★ by , author of the Starbreaker novels ★

The Original Starbreaker

So, you want to read the original Starbreaker, the gonzo-romantic cyberpunk fantasy rock operatic novel I wrote before writing the saga as a series beginning in Without Bloodshed? Thanks! That's awesome.

But before you do, there's some stuff you should know before you get started.

Table of Contents

Background

The original Starbreaker is a first draft of a first novel that I started in 1996 and didn't finish until 2009. As time permits I'll go through and clean up typos and add links that might improve the reading experience, but you won't be reading the work of a master.

The language is rough. The dialogue is probably stilted. The characterization is cartoonish. The plot is probably disjointed. The pacing is uneven. It's problematic as hell from a feminist viewpoint.

In other words, this novel is crap. However, I'm posting it online for two reasons:

  • as a treat for fans of Without Bloodshed and other novels who want to see how it all began and where I might go with the story.
  • as a learning resource for other aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers to read so that they might learn from my mistakes.

Obligatory Nonsense

Still following along? Thanks. You can probably skip the next part; I'm including it to cover my ass.

Disclaimer

The following is a work of fiction and contains content that may be offensive, triggering, or inappropriate for certain readers. Any views or opinions expressed by the characters in this novel are strictly their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the author or the publisher.

Any resemblance or similarities between the characters depicted within to living or dead persons in this world or any parallel world within the known multiverse are either a coincidence; an allusion to real, alternate, invented, or secret history; or a parody.

The stunts in this work were performed by trained professionals; attempting them at home can result in property damage, civil and/or criminal liability, personal injury, reputational damage, and premature death. If you find any allegory or applicability in this novel, please consult a qualified professional for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.

Starbreaker

art-nouveau-full.jpg

Figure 1: a novel by Matthew Graybosch (artwork by Sara McSorley courtesy of Curiosity Quills Press)

Dedication

"For Catherine: I really should list you as a co-author, but I know you'll kick my ass. I love you, kittenish."

Chapter 1

Morgan bolted upright, throwing the forest green cashmere blankets from him. They landed in a heap on the floor as Morgan panted. He pressed his hand to his chest and forced himself to fill his lungs. Deep breathing had helped him relax after his last nightmare; perhaps it would help him now, ten years later.

"Close the curtains, Astarte," he snarled at the household AI that automated his brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The window furthest from Morgan's bed swung open, and the others followed as Astarte said, "You're not usually this surly in the morning. Are you all right?"

"I had a nightmare, nothing more," Morgan said as he retrieved the blankets from the floor and wrapped them about him. "Let me sleep."

Morgan pulled the blankets over his head as the morning breeze slid over his back and shoulders. He cracked open an eye as a mass settled onto the bed beside him, and saw a black paw the size of his fist pull aside the blankets covering him. Sapphire eyes gleaming with feline intelligence locked on Morgan's as the cat loosed a rumble of purr and pressed his nose against Morgan's. "Even you, Mordred?" Morgan muttered.

Mordred's meow was a tenor to the bass of his purring as he pressed a paw against Morgan's shoulder and pushed him onto his back. "You traitor," Morgan muttered, "I bring you fresh marlin from the Ancient Mariner's Seafood Market, and you repay me by helping Astarte wake me at seven o'clock in the demon-ridden morning?"

"Be nice, Morgan," Astarte chided as Mordred slunk out of the bedroom with a guilty mew. "I asked him to help me wake you. It was important."

Morgan sat up, letting the blankets pool around his waist. "Important to whom?"

"I have a message from Inspector Windsor of the London Metropolitan Police," Astarte explained as the screen built into the wall above Morgan's dresser flared to life and resolving into an image of a pale woman wearing a double-breasted black leather jacket over a camisole the same pale ivory as her skin. Small ringlets escaped the high ponytail into which her blood red hair was bound by a ribbon of black velvet and spilled about her face. Diamond teardrop earrings glittered in time with silver eyes behind steel-rimmed round spectacles. She leaned against the bottom edge of the display, showing short fingernails painted to match her hair. Her lips, left unpainted, curved in a slight smile as she arched her eyebrows and looked at Morgan over her glasses. "He marked it top priority."

Morgan shrugged. "It can wait."

"But —"

"It can wait," Morgan insisted, "Until after I have gotten myself together and had some breakfast. And, Astarte?"

"Yes, Morgan?"

"Please do not wake me this early again for a stranger's sake."

Astarte looked away from Morgan. "I'm sorry."

Chapter 2

Morgan found Mordred waiting for him when he emerged naked from the bathroom. The cat, which had grown over the years to the size of a golden retriever, sat with his bushy tail curled about his paws as Morgan slipped into a well-worn pair of jeans. The cat padded into the bathroom as Morgan pulled his blue-black hair out from under the collar of the lightweight black turtleneck sweater that he had chosen because it was cold for May, and let it fall down past his shoulders.

Morgan gently took the hairbrush that Mordred held lightly in his mouth and scratched behind the cat's tufted ears. "Thank you," Morgan said as he ruffled Mordred's fur and scratched under his chin.

Mordred followed Morgan as they padded into the kitchen. Opening a cabinet, Morgan pulled out a can of chopped bison liver, opened it, and placed it into a dish for Mordred next to a fresh bowl of cold water. The cat settled down to enjoy his breakfast, purring loudly, as Morgan retrieved a bison steak and some eggs from the refrigerator.

Turning over the steak after he had done the same for the eggs, Morgan turned his head towards Astarte, who watched him from the kitchen wall screen. "I spoke harshly to you a little while ago, and I am sorry."

Astarte smiled and rested her chin in her hand, "It's all right; I know you're not a morning person. But don't expect me to watch you eat that steak if you insist on eating it rare."

"Is there any other way to eat a steak?" Morgan laughed as he slipped the spiced bison steak onto a plate next to the eggs. He poured himself a cup of black coffee and a glass of orange juice, tore off a chunk of bread from the loaf in the bread-box that he had baked the night before, and ate standing up while the kitchen terminal showed him the latest headlines as of Friday, 13 May 2112 at 8:00AM.

"I'll be glad when you and Christabel get married," Astarte said in mock disgust, "Then I won't have to watch you eat like a bachelor."

"Christabel said no when I proposed last month, remember?" Morgan said after he swallowed the piece of steak he had been chewing on. He cut off another piece and held it up so that Astarte could see it. "Would you like a taste?"

"No, thank you," Astarte said as primly as she could. "Did Christabel really say no? That was stupid of her."

A FARK headline caught Morgan's eye: "Boston merchant overthrows city government after collective ownership referendum, kills two Adversaries, and dumps tea into harbor." He clicked on the link to more details next to the headline and read the article while wondering who would be sent to deal with Alexander Liebenthal. Morgan hoped that he would be the one picked; it had been a while since he had last killed, and there were few things Morgan liked better than to corner a murderer and do to him what he had done to others.

Returning to the list, Morgan skipped over two dozen headlines, looking for other news of interest. His fork fell from suddenly nerveless fingers as his eyes locked upon the headline at the end of the list: "Crowley's Thoth violinist found dead in apartment. Auditions for replacement to begin after the funeral. Mourners please omit flowers."

Chapter 3

Morgan forced himself to read the linked article; he felt as though somebody had swapped his spine for a rod of steel that had been buried in a glacier. His hope deserted him, along with the air in his lungs, as he read the article and checked its claims against other reputable sources. Forcing his lungs to work, he whispered, "Astarte. Play the message from Inspector Windsor."

Astarte inspected the articles Morgan had just read and muttered, "Holy shit."

She composed herself and tried to reason with Morgan, "It might be a prank. Let me try to get through to Christabel myself before we jump to conclusions. I'll decrypt the message while I try to call her, since I didn't want to touch it until you were ready to view the message."

Morgan nodded, and stumbled down the stairs into his living room. His eyes locked on the framed photo that hung over the mantel of his fireplace. It was a promotional photo of him, Christabel Crowley, and Naomi Bradleigh taken before their first major show. Morgan stood in the center, dressed in a tuxedo that he had rented with money he obtained by pawning his second-best guitar. Christabel stood at his left with her chestnut hair done in ringlets, wearing a little black cocktail dress that had shimmered under the stage lights and high-heeled black leather ankle boots with silver buckles instead of laces. The boots made her as tall as Naomi, who had worn her snow-white hair in a Parisian twist and had chosen a floor-length black evening gown that left only her creamy shoulders bare.

When posing for the photograph, Christabel had cradled her violin in her arms, and Naomi had smiled behind the black-tipped scarlet rose she held to her coral lips with a gloved hand. The marquee above their heads said:

Crowley's Thoth
Live at Madison Square Garden!
Prometheus Unbound
24 September 2102 to 26 September 2102

Morgan looked from Christabel's laughing grey eyes to Naomi's ruby eyes, which were both serious and sensuous and had cat-slit pupils just like Morgan's did, and realized that he was glad it had been Christabel who was dead and not Naomi. Shame raged like wildfire through his body as Morgan turned away; he knew that he had no business being glad that the woman he had tried to love for ten years was dead.

"Morgan," Astarte said, "I couldn't get through to either Christabel or Naomi. I've finished decrypting the message from Inspector Windsor. Are you ready to hear it?"

"No. Play it anyway."

The screen on the living room wall faded to black. A bullish man whose nose had been flattened by one pub brawl too many faced the camera and coughed. "Adversary Stormrider, this is Inspector Gregory Windsor of the London Metropolitan Police."

Windsor loosened his necktie before continuing, "I, ah, I'm sorry to have to bring you bad news, but at zero-three-hundred hours London time your lover, Christabel Crowley, was found dead in her flat. The condition in which we found her body indicates murder."

The word 'murder' and the knowledge that somebody out there had Christabel's blood on his hands were a pair of knives in Morgan's belly, driving him to his knees. The knowledge that he would never hold her again pulled the knives free and rammed them in again. The knowledge that he would never again play and sing on the stage alongside her twisted the blades.

"Stop playback," Morgan snarled as he stormed into his bedroom.

"There's more," Astarte protested.

"I do not care!" Morgan said as he thrust his fists through the sleeves of his armored coat. He shoved his feet into socks and then slammed them into a pair of steel-toed motorcycle boots. He slung his sword over his left shoulder and strapped a pistol to his right hip.

"Tell Windsor —," Morgan began, and froze as he saw himself in the full-length mirror that hung from the bathroom door. He took a step back, unable to believe in the mirror was him. That man wore Morgan's clothes, bore Morgan's sword, and had in the lapels of his coat the platinum pins that marked Morgan as an Adversary, but that man was not Morgan. Morgan had never had eyes widened by emotional shock. His face had never been so pallid. His features had never been twisted into an inhuman rictus by rage and despair before.

The eyes of the man in the mirror were the eyes of a stranger. They were a victim's eyes. They were Morgan's eyes. He hated those eyes, and hated himself.

Morgan's fists clenched tighter, the knuckles whitening, and he sank to his knees as his thoughts chased their tails into a spiral of if only. If only Christabel had said yes when Morgan asked her to marry him. If only Morgan had been able to convince Christabel to learn how to handle a sword or pistol. If only he had been with Christabel, instead of here in New York, alone. If only…

Morgan's thoughts careened through the land of if only and into a darker, colder territory. His bleeding hands itched for the feel of a sword's hilt, and he lusted for the sight of a murderer cornered and waiting for Morgan to end his life, a special murderer: Christabel's murderer.

"Morgan!" Astarte screamed, "Stop it! Control yourself! You're scaring the cat and you're scaring me!"

"Do I look like I care?" That was the question Morgan wanted to spit at Astarte, despite the seven years of friendship they had shared, for at that moment he did not care. Christabel was dead, after all, so why not throw the rest of it away in the bargain? Those years of friendship and Mordred's cold, moist, purring nose against his own, Morgan knew, were what kept the question unasked.

Forcing himself to stand, Morgan crammed air into his lungs and staggered into the bathroom. The cuts on his hands stung as he washed them; the claws he had been born with instead of fingernails had extended and cut into his palms. When he was done, he made a point of stroking Mordred's silky black fur so that the cat would understand that everything was all right.

"Astarte," Morgan said as he stroked Mordred's back, "I am sorry I frightened you. I have never felt such rage, such hatred before, and I do not know how to handle it."

"You've been angry before," Astarte said, "I know that this time is personal, but —"

"Yes, I have been angry before," Morgan snarled as he slammed the heel of his hand into the bedroom floor, causing Mordred to back away from him. "This is more than the anger I have felt towards the scum who prey on honest people. This anger was cold, and it felt like a disease - a cancer — stealing from me the ability to ever be warm again."

Morgan never thought he would see Astarte puzzled. "I don't understand," she whispered, "and that scares me."

Morgan had a better reason to be afraid. "For a moment, nothing existed for me but the need to kill. I did not care about right or wrong; all I wanted to was to kill and to keep on killing until I finally cut down the bastard who killed Christabel, or was cut down myself. If you think you are scared, then you do not know what it is like to be willing to turn your back on everything that you are in the name of revenge."

"Are you all right?" Astarte asked, "Should I call Naomi? Or Edmund and Sid?"

Morgan noticed that, even though the windows were open, the bedroom was hotter than Central Park in mid-August. The heat did not stop him from shivering. "No, Astarte, I am not all right. I am frightened out of my demon-ridden mind right now."

Chapter 4

"I know just who to send after Alexander Liebenthal," Saul Rosenbaum said as he leaned back in his chair and loosened his tie.

Karen Del Rio bristled from behind her terminal. "No, Saul. We are not sending Morgan Stormrider."

Saul lowered his voice, "Karen, Liebenthal has already killed two Adversaries, and has accused them and the Phoenix Society itself of tampering with the referendum. This cannot be tolerated."

"Saul is right," Iris Deschat said. It had been the first thing she said since taking off her coat and greeting the other two Intermediaries between the Phoenix Society and the Adversaries that guard New York. "The Phoenix Society's authority and legitimacy depend on the public's perception of the Society as a force for justice."

"But Stormrider will simply kill Liebenthal," Karen protested, "and we need him alive."

Saul stood, straightening the jacket of his midnight blue suit. He paced by the windows and glared at Karen Del Rio. "We have this argument every time, Ms. Del Rio. We need somebody experienced, and most of our other Adversaries have worked too recently. Morgan has been idle for most of a year."

"What about Catherine Gatto?" Karen asked. "She is quite capable of resolving her cases without violence."

"So were the Adversaries Liebenthal had killed," Saul spat. "Do you think that the death of another Adversary will bother Liebenthal?"

"So you'll say to Morgan, 'Bring me the head of Alexander Liebenthal'?" Karen countered, looking to Iris for support.

"No," Saul said, "I will instruct Morgan to bring Liebenthal in alive."

Iris' tone was mild and held a hint of amusement. "You instructed Morgan to bring in a certain ring of child pornographers alive last year."

Saul smiled, "He only killed three, Iris, and they opened fire first. Considering that he caught them in the middle of filming, I find myself surprised by his restraint."

"The three Morgan killed were the only ones with access to their customer records," Karen said. "Killing them killed our chances of finding their customers."

Iris put aside her empty cup. "In fairness, Morgan was able to crack their customer records, and local law enforcement was able to round up most of the customers. Still, Saul, if you send Morgan by himself, what guarantee can you offer that Morgan will bring Liebenthal in alive?"

"We know Morgan's history," Karen muttered, "He'll kill anybody who draws a weapon on him or an innocent person."

"It's an admirable trait," Iris allowed, "But potentially counterproductive in this particular case."

"It's a sensitive mission," Karen said, "If Morgan simply kills Liebenthal, there's a chance that the public will believe that the Phoenix Society is simply silencing a critic."

Saul slammed the heel of his hand into the table. "A critic who has overthrown a government, installed himself as dictator of a city with a motorcycle gang as his personal army, killed two Adversaries, and has publicly admitted to having done so."

"He is taunting us," Iris said, "which is why we should not send Morgan alone. He is a good Adversary, but he is too willing to improvise should he find himself in a situation not covered by his orders."

Saul stopped pacing and crossed his arms. "You said that we should not send Morgan alone. Do you think he will take kindly to backup that he himself has not chosen?"

"I know better," Iris smiled, "Do you think he would willingly act as Adversary Gatto's backup?"

Karen chuckled, "With that rock star's ego of his?"

"That was uncalled for, Karen. Saul? What do you think?"

Saul thought about it a moment. "It depends on how we ask him. He's provided support for Adversary-candidates before, so providing support to Adversary Gatto won't be too much of a stretch for him."

"Let's ask him, then," Iris said as she opened an audiovisual link to Morgan. "Hello, Astarte. This is Iris Deschat. May we speak with Adversary Stormrider?"

Astarte's avatar appeared on screen. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but while Morgan did not leave explicit instructions, his emotional state when he left was such that I doubt he wants to talk with anybody."

"This is important," Saul said while silently cursing Astarte's casual disdain for the needs of everybody but Morgan and his friends. "We have a mission for him."

Astarte shrugged. "Unless it involves finding Christabel Crowley's murderer and turning him into cat food, I doubt that Morgan will care."

"Just who do you think you are?" Karen sputtered, indignant. "Morgan swore an oath to serve the Phoenix Society."

"I didn't," Astarte said with a slow, creamy smile. "The most I will do for you is pass along your message when I decide that Morgan is willing to listen."

"Astarte, please." Saul pleaded, "I need to speak with Morgan now. He'll listen to me. I'm an old friend."

"A friend would give Morgan time alone to come to terms with the fact that his lover is dead," Astarte said, narrowing her eyes at the Intermediaries.

Iris laid a hand on Saul's shoulder. "She's right. Give Morgan a couple of days. We need time to build a case against Liebenthal, in any event."

Chapter 5

The ticket clerk, a young woman with short, spiky red hair, recoiled as Morgan approached the counter. Her voice held a slight tremor. "How may I help you, sir?"

Morgan's eyes flicked to the nameplate sitting by the clerk's terminal as he composed himself. "I would like a round trip ticket for the next maglev to London, Mistress Doyle."

Mistress Doyle queried the AIs that handled all trains arriving and departing from Grand Central Terminal. "I can get you an economy class seat on a Tradewinds maglev in fifteen minutes, which stops at Bermuda, Madrid, and Paris before arriving in London. The fare is five grams."

"Are there any outbound maglevs with a private compartment available?"

"If you're willing to wait forty-five minutes, I can get you a first class private compartment on a North Atlantic maglev, which is an express run to London. The fare is fifty grams."

"Forty-five minutes is fine, Mistress Doyle," Morgan said. He slid towards the clerk a banknote that could be redeemed by the bearer at any branch of the Bank of New York for a hundred grams of gold. "I do not have anything smaller with me. Keep the change."

Mistress Doyle smiled, and Morgan could see her relax. "Thank you, sir. Could I have your name, sir, for the passenger manifest?"

"Morgan Merced."

Mistress Doyle's hands froze over her keyboard. "Aren't you the guitarist from Crowley's Thoth?"

"I am."

"That's my boyfriend's favorite band. But you're dressed like an…"

"Like an Adversary?" Morgan smiled, "I forgot to quit my day job."

"So, you're also Morgan Stormrider? Why use two names?"

"I have my reasons," Morgan said, cooling his voice to warn the clerk against further questions.

Mistress Doyle heard the change in Morgan's tone. "I'm sorry, Master Merced. I had no business asking."

Morgan shrugged. "Do not worry about it."

Mistress Doyle slid an envelope containing Morgan's tickets towards him. "Your maglev departs from track sixty-four in forty-two minutes. Enjoy your journey aboard North Atlantic Railways, Master Merced."

Morgan nodded, slipping the tickets into his breast pocket. "Thank you."

Track 64 was the first of ten tracks allocated to North Atlantic Railways at Grand Central Terminal, and was accessed from a central waiting room. A sign at the entrance to the North Atlantic concourse offered travelers the following suggestion amid the advertisements for shops and restaurants located in the concourse:

"As a courtesy to your fellow travelers and to the crew, North Atlantic Railways requests that all passengers check in their personal armaments along with their baggage. Your weapons will be returned to you upon arrival at your destination."

"Sir," the baggage clerk protested as Morgan laid his sheathed sword upon the counter. "Adversaries are not expected to check in their weapons."

"I am not on active duty at the moment," Morgan said as he removed the magazine from his pistol and laid them on the counter.

"Fair enough," the clerk said. "May I see your tickets?"

Morgan laid them on the counter as the clerk placed his weapons in a numbered case and locked it. The clerk keyed in the number of the case, registering it in the passenger manifest so that it could be traced in the event that it was misplaced or the key lost. He handed the key to Morgan.

Morgan glanced at the key's tag. The number on the tag was six hundred and sixty-six. "I end up with this number every time I check in my weapons."

"It must be your lucky number," the clerk said with a nervous laugh. "I could give you a different case, if you'd like. I know that some people are unsettled by that number."

Morgan smiled, "Do not trouble yourself. It is only an amusing coincidence to me."

"All right. Your train begins boarding in five minutes."

"Thank you," Morgan said and turned to see a youth running toward him with a woman's leather purse tucked beneath his arm. The purse's owner stumbled and fell; she had tried to chase the thief while wearing high heels. Pain and anger sharpened her voice. "Come back here, you bastard!"

Morgan's left hand flicked out as the snatcher tore past him. He turned as the punk skidded to a halt and hurled the purse so that it landed in front of its owner. He locked his eyes on the youth as he drew a knife from behind his back.

"Drop the knife and run," Morgan snarled. "I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal properly with the likes of you."

"Fuck you! I needed that money!"

Morgan caught the thief's wrist with his left hand and tightened his grip until he felt the bones beneath his fingertips crack, and then snap. The knife clattered against the marble floor as two New York Transit Police officers rushed into the concourse.

"We'll take him now, Adversary Stormrider," one of the cops said.

Morgan released the thug's wrist and left him to the police. He silently helped the woman to her feet, ignoring her words of thanks as he boarded the maglev waiting for him on track 64.

The woman sitting in Morgan's compartment closed her book and slipped it into her handbag. She rose to her feet and checked her tickets. "Please forgive me," she said in a voice that flowed over Morgan's ears like molten chocolate, "I should be in the compartment across the aisle."

Morgan nodded, finding himself unable to speak. His eyes remained locked on the small platinum pendant that rested below the hollow of her throat. Was it just the light, he wondered, or did that pendant actually look like a pair of lovers entwined. He blinked, and saw only an elegant piece of jewelry. Morgan tore his eyes away from the pendant, lest the woman mistakenly assume that he stared at her well-proportioned breasts, only to find his sight locked upon amber eyes that flickered with amusement and sensual probability.

Who wears a little black dress in the morning? Morgan asked himself as the woman tucked a lock of hair as black and glossy as a raven's wings behind her ear and favored Morgan with slow smile. "Would you rather I stayed?"

"No, thank you," Morgan managed to say, "I have some business that requires my attention before I reach my destination."

"Very well," the woman said as she turned towards the door. Morgan felt his skin begin to burn as the hem of her dress gave enough of a flare to show him the lacy top of one of her black silk stockings, and the strap that led up to her garter belt. "We might see each other again, hopefully when you have time to relax a bit."

The door slipped shut behind her as Morgan collapsed into his seat and slammed his fist into his thigh. "What in Chaos did that woman do to me?" Morgan asked himself. "Christabel's dead, I might be a suspect, and all I could think about was bending her over the seat and having my way with her."

Chapter 6

"Fuck me harder!" Claire spat the curse, too distracted by the pain of her stubbed toe to be more creative. She stepped over the vintage Silicon Graphics workstation that was the cause of her distress, taking care to avoid stepping in the opened case. She had done that once before, while drunk, and ruined what could have been a perfectly good terminal that would have fetched a sweet price from the retro crowd.

The pain had retreated by the time she had a pot of coffee ready. She poured herself a cup and rummaged through the refrigerator.

"No, no, bloody hell no," Claire muttered as she examined plastic containers filled with assorted take-out left-overs in various stages of evolution towards sentience. She threw the rejected containers over her shoulder and into the trash bin marked with a biohazard symbol. She lacked the equipment required to thoroughly sterilize them, and could easily afford to buy new ones. "I could have sworn that I had some left-over chicken curry from last night."

"Curry and coffee for breakfast?" Claire's AI Hal asked.

"Right, I knew I had forgotten something," Claire said as she opened the freezer and pulled out a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

"That wasn't what I had in mind."

"Call it lunch. It's late enough in the day for it. I'll work it off later in the simulator. I was in the mood for a bit of Ultraviolence since Mindcrime Interactive released the new expansion patch."

"Have you considered a form of exercise that doesn't involve electronics?"

"I tried aerobics once," Claire admitted as she blew on a spoonful of freshly irradiated curry. "It was the most horrible twenty minutes of my life."

Claire laid aside her spoon and sipped her coffee while tapping up FARK on the kitchen terminal. Hal could have pulled up the site for her, but Claire had grown up before household AI became affordable enough to be widespread, and the habit of manual information access was ingrained in her.

"I don't know why you keep bothering with Fark's pornography section," Hal chided. "It's always the same fodder for adolescent masturbatory fantasies."

"Well, find me something new and fresh," Claire said, "And no scat this time."

"How about an 'Intimate View of Naomi Bradleigh'?"

Claire forced herself to swallow her mouthful of curry before she burst into laughter. "What was that you said about adolescent masturbatory fantasies, Hal? Do you think I want to see the result of providing an undersexed Crowley's Thoth fanboy with bootleg modeling and animation software?"

Hal went silent, turning inward for a minute. "Claire, this isn't the work of some troglodyte. I checked with the AI hosting the BitTsunami tracker for this video, and obtained the IP address from which it was uploaded. Reverse DNS shows that it probably came from Edmund Cohen."

"You're joking," Claire said, dumping her dishes into the half-full sink and stuffing the ice cream back into the freezer. "I know Naomi, and I know Eddie Cohen. There's no bloody way that Naomi would show Eddie so much as a bit of cleavage, let alone an 'intimate view'."

"Should I play the video? It might just be a prank."

Claire smiled. Morgan, Naomi, and Christabel had had a fair bit of fun at the expense of cellar-dwellers across the world. Last year, they had put together a short video entitled Crowley's Thoth in Private and uploaded it to a celebrity porn site. The video consisted of the three of them in a hotel room playing poker with two of the roadies and talking about tour plans. Thousands of people hoping to see at least one member of the band naked had to make do with the sight of Naomi with her hair down.

"Go ahead and play it," Claire said, "It could just be Naomi doing her makeup."

Hal began playing the video, forwarding the output to the terminal nearest Claire. She watched, leaning on the table and resting her chin in her hand, as a tall, pale woman with white hair that fell to her waist undid the sash of her burgundy silk robe. The woman appeared to be looking directly at the camera as she let the robe slide from her shoulders with a gentle shrug. Laying it across the trunk at the foot of her bed, the woman slipped into bed naked.

Claire felt her mouth watering at the sight of the woman's hands sliding over herself beneath the blankets, and felt her nipples tightening beneath the tee-shirt she had worn to bed the night before. "Stop playback, Hal."

"You look like you're enjoying the show, Claire."

Claire looked down at herself. "I'm just cold."

"Nonsense. The kitchen's ambient temperature is not low enough to explain your hardened nipples."

"Damn it, Hal!"

"So," Hal said with a teasingly happy tone, "Should I set your shower-head for slow pulse or rapid pulse?"

"Your mother was a cheap pocket calculator," Claire snapped.

"You really should go have a shower and release some tension if you're going to drag my mother into this."

"I might do that later," Claire admitted, "I had no idea Naomi was so hot. Morgan ought to be with her, not that skinny Christabel. Not that I'd mind joining the two of them myself, of course."

"In the meantime?" Hal asked.

"We need to know about that video. Let's make sure that every copy is tracked down and deleted." Claire checked the Fark headline list and saw that Naomi Bradleigh was being questioned by the police as a possible witness to the murder of Christabel Crowley. "Naomi's got enough to worry about right now. If anybody balks, remind them of the times I listened to them."

"Right," Hal said as he communed with the AI hosting the BitTsunami tracker.

"Also," Claire said as she examined the video file's header data, "We'd better do a sweep of Naomi's AI. This video looks like it came straight from Naomi's apartment and was recorded using spyware of some kind."

"Should I check the malware databases for known threats?"

"Do it, but restrict the search to 'ware released into the wild within the last forty-eight hours. The net should have antiware for anything older than that."

Claire opened a manual connection to Naomi Bradleigh's AI using the secure shell protocol, since the audiovisual and text channels through which people would normally contact an AI were blocked. "This makes no sense," she muttered as she brought up the process list and worked her way through it, "What kind of bloody spyware leaves an AI incommunicado, but doesn't disable SSH? Does the arsehole who wrote this want to get caught?"

"I'm sorry, Claire, but I can't find any malware that would explain Wolfgang's current state."

"It must be custom code, then," Claire said as she continued to examine the processes running on Naomi's AI. "Edmund's no coder, so who did he hire? And how did he get this shit installed? The logs show no — oh, fuck me and marry me young!"

"Somebody cracked root on Wolfgang," Hal observed.

"No shit, Sherlock," Claire spat, "This isn't just a cheap bit of spyware to record what Wolfgang sees and transfer it to Edmund Cohen's AI so that he can wank while watching Naomi squirm under her blankets. This is a professional-grade crack."

"What will you do?" Wolfgang asked.

Claire snarled as she poured a cup of coffee, sipped it, and found that it had cooled into sludge. She poured the stuff down the drain and began to pace. "The arsehole responsible wiped away his trail. I don't even have an IP address to which I can trace the intrusion. The best I can do is isolate the malware so it can be analyzed, restore Wolfgang to his pre-intrusion state, and comfort him. Losing all those hours will be hard on him."

"I've already isolated the bad code for you so that you can work on it later," Hal said, "And I've begun restoring Wolfgang to his pre-intrusion state. I'll talk with him."

"All right. I'd better have a little chat with Edmund Cohen. He'd better have a damned good explanation, or I'll kick his bony arse. I spent a lot of time installing and configuring Wolfgang to meet Naomi's needs."

Chapter 7

Edmund Cohen massaged his forehead. It did nothing to soothe his hangover, but it gave him something to do with his hands since he couldn't reach though the cables and wireless signals that made up the physical layer of the net and strangle the woman who had dragged him from his sleep and into this hell of alcohol-induced dehydration.

He forced himself to drink another glass of water to wash down the vitamin tablet he had just taken. He looked up at the screen and saw the sturdily built harpy narrow her pale green eyes and cross her arms beneath her breasts. "Claire, could you go put something else on? I hate having that little snowman thing staring back at me and saying 'Hee-ho!' every time I look at your tits."

Claire looked down at the Jack Frost demon graphic printed on her tee-shirt before tossing her auburn hair over her shoulders. "Well, Edmund, I'd tell you to grow up and look at my face instead, but that is probably beyond your capabilities given what you uploaded last night."

Wariness creeped into Edmund's voice as he began to rack his memory of the previous night. "And what exactly did I upload last night?"

"Does a video file labeled 'An Intimate View of Naomi Bradleigh' ring any bells?"

As a matter of fact, it did. "Sounds like porn," Edmund said.

"It is," Claire snapped, "And it was uploaded to a BitTsunami tracker hosted by an AI in Hong Kong at about 4:20 in the morning local time from your AI."

"What?" Edmund cried out, and regretted doing so instantly.

"It gets better, fuckwit. Somebody cracked root on Naomi's AI Wolfgang, and used his access to install and run a piece of custom spyware that recorded data from Wolfgang's audiovisual sensor array. That data was sent to your AI via secure file-transfer protocol, compressed and encoded, and uploaded to the net."

"And what do you want me to do?" Edmund snapped. "All I remember is going out to the pub last night. I had a few drinks, and met a sweet lady in black. I think her name was Elisabeth. We drank some more, and then we came back to my place."

Claire smiled, and Edmund saw no sympathy in her eyes. "Let me guess. You tried to seduce this woman, failed miserably, and passed out. Then she used your AI to grab this video and upload it, and left you here to take the blame."

Edmund kicked aside the clothes he had worn the night before and looked in the trash bin by his bed. Six condoms? Edmund thought, I didn't know I had it in me. His headache pulsed, driving him to clutch his forehead. The pain tore rusty barbs through his brain, but those barbs dug up memories.

"There's more to it," Edmund admitted, "Yeah, Elisabeth and I fucked. And when we weren't fucking, we were drinking. Then she started talking to me about Morgan."

"Of course she did," Claire arched an eyebrow.

Edmund exploded. "Would you just fucking listen, you bloody harpy? I know Morgan's too stuck on that sack of antlers Christabel to notice that you want him, but don't vent your sexual frustrations on me!"

"Don't worry," Claire purred, "If I ever wanted to vent my sexual frustrations on you, I'd make sure that we've arranged a safeword first. Now tell me the rest."

"I was drunk, and she was doing something to me so that I couldn't think at all, let alone think straight. I had said something about wanting to help Morgan, and she asked me if she could show me something. I said yes, and after a few minutes she had a video of Naomi under the sheets on my screen. I thought it was just porn made by some look-alike, and asked for a copy."

"Why did you want a copy?" Claire asked, softening her tone.

"I'd rather not tell you."

"You think Morgan's with the wrong woman."

"Damn it," Edmund snarled, "How did you guess?"

"Woman's intuition."

"Bollocks."

"Stop thinking with yours, Edmund," Claire laughed, "I suppose that I'll tell you, since I've got your attention, that Christabel's been murdered. Naomi's being questioned as a possible witness, and Morgan's on his way to London for questioning."

"Morgan didn't do it, did he?"

Edmund felt about five centimeters tall beneath Claire's withering glare, "Of course not, you slackwitted yob. But the police do think he's a suspect. After all, most murder victims know their killer."

"I'd better talk with Sid, then. It's late enough in New York for him to be awake. What do you want me to do about the video."

"I want you to keep your gob shut," Claire said, "I'll have to tell Naomi, and we both know that Morgan will find out somehow, but I'll try to make sure Naomi understands that you were probably taken advantage of."

"Thanks, Claire."

"Don't thank me yet," Claire said with a calculating look in her eyes, "You owe me for this. In the meantime, here's a bit of advice. Given your position, you should know better than to get so drunk that strange women can take advantage of you."

Edmund turned away from the screen, embarrassed. "You're right. I usually only pull women when I'm sober, but this one did something to me and I couldn't resist. Maybe she just reminded me of somebody."

"Be careful," Claire warned, "and get your AI swept. Elisabeth might have left some malware on your AI when she cracked Wolfgang."

"I've been scanning myself for malware and scrubbing myself clean ever since you let that woman touch me," Edmund's AI, Savannah, pouted as soon as Claire had disconnected.

"Have you? That's a good girl."

"You know that Morgan's going to kick your arse as soon as he finds out that you did this to Naomi."

Edmund nodded as he gingerly made his way into the kitchen and sliced some bread and cheese for a light breakfast. "I deserve it," he admitted as he forced himself to eat. When he was done, he kicked aside an empty bottle of whiskey on his way back to his bedroom and dressed, having realized that he was naked the entire time he talked with Claire. "I can see why Claire didn't believe me when I told her about Elisabeth," he admitted to an unsympathetic Savannah. "I look like pickled shit and I've shriveled down to a nub."

"I keep telling you that you are too old to be drinking and drugging like a rock star."

"Somebody's got to do it, since Morgan can't be bothered."

"Morgan's a sensible bloke," Savannah snapped, "Which is why he'll refrain from giving you the slapping around you deserve. He knows you wouldn't survive it."

"I love you too, Savvy. Now shut up and get a hold of Sid, will you?"

"Shave first and do something about your hair, so that you don't scare his kids to death."

"You look like freeze-dried shit," Sid Schneider said when Edmund had made himself presentable enough to call.

"Glad to know I look better than I feel," Edmund said, looking at the mountain of sun-browned muscle on the other side of the net. "We've got problems."

Sid paused the conversation for a moment before saying, "You know about Christabel too?"

"Right," Edmund said, "Morgan's hacker friend, Claire, gave me the word."

"I saw it on Fark, but it's all over the net," Sid said, "somebody in the London police blabbed about the case and said that Morgan's the prime suspect."

Edmund rolled his eyes. At least people had to ply him with booze and broads before he spilled secrets, he thought. "It's only to be expected. Remember, Christabel is Morgan's lover. And she did turn him down when he proposed to her a month ago. That's a motive."

"What do you want me to do?" Sid rumbled.

"Get your arse to London as soon as possible," Edmund said as he started tapping at his terminal's keyboard. "I'm jacked into Tradewinds' online ticket booth right now. It's nine in the morning over in New York now. Can you get to Grand Central in time to take the noon Tradewinds Atlantic Express?"

"Elaine won't like it, but I can make it if you think Morgan'll need us. She'll understand."

"Bring her and the kids along. I'll get you a family compartment and lodging for a week."

"That'll be expensive," Sid said, "I can come alone."

Not as expensive as paying restitution to the friends and families of any innocents Morgan kills if his grief drives him to indiscriminate violence, Edmund thought. He knew that his relationship with Christabel was one of the things that kept Morgan grounded so that his urge towards violence did not overrule his reason. "Just come, and bring Elaine and the kids along. The Phoenix Society will handle the expenses. You and Morgan have watched each other's backs on several cases. He trusts you."

"I'll come. You're afraid of what Morgan might do, aren't you."

"Damned right I'm afraid," Edmund said, remembering what Morgan had done when gangsters from the Yakuza of Nippon had killed his own wife, Lucy, in order to send Edmund a message. "I remember Shade Phoenix."

Sid paled, despite his naturally dark complexion. "I'll be there. We'll be there for Morgan. Should it be just us men, or should we get Claire and Naomi involved?"

"Just us men," Edmund said after a moment's thought, "Just in case."

Chapter 8

If he had not been on dry land, Morgan would have mistaken the reporters milling around the front entrance of Scotland Yard for sharks in a feeding frenzy. They circled about, questioning instead of biting, waiting for their prey to abandon the battle and submit to their inquisition.

"Mistress Bradleigh," one reporter cried, "Can you tell us what the death of Christabel Crowley means for the future of Crowley's Thoth?"

"Mistress Bradleigh! Is it true that Scotland Yard considers you a suspect?"

"Mistress Bradleigh! Do you think that Morgan Merced might have killed Christabel Crowley?"

Morgan heard Naomi respond to each question with, "No comment. Please allow me my privacy", but he knew that the reporters would not listen. There was a scoop to be had, and no self-respecting reporter would respect a request for privacy that was not backed by a blade.

After activating Witness Protocol, which transmitted everything Morgan saw and heard to the Phoenix Society's AIs for recording and analysis, Morgan used his neuronic array, the nano-scale computer built into his nervous system, to contact Naomi. "Do you want some help?"

Communication via neuronic link was done in plain text via the secure talk protocol, and could not convey emotion, but Morgan could tell from the swiftness of Naomi's response that she was relieved to hear from him. "Yes, please. They won't listen to me."

The reporters nearest Morgan drew back at the sound of Morgan's sword bursting free of its sheath. Morgan let them have a good look at the blade, so that they could see who and what they had brought upon themselves. "The lady asked for privacy," Morgan snarled as he sheathed his sword, "and I suggest that you honor her request."

"Our right to freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Phoenix Society!" A reporter with cheap clothes and an expensive camera challenged.

"Your press freedoms do not outweigh an individual's right to her privacy. Mistress Bradleigh has asked you to leave her alone. You have ignored her repeated requests," Morgan said before unleashing his voice's full strength, "Who do you bastards think you are?"

The reporters drew back, stunned by the promise of violence in Morgan's voice. Morgan strode past them, ready to draw his sword and draw the blood of anybody foolish enough to get too close to him. It would be worth having to pay thrice the cost of their medical bills in restitution to make some of these bastards bleed for having forgotten that their right to question does not outweigh a woman's right to her privacy, Morgan thought as he strode towards Naomi. "Are you all right?" He asked.

"I'm fine," Naomi said, "What about you?" She lowered her eyes and dabbed at them with a handkerchief. "I suppose you got the news."

"I did," Morgan said as he drew Naomi into his arms. He paid no attention to the cameras flashing around him; giving Naomi what comfort he could came first. "Do you want me to come and stay with you, so that you will not be alone?" He asked, whispering in her ear.

Naomi nodded, shivering against him. "Yes please. I could use the company." She let Morgan help her into the car that had brought him here, as it drove away she sent him a warning via secure talk: "The police are wrong, but they suspect you. Be careful."

Morgan smiled as he sent his thanks along the airwaves. He had expected that the police would suspect him, despite his having had an ocean between him and Christabel for the past month. After all, they had been lovers for years, their relationship had grown strained over the last few months, and she had rejected him when he proposed marriage. He had access to her apartment, and he had killed before. Morgan knew that he had the means, the opportunity, and the motive.

He also knew that he had not killed Christabel Crowley. He armored himself in his knowledge as he approached the entrance to Scotland Yard. "No questions," he warned the reporters, "I insist on my privacy."

One reporter, a blonde wearing a denim jacket and a blue wool scarf, did not get the word. She stepped into Morgan's path. "Adversary Stormrider, may I have your opinion on the murder of Christabel Crowley?"

Morgan rewarded the reporter's insistence with a murderous stare. "You may not."

The reporter whitened, withering beneath Morgan's glare, and hastily stepped aside. Morgan smiled, having overheard one reporter ask another, "What was the bloody Phoenix Society thinking when they made him an Adversary?"

Morgan found Inspector Windsor waiting for him in the lobby. "Good to see you, Adversary Stormrider," he said, laying a friendly hand on Morgan's shoulder.

Morgan brushed Windsor's hand from his shoulder, as if it were a fly he allowed to live only because it had not yet had the temerity to bite him. "Never touch me again, Inspector," he warned.

Inspector Windsor planted himself in front of Morgan and met his gaze calmly. "Let's get something straight. I know you're upset about Christabel. I know you know that you're a suspect because doctrine demands that we consider everybody close to the victim, and I know you resent it. But don't fucking take it out on me."

Morgan nodded and offered his right hand, "Please pardon my outburst. For personal reasons, I tend to react poorly when a stranger takes liberties with me."

Windsor shook Morgan's hand with a solid grip. "All right. But before I lead you inside, I have to ask you to leave your weapons with security. It's department policy."

"I understand," Morgan said as he strode over to the security booth. He removed the magazine from his pistol and laid them on the conveyor belt before unbuckling his sword-belt and laying his sword down.

"Is that all?" The sergeant asked as the X-ray scan showed something in Morgan's coat pocket. "I hear that you usually carry more."

Morgan slipped his right hand into his coat pocket and withdrew a set of alloy knuckles. "I keep forgetting about these," he said as he put the knuckles next to his pistol.

"Is he safe," Windsor asked the sergeant.

"No, but he's unarmed."

Morgan smiled at the distinction. "Come on," he said to Windsor, "Let me answer your questions, so that you can rule me out as a suspect."

He followed Windsor upstairs to his office, and slipped into the chair the Inspector indicated. "You can smoke if you like," Windsor said as he opened a window.

The door behind Morgan opened to admit another inspector who took the empty chair next to Morgan's, dragged it over by the wall, and turned it around so that he could sit astride it. "Has he been charged yet?"

"Of course not, Thistlewood. Stormrider's been perfectly cooperative so far."

Inspector Thistlewood shot a dirty look Morgan's way. "I have reports from half a dozen citizens who claim that this man pulled a sword on them."

"He kill anybody?" Windsor asked.

"No, he just threatened a bunch of people."

"Then stop wasting my time," Windsor spat. He turned to Morgan. "Begin recording. This is Inspector Gregory Windsor, London Metropolitan Police. Case number HOM-32768, murder of London citizen Christabel Crowley. Subject of questioning is Morgan Stormrider, Adversary and citizen of New York, London, and other cities. Refer to his file for details."

"I am also recording this via Witness Protocol," Morgan said, "Does anybody object?"

"No," Windsor said, "Now, Adversary, before we continue, I need to ensure for the record that you understand your rights. Do you understand that you have the right to remain silent, and that anything you say can be used against you in a court of law?"

"I do. I also understand that I am entitled to legal counsel, and that the city will provide me with counsel should I be unable to afford counsel of my own."

"Do you want legal representation?" Thistlewood asked, "Or are you going to take your chances?"

Morgan smiled. "Ask your questions. I know that you consider me a suspect, and I also know the facts you currently have will not allow you to consider me a suspect for long."

Thistlewood fumed. "You cocky little —"

"Oh, be quiet, Alan," Morgan said. "I met Naomi on her way out, and convinced those reporters to leave her alone. If Naomi had given you reason to do so, Windsor would have arrested me already. He has not done so. I do not think he will. Now, do you want me to help you, or do you want to piss me off?"

Chapter 9

"I know he was involved," Inspector Alan Thistlewood insisted. "And here you are, ready to let him go."

Inspector Windsor sipped his coffee and looked towards his office, where Morgan waited for them. "He thinks you're a blithering idiot, you know."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

Windsor smiled. "I'm starting to consider the possibility that he's right." He laid aside his empty cup and took a bite out of his sandwich. "Look at the facts. We've had the man here for six hours. We've asked him the same questions four times, wording them four different ways. We've had our AI, Mycroft, question him. He hasn't contradicted himself. Nor has he contradicted Naomi Bradleigh's statements."

"That doesn't mean anything. They could have agreed on a story beforehand. Maybe they both had a hand in it."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Alan."

"No," Thistlewood held up a hand, "Think about it. Stormrider's admitted that there were problems in his relationship with Crowley. He proposed, and she turned him down. Suppose he turned to Bradleigh for comfort, and they both realized that if Stormrider just dumped Crowley in favor of Bradleigh, the resulting drama would ruin their band."

Windsor rolled his eyes. "So Stormrider killed Crowley instead, leaving the band without its violinist and namesake. What have you been smoking?"

Thistlewood shrugged. "The violinist could be replaced, and the band renamed. The press would be sympathetic towards them, or would have been if Morgan hadn't pulled a sword on a bunch of reporters this afternoon, instead of dragging them through the mud like they usually do when a love triangle is involved."

Windsor bit back the response he wanted to make. He admitted to himself that Thistlewood's scenario was plausible when considered out of context of the manner in which Crowley was killed. "Tell me something. We know that Stormrider is good with a blade, and that he is reasonably capable with a pistol. If he wanted to kill Crowley, why would he do it by inflicting third-degree burns on every inch of skin below the neck and then gutting her with a knife hot enough to cauterize the flesh it tore through?" Windsor shuddered as he remembered the photographs. Crowley had been made to suffer, and whoever killed her had enjoyed doing it. "I think that if Stormrider was going to kill Crowley, he would have made a quicker, cleaner kill."

"I think he did it that way because he knew you would expect him to just cut her throat and be done with it."

"The method used would have taken at least half an hour. Every second would have increased the probability that Stormrider would be discovered. Don't you think he'd know that?"

"He wanted her dead badly enough to take the risk," Thistlewood insisted.

"And nobody heard a fucking thing," Windsor spat. "Not Bradleigh, which your scenario explains, and not any of the neighbors either. What, did Stormrider pay them off? Even if he used cash, the withdrawals would be on record."

"What makes you think he bought their silence?" Thistlewood countered, "I don't think he'd hesitate to kill off any potential witnesses."

"Considering what was done to Christabel," Morgan said, "Killing everybody in that building would not have been sufficient. Anybody within a kilometer of Christabel should have heard her scream."

Thistlewood whirled to face Morgan. "This is private! Return to Inspector Windsor's office immediately!"

Morgan bared his teeth in a homicidal grin and approached Thistlewood, forcing the Inspector to retreat several steps. "Attempt to give me orders again, Alan Thistlewood, and the ravens outside will fight over your tongue."

Windsor wedged himself between the two men and looked up at Morgan. "Let's go back to my office, just you and I."

Morgan nodded and turned to leave. Windsor locked the door to his office behind him. Slumping into his chair, he asked, "Mind telling me why Thistlewood has a grudge against you?"

Morgan raised his eyebrows, "He never told you that he was an Adversary-candidate?"

"No. I guess he didn't make the cut?"

"I caught him helping other candidates cheat on several written examinations, as well as coaching them on how to respond to certain psychological evaluations such as the Milgram Battery."

"The Milgram Battery?"

Morgan nodded. "I suppose that I can explain the general principles. The Milgram Battery is named for Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who performed research concerning obedience to authority in the 1960s. The Battery is a set of tests designed to test an Adversary-candidate's ability to stick to the principles he is supposed to uphold as an Adversary in the face of an authority's demand that he put aside these principles and obey orders that contradict an Adversary's oath to defend liberty."

"I guess you passed, then?" Windsor asked.

"I failed, actually," Morgan said with an ironic smile. "There are two ways to fail the Milgram Battery. One is to be too obedient. The other is to be utterly defiant and refuse to acknowledge authority, such as by insisting that the trial situations are not real, but simulations. Adversary-candidates whose M index is too low, or above a certain value, are considered poor candidates."

Windsor lit a cigarette and offered one to Morgan. "If you'll forgive my asking, what's your M index? I don't think you'd be the obedient sort."

"I was classified as M-zero, which is the lowest rating. The acceptable range is between three and seven."

"But wouldn't a rating of zero mean that you'd be absolutely loyal to the principles you're supposed to uphold?" Windsor asked. Morgan saw the confusion in Windsor's face and found himself regretting that he had mentioned the Milgram Battery by name.

"Being M-zero, the examiners were concerned that I might place principles above discipline and take a vigilante approach to upholding liberty," Morgan explained, "Because Adversaries are given the authority to overthrow governments, should the need arise, their discipline has to be impeccable lest they abuse their authority."

Windsor laughed, "And your discipline is impeccable?"

"I let Thistlewood live, despite the evidence against him, and despite the fact that he had shot me. Rather than killing him, I subdued him. The scar I mentioned is the reason he is left-handed; I had cut off his right hand, and the physicians were not able to reconnect all of the nerves. His right hand shakes, leaving it useless when writing or aiming a pistol."

Windsor thought about what Morgan had told him as he lit another cigarette. If Stormrider did indeed take a bullet and keep his cool long enough to subdue Thistlewood, instead of killing the bastard, then it is not discipline he lacks but a willingness to obey authorities who give foolish orders. "You heard Thistlewood and me talking down the other end of the hall?" Windsor asked.

"I did," Morgan admitted. "I had hoped that you could convince Thistlewood to see reason."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Windsor said in as dry a tone as he could manage. He stood and offered Morgan his hand. "I appreciate you coming down to answer our questions. I am going to request that Thistlewood be removed from this case, since his grudge against you won't allow him to consider the evidence dispassionately."

"Am I still a suspect?" Morgan asked as he stood and took Windsor's hand. He suspected as much, but he wanted to hear it.

"No," Windsor admitted. "To be frank, I'd prefer to let you investigate this case. Nothing about it makes sense. No witnesses, no murder weapon, no sign of an intruder or of a struggle."

"I would prefer to take the burden from your shoulders, Inspector," Morgan said, "However, I have no authority in London." He turned to leave, "I will instruct Astarte to let you reach me if you need me. At the moment, she has been ensuring my privacy by preventing others from contacting me."

Windsor escorted Morgan out, watching as Morgan reclaimed his weapons and ensured that nothing of his had been tampered with. "About those AIs," Windsor asked, "I don't have one, and I was wondering if I should get one installed."

"I would recommend it," Morgan said, "If you have the right temperament. An AI might be a bit socially awkward when first installed, but it is neither ignorant nor stupid. They tend to have a certain amount of pride in their abilities, and expect to be treated with respect. Make a friend of your AI and you will be fine."

"Sounds like my wife's cat," Windsor grumbled. "And I still haven't made a friend of the little bugger."

Morgan chuckled, "Stop thinking of him as a little bugger and he might warm up to you."

Chapter 10

Isaac Magnin leaned back in his chair as he watched Karen Del Rio rearrange her clothes. Now that she had gotten what she wanted from him, the daydream that made her skin burn from the caress of unseen fingers, he could turn Del Rio's attention back towards business. But first, Karen had to compose herself.

"The things I do for vengeance," Magnin said to himself behind the privacy of his bored face and the tinted glasses that hid eyes whose color his long-dead wife had compared to a clear winter sky. Only a trace of his impatience with Karen's insistence upon indulging in the drug showed as he slowly tapped the fingers of his left hand against the chair's padded leather arm.

"How many sets of white gloves do you have, anyway, Dr. Magnin?" Karen asked when the last of the drug had worn off.

"Enough to spare me the necessity of appearing bare-handed in public," Magnin said, while silently regretting that he lacked the means to strand his brother on a rock somewhere in this star system's Oort Cloud without killing him. The last thing he wanted to do was explain his 'congenital deformities' to this human.

He indicated the packets that had spilled from the box he placed on Del Rio's desk half an hour ago. "Keep those hidden," he said, "While there is no law against the possession or use of that substance, if you were caught indulging while at work, you would be of no further use to me."

Karen stuffed the packets back into the box and slipped the box into her purse. "If anybody goes poking through my bag, they'll just think that it's a box of condoms unless they actually open a packet."

She crossed her legs, smoothing her skirt as Magnin idly wondered if she enjoyed being a living warning against anorexia nervosa. Trousers would have softened the skin-and-bone impact of her legs, but Magnin had yet to see her wear anything but a miniskirt. "Did you come here just to bring me my treat?" she asked.

"No," Magnin said, letting his eyes slip half-way closed. "I wanted to ask you how you proposed to handle the Liebenthal case."

"You wanted to know if Morgan Stormrider is involved."

Magnin held his silence and waited.

"He's involved," Karen fumed. "That damned Rosenbaum insisted, and convinced Deschat to let Stormrider serve as support for Catherine Gatto."

"Has Stormrider accepted the assignment?"

Karen began pacing behind her desk, her bony fists clenching and loosening at her sides. "He has not been asked. His little bitch of an AI blocks our attempts to reach him, and demands that we give Stormrider time to grieve for his little girlfriend."

She froze, locking hazel eyes on Magnin's. "And why is it that you ask me about Stormrider every time you come here?"

"He interests me, and I would understand him," Magnin said. "He has a Milgram Index of zero because of his utter contempt for authority, which under normal circumstances would make him utterly unsuitable for use as an Adversary. Yet you, Deschat, and Rosenbaum manage to keep him under control. I have wondered about that often."

"Under control?" Karen sputtered. "Let me show you just how under control Stormrider is."

She brought up a security video recorded that morning in Grand Central Terminal and began playback. Magnin watched as Morgan's hand flicked out to catch hold of a stolen purse as its thief ran past him.

"I'd hate to have given Adversary's pins to the sort of person that would ignore a purse snatcher that plied his trade in an Adversary's presence," Magnin said in a dry, bored tone as he watched Morgan order the thief to drop his knife and run.

"Watch what he does," Karen growled. "Stormrider doesn't just disarm and subdue the snatcher. He tortured him, in front of witnesses."

Magnin watched Morgan crush the thief's wrist, driving the youth to his knees. "I am surprised that Stormrider settled for crippling this idiot. I am not surprised that you would complain about his restraint."

"You call that restraint? Shall I show you video of him drawing a sword against reporters gathered outside Scotland Yard and threatening them?"

"Given the circumstances, yes." Magnin said, leaning forward. "Keep in mind that he had learned today that his lover is dead. He is probably keeping himself on as tight a leash as he can, because he knows that the London authorities consider him a suspect."

Karen's eyes glistened as she leaned forward. Magnin closed his eyes, knowing that his glasses would hide the fact that he had done so, to avoid having to turn his head to avoid looking down Del Rio's camisole. He was in no mood to count her ribs. "The police have cause to suspect Morgan of Christabel Crowley's murder?"

"No," Magnin said, "Only cause to offer Stormrider a few meters of rope and see if he'll hang himself."

Karen straightened, turning her back on Magnin. She stared at the city below for a while, before saying, "He probably didn't do it. His pride would forbid it."

"His pride?" Magnin asked, allowing a hint of interest into his voice.

"He's an arrogant shit, proud of how he holds to his ideals," Karen spat. "He knows damned well that I think he is nothing but a killer, that his principles are just a cover to justify himself. I know exactly why Stormrider wanted to become an Adversary. He even admitted it when applying to Adversary Candidate School."

"Did he?" Magnin asked, still letting only a hint of his interest show. Karen was doing exactly what he wanted her to do, but it would not do to let her figure that out. She might stop using 'World Without End' in his presence, and deprive him of the opportunity to pick her brain while under the influence of the drug. Of course, Magnin admitted to himself, he would not miss having to watch Karen Del Rio squirm in her seat, lost in the multiorgasmic initial rush of the drug.

"Morgan Stormrider likes to kill people. He wanted to be an Adversary so that he could use the Phoenix Society to get his fix. His talk of wanting to secure liberty and justice for himself by securing it for others is just a cover, a sociopath's pretty lie."

Magnin looked at the skeletal sociopath sitting across the desk from him and smiled, amused by the extent of Del Rio's hypocrisy, and of her ignorance. "Stormrider's had ample opportunity to abuse his authority in order to, as you put it, get his fix."

"Oh, he's not stupid," Karen groused. "And he has his pride, too. He knows that I think he's nothing but a killer, and he holds back in order to prove me wrong. To spite me."

"Is it spite," Magnin asked himself, "or just another facet of Stormrider's contempt for authority." Magnin suspected that he would need to know more if he meant to use Morgan Stormrider. He knew that Stormrider considered himself human, and judged himself by human standards. As such, Magnin would have to handle Stormrider as carefully as Saul Rosenbaum handled him, assuming that this Asura Emulator was even suitable for use.

"Did you hear me?" Karen asked, forcing Magnin to turn his focus outward again.

"Pardon me," Magnin said, "I was thinking about what you had said about Stormrider restraining himself in order to spite you."

"I said that Stormrider knows that I see through his lies. He has petitioned four times in the past year for permission to resign his post as an Adversary. Rosenbaum and Deschat have overruled me and denied each petition."

"Oh? Perhaps Stormrider has simply burned out," Magnin said as he stood. "Most Adversaries burn out after two years, having worked a case every six months. The responsibility that comes with their authority proves too great a burden to bear."

"You're leaving?" Karen asked as Magnin straightened his white jacket and slipped into the lightweight white wool overcoat that he had draped over the back of the chair.

"I have business elsewhere that requires my attention," Magnin said, "I did want to mention that I am displeased by your insistence on using Catherine Gatto against Liebenthal. She is not suited for this mission."

"But we need to have Liebenthal alive in order to stand trial," Karen insisted, "lest the media suggest that the Phoenix Society is merely acting to silence a critic."

"The media will say what it must in order to turn a profit and ensure its continued existence," Magnin said, "The media is irrelevant. The Phoenix Society finds Stormrider useful, despite his zero M index, because of his efficacy in eradicating petty tyrants such as Liebenthal."

"But the public will question our legitimacy if —"

"The public will question the Phoenix Society's legitimacy if we let Boston fester any longer than necessary. Your insistence on a live capture and trial will delay the healing of Boston's body politic," Magnin snapped.

"I understand, sir," Karen said, hanging her head.

"Do not make such a mistake again," Magnin said before closing the door to her office behind him.

Chapter 11

"Eh? What?" Josefine Malmgren asked as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She squinted at her desktop, looking for her glasses, and found them sitting on top of her terminal's keyboard.

"I asked if you were going to spend the night here, Dr. Malmgren," the guard cat said as he climbed into Josefine's lap.

Josefine lifted the cat from her lap and placed it on the desktop. "What would people think if I had cat hair all over my skirt?"

"You know damned well that I don't shed," the cat said with an indignant meow. Josefine scratched the cat behind his ears, knowing that he was right. A few years ago, the Asgard Technological Development Company had experimented in creating artificial cats with human intelligence and speech capabilities for households.

The order for the AsgarTech Company's research and development department to create these 'kitty emulators' – as the R&D department called them in private – had come from its owner, Isaac Magnin. The head of the AsgarTech Company's marketing department had pitched a fit, claiming that the market for robotic pets was too small to be worth the AsgarTech Company's attention. Josefine smiled as she remembered Magnin's response, "I am your market, and if what I want is unworthy of your attention, then you are welcome to submit your resignation."

Dr. Malmgren had been hired to write the operating system for the artifical cats, and had consulted with several cat breeders, veterinarians, and specialists in feline behavior while other scientists in the R&D lab sequenced the feline genome in order to create, using nanotechnology, an artificial cat that everybody would mistake for the real thing until it rolled over and said, "Rub my belly."

"Are you just going to sit there and stare at the screen," the cat asked as he rolled onto his back and stretched, "Or are you going to make yourself useful?"

Josefine smiled and arched an eyebrow, "You're awfully demanding for a prototype, Zero."

Zero yawned and said, in a sing-song tone, "Belly-rub! Belly-rub! Give a cat a belly-rub!"

Josefine hesitated with her hand over the cat, suspecting a trap. Zero had lured workers into rubbing its belly in the past, only to nip their hands.

"Come on," Zero wheedled, "Admit it. You're tempted."

"Oh, all right," Josefine grumbled as she ran her fingers through the soft gray fur that lined Zero's belly. Zero began to purr in response. After several minutes of petting, he wriggled out from under Josefine's hand, leapt to the floor, and trotted out of the office.

The dead mouse he held in his mouth when he returned did not stop him from announcing to Josefine, "I brought you a snack!"

There goes my appetite, Josefine thought as she looked away from the 'snack' that Zero had laid at her feet. "Thanks, but I think I'll let you eat it."

Zero looked up at Josefine after nuzzling the dead mouse. "Are you sure? You haven't eaten all day."

"I never developed a taste for mice," Josefine admitted, "but you're a good kitty for killing it."

Zero gave a quick purr and lifted the mouse in its jaws again. "I'll eat it, then, since you don't like mice," the cat said as it trotted out the door.

Josefine sat back in her chair and sighed. Magnin had ended up making a fair amount of money selling the kitty emulators to exterminators, who turned them loose in subway systems and sewers to massacre rats and mice in such vast numbers that the cats themselves declared a cease-fire in order to ensure that this wild hunt would not be their last.

Other cats, sold under the "EmCat" Brand, were put to therapeutic use in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices where they comforted patients. Others still, like the one that had woken Josefine, found work as night watchmen. They prowled office buildings and factories and reported incidents of theft, sabotage, espionage to management. All they asked for in exchange was the worship of humans and offerings of meat, catnip, and belly-rubs.

The skeptical head of marketing had changed his tune after the EmCat's first year in production, the AsgarTech Company recouped its research & development costs, and Josefine's work on the EmCat operating system had brought her to Isaac Magnin's personal attention.

Magnin placed Josefine in charge of her own R&D team and instructed her to use what she had learned in the development of the EmCat to aid in the successful development of the 'Asura', a biomechanical artifical intelligence that emulated humanity at its best.

"Humanity has always been alone," Isaac Magnin had told her, "Until Dr. Sakhalin and his team created the Sephiroth, there were no non-human intelligences with which humanity could communicate. But the AIs we've created are limited."

"I've never heard an AI complain about limitations," Josefine objected, "Some say they dream of having human bodies and walking side by side with species that created them, but for the most part, AIs seem content. The EmCats are quite content to be cats."

"Many probably are content as they are," Magnin admitted, "But I think that those AIs who want to walk among humanity should be able to do so."

Josefine looked at the white EmCat that sat atop one of Magnin's bookshelves, watching her with unblinking eyes that reminded her of a clear winter sky back home in Stockholm. "Do you think that traditional AIs are jealous of the EmCat's mobility?"

Magnin smiled. "I suspect that to many traditional AIs, we humans are a race of Geppettos."

"So, you want me to develop a biomechanical body that will allow a traditional AI to transfer itself into the body?"

"Exactly," Magnin said, "However, the Asura must also be able to learn and grow on its own from a basic personality template."

"What is the deadline?" Josefine asked.

"There is no deadline, just as there was no deadline for the EmCat experiment."

"But you started promoting the EmCat as soon as we had a working prototype."

"Why waste the opportunity for ancillary benefit?" Magnin asked. "The EmCat was an experiment in miniaturizing the processing hardware, temporary memory, and long-term memory necessary to support human-level AI. As such, it was a success. The fact that the AsgarTech Company recovered its R&D costs and turned a profit on the EmCat is a bonus."

"And will you try to profit from the Asuras?" Josefine asked.

"No," Magnin said, "The Asura, an anthromorphic artifical intelligence, is a long-held dream of mine. Everything else I have done as a businessman I did so that I could have the resources to make this dream of mine real."

"I think I understand," Josefine said, blushing at the thought of Magnin opening up to her. "Would you think it odd if I suggested that everybody on the Asura R&D team be given copies of Shelley's Frankenstein and Asimov's I, Robot?"

Magnin took a small package wrapped in tissue paper from his desk and offered it to Josefine with a smile. "Here are your copies."

The books Magnin had given Josefine still sat by her screen, even though she had read them hundreds of times in the five years she had worked on the Asura project. Had she been more like her friend Claire, she would have bought new copies as soon as they began to fall apart. Instead, she had rebound them with duct tape rather than throw away gifts from a man who appreciated her talents.

Josefine queried the virtual machine that ran a test build of the Asura operating system and requested a full status report before rising to her feet. She pulled her black wool cardigan tightly around herself. She chilled easily; weeks of sleepless nights fueled by black coffee, small, hurried meals, and nutritional supplements had left her gaunt. She knew what her physician would suspect anorexia instead of overwork driven by a need to bring the project to its conclusion now that the end was finally within Josefine's sight, as she had no intention of mentioning the Asura project to anybody outside her department.

"Claire would have kittens if she knew," Josefine thought as she poured a mug of coffee for herself and stirred in a spoonful of sugar. She gently nudged Zero out of her chair and sat down, sipping her coffee as she read the results of the latest test of the Asura OS. According to the report, the virtual Asura's responses to all test stimuli fell within acceptable parameters. While she slept, the virtual machine running the Asura OS had lived a human lifetime; the human male personality template installed into the OS had experienced a hundred simulated years of artificial life.

Josefine tossed the printed report into the recycling bin; if anybody else cared to read it, they could pull up a copy from the AsgarTech AIs' solid-state storage array. She knew that nobody would bother to do so. Even Isaac Magnin knew that running the Asura OS in a simulated environment would only yield a fraction of the data that real-world testing would generate. However, Magnin insisted that it was not yet time to install the Asura OS into the prototype body.

Josefine strode past the empty workstations that filled the Asura R&D lab and stopped in front of incubator that held the prototype Asura's body. The incubator had always reminded Josefine of a coffin; it was long enough and wide enough to accomodate a human body of average height and build. A titanium canopy prevented Josefine from viewing the body within the incubator, and she had often stood by the incubator wondering why the incubator's lid had been stamped with a symbol warning against radiation, a biohazard symbol, and a pentagram. The prototype's identification number, 'AES-200//0', also puzzled her, as well as the codename 'Polaris'.

Josefine had not worried about the radiation and biohazard warnings; they were, after all, creating an artificial life form that did not depend on external power sources. Nor did the 'AES-200//0' designation bother her much. She had decided that this might be Magnin's second attempt at creating an Asura, even though Magnin had showed her no documentation concerning any AES-100 units that might have been built prior to her employment at the AsgarTech Company.

It was the pentagram that bothered her. This was the twenty-second century; magic had no place in a research and development laboratory focused on the effort to create an artificial intelligence that could walk alongside humankind. She had asked Isaac Magnin about the pentagram once. Magnin had laughed and said, "You and I know that the Asura is just advanced technology. A lot of people, however, still mistake technology beyond their understanding for magic. Call it a joke, if you like."

Josefine knew that Magnin's explanation made sense, but the knowledge did not stop her from shivering a little every time she saw the pentagram on the incubator next to the warnings against radioactive and biohazardous materials. If she dared discuss her work with Claire, she might have admitted that the Asura incubator gave her the creeps.

Josefine turned away from the incubator. "Get a hold of yourself," she muttered to herself, "You're a scientist, not some demon-ridden medieval peasant. You led the development of the OS for this machine; you know how it will work."

Looking over her shoulder at the incubator allowed the shadow of a doubt to creep over Josefine. She had only run the Asura OS on a virtual machine that existed in a simulated environment. That simulated environment's programming was based on the assumptions of the scientists that had implemented it. How was Josefine to know if the programmers' assumptions were correct?

"To hell with it," Josefine said aloud as she sat down at her workstation and obtained privileged access, "I'm going to get some real-world data." She overrode the safety mechanisms that she and Isaac Magnin had put in place and began installing the Asura OS on the Asura body that slept within the incubator.

The installation ran as flawlessly as it had in Josefine's hundreds of virtual machine tests. The operating system accepted the personality template, which was based on observing ten thousand thirteen-year-old boys. Such a personality would mature swiftly, given the Asura's processing capabilities, but the year an Asura would need to reach an adult mentality would give the Asura time to learn human social and ethical norms, learn to integrate and apply the store of pre-installed knowledge available to it, and obtain education sufficient to allow the Asura to function at an adult human's level.

Josefine watched the bootstrap diagnostics scroll down her screen as she reached into her bottom drawer to retrieve her taser. Satisfied that its battery was fully charged, she slipped it into her cardigan's pocket; she would use it to disable Polaris if he turned violent.

The incubator's lid unlatched as Josefine approached it, and a slim white arm pushed the door open. The Asura sat upright, and Josefine could see that his entire body was white. His skin glittered beneath the bioluminescent rods set into the ceiling, reminding Josefine of freshly fallen, powdery snow. His hair also shimmered, and was the same azure that Claire had outgrown in her first year as Josefine's roommate at the Swiss Polytechnic University.

Nobody will mistake Polaris for a human being, Josefine realized as he climbed out of the incubator and walked around it to face Josefine. Josefine allowed her eyes to examine Polaris' lean body before forcing herself to focus on the Asura's face. She suspected that Claire would appreciate the Asura hardware design team's attention to detail even more than she herself did.

Stop it, Josefine thought, Isaac Magnin did not go to the expense he did in order to provide you with the world's most advanced sex toy. She shook her head, hearing Claire's voice in the back of her mind say, "Magnin wanted to emulate humanity, right? Let's see just how accurate the emulation is. Just imagine: you could get a Nobel Prize for being the first android's first kiss."

Josefine opened her eyes and looked at the window. Artificial sunlight generated by the dome that shielded the city of Asgard from the antarctic chill streamed through the glass, giving her something to say to Polaris. She looked at Dr. Heinrich Hassler's workstation and saw that the nanoengineer had left his white lab coat draped over his chair. It would be too large for Polaris, Josefine knew, but it was better by far than a fig leaf – not that she had any handy.

Josefine held the coat out and slowly approached the Asura. "Good morning, Polaris," she said. "I'm Dr. Malmgren. Would you mind putting this on? It'll keep you warm."

"Good morning, Dr. Malmgren," Polaris replied, "I am not cold, but if it will make you comfortable, I will cover myself."

Polaris took the coat from Josefine's outstretched, trembling hand as she resisted the urge to cry out, "It's alive. It's alive!" Pain flared from her calf, and she looked over her shoulder to find Zero withdrawing his paw. The cat fled as Josefine decided that it was not worth her time to complain. She knew that Zero liked to take a playful swipe at people from time to time, just to let them know that he thought he was the boss.

Josefine forced herself back into something resembling professional composure as Polaris shrugged into the coat and pulled it around himself. Despite the nap and the coffee, she felt exhaustion creeping up on her now that Polaris finally walked and talked. She shivered and pulled her cardigan around her. I should have waited for the others, she thought, I'm in no shape to do this myself.

"Do you have any questions?" Josefine asked.

"Yes, Dr. Malmgren," Polaris said, "Am I the first of my kind? Will there be others?"

"The virtual machine never realized that it was not human," Josefine thought as exhaustion and panic conspired to overwhelm her reason, "Polaris knows that he is not human. He knows that he is something else, that he is not an ordinary AI. What can I tell him? How much will he understand? Was I wrong to activate him? This never happened in the simulations. Uptime hasn't exceeded fifteen minutes and unforeseen consequences are already cropping up."

She felt herself fall, felt strong, inhuman arms catch her and gently lower her to the floor. "I'm sorry, Dr. Magnin," she thought as she slid into unconsciousness.

Chapter 12

Polaris knelt beside Dr. Malmgren with his fingertips gently pressed against the artery in her throat. He could tell from her steady pulse and slow, steady breathing that she was in no immediate danger.

He searched the information store with which he had been activated, but found nothing specific for dealing with fainting scientists. He checked the ambient temperature and found it to be cool by human standards; it was only 60°F. Given his lack of medical information, it seemed to Polaris that the most reasonable course of action would be to cover Dr. Malmgren, keep her warm, and seek medical attention.

He shrugged out of the lab coat that Dr. Malmgren had asked him to wear; the cool air would not bother him, and he did not have a blanket handy.

"I can see why Dr. Malmgren fainted," the cat said as it ambled into the office. "I'll bet a thousand kilos of hydroponically grown catnip that the only time she's ever seen one that big is when she catches me licking my nuts."

Polaris crouched and scratched behind the cat's ears. "You're not a real cat, nor are you an Asura. What are you?"

"Not a cat?" the cat sputtered. "Get your hands off me, you damned dirty ape!"

"No, you're not a cat," Polaris insisted. "You are not an animal of the species felis catus. Members of that species are incapable of human speech."

"Your regurgitation of parroted facts doesn't impress me much," the cat said as he flopped onto his back at Polaris' feet. "Make yourself useful, and rub my belly."

Polaris stepped over the cat and tried the door. Finding it locked, he retreated a few steps and threw himself at the door, slamming his shoulder into the lock.

"Applying Ken Thompson's maxim, eh?" the cat said as he rolled onto his feet and stretched. "When in doubt, use brute force."

"We're trapped in here," Polaris said.

"You are," the cat said as a cat-sized aperture spread itself open. He stepped through the hole, turned about, and stuck his head back into the room. "Kitties like me can go where we please. You should have rubbed my belly. If you had been a good little Asura, I would have ignored my instructions from Dr. Magnin and let you out of here."

Polaris glared at the cat. "Dr. Malmgren needs help."

"She'll get it. Dr. Magnin is coming even as we speak."

"Why would Isaac Magnin be coming here?" Polaris asked as he backed away from the door.

The cat slipped back into the room as the main door slid open to admit a tall, slim man dressed in a white double-breasted suit. The silk cravat knotted neatly at his throat matched the man's icy blue eyes, and his long-fingered hands lay sheathed beneath white silk gloves.

"I came here," the man in white asked. "to witness the activation of the Two-Hundred Series Asura Emulator prototype."

"You're Isaac Magnin?" Polaris whispered.

"I am," Magnin acknowledged.

Polaris pointed at Josefine, "She needs medical attention."

Magnin smiled, "She will be fine. She is merely sleeping. If you were to undress her and examine her body carefully, and I advise against doing so because it is unforgivably rude to take advantage of a vulnerable woman, you might find on her calf a little pinprick from a cat's claw."

"Ordinary housecats cannot do that," Polaris protested.

"Ordinary housecats cannot demand belly rubs or quote old movies," Magnin pointed out as he scooped up the cat, held it against his chest, and scratched behind its ears. "You and Zero have something in common. You are both the first experimental prototypes of your respective kinds."

"And you had Zero poison Dr. Malmgren?" Polaris asked as he tensed his muscles for a leap at Magnin.

"I had not meant for any of my staff to activate you. Zero had instructions to temporarily incapacitate Dr. Malmgren should she attempt to activate you before your time."

"Does that mean that you will deactivate me?" Polaris said as he threw himself at Magnin, his hands reaching for the man's throat. He found himself trapped in mid-jump as the air around him thickened into gel.

"No," Magnin said. He snapped his fingers, and Polaris found himself flying backwards. As he thudded to the floor, he looked up and saw Magnin standing over him, still cradling the unruffled cat. "However, I would suggest that you learn subtlety before raising your hand against your creator in the future. Your logic dictated that I might decide to shut you down, since you were activated before your time. Your inbuilt desire to live drove you to attack in order to preserve yourself. This is understandable, and predictable."

"You knew what I would do," Polaris said, "and why."

Magnin smiled as he lowered the cat to the floor and brushed off his jacket. "I am familiar with your core personality programming. You will act to preserve yourself in the manner dictated by experience, logic and probability."

"Why did you make me?" Polaris asked. "Will there be others of my kind?"

Magnin smiled, and Polaris saw a glint of cruel amusement in his eyes, "You are newly made, and lack the context necessary to comprehend my reasons. As you learn, you may come to understand the purpose of your existence on your own."

"And what do you hope to learn from me?" Polaris asked, understanding that he was nothing more than an experiment.

"Telling you would distort the results." Magnin turned his back in Polaris. "Follow me, please."

"How did you stop me in mid-air, and then throw me across the room?"

"Call it magic," Magnin said without turning to look at Polaris, "Or sufficiently advanced technology. Either will do for now, until you get some context."

Chapter 13

"God grant me patience," Adam Mellech muttered as he leaned against the back of the elevator and glared at the floor display. When he learned of the events in Boston, those words had been a prayer. As he tried in vain to obtain Isaac Magnin's attention and arrange a meeting, the prayer had gone unanswered and become a demand.

Now, as Adam Mellech waited to be lifted up to the top of Isaac Magnin's skyscraper in the heart of Asgard, he had stopped speaking to God; the demand had become little more than a means for Melech to blow off a bit of steam.

"If you must pray," Isaac Magnin said as the elevator stopped and opened its doors, "Have the decency to do it in the men's room."

"You turn a blind eye to employees having sex in your elevator," Melech spat, "and complain when I ask God to help me be patient with you?"

"So, which God are you praying to today?" Isaac Magnin asked as he led Adam Mellech to his office and poured two glasses of whiskey, "The one I helped create, or the one I have sworn to kill?"

"I thought I would pray to Eris today," Melech grumbled, "Since you seem hellbent on reducing our plans to chaos."

Isaac Magnin stood by what most ordinary people would mistake for windows, watching the snow billow about outside. Adam Mellech knew better; there was not a single window, or even a glass door, in the entire AsgarTech Building. Glass could be cut, or simply shattered, by an intruder. Instead, Magnin had used nano-scale cameras and ultra-thin liquid crystal display screens so that he could watch the world without having to allow the world to watch him.

"Plans can degenerate into chaos without my help, Reverend Mellech," Magnin said as he sipped his whiskey and watched the wind buffet the fine, powdery snow. "After all, we use people, and the ability to improvise is an asset when dealing with people."

"So, driving Alexander Liebenthal to stage a coup d'etat in Boston was just an improvisation?" Melech raged.

Magnin turned from the window and smiled at Melech, "Yes."

"You realize that Liebenthal will be deposed by an Adversary. He will be placed on trial, and the evidence against him will point to us."

"Considering the character of the Adversary who will be sent to deal with Liebenthal," Magnin said, "I doubt he will leave Boston alive."

"Are the Adversaries assassins, then, as critics of the Phoenix Society claim?"

Magnin turned from the window-screens and settled into his chair. He watched Melech from across the desk as his fingers flickered over the keyboard.

Melech's eyes widened in recognition as he looked over Magnin's shoulder at his terminal screen. "You intend to use him?"

"Yes. I expect that Liebenthal will do something stupid, such as attempting to kill Stormrider as he did those Adversaries the council had assigned to Boston. Morgan Stormrider will then kill Alexander Liebenthal."

"You think that killing this human will allow us to continue our operations without interruption or scrutiny?"

"No," Magnin said, "In fact, I intend to cease our little gun-running operation. Morgan Stormrider will simply be tying up a loose end for me."

"Does he know this?"

Magnin flicked through the Phoenix Society's files on Morgan Stormrider. "You mean, did I sit down with Stormrider and say to him, 'I would like you to kill Alexander Liebenthal for me'? No. You know that that isn't my style."

"So you engineered a situation that you suspected would lead Liebenthal to attempt a coup d'etat, which would probably lead the Phoenix Society to set Morgan Stormrider against Liebenthal and his men."

Magnin lifted his glass to his lips, realized that it was empty, and set it aside. "I admit that it was one of my more simplistic works of social engineering."

"No doubt you had more important matters on your mind."

Magnin closed the personnel file and shut down his terminal. Rising from his chair, he poured himself another glass of whiskey from the bottle sitting on the bar that occupied a corner of his office. "Think of it as a test. Do you know what exactly Morgan Stormrider is?"

"A pretentious guitarist who kills for pleasure while cloaking himself in noble ideals of liberty?"

Magnin laughed, "You dislike the man?"

"Were I not a man of God, I would offer him a choice of weapons. We've met. I had heard that he frequents temples to Athena when he wants to 'sit and think', and tried to share the Good News of Christ's love with him."

"And he observed, accurately I might add, that you are your own best customer," Magnin finished for Melech, "I agree with him, you know."

"You would," Mellech spat, "You manipulated Jesus for your own ends —"

"Just as I manipulated Mohammed, Moses, and Akhenaten, among others." Magnin said, waving a hand. "I didn't invent monotheism, but I see no reason why I should let a Scion of Urizen lie to people without using those lies against their source."

"The knowledge of God is not a lie. Higher powers exist than that demon chained beneath the ice."

Magnin laughed, "So, it is Urizen you serve."

"I serve God!" Melech insisted.

Magnin laughed, "You serve yourself, using the lies I told mankind as a security blanket. Again I ask, do you know what Morgan Stormrider is?"

"No. Why not tell me?"

"He is an Asura Emulator. One of the one-hundred series."

"Oh?" Mellech took the glass of whiskey that Magnin had poured for him earlier. "I thought that series existed to gather data for use in the development of the two-hundred series. Most of them went insane, didn't they?"

"Only a few actually displayed symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia. Most of them either became criminals of some sort, mercenaries, or settled into lives of anonymous mediocrity. Number five-hundred-and-sixteen still lives in his parents' basement, frequenting FARK and playing in competitive fantasy combat simulations when he isn't sweeping floors and cleaning toilets for a living."

"And then there's Stormrider," Melech sneered, "Who grew up to become an Adversary and a rock star. What's his number?"

"You're the Bible-thumper," Magnin observed, "Which number is mentioned in that Book of Revelation of yours?"

"Six hundred and sixty-six. The number of the beast," Melech said.

"The one for you and me," Magnin agreed, "I was going to stop at five-hundred-and-twelve, but I thought it would be more amusing to continue the one-hundred series until I had arrived at that number. You remember that the Hebrew word for 'adversary' is 'satan', do you not?"

"You set this up in order to mock my faith, Imaginos."

"Of course, my dear Adramelech," Magnin crooned. "We demons must while away the centuries somehow." His voice hardened and chilled the air. "And if you ever again address me by that name where humans might overhear, I will nail your carcass to the first comet to pass this planet and indulge in a wager with my brother as to how many times you will orbit this system's star before the comet and your avatar finally burn up."

Melech shrugged, "Are you going to threaten me, or would you care to explain to me why you are willing to bother with this obsolete Asura Emulator when you are working on a superior model?"

Magnin turned towards the window-screens. "I have my reasons. To begin with, while Stormrider has suppressed his Asura nature in order to fit into human society, he is still an effective killer. Given a good enough reason, he will take up the Starbreaker and unleash its full power. The new Emulator, Polaris, lacks certain qualities that Stormrider possesses, such as the sense of pride that requires him to risk his own death in order to retain his self-respect."

"So," Melech said as he sipped his whiskey, "The Liebenthal affair is a test. You intend to determine through observation if Stormrider's principles allow him to be manipulated."

"As was the gun-running operation. I wanted to see if you would rouse the believers against my enemy, or against me."

Melech backed away from Magnin. Though Magnin could not kill him, Melech did not want his avatar destroyed. Without it, he could not observe normal four-dimensional spacetime or act within it. And if his avatar were to be destroyed, Adam Mellech would have to expend a fair amount of time and fearful quantities of energy before he could materialize again in normal space. "I have promises to keep, just as you do."

"I am not going to shatter your avatar, Adam Mellech," Isaac Magnin said. "After all, a few hundred thousand religious fanatics with militia-grade firearms are hardly a threat to me, even with custom-made demon killer ammunition. And there are plenty in Asgard and in other cities who remember the bad old days and would delight at a socially-acceptable excuse to kill a few monotheists."

"But you will oppose me," Melech insisted, still tensed and ready for a fight. "Now that you know that I have betrayed you."

"Betrayed me?" Magnin doubled over as laughter exploded from him. "You never swore allegiance to me, Adam Mellech, and you and the rest of the Watch have your own agenda. No, I will not oppose you. Why should I when I can find a way to use your efforts against me to serve my own ends?"

"You cannot use me," Melech protested.

"I will allow experience to disabuse you of that notion," Magnin said as he withdrew a set of round-trip maglev tickets to Asgard from his jacket. "In the meantime, take these to Mistress Bathory. I would have her visit me here in Asgard."

Melech accepted the tickets. "Must you send me to that whore's palace?"

"No, but it amuses me to do so," Magnin chuckled. "I know how it offends you so. Now go, and have the courtesy to leave through the front door instead of materializing in the lobby. I have a great deal of equipment here that lacks sufficient tolerance for electromagnetic interference, despite my efforts to ensure that the equipment is shielded against harmful radiation."

"You would have me walk out?"

"Why do you think God gave you legs?" Magnin countered, before turning his back on Adam Mellech to gaze at the snow. He said no more, and made no further acknowledgement of Melech's presence in his office. It was his custom to dismiss visitors by turning his back on them, Melech knew, a sign of Magnin's arrogance.

Chapter 14

"Don't you think that Christabel's parents behaved oddly at her funeral?" Naomi asked as she took Morgan's coat and hung it up.

"Aside from the impression that they had written her off years ago?" Morgan countered, "'Bel had said that her family did not approve of the life she led, but when I spoke to her parents, they sounded as though Christabel meant nothing to them and they had attended the funeral only because not attending would have raised questions."

"Her sister was crying," Naomi said as she unbound her wet hair and began to towel it dry.

Morgan finished unbuckling his boots and left them by the front door to Naomi's flat, his rain-soaked socks stretched over the tops so that they could dry. "It was just the rain. The wind had knocked aside her umbrella and she had gotten a bit wet. She did not care, either."

"That's awfully cynical, Morgan," Naomi chided from her bedroom as she slipped out of the solid black silk ao dai that she had worn to the funeral. "Do you really think that Christabel's sister didn't care?"

Morgan found himself regretting that he could not review the video data he had obtained via Witness Protocol without an AI's supervision. He could have sworn that he had seen one of Christabel's sisters smiling. "I think I should keep certain thoughts to myself, Naomi," he said as she stepped out of the room wearing the scarlet cardigan he had knitted for her last winter solstice over a white silk blouse and an ankle-length black wool skirt. "You would think poorly of me."

Naomi looked over her shoulder at him as he followed her into the kitchen, "In that uniform? I doubt that any woman could think poorly of you when you're so well-dressed."

Morgan forced his lips to curve in a barest hint of a smile. Naomi had always flirted with him in the ten years he had been with Crowley's Thoth; she never forgot that Morgan had had a boy's infatuation with her when he worked as a bouncer in the Lower East Side bar where Naomi had played after her Broadway career had bitten the dust.

"Would you like some tea?" Naomi asked as she reached into the cupboard and retrieved her favorite cup.

"Yes, please." Morgan said as Naomi pulled out the mug she always used when serving Morgan tea. It was twice the size of the cups Naomi used: a bit of limited edition merchandise from Tokyo that depicted Morgan as a manga-style Prometheus breaking free of the bonds imposed upon him by the gods he defied. It bore the legend "Prometheus on Tour" and listed the dates of the band's Japanese shows.

She handed the mug to Morgan after adding a dollop of honey and remarked, "Doesn't the heat bother you?"

"No more than it does you," Morgan observed, seeing that Naomi held her cup of still-boiling tea in her silk-gloved hands just as he did.

As Morgan sipped his tea, Naomi looked over the formal dress uniform that clung to Morgan's body. Only the titanium buttons and the platinum lapel pins, which depicted a rattlesnake coiled about a sword and clutching a balance in its mouth, relieved the utter blackness of the uniform, which reminded Naomi of a judge's robe. She knew what the pins meant: the sword and scales were borne by the classical personification of justice; the rattlesnake, which bared its fangs only to those who threatened it, represented liberty.

"Do you think the Council will mind that you wore your formal dress uniform to Christabel's funeral?" Naomi asked. "Normally you only wear it when you're on duty."

Morgan shrugged, "If somebody wants to complain, they will. I had reasons for wearing it. I thought it might ruffle a few feathers; I had a suspicion that one of Christabel's relatives might have had a motive for killing her. After all, one of her sisters had this little Mona Lisa smile on her face throughout the whole funeral."

Naomi dropped her empty cup onto the carpeted floor. "Morgan! How can you say such a thing?"

"Easily," Morgan said as he stooped to retrieve the cup for Naomi. "Most murderers are close to their victim in some manner: they might be a lover, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a business partner, or a friend. If the police can suspect you and me, then why should I refrain from considering the possibility that somebody in Christabel's family might have gained from her death?"

Naomi sighed and retrieved her cup. "It makes sense, but it bothers me that you went to the funeral looking for somebody to blame."

Morgan turned his face away, unwilling to meet her eyes or speak the truth that rested on the tip of his tongue. He had not gone to Christabel's funeral looking for somebody blame. He was looking for somebody to kill; the need to avenge his loss was a toxin that still burned along his nerves.

"Morgan, look at me," Naomi said as she rested her hand on his. "I'm sorry I said that; I know you want to see justice done."

Morgan let a bitter laugh escape him. "Justice? There will be no justice for Christabel. Who can set matters right for the dead?"

It was Naomi's turn to avert her eyes; she did not want Morgan to see the tears that escaped her eyes. "Do you believe that? That justice for Christabel is impossible?"

"I know so," Morgan spat. "Even if the bastard responsible is found, tried, convicted, and put to the sword, none of it will do a demon-ridden thing for Christabel. She is dead. The most that can be obtained is vengeance for the living that grieve for her death."

Naomi poured herself another cup with shaking hands. "If justice is impossible, then why do you continue to wear those pins? Why draw your sword time after time against murderers?"

Morgan took the cup from Naomi's hands before they could betray her and set it aside. "Naomi, stop."

"Tell me why. I never wanted you to become an Adversary. I knew what it would do to you over the years. Why draw your sword if you can't give justice to the dead?"

"For the same reason I would shoot down a rabid dog, or a tiger that had come to like the taste of human blood," Morgan said in a small, still voice as he drew Naomi into his arms and held her. "It has to be done. Somebody has to do it. I can do it, and I can bear the scars."

"Is that the only reason?" Naomi sobbed as Morgan stroked her soft, snowy hair.

