them, who felt the entire procedure was a waste of their time. The system would be looking up their prints, failing to match them to anything on record, and displaying an error in bright red on that glowing screen...
...if not for an electromagnetic manipulator being operated a few city blocks away, using science light years ahead of anything IBM ever produced.
Which caused the screen to wobble and flicker uncertainly.
"Ah, one moment, sir," the guard said, holding a hand up, to stop Benny from walking right through. "I... think it's still loading the files, or something..."
"I have had an exhausting journey to London, interrupting every active project I was working on for this impromptu affair, and intend to see this ludicrousness over with as soon as possible," Benny complained. "Must we bother with this absurd farce, every time we have an event such as this?"
"S-Sorry, sir, it's policy!" the guard insisted. "I think the screen might be out. I'll send for a replac--"
An angry fist banged on the plastic frame around the computer monitor.
Which promptly focused itself, showing green. All clear.
"It's sad that we rely on the toys of yesteryear," Benny commented, shaking out his hand, pretending the effort had hurt his old bones. (And judging from the color drained from his face, maybe it had, given how weak the two of them were at the moment.) "And sadder still that supposed security officials cannot operate their own equipment. Expect me to report your shortcomings to the crown before this night is out. What is your name, guard?"
"I-It's fine! Everything's fine now, sir, you're both clear," the officer insisted, waving them through with a bit more gusto than required. "It's fine. No need to report anything, no incident to report. Proceed to the ballroom. I can have an escort--"
"I know the way, thank you," Benny said, pulling his glare away from the man. "Child, come on, now. And do not embarrass me. Bad enough that I should have to drag myself away from the compound for this, AND play babysitter..."
"J-Ja, ja," Chloe repeated. Unsure of anything better to say.
And then they were off to the party proper.
If the rest of the mansion was opulent, the ballroom itself where the party was held was so decadent it came back around to opulence again from the other side.
The Other England had done a number in here, sparing no expense to ramp up the surroundings. Normally a tasteful room for state dinners and such, now it sparkled like a thousand diamonds scattered across a beach which itself was made entirely of diamond dust over an ocean of liquid diamonds that lapped the shoreline with, to add variety, golden sea foam. So flawless, so beautiful, that even the highest of High Fae nobles would've raised a single eyebrow at it all. (Rather than admit being impressed.)
Even with the correctional lenses embedded in Chloe's mask dialed down a few steps, the glimmer was enough to make her need to blink a few times, as if getting dust out of her eyes. Benny tugged her along by the hand, leading through the crowd...
A crowd which was not particularly partygoing, by any stretch.
Apparently, Benny hit it on the nose with his "Why am I here? This stinks" act. Few people seemed pleased to be here. Even behind various fancy masks, Chloe could sense their disdain and boredom. In the very, very brief mission briefing, someone had mentioned that the young prince had called for a masquerade somewhat out of the blue... this wasn't an annual event. Nevertheless, the rich and powerful came running, to satisfy the whims of the crown. And to share their misery at having to satisfy the whims of the crown, perhaps doing some business networking and dealmaking at the same time.
While many of them gave Benny a gruff nod, or a greeting of "Hallo, Mr. Gearhaus," nobody paid attention to Chloe. The few people that did look her way lost interest quickly. A child had no place here, except as a trophy for some proud noble parents or corporate overlords to show off.
Once they found a quiet spot... Benny let go of her hand.
"Worm your way around here. Don't bump into anyone. And find Gustave," he repeated, from earlier. "Bring him to meet us in the corner. We'll wait for Penny's distraction to ramp up, then... well, we 'improvise,' apparently. Ready?"
"Ready," Chloe agreed. "Benny, I... listen, I wanted to say, for all the things you've done for me--"
"Wrong time, wrong place, but no thanks needed. It's what big brothers are for," he said. "--you there! Servant. Is there any REAL wine in this miserable little endeavor? Not the swill you have on tap, either..."
That's my cue, Chloe realized. And she faded away, into the crowd.
At first, finding openings to duck through was proving a problem. The chattering groups were bunched up, but occasionally someone would stray to join another group, or a servant would swish by -- high speed projectiles she couldn't risk running into.
The key, she found, was in believing she was a child again. A kid, who was nimble and clever, and knew that adults were the scenery you worked around. If she crouched low, to simulate her 'real' height, and kept her senses sharp, she could weave through the fray...
But where would Gustave be found? Everyone was wearing masks -- some of them ridiculously elaborate, hiding facial features beyond the simple domino mask might. Some even had fancy powdered wigs, or extensive hats. (One noble even seemed to be wearing a towering pillar of hats, as if the more hats you had, the less poor you were.) She knew Gustave's rotund build and his hairstyle, but nobility didn't exactly lend itself to lean figures, and 'rotund' was in abundance.
Staying low while scanning high for familiar features was a dangerous combination, but one she had to risk.
It's also how she ended up in the center of a particularly high profile conversation.
She'd slipped between two adults, each moving in opposite directions. An opening presented itself, so she went for it with gusto... and staggered to a halt in an open space. Surrounded by nobles.
And face to face with the highest noble at the party.
The slender young man cocked his head, curiously, watching Chloe from behind a simple white mask. His elaborate white knight costume matched it nicely, seemingly absorbing all the light in the room, and shimmering as a result. Not very good for the woman wearing the fake goggle-glasses...
"Hallo," Prince Edward IV, heir to the crown and a few wheezing coughs away from ruling the entirety of the British Empire greeted.
"H... hi?" Chloe offered, weakly. "Um..."
"Oh, please, DO relax," the Prince said, with a sigh. "That goes for all of you. Relax! Enjoy! This is supposed to be a masquerade of fun and merriment. I'm not seeing fun and merriment..."
The nobles surrounding him nervously tittered away with laughter, on demand. A few were guffawing in a very forced manner, with a look that said 'I hope he's buying it, I hope he's buying it...'
With an irritated wave, the Prince sent them away. The circle needed no further justification for melting away. Leaving only Prince Charming, and the 'girl' who'd stumbled into the situation.
"I guess it was hoping for too much, huh?" Edward said. "Business types and nobles, so stiff. Honestly. I'm tempted to call this whole thing off and send them packing. I could do that, you know. I'm going to run this country soon. Hmm. Is it hoping for too much that they stop calling me a brat behind my back once I've got dad's crown?"
"Hi?" Chloe repeated.
"My name's Edward, delightful young lady. You can call me Eddie, because it makes my tutors go a bit funny when I insist they do," he offered, with a smile. "I'm the Prince. You probably knew that already. My mishaps and mischief makes the papers, after all. Who're you, then?"
"C-Chloe," Chloe introduced, catching herself a few seconds too late.
The young prince dipped low, in a lordly curtsey while kissing her hand.
Which gave him pause, as her hand was a little higher up than he was expecting...
She quickly pulled it away, to avoid stimulating his curiosity. Which did the opposite.
"Is it not proper for a gentleman to greet a lady of standing thusly? Not that I know your standing, nor do I really care," Prince Eddie asked. "Manners are manners, I feel."
"A-Apologies, your lordship," Chloe offered, with a curtsey of her own. "I'm... I'm a bit timid, is all. I meant no offense--"
"And I took none. If anything, it shows a rational mind, to pull one's hand away when a complete stranger grasps it and begins to slobber all over your knuckles," Eddie said. "Youth today could use more rationality. I like that. So, little Chloe, who are you? Beyond just 'Chloe'."
I can't pretend to be Lizzy with him. Not anymore, Chloe realized, racing to find an answer. She couldn't invent a persona on the fly, and if she claimed to be a Gearhaus calculator, someone at this party might know there isn't one named Chloe, or they'd check the security records, or...
Instinct and her own good nature led her to a sort of honesty.
"I'm traveling," she said. "I'm a visitor of no real importance. I didn't mean to intrude on your discussion, sir... if you'll excuse me, with your blessing--"
"A visitor from where?" Eddie asked. "You've an unusual air about you. Not English. Hardly the stuff of a Frenchwoman, or a young German mistress..."
"I'm... from outside the empire, your honor. Er. Your lordship. Sir?" she tried.