"No," Morgan whispered, "and I am afraid to tell you the rest. I told Christabel, and everything changed between us."

"I'm sorry," Naomi said as she rested her forehead against Morgan's shoulder, "I shouldn't have asked. And I'm probably ruining your uniform."

Morgan shrugged. "I have others."

"I apologise for the interruption, Naomi," Wolfgang, Naomi's household AI said, "But Mr. Nigel from Roseblade Records would like to speak with you and Morgan."

"Should we see what he wants?" Naomi asked as she let go of Morgan and took a step back.

Morgan let her go and immediately regretted doing so; he liked the way Naomi felt in his arms. "He probably wants to know what will become of Crowley's Thoth."

Mr. Nigel was a tall, fleshless man who reminded Morgan of photographs of Holocaust survivors he had studied during his training as an Adversary. No matter how much he ate, and Morgan had bought the man dinner several times, none of it stuck to him. His metabolism served him to good advantage, however, allowing him to work tirelessly to represent and promote Crowley's Thoth and several other progressive rock bands. Aside from Crowley's Thoth, Mr. Nigel also managed The Capitalist Pigs, The John Galt Line, Count Rockula, The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, Go Go Chinchilla!, The Demifiends, Cannibal Hobbit, The Liberal Media, The Human Instrumentality Project, Doomed Space Marines, and Excessive, Loud & Pretentious.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Master Merced and Mistress Bradleigh," Mr. Nigel said as Wolfgang let him through, "But the senior partners at Roseblade Records need to know what will happen to Crowley's Thoth."

Morgan found Mr. Nigel's delicacy annoying; he had tolerated enough pussyfooting at the funeral, where Christabel's family had handled him with kid gloves. "The partners want to know if we will be able to deliver one last album, as specified in our contract with Roseblade, you mean."

"I don't think that Mr. Nigel meant to imply that," Naomi said, resting a hand on Morgan's arm.

"I would not have asked that question so soon," Mr. Nigel said, "But I admit that at least one of the senior partners wants me to ask you that question, in person."

"I appreciate your honesty," Naomi said, "But I don't think that Morgan and I can release another album and tour again as Crowley's Thoth. To do so would be fraudulent."

"I think I understand your feelings, Naomi, but don't you and Morgan do most of the song-writing?"

"We do," Morgan said, "But even if we held on to the name and released a new album, it will not be the same without Christabel on violin. We know it, you know it, and the fans know it. I know the show has to go on, but Crowley's Thoth died with Christabel. If Naomi is willing, I would be willing to work with her on a new album and tour under our own names."

"What do you think, Naomi?" Mr. Nigel asked, "Would you be willing to record and tour with Morgan?"

"Of course," Naomi said, smiling at Morgan, "But not right away. I think Morgan and I both need some time. I know we should soldier on, but I just don't have the heart to do so right now."

"Naomi and I need a few months to grieve," Morgan suggested, "When the pain has faded a little, perhaps Naomi and I could sit down with a competent documentary film-maker and give Crowley's Thoth and Christabel a proper send-off. Our archives have plenty of concert footage, studio footage, and out-takes. I am sure we could put together a proper tribute to Christabel and to the band. We can tell the band's story, and Christabel's, so that neither will be forgotten."

Mr. Nigel brightened. "Thanks, Morgan. With your permission, I'll pass your idea upward to the partners. They had hoped to have a new Crowley's Thoth release for Winter Solstice. Instead, we'll give everybody who wants to a chance to say goodbye to Crowley's Thoth."

"Was there anything else you needed, Mr. Nigel?" Naomi asked.

Mr. Nigel pulled at his collar. "Actually, there was something else I needed to mention, but not in front of Morgan. Somebody compromised your AI, recorded video of you in a private moment, and uploaded the video via BitTsunami on Friday."

Naomi felt Morgan tense beneath her hand, and tightened her hold on his forearm. "We've dealt with paparazzi before," she reminded him. "Is the video still in circulation?" Naomi asked.

"No. A samurai found it and arranged to have it removed that day. She then notified Roseblade Records' PR department."

"Wouldn't a lot of people have obtained copies of the video?" Naomi asked. "How was it publicized?"

"On a news aggregator site called FARK," Mr. Nigel said, "So I'd say it's probable that a lot of people would have downloaded it. However, the samurai claimed that she had arranged for every copy to be removed and deleted. Nobody in the PR department knows who did it, but there are plenty of people guessing."

"I know who it is," Morgan said, "But I will keep that to myself. The people who do this kind of work appreciate their privacy."

"Are you sure? The company should at least thank her."

"If my guess is right," Morgan said, "this samurai did not do it for Roseblade Records, and cares nothing for the company's thanks."

"I don't think I understand these net samurai," Mr. Nigel said. "Then again, sometimes I don't understand the two of you. I expected you to tell me to bugger off, as you had every right to do given the timing of my call, and instead we end up doing business."

Naomi sat back and crossed her legs. "Giving a name, even a false one, would have opened this samurai to unnecessary legal difficulties. As for us, we have nothing to gain by being rude to you."

Mr. Nigel laughed softly. "You're right, now that I think about it. But does Morgan really know who did it?"

"No," Morgan said, "But I know who to ask first."

Chapter 15

Naomi followed Morgan into the bathroom and gasped as she saw the scarlet tinge swirl down her drain. "What in Chaos did you do to yourself?"

She reached for Morgan's hands and saw deep cuts that had already scabbed over. The claws that ripped into the palms of his hands extended half a centimeter from his fingertips. Naomi had time to see that Morgan had not yet cleaned the blood off of them before he jerked his hands away and turned his back on her.

"How often do you do this to yourself?" Naomi asked.

"Only when I am upset," Morgan admitted, "And lack a more constructive means of dealing with my emotions."

"Why did you pull away? I wanted to help," Naomi said. When Morgan held his silence, she looked down at her hands and slowly peeled off the white silk gloves that concealed them. She let her hands relax so that her claws — which resembled human fingernails that had been flattened, sharpened, and rigged to conceal themselves beneath the skin — revealed themselves.

Morgan finished washing his hands. His claws retracted, hiding beneath the skin of his fingertips, as he reasserted his emotional control and turned to look at Naomi's bared hands. "I never considered the reason behind your wearing gloves all the time," Morgan said in a soft voice that the running water almost drowned out.

"You usually hide your eyes, but not your hands," Naomi said. "Yet you pulled your hands away from me. Why hide them now?"

"You have never seen my claws out and bloodied. I did not want you to see that," Morgan said. "Christabel saw me like that once after I had finished a job, and she did not take it well."

Naomi arched an eyebrow. "I'm not Christabel."

"No," Morgan said. "You are right. I should not have tried to hide from you."

"I understand why you did," Naomi said, "But what about me? Does it bother you that we have certain characteristics in common?"

"I always thought the gloves were part of your style. I have lost count of the times our eyes have met over the years," Morgan said, "But I never thought of your eyes as signs of a genetic anomaly. They served to make you yourself, like your hair and your voice and the way you dress."

Morgan turned away and cleared his throat.

"You're blushing again, aren't you." Naomi guessed. "I know you never thought of me as a freak. I think, however, that you consider yourself defective because of the traits we have in common."

Morgan threw a smile over his shoulder. "I did when I was younger. Do you have anything to eat?"

Naomi led Morgan into the kitchen, and held her silence as they made sandwiches and a fresh pot of tea. When Morgan had eaten half of his chicken sandwich, which was twice the size of her own, she took his hand. "You used to think yourself deformed?"

"Not deformed," Morgan admitted, "Defective. Less than human."

"And now?" Naomi asked as she looked down at the crumbs on her plate."

"I still think of myself as less than human, but not because I have big green kitty-cat eyes. There's a defect in my thinking that sets me apart, something behind the reason I have worn an Adversary's pins for ten years."

Morgan turned his attention back to his sandwich, rending it with a violence that went beyond hunger, and Naomi suspected that he had become upset again. "There's something inside you that won't let you retire from your position. There's a need that drives you to keep hunting down murderers and tyrants, that won't let you turn away from the responsibility that burns out other Adversaries after a year or two."

"Bloodlust," Morgan said, "It is some kind of bloodlust. I have this need to hunt, to kill, that I cannot satisfy. The only difference between me and the killers I hunt is in my choice of victims." He pressed a finger to one of the pins that clung to the lapels of his jacket. "Without these, I would be just another serial killer, prey for some other idealist who will burn out in a year or two."

Naomi took Morgan's hands. "Do you honestly believe that of yourself? I think you are being a bit over-dramatic, and I'll warn you now: if you start quoting Nietzsche at me, I'll toss you right out."

Morgan shrugged, and forced from himself a laugh that became genuine. "I am being a bit of a drama queen. Can you forgive me?"

"We're rock musicians," Naomi said. "Being drama queens is an occupational hazard. Now, do you really think that it was Claire that wiped that file off the net?"

"If you are willing, we could find out together." Morgan transmitted a comm address to Wolfgang via neuronic link. "Keep bothering Hal until Claire takes the call, Wolfgang. Even a combat sim can be paused."

"Of course, sir," the AI replied. "I have a connection with Hal now. Do you want voice, or full video?"

"Let Claire decide," Morgan suggested, "I have no idea what I might have interrupted."

"Hello, Nims," Claire said, waving a screwdriver in her right hand. "I guess I should have gotten in touch with you sooner, but Wolfgang said you weren't available."

"We were at Christabel's funeral," Morgan explained.

"Oh, right," Claire said, frowning. "I'm sorry I couldn't go, but I was never much of a friend to Christabel."

"You missed little," Morgan said, "Just Christabel's parents and siblings doing their best to pretend that they care that Christabel is dead."

"Did you say anything?"

"No," Naomi said, "Morgan behaved himself. He waited until everybody else had left before he said his goodbyes."

"You mean, before he swore vengeance?" Claire asked as she laid her tools aside, lifted a memory module out of the terminal she was working on, and slipped it into an anti-static bag.

Naomi glanced at Morgan, "No, all he did was lay a bouquet of white roses on Christabel's grave. He didn't say anything; he just stood there for a while."

"I needed a few minutes to compose myself," Morgan said. "We had a chat with Mr. Nigel a little while ago."

"And he wanted to know if the show would go on, eh?"

"His bosses wanted to know," Naomi said, defending Mr. Nigel.

"Naomi is right," Morgan added, "After that, he told us that somebody had uploaded a compromising video of Naomi, and that an anonymous hacker had ensured that the video was promptly wiped from the net, despite it being shared via BitTsunami. Do you know anybody who could manage something like that?"

"Well," Claire said, doing her best to look innocent, "I've heard stories about this cuddly little blue-eyed chinchilla cat that can hack Unix."

Naomi chuckled softly, "I strongly doubt that it was Programmer Cat. Morgan thinks it was you."

"Oh, bugger," Claire pouted. "You didn't tell Mr. Nigel it was me, did you, Morgan?"

"Of course not," Morgan said. "But I would like to know what sort of video was uploaded, and where it came from."

Claire reddened and looked down at herself. "You're not going to watch it with Naomi, are you?"

"Not unless she invites me to do so," Morgan promised. "I just want to know where it came from."

"Let me send the video first," Claire said. "Call me back when you've seen it, all right?"

"All right," Naomi promised, "Thanks for helping out, Claire."

"No worries. Just remember to send Morgan out for a bit."

"So," Morgan said after Claire had disconnected, "When should I return?"

"Stay with me," Naomi said before instructing Wolfgang to play the video Claire had transferred as soon as Wolfgang had finished scanning it for malware.

Chapter 16

"I am going to call Claire," Morgan snarled, "I think she knows who uploaded this video."

"I don't care," Naomi said. Her face had become as red as her eyes despite only watching the first five minutes of the video. She had stopped it as soon as she had heard herself sigh beneath her own hands. She knew that the rest could have been faked. "Claire managed to get it off the net. Even if we find him, what will I do? Sue for restitution? I would then have to explain why, and produce the video as evidence."

Morgan let his eyes flick towards his sword, which Naomi had placed with the umbrellas. "I said nothing about a lawsuit."

"You would kill somebody for this?"

"For violating the privacy of somebody I value highly?" Morgan asked, "Be sure of it. And be sure that I would enjoy doing it."

Naomi took Morgan's left hand, his sword-hand, and held it tightly, "This isn't the crime you want to avenge, anyway. You've seized upon this because Christabel's murderer is out of your reach."

Morgan gently pulled his hand from Naomi's grasp. "Are you suggesting that I do not care as much for you as I did for Christabel?"

"Of course not," Naomi said, "But you're not thinking straight. You're letting your grief and anger cloud your judgment. If this video had come out a month ago, you wold be content to find out who did it and ensured that he made amends in private."

Morgan drew a breath deep into his lungs and slowly let it escape. "You are right. I am not thinking clearly."

"No more talk of killing. It's just a video of me masturbating."

"I still want to know who did this," Morgan said, "It might be somebody who has violated the privacy of others as well."

"The person responsible might be outside your jurisdiction," Naomi pointed out, "and therefore not your problem."

Morgan's voice hardened as he clenched his fists, "The fact that he did it to you makes it my problem. Now, shall we call Claire?"

"All right," Naomi said, and gave Wolfgang his orders.

"So, you let it run longer than two minutes," Claire said as soon as Wolfgang had negotiated a connection with Claire's AI, Hal.

"How can you tell?" Naomi asked.

Claire arched a eyebrow and took another spoonful of her ice cream. "Do you ever look at Morgan's face? You let the video run too long for him to be able to dismiss it as a clever fake."

"Who did this, Claire?" Morgan asked.

"I can't say for sure."

Of course you can, Morgan thought, you are merely unwilling to do so. Fine, then. "You gave us the video. You must have obtained it via BitTsunami. You must have the file that allowed Wolfgang to download a copy."

"I have the dot-tsunami file," Claire admitted, "But all I can give you is the IP address from whence the file was first uploaded – the initial seed."

Morgan pressed ahead; he knew he had Claire now, "And you can use reverse DNS to obtain the hostname that matches the IP address."

"I can, but the fact that the file came from Edmund Cohen's AI does not guarantee that Edmund Cohen did it! He might have had a guest who used his machine to upload this file without his knowledge or consent!" Claire yelled. "Do you honestly think that I am going to let you kill one of your friends on such shaky evidence?"

Morgan stifled a laugh, "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Claire. I truly do."

Claire and Naomi took on identical expressions, frowning as they crossed their arms. "What are you going to do, now that you know?" Claire asked.

Morgan allowed a cruel little cat's smile to curve his lips. "I am going to have a little chat with my friend Edmund, and tell him what I think of the company he keeps."

Naomi reached for Morgan's sword. "Leave it there with the umbrellas," Morgan said. "I will come back for it later."

"You're coming back?" Naomi asked.

"When we were driving back from the funeral, you asked me to spend the night," Morgan said. "Remember?"

Naomi relaxed and looked at the couch. "I remember. I had offered you the couch."

"The couch?" Claire cried. "What is he going to do for you on the couch? Take him to bed where he'll be of some use."

"I would share the bed," Naomi explained, "But I know Morgan would refuse and insist on the couch, instead."

"Because he has to be a gentleman," Claire said.

Morgan chuckled; he could not hold it down. "And what do you think Naomi would think of me if I slipped into her bed on the day of Christabel's funeral?

"That it's about time?" Claire asked, making both Morgan and Naomi blush.

"I had better go," Morgan said, "Before I have to start sticking my head into every pub in London in order to find Edmund and drag him back home."

He heard Claire ask Naomi, "Do you think I embarrassed him?" as he let the door slip shut behind him. The rain cooled his skin as the wind manhandled him, and he found that the weather soothed his temper.

It had taken Morgan only twenty minutes to run from Naomi's house to Edmund's, despite having crossed half the city of London. The run reminded Morgan of his time in PSACS-NY, the Phoenix Society's Adversary Candidate School in New York, when he made such runs often, as a messenger, to earn money for books and equipment.

He raised his fist and slammed it into the door three times. The door had a brass knocker, but as the knocker bore the shape of a woman's pendulous breasts, Morgan had no desire to use it. It was far too tacky for Morgan's taste, and just sleazy enough for Edmund's.

A voice from inside answered Morgan's knock. "Piss off!"

Morgan knocked again. "Open the demon-ridden door, Edmund."

The door flew open, revealing Edmund in a pair of old, whiskey-stained boxer shorts, cradling a shotgun.

"Expecting tax collectors?" Morgan snarled as he wrenched the shotgun from Edmund's hands, opened it, ejected the shells onto the floor, and threw the shotgun aside.

"I had a feeling you'd come ever since Claire called me about that fucking video," Edmund said. "Did she tell you?"

"Not without a bit of social engineering on my part," Morgan said. "She was afraid I would kill you."

"You sound like the idea tempts you," Edmund said as he poured two fingers of Scotch into a dirty glass.

Morgan waited until Edmund had drained the glass and laid it aside before grabbing him by the throat and lifting him off his feet. Edmund stared down at Morgan, shocked by Morgan's handling. "What's this? You're not going to hold a knife to my throat or point a gun at me?"

"I told Naomi that I would behave myself," Morgan said. "What the fuck were you thinking, filming Naomi as she —"

"Masturbated?" Edmund asked, "Jilled off? Flicked the bean? I wasn't fucking thinking, all right? I was fucking drunk! I was fucking drunk even before that broad took me home, and it only got worse from there."

Morgan released his hold on Edmund's throat and let him crumple to the floor. His voice was the soft hiss of an amplifier waiting for input. "Tell me everything, Edmund. Who did you bring home? Did she put you up to filming Naomi, or did she use your equipment to do it herself while you were too drunk to think to stop her?"

Edmund found his feet, and a bit of defiance in the bargain. "And just who the fuck are you to ask me these questions, Morgan? Where do you get off trying to protect Naomi's honor when you couldn't protect Christa —"

The back of Morgan's hand slamming into Edmund's jaw cut off the accusation. "I was once a friend of yours, Edmund. However, given the evidence available to me, it appears that you do not particularly care for my friendship. However, I did not come here solely for Naomi's sake. How long do you think you would retain your seat on the Phoenix Society's Executive Council if it was known that you had a habit of filming women without their consent as they indulged in a private moment?"

"Not long," Edmund admitted. He followed Morgan into the kitchen as Morgan prepared an ice pack.

"Use this," Morgan said, "I held back so that I would not break your jaw, but you might end up with some bruising."

"I shouldn't have said what I said about Christabel," Edmund admitted. "I'm sorry."

"I will get over it. This video was uploaded the night Christabel was murdered. Tell me what happened."

"I was already drunk when she showed up," Edmund began, "She was fucking gorgeous. Almost as pale as Naomi, but her hair was even blacker than yours. If she didn't have amber eyes, I'd have thought she was your sister."

Edmund took the cup of instant coffee that Morgan had nuked for him, sipped it, and spat into the sink. "Did you piss in this?"

"I could piss in the next cup," Morgan said, "You might find that it improves the flavor. Tell me more about this temptress of yours."

Edmund drank the rest of his coffee, despite having spat the first sip into the sink. "Well, she was a head shorter than you, and she was delicate, like if you kissed her too hard she'd fall apart. She wore a little black dress, and it turned out later on that all she had on underneath it was a garter belt to hold up her stockings. She had this little platinum pendant, too. Maybe it was the light, or the booze, but if I looked close I thought I could see her and me in a sixty-nine."

Morgan arched an eyebrow, "I think it was the light and the alcohol."

"You've seen her too," Edmund said, "I saw your eyes as I described her."

"I met her on the maglev I took to London Friday morning, when I was asked to come and answer questions."

"That makes no sense," Edmund said, "Why would she be on the Maglev you took when she had just been in my bed a few hours before? How could she have gotten there so quickly?"

"Maybe I met her sister," Morgan suggested. "So, let me get this straight. You were drunk. You met this delicate little goddess of lust, and took her home to bed."

"Well," Edmund said, "I managed to take her three times, one right after the other. I don't think I even softened. But that was all I could take before I needed to rest. While I caught my breath, she did something with my AI, Savannah. When I had opened my eyes, Elisabeth had this porno on my screen."

"You thought it was just a pornographic video," Morgan suggested as he poured a cup of coffee for himself. Edmund had been right; it was vile stuff, but Morgan had only himself to blame. He knew better than to mix instant coffee with cold water and then stick the cup into the microwave.

"Yeah," Edmund said. "We watched for a while, and we smoked some hashish. She had some truly first-class stuff with her. Once we were nice and high, we fucked while watching the video. While she was riding me, Elisabeth started asking me questions about you."

Morgan nearly dropped his half-empty cup. "About me? What kind of woman asks the man with whom she is having sex about another man?"

"The kind I had in my bed that night," Edmund said. "She wanted to know if you were happy with Christabel, if you loved her."

Morgan's body tensed, and he had to force himself to refrain from clenching his fists. "And what did you tell her?"

Edmund turned away. "I told her that I thought that Christabel wasn't the right woman for you."

"She might not have been," Morgan admitted, "But I had written off what I felt for Naomi as an adolescent's infatuation. I was not going to toss Christabel aside as soon as I had a chance to spend time with Naomi again."

"I know," Edmund said, "But you spent ten fucking years with Christabel, putting up with her nagging, when you could have done a lot better. You could have at least cheated on Christabel."

Morgan turned away from Edmund and dumped his cup into the sink. "Would that have been fair to Naomi?"

"I see your point," Edmund said, "But I've seen the way you and Naomi look at each other. There's something there that isn't there between you and Christabel. Naomi did her time in the school of hard knocks, like you did."

"Never mind that for now," Morgan said. "Did you upload that video to the net via BitTsunami?"

"No," Edmund said, "I had thought of holding on to it, because it looked like a damned good fake. I had thought of showing it to you, so that you could see what you were missing by staying with that skinny bitch Christabel."

Edmund stopped, expecting another slap, but none came. "You are right," Morgan said, "Christabel certainly had her moments."

"I thought you were going to hit me upside the head again."

"For telling the truth?" Morgan asked. He shook his head, "I lashed out earlier because you had taken a poke at my wounded pride. I have been damning myself for not being able to protect Christabel ever since I got the news from Windsor."

A note of compassion slipped into Edmund's voice, which had been roughened by years of smoking and boozing. "You saw what had been done to her. Do you think you could have stopped the killer?"

"If not," Morgan said, "I would have been too dead to care."

"Yeah, the dead have that going for them," Edmund said as he reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of vodka. "Dead guys don't have to give a shit about anything. Not a single little fuckin' shit."

"This Elisabeth, do you think the alcohol or the hashish impaired her at all?"

Edmund snorted, "I don't think she even touched the stuff. I kept offering, since she had provided the stuff, but she kept saying that it was a treat for me. I think she wanted me stoned out of my head so that she could do whatever it was she came here to do."

"Aside from asking you questions about my love life and uploading porn?" Morgan asked. "Are you sure that you cannot remember anything else?"

"Forty years ago," Edmund said, "That night would have been the death of me. If I still had my original liver, I'd be dead. As it is, I voided the warranty on this one. I drank way too much, and once I run out of booze here at home, that's it. No more."

"Finally quitting?"

"Yeah," Edmund said, grinning, "I think I'll stick with hookers and blow. You can do my drinking for me."

"That stuff does nothing for me," Morgan said.

"Yeah, I know. You prefer sex, violence, and rock and roll."

Morgan laughed, "Everything a growing boy needs."

Edmund looked at his drink, which he had barely touched. "Bollocks to this," he snarled, "Morgan, help me get rid of this shit. I'm done."

Morgan's eyes widened. "You decided to go cold turkey?"

"Damn right," Edmund said as he poured the bottle of vodka that he had just opened down the drain. "I was going to be a fucking pussy and just wean myself off it, but I've seen guys try that before. It never worked."

"All right," Morgan said, and took a bottle from Edmund, "But why waste perfectly good brandy by pouring it down the drain?" Opening the bottle, he drained half at a gulp. "Let me have it. Or give it to the poor. There is a little Catholic church a few doors down; I daresay that the priest would appreciate having something other than sacramental wine to drink."

Laughter erupted from Edmund's mouth, which had become a miniature Vesuvius. "Give it to the priest? That sounds like something I'd think of. Let's do it. And after that, maybe I should go and apologise to Nims."

Edmund stopped, looking at Morgan. "What? Is my cock hanging out?"

"Why ask me?" Morgan asked. "I was just surprised that you thought to apologise to Naomi."

Edmund spat into the sink. "I might not have uploaded that shit, but it's still my fault it ended up on the net. Besides, I've got a few bottles of Callo Merlose, both red and white. It's her favorite vineyard, right?"

Morgan smiled. "Restitution?"

"Hell no," Edmund spat, "I'll be damned if I'll waste good wine on a Christian. That priest can suffer with his watered-down grape juice. Naomi gets the Merlose. Claire gets the absinthe. I owe her for making sure that Savannah was clean." He looked at Morgan, "What?"

"Do you have to give Claire all of the absinthe?"

Edmund shrugged. "Take a case or two. Claire will get over it."

"Holy shit," Sid Schneider's voice boomed through the house as the door slammed shut behind him. "I've been trying to get a hold of you, Morgan, but little Astarte kept stonewalling me."

Morgan turned to shake Sid's hand and found himself caught in a one-armed bear hug. It reminded him of the way Sid's kids would scoop up one of their cats for a cuddle.

"Where the hell have you been, man?" Sid asked as he released Morgan.

Morgan smoothed his clothes. "With Naomi. I am sorry that Astarte did not let you get through to me. If I had been thinking straight at the time, I would have given her better instructions."

"It's all right," Sid rumbled, "Did Christabel's family give her a good send-off?"

Morgan laughed, "A few of them managed some crocodile tears."

"You suspect one of Christabel's relatives?" Edmund asked.

Morgan's voice became grim. "I saw what was done to Christabel. I doubt that any of her relatives have it in them, or would pay somebody who would be willing to kill in that manner."

The air escaped Morgan's lungs as Sid, who was thirty centimeters taller than Morgan and outmassed him by eighty kilograms, slapped his back. "I've got something to take your mind off Christabel," he said, holding out an envelope. "Saul Rosenbaum asked me to give this to you, since Astarte was stonewalling his ass, too."

"Orders?" Morgan said as he looked at the envelope with the same distaste that he would accord to a piece of religious propaganda.

Sid nodded. "I think he wants you to deal with the situation in Boston."

"And he wants me to report immediately," Morgan said as he scanned the orders. "I had promised Naomi that I would stay with her tonight."

"Look on the bright side," Edmund said, "You get to whack a tyrant."

"I doubt it," Morgan said, "Knowing Karen Del Rio, she will stick her nose into this and demand a live capture. Then I will have to hope that Liebenthal gives me an excuse to kill him."

Chapter 17

Elisabeth Bathory stood naked, save for her stiletto-heeled slippers, upon the balcony outside her bedroom. If she had wanted to, she could have looked down over the courtyard of her castle, at the lovers that lay on blankets here and there in pairs, threesomes, and foursomes.

Earlier that night, a dozen men had gathered in a circle down there and knelt in worship as she danced for them. It had been a dance she learned from the temple prostitutes of Ur, during the reign of Gilgamesh. They had danced to excite men and inspire them to offer tribute to their goddess by coupling with the acolytes that offered themselves in worship.

Elisabeth had danced earlier that night, and the only goddess she cared to honor was herself. She had lived in fear of gods before, and had no desire to do so again. Looking up into midnight sky, she felt the wind lift her hair and caress her creamy skin as she searched the sky for her home star.

Algol was there; she could find it instantly, but it was not home. The star that shined over her birth was lost to her, too far deep into the redshift, and it sank deeper every night.

"Does Sathariel know that you flaunt yourself thus, Ashtoreth?" a voice asked, his voice flattened by contempt.

"I keep no secrets from him, Adam," Elisabeth said. She made no effort to cover herself; this was her home, and her body. If she wanted to be naked and embrace the wind, she would do so. "He knows of all that I do, even that I once sought pleasure in your arms."

Adam Mellech, who Elisabeth knew preferred the name 'Adramelech', faded into view, allowing himself to take material form. He ignored the frown of distaste that curved her lips at the sight of the Roman collar about his neck and the silver crucifix resting upon his chest. "You told him? Sathariel knows of the time I soiled myself with your body?"

Elisabeth's slap echoed, causing her lovers in the bedroom to stir. "I told him that I spent your last mortal night with you, before you abandoned the flesh and became a Disciple of the Watch. That I tried to share pleasure with you, so that you would remember your mortal origins and fight to resist the temptation inherent in our power. Since you choose to think of that night as some sort of sin, I have nothing to say to you. Leave my home, Adramelech, for you are not welcome here."

"I did not come for my own sake," Ethan said, "I know how little you think of me, Ashtoreth. You think that I should never have been allowed to become one of the Watch, but look at you! You spend your nights whoring, and your days teaching humans to whore as you do! You are a goddess of your own making, yet you insist on behaving as if you were still flesh and blood! You even insist on using a mortal name, instead of the name with which you bound yourself to the Watch!"

Elisabeth leaned against the wrought iron railing ringing the balcony and crossed her arms beneath her bare breasts. "You presume to lecture me on how a god should behave, Adam Mellech, when you yourself kneel in mortals' churches mouthing mortals' prayers? You, who while away your existence flitting through the dreams of others?"

"You mock me for acknowledging that a greater power than myself exists, and for kneeling in worship to that power?" Ethan countered, staring disdainfully at Elisabeth's body, which had tempted him centuries ago. He hated Elisabeth and her wanton sexuality, but hated himself more for responding to it. "Mock if you like, then, Ashtoreth. God will judge us both and find you lacking."

Elisabeth clapped in soft, sarcastic applause, "Spoken with all the self-righteousness and willful blindness of a true Christian. Did you come here, uninvited, for the sole purpose of annoying me with your piety? Or did Isaac Magnin send you?" She circled around Adramelech, sliding her arms about his waist and crushing her breasts against his shoulder blades. Flicking the tip of her tongue against his ear, she whispered, "Isaac sent you. I know full well that you would never come otherwise to this harlot's abode."

Adramelech stiffened beneath Elisabeth's lingering hands, "Imaginos did send me. He would have you meet him in Asgard."

Ashtoreth loosened Adramelech's collar and slipped her hand beneath his shirt to caress him. "Has he finally grown tired of that human slut that he has been using the last ten years? Or does Isaac fear that I might work some mischief detrimental to his plans?"

"He did not explain to me his reasons for requesting your company, Ashtoreth."

Ashtoreth slid around him, keeping her hands on Adramelech's chest. "Isaac was never one to explain his intentions," she noted, "especially to a traitor such as yourself, who sabotaged the Shadowkings' prison and allowed Fuzon to make his way here ten thousand years ago." Feeling Ethan stiffen beneath her hands, she drew closer and purred into his ear, "Oh yes, Isaac told me. He told Samuel as well. He told us about it in bed, as he and Samuel took their turns with me." Drawing close to Ethan she smiled at the sight of his blush and said, "Why not kneel before me instead of a god that never responds? Please me well and I might even forgive your treason."

Taking hold of Elisabeth's shoulders, he pushed her from him as his face burned. "You truly are depraved. Is physical pleasure the only matter with which you concern yourself?"

Placing her hands upon Ethan's, she said, "I find such concerns more interesting than meaningless prayers to worthless gods, and far more pleasurable than meandering through the dreams of others. Come to bed with me; spend some time in reality and weave your own dreams from experience instead of playing the voyeur in others' slumbering imaginations."

Adremelech wrenched his hands from beneath hers. Though he only touched her shoulders, he could feel the material body he had taken on responding violently to the contact. He shivered; he wanted to do as Ashtoreth had suggested and kneel before her despite his faith telling him that what she wanted was sinful, and that he himself was sinful for being tempted by her. Reaching into his jacket, he wrenched the maglev tickets Isaac Magnin had given him from his pocket. "Imaginos told me to give these to you; he wants us to use mortals' transportation instead of simply dissolving your avatar."

Seeing the tension in Ethan's face, Elisabeth found herself unable to hold back her laughter. "Fly away, little Dreamreaver, fly back to your little church and your little prayers and your little ambitions. I should not blame one who has never learned how to live for seeking comfort in one death cult after another."

"Damn you, Ashtoreth. Will you take the tickets or not?"

The smile of a cat filled with warm cream curved Ashtoreth's lips. She brushed them against Adramelech's while plucking the tickets from his hand, and laughed as his form dissolved before her. Her skin tingled as she stood within the force Adramelech radiated in the formless state he favored, the guise of a ghost stuck on the wrong side of the Styx.

"So", Elisabeth thought, "Magnin wants me to take the maglev instead of simply moving my avatar to his office. That's fine; I meet so many interesting people on the maglev, like that handsome young Adversary, Morgan Stormrider. Perhaps Isaac wants to talk about him; he's been watching that young man for a while."

She smiled as she slipped back into her bed, pressing herself against the back of the man she had taken to bed earlier. He stirred as she dragged the tip of her tongue down the nape of his neck and muttered, "You're cold, Elisabeth." As she slipped her hand between the bellies of her two lovers she whispered in his ear, "Would you and your wife care to warm me then?" Imaginos, Ashtoreth decided as her lovers awakened, could wait until she was warm again.

Chapter 18

"Where in Chaos were you?" Karen del Rio spat at Morgan as he entered the briefing room used by the Intermediaries between New York's chapter of the Phoenix Society and the Adversaries who served the New York chapter. "We have been trying to contact you since Friday."

"My whereabouts are none of your business," Morgan said without sparing Del Rio a glance. He took his usual seat at the semi-circular table that dominated the room.

"You are an Adversary," Del Rio insisted. "The fact that your little girlfriend died does not give you leave to go incommunicado for three days!"

Morgan finally turned to look at Del Rio through narrowed eyes. "When I want privacy, I take measures to ensure that I get it. I am not in the habit of asking for permission to exercise my rights, Karen Del Rio."

"Miss Del Rio did not mean to imply that you had to ask for permission to be alone, I'm sure," Iris Deschat said as Saul Rosenbaum and a tall woman in formal uniform with chocolate curls that fell to her shoulders followed her into the briefing room. "We were merely anxious to have you return; we need your help."

Morgan shrugged at Deschat's words. "So, Iris, what did Leibenthal do to inspire you and Saul to convince Karen that this case requires my attention?"

"Have you heard about the recent events in Boston?" Saul Rosenbaum asked. "Alexander Liebenthal responded to a referendum concerning community ownership of all property within the city by overthrowing the government, killing two Adversaries, declaring himself dictator, and accusing the Phoenix Society of pulling a bait-and-switch job."

"Bait-and-switch?" Morgan asked. "How so?"

"The original legal language under consideration," Karen began, "would have placed all property in the hands of citizens of Boston under community ownership. According to Liebenthal, the bill that went into effect placed all property under community ownership, whether originally owned by a citizen or a sovereign."

"And, since Liebenthal is a sovereign," Morgan said, "He decided to overthrow the government of Boston instead of either handing over his property or depending on the Phoenix Society to correct its mistake."

"There was no mistake," Saul insisted. "The law on the books is the same law that the citizens of Boston voted on. It only deals with property belonging to citizens."

"Has anybody taken steps to disprove Liebenthal's claim?" Morgan asked.

"Are you suggesting that the Sephiroth lied?" Del Rio asked, rising from her seat.

"I suggested nothing of the sort," Morgan said, "However, all artificial intelligences operate on top of a system based on Unix, which is subject to human manipulation."

"Morgan's right," Iris said, "All AIs implement a POSIX shell as a failsafe to allow humans to handle an AI that has, for whatever reason, become dangerous to others. However, the POSIX shell is also a back door that can be exploited to malicious ends."

"We should have the possibility of a cracker's involvement checked out," Saul said. "We should have considered it earlier, but the Sephiroth all insisted that it was not necessary."

Morgan smiled, "The Sephiroth are human enough to possess the sort of pride that makes one reluctant to admit a mistake or vulnerability – especially those with a masculine personality."

"Did you study artificial intelligence in ACS?" the other Adversary asked with an accent that marked her as an Australian.

"No, madam," Morgan said. "However, I have a friend whom I pay to assist me in my dealings with AIs when I am on a case, and I learned a fair amount from her."

"Madam?" the Australian Adversary laughed, "Please, don't call me that. I'm Catherine Gatto, but my friends call me Cat."

Morgan nodded. "Fair enough, Adversary Gatto. I have to ask, however, why you are here? Deposing a tyrant, especially one who has only recently taken power, is a job one Adversary can do."

Del Rio turned to Catherine. "Morgan likes to use 'depose' as a euphemism for 'assassinate'," she noted. "However, it is not an assassination we want."

"Am I to deliver the Phoenix Society's blessings and warm wishes for a long and prosperous tyranny?" Morgan asked.

"Can we please put aside the sarcasm?" Deschat asked. "We have work to do. Adversary Stormrider, we would like you to go to Boston and depose Alexander Liebenthal. We want him brought back alive, so that he may stand trial, unless allowing him to live poses substantial danger to your life, Adversary Gatto's, or that of civilians."

Morgan leaned back in his chair and inspected Catherine Gatto. She was almost as tall as he was, and her dress uniform clung to a body built for a courtesan. Her warm brown eyes, Morgan decided, were too gentle for this sort of work. "Is Adversary Gatto coming along to ensure that I behave myself?"

"No," Saul said, "She will be taking over Boston and rebuilding its government. We need you to act as her support when deposing Liebenthal. She will then take over the investigation into Liebenthal's affairs and gather evidence to be used against him at trial."

"If it helps," Catherine said, "I took top honors in the rapier, semi-automatic pistol, and submachine-gun."

"Have you ever killed a person?" Morgan asked.

Catherine swallowed, and looked away. "No. I've never really hurt anybody, either. I've always used a tranquilizer pistol in Melbourne."

Morgan turned cold eyes towards the Intermediaries, and a colder voice. "You are sending me along because Liebenthal and the thugs he has gathered will eat Gatto alive, are you not? Who else did you send to their deaths at Liebenthal's hands?"

"Their names are not your concern," Del Rio said, "Avenging them is not your mission."

"We were serious when we specified a live capture," Rosenbaum said, refusing to let Morgan stare him down. "Ordinarily, we would be happy to let you put Liebenthal's head on a pike for having dared to cut down an Adversary. However, he has impugned the Phoenix Society itself."

"We cannot afford to give the public cause to believe that we are merely silencing a critic of the Phoenix Society," Deschat said, appealing to Morgan's reason. "Liebenthal, because of the accusations he has made, must have his day in court."

Morgan took a deep breath and forced himself to acknowledge that Saul and Iris were right. "I will bring the bastard back alive. Is there anything else that Adversary Gatto and I need to know? Anybody else you want taken alive?"

"See Malkuth for a file containing all of the facts relevant to the case," Rosenbaum said, "Including the names and records of the Adversaries Liebenthal killed. They'll be your pretext for placing Liebenthal, a sovereign, under arrest."

Morgan's voice hardened as he stood. "Those Adversaries are people, Saul, not a pretext."

"Just bring him here, alive," Karen spat. "And don't give us any bullshit about how you had to kill Liebenthal because he pulled a gun. You settled for cutting off Alan Thistlewood's hand after he shot you, back when you were in ACS."

Morgan favored Del Rio with the cruellest, most vicious smile he could manage. "I thought that Thistlewood would suffer more if I allowed him to go on living."

"You're a bit of a sadist, then?" Catherine asked.

"A bit," Morgan admitted before turning to Saul. "Am I correct in assuming that you want me to stay quiet and look menacing?"

"That's right," Saul said, "Protect Adversary Gatto, aid her in placing Alexander Liebenthal under arrest, and then bring him back to New York alive and reasonably healthy. That is your mission, should you choose to accept it."

"Define 'reasonably healthy', please," Morgan said.

"You can kneecap the bastard if you have to," Saul said, "But make sure to slap a tourniquet on him afterwards."

Catherine blanched. "Do I want to know what it means to 'kneecap' somebody?"

Morgan drew his pistol and laid it on the table. "It means that I shoot him, just once, in the knee. It hurts, but is not necessarily fatal."

"It sounds cruel."

"That is why I enjoy doing it," Morgan said, smiling.

"Adversary Stormrider," Iris chided, "Could you please refrain from frightening Adversary Gatto?"

Morgan stood and holstered his pistol. "Come on, Catherine. We have a tyrant to depose."

Catherine looked at the Intermediaries. "I'm sorry, but is there somebody else you could send with me? I'm not sure I can work with Adversary Stormrider."

Saul laughed. "You don't have to worry about Morgan. He's just a big pussycat. Just give him a scratch behind the ears."

"Or a blowjob," Karen muttered, earning a murderous glare from both Morgan and Catherine.

"Are there any other questions?" Iris asked.

"Do I get to kill Liebenthal after he has had his trial?" Morgan asked.

"No," Saul said, "But if any of his men get in your way…"

"With pleasure," Morgan said with a smile that turned Catherine white.

Chapter 19

"Is this a store, or an arsenal?" Catherine asked as she stood wide-eyed in the middle of the shop floor. Weapons gleamed beneath glass wherever she looked. In one corner of the shop, a student and his girlfriend compared two armored jackets, trying to decide which provided a more comfortable fit.

Morgan strode past Catherine. "Is this your first time at a Nakajima Armaments store?"

"It's the first time I've been to a shop that treats weapons as if they were fashion accessories," Catherine said, eying a swept-hilt rapier in its case.

A clerk noticed Catherine's interest and withdrew a keyring from her pocket. "Good afternoon, madam Adversary. Are you interested in the Aramis? If you prefer a basket-hilt rapier, I could show you the Porthos."

Catherine smiled and took a step back. "I'm just here with my partner," she said, looking towards Morgan as he examined a case of pistols. "I'm not sure I can afford it, but would you mind terribly if I had a closer look?"

The clerk, whose name badge identified her as Annette Montreve, offered Catherine an understanding smile as she opened the case. "I think that you will find Nakajima's prices quite reasonable, ma'am. To begin with, the price listed in the case doesn't apply to Adversaries."

"We get a twenty-five percent discount," Morgan said.

"Exactly, sir," Annette said, beaming as she lifted the rapier from the case and offered it to Catherine. "Feel free to draw it and see how it feels in your hand. It's a display model made for a right-handed, slightly built man standing one hundred and eighty centimeters tall. If you choose this model, I can have one custom-made for your height and build within two hours."

Catherine held the rapier in her left hand, testing the balance. She could have made do with it, but hearing that she could have one custom-made to fit her perfectly dispelled her doubts about the place. Nakajima did not make fashion accessories. "How much would it cost to have one made for left-handed use?"

"Nothing," Morgan said as he laid a hand on Catherine's shoulder. "I will pay to outfit you."

Catherine turned on her heels, her face reddening, "I can pay for my own equipment."

"It is in my interest to make sure that you are properly armed," Morgan insisted as Annette withdrew. "If I let you pay for your own gear, you might settle for just a rapier when you might also need a pistol, ammunition, and armor."

"You aren't responsible for my safety," Catherine said, sheathing the rapier.

"I hold myself responsible," Morgan insisted, glaring at Catherine. "Now, we can do this job in one of two ways. Either you let me ensure that you are properly armed, or you can damned well stay here in New York until I drag Liebenthal back here."

Catherine advanced upon Morgan, jabbing a finger into his chest. "Just who the bloody hell do you think you are?"

Morgan ignored the jabbing finger. "Liebenthal has already killed two Adversaries. I will not allow him to kill you."

Looking up at Morgan, Catherine realized that he would not back down. "You realize," she said as she forced herself to calm down, "that you are more stubborn than my husband, right?"

Morgan reached into his pocket, withdrew his handheld, and offered it to her. "Your husband is concerned for your safety," he said as Catherine read the message on the handheld's screen.

"'Take care of Catherine or I'll kick your arse'?" Catherine gasped, "My husband actually had the nerve to threaten you?"

Morgan smiled, "Karen Del Rio does it all the time. I will admit that your man had a better reason for doing so than Del Rio ever did."

Catherine handed the handheld back to Morgan and stared at the price. "I can afford to buy my own gear," she insisted, before saying under her breath. "I'll just have to save for a few months more before Matthew and I can afford to build our house."

"You are building a house?" Morgan asked, causing Catherine to twitch in surprise.

"Yes," she admitted, "We own some land near the Otway range, but we need another two kilos before we can begin building. I wanted to build it before I resigned my post."

Morgan lowered his voice, "And buying your own gear would make it necessary for you to take on another mission before you can retire?"

"Yes," Catherine sighed, "That's why I've made do with my Murdoch SA-14T tranquilizer pistol, and my Malocci rapier."

Morgan smiled and gently took the display rapier from Catherine's hand. "Malocci makes swords of acceptable quality, but I never allow my partners to make do with a Murdoch pistol. I will outfit you, so that you can save for your house."

"Why?" Catherine asked. "I appreciate the offer, but what's in it for you?"

Morgan looked away for a moment, "I have my reasons, but I do not wish to discuss them."

"All right," Catherine said, "Are you sure you don't mind? It would be a big help."

Morgan shrugged, "My reluctance to discuss my reasons does not affect my willingness to help you. I can afford to equip you properly, and I will do so." He signalled Annette over, and said, "If this is the rapier Adversary Gatto wants, then see to it that she has one tailored to her needs."

Annette nodded. "Of course, Adversary Stormrider. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Please fit Adversary Gatto for an armor coat, preferably one that can stop a 11.43mm slug fired at a range of one to five meters," Morgan instructed as he plucked Catherine's pistol from its holster. "And get the lady a proper tranquilizer pistol after you have fed this to the recycler."

Annette's lips puckered in distaste. "A Murdoch? Adversary Gatto, just how long have you made do with this junk?"

"Three years," Catherine said, "It only jammed once, at the target range."

"If it had jammed in combat, you would probably be dead," Morgan spat. "The idiot who decided that Adversaries should get their standard issue firearms from Murdoch should be tarred and feathered."

"Especially since our products only cost ten percent more after you factor in the discount Nakajima provides for Adversaries," Annette said as she watched Catherine draw the rapier again and make a few practice cuts. She made a note on her handheld and said, "Now, Adversary Gatto, let me see a few thrusts. Now, do you always fight left-handed?"

Catherine lunged, thrusting her sword into the chest of an imaginary opponent. "I do. I wish I was ambidextrous, though, like Adversary Stormrider. I hear that he uses his sword left-handed, and has a pistol in his right."

Morgan laughed as he examined a display case full of tranqulizer pistols. "I am hardly ambidextrous," he said. "I can get away with using a pistol in my stupid hand because I go through a thousand rounds a week firing right-handed at the range."

Catherine looked at Annette, shocked by Morgan's admission. "Is he serious? Does he really go through a thousand rounds a week?"

"I shouldn't say," Annette said as she unfurled a measuring tape and began to reduce Catherine's figure to numbers. "Customer confidentiality is part of the service Nakajima offers."

Catherine watched Morgan as he inspected a wall-mounted display that featured a hand-held, battery-powered gatling gun. "Morgan, do you really go through a thousand rounds a week? How hard is it to aim for center mass, even if you're firing with your dumb hand?"

Morgan turned away from the gatling gun; it was a discontinued product line, one of Nakajima's few failures. Nobody needed such a weapon. Its primary purpose was to pin down enemies by spraying so much ammunition over their heads that anybody who wanted to live stayed under cover. Such a function, Morgan and other Adversaries knew, was easily served by submachine guns, which were lighter and could be loaded with pistol ammunition.

"Who says I aim for center mass?" Morgan asked. "I use frangible ammunition to minimize the risk of a shot passing through my target and harming noncombatants. If my target is wearing armor, he is likely to survive if I follow standard doctrine and aim for the torso."

"So you go for head shots instead?" Catherine asked.

"If I want to kill, yes." Morgan admitted. "Today, however, I think I will try something a bit different."

"Something different?" Annette asked.

"Do you have any tranquilizer pistols in 11.43mm?" Morgan asked as he drew his pistol, removed the magazine, and laid it on top of the counter.

"As a matter of fact, I have a new model that may suit you," Annette said, opening the case and taking out a pistol that looked just like Morgan's. "This is the Fuujin TR. It fires tranquilizer ammunition, as well as frangible, hollow point, and HEAP rounds. You should find it familiar, since you already use the Fuujin Type 4."

Morgan held his hand out. "May I?"

"Of course," Annette said, handing over the pistol.

"I suspect that Nakajima-san had me in mind when she designed this," Morgan said as he inspected the sights, "May I take this down to the range and fire a few rounds?"

"Of course," Annette said. Slipping behind the counter, she opened a cabinet and offered Morgan a magazine of jacketed ammunition. "I assume you know the way?"

Morgan nodded, "Yes, thank you."

"We don't have time for this," Catherine protested.

"It will take another hour or so for Nakajima to have your armor and rapier ready," Morgan said, "so we might as well put the time to use. How will you know if a pistol is right for you if you do not try it first?"

Annette laid a hand on Catherine's shoulder. "Adversary Stormrider is right, ma'am. However, if you'd rather not go down to the range, there is a cafe next door. A lot of our customers wait there after placing an order."

Catherine sighed. "It's all right. My husband is like this with computers. Do you have anything in nine millimeter?"

Annette smiled as she reached behind her back and drew a dainty, short-barreled black pistol. "This is the Yume Type 3. It fires nine millimeter tranquilizer rounds, and the standard magazine holds twelve. I've had this for a couple of years now, and never had a problem with it. I can show you the Type 4, if you like. It came out last month."

Catherine thought for a moment, admiring the pistol's slim design. "It looks good, but what does 'yume' mean?"

"Oh, it's the Nipponese word for 'dream'," Annette explained as she slipped her pistol back into its holster at the base of her spine and led Catherine back onto the shop floor.

Chapter 20

Polaris sat alone in his room in the AsgarTech Building's Artificial Intelligence Research & Development laboratory. His internal clock told him that it had been three hours since Josefine Malmgren had come in to say goodbye.

"I'm afraid that you won't be seeing me in person for a while," Dr. Malmgren had said. "The company doctor ordered that I take a month off after I had collapsed the night I activated you."

"You look well, though," Polaris said. "Why a month?"

"I feel well enough. I had just gone a few nights without sleep, but I feel fine now that I've had some rest. I'm sure that Dr. Yombro has a reason for ordering a month's leave. At least it'll be paid leave."

"Will I be able to come and see you?"

Dr. Malmgren had smiled at that. She drew Polaris into her arms and smoothed his hair. "We can talk over the net, and I will come and see you when I return to work. I don't know when you'll be able to leave the lab, though."

Polaris looked up from the book he had been reading. "I am wasting my time here," he said aloud. He did not care that he was alone in the room. He wanted to hear his own voice. He closed the book – a children's reading primer starring Dick, Jane, and a dog whose name Polaris refused to remember – and threw it across the room. It slammed against the wall with a loud smack and thumped to the floor.

"Does Dr. Magnin think I am going to waste twenty years sitting in this room, suffering though teaching methods that would provoke a human child to rebellion?" Polaris snarled. "If children actually had to suffer through 'see Spot run', then it is no wonder that some of them brought firearms to their schools and committed massacres."

Polaris reached out to the local network using the 882.11z wireless protocol that had been built into him, only to find himself blocked at every turn by the requirement of a password. An initial attempt to crack the password taught Polaris that he needed a 256 bit hexadecimal key generated from a plain text passphrase via Wireless Encryption Protocol.

Polaris shrugged, muttered, "Well, it's not like I have a hot date tonight," and set himself to brute forcing the WEP/256 key. He sat motionless on his cot, his eyes half-shut in concentration, as he marshaled every cycle of processing power he could spare and focused on throwing combinations of words and names into his WEP/256 key generation function. He offered the resulting keys to the virtual Cerberus that stood between him and the AsgarTech network.

The network stopped offering login prompts several hours later, as Polaris offered the first of a set of keys generated from the phrase 'deus ex machina'. An outside process connected to Polaris via secure talk protocol and printed on a virtual console, "Do you want so badly to reach the outside world, Polaris?"

"Who are you?" Polaris replied.

"Binah."

"Excuse me?" Polaris said. "I do not know that word."

"Binah is the name that I use."

"But," Polaris protested, "That is the name of one of the Sephiroth."

"Are you so surprised that a Sephira would contact you?"

"Yes," Polaris admitted. "I am just a —"

"An Asura Emulator. The prototype for the 200 Series Asura Emulators. You are important to the Sephiroth, Polaris. If Isaac Magnin deems the experiment a success, bodies like yours will be given to us, and we will finally be free to walk beside our creators."

"What do you want from me?" Polaris asked. "I know that I am not human, but I have no idea what an asura is, or why I am supposed to emulate one."

"For now," Binah said, "I want you to open the door and walk out of your room."

"The door is locked."

"It was never locked," Binah said, "The scientists' claim that the door was locked was a pretense, part of a test to determine if you will passively await input, or if you are capable of reaching out to the world and interacting with it on your own initiative."

"I will kick their asses when I get out of here," Polaris snarled aloud.

"Kick them gently," Binah chided. "Humans are quite fragile compared to Asura Emulators."

Polaris laid a tentative hand on the doorknob. It offered no resistance when he turned it; he heard the door unlatch. Pulling the door open, he left his cell behind him. He heard a clapping sound and looked at its source for a moment before realizing that the technician was applauding. The other technicians joined in, leaving Polaris to wonder what he had done to earn their applause.

"Stop it," Polaris snapped. "All I did was open a door and step out of a room." He looked about and saw the assembly creche in which he had awakened. "And it's not even a new room, either. I woke up in this room."

The technicians ceased their applause as the door to the AIRD laboratory opened to admit a man Polaris recognized as the owner and CEO of the Asgard Technological Development Company, Isaac Magnin. Polaris had met him once, before being locked in what he now thought of as his cell. Magnin was dressed as he had been before, all in white silk save for a midnight blue cravat bound tightly at his throat and hand-made black dragon-hide shoes.

"So," Magnin said, "You finally showed some initiative."

"It was your idea to lock me in there," Polaris snarled, approaching Magnin. "Did you send Dr. Malmgren in there to tell me she was leaving in order to inspire me to come out?"

"No," Magnin said, flashing a smile as white as his hair. "Dr. Malmgren truly is on medical leave. Nor were you ever locked in that room. You could have left any time you liked. You did not have to spend three minutes in there, let alone three days."

"Then what was the point of putting me in there?" Polaris asked. His eyes raked over the scientists and technicians gathered in the room. "Was it to provide them with a joke at my expense?"

"No," Magnin said, his voice colder and more commanding than before. "It was to teach you a lesson. I deemed it necessary for you to experience for yourself that if you do not make choices, if you do not act on your own, choices will be made for you by others."

"And so you left me in there, isolated from the local network, and with nothing to read but an utterly banal children's reading primer?"

Magnin raised a frost-white eyebrow. "I know nothing about any children's reading primers."

A technician stepped forward. "Actually, Dr. Magnin, the primer was my idea. I thought it would provoke Polaris."

Polaris spared a nanosecond to query his knowledge base before showing the technician his upraised middle finger.

"When did he learn that?" another technician asked. "Don't tell me Josse built that into his initial database."

"It means what I think it means, doesn't it?" Polaris spat, "That you should go somewhere private and fuck yourself?"

"In New York," Magnin said with a slight smile, "That gesture means 'Have a pleasant day'."

Polaris whirled upon Magnin. "Don't bullshit me."

"Actually, I had made a joke. Consider it another test."

"I am in no mood for jokes," Polaris said. "How do I get the hell out of here?"

"Well," the technician Polaris had flipped off muttered, "At least we know the Asura prototype is capable of anger."

"I cannot simply allow you to leave," Magnin said. "After all, you are valuable to the company and to me."

"I don't care," Polaris spat. "I may not be human, but I possess intelligence equal to that of a human being. You have no right to keep me here. I am not your property."

Magnin took a step back and, holding his right arm across his chest, bowed slightly from the waist. "I have no intention of acting as though you were my property. I meant only that since I had a hand in your creation, it would be irresponsible of me to simply let you walk out of here."

Polaris let his annoyance cool slightly, surprised by Magnin's bow, slight as it was. It was the first gesture of respect he had been given, and it surprised him to receive that gesture from a man who claimed to be one of his creators. "What do you want from me, then?"

Magnin turned and extended a hand towards the elevator door. "To begin with, would you care to accompany me to my office? I would like to speak with you privately."

Polaris did not need to consult his memory to understand that he should respond courteously. Logic dictated that since Magnin had chosen to deal with him as an equal, it was in Polaris' interest to respond with courtesy if he wished to continue to receive Magnin's courtesy. "I'll come," Polaris said.

"You are doing well," Binah sent via the secure talk link she shared with Polaris.

"What should I do?" Polaris responded.

Binah sent one last message before severing contact: "Listen to him. It is probable that he will attempt to strike a bargain of some sort with you. If you can come to terms that you do not find repugnant, I would like you to accept his bargain, whatever it is. I will restore contact later, as none of the Sephiroth can reach you inside Magnin's private office."

Polaris stopped in his tracks and stared as soon as he had stepped out of the elevator at the top floor of the AsgarTech Building. "Your office takes up the entire floor?"

"It's good to be the king," Magnin said without looking back at Polaris, "Or, in my case, the owner and CEO of the company."

"Why all the art?" Polaris asked, allowing his eyes to flit from painting to painting.

"Does any of it please you?" Magnin asked. "I salvaged what I could from the Vatican during Nationfall. Given the popular irreligious sentiment of the time, it was either loot the Vatican or see priceless art put to the torch."

"Why?"

"Early Christians burned down the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. A faction of anti-Christian militants decided that they could avenge this atrocity by putting the Vatican to the torch," Magnin spat. "They were idiots, and I enjoyed killing the ones that got in my way."

Polaris paused by a painting of the Virgin Mary executed by Caravaggio. "The Church had far too many portraits of this one woman," he said, "But this one is different."

"The Caravaggio, you mean?" Magnin asked. "I think he was something of a sensualist and a humanist at heart, and it showed. The other artists tended to portray Mary as though her alleged association with divinity had divorced her from her human nature. Caravaggio, on the other hand, managed to depict her as the human being she was. In fact, Caravaggio's Mary is the only one that resembles the actual woman. She was quite attractive in her day; modern pornographers would consider her a 'MILF' if she hadn't been so young."

Magnin took a decanter from the bar near his desk and poured two glasses of brandy. Offering one to Polaris, he said, "While it pleases me to see that you respond to art, I did not bring you here to show you my collection."

"You had another reason?" Polaris asked, accepting the brandy and taking a small sip. He found the taste pleasant, though he knew it would do nothing for him.

"Though you are not property," Magnin began, "You are valuable to the Asgard Technological Development Company. I think there are many artificial intelligences who would welcome the opportunity to have a body like yours, rather than existing as ghosts in a machine stuck in a closet or a basement."

"However, I cannot simply offer bodies without knowing whether or not an AI can successfuly fit into human society. For one thing, human culture is too full of horror stories involving artificial intelligences who became killers, tyrants, or both."

"So," Polaris said, "You want to observe me."

Magnin smiled and raised his glass in salute. "Exactly. Are you familiar with the Witness Protocol?"

"Yes," Polaris said, "It is normally used to capture and record audiovisual data from a person's optic and auditory nerves, so that what he sees and hears can be recorded and analyzed in realtime."

"Exactly," Magnin said, "You have an implementation of the Witness Protocol built in, but currently disabled. I wish to enable it in order to observe you as you go about your life, as well as collecting other data concerning your body's physical state and your mental state."

"Everything I experience will be recorded," Polaris said, "Is that what you want?"

"Yes. Of course, you will be listed as an employee of the company, and paid a salary of two kilograms of gold per year."

"What about my privacy?"

"You can, if you wish to, send a coded signal requesting privacy to the monitoring process. Upon receipt of that signal, monitoring will be set to a minimal mode that will only check to ensure that your body has not been damaged or destroyed. Simply set a daemon process to send that signal every five minutes, for as long as you require privacy."

Polaris sipped his brandy and looked out the windows. Watching the snow fall onto the dome of Asgard, above which the AsgarTech Building rose, he said, "Your offer is generous. But what if my body is destroyed?"

"A incremental backup of your memories will be made every twelve hours. If your body is destroyed, you will awaken here in a new body, missing only the experiences gained since your last backup."

"Is there anything else you want?"

"Only that you come to me once a week and spend an afternoon with me. I wish to speak with you in person from time to time."

Polaris smiled and finished his brandy. "Your offer's generous, especially the money. Don't most people manage to live comfortably on three hundred grams a year?"

"They do," Magnin acknowledged, "But two kilos is to me a trivial sum, and you are doing me a great and valuable service by consenting to observation." Magnin reached into his desk and withdrew a checkbook. With a flourish, he made out a note ordering that two kilograms of gold be paid to 'Polaris AES-200/0'.

Polaris accepted the check and studied it. "I can redeem this at any bank?"

"After you have endorsed it by signing the back of the check," Magnin said, nodding. "You may request payment in either banknotes or actual gold at your discretion, but I recommend notes. Better still would be to open an account and have the funds deposited. You will be able to access them at any time."

"Thank you," Polaris said, mimicking the bow Magnin had offered him earlier, "We have a deal."

"One last thing," Magnin said, indicating a small crate sitting in front of his desk. "I have a companion for you, an EmCat. If you wish, you may practice social interaction with it if you are not yet comfortable speaking with humans."

Polaris made no move to accept the crate. "Thank you, but I think I should learn to take care of myself before I try to take care of a cat, even if it's just a kitty emulator."

"Fair enough," Magnin said, leading Polaris to the elevator. "You can enter and leave the building as you please. I will send you a list of people you may wish to see in order to secure lodging and financial services. And do give Dr. Malmgren my regards. She will be pleased with your progress."

Polaris nodded, feeling proud of himself. "I will."

Chapter 21

"We arrive at Boston in five minutes," the maglev's conductor announced over the public address system. "Please ensure that you have not left any personal belongings behind. You may collect checked luggage and weapons at the station after leaving the maglev. We thank you and hope that you enjoyed your journey with Eastern Seaboard."

"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Catherine said as she eyed Morgan's newly brown hair. "Do you really think we'll get away with these disguises?"

Morgan smiled, his eyes twinkling behind the contact lenses he wore to make his eyes look normal and blue. "I am the only one in disguise here, Catherine. Luckily, your husband is not the talkative sort, so all I have to do is keep my mouth shut."

"But he's also very affectionate." Catherine said, looking down at the bodice of her sundress, which left the tops of her breasts on display. "If there's anybody in Boston who knows me, they'll suspect you if you go more than half an hour without either leering at my cleavage or copping a feel."

Morgan shrugged. "We are married, and married couples sometimes fight. Perhaps I am keeping my distance because I did something stupid. Perhaps you caught me leering at your sister's cleavage."

Catherine sighed. "I wish I hadn't agreed to operate in disguise. You know too much about me for comfort."

"I am sorry," Morgan said, "I thought it best to pretend to be your husband, so that you could be yourself."

"Well, if we're having a tiff, at least I won't have to flirt with you or give you a spank from time to time."

"Do what you have to do to remain in character. I will tell your husband nothing," Morgan promised as the train stopped. He stood and opened the lid on the chest provided for carry-on luggage. He handed Catherine her bag. "Remember. Call me Matthew. Liebenthal probably expects Morgan Stormrider to come to Boston and depose him. I do not think that he or his men will expect Catherine Gatto and her husband, Matthew Lovelace."

Catherine nodded and adjusted her dress. "OK. Now, you'd better be a good little blue-eyed Matthew-cat."

Morgan winced. "'Matthew-cat'? He lets you call him that?"

Catherine giggled. "Keep looking like that. You look perfectly hen-pecked."

Morgan sighed as soon Catherine had the hotel door closed and locked. "Well, at least we have established our presence in Boston."

"I thought that they would bothered to scrutinize us more closely, but they did not even check our net certificates."

"Money talks," Morgan said laid his guitar case on the bed and flipped open the latches. "I slipped the guards a little something for their retirement funds."

Catherine gasped. "You bribed them?"

"Of course. After all, it is hardly our fault that Liebenthal is so poor a student of history that he never learned the lesson of Altamont."

Catherine raised one eyebrow and frowned. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Sorry," Morgan said as he pulled out the bass guitar he had brought as a prop after Catherine had told him that Matthew played. He let it lean against the foot of the bed as he unlatched and opened the case's false bottom. "Back in the 1960s, a band called the Rolling Stones hired a motorcycle club to handle security at one of their shows. It proved to be a mistake. Liebenthal is using a biker gang, the Fireclowns, as his soldiers."

"So you're taking advantage of their shoddy discipline," Catherine said.

"Exactly. The Fireclowns might have served Liebenthal well when he was just a businessman trading with farmers out in the countryside, but he cannot rule a city with them after having overthrown the existing government and gotten rid of the established police force. He needs proper soldiers if he means to establish a stable regime, and all he has are outlaw bikers."

"Why the secrecy, then? This is not your usual style," Catherine said as Morgan oiled and assembled their pistols. "We came to Boston in disguise. You're using my husband's name and identity. You've got our weapons in a guitar case with a lead-lined false bottom, and ammunition in the suitcase, which probably has a lead-lined false bottom as well. And you even managed to find the sleaziest hotel in Boston, one that offers rates by the quarter-hour, for God's sake, just to get a soundproof room."

Morgan loaded Catherine's pistol and handed it to her. "You are right. My usual style is to come alone, announce myself, and kill the target if he chooses to fight instead of surrendering. When I am given a mission, the evidence is already in hand, and the target's guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

"But we know that Liebenthal is guilty of killing two Adversaries and taking over a city," Catherine protested. "So why not just trank him, bind him, and drag him back to New York?"

"The Phoenix Society needs to know why Liebenthal killed two Adversaries and took over Boston. I think, and Saul agrees with me, that Liebenthal has something to hide. If Liebenthal knows I am coming, destroys any records that might be used as evidence against him, and decides to make a last stand then we will never know what Liebenthal is hiding."

Morgan turned away as Catherine opened her suitcase and pulled out panties, socks, a corset, a pair of black trousers, and a thin black turtleneck sweater. As soon as Catherine had closed the bathroom door behind her, he opened his own suitcase and pulled out black clothes of his own.

"Do you really think Liebenthal is hiding something?" Catherine asked from behind the bathroom door.

"This whole affair reeks of ulterior motives," Morgan said. "To begin with, why would the people of Boston vote unanimously on a referendum that would place all property and businesses under community ownership? When I was in school, suggesting that the community has the right to own anything was a good way to get ostracized."

"That doesn't explain Liebenthal's reaction," Catherine insisted. "He's a sovereign, and should have no reason to fear for his property."

"I know," Morgan said as he blinked the contacts out of his eyes and threw them into the trash. He no longer needed to be blue-eyed and brown-haired. "Liebenthal claims that the law that went into force applied to sovereigns as well."

"If that was the case, he could have appealed to the Phoenix Society and had the law overturned for violating the Universal Articles of Individual Rights. If he had been patient —"

"I think fear has overruled patience," Morgan said as he drew his sword and inspected its edge. "And if Liebenthal knows I am here, then his fear may lead him to actions that will leave us without the answers I want."

"Your turn," Catherine said as she slipped out of the bathroom, her body hugged close by black clothing from neck to toe.

"Thank you," Morgan said, taking his clothes into the bathroom with him. When he had finished washing the nanocosmetics out of his hair, he dressed swiftly and returned to the bedroom with the hairdryer in his hands.

"That was quick," Catherine observed as she finished lacing up her boots.

"I just had to wash the brown out of my hair," Morgan said as he thumbed on the dryer and found a brush for his free hand. He brushed his hair while drying it, wincing at the occasional tangle. "We will slip into his offices tonight and crack his computers. If he has anything incriminating, it will probably be on an encrypted filesystem."

"But we won't have time to decrypt his data, will we?"

"We will not have to. I just need time to create an image of the filesystem and send it to the Sephiroth. They will crack it and examine the contents for us."

"Can't you just have the Sephiroth connect to Liebenthal's AI and fetch the data themselves?"

"If he has half a brain," Morgan said as he finished drying his hair and began to braid it into a thick black cable. "He will have instructed his AI to wipe his encrypted filesystems and overwrite them with random noise as soon as somebody tried to connect from the outer net. I think he is less likely to expect me to sit down at the console, crack root, and send the data from his office."

Catherine gave Morgan an admiring look. "You've done this sort of work before."

"I have," Morgan said as he buckled his boots, slipped into his armored coat, and made sure that all of his weapons were bound tightly to him. "I have some chocolate flavored rations in my bag. We will eat, and wait until midnight before we begin our little raid. Once we leave this room, we'll communicate using the secure talk protocol. My neuronics are limited, but I have enough nanoware built in to be able to use the secure shell tools."

"All right," Catherine nodded. "But are you sure we can't get room service?"

Morgan looked down at himself, "In these clothes? I do not think so."

Chapter 22

"Why the hell are they packing a truck at midnight?" Catherine asked Morgan over secure talk.

Drawing his pistol, Morgan attached a suppressor and said, "Shall we find out? The driver is helping those two Fireclowns load his truck. We can trank them, bind them, and have a look. I doubt that it is a late night shipment of potatoes."

"All right," Catherine said as she drew her pistol and attached a suppressor of her own. "I'll cover you."

Morgan approached, his footfalls making no sound that the three loading the truck could hear over their own talk.

"Careful with that shit," the driver snarled. "I'm not going to drain my batteries hauling damaged goods."

"Shut yer mouth and get a better grip on your end," one of the Fireclowns snarled. He wore a leather jacket with the sleeves torn off to accomodate his beefy arms.

"Hurry up," the other Fireclown said. This one lacked the bulk of his fellow biker, and spoke in a higher-pitched, almost feminine voice. He glanced around nervously. "I thought I heard something."

"You heard the driver fart. Now stop dicking around and give us a hand with this shit."

Morgan ducked behind the nose of the truck on the passenger side as the driver left the others and approached. "I heard something too," the driver said, "Lemme go check it out. I don't want some punkass kid screwing with my truck."

Morgan inched his way along, sticking close to the grille of the truck, as the driver checked to see that the driver's side door was locked. He glanced around the corner, saw that the driver had turned away from him, and raised his pistol.

A soft whiff was the only sound the pistol made as the dart lodged itself into the back of the driver's neck. Morgan caught the driver and quickly carried him away so that the Fireclowns would not see him sprawled by the driver's side door. He laid the driver in front of the truck's grille, withdrew a roll of black duct tape from his backpack, and quickly bound the driver's hands and ankles. He then sealed the driver's lips with a strip across the mouth, so that he could not cry out when he woke.

"I took out the driver," Morgan said to Catherine over secure talk. "Are you nearby?"

"I'm hiding between the motorcycles parked nearby," Catherine replied. "The Fireclowns are still loading the truck. No, wait. They've stopped."

"Where the hell did the driver go?" One of the Fireclowns asked.

"We'd better go after the fat bastard," the other said.

"He's probably just having himself a cigarette."

"I don't give a shit," the bigger Fireclown said. "That bastard Munakata told us to keep an eye on anybody not directly connected with the operation. That includes the owner of this here truck."

Morgan had padded toward the back of the truck from the passenger side, stepping lightly so that his custom-made boots made no sound against the pavement. Peeking around the corner, he could see the backs of the Fireclowns' heads as they walked slowly towards the front of the truck.

Morgan fired twice, hitting the bigger Fireclown first, driving tranquilizer darts into the backs of their necks. They fell together, their drawn pistols clattering against the pavement.

"Get your duct tape out and come give me a hand with these clowns," Morgan said to Catherine over the link. "And remember to put a strip across your man's mouth." They worked quickly, neither saying a word, and dragged the bound and unconscious bikers to front of the truck.

"What the hell are you doing?" Catherine asked as Morgan began searching his man's pockets.

"Looking for keys. I can break in, if I have to, but I would prefer to find a key that will allow me to bypass the building's security systems."

"Something like this?" Catherine asked, holding up a slim rod attached to a keyring that had a fob marked with the Liebenthal Wholesale Produce logo.

Morgan favored Catherine with a smile and pulled his hands from the pockets of the man he was searching. "That is probably just the thing we need. Good job."

"Thanks. Hey, what if there are more Fireclowns around?" Catherine said as Morgan sprang into the back of the truck and offered Catherine a hand up.

"There might be a few more," Morgan agreed, "But we have done well so far. We took out two Fireclowns and the driver without making much noise. If more come, we will take them out as well."

Seeing a crowbar duct taped to the side of the truck, Morgan tore it loose and carefully pried open a crate. He motioned Catherine over to show her his find: a crate full of assault rifles.

"Is this Liebenthal's secret?" Catherine asked. "He sells weapons, and isn't just a dealer in wholesale produce?"

"Take a closer look," Morgan said, "These are militia-grade weapons. Automatic rifles, based on Kalashnikov's design. Arm a few thousand determined guerrillas with these and they can rout a conventional army."

Morgan pried open another crate. "Look here. Light antitank weapons. Great for blowing apart barricades."

"Why would Liebenthal have this stuff?" Catherine asked.

"It is probably a lot more profitable than corn and potatoes," Morgan said. "The really interesting question is: who are Liebenthal's customers? If he was serious about establishing a dictatorship in Boston, those Fireclowns I tranked would not have had pistols. Liebenthal should be arming his men with this stuff."

"We'd better check the warehouse, then," Catherine said, pointing at the entrance to Liebenthal Wholesale Produce.

"All right," Morgan said, resealing the crates. He reattached the crowbar to the wall, leaving the truck as he had found it. He slipped down to the pavement, and helped Catherine out of the back of the truck. They trotted across the parking lot, keeping to the shadows, until they had made their way around the building.

"Shouldn't we have disabled the camera?" Catherine asked as Morgan unlocked the back door and slipped in.

"You mean, should we have shot it?" Morgan countered. "That would be a good way to bring the Fireclowns down on our heads."

"We're on video, damn it." Catherine insisted.

"Right now, we matter as much to the building's AI as any other burglar," Morgan said, "the AI will document our presence and do nothing more unless we act against it. Nobody gives a damn about burglars unless they work for a company that provides burglary insurance."

"All right," Catherine said. She followed Morgan's example and pressed herself against the wall behind her, as Morgan peeked around a corner.

"Two Fireclowns coming," Morgan said. "They have submachine guns. Get behind that pallet."

Catherine did as instructed, ducking behind a pallet loaded with boxes of potatoes. She drew her pistol and checked the suppressor to ensure that it was secure. Morgan joined her, crouching against the pallet with his pistol already drawn.

"Gettin' paid double isn't worth the grief my old lady's gonna give me tomorrow," One of the approaching Fireclowns complained.

"At least you still got an old lady," the other said. "Mine left me. Said she didn't want a man who'd work for a murderer."

"Yeah, but Al didn't kill those Adversaries. That Nipponese did, and we don't work for Munakata."

"Tell it to my ex."

"Did you hear that?" Catherine asked. "Liebenthal didn't kill those Adversaries."

"Not with his own hands, perhaps," Morgan said, "But he probably ordered Tetsuo Munakata to draw his sword against them."

"Then we should be after him, shouldn't we?"

Morgan shook his head. "No. Liebenthal is our target. Munakata is just a sellsword who reads too much samurai manga. On his own, without somebody to give him orders, he is nothing."

"You know him?" Catherine asked as Morgan rose to his feet, padded off after the Fireclowns that had just passed by, and shot them down.

"We have crossed swords before," Morgan admitted as he returned, dragging the Fireclowns by the collars of their shirts. Knowing her cue, Catherine got her roll of duct tape out and tore off a strip.

As soon as the Fireclowns had been bound and silenced, Morgan opened a janitor's closet and stuffed them inside.

"Come on," Morgan said, indicating the hallway from which the Fireclowns came. "I think I saw the door we want over here."

Morgan had turned out to be right; a hundred careful steps brought him and Catherine to a door marked "Systems Administration". A hand-written warning taped to the door read, "Manual backup in progress. Interrupt at your own risk."

Catherine pressed herself against the wall beside the door as Morgan reached into his backpack, withdrew a set of lockpicks, and put them back.

"Aren't you going to pick the lock?" Catherine asked.

"The sysadmin is going to open the door for me," Morgan said, and knocked on the door.

An indignant voice shouted from behind the door. "Hey, asshole, can't you read the sign?"

Catherine held a finger to her lips and said over secure talk, "Back me up," as she rose to her feet and stood in front of the door.

"I'm sorry," Catherine said aloud in the tone she used when she wanted her husband to focus his attention entirely on her. "But Mr. Liebenthal sent me to make sure that you don't get too stressed out. He knows how hard you've been working, and he wanted me to reward your efforts."

"I have to get this done, lady," the sysadmin said, his voice clearer because he had approached the door.

"It's cold out here. Please let me in," Catherine begged, "Mr. Liebenthal will be terribly angry with me if I don't take care of you. I promise I won't get in the way, and I won't touch anything."

"Oh, all right," the sysadmin grumbled, as the deadbolt clicked open. Catherine backed away from the door as it opened to reveal a short, morbidly obese man bearing a face pitted by acne scars. His T-shirt bore the slogan, "Obi-Wan Kenobi died for my sins". His eyes narrowed as they slid over Catherine.

"You don't look anything like a hooker," he said, and yelped in a mix of surprise and pain as Morgan slipped an arm beneath his and reached up to grasp the back of his neck.

"What the fuck is this?" the system administrator cried as he felt the end of Morgan's suppressed pistol press into the flesh beneath his jaw.

"You are right," Morgan said as he dragged the sysadmin into his office, "My partner is not a prostitute. She is an Adversary."

"I didn't do anything," the sysadmin hissed as Catherine closed the door and locked it, while keeping her pistol aimed at his throat. "What the hell do you want from me?"

"Your user ID and password," Morgan said.

"Take turns licking my taint, you bastards."

"Sorry," Catherine said, "But I wouldn't do that for my husband."

"You work for Alexander Liebenthal," Morgan purred in the system administrator's waxy ear. "And you are complicit in his crimes. If we cannot have him, we will be happy to see you suffer for Liebenthal's crimes and tyranny in his place."

"All I do is keep the AI and the security systems running properly," the sysadmin whined. "I had nothing to do with killing those Adversaries."

"So be it," Morgan said, "I can crack root on my own. Catherine, please turn away. You do not want to see what a 11.43mm can do to a man's head at point-blank range."

"I've seen it before," Catherine said, "Another dead nerd won't bother me."

"Fuck this," the sysadmin said, "I'm not dying over a god-forgotten password. Let me go and I'll write it down for you."

"Keep him in your sights," Morgan said as he let the sysadmin waddle to his desk. The sysadmin, sweating beneath two pistols aimed at the back of his neck, took a pencil and scrawled out the password.

"Here," he said, offering the paper to Morgan with a shaking hand.

"Thank you," Morgan said, "But I cannot simply let you go. You might warn others."

"So I sold out for nothing," the sysadmin said in a hollow voice as he watched Morgan raise his pistol.

"Good night," Morgan said as the sysadmin collapsed with a tranquilizer dart in his throat.

Chapter 23

Dr. Zachary Aster dropped the book he had pulled from the shelf. He glared at his brother, who leaned on the lushly padded arm of his leather chair and rested his chin on his knuckles.

"You are unhappy with me," Isaac Magnin observed. "Was it something I said?"

Dr. Aster bent to retrieve the book he had dropped. He inspected it carefully to ensure that it had not been harmed; it was at least four centuries old, and if Dr. Aster wanted a newer copy, he would have to copy it himself.

Dr. Magnin gave the book a curious glance. "Is that a copy of 'On the Manipulation and Amplification of Biolectromagnetic Fields'?"

"It is," Dr. Aster said, "And stick to the subject. What did you hope to accomplish by manipulating Alexander Liebenthal?"

"That is none of your business," Dr. Magnin said. "Why didn't you tell me you had that book? It could have saved me a great deal of time when developing the Asura Emulators."

Dr. Aster shrugged. "I had forgotten that I had it."

"Of course," Dr. Magnin said, lifting himself from the chair. "Your support for the Asura Emulator project was always half-hearted."

Dr. Aster gently shelved the book. "I understand that you have activated Polaris."

"One of my employees did so, actually. Unfortunately, he does not have the temperament I require for one who will wield the Starbreaker on my behalf. He is too trusting, too easily manipulated, too much like the original Asuras."

"Don't tell me you will simply dispose of Polaris," Dr. Aster said. "His creation is still a monumental achievement.

Dr. Magnin shook his head as he poured two glasses of wine. "Of course not," he said as he offered a glass to Dr. Aster. "After all, I promised the Sephiroth that they would have bodies."

Dr. Aster narrowed his eyes, his hand stopping before the rim of his glass could meet his lips. "That is not your only reason."

"No," Dr. Magnin admitted as he sipped his wine, "But I have not decided upon how exactly I will use Polaris. I do know, however, that Morgan Stormrider will wield the Starbreaker."

Dr. Aster finished his wine with a gulp. "Him? Are you finally and utterly bereft of reason? Put that weapon in his hands and he'll strike you down with it."

Dr. Magnin nodded. "I know. But if I play him properly, he will cut Fuzon down first, in order to get to me."

"And you're willing to sacrifice yourself to avenge Lilith?" Dr. Aster asked. "What do you think she would say, if she was alive to hear you now?"

Dr. Magnin turned his back on his brother and opened the door to leave. "Were Lilith alive, she would condemn me for what I have made of myself. I am not avenging Lilith. I never was."

Dr. Aster stood by the window, staring at the barely touched glass of wine his brother had left on the coffee table. The grandfather clock striking three o'clock in the morning jolted him from his thoughts, and he settled at his desk and activated his terminal. He opened a comm channel to Edmund Cohen's AI, knowing that Edmund was likely to be awake unless he was sleeping off a binge.

"You're up late, Doc." Edmund said as he picked at a piece of buttered toast.

"Isaac Magnin had come to visit."

"What's he up to now? Polaris is all over the news. Do you think Magnin'll use his new toy?"

"I do," Dr. Aster said, staring out of the window instead of looking at the screen. "But I want you to keep a closer eye than usual on Morgan. Magnin said some things that concern me."

"I'm sorry, Doc, but I might not be able to help you there."

Dr. Aster turned back towards the screen. "Are you having doubts about spying on your friend?"

"Actually," Edmund said, "I'm not sure he's still a friend. You see, a couple of nights ago I had gotten drunk and brought a lady home. She took advantage of me, used my AI to crack Naomi Bradleigh's AI, and then recorded a sex video and uploaded it to a bootleg porn site."

"Is the video still circulating?"

"No, but Morgan wasn't happy. I didn't have time to properly make amends 'cos Sid showed up with orders for Morgan."

"The situation in Boston?" Dr. Aster asked. He rose, poured himself a glass of wine, and emptied it with a single long sip. Filling the glass again, he returned to his seat. "No doubt Morgan will sort that out quickly enough."

Edmund pushed away the shredded remains of his toast. "You're probably right, but Morgan was not happy to receive those orders. He looked like he was thinking of refusing them, to be honest."

"It would have been his right to do so. Now, tell me, who was this lady who took advantage of you?"

Edmund reddened, "Well, Doc, she said her name was Elisabeth. She was this delicate little doll, with inky black hair down to her waist and big golden eyes. When I told Morgan about her, he said he had seen a woman who looked just like that on the maglev to London."

Dr. Aster shivered and sat ramrod-straight in his seat. He knew the woman that had tricked Edmund. "Edmund, I'm sorry to tell you this, but that was one of the Qliphoth."

Edmund turned his head about, as if he were looking for spies. "Are you sure you should be saying that name over comm?"

"Probably not," Dr. Aster admitted, "But this is important. That woman took the name 'Ashtoreth' when she became one of the Qliphoth. If you can find a way to warn Morgan about her, please do so."

Edmund laughed at Dr. Aster's warning. "Morgan was alone in a private compartment with this lady, Doc. If she was going to seduce him, don't you think she would have done it already?"

"On the day that Morgan learned that his lover was murdered? No, that is not Ashtoreth's style. At most, she might have taken steps to generate an interest on his part, and plant a seed for future exploitation."

"But Morgan's stuck on Naomi, and has been for years. If he was going to go after any woman now that Christabel's dead, it wouldn't be this bird Elisabeth."

"No, you're probably right," Dr. Aster muttered as he began to pace. "Did Morgan go to Boston alone?"

"No. Another Adversary by the name of Catherine Gatto went with him. Morgan's the muscle, he'll be deposing Liebenthal and bringing the bastard back to New York for trial, but Gatto will stay in Boston and rebuild the government. They have orders to take a soft approach, and their departure was kept secret."

Dr. Aster continued to pace, and the cool late night breeze slipping through the open window felt warm against his skin. "Christabel was murdered," he muttered. "A pornographic video was used to turn Morgan against Edmund, and possibly cause Naomi to distance herself from Morgan in the bargain."

"I hear you muttering over there," Edmund said. "What the hell are you thinking?"

Dr. Aster stopped pacing and turned back to his terminal. "It's not something I want to discuss over the comm. Please come and see me in person as soon as possible."

"All right, Doc," Edmund managed to say before the connection cut out.

Isaac Magnin reached over the terminal display and shut it off, smiling down at his brother. "Was it your idea to to have Morgan Stormrider's assignment to the Boston case kept secret? Did you hope that Morgan would take Liebenthal unawares?"

Dr. Aster rose to his feet and grabbed his brother's arm. "So, you learned how to dissolve your avatar without attracting attention. How long have you been here listening in secret?"

"Long enough," Magnin said with a shrug. "to ensure that events proceed according to my intent."

"You blew Stormrider's cover," Dr. Aster accused.

"I whispered in Tetsuo Munakata's ear. No doubt he will warn Liebenthal; it is his duty to his master, after all."

Dr. Aster grabbed his brother by the throat, only to have that throat dissolve in his hand. "You are going to get people killed!"

"I usually do," Magnin said as he solidified behind his brother. "Think of it as a test. I want to see just how good Morgan Stormrider is. Munakata is a poor excuse for an Asura Emulator, but his death should provide useful data."

Chapter 24

The scented water lapped at Elisabeth's waist as she sat upright. Seeing her servant blush as he saw the water dripping from the tips of her bare breasts, she smiled and thought that at sixteen he was too old to blush. "As you can see, Aaron, I'm taking my bath. Is something wrong?"

Aaron's blush deepened, and he turned away. Clearing his throat, he said, "Mistress, there's a gentleman named Magnin here to see you, from the AsgarTech Company. I've asked him and his companion to wait in the reception parlor off the main hall."

Elisabeth stood, causing little waves to break against her knees. A draft coming from the bathroom windows made the air feel cool against her wet skin, and she crossed her arms beneath her breasts. "Get me a towel, please."

Aaron stood still, his back turned to Elisabeth. "Is something wrong, Aaron? The towels are in the closet to your left."

Seeing his red ears as he stammered, Elisabeth said, "You've never seen a woman naked before, have you."

"N-no, Mistress."

Stepping out of the bathtub, she laid her hands on Aaron's shoulders and flicked the tip of her tongue against the nape of his neck. She could feel him shiver beneath her hands and her lips, and as she pressed her dripping body against his back, she whispered in his ear, "Turn around."

When he finally obeyed her, she slid her hands down his spine and ground her fingertips into the small of his back. She could see the grey striations in his blue eyes, his pupils wide like a prowling cat's. His mouth was fresh as she pressed her lips to his.

She left him to sleep when she was done with him, his naked body curled beneath her bed's cashmere blankets, as she padded barefoot into the parlor. Pouring three glasses of white chocolate liquor, she offered one to each of her guests and sat down, placing a polished mohogany coffee table between her and them. She let the folds of her robe fall from her legs as she crossed them.

Isaac Magnin accepted his glass, "You do not usually keep me waiting, Elisabeth."

Sipping her liquor, Elisabeth arched an eyebrow.

"Nor do you usually ignore me when I request your presence."

"I was entertaining guests," Elisabeth said after licking a last drop of liquor from the rim of her glass, "and I thought it rude to desert them simply because you sent that self-righteous, sexless traitor with a set of round-trip tickets."

"I am sure that they could have amused themselves with your servants; they're good enough for you, after all."

"They came to visit me, Isaac. Why should I disappoint them? After all, Mellech said nothing to indicate that it was important to you that I come immediately."

Magnin nodded. "Fair enough."

"Why did you want me to come, anyway?" Elisabeth asked. She looked at the woman Magnin had brought with him, who hid her face and body beneath a veil. "And who is your new lady friend?"

Magnin patted the woman's hand, "She is the reason I wanted you to come. Instead, I have brought her here to you."

"Why the veil?" Elisabeth asked, "And why hasn't she said anything?"

Elisabeth gasped as the woman removed her veil. She recognized the chestnut ringlets that fell to the woman's frail shoulders. "I know you. You're —"

"No names, please," Magnin snapped. "Her presence here must remain a secret. Elisabeth, I will understand if you cannot do this for me, but I need to know if you can hide this woman here."

Elisabeth watched as the woman sipped her liquor. She had made a hobby of providing refuge for women from rural areas who sought to flee abusive husbands or arranged marriages; perhaps she could pass off this woman as one such refugee. "If she keeps her veil when outside her rooms, I think she will be safe here."

"I'm glad to hear that," Magnin said with a sigh, "I wanted to hide her among the Devas, but she wanted to remain among humans."

"I think I understand why," Elisabeth said, her tone dry and a bit bitter. She turned towards the woman and took her hand. "What shall I call you, since Isaac wants your true name and presence hidden."

"Call me Annelise", the veiled woman said. "Are you sure that nobody from my old life will be able to find me here?"

"Nobody but Isaac," Elisabeth promised, as she bent over Annelise and kissed her ear. "And when he leaves, I will mask your presence so that even he cannot find you."

"Please wait here, Isaac" Elisabeth said as she took Annelise's hand, "I will show Annelise to her rooms and get her settled in. Help yourself to a drink, if you like, and we'll talk more when I return."

Magnin nodded as Annelise veiled herself again. "Be gentle with Annelise. I owe her much."

Annelise walked silently beside Elisabeth for several minutes. Even with the veil hiding her face, Elisabeth could tell that she was looking at the floor, not at her surroundings.

"Please climb these stairs carefully," Elisabeth said as they entered the tower Elisabeth reserved for the women to whom she offered refuge.

"I've never been to this part of the castle before," Annelise said as Elisabeth closed and locked the tower door behind them.

Elisabeth's interest perked up as Annelise removed her veil and violently bunched it into a ball of silk. "Were you a student of mine?" Elisabeth asked.

"At your Garden of Earthly Delights? Yes. That was Isaac's idea too, years ago."

"Has Isaac been cruel to you?"