"Really! And here my tutors tell me that one day there will be no such thing as 'outside the empire.' Tiresome people, honestly. Tell me, Chloe the wanderer... what do you think of my empire?" Eddie asked. "I've grown quickly, to be ready for command. Mother's departure, Father's health, and all. I would appreciate the outsider perspective, as I am soon to be the embodiment of this empire--"
oh god oh god WHY did I just say that!? Chloe screamed at herself, inside. It must've shown, from the way the Prince stopped, to study her expression...
"Deplorable," he repeated, while stroking his chin in an overly dramatically thoughtful manner. "I... could have you beheaded, you know. A king-to-be can do nearly anything--"
"You wouldn't do that," Chloe interrupted. (Again, gasping in horror at her own behavior.)
"Really? Why wouldn't I?" Eddie asked... but with a smile.
"Because you can do nearly anything," she continued. The words pouring out. "Specifically, you can learn from your tutors... you can order a party to be held... you can probably make bold declarations one day, when you have the crown... but the ones who are in charge know you're not really in charge. That's why your mischief makes the papers, because it's the limit of your ability to make an impact. ...um. Also, I don't think you're a 'little brat' who would behead children that talk back to you. You kinda like it when people talk back to you because few will, at least not to your face. ...oh god I am SO SORRY I'm so sorry I don't know where that came from--"
The boy put his hands on her shoulders, to calm her. Reaching up, to do so.
"Quite alright," he said. "Truth is never something to fear, nor to apologize for. It's true. I throw parties in part to annoy them, because it's about all I can do. I speak flippantly, because it annoys them, because annoying them is about all I can do. You're a rather mature one for your age, Chloe the visitor... so, tell me. Why is my empire deplorable?"
She had to bite the words down, to keep them from coming up. The strain of it was obvious.
"I would order you to speak, but as you noted, my orders rarely carry weight. 'specially not for someone who is not one of my subjects," Eddie said. "Don't be afraid. I'd love to hear your viewpoint. It may very well be the highlight of an otherwise horribly dreary and typical evening for me. And, I dare say... I need to hear this, if I am to be a fine king, one day. ...please?"
The dam shattered.
Chloe spoke of the things she'd seen. Slums and shanties, economic disparity. People struggling to get by, people keeping their heads down, not wanting to make waves no matter what they thought. Honest men and women who endured what they needed to, in order to keep families fed. Industry, building on their backs, using their need as a carrot and to help build a better stick.
And the lowest of the low... children being poisoned, twisted, so that their young and clever minds can earn someone more money. Sacrifices for no higher cause than the bottom line.
Unchecked greed had in fact driven the empire to the breaking point. It forced too many compromises, all in the name of waging a war which was going to decimate a generation of their own people, and sink the world into chaos.
Despite the density of her thoughts, they flowed out swiftly. It took three minutes and twenty four seconds to speak her mind.
"Well, yes," he agreed. "And?"
She had nothing else to add.
"It's not much of a revelation, I'm afraid," Eddie said, as he looked around the room. (Nobody had paid attention to the speech, it seemed... or maybe it was only meant for him, so only he heard it? Fascinating.) "It's all quite deplorable, yes. Unfortunate, but this momentum is far too powerful, and I am far too powerless to do more than tarnish my own family's legacy, now and then. I suspect even some higher-ups in the companies agree, but what can you do? The British Empire is destined for conquest. It's the only path we've ever had; we float within a wartime economy, lest we sink like a stone. Before and after the Strangeness, the empire is what it is."
"But-- you can't possibly--! What about the angel?!" Chloe blurted. "How can you condone it?"
"The what?" Edward asked. "Angel? The only angel I know of is the Victoria Memorial, Chloe. Is this some metaphor you speak of, or perhaps a salient point about religion and morality...?"
STOP TALKING STOP TALKING! Chloe ordered herself. He doesn't know about Raphael! They're keeping him in the dark! Don't make the situation any worse! Shut up, Chloe!
Still, the prince seemed keen to run with that line of thought. "I may see what you're getting at. An angel, in a metaphorical sense... yes. I suppose it would take an act of God to divert the empire's path. More than even a king can accomplish, alone. ...hmm. How would you, the outsider, propose it to be accomplished? Aside from deus ex machina, of course."
"I.... have no idea, as I am only a child, sir," she proposed. Taking GREAT effort to not say 'I could stop the source of the steam.' Bad enough that she had unloaded on one of the most dangerous minds in the empire, despite his claims of weakness.
"And thus, we reach an impasse," Edward admitted. "Is the pattern deplorable? Yes. Can it be changed? Not likely. Such a young age you purport to be, to have seen such an unpleasant truth... I wonder what state my empire may be, that a beautiful thing like you has to face these realities...?"
Chloe's eyes darted, trying to find a way to extract herself from the situation. Thankfully nobody had paid attention... which in and of itself was bizarre, but a bizarreness in her favor. Still, no way to excuse herself, not while being engaged by royalty. But if she stayed and he kept tugging at the strings of her cover story, kept trying to puzzle things through...
Above all, she wondered: Where did all THAT come from? Why did I tell him how I really felt?
Because I had more than one message to deliver in London.
--wait. Where did THAT thought come from?
The Prince wasn't the only one tugging at the strings of her cover story.
All along, she'd been pulled along by vague senses of what needed to be done. She had to go to London. She had to deliver a message. Bit by bit, her original purpose revealed. And now... a little more. Something agreed to, something she was dreading greatly. A true point of no return, lying just ahead of her on the path that she'd apparently picked for herself without letting herself in on the details--
"Are you alright, Chloe..?"
"I... I need to see Gustave Bonnechance," Chloe declared, pushing away her thoughts, trying to focus on the task at hand. If she had an 'in' with the crown prince, maybe she could use that, and slice through the current tangle. "Please...? I can't find him. It's very important. Do you know where he is?"
Eddie the Fourth gave her a bright smile. Looking up, into her eyes. Not down.
"It would annoy them SO MUCH if we eavesdrop, wouldn't it?" he realized, with mischief in mind.
The seven true rulers of the British Empire were having their own party. A party within a party.
It wasn't any more jovial than the party in the main ballroom. This was a party more in the sense of a group of persons united behind a cause, rather than united behind a celebration. They had adjourned to the cross gallery, adjacent to the ballroom, shortly after the party began. No masks, in here; they were having none of the prince's silliness. If this was to be a forced gathering, at least they could get some business done.
Gearhaus Heavy Industries. La Société de Bonnechance. Blërg Joinery. The Epinoza Conglomerate. Smithers Fine Brassworks and Machinery. Hendriks Agricultural Concern. The Unified Wysocki Consortium. The CEOs of each of the seven founding companies, from all across Europe, in one room.
Here is where the finest brandies and wines were being provided, by servants who knew better than to hang around the gallery any longer than needed to deliver the bottles. They were lined up on a cloth-draped table, ready for consumption... but few present were drinking heavily. They were too angry to drink; it would've been a bad combination.
"It's a complete waste of our resources," one was complaining. "Building a war fleet, dedicating the efforts of all seven companies behind it. I'm struggling to refit our factories to produce ships instead of tractors! Couldn't we have waited awhile and gradually ramped up the military, like we usually do? This is going to look very bad for our shareholder value..."
"We all knew taking the colonies was inevitable. One world, one empire, one Britain. That's the banner we fly under," another countered. "Better now than later, in fact -- they have space faring technology! And did you see that holographic projector on their 'friendly' messenger? If we don't pound them down now and integrate them into the empire, who knows how dangerous they'll be one day?"
"It's going to tax the angel considerably. He's already strained near the point of breaking," a third voice added to the discussion. "Every time we've pushed him for more and more steam, he's adapted to produce required levels. But it's a slow process. Can we rely on him to rapidly fuel the war machine AND keep the empire afloat? We may be facing rolling blackouts. The lower quality of life goes, the more people grow irritated..."
"Throw them more cheap creature comforts and they'll look the other way. They always do. The average citizen just wants to be satisfied with their lot; international issues are trumped by personal delights. In fact, Gearhaus Industries has been saving up a tubeless, electricity free messenger service just for this day. Wireless Internet distracted Other England quite well in its day; we'll have our new NoTubes ready to roll for Christmas."
"You--? Ohh, you FINK! We were only a year away from that technology! How did you keep it secret from us?"
"All is fair in business, old friend. We work together, we compete against each other -- in the end, England always wins. No doubt the rest of you have other product ideas to distract the peons with..."
"I could, um... introduce a new type of reclining sofa--"
"Oh, stuff it, Blërg, nobody cares about your flatpacks."
"The point is," the Gearhaus CEO continued, "We will adapt to the needs of the war, and Britain will adapt with us. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but we've done this many times before. The world bends to the will of the empire, in the end, and that includes the plebeians of the empire itself. It even includes the puppet crown, for that matter. The destiny of an orderly Earth is and must be absolute."
"Hmph. If our ancestors knew the scope of that geas, maybe they wouldn't have agreed so readily..."
"The scope is irrelevant. Did I particularly WANT to wage trans-oceanic war right now? No. But our seats of power rely on the promise of our ancestors to conquer and bring order to this world. This is the price we must pay. ...Gustave? Are we boring you?"
The one who was in fact hitting the brandy -- and with dour gusto -- sloshed his drink in their direction.
"You're going to lose everything," he declared. "You keep pushing, and pushing, and it WILL break, one day. You know I'm getting out of this. Bonnechance will not help the war. ...I've sins to atone for and evils to remedy in my own district."
"And we said we were fine with that," Gearhaus said... with a roll of the eyes, tired of hearing the Frenchman's diatribes. "You give the impoverished pillows and hugs, and the empire as a whole looks better for it. We'll pick up your end of the war business. Provided you get back in line when the time comes to restructure the wartorn colonies into proper extensions of the Empire, afterwards--"
"The angel can't take much more of this. Maybe he'll adapt, but if not this time eventually he WILL break. You're going to kill him if you wage war after war. And then... God will punish us. He will smite us down for our greed and our cruelty. I KNOW he will. I've heard the word of his messenger--"
"Will someone PLEASE take the bottle away from this pathetic drunk, please?" Gearhaus asked. "I'd do it myself if not for fear of him pissing himself when..."
Despite years working in and around factories, the CEO of Gearhaus Industries had a keen ear. You had to, when the slightest variation in pitch of grinding gears meant the difference between smooth operation and a horrible disaster waiting to happen. And that ear couldn't mistake the light thump under the table for anything other than...
Pulling away the tablecloth revealed a child and her assumed guardian, hidden away underneath.
"Edward," Gearhaus recognized. "Haven't you guests to attend to? You know better than to meddle in our affairs..."
The crown prince emerged... pulling his terrified guest with him. He showed no fear, despite standing in the same room as the true leaders of Britain.
"Gentlemen, you aren't wearing your masks," Prince Edward IV reminded. "This is a masquerade, is it not? A time of frivolity and merriment!"
"There is no room in business for frivolity, young man. When you're old enough... and sensible enough, which may never happen, at this rate... THEN you may participate in our affairs. Until then--"
"Who's the angel?"
Blood ran cold in the room.
"Unless you were making a rather strained metaphor, when Master Bonnechance spoke of waging wars on the backs of angels...?" Edward suggested. "I'd love to hear more of this biblical allusion. And as this is my party, no doubt you can make time for my literary whimsy...?"
"...alright. Enough of this," Gearhaus decided. "Can we get a guard in here to show the esteemed heir to the throne the way out, please? Please? ...ah, good."
Two guards were already on their way into the gallery, before he'd even shouted. Puzzling. They stood at attention, snapping off sharp salutes, before explaining.
"Sir! We are to evacuate you all to the undisclosed location, sir. The crown prince, and the company heads!" one guard ordered.
"Absurd. What possible reason could there be for that?" Gearhaus asked.
"Protestors, sir! There are protestors wearing the banned masks, singing songs and carrying on at great volume, just outside the palace," the other guard stated. "Er. They haven't turned violent yet, it seems to mostly be students and rabble rousers and peasants, but protocol dictates, um..."
"Tear gas the lot of them and be done with it," Gearhaus ordered. "Or better, shoot them. We banned those masks for a reason; anyone wearing one is potentially a terrorist. Public safety must come above all. Time we firmly discouraged this sort of nonsense with a few unfortunate civilian casualties. I am not picking up skirts and fleeing at the first sign of malcontent--"
A single, commanding order. An absolute one, for that matter. And from the least commanding one in the room, despite being the most commanding one by charter and law.
"You intend to shoot an innocent subject of the crown, simply for wearing a mask? Gentlemen, why do you think I wanted to hold a masquerade?" Prince Edward asked. "I've seen those L'Anonyme films! They were quite amusing -- and carried an interesting message. A mask enables someone to put away their pomp and dignity and express themselves truthfully! A mask allows you freedom. I had hoped you would understand that, after tonight... but perhaps you require a more direct lesson. Guards?"
The two snapped even more at attention than they were before. "SIR!" they belted.
"We are relocating my party," the Prince declared. "Please escort all those willing to follow me -- and these gentlemen, willing or not -- to the Victoria Memorial. THAT is the party I wanted in the first place. I will enjoy this night alongside my loyal subjects. We will share stories and I will hear their thoughts and we will have a jolly interesting time. And under absolutely NO circumstances are you or any other guard to engage in violence at any point during this evening, or you will be beheaded. Hmm. Be-Beheaded. That doesn't sound right. You will find yourself without a head. Yes, that works. Am I understood?"
Without masks, none of them could hide their insulted / confused / incredulous / puzzled expressions.
More guards had approached, to help with the evacuation... and were now similarly confused. But the least confused one in the room WAS technically the crown prince...
"The... memorial it is," the first guard said. "Sirs, if you'd accompany me--"
"This is preposterous!" Gearhaus declared, yanking his shoulder away from the hand that grasped it. "You miserable little brat, how dare you--"
"Sir! He IS the crown prince, sir!" the guard declared. "He is the absolute ruler of the empire, in his father's stead! You are a citizen!"
"Oh, come on, we all know that's not really how it works--!"
"Come along, come along!" Eddie insisted, as the guards began herding the CEOs out of the room. "This is going to be extremely interesting! Miss Chloe, will you accompany me?"
Dropping that name was like dropping a grenade. One which blasted Gustave directly into sobriety... and left the others hunting for where they'd heard that name before...
"I... need to pee," Chloe declared, for lack of a better excuse. "I need to go pee right now."
"Really," Eddie asked, playfully suspicious.
"I'll help her find the restroom!!" Gustave Bonnechance declared with way too much enthusiasm.
The prince stifled a chuckle. "Right, right, as you like," he said. "Don't be long, now, or you two will miss all the fun."
Five minutes later, and the ballroom had thinned out considerably. Some left to join the Prince, because he was the Prince, and he had SOME favor to curry. Others were uncomfortable staying when their CEO had been shown the door. Others were simply curious as to what all the fuss was about.
With the guards scrambling to figure out how to protect the nobles from the ignobles, with the mass exodus out the entrance hall and off to join the ruckus, nobody noticed a few guests slipping away. Or rather, some of them MIGHT have noticed, if not for a certain monarch-to-be making sure he was the center of attention.
Truthfully... Prince Edward wasn't fully sure why he trusted Chloe Manchester.
That was her true name; once he sussed it out, whatever strange disguise she wore had little effect on him. The sneaky visage of the little girl gave way, for him and him alone, to reveal the fascinating beauty underneath for his eyes to behold.
Oh, he'd read the newspapers. He'd known that this beauty was a dangerous one. She was an enemy of the state, and few were declared thusly without cause. But something about her spoke of trust, and compassion. Honesty. Eddie lived in a world of dishonesty, flattery and falsehoods; meeting an honest person was a distinct step up from the bunch he was dragging along with him.
An honest person, with a very unusual way of speaking. One he couldn't ignore, one he wanted to listen to... a message, of some sort. Nothing he hadn't heard before, but it rang like a bell in his mind, even now. It was what prompted him to take to the streets when given opportunity, to explore the message further...
It was probably a huge, huge mistake to let her go do whatever it was she came to do. Enemy of the state, and all. But years of deliberate scandal taught him that better a big, splashy mistake the empire would have to deal with, than continuing an endless hum-drum pattern. The deplorable pattern, as Chloe had put it. If his masquerade wouldn't shake things up, by God, he would shake things up through her. It was all he could do.