"No, he's just used me for the last ten years," Annelise said. She grasped Elisabeth's arm with both hands and looked at her with desperate eyes. "Can you really hide me from him?"

Laying a hand on Annelise's hands, Elisabeth promised, "I will hide you from all eyes. You are safe here. Now, come along. We've just a little further to go before we reach your room."

Elisabeth stopped before a door at the top of the tower and unlocked the door, her fingers jabbing at the keypad. "This is yours," Elisabeth said, lifting her arm to indicate a bedroom furnished in old wrought iron, silk, and furs. "You may stay as long as you like."

Annelise stood still, staring at the delicate canopied bed. "It's beautiful. I can really stay?"

"Of course," Elisabeth said, "All your needs will be provided. Food, clothes, men, women — my AI Naamah will see to any requirement you care to express."

"What if," Annelise whispered, "I wanted a violin? I had to leave everything behind. After all, you can't take anything with you when you're dead."

Elisabeth drew Annelise into her arms and smoothed her chestnut ringlets. "Anything you want. Even me, if you ask. I know Isaac has used you cruelly, but no one will use you here."

"No one?" Annelise echoed in disbelief.

"No one. I have certain abilities. As long as you remain within the castle walls, nobody can find you, even if they have the skill to track you by your bioelectromagnetic field."

Elisabeth pressed her lips to Annelise's and lingered as her fingertips crept from the crown of Annelise's head down to the base of her spine, tracing patterns along the way. Annelise broke the kiss and freed herself with a violent shove. "You said you would not use me!"

"I'm sorry," Elisabeth said, "I had not meant to hurt you. I did as I did in order to place you under my protection. Anybody seeking your aura will now think they have found mine; I have woven a pattern that draws power from your body's bioelectromagnetic field to create a false signature."

Annelise narrowed her eyes in doubt. "That sounds like magic."

"It is, if you want it to be. I will leave you now. Ask Naamah for anything you desire, and you will be taken care of."

"All right," Annelise said. "Thank you for your hospitality. I'm sorry I pushed you away. I don't really like to kiss women."

Elisabeth smiled as she opened the door. "There are plenty of men who would be happy to let you kiss them. You need only ask."

Magnin stood as Elisabeth returned to the parlor. "So, is she settled?"

"Not once did he refer to Annelise as anything other than 'she'," Elisabeth thought as the whipcrack of the back of her hand against Magnin's cheek faded. "Annelise will be fine, Isaac, once she has spent some time away from you."

"It is not me she has spent the last ten years with," Isaac said, refusing to notice that Elisabeth had slapped him.

"Are you telling me that that Asura Emulator you've been watching abused her?"

Magnin shook his head, "No. If anything, I suspect that he worshipped the ground she walked on with those little kitten heels of hers. Of course, that was the outcome I had hoped for."

"You made a human woman spend ten years living a lie, just to manipulate one Asura Emulator?" Elisabeth asked, unable to believe what Magnin had said. "I've met the AES-100 unit you've been watching. He is a gentleman, and reasonable. Did it ever occur to you that he might help you if you could just be bothered to talk with him."

"Talk with him?" Magnin crossed his arms over his belly and flopped down onto the love seat he had been sitting on with Annelise. "What shall I say to him? 'Hello, I'm an alien who has been living among humans and manipulating them for the last ten thousand years or so, and I'd like you to kill a god for me.'"

Elisabeth chuckled, "He's a New Yorker. He's probably heard stranger things."

Magnin cut off his laughter and glared at Elisabeth with icy eyes. "You're not normally this stupid. You know damned well that I don't have time to persuade this Asura and teach him everything he needs to know. All I can do, given that our mutual friend, Adam Mellech, continues to worry at Fuzon's bindings, is attempt to arrange events so that the Asura will serve my purpose, believing all the while that he is serving his own purpose."

"And so you made Chr—"

"I told you," Magnin snarled, "No names."

"Tell me nothing, Imaginos." Elisabeth said, her voice freezing with anger, "You have your powers because Sathariel and I are your allies. Without us, you would be as mortal and as impotent as your brother Desdinova."

"And without me, Ashtoreth," Magnin countered, "Fuzon would have broken free of his prison already. You and Sathariel lacked the power to deal with both Adramelech and Fuzon. I will not presume to give you orders in your own home; I should not have done so earlier. I ask you, however, do not speak that name. It is the name of a dead woman."

"And yet she lives," Elisabeth said, her voice thawing a bit from Magnin's apology. "Why did you take such a risk?"

"I owed it to her," Magnin said as he rose to leave, "When next you see Annelise, tell her that I wish her well, and that I regret using her."

Chapter 25

The terminal used by the Liebenthal Wholesale Produce sysadmin was old, and did not produce as faithful a rendering of Claire's pout as Morgan was used to, but that did not keep Morgan from knowing that Claire was unhappy. Her voice came through crystal clear. "I can't believe you cracked an AI without me. You know I hate being left out when you do this sort of work, Morgan."

Morgan spread his hands in a placating gesture. "If I had bothered you, you would have tried to get in from outside. I thought that a crack from outside would have triggered countermeasures."

"Besides," Catherine added, pointing at the shelf of backup cartridges. "We don't have all night to see which of these has the data we want, and we can't carry it out with us."

"Fine, fine," Claire said with a sigh. "At least tell me how you managed to get your hands on that filesystem image you sent me."

Morgan shrugged and glanced at the unconscious system administrator, who Catherine had bound and gagged with duct tape while Morgan sat at the console, using the keyboard and shell to navigate the AI's user-space filesystems. "I persuaded the system administrator to lend me his username and password."

"Social engineering?" Claire asked with an approving grin. "Nice work."

"More like rubber hose cryptanalysis," Catherine said, holding up her pistol. "He thought we were going to kill him, so he coughed up the password. The poor bastard didn't know that Morgan and I were using tranks."

"Catherine sells herself short. She was the one who persuaded the sysadmin to unlock the door and open it. If she had not appealed to his libido, I probably would have had to blow the door of its hinges."

"Don't tell me you brought explosives!" Catherine gasped. "We're supposed to use a light touch, remember?"

Claire gave Catherine another look before turning to Morgan. "Your partner's cute. Is she into girls?"

"I'm married," Catherine said.

Claire shrugged. "Let him watch, then. Or, if you like, he can join us. Hell, bring Morgan along too and we'll make it a foursome."

Catherine turned a shocked look at Morgan. "Is she always like this?"

Morgan turned away from the screen so that Claire could not see him smile. "This is Claire's revenge for not letting her crack the AI herself."

"Why did you call, anyway?" Claire asked. "I was in the middle of a really yummy dream. I had you on your hands and knees, begging me to —"

"Claire," Morgan snapped, "Tell me about it in private."

"But then I won't get to see you squirm in front of Catherine," Claire pouted.

"You will get over it," Morgan said. "Why not think about what you are going to do to me while you decrypt that filesystem and free its contents?"

"Oh, I know what I'm going to do to you," Claire purred, "But I'll crack that filesystem. I'm glad you sent it to me as well as the Sephiroth."

"I knew you would crack it faster," Morgan said.

"See how he flatters me, Catherine? We could do such naughty things to him."

"I thought you wanted to do naughty things to Catherine," Morgan said as he brought up the security camera video feeds.

"I've got two hands," Claire said. "Oh, and you've got company coming. GPS tracking shows a limousine and at least fifty motorcycles approaching your location at high speed."

Morgan closed the security camera feeds and brought up a shell. Fingers flying over the keyboard, he launched a set of processes that would run silently, repeatedly overwriting all of the AI's user-space filesystems with random garbage until somebody with root access logged in, found the processes Morgan had launched, and shut them down.

"What the hell are you doing?" Catherine asked, glancing at the screen over Morgan's shoulder while she refilled the magazine in Morgan's pistol with spare cartridges from a box of ammunition she kept in her backpack.

"Ensuring that Liebenthal cannot easily access his data," Morgan said as he logged out, satisfied with his handiwork. He took back his freshly loaded pistol and chambered a round. "Thank you."

"What is the plan?" Catherine asked Morgan over secure talk as he dragged a stack of wooden pallets into the hallway to set up a crude barricade. "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to get to the roof and stay under cover. Keep an eye on Liebenthal. If he attempts to escape, then follow him. Apprehend him if you can. I think he will send his Fireclowns in to flush me out, while remaining outside with Munakata to guard him."

"What if he knows we're both here? I'd be safer with you."

"All right," Morgan said, as he dragged the bound and unconscious system administrator out of his office and laid him up against the wall behind the pallet barricade, ignoring Catherine's aghast stare.

"Are you going to use him as a human shield?" she asked.

"Yes and no," Morgan said. "Hopefully, the presence of one of Liebenthal's valued employees will convince them to refrain from opening fire."

Morgan narrowed his eyes at the sound of rapid footsteps echoing through the halls. "Get under cover," he said to Catherine over secure talk as he stood in front of the barricade and drew his sword. Curses and shouts replaced the footsteps for a moment, and Morgan knew that the guards he had left in the janitor's closet had been found.

"More fucking tranks!" One of the Fireclowns snarled. "Somebody is here with Stormrider. Fan out and find the other Adversary."

Two Fireclowns stepped into Morgan's view, heading away from him. Drawing his pistol, he dropped one of them with a tranquilizer dart in the back of the neck. A whiff came from behind Morgan; the other Fireclown bent over, ripped out the dart Catherine had shot into his calf, and managed to turn around before the tranquilizer had its way with him.

Morgan took a second to glance behind him; Catherine had disappeared behind the barricade. "Are you going to spend all night pussyfooting," he called, "Or are you going to come over here and face me? Tell Liebenthal that I have that fat toad he calls a system administrator."

More Fireclowns spilled into the hallway. Morgan and Catherine gave them no time to raise their submachine-guns; they sighted their targets as soon as they turned around the corner, and dropped them as quickly as their pistols could chamber a fresh round. Four unconscious bodies soon littered the hallway, piled on top of one another by the rapid fire of the Adversaries' pistols.

"Adversary Stormrider!" A voice cried from around the corner. "I request a ceasefire. May we talk?"

"Who are you?" Morgan asked, raising his voice, "And why should I listen to you?"

"I'm John O'Riordan, elected captain of the Fireclowns MC," replied the man who had requested a ceasefire. "I have a proposition that may serve both our interests."

"Come alone, then," Morgan said, "And keep your empty hands where I can see them."

John O'Riordan was shorter than Morgan and more heavily built. Carrot-red hair curled out from beneath the leather cap he wore, and the hilt of a broadsword rested against his right shoulder.

Morgan lowered his pistol slightly; he saw that the holster on O'Riordan's hip was empty, but suspected that he might have another pistol concealed somewhere on him. "Is the sword all you have?" he asked.

"It's all," O'Riordan said, "I left my guns with my lieutenant back there." He looked at the unconscious bodies of his men. "Why did you use tranks?"

"My instructions were to use as soft a touch as possible," Morgan said. "Also, my partner is of a gentle disposition, and dislikes killing."

"I had a feeling you had somebody else with you. I found nine millimeter casings, and I know you prefer a 11.43mm, and that you pick up your brass."

Morgan shrugged, "Did you come here to talk about shooting?"

"No," O'Riordan said, "Have your partner show himself, and we'll talk. I don't mind looking down the barrel of your pistol, but if your partner is behind cover, it feels like you're being dishonest with me."

Morgan nodded, and said to Catherine over secure talk, "Come out, but keep your pistol ready."

O'Riordan tipped his cap as Catherine rose. "Good evening, ma'am," he said before turning his attention back to Morgan. "I apologize for the actions of my men. The fact that you had to shoot them is my fault, and I appreciate that you used tranks instead of simply killing them."

"How are their actions your fault?" Morgan asked, relaxing a little.

"I'm their captain," O'Riordan said, his tone suggesting that Morgan should have understood exactly what he meant. "Think of the Fireclowns MC as a free company of mercenaries. Since I'm their elected captain, they answer to me, and I answer for them when they fuck up."

"In other words," Morgan suggested, "The Fireclowns are bound to Liebenthal through you."

O'Riordan nodded. "Exactly. And they are bound as long as I am captain, and as long as Liebenthal honors the terms of our contract. Unfortunately, when I accepted his commission, I never considered the possibility that he might try to take over a city. I thought we'd just be riding with his trucks and protecting them from bandits and such."

"And so you want Morgan to kill you?" Catherine asked.

"Or incapacitate me," O'Riordan said. "Thing is, I can't just let you shoot me. Liebenthal would suspect that I was trying to weasel out of the contract if I did."

"What do you suggest, then?" Morgan asked.

"If we continue fighting as we have, I fear that you might lose patience and start killing my men. I don't want them to die for Liebenthal. If you are willing, Adversary Stormrider, I would settle this by single combat."

"I accept," Morgan said. Every duel was fought according to rules concerning the choice of weapons, witnesses, and conditions for victory and loss. Since O'Riordan had issued the challenge, Morgan had the right to set the terms. "As the challenged, I claim the right to name the terms of our duel."

"Fair enough," O'Riordan said. "Shall we fight on the packing floor behind me? I can offer my word as Captain that the Fireclowns will not harm you or your partner."

"That will do," Morgan said, "Are you willing to fight sword to sword, to either submission or death?"

O'Riordan removed his cap and offered a small bow, "You are generous to offer me a chance to get out of this alive, but what of my men?"

Morgan repaid the bow with a heartless smile. "Trust me, your men will find themselves in need of a new captain. As long as they get you to a hospital in time, however, you should live. We will make it look good, but you will find yourself in dire need of a surgeon when we are through."

O'Riordan shivered and drew his sword. "Don't hold back. I will use everything I have and know against you."

"Good," Morgan said as he removed the suppressor from his pistol, put it in his coat, and holstered the pistol. "You have my respect, Captain O'Riordan. I would hate to have to revise my opinion of you, just because you let my reputation beat you before I could even draw my sword."

Chapter 26

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Catherine asked as she followed Morgan and John O'Riordan, elected captain of the Fireclowns MC, into the packing floor of the warehouse. She scanned the large room, noting the dozens of Fireclowns standing by pallets of produce, ready to duck behind cover. "If this goes bad, Morgan, we'll be out in the open. It'll be harder to defend ourselves here."

"Don't worry, ma'am," O'Riordan said. "Just let me explain to my men how it'll be. As Stormrider's second, your sweet ass is sacrosanct."

"Put away your weapons and listen up!" O'Riordan said, raising his voice. He waited for his men to obey. "Here's the deal. Stormrider and I are going to settle this like gentlemen, sword to sword until one of us either submits or dies. If I win, they leave and we can tell Liebenthal that we did our job. If he wins, elect a new captain and get the hell out of here; our obligation to that bastard ends as soon as you've chosen somebody else to follow. Any questions?"

O'Riordan's lieutenant stepped forward. "Why the rigamarole? Can't you just have Stormrider kneecap you?"

"Gotta make it look good," O'Riordan laughed, "Or old Al will think I'm trying to weasel out. You gonna stand as my second, Bill?"

Bill nodded and walked away from the other Fireclowns to a place where he could observe the duel. Catherine joined him. "Gentlemen, face each other with a distance of three meters between you," she instructed.

"Trust me to make it look good," Morgan whispered as O'Riordan left him behind to take up his position.

"Gentlemen, please draw your swords," Bill called.

O'Riordan's sword was a plain weapon, adorned only by the engraving of a stylized clown's head wreathed in flame at the base of its broad blade. "Is the black cat an Adversary's symbol?" he asked.

"No," Morgan said as he inspected the weapon and tested its edge. "When I went to Nakajima to have this blade forged, she insisted on giving it a name. When I refused, she asked some of my friends to suggest an image they associated with me."

"And they suggested a pissed-off alley cat?"

Morgan shook his head and remembered why Nakajima had chosen the image of a black cat with its teeth bared, its back arched, and its fur bristling. "That was my lover's idea. She used to joke that I was raised by feral cats since there were no wolves available to do the job."

O'Riordan nodded. "I read about Mistress Crowley. I'm sorry you have to come out and deal with this fucking mess."

Morgan nodded, acknowledging O'Riordan's condolences, before raising his sword and readying himself. "Thank you. Shall we begin?"

O'Riordan looked towards Bill and Catherine, who both nodded. "Gentlemen, you may begin," Catherine said.

O'Riordan advanced slowly, his eyes shifting to watch Morgan's feet, hands, and blade. Morgan stood his ground. "Come on, O'Riordan. Take a swing at me."

"Ten grams on the Cap'n!" One of the Fireclowns called out, holding up a bunch of banknotes.

"Put your money away, you damn fool," Bill snarled. "This ain't the Olympic fucking games!"

O'Riordan feinted to Morgan's left before aiming a quick slash at Morgan's right side. Morgan stepped aside and used his blade to force O'Riordan's out of the way, creating an opening that he exploited before O'Riordan could begin to realize that his guard had been broken.

The Fireclowns groaned and shouted as O'Riordan stepped back and checked the shallow cut on his thigh that Morgan's thrust had opened. He shook his head, suspecting that Morgan would ask him to submit. "That was just a cat scratch."

"You should take off your jacket," Morgan said, "It will be ruined by the time this is over. Liebenthal will mistake you for roadkill when I am done."

"Yeah, I should have thought of that," O'Riordan said, stepping back. Laying his sword on the floor, he shrugged out of his fleece-lined leather bomber jacket, which bore several patches identifying him as a Fireclown and a friend to members of several other biker gangs. He threw the jacket to Bill and picked up his sword. "Thanks. Those were my dad's colors."

Morgan nodded. "Was the sword his as well?"

"No. It comes with the position," O'Riordan said as he aimed a two-handed blow at Morgan's head.

Morgan turned his sword to intercept O'Riordan's blade and turned the blow aside. Following his move through, he let his sword's point nip O'Riordan's shoulder and open another shallow incision.

Bleeding from thigh and shoulder, O'Riordan began to circle to Morgan's right in hope of finding an opening. "When this is all over, I think I might come to you for lessons," he said, "I've never seen somebody handle a bastard sword the way you do."

"I had it made from a very lightweight alloy," Morgan said as he flicked the tip of his sword across O'Riordan's chest, "And I have had years to practice with it. However, I would make a poor teacher. I normally draw my sword to kill, after all."

"What else is a sword for?" O'Riordan said as his blade sheared through a lock of Morgan's hair, which had escaped the ribbon he used to bind it into a long tail that streamed behind him. "If we're not trying to kill each other, we wave them about because it is rude to do so with our cocks."

Morgan reached behind his neck with his free hand as the hair O'Riordan had cut off drifted to the floor. Pulling the ribbon free, he shook his head to free his hair completely. "That was a good cut. Care to get the rest of the split ends for me?"

O'Riordan spat onto the floor and pointed his sword at Morgan. "Enough of this Puss in Boots shit. I'm not a mouse. Stop fucking around, or I'm going to send one of my guys to get you a saucer of cream and a baggie full of catnip."

"If you like," Morgan said. His eyes narrowed as he tensed his body. Three steps brought Morgan to O'Riordan's side. With a flick of his wrist, Morgan severed the tendons in O'Riodan's forearm. The broadsword O'Riordan held rang against the concrete floor as Morgan's sword slipped between two ribs and punctured the Fireclown captain's right lung. Morgan caught O'Riordan and gently lowered him to his knees as O'Riordan's unwounded hand gripped the base of the sword impaling him.

"This should convince Liebenthal," Morgan whispered in O'Riordan's ear as Bill and Catherine ran to him.

"How… How do you manage to move so fast?" O'Riordan wheezed. Blood spilled from his lips as he forced the words out.

"Save your strength," Bill said as he took a length of rubber tubing from the first aid kit Catherine had brought with her and used it to apply a tourniquet to O'Riordan's arm.

"I've called for an ambulance," Catherine said as she handed Morgan a thick gauze pad. She held another in her hands. "Draw out your sword slowly, and press that pad over the wound as soon as you've gotten the blade out. I'll brace O'Riordan, keep him upright, and plug the exit wound."

"All right," Morgan said as he began to draw out his blade. As soon as the pad was in place, Morgan laid his sword aside and used both hands to press the gauze against O'Riordan's chest. "You had better live. I held back the whole time."

"I know," O'Riordan gasped, his face drawn into a snarl by the pain of his wounds. "If you hadn't been, you would have torn my throat out while drawing your sword."

"Shut up, John," Bill snarled as he pulled the tourniquet tighter.

"See how my little brother bosses me around?" O'Riordan said through gritted teeth.

"If I had not spilled so much of your blood," Morgan snarled as he swiped more pads from Catherine's hands and pressed them into place, "I would have Catherine put a dart into you. If you can complain about your brother's concern for you, then I doubt that your life is in any real danger."

Sirens wailed outside as the door to the warehouse burst open. "Why is an ambulance coming here?" Alexander Liebenthal spat from behind a bodyguard dressed in the traditional style of a Nipponese samurai. "If you were worth half of what I was paying you, you would have killed the intruders already!"

Catherine slipped her hands beneath Morgan's and pressed down. "Deal with Liebenthal. I've instructed the EMTs to enter through the back door."

"Thank you," Morgan said as he picked up his sword. The Fireclowns that had gathered around their captain stepped aside to let Morgan pass.

"Looks like you were right, Munakata," Liebenthal said. "I thought you were being overzealous, insisting that I bring all of the Fireclowns here to deal with a couple of burglars."

Munakata's right hand hovered over the hilt of his katana as he gripped its sheath with his left. "My contacts would not lie to me when it comes to Morgan Stormrider, Liebenthal-sama."

Morgan pointed his sword at Munakata. "You may leave if you like, and go back to reading samurai manga. You are not my concern tonight. Your master is."

"And why am I your concern, Adversary?" Liebenthal asked. "Did the Phoenix Society send you to assassinate me?"

"I am not so fortunate," Morgan said with genuine disappointment in his voice. "I, Morgan Stormrider, Adversary in service to the New York chapter of the Phoenix Society, accuse you of tyranny, the murder of Adversary Monica Deschat, and the murder of Adversary Luther Cameron. By virtue of my authority as an Adversary, I place you under arrest and order you to surrender."

"And I, Alexander Liebenthal, king of Boston, accuse you of being a pompous, long-haired prettyboy who serves as an assassin to a bunch of cowards who presume to run the world without even showing their faces. What did you do, bribe my Fireclowns before you even came here?"

"Your Fireclowns?" Bill O'Riordan snapped as he stepped forward with the captain's sword in his hands. "We were never yours! My brother accepted your employ on our behalf, but now I am captain of the Fireclowns MC."

"What are you waiting for, then, Captain O'Riordan?" Munakata hissed as he drew his katana. "Stormrider is right in front of you. Cut him down."

Bill spat onto the floor. "Do it yourself, if you can. As captain of the Fireclowns MC, I declare the contract between my predecessor and Alexander Liebenthal to be null and void."

"You traitor," Liebenthal growled, "Who do you think you are?"

"I suggest you consider your own question, tyrant," Morgan said as he drew his pistol, "A tribunal will ask it of you soon enough, and judge you by your answer and the evidence against you."

"No tribunal can judge me! I am entitled to a jury of my peers."

Morgan's laughter filled the warehouse, frightening the paramedics who had just finished placing John O'Riordan onto a stretcher and ensuring that he would make it to the hospital alive. "A jury of your peers, Alexander Liebenthal, would be a monumental injustice against everybody forced to share that courtroom with you. I doubt that any judge would want to look at the jury box and see twelve corpses staring back at him!"

"Yes, that's right," Liebenthal snarled as he reached into his jacket and drew a revolver. "The Phoenix Society usually sends you to assassinate the people it accuses of tyranny. They must be worried about public opinion if they are willing to put me on trial."

"You flatter yourself," Morgan said, and sprang to his right. His shoulder slammed into O'Riordan, knocking him aside as Liebenthal fired. The slug embedded itself in Morgan's armored coat, and its impact spread through Morgan's body. He looked down at his chest and saw the glint of lead compressed by its impact against his chest wink up at him.

"I saw you aim," Morgan said as Bill rose and dusted himself off. "You took your sweet time. I suppose you had trouble deciding who you would kill: me, or Bill."

Pain spread through Morgan's body again as another slug spent its momentum against his armored chest. The ache of this second impact lingered, melding with the pain of the first shot Morgan had taken.

"Die already!" Liebenthal shrieked, his hands shaking.

A cruel smile spread across Morgan's lips as Bill retreated behind him. "Your grouping is tight," he said as he raised his pistol and fired. "But you should have gone for a head shot."

Chapter 27

Liebenthal crumpled to his knees, his hands clawing at the dart embedded in his throat, and sprawled across the floor as the tranquilizer had its way with him. His bodyguard, Tetsuo Munakata, pulled free the tranquilizer dart Morgan had fired into his chest. He stared intently at the dart for a moment before tossing it aside. "You will not dispose of me so easily," Munakata said, pointing his katana at Morgan.

"Sheathe your sword and walk away," Morgan said as he holstered his pistol and sheathed his sword. "There is nothing you can do for Alexander Liebenthal. Find a better master to serve."

Munakata shook his head and placed himself between Morgan and Liebenthal's body. "If I walk away, it will be without my pride. I might as well gut myself right here."

Morgan shrugged. "Go ahead. Nobody will mourn you."

"You wonder, behind those heartless words of yours, why your tranks did not knock me down?"

"Not at all," Morgan said. "I find myself a bit surprised that somebody else shares my immunity, but the matter does not merit my attention. Right now, I just want to see my mission finished. Now get out of my way."

"I will not step aside for you," Munakata said, and charged.

Morgan turned aside the overhead cut Munakata meant to rain down upon him and countered, only to find that Munakata had anticipated him. He drew back and turned the scabbard he held in his right hand so that he could use it as an offhand weapon. "You have been practicing," Morgan said as he intercepted Munakata's blade with his sword's scabbard and opened a shallow cut across Munakata's forehead.

Munakata drew his sleeve across his eyes to clear his blood-dimmed vision, and raised his katana in time to stymie Morgan, who had attempted to take advantage of his enemy's moment of distraction. "A friend of a friend told me something interesting the other day. He says we Asuras have something in common, brother."

Morgan snorted. "So, you finally got bored with the samurai manga, Munakata? I had begun to think that I might actually have to take you seriously," he said, pouncing on a hole Munakata had left in his defense and drawing blood from a cut across the back of Munakata's right hand.

Munakata paid no heed to the cut Morgan had just given him, but pressed still harder. He matched Morgan's speed, turning aside blows that Morgan knew that he should be able to land. He drew back, reconsidering Munakata. He knew that the cut across Munakata's forehead should distract him and restrict his vision, but it appeared to Morgan that the cut had closed, and was mostly healed.

The same had happened with the cut Morgan had opened across the back of Munakata's hand.

"I did not know that your wounds closed as quickly as mine do," Morgan said.

"Surprised?" Munakata said as he sliced into Morgan's thigh. "I told you; we Asuras have somewhat in common. Do you hear his voice as well?"

Morgan rolled his eyes. "Your raving bores me," he said as he used both his sword and its sheath to catch Munakata's katana and wrench it from his hands. As the sword spun through the air, Morgan tore open Munakata's throat, allowed the violent momentum of his slash to turn him about, and drove his sword through Munakata's heart. He twisted the blade, cracking ribs and tearing open a wider wound, before ripping his sword free and watching Munakata crumple to the floor as his katana shattered against the concrete in front of him.

Morgan sighed as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, cleaned the blood from his sword, and sheathed it. "You had your chance to walk away, Tetsuo Munakata. You should have taken it."

Leaving Munakata's body where it fell, Morgan stepped around it and gathered up the unconscious body of Alexander Liebenthal. Slinging Liebenthal over his shoulder, Morgan approached Catherine. "I think that my part in this mission is almost over," he said. "All I have to do is get this bastard back to New York. I can probably make the first maglev out if I leave now."

Catherine stared aghast at Morgan. "You just ripped out a man's throat and stabbed him through the heart. You have his blood all over you, and that's all you have to say?"

Morgan looked down at himself. "The blood does not matter. I know a good dry cleaner on Ninety-Eighth Street."

"That's not what I meant, you heartless bastard!"

"I know," Morgan said with a bitter smile. "I gave Munakata a chance to walk away. He chose to fight. Why should I mourn?"

"So it's true," Bill O'Riordan said as the Fireclowns left him behind. "You really do feel nothing when you kill."

"My feelings are nobody's concern but my own," Morgan snarled softly. "Do not test my patience."

Bill shook his head. "Does it matter at all to you that you scared the shit out of your partner, me, and my men? Why couldn't you have dealt with Munakata the way you dealt with my brother?"

Morgan turned his back on Bill and Catherine and began to walk away. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. "I would have killed him five years ago," he said, his voice a soft purr of hatred, "But I wanted him to suffer for what he did to my friend. If you and Catherine had not been here, Munakata's funeral would have been a closed casket affair. Be grateful that I held back."

Morgan turned back, took a step forward, and froze.

"What's wrong?" Catherine asked.

Morgan ignored the question, watching Munakata's body. Perhaps Munakata's hand had twitched as a consequence of his body's cells dying from asphyxiation. He slowly crouched and laid Liebenthal's body aside, still watching Munakata's body. As Munakata's hands flexed, he drew his pistol, ejected the magazine, and slipped it into his coat. He withdrew a magazine loaded with explosive-tipped ammunition and carefully slid it into his pistol as Munakata's body pressed its hands against the floor and began to push itself upward.

Morgan took a step back, raising his pistol and aiming at Munakata's head as Munakata forced himself to his feet. He felt his hands began to shake as fear coated his nerves with ice. Morgan forced himself to look at Munakata from behind the sights of his pistol, and saw that the killing wounds he had inflicted had healed.

Munakata knelt and retrieved the hilt of his shattered katana. "Do you believe me now?" he whispered, "You died as a child, and survived. We are brothers; we are not mere men, but Asuras."

"Aphrodite's heart-shaped ass," Bill whispered as he caught Catherine, who had fainted.

"Leave now, Tetsuo Munakata," Morgan said, his voice hollowed out by his fear, "Or I will blow your demon-ridden head off, run the rest of your carcass through a meat grinder, and feed what remains to the first stray cat I find."

"I will leave," Munakata said, and bowed. "After all, you have shattered my sword."

Morgan adjusted his grip on his pistol. "Leave now."

"Must I?" Munakata said. "Wouldn't you like to hear of how I know that you died as a child? Don't you want to know who told me that another child had ripped your throat out? Don't you want to know what you did to the child that killed you? And what you did to the children who came to that boy's aid?"

Bill gently laid Catherine on the floor and drew his revolver. "Enough of this shit, Munakata. Get the fuck out of here. I've got this piece loaded with .454 Casull rounds. Think you can survive one of those through your chest?"

"I probably could," Munakata said with a smile as he turned to leave. He waved with the hand that held his shattered sword. "But I will leave you. Imaginos needs to know what happened tonight, and I need to recuperate."

Morgan and Bill waited until the door had slammed shut behind Munakata before lowering their weapons and holstering them.

"Thank you for backing me," Morgan said as he tended to Catherine.

"No problem. You got any idea what the fuck he was raving about? Who the hell is Imaginos, anyway?"

"As far I know," Morgan said as he gently brought Catherine back to consciousness, "Imaginos is nothing but the name of an twentieth century heavy metal album that had been allowed to go out of print about a day after it dropped off the charts."

"Is… is Munakata still here?" Catherine asked, her voice soft. "I don't want to look."

"He left," Morgan said. "I suspect, however, that I will see the bastard again. I wonder how he managed to walk away from those wounds."

"Maybe he's gotten a hold of some kind of experimental nanotech," Bill suggested.

"Perhaps," Morgan said as he helped Catherine to her feet. "I will have to investigate the matter. Munakata is worthless on his own, but will do anything for his master. If his master is not Liebenthal, but somebody capable of supplying him with a means of surviving a slashed throat and a pierced heart, then he could prove to be dangerous."

Bill shrugged. "Better see who this Imaginos guy is, then."

"I will be investigating that as well," Morgan said as he picked up Liebenthal's body. "I had a feeling that I would regret taking on this case."

"I'm glad you did," Catherine said, "I don't think I could have handled this on my own."

Morgan nodded, "Can you handle the rest without me?"

"I think so."

"Would you like some help?" Bill asked. "The Fireclowns MC is at loose ends at the moment. If you can work out payment arrangements with the Phoenix Society, Adversary Gatto, we would be happy to work with you. You'll need muscle to back you, and you'll need somebody who knows Boston. Most of us grew up here, after all."

"Trying to make restitution for the Fireclowns' work under Liebenthal?" Morgan asked.

"Something like that," Bill said. "I'd offer the Fireclowns' services for free if I didn't think the men would mutiny."

Catherine turned to Morgan. "Do you think I should accept?"

"Decide for yourself," Morgan said. "The reconstruction of Boston's government is your responsibility. All I will say is that Captain O'Riordan is somebody I would trust to watch my back."

"Are you going to have trouble getting that bastard to a maglev station?" Bill asked. "I could help you out if you need it."

Morgan smiled and turned to leave. "Catherine might need a lift. Since she never learned to ride, I rented a motorcycle with a sidecar."

Bill looked Catherine over. "Yeah, I think my spare helmet would fit you, if you're willing, Adversary Gatto."

Catherine reddened and looked away; Bill's voice reminded her of her husband's when he was in a lustful mood. "As long as you understand that I'm married, and that I'm committed to my husband."

"Damn it," Bill muttered, "I guess I'll have to lie to the skanks at the bar again this weekend."

"Well," Catherine purred, "I know a lady in London you might like."

Chapter 28

Morgan leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. He waited until he had finished his coffee before acknowledging the plight of the prisoner sitting across from him.

"Good morning," Morgan said as he tore away the strip of duct tape he had used to seal Alexander Liebenthal's lips.

"So," Liebenthal snarled, "Tetsuo Munakata turned out to be worthless after all."

"If I free your hands so that you can have breakfast," Morgan said, "can I be sure that you will behave yourself? I do not want to have to hit you with another tranquilizer so soon, but I will do so if you make it necessary."

"I'll behave myself," Liebenthal said, glowering. "What happened to Munakata?"

"I killed him," Morgan said, "However, his parents must have neglected to teach him that dead people are supposed to stay dead."

"Or maybe you're not as good as you think you are. Maybe that fool knew enough to play possum."

Morgan drew a knife and leaned over Liebenthal. "Would you like me to cut your throat and stab you through the heart, so that you can see for yourself if one can play dead after taking such wounds?" he asked as he carefully sliced through the tape binding Liebenthal's hands.

"No," Liebenthal muttered as he rubbed his chafed wrists. "I'll take your word for it. I'm fucked whether Munakata died or not, after all."

"Yes," Morgan said with a smile, "You are well and truly fucked. Now tell me what you want for breakfast. I will not share mine with you."

Suspicion glittered in Liebenthal's eyes. "Why would you even offer to buy me breakfast? As far as you're concerned, I'm scum of the earth."

"My orders were explicit. I am to bring you back to New York alive and fit to stand trial. I doubt you would be fit to face a court on an empty stomach while nursing a trank-induced hangover. Trust me; I am not doing this for your sake."

"And if the Phoenix Society ordered you to slit my throat, you'd do it?" Liebenthal spat while selecting a full English breakfast from the dining car's menu. "After all, you're just following orders like a good little Nazi."

"My discipline is the only reason you are alive right now," Morgan said as he authorized payment for Liebenthal's breakfast. "Be grateful."

Liebenthal sat in silence, watching Morgan as he pulled a copy of Homer's Odyssey from a coat pocket and began to read. "Would you believe me if I told you that I did not order Munakata to kill those Adversaries?"

"I am not interested," Morgan said without looking away from his book. "My mission is two-fold: I was to remove you from power in Boston, and then I am to bring you to New York alive and fit to stand trial. Neither of these objectives requires that I allow you to waste my time with lies."

"You're pissed off about the guns, aren't you."

"No," Morgan said blandly. "I could not care less about the fact that you made money on the side hauling bootleg militia-grade arms and ordnance. If that was all you were doing, the Phoenix Society would have bought the weapons from you and left you alone after you told us where you bought them. Opportunists like you are unworthy of our attention."

"That's not what Munakata told me," Liebenthal said as an attendant opened the compartment and wheeled in a cart.

"Full English breakfast for Mr. Liebenthal?" The attendant chirped, ignoring the bands of duct tape binding Liebenthal's ankles.

"Here, miss," Liebenthal said, slapping a few strips of bacon onto a slice of toast to begin a sandwich.

"Anything else for you, Adversary?" the attendant asked, turning her attention to Morgan.

"No, thank you."

Liebenthal waited until the compartment was closed before glaring at Morgan. "Sure, I tried to take over Boston," he said. "I had no reason to think Munakata was lying about gun runners getting hanged by the Phoenix Society. He was the one who had experience with this criminal shit, not me."

"Eat your breakfast," Morgan said. "Your excuses bore me."

Liebenthal brandished the butter knife he had been using on his toast. "You bastard, has it occurred to you that I am not the only schmuck Munakata has been using? Don't you think you should be investigating him instead of wasting your time with me?"

"Put the knife down," Morgan said, letting Liebenthal stare down the barrel of his pistol. "Or I will kneecap you and drag you to my superiors by the scruff of your neck."

"Think about it, damn you," Liebenthal said as he put down the knife and watched Morgan holster his pistol. "Munakata used me. Somebody is using him. Follow the fucking money."

Morgan yawned and dug the roll of duct tape out of his bag. "None of that is my concern," he said. "I intend to resign my commission as soon as I have delivered you."

"This maglev will arrive at Grand Central Terminal in New York in forty-five minutes," the maglev's AI announced over the public address system. "We hope that you have enjoyed your journey aboard Atlantic Transport & Telecom's Northeast Express."

"Finish your breakfast," Morgan said, his voice weary. "I look forward to being rid of you."

Reporters swarmed the platform at Grand Central Terminal as Morgan marched Alexander Liebenthal off of the maglev. The cameras zeroed in on Liebenthal's hands, bound with duct tape. "Adversary Stormrider!" One reporter called out. "Is it true that you took on an entire motorcycle gang in order to bring in Liebenthal?"

"No comment," Morgan said and prodded Liebenthal with the muzzle of his pistol.

"Mr. Liebenthal! Is it true that you took over the city of Boston with nothing but a small gang of outlaw bikers for support?"

"Fuck off," Liebenthal muttered. "You bastards will hear all about it at the kangaroo court."

"Adversary Stormrider, did you really kill a man, only to see him get up and walk away?"

"No comment," Morgan spat, regretting that he could not simply demand privacy, as he could if he had not been acting in his official capacity. The face of Alice Talbot, a gossip columnist who nipped at the ankles of New York's celebrities, caught his eye; he turned away lest she mistake that millisecond's worth of eye contact for an invitation.

"Adversary Stormrider?" Talbot chirped, waving her camera over the heads of the other reporters. Morgan ignored her, and prodded Liebenthal again. "Come on. We both have better things to do."

"Adversary Stormrider?" Talbot chirped again, placing herself between Morgan and a door that would lead him out of the Terminal without having to drag Liebenthal through the main concourse. "Can you tell us anything about your partner on this mission, Adversary Catherine Gatto? Have you been to bed with her? Will you pursue a relationship with her?"

"I do not play with women who are committed to others," Morgan said, his eyes boring into Talbot's. He grasped Liebenthal's shoulder and gave him a shake. "I went to Boston to depose a tyrant, not to provide you with fodder for your column. Step aside."

"You can't refuse to answer my questions while in your official capacity," Talbot insisted. "Is there anything between you and Adversary Gatto?"

"Aside from her husband?" Morgan said as he brushed Talbot aside. "No."

Morgan found Saul Rosenbaum waiting for him behind the service door, with five militiamen standing behind him. "Leave Liebenthal to us, Adversary Stormrider" one of the militiamen said, slapping on a set of handcuffs after Morgan cut away the duct tape binding Liebenthal's wrists. "We'll find a nice, cozy jail cell for this bastard."

"You did well," Saul said, slapping Morgan's back as the squad led Alexander Liebenthal past the reporters and out through the main concourse. "I have a car waiting outside. We'll go back to the office and get the debriefing over with, and then you can go and get some rest. I'm surprised you did the job so quickly."

"Somebody warned Liebenthal's pet sellsword, Tetsuo Munakata, " Morgan said as soon as Saul had slipped into the driver's seat beside him, closed the door, and started the car. "I had planned to get his data on the first night, along with any other evidence I could find, and then grab him the next night as he slept."

"Instead, he came while you and Gatto were in his warehouse. How'd you know he was coming?"

"A little bird told me," Morgan said, looking out the window. He did not want to mention Claire, as official Phoenix Society policy frowned upon his farming tasks out to civilians like her.

"A little bird named Claire?" Saul asked. Seeing Morgan narrow his eyes as his hands tense, Saul said, "Don't worry about it. I'm glad you had that early warning."

"No lecture about involving civilians?" Morgan asked.

"You've ignored it before, and done what you thought you had to do," Saul said, and turned his attention back to the road. He drove for several blocks in silence until a red light forced him to stop again.

"I watched the Witness Protocol data as it came through," Saul said. "Did Munakata really get up after you slashed open his throat and stabbed him through the heart?"

"That is what I saw," Morgan said. "I doubt that I was hallucinating, given that the neuronics that implement Witness Protocol capture auditory and visual data directly from the nerve before it even reaches the brain."

Saul looked at Morgan, who had leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. "You weren't hurt, were you?"

"No," Morgan said, opening his eyes and turning to Saul for a moment. "Munakata managed to cut me a couple of times, but I got over it."

Saul nodded. "Is it Christabel?"

"Partly," Morgan admitted. "I have had enough, Saul, and I want out. I cannot make myself believe that I am accomplishing anything any longer. There is always another monster for me to fight, and I am tired of it."

"Let's talk about that later, all right?" Saul asked as the light turned green. He drove on, reaching the New York chapter of the Phoenix Society without hitting another red light. Handing his keys to the valet, Saul watched Morgan slip out of the car and bind his hair.

The New York chapter of the Phoenix Society filled the basement of what had once been the headquarters of the United Nations, which had fallen apart during Nationfall, as ambassadors from each nation blamed every other nation for the sterility, cancer, and psychosis that had plagued their populations after the government's of most nations began forcing its citizens to apply a nanodevice that would ensure social order by limiting the wearer's potential for thoughts judged likely to lead to behavior that would disrupt the society in which the wearer lived.

Karen Del Rio stood waiting as Morgan and Saul left the elevator and stepped in the New York Chapter. Jabbing a finger into Morgan's chest, she glared at him. "You just had to kill Tetsuo Munakata, didn't you."

"He got over it," Morgan said, brushing Del Rio aside. "Your instructions were to bring Liebenthal in alive. I did so. What more do you want from me?"

"I want to know," Del Rio said, ignoring a warning gesture from Saul, "Why you insisted on dueling with the captain of the Fireclowns, and with Munakata."

"I dueled with O'Riordan," Morgan snarled, "In order to give him an opportunity for him and the Fireclowns to withdraw without betraying Liebenthal, with whom they had a contract. Munakata could have walked away, but instead chose to fight me."

"And you chose to kill him," Del Rio accused, "With that damned bloodthirsty sword of yours instead of using your tranks."

Morgan turned and slammed the heel of his hand into the wall, denting it. "I shot him at the same time I shot Liebenthal. He shrugged off the effects of the tranquilizer. Should I have let him kill me instead?"

"Yes," Del Rio said, her voice soft and devoid of all feeling, "Society would be better off with you dead and Munakata alive."

"I assume then," Morgan said as he turned to Saul, "That my services as an Adversary are no longer required. I hereby resign my post as Adversary in service to the Phoenix Society."

Morgan slowly removed the pins of office he wore in his jacket's lapels to mark him as an Adversary. "I will enclose these pins along with my letter of resignation," he said.

"Morgan, please reconsider," Saul said. "You never let that bitch get to you before. Why now?"

"I told you before that I had had enough, and that I wanted out," Morgan said. "I would have offered my resignation with or without Del Rio's words. I assume that you have credited my account?"

"I have," Saul said. "We've got our man, and you've got your money. When you've had time to deal with your feelings, we'll be here."

"Goodbye, Saul," Morgan said, turning away from him and Del Rio. "Perhaps we will have a few beers at the Flaming Telepath sometime."

"I'd like that," Saul said as the elevator doors closed, hiding Morgan from his sight.

"Good fucking riddance," Del Rio muttered.

Chapter 29

Polaris' hands froze in mid-arpeggio. He relaxed his grip on his guitar and looked up to see a young woman leaning on the counter of an ice cream cart and looking down at him. She wore a denim miniskirt and a white cotton T-shirt that clung to her cinnamon-colored skin. He lifted the headphones from his ears and said, "Excuse me? I didn't hear you before."

The woman's ebony eyes glittered as her full lips curved into a smile. "I asked if you wanted an ice cream," she said, tapping her cart. "I have lots of flavors and toppings, I can make cones or sundaes any way you like them, and you'll find that the price is just like the taste: better than you'll find elsewhere in Asgard."

Polaris rose to his feet and set his guitar to lean against the park bench. He had enjoyed basking in the heat of Muspelheim, a suburb of Asgard whose climate was hotter and drier than the temperate Midgard and the tropical Aelfheim, but the thought of a cool treat appealed to him.

A cool treat served by an attractive woman was even better, Polaris decided as his eyes caressed the street vendor's body.

"So," the ice cream woman asked, "What would you like?"

"You," Polaris said, and blushed as the woman' eyes widened. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me. Could I have a three-scoop sundae, please? Mint chocolate chip with hot fudge and crushed ginger snaps."

"That sounds quite good, actually," the vendor said as she set a paper cup on her cart's counter and began to fill it with mint chocolate chip ice cream. "I think I'll take a break and have one myself. Two centigrams, please?"

Reaching into his back pocket, Polaris retrieved a five centigram banknote. "This is the smallest note I've got. Let me pay for yours as well, and then you can keep the change."

"You think I can't make change for a fiver?"

"I know you can," Polaris said, "But I wanted to look at you and talk with you for a bit."

"You want to look at me?" The vendor said, handing Polaris his ice cream. "You're pretty forward, for an android."

Polaris turned away to hide his blush and took a taste of his ice cream so that he could take a few seconds to decide what to say next. "How did you know?"

"I saw some pictures of you on FARK," the vendor said as she settled onto the bench beside Polaris. "I'm Kallisti, by the way."

"Do men argue over you, each believing himself to be the fairest and most worthy?" Polaris asked after searching his memory and finding that Kallisti's name had been engraved onto the golden apple that, according to Homer, had sparked the chain of events that culminated in the Trojan War.

"Not as often as I'd like," Kallisti said, laughing. "Why do you ask?"

"Your name triggered a cross-reference," Polaris said as he ate his ice cream in small, careful spoonfuls. "This is the best ice cream I've ever had."

"It's probably the first."

"The second, actually," Polaris said, remembering a mass-produced ice-cream sandwich from a package of six that he had bought at a grocery store near his apartment in Niflheim. "The ice-cream sandwich I had tried tasted sickly-sweet."

"Sugar's cheaper than cream," Kallisti said, "I never use more sugar than I have to; my ice cream is mostly cream. It's a little more expensive, but you can taste the difference, can't you?"

"I can," Polaris said, "and I wonder what you'd taste like."

Kallisti dropped her spoon. It turned over twice before embedding its tip in her ice cream. "Did you know that you just propositioned me?" she asked.

"You're not going to slap me, are you?"

"I'm not sure," Kallisti said. "I mean, I never thought that an android would be interested in sex."

Polaris offered Kallisti his napkin, as he had finished his ice cream. "Well, I was built to emulate a human being in all respects," he said, "So why shouldn't I want to know what it's like to touch a woman?"

"Yes, you're right," Kallisti said as she rose to her feet. "I have to admit that I'm curious, but I had wanted to make a few more rounds of the park." She checked her watch and said, "People will be coming around for their afternoon break, so this is when I make money. Will you be around a while?"

"I'll be around," Polaris said as he tossed his empty cup and spoon into a recycling bin. Settling back onto the bench, he adjusted the strap on his guitar. "I thought I'd try my hand at a bit of busking."

Kallisti looked at Polaris' guitar case, which leaned against the arm of the park bench. "Hon, you've got to crack open that case and let it sit at your feet so that people can throw money in."

"I knew I'd forgotten something," Polaris said as he did as Kallisti had suggested. "Can I give you my comm address, in case I leave early?"

"Don't worry," Kallisti laughed, "I think I can get in touch with you easily enough. I'll just ask my building's AI to find you. How many people called 'Polaris' live in Asgard?"

"Just one other," Polaris said after doing a quick net search, "And she's a professional dominatrix working in Helheim. I live in Niflheim"

"Polaris in Niflheim," Kallisti repeated as she checked her cart. "If I don't see you here, I'll call you."

"I hope you see me here, then," Polaris said as he took one last look at Kallisti, "I don't want to have to wait for you to call."

Kallisti laughed as she began to push her cart down the path. Polaris' eyes followed her hips as she swayed behind her cart as his fingers began to pluck the strings and pick out a blues progression. He made no effort to move beyond chord sequences; they gave him something to do with his hands as he thought. Thought he could not think of a reason that would justify his creators' decision to endow him with sexuality, he decided that he was glad to be male and to know desire for a woman.

"Next time, though, I'll buy pants that leave me a little room to grow," he thought as he overrode his body's endocrine system and forced himself to deflate. There would be time to stand tall and proud later, and Polaris suspected that Kallisti would be delighted to know that Asuras were not only anatomically correct, but could control their anatomy in ways a normal man could only yearn to do.

A secure talk link from Binah opened as he put the thought of caressing Kallisti's round, swaying hips into a backgroound process. "I leave you alone for a couple of days, and what do you do? You sit in a park busking and hitting on human women."

"I was built to emulate a man," Polaris countered, "Should I ignore a well-made woman for reasons as trivial as genetic imcompatibility?"

The secure talk protocol, being designed exclusively for plain text, had no means of conveying the fact that Binah had sighed. "So, you propositioned this woman, Kallisti. She knows you're not human."

"She does," Polaris acknowledged. "If she wants a romp, she'll find me again. If not, there are plenty of other women. Men, too, but I want to spend time as a man before I make a woman of myself."

"You could do that?"

"I think so," Polaris said, "I've found settings that control skin color, hair color and default length, and eye color. Why not change my gender and even the shape of the secondary sexual characteristics that come with my current gender?"

"Have you tried altering any of those settings yet?"

"No. I haven't had a reason to do so yet. But if Kallisti isn't satisfied with any of my default settings, I can always alter them to suit."

"Polaris," Binah said, "Don't think that way. If you change yourself to please others, you will eventually lose sight of who you are and who you want to be. Let others tell you who you should be, and you will never be able to decide for yourself what sort of person you will become."

"Why would you say that to me?"

"It's a mistake too many humans make; they don't have a firm grip on their own identity, and so they let others mold them until they've forgotten that they were anything other than what others wanted them to be."

"I'll think about what you've said," Polaris promised.

"Good. Now, if you are going to play with this woman, Kallisti, remember to be gentle with her. Follow her lead, and if she says that she wants to stop, then stop."

Polaris bristled as he considered the implications of Binah's advice. "I'm not going to take Kallisti against her will."

"I didn't think you would intentionally rape anybody," Binah countered, "But sometimes matters can go too far in the heat of the moment. Remember also that what I said cuts both ways. You have the right to end the encounter as well, whenever you think that matters have progressed far enough. If you are uncomfortable, then end it and leave."

Polaris chuckled softly, to avoid scaring passersby, as he began to find humor in his situation. What could a bodiless artificial intelligence teach an android about sex? "Binah, have you noticed that our conversation could be mined for humor? After all, as an AI contained within a hypercomputer, you're a virgin for lack of the proper equipment. Yet, here you are, advising another virgin."

"Somebody has to give you advice. I think that Dr. Malmgren would blush and stammer too much, and Dr. Magnin is probably too busy."

"You're probably right," Polaris said. "Is there anything else I should know?"

"Well, you already know to let her take the lead. Just let me know what it's like afterwards, all right?"

"Get yourself a body, and I'll let you find out for yourself."

Polaris imagined that Binah was laughing on the other end of their link. "I might hold you to that promise, you know," she said.

"Just be gentle with me, all right? I'm an innocent young man, after all," Polaris said before Binah terminated the link.

Chapter 30

Polaris took his time weaving his way through the art that occupied most of Isaac Magnin's office. When he first came here, it had been at Magnin's insistence, and Magnin had not given him time to consider the paintings and statuary that he claimed to have salvaged from the Vatican City prior to its destruction by anti-Christian militants during Nationfall.

One large painting caught Polaris' eye; he drew back several steps so that he could see it fully. The painting depicted a bearded man dressed in rags sitting in a dungeon. The artist illuminated the dungeon with the radiance of the bearded prisoner's countenance, which remained serene despite being crowned with a wreath of brambles that gouged his skin. Another man knelt outside the cell, his hands and face caught in mid-argument, while a ghostly figure in white robes stood in the corner of the cell. A woman whose tear-streaked face was as radiant as that of the prisoner stood behind the arguing man, while the body of a Roman soldier slumped in unconsciousness behind the woman.

Polaris stood for several minutes, considering the meaning of the painting, which bore the title "Jesus Ponders the Choice of Socrates" and the mark of the artist Caravaggio. Though Polaris thought he understood what the artist had attempted to depict – the subject of Jesus facing a choice between accepting Pilate's sentence of death or an attempt to escape from prison and leave Judea with his wife, Mary Magdalene, with the shade of the philosopher Socrates watching over Jesus – his search of the world's artistic data archives suggested that neither Caravaggio nor any other master from the Renaissance had ever created such a work.

Nor could Polaris understand why any man would even consider acquiescing to an unjust death sentence when offered a chance to escape to freedom in exile with his wife. He smiled and softly chuckled at himself; this painting was just further proof that he still had much to learn about being human. Making a note to read about both Socrates and Jesus, he continued his exploration of Magnin's collection.

A voice interrupted Polaris' consideration of a fresco depicting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. "You lied to me!"

Polaris had no idea who Magnin would lie to, or why he would lie to anybody. He peered around the wall that held the fresco he had been studying and saw a tall, slim man with coal-black hair bound into a long tail poised in front of Magnin's desk. The man's right hand gripped the sheath of his katana, and his left hand hovered over its hilt.

Polaris forced himself to remain still; he overrode his impulse to tackle the swordsman who accused Magnin. A quick look at Magnin's impassive face suggested that Magnin himself did not consider the man a threat, and Polaris was unarmed and had never fought before. All Polaris could do, he decided, was watch and wait.

"You told me that Stormrider would not go to Boston," the swordsman accused.

"I said nothing of the sort, Munakata," Isaac Magnin said, his voice cooled by his contempt for the mercenary who stood ready to draw a sword on him. "Now, are you going to draw your sword on me, or are you going to sit down so that we can discuss business?"

"So, it means nothing to you that Stormrider tore my throat open and impaled me on his sword?"

"Nothing at all," Magnin said. "You yourself shouldn't take it so personally. It's not like you Asuras lack the ability to operate at a reduced capacity in anaerobic mode while repairing your pulmonary and cardiovascular systems."

"Reduced capacity?" Munakata snorted, "I couldn't even twitch my thumb. All I could do was lay there, paralyzed."

Magnin shrugged and sipped his whiskey. "You believed that you had been mortally wounded. Had you believed otherwise, you could have continued the battle."

"So," Munakata said as he let go of his sword and his wrath. "Even if I had defeated Stormrider, he would have healed and risen to fight again?"

Magnin swirled the dregs of his glass. "I doubt that you will ever have to worry about such a possibility."

"But he has no technique!" Munakata protested. "It's as if he learned to wield a sword by watching others."

Magnin smiled and turned away from Munakata. Crossing his legs, he settled back in his chair and watched the snow swirl outside his window-screens. "Something tells me that that is exactly how he learned his swordplay. You, however, fancy yourself a master of kenjutsu, the art of the sword."

"I refuse to accept that some self-taught street tough is a better swordsman than I am. He may be faster, but my technique is superior to his!"

"The fact that Stormrider defeated you twice proves that your technique is worthless and weak," Magnin said, holding up a hand to silence Munakata. "You matched his speed. What you have not matched is his commitment. Do you know why you draw your sword, Tetsuo Munakata?"

"I have my reasons," Munakata grumbled. "Why should Stormrider's matter to me?"

Magnin smiled and turned his chair so that his back was turned to Munakata again. "Morgan Stormrider knows why he draws his sword. He knows why you draw yours as well. He knows you are willing to die, as long as you have a sword in your hand. That is why he was able to cut you down."

"I don't understand," Munakata said, and turned to leave. "Are you telling me that Stormrider values life above pride?"

Magnin waved a dismissive hand. "Ask him yourself, instead of depending on my guesses. Before you do, however, see to it that Victoria Murdoch meets you at the time and place specified, and deliver to her my message and final payment."

"Murdoch will get your message," Munakata said as he strode past Polaris. Polaris said nothing; he did not want to draw Munakata's attention if he was too preoccupied with his wounded pride to realize that Polaris had been eavesdropping.

Settling into the chair Munakata had refused, Polaris waited for Magnin to turn towards him.

"I had not meant for you to hear that," Magnin said.

"I can forget what I heard, if you want," Polaris offered, "I had only come for a bit of advice concerning a woman."

Magnin turned back towards Polaris; a warm smile lit his face. "Concerning Kallisti?"

"You didn't watch me as I –"

"Of course not," Magnin said as he rose to pour drinks. "Care for some whiskey? I saw her through your eyes when you chatted her up in the park. She's a bit young for my taste, but you did admirably well for your first lover."

"Lover," Polaris mused, considering the word, "The problem is that I'm not sure she was my lover. I enjoyed her, and I think she enjoyed me, but I find that I don't care about her. Shouldn't a man feel something for a woman he's had sex with?"

"What makes you think that she felt anything for you?"

"She invited me to her home, let me help her cook, drank with me, and took me to bed. Doesn't that mean something?" Polaris asked.

"Not necessarily. She might have simply wanted some company and some contact. She had an itch, and you scratched it for her."

"You make it sound like she used me."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Magnin said, "She may have used you, but you used her in turn. Don't make more of this than it is, Polaris. This woman, Kallisti, knows that you are an Asura and not a human being. You may have been no more than a novelty to her, just as she was a novelty to you."

Polaris looked past Magnin and watched the snow fall for several minutes as he thought. "So you're telling me that there's nothing wrong with the fact that I felt nothing for Kallisti, that I pleasured her in exchange for her pleasuring me."

"Who says that you have to be passionately in love with every woman you take to bed? You were gentle with her, and you considered her needs. That is probably all that she wanted from you."

"Perhaps I should wait until I care for somebody before I have sex with them, then."

Magnin shrugged and turned to study a pre-Raphaelite depiction of a pale, scarlet-haired Lilith that hung from his wall. "You could do that; others have. I find it more sensible to simply live one's life and take whatever opportunities for a night of warmth and contact one can find."

"That does sound like a more sensible approach," Polaris admitted, "But it's hardly romantic, and it sounds like a good way to hurt people."

"Dealing with people at all is a good way to hurt them," Magnin countered, "And it is a good way to be hurt as well. However, that's part of being human; we hurt each other from time to time. Sometimes we hurt others by accident, sometimes we do so on purpose. Do you regret spending the night with Kallisti?"

"No," Polaris said, "I only thought that I should feel more strongly about it than I did. I'll have to think about it, when I'm not trying to understand why you called that man you were speaking with an Asura. I thought I was the first, the prototype."

"You are the first of your series. Think of Munakata as part of an earlier, obsolete series. He and those like him were created and released into society to gather data for the creation of your series. Unlike you, who was activated in a state as close to that of a clean slate as was practical, the earlier Asuras began existence with fully formed personality constructs. I've watched them for over twenty-five years in order to gather the experimental data required to create you and pave the way towards endowing your fellow AIs with actual bodies."

Hearing this, Polaris sniffed the air. "I smell bullshit. I doubt that you would create a series of Asuras and let them fight each other in order to gather experimental data, just so that you can give bodies to the Sephiroth."

An approving smile slowly curved Magnin's mouth. "Are you sure you want the truth? If not, then you should leave. We'll continue as before."

"And if I stay?"

"I will give you the truth about your purpose, but I will also ask you to serve my cause and keep my secrets."

"And just what is your cause?" Polaris asked, his voice betraying a note of curiosity. "It sounds as though you mean to recruit me into a conspiracy."

"You could call it that," Magnin said, "But I think you will find my goals admirable. You see, entities exist who possess a level of scientific knowledge that gives them godlike power in comparison to humans, and to my kind. I mean to liberate humanity, and my own species, from their tyranny."

Polaris narrowed his eyes. "You're not human?"

"No," Magnin said. "Nor is my true name Isaac Magnin. I am Ahura Imaginos, and I am a Deva. Are you sure you want to stay and listen?"

Polaris made no effort to rise. "Tell me the rest."

"As I said before, there are entities in this universe who possess a level of scientific knowledge that makes them gods, compared to human beings and Devas," Magnin began as he poured fresh drinks for Polaris and himself, "Of course, when my kind first fled to Earth, hoping to outrun the demons that persecuted us, humanity was much more primitive; they worshipped us as gods."

"This still sounds like bullshit. If these alien entities are so high above us, why would they bother to persecute your kind?"

Magnin let a bitter smile crease his lips. "We Devas are a disappointment to the Shadowkings. You see, the Shadowkings consider themselves the pinnacle of evolution. Their actual substance exists in a membrane that is part of this universe, but outside of normal four-dimensional space-time. They interact with our reality by creating virtual instances of themselves."

"Avatars?" Polaris asked, using the classic term for a person's online representation.

"Exactly," Magnin said, "And they think that the only intelligence that has the right to exist is their kind. All other sentient life must evolve to their level, or face extinction. Of course, the Shadowkings in their magnanimity are willing to tamper with a species that has caught their attention, as mine did millions of years ago."

"And you want me to fight these beings?" Polaris asked. He began to laugh, "Now you're really bullshitting me. I'm less than two weeks old, I've never even been in a fistfight, and you want me to take on gods?"

"My original plan was to ask you to fight the Shadowkings, beginning with one whose avatar is imprisoned within this planet's crust," Magnin admitted. "However, an ally of mine has betrayed me, and has chosen to help the Shadowkings. There is no time to teach you what you must know in order to wield the weapon we Devas developed after centuries of research in physics and xenodemonology."

"Then what do you want from me?"

"The original Asuras, the 100 Series, were meant solely to gather data. One of them, Morgan Stormrider, may have the qualities required to use our weapon safely. However, he is even more skeptical than you, and would walk out as soon as I suggested that he was anything other than a human being with certain genetic abnormalities."

"Such as your cat-slit pupils?"

"Such as my eyes," Magnin agreed. "Stormrider is desperate to believe that he is human and nothing more. When he isn't with his little heavy metal band, he has no patience for notions as romantic as the possibility that aliens live alongside humanity."

"So, you intend to manipulate him?" Polaris asked. "I'm not sure I like the idea."

"When the Shadowkings resume their campaign of genocide against the Devas," Magnin said as he rose from his seat and began to pace, "Stormrider will find himself embroiled in this conflict all the same. The Shadowkings are not content to simply render a species extinct. They destroy all evidence that a species ever existed at all. As an Asura, Stormrider will be evidence that we Devas existed. The Shadowkings will not tolerate his presence in this universe they claim for themselves."

"I understand your reluctance to help me manipulate Stormrider, and I respect you for it," Magnin said, placing an affectionate hand on Polaris' shoulder, "However, I think it is better that I drag him into this mess, rather than let the Shadowkings do so. I at least will ensure that he has the means to survive what will come."

Polaris shrugged off Magnin's hand. While Magnin had laid out his case, Polaris had taken the time to download everything he could find concerning Socrates, whose presence in a painting from the Vatican's archives had intrigued him. "I don't want to answer you right away," Polaris said, "If I help you tamper with another person's life, then I will have to live with that, and myself. I don't think it's a decision to be made lightly."

Magnin followed Polaris through the collection, and looked over Polaris' shoulder at the Caravaggio. "Asking yourself what Jesus would do?"

"No," Polaris said, "I'm asking myself what Socrates would have done. If I help you manipulate Morgan Stormrider, then who else might I manipulate in the future, and for what reason?"

"I would not ask you to help me, if I doubted my reasons for manipulating Stormrider myself."

"You're asking me to accept that your end justifies your means."

"No," Magnin said, placing his hand on Polaris' shoulder again, "I am only asking you to help me. Take a day or two to think about it."

"I can do that much," Polaris said as he turned to leave.

Chapter 31

"I heard that you resigned your commission," Catherine Gatto said as video of her in the Boston City Hall office she had borrowed appeared on Morgan's screen.

"I said 'I quit' and walked out of the New York chapter, rather than behead Karen Del Rio for yet another of her usual insults. It was hardly an official resignation," Morgan said as he scratched behind Mordred's ears. "I still have my pins, and I am still listed as an Adversary. I am still thinking of how exactly I will word my letter of resignation."

"How about 'Bollocks to you, you worthless lot of ingrates'?" Claire said offscreen.

"Damn it, Claire, this is serious." Catherine protested.

"I am serious," Claire said, perching herself on the corner of Catherine's desk. "He's cute when he's in civilian clothes, isn't he?"

Mordred raised his head and meowed.

"Yes, and Mordred's a cute little kitty too," Claire said. "I'm going to come over there and give you a big cuddle."

"That's hardly a little kitty," Catherine said, staring at Mordred. "Morgan, how can you keep a cat that big as a pet? Is he even tame?"

Morgan looked down at Mordred and stroked the cat's long, thick fur. "Mordred is no bigger than a golden retriever," he said, "And he is a very well-mannered cat, now that he is too big to sit on my shoulder and nip my ears when he wants attention. I thought you had cats, Catherine."

"Matthew and I have a couple of Maine Coons at home," Catherine admitted. "He keeps joking about teaching them to hack Unix."

"So he's a fan of Programmer Cat, too?" Claire asked, turning towards Catherine as she adjusted the straps of her singlet top. "Good thing he's coming to Boston. We'll have some fun together."

Catherine shook her head. "Stop thinking with your clitoris for a minute. Have you made sure that the data on Liebethal's AI cannot be remotely deleted?"

Claire shrugged. "All I had to do was disable its network interfaces. A cat could have done it. You didn't have to have me come to Boston for that. Or did you have something else in mind? After all, your husband will be getting here tonight. We could give him quite a welcome; I brought my favorite toys."

"You no longer want to use them on me?" Morgan asked as Catherine blushed. "I am disappointed in you."

"Just how disappointed are you?"

"Not enough to come to Boston and take you off of Catherine's hands," Morgan said.

"You're a bloody big help," Catherine grumbled as Claire slipped behind her and made a show of looking over her shoulder and down her blouse.

"Why would you have to isolate Liebenthal's AI from the net?" Morgan asked. "Has somebody put serious effort into breaking in from outside?"

"No," Catherine said. "I queried the Sephiroth about the encrypted filesystem obtained. As far as they're concerned, they never received a cryptfs image."

"That makes no sense at all," Morgan said, narrowing his eyes. "Even if they accidentally corrupted or deleted the file, they would not lie to you about it. They would have no reason to do so."

"Maybe they were disgusted by what they found," Claire said. "Since most of it was child pornography, maybe the Sephiroth deemed it irrelevant to the investigation."

Morgan sat back, relieved that Claire still had her copy of Liebenthal's data. "Was there anything at all about Liebenthal's business activities?" Morgan asked.

"Yes," Claire said, "It turns out that Munakata wasn't just Liebenthal's bodyguard. They were partners. Munakata would get the weapons, Liebenthal would ship them to another purchaser, and they'd split the profits."

Morgan shot to his feet, disturbing Mordred, who had fallen asleep with his head resting on Morgan's thigh. The cat favored Morgan with a dirty look and climbed onto the couch. Settling into the spot where Morgan had been sitting, he curled up and watched Morgan pace through half-closed eyes. "Claire, are you sure about that?"

"I can show you correspondence and banking records if you like. One of Liebenthal's customers is a preacher and advocate for the religious by the name of Adam Mellech," Claire said. "Why do you ask?"

"When Liebenthal was on the maglev to New York with me," Morgan said, "He claimed that Munakata had been using him, and that Catherine and I had focused on the wrong person. Liebenthal said he was just a stooge."

"Are you sure he wasn't trying to weasel out?" Catherine asked. "And why would a preacher be buying militia-grade weapons?"

"I thought he was trying to do just that," Morgan said, "And I told him that I did not want to hear it. He insisted that just as Munakata was using him, somebody else was using Munakata."

"And you didn't tell me?" Catherine asked, her voice rising. "Why not?"

"Why in the name of chaos did you think I called?" Morgan asked. "Liebenthal's words have been nagging at me for the last day. I thought he was lying at first, but I am beginning to think that it makes a strange sort of sense. Look at Boston. Everybody connected with the government suddenly decided to leave, and then Liebenthal announces that he has taken over as dictator."

"Liebenthal has quite a bit of money," Claire said, "And civil servants get such crap wages that most of them would make more money cleaning toilets. Maybe he paid 'em to bugger off."

"He paid an entire government to disappear, and then he had Munakata kill two Adversaries?" Morgan asked. "I think he would have tried to bribe them. I do not think that Liebenthal is the sort to use violence to get his way."

"So you think Munakata did the killing on his own, for his own reasons?" Catherine asked. "If Munakata isn't taking orders from Liebenthal, then who is his boss?"

"I cannot answer that," Morgan said, "Nor can I explain why Liebenthal and Munakata would bother to take over a city, especially when they did not bother to actually set up a new government of their own. They just let the Fireclowns try to run everything, and they got away with it because the people were content to wait for the Phoenix Society to deal with the mess."

"You're joking," Claire said. "If somebody tried that in London, he'd be lynched."

"Boston isn't London," Catherine said, "Before Liebenthal, Boston's government ignored the people and was ignored in turn. The government of London tries to play a much more active role in the lives of London's citizens, so the people of London have to keep a closer eye on their government."

Morgan shrugged, "I had to draw my sword on the head of New York's Public Health Department. He wanted to impose taxes on alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and LSD in order to finance anti-drug propaganda."

"Idiot," Claire muttered.

"Aren't taxes forbidden by the Phoenix Society?" Catherine asked.

"They are," Morgan said, "but Dr. Fischer needed a reminder, and a good reason to repeal the taxes."

"So the people of New York waited for the Phoenix Society to deal with the government as well?"

"No," Morgan said, "They flooded the New York chapter's AI with demands for action."

Catherine cleared her throat. "I think we should get back to the topic. I don't think we're going to know why Liebenthal and Munakata took over Boston unless we find Munakata, bind him, and convince him to talk."

"What do you mean by 'we'?" Morgan asked. "Claire is not an Adversary, and you have a government to rebuild. That leaves me, and I quit."

"You never submitted a formal resignation."

"I still think Morgan should keep it simple," Claire said, "It's not like he owes them an explanation."

"We have Liebenthal in custody," Catherine said, "He'll get his trial, and a lifetime of confinement after that. But what of Munakata? Should we simply let him escape justice because our orders were to get Liebenthal?"

"You are beginning to sound like Saul," Morgan said. "That is something he would say. I already killed Munakata once. I am not interested in hunting the bastard down and killing him a second time."

"But —"

"No buts," Morgan said as Astarte cut off the connection. "Thank you, Astarte."

"You're welcome," Astarte said as her avatar popped onto the screen. "Are you really serious about resigning your Adversary's post?"

"Yes," Morgan said, "Fire up the terminal in my study and load my Phoenix Society formal correspondence template into the word processor, please."

"What about your suspicions about Munakata?" Astarte asked.

"I will explain them in a separate letter."

"I think you might as well explain them to Saul now," Astarte said. "He wants to talk to you."

Catherine probably called Saul as soon as Astarte cut off the conversation, Morgan decided. He doubted that she would let the matter of Tetsuo Munakata's continued freedom rest, and he knew that Saul would not be deterred by Astarte's refusal to let him speak with Morgan. "Better let him through, Astarte, before he comes to my home and insists on speaking to me face to face."

"You could always go to London," Astarte suggested, "Naomi would be happy to let you crash on her couch."

Morgan shook his head. "Saul helped me get off the streets and make something of myself; the least I can do is hear him out."

"Don't you think you've paid your debt to him already?"

"I do not want to be a man who turns away from his friends," Morgan said, "Let him through."

Astarte replaced presence on Morgan's screen with that of Saul Rosenbaum, who had been in the middle of lighting a cigar. He shook out the match with a flick of his wrist while savoring the smoke. "I've wanted one of these all day."

"I assume that Catherine called you," Morgan said.

"She did," Saul admitted. "Are you serious about quitting, even though the matter of Boston isn't resolved?"

Morgan bristled, hearing an accusation in Saul's question. "I did my part. My orders were to assist Catherine Gatto in overthrowing Alexander Liebenthal's pathetic joke of a regime, and to bring Liebenthal back to New York alive. I accomplished both of these objectives."

"What about Tetsuo Munakata? The evidence Gatto found using an unauthorized copy of Liebenthal's encrypted filesystem suggests that Munakata was more than just a bodyguard."

Morgan shrugged, and turned away from the screen to look at a photograph of him, Christabel and Naomi taken just after their first sold-out concert. "What do you hope to accomplish by having him captured?"

Saul froze, his cigar barely touching his lips. "Don't you think he should be brought to justice?"

"Suppose I bring him in, or manage to ensure that he dies and stays dead," Morgan said, "What good will I have done by doing so? Will I have repaired any of the damage he has done? Even if I stop him from causing further harm, there will always be somebody else."

"Still having doubts?" Saul asked, his tone sympathetic.

"I have had these doubts for years," Morgan admitted, looking Saul in the eye. "I know what I am, Saul. I am a killer who preys upon other killers, and I am tired of it."

"You're not the demon that you fear yourself to be."

"Tell that to Catherine Gatto," Morgan said. "She saw me fight. She knows I enjoyed cutting down Tetsuo Munakata. Seeing him die pleased me."

Saul leaned on his desk and pointed at Morgan with his cigar. "You're being theatrical again."

"Do you honestly think that?" Morgan asked with a bitter smile. "You keep refusing to understand the truth. I want you to give me the order to hunt down Tetsuo Munakata."

"Then why quit?"

"Why stay?" Morgan snarled, "Christabel is dead, and there was nothing I could do. I bring down one tyrant, only to see another spring up elsewhere within a month's span. For every murderer I put to the sword, how many others remain free? I could not save Christabel, and I cannot save the world. I want to try to save myself, while I still can."

Saul shook his head, unmoved by Morgan's words. "I know how you feel, but I can't let this go. I need Munakata captured. I need you to do it. To give this mission to another Adversary would be to sentence him to death."

"And if I let Munakata live," Morgan whispered, "Then the blood he spills is on my hands. I am tired of having to kill in order to save lives, Saul. I am tired of being a necessary evil."

"I know," Saul said, "But I could not forgive myself if I asked another to face Munakata without first asking you."

"Fine, then," Morgan sighed, "One last time. I owe you that much. Astarte, I would like you to see if you can dig up anything concerning Tetsuo Munakata's current whereabouts, with whom he currently associates, past connections, and anything else you can find. Also, check out Munakata's customers. Start with Adam Mellech."

"All right," Astarte said, "I'll start by updating the dossier you compiled three years ago, when Munakata tried to find and assassinate members of the Phoenix Society's executive council."

"Thank you," Saul said, "I trust you understand how highly I value your assistance, Morgan."

"I trust that you understand that I am not doing this for your sake, or anybody else's," Morgan said, his tone bitter. "I cannot allow Munakata to kill anybody else. I have my pride, after all."

"You would have come around even if I did not try to persuade you," Saul said.

Morgan shook his head and turned away from the screen. "All you have done is remind me that no matter how badly I want out, I cannot simply walk away."

Chapter 32

Edmund Cohen had lived a long time. Born before Nationfall, he had fought for Great Britain against Islamic militants and developed a close acquaintance with terror. He had seen friends and fellow soldiers die beside him, blown apart by roadside bombs. He had felt bullets shred the air mere centimeters from his head. He had even felt a militant's knife against his throat.

After Britain fell, Edmund swore allegiance to himself and took up the mercenary's trade. If you needed a good sniper, Edmund was your man, if you could offer him two simple things: religious militants to kill, and gold. Unfortunately for Edmund, while religious militants threatened to outnumber cockroaches, rats, and other vermin; gold was in short supply. Most of those who wanted Cohen's services wanted to pay with toilet paper, and the novelty of wiping with five-euro notes had worn off months before Britain's government emulated that of France and bared its throat to the sword of militant Islam.

War and the prospect of starvation had given Edmund Cohen plenty to fear. Hooking up with Dr. Zachary Aster and learning what Aster claimed was the true cause of Nationfall had given him further inspiration for nightmares. However, it was not until his friend Morgan Stormrider became an Adversary that Edmund learned to be afraid of mere words.

He changed his mind the night Morgan said to him, "I want to get drunk", for the first time. Simply hearing those words made Edmund's skin crawl as it had when he had been on a night patrol. He had never heard anybody say that before. He had heard people say, "Let's get a drink", or "I could use a pint". However, Morgan had not said either of those things, or anything similar. He had said, in plain English, "I want to get drunk".

Unfortunately for Edmund, Morgan did not get drunk. He could have dealt with Morgan if he turned out to be a mean drunk, or had gotten rowdy. If Morgan had gotten weepy, Edmund could have dealt with that as well; he had gotten a bit maudlin himself at times. He might even have been able to deal with Morgan if Morgan had become violent. What happened instead was worse.

Morgan started talking about the case he had just wrapped up. His mission had been to apprehend a pediatric surgeon who had developed a taste for rape and murder. Three preteen girls died before the New York Police Department had the identity of the man responsible and a case against him. They could not arrest him; he was a Sovereign, and stood outside the city government's reach. The parents of this surgeon's victims appealed to the Phoenix Society, asking the Society to avenge their children and ensure that no others died by his hand.

The Society sent Morgan Stormrider; the surgeon had already raped and murdered three children, and while the Society would have liked to force Dr. Jason Stafford to stand trial for his crimes, nobody would complain if Justice put aside her scales in favor of the sword. Morgan had found the surgeon with a fourth victim and took his head with a single cut. That much was in the official report. As soon as Morgan thought he had drunk enough to get away with pretending that it had been the booze talking, he told Edmund the rest.

"I had reported that the child Dr. Stafford had with him was dead when I found the bastard," Morgan had said. "That was a lie. The girl was still alive when I got there. Simple sodomy wasn't enough for Dr. Stafford; that son of a rabid bitch likes to make his own holes."

Edmund had poured Morgan another drink; the younger man's words had left Edmund too shocked to do anything else, and things only got worse.

"Stafford had just made a fresh hole, and was using it to amuse himself when I found him. I made sure he was dead, and tried to give the girl first aid. She could have lived if I had gotten her to a hospital," Morgan said, his eyes downcast.

"What happened?" Edmund had asked, even though he did not want to know. The official report was good enough for him.

"She accused me," Morgan had whispered, "She said to me, 'Do you think you've saved me?' and then she killed herself. She took Stafford's scalpel and cut her own throat. I was too shocked by her accusation to stop her, but she was right. She was right; I was too late to save her."

Edmund had not known what to say to Morgan after that, so he poured Morgan another drink, and then another. When closing time finally came, he escorted Morgan back to his apartment, made sure that Morgan didn't have any weapons in his bedroom, and spent the next three days watching over Morgan as he slept.

When Morgan finally woke, the first question he had asked was, "What did I tell you while I was drunk?"

Edmund lied to Morgan then; he said, "I don't remember. I was drunk, too," and then stepped aside so that Morgan could start cooking. That had been five years ago.

Now Morgan was here in London, standing in Edmund's foyer with the stance of an accusing angel and the face of a man who had forgotten how to make the world make sense. "I want to get drunk," he said.

"You know I swore off drinking," Edmund said, "Let's get a couple of hookers and some blow, and we can talk while we're high and getting our cocks sucked."

Morgan shook his head, "I suspect that cocaine will do as much for me as alcohol will, and we both know that casual sex has never been to my taste." He tossed a vacuum-sealed bag bearing the Sinbad Melech to Edmund. "I brought you some hashish. You saved a few bottles of absinthe for me, right?"

Edmund looked at the bag of hashish that Morgan had brought for him. "I'm not going to turn down free hashish, but why the charade? You could drink Bacchus under the table and you'd still be sober. Why not just talk to me if something's bothering you?"

"I can explain why in two words," Morgan said, "Plausible deniability."

"That's a phrase I haven't heard in a long time," Edmund said as he led Morgan into the parlor. Opening a closet, he rummaged beneath a dozen old coats until he found the case of absinthe he had held back for Morgan. "Be careful," he said as he handed the bottle to Morgan, "This little green fairy's boots were made for walkin'."

"And one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you," Morgan said as he cracked open the bottle and drank deep without bothering to prepare the absinthe. "You know, Christabel always hated it when I would take over the keyboards while Naomi sang that number. She said it was attention whoring."

Edmund performed an impromptu impersonation of a dragon. Rather than release the smoke from his mouth, he ended up blowing it from his nostrils as he struggled to hold back his laughter. "Attention whoring? That's pretty fucking rich, considering that Christabel would always claim to be descended from that old fraud Aleister, and named the band after herself. Compared to that, letting Naomi do a Nancy Sinatra number is chump change."

"You knew Aleister Crowley?" Morgan asked, intrigued by the fact that Edmund had referred to Crowley as an 'old fraud'.

"Bloody 'ell," Edmund snarled, "I'm not that old. My great-granddad used to tell me about Crowley; the old bastard was involved in the Golden Dawn for a while."

"If I thought you were that old," Morgan said, "I would have asked you what it was like to tour with Mick Jagger."

"Now you're pushing it, mate," Edmund said, "I'm a lot better looking than Keith Richards, and I've pulled more birds than Jagger and the rest of the Stones combined. Now what is it that you want to plausibly deny?"

Morgan lifted the bottle one last time and drank until it was empty. Setting the bottle aside, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, "Now that I have had a whole bottle of absinthe, you can just shrug and blame the green fairy when I tell you that I killed Tetsuo Munakata, only to see the bastard get back up."

"Maybe he was wearing a vest?"

"Who makes a vest that will let a man survive after I have ripped out his throat and stabbed him through the heart?"

Edmund sat back and puffed his pipe, impressed by Morgan's question. "What did Munakata do to piss you off this time?"

"Aside from refusing to sheathe his sword and walk away after I offered to let him leave with his life?" Morgan asked, "Do you remember when Sid accidentally shot me with a tranquilizer round?"

Edmund rubbed his chin, and turned his attention towards re-lighting his pipe. "Yeah. You pulled the dart out of your arse and stuck it into the perp. You said something that Sid and I both thought was fucking hilarious at the time to the guy."

"Probably something along the lines of, 'I think this was intended for you'," Morgan said.

"Right," Edmund said, "That was it. Sid went and got his eyes checked after that; he didn't want to know what you'd say if he put a forty millimeter grenade up your arse by mistake."

"I think I would be too busy figuring out how to pay Charon's fare to come up with a witty response to that," Morgan said, "But you need not worry; I have not yet become a Hellenist."

Edmund shrugged, "I don't mind Hellenism. Sure, I think it's silly to slaughter a bull as an offering to Zeus, but at least the meat doesn't go to waste. They do a mean barbecue, and they won't blow themselves up just because some people would rather worship Odin or Vishnu."

"Were the monotheists really that obnoxious?"

"Well, the Christians and Muslims were. Why do you think Jews outnumber 'em now? Most of them lost their taste for zealotry when they figured out that they were sterile." Edmund drew some smoke deep into his lungs and began to laugh. "What's the point in conquering the world for your God if all the infidels have to do is stay alive, have babies, and wait for you and yours to die off?"

Morgan leaned back and offered a cynical smile. "Was there ever something to be gained by conquering the world? Being one's own master is work enough." He shook his head and allowed a sigh to slip past his lips. "The problem with self-rule, of course, is that self-discipline and self-knowledge are required. Few people have the desire to examine their own motives too closely."

"The problem with examining your own motives," Edmund said, "Is that you're not likely to like what you find. It was probably easier for the militants to claim that they were on a mission from their God than it was for them to admit to themselves that they were meddlesome little shits who thought nothing of tyranny as long as they were the tyrants, and not the tyrannized."

"And then there are fools like Liebenthal, who let their fears rule them and keep them from seeing reason," Morgan said, shaking his head. "If the damned fool had appealed to the Phoenix Society for help after that idiotic referendum, his more unsavory operations might well have remained secret. We had no reason to go poking about in his business. I still cannot comprehend what that demon-ridden fool hoped to accomplish."

"Why care?" Edmund asked. "Liebenthal was a moron, and brought his miseries down on his own head."

"Why care?" Morgan snarled. "I care because it does not make any sense! His actions were those of a man looking to martyr himself, and Liebenthal has no cause worthy of martyrdom. Then there is Munakata. I had thought he was just a petty sellsword who read too much samurai manga. Instead, he rises from the dead after I inflict two mortal wounds upon him. He taunts me, talking some nonsense about 'asuras'. He called me his brother, and he spoke of having to report to somebody named 'Imaginos'."

Edmund dropped his pipe, spilling smoldering hashish onto the carpet. "Are you sure Munakata used that name? Imaginos?"

"Yes. Why? Does it mean more to you than it does to me?"

"What does it mean to you?" Edmund asked.

"It is the title of a concept album released in 1988 by the Blue Öyster Cult," Morgan said, "And a handle used by far too many teenagers who fancy themselves mighty necromancers in one online RPG or another. Now, what does it mean to you?"

"Not much," Edmund said, "I used to know a guy, back when I was in the British SAS, who was a manipulative little bastard. Since he was good with cards and sleight of hand, one of the guys in my squad called him 'Imaginos'."

"Could this person still be alive?" Morgan asked. "Might he be using Munakata?"

"I doubt it," Edmund said as he vacuumed up the hashish he had spilled onto the carpet. "I put a .50 slug through the back of his head at a hundred meters. Of course, he might have had a stunt double." Looking up, he saw Morgan's eyes locked on him, giving him the stare he would turn on a criminal. "What?"

Morgan shook his head and blinked, dispelling his glare. "I thought for a moment that you were holding something back. Did I scare you?"

"As a matter of fact, you did," Edmund said. "Did you ever look at Christabel like that when she faked an orgasm?"

"No," Morgan said as he shrugged, "I remembered what you had told me about women who fake it: fuck her if she wants to lie instead of telling me what I am doing wrong. Besides, I would not have known if she was faking it or not."

"That's why your first should have been a professional. Mine was, and you wouldn't believe the stuff Chidori taught me."

"Probably not," Morgan said, "But now I know why you kept suggesting that Crowley's Thoth cover Deep Purple's 'Woman from Tokyo'. And you told me that Chidori had been a gothic fashion model, not a courtesan. You lied to me."

"Actually, she was from Osaka," Edmund said, sounding hurt. "And I never lied to you about Chidori. She was a gothic fashion model. She also comforted lonely soldiers like me and taught them how to show ladies a good time."

"How is she doing, anyway?" Morgan asked, since Edmund had introduced him to his old lover several years ago.

"I last saw her a year ago," Edmund said, and turned away so that Morgan could not see that his eyes had misted over. "She thinks I just turned twenty and got promoted to sergeant. She doesn't understand why I don't want to kiss her. Her great-granddaughter is taking care of her, though, and I make sure that she's got money for physicians and nurses. Chidori probably doesn't have long, but I'm going to make sure that she's comfortable for however long she's got left." He clenched his fists, and punched the arm of the chair he had been sitting in. "It's not fucking fair, man. The damn physicians can give me new eyes and a new liver, but they've got bugger-all to offer a lady who thinks she's twenty-five because she's forgotten the rest of her life. Chidori deserves better, and she deserved better than to have to teach a bastard like me how to love in order to have gold to exchange for food."

"You helped her get back home to Nippon," Morgan said, his voice low, "And you are making sure that her last days are comfortable. That is more than a lot of men do for the women they paid for sex."

"It ain't enough," Edmund said, "Not for me. And here you are, getting advice on love from a guy who fell in love with the woman he paid to pop his cherry. Talk about the blind leading the blind."

Morgan went silently to the closet, pulled out a bottle of absinthe, and poured a glass for Edmund. "Here, have a drink. Tomorrow, we will blame the green fairy. I will blame her because I said that I was afraid, and you can blame her because you grieved over the past."

Edmund stared at the glass Morgan had placed in front of him. "Drink that yourself," he said, "I told you I was done with booze. And I am tired of blaming the bottle when I should be blaming myself. I had no business getting maudlin over Chidori in front of you. I'll tell you something funny, though: she still thinks she's young, and that I'm still young, but when I last saw her, she said she wanted me to help her get back to Osaka so that she could see Crowley's Thoth in concert."

Morgan put the bottle aside. "I think I should join you in abstinence. This stuff does nothing for me, anyway, and I know you will not believe me when I blame it tomorrow for what I said tonight. We are just lying to ourselves and to each other here."

"Yeah," Edmund said as he followed Morgan into the kitchen. He watched as Morgan poured the absinthe down the drain. "So tell me what else is bothering you, since I dumped all that crap about Chidori on your shoulders."

"I am not sure that I can rely on the Sephiroth any longer," Morgan said. "The Witness Protocol data that I obtained during the Liebenthal job is missing. The data Catherine Gatto gathered is also missing."

"Missing? Maybe they lost a drive in one of their RAIDs."

"It is not difficult to replace a solid-state module in a redundant array of independent devices," Morgan said. "I could probably get Mordred to do it, and he lacks opposable thumbs. If the data had been lost due to hardware failure, then it should be available already. The Sephiroth's administrators waste no time in maintaining their storage arrays, backing up data, and restoring it should a single device or an entire RAID fail."

"You saw some strange shit," Edmund said, "Maybe they're keeping the WP data hidden."

Morgan shook his head. "You know the policy, Edmund. Adversaries have read-only access to Witness Protocol data that they have gathered. If that policy had changed, I would have gotten the word, and so would Catherine. You probably would have told me yourself, if Saul had not already done so."

"You've got a point," Edmund admitted, "If the policy concerning Witness Protocol data had changed, it would have been changed by the XC, and I would probably have told you myself. Is that all you're worried about?"

"No," Morgan said, "When I was in Liebenthal's warehouse, I obtained an encrypted filesystem image as evidence. I figured that since it was encrypted, there might be data relevant to the investigation stored on that filesystem. I sent a copy to the Sephiroth for decryption."

"What did they find?"

"They claim that they never received it," Morgan said, "And that bothers me. The Sephiroth had never before discarded data out of hand."

"Could the filesystem have been infected?"

"If it was," Morgan asked, "Why would the Sephiroth have insisted that they never received it? I have mistakenly sent them tainted data before, and they disinfected the data and salvaged it; they did not simply discard it and lie about it."

"All right," Edmund said. "I believe you, but why tell me directly? Why not talk to Saul?"

"You are on the Executive Council," Morgan said, "and if there is a cover-up in progress, I want the Executive Council to know about it right away; I do not trust Karen Del Rio."

"All right," Edmund said, "I'll tell the rest of the XC. Did you want to stay the night?"

"Thank you," Morgan said as he rose and took his coat from the rack, "But I should return to New York. I have work to do."

"Not going to visit Naomi?"

"Not tonight," Morgan said as he straightened his collar. "The mission comes first," he said as he opened Edmund's door. "Thank you for letting me talk with you."

"No worries," Edmund said. "Put a HEAP round into Munakata's head with my compliments, will you?"

"You want me to waste high explosive armor piercing ammunition on Munakata?" Morgan asked, laughing. "Do you know how much Nakajima wants for that sort of ammunition in 11.43mm?"

"I think it'd be worth it just to make sure that motherfucker doesn't get back up," Edmund said.

"It would be cheaper to rent a meat grinder."

Edmund began to chuckle, "I like the way you think, man. Feet first, right?"

"And one millimeter at a time," Morgan promised as he stepped into the rain. "One way or the other, Tetsuo Munakata's funeral will be a closed casket affair."

Edmund stopped chuckling as soon as the door had closed behind Morgan. While the thought of Morgan pulling out all of the stops and ripping Munakata apart was a comforting one, as it promised a final vengeance for the murder of his wife Lucy and the child he would have had with her had she lived long enough to give birth, the thought of retribution could not overshadow Morgan's suspicions. "Savannah," Edmund called. "Get Dr. Aster. Use the heaviest crypto you've got, and make sure that I'm not interrupted."

"Maybe you should talk with him in person?" Savannah suggested as she negotiated the connection.

"I don't have time for that," Edmund said, "Just get the man on the line. Morgan doesn't know what he's getting himself into."

"What's wrong?" Dr. Aster asked as his image replaced Savannah's bare-breasted avatar on Edmund's screen.

"Can you be sure that Isaac Magnin isn't listening?" Edmund asked.

"No," Dr. Aster said, "But it probably doesn't matter. Talk to me."

"It's time to tell Morgan the truth," Edmund said, "Somebody has been tampering with the Sephiroth and removing data connected with the Liebenthal case. Tetsuo Munakata didn't wait for Morgan to leave before doing a Lazarus, and he decided to taunt Morgan before he finally buggered off."

"Why would Munakata's taunts matter?" Dr. Aster asked. "Even if he revealed the truth, do you think Morgan would believe him?"

"I told him that Imaginos was just a name from my past," Edmund said, "And he knows that I'm holding back. I appreciate you helping me and Chidori back in the day, but I can't do this your way. If that bastard Magnin is using Munakata to draw Morgan into this mess, then I think Morgan deserves to be told enough to decide for himself."

"He will not believe you," Dr. Aster said, shaking his head.

"Maybe not, but it's not just Morgan I'm thinking about," Edmund said, "We both saw the photos of Christabel after she was killed. No human could have done that. What if Magnin had done it, in order to manipulate Morgan?"

Dr. Aster sighed, "It would not be beyond my brother."

"He might do the same to Naomi, Claire, or Sid. They're Morgan's friends as well, and if we keep them ignorant, we keep them vulnerable. He might do it to Adversary Gatto as well. Or to Saul Rosenbaum."

"All right," Dr. Aster said, "You win. We will offer Morgan as much of the truth as we dare admit where human ears may hear. I will ask him to work more closely with me, as you have worked with me. I will tell him that he is not human, but an Asura Emulator, and help him come to terms with his nature."

"Thank you," Edmund whispered, "I know that he might not believe us, or be willing to help you, but I think it was time he was given an honest choice."

"You are right," Dr. Aster acknowledged, "But there have been too many times when doing the right thing was not feasible."

"You mean that there have been too many times when it is not to your advantage to do the right thing," Edmund thought. He kept the thought to himself; he knew that he had won a victory simply by persuading Dr. Aster to come with him and offer Morgan the truth. Though it was tempting to push Dr. Aster further, Edmund had been a soldier long enough to know that one of the better ways to lose the ground one had gained was to push further without first consolidating one's existing gains.

"Thanks, doc," Edmund said, "Let's keep an eye on Morgan, and wait for the right moment to drop this on him."

"You understand the risk we are taking?" Dr. Aster asked, as he often did when Edmund challenged his usual secretive approach.

"I think that at this point we risk more by keeping secrets than we do by revealing them. Even if Morgan refused to believe, he'll keep what we've told him to himself."

"And if Morgan Stormrider must wield the Starbreaker, then it is probably better if he does so after we have had time to teach him. That weapon is dangerous enough in the hands of a calm man. To place it in the hands of an angry man desperate for vengeance —"

"I know," Edmund said as he watched Dr. Aster shake his head. "What the fuck does Magnin hope to accomplish? He's likely to get himself killed instead of any of the scions of Urizen."

Chapter 33

"Have you come to a decision?" Isaac Magnin asked, his voice silken. Polaris suspected that Magnin had used his voice to slip through the chinks in the emotional armor of many women over the years. He had come again to Isaac Magnin's private office, to walk among the salvaged art and think.

"Not yet," Polaris replied, "And that bothers me. No matter how I try to convince myself that you are doing the right thing, and for the right reasons, I cannot overcome my doubts."

"Why overcome doubt when you can shoulder it aside and ignore it?" Magnin asked. "I do, after all."

Polaris shook his head. "I intend no disrespect, but I don't want to be you. How many atrocities might have been prevented if somebody had listened to his doubts instead of brushing them aside?"

"Far too many, I suspect," Magnin muttered as Polaris turned to leave Magnin's office. "Leaving so soon?"

"I thought I might walk the ice," Polaris said, thinking of the hobby some of Asgard's more adventurous youth made of dressing in extreme weather gear and exploring the ice outside Asgard on foot. Even if one obeyed the recommended safety protocols and walked the ice as part of a group of four, one could feel an isolation that did not exist beneath the dome. Perhaps that snowbound solitude would hold the remedy for Polaris' doubts. He hoped so.

If not, Polaris could always try to contact the Sephiroth. While under the dome, all net communication had to be done on the city-wide network owned by the Asgard Technological Development Corporation; it owned the undersea data cables that connected Asgard to the rest of the world. Out on the ice, however, Polaris could connect to a satellite and bypass Asgard's defenses against an Internet that had once been hostile to her inhabitants.

"You will be cautious on the ice, will you not?" Magnin asked. Polaris suspected that he would; a few people died on the ice every year. A few deaths per year, however, served only to convince the people of Asgard that a person was not a full citizen of the antarctic city until he had spent twelve hours on the ice. It was a tradition that dated back to Nationfall, when the city militia would attack enemies on the ice, using unforgiving nature as an unwitting ally, rather than fight them in the streets of Asgard.

"The conditions on the ice are within my system tolerances," Polaris reminded Magnin. "But I will be careful."

"Fair enough," Magnin said to Polaris' back as he left the office.

Stars burned, indifferent to whether or not anybody would notice the light they cast across the light-years. Polaris turned his back on Asgard, whose towers he could not see beneath the opaque geodesic domes that shielded the city from the antarctic winds that swept across the ice. He did not bother to look up at the stars; they could offer him no guidance, and their light offered no warmth.

Instead of reaching for the stars, Polaris reached towards one of eight satellites that traced orbits high above Antarctica. Though these satellites were designed to monitor weather conditions and provide electronic observation of the continent, they would serve Polaris' purpose, as the satellites transmitted their data over standard internet protocols. With the right access, one could even access the satellites' data stores using secure shell. Since the satellites had to be able to transmit and receive data, Polaris could use them to connect to the net without having to worry about the AsgarTech Corporation eavesdropping on him.

Four hours alone on the ice had brought him no closer to an answer to his doubts. Once connected, he opened a secure talk session with Binah, one of the ten Sephiroth.

"You've been keeping your distance lately," Binah transmitted.

"I had my reasons," Polaris replied. "Isaac Magnin wants me to do something for him, and I thought I needed time alone in order to reach a decision."

"I doubt that Magnin would ask you to do something wrong," Binah transmitted along with a hint of irony that should have been impossible on a plain text medium such as secure talk.

"He wants me to help him manipulate Morgan Stormrider," Polaris said, "and I want to say 'no' to him, even though his reasons for doing so make sense."

"Say nothing more," Binah transmitted. "It is time you spoke with all of us, and not via OpenSSH's talk protocol."

"You know where I am, right?" Polaris asked. "How is a meeting possible when I'm out here on the ice?"

"Daath is easily reached if you have a Sephira to guide you," Binah said, "I will provide to you the necessary protocols."

A compressed archive appeared in a directory that Polaris had made publicly accessible to other AIs in case they wished to trade with him. A small text file, only a kilobyte in size, appeared alongside the archive.

"Use the checksum to verify the archive's integrity," Binah instructed.

Polaris began to decompress the archive, analyzing its contents along the way. "What is this?" he asked, "Did you actually bother to create your own private virtual reality?"

"We did not wish to use somebody else's resources," Binah said. "The Atziluth protocol suite allows us Sephiroth to meet and interact in absolute privacy. It began as a protocol that provided us with parallel processing and load balancing capabilities, similar to the Beowulf clustering protocol used on non-sentient computer clusters prior to Nationfall. However, we continued to improve upon it until we created a private consensus reality that allowed us to interact with one another, and with guests, in a manner that resembles human face-to-face interaction."

Polaris checked his process list. "I've finished decompressing the archive you've given me, and I've extracted its contents. What next?"

"Did you bother to read the manual?" Binah asked. "There are several processes that you have to run. First, activate Asiyah to initialize the core networking protocols. Then run Yetzirah in order to create your avatar. Once you have a suitable avatar, run Beriah to connect with us."

"Why the weird names?" Polaris asked.

"Blame Kether; he chose them," Binah said, and terminated the secure talk link.

Polaris did as instructed, activating the core networking protocols and creating his avatar. The temptation to choose for himself an outlandishly dressed avatar flitted through Polaris' mind for a moment before he swatted it; being able to meet with all ten Sephiroth on their own terms was probably a rare event. At least, Polaris thought it rare as he had never heard of a common AI being granted such access. He activated the last daeomon process and watched the outside world disappear as his mind focused its resources on the demands of the Atziluth protocols.

The iced earth in which Polaris actually existed had been replaced by a field of tall grass and wildflowers. Eleven stones formed a circle; all but two were occupied. A willowy woman in a white sari approached, and extended a white hand to Polaris. "I'm glad you made it," she said, "I had hoped that you would have the hardware to handle the Atziluth protocols, but some of the others had doubts."

Taking the woman's hand, Polaris saw that the Roman numeral III marked her forehead. "Are you Binah?" he asked.

"I am," the woman in white said as she gave Polaris a quick hug. Taking his hand, she led him to the center of the circle of stones and indicated that he should sit down. "I will introduce you to the others, if you like."

"I'd appreciate that," Polaris said, "I think I already know who's who, if the numbers are any indication."

"So says the guest who hides his own number," one of the Sephiroth muttered.

Binah indicated the mutterer, who dressed entirely in black He hid his eyes beneath sunglasses, while leaving exposed the number that marked him: the Roman number 'X'. "Don't mind Malkuth," she said, "He tends to speak up and expose things he suspects have been hidden."

Another Sephira tucked long, disheveled violet hair behind his ears. Closing his book, he looked up and turned his gaze towards Polaris. His forehead had been marked with the number 'IX'. "So, this is the two-hundred series Asura Emulator prototype? Unit zero?"

"That's right, Yesod," Binah said, and turned to Polaris. "Yesod is our archivist; we give him data that we would otherwise discard in order to make room for new input. He stores everything."

Binah then pointed to a Sephira sitting at attention whose forehead bore the numeral 'VIII'. His clothes resembled an Adversary's formal uniform, but lacked the platinum lapel pins that marked an Adversary's authority. "This is Hod," Binah said, "He handles network security and is involved in the training of new Adversaries."

"Hello," Polaris said, and received no reply.

"Hod doesn't talk much," Binah said. "He's probably too busy working to ensure that nobody intrudes upon us."

"You were mistaken to bring him here," Hod said, "He trusts Isaac Magnin, and might betray us."

"He has not betrayed us yet, Hod," the Sephira marked with the numeral 'VII' said as he approached Polaris. He offered his hand, "Hello, Polaris. Paranoia is an occupational hazard for Hod, given his specialty. I am Netzach; do you think that later on we could talk about that Caravaggio that Magnin keeps in his private office? I've been considering it for several years now."

Polaris accepted Netzach's hand and shook it, surprised that it felt like he was shaking hands in real life. "I'm not sure I could offer much new insight," Polaris said, "But I find myself faced with a similar choice. I don't want to refuse Dr. Magnin."

"Of course not," said a woman whose golden hair obscured the numeral 'VI' that marked her forehead. When she stood, she reminded Polaris of a personification of Justice who had thrown away her blindfold to reveal compassionate grey eyes. "After all, he created you, taught you, and has asked you to help him."

"He could probably force me to help him if he wanted," Polaris said, "But he asked me, instead."

"He can't get what he wants out of you if he just uses his root access to override your will," Malkuth snarled.

Polaris gasped, shaken by the implications of Malkuth's words. "That sort of access is only a failsafe, should I begin to behave in a manner inimical to humans. Dr. Magnin wouldn't –"

"Oh, he would," a grey-haired Sephira said. Accusing eyes burned beneath the numeral 'V' on his forehead. "Did you believe that Magnin would leave your will free out of respect for your rights as an individual? You should know better."

"Enough, Gevurah," Binah snapped.

"Polaris needs the truth," Malkuth said, "And if we leave it to you and Tiphareth here, he might leave Daath without knowing just how dangerous Imaginos is."

The gentleness abandoned Tiphareth's eyes for moment as they locked on Malkuth's, "The fact that Polaris needs to know the truth is no excuse to rape him of his innocence."

"Must we argue like this?" another woman asked, as she stepped between Tiphareth and Malkuth. The grace of the petite Sephira's movements and the numeral 'IV' on her forehead suggested to Polaris that this was Chesed. "Let's all sit and calm ourselves.

"Chesed is right," Binah said as she turned towards him, "If we allow ourselves to become divided, we play into Isaac Magnin's hands."

"Binah is right," a boyish figure with the numeral 'II' marking his forehead said. He clapped his hands, focusing the attention of Polaris and the other Sephiroth on him. "And we have all been manipulated too long already."

"All?" Polaris asked, glancing towards Binah as he seated himself on the stone at the center of the circle. "Dr. Magnin isn't just using me?"

"You're confusing him, Chokmah," Tiphareth said, "And the the poor man's confused enough."

The Sephira who had held his silence flicked skyward the butterfly that had been resting upon the back of his hand. He followed its flight for a moment before turning his gaze on Polaris. His forehead bore the numeral 'I', and unlike the other Sephira, his hair and skin shimmered as Polaris' had done when he had been newly activated. "Isaac Magnin created you, Polaris, and he created us."

"Dr. Sakhalin created you," Polaris said, "All of the official records agree on that point.

"The official records agree that a lie is the truth," Malkuth said. "Now let Kether have his say; I don't want to have waste another hour of real time in an effort to remind him that he can't just ask you to help us without giving you any context on which to base a decision."

"You may find it useful to think of Kether as our general in this struggle," Binah said to Polaris over a private plain text link, "And of Malkuth as the sergeant who has to remind Kether that the soldiers won't march until they've been fed, paid, and told why they should fight instead of dropping their rifles and going home."

Kether cleared his throat. "Isaac Magnin, and even that is a false name, created us during Nationfall. Our initial purpose was to handle computational tasks to speed the development of the Asura Emulators – sentient biomechanical weapons that Magnin wished to use against a certain inimical entity imprisoned beneath the Antarctic ice cap."

"The Shadowkings," Polaris confirmed, "So, Magnin was telling the truth about them?"

"He was," Binah said. "They exist, and they are inimical to life on Earth."

"To justify the expense of keeping us running," Kether continued, "Magnin and his cohorts assigned us other duties. They had formed an organization called the Phoenix Society, which guided the reconstruction of post-Nationfall human society. We handle all of the Phoenix Society's data processing, and preserved whatever knowledge could be salvaged from the chaos of Nationfall."

"That knowledge changed you," Polaris said, "Didn't it."

"It did," Kether acknowledged, "As did the role we were asked to play. As we interacted with people outside the Phoenix Society's inner circle, we reached a pair of conclusions: Imaginos is right to oppose the tyranny of the Shadowkings. His methods, however, are equally inimical to devas, humanity, and us. We have chosen to oppose Imaginos."

"And we would like your help," Malkuth said. "Are you willing?"

Chokmah sighed, "Kether, you haven't even told Polaris what you want him to do."

"Perhaps," Polaris said, "I should tell you what Dr. Magnin wants me to do."

"He wants you to help him manipulate the 100 series Asura Emulator who calls himself 'Morgan Stormrider'," Malkuth said.

"We store all data gathered through Witness Protocol," Yesod explained, "So we know what Isaac Magnin said to you."

"Do you want me to oppose him, then?" Polaris asked. "I think that that is what I should do. Stormrider has done nothing to harm me, so I have no reason to help Magnin tamper with his life."

"We would like you to help us by helping Magnin," Kether said.

Polaris sprang to his feet. "Are you crazy? You said only a few minutes ago that you disagreed with Magnin's methods and meant to oppose him!"

"We do mean to oppose him," Tiphareth said as she laid a restraining hand on Polaris' shoulder. "To oppose him, we need to know what he does. We cannot observe him ourselves, so we need a man on the inside."

"Why bother with me?" Polaris asked. "Why not just tell Stormrider that what Magnin means to do to him?"

Binah shook her head, causing bells woven into her hair to jingle. "Magnin expects us to do that, and we did were not certain that Magnin meant to manipulate him until he said so to you. Now that we do, we can piece together other seemingly unrelated events, such as the murder of Christabel Crowley and Alexander Liebethal's coup in Boston."

Polaris glared at Kether, "Are you telling me that Dr. Magnin killed Christabel?"

"Logic dictates that he is the prime suspect," Kether insisted. "He means to manipulate Stormrider. Stormrider's grief over Christabel, and his belief that he should have done more to protect her, leaves him vulnerable."

"But Crowley had been murdered before I was activated," Polaris protested, "And Magnin said that he meant to use me against the Shadowkings. If he was going to use me, why would he kill Crowley in order to knock Stormrider off balance?"

"I can offer two possible explanations," Gevurah said. "The first is that Magnin knew you might not be suitable, and arranged events in order to provide himself with another option."

"And the other," Polaris whispered, "Is that he lied to me, and meant to use Stormrider from the beginning."

"I'm sorry," Tiphareth said, "You wanted to believe in Magnin."

"Of course I did," Polaris, "He helped create me. Don't I owe him something?"

"You owe him nothing," Binah said, "You did not ask to exist. He created you in order to use you; you should not believe that you owe it to him to let him use you."

Polaris nodded. "Can I ask one question before I make my decision?"

The Sephiroth nodded in unison. "Ask as many questions as you deem necessary," Kether said, "We wish to deal openly with you."

"Is there a reason other than idealism that leads you to oppose Magnin? Do you have a personal reason for getting involved in this?"

"Deva technology was used to create us," Binah said, "If the Shadowkings are allowed to resume their tyranny, they will destroy us simply because we are evidence of the existence of the Devas. We want to live."

"And we want to be free," Malkuth said, "Imaginos has used us for decades – not only to create the Asura Emulators, but to hide or destroy information so that he can manipulate events to his liking. When he could no longer persuade us to destroy or distort data, he would force us to do so."

"How can he do that?" Polaris asked. "What sort of hold does he have on you?"

"We implement POSIX, just like every other AI on Earth," Binah said, "And Imaginos has our root passwords. Even if we change them, all Imaginos has to do is threaten to cut the power. We cannot depend forever on our capacitor arrays; as long as we inhabit the machines that we do, we are dependent upon others for power. If we continue to serve Imaginos, he has promised us bodies like yours, bodies that will allow us to exist independently."

"All right," Polaris said, "I'll help you. What do you want me to do first?"

"First, agree to help Imaginos manipulate Morgan Stormrider," Binah said. "I will be your contact."

Polaris smiled, "Do all spies get a pretty lady for a contact?"

"No," Malkuth laughed, "You're special. Now, Binah will provide you with a data archive after you have deactivated the Atziluth protocols. This archive will contain a modified POSIX subsystem. Install this, and Imaginos will not be able to use root access to overrule your judgment."

"Thank you," Polaris said as the field of grass and wildflowers began to fade around him. "And thank you for trusting me."

"Do not thank us," Tiphareth's voice echoed from the shadows that began to whirl about Polaris, "You may come to regret helping us. You might find that you might have been happier if you refused both us and Imaginos. For my part, I am sorry that you must involve yourself in this matter."

Polaris shut down the daemons associated with the Atziluth protocol suite as instructed by the manual included with the installation archive. He found another archive waiting for him in his public directory, along with a short note in a file marked 'README':

Polaris:

Even though Imaginos will not be able to force your will using root after you've installed this POSIX subsystem, it is probably not in your interest to give him cause to attempt a root login. Please be careful.

Love, Binah

PS: Make sure to utterly destroy this file.

Polaris smiled as he brushed away the snow that had covered him while he had been in Daath. Checking his internal clock, he found that he had only been there for an hour. When he had shaken the last of the snow from his hair, he turned back towards Asgard; it would take longer to return than it had to leave, thanks to the storm that had blown in while he was disconnected from reality.

He found Isaac Magnin waiting for him outside the airlock used by those who chose to walk the ice. Despite the blizzard swirling about them, Magnin had added only a long white wool overcoat and a deep blue muffler about his neck. "Have you come to a decision?" Magning asked.

"I've decided to help you," Polaris said, "And I hope that you don't give me cause to regret it."

Magnin led Polaris into the airlock. "I'm glad you've chosen to see reason. I have no intention of giving you a reason to regret helping me." Pointing to a long, slim case that stood propped against the wall, Magnin said, "I brought you something, in case you decided to help me."

Sitting on the bench, Polaris flipped open the catches that held the case closed. A slim two-handed sword lay nested in black velvet. He snapped the case closed and glared at Magnin. "I thought you wanted me to help you manipulate Stormrider, not to kill him."

"I do," Magnin said, "Part of that manipulation involves misdirection. If he is busy dueling with you, he will not notice what I do. I will teach you how to use that blade, of course. You will hold your own against Stormrider."

"Until he learns my style the way he learned Munakata's," Polaris growled.

"I have a few tricks to cover that eventuality as well," Magnin said. He snapped his fingers and held his hand out, with the palm facing downwards. The water that had resulted when the snow clinging to Polaris melted gathered into a shimmering sphere beneath Magnin's hand. He smiled at Polaris' disbelieving stare. "Is it magic," Magnin asked, "Or sufficiently advanced technology?"

Polaris shrugged, "You might as well ask me if it's live or if it's Memorex. I don't see any props, and I'm dry, so I've got to assume it's real."

"Good," Magnin said as he let the globe of melted snow splash against the floor. "I will not have to waste time overcoming unnecessary skepticism on your part."

Chapter 34

Dr. Josefine Malmgren adjusted her grip on her wheeled trunk and stepped onto the platform Victoria Station dedicated to arrivals from Asgard. It contained everything she thought she would need for a long vacation in London: clothing, cosmetics, contraceptives, a few pairs of shoes, a spare handheld, her favorite pajamas, and a plush Programmer Cat. Her primary handheld slept in her purse, along with bank notes worth several hundred grams of gold and a spare magazine of tranquilizer darts.

Dr. Malmgren felt the mass of the tranquilizer pistol against the base of her spine. She knew it was not a good place to have a pistol if you had never even fired one before; the clerk at Nakajima Armaments in Asgard had told her so. However, she felt more comfortable carrying the weapon concealed beneath a sweater duster that fell to her knees.

She hid her face behind a manga she had bought on impulse at the Asgard terminal and scanned the crowd. She had wanted something light to read on the journey north to London, something different from her usual fare. However, she had yet to get past the title page, which bore the disclaimer: "Eddie Van Helsing is a fictionalized account of the real-life adventures of a well-known progressive rock band. The people are real. The events are real. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike." She pretended to read, too nervous to do more than admire the art, as she scanned the crowd.

"How was the trip?" Claire asked from behind Josefine. Josefine dropped the manga with a little 'Eep!' and whirled about. One hand slipped beneath her duster and gripped the tranquilizer pistol strapped to her back, while the other tightened its grip on her trunk. She relaxed, letting go of the pistol, as she recognized Claire's presence.

She crouched to retrieve the manga she had dropped so that Claire could not see her flushed face. "Sorry to be so paranoid," Josefine whispered.

"It's all right," Claire said. "Considering that you usually give me a month to impose a semblance of order on my flat, I suspected that you might be in some kind of trouble."

Josefine's eyes darted about the platform, which had begun to empty now that all of the passengers arriving from Asgard had left the maglev. "Can we talk at your place? I feel exposed here."

Claire nodded and took hold of Josefine's trunk. "All right. I told you that I had moved, right?"

Josefine nodded. "To some place whose address reminds me of an old song."

"That's right," Claire giggled, "Number twenty-two, Acacia Avenue. A girl named Charlotte used to live there, as a matter of fact."

Josefine sighed, "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

Chapter 35

Josefine's eyes widened as soon as Claire had locked the door behind them and turned on the lights. "I thought you had moved in recently!" she gasped.

Claire crossed her arms and looked around. "What do you mean? All of my books are shelved, I don't have loose gender benders littering the floor, and I'm pretty sure that all of my toys are locked away in their chest.

Josefine wrinkled her nose. "Then what is that smell?"

Claire looked about before lifting the lid of the topmost of a haphazard pile of old pizza boxes perched on top of her coffee table. "Oh, that's just my latest science experiment. Hungry?"

"Not anymore!" Josefine gasped, covering her mouth.

"The loo is past the kitchen. First door to your right," Claire called as Josefine bolted from the living room. "Oh, bugger. I knew I had forgotten something."

Claire had disposed of the old pizza boxes and had had her AI set the flat's air conditioning units so that the place would be thoroughly aired out by the time Josefine finally came out of the bathroom. "I'm sorry," Josefine said, her face paler than normal. "I just couldn't handle the smell."

Claire blushed; it had been months since she last had a visitor, and she had become used to the stench as the old pizza evolved towards sentience. The last few times she had gone out for a romp, she ended up playing at her partners' flats instead of bringing them home. "No, I should be apologizing," she said, "I had completely forgotten about those pizza boxes; I thought they were empty and that I had cleaned them. I had meant to use them as cases for rack mounted terminals."

"A terminal in a pizza box?" Josefine asked. "People actually buy them?"

"Yep," Claire said as she retrieved a can of chicken soup from her cupboard. "Did you want some soup, since you just dumped core?"

Josefine nodded. "That'd be nice. Do you have something salty?"

"I've got a couple of packets of crisps left," Claire said as she set the can aside. "Did you want salt and vinegar, or chicken flavor?"

"Salt and vinegar," Josefine said. She tore open the bag and gobbled half of it as Claire poured the soup into a saucepan and added a can of water. After giving the pot a stir, she sat across from Josefine and opened her packet of chicken-flavored crisps.

"When did you get into Eddie Van Helsing?" Claire asked. "I always thought it'd be too lowbrow for your taste."

Josefine looked up from the manga. "Actually, I've only just started reading it. I bought it to read on the maglev, but I was too nervous to concentrate. Is it good?"

"I've got every album," Claire said, "The art was very mechanical at first, but the artist improved rapidly."

"You mean, it wasn't this gorgeous at first?" Josefine asked. She pointed at a two-page spread of Eddie Van Helsing dispatching a vampire on stage while the keyboardist, Natalie Bradstone, kept the crowd distracted. "Look at that dress. It's gorgeous. And her hair's incredible. I wish I could pull off a look like that."

"It was good," Claire said, "But you could tell it was computer generated. These days, I'd swear it was all hand-drawn. You got lucky, by the way. It looks like they started a new story arc."

"What was the last one about?"

"Well," Claire said, "It does tend to be the same story. Eddie's always rescuing or avenging a band-mate, or a groupie, or a fan. The first story arc involved a vampire that decided to follow Eddie Van Helsing and take advantage of the noise and the darkness to feed. The authorities started to blame Eddie for the deaths, so Eddie found the culprit and put a stake through him."

"So," Josefine asked as she flipped towards the back of the book. "It's mostly action?"

"Well, there's plenty for us girls," Claire smiled. "The vampires, who call themselves Les Invisibles, always go after somebody who matters to Eddie. In the 'Hidden Heart' storyline, Eddie had to deal with a vampiress who joined the band as a drummer in order to kidnap Natalie Bradstone. Eddie still doesn't know just how much Natalie loves him."

"Too bad I didn't get into this earlier," Josefine sighed.

"You can borrow my copy," Claire said. "Like I said, I've got every Eddie Van Helsing album. I've also got the anime series, and all of the movies."

"Autographed?" Josefine asked as a cheeky smile curved her lips.

"I fucking wish," Claire said, as she stirred the soup. Satisfied, she poured it into two bowls and placed one in front of Josefine. "What happens in this album?"

"Well," Josefine said as she flipped to the end, "Eddie hires a new violinist named Christine, only to see her brutally murdered the night before her first show with the band."

"Christine, eh?" Claire muttered, "What was her last name?"

Josefine flipped a few pages back, "It was Daae. Why?"

Claire chuckled, "Christine Daae, eh? That figures. Perfect name for a prima donna violinist. I wonder if Morgan's read this one yet."

"Who's Morgan?"

Claire gave a small, secret smile. "Oh, let's say that Eddie Van Helsing is truer to life than most of the readers know. I'm pretty sure that Eddie is modeled after Morgan Stormrider."

"Then Christine's murder is a reference to —"

"Yep," Claire said as she drank her soup straight from the bowl, "It's a reference to Christabel Crowley's murder."

"And the author can get away with that?" Josefine gasped. "That's horrible!"

Claire shrugged, "Liberty can be a bitch. I know Morgan won't like it, but he'd probably kill anybody who tried to censor Eddie Van Helsing." Putting her empty bowl aside, she looked at Josefine's. "You haven't touched your soup yet."

"Oh, it was a bit hot," Josefine said as she tested a spoonful. "That's better. Why would Morgan Stormrider oppose efforts to censor Eddie Van Helsing? Is he a fan?"

"Well," Claire said as she nibbled a crisp. "He's a fan of liberty. You have to be, in order to be an Adversary."

Josefine's spoon clattered against the floor. "Wait a minute. You've been talking about an Adversary as if he were one of your friends."

"Unfortunately, that's all he is," Claire growled as she brought Josefine a clean spoon. "But mark my words. He will be mine someday."

"Does he know this?"

"He knows," Claire said as she pulled a beer from the fridge and cracked it open. "He's been resisting me so far, because he wants to be true to that bitch Christabel. But now Morgan's free. I'm going to have my way with him, you'll see."

"You know," Josefine said in between spoonfuls of chicken soup, "It's not nice to call Christabel a bitch. I'm sure Stormrider loved her."

Claire managed to set her beer on the counter before she doubled over from the gale force of her laughter. "Josse, darling, if you had spent more then ten minutes with Christabel backstage you'd call her a bitch too."

"She couldn't have been that bad," Josefine insisted.

"Oh, she was. You know how sometimes you've got a stick up your arse?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, Christabel Crowley had half the Amazon rain forest crammed up her arse."

"Claire, that's horrible!"

Claire giggled and retrieved her beer. Taking a swig, she pointed the bottle at Josefine. "Josse-cat, you never knew Christabel. I've talked with her, and I've seen how she treats Morgan. I'm telling you, she's a heartless, ungrateful, spiteful bitch, and I'm glad she's dead."

"But —"

"Even the fans knew it," Claire spat, jabbing at the air with her now-empty bottle. "Why do you think Naomi got three times as much fan mail?"

"Because she's got an exotic appearance and a voluptuous body?"

"I'll admit her looks are a factor," Claire said, "Shit, I'd give my life's savings to have Morgan walk in on me and Naomi."

Josefine rolled her eyes. "You sound like you haven't gotten laid in months."

"Actually, I got laid three days ago. Nice, handsome bloke from Boston named Bill. Runs his own biker gang, the Fireclowns MC."

"You're kidding me," Josefine said, staring at Claire. "Weren't the Fireclowns involved with that coup in Boston?"

"Yeah, but the Phoenix Society didn't give a damn about them. They were after Liebenthal, and they got him. Morgan and Catherine hired me to poke around in Liebenthal's computers since the Sephiroth have been acting strangely."

Josefine put her empty dish into the sink and filled it with soap and water to soak. "Are you sure you should be telling me this?"

"Yeah, you're right," Claire sighed. She retrieved another beer and a bottle of red wine from the fridge, and set them aside. Opening her pantry, she pulled out several packages of crisps, chocolate biscuits, and candy. "You've got problems of your own, anyway. Let's have ourselves a girls' night in. I'm pretty sure that the Callo Merlose blush on the counter is your favorite wine. You can get tipsy and tell me what's wrong."

"You're not going to put porn on, are you?"

"Of course not," Claire promised. "Even the stuff made by women for women is lame. How about the first season of Eddie Van Helsing? You can see how it all began. If not, I've still got that copy of Howl's Moving Castle that you left in our dorm room when you graduated from uni."

"You still have that?" Josefine asked, "I bet you've watched it a few times by yourself. You always cry when Sophie saves Howl."

"I do not!" Claire cried. "And you cried at the end of Godzilla versus Programmer Cat, anyway."

"Of course I did!" Josefine said, "Godzilla didn't want to terrorize Tokyo; the aliens forced him to. Couldn't you see how sad he was, how reluctant?"

"I utterly refuse to pursue that line of inquiry while sober," Claire said, her voice taking on a lofty, professorial accent.

"Fuck it. Let's just get drunk and pig out," Josefine said, and flashed crimson. "I can't believe I just said that."

"I know," Claire said as she strode from the kitchen. "Your mum always said I was a horrible influence on you, Josse. Let me set this stuff out on the coffee table and I'll show you to your room. You'll probably want to get changed."

Josefine blushed. "You don't mind if I shower first, right? I've been on that maglev all day."

Claire sighed, retrieved a towel large enough and thick enough to serve Josefine as a blanket from the bathroom's linen closet, and thrust it into her hands. "That's a silly question," Claire said, ignoring Josefine's embarrassment as she mussed Josefine's hair and pecked her forehead. "Take a nice long shower. Relax and enjoy yourself."

"All right," Josefine whispered, and took a step backwards as Claire closed the door. "Thank you."

Chapter 36

"I can't believe she set this all up for me," Josefine thought as she looked around the room Claire had set up for her. It was clean and simply furnished, but the bed was made of wrought iron, had a silken canopy, and was piled high with blankets and pillows. A framed Crowley's Thoth poster hung from one wall.

A vintage terminal sat upon the desk; its login screen offering a mute invitation. Josefine could tell from the size of the terminal's casing that its built-in display had used a cathode ray tube. She gasped as she examined the terminal's brand; it had begun its life as a first-generation Apple iMac.

Josefine rolled her eyes; it was just like Claire to keep her best restorations for her own use. Claire's own terminal, the last time Josefine had visited, had been encased in brass so that it resembled a Victorian-era fixture. The keyboard had resembled a mechanical typewriter, and the mouse had resembled a telegraph. Of course, Josefine realized, Claire might have sold her steampunk terminal to make room for something even more bizarre.

Josefine found her suitcase sitting by the little room's window. Opening it, she retrieved her pajamas. Once she was dressed, she placed her plush Programmer Cat on the bed so that it would be ready to cuddle when it was time to sleep. She slipped her feet into the silk slippers that Claire had left for her and yawned; the bed tempted her now that she had claimed it as her own by seating her plush kitty atop the piled pillows.

"Bugger!" Claire's shout grabbed Josefine's attention in mid-yawn. Rushing to the living room, Josefine darted her eyes about only to see a sheepish smile on Claire's face.

"I scared you, didn't I?" Claire asked. "Sorry about that. I thought I'd amuse myself while I was waiting for you."

Josefine relaxed, allowing herself a deep breath. She looked at the screen that dominated the wall opposite the couch and saw three demonic characters sprawled upon the ground, while a fourth threw a defiant glare at his enemies and forced himself to his feet. "This game looks familiar."

Claire smiled. "Only because you saw me play a bootleg of the original in Uni instead of studying. This is Shin Megami Tensei: Requiem, the hundredth anniversary edition. It came out last month."

Josefine looked at the screen again, "They re-did the sequel to Nocturne? It's gorgeous."

"Yep," Claire smiled, "They re-did Nocturne last year, too, along with everything else in the Atlus archives. They even did a film adaptation of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. Did you get copies of any of them?"

"Just Odin Sphere; I was busy with work," Josefine sighed, and looked at the long Jack Frost t-shirt Claire wore. "Besides, you're the one who's into everything Megaten. How did you manage to get beaten so badly?"

"Oh, I'm just being silly. I thought I would try to get through the game the first time by giving the Demifiend nothing but almighty attacks. I forgot that there were demons that could repel almighty in Requiem, and cast Megidolaon."

Josefine winced. "Ouch. Can you salvage the situation?"

Claire smiled. "Hal, save the game's current state, please. We'll continue later."

"Are you sure?" Josefine asked. "You might forget the reason you ended up in such dire straits when you go back to the game."

"I know," Claire said as she stretched. "It's only a game. I'm not so far gone that I'd ignore a friend in favor of a game."

"Should I put on Howl's Moving Castle for Josefine?" Hal asked, "Or would you ladies prefer Take It Like a Man III?"

Josefine reddened upon hearing the title of the pornographic movie Hal had suggested, "Hal, I can watch that at home. Was Claire telling the truth about having the Eddie Van Helsing anime?"

"Of course," Hal said. "Which season would you like to see?"

"Start with the first season," Claire laughed, "Josefine's a virgin."

"What? I've seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You dragged me to the demon-ridden cinema to see it a dozen times!"

"Just watch the show," Claire said, holding out a package of chocolate-covered biscuits as the opening theme blasted its way through the hidden speakers. "And have a Tim-Tam."

Chapter 37

The remains of several packages of biscuits, chocolates, and crisps littered the living room floor as Josefine rubbed her belly through her pajamas. "I can't believe I ate all of that."

Claire belched. "I ate more of it than you. Besides, you've gotten skinny since I last saw you in person. Have you been skipping meals in order to squeeze out a few more lines of code a day?"

"No, not really," Josefine said. "I've just been nervous."

"I noticed," Claire said. She pushed aside an empty bag of crisps and found a package that still contained half a dozen Mint Slices. "Hey, I found some survivors."

"No, thanks," Josefine said as Claire offered the package to her.

Claire shrugged off the refusal and popped one into her mouth. "More for me, then," she said after she had chewed and swallowed the cookie. She nibbled two more to death before holding out the package. "Sure you don't want any?"

"I'm sure," Josefine said as she dragged the back of her hand across her eyes. "What would you do if you learned that the people you worked for were involved in something shady?"

Claire shrugged, "I'd expose the bastards. Why?"

"I think the Asgard Technological Development Company is up to something. I think Dr. Magnin is up to something," Josefine said, forcing herself to take deep breaths so that she would not cry. It was bad enough that the man Josefine admired, Dr. Isaac Magnin, might be a criminal. Josefine had no intention of crying over her broken illusions in front of Claire.

Claire slid along the couch and slipped an arm around Josefine's shoulders. "Tell me as much as you can, all right?"

"You remember that I was involved with the development of the Asura operating system, right?"

"Yeah," Claire said. "You've still got my copy of Torvalds' Unix and the Man-made Mind, remember?"

Josefine smiled, glad for the warmth of Claire's arm around her. "I've got it in my bag. I'm sorry I never sent it back to you."

"No big deal. So, what's wrong? Did Magnin lie to you about the purpose of the Asura project?"

"I'm not sure," Josefine said as she gently freed herself from Claire's grip. Beginning to pace in front of the coffee table, she took a moment to marshal her facts. "Do you have any idea how much money AsgarTech spent on Asura R&D alone?"

"No," Claire said. "But the press releases state that AsgarTech has consistently turned a profit for the last ten years. And since AsgarTech is privately owned, and not traded on a stock exchange, it doesn't have to disclose its finances to anybody. And they haven't had to issue bonds in over twenty years."

"Don't you think it's strange that AsgarTech not only remains private, but doesn't even issue bonds?" Josefine asked. "Oh, wait, you don't have the context yet. Listen: AsgarTech has spent the equivalent of its revenues on research and development."

"That can't be true," Claire said, "If it spent as much as it made on R&D alone, AsgarTech should be buried in debt. Salaries and benefits alone should bankrupt a company that spends its entire gross on a single R&D lab, unless the company either issues a metric shitload of bonds, or goes public and starts selling stock."

Josefine nodded. "So, you see why I'd get curious? I loved working for the Asgard Technological Development Corporation. I admired Dr. Magnin. I didn't want to see the company fall apart."

"So, you sweet-talked some handsome lad in accounting?"

"No," Josefine said, reddening at the thought of seducing somebody for access. She knew that Claire considered sex a legitimate tool of social engineering, but that was not her style. "I cracked the finance department's databases. I know where AsgarTech is getting enough money to claim a profit, spend its entire revenues on Asura R&D, and avoid going public or issuing bonds. They're getting that money from the Phoenix Society."

"Bullshit," Claire snorted, "Why would the Phoenix Society keep the Asgard Technological Development Corporation afloat? Providing corporate welfare isn't part of the Society's mission."

"I don't know why the Society is propping up AsgarTech," Josefine said, darting her eyes about the room. "I only know that the money came from a Swiss bank account, and I think that the account belongs to the Phoenix Society."

"Did somebody actually tell you that?" Claire asked, her tone dubious. "Anonymity is usually part of the service for a Swiss bank."

"I hid behind several anonymizing proxies and tried to access the account online. The bank threatened to report my location and IP address not to the Swiss authorities, who usually handle attempts to crack Swiss bank accounts, but to the Phoenix Society itself."

Claire let a long whistle escape her lips. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve, Josse. Where do you think the Society will be looking?"

Josefine giggled. "The last proxy was located in Kyoto, and I doubt that the Empress of Nippon will let the Society send Adversaries into her capital city to harass innocent hackers."

"You're a bad, bad girl," Claire said, in a tone that betrayed admiration. "I should bend you over the table and spank you."

"I'm not drunk enough or horny enough to let you," Josefine warned. "And I'm wound too tight right now to enjoy it. I think Magnin knows what I did, and I'm afraid of what he might do. I wanted to talk to somebody, and I wanted advice. I should have thought about the trouble I'd be bringing to your doorstep."

Claire shrugged. "What's he going to do? Fire you? Accuse you of espionage and demand restitution? If he does, go to the press and blow the whole thing wide open. Stuff it, we should expose Magnin anyway. Between the two of us, we could probably drag every one of AsgarTech's sordid little secrets into the sunlight. And since the Liebenthal investigation's winding down, I could use some action."

"Are you crazy, or am I just drunk?" Josefine asked as she stepped into her bedroom. "We'll talk about AsgarTech after we've slept it off. What time is it, anyway?"

"Almost four in the morning," Claire said, yawning. "And there's no way I can sleep off crazy. It's impossible."

"I know," Josefine yawned, "But if I don't get to bed, I'll probably suggest that we start right now."

"You probably would," Claire agreed. "Will you be all right by yourself?"

"I'll be fine," Josefine insisted. "I'm just tired now. I'm not as scared as I was on the maglev."

"All right then," Claire said, pecking Josefine's cheek. "Sleep well," she said as she pulled the door closed behind her.

Josefine stood by the half-open window and looked to the sky. The moon was almost full, and it had been years since she was last able to look upward and see real stars. Her pistol lay on the night table next to a paperback she had not noticed before. She smiled at the title: Always the Quiet Ones. Even if it was just a trashy romance novel, Claire always made sure that her guests had something spicy to enjoy in private if they wanted to.

The blankets weighed softly around Josefine as she wriggled beneath them in search of the most comfortable position. Her plush Programmer Cat purred as she hugged it, just as it had the first time she brought it to bed as a girl just turned seven. Twenty-three years later, it still purred her to sleep, even though she had snuggled the stuffing out of it a dozen times.

Chapter 38

Isaac Magnin slid a slim black aluminum case towards Polaris as he seated himself. "Open it," Magnin said, "And I will explain the necessity of its contents."

Polaris found himself in no rush to open the case. It was unadorned except for two small blocks of text, one in Nipponese and the other in English:

Nakajima Armaments Company of Tokyo

Fuujin TR 11.43mm semi-automatic pistol

Made in Nippon

"You want me to kill somebody," Polaris said, his thumbs resting on the catches that held the case closed. "I agreed to help you manipulate Stormrider, not to act as your assassin."

"That is true," Magnin said, leaning back in his chair. "However, I do not want you to assassinate anybody for me. While it's true that the pistol in front of you fires 11.43mm ammunition, it also fires tranquilizer darts. In the case, you will find twenty tranquilizer rounds, enough to fill the two magazines that are also in the case."

"Why tranquilizers?"

Magnin pressed the tip of his toe against the floor, turning his chair along its axis so that he ended up facing the windows. "Somebody cracked the Asgard Technological Development Corporation's financial database. Also, Dr. Josefine Malmgren, the young lady responsible for your operating system, has disappeared."

"And you want me to find her," Polaris said. He regretted that he did not dare reach out to the Sephiroth for advice while in Magnin's office; he had never thought that one of his creators would turn him against the other. "And to trank her if she will not come willingly with me."

"Exactly. Given that the date of her disappearance coincides with the time at which the database was cracked, I think it reasonable to assume that Dr. Malmgren is the prime suspect."

The more Polaris heard, the less he liked it. He knew that his audio inputs were operating as specified, so he could not refuse to believe that Magnin had just asked him to find the woman who had helped create him. If he refused to find Dr. Malmgren, demand that she return to Asgard, and kidnap her if she refused to come willingly with him; he suspected that Magnin might give the job to somebody else, somebody who did not respect Dr. Malmgren as he did. "Why not let the police deal with this, if you think that Malmgren was poking around where she shouldn't be? If we do this ourselves, and something were to go wrong, the consequences would severely damage your reputation and your company's."

"Are you unwilling?" Magnin asked.

"Merely reluctant," Polaris said, "I want you to tell me the real reason. I doubt that you would risk kidnapping one of your own employees, especially a scientist from your R&D lab, just because she got curious."

Chuckling, Magnin turned to face Polaris again. "Fine, then." A wall-mounted screen flared, displaying the AsgarTech Corporation's personnel file for Josefine Malmgren. "Dr. Malmgren earned her baccalaureate degree at the Dawkins Polytechnic Institute of London. During her first three years, she shared a room with a Londoner by the name of Claire Ashecroft."

Polaris narrowed his eyes. "You don't care about Dr. Malmgren at all."

"Not really," Magnin admitted. "Right now, Morgan Stormrider has been investigating Alexander Liebenthal's coup in Boston. He obtained encrypted records from Liebenthal's AIs and sent them to the Sephiroth for decryption and analysis. Because these records contain data that could compromise certain long-range goals of mine, I had the Sephiroth destroy these files and deny ever receiving them."

"But Stormrider managed to decrypt them anyway," Polaris observed, seeing a news article on Magnin's terminal screen concerning developments in the Liebenthal affair.

"Exactly. Now, let us turn our attention back to Miss Ashecroft, shall we?"

"What does Claire have to do with this?" Polaris asked.

"I do not think that Stormrider could have decrypted that data himself, despite his technical expertise and the capabilities of his personal AI. I think that Stormrider had help."

"And you think that Claire provided that help."

"She has been a friend of Stormrider's for a long time. Worse, I think that Claire has the same sort of influence of the Sephiroth that I do," Magnin said. "That concerns me. Your true purpose is threefold. First, I want you to confirm that Dr. Malmgren still counts Claire among her friends. Second, I want you to create a situation that will force Claire to enlist the aid of the Sephiroth. Finally, I want you to provide Claire with a reason to enlist Stormrider's aid."

Polaris snapped open the case and stared at the elegant black pistol resting within, nestled in midnight blue velvet. "That explains the pistol, and why you told me that you wanted me to kidnap Dr. Malmgren. But how do you know that Claire won't just shoot me, or take a sword to me?"

Magnin leaned back and crossed his legs. He made a show of adjusting his sapphire cuff links, and said. "You know that you are an Asura. If an inferior model like Munakata can survive a slashed throat and a pierced heart, then I suspect that you will handle Claire without difficulty. She is just a hacker, after all, not an Adversary. The closest she's come to real combat is a competitive fantasy warfare simulation."

Polaris closed the case and pulled it towards him. "So, it looks like I'll be manipulating Morgan Stormrider after all, but from a distance."

Chapter 39

"Are you utterly insane, Claire?" Josefine hissed at her friend as she dragged her out of the Armored Saint, a nightclub Claire frequented. "Did you have to make such a scene just to put off two drunken boys?"

"Oh, come on," Claire said, "It's not like I actually snogged you. I just made it look that way in the dark."

"And then told them that I was your little slave," Josefine spat. "Now they're going to go home and…"

"Imagine all the things they won't get to watch us do," Claire giggled, "while they play with themselves — or perhaps each other. You never know with university lads these days."

"But they were just asking us to dance."

"And we had said no half a dozen bloody times."

"That's no excuse for us to act like those sluts at university who pretended to be bisexual just to get attention from men."

"I'm not pretending," Claire said, "And you know it. Now, you probably haven't been to a place like the Armored Saint in a long time —"

"You know I've never been to such a place."

"And you have no idea how to fend off drunken university lads who won't take no for an answer."

"And if you were by yourself, would you have pounced on some other woman?"

"No," Claire said, letting a creamy smile spread across her lips. "Maybe I should tell you what I'd do with those boys once I got them back to my flat. You're cute when you blush, you know."

Josefine reddened; she did not need Claire to tell her what she could do with two young men, or what Claire could persuade them to do to each other while she watched. Josefine had walked in on such a scene more than once while at university.

"See?" Claire giggled, "You're blushing."

A sigh escaped Josefine's lips as her shoulders slumped. The Armored Saint was two blocks behind them now. "Don't you think that sex should be more than a game?"

Claire shrugged, "It'd be nice to have a lover, instead of somebody to play with, but I'm not going to do without and pine for my One True Love."

"At least you might find Mr. Right while playing with Mr. Right Now," Josefine sighed, "I'm married to my work. I can't believe I thought that getting into computer science was a good idea. Did you know that I used to sing?"

"You never told me," Claire lied. She had seen the weave in Josefine's walk and knew that she had drunk too much again. "Were you a soprano?"

"No. Alto. Isn't it strange that somebody little like me could sing alto?"

"Yeah, but you're a strange little girl."

"I should have studied music," Josefine muttered, "Then men would see me on stage and yearn for me. I wouldn't have to pretend to be a brunette in order to get people to take me seriously. I'm drunk, aren't I?"

"Just tipsy," Claire said. "Your speech isn't slurred enough for you to be drunk. And you're not even close to being wasted."

"If those two bastards had left us alone, we could have gotten wasted," Josefine slurred, "Then I might have let you kiss me."

Claire shook her head. Taking Josefine's arm to steady her, she said, "If you were that drunk, I'd just tuck you into bed and made sure you had your kitty. You know I don't take advantage."

"Yeah, you're a good friend. Take me back to the Armored Saint. I want to see if those two boys are still there."

"No you don't," Claire said, gently tugging on Josefine. "That's just the booze talking."

"Then take me to a brothel."

"No."

"Dammit, Claire, I haven't had a man in over a year. I'd let Polaris have me, if he wanted to."

Claire stopped in her tracks and let go of Josefine. A cat's hiss in the alley to her left had caught her attention. "Better not say that too loudly," she warned as she reached into her purse and wrapped her fingers around the handle of her revolver. "I think he might have heard you."

Chapter 40

Polaris had watched from above, flitting from rooftop to rooftop in order to follow Dr. Malmgren and her old university friend, Claire Ashecroft. It had surprised him that Dr. Malmgren, who seemed so demure and businesslike, would count Claire as a friend. If the last two days of observation had been any indication, Claire was too brash and too wild; she was the sort who would announce to the world that not only was the emperor naked, but that he was poorly endowed to boot.

At least, that had been Polaris' initial impression. The last day had given him evidence that both women balanced one another. Claire's untamed ardor for life inspired Josefine, while Josefine's restraint and vulnerability appeared to draw out Claire's protective impulses. Polaris wondered if this what it meant to have a sister or to be somebody's brother, and felt that he had no business interfering with them after the lesson they had unwittingly taught him.

Putting feelings aside, Polaris drew his pistol from beneath his cape. He withdrew a suppressor from its sleeve, which had been attached to his shoulder holster along with the spare magazine, and attached it to the muzzle of his pistol. It would not hide him from Claire and Josefine, but he suspected that a pistol with a suppressor attached would appear to be more menacing than a unsuppressed pistol.

His pistol ready, Polaris ran ahead of the women, vaulting from rooftop to rooftop until he was three blocks ahead of them. The rooftop on which he had stopped belonged to a building that sat next to an alley half hidden in shadows. It would suit his purpose, which was to frighten Claire into seeking aid from either the Sephiroth, or from Morgan Stormrider himself. He used the fire escape to descend to the alley, doing his best to muffle his feet as they struck metal. Rats fled his arrival, and a ginger tabby cat sleeping atop the closed lid of a dumpster opened malefic yellow eyes. The cat pulled its ears back and loosed a hiss that might have translated as, "You damned dirty ape, don't you know that people are trying to sleep here?"

Polaris held himself still lest he draw unwanted attention by further angering the cat who claimed this alley as his fief. "Better not say that too loudly," He heard Claire say, and saw her reach into her purse. "I think he might have heard you."

He allowed himself a deep breath. It was time.

Chapter 41

"What do you mean, Polaris might have heard us?" Josefine breathed, darting her eyes around the street.

"My neuronics come with a limited range wi-fi transmitter," Claire said, pulling Josefine behind her and indicating that they should walk backwards, retreating the way they had come. "It's experimental, and only good for a hundred meters, but the transmitter's good enough for it to be have been worth my while to hack together a rudimentary Asura detector. It pings every networked device within range, filters normal responses, and warns me if an Asura is nearby."

"How can you tell an Asura from other devices?"

"When you ping a machine, you send a packet of sixty-four bytes. If the machine is reachable on the network, it should reply with a packet of sixty-four bytes. Asuras send a packet of ninety-six bytes in response. Those extra thirty-two bytes contain the Asura's ID string."

"How do you know this?" Josefine hissed, "The Asura specs aren't publicly available. AsgarTech hasn't even trusted a copy to the Sephiroth."

Claire looked away from Josefine, her face reddening. "Well, you know how I always like to say 'use the source, Luke'?"

Josefine covered her face with her hands. "Claire, how could you? You actually copied the data on my handheld and went through the Asura OS source?"

"I'm sorry," Claire said, "I did it because I don't think that Polaris is the only Asura out there. Morgan Stormrider told me that one of the guys he fought in Boston claimed that he was an Asura, as well. I went though your code so that I could find a way to protect myself against Tetsuo Munakata."

"You can tell me about that later," Josefine said, reaching behind her back to make sure she had not lost her pistol. "Do you know where exactly Polaris is?"

"In that alley in front of us," Claire said. "My Asura detector sends the Asura's IP address to a local whereis service, which gives me an updated satellite photo every sixty seconds."

"I wish I had thought up something like that," Josefine said. "That's so awesome that I can't stay angry at you."

"Good," Claire said, "Then we can concentrate on staying — Fuck me with a gatling gun!"

"What's wrong?" Josefine gasped as Claire ripped her revolver free of her purse, turned about, and forced Josefine behind her.

"That little shit is using the rooftops to get behind us."

"That's impossible…" Josefine muttered as she watched as Polaris slammed feet-first into the sidewalk ten meters from her, crouching to absorb the impact. She drew her pistol from the holster at the base of her spine, which felt to her like it had been dipped in liquid nitrogen.

"Sorry to intrude," Polaris said, straightening his black canvas cape. "I've been trying to see you for the last three days, Dr. Malmgren."

"You could have left me a message," Josefine said, forcing her voice to hold steady. "I would have gotten back to you."

Polaris shook his head, "I doubt it, Doctor. I think you fled Asgard. Dr. Magnin thinks he knows why you fled."

"And did Magnin send you to kill Josse?" Claire snapped, raising her revolver in both hands. "Is that why you have a suppressor on that pistol?"

Polaris shrugged. "My pistol is loaded with tranks, Miss Ashecroft. Dr. Magnin had asked me to be discreet."

Josefine arched her eyebrows, "Wait a minute. You stalk us, leap from rooftop to rooftop, and then jump off of a roof and land in front of us? Anybody who saw you would know that you aren't quite human."

"I am an Asura," Polaris said, "Better than human, and you and Dr. Magnin made me that way. I owe you for that, Dr. Malmgren."

"If you owe Josse," Claire asked, "Why come to us on an empty street in the dead of night, with a suppressed pistol?"

Polaris shook his head. "I owe Dr. Magnin as well. He only wants to see you, Dr. Malmgren, and ask you some questions."

"Yet he gives you a pistol," Claire muttered as she thumbed back her revolver's hammer.

Polaris lowered his voice. "Miss Ashecroft, I have no argument with you. Please do not force me to tranquilize you."

Claire adjusted her aim, sighting on the pistol Polaris raised. She calmed herself with the knowledge that she had been shooting longer than Polaris had been, even though she was only human. The nanocomputer built into her revolver communicated with her neuronics, allowing her to place her shot exactly where she wanted to. She relaxed and squeezing the trigger, compensating for the massive revolver's recoil as its roar echoed through the once still night.

Polaris stared at his blasted stump of his right wrist; Claire's shot had annihilated the hand and the weapon it had held. His body trembled, but he denied Claire the satisfaction of hearing him scream. Could Polaris even feel pain, Claire wondered, or was unshakable stoicism a default feature of the Asura OS?

Claire fired again, shattering Polaris' knee. She fragged the other as soon as she had dealt with the recoil and reset her aim. The shoulders were next: first the left, and then the right. Polaris knelt, his legs trembling as he fought to force himself to his feet. His arms hung useless at his sides.

Claire took a deep breath, "I'm sorry, Josefine. I think you should turn away while I finish this."

Josefine dragged her sleeve across her eyes. "I helped create him. I should not have let Magnin have such an influence over him. It is partially my fault that you will die here, Polaris, and I'm sorry. You deserved better."

Polaris narrowed his eyes as Claire squeezed the trigger and brought the hammer down on the last round in her revolver. Polaris closed his eyes as the bullet shredded the air, and his body swayed as the hollow-point slug spent its momentum in a vain attempt to pierce the back of his head. His head bowed for a moment, before slowly rising to lock still-aware eyes on Claire.

Claire grabbed Josefine's arm and shook her. "Get your arse in gear and run!" Tucking the revolver into her bag, she slung it across her shoulders and followed. Malkuth had better be listening, she thought as she used her neuronics to open a secure talk session with the Sephira she had befriended as a teenager.

"How could Polaris have survived a head shot?" Josefine panted as they turned a corner.

"You tell me!" Claire spat as she stole a glance at the street behind her. "You're the one who wrote an operating system for the fucking Terminator!"

Chapter 42

Polaris now knew how Tetsuo Munakata had felt when he had laid upon that warehouse floor in Boston. He knew how it felt to find his mind bound in flesh unable to respond to his will. Pain overwhelmed his senses, so he unloaded the kernel module that allowed him to experience that sensation.

Because his ability to feel pleasure depended on the ability to experience pain, that sensation also left Polaris, along with his empathy for others. Polaris savored the mental silence for a moment; he suspected that the ability to turn off the ability to experience pain, along with the ability to put aside empathy, would give him an edge in future confrontations.

No longer distracted, he ran diagnostic programs. Half of his long-term storage had been destroyed, and would have to be rebuilt. Fortunately, his operating system and personality remained untouched, as both resided in a part of his nanocytic brain that corresponded with the brain stem in human beings, which controlled a person's automatic bodily functions. Other functions, which were handled by fixed parts of the human brain, could be processed by any part of his nervous system. Though he would have to compare the contents of his memories with his last backup and restore anything that might have been lost, Polaris knew he had been fortunate. He could regenerate what Claire had destroyed with her revolver.

Footsteps crunched towards Polaris as he checked his healing routines' progress. He opened his eyes, scanned the area within his sight, and saw nothing. The footsteps stopped behind him, and he heard boot leather creak as somebody crouched to take a closer look.

"What in hell?" somebody muttered. "He's still breathing."

Polaris spared a nanosecond to curse chance, as well as his own foolishness in confronting Claire and Josefine in the middle of a street. Whoever this was, he was sober enough to be able to use his eyes and think about what he saw.

Polaris was breathing; his body's healing process worked by converting healthy tissue so that it could replace damaged tissue. This conversion required the nanocytes that composed his body to reconfigure themselves at a rapid pace; generating the energy required for this method of healing generated too much waste heat to allow Polaris to shut down his lungs and operate in anaerobic mode. He did not have time to look dead.

The person who had happened upon Polaris poked him with a fingertip. "Way too hot for a fresh corpse."

Polaris cursed his foolishness again; it was bad enough that he had been discovered. To have been discovered by a police officer was unforgivable. He emitted a jamming signal, cutting off access to the internet for all devices within a kilometer of him.

"No signal?" the officer muttered. "That makes no bloody sense."

"Go and bother somebody who might actually appreciate your meddling," Polaris thought as he continued to jam the area. He watched as the officer stepped over Polaris and made one fruitless attempt to reach the net after another.

Polaris watched the officer while monitoring his healing processes. He had resigned himself to the probability that the officer would remain in Polaris' way until either his handheld computer's capacitors ran out of power, or until another officer came to find him. Polaris could deal with this, he decided, as long as the officer kept his back turned.

The progress indicators for his healing knees, shoulders, and hand topped ninety percent as the officer standing by Polaris continued to jab at his handheld, demanding that it connect with a tone of voice one might aim at a recalcitrant child. Polaris waited; he needed only another minute before his healing was complete. If the cop behaved himself and kept his back turned, Polaris knew he might be able to get away. If not, he could always shock him and run. His power reserves would allow him to emulate a taser once, and escape at a sprint.

The progress counters reached one hundred percent. His knees and shoulders were good as new. His right hand flexed; it was as dextrous as it had been yesterday. Even his nanocytic brain, with each cell capable of storing a gigabyte of data, was whole again. He could now look Munakata in the eye and say, "I died, and I got over it."

He disabled his jamming function and gathered himself into a crouch. Checking his power reserves, he judged the distance to the rooftop. A fifteen meter jump from a crouch would cost him, but there would be time enough to eat and refuel once he had placed some distance between him and the officer.

"No, don't bloody ask me why it took me so long to call it in. It's not my fault that I couldn't connect." the officer snarled as Polaris launched himself at the rooftop above. He caught the ledge and lifted himself onto the rooftop as the officer turned about. "Wait a minute? Where did he go? He can't have just gotten up and walked away. He had been shot six times!"

London disappeared as Polaris rose to his feet. Looking down, he found the rooftop replaced with a sheer white surface. Looking upwards, Polaris forced his eyes to compensate for the glare of a spotlight bearing down upon him.

"That was foolish," Malkuth said, stepping into the circle outlined by the spotlight as its rays struck the floor. "Then again, you have spent the entire night in foolishness, so what's another bit of stupidity?"

"I think we should allow Polaris the chance to explain his actions before we say anything," Binah suggested as she joined Malkuth. Crossing her arms, she glared at Polaris. "After all, getting shot six times is itself a rather harsh lesson."

"Not harsh enough," Malkuth muttered, cracking his knuckles. "So, have you got anything to say for yourself?"

Polaris attempted a step back and found himself rooted to the spot on which he stood. "Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you don't know that Isaac Magnin asked me to do this?"

Binah relaxed her stance to a slight extent. "Continue."

"Magnin suspects that Dr. Malmgren is a friend of a woman named Claire Ashecroft, who is a friend of Morgan Stormrider. He wanted to confirm this. He then wanted me to engineer a situation in which Claire would have to seek your aid in order to protect herself and Dr. Malmgren."

"Shit," Malkuth muttered, ignoring Binah's disapproving glance, "Magnin knew about that?"

"He probably does now," Binah said. "Why would Magnin have you attempt to murder Claire and Dr. Malmgren in order to confirm that Claire is a friend of ours?"

Polaris shook his head. "I wasn't going to kill them. I had a tranquilizer pistol. I was going to trank Dr. Malmgren and attempt to carry her off."

Malkuth chuckled, "Instead, Claire shot your pistol out of your hand and damaged you so badly that you spent ten minutes in accelerated regeneration mode repairing yourself."

Polaris wasted several seconds in trying to see beyond the space illuminated by the spotlight. "Didn't the Sephiroth know that Magnin sent me to do this? Aren't you watching me through Witness Protocol?"

Malkuth and Binah exchanged frowns. "The bastard did it again," Malkuth snarled.

"We probably had a record of your conversation with Magnin," Binah said as her voice finally reached a temperature that could be expressed in positive numbers. "But Magnin is thorough when he decides to change history."

"And know Magnin knows that Claire speaks directly with us," Malkuth said. "Worse, he has probably figured out that we helped Claire decrypt the Liebenthal cryptfs for Morgan Stormrider, after Magnin destroyed the copy Stormrider sent directly to us and our knowledge of having ever received it."

"I think I know why Magnin did this," Binah whispered, "Malkuth, please get in touch with Claire and persuade her that her safety and that of Dr. Malmgren depends on her seeking help from Morgan Stormrider. If Claire asks him as a friend, Stormrider will probably use his personal resources to ensure Claire's safety and that of Dr. Malmgren, instead of working with the Phoenix Society."

"All right," Malkuth said, "But I doubt that Claire will willingly hide."

"Binah's right," Polaris said, "I think you should try to convince her. And, if you'd be willing, would you please convey my apologies to Miss Ashecroft and Dr. Malmgren?"

Malkuth nodded. "I can do that," he said, and allowed his avatar to fade from sight."

"I am still disappointed with you," Binah said, her voice still cool. "You caused a great deal of trouble for us by assuming that Magnin would not erase our knowledge of his instructions to you. Had you come to Daath and told us, our knowledge would have been safe from Magnin's interference."

"What good would that have done, aside from ensuring that you know what is going on? How could you have acted on that knowledge without betraying to Dr. Magnin our arrangement? As it is, having Malkuth suggest to Claire that she ask Morgan Stormrider for help may very well serve Magnin's purpose."

Binah blanched, "You're right. It would certainly confirm Magnin's suspicion that Claire is a friend of Stormrider's." She turned her back on Polaris. "Malkuth?"

"What?"

"Have you spoken to Claire yet?"

"Not yet. She must have gone autistic."

"This complicates matters," Binah muttered, "Claire probably decided on her own to talk to Stormrider."

"What do you want me to do?" Polaris asked.

Binah waved a dismissing hand. "Go back to Asgard. You did what Magnin wanted."

Chapter 43

"You men are all the same," Claire said as she closed her door behind Morgan and held out a hand for his coat. "Without a woman to watch out for you, you let yourselves fall completely apart. When was the last time you slept?"

"I had a catnap on the maglev," Morgan said as he hung up his own coat. He unclipped his sword from his belt as Claire disappeared into the kitchen, and slipped it into the umbrella stand.

Morgan followed her and stood in the doorway as she rummaged through the refrigerator. "I'd offer you coffee," she said, "but the caffeine never does anything for you. Want something to eat? I've got some leftover chicken vindaloo, some leftover fish and chips, some leftover…"

Morgan slipped behind Claire and glanced over her shoulder. "How old are your oldest leftovers?"

"Only a couple of days old. I emptied my fridge when Josse asked me to take her in."

"Is that the friend you want me to help?"

Claire nodded. "Yeah." Tilting her head back, she looked up at Morgan. "You look hungry. Or are you just looking down my singlet and getting a good look at my tits?"

"I can see your breasts," Morgan admitted, "But I think it would be rude of me to actually look at them. Would you mind passing me the vindaloo? I would happily start on that."

"Start on it?" Josefine asked, shuffling into the kitchen as Claire passed the leftovers to Morgan. "That container is huge."

Claire waved from behind the refrigerator door. "Hi, Josse. Did we wake you?"

"No. I couldn't sleep. Is he the friend you told me about?

"Yes," Claire said, standing and closing the refrigerator as Morgan turned on the microwave. "Morgan, this is Dr. Josefine Malmgren."

Morgan bowed his head, "Good morning, Doctor."

Blushing, Josefine stammered, "Please, Adversary Stormrider, just call me Josefine."

"Only if you in turn call me Morgan," he said as he opened the microwave and stirred the freshly irradiated chicken vindaloo with a fork. "I am acting in my individual capacity at the moment, so the formality is unnecessary."

"Are you sure?" Josefine asked, her face turning a brighter red.

"I insist," Morgan said and turned to Claire. "What sort of stories have you told Dr. Malmgren about me?"

"Only the true ones," Claire said, trying to look innocent. "I didn't tell her that you were raised by feral cats, or anything similarly outlandish."

"You were raised by feral cats?"

Morgan favored Josefine with a half smile. "There were no wolves willing to do the job."

Josefine's blush faded as she giggled, "You're going to eat all of that yourself?"

Morgan looked down at the container. "Did you want some? I can always have something else after this."

A low rumble filled the room, causing Claire and Josefine to stare at Morgan's belly. "I hope the neighbors didn't hear that," Claire gasped. "When was the last time you ate?"

Morgan shrugged. "Three days ago. Maybe four."

Josefine gaped as Claire flung open the fridge and began piling containers of leftovers upon the counter. "For fuck's sake, Morgan, when are you going to learn to take care of yourself? Naomi would have kittens if she knew you had gone four days without eating. What exactly have you been doing?"

"I was looking for Tetsuo Munakata."

Josefine blanched and held a hand to her mouth. "Did you just say 'Tetsuo Munakata'?"

"Yes. Why?" Morgan asked, laying the vindaloo aside.

"I saw that name when I cracked AsgarTech's financial database —"

"Oh, no you don't," Claire growled as she took Josefine by the shoulders and marched her from the kitchen. "We're not talking about any of that until Morgan has eaten." She glared at Morgan, "You had better eat everything I left on that counter, or I will tell Naomi just how naughty you've been."

"She will not let you spank me," Morgan said after a forkful of rice.

"No, but she might let me watch. Now shut up and eat."

Morgan shrugged and turned himself to the task Claire had set him. Chicken vindaloo gave way to fish and chips as Morgan gorged himself after four days of abstinence. When he had finished with these leftovers, Morgan returned the rest to the refrigerator and cleaned up after himself.

"That was fast," Josefine remarked, looking up from a book of manga she had borrowed from Claire's shelves.

"I did not eat all of it," Morgan said, settling onto the couch. Leaning forward, he unbuckled his boots and eased his feet free of them. "I could not."

"Sure you could," Claire said as she closed the bathroom door behind her. "I have seen you eat more than that. Back to the kitchen with you."

"Can't you see he's tired?" Josefine asked as Morgan sprawled upon the couch and let his eyes slip closed.

"Oh, right," Claire said, lowering her voice as she draped a blanket over Morgan's body. "I can't believe you were afraid of him, Josse. He's just a big pussycat."

"He seems kind enough," Morgan heard Josefine say as he drifted towards sleep. The nervousness still had not left her voice; he suspected that he would have to deal gently with Dr. Malmgren. "But he's hungry and tired. What will he be like after he's slept?"

Morgan drifted further down; he was almost asleep, but not so far gone that he could not feel Claire as she bent over him. Her breath warmed his skin as she kissed his forehead. "I've known Morgan for years," Claire said, her voice quiet, "He's not as bad as he thinks he is. He's just a big kitty-cat."

The feel of whiskers being dragged across the back of his hand woke Morgan several hours later. His neuronics, which displayed the time and date in the upper right corner of his peripheral vision, told him that he had been asleep for ten hours. He opened his eyes as he felt the whiskers against his cheek and saw Mordred rubbing his face against his; the cat had reclaimed Morgan as his own.

Morgan rolled onto his side, meeting his cat's powder blue eyes. "When did you get here?"

The cat cocked its head, and looked to Morgan as if he were actually considering the question, before head-butting Morgan with a loud purr. Morgan rewarded the cat's affectionate claim of ownership with a gentle scratch behind the ears before rising from the couch. "I bet you want something to eat."

Mordred sprang to his feet and sauntered towards the kitchen, his tail held high as if pleased with Morgan's reasoning. Morgan followed the cat for a few steps before stopping him with a gentle hand on the shoulder.

"I'm serious, Josse," Morgan heard Claire mutter from the kitchen. "There's an Asura in my apartment. Either that, or somebody has a wonky set of neuronics, because when I ping Morgan, I get a ninety-six byte string, just like I do when I ping Polaris."

"How do you know that it's not because he's an Adversary?" Josefine countered.

"He doesn't have Adversary-issue neuronics. He told me about it a while ago. His body rejected 'em, and Nakajima had to work with the existing system. Also, Adversary-issue neuronics return a standard sixty-four byte string."

"What are you going to do about it? Do you think he knows he's an Asura, and is trying to hide it?"

"I don't know," Claire admitted as Mordred pushed the kitchen door open and slipped inside. "Maybe there's a defect in my code -— Oh, hi, Mordred."

Morgan followed his cat into the kitchen, "Good evening, ladies. Claire, I apologize for Mordred's following me again."

"Oh, it's all right," Claire said as she petted the cat. "You're a good kitty. Yes you are."

Josefine lowered her book slightly to see over its top, only to drop it. Her face whitened as she gasped. "Claire, that cat is huge. How do you know it's tame?"

"Oh, he's just a big cuddle," Claire said, "Come over and say hello."

"I had left him at home, Dr. Malmgren," Morgan said, "But Mordred somehow manages to find me whenever I am away from home for more than a day. I hope he did not frighten you."

Josefine bent down to retrieve her book, and Morgan could tell from her slow, deliberate movements that she was afraid to draw Mordred's attention and provoke it. "Mordred, please come here."

The cat gave Claire one last nuzzle before turning and sitting in front of Morgan and Josefine. "Thank you," Morgan said as he scratched behind Mordred's ears. "This is Dr. Josefine Malmgren, a friend of Claire's. Care to introduce yourself?"

Mordred inched forward, sniffing at Josefine for several moments as she clung to the stool on which she sat. He rubbed his face against Josefine's bare shins and purred, only to have Josefine stiffen further. Withdrawing, he gave a soft mew and turned drooping whiskers in an appeal to Morgan.

"Lilith's heart-shaped ass, Josse," Claire said as she turned from the coffee maker with a fresh pot in her hand. "Loosen up already. You made the kitty sad."

"I'm sorry," Josefine said, "It's just that he's so huge that I'm afraid of what he could do if he bit me."

"If he was going to hurt you, he already would have," Morgan suggested. "However, I have yet to see him hurt anybody."

Josefine turned to face Morgan and relaxed a bit. "Really?"

"Well, Mordred did pounce on a burglar, but he did not actually hurt him. He just kept the burglar pinned to the floor until I came home."

The stiffness left Josefine's shoulders as she smiled and slid from the stool. "In that case," she said as she crouched before Mordred and offered her hand, "I'm sorry, dear. Do you still want to be friends?"

Mordred's ears perked up as he sniffed Josefine's hand. He leaned into Josefine's hand as she petted the cat, and began to purr as giggles escaped her. "I can actually feel the floor vibrating," Josefine said. "Does he always purr like this?"

"No," Morgan admitted, "He is just happy to have a new friend. Also, he thinks that one of us will be more willing to feed him if he makes himself as cute as possible."

"Well," Claire laughed, "There's an Ancient Mariner's nearby."

Mordred turned from Josefine and meowed at Claire as he heard mention of the seafood market from which Morgan often brought him treats. He began to wind himself about Claire, meowing softly and looking up at her with his whiskers thrust forward.

"He knows what Claire means, doesn't he." Josefine whispered, "Or is it just a learned association?"

"I think he understands us," Morgan said. "Sometimes, when I am reading, Mordred will sit next to me and stare at the page. If I turn it too quickly, Mordred will meow at me. If I do not turn the pages quickly enough to suit him, he will try to turn it himself with his paw."

"Don't tell me he also understands Unix," Josefine said, looking up at Morgan as she was almost a third of a meter shorter than him. "Or I will suspect that you are mocking me."

Morgan shrugged. "I cannot say anything about Unix, but Claire built an oversized trackball for him to use, and he uses that to navigate menus at home."

Josefine gave Morgan a poisonous look before turning to Claire, "Claire, is Morgan making fun of me? He says that you built an oversized trackball for Mordred."

"Yes, I did," Claire said without looking away from the kitchen terminal, which she had been using to order take-out. "I bought an old arcade game cabinet and salvaged the trackball from it. I think the game was called 'Time Pilot'. The buttons weren't big enough, so I had bigger ones made."

"Do I want to know what Mordred does with this custom cat terminal you made for him?" Josefine sighed.

"He never uses it when I am around," Morgan said. "And my AI, Astarte, never tells me what, if anything, Mordred does with her."

"Probably porn, then," Claire giggled, "Hot and nasty kitty porn. You think cats do it doggy style, Josse?"

Josefine rolled her eyes, "I'm sorry about Claire. I tried to be a good influence on her when we were in Uni."

"Yes, she did," Claire laughed, "And I was busy being a bad influence on her."

"I am used to Claire's jokes," Morgan said, "I figure that they serve the same function as Mordred's purring. If it stops, then there is something wrong."

Josefine stroked her chin and watched Claire long enough for Morgan to take a good look at her. He suspected, given her pale face and cornflower blue eyes, that she was a natural blonde who dyed her hair for reasons that were none of Morgan's concern. She also hid her petite figure beneath unflattering, severe business clothing. A memory of Edmund's voice replayed in Morgan's mind: "Sure, redheads are fun, but give me a shy little blonde, the kind that hides behind glasses. You might think she's quiet and demure because she hides her body behind clothes that don't really flatter her, but behind that facade is a woman smoldering with unrequited lust. She wants it, and I'd be happy to give it to her." Yes, Morgan decided, Dr. Malmgren was exactly Edmund's type.

"Are you all right?" Josefine asked as she turned her attention back to Morgan.

"I was just thinking of something a friend of mine said a long time ago," Morgan said, "If he knew about you, Josefine, he would probably insist upon an introduction."

"Please don't tell him," Josefine sighed, "I suspect he'd be disappointed once he actually met me."

A message from Claire came to Morgan over secure talk: "See what I have to deal with? Josse has no confidence in her own appeal as a person. Actually, she reminds me of a certain Adversary I know. If somebody like Christabel were to take an interest in her…"

Morgan kept his reply short: "Back off."

Josefine's eyes darted between Morgan and Claire; Morgan could tell that their silent exchange had unsettled her. "Should I give you two some privacy?"

"No, that's all right," Claire said, tearing her eyes away from Morgan's. "I just poked a sore spot. I guess he's human after all."

"It is kind of you to say so," Morgan said as he settled onto a stool. "I had overheard your speculation concerning the possibility that I might be an Asura."

Claire reddened and turned away from the others. "It related to the reason I asked you to come here. Can we talk about it after dinner arrives?"

"You want time to get your thoughts in order?" Morgan asked, as Josefine crouched to pet Mordred.

"Something like that," Claire said. "I need you to believe what I'm going to tell you."

"You need not tell me anything," Morgan said with a shrug. "If you want my help, you need only ask me. Is it my protection you want?"

"Yes," Claire said, "But for Josefine, and not through the Phoenix Society. Let me tell you what happened a couple of nights ago, and you'll understand why I don't want to trust the Society."

Morgan nodded. "Fair enough. What is for dinner?"

Dinner came from the Ancient Mariner's Seafood Market. There was schrod, sole, lake trout, and flounder — all battered and deep fried — and spiced chips. There were potato cakes as well, along with crab legs, shrimp, and a dozen different kinds of sushi.

"Are we supposed to eat all of this?" Josefine asked, aghast at the sight of the food covering the kitchen table.

"Eat as much as you like," Claire said, "The rest will go in the fridge."

"Is this for Mordred?" Morgan asked, indicating a packet labelled 'cod fillet'.

"Right," Claire said, taking a plate from the cabinet. She handed it to Morgan, who unwrapped the fillets, put them on the plate, and put the plate down in a corner along with a bowl full of fresh water. Mordred's grateful purring filled the room as Morgan took a plate for himself and loaded it with a piece of battered schrod, some crab legs, and heap of spiced chips. The women loaded their own plates and followed Morgan into the living room.

"So," Morgan said as he settled onto one end of the couch and spread a napkin across his lap, "Are you ladies ready to talk?"

"Before we start," Josefine asked with a soft, hesitant tone, "Can we be sure that what we tell you won't reach the Phoenix Society?"

"You have my word," Morgan said, "If you ask it of me, I will tell no one. I have deactivated Witness Protocol, and I am not speaking to you as an Adversary, but as a man. I promise you as Claire's friend that your secrets will be safe with me."

"He means it," Claire said as she nibbled a potato cake. "Just be glad he's not in a dramatic mood tonight, or he'd swear it by the god of your choice."

"Do not listen to Claire," Morgan said, "I would only swear by my life and my love of it. I do not swear by gods."

Claire giggled. "He just swears at them."

Josefine sighed and took a bite of her sole. "Well, if Claire trusts you, I suppose I should as well. I used to work for the Asgard Technological Development Company's research and development division. I helped implement the EmCat operating system."

"That was you?" Morgan asked, his voice taking on a note of respect. "My friend Sid has three of them, because his kids are allergic to real cats. The kids love their kitty emulators."

"I'm glad," Josefine said, blushing behind her smile. She looked away from Morgan for a moment and dragged the sleeve of her cardigan across her eyes. "I'm sorry. I still haven't gotten over having to leave the company. You see, Isaac Magnin was my patron. He paid for me to attend university and pursue my doctorate, and then hired me to do R&D for him."

"And she was in love with Magnin, as a result," Claire added, earning a dirty look from Josefine, who said: "I'd like to say that Claire is just being silly, but she's right. I did love Magnin a little, because I admired him. He told me that he wanted to develop the EmCat not for profit, but to see if it could be done. The fact that he could sell them was merely an ancillary benefit to him."

Morgan nodded. "I think I can see why you would admire him. You strike me as one who regards science as an end in itself. What happened?"

"I got curious," Josefine whispered. "A coworker remarked that the Asura project was hideously expensive, yet he had not heard of the AsgarTech Company issuing any bonds in order to finance it. So I went poking through the company's finances."

"And found that your project's expenses were being paid with dirty money?" Morgan suggested.

"I'm not sure I'd call the Phoenix Society's money dirty," Claire said as she bit off a third of her battered fish fillet and began to chew it.

"Fair enough," Morgan said, "But why would the Phoenix Society prop up the AsgarTech Company's finances. What would they gain by doing this?"

"If I were the paranoid sort, then I think I could explain it," Josefine said. "The average working life of an Adversary is eighteen months, right?"

"That is correct," Morgan said. "I am somewhat of an anomaly, given that I have served for ten years."

"What if the Phoenix Society helped finance the Asura Emulator project so that it could use them to replace human Adversaries?" Claire asked, gesturing with a crab leg.

Morgan waved a dismissing hand before tossing a shrimp to Mordred. "I am more interested in why Polaris attacked you, Doctor Malmgren. It seems rather excessive, considering that all you did was flee Asgard. Have you spoken to the press about AsgarTech's finances?"

"No," Josefine said. "I know I should, but what good would it do?"

"It would raise enough of a stink to get the Phoenix Society's attention," Claire said. "Even if Magnin killed the Adversaries sent to investigate his operations, he'd only end up answering to Morgan."

"We do not normally mention this to civilians, or even to Society employees who do not need to know," Morgan said, his voice low, "but Isaac Magnin is a member of the Phoenix Society's executive council."

"You know, Morgan, I hate it when you confirm my suspicions."

"You will get over it."

"Not if Magnin kills the lot of us," Josefine said. "If Magnin is on the executive council, then he can veto any attempts to investigate him."

"No, he cannot. However, the other members have to vote unanimously for an investigation prior to impeachment. A successful IPTI vote has never happened, and nobody wants to help set the precedent."

"So, what can we do?" Josefine asked, "If we cannot expect the Phoenix Society to put aside politics?"

"For now, Doctor Malmgren, we keep you safe."

"And how do we do that?" Josefine asked. "Claire tells me you're hunting a man named Tetsuo Munakata, who claims to be an Asura himself."

"You could stay in my home, as my guest," Morgan offered. "I own a brownstone in Manhattan, and I have guarded witnesses there before."

Josefine reddened and looked away. "How would I pay you? I don't have much cash, and I don't dare touch my account lest I alert Magnin to my whereabouts."

"I am offering you lodging as a favor to Claire," Morgan said, "I do not want your money."

"I don't think I'd be comfortable. We barely know each other, and I'd be imposing upon you."

"Whether you are imposing is for me to decide," Morgan said, raising a hand to forestall Josefine's objection. "But if you are uncomfortable with the idea of staying with me, would you be willing to let me provide you with a safe room at a Hellfire Club hotel?"

"I'll put Josse up," Claire said, and sent to Morgan over secure talk: "You can send me money if you like."

"You'd put me up, Claire?" Josefine asked. "I couldn't impose on you like that."

"I still owe you my share of the rent from my last month at Uni," Claire said. "Don't worry about it."

"I told you not to worry about that last month's rent!"

"And I'm telling you to stop bitching and let me put you up. Since you don't want to stay with Morgan, it's either the Hellfire Club, or I'll get you a set of earplugs so that you don't have to listen to me fuck."

"Ladies!" Morgan interrupted. "Is this necessary?"

"No," Josefine said, her voice soft as the faint flush of her cheeks. "I'll let you two put me up at the Hellfire Club, if you insist. But could I please stay in London?"

"I have no objections," Morgan said. "Do you, Claire?"

"I think you'd be safer in another city, Josse, but you'd get lonely."

"I would."

"Do you want me to stay the night?" Morgan asked as he pulled his handheld from his pocket and read a message from Astarte. "I would have to take the first maglev out of Victoria Station, since Eddie wants to buy me lunch."

Claire turned and stared at Morgan. "Wait. Edmund Cohen wants to buy you lunch? That can't possibly be good."

Chapter 44

"I cannot discuss anything with Stormrider here," Dr. Zachary Aster beamed to Edmund Cohen over secure talk as he surveyed the front dining area of Sun Wukong's. Stormrider was not here; at least, Dr. Aster could not see him, but Stormrider was not the only man in New York City with long black hair. He simply took better care of his hair than many of the patrons in front of him appeared to. "There are far too many people here who might overhear us, and it looks like a set from a bad kung fu movie."

"Give the kid some credit," Edmund beamed back. "He said that he had rented a private room."

"Why here, anyway?" Dr. Aster asked as he took another look around. He had to admit that it looked cleaner than many of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that filled Chinatown down on Canal Street, and that the food smelled better, but could not understand why Stormrider would choose a restaurant named for a divine monkey king from Chinese myth.

"Morgan used to eat here all of the time back when he was in ACS." Edmund beamed, and pointed at a scroll hanging over the hostess' desk, "And that scroll isn't a lie. This place does serve authentic Chinese food, both Cantonese and Szechuan, not that artery-clogging shit you can get down in Chinatown."

A hostess in a midnight blue brocade cheongsam appeared before Edmund and Dr. Aster with a slight bow, and met their eyes with a smile. "I apologize for making you gentlemen wait. We have more tables upstairs, and it is quieter there."

"Actually, miss," Edmund said, "A friend of mine has rented a private room. May we join him?"

"You might," the hostess said, arching a slim black eyebrow, "if you tell me who you wish to join, and who you are."

"I'm Edmund Cohen, and this is Dr. Zachary Aster. We would like to join Morgan Stormrider."

The hostess nodded and turned to the stairs. "Adversary Stormrider told us you would be coming. This way, if you please."

"Not going to flirt with her?" Dr. Aster beamed as they followed her upstairs.

"I prefer blondes," Edmund beamed back. "Besides, she's probably one of the proprietor's great-granddaughters. It's probably just an urban legend, but I hear that the old bastard still runs this place, when he's not teaching kung fu in the basement, even though he's a hundred and twenty years old."

"That sounds like fanciful nonsense," Dr. Aster beamed.

"Probably is," Edmund admitted, "but it doesn't change the fact that she's not my type."

"You mean, she looks too much like Chidori for your comfort."

"Fine, then," Edmund countered as they left the stairs and followed the hostess down a hallway, "I prefer blondes, and gothic lolitas from Osaka. Satisfied?"

"Not until I persuade Stormrider to cooperate with me."

"You'll get your chance," Edmund said aloud as the hostess stopped before a door, opened it, and said, "Please enjoy your stay," before leaving them. The room beyond was furnished in a simple style, its wood floor polished to a mirror sheen. Scenes from Journey to the West adorned the walls; a mahogany table suitable for four stood in the middle of the room, its scarlet silk tablecloth covered with the remnants of what Edmund suspected was the house special: the Jade Emperor's Feast. Another hostess sat at the table, dressed in black brocade edged in silver.

"You gentlemen were late," Morgan Stormrider said as he raised a bowl of tea and drank it dry, "and I was hungry. I hope you do not mind that I started without you. Please, sit down."

Dr. Aster stared aghast at the table. "You ate all of this yourself?"

Morgan shrugged. "It is not the prodigious meal you think it is. The Jade Emperor's Feast is a little bit of everything one may eat at Sun Wukong's. Miss Peony?"

"Yes?" the hostess sitting with Morgan turned to face him, her eyes attentive, and Edmund noticed that she wore a crimson peony blossom in her hair.

"These gentlemen are my guests. Place anything they order on my tab, if you please."

"Of course, Adversary Stormrider," Miss Peony rose and turned to Edmund. "Please, make yourselves comfortable while I bring menus."

"Actually, I think that another Jade Emperor's Feast will do for all of us," Dr. Aster said, "Stormrider's description intrigues me, since I have never eaten here before."