What an unusual chain of events this Chloe had started! What would be the outcome, he wondered? And found himself eagerly looking forward to wherever it was leading him. Wherever he was going, it was going to be somewhere new. New, after so many centuries of the old...
And so he walked at the vanguard, leading the way for his reluctant flock to meet the unwashed masses. And one way or another, nothing would be the same after this night.
The angelic source of the empire's power, without which they were naught, was hidden behind the fridge.
Granted, the door to access it was completely hidden and wouldn't reveal itself unless you tapped the right bricks in the right sequence -- a secret known only to the seven most powerful people in the empire. But even so, the hidden door was hidden in near plain sight, in one of the palace's many kitchens. If anybody were clever enough to know it even existed, they likely would've assumed it'd be in a heavily guarded room, or behind something symbolic like an iconic religious painting. Sticking it behind the fresh veggies and yesterday's coldcuts wouldn't occur to many.
With the commotion slowly moving itself away from the palace, even the servants were distracted. Many had gone to the windows, to watch in morbid fascination as the cream of the crop were being marched out to meet the people. Certainly nobody was left in the second tertiary backup kitchen. Nobody to spot the small group that slid between the cracks of the walls and vanished... into the depths of the palace.
The spiral staircase seemed to go on forever, down into the dark. To keep things from being easy on the would-be thief, proper lighting was never installed; they were relying on Jesse's Light spell to keep from tripping over their own feet and endlessly falling down a helix of hundreds of stairs.
"I'm told a similar facility existed back on our old Earth," Gustave was explaining, giving history lessons to calm his nerves. "It was under Westminster Abbey, back there. Here they consolidated everything under Buckingham. I almost wish the angel wasn't moved over, when the Strangeness occurred... it would've forced them to learn a new way to live..."
"What sort of resistance can we expect in the prison?" Jesse asked. "Our plan unfortunately ended when we came down here. All we have left is improvisation..."
"There aren't any guards. Nobody knows about the prison, so... no need for them. The palace itself acts as a guard," Gustave replied. "We should be able to sneak the poor creature out of here, if we are swift. And then... perhaps... God will forgive us our sins...?"
That question, directed to the angel in their midst. The female one, at any rate; Benny had declined to explain his changeover, to avoid complicating things any further.
Chloe felt the need to say something, despite having no clue what to say. "Ah... I'm sure he will?" she tried. "Gustave, I'm sorry, but... I don't really know how it all works. I just know I have this message to deliver, and... maybe more, and even that is a little fuzzy..."
"What about the warden?" Jesse nudged, to get the man back on topic, and prepare as much as she could for what lie ahead. "The one who bound the angel. He must have immense power and sway within the empire... having us declared criminals, chasing after us, using the angel's power against us. Who is the one that forged this empire?"
"There wasn't any one person. I mean, not that I know of," Gustave said. "The seven founders bound the angel themselves. There's no warden or guard down there, like I said. ...although there's a creepy old man named Ik'ai, a servant in the palace who's been here as long as I can remember. His name appears in the founder's charter, as a 'janitor' to tend to the angel's prison, when it needs repair. He has authority to act as needed and commandeer resources, but very rarely does anything important. He's remarkably long lived, but the old man's hardly some devil--"
"He's a fallen angel, and he was the one who declared Chloe would die," Benny spoke. "Bastard nearly killed Jesse and Gilbert a few days ago, too. But you're right. I knew Ik'ai; he wasn't powerful enough to capture Raphael, much less forge locks and chains that would hold an archangel."
"Locks and chains, right! The Seven Sacred Keys! You... you have all the keys, right?" Gustave asked. "I mean... you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't have them! Sure, most of them were destroyed or lost, but... that'd be lunacy, coming this far with no way to set the angel free! Right? ...right?"
"Improvisation," Jesse repeated, through gritted teeth. "Fine. I have some Unlock spells. Penny said the keys were just a fancy metal, nothing special beyond that; presumably they can be physically jiggered with-- I think there's a light ahead. Are we near the bottom?"
"Well, yes, but... there shouldn't be any light down here, like I said..."
Jesse raised an arm, to halt their progress. Slowly, she drew her sword from her parasol (which they'd worked into her masquerade costume, as a sort of Portuguese Mary Poppins) and readied herself for... whatever was ahead.
The others did similar. Gilbert had brought a telescoping fencing blade with him; he was hardly a match for Jesse's skills, but could hold his own against some foes. Benny... well, he couldn't access his pockets anymore, so he had no armaments to speak of.
Chloe fingered the elephant in her handbag, just in case. Despite her urgings to come here, to cross oceans and brave armies and achieve the unachievable... she had no more clue than her friends what lie in store ahead. She could only hope it was someone leaving the nonexistent lights on before nipping out for a smoke break... unlikely as that was.
Sensing that tension... Gilbert turned, to flash the group one of his smiles.
"Tally ho, friends," he whispered. "Let's see what there is to see, mm?"
The antechamber before the prison cell itself was cavernous. Its walls were coated thick with pipes and fittings... each vibrating at a long, low pitch, pulsing with the breath of life that was being funneled through them. Funneled and mixed and refined, into the aetheric steam that would be bottled at a locations all across town...
This chamber only existed so the seven could gather and chat out of earshot from the prisoner, the one behind the riveted iron door embedded in the wall beyond. It had no other purpose. At least, not originally.
Today, it had a distinct purpose. It was the last line of defense. A defense that, as the group emerged into the light of the portable generators and flood lamps, was utterly impassable.
A dozen heavily armed security automatons had been lined up before them, like a firing squad. Each one held a powerful rifle, long barreled and heavy caliber, normally only mounted on army vehicles due to the ridiculous kickback they generated. Not a problem at all for the heavy robots, each glaring at them with singular eyes, glowing bright blue with stolen angelic power... and all of them had their weapons trained on the group. Specifically, on the landing of the spiral staircase, ready for whoever was to emerge, any time they chose to emerge. Robots didn't need to take breaks or let their attention waver, after all. They could stand, ready to go, for days. Weeks.
If the death troopers weren't bad enough... what was behind them was a pile of mystery, confusion, and What?
"What?" Gilbert was the first to exclaim. "You...?"
Blocking the way between them and the prison door... someone had installed a geodesic dome of shatterproof glass, flat panels interlocked into brass fittings, to form a bubble that would protect all inside. Which, in this case, consisted of two people.
Ik'ai, the gaunt figure in the demonic overcoat. Gustave was right; the man didn't look particularly dangerous. He slouched. He had a ragged beard older than sin and whiter than bone, and eyebrows to match, which drooped to mask his eyes. Perhaps he wasn't pleasant to look at, but his frail form was not particularly dangerous.
His companion was far more dangerous.
"Hallo again, Gilbert," Randall Wellspring greeted, after taking a long, long tug on the wine bottle in his left hand. The fallen Honored Calculator wiped at his mouth with one sleeve... nearly wobbling off his feet, from the effort. Clearly, this wasn't his first bottle of the evening. "Uhhgh. Not expecting to see me again, I suppose. Understandable, considering I was going to die rather soon after you left Ibiza..."
The danger element wasn't the wine. It was the box in his right hand. It had buttons, dials, switches, and other controller doo-dads. And it was wired by thick, thick black cables, which ran into the floor. And as a dedicated mad scientist... Gilbert knew nothing with that many buttons and that many wires could possibly be healthy for the people on the receiving end of whatever it was.
"I'll admit to surprise, but it's less about your lifespan and more about... well, where exactly we're meeting," Gilbert admitted. "And the company you're keeping. Seeing as we're under the gun at the moment and unlikely to make any capably threatening moves, perhaps you'd enjoy explaining exactly what's going on...?"
Randall was ready to speak, before Ik'ai silenced him with a gesture.
"Not falling for that old trick," the demon informed. "Guards, kill--"
Gunshots. Thunderous gunshots, each one like a cannon, ready to turn every living thing in front of them into so much shredded hamburger...
The screaming that followed wasn't from horribly mutilated and wounded would-be revolutionaries, however. At least, not from all of them. It strictly came from Jesse.
She'd loaded up the spell on her monocle and started casting it on reflex. A thought, a recollection, which had been called up by the sight of those guns. They were facing down a line of armed officers not long ago on a London street, ones commanded by the same devil that commanded these guns.
I somehow doubt you can Animate a few dozen lead pellets coming at you from all directions, he'd then mocked.
Challenge accepted, Jesse had decided, here and now.
The Word and the Way were simple enough. Animate was a spell she'd a deep familiarity with; control an object by allowing it to enjoy its natural behavior, only tweaked slightly, so that it served your needs. Animated brooms to sweep the floor. Animated knives to cut your enemy. Or, if you had the Will to tell the laws of physics to take a hike... animated bullets, to completely change directions and seek new targets.
An inanimate object was difficult enough. Tiny metal pellets that were already moving at a few hundred miles per hour, already en route to where they wanted to be? If they punctured anything with violent glee, it was her Will. The sheer force of the bullets slamming against her Will was still enough to stack four migraines on top of each other, from the effort of keeping it focused. But, despite the sharp agony in her head, the worst pain she'd ever felt, even worse than having a mind control headband forcibly yanked off her temples... her Will pushed back, through the pain...
One by one, the automaton's eyelights winked out. Bullets slammed straight through their head cases, destroying memory pins, ruining the logic gates that kept them functional.
The witch fell to her knees, at the same time the guard automatons collapsed to the ground completely. Difference being, she had a husband to catch her and support her. The mindless drones had nothing.
Even the one who set them to task showed no compassion. Just mild annoyance.
"I'll admit, I was hoping that would be enough," Ik'ai said. "It took a while to get them down here, and ready to face you. What a waste of effort."
"Sorry to disappoint," Gilbert mock-apologized, glancing away from his wife, and to his enemy. "And here you were, all locked and loaded and waiting. How long were you waiting, exactly...?"
"Just a few hours. We assumed you would make a move on the facility tonight. Randall calculated the odds, knowing your tendency for bravado and scheming, and I agreed it was likely. Fortunately, the guards were not my only effort at stopping you from ruining everything my master has worked towards--"
"--and your master would be--?"
"--you may proceed, Randall," Ik'ai said, stepping back within the dome, to let his hired gun get to work.
After another sip of the grape, Randall thumbed a button on his controller.
The pain that slammed through Jesse's mind earlier was trivial in comparison to this.
Every pipe, every fitting, every machine down here began to scream. They screamed in a flawless harmony; no chaotic wailing, but a calculated and measured pitch that brought the entire group down, falling to the floor, desperately trying to cover their ears and shut out the sound...
Four seconds or four years later, Randall eased off the button.
"And that was just one of the functions," he explained. "Ik'ai hired me to destroy you using my mastery over acoustic technology. I know what tones and what frequencies can resonate with your bodies in the worst possible ways. That one was the pain note. I've never heard it myself, thanks to my soundproof dome. How was it? Did I do a good job, Gilbert?"
"gh gh gh gh," Gilbert chattered, trying to make sense of the words, through the ringing in his ears... and the blood that was trickling from them. Even worse... while he could get back to kneeling, shakily... Jesse wasn't moving. The one-two punch of the spell and the sound hit her harder than any of them...
Randall held the controller outwards. Hovering his thumb over the button.
"It's got a Death Tone, too. And a Suicide Song. And even a Brown Note, which would be funny if you don't think too hard about what an awful way to die that would be," Randall explained. "Gilbert... just... give up. Get out of here. Honestly, I don't want to have to do this, not even against my biggest rival--"
"There is no mercy here, Randall," Ik'ai warned. "There is no giving up. Kill them."
The Calculator flinched.
"I gave you life so that you could complete this task, remember," the demon spoke. "I gave you everything you could possibly want. You have a future, unlike your peers. You'd even live longer than Gilbert Gearhaus, if he wasn't to die tonight. Now hold up your end. Kill them and protect the peace of my master's empire!"
It was enough time.
Once, Gilbert had to gather his wits after having his brains sucked out through a straw by an Elder God. That was messy to recover from, but he managed, and through the haze and the pain and the madness he even managed to scratch out a spell that would save the day. He had no magic here... but he had his mind. He had time, from their bickering.
And he had eyes, to study the dome structure with.
He reached over, to tap Chloe's arm. A few more taps, and the plan was in play.
Slowly... he got to his feet. Worked out the kinks in his neck, from when his entire body tensed and screamed in agony.
"Afraid you've made a fatal error, Randall," Gilbert declared. "Might not want to touch that button just yet, if you want to enjoy the rest of that bottle tonight instead of liquefying your own brain."
Randall walked forward, until he was nearly touching the glass of his soundproof dome.
"Are you calling my mathematics flawed?" he asked. "This is my masterpiece. The worst thing I've ever made. The best thing I've ever made. I twitch my finger and your head explodes--"
"As does your dome," Gilbert announced. "Really, you used THAT structure? Those fittings? Oh, the math makes sense; it's tightly packed, and the angles of the glass would normally be enough to reflect the sound waves away safely. But if you'd carried the two, you'd see the weak spot in the geometry. Just the barest of love taps, and it'll break, letting the nasty music in. Specifically... no, slightly to the left... yes. The third row up from the top, six panes to the left, behind you. Yes. Right there."
The two within their safety dome turned, slowly... and saw nothing of importance. Just another section of the dome, like any other.
"Sooo... you're proposing that you're going to, I don't know, throw a rock, bounce it off the back wall, and break through my protection?" Randall asked. "Gilbert, I can flatten you all in an instant before you manage to raise your arm--"
The glass pane fell apart like so much crystal dust.
Having nothing else to break it with, Chloe had smashed the Elephant in the Room figurine against it. Which meant she was no longer able to sneak around behind them, being the thing they didn't want to notice.
"I think that's cheating," Randall decided. "But, oh well. It's over. Well played, Gilbert. You've ruined me again."
He dropped to the floor, sitting indian style, so he could enjoy his wine in peace. Leaving the controller aside, unused.
The demon glared at him, in utter disgust. "What are you doing? KILL them!" Ik'ai ordered. "Pick up your weapon and kill them!"
"If I do that, we're going to die. The dome's breached. It's done," Randall said.
"We are expendable!" Ik'ai declared -- reaching down, scooping up the controller with one hand. "You don't matter! I don't matter! This is the path of salvation, damn you! My master's will be DONE--"
"Ik'ai. Look at me."
Everybody looked at him. Even Jesse, who was only now coming to, from her double whammy.
It was impossible NOT to look at Benny. He stood, tall and proud... with the glowing wings of an angel blazing behind him. The holy fire of the Word, granted to his trusted Messengers. When a Messenger wanted to captivate your attention, you had no say in the matter. None of the Word's creatures did... and demons counted, in that phylum.
Ik'ai tried to push the button. He WANTED to push the button. He couldn't. Couldn't do anything except watch the angel... watch, and wait for that great attractor to flinch, for even a second...
"All of you... get into the prison," Benny ordered... not taking his eyes off his enemy. "Get up, get in there, close the door behind you. Defeat his master. Free Raphael. If I lose this, at least you'll survive. Get moving."
The other angel in the room, still holding the broken figurine, began to stammer. "B-Benny, you can't-- listen, there's something more going on here--"
"No time. I trust you. Get moving," Benny ordered.
So, they did.
Within seconds, only three remained. The fallen-and-risen angel, and the two he stood in deadlock with.
Ik'ai's finger trembled. It moved a few millimeters, when Benny dared to glance, to make sure Chloe was safely away, and the door sealed behind her.
"You can't keep this parlor trick up forever," Ik'ai warned. "I can stun you with this. I'll recover faster. Demonic metabolism, to burn away the effects."
"I don't need to keep it up forever. Just long enough," Benny said... keeping the wings blazing, the unfamiliar yet so familiar misty wings. "You know, I never liked you, Ik'ai. Always smirking and laughing, like you were in on a joke none of us were. I don't hear you laughing now."
"You wouldn't laugh either, if you'd seen what I'd seen, Ben'ai. And you'd likely stand here with me, helping our master build a better world. A better world than the Word ever managed--"
"Really. Sacrificing children because nobody wants to buy a goddamn laptop computer? Oppressing the population juuuust enough to keep them grumbly but falling in line? Conquering every land and destroying every culture in favor of making More England?" Benny asked. "And best of all... doing it all by capturing an archangel, and working him near to death. Yeah. Great world you got going here, Ik'ai. Two thumbs up."