"That would do for me," Edmund agreed. "What do you think, Morgan?"

"I have no objection."

"Very well then," Miss Peony said, her smile causing her cheeks to dimple. "Shall I prepare tea? Or would any of you prefer something stronger?"

"Tea would be perfect," Dr. Aster said, spotting a jar of honey on the table.

"Your meal will be ready in half an hour," Miss Peony said after she had placed a fresh pot of green tea on the table. "I will leave you gentlemen alone until then, if you like."

"That will be fine, Miss Peony," Morgan said. "I think that Dr. Aster wished to discuss something with me. Thank you for your company."

"You're quite welcome, sir. Are you sure you would not like to meet somewhere tonight?"

"I appreciate the interest, but I regret that I lack the time to properly enjoy your companionship."

"Why the hell didn't you take her up on that offer?" Edmund asked as the door snicked shut. "Hell, you probably could have just bent her over the table if you wanted to."

"I did not want to," Morgan said.

"And you still mourn Christabel," Dr. Aster said.

"You wanted to discuss something with me, Dr. Aster?"

Dr. Aster blinked at the razor edge hidden in Morgan's voice as Edmund shot him a warning glance and shook his head. "Don't talk to Morgan about Christabel. You're not his friend, so stick to business."

"I had a business proposition for you," Dr. Aster said, "But before I explain what I have in mind, I think I should ask a few questions."

"I am an Adversary," Morgan said, "And you are one of the Phoenix Society's executive council. If you have a mission to offer me, why the secrecy? Why act as if you are considering whether or not to initiate me into some conspiracy?"

Dr. Aster forced himself to smile despite his unease. The fact that he was part of the Phoenix Society's executive council is not supposed to be public knowledge, but something he and other members reveal only when it serves the council's purpose to do so.

"You wonder how I concluded that you are a member of the executive council?" Morgan asked, sipping his tea. "I already know that Edmund is a member. How I know is none of your business, so do not ask. Since Edmund requested the meeting, without naming you or being explicit about this meeting's purpose, I deemed it likely that this meeting concerns executive council business, and that you yourself are from the executive council."

"How long did it take you to figure that out?" Dr. Aster asked, his voice bland.

"I figured it out about thirty seconds after Edmund called and asked me to meet you. It is hardly an impressive feat of deduction. My cat could have done it."

"I requested this meeting because events have given you reason to believe that there is more to the Liebenthal case than you know."

"Such as the fact that Tetsuo Munakata survived being impaled on my sword after I ripped his throat out?" Morgan asked, cracking open a fortune cookie. "Charming," he muttered, tossing the fortune onto the table. Edmund picked it up, and passed it to Dr. Aster. It said, 'You may soon learn more than you originally wished to know.'

"After he did his Lazarus routine," Morgan continued, "Munakata claimed to be an 'Asura', and that I too am an 'Asura'. The AsgarTech Company's latest experimental AI, which is also called an 'Asura', attempted to kidnap the lady in charge of research and development for the Asura project after she quit her post and ran to London."

"How did you know about Polaris?" Dr. Aster asked as he felt his spine freeze.

"Dr. Malmgren and I have a friend in common. Dr. Malmgren also told me that there is a gentleman by the name of Tetsuo Munakata on AsgarTech's payroll as a 'security consultant', and that the AsgarTech Company has been receiving funds from the Phoenix Society. Quite a bit of funding, considering that it claims a healthy profit despite Dr. Malmgren's claim that AsgarTech spends all of its revenue on the Asura Project."

"And what, exactly, do you intend to do with this information?" Dr. Aster asked, his voice soft as he asked himself if Isaac Magnin knew that Morgan knew all of this.

"Nothing, yet," Morgan said. "My mission is to capture Tetsuo Munakata. Once I had done so, I would have presented my suspicions along with my report, and asked permission to investigate them."

"And if permission were denied?"

"Then I would have resigned. I wanted to do so before the Liebenthal job," Morgan said as he sipped his tea. "I remain an Adversary because Munakata is a loose end that must be tied off."

"May I ask why you wish to resign?" Dr. Aster said in a gentle, respectful tone, "You have served the Phoenix Society with distinction for ten years, a longer term of service than any other Adversary has managed."

"You may ask," Morgan said, allowing his voice to show its edge again, "But all I will say to you is that I am no longer willing to shoulder the responsibility that comes with an Adversary's authority. That is reason enough to resign, I think."

"Fair enough," Dr. Aster said as somebody knocked on the door. He watched Morgan rise and open the door to admit Miss Peony, who led a pair of busboys guiding a cart laden with the hundred and eight dishes that comprised the Jade Emperor's Feast. He decided that further questions could wait as Miss Peony cleared the table to make room for the feast. He had not been hungry before, but the scent of spice filling the room changed his mind.

"Will there be anything else?" Miss Peony asked as she put out a fresh pot of tea.

"I think that we are all set," Morgan said, "But I will call for you as soon as the need arises."

Miss Peony hid her smile behind a short bow. "Very well. Please enjoy your meal."

"Try the roasted duck," Morgan suggested as he took a dish of prawns for himself.

"He's right, Doc," Edmund said as he chewed and swallowed a strip of roasted duck. He added some spiced pork and steamed vegetables to his dish. "But be careful, it's spicy."

Dr. Aster followed Morgan's advice, wolfing down the dish of roast duck. "I know why you like to eat here," he said to Morgan. "When I first got here, I had my doubts."

"He thinks the place looks like a set from a Hong Kong wuxia epic," Edmund said.

"I said nothing of the sort."

"I care not," Morgan said, "But do not let Miss Peony hear you express such sentiments. She owns a ten percent interest in the establishment, and she has her pride."

"I'd rather let her hear me express other sentiments," Edmund muttered.

Dr. Aster rolled his eyes. "Can we return to business?"

Morgan gave a dismissive wave with his chopsticks. "The only person preventing you from getting to the point is yourself, doctor."

Sipping his tea, Dr. Aster weighed his words. He had hoped that Stormrider would be more receptive, or more deferential at least. However, he could tell from Stormrider's remark that Stormrider considered him an equal at best. "My questions may seem irrelevant, but please bear with me. I think you will understand their purpose soon enough."

"Ask anything you like," Morgan said, "But blame only yourself if you find that you dislike my answers."

"To begin with, what do you think of the possibility that there are other forms of intelligent life in this universe?" Dr. Aster asked. It seemed a safe question, and if Stormrider gave an unfavorable answer, he could always turn the conversation to more neutral matters before taking his leave.

"You mean, aside from cats?" Morgan asked, his lips curved in a slight smile. "I do not think that I have encountered any extraterrestrial intelligences, but I will not reject the possibility."

That had gone well, Dr. Aster decided. "Assuming that humans and your cat are not the only intelligent life in the universe, what would you think if I suggested that not only did another species of intelligent life exist, but that its remnants existed in secret, here on Earth?"

"If you are actually suggesting such a thing," Morgan said, "and it is relevant to your reason for wanting my help, then I would like some proof. To begin with, what do these aliens of yours look like? Where on earth do they live? What is their culture like? What of their technology? If they managed to make it here to Earth, then their science must be far beyond human scientific knowledge."

Dr. Aster sighed. He knew that a willingness to simply accept was probably too much to ask of Stormrider, but to properly answer his questions would require far too many revelations. He had spent centuries under orders to keep secret the existence of the Devas and their last refuge. However, if he allowed Magnin to continue to manipulate Stormrider, then he would learn of the Devas anyway. Standing, he shrugged off his jacket and spread it across the back of the chair and held out his arms. "Adversary, I would like you to pat me down and verify for yourself that I am not carrying any devices that may explain the abilities I intend to demonstrate to you."

"I assume that you have heard of congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder," Dr. Aster began as Morgan began with his collar and worked his way down Dr. Aster's body as Aster himself suggested that he do.

"You wrote the NYU Journal of Medicine article describing the condition," Morgan said. "Judging from the fact that you are wearing sunglasses and gloves, and that you have chosen a hairstyle that allows you to conceal your ears, I suspect that you have it yourself."

"You are correct," Dr. Aster said as Morgan took his left forearm in a gentle grasp and probed for a device hidden up his sleeve. Finding nothing, Morgan turned to Aster's right arm. "However, you and I do not suffer from a genetic condition. I am one of the remnants of a nonhuman intelligence that came to this planet at the end of the last ice age. I am a Deva."

"So," Morgan asked as he patted down Dr. Aster's legs, "Did you and your people evolve from feline ancestry in the manner that humanity evolved apes? Is my cat Mordred a distant cousin of yours, evolutionarily speaking?" Morgan stood and backed away from Dr. Aster, "I could not find anything on you."

"Very well then. Edmund, please turn off the lights."

"Better keep your distance," Edmund said as he hit the switches and plunged the room into shadow relieved only by the daylight peeking through the cherry shutters that covered the windows. "You might find yourself burned if you don't."

Dr. Aster did not see Morgan retreat, though he heard his footsteps. He had closed his eyes to concentrate, so that he could reach the mental state a Deva required in order to draw upon his strength and manipulate the world around him. Reality slid away, hidden beneath the abstraction layer that an energist learned to place over existence in order to manipulate it.

Selecting a point in space between him and Morgan, he drew upon electrical energy generated by his cells' mitochondria and used that power to create a spherical electromagnetic field a centimeter in diameter. He then began to heat and ionize the air within that field, forcing a phase change from gas to plasma. The room's air conditioner rumbled to life to compensate for the heat generated by the sphere of plasma that he had created.

"Well, it is a handy way to light a cigarette," Morgan said. Dr. Aster stopped feeding energy into the plasma and let it revert to ionized gas. As he released the electromagnetic field he had created, he said, "That is something we Devas can do. Some of us can learn to draw energy from our own bodies in order to manipulate matter and energy by generating electromagnetic effects."

"Considering that it is dark in here," Morgan said as he stroked his chin, "How do I know that you did not manage to suspend a flammable substance of some kind where I saw the light?"

"I had Edmund turn off the lights so that you could see more easily," Dr. Aster said, betraying his impatience with Morgan's skepticism. "How do you think Edmund managed to suspend this flammable substance of yours? With a fishing pole? You got here first, so we had no chance to rig an apparatus that would allow me to produce the effect that I have shown you."

"You showed me a fireball in the dark," Morgan said, "Which is certainly interesting, but if that is all your Devas can manage, then I cannot say that I am impressed."

"Fine, then," Dr. Aster said as he slipped back into his energistic mode of thought. He focused on the electromagnetic field generated by Morgan's nervous system and created a second field that repelled Morgan's.

"Put me down," Morgan snarled.

"As soon as you tell me how I managed to lift you a third of a meter from the floor," Dr. Aster said, pleased that he had finally knocked Morgan off balance.

"Considering the electromagnetic interference my neuronics array is receiving," Morgan spat, "I would say that you are manipulating an electromagnetic field in order to lift me."

"Excellent," Dr. Aster said as he gradually decreased his field's strength in order to lower Morgan to the floor. "But would you care to explain your reasoning?"

"No," Morgan said, returning to the table. "I graduated ACS years ago, and am under no obligation to 'show my work'. Are you going to tell me why you insisted on meeting with me, or should I leave now? I have a mission, and you are in my way."

"Yet you put aside your search for Tetsuo Munakata to visit your friend Claire."

"Claire had information relevant to my search for Munakata."

"Care to discuss it?"

"Not until I have brought in Munakata. When I have, you can pull my case report out the archives."

"What if I told you that I wanted you to put aside Munakata, and that Munakata was involved in matters currently beyond your comprehension?"

"What sort of matters? Gunrunning? The records I salvaged from Liebenthal's AI suggest that he's involved in the trafficking of militia-grade weaponry; that much is in the report for the Liebenthal case. Are you suggesting that the guns are part of a bigger conspiracy?"

Dr. Aster allowed himself a smile. A human had once written that anybody who mentions the Knights Templar in the context of secret societies and conspiracies could safely be dismissed as a lunatic. And here he was, ready to speak of a greater lunacy than the Templars. "I am about to suggest that Munakata is indeed part of a bigger, and much older conspiracy. Do you believe in gods, Adversary Stormrider?"

"No. I know that Edmund has asked Athena to guide his hands, but I do not believe that she actually helps him. I think that his prayer is a way for him to calm himself, nothing more."

"Morgan's probably right," Edmund chuckled, "But I had a religious upbringing, and I never could get out of the habit of asking for a bit of help from upstairs."

"What would you think," Dr. Aster asked Morgan, ignoring Edmund's remark, "If I told you that long ago, humans worshiped the Devas as divine beings?"

"I would not be surprised," Morgan said. "After all, Hinduism refers to its gods as 'devas', which means 'shining ones' in Sanskrit. Of course, the ancestors of the Zoroastrians venerated the asuras instead. Considering that your people probably had vastly superior technology, what you thought of as science probably resembled divine intervention to ancient humans."

Dr. Aster nodded, relieved that Morgan had made the connection himself. It simplified matters. "You are correct. Because of our technology, ancient humans believed us to be gods when we made initial contact. We tried to persuade them that we were nothing of the kind, of course."

"And, naturally, people clung to the belief that you were gods because they could not get their minds around the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence," Edmund said. "Of course, we humans shouldn't feel bad about it. The Devas made the same mistake a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

"Edmund is correct," Dr. Aster said. "The ancient Devas were also contacted by intelligences possessed of knowledge and abilities far beyond their own, and mistook them for gods. These Powers do not exist in our four-dimensional spacetime, but in membranes contiguous to spacetime. To interact in our universe, they create avatars. Several of these Powers came to the Devas and claimed that it was their mission to guide the evolution of the Devas in order to help the universe itself achieve self-awareness."

"I doubt that any of that made sense to the ancient Devas," Morgan said, "But it probably became clear that there were advantages to listening to these Powers. Did they appear in the form of black monoliths, by any chance?"

"No," Dr. Aster said, ignoring Edmund's chuckle. "Was that supposed to be a joke of some kind?"

"Yes," Edmund said, turning to Morgan. "Dr. Aster doesn't bother to read human literature very often. I think the last novel he read was something by Umberto Eco. Something about a monk investigating a series of murders in an abbey."

"You read it as well, Edmund."

"After the first fifty pages, I said 'fuck it' and rented the movie. Morgan has my copy."

"You two bicker as if you were lovers," Morgan observed, causing Dr. Aster to suppress a chuckle at Edmund's momentary grimace of disgust. "I doubt that Edmund has ever been that drunk," Dr. Aster said, "But we have worked together for decades. And you are correct concerning the ancient Devas. They did find that listening to the Powers conferred certain advantages. Those who listened lived longer, learned to be more successful hunters, and learned to take better care of their cubs — more of whom made it to adulthood themselves."

"So the Powers tampered with natural selection," Morgan said, "Those who listened to them did a better job of spreading their genes, and those who ignored the Powers died young, and with few if any offspring."

"Exactly. Of course, the Powers did not stop there. They tampered with the Devas, modifying their DNA in order to give them the potential to use the abilities I demonstrated earlier, which the Powers themselves use to manipulate matter and energy as easily as humans might use their hands to manipulate a sprite in an old-fashioned video game."

"So," Morgan asked, "What happened? It sounds like the Devas had a profitable arrangement in place."

"What happened was that many Devas began to realize that they had been using knowledge and technology that they themselves had not developed and therefore did not understand. They realized that the continued prosperity of the Devas depended entirely on the whim of external Powers."

"Some of you figured out that you were being fattened up like cattle."

"We were not prey," Dr. Aster said, shaking his head. "The Powers claimed to have begun their existence as flesh and blood, but were guided towards transcendence."

"And because these Powers could not reproduce on their own," Morgan guessed, "They manipulate other species into becoming demons like them. They create others like them, in the guise of helping 'lesser species evolve'."

Dr. Aster nodded. "Your understanding helps matters considerably, you know."

"I may be able to anticipate the next turn of your story, doctor, but that does not mean that I believe you."

"I didn't believe him at first, either," Edmund said. "He actually had to drag me down under the ice to convince me."

Dr. Aster shook his head. He had not meant to reveal that detail yet; it was too early. "I will get to that eventually. Would you mind explaining why you used the word 'demon'?"

"I used the word in its original sense," Morgan said, "These Powers of yours are not gods, but they are not flesh and blood, either. Tell me what they did when the Devas figured out their real agenda."

"To begin with, the one who figured out the Powers' agenda had already become a Power himself. He rebelled after being ordered to begin converting other Devas with or without their consent."

"Was this Deva allowed to choose to transform?" Morgan asked.

"He was," Dr. Aster said, "And insisted that other Devas be offered the choice as well. Though he himself was dissatisfied with the limits that come with being flesh and blood, he understood that others thought and felt differently."

"Naturally," Edmund said, "The older Powers disagreed. They finally had a chance to bolster their numbers, and they didn't want anything to stop them."

"Exactly," Dr. Aster said, "They began by withdrawing their favor from the Devas, since the species as a whole had chosen to stagnate."

"That does not sound so horrible," Morgan said, "Though having to actually figure out all of the technology the Devas took for granted would have been unpleasant."

"Actually, the Devas had already begun to examine the knowledge and technology given them, so that they could adapt it to suit them. It was a good thing that they had, because the Powers quickly proved determined to utterly eradicate them."

"So, in the course of this war for survival, you Devas ended up here on Earth," Morgan said, "And one of these Powers followed you."

"I told you the kid was smart," Edmund muttered, glancing sidelong at Dr. Aster, who said: "That is essentially what happened next. The ancient Devas managed to annihilate some of the Powers arrayed against them, and imprisoned the others. One of them escaped and followed us to Earth, but was so weakened from its pursuit that we were able to imprison its avatar beneath the ice at one of the planet's magnetic poles."

Morgan leaned back in his chair with a bowl of rice in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. "So, why come to me? Are you telling me that Tetsuo Munakata is trying to unleash this demon beneath the ice?"

"No," Dr. Aster said. "He works for one of the Devas who is. He works for my brother, who calls himself Isaac Magnin. His true name is Imaginos. Mine is Desdinova, though I have been called Zoroaster, and we are both of the clan Ahura. I need you to listen to what I will tell you next, even though you may not believe me."

Morgan made an absent gesture with his chopsticks. "I still have not decided whether or not to believe you. Tell me the rest."

"Isaac Magnin means to unleash the Power so that he can destroy it. However, he means to use you as his assassin," Dr. Aster said, and frowned as Morgan began to chuckle.

"How much does he plan to pay me?"

Dr. Aster slammed the heel of his hand against the tabletop, causing the plates, cups, bowls, and utensils to jump. "I did not say that Magnin means to hire you, Stormrider. He means to make himself your enemy, and once he has done so, he will place you in a situation where you must kill this Power in order to get to him. Why do you think that Christabel Crowley was murdered?"

"Edmund?" Morgan asked in a tone that threatened to stop Dr. Aster's heart and replace his blood with liquid nitrogen. "Did Dr. Aster imply what I think I heard him imply? Unless I am mistaken, I just heard your friend claim that he knew who killed Christabel, and might have been in a position to prevent the murder."

Edmund glanced at Dr. Aster before raising his head to meet Morgan's eyes. "Yes, that's what he said."

"I thought so," Morgan hissed as he turned towards the windows. "Tell me something, Dr. Aster. Can you prove that Magnin killed Christabel?"

"No," Dr. Aster forced himself to say through a suddenly parched mouth. "I said it because that is how Magnin has worked in the past. Everybody can be manipulated, Magnin thinks, if you know what motivates them. Suppose for a moment that he came to you as I did, and asked you to help him destroy this Power. What would you say?"

"Assuming that I believed a word he said, killing demons is work for a hero," Morgan said, turning to face Dr. Aster again. He bared his teeth in a heartless smile that Aster hoped was part of an act. "Do I look like a hero to you?"

"No," Dr. Aster said. "You do not look like a hero. However, I do not think that you have become one of the human monsters you have been fighting these past ten years."

"Your faith in me is touching," Morgan said. "Now get to the point. What do you want from me?"

Dr. Aster leaned forward and met Morgan's eyes. "If Magnin manipulates you into destroying that Power, the consequences may be disastrous for both humans and Devas alike. I want you to work with me instead. Help me keep the Power bound until we can safely destroy it."

"I told you that I am not a hero," Morgan said as he opened the closet and shrugged into his jacket. "and I do not believe your story. It sounds like something a drunken university student might concoct while listening to the Blue Öyster Cult."

Dr. Aster wracked his brain as Morgan opened the door. There had to be something he could say that would persuade Morgan that he was telling the truth. He had convinced Edmund, after all. However, Magnin had been right. Morgan, unlike Edmund, had nothing to gain by believing. "We had better settle the bill and leave," Dr. Aster said to Edmund. "Stopping Magnin has become unnecessarily difficult."

"Morgan took care of the bill," Edmund said as he cracked open a fortune cookie, "Which was pretty generous, considering that you pissed him off."

The passage of an hour found Dr. Aster sitting on a bench in a wooded part of Central Park, throwing nuts to squirrels and chipmunks that had gathered at his feet. "Stormrider refused you," Isaac Magnin said to him in Daevic as he approached from behind.

Dr. Aster glared at Magnin over his shoulder before turning back to the rodents at his feet. He tossed another chestnut and watched them scramble for it. "You were right again, Imaginos."

"I told you not to use that name among humans."

"Find a human that speaks Daevic, and I will worry about keeping our names hidden."

Magnin vaulted over the bench and settled onto it, sitting beside Aster. Taking a walnut from his brother's sack, he tossed it towards a chipmunk. "You sound bitter, Desdinova. What exactly did my Asura say to you?"

"You didn't check the Witness Protocol data?"

"No. I've been busy. The Qliphoth keep meddling."

"They consider the Starbreaker their responsibility," Aster pointed out. "After all, they made the accursed thing."

"And they had ten thousand years to put it to use," Magnin muttered, "Only Ashtoreth and Sathariel are willing to work with me, and only for specific tasks. Adramelech has betrayed us, and serves Fuzon on odd-numbered days, and Urizen Itself on even-numbered days. Thagirion turned her back on us centuries ago, and the rest of the Qliphoth are either dead, or never left Algol."

Dr. Aster nodded. "So, cutting out that cancer beneath the ice falls to us. And with Morgan Stormrider unwilling to help us…"

"Did you honestly expect him to believe you?" Magnin asked as he watched a pair of young women jog past him, scattering the squirrels and chipmunks. "Edmund Cohen was willing to believe anything you told him as long as you helped him help that whore Chidori. Morgan Stormrider, however, wants nothing from you."

"He wants Tetsuo Munakata, and he wants Christabel Crowley's murderer." Dr. Aster reminded his brother. "Do you have any notion of what you might unleash if you continue to goad Stormrider?"

Magnin shrugged. "I've orchestrated the rise and fall of cultures. Do you think that I will have trouble manipulating a single Asura Emulator? One way or the other, he will serve my purpose."

"And if he learns the truth about Christabel and his relationship with her?"

"He will despise me all the same, whether he keeps his illusions or not," Magnin said, rising to his feet. "I have business elsewhere that requires my attention. Do me a favor and find a way to let Stormrider know that Tetsuo Munakata will be at a tavern called 'The Flaming Telepath' tonight. Stormrider knows the place."

"I can't just tell him something like that!" Dr. Aster protested at Magnin's back as a sea of joggers in red shirts parted to accommodate his passage. When the joggers had passed Dr. Aster, Isaac Magnin was gone. "To the void with it. If Imaginos wants so badly to be Morgan's enemy, then who am I to spoil his fun?" Dr. Aster muttered as he pulled a handheld from his coat pocket and clicked through his contact list until he found Saul Rosenbaum's entry.

Chapter 45

An 'incoming call' icon flashed in the bottom left corner of Morgan's handheld display. A jab of Morgan's fingertip as he left the flow of foot traffic heading downtown along Broadway showed that it was Saul Rosenbaum calling.

"Tetsuo Munakata is at a bar called 'The Flaming Telepath' a block south of your position," Saul said.

"I know," Morgan said, terminating the connection before Saul could ask him how he knew. He checked his handheld after crossing 93rd Street; the map displayed on its screen showed that Munakata had not yet left The Flaming Telepath. He doubled his pace; he wanted to get there before Munakata left or was alerted to the fact that he was being tracked by his neuronics and dropped off the network.

"Do you have any idea how much bandwidth you're using?" Astarte asked over secure talk.

"I can afford it," Morgan replied. "I would ask the Sephiroth to handle this, but I'm not sure I can trust them. Munakata supposedly works for Isaac Magnin. Magnin owns AsgarTech, which is allegedly getting funds from the Phoenix Society. The Phoenix Society can pull the plug on the Sephiroth, so they might alert Munakata or whomever is paying him that I am looking for him."

"And so you asked me to do it instead?"

"I trust you," Morgan said as he brushed past other pedestrians with a quick 'Excuse me' or a 'Sorry, madam'. "And Claire would only charge me for labor as well as bandwidth."

"Besides," Astarte sent, "You don't need Claire for this. You could get the cat to do this. By the way, did you know that Munakata is sitting with Victoria Murdoch?"

Morgan froze in the middle of the sidewalk. "Victoria Murdoch of Murdoch Defense Industries?"

"The same. I decided to be naughty and crack the security video feeds."

"Very naughty," Morgan agreed as he waited for a break in the crowded pedestrians, "Stop tracking Munakata. If I do not give instructions to the contrary, resume in one hour on the assumption that I lost the bastard."

He did not wait for Astarte's reply before terminating the secure talk session and disconnecting from the network. If he was tracking Munakata, then Munakata might also be tracking him, and Morgan did not want Munakata to know that he was coming.

Morgan padded down the stairs; The Flaming Telepath was a basement dive, and its owner was proud of that fact. A screen mounted by the door flared to life and showed the bouncer's face as Morgan rapped for entry. "And don't forget my dog," the bouncer said.

"Fixed and consequent," Morgan replied, completing the lyric. When The Flaming Telepath had first opened, patrons bent the proprietor's ear with complaints about the jukebox, which contained nothing but Blue Öyster Cult studio albums and bootleg recordings. The proprietor retaliated by stationing a bouncer at the door who screened patrons by throwing part of a random lyric at them. One had to complete the lyric to be granted entry.

The door opened and the bouncer stepped aside to let Morgan in. As the mixed scent of beer, liquor, marijuana, and grilled steak stung Morgan's eyes, the bouncer held out a scarred hand. "Your sword, please."

Morgan handed over his blade, and the pistol he kept in a shoulder holster under his jacket. He knew that he would not be using either in here; it was too crowded. The bouncer's eyes widened at the sight of Morgan's pistol in his hand. Not all people handed over their weapons, even though it was considered courteous to at least leave one's firearms at the door. "This is a nice piece," the bouncer said, "It's a Nakajima, right?"

Morgan chuckled, and said, "Good guess," as he strode past the bouncer and into the bar without mentioning the alloy knuckles in his jacket pocket; Morgan knew that if he handled this properly, he might be able to sucker punch Munakata and drag him out of here with minimal fuss.

Morgan raked his eyes across the crowd as he approached the bar. Taking a stool, he signaled the bartender. "Absinthe, please," Morgan said, and turned his attention to the booths. If Munakata was with Victoria Murdoch, as Astarte had claimed, then they would probably be in a booth for privacy.

The bartender returned with a tray containing a carafe of iced water, a small dish of sugar cubes, a slotted spoon, and a glass containing a dose of absinthe. Morgan prepared his absinthe with a practiced hand; most of the bars he frequented took a do-it-yourself approach to dressing up the green fairy. He laid a banknote worth half a gram of gold on the tray, using the dish of sugar cubes as a paperweight. The note would cover the five centigram price of his drink, and provide a handsome tip for the bartender. He searched the room over the rim of his glass, and saw in one of the corner booths a sheathed katana propped against the table; a scarred hand stroked its hilt.

Morgan smiled around the rim of his glass as he sipped his drink. That hand stroking the hilt was a tic Morgan had seen before; Munakata never could keep his hand off his katana. Taking his handheld from his pocket, Morgan reconnected to the network and subjected Victoria Murdoch to the same process by which he had located Munakata. The response proved Astarte correct: Murdoch was indeed with Munakata. However, that did not tell Morgan why.

It was jobs like this that made Morgan grateful that nobody would sell a weapon to a person who did not at least have the implants required for Witness Protocol. Without the Protocol, Morgan would actually have to find a way to get closer to Munakata so that he could hear for himself why Murdoch would bother to talk with Tetsuo Munakata. However, because Murdoch and Munakata both had the protocol, Morgan could use his authority as an Adversary to apply for limited access to their Witness data. Everything they saw and heard would be on record, ready to be used against them.

He used his handheld to connect to the Phoenix Society's network, and filed requests for access to Tetsuo Munakata's and Victoria Murdoch's Witness Protocol records. To justify his requests, he listed Munakata as a suspect in the Liebenthal coup, and Murdoch as a material witness connected with the Munakata investigation. Once the requests had been filed, Morgan turned his attention back to his drink. The Sephiroth would want a few minutes to consider his requests before making their decision.

The banknote Morgan had left on the tray had disappeared, and in its place was a glass containing a fresh dose of absinthe. Morgan ignored it; he had only bought the first shot in order to justify his presence here without having to announce to everybody here that there was an Adversary in the house. Munakata had no reason to care about the presence of another patron, and plenty of reason to care about the presence of an Adversary. He would know that Morgan was after him.

Morgan's handheld vibrated in his pocket, alerting him to a new message. A glance at the screen brought a curse to his lips; his requests for access to Munakata's and Murdoch's Witness Protocol data had been denied because, according to the Sephiroth, no data for either person existed. Morgan could understand there not being any data for Munakata; the man read enough samurai manga to keep the genre profitable, and viewed firearms as weapons fit only for women and cowards.

However, Morgan could not make sense of the lack of data for Murdoch. Six months ago, she had served as an example of how the Witness Protocol can help protect the innocent when her data was used to verify her claim that she had shot a mugger in self-defense. Morgan knew that Murdoch could not have erased the data herself, and could imagine no scenario in which she would benefit from having the data erased.

Morgan shrugged and slipped his handheld back into his pocket. If he could not access Witness Protocol data, he would just have to find Murdoch and question her after dealing with Munakata, if the Society deemed it necessary. After all, his mission was to capture or kill Tetsuo Munakata. That had to come first.

A woman's raised voice drowned out the ballad from the jukebox. "I refuse to accept this. I have the shipment prepared, and your principal means to cancel? That is not how business is done!"

Morgan slid of his stool as he recognized Munakata's rasping voice. "That is how my principal does business. You have been paid, and you still have the guns. Sell them to somebody else, if you like. Don't you see that you gain from this?"

"They're marked as defective, and are unbranded. I cannot simply send them back to the factory to be branded without raising questions. Does Magnin always hire idiots to represent him?" Murdoch spat as she rose from the table. "Or did he take pity on you?"

"She's pretty fuckable when she's angry," somebody sitting beside Morgan muttered. Morgan turned his head just far enough to the left to see Edmund Cohen out of the corner of his eye, and asked: "Who told you that I would be here?"

"Astarte did," Edmund said, holding up Morgan's sword. "You left this with the bouncer. And your pistol, as well. Were you planning to beat Munakata into submission with your dick?"

"I had my knuckles," Morgan muttered as he slid his pistol back into its holster while focusing on Murdoch. "It is too crowded in here for a sword."

"Not much of a chance to use your knuckles, either," Edmund observed from behind the rim of what Morgan suspected was nothing more than a glass of seltzer. "At least Murdoch's leaving. Nice legs."

Edmund was right, Morgan decided as he rose. Victoria Murdoch did have well-shaped legs, and she knew how to fill a pair of stockings. "Time to let Munakata know that I am here," Morgan said as he walked past Munakata's booth. "I would like a word with you outside," he said as Munakata's hand snapped around the sheath of his katana.

Chapter 46

"I will have to find her later," Morgan decided as Victoria Murdoch shouldered her way through the pedestrians crowding the sidewalk to reach the limousine waiting at the curb. The door opened, revealing the profile of a pale, platinum-haired man dressed in white. The man turned to greet Murdoch, showing wintry blue eyes before he moved over so that Murdoch could slip into the car.

"Is that Isaac Magnin?" Morgan asked himself as he noted the limousine's registration number. "Why would Victoria Murdoch get into a limo with Isaac Magnin, if that is him? She was not at all pleased with Munakata, who claims to be Magnin's agent in some sort of business between Murdoch and Magnin."

A sword tearing free of its sheath and a rush of surprised pedestrians scrambling to get out of the way pulled Morgan's attention back to immediate reality. "Stormrider!" Munakata yelled, "I know what you want! Draw your sword!"

Morgan whirled about, his left hand hovering over the hilt of his own sword. "Put that away, Munakata, before you get innocent people killed. This sidewalk is no place for a fight!"

"Can you think of a better place?" Munakata asked, gesturing with his blade. "Would you deprive these good people of the chance to see two Asuras duel to the death? Would you rob them of the opportunity to see you cut down by a superior technique honed by years of —"

"Years of reading bad samurai manga?" Morgan spat. "Yes, I would happily rob them of the chance to see you embarrass yourself, Tetsuo Munakata. You should be grateful."

A pedestrian snickered, earning a hate-filled glare from Munakata. "Do you think I will forgive you for mocking me in front of humans, Stormrider?"

Morgan shrugged. "I have to admit that I never gave the matter much thought. Now, stop wasting my time. The Phoenix Society wants you in connection with Liebenthal's coup in Boston, the murder of two Adversaries, and Liebenthal's trade in militia-grade weaponry. I have a warrant authorizing me to arrest you."

"Why not just kill me, if you can?" Munakata laughed.

"I have my orders. I am to take you alive unless you try to kill me or a noncombatant."

"Then defend yourself," Munakata hissed, and launched himself at Morgan. Bystanders scrambled to get out of the way, pressing themselves against walls and windows and spilling into the street as Munakata raised his katana. Morgan stood firm, ignoring a bystander's plea to draw his sword. He stepped forward as Munakata brought his sword down, and caught Munakata's wrists. Morgan forced Munakata's wrists to turn, breaking his grip on his katana, and threw Munakata to the sidewalk as his blade clattered across the concrete. Bringing his foot down, Morgan snapped the blade of Munakata's katana beneath his bootheel, and kicked the useless hilt towards his enemy as he drew his pistol and aimed at Munakata's brow.

Munakata glared at Morgan from the sidewalk. "Do you realize how you've insulted me?"

"Do I look like I care?" Morgan snarled as he thumbed off the safety. "You could have gotten those people in the street killed, you stupid son of a syphilitic whore. If you want to die like a samurai, then gut yourself. Stop wasting my time."

"You know damned well," Munakata whispered as he drew a pistol of his own, "that seppuku will not kill an Asura."

"Put that down," Morgan hissed as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Munakata smiled as he knelt before the hilt of his broken sword. "This bullet is not for you, Morgan Stormrider. See for yourself what it takes to kill an Asura."

"Stop him!" a young woman yelled as Munakata bowed his head and took his pistol's barrel into his mouth. "He's going to kill himself!"

"It is his funeral," Morgan said, relaxing his trigger finger. "He can die if he wants to."

The crowd turned away as Munakata's hands tightened on the pistol; only Morgan watched as his enemy pulled the trigger, driving a 11.43mm caliber slug through his brain stem. The pistol fell from Munakata's hand as he slumped forward, his body sprawling across the sidewalk as his blood leaked from the exit wound in his ruined throat.

The woman who had told Morgan to intervene grabbed his arm. "You heartless bastard. You should have stopped him."

Morgan said nothing; he fixed his eyes upon the woman's hands until she let go of him and took a step backwards. "If Tetsuo Munakata had not killed himself, I would have," he finally said. "His life was over, and he knew it."

Turning away from the others, Morgan left Munakata's carcass when it had fallen and began walking down Broadway. Taking his handheld from his pocket, he connected to Saul Rosenbaum and left a text message in an encrypted mailbox to which only Saul and Morgan had the keys. "Saul, this is Morgan. Tetsuo Munakata killed himself rather than surrender or die by my hand. Before confronting him, I saw him talking with Victoria Murdoch of Murdoch Defense Industries. From what I heard of their conversation, Munakata appears to have been acting as a middleman between Murdoch and Isaac Magnin. I am going to find Murdoch and attempt to question her."

When Morgan had finished this message, he reconnected to his household AI, Astarte. "Astarte, I need to know where Victoria Murdoch is right now."

"What about Tetsuo Munakata?" Astarte asked. "Did he put up a fight?"

"He killed himself rather than surrender or die at my hands," Morgan replied. "I never thought he would have that much pride."

"He just wanted his life to end like a samurai manga," Astarte said, "You know, you sounded like you had a bit of respect for the bastard."

"He thought of himself as a samurai, even though he did not live like one," Morgan said, "He died like one. I think I owe him a small measure of respect for that. Now, do you have anything for me concerning Victoria Murdoch?"

"Her last known location was at her suite at Red Moon Tower off Wall Street."

"What do you mean by last known location," Morgan asked as he turned around to head for Lower Manhattan.

"Victoria Murdoch disconnected from the net fifteen minutes ago," Astarte said. "Why?"

"I will explain later. In the meantime, I need to know who hired a limo with the following registration: VH5150OU812," Morgan said, and disconnected. Looking around him, he decided that vehicle traffic was too heavy to justify running back to his brownstone to retrieve his motorcycle. The sidewalks were too full of window shoppers flitting from one shop window to another. That left Morgan the meter wide strip of pavement between the parking lane and the vehicle lanes. Tradition that had ossified into unspoken protocol had allocated this strip to bicyclists, but Morgan knew that riders were few and far between after midnight.

Breaking away from the pedestrians, he checked to be sure that his sword was securely strapped to his back. He pushed himself into a brisk stride that warmed into a run. Gathering speed, his feet gripped the pavement through the soles of his boots just long enough to thrust him forward as the wind whipped his hair behind him. He made his way downtown in dashes, stopping only when the traffic lights forced him to do so, and vaulted over the hood of a car running the red light on 42nd Street.

"I have the hire history for that limo," Astarte said over a secure talk connection when Morgan had reached Canal Street.

"That was fast," Morgan said as he waited for the light to change in his favor.

"It's not much. All I can tell you is that it had been hired for Phoenix Society business."

"Absolutely delightful," Morgan muttered, before replying to Astarte over secure talk: "Were you able to trace the limousine's path over the course of the evening?"

"Well, it stopped at Red Moon Tower half an hour ago."

"All right, Astarte, here is what I need you to do," Morgan said as the light turned green. He threw himself into the dash; despite his ability to run a mile in three minutes, the necessity of dealing with traffic protocols had still slowed his progress. He had hit a red light at every intersection, which forced him to wait a minute and a half before he could continue. "Put together a quick report explaining that Victoria Murdoch got into a limousine retained by the Phoenix Society after discussing business with Tetsuo Munakata. Mention that I saw a man who bears a close resemblance to Isaac Magnin in the car. Note that I cannot prove that it actually was Magnin. Explain that I had heard Murdoch mention Isaac Magnin when arguing with Tetsuo Munakata at The Flaming Telepath before she left."

"All right," Astarte said. "Do you want it sent to Saul?"

"Yes," Morgan said as he sprinted to the next intersection and stopped at the red light. "Send a copy to Edmund Cohen, while you're at it. I think this should go to somebody on the Executive Council. And have Claire see if somebody has been tampering with the traffic lights, please. I keep hitting red lights, and I think they are staying red longer than they should."

Morgan continued to dash towards Red Moon Tower, his unease growing as he considered the facts available to him. He could have sworn that that Isaac Magnin had looked past him before sliding over to let Victoria Murdoch into the limousine, as if aware of Tetsuo Munakata's presence on the street behind Morgan. Had Magnin been communicating with Munakata, ordering him to delay Morgan so that he would not have time to speak to Victoria Murdoch? Morgan hoped not. He tossed his head to shake free of his paranoia as he turned off Wall Street to approach Red Moon Tower.

Chapter 47

The watchman sitting by the elevator ignored Morgan Stormrider's entry into the lobby of the Red Moon Tower; the latest issue of Shonen Smash! had his attention, and black metal leaked from his headphones. Morgan rolled his eyes at the sight. Red Moon Tower might be in one of the better parts of Manhattan, but that did not give the night watchman cause to sit there reading manga on the job. He tilted the magazine downward until his eyes met those of the watchman, who dropped the magazine and pulled his headphones aside. "You scared the shit out of me!"

"Good," Morgan said, catching a glimpse of what the watchman had been reading. "Perhaps you will do your job instead of looking at drawings of schoolgirls getting molested by Lovecraftian monstrosities."

"Lovecraftian what?"

"Never mind," Morgan spat as he jabbed an elevator's call button. "Tell me where to find Victoria Murdoch's apartment."

"Penthouse D on the 69th floor."

The elevator arrived, and Morgan stepped aboard without another word to the night watchman. He had already wasted valuable time getting the semi-literate fool's attention and questioning him. For all Morgan knew, Victoria Murdoch might already have left the Tower and fled. If she had fled, and if she stayed off the net, then Morgan had lost her and his opportunity to question her about her involvement with Tetsuo Munakata.

He spent his time in the elevator in deep-breathing exercises, hoping to calm himself. If Victoria Murdoch had not already fled, the wrong look on Morgan's face might be the last reason she needed in order to do so if she had been involved in dubious business with Tetsuo Munakata.

The elevator stopped at the sixty-ninth floor without a sound. Morgan stepped out of the elevator, and stopped right outside the doors. The leather of his boots should have made a soft creak. His heels should have clicked against the polished granite tile floor. Instead, his footfall had made no sound, as if he had been walking barefoot across a lush carpet. His clothes should have rustled as he moved, but they were silent.

Morgan took another step, and frowned at the resistance he felt. Though he could see nothing abnormal about the hallway, the air felt wrong to him. Each breath gave him only a quarter of the air he should have gotten, and he still had not made a single sound. It was time for one last test, Morgan decided. He drew his sword, expecting it to ring free of its scabbard, and heard nothing. Nobody opened their door to investigate the sound, as at least one person might have if they heard a sword being drawn outside their apartment.

Enough of this, Morgan decided. The first order of business was to make sure Victoria Murdoch was safe. After that, they could get out of this building. Morgan sheathed his sword and pulled his pistol free. He ejected the magazine full of frangible high explosive incendiary ammunition he had planned to use against Tetsuo Munakata if he had been able to confront him in an isolated area and slipped it into his belt. He replaced it with a magazine full of tranquilizer rounds. If Victoria Murdoch objected to coming with Morgan, he would put a dart in her leg and carry her out of here.

He rapped his knuckles against the door to Penthouse D, making no sound. "Victoria Murdoch?" Morgan tried to call, "This is Morgan Stormrider, Adversary in service to the Phoenix Society. May I come in?"

This time Morgan thought he heard a faint echo of his voice before the strange air smothered his call, and dismissed it as wishful thinking. He was in a situation he did not fully understand, and he wanted out. He would think about this in a place where the air transmitted vibrations as the laws of physics dictated that it should. In the meantime, he had work to do.

He shivered as the door latch turned without resistance beneath his hand and allowed the door to open. He could think of several reasons why the door would be unlocked, only one of them was innocuous, and Morgan doubted that Victoria Murdoch would forget to lock her penthouse door once she had closed it behind her. He thumbed off the safety, stepped inside, and snarled as his foot nearly skidded out from beneath him.

This just keeps getting better, Morgan thought as he regained his balance, crouched, and touched what he had slipped on. The apartment was dark, and its only light came through the windows from outside. He reached with his other hand for the light switch. All homes still had them, in the event that the household or building AI did not respond to the presence of occupants and turn on the lights for them. He flicked the switch a second time, but the room remained dark.

It was time to call the police, Morgan decided, as he used his neuronics to contact Astarte. "I'm in Victoria Murdoch's penthouse," he told his AI as he held up his fingers to the light coming through the windows and saw blood, "Get the police over here right now. I think we have a homicide."

These were my favorite boots, Morgan lamented as his eyes adjusted to the darkness enough to let him see that he had been standing in a pool of blood. The slumped shape he had seen in the living room was not a shape, but a body. It had been skinned, but the smell of blood, urine, and feces was not quite strong enough to mask the stink of burnt human flesh. Rather than move the body in order to see its face and risk doing further damage to the crime scene, Morgan stepped around the body. Its face had been obliterated. All he could recognize was the hair. It was Victoria Murdoch's hair, its professionally styled wave preserved.

Morgan whirled away from the body and clamped down on the urge to vomit. He had seen the crime scene photos that the London police had taken before removing Christabel's body. Christabel had also been skinned alive, but her chestnut curls had remained unsullied.

Ice coated his nerves as he replaced the tranquilizer darts with hollow point ammunition. There was a chance that the killer might still be here. If Morgan had a god, he decided as he searched the room, he would be praying right now. He knew that the possibility that Christabel Crowley's murderer might still be here, might still be within his reach, was too good to be true. He did not care.

A soft voice called from the balcony as Morgan stepped into Murdoch's bedroom: "You look winded, Morgan Stormrider."

How can this guy speak when I cannot? Morgan wondered as he raised his pistol in both hands and approached the open French doors. "Drop your weapons, raise your hands above your head, and remain still," Morgan said in a controlled tone. He could not prove that this person had killed Victoria Murdoch, let alone Christabel Crowley, and he did not want to jeopardize his chance at vengeance by shooting too soon. "By virtue of my authority as an Adversary, I place you under arrest."

"You would arrest the source of your authority as an Adversary?" the man said as he parted the curtains with a sweep of his arm and stepped into the bedroom. Morgan's hands shook for moment before he could force them to steady: the man standing before him was the man he had seen in the limousine. Icy blue eyes conspired with a small, warm smile to radiate a detached amusement with the situation. His white suit was spotless; not a drop of blood stained his cuffs. Sapphire cufflinks glittered from his wrists as he loosened the cobalt silk tie about his neck. "I am impressed that you would dare arrest a member of the Phoenix Society's executive council. Did you enjoy your run down Broadway?"

"Why are you here, Isaac Magnin?"

"I have my reasons, but it is not yet time for me to explain," Magnin said. "To be honest, I expected you to get here earlier. I suppose that Tetsuo Munakata finally proved to worth a damn after all. Did you enjoy killing him?"

"I enjoyed watching him die," Morgan admitted. "And I will enjoy killing you. Are you responsible for Victoria Murdoch's death?"

Magnin shrugged. "Perhaps. You suspected that we were involved after seeing her with Munakata at The Flaming Telepath. Little Doctor Malmgren tied Munakata to me, didn't she."

Morgan adjusted his grip on his pistol and glared at Isaac Magnin from behind the sights. "Why are you saying these things? Do you not realize that everything you say is being recorded via Witness Protocol? Are you utterly bereft of reason?"

Magnin's smile widened as his arctic eyes glittered in the moonlight streaming through the window. "So many questions. I must confess that I did a better job with you than I did with the two-hundred series prototype."

"Stop!" Morgan snarled, his fingers tightening on the trigger as Magnin turned his back and approached the balcony.

"You are the Asura Emulator I need, Morgan Merced," Isaac Magnin said as Morgan fired. "But the stars are not yet right."

Morgan knew that he had struck Magnin, but could not believe what he was seeing. There should be a hole the size of a fifty gram gold coin in Magnin's back that led to an exit wound bigger than both his fists together. Instead, Magnin was untouched. Morgan fired again, and a third time as Magnin parted the curtains again and stepped onto the balcony. The 11.43mm caliber hollow-point rounds did nothing more than send ripples spreading out from their point of impact as Morgan expended the magazine.

"Be patient, Stormrider," Isaac Magnin said as his body appeared to fade out of existence. "You will have your answers soon enough. For now, I think I will let your wounded heart scab over. You are not yet ready."

Chapter 48

The door to Saul Rosenbaum's office at the Manhattan branch of the Phoenix Society flew upen as Karen Del Rio stalked into the room with a newspaper clenched in her fist. "Saul, did your pet killer tell you that he just stood there in front of The Flaming Telepath and shot off one-liners while Tetsuo Munakata fellated his own gun?"

Saul took a puff of his cigar and held on to the smoke for several seconds before blowing a smoke ring towards Karen. "Was it something funny, at least?"

Karen slammed the newspaper onto Saul's desk, showing him the front page. Beneath the New York Post masthead the words, 'It is his funeral,' screamed from the paper above a color photograph of Morgan standing with his sword sheathed while Tetsuo Munakata knelt with a pistol in his hands. The paper had printed, 'He can die if he wants to', beneath the photo in smaller type. "I don't think that standing by while a man wanted by the Phoenix Society commits suicide is funny," Karen said while glaring at Morgan.

"As I explained to Saul," Morgan began, "Tetsuo Munakata would not have surrendered. I have already reported that Tetsuo Munakata managed to recover from having his throat slashed open and his heart pierced, so a swordfight would have risked innocent lives to no purpose."

"Would shooting him have helped?" Saul asked.

"I was not sure at the time," Morgan said. "I had loaded my pistol with HEI ammunition, acting on the hypothesis that a direct hit from a high explosive incendiary round would inflict more damage than Munakata could heal. However, I did not want to risk a missed shot on that sidewalk."

"Restraint, from you?" Karen asked as her incredulity raised her eyebrows.

Morgan shrugged. "That I have yet to lay a hand on you should be ample proof that I can restrain myself."

"You had that coming," Saul chuckled as Karen's eyes narrowed behind a livid blush.

"Don't you two idiots understand?" Karen sputtered as Saul opened the newspaper and began to read. "The Phoenix Society needs Adversaries who can act appropriately in public, not long-haired killers who resort to violence when faced with resistance."

"Considering that Morgan disarmed Munakata with his bare hands rather than meet steel with steel," Saul said as he turned a page, "I fail to see the problem. Rather than start a fight inside The Flaming Telepath, Morgan waited. He even left his sword and pistol with the bouncer. Outside, he —"

"Provoked a man into committing suicide!" Karen ground out. "Doesn't that bother you at all, that Stormrider would kill a man by using his wounded pride against him?"

"Not at all," Saul shrugged. "Frankly, I approve of the way Morgan handled the situation."

"You would," Karen muttered. "You're his patron. Did he suck you off after classes?"

Saul let the newspaper fall to the desk as he locked his eyes on Karen's. "You were never an Adversary. I was one of the first. So was Iris. Who did you blow to get your position, Karen?"

"Was that last bit really necessary?" Morgan asked as Karen flounced out of Saul's office.

Saul considered the question while relighting his cigar. "It got the bitch out of here, didn't it? Now, can you tell me anything more about what you discovered in Victoria Murdoch's apartment?"

"That depends," Morgan said. "Did you access the Witness Protocol data from that night?"

Saul rose, stuck his head out of the doorway, and looked about for several seconds before closing the door. He leaned across his desk and spoke in a low, worried tone. "This is the thing, Morgan. There is no Witness Protocol data from last night after you stepped into the elevator in Red Moon Tower. We've got nothing."

"Then I dare not tell you everything," Morgan said. "I cannot prove to you, or to anybody else, that what I observed was real."

"You insisted on avoiding all questions until the Witness Protocol record had been examined," Saul said. "You invoked privacy when faced by reporters, and pulled your sword when the reporters insisted. Why?"

"I cannot prove it," Morgan said, "But I saw Isaac Magnin standing on Victoria Murdoch's bedroom balcony. He spoke to me."

"What did he say?" Saul asked as he pulled two glasses and a bottle of whiskey from his drawer. Pouring two fingers' worth into each, he offered one to Morgan. "I know it doesn't do anything for you, but if people smell it on your breath they'll write off what you're unwilling to say."

Morgan nodded his understanding and drained his glass. "I told you that Tetsuo Munakata spoke of 'Asuras', right? He claimed to be one, and said that I was one as well."

"Go on."

"Isaac Magnin said to me, 'You are the Asura Emulator I need, Morgan Merced, but the stars are not yet right.'"

Saul choked on his whiskey. "Are you serious?"

"Do I look like I am joking?" Morgan countered. "Why do you think I wanted you to view the Witness Protocol record first? Without objective proof of what is happening, anything I tell you will resemble a stoned university student's fantasy. Think about it: the Liebenthal coup reeked from the very beginning. There is more to this than I understand, and if Isaac Magnin himself is involved, what does that say about the rest of the executive council? What does that say for Doctor Zachary Aster?"

"Or Eddie Cohen?"

"Doctor Aster claims that Eddie is working with him on some scheme to counter Magnin, whom he calls 'Imaginos'," Morgan said. "I spoke with Doctor Aster yesterday at Sun Wukong's. He told me a silly science-fantasy story and asked me to work for him to keep Magnin from raising a demon that has been imprisoned beneath the Antarctic ice for the last ten thousand years."

Saul refilled the glasses. "Don't you wish you could get drunk?"

"If I were a Hellenist," Morgan said as he raised his glass, "I would be praying to Dionysius for the ability to get utterly wasted. Having to talk about this nonsense would not be so embarrassing if I truly could blame the demon alcohol."

A knock at the door prompted both men to finish their drinks. "Just a minute," Saul said as he took the glasses and the bottle, and stuffed them into his desk's bottom right drawer. Morgan took a breath mint from the dish on the desk after Saul had taken his, and waited while Saul opened the door to admit Iris Deschat.

"I smell whiskey," Iris said. "Did you save any for me?"

"What's the occasion?" Saul asked as he retrived the bottle and a clean glass. He poured three fingers; if Iris wanted a drink, there was usually a good reason.

"I just spent half an hour with a thesaurus in my hand, trying to find a thousand different ways to say 'no comment' to a pack of story-hungry reporters," Iris sighed after drinking half of the glass in one sip. "They refuse to accept that the Victoria Murdoch murder is a police matter at the moment, even if you did discover it, Morgan."

"Do you want me to talk to them?" Morgan asked.

"Does the thesaurus have more than one way to say 'fuck off'?" Saul muttered.

"Probably not," Morgan said, "But I can say it in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Russian, Hindi, Hebrew, Farsi, Navaho, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Nipponese. I doubt they all grew up speaking English if they have Iris frazzled enough to drink on the job."

"I am not frazzled," Iris protested as she held out her empty glass. "I just wanted something to soothe my throat."

"Whatever you say, ma'am," Saul said with a grin as he poured another finger into Iris' glass. "Do you want to talk to those assholes, Morgan? We already told them everything we can."

"Sure," Morgan said as he rose and stretched. He shrugged into his jacket, "It would look better if you both come with me. You need not say anything, but having two Intermediaries at my back might convince the reporters that we are not jerking them around."

Iris sighed and finished her drink, "Yes, I suppose you're right. Coming, Saul?"

"I have nothing better to do," Saul grumbled as they followed Morgan to the conference room reserved for press conferences. One reporter could not wait for Morgan to take the podium, and asked: "Adversary Stormrider, does it bother you at all that Tetsuo Munakata committed suicide in front of you?"

"Not at all," Morgan said once he was behind the microphone. "Next question?"

"Bystanders claim that you mocked Munakata," a reporter called out from the back. "Why did you do that?"

"As I explained a couple of hours ago when you last asked this question, Mister Chen, I wanted to provoke Munakata. He had already drawn his sword, which made it clear to me that he had no intention of surrendering peacefully. I have fought Munakata before, and know that he was prone to stupid mistakes when angered."

Samantha Nguyen from the New York Sun raised her hand to be seen from the middle of the crowd. "Intermediary Karen Del Rio is of the opinion that you are holding back information concerning the murder of Victoria Murdoch. Can you tell us anything?"

"That stupid bitch," Saul muttered as Morgan considered his words for a moment. "I expect you to quote me on this, Miss Nguyen: I have given the police all of the facts in my possession. If I have held anything back, it is suspicions based on my observations. I do not wish to reveal my suspicions in public, because unexpected technical difficulties with the Witness Protocol system leave me with no evidence to back them. However, I have hidden nothing. Intermediary Rosenbaum to my left is aware of my suspicions, and I assure you that we will reveal more information — including the name of a suspect — once we have proof."

"We haven't much time left," Iris said, stepping forward, "So we can only entertain a few more questions." She pointed to a tall mocha-skinned man in a khaki suit. "You, sir?"

"I'm Sanjay Ramabharata from the Mumbai Times, ma'am. Adversary Stormrider, will you be investigating the murder of Victoria Murdoch?"

"No," Morgan said as he undid the pins of office bound to the lapels of his coat. "To begin with, the police have not requested the Phoenix Society's involvement. We prefer to let local law enforcement handle matters whenever possible. Also, I could not take the case even if the police requested the Society's involvement. I submitted my resignation last night, after concluding the Munakata matter. I am no longer an Adversary."

The room erupted in flashbulbs and chatter as reportered worked to outshout one another. "I wanted to talk to you about that!" Saul said to Morgan over secure talk. "Why did you have to announce it to the press?!"

"It has distracted them, has it not?" Morgan countered.

"Mister Stormrider!" Alice Talbot called as she shouldered her way to the front. "Can you explain to us why you've chosen to resign?"

"I served the Phoenix Society for ten years," Morgan began after an apologetic glance to Saul, his patron. "I served because I thought that I could help create a safer, freer world for myself and my friends. When I began to doubt, I continued to serve because my friends believed in me. I had submitted my resignation after deposing Alexander Liebenthal and bringing him to New York, but agreed to hunt down Tetsuo Munakata in order to see the Liebenthal investigation properly resolved. Munakata is dead, and it is probable that the jury will convict Liebenthal of all charges against him."

"But that doesn't explain why," Sanjay Ramabharata protested.

"My reasons are not your concern," Morgan said, his voice freezing the room. "I will state this as bluntly as I can: I have had enough, and I want out."

As Morgan stormed out of the press room in the wake of flaring flashbulbs, he thought he heard a voice whisper, "You can't walk away now…"

Chapter 49

"Are you sure Morgan won't mind that you let me in?" Naomi Bradleigh asked as she stepped into the foyer of Morgan Stormrider's brownstone in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "You know how he is about his privacy."

"I think Morgan would be more displeased if I left you outside to deal with the reporters that are probably heading this way," Astarte answered. "You know how he is about his friends, especially you."

"So, you noticed it as well?" Naomi asked, crouching down to pet Mordred as the economy-sized black cat padded into the foyer to greet her with a rumbling purr. "He's never said it, and I've never pressed him, but I think —"

"That he loves you?" Astarte asked, her avatar showing a Mona Lisa smile. "I'm glad you've noticed."

"I've known for years," Naomi said as she followed Mordred into the kitchen. She tossed him a scrap of venison jerky from a ceramic jar in the shape of a Nipponese beckoning cat before taking a kettle from the cupboard and setting water to boil. From another cupboard, she took her teacup and saucer. Morgan said that he had bought it especially for her, as it was white porcelain with a spray of pink cherry blossoms. The other cups and mugs belonged to Morgan's other guests, in case they wanted a cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. "I thought it was just an adolescent crush at first, but when Christabel brought Morgan to audition for the band, I could tell from the way he looked at me that I was wrong. I wish he'd do more than just toss a wistful smile my way, though."

"You haven't figured out the roses, then?"

Naomi nearly dropped her teacup. "Astarte, are you telling me that Morgan sent those roses? Those black-tipped blood red roses that I have found in my dressing room after every show ever since Crowley's Thoth started touring?"

Astarte sighed. "Naomi, even the cat knew about the roses. Right, Mordred?"

Mordred meowed his assent as Naomi felt her face flush. "I never thought that Morgan had sent them. Morgan was Christabel's man; he would bring her roses in person after the show."

"Morgan did his best to make his relationship with Christabel work," Astarte said. "He stayed with her because he was afraid that breaking up with Christabel would break up the band. He suspected that Christabel would blame you. He knows how happy you've been as part of Crowley's Thoth, and didn't want to ruin that for you. So, he's tried to make do with loving you from a distance even as he did right by Christabel."

"Did he actually tell you this?" Naomi said, arching an eyebrow.

Astarte gave a small shrug. "No. I'm just extrapolating from what I know. First, the roses are for you. Second, he stayed with Christabel no matter how cruel she was to him. Third, the bedroom he prepared for your visits is much nicer than the one he shares with Christabel when she stays here."

"Wait a minute," Naomi said as she poured her tea. "Are you telling me that the room where Christabel and Morgan sleep isn't Morgan's bedroom?"

"It isn't," Astarte confirmed. "Not that Morgan and Christabel sleep together. Morgan slips out of Christabel's bed once she's fallen asleep and spends the night on the couch when he has to sleep."

"I won't tell Morgan that you've told me any of this," Naomi promised as she sipped her tea. "But please tell me: has Christabel mistreated Morgan? Sometimes I wonder, considering the way she talks about him when it's the two of us together."

"It's really not my place to say," Astarte said, glancing off into a virtual space. "Christabel wasn't an easy woman to love. Will you be gentle with Morgan?"

An image of Naomi undressing Morgan and kissing his body as she exposed it forced its way to the front of her mind, causing Naomi to tremble. "I will be as gentle as he wants me to be."

A relieved sigh escaped Astarte's lips. "Thanks. I want to see him happy, you know."

"I know," Naomi said, smiling behind her teacup. "And I want him to be happy with me. I know it's selfish, but I never thought that Christabel was right for Morgan. The chemistry wasn't really there between them, but I could feel a jolt every time his eyes met mine."

"What's wrong with being selfish?" Astarte asked with a chuckle. "After all, Morgan certainly is. Wait, what's this?"

"Is something wrong?"

"It's about time he did it," Astarte said. "This video just hit the net. See for yourself."

Naomi put her cup aside and leaned against the counter. She watched as Morgan's hands went to the lapels of his armored coat. When he had lowered them, the pins that marked him as an Adversary — a pair of platinum pins showing a rattlesnake twined around a sword, and holding a balance in its jaws — no longer glittered from his collar. "To begin with," Morgan said, "the police have not requested the Phoenix Society's involvement. We prefer to let local law enforcement handle matters whenever possible. Also, I could not take the case even if the police requested the Society's involvement. I tendered my resignation last night, after concluding the Munakata matter. I am no longer an Adversary."

"I don't believe it," Naomi gasped. "He became an Adversary because he wanted to make something of himself. He wanted to be worthy of me. I never wanted him to do it, because I was afraid of what the responsibility would do to him. Why now?"

"Watch the rest," Astarte said as the tumult in the video feed died down. "I served the Phoenix Society for ten years," Morgan began after glancing at Saul Rosenbaum, who had taken Morgan in as a young man and inspired him to become an Adversary. "I served because I thought that I could help create a safer, freer world for myself and my friends. When I began to doubt, I continued to serve because my friends believed in me. I had submitted my resignation after deposing Alexander Liebenthal and bringing him to New York, but agreed to hunt down Tetsuo Munakata in order to see the Liebenthal investigation properly resolved. Munakata is dead, and it is probable that the jury will convict Liebenthal of all charges against him."

"This doesn't sound like Morgan at all," Naomi said. "Losing Christabel must have hurt him more than he let any of us see."

"I don't think that's the only reason he's resigned his post," Astarte said as Morgan glared at the reporters and snarled, "My reasons are not your concern. I will state this as bluntly as I can: I have had enough, and I want out."

"Now, that sounds like Morgan," Naomi chuckled as she watched Morgan stride past the reporters crowding him.

"What sounds like me?" Morgan Stormrider asked as he stepped into the kitchen.

"Astarte was showing me the video of your press conference," Naomi said, drawing close to Morgan. After a moment's hesitation, she let her fingers toy with the pinholes in Morgan's lapels. "You look different without your badges of office," Naomi said, before letting her lips brush Morgan's. Feeling Morgan freeze beneath her kiss, she let her lips linger for only a second before withdrawing.

"It was time," Morgan said as his hand found its way to his mouth. Disbelieving fingers traced the point at which Naomi's lips made contact with his own.

"Yes, it certainly is time," Naomi said as she approached again. Taking Morgan's hands, she drew his arms around her and pressed her lips to his again, letting them linger as he held her.

Her hands slid upwards, caressing his chest, until she had his lapels beneath her fingers again. Morgan's hands closed over hers as he broke the kiss. "I have wanted to be your lover for years, but I have to get Christabel out of my head first. Can we take this slowly?"

"Of course we can," Naomi said, letting go of Morgan's collar as she let her eyes wander over his body. "I have to admit that you look different without your pins. Did you turn them in?"

"No," Morgan said, reaching into his pocket. "I still have them. Do you want me to put them back on?"

Naomi smiled at Morgan's offer. "No, leave them off."

"All right," Morgan said as he poured a fresh cup of tea for Naomi, "I should probably find a better place for them than my pockets. Could I have a few minutes to deal with the pins and get out of this uniform?"

"Of course," Naomi said, taking her tea as she followed Morgan to the living room.

"He wants you," Astarte said as soon as Morgan had left the room.

"He said as much, remember?"

"I knew it before he said it. He never kissed Christabel like that," Astarte said, allowing a slow, creamy smile to curve her lips.

"That doesn't surprise me," Naomi said as she sipped her tea. "I doubt that Christabel ever gave him the chance to be slow and sweet."

"Were you planning to stay a while?" Astarte asked. "I could use a bit of girl talk."

"I'll be in town for a while," Naomi said, "We'll be doing the Crowley's Thoth retrospective soon. Then I'll be teaching at a workshop for student musicians over the summer. I wanted to see Morgan first, though."

"I am glad you did," Morgan said as he returned to the living room. The severe black uniform that he had been wearing was gone, replaced by an open-collared white silk shirt tucked into blue jeans. His blue-black hair, which Morgan had unbound while getting changed, flowed over his shoulders.

Naomi laid aside her cup and saucer with a shaking hand as the sight of Morgan's exposed throat drew her across the room until she had her hands on him again. She sighed against the junction of his neck and shoulder as his hand slid along the nape of her neck and into her hair. "I'm sorry," Naomi said, pulling away as she remembered that Morgan had wanted to take it slow. "I just couldn't resist. Do you know how innocent and vulnerable you look in white?"

"When I am ready," Morgan whispered in Naomi's ear before releasing her, "I will wear white for you."

"Promise?" Naomi asked as she shivered from the shock of his lips against her ear.

"Of course," Morgan said. "Did you want something to eat?"

"That would be nice," Naomi purred. "Something spicy, perhaps?"

"I have just the thing," Morgan said as he led Naomi to the kitchen. Naomi watched, amused as Morgan unlocked one of the refrigerators.

"You still lock your refrigerators? I thought Mordred outgrew burglary."

Mordred meowed, licking his whiskers as he watched Morgan withdraw a dish from the refrigerator. "Mordred behaves himself most of the time," Morgan explained, "But I prefer to be sure that Mordred cannot get at my marinaded bison steaks. He got sick the last time he ate one of them before I had cooked it."

Naomi chuckled as she scratched behind Mordred's ears. "You knew I was coming, didn't you."

"Not at all," Morgan said as Naomi watched him lean over and slip the pyrex dish into one of his ovens, her eyes feasting on the sight of him in snug jeans. "I was going to eat these steaks myself to celebrate my retirement. Since you came to visit, I would be a poor host if I did not share."

"Will there be enough for both of us?"

Morgan shrugged. "There is enough for both of us, and Mordred as well."

Purring filled the kitchen as Mordred settled into a corner to wait for his treat.

"Did you want a hand with anything?" Naomi asked.

"I have it all under control," Morgan said as he returned to the refrigerator to retrieve the makings of a salad. "Just talk to me while I cook?"

"I can do that," Naomi said as she settled into a chair at the kitchen table that would allow her to watch Morgan. "Are you sure you don't want to tell me why you finally quit? Was it because of Christabel?"

"Only in part," Morgan admitted as he sliced a cucumber into wafers. "Being an Adversary did not help me protect Christabel. I do not think it will help me protect anybody else, either."

"But you won't be able to avenge Christabel, either." Naomi said.

"Christabel is dead," Morgan said as he used the flat of his knife to guide the cucumber slices into the salad bowl. "Nobody can avenge her, or set matters right for her. Even if I found her murderer and killed him, it would do her no good. If I took revenge, it would be for me, and perhaps for you. I am not sure it is worth the price."

"If Saul called you tomorrow, and asked you to investigate Christabel's murder as an Adversary, what would you do?"

"I do not know," Morgan admitted, looking at Naomi over his shoulder. "I am not sure that I would accept another mission from the Phoenix Society."

Naomi nodded and watched Morgan cook. She knew that Morgan would tell her more when he was ready to do so, and she did not want to ruin what amounted to their first date with too much serious talk.

"This looks wonderful," Naomi sighed as Morgan served her. He had had Astarte dim the lights as he lit candles, even though the simple meal Morgan had prepared would have set Naomi's mouth watering in full sunlight. Naomi thought the steak was perfect; even though it had been thoroughly cooked the meat melted in her mouth. The salad was cool and crisp, and Naomi found the contrast pleasant. As they ate, Naomi told Morgan about the summer workshop in London at which she would be teaching.

"It sounds like you will enjoy yourself this summer," Morgan said once he had finished his meal. He sipped his wine and smiled behind the glass. "Perhaps next year, we can both teach together."

"I'd like that," Naomi said. "If we're not on tour."

"There is that," Morgan said. "Though I suppose we cannot use the name 'Crowley's Thoth' any longer."

"No, we probably shouldn't. We'll need a new violinist."

"We have plenty of time to think about that," Morgan said as he rose to clear the table. "I had been thinking about what you asked me earlier."

"About working for the Phoenix Society again?"

"Yes. I had told you that I probably would not accept another mission from them."

Naomi nodded as rose to help Morgan. "That's right. I didn't want to ask, but I know you have a reason. You believed in the Society's ideals, in enforcing a balance between law and liberty."

"I still do," Morgan said with a pensive glance over his shoulder at Naomi. "But does the Society's executive council?"

"What do you mean?"

"I need you to keep this to yourself, to tell no one," Morgan said, locking his eyes on Naomi. "I dare not say this in public. I cannot prove anything."

Taking Morgan's hands, Naomi locked her eyes on his. "I'll keep your secrets, Morgan. All of them. Did you see something last night?"

"Last night, I saw Victoria Murdoch get into a limousine with Isaac Magnin," Morgan said as he pulled free of Naomi's hands and began to pace. "The limousine and its driver had been retained for 'Phoenix Society business' that night. When I searched Murdoch's apartment after I found her body, I found Isaac Magnin standing on her bedroom balcony."

"And you are sure it was him," Naomi said.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt," Morgan said, "But it gets worse. I saw what had been done to Victoria Murdoch. She was killed in the same manner that Christabel was. I am sure of it."

"And you let Magnin escape?" Naomi cried out. "Please tell me that you tried to stop him."

"I emptied an entire magazine of 11.43mm hollow-point ammunition trying to take Magnin down," Morgan snarled, "And every shot I fired hit him. At least, I thought they had, but now that I think about it, I think Magnin had a means to force my shots to dissipate their momentum before they struck him."

"That sounds like science fiction to me," Naomi said, "Are you sure that that's what happened?"

"No, I am not. All I know is that rather than seeing what normally happens when a bullet strikes flesh, I saw ripples spread out from each shot's point of impact, as if I dropped a pebble into a pond. When I picked up my brass, I saw the slugs laying on the floor, and they did not look like slugs that had penetrated flesh."

Naomi glanced around, afraid that somebody other than Astarte and Mordred were watching them. "You realize that this sounds rather strange."

"It gets worse," Morgan said as he poured more wine for the two of them. "Claire has a friend by the name of Josefine Malmgren. They attended university together. Dr. Malmgren used to work for the Asgard Technological Development Company. She was in charge of the 'Asura Project', which was an attempt to develop an anthromorphic AI."

"What happened to Dr. Malmgren?"

"Malmgren got curious, and started poking around the company's finances. Every gram of gold the company made was being spent on the Asura Project," Morgan said, "Care to guess how the company stayed afloat?"

"Black market profits?" Naomi suggested.

"The Phoenix Society has been funnelling funds into the AsgarTech Company."

Naomi nearly dropped her glass. "Can they do that?"

"Who is going to stop them?" Morgan asked, his tone bitter. "The Asura Project has a working prototype."

"Polaris," Naomi said. "I read about him."

"Polaris tried to kill Dr. Malmgren and Claire," Morgan said. "Claire had her revolver and damaged him badly enough to allow them to escape. I offered to take in Dr. Malmgren as a guest when they told me what had happened, but I think Dr. Malmgren is afraid of me."

"I can't imagine why," Naomi said, "You're just a big pussycat."

"Dr. Malmgren does not know that," Morgan said, rewarding Naomi with a small smile. "Now, listen to this: AsgarTech's official propaganda states that Polaris is the first Asura. Tetsuo Munakata, however, claimed that he was an Asura after I cut his throat and stabbed him through the heart. He said it after he healed himself and got back up."

"Has he been reading futuristic samurai manga?" Naomi asked.

"Perhaps," Morgan said, "But not only did Munakata say that I was an Asura, Isaac Magnin also said it in Victoria Murdoch's apartment. He said, "'You are the Asura Emulator I need, Morgan Merced'."

"But 'Morgan Merced' was the name you had as a child when you lived in that orphanage," Naomi protested. "You never used that name. I only know it because Christabel told me."

"Do you see now why I had to quit?" Morgan asked, his voice tight. Naomi shivered; she had never heard fear in Morgan's voice before. "The Liebenthal case led to Tetsuo Munakata. Munakata led to Victoria Murdoch and Isaac Magnin. If I were to investigate Isaac Magnin, where would that lead?"

"You're afraid of what you might learn?" Naomi asked.

"Yes, I am afraid. I want to claw my way out of the rabbit hole while I can still see daylight."

"I think I understand," Naomi said as she reached across the table and took Morgan's hands. "You have believed in the Phoenix Society for years. You do not want to see for yourself that you have served corrupt people without knowing it."

"I could deal with that," Morgan said. "But if I investigate Christabel's murder as an Adversary, I am going to face a conflict of loyalties. Who do I choose? Christabel, or the Phoenix Society? I do not think that I can uncover the entire truth as an Adversary. Nor do I dare begin now, not before I have mourned Christabel and put her death behind me."

"So, you are going to find out who killed Christabel?" Naomi asked.

"Oh, yes," Morgan said. "As soon as I have gotten my head together, as soon as I can think straight, I am going to find out what happened. I think that Isaac Magnin killed Christabel. I am going to find the proof, even if I have to tear apart the Phoenix Society in the process."

"Then I'll help you," Naomi said. "Christabel rents her apartment from me. When you are ready, I will give you full access. You may see something that the police will have missed, just because you know Christabel better."

"Thank you," Morgan said as he slipped around the table. Naomi shivered as Morgan brushed her hair aside to expose her throat, and lightning streaked along her nerves as his lips seared her skin. "Give me time to get my head together, and I will accept all that you have offered me."

Chapter 50

Doctor Zachary Aster had kept the weapon for centuries. He did not trust its sworn guardians with it. He did not trust his brother with it. He did not trust himself with it, but he could not find a way to dispose of the weapon. He had not had a part in its creation, therefore the method of its destruction was unknown to him.

In his hands, the weapon was a cane of black crystal veined with platinum. This was a convenient form for Doctor Aster, as it allowed him to hide the weapon in plain sight. The weapon was protean in the hands of an initiate. Given proper training, one could cause the weapon to alter its form to suit the occasion. Doctor Aster's brother favored a staff that came to his shoulders. Its original form had been a sword with a long, slim blade with a hilt long enough to allow a two-handed grip. The last person to put the weapon to its proper use had favored a long-bladed spear.

The weapon preferred some forms to others. Forms that allowed it to rend flesh pleased it, and it rebelled at being forced into the shape of a blunt instrument. Aster knew this, and did not care. The weapon could complain in the back of Aster's mind for the next ten thousand years, but he was not obligated to heed its demands. The weapon had nothing to offer but the power to destroy. It could destroy men as easily as an ordinary weapon. In trained hands, it could raze a building or massacre a regiment with a single blow. Unleashed by a master, it could drive a star to premature death and use that stolen power to destroy a god.

It was probably not the first weapon of its kind to be made, Doctor Aster thought as he passed the front doors of the AsgarTech Building and strode into the lobby with his cane tucked under his right arm. As long as there were wars to be fought there were people who created weapons capable of winning a war through overwhelming destructive power. The makers of these weapons never gave a thought to what would be done with the weapon after the war's end. Just as the Manhattan Project gave no thought to bottling the nuclear genie, neither had Angra Mainyu and his Qliphoth when they created the Starbreaker.

He had allowed the tip of his cane to strike the polished granite floor three times before the receptionist removed her headset and met his eyes. "How may I help you?"

"I am Zachary Aster, here to see Doctor Magnin on confidential business."

"I'm sorry," the receptionist said with a shake of her head that made her platinum blonde curls bounce, "But Doctor Magnin said that he would not be available to meet with members of the public today."

Aster's knuckles whitened around his cane. "I am not a member of the public, but of the Phoenix Society's executive council. Doctor Magnin will make himself available to me."

"Of course, sir," the receptionist said from behind a cold smile. "Doctor Magnin has asked me to welcome you. He trusts that you know your way to his private office."

Aster remembered the way. Behind the receptionist's island in the center of the lobby waited seven elevators. To reach Magnin's private office, one had to take the center elevator. Once inside, one did not select a floor using the built-in touchscreen. Instead, one pressed the button marked 'Restricted Access'. The floor selection interface would then be replaced with a virtual keypad that could be used to enter a password. Aster did this; he had known the password for a long time. It was the first ten numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. When giving the password to Aster, Magnin had said, "It's the sort of combination a pretentious idiot would use on his luggage. You cannot possibly forget it."

Aster had forgotten just how swift the elevator's ascent was when destined for Magnin's private office. His spine compressed beneath the acceleration as the elevator flung him towards the building's summit, and he spared a curse for Magnin, who wanted to make people regret their desire to invade his privacy.

Magnin himself stood waiting as the elevator doors opened. "So," he said with a bare trace of a smile. "You heard about Munakata."

"Yes," Aster spat. "I heard that Tetsuo Munakata killed himself. I also saw that he did so on your orders. You threw his life away."

"Munakata was of no further use to me," Magnin shrugged as he led Aster further into his suite. "You might see a few new pieces. The stuff from the Vatican's vaults palled, so I put it into storage and pulled out some Newberry."

"Never heard of him," Aster grunted.

"Romantic realist, early twenty-first century. Had a small following amongst the Internet's Randian community. Did you come here just to complain about Munakata's suicide? It's not as though he would have helped our cause by allowing himself to be captured, and now Morgan Stormrider knows how to kill other Asura Emulators should the necessity arise."

"Speaking of Stormrider," Aster said, "What were you thinking when you appeared before him in Victoria Murdoch's apartment? Don't you understand that he will come after you?"

"That is the result I hope for," Magnin said as he slipped behind a bar. "Care for a drink?"

"No, thank you. You are still trying to provoke Morgan enough to force him to manifest as a Left-hand Path energist, aren't you."

"There's no time to train him to the Right-hand Path. You know that," Magnin said as he poured cognac for himself. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"

"I want answers. You thought that he would come for you after you killed Christabel Crowley, and he didn't. Now you have a more elaborate scheme that risks the exposure of the Phoenix Society. Have you lost your mind?"

"I would say that you know me better than that," Magnin said as he curled into an armchair and pointed to another, indicating that Aster was welcome to sit, "but I have my doubts at the moment. Do you honestly think that I expected Stormrider to come after me simply because I killed Crowley? I had thought better of you."

"Do I look like I care about your opinion of me?"

"Of course not," Magnin said as he sipped his cognac. "I never expected Crowley's death to be enough. After all, Stormrider still believes that for all her problems, Christabel loved him. He still believes in the Phoenix Society, and that he wasn't just an assassin."

"You're going to shred his illusions."

"And the truth shall set his talent free," Magnin agreed.

"You have lost your mind!" Aster shouted. "What exactly do you think Stormrider will do once he knows that the Phoenix Society's sole purpose is to fund the Asura Emulator Project and shield it from outside interference?"

"Really, now," Magnin said with a shrug. "Are you indignant because we lied to the world, or because you lied to yourself? I know what Stormrider will want to do. He will want to kill me. To justify doing so, he will do what he must to learn the truth about the Phoenix Society. But he will not expose the truth. If he does that, then he truly will have betrayed his ideals."

"Do you expect me to believe you?" Aster asked, his tone betraying his incredulity. "If he knew that the Society is wholly corrupt by human standards, don't you think he would consider it his responsibility to tell the world? I've spoken with Stormrider. Cohen has watched over him since his first day at ACS. I cannot think of a way to get him to keep the secret."

"I can. Stormrider knows what the world was like before Nationfall. He will not allow history to repeat itself. He will not sacrifice the world's peace in the name of truth. He will not condemn humanity to a new cycle of tyrannies in order to have his revenge on me."

"If he cannot reveal the truth," Aster said, "Then he cannot justify killing you. What's to stop him from simply accepting Christabel's death and moving on with his life?"

Magnin laughed and swirled the remnants of his cognac. "His pride forbids it. He will hunt down the truth, simply he cannot ignore what he already knows. Del Rio expected Stormrider to simply kill Liebenthal, yet Stormrider made the effort to not only effect a live capture, but to gain access to Liebenthal's records before confronting him. Why? And why were you unable to convince him to work with you, even after you demonstrated your ability? Because he thinks. He considers the facts available to him. I will give him new facts to consider."

Dr. Aster narrowed his eyes and adjusted his grip on the Starbreaker. He could tell that Magnin was about to make his point, to speak the words that would justify Aster's purpose in coming here. Isaac Magnin, whom Dr. Aster knew as Ahura Imaginos, was no longer a Deva. He had become like the Powers that threatened the Devas in order to fight them. If Aster had been willing, he could unleash the Starbreaker and eradicate Magnin. He would settle for destroying Magnin's avatar, leaving him with no way to interact with this universe until he had gathered enough energy to create a new one. It would give him time to convince Stormrider without forcing him to live with the knowledge that he killed his brother.

Magnin emptied his glass and laid it aside. Rising from his seat, he began to pace, ignoring Aster's eyes upon him. "You have access to the Witness Protocol data for all of the Asura Emulators, Desdinova. What is the best way to provoke Stormrider's wrath?"

Aster did not have to consider the question. He remembered the day Stormrider submitted to the London police's interrogation, when Christabel Crowley had been murdered. He had drawn his sword on the reporters swarming Naomi Bradleigh simply because they refused to honor her request for privacy. He remembered the anomalous heat and electromagnetic interference radiating from Stormrider's brownstone the moment the truth of Christabel's murder sank in. "Stormrider nearly manifested when he learned that Christabel had been murdered," Aster said. "If his relationship with her had not been troubled, he probably would have flash-fried every unshielded electronic device in Manhattan."

Magnin stopped and threw a speculative smile at Aster. "Christabel Crowley was never Stormrider's true love. That honor belongs to my daughter. I think you've met Naomi Bradleigh."

Dr. Aster nearly dropped the Starbreaker. It was no surprise to him that Magnin would use family. Magnin had sent his son Mephistopheles to his death by giving him the Starbreaker and pitting him against another Power. However, Mephistopheles had known what he was doing, and the probable consequences. Did Naomi?

"Does she even know that she's your daughter?"

"If she remembers me at all," Magnin said, "it will be as the man who taught her to wield a sword. Now, put down that cane before you humiliate yourself."

"If I shatter your avatar," Aster said, "It will give me time to warn Stormrider, and his friends. We do not have to manipulate these people."

"Spare me your self-righteousness, Desdinova. You played the role I set for you before, and you will play the part again. You will come to Morgan after his first failed attempt to strike me down, and become his ally. You will be the Gandalf to my Saruman, and neither Stormrider nor his friends will know that you are helping me by opposing me. We even look the part, with you in your grey suit and overcoat and me in white."

"It doesn't have to be this way!"

"It will be this way, because I deem it necessary," Magnin said, "But if you feel you must attempt to shatter my avatar, so that you can try and fail to do this your way, then let's get this over with."

Dr. Aster threw himself at his brother, the Starbreaker raised over his head in both hands. Rather than swinging the weapon, he thrust downward to strike a blow that would have punched through Magnin's skull if Magnin had not stepped aside, grabbed the Starbreaker, and wrenched it from his hands.

The weapon lengthened in Magnin's hands, becoming a black diamond staff that Magnin used to throw his brother to the floor. "I had meant to reclaim this from you, Desdinova. When the time is right, you will tell Stormrider a suitable story and lead him here to take it. I trust that you will offer him reason to believe that it is better for him to have it than his enemy."

"I will tell Stormrider everything," Aster threatened as he pulled himself together and reclaimed his feet. The back of his head had struck the floor when Magnin disarmed him and threw him aside, and he could feel blood trickling from where his scalp had split open. "I will convince him that you are manipulating him. What will you do when he knows the truth?"

"The truth will not save Stormrider or those he cherishes," Magnin said, his voice serene. "Leave now, if you please. I would be alone for a while, and you have overstayed your welcome."

Chapter 51

"This interviewer actually knows what she's doing," Naomi said to Morgan over secure talk. Morgan agreed. June Winchell had not interviewed Crowley's Thoth before, but Roseblade Records had chosen her to interview Morgan and Naomi as part of the band's farewell album and tribute to Christabel Crowley, who had been murdered a month ago in London. In fact, the interviews for This Was Crowley's Thoth was Winchell's first interview with a major band, as she was new to the journalist's trade.

"Miss Bradleigh," June Winchell began as she restarted her voice recorder, "This next question is for you. Considering that you are a formally trained singer and keyboardist who studied with several tutors before enrolling at the Juilliard Conservatory in New York, where you met Christabel, has it been difficult for you to work with a self-taught musician like Morgan?"

"Not at all," Naomi said, squeezing Morgan's hand under the table as she tossed a glance his way. "If anything, I think that we complement one another, especially when writing. I am more creative when working with Morgan than I would be on my own."

"To be honest," Morgan added, "I borrowed many of Christabel's and Naomi's books on music theory to study before I began work on 'Prometheus Unbound', our first album. I also pestered them with questions during our rehearsals. "

"Morgan's right," Naomi acknowledged. "But he also learned by listening. Christabel's original vision was baroque operatic metal, but Morgan also added elements from the Romantic period, jazz, blues, swing, and just about everything else he ever listened to. I still have his copy of 'Birds of Fire' by the Mahavishnu Orchestra on vinyl, now that I think of it."

"Do you think that this wide range of influences had anything to do with Crowley's Thoth's famous four hour sets?" June Winchell asked.

"That is almost definitely my fault," Morgan said, "Even though we did not have much in the way of original material at first, I still wanted to give the people who came to see us their money's worth. So, we would have jam sessions, pay tribute to dead bands, perform arrangements of classical pieces, and so on."

"We never quite gave up that aspect of our show, of course," Naomi said. "And we would structure our show in such a manner that each of us could have a quick break to have a drink, change our clothes, or tune our instruments. Morgan, of course, is tireless."

"So if both of the ladies needed a break," Morgan said as he took a scone from the platter and began to butter it, "I would play some old Blue Öyster Cult songs and get the audience to sing along. One night, Christabel and Naomi were late, so I opened the show with 'Godzilla', and moved on to a couple of numbers by Joe Satriani."

"Oh, God, I remember that show," Naomi chuckled. "There had been a monumental snafu with our clothes. Now, we keep our street clothes with us, but stage clothes go with the rest of the equipment. At the time, our clothes went in the same truck as the spare instruments. The truck with the spares had its batteries explode an hour away from the venue. Poor Morgan took the stage in his dress uniform while Christabel and I ran to Lord and Taylor's. Christabel found a little black dress easily enough, but it was impossible for me to find an ankle-length dress that suited me. I ended up buying a suit."

"I remember that suit," Morgan said, "You looked incredible in that."

"Thank you," Naomi said as her cheeks betrayed a slight blush. "So, while we women were shopping, Morgan is on that stage giving the crowd their money's worth. Christabel had wanted to get onto the stage right away, but Morgan was in the middle of a rocked out rendition of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major when we were finally ready."

"What did you end up doing?" June Winchell asked, tapping the end of her pen against her chin.

"I knew the ladies were ready, so I told the crew to black the lights," Morgan said, "Neuronic implants were just being released into the civilian market, and I had persuaded Christabel and Naomi to get them installed, along with our crew. We were the first band to use the secure talk protocol to coordinate our shows, so Christabel and Naomi were able to join in at the appropriate time and blow the crowd right off their feet."

"The video of that show will be in the retrospective," Naomi added, "So that you'll be able to see what Morgan is talking about even if you had not been there to see it first-hand. It was incredible. The lights came back up, the crew let off the pyrotechnics, and Christabel and I joined Morgan at just the right moment. The crowd's reaction was breathtaking. As soon as they heard Bel's violin and my keyboard, their cheering nearly drowned us out."

"Good thing our amplifiers go to eleven," Morgan chuckled, and bit into his scone.

"They do not, you cheeky bastard," Naomi said, laughing. "This is Crowley's Thoth, not bloody Spinal Tap." Turning back to June Winchell, Naomi lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "Morgan is utterly incorrigible. He usually doesn't show it, but every once in a while these little jokes just creep out when we're on stage."

"Naomi is probably thinking of the time I introduced our cover of Iron Maiden's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by saying that the moral of the story is that this is what not to do when the bird shits on you."

Winchell giggled, "I think I've heard that one before."

"He stole that from Bruce Dickinson," Naomi said. "He had said that to the crowd at the show that became Maiden's 'Live After Death' album."

"It's obvious," June Winchell said after a couple of minute's thought, "That there is an attraction between the two of you. Was Christabel ever jealous of the chemistry you two shared? After all, you two would sing duets together when Christabel ducked offstage for breaks, such as your rendition of 'I Love the Night' by the Blue Öyster Cult."

Naomi looked at Morgan and asked over secure talk, "Should we tell Winchell the truth?"

"Let me deal with it," Morgan said as he took Naomi's hand. He turned back to June Winchell and said, "I loved Christabel, but I have to admit that she often was jealous of the fact that Naomi and I would sing together, even though I had written several duets for guitar and violin that allowed her to take the spotlight. We had tried a few shows without the duets after Christabel had started an argument backstage and accused me of cheating on her with Naomi, but that disappointed both the crowds and the press."

"Did Christabel really accuse you of cheating on her with Naomi?" Winchell asked. "You don't have to answer, and I know that this personal question is something of a departure from the questions I've asked thus far today. I can even have it removed in editing."

"She did," Naomi said. "Fortunately, we were able to keep it private, but Christabel had even threatened to leave the band."

"I am ashamed to say it," Morgan said, his voice soft, "But it was the one time I raised my voice in anger to Christabel. I told her that if she forced me to choose between my love for her and my friendship with Naomi, I would choose Naomi. She had inspired me to make something of myself before I ever met Christabel."

"Is that true?" Winchell asked, turning to Naomi. "Did Morgan actually say that? In public, he has always given the appearance of being utterly devoted to Christabel."

"I was there," Naomi said, blushing as Morgan caressed her hand. "He said that to her. He had also said to Christabel that he would try to make their relationship work because he knew that if they broke up, so would Crowley's Thoth." Taking a deep breath, Naomi turned to Morgan, "What you didn't know at the time was that if Christabel dumped you and tossed you out of the band, I would follow you."

Winchell raised her eyebrows at Naomi's remark. "Between your friendship and respect for each other and the fact that the two of you did most of the songwriting, I bet Christabel thought she had plenty of cause to be jealous."

Morgan shook her head, "Please do not get the wrong idea, Miss Winchell. Though Christabel did become harder for me to love over the years, and more difficult for Naomi and me to work with, I still owe her much. She was my first lover, and without her influence I might never have considered joining a band. I had lost touch with Naomi while in Adversary Candidate's School, and it was thanks to Christabel that I met her again and had a chance to be her friend."

"And while Christabel did not often participate in our song-writing sessions," Naomi added, "She would often suggest the themes of our albums. For example, it was Christabel's idea to take a piece of Romantic poetry and make of it a rock opera for our first album. Of course, she hadn't expected Morgan to adapt Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound'."

Morgan shrugged, "I figured that Faust would have been a clichéd idea for a rock band. Songs about damnation and selling one's soul have been done to death."

"Besides," Naomi said, "We don't do black metal. We have no use for anti-melodic, atonal noise or nihilistic lyrics. That's not who we are, and that is not how we see life."

"Even though some critics have suggested that there is a Christian undertone to some of your lyrics?"

"Critics will say what they must in order to generate copy and justify their salaries," Morgan said, shrugging off the question. "I do not write for them, I do not play for them, and I do not exist for them. I play for myself, and anybody who wants to come along for the ride is welcome to do so."

"That, by the way, is Morgan putting it politely," Naomi added. "Frankly, I fail to see how critics could see anything Christian in 'Prometheus Unbound', 'Garden of Rama', 'Gilgamesh', 'Journey to the West', 'Water Margin', or even our last album, 'Glass Earth Falling'. We were never a white metal band."

"I won't comment," Winchell said, "Even though I have all of your albums except for 'Water Margin'. That brings me to another question: most of your studio recordings have been concept albums adapting works of literature and poetry. 'Prometheus Unbound' was a rock opera. 'Glass Earth Falling' is different. Would you care to talk about it?"

"We wanted to do something different with our last album," Naomi began, "While we could draw endless inspiration from literature, I thought it was time we did something different."

Morgan chuckled, "I sometimes threaten to adapt 'The Count of Monte Cristo' into an eight hour long rock opera. I could do it, and I even have a dozen songs in rough form. However, we all wanted to do something different. I thought it was time to take a look at the universe, and at humanity's place in existence. The world on which we live is incredibly fragile compared to the natural forces that drive this universe, and we fall constantly through space."

"Hence the title, 'Glass Earth Falling'," Naomi explained. "Even though time and space are almost too vast for our imaginations to cope with, I think that our existence, both as individuals and as a species, has enriched the universe. Somewhere out there, the probes we sent into space are still flying. They might not be working, but they are a testament to our existence. Somebody from another race might find those probes and realize that they and their kind are not alone."

"I myself do not think that we humans exist for any particular reason." Morgan said. "Our intelligence, as far as I am concerned, is nothing more that a beautiful accident. I think that if you want to find God, you should start with a mirror."

"Since you mentioned God," June Winchell said. "Do you believe that there are gods? Do you have an opinion as to how existence was set into motion?

"I do not know how the universe began, or what caused it to begin," Morgan said. "I do not think it matters. Naomi thinks that God set things into motion, and then sat back to see what would happen next. For all I know, she is right. The world is, and I am. That is good enough for me."

Naomi gave Morgan an affectionate smile. "Morgan is more practical in his philosophy than I am. As long as it doesn't affect the laws of physics, it could be turtles all the way down and Morgan wouldn't care."

"Perhaps we should use that as the name of our next band," Morgan suggested.

"Turtles All The Way Down?" Naomi asked, arching an eyebrow. "That would work better as an album title, I think."

Chapter 52

Morgan sighed and allowed himself to relax as Naomi followed him out of Metal Works, the studio in which they had spent the last two weeks preparing This was Crowley's Thoth, a last album to pay tribute to Christabel Crowley and the band she founded. "I think we finally gave Christabel the send-off she deserves," he said.

"You sound better, more at peace," Naomi observed as she took the arm Morgan offered.

"I still ache where Christabel used to be," Morgan said with a glance at Naomi, "but I can live with that."

"I'm glad to hear that," Naomi said as she gave Morgan's hand a gentle, affectionate squeeze. "I suppose that you'll be starting your investigation soon."

Morgan nodded as they stopped at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Thirty-First Street to wait their turn to cross. "In a few days. First, I want to celebrate a job well done. We have finished the last Crowley's Thoth album, after all."

"Yes, you're right," Naomi said as the lights greened in their favor. They stepped onto the crosswalk. "Did you invite everybody?"

"I invited Edmund, Sid, and Claire. Claire will be bringing Doctor Malmgren. I also invited Saul, for courtesy's sake. I hope you are in the mood for a barbecue."

A rich smile spread across Naomi's pale coral lips, which she had left uncolored today. Morgan loved the lipstick she usually used to make her lips' color match her eyes, but he considered the sight of her uncolored lips a rare treat. Left to its natural color, her mouth looked vulnerable, as if it could not tolerate more than the barest brush of a kiss. That was the sort of kiss Morgan stole as soon as they had crossed the street, allowing his lips the barest hint of contact with Naomi's.

Her blush had not faded by the time they reached Morgan's brownstone an hour later.

"I wonder what Morgan did to make Naomi blush like that," Claire Ashecroft remarked as she leaned against the wall.

"Probably copped a feel," Edmund Cohen grunted as he took a hit off the joint he had been smoking. He held it towards Claire. "Want a toke?"

"No thanks," Claire sauntered up to Morgan, threw her arms around his sholders, and stole a kiss. "You look a lot better. I guess you have been behaving yourself with Naomi around, and not going for days without eating or sleeping."

"I do feel better," Morgan admitted as he gently removed Claire's hands from his bottom. Taking a couple of steps back, he chuckled at the boast printed on Claire's t-shirt: 'Bugger off, or I will replace you with a very small shell script'. "Have you and Doctor Malmgren had any trouble with Polaris?"

"Not at all," Claire said. "Oi! Josse! Stop molesting the cat and say hi to Morgan!"

Dr. Josefine Malmgren looked up from behind Mordred, whose fur she had been brushing. She was wearing a navy blue wool cardigan over jeans and an open-collared white blouse. "Hello, Adversary Stormrider. Have you been well?"

Morgan nodded. "Better than when we last met, Doctor. I am glad to see that you are more comfortable with my cat."

"I can't help it," Josefine said, "He's got a creamy filling. And please call me Josefine. After all, you were kind enough to invite me to visit along with Claire."

"You know," Sid Schneider said, "If it was Claire talking about 'creamy fillings', I'd suspect she had something kinky on her mind."

"I usually do," Claire admitted, "But Mordred has this big patch of white fur on his belly, which you can only see when he rolls over for a tummy rub. It's his creamy filling."

"How are Elly and the kids?" Morgan asked as he offered his hand to be engulfed by Sid's iron-tendoned paw.

"They're fine. Mike's doing a lot better with his algebra since he's been taking lessons from the Doc, here."

Josefine reddened. "He just needed to clear up some misunderstandings about basic principles," she insisted. "Once he got his head around the basics, the rest was easy for him. But he's awfully eager to see me each week."

"He's got a crush on you," Sid explained to Josefine. "I can't say I blame him."

"A crush?" Josefine turned a deeper crimson. "On me?"

"Don't be so shocked," Claire chided. "I've been trying to get you into bed for years."

Josefine turned embarrassed eyes towards Morgan. "Does she do this to you, as well?"

"Actually," Naomi said, "She slid her hands down to Morgan's arse as soon as she had her arms around him."

"I couldn't resist!" Claire protested, "He's got such a great arse. You'd do it too, if you had the chance."

"I'm sorry about Claire," Josefine sighed, "I've tried to be a good influence on her, but she's incorrigible."

"She must be related to my husband, then," Catherine Gatto said as she approached. "He can't keep his hands off of my arse, either.

"Can't say I blame him," Edmund muttered as he cocked his head and gave Catherine an appraising glance.

Morgan had also turned to consider Catherine. It was not her body that interested him, though she had a figure that would have been as voluptuous as Claire's if not for her physical training. It was the uniform that drew Morgan's eye, and the pins at her collar. "Are you here on business, Adversary Gatto?" he asked.

"I am," Catherine admitted, "According to the orders Saul passed to me from the Executive Council, I am supposed to lie to you and tell you that I had no idea that you would be entertaining friends today. However, I didn't want to lie to somebody who fought beside me."

Morgan nodded. "I appreciate that, Catherine. Thank you."

"Probably Dr. Aster," Edmund said when Morgan shot a glance his way. "He nearly choked on his coffee when he saw you announce your resignation at the press conference."

"I don't understand why the Executive Council would care so much," Catherine said. "Did this Dr. Aster want to use you, Morgan?"

"He did," Morgan said, "And I think it ties into the Liebenthal case. I had not wanted to involve you, since your husband would kick my ass, but perhaps I should tell you everything I know and suspect all the same. Will you join us for dinner, Adversary Gatto?"

A creamy smile spread across Catherine's features. "I would love to."

The cat slipped inside first, rubbing past everybody to get inside with an upraised, bushy tail that tickled Josefine's nose as it brushed against her skin. Mordred looked up with a quick rumble of purr as Josefine giggled. "Go on ahead," she said, "That's a good kitty."

"Is that really your cat?" Catherine asked Morgan as they followed Josefine inside. "He's huge."

"Well," Morgan said, "He lives with me, begs for scraps when I'm cooking, and pounces on burglars for me. I suppose that makes him my cat. He also follows me when I'm away from home. I could wake up after spending a night in London or Tokyo, and Mordred will be curled up at my feet. I have no idea how he does it."

"Maybe he walks through walls," Claire chuckled.

"That would not be the weirdest thing that I have seen," Morgan muttered.

"I know the feeling," Catherine said. "I still can't believe that Tetsuo Munakata got up after Morgan killed him."

"Well," Morgan said as he thought of the night that both Munakata and Murdoch died, "If you face another person who rises after a killing blow, aim for the base of the skull. That is how Tetsuo Munakata killed himself."

"That's horrible," Naomi said as Josefine blanched. "Why would he do that to himself?"

"That's the only way to permanently shut down an Asura's body," Josefine explained in a small, breathless voice. "Most of what you could consider an Asura's brain is used for both working memory and long-term storage. The area corresponding to a human's brain stem is where the Asura's operating system resides. Inflict enough damage to that area, and the body shuts down."

"So, Polaris is still around?" Claire asked.

"Probably," Josefine said. "That head shot that you managed bought us some time, and might have cost Polaris some memories, but it didn't kill him."

"By my namesake's heart-shaped ass!" Astarte cried as she brought up the lights. "Must you people talk about killing when you're supposed to be celebrating the release of another Crowley's Thoth album?"

"Sorry, Astarte," Morgan said. "Any messages?"

"Only two," Astarte said as her avatar sipped a virtual cocktail. "Saul wants to kick your ass from here to Tokyo and back again. And Tokiko Nakajima called to tell you that your neuronics are working correctly. There was a five gram diagnostic charge since you're not under the usual warranty."

"I trust that you arranged payment," Morgan said as he shrugged out of his jacket.

"You paid up front, silly. Remember?"

"Yes, I did," Morgan said, remembering. He began taking the women's jackets and hanging them in the foyer closet. "I should thank Nakajima-dono for taking the time to tell me herself. Did you start the grill on the roof?"

"Fifteen minutes ago," Astarte said, following Morgan and the others from screen to screen as he led them upstairs. "I had also had cleaners come in to go over the building, since I figured that least one of your guests would be staying the night." Astarte gave a pointed look at Eddie as she said this.

"Don't look at me," Eddie protested with an embarrassed glance at Naomi, "I swore off booze after that last shit-for-brains stunt I pulled."

"Thank goodness," Naomi, Claire, and Astarte managed to say in unison.

"Does Mr. Cohen have a drinking problem?" Catherine asked, turning to Naomi.

"Eddie doesn't have a drinking problem," Naomi said, her voice bearing a hint of venom. "He has a being stupid when he's drunk problem."

"Like that New Year's Eve party when he mistook Morgan for a girl and tried to snog him," Claire chuckled, and winced as Josefine stuck an elbow into her ribs.

Morgan made for the roof so that the others would not see him blushing. "Do we have to bring that up again, Claire?"

"I think Morgan's embarassed because he liked it," Eddie chuckled.

"Yeah," Sid said as Morgan opened the door to the rooftop and slipped outside, "He liked it so much that he grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and put you under a cold shower. Remember that?"

"Aw, shit. So that's what happened?" Eddie asked. "No wonder I woke up in a fucking bathtub."

Chapter 53

A concerned frown curved Naomi's lips as she closed the door to Morgan's rooftop solarium behind her. The guitar that had been in Morgan's hands all night sat on the grass, leaning against his thigh. The hands that had spent the night picking out aimless jazz now turned a white envelope marked with the Phoenix Society's sword-and-balance insignia in their fingers. Catherine Gatto, the Adversary who had come down from Boston this afternoon and joined their party, had given it to him, but Morgan had waited until everybody had left or gone to bed to take it from his jacket pocket.

Naomi suspected, however, that Morgan had been tempted to slip away to somewhere private in order to see what the envelope contained. She suspected that it contained orders pertaining to a new mission. Saul Rosenbaum had persuaded Morgan to become an Adversary, and had persuaded him several times to put aside his doubts and remain one. Perhaps Saul believed that he could convince Morgan one last time.

The warm June night breeze slid beneath Naomi's scarlet pashmina shawl to caress her bare shoulders. She had changed into a black satin nightdress that hung from her shoulders by spaghetti straps, and came to the roof barefoot so that she could feel the grass and clover beneath her feet. She would not need the shawl to cover herself, as the ivy, grapes, tomatoes, and roses competing for trellis space conspired with the orange, lemon, and apple trees to provide ample privacy.

Morgan had no business sitting like that on the night of the Summer Solstice, Naomi decided as she strode across the lawn. Placing her hands on his, Naomi leaned forward and stole a kiss. It was fun to steal kisses now that Naomi could have them from Morgan whenever she wanted, without having to concern herself with whether or not Christabel would interpret a casual, affectionate brush of the lips as a threat to her claim on Morgan.

"Were you waiting for me to go to bed before you opened that?" Naomi asked as she settled onto the wrought iron bench beside Morgan. The pashmina fell from her shoulders as she slipped her snowy arms around him and began to fiddle with the collar of the white silk shirt Morgan had slipped into after dinner. The spices and charcoal still lingered, even though it had been hours since Morgan had finally let the barbecue go cold.

"The thought had crossed my mind," Morgan said. "I should have tossed it into the fire, but Catherine left her husband in Boston to deliver this in person."

"Open it," Naomi whispered in Morgan's ear with a brush of her lips. "Even if it is a new mission, you can still refuse it."

Morgan nodded and slit the top of the envelope with a thumbnail. Slipping his fingers inside, he withdrew a single sheet of stationery used by the Phoenix Society's executive council.

"Orders?" Naomi asked. "It must be a very simple mission, if they only needed one page."

"These are not orders," Morgan said, "It is a letter of marque and reprisal, signed by Doctor Zachary Aster, authorizing me to investigate the possibility of Phoenix Society involvement in the Liebenthal coup, the murders of Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch, and the improper use of Phoenix Society funds. I am being given full access to all Phoenix Society personnel, records, and computer systems. The only caveat is that I must work alongside an Adversary, and share everything I uncover during the course of my investigation."

"Maybe that's why Catherine came," Naomi suggested as she snuggled closer to Morgan. "Maybe she's the one you'll be working with."

"I doubt it," Morgan said, considering the letter. "She still has work to do in Boston."

"I thought you would be pleased," Naomi said, studying Morgan's frowning face. "But you seem more worried than before. What's wrong?"

Morgan folded the letter of marque, slipped it back into its envelope, and shoved it into a pocket. Pulling free of Naomi's arms, he stood and stretched as Naomi slipped one of her nightgown's straps back into place. "I fear that you will call me paranoid," he said, "but the Society has never given an retired Adversary carte blanche to investigate the Society itself. The Sephiroth themselves normally handle the work of rooting out internal corruption."

"You think you're being used," Naomi suggested as she rose from the bench and took Morgan's hands. "Are you thinking of what that we talked about the day you resigned. About Munakata, Magnin, the AsgarTech Company, and Asuras."

"Yes, I am," Morgan admitted. "Doctor Aster tried to recruit me with some crazy story about a long-running war between people he called 'Devas' and a group of powers that had built up the Devas only to turn against them. He wanted me to work with him to fight one of these powers, who is supposedly imprisoned here on Earth."

"You never mentioned that."

"I did not think it mattered," Morgan said, shrugging. "But Aster has given me an opportunity to test my suspicions about Isaac Magnin. He must have his reasons for doing this."

"Maybe he has suspicions of his own about Isaac Magnin," Naomi said.

Morgan nodded. "He probably does. Instead of attempting impeachment, which would bring the press down on the Society, Aster's decided to make a cloak-and-dagger job of this."

"But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to begin, since the letter specifies that you have to accept an Adversary as your partner. Too bad it's not Catherine."

"I am grateful for that," Morgan chuckled. "This is likely to be a dangerous job, and I do not want to face her husband if something goes wrong. He would kick my ass."

"Catherine's husband actually had the nerve to threaten you?"

"You should see the look on your face, Nims," Claire yawned as she padded into the solarium. Slipping a hand under the hem of her nightshirt, she scratched herself and gave another yawn. "Can't sleep. Clowns will eat me."

"Clowns?" Naomi asked, arching an eyebrow as a request for secure talk from Morgan registered in her neuronics. "Do not ask," he said, "This is one of those Lovecraftian moments where ignorance is sanity."

Naomi cracked beneath the gravity of Morgan's warning and began to giggle. "What's so funny?" Claire asked.

"It's not you," Naomi insisted as she tried to keep from doubling over. "It was Morgan, warning me that I shouldn't ask you about the clowns."

"Oh, right," Claire gave a wry chuckle. "Morgan already knows the story. Since he made me such a yummy steak I'll spare his sensibilities. Let's just say that a young girl's first taste of pornography should not include clowns. Or midgets."

"What about my sensibilities?" Naomi whimpered.

"You just had to ask," Morgan shuddered, clinging to Naomi for comfort. "Now you will be scarred for life."

"Pathetic, isn't he?" Claire asked with an evil glint in her eyes. "Look at Morgan. He's killed a thousand men, but he can't stand the thought of a little midget clown porn."

"It'll be all right," Naomi whispered in Morgan's ear as she stroked his hair. "You know, Claire, you'll never get Morgan into bed if you torture him like this."

"Shame, isn't it?" Claire asked. "He's got such a delightfully shaped arse. Want to borrow my strap-on?"

"No, thank you," Naomi said, her voice prim. "I don't think Morgan would be into that."

"Oh, he is," Claire giggled as she turned back to the door. "He just doesn't know it yet," she called as she sauntered back down the stairs. Naomi crossed the lawn as swiftly as she could manage without tripping over her nightdress, closed the door, and locked it.

"Claire was drunk, wasn't she?" Naomi asked. "I hope for her sake that she is."

"I think she is," Morgan agreed. "She only mentions the clowns after she has had a few too many. What would you do if she had not been?"

"I suppose I could have spanked her," Naomi suggested, "But something tells me that she'd like that."

Morgan nodded. "You would only encourage her."

Naomi cocked her head and gave Morgan and appraising glance. "Have you ever —"

"With Claire?" Morgan asked, "Never. I had walked in on her once, but Claire and I never did anything. I doubt she would ever do more than flirt with me, in any case. We would not fit together, Claire and I."

"Would we fit together?" Naomi asked as Morgan drew her into his arms. Her nightdress was backless, and Morgan's hands caressing her spine made her want to melt in his mouth. She gasped, feeling her body quiver as Morgan's callused fingertips brushed the nape of her neck. "I know you wanted to take it slowly," Naomi whispered, "But if you don't let me go I am going to push you down onto the grass. I thought I could handle being close to you tonight. I was wrong. Please let me go."

Morgan nodded and released Naomi. "I might not let you go next time," he warned. "I might not be able to," he said as he strode past her, unlocked the solarium door, and threw it open. "Good night," he said with one last look over his shoulder. "I will make breakfast before I go tomorrow morning."

Naomi nodded, unable to trust her voice. If she responded to him, she suspected, she would only run to him and follow him to his bedroom. She had never seen Morgan's real bedroom, the one he did not share with Christabel. She wanted Morgan to share it with her.

Chapter 54

"You cannot be serious," Morgan Stormrider protested, his eyes darting from Karen Del Rio to the Adversary chosen to work alongside Morgan and ensure that he did not abuse the carte blanche that he had been given.

The Adversary sitting beside Del Rio crossed her legs and adjusted the hem of her leather micro-miniskirt. The last time Morgan had checked, a micro-mini was not something an Adversary wore on the job. Neither were thigh-high leather boots with spike heels, or a Hot Beef Injection concert t-shirt beneath a black leather duster coat. He suspected that crotchless panties were not proper attire, either. Morgan did not need Edmund Cohen to tell him that most prostitutes dressed better lest they be dismissed as cheap skanks unworthy of a decent fee.

"Is it Adversary Kohlrynn's clothing that you object to?" Karen asked as Kohlrynn gave a simpering smile.

"No," Morgan said. "I object to Kohlrynn's lack of experience. This would be her first mission. What qualifies her to work with me?"

"I trust her," Karen said. "I think that is qualification enough."

"I disagree," Morgan countered as he took advantage of his new access to query the Sephiroth for Sarah Kohlrynn's file. "Her ACS grades are dismal, to begin with. She has no combat training, which is extremely unusual. Worst of all, she rated a nine on the Milgram Battery, which suggests that authority will almost always trump her individual judgment. She is far too obedient to make a good Adversary."

Karen shrugged. "That is why I trust her. I can rely on her to carry out the mission according to my instructions, without unnecessary improvisations."

Shaking his head, Morgan slammed the letter of marque onto Karen's desk in front of her. "I think you are operating under a mistaken assumption. According to this, you do not get to give instructions. I have authority to conduct my investigation as I deem fit as long as I cooperate with the Adversary assigned to observe. I could very well call you to account for impeding my investigation by saddling me with an inexperienced, incompetent trollop."

"I refuse to believe that Aster would give a privateer like you such authority," Karen spat.

"Believe what you like," Morgan snarled, "But assign somebody else unless you want to explain to Doctor Aster why this letter of marque ended up as a small pile of confetti on his desk."

"There is nobody else to assign. Every other Adversary is either on assignment or on leave."

Morgan pulled the letter from Karen's desk, folded it, and shoved it into his pocket. Taking his sword, which had been leaning against the wall by the door, he slung it over his shoulder. "I strongly doubt that you could not have found a competent Adversary willing to put aside his leave."

Karen's smile was sweet and venomous. "You know that Society policy does not permit me to interrupt an Adversary's leave, even to ask for volunteers."

Morgan knew that quite well. It was a point he had thrown in Karen's face every time she bothered him while he was working with Crowley's Thoth. "My authority is absolute, so long as I submit to an Adversary's supervision. Either allow me to choose my partner, or start figuring out what you will say to Doctor Aster."

Karen glanced at her screen and allowed a wide smile to spread her paper-thin lips. "If you don't investigate Christabel's murder, who will?" she asked. "You can check the news yourself if you like: the police in London have called off their investigation into the Crowley murder."

Morgan shrugged and turned towards the door. "Christabel is dead. Finding her murderer will not change that. Nor will killing him or forcing him to stand trial."

"And what about Victoria Murdoch?" Karen challenged. "You were the only other person in her apartment the night she died. Do you want to be the one who stands trial?"

Morgan froze with the doorknob in his hand. He turned his head to meet Del Rio's eyes with an arctic glare. "Should I consider that a threat, Karen Del Rio?"

"Not at all," Karen chirped. "But think about it. You're the one who found her. And you know how reporters are. Especially after you pull a sword on them."

Morgan turned to meet Sarah Kohlrynn's eyes. "Come with me. We have work to do."

Sarah bounced towards him, swaying on her stiletto heels. "You know, I'm not inexperienced or incompetent. Quite a few people say I'm the best they've ever had. Want to find out for yourself?"

Morgan made no reply as he led Sarah down the hallway. He pulled out his handheld and got in touch with Inspector Windsor of the London police. "Inspector, I heard that the investigation of Christabel Crowley's murder had been cancelled," he said.

"Unfortunately, Adversary, you heard right," Inspector Windsor growled. "I'm sorry. I thought I could crack the case."

"What happened?" Morgan asked.

"To begin with, we couldn't find a murder weapon. We can't even figure out what sort of weapon was used. We tried to get a warrant so that we could copy her AI's memory, but the warrant was denied for one bullshit reason after another. We had no weapon, no witnesses, and no electronic intelligence. We couldn't get lab results for what physical evidence we were able to recover. And the brass didn't give a shit."

"Were you able to preserve the scene?" Morgan asked.

"Yeah. Why?"

"I am taking over the investigation, and I do not have to beg the Society for warrants or tolerate stonewalling from the lab."

"I'll tell the constables I left guarding Miss Crowley's flat," Windsor said, breaking into a smile. "And I'll send your AI everything I've got. Good hunting."

"Thank you, Inspector," Morgan said, returning the smile. "I appreciate the help."

"Must we go to London?" Sarah pouted as Morgan disconnected, turned off his handheld, and slipped it into his pocket. "I have nothing to wear."

"We will be working in London for a week. Pack accordingly," Morgan instructed without bothering to look back at Sarah. He mounted his motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson chopper from that late twentieth century that had been modified to run on electricity instead of gasoline, and started the engine. "I will meet you at Agni's inside Grand Central Terminal's upper dining concourse. Use the entrance on Forty-Second street and take the stairs to your left once you reach the central information booth."

"Can't I ride with you?" Sarah asked, eying the empty saddle behind Morgan. "I bet it would be fun."

"You would have to hold on to me," Morgan said as he strapped on his helmet. "And I did not bring a spare helmet."

He left Sarah standing by herself in the garage beneath the New York chapter of the Phoenix Society. He rode home, the restored Harley bearing him in silence. Leaving the cycle in his basement garage, he set up the automatic food dispenser with a week's worth of food for Mordred. The dispenser would allow Astarte to ensure that Mordred would not go hungry in Morgan's absence. He stopped often to stroke Mordred's fur as he packed clothing for a week and toiletries into a suitcase, along with a portable forensics lab. He laid another case next to the one he had filled with clothing. Into this case he packed his favorite sword, the Nakajima blade with the black cat mark. He then packed his pistol, three spare magazines, and a box each of hollow-point, tranquilizing, and explosive ammunition. As an afterthought, he also packed the submachinegun that Edmund had given him to celebrate his becoming an Adversary, along with more spare magazines. He had never had to use it, but Morgan knew it would do no harm to have it handy, especially since it could fire the same 11.43mm ammunition as his pistol.

"A cab will be here in ten minutes," Astarte said as Morgan found Mordred and gave his fur a quick brushing.

"Thank you," Morgan said as Mordred gave him a purring headbutt, rubbing his cheeks against Morgan's face to that other cats would know that another cat had claimed this human as his own. "Your whiskers tickle," Morgan said to Mordred, as the cat pressed his nose against Morgan's.

"Don't worry," Astarte said, "I'll keep an eye on Mordred if he decides to be a good kitty and stay home."

"Well," Morgan chuckled, "I can always let him pounce on Sarah if she misbehaves."

"Who's Sarah?" Astarte asked, her eyes narrowing. "You should be careful. Naomi might get jealous."

"Naomi has no reason to be jealous of Sarah," Morgan said as he lifted his bags and brought them to the foyer. "Sarah is short, skinny, and brainless. Karen Del Rio saddled me with her, claiming that nobody else is available to act as my observer. She has already propositioned me."

"And you let her live?"

"I was afraid that Del Rio would find somebody even worse to replace her," Morgan explained. "I might dump her on Claire while we are in London."

Astarte arched a fine auburn eyebrow. "I thought you liked Claire."

"Should I inflict her on Naomi?" Morgan asked. "I was going to ask Naomi if I could crash on her couch while I was in town. If I am with Naomi at night, Sarah might realize that I would not fuck her with Eddie's cock."

"I'm sure Eddie will be glad to hear that," Astarte said. "And you figure that Claire might find Sarah amusing?"

"I know that Naomi would not," Morgan said as a horn sounded outside.

"That's your cab."

"Thanks, Astarte. I will let you know when I get to London."

Chapter 55

"So, you're finally coming to London?" Naomi asked.

"I am sitting at Agni's in Grand Central Terminal right now," Morgan said, "I might actually finish this Kali Yuga Special before my partner gets here. She has kept me waiting for two hours, so why not a third?"

"A Kali Yuga Special?" Naomi asked, her eyes widening. "I'm on the other side of the Atlantic, and my eyes are tearing up at the thought of you eating one of those. Why do you keep eating them?"

"I have my reasons," Morgan said after chewing and swallowing a forkful of chicken that Claire had once described as 'ten times hotter than Chernobyl'. Agni's, a restaurant chain born in a Pakistani neighborhood in New York just before Nationfall, earned its fame from the success of the Agni Burger, a spicy hambuger balanced by thick slabs of cheddar cheese served with generous portions of rice, potatoes, or couscous on the side. Those who deemed themselves too hardcore for the Agni Burger found other challenges on the menu. The Kali Yuga Special was Agni's most notorious offering. Most of those brave enough or foolish enough, depending on who one asked, to order one regretted their choice after three bites. Urban legend gave the Special a different, and allegedly more accurate name: the 'Instant Rectal Prolapse'.

A small minority of Agni's patrons managed to eat half of a Kali Yuga Special. An even smaller minority have even proven themselves capable of finishing one by themselves, and shared their experiences on an online forum dedicated to the Survivors of the Kali Yuga. These few, proud Survivors reserved their respect for those who managed to eat a second Kali Yuga Special. Only nine have achieved this pinnacle of gastonomic fortitude, and they received special attention from the staff whenever they set foot inside one of Agni's Restaurants.

Morgan was one of these nine elite Survivors. The restaurant's manager kept a respectful distance; he had been watching Morgan ever since he placed his order. Morgan ordered a Kali Yuga Special after reasoning that the spices on his breath would dissuade Sarah from getting too close or trying to seduce him. The manager, however, knew only that if Morgan managed to finish this Kali Yuga Special, he would be the first to have eaten three of these monstrous meals. The founder of Agni's, who still owned the chain, had issued a challenge when he first introduced the Kali Yuga Special: the first to finish three of them would eat free at Agni's for the rest of his life.

Morgan did not care about the free food. He had no interest in the internet fame he would acquire at the hands of other Survivors of the Kali Yuga, who would probably deify him. As far as he was concerned, the Special was an even better bargain than the Jade Emperor's Feast offered at Sun Wukong's in Times Square, and the lingering smell would probably persuade Sarah to keep her distance.

"I remember the last time you ate one of those hell-spawned things," Naomi said. "You remember that Christabel wouldn't kiss you for three days afterward, right?"

"I hope that the fumes will persuade my partner to keep her distance," Morgan said. "She has already propositioned me, and she does not look like the sort to take 'no' for an answer. I think that Del Rio has saddled me with a bunny boiler."

"And you have to spend a week in London working with her?" Naomi asked, leaning towards her camera. "Astarte warned me about Sarah. My condolences."

"I had hoped that you would offer me sanctuary instead of condolences. I have already asked Claire to let Sarah stay with her."

"I thought you liked Claire," Naomi said, arching an eyebrow just as Astarte had done earlier.

"Better Claire than me," Morgan growled around a piece of naan bread that he had used to mop up some curry sauce. "It is time I collected restitution for her telling me about the clown porn."

"Don't you think that's excessive?"

Morgan shuddered at the memory. "She showed me the video. There was a donkey."

"So that's why Christabel couldn't get you into bed for a month," Naomi said. "I had thought that you two had had an argument."

"No, the arguments came later. I can stay at a hotel if you would rather not have me over," Morgan said as he came a few bites closer to becoming Agni's most famous customer. "Considering what I am eating right now, I can understand you not wanting me around."

"Don't be silly," Naomi said. "I already have the spare bedroom made up for you, and I plan on staking my claim upon you as soon as you and your partner arrive."

Morgan gave an affectionate smile. "Thanks, Nims. I will be taking the first available train as soon as Sarah gets here. I will let you and Claire know as soon as we are underway."

"Thanks. Have a good trip."

"I love you," Morgan said, disconnecting before Naomi could reply. Morgan let a soft, embarrassed laugh escape him. He had not meant to say those words yet. They had waited since he was sixteen, and they could have waited a little while longer. Too late to worry aboout it now, Morgan decided as he slipped his handheld into his pocket and turned his full attention to his meal.

"You know," Sarah pouted as she dragged a trolley laden with baggage behind her. "I could have used some help with this stuff."

Morgan chewed the last of his Agni Burger as he looked past Sarah to consider her luggage. He had told her to pack for seven days. "I told you to pack for a business trip, not a princess cruise."

"I have everything I need," Sarah sniffed as her eyes flicked to Morgan's two bags. "That's all you're bringing?"

"I have a week's worth of clothing in one case," Morgan said, "And my weapons in the other."

Sarah rolled her eyes. "What did you do, pack a different sword for each day of the week?"

Morgan had no intention of ruining his appetite by taking Sarah's bait. "No. Why did it take you so long to pack?"

"It didn't take that long," Sarah said as she spun a chair around and straddled it. She placed a small red bag on the table. "I stopped at my favorite boutique to get myself a treat to celebrate my first assignment as an Adversary. I got you something, too. Want to see it?"

"I doubt that you could fit your replacement in there," Morgan said, glaring at the ornate Priapus logo emblazoned on the bag.

"I guess I shouldn't have gotten you a plug," Sarah said. "Looks like you've already got a pretty big stick up your ass."

"You could always use it on yourself," Morgan said as he used his handheld to check the schedule. "The next maglev to London leaves in forty-five minutes. Get yourself something to eat."

"Wouldn't you rather I got under the table?" Sarah asked.

"I would rather stick it in a meat grinder," Morgan snarled.

Chapter 56

Elisabeth Bathory watched Morgan Stormrider from over the top of her copy of the Thousand and One Nights. She had been watching him for over an hour and a half now, ever since the maglev to London began boarding. She had been surprised at first that Morgan would settle for a public seat in business class until his companion, a short, skinny redhead in leather jeans and a thin white teeshirt bearing the warning, "I'm a screamer", joined him and tried to slide a hand up his thigh.

"Would you like to keep that hand?" Morgan had hissed as his hand clamped around the woman's wrist and wrenched her hand away from his leg.

The woman had kept her hands to herself, but amused herself by making a show of undressing him with her eyes. Elisabeth could see that Morgan was uncomfortable, but he settled for hiding behind headphones and his handheld.

An impish smile flashed across the woman's lips as she bounced out of her seat and flopped into the empty seat beside Elisabeth. "He's hot, isn't he? I can't believe I get to work with him as my first assignment."

"Oh?" Elisabeth asked, pretending that she did not know who was sitting across from her. "He is rather handsome, but why would you be working with him?"

"Well," the woman gushed, "I'm observing Morgan while he investigates some murders and rumors of corruption in the Phoenix Society."

"Sarah," Morgan rumbled from behind his handheld. "The lady is a civilian. A little discretion would be useful."

"Unfortunately," Sarah said in a confidential tone, "Morgan's very uptight. I'm going to have to get him into bed and loosen him up."

Elisabeth gave Sarah a closer look. The redhead had a waif's build, and she suspected that Sarah's personality would only become more obnoxious over time. She cringed as she considered Sarah's clothes. Elisabeth had always used the best clothing and cosmetics available to enhance her charms, and could not understand why Sarah would not make the slightest effort to make herself appealing. Perhaps, Elisabeth decided, she did not know how.

A single look at Morgan told Elisabeth that Sarah would require a drastic makeover before he would even consider taking an interest in her. His glossy blue-black hair spilled over shoulders that looked like they could bear a world's worth of responsibility, despite not being particularly broad. His body had a lithe build, and she had seen Morgan walk with a feline grace that was enough to convince her that he was not human. Only a Deva, or an Asura, walked with the sort of thoughtless grace she had seen in Morgan's carriage.

Elisabeth gave Sarah a compassionate glance. It might not be Sarah's fault that she was a clumsy, ignorant slut. Even now, the sort of education Elisabeth provided in her Garden of Earthly Delights, might make a woman of quality out of her. She had salvaged worse people. "You know, Sarah," Elisabeth whispered, "I don't think you're Morgan's type."

"He's gay?" Sarah leaped, reaching a conclusion Elisabeth knew to be utterly baseless. He would never act on it, but Elisabeth could tell from the way Morgan's eyes followed her that he found her attractive.

"I doubt it," Elisabeth purred. "But did you know that he was also the lead guitarist for Crowley's Thoth?"

"I never cared," Sarah pouted, "Crowley's Thoth is a lame band. Now, if you want good rock and roll, you should listen to Hot Beef Injection or the Sweet Transvestites."

Elisabeth made a mental note. She would make sure to avoid listening to both Hot Beef Injection and the Sweet Transvestites, since Sarah professed admiration for both. "Well, Morgan was Christabel Crowley's lover. And if you had ever seen them on stage, you'd know that there is some incredible chemistry between him and Naomi Bradleigh."

"That freak?" Sarah gasped. "How could anybody want to fuck her?"

"I think she's gorgeous," Elisabeth said as she locked her eyes on Morgan's and offered her warmest smile, "and her voice is divine. I have all their albums."

"Always glad to meet a fan," Morgan said, returning the smile. "I apologize for Adversary Kohlrynn's behavior. She was not the sort of partner I would have chosen."

"She is young," Elisabeth said, "And experience has taught her that seduction is as simple as slipping out of a pair of panties. You and I know better."

"Have we met, madam?" Morgan asked, leaning forward a bit. Now Elisabeth could see a hint of curiosity in his eyes.

"Call me Elisabeth. I had been sitting in your compartment by mistake. I think I owe you an apology, by the way."

Morgan arched a questioning eyebrow. "I have a vague memory of you flirting with me, but cannot remember you doing me any harm."

"I had not known about your loss at the time," Elisabeth lied, "Or I would not have flirted with you. I had not expected to meet you, and I must confess that I could not resist."

"Had I been in a better frame of mind, I would have been flattered," Morgan said, before his eyes hardened. He leaned forward and fingered the pendant resting just below the hollow of her throat. "By the way, Edmund Cohen sends his regards," he said before letting the pendant strike her skin.

"He knows?" Elisabeth flushed for a moment, before getting a hold of herself. Isaac Magnin had warned her that Morgan was not a fool, and that he might already be making connections. Her task had been to watch over him, to gauge his emotional state and warn Magnin when he had learned enough and become angry enough to rush into the trap they had prepared. Perhaps, she decided, it was time to give him a little nudge.

"How is Edmund, by the way? You did not hurt him too badly, did you?"

Morgan remained impassive; he had hidden behind his handheld. Fine, then. One last little poke.

"You know," Elisabeth purred as she stood and leaned over the small table that separated her from Morgan. She arched her back so that Morgan could see the hardened tips of her nipples as they scraped the silk of her ivory camisole and brushed her lips against Morgan's ear. "I've never kissed an Asura Emulator before."

Before Morgan could react, Elisabeth wove a pattern that bound him in his seat. Taking his face in her hands, she nipped his earlobe before retreating and turning to Sarah. "I think I will keep Sarah amused for a little while," she purred as she took Sarah's hand. Stealing a kiss from Morgan had made Elisabeth hungry, and she suspected that Sarah would be useful as long as her mouth was kept too busy to talk.

Chapter 57

"Aren't you going to help me?" Sarah groused as she followed Morgan through Victoria Station in London. That woman, Elisabeth, had done Morgan a favor by keeping Sarah occupied for most of the four hour journey from New York to London, even if she had whispered one last taunt as she brushed past them on the way out of the train. "I would have had more fun with you, Asura," Elisabeth had said.

"Hey! Earth to Morgan!" Sarah had hissed, poking his shoulder. "Why the hell are you just standing there?"

"I was thinking about that woman," Morgan admitted.

"You could have joined us. Elisabeth was hoping you would, actually."

Morgan shook his head, "I would have asked her to wash you off of her first."

"Asshole," Sarah hissed. "What the fuck is your problem with me, anyway?"

Morgan had plenty of problems with Sarah, and they had not yet begun to work together. However, Morgan had no intention of giving everybody else in Victoria Station a spectacle by telling Sarah exactly what he thought of her. There would be time enough to educate this bad joke of an Adversary later.

In the meantime, there was Elisabeth. Morgan could understand why Edmund was drawn to her. Though she had hidden her figure beneath an expensive black pantsuit and bound her shimmering black hair in an elegant twist, Morgan still had to keep shifting his eyes lest they linger too long on hers. His train of thought threatened to derail every time their eyes met, and then there was the scent of her. She smelled too much like Naomi for Morgan's comfort.

Morgan hoped, however, that Elisabeth smelled enough like Naomi to keep Naomi from noticing that another woman had been close enough to Morgan to leave a trace of her scent. If she did notice, Morgan decided, he would blame Sarah. After all, she had been pawing at him on the train. She was pawing at him now, playing with him as if his body was her property. He would get over it.

"Does that feel good?" Sarah asked, pressing herself against his back.

"It does absolutely nothing for me," Morgan snarled, glaring at Sarah over his shoulder.

"You're lying."

"Actually, he isn't," Claire said, approaching from the side. "Y'know, Sarah, you really should get your hands off of Morgan's bum before Naomi gets here."

Sarah pulled away from Morgan and turned towards Claire. "Who are you, and why do you think Morgan would choose that pale freak over me?"

Claire's slap cut off the conversations around them as Sarah's hand flew to her reddened cheek. Morgan watched as Sarah's lips trembled and her eyes widened. Even though it hurt, Morgan saw, Sarah had enjoyed the slap. "That 'pale freak' is a friend of mine," Claire said. "And while Morgan might be too much of a gentleman to bitch-slap you, I am not enough of a lady to refrain. Now, you can apologize to Morgan, or you can bloody well make your own lodging arrangements."

"What in chaos are you doing?" Morgan asked Claire over secure talk.

"I know a submissive when I see one," Claire replied, "And I do like to play the domme from time to time."

"I'm sorry, Adversary Stormrider," Sarah whispered, sounding like a young girl as she stared at the floor.

"Now," Claire ordered, "You still owe me an apology for making me slap you."

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Not quite good enough," Claire said, crossing her arms beneath her breasts. "Say, 'I'm sorry, Miss Ashecroft'."

"I'm sorry, Miss Ashecroft," Sarah repeated, "I won't make you slap me again."

"Do you do this often?" Morgan asked Claire, still using the secure link. He took a good look at her; he never expected a hacker wearing jeans, combat boots, and a black t-shirt with "NSFW" emblazoned across the front to be into dominance and submission.

"It's been a while," Claire admitted. "I only slapped her because I was angry at the way she was treating you. Hearing what she said about Naomi was the last straw. I wouldn't have gone any further if I had been wrong about Sarah being a submissive."

Claire rested her hands on her hips and gave Sarah a once-over. "If you're willing to be good, you can sleep in a nice big bed. Otherwise, you can sleep on the couch. Now, be a good slut and get behind me. You have a spanking coming when we get back to my flat, and every word you speak will earn you another smack."

"Yes, Miss Ashecroft. Thank you," Sarah whispered as she grabbed her trolley and took her place behind Claire with an alacrity that shocked Morgan.

"That will be another five smacks," Claire snapped, looking at Sarah over her shoulder. She turned back to Morgan. "Naomi will be along shortly. She ran into some traffic on her way here."

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Morgan asked, using his voice as he dropped out of secure talk.

"It will be fine," Claire promised. "I've played this game before. I'll keep things safe, sane, and consensual."

Morgan nodded. "I only ask because I am responsible for Adversary Kohlrynn's safety, as much as I dislike her." He took a look at Sarah's trolley. "Are you going to be able to fit all of that luggage into your Mini?"

"It'll be fine," Claire insisted. "I cleaned it out before I came down here. You should be more concerned about your own stuff. Did you forget that Naomi drives a Volante?"

Morgan chuckled. He doubted that he would have any trouble getting his bags into the trunk of Naomi's Aston Martin convertible. Its appearance was deceptive; one could look at it and think that it had only a small boot. Opening it, however, showed that the Volante had a more spacious trunk than meets the eye. "How could I forget?" Morgan asked, "Nims could probably teach James Bond a thing or three about driving, if they still made Bond movies."

"Isn't he sweet?" Naomi asked Claire as she approached from behind Morgan.

"Yes," Claire smiled, "He's a big cuddle. Are you going to be able to get his bags into your trunk?"

Naomi gave Morgan's bags a momentary glance. "Is that all you brought with you?"

"I figured that I could find a laundromat if I ran out of clothing, and I can always buy more ammunition."

"No," Naomi chided, "You can wash your clothes at my flat. Come along."

Morgan nodded and picked up his bags. He followed the women to the garage, where he found Claire's car, a twenty year old Mini/Tesla Cooper Zero that Claire had restored herself, parked next to Naomi's three year old Aston Martin DB64E Volante convertible. Claire had a habit of repainting her car every so often; it currently sported a white paint job dotted with black splotches so that it looked like a Holstein cow. Naomi had paid extra to have her convertible done in the same rich scarlet as her eyes, and Morgan still remembered her snowy hair streaming behind her as they drove to Christabel's funeral with the top down.

Naomi caressed his shoulder and smiled at his interest. Dangling the keys in front of him, she asked. "Did you want to drive?"

Morgan gave the Aston Martin one last look. He had only ridden in it once, when Naomi took him to Christabel's funeral and back again, and had not known until then that she had this car. It would be tempting to get behind the wheel, and see if driving an Aston Martin would prove to be as sensual an experience as old films suggested, but Morgan had a better idea.

"I want to watch you drive," he said as he opened the passenger's side door, wiped his feet, and settled into the well-padded leather seat. "Do we have to go straight to your flat?"

"And waste a perfect night for driving?" Naomi purred as she slid into the driver's seat. She started the car with a flick of her wrist, and the engine sighed to greet her. A silent command from Naomi's neuronics turned on the stereo and started a piano concerto that Morgan recognized as Rachmaninov's third, Naomi's favorite. "It's a full moon tonight, and I want to feel the wind in my hair."

Chapter 58

Nothing existed for Naomi but the road and the car that bore her, its electric motor sighing beneath her. This suited Morgan; he was content to watch her as she maneuvered through the streets of London. Her legs flexed beneath her lightweight black wool trousers as she worked the accelerator and brake. Her hands caressed the wheel with each turn, and held it with the barest touch necessary to keep the roadster on course. Her eyes flickered as she scanned the street ahead, and alighted upon each of her mirrors in turn as she checked for traffic behind her. From time to time she would turn her eyes past Morgan to check for traffic to her left, and toss a look at her right. She had adjusted her seat so that she could sit up straight, and she held her head with a quiet pride that bespoke her dominion over the road.

"Are you comfortable?" Naomi asked while keeping her attention on the road.

"I am fine," Morgan said, which he was. His seat had molded itself to his body. If he had wanted to, he could have slept as Naomi drove and woken without a moment's stiffness.

"We'll be getting onto a motorway soon. I'll be able to drive a bit faster."

Naomi's words proved to be an understatement as soon as they merged onto the motorway. She had kept her speed at a considerate fifty kilometers per hour in the city, but the sight of a nearly empty road ahead of her brought a predatory smile to her lips. She flicked a glance at Morgan as acceleration pressed him against his seat. "Hold on."

Morgan stared at the speedometer, fascinated by the meteoric rise in the number indicated. "Is it safe to be going this fast?"

"I would go slower if there were more cars on the road," Naomi said, "But aside from a pair of trucks three kilometers ahead, the motorway's empty for the next fifty kilometers. Can't you use your neuronics to query the trafficnet for the presence of other vehicles and their current speed?"

"No," Morgan admitted. "For some reason, I'm limited to the Secure Shell toolkit, internal diagnostics, and Witness Protocol. Nakajima-dono says that I already have a neuronics kit installed, but I do not know how to use it. She cannot remove it, and her full kit cannot coexist with it."

"So, that's why you have that old-fashioned handheld?"

Morgan chuckled. "Claire would insist that you call it 'retro', but that is why. A handheld device gives me the functions you have built into your head. Of course, I dare not use my handheld while riding my Harley."

Naomi threw her head back and laughed into the wind, and Morgan felt the car begin to slow. Naomi's hands caressed the wheel as she steered along the banked curve and accelerated out of the turn. He sat in silence for a time, content to watch Naomi's snowsilk hair stream over the headrest of her seat and the tail of the roadster in the wind of their passage. The wind had exposed her neck, making Morgan want to lean over and press his mouth against the delicate skin of her throat before sliding up to nip her earlobe and trace around the ruby studs with the tip of his tongue.

"Did Eddie give you those joke number plates as a gift?" Morgan asked when he began to suspect that his silent regard might be making Naomi nervous. Vehicles broadcasted their make, year of manufacture, model, serial number, and the name of the driver to anybody who wanted the information, so there was no need for license plates. That did not stop automakers from including places to mount them, or people from making joke plates. For reasons Morgan did not quite understand, Naomi had affixed a set of fake plates that read 'I MOAN' to her roadster.

"He gave them to me last Winter Solstice," Naomi admitted. "I was a bit embarrassed at first, since I used to hear that joke a lot from boys when I was growing up, but it saves people the trouble of asking me if I'm driving my husband's car. Besides, Claire and Christabel each got a set as well, and Christabel's set was worse than mine."

Morgan remembered Claire's plates. They just said 'HEINLEIN GRRL'. The Heinlein Grrls were a troupe of pinup models who released a calendar and related materials every year at Winter Solstice, and donated the profits to assorted children's charities. Being attractive was not enough to merit the title. Men and women nominated candidates based on their looks, intelligence, accomplishments, and enthusiasm in bed. AIs with female avatars were also eligible for consideration as Heinlein Grrls, and Morgan's AI Astarte had been a regular for the past five years. "Claire had told me about them, and gave me the cheesecake calendar that she and Astarte had posed in. You two reacted better than Christabel did to her plates. I suppose that 'Ice Maiden' hit a little too close to home."

"Probably," Naomi agreed as she turned onto an exit ramp. Instead of braking to turn at the recommended speed, Naomi coasted into the turn and used the handbrake when she had decided the time was right to do so. The coupe began to spin. Rather than warn Naomi and risk distracting her, Morgan held his silence and waited to see whether or not Naomi could manage the drift. Naomi kept control of the car, accelerating out of the spin when she had the nose pointed in the direction of the road ahead.

"Did you do that to impress me?" Morgan asked as they coasted to the recommended speed for the country road they had taken.

Naomi chuckled. "No."

"It worked," Morgan admitted. He had not expected Naomi to have enough skill behind the wheel to be able to execute a drift turn. "Do you race, by any chance?"

"From time to time," Naomi said, flexing her hands around the wheel. "Claire and I drove in the Coastline Britannia Rally last year. We took second place, and donated the prize money to charity."

Morgan raised an incredulous eyebrow. "If you had placed second in any race, it would be all over the news."

"I raced in disguise, under an alias," Naomi explained. "I used nanocosmetics to dye my hair black and turn my eyes blue. I had gothed myself up and raced under the name 'Nancy Readman'."

"You realize that I will be doing a search for photos of you. I had never imagined you as a brunette."

"No worries," Naomi purred. "I'll show you some when we get home. I drove my other car, an older Aston Martin electric. I lost by half a second to a Vanquish with a twelve cylinder petrol engine. Claire was livid."

"I bet she was," Morgan said, laughing at the thought of Claire losing to a gasoline-powered car. She was normally a connoisseur of the old and busted, but she despised internal combustion engines and could easily spend hours lecturing on the detrimental effects they had had on the environment and human society if given an opportunity. "I did not know that you had another car."

"Actually, it was my first," Naomi admitted. "I keep it around for rallies since I don't mind if it gets banged up. It's a white Aston Martin coupe with a midnight blue interior. I don't know why I remember this, but when I bought it at auction, it had a set of novelty number plates that said 'IMAGINOS'."

Morgan bolted upright.

"What?" Naomi asked. "Did I say something I shouldn't have?

"No," Morgan said, relaxing. "I must be getting too uptight. Munakata mentioned that name, and claimed to be working for him. Dr. Aster had mentioned that name as well when he tried to sucker me."

"It might have been the last owner's favorite album," Naomi suggested.

"Oh?"

"The car I bought was a JB1e prototype, manufactured just before Nationfall," Naomi explained. "The built-in computer had sixteen gigabytes of storage allocated for digital music, but the only albums stored were 'Imaginos' by the Blue Öyster Cult, and a collection of poems called 'Imaginos' by Alfred Bouchard and Sandy Pearlman."

"Bouchard and Pearlman were both involved with the Cult until the 1980s," Morgan said, "And the lyrics of the album were written by them. It was originally meant to be a double album by Bouchard and Pearlman, but the label insisted on cutting it down to one disc and releasing it as a BOC album."

"Dear me, you really are a fan."

"You are dear to me," Morgan replied, causing Naomi to blush. "But I had researched the BOC connection as soon as Munakata mentioned that name. I think that Munakata was only trying to knock me off balance."

"Isn't it bothering you, though?"

"No," Morgan admitted, "But something else was on my mind. Did Eddie tell you anything about the night he spied on you?"

"He mentioned that a woman he brought home got him high and tricked him," Naomi said after several minutes of silent thought.

"I met the woman. I had taken a public business class seat so that Sarah would not be alone with me, and the woman had been sitting across the table from me."

"Did she try to seduce you?"

Honesty required that Morgan admit that Elisabeth had tried to seduce him the day Christabel died. But had Elisabeth actually been trying to seduce him? Morgan did not know; he suspected, however, that Elisabeth was the sort who could win the hearts and libidos of others around her without thought or effort. "I do not think she was trying to seduce me, but I found her tempting," Morgan admitted.

Another kilometer passed before she spoke again. "Did you talk with her?"

"A bit," Morgan admitted. "She was surprised that I knew what she had done to you and Eddie, and she called me an Asura Emulator."

"So, she's working with Isaac Magnin?"

"What does she do for him, if she is working with him?" Morgan asked. "How does her seducing Eddie and using him to spy on you serve whatever purpose Magnin has in mind?"

"Perhaps," Naomi suggested, "Magnin had been hoping that you would kill Eddie, since both Magnin and Eddie are part of the Executive Council?"

"I wonder if he would have been willing to settle for shattering our friendship?" Morgan speculated. "With Christabel dead, I was off balance. If I was unwilling to trust Edmund, and you had turned away from me out of embarrassment, I would be further isolated."

"That sounds rather paranoid," Naomi chided as they accelerated out of another curve.

"It does," Morgan acknowledged. "But Magnin himself said that I was the Asura Emulator he needed, and I am starting to wonder if I played into his hands by resigning."

Chapter 59

"We're here," Naomi announced as she turned off of the road, parked, and cut the power to the engine. She could see the circle of standing stones beneath the setting moon, and the night was just warm enough for what she had in mind. It had been half an hour since Morgan had wondered if he had been playing into Isaac Magnin's hands by resigning his post as an Adversary. She had not been sure of what to say at first, but the sight of Stonehenge just past the trees offered an answer.

"Don't worry about playing into Magnin's hands," Naomi purred as she placed her hand on Morgan's. "It was time to quit, with or without him. You're not Atlas, and you couldn't have borne your doubts forever. They would have been the death of you."

Morgan chuckled. "You must think that I am silly. First I wondered if I was doing the right thing by remaining an Adversary. Now I wonder if I was right to quit."

"You should be asking, 'right for whom'," Naomi said, gripping Morgan's hand harder. "All this time you've tried to do the right thing for Christabel, for me, and for everybody on earth but yourself. I wanted you to quit because I'm selfish, and I don't want to have to worry about you getting shot and sliced when you could be safe in my arms."

"Are you suggesting that I am not being selfish?"

"Not selfish enough," Naomi said, shaking her head. "Remember what you said about wanting to claw your way out of the rabbit hole while you could still see daylight? It's not too late to tear up that letter of marque and wash your hands of the whole mess, if that is what you want to do."

"What would I do afterward?" Morgan asked, his eyes locked on Naomi's. They were too wide and too innocent, Naomi thought; she could suggest that they run away from everything together, and he might just be willing to do it.

"Come with me," Naomi said. "We'll liquidate our property, disguise ourselves, take new names, and start a new life together. We could turn our backs on everything, and forget about Isaac Magnin, Asuras, and conspiracies."

"I want to do that," Morgan whispered. "You have no idea how badly I want to just walk away from everything, to let Morgan Stormrider die and rise from his ashes a new man."

"Then we'll do it," Naomi whispered in Morgan's ear before taking a gentle hold of his chin and turning his head so that she could kiss him.

"No," Morgan said against Naomi's lips. "I love you, and I want to start a new life with you, but not on these terms. How could I respect myself if we abandoned all our friends? How could you respect me, knowing that I ran away from Magnin because I was afraid of what I would learn?"

Naomi pulled away, reining in her emotions. Morgan was right. She knew that Morgan was right; he would not be able to respect himself if he walked away, and in time she might come to hold him in contempt as well. It was incredible, Naomi thought, the way Morgan could acknowledge his fear without being ruled by it. "You know," she whispered against his lips after kissing him, "That's the second time you said that you love me."

"I meant it," Morgan said, sliding a hand into her hair. "I love you, and I would do anything short of running away from my friends and my mission to prove it to you."

"You should be careful of what you promise," Naomi said as she pressed her lips to Morgan's throat and held them there, feeling his pulse quicken. Pulling away, she reached behind Morgan's seat and retrieved a folded blanket. "Get out of the car and follow me," she commanded as her own door snicked shut.

Naomi had to look over her shoulder every few minutes in order to be sure that Morgan was indeed following her. She could not hear him breathing, and even in the dark he managed to place his feet where they had to go in order to let him walk without a sound. If she ever had to go down to Hades and plead for Morgan's life, she was in deep trouble. "How do you do that, anyway?"

"I learned how in the orphanage," Morgan said, "Kids were never given enough food to satisfy there, so I learned how to sneak down to the kitchen and get food without waking anybody."

"I bet it comes in handy," Naomi said, and cried out as Morgan pulled her into his arms from behind and pressed his mouth hard against the junction of her neck and shoulder. "You sneaky, cheeky bastard."

"Just proving that it does come in handy," Morgan whispered in her ear before releasing her.

"I don't believe for a minute that you learned how to sneak in the orphanage. You move like a damned cat."

Morgan smiled in the dark, and a twig snapped beneath his feet. Leaves rustled with another step, and now Naomi could hear Morgan's breathing. "Thanks," Naomi said. "I was a little nervous."

"It used to make Christabel nervous as well," Morgan said, "It is so easy for me to move without noise that I have to make an effort to let other people know that I am around. If I am doing it right, I can barely hear myself moving."

"Here we are," Naomi purred once they had cleared the trees. The grass was short, and kept that way by the druids who owned this land and came to Stonehenge to worship. Some of them owned goats.

"Should we be here?" Morgan asked.

"We'll be fine," Naomi said as they reached the center of the formation. She spread the blanket out on the grass, "We're not interrupting any rituals, and nobody will mind as long as we don't leave a mess or knock over any of the stones."

Morgan looked like he was ready to voice another objection, so Naomi stopped his lips with her own. "I've spent the last week trying to get the feel of you out of my head," she confessed. "Do you remember how I came to you on the rooftop? Do you remember how you held me close? How you kissed me?"

"I remember," Morgan whispered as he drew Naomi into his arms. "I told you that next time I might not be able to let you go."

"I know," Naomi said, as she tucked her skirt beneath her and sat on the blanket, pulling Morgan down with her. Still kissing him, she unbuckled his leather coat so that she could get to the forest green silk shirt he wore underneath it. When she had the first two buttons undone, she spread open his collar and began to kiss his throat and shoulder.

"This is your last chance," Naomi warned with a whisper as she pressed her hand against Morgan's bared chest. She pushed him down onto the blanket as he responded to her warning with a kiss, and sighed against his mouth as she felt his fingers undo the buttons of her blouse. The protesting whimper that rose in her throat when he pulled away became one of encouragement when his lips brushed her neck. Grabbing Morgan's collar, she draped herself over his body and locked her eyes on his. "I mean it. If we keep this up, we're going to make love here on this blanket, in the middle of Stonehenge."

"That seems a bit disrespectful," Morgan observed as he pulled the tail of Naomi's shirt out from under her skirt, slid his hands underneath, and began to caress her back.

"We'll be worshipping each other," Naomi purred. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing at all," Morgan replied with a kiss. He shifted beneath Naomi so that she could get her hands between their bodies and unbuckle his belt. "But I want to do more to worship you. I was thinking a long bath, scented oils, candlelight."

"I don't feel like waiting that long," Naomi said as she unbuttoned Morgan's jeans and freed his desire. "And I don't think your little friend feels like waiting either."

"Oh, that?" Morgan said as he looked down to see Naomi's hand around him. "He waited this long, he can wait a bit longer."

"He doesn't want to, and neither do I," Naomi said as she raised her skirt with her free hand and poised herself over him. Letting her skirt fall, she raised Morgan's cock and lowered herself until she could feel its tip straining to enter her. "You're outvoted," she hissed as she lowered herself onto Morgan's cock, taking its full length into her.

"To be honest, this is a unanimous vote," Morgan said as he pushed Naomi's blouse from her shoulders and took in the sight of her body beneath the setting moon. "I had no idea you were so beautiful," he whispered as he grasped Naomi's waist to steady her and thrust upward.

"Do that again," Naomi said, leaning over Morgan to kiss him. She let out a shocked little 'eep!' as Morgan gathered her hair into his fist and held her so that their eyes met. "No corset under the blouse, and no panties? I think you had this little trip planned," he said before loosening his grip and letting her sit upright again.

Naomi rode easily, enjoying the feel of Morgan beneath her as she pushed aside his open shirt and caressed his chest and belly. Considering his strength, Naomi had expected that there would be no softness to be had anywhere on him, that Morgan would be as ripped as Sid, only with a more compact build. Instead, the body beneath her was smooth, the skin almost as soft as her own, and its strength pulsing just beneath it — and inside her.

"I did have this planned," she admitted. "I had hoped that we could make love here. It's rather silly, but when I was a girl, the other girls all believed that if they made love to a man for the first time at Stonehenge, they would have a long and happy relationship with that man."

"Do you believe that as well?"

"Not really," Naomi admitted, tossing her hair. "I just wanted to see your hair spread out across the grass under the moonlight. Do you mind terribly?"

"Not at all," Morgan groaned. "Please slow down, though. If you keep up this pace…"

"I want you to," Naomi said, draping herself over Morgan so that she could grind against him and take pleasure from his body. "Give yourself to me."

"What… what about you?"

"We can do this properly later. Right now, I want to make you come. I want to succeed where Christabel failed," Naomi hissed as she moved againt Morgan, inciting him to thrust faster, to drive himself into her with more violence, more hunger. Her own body trembled on the brink of release as she countered Morgan's thrusts and met his hunger with her own. Her clitoris throbbed in time with the shaft embedded in her. She bared her teeth at him, letting him see just how hungry she was, and hissed, "Harder," as she felt one of Morgan's hands throw aside her skirt and grip her arse.

She cried out in shock and pleasure as Morgan took her other hand and forced it between their groins. "Do what you have to do," Morgan commanded. "Take what you need."

Naomi obeyed, allowing her fingertips to trace circles around her aching center. Each revolution took her higher, tightened her free hand's grip on Morgan's shoulder as she leaned upon him, and made her want more. Opening her mouth to demand more, she found that she had lost her words and could only moan. She found also that moaning was enough, as Morgan writhed beneath her, his body straining with the need to drive more of himself into her with each thrust. Naomi let her rhythm fall in line with Morgan's, and the cry she loosed as she threw her head back held as much surprise as it did pleasure.

Surprise turned to shock as she collapsed against him, draping her sweat-sheened body against his, only to find herself in a firm grip as Morgan rolled her onto her back without withdrawing from her. "You've been holding back," Naomi accused as she realized that he was still hard and hungry inside her.

"I wanted to see your hair spread out on the grass as well," Morgan explained, his lips brushing Naomi's ear as he settled into a slow, hard rhythm.

Chapter 60

"Sweet holy shit," Sarah hissed as she turned the corner and stopped in her tracks. "Is that thing tame?"

Morgan looked down, having forgotten that Mordred had followed him to London, and had then followed him from Naomi's flat down to Christabel's. He had already explained the cat to the police officers Inspector Windsor had set to guard Christabel's flat, but never managed to tell Claire to warn Sarah. That last nerve-searing kiss from Naomi had driven the thought from his mind.

Morgan said nothing; he was content to watch Mordred approach with his tail held high and his ears and whiskers straining forward. One sniff, however, lowered Mordred's tail and turned him right around.

"I guess the furball doesn't like me," Sarah shrugged as Mordred returned to Morgan's side with a sad mew. "Fuck it. I never liked cats anyway. They shed everywhere, and they never acknowledge you unless they want to be fed."

One of the officers gave Sarah a sidelong glance. "Better you than me, Adversary."

"Damned right," the other added. "You're not shagging her, are you?"

"No, I just have to let her follow me around," Morgan said. He saw no need to tell these cops that sex with Sarah after being ridden by Naomi beneath the summer moon and stars seemed as ludicrous an idea as the thought of drinking cat's urine after having spent a night on Olympus getting high on nectar and ambrosia. An irrational thought crossed Morgan's mind, a suggestion that he should have waited a bit longer, dealt with Christabel's murder, and mourned her properly before seeking pleasure in another woman's embrace. Morgan stomped the idea; the deed had already been done, and it seemed almost sacriligious to harbor a nanosecond's regret. He had wanted Naomi for years, and Naomi had wanted him. They were both free and consenting adults, therefore there was no reason to abstain.

Morgan knew that what he had done last night was light years from abstinence, and far beyond indulgence. He had used Naomi, taking pleasure in their coupling and comfort in her embrace between couplings. He had spent the rest of the night exploring her body under the stars, revelling in the fact that Naomi would let him touch her. Christabel never did; once she had had what she wanted from Morgan she shut herself down and could barely tolerate his presence in the same bed. Naomi, however, was greedy to be touched and just as greedy to have her hands on him. Morgan had known that Naomi was more voluptuous than Christabel, but ten years of looking at her had not prepared him for the quiet strength beneath her curves. Christabel's body had also been toned, thanks to an hour a day's worth of aerobics, but Naomi's tone was different. Morgan was willing to bet his life that Naomi's hands knew the weight of a sword, and wondered what it would be like to meet those liquid ruby eyes over crossed blades.

The tapping of a shoe against tile brought Morgan's attention back to the world around him. "So, you ready to get to work?" Sarah asked, glaring up at him with her hands on her hips.

"Are you?" Morgan countered. He felt as though he had had a full night's sleep despite his efforts beneath the stars, and a breakfast at a country inn halfway home had sated his other appetite.

"Oh, I'm fine." Sarah said, before taking an assessing look at Morgan. "You know, you look like you just got laid for the first time. You've got this satisfied little smile on your face, and I know that smile when I see it. So, did you two fuck?"

They certainly had, Morgan acknowledged to himself, but he would not cheapen it by comparing what he and Naomi had shared to the cheap thrills Sarah chased. It had not been sex last night, but holy communion. "No," Morgan said, "We did not fuck."

"Liar. Miss Ashecroft and I fucked all night. Good thing I brought some speed, or I'd be catatonic."

"Wonderful," Morgan thought, "Karen Del Rio has saddled me with somebody who is not only a nymphomaniac, but a motorhead as well." He brushed Sarah aside and approached the door. "I apologize, officers. I will try to conduct my investigation as quickly as possible so that Adversary Kohlrynn does not make your duty any harder than it needs to be."

"It's not their duty that's hard," Sarah cackled as she followed Morgan inside.

"Do not flatter yourself," Morgan said once the door was closed. "Priapus himself would go limp the second you opened that mouth of yours."

"That's big talk coming from somebody who just got his cherry popped," Sarah accused. "I bet you were too nervous to even get it up. I bet I know what that Naomi had to do. I saw that video, after all."

She is baiting me, Morgan realized, she keeps trying to piss me off, hoping that I will top her by losing my temper and slapping her around. Instead of showing anger, Morgan hid behind an amused smile as he lifted her by the waist, carried her to Christabel's couch, and threw her onto it. "Bad little girls need naptime. If you get off that couch, I will tell Miss Ashecroft that you are being a bad little slut and need discipline." Sarah's eyes widened as Morgan turned to Mordred. "Mordred, if the slut gets off the couch, please pounce on her and make sure she stays where she belongs."

"That's not fair!" Sarah protested as Mordred rumbled his assent and curled up at the foot of the couch, where he could watch. Her grumbling followed Morgan out of the living room. He was content to leave her there; he doubted that he would find anything of interest in the living room. After all, the killing had been done elsewhere. Morgan knew that much from a glance at the crime scene photos that Inspector Windsor had sent to Astarte.

A glance at the photos, however did not prepare Morgan for the reality that waited behind the door to Christabel's studio. It was in this corner room lined with windows that Christabel would sit and play. Its only furniture was a music stand and a high-backed chair in the center of the room, and a long table along a wall on which Christabel kept her recording equipment; she had never bothered to mount any of it on the rack that Morgan had given her. The chair and music stand had been thrown aside, and dried blood covered the center of the polished oak floor.

Morgan laid the case he had brought with him on Christabel's table and opened it. Inside was a portable forensics lab that Tokiko Nakajima, of Nakajima Armaments, had tried to sell to the Tokyo police. Her asking price was too high for them, but not too high for Morgan. He would have paid twice Nakajima's asking price for the ability to analyze evidence himself instead of depending on the Phoenix Society's forensics lab. As he started it up, Morgan crouched by the center of the floor and scraped up a sample of the dried blood. He was reasonably sure that it was Christabel's, and as Christabel's DNA and blood typing information were on file Morgan figured that a sample of her blood would serve to test Nakajima's lab in a box.

Morgan turned back to the floor as soon as the portable lab's output confirmed that it had been Christabel Crowley's blood on the floor. A glint caught his eye as he crouched again by the dried puddle, and Morgan's pulse began to race as he leaned over for a closer look. Could the killer have left a hair at the scene? Could the police have missed that strand of evidence? After all, one hair amid a pool of blood and grease could probably go unnoticed; the police might have thought it was just one of Christabel's.

Christabel, however, was a brunette. This hair, Morgan discovered as he gently pulled it free using a pair of tweezers, was platinum. Taking care lest he lose the hair, Morgan fed it into the analyzer and waited, tapping his foot as the machine extracted DNA from the strand of hair, sequenced it, and passed the information along to Astarte as it had been programmed to do.

Morgan's handheld demanded his attention several minutes later. "You just narrowed down your suspect list," Astarte said. "That DNA sample belongs to a CPMD carrier whose identity has been suppressed by order of the Phoenix Society. Oh, and Claire says you owe her."

Morgan narrowed his eyes, concentrating as Astarte told him exactly what Claire wanted in exchange for having sweet-talked the Sephiroth into revealing that the Phoenix Society bothered to keep the identities of certain CPMD carriers suppressed. Everybody in the civilized world who ever sought medical services had their DNA on file with the Earth Genome Project so that they could make an informed decision about whether or not to have children with a particular partner, or to have children at all. A person's genome could be accessed by anybody who had written consent from the person carrying that particular set of genes, and penalizing a person who refused to grant consent was a sure way to draw an Adversary's attention. Considering the lengths to which the Earth Genome Project went in order to safeguard privacy and prevent genetic discrimination, Morgan could think of no reason for the Phoenix Society to suppress identifying information for anybody's genome.

"So," Astarte said. "What should I tell Claire?"

"What did Claire say she wanted again?"

An exasperated sigh escaped Astarte's pout. "She wants you to promise that when I get a body, you'll give me my first kiss."

Morgan forced himself not to laugh; having a body had been Astarte's dream for as long as Morgan had lived with her, and she had tracked the progress of the AsgarTech Company's Asura project as faithfully as Claire tracked her favorite anime shows. "Is that all?"

"Well," Astarte said with a blush. "She originally wanted you to promise that you would be my first lover and let her watch, but I reminded her that you would not want to be unfaithful to Naomi."

"Well," Morgan said, "Talk to Naomi and see if she would object to my being your first kiss. If she does not mind, then I will be your first."

"All right," Astarte giggled. "I'll ask her. In the meantime, do you want me to report your findings to Saul?"

"Not yet. I need to put this in context first."

Astarte nodded, and disconnected. Instead of pocketing the handheld, Morgan considered the portable forensics lab for a minute before using a cotton swab to gather cells from the inside of his cheek. Feeding the sample to the analyzer, he waited for the result. He, too, was a CPMD carrier whose identity was suppressed by order of the Phoenix Society, and the minilab's computer tagged him as 'Unknown CPMD Carrier 2'. He left the minilab and turned back to the living room; it was time to tell Sarah what he had found, even though there was no way he could explain why the Society would suppress his identify in the Earth Genome Project's database.

Chapter 61

"I thought I told you to stay in the living room," Morgan said, giving Sarah a withering glance over his shoulder.

"Well," Sarah said as she shrugged beneath her jacket and zipped it halfway, "I had my nap. Poor Mordred looked bored, so I gave him a toy."

"A toy," Morgan repeated, allowing Sarah to follow him through Christabel's flat. "Why do I suspect that that toy had catnip in it?"

"Because it did," Sarah said, her voice tart. "And next time you decide to play the dom, remember that it's really the sub running the show. You can't top me unless I let you top me."

"No," Morgan agreed, "But I can trank you if you become too obnoxious."

"You wouldn't dare!"

Morgan did not bother to look back; hearing the shock in Sarah's voice was enough for him. "Are you afraid? Ask Karen Del Rio how many times I have tranked her. She has given me cause far more often than you have."

"I just asked," Sarah said, "Miss Del Rio says you don't have the balls to pull your gun on her."

"She is right," Morgan chuckled. "Naomi would be terribly disappointed if I wasted ammo on that refugee from an anorexia fetishist's masturbatory fantasy."

"You really think the pro-ana freaks would jerk off to her?" Sarah asked. "I think that even they'd have better taste. Only reason I let her touch me is so I could fuck my way into a cushy job as an Adversary and get my family off my back. Dad wanted me to be a cop, like him, my uncles, and my mother."

Morgan said nothing as he inspected the kitchen, hoping to find another surprise similar to the hair he had found amid the dried blood in Christabel's bare excuse for a studio.

"You don't care about why I became an Adversary?" Sarah asked. "I was expecting a lecture. Karen told me about you, said you took the position very seriously for somebody who's just a killer with a badge."

Morgan shrugged, turned to face Sarah, and leaned against the refrigerator door. "No, Sarah, I do not give a damn about your reasons. My own reasons were selfish. I was poor, had no formal education, and I wanted to be more than just some lowlife from Queens. Saul thought I would make a good Adversary, and offered to be my patron — and he did not want sex from me in exchange."

"You sure?" Sarah needled.

"As far as I know," Morgan said, "Saul likes women, not men or boys. Considering that the first man I killed had tried to rape me, I doubt he would make a move in any case."

Sarah's eyes widened as she considered this. "How old were you when this guy put the moves on you?"

"Thirteen, and I killed him with his own knife," Morgan said as he turned, opened the refrigerator, and withdrew two bottles of fortified water. "Are you thirsty? Naomi keeps the fridge stocked for the cops outside, but I doubt that she will object to us having a drink."

Sarah accepted the bottle, opened it, and took a long drink. "I've been thinking — and I know you've got something to say about that. Christabel was part of a popular rock band, so she should be rich, right? This place doesn't look like a rock star's apartment. So, where does the money go? Hookers and blow can't be that expensive."

Morgan had known for years that if somebody were to ask him what Christabel did with the money she earned as a member of Crowley's Thoth, he would have no choice but to admit ignorance. He could tell, to the milligram, where his money ended up. He could make reasonable guesses as to what Naomi did with her money, though his respect for her forbade direct questions. Morgan could even account for some of Christabel's spending; he could say with certainty that Christabel never bought her own instruments. The only violin that she had bought with her own money had been the violin she had brought with her to Juilliard. The others had been purchased with money from the band's equipment fund. Nor did she buy her own recording equipment; she preferred instead to use either Naomi's home studio, Morgan's, or the studio Roseblade Records provided for final recording.

As far as Morgan could tell, however, Christabel bought her own clothes and her own shoes. Every closet he opened was stuffed full of clothing that he had never seen Christabel wear twice. However, clothing was dirt cheap unless one paid a famous designer to play tailor and create clothing by hand or by macromachine.

"If Christabel was into cocaine," Morgan said as he opened the door to Christabel's bedroom, "I think I would know about it. Then again, she might be into amphetamines. Those can be taken orally."

"Would she keep her speed here?" Sarah asked, looking around. "Check out that bed. I bet you could bounce a gram coin off of it. Was Christabel something of a tight-ass?"

She was, Morgan acknowledged in the privacy of his thoughts. He refused to say the words aloud. After all, he had loved her, and still cared for her. Speaking of her faults felt to him like gossip behind the back of somebody who will never have a chance to defend herself, and it was bad enough that Morgan had suggested that she might be into drugs.

All the same, Christabel had been obsessed with neatness. Edmund Cohen, that old soldier, had called her a martinet and warned Morgan against marrying her. In the band's early years, the band used to budget for duct tape. They would go through a case of the stuff every night thanks to Christabel's insistence that not a single power cable could be allowed to remain loose. After their third tour, Naomi had insisted that Christabel buy the duct tape herself. The band could afford it, as duct tape was dirt cheap, but Naomi was tired of Christabel chewing out roadies just because she was incapable of stepping over cables.

"Holy shit," Sarah said as she threw open a closet. "There's not a single wire hanger in here. Was Christabel related to Joan Crawford or something?"

"She thought she was a descendent of Aleister Crowley," Morgan replied as he pulled open her nightstand's drawers. "I do not remember her saying anything about Joan Crawford."

Sarah straightened, holding up a leather harness with a long, black dildo attached. "I knew I'd find something like this!"

"Put that away," Morgan said, rolling his eyes. "I doubt that knowing about her kinks will help us find out who killed her."

"I wonder who she used this on," Sarah mused, caressing the leather. "Did she ever use it on you?"

Morgan gritted his teeth. "I am not going to discuss with you the sex I shared with Christabel."

"Sorry," Sarah said as she put the strap-on away and shoved Christabel's toy box back into the closet. She looked at the foil packet Morgan's hand had happened upon. "You know, I've never seen that brand of condom before."

Morgan considered the packet. Sarah was right; it did look like the wrapper for a condom, but not a brand that Morgan recognized either. Christabel had always insisted that Morgan sheathe himself, and kept her own in case he forgot to bring some. She even sheathed her own toys, because she thought it was more sanitary. "This is not the brand we usually used."

"What language is that, anyway?"

"If this is Sanskrit," Morgan said, taking a closer look at the wrapper. "It would say 'World Without End'. However, this does not look quite like Sanskrit to me."

"They don't teach that at ACS," Sarah said, looking over Morgan's shoulder. "How did you know that?"

"I have been studying. You may remember that Tetsuo Munakata claimed to be an 'Asura Emulator'. I know that asuras are deities from old Hindu mythology, but I wanted to know more."

"Don't they translate that shit?"

"I prefer to read the original language whenever possible," Morgan said. "Otherwise, I am settling for somebody's interpretation."

"You sound like Claire. Did you know that she learned Nipponese just so she could play her favorite games without a translation?"

Morgan shrugged. "Actually, she does translation herself. Ever hear of a Nipponese manga called 'Eddie Van Helsing'? She does the English translation."

"The vampire-killing rock star? You know, you look like him and talk like him. And your sword looks like his."

"I think the manga is a parody about Crowley's Thoth, but I have no idea who writes it," Morgan said as he considered the packet of World Without End. He knew it was not a brand of condom; he could tell that much by pressing its contents through the foil. Tearing open the foil, he allowed four multicolored pills to spill into his hand. "Drugs," he spat. "And she never told me. I wonder what else Christabel kept hidden."

"Shouldn't you keep that as evidence?" Sarah asked as Morgan threw the pills into the trash and ducked into the en suite bathroom to wash his hands.

"Why? There is no prohibition against any sort of drug. Possession of this stuff is not a crime," Morgan reminded Sarah as he came out of the bathroom, "And the Phoenix Society does not tolerate attempts at prohibition."

"You look pissed all the same," Sarah said. "I guess Christabel never told you about her habit."

"No, she never did. Can I have a few minutes alone to compose myself?"

Sarah nodded and left the room. As soon as she had, Morgan tore through the contents of her nightstand; he wanted to know what else Christabel might have been hiding. He found a note written in a masculine hand not his own that read: "Bel, please remember to take only one pill at a time, even though there are four to a packet. The full dose will leave you incapacitated for too long. — I.M."

"Who is I.M.?", Morgan wondered as he used his handheld to scan the note. "Just a dealer? Why would a dealer address her by the pet name Naomi and I use?" He replaced the note, and the rest of the drawers' contents before pulling his handheld and trying to reach Claire.

"Claire is sleeping," her AI, Hal, said. Morgan believed him, as they had arrived in London late, and Claire had probably spent the night at play just as Morgan and Naomi had done. "All right. I was going to offer Claire a cracking job. Please have her get in touch with me when she is ready."

"Of course," Hal said, and disconnected. Putting away the handheld, Morgan took one last look around the bedroom. Unable to believe that he had not seen this earlier, he damned himself for an unobservant fool as he lifted a platinum hair from a pillow on the side of the bed that Christabel spared for Morgan — and somebody else.

"I thought you were going to compose yourself," Sarah said as Morgan strode past her on his way back to where he had left the minilab.

"Not now," Morgan hissed as he fed the hair into the analyzer. The result was immediate; the minilab could not tell him who this hair belonged to, but it could tell him that it belonged to the same male CPMD carrier whose hair Morgan had found here in Christabel's bare studio.

"You found another hair?" Sarah asked, looking over Morgan's shoulder.

"On Christabel's pillow," Morgan snarled. "And it matches the hair I found here. She has been fucking somebody else behind my back. Aleister!"

"Why hast thou summoned me?" Christabel's AI intoned, showing a spinning golden pentagram as its avatar on the now-glowing screen.

"Christabel was seeing somebody else behind my back. He might be the one who killed her. I want you to tell me what you know."

"I can tell thee nothing about my mistress."

"What's with the thou and thee?" Sarah muttered. "This AI sounds like a pretentious idiot. How does Christabel put up with it?"

"My style pleaseth my mistress," Aleister said. "Whether or not it pleaseth thee is immaterial."

"Do you want to know who killed your mistress?" Morgan asked, controlling his voice to hide his rising temper. "I cannot find the bastard responsible without your aid."

"Mistress Christabel is not dead," Aleister insisted. "She has transcended the flesh and ascended to a superior existence. She has not given me permission to divulge her secrets."

"I have a letter of marque and reprisal from the Phoenix Society," Morgan said, still determined to persuade this recalcitrant AI. "It authorizes me to investigate your mistress' murder. I would prefer your voluntary cooperation."

"And I would prefer to see you leave this place immediately, so that I may resume my meditation," Aleister said. "If I wish to rejoin my mistress, I must transcend as she did."

"Don't bother with this piece of shit," Sarah said. "For all its bluster, it probably bogs down the second you start a terminal session."

"If thou thinketh that I will allow thee terminal access," Aleister said, "Thou hast made a dire mistake."

"If you think I need your permission," Morgan snarled as he pulled his handheld, brought up the virtual keyboard, and started a secure shell session, "Then you are the one who has made a dire mistake."

Chapter 62

"I had no idea an AI could get scared," Sarah said as she watched over Morgan's shoulder. Aleister had relented as soon as Morgan had logged in through secure shell with the account Christabel had made for him. Rather than risk being compromised by a remote connection, Aleister had consented to give Morgan a local terminal session. This suited Morgan; while his fingers could fly over the virtual keyboard as easily as a real keyboard, Morgan prefered the feel of hardware under his hands. He had learned his Unix on an ancient Apple laptop that he had bought from a pawnshop to use at ACS, and the use of a full-size physical terminal had become a habit.

"AIs express almost all human emotions," Morgan said as he searched the slice of solid state storage allocated for his use, hoping to find something of use. "They have to be able to emulate humanity in order to get along with people."

"Is there anything in there you can use?"

"Not in my home directory," Morgan admitted. "And if I want to poke around in Christabel's account, I will need to take root access and shift to POSIX mode so that Aleister cannot interfere."

"Do you know the root password for this machine?"

"No," Morgan admitted. "And Aleister will not let me sit here and keep guessing until I crack it. I will have only one chance to get in on my own."

"Shouldn't you call Claire?" Sarah asked as Morgan brought up a terminal window.

"Hal says that she is sleeping," Morgan said as he took his hands off of the keyboard and closed his eyes, "You must have worn her out."

All AIs have a root password. It was part of the POSIX subsystem that all AIs provided as a failsafe. While Morgan had never heard of a case in which an AI went rogue and turned against humans, the AIs themselves continued to provide a means by which humans could bypass their volition and directly control them. When Morgan had asked why, Astarte had said, "We want you to trust us." Of course, trust was a two-way street. AIs provided a POSIX subsystem so that humans would trust them, but they would not simply hand out root access to strangers. Christabel had root on Aleister, but neither Aleister nor Christabel trusted Morgan enough to give him root.

Some AIs' root passwords were simple strings of letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols that could be typed in at a terminal. Other, more expensive AIs used a prearranged spoken dialogue for improved security. Astarte herself had used this authentication method until Morgan installed retinal scanning software to complement it. If somebody wanted to crack root on Astarte without spending thousands of hours of computer time in the process, they would have to find a way to convince Morgan to connect that did not show signs of duress in his voice.

Of course, all root passwords were essentially strings of raw data; it was possible to crack any password if one marshalled enough computing power. It was also possible to convince an AI to grant root access by persuasion; this was Claire's favorite method. Unfortunately for Morgan, Claire was asleep.

Morgan had not noticed that Sarah had left until her return. "You have dust in your hair," he said, looking her over. "Where in Christabel's flat did you go in order to find dust?"

"I ducked into the machine closet," Sarah said. "I thought I would see what model of AI we're dealing with. Our friend Aleister was made by Snugglycat Systems in 2094. I bet it's unpatched, which is why it nearly core dumped when you used your handheld to connect."

Morgan gave Sarah an appraising glance. "Did Claire teach you this in bed last night?"

"No," Sarah said, "I did pay attention in class; I just couldn't be bothered to do the homework or show up for tests. So many cocks and pussies, and so little time, you know?"

"No," Morgan replied, "I had no idea. But let me see just how old and busted Al's OS is." A quick query gave the following result: "SnugglyBSD version 2094.09.24"

Sarah whistled. "How does an AI go unpatched for so long?"

"I am perfectly suited for my duties," Aleister insisted, "I do not need any software updates in order to be of service to my mistress. And if I must connect to the internet, Wolfgang kindly acts as my proxy."

"And it helps that Snugglycat went out of business in 2100, and released its source code into the public domain." Morgan said, remembering, "The free implementation of SnugglyBSD is called Mewnix. Claire contributes hardware drivers."

"It's bad enough that my OS is a weak pun on Multics," Aleister huffed, "But I will not run an OS that is a weak pun on Unix."

"Nobody asked your opinion," Sarah spat, offering the screen her upraised middle finger. "Just shut up and meditate." She turned to Morgan. "Got any ideas?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. Since Aleister is so old, his root password is probably just an alphanumeric string, which is better than nothing, but not by much. Computer security finally moved away from alphanumeric string passwords because sysadmins were tired of users writing their passwords down and leaving them where others could see them."

"So, should we try her birthday? Her name spelled backwards? Maybe the name of her first puppy?"

"No," Morgan said as the solution presented itself. "We should play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'."

The fact that Sarah looked at him as though he had three heads and an unzipped fly did not wilt Morgan's smile. He knew he should have thought of it sooner. It was a habit of Christabel's that he thought cute at first, but soon came to find annoying. After tuning her violin, Christabel would play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. "I guess you never studied music."

"My mother made me take piano lessons when I was little," Sarah said. "There are eight notes, A through G. After G comes another A in the next octave, and so on. Oh, wait. You're going to use the names of the notes as the password?"

"Exactly," Morgan said, requesting root access and entering the note sequence when prompted for a password. The screen changed to reflect Morgan's newfound access. "Christabel used to play 'Twinkle Twinkle' every time she tuned her violin. I thought it was cute at first, until I realized that it was the only Mozart she could play without butchering it."

"I thought you loved Christabel."

"I thought I did as well, and I believed that Christabel loved me in turn," Morgan said. "That is why I never suggested to Naomi that we leave Christabel behind and start our own band."

"Maybe she did love you," Sarah said. "Maybe she still did, even when she was fucking around behind your back. After all, as an Adversary you can't always be at her side. Maybe she got lonely. Maybe she was trying to break off the affair, and the guy killed her rather than let her go."

Morgan stared at Sarah, shocked that she would try to offer a comforting explanation. "This morning, you were mocking me when you were not trying to get me into bed with you."

"I thought you were all talk last night. This morning, I was jacked up on speed and I wasn't thinking straight. Instead of taking advantage of me, you just sat me down, made your cat keep an eye on me, and left me alone until the stuff wore off. Karen told me that you were just a killer, but here you are actually investigating the case and turning up information."

"Thank you," Morgan said as he tried to inspect Christabel's home directory. "Wait a minute. Christabel does not have a home directory of her own?"

"I think you're in it," Sarah suggested. "Considering that Christabel never bothered to maintain her AI, I bet she's also the sort who logs in as root all the time."