The demon's fuzzy eyebrows raised.
"You think that we...? That...? Oh. Oho. Ohooo hoo HOO HAAH HAHH HAHH--"
The rocking spasm of laughter was almost enough to push the button of death for him. Almost. It was certainly enough to creep out the young man sitting behind him, cradling a bottle of wine... and edging away from the crazy demon man.
His laughter ceased as quickly as it started.
"Thank you, Ben'ai. It's been too long since I found something amusing," Ik'ai said... in the same flat and dour tones as earlier. "But we remain deadlocked. You can't move. I can't move. But I have my pockets. I have my powers. I could have Randall here fetch me some fire, and I could leap away. What do you have? A flashy pair of wings? Low angels like you are nothing. Low demons have power."
"You think I gave up my entire Broker's arsenal of skills when I changed career tracks? Hell no. I retained my greatest strength," Benny announced... with a growing smile. "It's something none of you Dealbreakers ever had, or ever understood..."
"Really...? Tell me. What miracle play do you have in your pocket, Ben'ai? What makes you superior to me?"
"Simple. I like people. And I won't cheat them," Benny explained. "Randall? I'd like to negotiate a deal; revenge, in exchange for your bottle."
Ik'ai scoffed. A light laugh, unlike before. "This is hardly a time for libations, Ben--"
The sound of the bottle smashing over Ik'ais head was considerably louder than the light little noise of the dome pane breaking. It hit with a weighty impact on the old man's skull, before coming apart, fragmenting and splintering into shards. The splatter of what remained of the wine soaked his hair as well as it soaked the floor.
The entire mess of wine, demon, and broken glass collapsed to the floor in a pathetic little pile. Unconscious.
The Honored Calculator considered the bottle neck in his hand, and tossed it aside. "Shame. It was actually a pretty good vintage," he mourned. "So. How'd you know?"
Finally... Benny could relax, and let the steam of his wings dissipate into the air. It was like unclenching a muscle, a tremendous relief.
"Grisly Twin Maiden Murders in Ibiza Remain Unsolved," Benny recited, from his earlier newspaper consumption frenzy. "Ik'ai killed your friends, to give you the life you mentioned. ...and I know the look on your face, staring into the depths of that bottle. Drinking to forget. I've seen it in the mirror enough times to know it by heart."
Flicking a hidden latch, Randall opened the blast dome, stepping out.
"I know they were just paid by Bonnechance to be my companions," he explained. "But... I liked them. Violet, and Madeline. They made my days a bit brighter, just by being around. They had their whole lives ahead of them, when mine was winding down, and Ik'ai... that bastard... took all that away from them. For MY benefit. ...I don't deserve it. Not at their expense. So. Now what, Mister Angel? I've backstabbed the only one who'll take me in, now. What do I do with my stolen years?"
The newly reborn angel had no salvation to offer, beyond a light shrug.
"Don't know, for certain. But don't toss those years away; a stolen life or not, all life is a blessing. You'll find a role, Randall. This isn't the end of your world. It's the beginning of it. Keep calm, and carry on."
The words brought the semi-drunken boy no comfort. Although the hand on his shoulder did bring him some.
"Let's go join the others," Benny said. "I've got a weird feeling about what happens next. I don't like weird feelings."
During most of that confrontation, the rest of the party was busy staggering around in the dark.
Gustave wasn't kidding when he said the place normally had no lights, and the prison cell itself held true to that. What's worse... here, the pipes and conduits for steam weren't laced along the walls. They were laced along the floors, and jutting out of the ground, and running all throughout the cavernous space like a 3-D maze. Jesse wasn't able to focus on a Light spell, not after having two kinds of living hell pounded into her skull, so they were trying to follow the indistinct blue glow ahead and not run into anything...
Eventually, the pipes thinned out, like coming to the edge of a thick forest and into a grassy clearing. A brassy clearing, in this case, but otherwise the metaphor held true.
Gustave Bonnechance, Jesse Runeblade, Chloe Manchester, and Gilbert Gearhaus were the first other than Ik'ai to gaze upon the archangel in quite a few years. The seven didn't come down here anymore. Raphael wasn't in a situation that allowed many visitors over for tea, either.
He hung in the air, bound in golden chains, arms spread wide. No means of support other than the manacles... seamless golden bands, no lock, no hinges. One for each wrist. One for each ankle. One for his neck. And two for his wings... hovering there, the pale blue flickering things, insubstantial and yet able to support the binding clasps all the same.
The archangel was the saddest, most beautiful thing Chloe had ever seen. Tormented and tortured. And... oddly, at peace with it. Possibly because of being trapped in the dark for hundreds of years, knowing no other existence than to be a living battery for the empire above.
It took a few moments to push those emotions aside, and speak.
"Now what?" Jesse started with, being the practical one.
"We improvise," Gilbert suggested, being the idealistic one.
"What about the warden?" Chloe asked, being the slightly nervous one.
"There isn't a warden, there's just us," Gustave insisted, being the informed one.
"There has to be a warden," Jesse insisted... holding her sword tightly. She'd had enough mind about her to find it before being dragged off to the prison cell, fortunately. "SOMEONE had to bind the archangel here, pull it from Heaven, and force it to do dark deeds. Someone who gives Ik'ai his orders. Someone who forced Raphael to make Jeeves sabotage us..."
She was hardly battle-ready... but would stand against whatever dark spectre loomed in this chamber, whatever was pulling the Archangel's strings. Sword raised. Proud, if not fully capable, and prepared to fight...
No enemy presented itself to be run through with her blade.
This would be a fine opportunity for someone here who I trust to engage in a slow clap, and go: So, you've finally unmasked me, Jesse! she thought. A betrayer. If there is no supernatural enemy, if the true enemy was with us all along, then it has to be...
The slow clapping came from behind them.
As Benny the Broker walked up to join the group. Applauding, in a highly sarcastic way, and followed by the broken Randall Wellspring.
"Makes sense now, huh?" he was saying. "All falling into place. Something of a surprise...?"
Jesse's anger rose. White hot, furious. Unsteady on her feet she may be, she was ready to confront the enemy--
--who was busy looking right past her. How dare he! she thought... before realizing WHO he was looking at.
The chained archangel... who couldn't meet that gaze.
"Ladies and gentlemen... I give you the face of the enemy," Benny declared. "The one who's been doing everything in his power to prevent Chloe from reaching this point. The one who bounced her off to America when she showed up decades ago to put a stop to his schemes. The one who reached out through his own steam, to force Jeeves to betray us. The one who conspires with Ik'ai and indirectly manipulates the Seven into forging a worldwide empire of absolute order and control... a better Earth. A better Earth than the Word could make. Our enemy... the Archangel Raphael."
For a brief moment, Jesse seriously considered it was a trick, and the former demon was truly the enemy.
The terrible vision, the emaciated and naked angel in the chains. Their enemy. Incongruous concepts...
Chloe was the first to voice an objection.
"That's impossible!" she declared, turning to confront her brother. "He's a prisoner here! Why would he want to turn us away, when we were coming to rescue him?"
"I don't see a prisoner here," Benny decided... looking up at the archangel, putting his hands in his coat pockets. (Not as warm as his old coat. But a comforting gesture, nonetheless.) "We kept thinking 'prisoner and warden'. But we never considered neither existed. Or rather... that they were one and the same. The prisoner, who voluntarily imprisoned himself, and wardens himself. ...hello again, Raphael. Once, you were our mentor. What are you now? What do you see yourself as...?"
With dry and cracking lips... the angel rasped and wheezed into his breathing mask, trying to speak. Somehow, despite his poor health, despite the rubber mask which sucked away his life to be funneled into bottling plants... he made himself heard.
I Am The Savior Of My Flock, Raphael spoke. I Am The Order Behind Their Order. I Brought Them Peace And Prosperity. I Civilized Their World Through My Sacrifice.
"You let them think they caught you, that you were a prisoner, so that you could be the invisible hand that guided them," Benny translated. "They had keys, so they could back out if they wanted. They didn't. They destroyed their keys and set full sail towards your goals. Your demiurgic breath of life, giving them the power to conquer everything in their path, unifying their world."