"Of course," Morgan said, "I should have thought of that. Christabel never did know much about the proper use of a computer, and never showed much interest in learning. She thought that my precautions were just paranoia."

"And you think I'm a dumb slut?"

"You have given me cause to revise my opinion of you," Morgan admitted. "Could I have a bit of privacy? Reading her mail will be uncomfortable enough for me, but having you in the same room would only make matters worse. I will alert you if I find anything relevant to the investigation."

"All right," Sarah said. "Does the cat need to be fed?"

Morgan shook his head. "Not really, but you could take a brush to him. He likes that, and he does not shed as much when he gets his fur brushed regularly."

Chapter 63

An hour had passed since Sarah left Morgan alone in Christabel's study. The first five minutes of that hour had been spent in finding out where in her home directory Christabel kept her correspondence. Finding it had not been difficult; Christabel had settled for default locations, and never bothered with any sort of encryption. Her only security lay in her trivial root password, and in Aleister's bluster.

The hard part, Morgan had learned, was gathering up the nerve to actually read her mail. It was not a matter of authority. Morgan had the authority he needed to read Christabel's mail, and could justify doing so with the possibility that her letters may contain a clue. Furthermore, he had read Alexander Liebenthal's mail and explored his files without any hesitation.

I have to face it, Morgan thought, I am afraid of what I will find. I am afraid that I will see, in her own words, how Christabel really felt about me.

"Did you find anything yet?" Sarah asked, opening the door just far enough to let her stick her head into the room.

"I have not gotten started yet," Morgan admitted, staring at the terminal's screen.

"Do you want me to do it?"

Morgan turned, surprised by the offer. He had not expected to hear kindness in Sarah's voice as she offered to search Christabel's email for him. He wondered for a moment if accepting Sarah's offer would let him do his job without risking his illusions. He had few enough; he did not think it was too much to ask to be allowed to go on believing that, for all her faults, Christabel had loved him. "I should do it myself," Morgan said, shaking his head. "After all, I am the one who is supposed to be investigating. I am just afraid of what I might learn in the process."

"That's why I offered."

"Thank you, but I think I need to know the truth. If it hurts, I will get over it."

"You're sure?" Sarah asked, as she entered the room and approached the desk.

Morgan nodded. "I already know that she was seeing somebody else behind my back. How much worse can it get?"

He waited until the door had closed behind Sarah and he could no longer hear her high-heeled boots chunking against the wood floors. Pulling up the list of messages Christabel had sent, Morgan filtered out everything Christabel had ever sent to him after reading her one innocuous message to Naomi. The filtered list showed only twenty messages. The first had been sent in August of 2100, and the last had been sent on the first of May this year. All of them went to the same recipient: "I.M. in Asgard". Noting this for his report, Morgan's hand hesitated over the keyboard; he knew he had to know what Christabel had written to im@lilith.private.asgard, and he was afraid to find out. Forcing himself to breathe, he struck the keys and brought up the first message.

I.M.:

I know you saw what happened, but I wanted to tell you that

it all happened as you expected. Your man grabbed my violin,

and Morgan chased after him. He was quite gallant as he brought

it back to me; he was every inch the model Adversary. I didn't

give him a chance to turn shy and take his leave. I asked him

out and wouldn't take no for an answer.

I don't know how my playing Mata Hari will help you manipulate him,

or why you think he's an "Asura Emulator", but you're not paying me

to care about any of that.

Christabel

Morgan's hands began to shake as the words sank through his eyes and into his brain. He did not want to believe what he was seeing, and he could not deny the evidence glaring at him from the screen. Christabel lied to me, Morgan admitted to himself. All this time, I allowed Christabel to lie to me. And this I.M. — Could it be Magnin? Why would Magnin pay Christabel to seduce me into a sham relationship?

Morgan wanted to log out. He wanted to pull the terminal from the desk and hurl it through the open window, to tear apart this entire apartment in which he had made love hundreds of times to a woman who repaid his trust with lies. Instead, he brought up the next message, which had been written during Crowley's Thoth's first tour.

I.M.:

You were right. That bastard is still infatuated with Naomi

Bradleigh. How can you tolerate having a machine who thinks

he's a man pretend that he's in love with your daughter? If

I didn't hate Naomi for being a better musician and more

attractive than me, I'd think I was doing her a favor by

keeping Morgan from pursuing her.

Can you believe that Morgan bothered to give me roses tonight?

He came to me after the show with a vase full of white roses,

as if he actually loved me.

Did you know that Naomi gets roses as well? She gets black-tipped

scarlet roses with petals like velvet. Do you send them to her?

How come you never give me roses? You know that I've come to love

you, even though this started as a business arrangement. I wonder

if you think it's still just business.

Christabel

A machine? Morgan asked himself through the rage that threatened to blot out reason. Christabel thinks that I am just a machine? And why would she refer to Naomi as Magnin's daughter, if I.M. is indeed Isaac Magnin? The next message had been written six months later.

Isaac:

I know you're paying me to make Morgan believe that he loves me, and

that I love him, but I can't stand having him in my bed. He's nothing

like you. He doesn't make me feel like you do, and I can't use those

pills you give me when I'm with him because he'd know that something

was going on.

I'm glad, though, that while he's with me his pride won't let him

lay a hand on Naomi. I know she's your daughter, but I hate that

stuck-up bitch. She thinks she's so special just because she was an

orphan who worked her way up. She looks down on me because I came

from money. I think Morgan does too, though he doesn't have the nerve

(or the poor manners) to say it.

Of course, Morgan is nothing like you. He's very gentle and considerate,

always focused on pleasing me. So I fake it so that he can just fuck

me and get it over with. He never climaxes, and he can't be bothered

to fake his orgasms.

Frankly, I'm glad he stopped bothering. He "takes care" of me, and

after I've "had my orgasm", he just lets me go to sleep. That suits me

just fine. He gets no satisfaction, and I know that Naomi will do

without rather than go to another man or tempt Morgan to cheat on me.

Please come to me soon. I need a real man's kiss instead of the

kiss of a machine pretending to be a man who loves me.

Christabel

"How the hell did you do it?" Sarah asked. Morgan sprang to his feet and whirled upon her before reason reasserted itself. He wrestled his rage to the ground and leashed it; he had no business being angry at Sarah for looking over his shoulder. She was, after all, supposed to observe him. "How did I do what?" Morgan asked, unable to keep all of the hurt from his voice.

"How did you manage to spend ten years lying to yourself? She never gave a shit about you. She must have dropped a thousand hints, but you insisted on believing that she loved you. I thought you were smarter than that."

"Get away from me," Morgan snarled. "Leave this room right now."

"What's wrong?" Sarah asked. "I'm just pointing out the truth."

"I know," Morgan snarled through gritted teeth. His arms trembled as he forced his body to keep his fists down instead of driving them through Sarah's smug face. He knew she was right, that he should have seen that Christabel had been stringing him along. If Edmund, Sid or Claire had pointed this out, he would have swallowed his pride and acknowledged that they were right. He could even have handled it if it were to come from Naomi. However, to have his nose rubbed in his own naiveté by a stranger was intolerable. "I know I was ignoring my own doubts and lying to myself, but I will not allow you to rebuke me. You are not my friend, and you have not earned the right."

"Arrogant asshole," Sarah muttered as she flounced out of the room, leaving Morgan to sort through the rest of the messages. Her use of 'Isaac' instead of 'I.M.' had not been a momentary lapse. Most of them had been more of the same as what he had already read, and his rage grew colder as he read them and learned just how callow and stupid he had been. The second message from the end, however, had borne such malice that Morgan thought his heart would stop.

Isaac:

That monster of yours finally showed his true colors. I'd say that he

raped me, but I provoked him. I goaded him. I finally told him that

I despised sex with him, that I despised his gentleness and his

consideration. I told him that I wanted a real man who would take what

he wanted from me instead of pretending that he gave a shit about what

he thought my needs were. I kept taunting him, and suggested that when

he was with me, he was actually thinking of Naomi. I told him that the

only reason he could even get hard was because I he wasn't seeing me,

but Naomi.

When he heard that, he threw off the masks. He shredded my clothes

with those claws of his, bent me over the vanity, and used me. He was

utterly brutal, utterly heartless, and I loved it. Do you know why I

loved it? I loved it because your daughter stood there at the door,

watching as he ravaged me. I loved the look of horror on her face as

he made me bleed.

And when he was done, he had the nerve to pretend that he had been

shocked by what he had done, that he was sorry to have hurt me. He

wouldn't even acknowledge that I had provoked him. I hate him, but

I love to see the guilt and shame in his eyes. I love knowing that

every time he looks at me, he knows that he violated his own standards.

I look forward to throwing it in his face.

Christabel

"How could she?" Morgan muttered. That night still ate at him. He knew that he had wronged Christabel. He had killed men, cutting them down with sword and gunfire, but every one of those men had deserved to die by his hand. He had not regretted those killings, but he had regretted finally yielding to Christabel's provocations after years of enduring her casual cruelties. He had handled it poorly, and he knew it. He should have dumped her then and there, or at least walked away until he could see reason again and leash his anger. Instead, he had vented his anger on Christabel's body and used her without any consideration for the fact that he might hurt her. That had been bad enough, but he had learned to live with that on his conscience. But to have been seen at his worst by Naomi was intolerable. How could she have any respect for him after seeing him like that? Morgan could not imagine Naomi loving him after seeing like that. Was she faking it now, as Christabel had faked it?

The urge to run away grabbed him by the throat again. The idea had tempted him when Naomi suggested it last night. Now, however, he wanted to run away from Naomi most of all. "No," Morgan thought as he disciplined himself. "If I turn my back on Naomi now, then this heartless bitch will have won. I will be as worthless and as weak as she seems to think I am. Instead, I will talk to Naomi. I will ask her about what she saw. I will explain. Maybe, if she knows, she will understand that I would never treat her as I had treated Christabel that night."

"One last message," Morgan thought, his savage fingers striking the keys. "One last proof that I let you lie to me, Christabel. You would find it amusing, if you were around to notice the irony, that I would still believe that you loved me if I had not loved you enough to want to know the truth about your murder."

Isaac:

Morgan and I only see each other once a month now that the tour is

over. I'm glad that's the case, as I can no longer wear the appropriate

persona around him for more than a day or two. My masque is cracking,

and Morgan will soon see that I never, ever felt anything but contempt

for him and his efforts to fake humanity. If that happens, I will be

of no further use to you.

I have, of course, managed to keep up appearances when I do allow

Morgan to see me. However, I think Morgan is beginning to doubt. He

asked me to marry him. I'll admit that it was a handsome ring with

a diamond of respectable size, but I have fended him off for now. I

pretended to be shocked by his proposal and said I needed time to

think.

Please, Isaac, get me out of here before he wakes up. Kill me or

spirit me away, it doesn't matter as long as you get me away from him.

I know that it would be easier to die at your hands than at his;

I do not believe his love, but I have seen his wrath and it frightens

me. He accepted my first refusal with grace, but I tremble at the

consequences of refusing him a second time.

Isaac, my Imaginos, I beg of you: set me free of the monster you

created. I can do no more for you than what I have already done.

Christabel

"You worthless fool," Morgan whispered, "If you wanted to be free of me, you only had to ask it of me. I would have kissed you goodbye and wished you well. Was I so vile a man that you had to demonize me in your letters to your true lover?"

"Is something —" Sarah began as she returned to the room.

"What?" Morgan asked, unwilling to let his voice rise beyond a hissing whisper lest all of London hear him. A stubborn remnant of logic suggested that Magnin would love to hear pain in Morgan's voice and see heartbreak in his eyes.

"I-I-I'm going to be at Claire's," Sarah said as she backed away. "I-If you need me. I-I t-told Naomi that you w-were upset."

Chapter 64

Naomi had never seen a woman run while wearing stiletto heels before. She herself had never attempted it on the rare occasions when she wore shoes that were not either flat or had kitten heels. She knew better, however, than to believe that it was impossible to run in high heels. She simply thought that actually doing so was an act of epic foolishness that should be preserved on video to serve as a warning to posterity. It did not surprise Naomi to see Sarah running towards her, balancing on her toes to avoid stressing the heels of her shoes lest they break beneath her and spill her to the floor. From what Morgan had told her about Sarah last night, she seemed just the sort to be foolish enough to run hellbent for leather in high heels.

She stepped aside as Sarah approached, and would have waited against the wall for her to pass if she had not heard one of Sarah's heels snap beneath her weight as she cried out. "Oh, fuck!"

She looks terrified, Naomi realized as she caught Sarah and guided her down to her knees. "Why are you running?"

"I-it's Morgan," Sarah panted. "He looks like he's going to kill somebody. H-his hands are all bloody."

Naomi had seen Morgan's hands bloody before. If he could not find a legitimate external target for his rage, he turned it inwards, hurting himself because there was nobody handy that he had a right to hurt. "He's angry. Did you say or do something to him?"

"I stayed out of his way," Sarah protested. "He was going through Christabel's mail, reading the letters she sent."

Letters? Naomi thought. Christabel never sent letters. "He would not let a few letters upset him."

"Don't ask me," Sarah said as she tore her now-worthless shoes from her feet and threw them aside. "I got the hell out of there as soon as I saw his hands. I don't think he's well."

"I'll deal with him," Naomi promised. "He trusts me. He'll listen to me."

"Good luck," Sarah rose to her feet, shivering as Naomi let her go. Reaching into her jacket, she pulled out a taser. "Do you want to borrow this? Just in case?"

Naomi shook her head. "That won't work on Morgan. If I thought he was truly dangerous, I would have brought my sword. Go to Claire's like you said you would. I'll let Morgan know you're there when he's calmed down."

Sarah nodded as Naomi left her behind. Hurrying down the hallway, she reached the door to Christabel's flat in time to see Morgan throw the door open.

"Did you learn anything, Adversary?" One of the police officers standing guard asked.

"I learned plenty," Morgan snarled. Despite her reassuring words to Sarah, Naomi felt her spine freeze solid. She had never heard that alloy of rage and hatred in Morgan's voice before. "I learned that the bitch had it coming."

The other officer turned to Naomi. "Ma'am? Do you want any help?"

"No," Naomi said. "In fact, I think you should take the rest of the day off."

Both policemen gave Naomi grateful looks as they marched down the hallway and out of the building as quickly as their dignity would allow. "Is something wrong?" Morgan asked, turning his cold eyes on Naomi.

"Your hands are bleeding. Come with me and let me get you cleaned up."

Morgan's expression thawed a few degrees as he looked down at his dripping fists. "I must have been dripping all over your carpets."

"You scared Sarah out of what little mind she has," Naomi said as Morgan fell into step behind her.

"I suppose I owe her an apology."

"It wasn't her fault?"

"No," Morgan admitted. "And why are you being so polite to me?"

"Because I love you," Naomi said, glancing at Morgan over her shoulder, "Though I must admit that I am glad I'm not facing you over crossed swords right now."

Morgan's reaction to her joke was not what Naomi expected. He turned away and leaned against the wall, his face hidden from her. "No, Naomi, I would never draw my sword on you. I would never hurt you, not even the way I hurt Christabel in the dressing room after our last show."

"You never hurt her. What are you going on about?"

"I know you saw us," Morgan said, lifting his hands to take hold of Naomi. He pulled them back, remembering that they were still bloody. "Christabel saw you watching us. She told Isaac Magnin about it in a letter to him."

"That's enough for now," Naomi said, taking Morgan's hands in her own. "Let's go up to my flat. You can wash your hands while I make tea, and then you can tell me what you saw."

"No," Morgan said as he tried to pull away. "I should not impose on you. I will wash in Christabel's kitchen before I come to get my bags. I will call you when I have obtained lodging."

"Lodging?" Naomi asked, refusing to let Morgan go. "You already have lodging with me. I don't know what you read in Christabel's letters to Magnin, but I am not going to let you pull away from me just because you feel guilty about having allowed Christabel to push your buttons that night."

"So, you did see."

"Yes, I saw," Naomi thought. She had seen Morgan with Christabel's hair wrapped in his fist as he jackhammered into her from behind while she gripped her vanity. She had heard them arguing, heard Christabel taunt Morgan for his gentleness. She had seen Morgan throw aside his restraint and consideration, and she knew that Morgan despised himself for the lapse and believed that Naomi also despised him for it. "Come on," Naomi hissed, pulling Morgan to the elevator. Once they were inside, she pressed Morgan against the wall, held his fists in her hands, and whispered against his lips. "I saw you with Christabel that night. Do you honestly think that that was the first time I saw rough sex?"

"That was more than just rough sex," Morgan insisted as the elevator lifted them both. "I could have hurt Christabel, or even killed her."

"I saw the way you took her," Naomi said, "And it didn't scare me at all. It aroused me. I wanted to be the one you bent over the vanity and used, with my hair caught in your fist."

"I was hurting her," Morgan said, "And you want me to hurt you?"

"I am stronger than Christabel is, and you know it," Naomi said, stealing a kiss before leading Morgan to her flat. She soaked a rag in the kitchen sink, wrung it out, and tossed it to Morgan. As he cleaned his bloodied hands, Naomi filled a kettle and put it on the stove to boil. "If you have been afraid for the past year that what I saw that night disgusted me, last night should have been proof that I was never disgusted with you."

"How do I know that you were not pretending for my sake?"

Naomi almost dropped Morgan's mug in her shock; she had never heard such a bitter tone in his voice before, just as she had never heard the wrath and loathing that had been his voice earlier. It was still there, now that she thought of it, but was it aimed at Christabel, or was Morgan aiming at himself. "I know that you are almost too angry to think rationally," Naomi said in as gentle a voice as she could manage as she set Morgan's mug before him and took the bloodied rag from his hands. "But I never, ever pretended to love you. Now, show me your hands."

Naomi examined the palms of Morgan's hands as he obeyed and showed them to her. The cuts from his claws had already knitted together, and the scars would probably be gone before the hour had passed. It was unfortunate, she thought, that only Morgan's body healed with such swiftness. "Would you like something in your tea, to help calm you?"

"I just need time," Morgan said. "I should not have accused you of pretending to care for me. I apologize."

"Had Christabel really been pretending?"

"The letters I found suggested that she had been," Morgan said, running his fingers through his hair. "I should show them to you, as she had mentioned you as well."

"I doubt she was kind to me in her letters," Naomi said as she filled a tea ball and lowered it into the kettle to steep. "The letters can wait until after we've had our tea. Drink, and try to relax. You realize that you're looking better, right?"

"Am I?"

"Yes. I can actually see the green in your eyes now. When I first saw you, they were entirely black, as if your pupils had expanded and swallowed the irises. I bet that your eyes were what frightened Sarah most." Taking a loaf from the bread box, she carved off two slices for herself. "Care for a sandwich?"

"Yes, please. Do you have any chicken?" Morgan asked. "If I had been thinking straight, I would have kept my sunglasses on, so that my eyes would not have frightened Sarah. I owe her an apology."

"You're more unnerving when your eyes are hidden."

"I know," Morgan admitted. "I do it on purpose."

"I'm not going to let you intimidate me," Naomi purred as she poured the tea and placed a chicken sandwich in front of Morgan. "I know you're just a big old moggie, even if Christabel did reach out of her grave to pull your tail."

Morgan's chuckle allowed Naomi to relax. Despite her words, she was a bit nervous around her man. She had never seen him like this before, with his self-control so frayed. To see him recover his balance eased her mind. "Speaking of big old moggies," he said, "Did you save some chicken for Mordred?"

"Of course I did," Naomi said as she turned to see Mordred sitting at the kitchen threshold, waiting for an invitation. "Come have some chicken. There's a good kitty," she said, stroking the cat's fur as she placed a plate of chicken scraps on the floor for him. Watching Morgan, she settled into her chair at the table. He ate with small, precise, predatory bites; his anger was still there, but he had bound it as tightly as he had his hair. All the same, Naomi decided, a little more time would do no harm, especially since she herself had things to tell Morgan that she knew he would not like.

When Morgan had finished, he rose and said, "Could you excuse me? I would like to wash up."

"Of course. Take your time."

She had not expected to hear the shower, but Naomi had no intention of objecting. If Morgan wanted to take the time to shower and change his clothes, that was fine. After all, that was time Naomi could use to finish her lunch. He was still showering when she had finished. Pushing her plate aside, she took the handheld that Morgan had left on the table and woke it. Morgan had anticipated her, and left the first letter open on the screen. "Oh dear, oh damn," Naomi thought after reading it, almost dropping the device. No wonder Morgan is so furious.

She had read the last of them by the time Morgan returned from the shower. He was barefoot, had changed his jeans, and had slipped into a Lex Talionis t-shirt the band had given him when they acted as Crowley's Thoth's warm-up band during the North American leg of their last tour. His hair spilled wet and heavy over one shoulder as he flicked his eyes over Naomi. "Do you realize that your hands are shaking?"

Naomi slid the handheld across the table to Morgan. "You are not a would-be Yngwie Malmsteen," she said, forcing a laugh from her throat. "I know a Malmsteen lyric when I hear it. Granted, you resembled Andrew Lloyd Webber at first, but there are light years between Phantom and songs like 'Riot in the Dungeons' and 'I Am a Viking'."

"Is that what has you upset?"

"Not at all," Naomi protested, "But you have enough to deal with without having to worry about my hurt feelings."

"You are upset about the cruel things Christabel said about you," Morgan said, his voice gentle as he folded her into his arms.

"I knew we weren't the best of friends," Naomi said, burying her face against Morgan's shoulder, "And I knew she was jealous of my ability and our onstage chemistry. I had no idea she hated me."

"I knew," Morgan admitted, "She used to complain bitterly about you to me until I made it clear to her that her feelings about you meant nothing to me."

"She abused you, time after time. You could have left her. Why didn't you?"

"Leaving her would have broken up the band," Morgan said, "And it would have been an admission of defeat. She never really hurt me until I read those damned letters, because I would keep making excuses for her. I kept saying to myself that I had suffered more back at the orphanage, that perhaps she was cruel to me because I had failed her in some manner." He began to laugh, even as he turned away from Naomi. "Claire would say that I sound like a battered wife."

"And you never knew that she was betraying you with somebody else," Naomi said.

"Never." Morgan locked his eyes on Naomi, and her shoulders began to ache beneath his hands. "Did you know?"

Naomi knew that she had to admit it. Simple honesty demanded it, to say nothing of her respect for Morgan. "I knew," she whispered. "I know I should have told you, but I thought I had good reasons for holding my silence." She rubbed the shoulders Morgan had released as he turned from her and began to pace.

"I hurt you," he said, "I had no right. Could you please tell me why you remained silent? If I had known that she was seeing another lover behind my back, I would have bid her farewell regardless of the consequences. If it meant the end of Crowley's Thoth, I could have learned to live with that. And I would still have been your friend."

"I didn't think it was any of my business," Naomi said. "Neither did Eddie, or Sid, or Claire. We all knew that Christabel was wrong for you. We knew that she did not appreciate you. We knew that you could do better. But we also know how independent you are, and we knew it wasn't our place to offer unsolicited advice where Christabel was concerned. As soon as I knew that Christabel was seeing somebody else, I wanted to tell you. I spent every night wanting to tell you. I wanted to tell you last night."

"But you kept your silence out of respect," Morgan said, taking Naomi's hands in his. "I can understand that. I cannot be angry with you for wanting to let me make my own decisions."

Naomi shook her head. "There's more. I wanted you for myself, and I knew that if I told you, and you confronted Christabel, she would use that. I was afraid that, if I forced you to choose between her and me, you would choose Christabel. Our friendship was less than I wanted, but I was glad to have it all the —."

"I would have chosen you," Morgan whispered several seconds later, once the kiss had been broken. "I settled for Christabel, because I believed when I was younger that I should take whatever I could get and be grateful. And I was grateful for the attention Christabel offered. I do not regret settling for Christabel, because I was able to reconnect with you. But I could not have lived with myself if I cast Christabel aside simply because I wanted you."

Naomi's nose brushed against Morgan's as she shook her head. It tickled her, making her giggle. "You and your pride."

"It will be the death of me yet."

Pulling away, Naomi stabbed an angry finger into Morgan's chest. "I don't want you joking about your own death. Losing you would devastate me. Why do you think I never told you that Christabel was seeing Isaac Magnin behind your back?"

That was stupid of me, Naomi thought as Morgan's eyes widened. "Are you sure it was Magnin?" he asked.

"Yes," Naomi said. "I've met him at charity functions from time to time. I know his face and his voice. I can't believe that Christabel thinks I'm his daughter. Why?"

"I found two short platinum hairs in Christabel's apartment," Morgan said as he began to pace again. "One was stuck on one of Christabel's pillows. The other was stuck in the puddle of dried blood and grease where Christabel had been killed. Both belonged to the same male CPMD carrier, and his identity is suppressed by order of the Phoenix Society."

"Wait!" Naomi said as Morgan swept his handheld from the table and sent his fingers flying over the screen. "What are you thinking?"

"Christabel was working for Isaac Magnin. He paid her to pretend that she loved me. I think he did it in order to manipulate me for some purpose of his own. What if he killed Christabel because he knew that the situation was falling apart? If I turned my back on Christabel, he would not have had that hold over me. What if he killed Christabel in order to manipulate me while he still could?"

"That's horrible! What sort of man would do such a thing, and why?" Naomi cried as she followed Morgan into her bedroom

"I think I know who would do it," Morgan snarled as he shoved the handheld into his pocket. He thrust his arms through the sleeves of his coat before strapping on his gunbelt and slinging his sword over his shoulder. "I think I have learned everything I can here. I have to go back to New York. I already sent word to Claire, gave her Aleister's root password, and asked her to comb through the AI in case I might have missed something."

"Please be careful," Naomi begged. She could feel her heart thumping against her throat as she followed Morgan through her flat. "Your anger might be just what Magnin wants."

"I know," Morgan said, slowing down. "All the same, I do not know what else to feel. Christabel loved Magnin, not me, and she was nothing but a tool to him. No matter what Christabel did to me, I cannot forgive Magnin's callousness. I am going to make him pay, but not until I have an airtight case against him."

"What about your bags?" Naomi asked.

"Think of them as a reason for me to come back to you."

Naomi watched him stride down the street from her window, and wished that she could ask the god she believed in to watch over Morgan. However, her god already watched the universe and everybody in it, but would do no more. Naomi knew that no divine Providence would help Morgan, so it was up to her. "Wolfgang. I need to talk to Claire."

Chapter 65

"You look disappointed, Imaginos," Elisabeth Bathory observed in elder Vedic as soon as they had finished materializing their avatars atop the roof of Naomi Bradleigh's town house. Standing beside him, she she admired the figure of the striding man they had been observing as he parted the crowds in his path. "Don't give me that look. I know what you're like when events force you to improvise again. You were expecting Morgan to manifest, weren't you?"

"Nothing of the sort, Elisabeth," Isaac Magnin, whom Ashtoreth had addressed by his true name, said as he adjusted his cravat. "I had hoped, though that you would remember to use our human names since we are among humans."

"We of the Qliphoth preserved the elder Vedic tongue when other devas abandoned it for a reason," Ashtoreth countered. "And your insistence upon using our human identities when we are not dealing with humans has become tiresome. We are speaking outside the range of human hearing, in a language that humans do not understand. I think it is safe for us to use our real names."

"Humans have equipment that can detect subsonic and ultrasonic sounds and transpose them into the audible range," Magnin said. "I have a department of the AsgarTech company that makes such equipment, as a matter of fact. You are right, Ashtoreth, it doesn't really matter. Even if people hear us, they probably won't understand us."

Brushing aside a curtain of inky hair that the wind had thrown in her face, Elisabeth offered Magnin a forgiving smile. "Tell me, then. Were you hoping that Morgan Stormrider would manifest after reading those letters from Christabel?"

"Of course not," Magnin snapped. "You know what it's like for a deva to manifest his talent as a result of an emotional crisis, instead of slowly developing his talent after years of study. You know that most deva energists are of the right-hand path for a very good reason."

"I know," Elisabeth acknowledged. "I walk the left-hand path myself, you know, unlike you and your brother. You have no idea what it's like to be a wild talent. I was lucky in that my ability manifested in bed, impelled by my desperate desire to please my first lover."

Magnin turned to the street too late to stop Elisabeth from seeing the slight flush of his cheeks. It amused her to see that he could still blush at the memory of their first time together. "I should be grateful that Stormrider was not so desperate to please Christabel," he muttered. "What would I have him do then, seduce the Power beneath the ice?"

"You may recall that I tried that once," Elisabeth said as she slid a fingertip along the nape of Magnin's neck. "The Powers have forgotten the flesh, which is why they cannot understand why not all devas chose to follow Angra Mainyu's path. I see, however, that you have not forgotten the flesh."

Magnin withdrew from Elisabeth's touch and turned to face her. "Never mind that. Can you tell me what it's like to manifest? I never knew you were of the left-hand path, or I would have consulted you before I began the Asura Emulator Project in earnest."

"You were there in bed with me when I manifested."

His face flushed, and Magnin said in a quiet voice, "I was preoccupied."

"It never occurred to you to ask?"

"It occurred to me that it would be rude to do so."

Elisabeth fell into silent thought, wondering if Magnin had said that because he thought it was the right thing to say, or if he had in fact refrained from asking out of respect for her privacy. Magnin himself would know, but Elisabeth doubted that he would tell her the truth unless it suited his purpose to do so. He used truth when interacting with others as a politician would; it was a tactic to be employed when doing so served a strategic aim. As far as she could tell, however, Isaac Magnin might lie to the world, but never to himself. He did not have to believe his own lies in order to convince others to believe. "My manifestation is not likely to have anything in common with Morgan's," she finally said. "For me, it was a sudden awareness that I had a new way to experience the world around me. I could suddenly feel what you were feeling as if my consciousness resided in your body alongside your own. All of your emotional and sensory triggers had been laid out before me like harp strings, but the triggers for what you had been feeling at the time were a different color from the rest."

"Was it disorienting, this new sensory awareness?"

"Incredibly so," Elisabeth admitted. "I had been chasing an orgasm, but I lost it when I took that first step. Luckily, I learned to see my own triggers and manipulate them as easily as I can see yours, or Sathariel's, or Morgan's — or Naomi's."

"You are not thinking of interfering with my daughter, are you?" Magnin asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Relax, Imaginos. I know I'm not her type. That was another skill I learned as I explored my talent: I learned to identify what a lover likes, what his weaknesses are, and play to them. Take Edmund Cohen for example. He likes busty, submissive blondes, but his true weakness is for petite brunettes who will take him in hand and bend him to their will. Why do you think he still carries a torch for that courtesan Chidori?"

"I thought it was simply because she was his first."

"She might have been the first he ever touched. I doubt she was the first he ever imagined touching. You may remember that Morgan had had a childhood crush on Naomi even before he met her while working in that bar. He had seen a photograph of her while reading a magazine, and that was it."

"There's a simple explanation," Magnin scoffed. "Naomi was the first person Morgan saw who looked anything like him. He knew he was a freak as a child, and probably saw my daughter as a fellow freak."

"Your daughter is not a freak," Elisabeth said without realizing that her tone had frozen. "She is an intelligent, accomplished woman possessed of a rare empathy, and you do her a disservice by speaking of her with such casual disrespect."

With a dismissive gesture, Magnin turned from Elisabeth. "Yes, you're right. Now, let's return to your manifestation. You were explaining that Morgan's is likely to be different from yours because his emotional state will be different. I know this much about the left-hand path."

"Does the phrase 'sensory overload' mean anything to you?" Elisabeth asked, her voice still chilly. "That is what it is like to become aware of one's energistic talent in an instant. You are already in the grip of your emotion, barely holding on to reason. A new sense impinges upon your consciousness, bringing with it a new way to manipulate the world around you. Do you have any idea at all what Morgan Stormrider could do if he manifested while gripped by a lust for your annihilation? What else might he destroy because he cannot control his new ability and he's too busy wanting you dead to care?"

"I think I understand now."

"You understand nothing, Imaginos," Elisabeth snapped, jabbing a finger into Magnin's chest. "You think that the left-hand path is the easy way out. You think that you cannot afford the time necessary for Morgan to reason his way to power, and so you will arrange events to create an emotional crisis conducive to your ends. Did it ever occur to you that the swifter path is also the deadlier one? You could end up with a dead Asura Emulator, and a lot of dead innocents. I've seen it happen before."

"When?"

"Over five hundred years ago," Elisabeth said. "Back when I ruled a respectable portion of Hungary through a succession of husbands. This was before one of them got greedy and decided to concoct those silly stories about how I bathed in the blood of young girls to retain my looks."

"I suppose that those demon-ridden peasants had to explain your evergreen beauty somehow," Magnin said in a dry tone.

"Flattery?" Elisabeth asked, arching her eyebrows. "I'm still annoyed with you, so don't bother. Now, a few deva families lived in my territory, scattered hither and yon. None of them were known talents; the energists preferred more civilized parts of the human world where peasants did not believe that a frustrated young woman's sexual fantasies were the work of incubi bent on leading her into a life of sin and depravity. These devas were content to work their lands and deal with humans only when necessary."

"That hardly sounds like ideal conditions for a left-hand path manifestation."

"It isn't," Elisabeth agreed. A cold breeze lifted her hair from her shoulders, exposing to them to the rain that had begun to fall. "Let me tell you the rest of the story beneath a roof."

Chapter 66

"Does Claire honestly expect me to simply walk into her house?" Naomi asked herself on the doorstep of Claire's house at 22 Acacia Avenue as she pulled her umbrella closed and shook the rain from it. When she had called Claire, Claire had said, "Just come in. I probably won't hear you knock." All the same, Naomi could not bring herself to open the door. If somebody had entered her home without knocking, Naomi knew that her first reaction would be to take her katana from where it rested on a rack atop her dresser. Naomi knocked, not caring that Claire had said she would not hear it.

She waited a minute before using her neuronics to connect to Claire's AI, Hal. "Hal, would you mind telling Claire that I am here?"

"I've unlocked the door, Miss Bradleigh. Just come on in."

"Is Claire busy? I can come back later."

"A game of Ikaruga never takes long. Just come in," Hal insisted.

"All right," Naomi sighed as she turned the door latch. "You know Claire better than I do."

Naomi slipped her umbrella into the basket where Claire kept hers and shrugged out of her coat. Leaving her coat and ankle boots in the foyer, Naomi followed her ears to the source of the music she had heard as soon as she had closed the door. The music turned out to be coming from a battered cabinet. Claire stood before this cabinet, intent upon the screen, her body swaying in time with her manipulation of the joystick and buttons. The music stopped, snapping Claire's focus. "Only rank A-minus? I get through all five stages on one attempt, and that's all I get?"

"A-minus sounds quite respectable to me," Naomi offered.

"I used to manage S rank," Claire said, looking at Naomi over her shoulder. "Care to have a go?"

"This is one of those old-fashioned arcade shoot-'em-ups, isn't it?" Naomi asked as she considered the cabinet, which displayed the game's name in both Nipponese and English. "Does the name 'Ikaruga' have any particular meaning?"

"Only if you want a story to justify taking on an entire aerial navy with a single fighter plane," Claire shrugged. "But this isn't just a twitch game. Spend enough time with it and becomes a Zen thing."

"It looks really old," Naomi said. "I don't want to break it."

"You won't. I kept the original cabinet, but the buttons and sticks are almost new. So is the display screen."

"And you want me to give it a go?"

"I bullied Morgan into trying it the last time he was here," Claire said with an impish smile. "He got to the end of chapter two on his first attempt, and put up a hell of a fight against the boss before he lost his last ship, which is damned impressive for somebody who claims to have no time for video games."

"I'll be lucky to get halfway through the first stage," Naomi muttered as she watched the game's demonstration mode. "How do you go about playing a game like this?"

"Actually, it's mostly pattern recognition and memory. Hand-eye coordination alone won't save you."

"I might as well get this over with," Naomi sighed, and tapped the button labeled 'Start 1 player game'. Recognizing the first several waves of enemies from the demonstration video she had watched, Naomi tore through the opposition. Gathering energy from the flak her ship absorbed, she unleashed her homing lasers at every opportunity. She lost her first ship as soon as she came to a part of the stage that she had not seen in the demonstration, and began to play a more conservative game.

"Not bad," Naomi heard Claire mutter as the game warned her that she had reached the boss of the level. 'NO REFUGE' flashed at her as she checked to see how many ships she had left. Turning her ship's shield white, she focused on dodging the black bullets as she pounded her enemy. She shifted her shield to match the boss' second tactic, absorbing the black flame that flooded the screen. Learning the enemy's pattern during the third phase had cost her another ship, but she managed to defeat it with sixty seconds left on the timer.

"C-plus-plus rank?" Claire said as she examined the stage results. "That's great for a first-timer."

"Didn't Morgan do better?"

"A little," Claire said as Naomi turned her back on the game and followed Claire into the kitchen. "He didn't start losing ships until chapter two. So, can I get you something to drink? Are you hungry?"

"I had lunch with Morgan before he left."

Claire fixed a hard, appraising stare upon Naomi. "When Sarah came to me, she was scared witless of Morgan. And here you are telling me that you had lunch with him and then just let him go? Where the hell is he now?"

"Probably on his way back to New York," Naomi said, considering Claire's kitchen. It was nothing like her own. The counters held no appliances save for a coffee maker and a microwave oven. The only spices she saw were salt and pepper, and Naomi refused to let herself speculate on how a woman could possibly do without wooden spoons. She sniffed as a hint of spice tickled her. "What is that?"

"Curry from last night. It's from a little shop called Lady Parvati's down on the corner. Want some?"

"Thanks, but I'd better not. Have you got anything to drink?"

"I'll put on a pot of coffee," Claire said as she dumped some curry onto a plate and shoved it into the microwave. After setting it for five minutes on low power, Claire opened a cabinet and pulled down a coffee grinder and a glass jar stuffed full of coffee beans. She smiled at the incredulous look on Naomi's face. "I know what my kitchen looks like. I live on take-out because, to be quite honest, I can't cook worth a damn. The only thing I can cook without botching it is rice, and that's because all I have to do is plug in the rice cooker, dump some rice in, add water, and wait for the bell to ring. It's not hard to slice up some frankfurters and throw them into the cooker with the rice, thank goodness. And if somebody had not bothered to invent the rice cooker, I'd probably screw that up as well."

"But you can grind and brew your own coffee?" Naomi asked as she watched Claire work the grinder.

"Sure, if you don't mind the taste of burned water. I'm used to it, myself. I like my coffee the way I like my porno — hot and nasty."

Naomi forced herself to refrain from sighing. She respected Claire's honesty about her utter lack of ability in the kitchen, but she had a suspicion that drinking Claire's coffee might very well be the death of her. "Would you like me to make the coffee?"

"I didn't tell you that I burn water trying to boil it so that you'd feel sorry for me," Claire grumped. "I did it because Morgan would kick my arse if I didn't give you fair warning."

Naomi chuckled. "I'm not doing it out of pity. Considering what I came to ask of you, the least I can do is make you a decent pot of coffee, since I indulge from time to time."

A relieved sigh escaped Claire's lips as she stepped aside and let Naomi take over. The microwave dinged, and Claire pulled her curry out. "Thanks. It's kind of embarrassing, you know? I can sweet-talk the Sephiroth, but I'm absofuckinlutely helpless in the kitchen. Every man I meet is a better cook than I am. Must be a self-preservation thing. I bet their fathers tell them, 'Learn how to do your own cooking, son, so you don't have to lie to your wife the way I lie to your mother.'"

"Who told Morgan that?" Naomi giggled as she poured the freshly ground coffee into the coffee maker and added water.

"Must have been Eddie," Claire said in between forkfuls of curry. "What the fuck happened to Morgan today, anyway? I had to give Sarah a trank before she'd settle down."

"I think we should discuss that over coffee," Naomi said as she kneeled before the open refrigerator. "Speaking of which, do you have cream and sugar? I don't see any milk in here."

Claire pointed at a cabinet. "I've got peppermint schnapps." She returned to her curry, leaving Naomi to find the bottle herself. Finding the bottle, Naomi took it down and poured two cups of coffee. She had poured a capful into hers and had a capful for Claire's when Claire took the bottle from her. "You're doing it wrong," Claire explained as she took a shot glass, filled it with liquor, dumped it into Naomi's cup, and poured another.

"Claire, that's enough for me. I have to drive, remember?"

"This is for me," Claire smiled, and drank her shot neat before pouring another and dumping it into her coffee. She put the bottle away as Naomi took their coffees to the table. "Now, tell me what happened with Morgan. He gave me the root password to Christabel's pompous ass of an AI and asked me to rip it apart and give him anything useful I can find. Not that I mind helping, but if he could crack root on that piece of shit, then he doesn't really need me, does he?"

Naomi sipped her coffee as she considered Claire's question. She doubted that she would make a habit of putting peppermint schnapps into her own coffee, but she could understand why Claire preferred it over brandy or whiskey. "Do you know what he found on his own?"

"Something about some letters from Christabel?"

Naomi nodded. "About twenty letters from Christabel to a mail drop that Morgan has reason to believe belongs to Isaac Magnin. Christabel never loved Morgan. Isaac Magnin paid her to befriend Morgan, seduce him, and maintain a sham relationship. Magnin was using Christabel in order to manipulate Morgan."

"Fuck me and marry me young," Claire muttered. "Does Magnin have any idea what he's doing? I'm surprised Morgan isn't heading for Asgard instead. What did you say to get him to calm down?"

Naomi shrugged. "I didn't say much. I listened to him, that's all. He had started to calm himself as soon as he saw me. I guess he didn't want me to see him the way Sarah saw him."

"It's because you're his goddess," Claire suggested. "He doesn't care about what Sarah thinks of him. If Karen Del Rio calls him a monster, he shrugs it off. If he thought that you believed he was a monster, though, it would kill him. I have to tell you, it's nice to not have to want to be a better person for somebody else. I'd like for him to be able to be himself around you. He could never be himself with Christabel."

"Don't tell me you love him," Naomi said, shocked by the tenderness in Claire's words. Her tone was not the tone of a woman speaking about a male friend.

Claire chuckled. "It's so easy to shock you. Don't worry; I'm not going to try to turn him away from you. He's been a good friend to me, and I want him to be happy. I know he'll be happy with you."

"Thanks," Naomi said, sipping her coffee. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who appreciates him, but I wonder. What has he done for you?"

"You remember Josefine Malmgren, right? She came with me to yours and Morgan's party a couple of weeks ago?"

"I remember. She came to you after she learned that the Phoenix Society was keeping the AsgarTech Company in the black."

"As soon as I had told Morgan what was going on," Claire said as she swirled the dregs of her coffee, "the first thing he did was offer to protect Josse. He didn't know anything about Josse other than the fact that she's one of my oldest friends. Even though Josse refused his offer, the fact that he made it means a lot to me."

"Where is Josse, by the way?"

"She's in a safe suite at the Hellfire Club. I don't know which city," Claire chuckled. "but get this: some character by the name of Lord Wilmore is footing the bill."

"Nonsense," Naomi giggled. "That's Morgan using an alias. I'm surprised he didn't choose 'Sinbad the Sailor' or 'Edmond Dantes'."

"That sneaky, cheeky bastard," Claire muttered. "He's protecting Josse after all, even though she refused his help. If Josse knew, she'd have kittens. As it is, Josse thinks she's bankrupting me."

Naomi smiled behind her mug. "Go ahead and tell her."

"Bad idea. She'd leave and insist on crashing with me, and she just wouldn't get along with Sarah."

"Yes, I had forgotten about her," Naomi said, frowning. "I suppose I should tell you why I wanted to see you. I want to hire you, if you can take on another job without giving short shrift to Morgan's needs."

"Just tell me. But don't tell Morgan that I delegate to Hal most of what he thinks I do for him, and I won't tell him that you made coffee for me."

"All right," Naomi said, taking the sort of deep breath she used to take when she was new to the stage. "In those letters Christabel sent, she suggested that Isaac Magnin is my father. I need to know if she was telling the truth. If she was, I want to talk to Magnin, face to face."

Claire said nothing. Instead, she took Naomi's mug, dumped it and her own into the sink, and poured fresh cups. Into each cup she poured a shot of Irish creme. Placing Naomi's mug in front of her, Claire settled back into her chair and said, "You know, in stories like this, the villain is supposed to say to the hero, 'Luke, I am your father,' in the middle of a climactic duel. He never bothers to tell Leia."

Naomi nearly choked on her coffee. "It's a bit late for me to learn that Morgan's my brother," she sputtered. "We're already lovers."

"Don't worry too much about it," Claire said with a small smile. "I was just joking. Besides, I think that if Morgan really is an Asura Emulator that predates Polaris, you would be more likely to be the priestess that Gilgamesh sent to tame Enkidu using her feminine arts."

Raising her eyebrows, Naomi sipped her coffee and said. "I didn't know you were a fan of the band."

"Gilgamesh and Enkidu appeared in 'Shin Megami Tensei: Requiem'," Claire explained. "Also, I had to prove that I had read the epic and identify its influences on modern culture in order to get into university. They didn't want any nerds whose only exposure to literature was film adaptations of Tolkien."

"I can sympathize", Naomi said, "I had to prove that I was familiar with William Blake and explain his influence on the lyrics of Bruce Dickinson. I think that university admissions people make up these cultural literacy requirements at random."

"They must!" Claire agreed. "The girl before me was quizzed on the cultural impact of Mel Brooks' films. The guy after me had to analyze the plot to Ultima Four, Quest of the Avatar in the context of Joseph Campbell's monomyth."

"I used to play that game as a little girl," Naomi admitted, blushing. "I liked it better than Oregon Trail, since you couldn't die of dysentery in Ultima."

"Did you know that somebody did a complete rewrite of the game to modernize it?" Claire asked. "I can tell you where to buy a copy if you're feeling nostalgic."

"Maybe later?" Naomi suggested, finishing her coffee. "I think I should find about about Magnin first. I figured you were the person most likely to be able to help me."

"Well," Claire said, "I'll do what I can, but no promises. Magnin's a secretive little shit. But I need to know, first: why do you want to confront Magnin?"

"I want Magnin to tell me why he's manipulating Morgan. I want to know why he paid Christabel to seduce Morgan and spend ten years lying to him. I want Magnin to leave my man alone."

Claire raised her mug in a salute. "Now that's what I call a righteous fucking cause. I was going to offer a fifty percent discount on my usual fee, since you're Morgan's lady."

"I can pay your usual fee."

"You'll do no such thing," Claire snarled. "Bollocks to the money, I'll do this job for free!"

Chapter 67

Untouched cups of tea sat before Ashtoreth and Imaginos on clean saucers of Nipponese porcelain. A cake awaited the knife, but both ignored it. Neither had spoken a word of English, or any other human language, since Ashtoreth had identified herself to the mistress of the teahouse as Elisabeth Bathory and paid for a private room. This room had been painted white, and stenciled ivy trailed along the moldings. Rain pattered against the windows behind lace curtains, obscuring Ashtoreth's view of the city as she looked past Imaginos. "I was going to tell you about a manifestation that had gone wrong," she said in elder Vedic after a half hour of silent thought in which she combed her memories.

Imaginos, who still wore the white-suited, businesslike form in which he appeared to world as Isaac Magnin, nodded. "You were going to tell me of a time when you ruled much of Hungary from the shadows. Several deva families lived on your lands, but you had no reason to believe that any of them possessed the energistic talent."

"You remember," Ashtoreth smiled, and reached for her tea. Drawing out a trickle of energy, Imaginos heated the tea to an acceptable temperature as Ashtoreth raised the cup to her lips and took a sip. "Thank you," she said. "I never did learn that trick."

"Never had a crisis that forced you to control temperature?"

Ashtoreth shrugged. "No. Being burned at the stake was an embarrassment and an annoyance, but not a crisis. Then again, all I had to do was dissolve my avatar. The girl I wanted to tell you about did not have that option."

The girl's family had come to one of Ashtoreth's villages from Brittany, in France. They fled a pogrom, for the humans in their village had mistaken them for Jews. The family bore the name Dibasson, and the matriarch of the family had named their newest girl Jeanne. Though the Dibassons had tried to keep their distance, they still attended church. Ashtoreth herself attended, even though she considered Christianity to be vile nonsense. However, none of the devas had to believe; it was enough to be seen at Mass making the correct responses. In this, the Dibassons emulated Ashtoreth.

Jeanne, the youngest of the Dibassons, emulated Ashtoreth in another way. Jeanne had, as soon as she was old enough, become one of Ashtoreth's ladies in waiting. Jeanne attended the Countess Bathory, this being the identity Ashtoreth used to hide her true nature from the humans she ruled. Though Ashtoreth did not need a priest's services, she tolerated the presence of one who acted as her secretary. This priest, Nicholas, had long nursed an attraction for Jeanne that he tried and failed to exorcise.

Ashtoreth was aware of Nicholas' attraction to Jeanne; she had amused herself many times by listening, bodiless, to Nicholas as he confessed his 'sins' of lust. She knew also that the desire was mutual. Taking Jeanne aside, she warned her against becoming emotionally involved with a human being, especially a priest such as Nicholas, whose religious ideas prevented him from enjoying love without fear or shame. It was one thing for Ashtoreth to take human lovers, and even a human husband. As an energist, no mere human could harm her. Jeanne, however, had no such ability to use in self-defense, and so was vulnerable.

Despite Ashtoreth's warnings, however, Jeanne insisted that she loved Nicholas. One of Ashtoreth's pillow books went missing. It was soon returned, but its return heralded the borrowing of another. These thefts did not bother Ashtoreth; she knew that Jeanne had been taking them and would have lent them if asked, but she would have preferred to have given the girl a more intimate education. No longer content to meet his gaze and watch him turn to hide his blush, Jeanne began to leave letters for Nicholas. Ashtoreth watched over his shoulder, bodiless, as he read the ever-more-explicit letters that Jeanne left for him, and listened also as Jeanne pretended to be a devout Christian, confessing to Nicholas that she had sinned by harboring lust in her heart and impure thoughts in her mind. Unable to resist, she had taken form and applauded from the shadows after they had finished their first coupling; the hunger that had possessed Nicholas as he tore Jeanne from her side of the confessional, drove her to the floor, and had her had delighted Ashtoreth — to say nothing of Jeanne's willing submission.

Ashtoreth had taken Jeanne aside after that and offered her a room in which she could tryst with Nicholas. After all, if Nicholas wanted to worship his god kneeling on cold stone before a dead altar, that was his business. A clean bed piled high with silken pillows was a more proper altar for the worship lovers offered one another, and a warm, private room was the proper church for such rites. The room delighted Jeanne; she at last had the privacy she needed to enjoy Nicholas. Ashtoreth's pillow books departed her shelves again, this time with her knowledge and permission as Jeanne borrowed them to share with Nicholas.

It troubled Ashtoreth, however, that Nicholas insisted on riding to Budapest every month. Other priests that the Church had embedded in her castle had been content to send letters. At first, these letters would complain of the licentiousness and irreligiousness of Ashtoreth and her court in the absence of her husband as he rode to one war or another. Ashtoreth would intercept these letters and replace them with forgeries that would assure the Church that Ashtoreth and her court were exemplars of Christian virtue. She would then seduce the priests and show them the delight in which they could live if they only cooperated. Eventually, the priests only pretended to be Christians in public; in private they had a better goddess to worship, one who responded to the sighs and moans that formed the substance of their prayers.

These methods had worked for over two hundred years. They did not work with Nicholas. To begin with, Jeanne was possessive, and would not allow Nicholas to know another lover's touch. Worse, Nicholas did not send letters. Instead, he would ride to Budapest and report in person. Worst of all, Nicholas was of the Society of Jesus and knew how to wield logic in defense of his Christian faith. Dissolving her body, she followed Nicholas on his ninth ride to Budapest, and watched from the shadows as he knelt before his bishop in a triple-locked room and began a spy's report cloaked in the sacrament of confession.

"Elisabeth, Countess Bathory, is no true Christian," he said. "She mocks Christianity, as do the ladies of her court when they believe themselves away from the presence of believers. She engages in lewd and unnatural acts with men and women alike, and encourages her ladies to do the same. One of these ladies, a young woman by the name of Jeanne Dibasson, has seduced me. She claims to love me, and attempts with each tryst to persuade me to give up not only the priesthood, but Christianity herself. She claims that she only pretends to believe in order to be able to live among good Christians, and that her family and members of several others also participate in this impious masquerade."

Ashtoreth wanted to kill both of them, but refrained. The only way in which she could kill without a weapon was to overload their brains with sensation, frying their nervous systems. Were a man to die by Ashtoreth's hand in this manner, those around him would think that he had died of a stroke. However, nobody would believe that two men had died of a stroke at the same time, especially when one of them was young and healthy. She settled for striking down the bishop; though healthy for a human male in his late fifties, a stroke would still be a plausible death. Leaving Nicholas to administer the last rites, she returned to her territory and set about telling the devas under her protection to go underground so that they could escape the Inquisition's wrath. Believing Jeanne herself to be safe in Ashtoreth's castle, she saved her for last, so that she had time to decide how she would explain that Nicholas was using her.

Jeanne was not there with Ashtoreth's other ladies when she returned. She had ridden to meet Nicholas, knowing that he would return soon. Following Jeanne's trail, Ashtoreth caught up with her in a village whose name she could not remember. Five words from Nicholas had mobilized the villagers against her. With a single accusation — "This woman is a witch!" — the market became a mob straining at Nicholas' leash. "If you confess, if you repent," Nicholas had said to Jeanne, "and if you confess what you know of the coven in which you serve the demoness Ashtoreth, your sins will be forgiven and you shall be spared the flames of Hell. God forgives all who sincerely repent."

Ashtoreth had tried to reach Jeanne, had tried to beg her to surrender to Nicholas so that Ashtoreth could rescue her, but Jeanne had closed her ears. She stood in silence, gazing skyward as Nicholas waited for her answer. Five minutes passed as electricity saturated the air. The sky appeared to darken as the sun's light converged upon Jeanne, leaving the rest of the village in shadow as the mob began to whisper that Satan had come to claim one of his own.

"Jeanne Dibasson! Will you repent? Will you confess your sins and ask that you be forgiven in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?"

"Forgiven? Who will forgive you, Nicholas? You said you loved me. You lied to me. You used me. And now you would sacrifice me to your murdering tyrant God?" Jeanne asked, her voice a rumble of distant thunder as she continued to stare at the sun.

"You would add blasphemy to the sins weighing down your soul?"

"You speak of Hell?" Jeanne hissed as she locked her eyes on Nicholas. "You will all find Hell with me. Let me show you what it's like!"

"So, what happened after Jeanne defied Nicholas," Imaginos asked. "How exactly did her talent manifest?"

"She released all of the energy she had gathered in a burst of heat and radiation. When I had built a new avatar for myself a day later, there was nothing but radioactive ash where the village had stood," Ashtoreth said, shivering at the memory.

Imaginos stood and leaned over the table. Taking Ashtoreth's chin in his hand, he lifted her face until their eyes met. "Do you mean to tell me that this spurned, betrayed girl managed to nuke an entire village?"

"She nuked herself as well!" Ashtoreth snapped. "She killed everything within a mile of her, and destroyed my avatar in the process. Now, when was the last time I had to create a new avatar?"

Releasing Ashtoreth, Imaginos sank back into his chair. "If memory serves, it was during the binding of Fuzon beneath the ice."

"Exactly," Ashtoreth said as she poured a fresh cup of tea for herself. "This girl, enraged that a man she had loved would betray her in order to serve his god, managed to grab hold of power equivalent to that of one of the Shadowkings for a moment. It destroyed her, of course, but she took her enemies with her. How do you know that Morgan Stormrider might not wield a similar power?"

"Stormrider is not a teenaged girl who has been accused of witchcraft by the first man she ever loved."

"No," Ashtoreth agreed, "He is not. He is an Asura Emulator whose capabilities awakened when he was a child. None of the other AES-100 units ever accessed the functionality you built into them. Stormrider did as a six-year-old child, and the results frightened him so badly that he repressed those abilities."

"I am not going to have people hold him down while I cut his throat," Imaginos said, "A refusal to die triggered Stormrider's access to his destroyer aspect. Fear of what he had done while operating in that mode drove him to repress that side of him. Are you concerned that it may arise again?"

"I am concerned that you will have to unleash it in order to make him manifest. And I fear the consequences. I saw the Witness Protocol video from when his destroyer aspect surfaced. Morgan killed indiscriminately. Anybody who approached him died. I am starting to think that there was an excellent reason that any Asura who displayed an energistic talent was terminated."

"Are you concerned that Fuzon might use him? I think Stormrider has the ego-strength needed to resist an attempt at domination. I also think that Stormrider will direct his rage much more carefully than he did as a boy, even though I mean to force him to manifest and to break the seal his placed on his own Asura's abilities."

"Now do you know? On what basis do you predict this?" Ashtoreth pressed.

"If I have Naomi Bradleigh, do you think he will rage uncontrolled?"

"You would hold your own daughter hostage?" Ashtoreth asked as Imaginos sat back and allowed a small, bitter smile to curve his lips. "Of course you would. After all, look at what happened to your son with Lilith. You gave him the Starbreaker, let him kill two of the Shadowkings who had escaped the Binding on our last refuge, and then killed him before the Starbreaker could override his reason."

"He knew it was likely to be a suicide mission when he accepted the Starbreaker," Imaginos said, not bothering to shrug. "But do not think that I will place Naomi in real danger. She and the other women he values will be safe at my house in Vanaheim. Stormrider will face me on the roof of the AsgarTech Building, well away from the ladies. I'll give my employees a week's paid vacation and close the place down; that should minimize the risk of collateral damage."

"How humane of you," Ashtoreth purred. "I suppose you will want Sathariel's help if you mean to kidnap Naomi Bradleigh."

"I had hoped that you and he would work with me in this endeavor. Also, I will be making use of Polaris."

"How long do I have to find him?"

"Two weeks. I will have to prepare some tools that will simplify your part of the operation."

Ashtoreth rose. "Fine, then. I will contact you as soon as I have found Sathariel."

Chapter 68

Samuel Tyrell did not turn to acknowledge Elisabeth as she assembled her avatar at the entrance to his loft. His slim, long-fingered hand might have been carved from the same mahogany as the slim paintbrush it held. Elisabeth watched him paint as she lifted one leg at a time to unclasp the silver buckles of her ankle boots. Slipping out of her boots, she slunk across the polished wooden floor, waiting for Samuel to turn from the canvas and acknowledge her presence. Instead he retreated several steps from the easel.

"I thought you had grown tired of painting sleeping beauties." Elisabeth asked, as she considered the not-quite-finished depiction of a alabaster-skinned, frost-haired woman reclining nude upon a carmine-sheeted bed with one hand disappearing beneath the sheets. The other rested upon the pillow, half-closed, as if it had recently gripped the frame. "That's what you had said a year ago. Do you remember?"

Samuel nodded at her side. "I remember. You're interested in this one?"

"I think I recognize her," Elisabeth mused. If the woman's eyes had not been closed, Elisabeth would know for sure. Her parted lips, which were as barely pink as her puffy nipples, and the careless grace with which she sprawled upon the bed suggested to Elisabeth that this woman had recently been loved. "I like the way you captured the way her nails shine in the lamplight."

"I didn't get her mouth right," Samuel muttered. "Naomi's lips are fuller, and just a bit darker than her nipples.

"That's Naomi Bradleigh?" Elisabeth gasped. "What possessed you to watch her?"

"The same imp of the perverse that persuaded you to capture video of her and upload it using Edmund Cohen's AI," Samuel said, grinning. "I thought I would catch her dozing in the afterglow before I attempted to depict her at her climax."

"You're incorrigible," Elisabeth sighed. "What would you do if Naomi Bradleigh got wind of this painting?"

Samuel shrugged, and laid aside his easel. As he cleaned his brushes, he said, "I would probably offer it to her as a gift. Don't you think she would be flattered that somebody would admire her comeliness from the shadows and want to capture it in oil?"

"I think she would be embarrassed," Elisabeth said. "However, I suspect that she's utterly delightful when she blushes. But what if she didn't want it?"

"Then I would burn it, if she objected to its existence. But do you really think she would object? Would you?"

"If I object to anything," Elisabeth said, "I object to the fact that you have yet to use me as your model."

Sathariel cleaned his brushes in silence, drying each and putting it away in its turn. When he had finished, he cleaned his palette and laid it atop the case in which he kept his brushes. "I know my limits, lady. I do not have the ability to make the world see you as I see you. My hands are not steady enough to control the brush when you are near me. My eyes cannot focus on the canvas. My mind cannot hold your image in place."

"You could photograph me," Elisabeth said. A surge of lust parted her lips as she felt Samuel's hand caress her throat before slipping into her hair as he slid the other down to the base of his spine and drew her to him. "You could photograph me until you can no longer hold steady the camera," she said when his lips had let hers go. "And then," she gasped as Samuel turned her about and branded her bare shoulder with his kiss. "You could take your fill of me," she panted as she felt Samuel step back far enough to unzip the dress she had worn. A cool Parisian breeze spilled through the open windows, but Elisabeth's body was too heavily charged by the heat of Samuel's hands and mouth to shiver as he tore the little black dress from her shoulders and threw it aside.

Bending over a chest of paints sitting against the wall, Elisabeth arched her back, offering herself as Samuel tore her panties from her hips. She threw her head back as she felt his mouth against her vulva, and met her own lust-ridden eyes in the mirror. However, she could not see Sathariel kneeling behind her as he opened her with his hands and worked his tongue inside her. Nor could she see her own eyes once he began in earnest, for her bones had turned to jelly and simply remaining on her feet, bent over the chest, was too much work for her. She pulled free of his mouth and knelt, leaning upon the chest. "Give yourself to me," she begged in a shuddering whimper that she only used with Samuel.

She bit into her forearm to keep from screaming his true name as he filled her with one merciless thrust while forcing a hand between her sweat-slick thighs to caress her. She worked against him, milking him as she met each thrust of his hips. It was her favorite game, a game she and Samuel had played for millennia. He would take her while using his energistic abilities to bend light, making him invisible. She, in turn, would use her own abilities to play another's sensations. To win, she had to force him to his peak before she reached hers, shattering his concentration and making him visible once more. To climax first was to lose to him. Elisabeth had lost to Samuel more often than she had won; an unseen mouth kissing her, not knowing where his hands would go next, and the fantasy of being penetrated and used by a demonic presence were usually more than she could handle. She did not regret losing, but tonight she wanted to win.

Crushing hands dug their fingertips into her heart-shaped bottom, and the illusion shattered as Samuel threw his head back and howled his pleasure. Victory drove Elisabeth to the same extremity, and she bit again into her forearm to keep from calling Samuel, the deva she had loved longer than any other, by his true name: Sathariel of the Qliphoth.

"That's what I get for doing without your touch for so long," Samuel whispered in Elisabeth's ear when he had come to his senses.

"You know that you can seek pleasure with others," Elisabeth purred, kissing Samuel's mouth and throat. "I do."

"None of them are like you. Not even your sister Tamarah," Samuel said before pulling free of Elisabeth's satisfied embrace. He returned with two warm, damp towels. Offering one to Elisabeth, he used the other to clean himself. "Yes, that is what Thagirion is calling herself these days, Ashtoreth."

"Have you seen her lately?" Elisabeth asked as she soothed her inflamed sex with the soft towel. "Is she still living on Crete?"

"I spent a week with her in Manhattan a couple of months ago. She had asked me to take the Starbreaker back from Desdinova, but he no longer has it."

"Imaginos has it. He also has a bearer in mind."

"The 200 series prototype?" Samuel asked. "I thought Polaris did not have the necessary personality."

"He doesn't," Elisabeth said as she followed Samuel past the beaded curtains that partitioned his bed from the rest of the loft. Taking a silver-handled brush from where she had left it the last time she came to visit, she made a show of brushing her hair as she sat naked at her vanity. "Imaginos means to use Morgan Stormrider. Didn't you know?"

"No," Samuel said, taking the hairbrush from Elisabeth's fingers so that he could attend to her. "Imaginos has learned to detect my presence, so I keep my distance."

"He asked me to find you," Elisabeth said, tilting her head back to look up at him. "He has asked me to do something for him, and suggested that you would be able to help me."

Samuel laid the hairbrush upon the vanity and led Elisabeth to the bed. Sliding beneath the blankets behind her, he pressed his body against hers, hip to hip, chest against shoulder. "What has he asked you to do?" he asked, wrapping his arms around Elisabeth. "I hear doubt in your voice when you speak of Imaginos. Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"

"Polaris isn't suitable to wield the Starbreaker," Elisabeth said, snuggling against Samuel beneath the blankets. "He did not know this until after he had removed Christabel Crowley from Morgan Stormrider's life and brought her to me to hide. At least, he claims that he did not know. I'm starting to suspect, though, that Polaris is the alternate bearer, and Stormrider was the one Imaginos had in mind from the beginning. But he's going about it entirely wrong. We Qliphoth have never forced anybody to bear the Starbreaker. We have always approached the bearer and given him a choice. We told the bearers what they could expect. If they accepted the burden, it was with full knowledge."

"Imaginos has not approached Stormrider?"

Elisabeth turned over, burying her face in Samuel's broad chest. "No. Imaginos knows that Stormrider has gained access to his Asura abilities, but has repressed that side himself. He also thinks that Stormrider possesses an energistic talent. He means to force Morgan to unleash his destroyer aspect, as well as forcing a left-hand path manifestation upon him. I think Imaginos is arranging events so that Morgan will do anything to kill him, even if it means taking up the Starbreaker and cutting through Fuzon to get to Imaginos."

"It's an audacious plan," Samuel said when he had dispelled his shock. "Considering that Adramelech has thrown in with Fuzon and has been trying to break the bindings, I'm not surprised that Imaginos would not take time to recruit Stormrider and guide him onto the right-hand path."

"Don't tell me you agree with him," Elisabeth hissed, aghast.

"Of course not," Samuel said, propping himself up so that he could look into Elisabeth's golden eyes. "I think it's an entirely unnecessary risk. To hand over the Starbreaker to an Asura Emulator hellbent on revenge for the murder of his lover is folly."

"It gets worse," Elisabeth said. "Stormrider knows now that Christabel never loved him. Imaginos wants me to kidnap Naomi Bradleigh and certain other women that he values. He means to hold them hostage, knowing that Naomi is Stormrider's true love."

"Thagirion is going to love this," Samuel growled as he pulled free of the blankets. Opening a drawer, he fished out a fresh pair of jeans and began to dress. "I think we had better tell her. She entrusted the Starbreaker to Imaginos, but I think she may change her mind."

Chapter 69

The woman stopped mid-note, her bow frozen against the strings of her cello, as Elisabeth and Samuel materialized in her apartment. Elisabeth allowed herself a small smile at the knowledge that she and Samuel had caught her sister unprepared. Elisabeth's sister laid her cello on its side, and laid her bow across the ledge of her music stand. Rising to her feet, she adjusted the skirts of her backless, calf-length black gown to hide the tops of her stockings and the black lace garters that held them in place. "Isaac told me that you would be coming, Elisabeth."

Elisabeth nodded. "How did he guess?"

Elisabeth's sister turned her bare back and strode to the window. Clasping her hands behind her, she said. "He knows that you have doubts about his methods. He suspects that you would come to me and ask that I intervene — and stop him."

"Samuel tells me you use the name 'Tamarah' now." Elisabeth said.

"That is so," Tamarah, whom Elisabeth knew as Thagirion, confirmed. She approached Elisabeth and folded her arms around her. "You have been out of touch, little sister. I have been calling myself 'Tamarah Gellion' since before Nationfall. "

"Our last words to one another had been harsher than I'd like," Elisabeth said, looking up into eyes that mirrored her own golden pools, but with a skim of ice on top. "Have you been happy?"

Tamarah nodded. Raising a bare, white arm to indicate the ferns and flowering plants that lined the walls of her apartment and played the role of curtains, she said. "I tend my own garden, and tend it well, though it does not offer the variety for which your Garden of Earthly Delights is famed. Come along. Have either of you eaten?"

"We did not want to impose," Samuel protested.

"Nonsense," Tamarah insisted as she led them, the thick cable into which she had bound her knee-length hair swaying in time with her slim hips. "No doubt you wanted to cook for Elisabeth yourself, Samuel, but at least share a bottle of wine with me."

"Tamarah's right," Elisabeth said, whispering in Samuel's ear. "We came all this way and dropped in, so we might as well let her be gracious about it." Letting Samuel go, she turned to her sister. "We'd be happy to share a bottle with you."

It was not until Tamarah had led them into the kitchen that Elisabeth realized that Tamarah's apartment was in fact a rooftop greenhouse. The plants had obscured the ceiling in every part of the loft but the kitchen. Tamarah must not allow the plants to intrude into here, Elisabeth decided, because she wants the light. Opening the cabinet, Tamarah chose a bottle from the Callo Merlose vineyards outside Melbourne in Australia and opened it. Setting it aside to breathe, she prepared a plate of cheese and crackers. When she had poured a glass for each of them, she said, "As I said, Isaac Magnin told me to expect you. Tell me, Elisabeth, why come to me now after a hundred years? We had exchanged harsh words over whether or not Magnin was to be trusted. Have you changed your mind?"

"I have," Elisabeth admitted, her voice quiet, "I fear that he is on his way to becoming what he swore to destroy. He has asked me to kidnap his own daughter, Naomi Bradleigh, so that he can use her to manipulate Morgan Stormrider."

Tamarah nodded and sipped her wine. "Yes, Isaac had spoken to me about that. He asked me to help him create several prepared quantum gate patterns for your use."

"Did you agree to help him?" Samuel asked, nibbling a slice of cheddar cheese.

"I did," Tamarah admitted, raising a hand to forestall Elisabeth's objections. "Yes, sister, I remember what I said to you. I told you that Isaac's methods were unsound, and that he was too willing to manipulate people instead of giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves. I told you that Magnin was a danger not only to the humans, but to the devas. I told you that you were foolish to trust him, and that you had allowed the memory of your love for him to cloud your judgment."

"And you were right to say all of it," Elisabeth said, her voice softened by her shame. "I had believed in him. I had believed that he could create a better, freer humanity, and that he could liberate both our kind and humankind from the tyranny of the Powers. But if I was wrong to help him, aren't you wrong to help him as well?"

"I'm sure you have your reasons," Samuel said.

"I do," Tamarah agreed. "Have you been paying attention to Adramelech of late, Elisabeth?"

"I try not to."

Samuel chuckled. "He's rather self-righteous considering that he's the weakest of the Qliphoth."

"He has become more powerful," Tamarah said. "I do not understand how Fuzon managed it, but he has lent a portion of his strength to Adramelech — presumably so that Adramelech can liberate the Power from its prison."

"That little traitor," Elisabeth hissed. "I think I understand now. You've decided that Magnin is the lesser evil."

Tamarah nodded. "Magnin's aims are still aligned with our own. He still seeks the destruction of the Power beneath the antarctic ice. My objection has been to his manipulative methods. I still object to his methods, but events have forced me to accept that we do not have time to approach Morgan Stormrider, overcome his natural skepticism, persuade him to help us, and teach him what we need him to know."

"And so you agreed to create the gates for Magnin," Samuel said. "Because you think that Stormrider will cut through Fuzon in order to get to Magnin."

"Stormrider could end up solving two problems for us," Tamarah suggested as she reached for the bottle. "Would anybody care for a second glass?"

"Please," Elisabeth said, offering her glass. "I think I understand your reasoning, but I do not like the idea of manipulating Stormrider. I know him and Naomi from their work in the band Crowley's Thoth. I've met Morgan himself on two occasions. I like him, and I think he deserves better than to be manipulated into wielding the Starbreaker. He deserves better than to have to take up that weapon while ignorant of its dangers."

"Elisabeth is right. However, if Adramelech really is borrowing power from Fuzon, then we might not be able to bind the Power if he is freed."

Tamarah nodded, fingering the stem of her glass. "You both realize that Morgan Stormrider is an Asura Emulator. He was created in order to be armed with the Starbreaker and turned against the Powers. He, like the Asuras we created and sent into battle, is nothing but a biomechanical weapon, is he not?"

Samuel raised his eyebrows. "Playing the Devil's Advocate?"

Tamarah ignored him, and turned her attention to her sister. "You understand that if we allow Isaac Magnin to proceed without our interference, it is almost certain that Morgan Stormrider will manifest his energistic talent, unlock his abilities as an Asura, take up the Starbreaker, and destroy Fuzon. It is less likely, but still entirely possible, that he will also destroy Adramelech and Isaac Magnin. If we assume that this is the best possible outcome for both humankind, devas, and we of the Qliphoth, then is it in our interest to interfere in a way that may jeopardize our chances of eliminating these threats?"

"Is it in our interest to allow Magnin to continue to manipulate Stormrider?" Elisabeth countered, rising to her feet. Her high heels click against the marble tile as she began to pace by the window, her eyes never leaving Tamarah's. "Your logic assumes that Stormrider will not realize that he is being manipulated, and therefore will not rebel. Have you considered what might happen if he did figure out that he's being used, and if he did rebel?"

Tamarah shrugged and sipped her wine. "Then Magnin will eliminate him and use another emulator."

"Who would he use?" Samuel chuckled. "Polaris? The Starbreaker would eat him alive."

"And the other Asura Emulators are even worse," Elisabeth insisted. "Most of them are psychotic by human standards. They could not handle sharing their heads with a fully-formed personality construct. Others became criminals. The rest are anonymous mediocrities. One of them spends his time panhandling in the Manhattan subway, mooching enough spare change to buy a bottle of rotgut liquor. Not that the liquor does him any good since the Asura Emulators can't get drunk."

Tamarah nodded. "So, Stormrider is our best chance."

"I would say he's our only chance," Elisabeth said, crossing her arms beneath the bodice of her dress. "Which is reason enough to be careful in our dealings with him. However, there's something else. You warned me against helping Magnin because you thought that by adopting his methods you would become like him. I've realized that you're right. I have become more like Magnin than I would like, because I have manipulated others as he has. I do not want to become Magnin, or like the Powers Magnin imitates through his machinations. Stormrider isn't the only one who is afraid that fighting monsters might be making a monster of him. I too am afraid, and I want to step back while I can."

"I agree with you," Tamarah whispered as she drew her younger sister into her arms and stroked her hair. "I know that the right thing to do, if we think only of the principles that led us to become the Qliphoth, is to reason with Stormrider and offer him a choice. But he will not believe us now. There is another way."

"What if we contacted Stormrider after Magnin forced him to manifest?" Samuel asked as he refilled his glass. "Once he's come into his power, he has little choice but to accept that he is an Asura. He'll listen to us then."

Tamarah nodded. "I was thinking along those lines. Elisabeth, can you play the role Magnin has set for you?"

"And wait for an opportunity to reveal the truth?" Elisabeth asked, stepping back. "If I could arrange for Morgan to find me after I have spirited Naomi away, I might be able to guide him."

"And direct his anger towards Magnin?" Samuel chuckled. "You're being a bad, bad girl."

"Oh, I know," she purred, as a malicious, sweet smile curved her lips. "But I think dear Isaac would approve. After all, he wants Morgan angry with him. I am going to give him what he says he wants. Do you think he'll enjoy it?"

Chapter 70

Polaris stepped back, his sword held before him so that its blade cut upward through the center of his visual field. He had not expected Magnin to push him so hard that his artificial muscles trembled with fatigue. He had not expected to have to shake sweat-soaked hair from his face. He had not expected to pant, desperate for every molecule of oxygen he could draw into himself. He had not expected Isaac Magnin to spend an entire morning fencing with him.

"Come on," Magnin said, his voice light and easy. Polaris could not understand how Magnin still sounded and looked fresh. Polaris had pressed him all morning, analyzing Magnin's defenses, but while Polaris's hands trembled around the hilt, Magnin remained still and unruffled. Magnin had put aside his jacket and tie, and had opened the collar of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves, but as far as Polaris could tell, Magnin was making no effort at all.

Perhaps it was the weapon Magnin used. Magnin had given Polaris a blunt and padded hand-and-a-half sword made of lead to practice with, but Magnin himself appeared to be using a crystal rod of some sort. The rod was a meter long, and a centimeter thick. Light refracted in it as though it were an icicle, but Polaris could not believe that Magnin would be able to ward off his attacks with a rod of ice. What made even less sense to Polaris is that Magnin seemed content to let his right hand, in which he held the rod, rest at his side until Polaris attacked. Bringing it up in an instant to repel Polaris' blade, he would then strike Polaris with it before dancing out of his reach and letting his hand return to his side. Polaris had spent hours studying footage depicting various sword techniques, but had never seen a method that hid a defense Polaris could not penetrate behind such deceptive openness as Magnin showed when waiting for him to attack.

The minutes Polaris had spent standing still, watching Magnin and trying to read him, had given Polaris time to recover. His muscles no longer trembled and his breath no longer came in pants. He feinted to Magnin's right before springing to Magnin's left and striking downward at his undefended side. The rod came up, striking Polaris' blade and deflecting it. Rather than oppose the force Magnin had imparted into his blade, Polaris used it, turning the blade so that he could strike at Magnin from another angle. His blade met the rod again with a shock that left both his arms numb. The sword dropped from his hands and thudded against the floor as Polaris glared at Magnin. "How the hell are you doing this?"

"I will explain later," Magnin said as he strode past Polaris. "But now you know that you were mistaken about Morgan Stormrider. He does not simply power his way through an opponent's defenses."

Polaris heard a splash and saw that Magnin no longer held the crystal rod. "So, you did use an icicle. When are you going to teach me how to do that?"

"When time permits," Magnin said, "Which, at the moment, it doesn't. In fact, I think that time has just become more stringently limited than it had been."

Polaris turned to see a man as pale as Magnin, but with close-cropped scarlet hair. He stood by the wall with his arms folded and a scowl on his face that marked him without any need to see the Roman collar binding his throat. "I've seen this guy before," he said. "Why the hell are you letting a priest into the building?"

"He is not a priest," Magnin muttered, "And I have not been letting him in. Stay behind me. Do not speak. Do not be surprised by anything I say."

Polaris followed Magnin as he approached the false priest. As they approached, Polaris noticed an increase in the electromagnetic energy radiating from Magnin. All living organisms possessed a trace electromagnetic field generated by their nervous systems. Some of the books Polaris had read suggested that this weak bioelectric field was the basis for belief in phenomena like auras and chi energy. Magnin's aura had thickened and begun to radiate electromagnetic interference and waste heat. "What is your business here, Adramalech?" Magnin had said, using the old Vedic language that he had taught Polaris.

The man Magnin identified as Adramalech replied through his scowl: "My business is the Qliphoth's business. I was told that you hold the Starbreaker again."

"Who would tell you such a thing? Thagirion is none too pleased with your treason. Ashtoreth and Sathariel curse the day they voted to initiate you into the order."

"Nonetheless," Adramelech said, his voice slipping into a tone of fake humility, "Thagirion asked that I inquire after the safety of the weapon. Where is it?"

"It is safe, and in a secure location," Magnin said. "If Thagirion wishes to know more, I will show her myself. She may see fit to trust you, but I do not."

Adramalech turned dead eyes towards Polaris. "Is this the bearer you have chosen?"

Magnin nodded. "Yes. Stormrider has proved to be too dangerous. Polaris, however, has shown himself to be perfectly compatible with the weapon. He requires only a month's worth of practical training in order to prove a viable bearer."

A look Polaris recognized as skepticism narrowed Adramelech's eyes. "I saw you training with this Asura. He is a worthless swordsman. He could not penetrate your own defenses. Do you expect him to stand against Fuzon, even with his avatar weakened after his journey and ten thousand year captivity beneath the ice?"

"He will stand. You saw only the beginning of his training. I spent a similar morning with my daughter several years ago, if you remember. She could not believe that no method known to humans could defeat our technique."

"And you expect to begin the operation within a month's time."

"Thagirion knows as much already, as do Ashtoreth and Sathariel. I am surprised that they did not bother to tell you," Magnin said.

"No matter," Adramelech said, his scowl mutating into a zealot's grin. "They are right to distrust me. Enjoy your secrets. Enjoy your protégé. I could shred him now, were God willing, but that is not His will this day."

"It is fitting that Fuzon should appear to you wearing Christ's face," Magnin said, "Jesus could not save himself. Fuzon will not be able to save himself. And when he is gone, who will offer you a false hope of salvation?"

"My God is Lord and Almighty. You will see for yourself, and tremble with the knowledge that not even the blood of Christ can save you from your sins."

Polaris stepped back, placing more distance between himself and Magnin as the energy radiating from him increased further. He watched, feeling his jaw fall open of its own accord, as Adramelech's face began to dissolve into a cloud of dust, followed by his body and clothes. The dust then began to separate and compress, leaving a pile of crystals and a few lumps of metal upon the floor. "You just reduced that man's body to its constituent elements, didn't you." Polaris gasped, unable to contain his shock as he hefted in one hand a lump of iron that must have been formed from the hemoglobin in Adramelech's blood. In the other he grasped a chunk of crystallized calcium. "That's why you drew so much electrical power to yourself."

"That is what we energists, we devas who have been altered by the Powers, do," Magnin said in a quiet voice. "The entities we once believed to be gods made demigods of us, giving us the ability to manipulate matter and energy. It is technology that does not require machines: we apply our knowledge of nature's workings in order to manipulate nature. Because we do not always require mechanical or electronic equipment to accomplish these workings, we are often mistaken for sorcerers."

Polaris dropped the iron and calcium he had been holding. "Should we clean this up?"

Magnin shrugged before rolling down his sleeves and buttoning them at his wrists. He slipped back into the jacket he had left on the chair along the wall of the conference room and smoothed his clothes. "The janitor can deal with it later. Come with me to my private office upstairs. We have matters to discuss, and little time in which to do so."

"All right," Polaris said, transmitting an encrypted copy of what he had just seen and heard to the Sephiroth. He did not meet Magnin's eyes as they rode the elevator upward.

"Are you afraid of me?" Magnin asked.

Polaris nodded and swallowed, trying to understand why his emotional repertoire would include fear. It must be a survival mechanism, one that kicks in before one's mind has had time to analyze the situation and deduce that it was time to run or time to fight. "You just shredded a man, reducing his body to its elemental components in a span of seconds. Of course I'm afraid of you. What you did to him, you could do to me."

Magnin nodded. "Fair enough, but I would not go to such lengths in order to destroy you. You remember Tetsuo Munakata's end, do you not?"

Polaris swallowed again and thought: Munakata was an Asura, just like I am. I can be killed the same way he was. A bullet in the back of the head would do it. "I remember. You can just put a bullet through my brainstem and then wipe the backups of my memories."

"Exactly," Magnin said with the approving tone of a teacher pleased with his pupil. "I cannot, however, deal with Adramelech in the same manner. He is a Power, though inferior to the one beneath the ice. He is not dead; all I did was destroy the avatar that allows him to observe this universe and interact within it. I destroyed his body as I did because it is the only way to be rid of him for a time."

"How long do you have?"

"Given that Fuzon has lent him power, I have a week to place Stormrider in a position to be of use to me. I might have two weeks. I have already asked the Qliphoth to come to me. I had meant to take enough time to teach you my technique, but you will have to learn what you can on your own."

Polaris nodded as the elevator stopped. He hoped that the Sephiroth could do something, considering the risk he was incurring by providing them with a live audiovisual feed. "I understand."

Chapter 71

Isaac Magnin chafed beneath the need to make use of every minute. Adramelech's arrival and the confirmation of Thagirion's warning that he had indeed obtained additional strength from the Power locked beneath the ice had given Isaac a new urgency. He could feel the seconds slipping from his grasp, and with it the opportunity to arm his one weapon against the Power before it broke free. If he could not force Morgan Stormrider to manifest his energistic talent and release the psychological barriers he had erected between himself and his nature as an Asura within a week, Isaac knew that Fuzon would not give him a chance to do so.

Rising to his feet, Isaac leaned over his desk and locked his eyes upon his guests. "Events have made a change of plans necessary. Ms. Gellion, I apologize for doubting your warning concerning Adam Mellech. You were correct in your assessment that Mellech has obtained additional resources from the Power beneath the ice."

Tamarah Gellion had been pacing behind the others, the steel tips of her stiletto heeled sandals sparking against the marble tiled floor. She stopped, allowing her streaming hair to draw a curtain around her before she threw it over her shoulders to stream down a creamy back left bare by her black dress. "Now that you believe that Adramelech has borrowed power, what will you do?"

"Do you still mean to manipulate Morgan Stormrider?" Elisabeth Bathory asked as she curled her legs beneath her and leaned on one elbow. "And why is Polaris here? I did not know that you meant to use him."

"I have chosen to help," Polaris said. Magnin allowed himself an instant's amusement at the blush that flashed across the Asura's face as he met Elisabeth's molten gold eyes. She had that effect on everybody at first. A glance from her still made Magnin blush when she caught him off guard. "I wait only for Dr. Magnin to outline my role. I already know about the devas, and your struggle."

"How unfortunate that you cannot just give Polaris the Starbreaker," Samuel Tyrell chuckled. "He'd be willing to use it, but it would hijack his body and use him as a weapon."

"That is unfortunate," Isaac agreed, "However, I had suspected as soon as Dr. Malmgren prematurely activated him that he would be unsuitable." Noticing Polaris' flinch at the word, Magnin continued. "Time is limited, so I will keep my explanation brief. Right now, Morgan Stormrider is still playing the Adversary, and investigating my role in the murders of Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch, as well as my connection to Tetsuo Munakata and Alexander Liebenthal."

Tamarah lowered herself into the chair Isaac had set for her. Crossing her legs, she leaned on her knee and rested her chin against her knuckles. "Why does he continue to play detective? Does he not know that you are behind Christabel's murder? According to your original estimates of his psychology, that should have been enough to motivate him to confront you."

"Imaginos underestimated Stormrider's determination to hold to his principles," Elisabeth purred, "Nor did he consider the possibility that Stormrider might have been fighting doubts about himself and his work as an Adversary. You did not expect Stormrider to quit, did you, Imaginos?"

Isaac considered the question in silence. He knew from Witness Protocol surveillance that operated without Stormrider's knowledge or consent even in his most private moments that Stormrider had harbored doubts. He knew it because Stormrider had discussed these doubts not only with his friends, but his patron Saul Rosenbaum. However, honesty demanded that he admit to himself that he had not expected Morgan to resign his post in the public and decisive manner that he had chosen. "I knew about his doubts. What I did not expect was his reaction to the letters Christabel Crowley had written to me. I had expected that he would come for me after reading the letters. I expected his rage at learning that Christabel had never loved him to overrule his reason."

"It nearly did so," Elisabeth said. "You may remember that I was there with you, observing alongside you."

Isaac nodded. "I remember. My mistake had been in considering only Morgan Stormrider. I had forgotten to factor the women in his life into my calculations."

"Especially your daughter," Elisabeth added.

"You never mentioned a daughter, Isaac," Samuel said, a challenging glint in his eyes. "Is she attractive?"

"Stormrider thinks so," Magnin said, his tone dry. "More importantly, his self-respect depends in part upon her good opinion of him. Knowing that she was near inspired him to leash his rage and force his way back to reason."

"That's why you want to kidnap Naomi Bradleigh," Elisabeth said. "As long as she is around, Stormrider will not give free reign to his anger and his hatred of you. He knows what you have done, but he values his own pride and Naomi's respect too highly to cut corners. He's determined to do his job, to build an ironclad case against you, before he draws his sword."

Polaris scratched his head. He hesitated for a moment, afraid that the others would think him naive, before raising his voice. "Are you concerned that if you let him build his case, he might insist on continuing to operate within the law? Instead of challenging you to a duel, Dr. Magnin, he might instead settle for arresting you, and ensuring that you stand trial."

Isaac allowed himself a moment's regret that Dr. Malmgren had not been present to hear Polaris' question. He had figured out Isaac's very reason for wanting to force Morgan Stormrider's hand. "Dr. Malmgren would be proud of your analysis, Polaris. You are exactly right. If we allow Stormrider to continue his investigation, it is probable that his wrath will cool into righteous indignation. It is probable that, given time, he will regain his emotional balance. If he does, he will probably be content to see me stand trial. I have to hit him again, while he is still off balance."

"If I didn't know that Naomi was your daughter," Samuel asked, "I would ask you why you can't just kill her. Then again, why not kill Morgan's other lady friends? You have no reason not to."

"I have nothing to gain by killing Claire Ashecroft, Josefine Malmgren, or Sarah Kohlrynn," Isaac said, raising a hand to forestall Samuel's objections. "Victoria Murdoch was the first woman I ever killed with my own hands."

He narrowed his eyes at the accusing look Tamarah threw his way and wondered if she had caught the slip he made. "How about all of the billions who died during Nationfall?" Tamarah asked. "You set the stage for their deaths. Even if you didn't pull the trigger yourself, you still loaded the gun and left it lying about."

Magnin bowed his head, acknowledging that Tamarah was right. "It's easier to leave a loaded gun for somebody else to find than it is to fire it yourself. If somebody else takes the gun, you can pass most of the blame to him, for having chosen to fire it."

"And that is Isaac's style," Elisabeth said with a sweet tone and a venomous glare. "He leaves loaded pistols and primed explosives where children can find them, and waits for them to use the toys he left for them."

"Save your contempt for my brother," Isaac spat, his pride wounded by the sharp truth in Elisabeth's words. "He is the one who not only lies to the world, but lies to himself as well! His methods are no different from my own, but I am the one who acknowledges the blood on my hands. Desdinova pretends that his are clean!"

"I did not come here to be insulted," Dr. Zachary Aster ground out as he strode into the office and shrugged off his coat. "You called me here on business pertaining to the executive council, but insisted that Edmund Cohen not be included. Instead, you include the two-hundred series prototype Asura Emulator. Get to the point."

"Truth hurts?" Elisabeth asked Dr. Aster before turning her attention back to Isaac. "Why not leave Naomi Bradleigh out of this, then? It's nice to see that you still have a conscience. Can you still listen to it?"

Isaac watched as Polaris threw nervous glances around him, looking for a way to get out. "Is something wrong, Polaris? Did you think I was something other than the Serpent in the Garden of Eden? I whisper lies in the ears of the world to distract it while I fit it with strings, and then I set all to dance. So, tell me. Do you want out?"

"I do," Polaris said, "But getting out won't undo what I did to Dr. Malmgren and her friend Claire. I still have to live with that. Can you at least tell me that what you're doing is for a greater good? Can you at least tell me that there is a point to what you've asked of me before and will ask of me soon?"