Yes. A Just Cause. Ben'ai, I Saw The Multiverse. Ik'ai Found This Secret Entirely By Accident. Or Providence. We Learned That Our Planned Earth Was Not The Only One. I Saw The Word's Endless Failures, Across All Worlds. The Future Path They Would All Take, Towards Their Dooms. I... Saw The Coming Of The Fallen Stars... That Consumed All They Touched... I Had To... Do Something... To Be Their Guardian...
"You took it on yourself to drop in on one of the Creations and make it work."
I Do This... For The Grace Of God... So That Somewhere, On Some World, No One... Would... Suf-fer...
A rasping cough signaled the entrance of Ik'ai... limping along, with blood and wine in his matted hair. A defeated man.
He made no hostile actions. He was content to work his way around the group... to stand at his master's side.
"Master... rest yourself. I will explain for you," Ik'ai insisted. "Yes. Together, we forged an empire. I found salvation, in my master's designs. We were friends, in the before-times, and even after the fall he knew my worth. He brought me in to redeem myself, to save his world. ...you dislike his works? But within the empire, there is peace. Enforced peace, but peace nonetheless. It has endured, hundreds of years, unchanging. It endured the attempt by the Orbitals to destroy it. It would have lasted aeons, if not for your meddling..."
Benny was about to joust further with their enemy... when Chloe touched a hand to his arm, lightly, stopping him.
It was finally time for her words.
"Your intentions may have been pure, but your methods... you caused as much suffering as you wanted to prevent," she spoke. "Your experiment failed. ...the Word allowed it, because it served a purpose, but your purpose here is now over. It's time for your rest. Raphael..."
No. Please. No. Not This, Raphael begged... trying to sway away from the approaching young angel, despite his bondage. I Tried To Protect You, Cha'ai. I Tried To Send You Away. I Gave You A Good Life. I Only Killed You As A Last Resort; Not Out Of Hatred. Please. Don't Do This. Everyone Will Suffer, Without The Steam. You Are A Guardian Angel! You Can't Do This! You Will Drive Them To Starvation And Misery And Death...!
"The Word's will shall be done," Chloe promised. "Raphael..."
The messenger delivered her message, after so many years.
Empty chains fell away, without a body to keep tension between them. The smooth shackles clattered to the ground, useless. The breathing mask dropped last... its oblong shape keeping it from rolling very much. The little sound of suction continued, but no longer had a source to draw steam from.
The Archangel had been summoned back from whence he came. Message received.
Nobody was sure what to say, after that. Shellshocked from injuries and revelations, exhausted after a long journey in foreign lands... all sorts of good reasons to say nothing. Nothing was said.
They continued to say nothing, as the guards began to pour into the room. Led by six old men with deep pockets and hungry eyes.
"What the devil's going on down here, Ik'ai--?!" the CEO of Gearhaus Industries declared... until he got an eyeful of the space where Raphael used to be. "We got back from the prince's fiasco and saw the secret entrance wide open, and... ...oh... oh no..."
Benny decided to take the initiative. "Sorry, your angel had to pack it in," he declared. "I know, I know. The core of your entire power base, the lynchpin of your world domination plans. It stinks, but hey, this is how it is, you know...? I'm sure you'll get over it."
The sound of rifles being cocked suggested that they were pretty far from getting over it.
"I guess chances were low of us getting out of this scot-free," Gilbert declared... deciding to stand proud and flippant in the face of his executioners. "We always knew that. As deaths go, this could be worse. Although I was hoping I could get us entirely through the equation with our future family intact..."
The machinery in the room began to rumble.
It wasn't a self-destructing evil dungeon, however. This was the normal rumble, the hum and thrum of pipes that were being put to their proper purpose; the same noise that had been echoing throughout the chamber, when an archangel was plugged into the breathing mask at the extreme end of the steam powered British juggernaut. The machines seemed pleased as punch to be operational again.
This time... a younger angel was wearing the mask. Her wings flickering and then flaring, proving what she was, if the machinery's activation wasn't enough of a clue. Enough to make the CEOs of the empire gesture for soldiers to lower their weapons...
Chloe had just finished adjusting the straps to suit her face, when she had to forcibly push Benny away.
"NO," she insisted. "No. ... we agreed to this, brother. I'm taking Raphael's place."
"Bullshit," Benny protested. "I didn't agree to anything--!"
"We did. When we were... comatose. In the other place," Chloe explained, through the rubber of the mask. "I couldn't remember, until now. ...this was my idea, to begin with. A way to help Britain avoid a downward spiral... and the Word agreed with me. This is the only way to protect the innocents of this land from falling into chaos. I came here to do more than just send Raphael home. I'm going to be their way forward into the future. ...it's okay, brother. It's okay. I can do the most good from here. The most good of all..."
He wanted to yell. He wanted to scream. He'd come too far, done too much, to allow this to be her fate. Benny went to hell and back and right to the edge of death, he'd given up everything he'd ever accomplished... SHE had given up everything she would accomplish... all to satisfy the twisted plans of the Word...
But it was true. They did agree. The memories were back, for him, as well.
Slowly... Benny the Broker adjusted his tie, and turned to face his clients.
"Gentlemen," he began. "I am prepared to enter negotiations on behalf of my sister, for her services in the name of your empire. Let us adjourn to the outer room to begin. Chloe... I'll be right back."
Someone had brought him a pen and paper. He'd written up the contract in seconds of furious scribbling, jotting down neat little clauses and sub-clauses and special case conditions. Just because he wasn't a demon anymore didn't mean his skills as a Broker had faded.
"For the next five years, Chloe Manchester will spend twelve hours a day supplying angelic steam for your processing plants," he summarized, turning the contract around, and offering the CEOs the pen. "Proper quarters within the palace itself will be provided, with the required breathing apparatus; she will NOT be residing in your oubliette beyond this evening. After the five year mark, her mask time will decrease, and will continue to decrease over the years, until she is no longer in your services. This is designed to allow you a smooth and safe transitional time into steam/electric hybrids, and eventually into full alternative power sources. International assistance in electrical engineering can be arranged through my contacts, and I know of one individual in particular in France who can be a great asset to you..."
"This is preposterous," Gearhaus declared. "You can't expect us to agree to--"
"You will no longer have enough steam to power both a war machine AND your empire's day to day needs," the Broker continued. "Therefore, for the sake of your loyal subjects, you will abandon your conquest plans immediately and make no further attempts at expansion. Diplomatic communication will be opened to the Faeusa and Eastusa lands, as per Queen Emily's original request for friendly rapport between nations--"
"You DARE to--!? Why agree to any of this madness?" one of the CEOs asked. "We have another angel. Two, in fact, and both at gunpoint! Nothing needs to change. We can carry on as we always have--"
"If you do not agree to these terms, if you abuse angelic power further, then you will be going against the wishes of your Lord, God above," Benny pointed out. "He tolerated your sins thus far, as they suited Him. They no longer suit Him. As His messenger, I am authorized to tell you that anything you read about the plagues of Egypt will seem like a delightful children's bedtime story compared to the absolute wrath of heaven that I personally will pour upon your houses if you harm one hair on my sister's head."
He added a flash of the wings, for emphasis.
And then clicked the ballpoint pen.
"Sign here, and here," he indicated. "Or die screaming. Your choice."
The first person to take up the pen and sign was still wearing his mask from the earlier party.
"Hello, mind if I cut in?" Prince Edward IV asked, after cutting in. "I know a good deal when I see one, and just HAD to get in on the ground floor. Benny the Broker, I presume?"
"Edward," Benny acknowledged.
"I'll need a full explanation as to what I just signed later, but I think I've inferred most of the details," Eddie said, passing the pen next to Gustave Bonnechance. "Rest assured, as long as Chloe Manchester resides in my palace, she will be treated as an honored guest beyond honored guests. I greatly look forward to her counsel, as I take up my father's crown, and ease us through this journey."
"I take it you can provide a cover story for her presence here?" Benny asked. "We need to keep her nature a secret. I don't think it'd help if the general population knew of an angel in residence..."
"Well, Buckingham is the home of royalty, unfortunately," Edward mused. "So I guess I'll have to bestow upon her the title of 'Princess.' ...if she will have me, of course. The lady's choice in all things is paramount."
"She... might be open to that negotiation," Benny suggested, despite his big brotherly hackles rising at the thought. "Now then, the rest of you, signatures, please? We've got a lot of work to do together, and very little time to do it. This is not the end for the British Empire... think of it as a rebirth. One which we are ready to assist you through. For the glory of Britain, let's roll up our sleeves and get this new era started out right."
Eight names were signed, that day, in comparison to the seven on the original charter of the British Empire. This time, the crown would be an equal partner, rather than a puppet of those with money.
Gustave Bonnechance was second to sign. Baron von Blërg third, and then Erik Hendriks, who didn't want to turn his tractor factories into shipyards, anyway. The last was the stalwart spirit of the empire's war machine, the CEO of Gearhaus. But bowing to peer pressure, his signature was placed neatly on the dotted line.
On the other side of the page stood the names of the two angels, Chloe Manchester and Benny the Broker, who agreed to render their services. Benny's role as an international jetsetting trader was over; he agreed to sign his skills over to the cause of the empire, for as long as his sister remained. Joining them were Ik'ai, who reluctantly decided to continue in his role as servant of angels, and even Randall Wellspring, who "had nothing better to do with his life" and agreed to become a consultant to the crown on all things mechanical. The Royal Honored Calculator, as it were.
Finally... perhaps most important, and yet sidelined compared to the main event, a page detailing diplomatic relations with the 'colonies,' to be established through Gilbert Gearhaus and Jesse Runeblade. A tacit agreement of alliance between nations, with promise of support during their transitional years, so that the empire could enter the newly forming world stage as a friend rather than as a conqueror.
Through troubles, through wars, through strangeness, this document would remain intact. Bored schoolchildren would come to see it, to hear museum guides explain how this began a 'Second Age' for the empire, the led by the noble if unpredictable King Edward, and his angelic counterpart, Queen Chloe. Together, they strengthened the empire, bringing the true peace promised since its founding days, and making it the prominent power it was that day...
But, that was a day yet to come.
Here and now, the document was simply a neatly stapled stack of A4, folded up and tucked away in the inner pocket of Benny's brand new overcoat. He could have copies made, later; he didn't want to let the original out of his sight, not for a minute.
Compared to being shot at and blasted with sonic death the night before, having a dainty little tea party in the gardens of Buckingham Palace the next day was a severe change of tune.
Many of the participants were there with great reluctance. Honestly, the CEOs didn't want to attend and weren't explicitly invited by his majesty Prince Edward IV... but Gustave Bonnechance had scored an invitation, and the others felt NOT showing up would be a bad political move. The strangers were apparently going to be designing the new order of Britain, and no matter how much they loathed it, they knew better than to pass up an opportunity to get in good with the new creative directors.
Along with the heads of house, they were joined by a pirate queen and her fellows, a young Honored Calculator (now retired) in pigtails and her cranky mentor, as well as two very surprised minor nobles from Lisbon who were not expecting to be taking tea with the crown prince after being kidnapped by pirates. Apparently it was enough to soothe over the Duchess of Lisbon's disappointment at not being romanced by a dashing pirate lord, as she sipped tea and swooned over the prince's every word instead.
"...so, your pirate friend fires up this 'booming box,' I think it is called," Edward was regaling, waving his teacup about dangerously. "And a bouncy little song starts playing. Something about never giving you up or letting you down. Completely illegal of course, being digital media on an electronic device, but I say: What else are you going to do when presented with such a charming beat? I joined in the dance, of course. Really, it's a shame you had to miss it, Chloe. Perhaps I should ask those protestors to come protest my evil, evil regime again, sometime soon..."
Away from the enthralling stories of mixing with the common man, away from the grumpy businessmen, even away from the kidnappees... the two new diplomats to the empire were having their tea and crumpets to the side, tended to by their loyal autobutler. Not too far away... but far away enough not to be overheard.
"I have to wonder if we can consider this a true victory," Jesse was musing, as she stirred her tea idly with a spoon.
"Pardon? We stopped the war machine. That's what we set out to do, yes?" Gilbert asked. "On top of that, we've shut down the Honored Calculators program, brought the masses freedom from steam tyranny, and shuffled a charming fellow I'm growing to like into a position of power. I'd call that a true victory plus a side order of unexpected victory and a steaming mug of extra victory."
"All very noble goals, yes... but what I'm wondering, and I acknowledge this is paranoia... is if we've made Britain a more powerful monster as a result," Jesse said. "The companies still hold all the sway, even if they're going to supposedly play nice. They're about to attack electrical innovation and maybe even digital technologies with the same industrial juggernaut they used to great effect all over Europe. They have access to an angel, whose unique gifts may very well end up mixing in the royal bloodline. ...and perhaps this is the most dangerous one of all..."
She pointed to the one who wasn't bothering to participate in the chatter, with her spoon. He failed to notice.
Gilbert peered. "Benny...?" he asked. "Oh, come on, love. Benny's an angel now. He's one of the good guys."
"Terms like good and evil barely apply to that man, no matter what team he plays for. He is a cunning and vicious opponent, with an international network of contacts and more information about the state of the world than anyone else living on it," she reminded. "And now, he's pledged himself as a Broker to further British causes. Following his sister, come hell or high water. ...you recall what Emily's working to rebuild, yes?"
"The United Nations, yes," Gilbert said, recalling the reports. They were classified, of course; construction had just begun in New York, to be announced later this year. "Using the Welcome Wagon to re-open communications across the world. Getting the nations talking to each other, cooperating, negotiating their differences. What of it? It's a jolly good plan. High time the Earth got past its Post-Pandora Stress Disorder..."
"Yes. But this enhanced British Empire, contained though it may be, is about to happily join that fray. Gilbert... they may not NEED to send out armies and plant their flag on foreign soil in order to hold dominion over this world. They were a powerhouse of industry and wealth then, and they still are today. It's not like Eastusa or Faeusa are in a very strong position, even if we're getting the ball rolling. With the tools they have now, Britain may become the global leader by default. After all, who do you think will be their number one choice to send to New York, representing their interests...?"
Again... a waggle of the spoon at Benny the Broker. Who was busy rolling his eyes at the way Prince Edward was laying on the schmoozy charm for all present.
Gilbert Gearhaus considered it. And... shook his head.
"Our mission was to end the war. That's it," he decided. "Whatever shape the future may be, whoever may arise to be the political world leader, that's a problem for people above our pay grade. ...besides. If all we have to worry about in the future are some backroom international economic alliances, that'd be a far more peaceful era than this world has seen in the last two hundred years."
"Not much call for Emily's prized anachronauts, in a world of alleged peace," Jesse agreed.
"Good for us. Gives us time to properly set up the newly established House of Gears, and raise our family. Jesse... our adventures are likely over. There's no need for this worry. If the only conflict the world sees again is across a polished oak conference table, then I'd say mission accomplished."
"Except for when the stars fall."
Gilbert's teacup paused, before it could reach his lips.
"Notice Jim and Bob didn't hang around to join the tea party," Jesse said. "Jim and Bob, the worst conspirators in the multiverse. They filled their role and immediately vanished into the night, rather than reveal what it was the Gatherers were preparing for. I learned... sketchy details, when I was practicing my glamour. Jim said that whoever runs England, and how they run it, is ultimately meaningless. One day, some day soon, the stars are going to fall. No amount of polished oak conference tables will stop that, I fear."
"Fear...?" Gilbert asked... allowing himself a smile. "Is my darling wife, Lady Runeblade of the House of Gears, afraid of the big bad unknown menace from beyond...?"
"Absolutely not," she spoke, firmly. "Let them come. Let them stand against us, whoever these 'fallen stars' may be. All who dare to oppose us shall be shown the folly of their ways, at the point of a blade. ...I merely point out that we cannot rest on our laurels, Gilbert. We cannot assume a life of peace, from now on. We must be vigilant."
"We can be vigilant AND enjoy a life of peace, until time comes that it is disrupted," he suggested. "A quiet life, until it is made loud. For now... enjoy the delight of these gardens, the taste of the tea, and the thoughts of our family yet to come. Live your life, Jesse. It's all we can do."
A light breeze rolled through the gardens of Buckingham. Delicious smelling steam from her teacup rose, to meet her.
Victory enough for now, then, she decided. And drank deep.
copyright 2011 stefan gagne
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