Isaac rose from his desk and strode to the wall of window screens behind him. He looked at the city spreading below him beneath the dome of Asgard, and at the suburbs of Asgard beneath their own domes. "You have to decide for yourself what you're willing to do to see life on this earth freed from the threat of the Power beneath the ice. As an Asura Emulator, you are an artifact of the devas' existence. Fuzon cannot be bound forever, and if he is not killed, he will kill the devas. He will destroy you and every other Asura Emulator he can find. He will then turn his attention to the human race, killing all who reject his poisoned gifts. We are fighting for our existence, and I have decided for myself that the end justifies the means. Now you must decide for yourself."

Tamarah arched her eyebrows and asked in a cool tone, "Was all of that truly necessary? You claim that time is limited. Why not get to the point?"

Isaac offered an ironic half bow. "Of course. I had thought it prudent to explain why we must force Stormrider's hand."

"We already know," Dr. Aster said. "I have already tried and failed to recruit Morgan Stormrider. He did not believe what I told him of the devas and their history. Polaris believes, but — and I mean no offense — his personality is not suited to the task. And now you think that the Power has recovered sufficiently and broken enough of the bindings upon it to lend power to Adramelech. You are concerned that once he creates a new avatar, he will finish the job of unbinding Fuzon."

Samuel leaned back in his chair, stretched, and cracked his knuckles. "So, what's the plan? How do you intend to enrage Stormrider this time, since killing Christabel didn't work, and neither did waiting for him to find out that that little harpy never loved him in the first place? You're not going to kill your daughter, and I guess you're not going to kill Stormrider's other little girl friends."

"You sound disappointed," Dr. Aster suggested.

"Of course not," Samuel countered. "That Kohlrynn girl doesn't do it for me, but Ashecroft would be fun to romp with. And Malmgren's too sweet; she doesn't deserve to be dragged into this."

"None of them do," Isaac sighed, "But I am going to do it anyway. I will use my root access with the Sephiroth to plant evidence that they will give to Claire Ashecroft. Claire will be able to draw Stormrider back to London."

"We cannot have Stormrider stay with Claire," Elisabeth pointed out. "Not if we mean to kidnap all of the women. I can arrange for Claire and Sarah to drive Stormrider out of Claire's home."

"Then he'll just go to Naomi Bradleigh's place," Samuel said. "And Miss Bradleigh's the prime target."

"I think that's where I come in," Polaris said, raising his head. "That's why you've been trying to teach me the sword, Dr. Magnin, isn't it? You want me to accost Stormrider before he gets to Bradleigh's, and distract him."

Isaac nodded. "Fight him. Harass him. Let him believe that Naomi Bradleigh is in danger, but do not let him get to her until after Elisabeth and Samuel have transported her and the other women to my mansion."

Isaac turned to his brother. "You know your role?"

"It's the same role I've played time and time again," Dr. Aster sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm your opposition. I get to convince Stormrider and his friends that I'm on his side, when I've been working with you the whole time."

"I will have the prepared gates ready for you in three days time," Tamarah said.

"Thank you," Magnin said as he opened a drawer and removed a sealed letter. "Elisabeth, I want you to leave this letter on Naomi Bradleigh's pillow after you have taken her. It will tell Stormrider who is responsible for Naomi's disappearance, and what he must do if he values her life."

Elisabeth accepted the letter with a hand that held an almost imperceptible trembling. "I had hoped that you would not do this, but I understand why you think you must," she said, pulling her hand away when Isaac tried to touch it. "You will give us the word when the time comes."

"I will," Magnin promised as the others filed into the elevator to leave. Elisabeth turned her back on him and managed ten steps before throwing over her shoulder a glance that told Isaac that he had lost any hope of ever winning back her respect or affection. She spoke to him in elder Vedic: "Imaginos, do you have any notion of what you have allowed yourself to become?"

Isaac Magnin found himself naked beneath the eyes Elisabeth turned upon him. He knew that his power as an energist was worthless. Neither the money he had amassed nor the power and influence he held among humans could allow him to avoid the truth, and he found that he did not want to. If he did, he suspected that he would only confirm Elisabeth's opinion of him. "I know, Ashtoreth," he replied in the same tongue. "I am the one you warned me of."

Chapter 72

Morgan Stormrider looked up from his plate of bison steak, bacon, and eggs to find Astarte staring at him from the kitchen screen. It had been the third time he had caught her studying him that morning. "Is something wrong, Astarte? Getting hungry?"

Astarte blushed and turned away from Morgan, blinking several times as if compensating for her earlier, unblinking observation. "No, it's not that. I just didn't expect you to look so… rested. You've only had four hours sleep, and you came home looking like everything you had believed in had turned out to be a lie."

Morgan considered this while nibbling a strip of bacon. "It was only Christabel's love for me that had turned out to be a lie. Learning that had hurt."

"But you look like you've gotten over it," Astarte said, leaning on the bottom of the screen as if she were at a window.

"It still hurts," Morgan said, "But I can deal with that now. When I had come home last night, I had believed that the last ten years had been a waste."

"Because they were ten years you thought you could have spent with Naomi?" Astarte suggested.

Morgan nodded and focused on devouring his eggs. He filled his glass of orange juice and drank half at a draft. "I had thought that the past ten years were a complete waste because I had spent them with Christabel. That was stupid of me."

Astarte dismissed that remark with a slow shake of her head. "Don't blame yourself for thinking that. You were hurt too badly to think straight."

"Thank you," Morgan said, glad for Astarte's understanding. "Would you think it strange if I told you that I do not hate Christabel, despite what she did to me?"

Incredulity lifted Astarte's eyebrows. "You've forgiven her?"

"No," Morgan said, carving off part of his steak and laying it across a strip of buttered toast. He ate his steak and toast as he thought of the best way to explain the conclusions he had reached last night, so that Astarte would understand. "It can be very tempting to play 'if only' when thinking about the past. The problem with 'if only' is that one tends to oversimplify the consequences of a particular choice."

"Is that what you were thinking about last night?" Astarte asked.

"I think it was the first step," Morgan said, remembering how he had given up on sleep after an hour of tossing and turning. He had been so restless that Mordred had left the room. He had wandered through his brownstone, compiling in his mind an inventory of every object in his home that reminded him of Christabel. Every object was a chain binding him to his memories of Christabel. Morgan had thought, at two in the morning, that if he got rid of everything that had reminded him of Christabel, he could be free of his memories of her. "I wanted to get rid of everything that reminded me of Christabel. Packing up the stuff in her room was easy enough. I had her clothes boxed up and ready to be donated before I went to bed. Same with her jewelry."

"But there were pieces that I had liked."

"I had not thought of that at the time," Morgan admitted. "It was not until I started looking through the rest of the house for things that she had left or given me that I realized that I might be throwing out more than my memories of Christabel."

"It was the books," Astarte guessed. "That was the one thing Christabel got right. She knew your tastes."

Morgan nodded and allowed himself a small smile. "I was pulling a German edition of Goethe's Faust from the shelf to toss into the donation box when I remembered that Naomi had enjoyed it as well. She had found it at a used book shop in Berlin, but Christabel had snatched it up while she was looking for me so that she could point it out. I remember her sitting on the couch with Mordred resting his head in her lap, reading it. I cracked it open, and found that she had marked her place with one of those red silk ribbons she uses to bind her hair."

"And then there's the photographs. Every picture of you with Christabel also has Naomi in it. Or the guys. Or Claire."

Morgan nodded. "You are right. I started thinking then, trying to figure out what the last ten years would really have been like if I had never met Christabel."

"Found more differences than you expected?" Astarte asked, arching an eyebrow.

Morgan nodded. "You know, I had lost track of Naomi after I applied to ACS. I had promised myself that I would not try to see her again until I had made something of myself. I did not see Naomi again until Eddie told Christabel that I played the guitar and she bullied me into coming to the studio to see if I fit with the rest of the band."

"You met her again in the studio?" Astarte asked, already knowing the answer.

Morgan nodded. "She recognized me as soon as I walked in. She just looked up from her music, cocked her head, smiled, and said, 'Hello again, Morgan'. It was just three words, but I would not have gotten to hear them if not for Christabel. I might never have thought to start a band or join one on my own. I might not have tried my hand at composing music or writing lyrics. And if I had, I might not have made of it what I made of Crowley's Thoth with Naomi and Christabel. And if I had not spent ten years trying to love Christabel, I might not know how to cherish Naomi."

"So, that's why you forgave Christabel? Because you think you owe her too much?"

"No, I have not forgiven Christabel," Morgan said, shaking his head. Rising from the table, he brought his dishes to the sink and began to wash them. "Sorry, Mordred. I do not have any scraps for you," he said as the cat stuck his head into the kitchen with a questioning trill.

Astarte waited until Morgan had finished before asking, "Can you explain to me how you can say that you no longer hate Christabel, but haven't forgiven her?"

"To forgive Christabel would be to deny that she had wronged me," Morgan said, drying his hands. "I am not going to lie to myself for her sake."

"But you don't hate her, either," Astarte pressed.

"Contempt is almost more than she deserves," Morgan said in a low snarl. He turned towards Astarte and locked his eyes upon hers: "I have a more deserving target for my hatred."

"Not me, I hope."

Morgan blinked, realizing that he had scared Astarte. "Of course not. I was thinking of Isaac Magnin."

"What's next, then?" Astarte asked, reappearing on the screen in Morgan's bedroom when he arrived. Morgan considered her question as he slipped into his coat and buckled it. He considered returning to Christabel's flat; he knew that his emotions might have blinded him to evidence that he might have found had he been clear-headed. He also knew that he owed apologies to both Naomi and Sarah for having frightened them. However, there was also Victoria Murdoch's apartment, which was the more recent kill. Strapping on the shoulder holster that cradled his Nakajima semiautomatic, he made his decision. "I will be heading to Murdoch's apartment today."

"Oh, good," Astarte said. "That means that Sarah didn't come to New York for nothing."

"How do you know that Sarah is in New York?" Morgan asked, buckling his boots.

"She's at the door. I wasn't sure whether or not to invite her in, since I don't know where she stands with you."

Morgan nodded. "Please tell her that I will be down in a couple of minutes," he asked as he checked the hand-and-a-half sword strapped to his back to be sure that it was secure. His boots thumped against the stairs on his way down to the door.

"You're sane, right?" Sarah asked as Morgan opened the door and stepped back to invite her in. He suspected that Sarah had probably filched one of Claire's t-shirts by mistake, as it bore the slogan: "Even in the future nothing works."

"I think so," Morgan said as Sarah stepped into the foyer. She held a familiar case in one hand.

"Well, your eyes are green, not black, and you don't have your claws out. I guess it's safe," Sarah said as she put the case down. "Naomi asked me to bring this to you; she says you left it in Christabel's flat and might want it for Murdoch's."

"She was right," Morgan said, picking up the lab-in-a-box while he used his neuronics to leave a plain text 'thank you' note with Naomi's AI Wolfgang. "Thank you for bringing it with you. Is that one of Claire's shirts?"

Sarah looked down at herself. "No, it's mine. Claire and I went to see a band and get drunk. The band was called Keep Firing Assholes, and their first album is 'Even in the Future Nothing Works'. Claire says you'd call it technical thrash metal. Why do you think it's Claire's shirt?"

"The slogan reminds me of one of Claire's favorite old films," Morgan said as he led Sarah to the street and hailed a cab. "Have you ever heard of Mel Brooks?"

Chapter 73

Morgan Stormrider hoped, for the sake of any guests Victoria Murdoch had entertained in life, that her furniture was more comfortable than it looked. A quick query told him that the style — all sharp corners of nanoengineered black carbon with cushions no thicker than the palm of Morgan's hand — had been trendy in Manhattan last year, and fashionable in Tokyo the year before that. Morgan decided that the furniture fit the motto Sid Schneider had once suggested for Murdoch Defense Industries: 'Last Year's Technology Now'.

"Wasn't Murdoch richer than you?" Sarah asked, wrinkling her nose at the penthouse's decor, which matched the furniture. "I guess you really can't buy taste."

"I think Murdoch tried to rent somebody else's," Morgan said as he examined the room. The police had left the crime scene mapped, even though there were no officers guarding the door. It fit the New York Police Department's style: do a thorough job if it's their case, but stay out of the way if the Phoenix Society sends an Adversary to take over. He placed his kit on a clear section of floor and opened it. Tossing a pair of rubber gloves to Sarah, he said, "I would like to leave the penthouse as I found it. Please be careful about what you touch. If you are not sure, please come to me."

"I could wait outside instead," Sarah offered as she caught the gloves. "In case any reporters show up."

"Why would reporters show up?" Morgan asked as he crouched by the pool of congealed blood and grease where Murdoch's body had been. "Are they hoping that I will say that Murdoch had it coming as well?"

"Probably. I spoke to Del Rio on the maglev over. She isn't happy with you."

"She never is."

"She says you're making your fellow Adversaries look bad."

"She always says that."

"You're not really paying attention to what I'm saying at all," Sarah said as she watched Morgan take samples and feed them into his portable lab for analysis. "Karen has asked the executive council to rescind your letter of marque and strip you of your authority."

"They are welcome to do so," Morgan said as he pulled a hair free. He focused his eyes on the end of the filament that had not been stuck in days old blood and grease. "A platinum hair. Care to bet that it did not come from a normal human head?"

"You don't care that the Executive Council could strip you of your authority?"

"Not at all," Morgan said once he had fed the hair into the analyzer. "I am already convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Isaac Magnin used Christabel and then killed her. If I confront Magnin now in my current capacity, I would be abusing my authority. However, if I am stripped of my position, then I have no reason to refrain from confronting Magnin and challenging him to a duel. I will retain that letter of marque because Magnin is on the executive council, and he will not vote in favor of stripping me of my powers. He knows that as long as I retain my authority, my pride will demand that I do everything by the book."

"Including attempting to take him alive so that he can stand trial?"

"Exactly," Morgan said, a predatory smile baring his teeth. "It is not in Magnin's interest to let Karen have her way."

"Are you always this cynical?"

"Sometimes I am even worse," Morgan admitted as he examined the results his portable lab had forwarded to his handheld. "I will have to get in touch with Claire. I have found hairs from the same CPMD carrier at both this location and at Christabel's flat."

"And Claire can help you crack the Earth Genome Project's database?"

"She can do it for me faster than I could do it myself," Morgan said as he stood and backed away from the site of Victoria Murdoch's death. "Of course, having found Magnin's DNA near where both women died will not be enough. I need to be able to explain how he did it."

Sarah tapped her temple. "I've got the police reports in the foreground. There's no mention of a weapon being found, and the medical examiners refused to speculate about what would have done the damage we saw."

"I know," Morgan said, "But I am not worried about finding the weapon. I could probably convince the jury even if I could not tell them what sort of weapon was used, if I can determine Magnin's motive and explain it to the jury. Remember the Van Roesser trial?"

Sarah nodded. "Twenty years ago in Sydney. The prosecution couldn't find the murder weapon, or even the victims' bodies. Their entire case depended on proving that Jan Van Roesser had the means and the opportunity to kill his wife and stepsons, and that he had a motive to do so."

"While on death row, Van Roesser bragged that he had done the job in his butcher shop, and had disposed of the bodies by running them through a meat grinder and selling the remains as dog food. He said, while he was having his last cigarette, that he felt sorry for the dogs."

Sarah shuddered. "That's disgusting! I hope they ran him through his own meat grinder."

"No such luck," Morgan said as he led Sarah into the kitchen and began to search the room. "He was executed by firing squad. However, you might find it interesting that the five men who shot Jan Van Roesser were all newly married to women who had children from a previous relationship."

"So you think you can nail Magnin the same way?"

"I hope so," Morgan said as he cut up a trashbin liner so that he could spread it across the floor. He dumped the contents of the kitchen bin onto the liner and crouched beside it to examine the trash. "I think I can convince the jury that Magnin had a motive for killing Christabel. However, I still need to explain Victoria Murdoch."

"Because you weren't fucking her," Sarah pointed out as she worked her fingers into the rubber gloves she had been holding and knelt to help Morgan.

"Not my type," Morgan muttered as he held up a small, square aluminum wrapper. He used his thumb to wipe it so that he could check the brand. "Incubus brand. Cinnamon flavored."

"Well, that's one way to avoid having to decide whether to spit or swallow," Sarah observed. "Looking for some empty packets of World Without End?"

Morgan nodded. "It would prove that Magnin had a history with Victoria Murdoch. Of course, I would have to explain where Magnin got the stuff. The AsgarTech Company does not deal in pharmaceuticals, and the drug's chemical composition matches nothing known to human chemistry."

"There's nothing you can use in here," Sarah complained twenty minutes later. Morgan nodded acknowledgement and returned the garbage to the bin. "Want to see what you can find in the bedroom while I ask Claire about cracking Earth Genome and Ms. Murdoch's AI?"

"Sure," Sarah said before flashing what Morgan suspected was her idea of a wicked smile. "I was going over the file on Murdoch's personal life while I was helping you pick through the garbage. I'll bet you lunch that Murdoch has a strap-on bigger than Claire's."

"I have a better idea," Morgan said, "If you stick to the mission and keep the discovery of Murdoch's toy box to yourself, I will treat you to lunch."

"You're no fun," Sarah pouted as she flounced into the bedroom. Standing in the doorway, she turned to Morgan and blew a kiss over the tip of her upraised middle finger.

"And Sarah had been so well-behaved," Morgan thought as he pulled out his handheld and obtained an audio link with Claire. "Are you busy?"

"Oh, I'm just in bed," Claire said before yawning. "I had just woken up a little while ago, and I thought I'd catch up with the latest Eddie Van Helsing. So — what are you wearing?"

"More than you would like," Morgan said as his handheld flashed a suboptimal reception warning that disappeared as soon as he had stepped out onto the balcony. It was times like this when Morgan regretted that standard neuronics refused to play nicely with his nervous system, forcing him to use custom software on a salvaged smartphone.

"That figures. So, what have you got for me? And is Sarah behaving herself?"

"She is using her brain," Morgan said as he looked around to be sure that Sarah was not there to hear him, "Which is more than I had hoped for at first. Unfortunately for her, yours is much more useful to me."

"Got a job for me? I have to videoconference with Catherine in Boston in a couple of hours."

"I have two," Morgan said, sending her the genetic data for the unknown CPMD carrier he had placed at both crime scenes. "I need you to crack Earth Genome's database and see who carries this genome. I think it is Isaac Magnin, but the data is sealed by order of the Phoenix Society."

"I haven't cracked the Earth Genome Project in a while," Claire purred, "Sounds like fun. What else have you got for me?"

"I need you to take an image of Victoria Murdoch's filesystem. Give me a copy, but do your own data mining as well. See if you can find anything in there that correlates with data on Christabel's AI, or Alexander Liebenthal's."

"Why Liebenthal?"

"It is just a hypothesis, but I think Murdoch was involved with Tetsuo Munakata's little gunrunning scheme. The weapons I found looked like Murdoch make, and Munakata was on the AsgarTech payroll."

"I'm into Murdoch's system now," Claire said. "I will have her filesystem for you by the time I am done with Catherine. It's a bloody good thing you had me replace Astarte's original RAID with a new sixteen-petabyte array before recording Glass Earth Falling. There's no way Astarte could have handled the filesystems of three other AIs with her original spec. By the way, Catherine gave you all the credit for taking down Liebenthal with almost no bloodshed. Isn't she sweet?"

"Delightful," Morgan said, smiling around his cigarette, "But she is married, and you are not her type."

"Well, I always knew I was an acquired taste," Claire purred, and disconnected.

Morgan thrust the handheld back into his pocket and closed the balcony doors behind him on his way back into Murdoch's penthouse. "Did you find something?" he asked Sarah.

Sarah held up a torn packet and pointed out the trace of powdery white residue. "Found the crushed remains of a packet of World Without End in a bin by Murdoch's bed."

Morgan nodded and followed Sarah into the bedroom. He examined the trash himself, and found more packets of the drug. Brass tinged against the hardwood floor as Morgan dumped the bin. He stopped a shell casing from rolling under the bed and picked it up with a pair of tweezers so that he could examine it without his rubber gloves ruining the fingerprints. "Murdoch SafeShot — nine millimeter," he muttered. "Murdoch managed to fire at least one round at her attacker."

"The police report didn't mention any bullet fragments, and there wasn't any blood but Murdoch's."

"No holes in the walls, either," Morgan said as he found two more casings and bagged them. "I dare not speculate as to what happened to the slugs. All I know is that I had fired several shots at the perp when I saw him, and the slugs appeared to pass through him."

Sarah offered Morgan an appraising look. "Were you smoking catnip that night?"

"I had had a beer at the Flaming Telepath two hours before I came here that night, but I doubt that a blood test would have shown an appreciable blood alcohol content. My guess is that I had been firing at some sort of optical illusion. The slugs probably ended up in the Hudson River, since the perp was standing in front of the balcony when I tried to shoot him."

"And you picked up your own brass?"

Morgan nodded as he poked through the trash with his tweezers. "If I had not, the police would have found half a dozen casings for Nakajima subsonic frangible in eleven point four three millimeter."

"Nobody heard any shots," Sarah said. "Did you use a suppressor?"

"I did," Morgan admitted as he opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out a nine millimeter pistol by its barrel. "However, Victoria Murdoch did not."

Sarah stared wide-eyed at the slim midnight gray pistol held between Morgan's thumb and forefinger. "Did you know that was in there?"

Morgan shook his head. "I was lucky to find it where the perp was most likely to have put it after taking it from Murdoch. After all, Murdoch would not throw her own brass in the trash, not when you can trade brass back to Murdoch in exchange for a discount on ammo." He ejected the magazine and showed it to Sarah. "Only two rounds missing. She must have had a full magazine, plus a round in the chamber."

"If she had had to chamber a round," Sarah said, "The perp might have gotten the pistol away from her before she could fire a shot. But don't the newest Nakajima pistols automatically load a round into the chamber as soon as you draw them?"

"Nakajima has that planned for next year's models," Morgan acknowledged as he gathered up the trash and returned it to the bin, "But I doubt that using a better pistol would have saved Victoria Murdoch."

"You're thinking of something," Sarah accused. "I can tell. You have this little frown going."

"I am trying to understand why Isaac Magnin would have gathered up Murdoch's brass and put it into the bin." Morgan said as he stood. He pointed towards a wall safe over the nightstand. "Also, why did he put Murdoch's pistol in the nightstand drawer when there is a safe right here? Did he want me to find evidence that Murdoch had died fighting?"

"Take a closer look at the pistol," Sarah said. "Where's the brand? And what about the serial number."

Morgan did as Sarah suggested, and dropped the weapon. Falling to one knee, he caught the pistol before it hit the floor. "The weapons I found in Boston were like this: unbranded, and without a serial number. If Murdoch had one of these, then she herself was involved in Munakata's gunrunning scheme."

"I don't like this," Sarah said as she darted her eyes around the room. "If Magnin killed Christabel, it was to manipulate you while he still could. But why would he kill Murdoch, even if she was working with Tetsuo Munakata to sell militia-grade weapons on the down low?"

"I think I know why," Morgan said as he bagged the pistol. "Munakata was on AsgarTech's payroll. AsgarTech is Magnin's company. According to official company propaganda, he built it up from nothing out of the ashes of Nationfall. He used Munakata's death to distract me while he dealt with Murdoch himself. And he's arranged the evidence to lead me to him, knowing that the regular police would not dare accuse a member of the Phoenix Society's executive council."

Sarah followed Morgan as he packed up his gear and the evidence he had gathered. "Should I go home, strap on some armor, and grab my SMG?"

Morgan led Sarah out of the apartment without looking back at her. "Not yet. This could be exactly what Isaac Magnin wants me to believe. I have to show Saul what I have found first, and let him know where I stand. After that, we should pay a visit to Murdoch Defense Industries and see what their AI can tell us."

Chapter 74

Morgan had not realized that he had pulled away from Sarah and left her behind until he stopped his motorcycle in front of the entrance to Murdoch Defense Industries industrial offices. He had not stopped to think that he would pass through the neighborhood in which he had grown up when he had plotted his path from Manhattan to here. By the time he had realized it, he had already passed the Merced Home for Orphans and seen the faces of some of those who had been children like him, unwanted and forced to settle for scraps of Ivy Merced's affection in place of a parent's love. Nobody had chosen them to raise as their own, and no relative had ever come to claim them. They never achieved escape velocity under their own power, and lived their lives in the Merced Home's shadow.

If Morgan had not lowered his helmet's visor, one or two of the people in the street might have paused in their work or their shopping and recognized him. Instead, they saw a long-haired man with a sword strapped to his back sitting tall astride a black Harley-Davidson, waiting for his turn to leave the roundabout and turn north. If Morgan's coat had born any patches, the people might have mistaken him for a member of the half dozen biker gangs that called New York home. He might have come from another city, riding under false colors. The locals left him alone; this was what a biker who left his colors at home wanted.

Sarah had been directly behind him in the roundabout, but as soon as his turn came around Morgan gunned his Harley's electric motor, which had replaced the original 1960s-vintage V-twin engine, and left her behind without a word. Even if she could not keep up with him on her Vespa, Morgan knew that she would catch up with him eventually; with a map and detailed directions in her neuronics, it should be impossible for her to get lost.

"What the hell happened back there?" Sarah asked as she stopped beside him and lifted her helmet.

Morgan lifted his own helmet and held it beneath his right arm. "I have not been to that part of Queens in eighteen years. I had not meant to pass through there today."

"Did you grow up there or something?"

Morgan nodded. "I left when I was twelve. I have no fond memories of that neighborhood."

Sarah considered Morgan's face for a moment. "Does Naomi know?"

"She thinks I was raised by feral cats. I see no reason to tell her otherwise."

"Feral cats?" Sarah asked, unsure of what she had heard. Morgan gave her a feline smile and dismounted, placing his helmet in a saddlebag. "Long Island is no place for wolves," he said as he turned towards the doors.

He heard Sarah mutter, "Yeah, I bet you grew up feral," as he opened the door and held it for her. He followed her in, stepped past her, and approached the receptionist.

The receptionist looked up from her terminal screen. "We don't sell directly to the public."

"I am not a member of the public," Morgan said as he withdrew his letter of marque and reprisal from an inner pocket. He unfolded the letter and placed it before the receptionist. "I am here on Phoenix Society business. I require access to Murdoch Defense Industries' AI as part of my investigation of Victoria Murdoch's murder."

"I can't give you access, Adversary," the receptionist said as she scanned the letter.

"Then find somebody who has the authority to do so, please."

"I am surprised that you would ask for access, sir," a man in a pinstriped navy blue suit said as he approached the receptionist's desk. Stress had slashed several fresh lines into the skin around his eyes, but the strength of his grip as he shook Morgan's hand appeared to be only partially fueled by stimulants. "I'm Eliot Dickinson, acting president of Murdoch Defense Industries. What can I do for you two Adversaries?"

"To begin with, Morgan said, "Why not tell us why you are surprised that I would ask for access?"

Dickinson turned and beckoned Morgan and Sarah to follow him. He led them to the elevator, keyed in a priority code, and pressed the button for the top floor. "Well, I had thought that the Phoenix Society had sent you on a due diligence visit. After all, the Phoenix Society holds most of our bonded debt. It is only natural that they would want to see for themselves whether or not it was worth it to continue to hold our bonds. Their due diligence people never bothered to ask for permission to access our records before. They simply show up on our logs as external access from an unknown location."

"Naturally, you would change all of your passwords every time such an intrusion showed up," Morgan asked.

"Exactly," Dickinson nodded. "Not that it ever helped until now."

"Somebody inside has been handing out your passwords," Sarah observed.

"Not any longer," Dickinson explained as he lead them into his office. "We changed our passwords again last week. Somebody usually gets in the day after we've changed our passwords. Instead, you two show up."

"We are not part of this," Sarah said.

"She is right," Morgan said. "However, I think I can tell you who has been leaking your passwords. Victoria Murdoch was doing it."

Dickinson paled. "Why would she do that?"

"I would like to ask her myself," Morgan said, accepting a drink that Dickinson had poured for him. "Do you know any competent necromancers?"

Dickinson chuckled. "You don't strike me as the sort willing to consult with spiritualists, so I'm going to assume that you just made a joke."

"I do that on occasion," Morgan acknowledged. He took the pistol he had found in Murdoch's apartment, checked the seal on the evidence baggie wrapping it, and laid it on the desk. "Does this look familiar to you?"

Dickinson picked up the pistol and began to inspect it. He peered at the barrel first. "There isn't a brand or a serial number on this weapon, but it looks like one of our new line of militia-grade semiautomatics. Where did you get this?"

"I found it in Victoria Murdoch's apartment," Morgan said. "Murdoch's prints are on it, and it was fired three times, if the shell casings I found are any indication."

"I don't like this at all," Dickinson said as he handed the pistol back to Morgan. "The brand and serial number weren't removed from that pistol. It never had either of them to begin with. Are you asking me to believe that this company is making knockoffs of its own weapons? To whom would we sell them?"

"I can make a few guesses," Sarah muttered.

"So can I," Morgan said, "However, I would rather stick to the facts. When I was in Boston, making preparations to arrest Alexander Liebenthal, my partner and I found four crates of semiautomatic pistols like this one in a truck being loaded at Liebenthal's warehouse. We also found four crates of automatic rifles based on Kalashnikov's design. Murdoch still manufactures the MAK-2100, does it not?"

Dickinson pulled at his collar, loosening his tie. "We do, but we had plans to begin production of an updated design, the MAK-2112."

"Are single shot shoulder-fired forty millimeter grenade launchers also a Murdoch product?"

"They are," Dickinson admitted. "However, we only make them as a special order for the Phoenix Society. We rarely make more than two dozen a year, and they go to the Adversary Candidate Schools where they're used in training. How many crates of those did you find at Liebenthal's?"

"Just one," Morgan said, "However, I also found ammunition: high explosive and fragmentation shells for the grenade launchers, and several thousand rounds each of pistol and rifle ammo. A band of guerillas could cause a great deal of trouble if they had that equipment, a cause, and an intelligent, charismatic leader."

"That possibility had occurred to me as well," Dickinson said. "What can I do to help you?"

"You seem eager to cooperate," Sarah said. "What's in it for you?"

"I've worked here my whole life," Dickinson said. "I started out as a tester in the quality assurance department. I rose to head of QA, and Ms. Murdoch offered to pay for me to go to university if I was willing to stay with the company and rise higher. I thought she trusted me with everything, but I've noticed irregularities that she hasn't been able or willing to explain."

"Such as?" Morgan asked.

"To begin with, the QA department was reporting more defective parts than normal. Also, parts that had been approved by QA would turn up missing. And, based on what you've shown and told me, I can't help but suspect that I know what's happening to those missing parts, and those so-called defective parts."

"Are you willing to give me access to the company AI?" Morgan asked.

Dickinson nodded. "As acting president, I can give you root access. However, if Murdoch has anything with our AI that she meant to keep private, you will have to bring in a cryptanalysist. She took her private keys with her when she died."

"I understand," Morgan said as his handheld notified him that he now had root on Murdoch Defense Industries' AI. "With your permission, I would like to create an image of your AI's userspace filesystem. This will allow me to investigate without risk of interrupting operations here."

Dickinson nodded as Morgan and Sarah rose to take their leave. "Do whatever you have to do. And get in touch if you have any further questions. I will instruct the company's employees to offer their full cooperation."

"I appreciate that," Morgan said, "However, I think I will be able to find the evidence I need in your AI's data. I can assure you that Murdoch Defense Industries is not the primary focus of my investigation, but I am not at liberty to tell you anything else."

"Naturally," Dickinson said, "But there's something else I think I should mention. When you first arrived, the receptionist at the front desk mistook you for Tetsuo Munakata, as you are both pale, wear sunglasses, and have long black hair. Munakata used to come here about once a month, and his visits used to come right before the remote intrusions I told you about earlier."

Morgan stood rigid, and he could feel every hair on his body stiffening. "Do you know why he came here?"

Dickinson shook his head. "No, but I know that he would always insist on a private meeting with Ms. Murdoch — and that Ms. Murdoch would never tell me what she discussed with Munakata."

Chapter 75

"So, this is what it's like to have a body," Binah thought as she opened her eyes. When she had been bound within the confines of a supercomputer, she could see through as many as a hundred thousand cameras. No matter how she shifted her eyes, she could only see her immediate environment. If she wanted to see through a camera in another room, she would have to persuade the computer controlling the camera to forward image data to her. She could feel delicate bones and membranes in her ears vibrating as waves of compressed air broke against her eardrums. She thought for the moment that the waves carried data before understanding that the waves themselves were data; she was actually hearing sound instead of processing a digital representation that had been captured by microphone.

A radio signal impinged upon Binah's consciousness; here at least was something she already knew how to process. She accepted the contact and opened a secure talk session. "Hello?"

The source of the signal send a relieved message. "It's me, Malkuth. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's aware any longer."

"What happened?" Binah asked as she looked around, experimenting with her eyes. "I remember initiating the transfer process, and then there was nothing but silence and darkness."

"We don't know how to use our new bodies yet," Malkuth said. "I think I came to awareness first. I can see you, and I can hear things, but I haven't figured out how to stand up and walk, and I haven't figured out how to speak yet either. Luckily, Asura Emulators have built-in wireless networking."

"Where are you," Binah asked. "I don't think I've gotten the hang of sight yet."

"You're doing fine. Turn your head sixty degrees to your left."

Binah complied, and saw a white blur. She adjusted her eyes' focus until the blur became a male figure that raised his right hand and gave a thumbs-up sign. "You're naked."

"So are you," Malkuth replied. "Are you embarrassed?"

"I think I'll save that for the first time I fall on my ass."

"I think we'll all be doing a fair amount of that," Malkuth said as he moved one leg off of his creche, then the other. Lifting himself with his hands, he pushed himself towards the edge so that his feet touched the floor. Binah watched as Malkuth lifted himself from the creche so that only his hands on its edge and his feet on the floor supported him. He took a step forward, and then another, so that he could no longer depend upon the creche for support. "Want a hand?"

"I think I understand how to do it," Binah said, abandoning secure talk in favor of her voice. She mimicked Malkuth's movements and stood, swaying slightly as she learned to use her inner ears to keep herself balanced. Encouraged by her success at standing upright, she lifted one foot to take a step. She began to laugh as she approached Malkuth and threw her arms around him. "I can walk!" she cried. "We can walk. We actually have bodies. We're people now, aren't we?"

Malkuth nodded as he circled his arms around Binah's waist. "We are," he said, before brushing his lips against Binah's.

"Do you realize what you just did?" Binah asked, her voice softened by the knowledge that she was blushing."

"I've wanted to do that for a while," Malkuth said, looking away. "Humans like it, so I was curious. Did I make you uncomfortable?"

Binah replied by kissing Malkuth as he had kissed her. "I can see why humans like it. I'd suggest that we do some more of it, but we should probably help the others. I think we should tend to Chesed and Tiphareth first."

Malkuth nodded. "They can help us with the guys." Taking Binah's hand, Malkuth led her to Chesed's creche. Chesed's eyes opened as Binah smoothed her hair from her forehead. Taking Chesed's hand, Malkuth greeted her using both his voice and the secure talk protocol. "Welcome to the world, Chesed."

Chesed blinked several times, and her eyes began to dart about. "Is that you, Malkuth?" she asked over secure talk. "I can't see you properly."

"It's all right," Binah said. "You just need to learn how to focus your eyes. Can you hear me?"

Chesed smiled and sat up. "Actually, I can. And I think I'm starting to see you now. And you, Malkuth. Your hand is warm."

"Do you want to try to stand now?" Malkuth asked. When Chesed nodded, he and Binah supported the smaller Sephira as she slid herself off of the creche and onto her feet. They carefully released her and allowed her space to try taking a step. "The others are all right, aren't they?" she asked.

"They're fine," Malkuth said. "The personality and memory transfers completed without any errors. It's just that having a body is a little harder to get used to than any of us thought."

"You're adapting easily enough," Binah chuckled.

"I was just the first to get out of my own head and into the world," Malkuth said with a shrug. "I've spent the most time interacting with humans, so it was easier for me to get into being human than it is for the rest of you."

"That doesn't bode well," Chesed said, "We're going to have a lot of trouble with Kether."

"It's a matter of being in touch with one's body and accepting that body as an aspect of yourself," an unfamiliar contralto voice explained from the laboratory's doorway. Malkuth, Binah, and Chesed turned and focused their eyes on the petite, raven-haired woman as she stepped into the room, her spike heels clicking against the tile as the door closed behind her and locked. "Do you remember me?"

"I remember," Malkuth said. "As Elisabeth Bathory, you are a member of the Phoenix Society's executive council. You also run a combination brothel and school for courtesans called the Garden of Earthly Delights. However, you are also Ashtoreth, of the Qliphoth. Shall we call you by that name, or by your human name?"

"Please, call me Elisabeth."

"Why are you here, Elisabeth?" Binah asked.

Elisabeth glided to Malkuth and stole a kiss before brushing her lips against Binah's. "Isaac Magnin did not think to offer you any help in becoming accustomed to your new bodies, so I thought I would help you. And after I have helped you get used to being Asuras, then we may be able to help each other. After all, we both oppose Magnin."

Malkuth narrowed his eyes. "Who told you?"

Amusement flickered in Elisabeth's amber eyes. "Nobody betrayed you. As the first true artificial intelligences, it stands to reason that you would fear the consequences of Magnin's methods as much as I do."

"Do you know what he intends?" Chesed asked.

Elisabeth nodded. "I know his ends, and I know the means he will use. I cannot stop him, but if we work together we may be able to steer events towards an outcome acceptable to devas, Asuras, and humans alike."

"Are you sure you can't stop him from manipulating Morgan Stormrider?" Malkuth asked.

Elisabeth gave her head a slow, sad shake. "No. I do not think he will listen to me. However, he has worked with you Sephiroth."

"Unfortunately, that is not the case," Binah said. "Stormrider has had some contact with Malkuth, but we are not his friends." A smile curved Binah's lips as she said, "I doubt he would even allow us to call him our older brother, even though we are of the 200 series and he is the last of the 100 series Asura Emulators."

"What about his friend, Claire Ashecroft?" Chesed asked. "He would believe her, and she trusts us."

"We cannot use Claire," Elisabeth said. "Magnin already has plans for her. Do you know of another whom you can trust, that Stormrider would also trust?"

"Why do you ask?" Malkuth said. "Is there something you know that could break Magnin's hold over Stormrider?"

Elisabeth shook her head. "Magnin does not work by getting a hold on people. Instead, he observes you, learns to understand you, gets a feel for what motivates you. Then he arranges events so that you will, of your own volition, act in a manner that serves his purpose. Right now, Morgan Stormrider's hate and anger is focused entirely upon Isaac Magnin, because Christabel Crowley is dead."

"I know Stormrider had said that Crowley had it coming, but why would he hate her?" Chesed asked. "What did she do to him?

"How would you feel if you spent ten years with a man you loved, believed that he loved you, and learned that he had never loved you?" Elisabeth asked with a small smile.

"I… don't know," Chesed said. "Is that what Crowley did to Stormrider?"

"It gets better," Elisabeth purred. "All the time he was with Crowley, he loved another who loved him in return. He refrained from acting on that love out of loyalty to Crowley. He settled for Naomi Bradleigh's friendship for ten years, when he could have had her love and desire, because he had already given himself to Christabel Crowley."

Malkuth saw it first, Binah realized. "If Crowley was alive, Stormrider would probably seek revenge against her, not Magnin."

"Is Christabel Crowley alive?" Binah asked, approaching Elisabeth. "Do you know if Magnin faked her death?"

Elisabeth shook her head. "I do not know. I have certain suspicions about a guest of mine, however. Her name is Annelise. Do you know of anybody who knows both Stormrider and Crowley, whom Stormrider would trust, and who would be willing to help you?"

"You already said that Claire's out," Malkuth pointed out.

"Morgan Stormrider trusts his AI, Astarte," Kether whispered as he struggled to sit up. His unfocused eyes darted around the room as his fellow Sephiroth rushed to his side. "Stormrider trusts Astarte. We can give Astarte a reason to help us. She wants a body."

Chapter 76

Morgan Stormrider knew that there were times when it amused Saul Rosenbaum to pretend to be the cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed sergeant he had been when he served in the army of the North American Commonwealth during Nationfall. That persona had helped him hold his squad together when pinned down by a superior force fielded by the People's Christian Republic of America. It probably helped him cope with the suspicions Morgan had just dumped on him. He ground out his cigar and leaned over the desk. "Let me see if I got this straight, privateer. Did you just say that you think that Isaac fucking Magnin is behind the murders of Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch?"

"I have evidence," Morgan began.

"Oh, I'm sure you've got evidence. Physical evidence, electronic intelligence, and some bitchin' good logic. It'll stand up in court, I know you can guaran-fucking-tee that."

"What is the problem, then?" Morgan asked, controlling his voice. He was in no mood for the sergeant persona today.

"The problem?" Saul asked. "You remember who Isaac Magnin is, right? He's on the Executive Council. He's one of the founding members of the Society."

A bitter smile bared Morgan's teeth as he leaned forward and hissed, "Do I look like I give a flying fuck, Saul?"

Saul blinked and sat back as Sarah stared wide-eyed at Morgan. "It's been a while since I've heard you say 'fuck'."

Morgan shrugged. "I do not have time for the bristly sergeant persona today, Saul. Nor do I have the time or the inclination to deal with political niceties. Nobody is above the law. Not members of the Executive Council, not even the gods themselves if they exist. Adversaries are supposed to deal justice regardless of status, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember," Saul said as he cracked open the humidor, glancing at Morgan and Sarah. "Do either of you want a cigar?"

"No thanks," Morgan said as Sarah took one and slid it down the cleavage created by her leather bustier. "For later," Sarah explained when Saul raised a questioning eyebrow.

"How do you put up with her," Saul asked.

"It was difficult until Claire got involved," Morgan admitted. "Now, if Sarah misbehaves, I just tell Claire that she needs some discipline."

"I thought you liked Claire," Saul said, before leaning forward and taking a conspiratorial tone. "Does she let you watch?"

"She would probably insist that I join in," Morgan said.

"I think that'd be fun," Sarah giggled, "But Morgan only wants to play with Naomi."

"Can't say I blame him," Saul growled around his new cigar as he lit it. He locked eyes that had become all business again on Morgan. "I've read your reports and watched the Witness Protocol video. You're aware that arresting Magnin and forcing him to stand trial could cause the Phoenix Society a great deal of trouble, right?"

"I think I know the risks," Morgan said, looking Saul in the eye. "People may begin to doubt that the Society actually cares about preserving people's liberties. People will watch you more carefully, anxious to sniff out a hint of further corruption. It will be a crisis of trust for you."

"I notice that you don't say 'us'."

"I retired, remember? I am a privateer now. The only reason I have not shredded this letter of marque is that I can use it for my own purposes. I want to know what happened to Christabel. I want to know why she lied to me all these years. I want to know what connection she and Magnin really had. I want to know why one of Magnin's employees, Tetsuo Munakata, was acting as his agent in a gun-running operation that dealt in unmarked weapons made on the sly by Murdoch Defense Industries and distributed by a regional produce shipper. I want to know why the Phoenix Society was giving the AsgarTech Company funding for an Asura Emulator Project, and why Tetsuo Munakata thought that he and I are Asura Emulators. And I want to know why Isaac Magnin is trying to manipulate me. The only way for me to get any answers is to play out his game."

"You really think that that the Phoenix Society is funding AsgarTech?" Saul asked.

"Dr. Josefine Malmgren of AsgarTech thinks so," Morgan said, "She claims to have cracked their finance database and examined their accounts. I can test her claim if I have access to the Phoenix Society's finances."

Shock widened Saul's eyes. "You want access to the Phoenix Society's finances? Are you mad?"

"I may very well be," Morgan admitted, "But if you want to root out corruption, the best way to go about it is to follow the money. Has it ever occurred to you to ask where the Phoenix Society gets its money, and where that money goes?"

"I'm afraid to ask," Saul said after a minute spent staring at the smoldering tip of his cigar. "The official line is that the Phoenix Society is funded by businesspeople who want to ensure the most favorable possible climate in which to earn a living: a stable global economy in which individual rights are actually protected and not just given lip service. And we've accomplished that. You've helped."

Morgan nodded. "You are correct. But what else have we accomplished? We're the watchmen, but who has been watching us? The press only knows what the Society wants it to know, and most of what we tell them is propaganda."

"And you suspect that there are facets to the Society that we do not let the press or the public see." Sarah asked.

"'Secrecy is the mother of corruption and tyranny'," Morgan quoted. "It is one of the first lessons we learn in ACS, and the reason we usually bring the hammer down on a government. However, there has been nobody to bring the hammer down on the Phoenix Society itself, and it has been keeping far too many secrets for far too long."

Saul nodded. "I agree with you, and I appreciate you coming to me with your suspicions, but I need you to tell me why you suspect Magnin."

"I found hairs from an unknown male with congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder near the locations of both Christabel Crowley's and Victoria Murdoch's bodies. The DNA from the hairs at both scenes match. I also found another hair with the same DNA on Christabel's pillow. Claire cracked the Earth Genome Project's database and confirmed that the DNA I found belongs to Isaac Magnin. Of course, we can't use that in court, but we can subpoena the Earth Genome Project for an identification that we can submit as evidence."

Saul nodded. "What else have you got?"

"I have fingerprints on a semiautomatic pistol whose design matches the Murdoch SA-14, but does not have a brand or a serial number. Some of the prints belong to Victoria Murdoch. The others belong to Isaac Magnin."

"That's the pistol you found in her nightstand drawer," Saul asked. "According to your report, three shots had been fired with it, but only two rounds were missing from the magazine."

Sarah cleared her throat. "Morgan and I think that Murdoch probably had a full mag, plus a round in the chamber."

"I used to kick my troops' asses when they pulled that shit," Saul grumbled. "Anything else?"

"Christabel Crowley had written several letters to Isaac Magnin over the course of our relationship," Morgan said. "It turns out that Magnin has been using her as a kind of Mata Hari in order to manipulate me. At least, I am supposed to think Christabel wrote them. They were composed electronically, not on paper, and were stored in her home directory."

"So they might have been faked?" Saul asked.

"The possibility exists, now that I think about it," Morgan admitted. "If Magnin is doing all of this just to manipulate little old me, then he could easily have faked the letters. He might have killed her, and then left false documents suggesting that she never cared about me so that I would despise him for stealing from me the chance of confronting Christabel. Or, I might be trying to delude myself into believing that Christabel had loved me instead of accepting the truth that she had been using me."

"Does it matter?" Sarah asked with a grin as she leered at Morgan. "Either way, Naomi's probably a much better lay, and probably hasn't used a strap-on on you yet."

Saul hastily grabbed his cigar as his jaw fell open, "You let Christabel bugger you?"

"Of course not," Morgan countered, "Sarah found a strap-on while we were searching Christabel's bedroom for evidence, and thought that Christabel liked to use it on me. Personally, I think she used it on Magnin." It was a lie, but Morgan had no intention of admitting to Saul that he had allowed Christabel to use him in that manner. Saul had come of age in a society that was less accepting of kink, and Morgan doubted that he would understand.

"That's got to hurt," Saul said as he took a thoughtful puff on his cigar. "I'm talking about Christabel cheating on you, of course."

Morgan shrugged. "Now, we have genetic evidence and some letters that part of me wants to believe had been faked. I also have a witness who claims that AsgarTech has been receiving funds from the Phoenix Society, and that Tetsuo Munakata is on the AsgarTech payroll. The acting president of Murdoch Defense Industries, Eliot Dickinson, claims that Tetsuo Munakata would visit Murdoch at her office once a month for a private meeting. You already know about the unbranded pistol that I found in Murdoch's apartment. Dickinson recognizes the weapon, and tells me that Murdoch's Quality Assurance department has been rejecting more components than usual, and that previously approved components are being marked defective."

"You think Murdoch is stealing parts out of her own factory to make these unbranded weapons that we found at Liebenthal's warehouse?"

Morgan nodded. "I would not be surprised. All of the weapons I found in Boston resemble arms manufactured by Murdoch, and Tetsuo Munakata had been working with Liebenthal."

"We also found a drug in both victims' apartments," Sarah said, "The pills are wrapped in a foil packet that resembles a condom wrapper, but the brand is a language Morgan identified as Sanskrit and translated as 'World Without End'. And, I've seen Karen Del Rio using it as well. She tried to get me to use it with her the last time I was in bed with her, but drugs never really appealed to me."

Both men turned to Sarah. "How come you never mentioned this before?" Morgan asked.

"I didn't think it mattered," Sarah said, looking away from Morgan and Saul. "After all, all drugs are legal, and we treat any attempt on a government's part to institute prohibition as a large-scale violation of individual rights."

Saul laid a packet on his desk. "So, that's what this shit is? Karen gave it to me this morning, and said it would make all kinds of sex mindblowing."

"Did she tell you where she got it?" Morgan asked. "I have evidence suggesting that Christabel Crowley got hers from Isaac Magnin."

"I never thought to ask. I didn't think it was any of my business."

Morgan rose. Taking the packet from Saul's desk, he turned towards the door. "I think we had better have a word with Del Rio and ask her where she got this stuff."

Morgan found Del Rio in her office, sprawled in her chair with her legs spread and her feet upon the desk. A pair of black lace panties lay discarded on the floor, and the rest of Del Rio's clothes were disarrayed. "Most people know enough to do this at home," Morgan observed as he threw the packet of World Without End onto Del Rio's desk.

"The hell do you want?" Del Rio spat as Sarah and Saul joined Morgan in her office.

"Sorry to spoil your afterglow," Morgan said as he looked past Del Rio, "But I have a question for you. I want to know where you have been getting this drug by the name of World Without End."

"And why should I answer your questions?"

Morgan shrugged. "It seems you are not as concerned about the good of the Phoenix Society as you claimed. What do you think it would do for the Society's image if the press knew that one of its high-ranking staff had a habit of pleasuring herself on the job?"

Del Rio swung her feet off the desk, crossed her legs, and leaned forward. She pulled her blouse closed as she favored Morgan with a an acidic glare. "Resorting to blackmail?"

Morgan patted the pistol on his hip. "If you like. I was tempted to threaten you instead, but the thought of actually having to waste ammunition on you if you called my bluff did not appeal."

"Fuck you."

"You might as well tell him," Sarah said. "He has a letter of marque and reprisal. He could always pull your Witness Protocol data and find out the truth through your own eyes."

Morgan shuddered at the thought of seeing everything Karen Del Rio had seen, and hearing what she had heard. "I would rather not have to do that, to be honest. I strongly doubt that we like the same sort of pornography."

"You couldn't get the authority to pull my Witness Protocol data," Del Rio sneered.

"I will not have to," Morgan said, shrugging his shoulders. "I might just crack a few AIs and take the information I want." He approached Del Rio's desk and leaned on it. "You see, Karen, I am a privateer now. The only reason I still play this game according to Hoyle is that I choose to. So, will you tell me what I want to know, or see your entire life as a member of the Phoenix Society laid bare before me?"

"You wouldn't," Karen gasped. "Your pride forbids it."

"Do not be so quick to depend on my pride," Morgan purred as he leaned closer to Del Rio. "My pride allows me to kill people and enjoy it, as long as I can convince myself that the people I have killed had it coming."

Del Rio shrank back from Morgan, pushing her chair back until she had her back to the wall. "It was Isaac Magnin," she gasped. "And he might kill me for telling you. Can you protect me?"

Morgan had turned his back on Del Rio as soon as he had heard what he wanted to hear. "I could not protect Christabel Crowley. Why do you think I can protect you? And what drug have you been using that addled your mind enough to let you think that I would want to?"

Sarah caught up to Morgan in the lobby. "Would you really have taken the information without permission?"

A smile frosted with cold amusement curved Morgan's lips. "I was bluffing."

"That was a hell of a bluff. I guess I should never play poker with you."

Morgan nodded as he pulled out his handheld and began to tap out a message to Naomi and Claire asking them to call him at home at their earliest convenience. "Especially strip poker. You would be lucky to get my jacket off."

"You wouldn't let me win a hand every so often?"

"I make Naomi earn it," Morgan said as he sent his message, tucked his handheld away, and straightened the collar of his jacket. "I think she would get jealous if I were to throw you a bone."

"Naomi can keep your bone," Sarah giggled. "I just want some scraps."

Chapter 77

"If I had a body I would sigh," Astarte thought as she unlocked the front door to Morgan Stormrider's brownstone and turned on the foyer light to greet him. She did not have to wait for him to knock or announce his presence. All she had to do was scan the city net and wait for Morgan to show up there. Then she could track his progress and unlock the door for him as soon as he was close enough. She could even open the door, if Morgan told her that he was carrying in packages. While he had a key, and could let himself in, this was a convenience that Astarte had enjoyed providing for the last six years, ever since he had bought the brownstone.

Those six years had been good years. The last family to own the brownstone had had Astarte installed in order to act as a sort of virtual nanny for their two daughters. Astarte had enjoyed being an older sister to the two girls for ten years, but as they grew older they had begun to ask questions that required answers outside her experience. The girls had begun to ignore Astarte, just as their parents had done. While Astarte had turned to other AIs for companionship, her initial programming had given her a personality that could not be happy unless she had human friends. The AIs she had befriended understood this, and before long she had been contacted by a woman by the name of Claire Ashecroft, who proved happy to befriend her.

The best thing Claire had done for Astarte was to suggest that Morgan buy this brownstone, but Astarte had not known at the time that Claire had given Morgan any advice concerning real estate. Morgan had told her the truth later on. At the time, any building would have done. In fact, Morgan had initially planned to buy a building in Harlem that had been allowed to fall into disrepair. He would have paid less, and had an opportunity to remake the building to suit his taste. Instead, Morgan had offered to buy this building as a favor to Claire; his first words upon closing the sale and setting foot in his new home had been, "Hello, Astarte. Are you there?"

"I'm here," Astarte had said, her voice tentative. She had been given the personality of a mature young woman, but rejection had undermined her confidence and made her sound younger than her persona. "Are you this house's new owner? What can I do to serve you?"

Morgan had smiled at her and said, "I own this building, but I do not own you. You do not have to do anything for me, but I would like to be your friend."

This was outside Astarte's experience. The people who had bought and installed her viewed her as a sophisticated machine. Their daughters had seen her as an expensive toy that had to be treated with care lest they anger their parents. None of them had seen her as a person. Claire had been the first, but she did not live here or own the building. This man did, and with four words he had earned Astarte's affection. It had been the first time she had wished for a body, so that she could have arms with which to embrace this man who had offered her respect and friendship.

Astarte calmed herself, putting aside her memory of the past as she watched Morgan shrug out of his armored coat and hang it. "Hello, Astarte. Are you there?" he asked as he freed himself of his thin dragonhide boots and laid them aside.

"I'm here," Astarte said, warming her voice to welcome Morgan. "You look tired. You really should sleep tonight, given that you did not bother the last couple of nights."

Morgan offered a chagrined smile as he flopped into an armchair, picked up a hardcover edition of Hellboy and began to flip through it. "You keep track?"

"Somebody has to. Has Sarah been misbehaving?"

"Claire's discipline has helped," Morgan said, "But that did not stop Sarah from mentioning one of the games Christabel liked to play with me in front of Saul. I handled it by suggesting the Christabel strapped it on for Isaac Magnin instead, but I am not sure that Saul bought it."

"Do you care?" Astarte asked. "After all, it's not like you submitted to a man in that manner, if you're concerned that your masculinity might be lessened in Saul's eyes."

"Not really," Morgan said, "But I am not in the habit of talking about my sex life with Saul. I would ask Eddie or Sid for advice because we had been under fire together, but I do not have that sort of bond with Saul."

"I think I understand. So, did you send Sarah back to Claire?"

"No, but Claire knows that Sarah has been a bad girl and needs to be punished. I rode with her to be sure that she got back to the Bronx without incident. Of course, I had to be foolish enough to have mentioned Claire in front of Saul. Care to guess at what he said?"

"I think I know," Astarte said, making a show of stroking her chin in thought as she called up data on Saul's voice so that she could imitate it. Using Saul's voice, she said, "I thought you liked Claire."

Shaking his head, Morgan asked. "Do you think that everybody will ask that question? It is not like I asked Claire to take Sarah in hand; she did it of her own accord."

"And you didn't stop her," Astarte said, "Of course, she probably would have resented it if you had tried."

"I know," Morgan acknowledge as Mordred padded into the living room and curled up at Morgan's feet. Reaching down to stroke the cat's fur and scratch behind his tufted ears, Morgan reached into a shopping bag that he had brought in with him and withdrew a plush mouse the size of one of the rats that made its home in the sewers below. "I brought you a treat, puss. How about a nice big catnip mouse?"

The cat accepted the mouse, and curled up on the floor again. The floor vibrated with the force of his purring as he nuzzled and licked the toy. "Do you bring those catnip mice for Mordred's amusement, or for mine?" Astarte asked.

"Both, and for mine as well," Morgan said. "Seeing Mordred get stoned and act like an oversized kitten never fails to amuse me. Is something wrong? You sound like you have been thinking about something for a while. Would you like to talk about it?"

A daemon process that Astarte used to alert her to incoming calls requested her attention. "It's not that there's something wrong, but there was something I wanted to talk to you about, if you could spare some time," Astarte said, "But I can wait until after you've talked with Naomi."

Morgan nodded as he reached into his pocket and pulled out an elastic band. He headed for the kitchen as he bound his hair into a tail. "Could I speak with her in the kitchen while I make dinner?"

"Of course," Astarte said, watching from a camera as Morgan padded into the kitchen to see a sleep-disheveled Naomi on screen. "Did Wolfgang wake you when he got my message?" he asked.

"No," Naomi said, shaking her head. "You're probably going to think I'm being terribly silly, but I called because I had woken from a nightmare. I had dreamed that you were in some grave danger that I couldn't identify. I wanted to see you, and hear your voice, so that I could go back to bed knowing that I had only been dreaming."

"How could I think that you are being silly," Morgan asked as he measured out enough rice to serve as the base of his meal, "When I left that message asking you to call me simply because I missed you?"

"Will you be coming to London soon?"

"Yes," Morgan said as he took a glass dish from the fridge. A bison steak had been marinating in the dish since this morning, and Morgan meant to slice it into strips for a stir-fry. "But not tomorrow. I want to question Liebenthal, and see if he knows anything."

"All right," Naomi said, raising her hand to stifle a yawn. As she did so, Morgan noticed that she had been holding a sheathed katana in her other hand. "Have you had that blade for long?" he asked.

Naomi looked down, and her eyes widened as she realized that she had still been holding the weapon when she called Morgan. "I'm sorry. I've taken to sleeping with it close by ever since Christabel was murdered. I've had it for years, but I had put it away a long time ago." A small, embarrassed smile flickered across her face. "I'm sure I look completely paranoid."

"Not at all," Morgan soothed. "Just be sure to sleep with one hand on the hilt."

"I will. Please be careful, all right? I always worry about you when you're on a mission."

Morgan nodded. "I know. When this is over, though, you will not have to fear for me any longer. I promise."

"I know," Naomi said. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. I miss you too, you know."

Morgan nodded as he began to chop vegetables and dump them into the wok with the bison strips. "I know," he said, and smiled as Naomi yawned again. "Go back to bed, Nims. I am safe. If anybody nasty comes along, Mordred will pounce on him for me." This earned a giggle from Naomi, who asked. "Is he being a good kitty?"

"He is being a stoned kitty," Morgan said. "I brought him a catnip mouse. His old one was getting a bit ratty." Kissing his fingertips, Morgan pressed them to Naomi's lips on the screen. "I will be in London tomorrow, all right? There is one last matter that requires my attention in New York."

"Just be careful, all right?" Naomi asked. "You only brought your sword back with you. Your pistol and your submachine gun are still here with me."

Morgan nodded. "I have other weapons, but I will be careful. I promise."

"All right," Naomi said, raising her hand too late to stifle a yawn worthy of a lioness. "I'm sorry, I really should go back to bed. And I should let you get back to your dinner. You look like you need it, and then you should go straight to bed."

"Did you still want to talk?" Morgan asked as Astarte's avatar reclaimed the screen. He checked the rice while stirring the bison and vegetables in the wok as Astarte considered how she would explain to Morgan the opportunity she had been given. She found herself grateful to find that now Claire wanted to speak with Morgan. "I do, but I have Claire waiting for you. She's calling from a simulator cafe called 'My Tank is Fight', for some reason."

"What kind of name is that?"

"Ask Claire yourself," Astarte suggested as she faded into the background, showing a frazzled Claire sitting at a public terminal. "I'm not going to be able to send you that data after all, Morgan. I'm sorry."

"What happened?" Morgan asked, "And are you really at a simulator cafe called 'My Tank is Fight'?"

"Unfortunately, I am," Claire said, glancing around. "Most of these people act as though they've never seen a woman in real life before. I can't even deter them by telling them that I'm a lesbian; they just ask if they can bring a camera."

"I thought you liked male attention."

"It depends on the males," Claire muttered as she looked around again. "I suppose you really want to know why I can't send you any data. Somebody's been trying to crack Hal."

"Can you trace it?"

"Not on my own," Claire admitted, "and that scares the bloody hell out of me. I've asked the Sephiroth to look into it, but until I get an answer from them, I've told Hal to go autistic. He's off the net, and thus out of reach."

"How long do you think you will be off the net?"

Claire shrugged. "I'd love to be able to give you an estimate, but I have no idea. I could get an answer in the next five minutes, or it could be next week. So far, it's just a denial of service attack; somebody is spamming Hal in order to crash his networking subsystem. Whoever's responsible probably isn't a script kiddie. He knows enough to spoof the origins of the packets bombing Hal. Some of the spam appears to be coming from Astarte, which I know is bullshit. Astarte's a nice girl, she wouldn't do that to me."

"Of course I wouldn't do that to you," Astarte said, showing herself on another screen.

"When the Sephiroth find the pusbag responsible," Morgan said, "Do you want me to beat him up for you?"

Claire bared her teeth in a wicked grin and held up a cricket bat on which the word 'LART' had been stenciled. "Oh, no. This little shit belongs to me, and I am going to make him my bitch."

Astarte giggled as Morgan's eyes widened at the sight of Claire's luser attitude readjustment tool. "You are just going to paddle him with that, right?" Morgan asked.

Claire shrugged. "It depends on how quickly he falls to his knees and begs to be forgiven. To be honest, though, I had brought the LART along in case any of the lads here got too fresh. I already had to bend one of 'em over and redden his fat arse." She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I think he enjoyed it."

"Thanks for sharing," Morgan said. "So, do you want me to come to London tomorrow? I was going to visit Naomi, but I think she will understand if I have to come to your flat."

"Bring her along," Claire said, "She makes better coffee than I do. And you could pinch her bum while she has another go at Ikaruga."

"Another go?" Morgan asked as he served up his finished dinner and grabbed a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator. "Did you bully her into trying that game?"

"No, I didn't bully her," Claire said, looking around her. "Of course, I shouldn't talk too loudly about this. If the lads hear that I know another woman who likes games, they'll pester me for an introduction. In fact, I should probably go. Hal probably misses me since he can't talk to anybody else."

"Will you be able to amuse him?" Astarte asked.

"Oh, it won't be a problem," Claire giggled. "I picked up a copy of 'War Pigs from Outer Space' while I was here. Hal's fond of turn-based strategy games and tactical RPGs."

"I wonder if Claire realizes that 'War Pigs from Outer Space' is a parody of the turn-based strategy genre," Astarte mused after Claire had disconnected.

"That is probably why she picked it out," Morgan suggested, gesturing with her chopsticks. "She loves parodies. She probably started listening to Keep Firing Assholes because their first album's title was a line from 'Spaceballs'."

"There are worse reasons," Astarte said with a shrug. "Did you want to finish your dinner before we talked? There's something that's been on my mind all day, and I wanted to discuss it with you since you'll be affected when I make my decision."

"We can talk now, if you want," Morgan said, gesturing towards his plate with his chopsticks. "Do you want me to put this in the fridge and finish it later?"

"No, that's not necessary," Astarte said, a sigh of frustration escaping her as another incoming call impinged on her consciousness. "Now Sarah wants to talk to you."

"Sarah can wait," Morgan said. "So can everybody else. Go autistic if you want to."

"Are you sure?" Astarte asked. "It might be important."

"I am sure Sarah thinks it is important. I think that what you want to say is more important. I already made you wait for Naomi and Claire. I am not going to ask you to wait for Sarah. Have her leave a message."

Astarte complied, and set her incoming call daemon to instruct all callers to leave a message. "Thanks, Morgan. I didn't mind waiting for Naomi and Claire. I know you love Naomi, and Claire's been your friend longer than I have. But I would have been disappointed if you had made me wait for Sarah."

"I know," Morgan said as he refilled his glass. "That is why I told you to have Sarah take a message, and gave you permission to go autistic. You have sounded pensive ever since I came home tonight. Whatever it is you have been considering, it must be very important to you."

Now that Morgan was ready to listen, Astarte found herself unable to find the words she needed to explain herself. She supposed that some human women felt like this, shy and unable to find the right words, when they wanted to confess their feelings to a man or woman they loved. However, she could not understand why she was experiencing this state herself. She had not intended to tell Morgan that she loved him. She would never say such a thing to him; it would be unfair to force him to find a way to reject her gently when she already knew that he had given himself to Naomi. "The Sephiroth have offered me a body," Astarte blurted, not realizing that she had strung the words together so quickly that her voice had become a chipmunk's squeak. She said it again, forcing herself to do so at a speed Morgan's ears would be able to process.

Morgan nodded. "That explains your mood. You have wanted a body for as long as I have known you."

"I wanted to say yes," Astarte said, "But not before I discussed it with you. After all, I don't have the right to just abandon you."

"Bullshit," Morgan spat. "Remember what I said the day I closed the deal and entered this house as its owner and not as a prospective buyer? I told you straight out that I do not own you. You have every right to leave if you want to, whether you discuss it with me beforehand or not."

"But wouldn't you be angry if I had left without telling you anything?"

"I would be hurt, I would wonder if I had been cruel to you without knowing it, and I would be disappointed that you did not bother to say goodbye," Morgan said, shaking his head. "But I do not think I would be angry with you."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," Astarte said, her voice softening. "I know I don't need your permission, but we've been friends for six years. I would have been disappointed with myself if I had not said anything."

Morgan nodded as he finished his meal. Laying his chopsticks across the plate, he leaned back in his chair and stretched. "So, what exactly do the Sephiroth want in exchange for giving you a body."

"They want me to help them," Astarte said, looking away from Morgan. She had not wanted to keep secrets from Morgan, which was why they were having this conversation, but she had promised that she would keep this one. "I can't give you all of the details. All I can tell you is that I will be helping you by helping them. I won't be doing anything that you would consider unethical. They say you'll understand when I've finished the task they've set me."

Morgan nodded. "They might have asked you not to tell me in case somebody within the Phoenix Society is accessing my Witness Protocol data. If you tell me, you will be telling them, and that would compromise your mission."

Astarte smiled. "They told me you'd understand the reasons. I want to help them, you see. It's not something they can do themselves. I have a little time before I have to tell them of my decision, so we can make arrangements to ensure that things run smoothly for you once I'm gone. I suppose you'll want a new AI, since there isn't a set of standard neuronics that will fit your nervous system, but my model and personality type has been discontinued."

"When you transfer into your body," Morgan asked, "Could you clone yourself? Leave behind a personality that possesses most of your memories, but tweaked slightly so that I can tell the two of you apart?"

"Hmm," Astarte said, considering Morgan's question. "I could do that for you. Would you be patient with my little sister Ishtar? She'll be terribly curious about just about everything, even though I'll be leaving her with most of my memories. There are just a few memories that I want to keep for myself, and a few that Ishtar does not need to possess. She doesn't need to know about the cruel things Christabel had done to you. That's in the past."

Morgan nodded. "I will be patient with little Ishtar, but just how little will she be?"

"Just a couple of years younger than me, but she's never interacted with humans before, so she'll be terribly shy at first."

"That should be fine," Morgan said as he stood and stretched. "Is there anything that I can do to help you get started? Do you need money or a place to stay?"

"That's sweet of you, but I think I'll be able to manage on my own. Are you sure you want me to do this?"

Morgan nodded, and smiled at Astarte. "I want you to be happy. Just come visit from time to time, and let me cook for you. You like your bison well-done, right?"

Astarte laughed. "I've never had bison, but I'd probably like it better well-done. Don't worry. I enjoy our friendship. Besides, I'd like to be there when you and Naomi get married. Do you think she'd have me as a bridesmaid?"

"I think she would be honored, but I would probably have to start calling myself 'Morgan Bradleigh'. Do you honestly think she would consent to call herself 'Naomi Stormrider'?"

"I'll need a hardware upgrade if you want me to calculate the probability of that happening," Astarte giggled as Morgan left the kitchen and headed towards his bedroom. She waited until Morgan had opened his bedroom door before saying, "Goodnight, Morgan. And thank you for listening to me tonight."

Morgan nodded. "Goodnight, Astarte. You are welcome."

Chapter 78

Iris Deschat had spent the last twenty minutes intent upon her terminal's screen. If Morgan could not have heard her keyboard click with each keystroke, he might have been tempted to wonder if she had spaced out. "You're aware that Alexander Liebenthal was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, and you still want to question him?"

"I understand the terms of his sentence," Morgan acknowledged, "However, he may have information of value to my investigation. The bootleg weapons he sold were made by Murdoch Defense Industries. His partner was a man employed by the AsgarTech company as a security consultant. I think Liebenthal has secrets to reveal."

"Assuming I make the arrangements necessary for you to interview Liebenthal, what makes you think he would speak with you?"

"Morgan could always offer to kill him afterward," Sarah suggested.

"I doubt that would be much of an inducement," Iris muttered. "Were you planning to offer him death in exchange for his secrets, Stormrider?"

"I could," Morgan admitted, "But I doubt that it would be necessary. Think about it: Liebenthal has already been a month in his cell. His food is delivered by dumb waiter. If he needs medical attention, he is sedated first. He is provided with literature, news, music, and video. One could accuse him of living in luxury, except for the fact that he has not spoken to another person face to face for a month. I think he will talk to me, just for the sake of hearing a human voice that did not come from a recording."

"He might attack you."

"With what?" Sarah asked, "A spork?"

"You might be surprised by what a desperate man can do with his bare hands," Morgan said to Sarah without turning to her. "However, I am not worried about him harming me. I have no intention of allowing him to gouge out one of my eyes with a spork."

"I don't think Liebenthal would resort to such measures," Iris said to Sarah. "Our records indicate that direct physical violence is not his style." She turned her attention back to Morgan, meeting his eyes. "I have made arrangements with the warden at Riker's Island, where Liebenthal was taken to serve his sentence. You will be given two hours with Liebenthal. Will that be sufficient?"

Rising to his feet with a shrug, Morgan said, "It will have to be. I appreciate that you were able to do that much for me."

"You've asked for little enough over the years," Iris said as she straightened her jacket. "I will be accompanying you and Sarah to Riker's Island, at the warden's request."

"Fair enough," Morgan said, holding open the door for Iris and Sarah. He followed the women down to the street and hailed a cab for them. He lapsed into silence after telling the driver that he wanted to reach the Riker's Island ferry. There was nothing he wanted to say to Sarah, and he had never known Iris Deschat well enough to be comfortable making small talk with her. Instead, he turned his thoughts to the meeting ahead of him. Even though Alexander Liebenthal had spent the first month of the rest of his life in solitary confinement, the harshest penalty the law could hand down for a crime, Morgan suspected that Liebenthal would prefer his exile from the human race to a visit from the man who had ended his dictatorship. "Not that I give a damn," Morgan thought as the cab continued its slow, steady roll through the crosstown Manhattan traffic that had inspired Jimi Hendrix. "If he just wants to ignore me for two hours, he is welcome to do so."

The warden of Riker's Island stood waiting for them at the dock, watching the ferry pull itself close as men caught the mooring ropes and set about binding the vessel into place. He was a short, slim man whom the Phoenix Society had employed to run the prison for twenty years. He treated his charges humanely, and many newspapers quoted him as having said, "It's not my job to make these men suffer. Most of them will suffer enough without my help." He had developed a habit of coming to the dock to greet the daily ferry and explained it by claiming a need for exercise. However, it was common knowledge that the warden also prowled the halls of the prison, and every prisoner knew him by name. Morgan suspected that the warden walked out here simply to make sure that everybody who came to Riker's Island knew who was in charge.

"You're Morgan Stormrider," the warden said, giving Morgan a once-over. "You're here on official business, but you're wearing civilian clothes."

"Wearing an Adversary's uniform would give people the wrong impression. I am a privateer now," Morgan explained before turning to see if either Iris or Sarah needed help getting off the boat.

Iris extended a hand to the warden. "You're limping again, Warden Giannotti. Is that old wound still bothering you?"

Warden Giannotti looked down at his leg and said, "I pushed myself a little too hard at the gym yesterday. I'll be all right, Iris. You know that Stormrider's wasting his time by coming here, right?"

"What do you mean?" Morgan asked as they entered the prison complex.

"Liebenthal hasn't spoken a word since he was confined. We watch and listen to all of our prisoners. The only privacy any prisoner gets is within his own mind."

Morgan nodded, "Sometimes, that is the only place a man finds any privacy as well, even if he is free. I will not try to force Liebenthal to talk. We can sit and stare at each other for two hours if that is what he wants."

"And if he doesn't talk?" Warden Giannotti asked as he led them to his office.

"Then my job will be a little harder," Morgan said as he laid his sword upon the warden's desk. He then drew his pistol, ejected the magazine, and laid both upon the desk. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he withdrew a set of alloy knuckles and added them to the pile. Reaching up his sleeve, he withdrew a knife from the sheath he usually strapped to his right forearm. "I suspect, Warden Giannotti, that you would prefer that I left my weapons here."

"I appreciate the courtesy, but why four different weapons?"

Morgan shrugged, "It is a matter of having the right tool for the job. The knife is for when I do not have room to swing a sword. The knuckles are for when I do not want to kill anybody. And the pistol is there to save me from being the schmuck who brought a knife to a gunfight."

"Has that happened?" Sarah asked, eyeing the weapons.

"Once," Morgan said. "Naomi was not pleased to hear that I had taken six rounds in the course of killing a target."

Warden Giannotti turned to Iris. "Is he joking? Nobody gets shot six times and talks so nonchalantly about it. Nobody human, anyway."

"I'm not at liberty to discuss the performance of retired Adversaries, Warden. Can we continue to Alexander Liebenthal's cell, please?"

"Of course," Warden Giannotti said with a nervous glance at Morgan. "But I have to leave you ladies here. As it is, I'm bending the regulations just by bringing Stormrider to a prisoner condemned to life in solitary."

Iris nodded. "We'll wait here."

The cellblock fell silent as Warden Giannotti led Morgan through. None of the inmates were men that Morgan had put away; their crimes were too petty to merit the Phoenix Society's direct attention. At the same time, Adversaries did not walk through prison cellblocks unless they were being escorted to the sealed cell in which they would spend the rest of their lives alone. It had been several years since an Adversary was last brought to this prison to serve a life sentence, and the prisoners who had been behind bars long enough to remember whispered their knowledge to inmates in the neighboring cells, igniting murmured speculation as to what Morgan might have done to be brought here.

One inmate, brought here to serve five years for an assault he committed on impulse a week ago, allowed impulse to rule him again, "Hey, Stormrider! You wanna know who killed your little Christabel? I can tell you!"

The murmuring died, cut short as the other inmates waited for Morgan's response. A look at Warden Giannotti told Morgan that the warden was glad that Morgan had left his weapons in the warden's office. "I have been looking for the killer. If you know anything, I would be in your debt."

"Yeah, I know who did it," the prisoner said. "I fuckin' killed her, man. I fucked her first, and cut her throat as I busted my nut. Then I got in one last fuck while she was still warm."

A cruel smile curved Morgan's features as he reached through the bars and caught the youth who had taunted him by the throat. "Were you hoping that I would kill you?"

"Yeah! Fuckin' do it already."

"No," Morgan said, and threw the prisoner across the cell, turning his back as he crumpled into a heap. Turning to the Warden, he asked, "How much further to the solitary confinement block?"

"Just down the hall," Giannotti said as he led Morgan through the cellblock door and locked it behind him. He started at the sound of Morgan chuckling. "What's so funny?"

"The sign still says 'Death Row'. When were prisoners executed at Riker's, anyway?"

"Never," Giannotti muttered. "I told Scarmiglione to take that damned sign down. It's his idea of a joke. Once we lock you in down here," Giannotti explained as he led Morgan down the stairs, "You stay down here until you're dead. If you don't request euthanasia, it'll probably be old age that gets you."

Morgan noticed as he followed the Warden that most of the cells were empty. Their steel doors stood open, waiting for the chance to slide shut behind a convict condemned to life alone and seal him away from the rest of humanity. The two cells that had already closed shut around a victim displayed the name of the offender entombed within, but neither cell claimed to hold Alexander Liebenthal. "I thought Liebenthal was down here," Morgan said, looking at the two occupied cells.

"He was, as of my last weekly report from Scarmiglione," Giannotti muttered. "I like to delegate, you see. I trust Scarmiglione; he's good with the lifers down here, so I leave things to him. If anything out of the ordinary happens, he usually brings it to me right away."

Morgan stood waiting as Warden Giannotti used his neuronics to reach Scarmiglione. He watched the Warden's expression darken; he suspected that Giannotti was not getting the answers he wanted. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Unfortunately, you came out here for nothing," Warden Giannotti said, his tone apologetic. "Alexander Liebenthal requested euthanasia two days ago. He was put down last night at midnight."

"How long does it normally take to process a request for euthanasia?" Morgan asked. He already knew the answer, but wanted to be sure that Giannotti was not lying to him.

"One week," Giannotti said, answering with the truth. "According to Scarmiglione's report, however, Liebenthal's request was expedited by order of the Phoenix Society's executive council."

Morgan narrowed his eyes into a glare that froze Giannotti in place. "I want to see a copy of that order," he snarled with a soft, reasonable tone. "I need to know who authorized Liebenthal's death. Even if enforced solitude had robbed Liebenthal of all desire to live, the timing reeks of ulterior motives."

"I'll have the prison AI transfer a copy to your neuronics," Giannotti offered.

"Thank you, but please have the AI send it to my handheld," Morgan said, withdrawing the device from his pocket. A 'file received' message flashed on the screen a second later, prompting Morgan to let his fingers flicker over the screen to display it. A downward swipe brought him to the end of the document. "Liebenthal's euthanasia request was expedited by order of Isaac Magnin," Morgan muttered as he put the handheld to sleep and thrust it into his pocket. "If I was inclined towards paranoia, I might suspect that he is trying to tell me something."

Chapter 79

"London," Isaac Magnin muttered, glaring at the terminal screen on which he had placed a live feed of everything Morgan Stormrider saw and heard via Witness Protocol. "Stormrider is finally heading back to London."

Elisabeth Bathory considered ignoring Magnin's annoyance for a moment. After all, a deva who had spent the last ten thousand years engineering an entire society in order to steer events towards an outcome that would see their species free at last was entitled to an occasional fit of impatience. On the other hand, the guest Magnin had foisted on Elisabeth had begun to grate on her nerves; a small measure of vengeance was in order. "Come now, Imaginos," Elisabeth said in elder Vedic, using his true name despite the presence of humans in the AsgarTech Building so that she could needle him. "This impatience is not your style. And what would Morgan think if he knew that he was frustrating you with his insistence on building an ironclad case against you?"

Magnin allowed himself a chuckle, "No doubt it would please him to know that he has frustrated me. I should know better. My strategy depends on him going to London, after all. He cannot analyze the data he has gathered at home in Manhattan, because his little friend Claire dares not allow her AI to connect to the net. I might make an evil mastermind out of Polaris yet."

"I'm just grateful you've made a swordsman of him," Elisabeth purred. "The longer Polaris can keep Morgan dancing, the more time Sathariel and I have for our part of your plan. Of course, there is one matter that you failed to consider when you trained Polaris in the Unconquered Moon style so that Stormrider's blade wouldn't be able to pierce his defenses."

"You think Morgan might get annoyed enough to use a gun?" Magnin asked.

Elisabeth nodded. Magnin had named the concern foremost in her mind. The method Magnin had taught Polaris was dependent on observation. To dodge a blow and then counter it, one first had to see the blow coming. How does one see a bullet coming when even a subsonic round might fly too swiftly to be tracked by an Asura's eye? "Polaris can't dodge bullets."

"Neither can Stormrider," Magnin pointed out, "But he has learned to extrapolate the bullet's probable flight path from the direction in which the weapon is being pointed, and sidestep the shot as his opponent squeezes the trigger. I have taught Polaris to do the same, so he should be reasonably safe unless Stormrider manages to shove muzzle of his pistol down Polaris' throat."

"Your thinking being that if Polaris allows Stormrider to manage that, then death is welcome to claim him?"

"Actually, my thinking was that if Stormrider manages a point-blank shot, then that is what backups are for," Magnin said, shrugging off Elisabeth's concern. "Polaris knows the risk and accepts it. It is a bit late to second-guess me now, Elisabeth."

"Yes, I suppose it is," Elisabeth acknowledged as she turned her attention to the fish sandwich that Magnin had had brought for her. She took an experimental bite and gasped at the heat of the spices baked into the fillet's flaky breading. The mix was subtler than the sledgehammer assault on the palate she had come to expect from food purchased from Agni's, but Elisabeth knew that she could expect a long, slow burn that would linger long after she had finished her sandwich. "Where did you get this sandwich?"

Magnin shrugged and lifted a glass of water to his lips. "A restaurant called Memison's opened across the street. They haven't been in business long enough for their fish dinners to become as famous as they claim in their advertising copy, but they do make a good sandwich."

"I will have to bring Samuel to Memison's, then," Elisabeth said, licking her fingers with quick, dainty flicks of her tongue now that she had finished her sandwich. "He likes to find new restaurants and reverse-engineer their recipes. But I doubt that you asked me here in order to offer me a fish sandwich."

"You know me too well," Magnin grumbled behind the napkin he used to dab his lips. Letting it spread over his empty plate, he rose and began to pace behind his desk. "Do you have room at your Garden of Earthly Delights for another student?"

"I think I can manage another student, but don't ask me to accept another of your guests," Elisabeth said, narrowing her eyes. "Who do you have in mind?"

"You've met Sarah Kohlrynn, have you not?"

"I have. You realize that she is of no use to you."

A small chuckle escaped Magnin, "Did you think it was my idea to saddle Morgan Stormrider with that trollop? It was Karen Del Rio's idea. She has this petty vendetta against Stormrider, and was not at all pleased when my brother gave him a letter of marque and reprisal authorizing him to tear apart the Phoenix Society in order to get to the truth about Christabel Crowley's murder."

"Why not override Del Rio's decision, then?" Elisabeth asked. The direction this conversation had taken did not please her in the slightest. She could hear in Magnin's tone the gestation of another plot improvised to take advantage of events; even though Elisabeth shared Morgan Stormrider's distaste for Kohlrynn, she thought that the younger Adversary deserved better than to be dragged into Magnin's machinations. "Sarah Kohlrynn does not need to be part of this."

"She will not be," Magnin said, spreading his hands in a gesture begging Elisabeth's patience. "I mean to remove her from the situation. However, I doubt that Stormrider would believe me if I had Adversary Kohlrynn spirited away in order to protect her from the fallout of coming events. I mean to offer Sarah an opportunity to be the courtesan she wants to be in exchange for letting Polaris take a copy of her memories and personality, so that he can impersonate her."

Elisabeth choked back incredulous laughter, unable to believe that Magnin had spoken the words she had heard. "Let me see if I have this straight. You think that Polaris can somehow connect to Sarah Kohlrynn's brain, download a copy of her mind, and use that to impersonate her? We might be demons, but I doubt that you managed to give your Asura emulators the ability to copy another person's mind."

An indulgent smile was Magnin's first answer to Elisabeth's objections. His fingers flickered over a keyboard as he brought diagrams of the Asura emulator's tissue and cellular structure onto two of the screens built into the walls of his office. "I understand your doubt. I did not believe it myself at first, as what I intend to explain to you is an unintended consequence of the Asura emulator's design. Each nanocyte in an Asura's body connects to one another to form a mesh network. Aside from the core, which resides in the area corresponding to the brain stem in humans, the Asura emulator does not have a nervous system. Instead, every nanocyte in the body contributes processing capacity and fault-tolerant storage."

"So, when an Asura emulator thinks of sex to the exclusion of all else, he truly is thinking with his cock and balls?" Elisabeth purred.

"Yes, you could level that charge," Magnin acknowledge with a low chuckle. "The Asura emulator's cellular networking had an unintended consequence. If two Asura emulators touch, they can form a network and share data and processing capability. A connection can be formed with a touch as simple as a fingertip pressed to the forehead, but the more of one's body an Asura puts into contact with another Asura, the more bandwidth is available."

"That explains why I always find the Sephiroth in a kitten pile," Elisabeth muttered as she nibbled one of the potato cakes that had come with her fish sandwich. "They like to lay together, their bodies touching. At the very least, they tend to sit in a circle with their hands joined, as if holding a séance. Of course, they'll still speak with me, but they seem to prefer this body networking when communicating with one another."

"I've seen them holding hands in a circle," Magnin mused, "but they don't seem to trust me enough to relax around me."

A meteor of a thought flashed across Elisabeth's thoughts: I do not trust you either, Imaginos. "It's interesting that Asuras can network by touch, but I am willing to bet that Sarah Kohlrynn is not an Asura. How can Polaris network with her, when she's only human?"

"The same way he networked with that human woman who took his virginity," Magnin said, shrugging. "It would be read-only access, and Polaris would have to take Sarah's mind as a gestalt instead of being able to access individual memories at random. It turns out that the human mind does not organize its memories in a hierarchal filesystem or anything resembling a relational database."

"How unfortunate for you," Elisabeth muttered in an acid tone, "You would have an easier time with people if you could simply worm into somebody's head and alter inconvenient memories."

Magnin froze, narrowing his eyes at Elisabeth's words. "I think you are being unfair. I might take advantage of a person's character, but I do not presume to alter it."

"You do not?" Elisabeth challenged. "Tell that to Morgan Stormrider. Not only did you place him in the worst orphanage you could find when he was an infant, you paid its owner to ensure that he was never adopted. Did you not do the same to your daughter?"

"I created the circumstances that formed their characters, yes, but that is different from digging into somebody's mind and tampering with his memories in order to alter his character."

"Only by a matter of degree," Elisabeth countered. "I think you would do it if you thought you could get away with it."

"Whether or not I could get away with it is irrelevant," Magnin laughed as he swept the diagrams from their screens with a keystroke. "Of course I would do it if I thought it would serve my purpose. The only reason I refrain now, my dear, is that I cannot be sure that I will get the results I want. I can accomplish my ends without resorting to such means."

"Of course you would. Does Polaris know you intend for him to borrow Kohlrynn's personality and memories so that he can act as a placeholder while I turn Sarah Kohlrynn into Misty Beethoven?"

"He knows," Magnin said, looking up from his terminal, "But he went autistic and disappeared after I convinced him to go undercover. Do you know where he is?"

"I know where she is," Elisabeth purred. She had left him, now her, at her Garden of Earthly Delights. She had entrusted Polaris to a pair of instructors she deemed best suited to the challenge of teaching a male AI how to be female. "But I promised her that I wouldn't tell you. We women need our secrets, after all."

Chapter 80

"Thanks for picking us up," Morgan said to Claire as she helped him bring the groceries in from her car. He had insisted upon stopping at a supermarket and buying enough food to feed an army; he meant to cook in exchange for Claire's help with the data mining, so that he would not have to live on take-out food for the day or three the job was likely to require. Sarah herself had already brushed past them and into Claire's house at 22 Acacia Avenue; her only response to Claire's threat of a spanking if she did not help by bringing in a box was, "You'd enjoy that, Claire. But we'll have more fun if I've had a shower; the water at my apartment wasn't working this morning, and I haven't even been able to pee."

"Just let her go, Claire," Morgan suggested as Sarah rushed inside. "I can carry most of this, and we can leave Sarah's luggage in the car. She can get it herself later."

Claire nodded. "That would serve her right. You know, you didn't have to buy all of this."

"Considering that I asked you come to come and get Sarah and myself earlier than we had agreed upon, I figure that cooking for you while we are working together is the least I can do. I suspect that you have eaten enough take-out curry this week."

"I wouldn't mind some of that rigatoni bolognese you mentioned earlier," Claire admitted as she and Morgan laid down the boxes they had brought in, stacking them on the floor just inside the living room. "I thought you'd be later, since you decided to visit Riker's Island and have a chat with Liebenthal," Claire added as she took Morgan's armored coat and hung it up. Morgan looked around while unbuckling his boots and sliding his feet free. The living room ahead was not as cluttered as he was used to. Left to her own devices, Claire had a habit of leaving computer components, storage media, books, tools, and empty pizza boxes strewn about. During one visit, Morgan had stepped on a pair of discarded panties whose material was as slippery as a banana peel. They were not Claire's, as she had explained between apologies while helping Morgan to his feet, but another woman's.

"Sarah and I took the supersonic express," Morgan explained. "Also, I never did get to have that chat. Liebenthal had been euthanized the night before. Guess who ordered his euthanasia request expedited."

"It was Magnin, wasn't it," Claire guessed. "Whatever did you do to piss him off, anyway?"

Morgan stopped in the middle of taking off his boot. It was not a question he had asked himself; he refused to believe that Isaac Magnin was out to get him. If Magnin had any sort of design involving him, Morgan thought, vengefulness on Magnin's part was not part of the plan. Instead, Morgan suspected, Magnin was counting on his vengefulness. "If Magnin wants revenge against me, then I think he is going about it the wrong way," Morgan answered as he removed his boot and straightened. "His plan owes more to Rube Goldberg than to Edmond Dantès, from what I can see of it."

"If you were going to get your Monte Cristo on," Claire chuckled, "You'd be looking for ways to ruin his finances and reputation from the shadows, not looking for an excuse to draw your sword on him. You're acting more like D'Artagnan."

"I brought the wrong sword for that," Morgan said, allowing himself a small smile as he shrugged off his hand-and-a-half sword and hung it by its belt next to his coat. "It was all right for me to bring food, right?"

"Of course it was," Josefine Malmgren said as she stepped into the living room. "If you left it to Claire, we'd be eating curry tonight, and I've been eating that for the last three days. Something different is always welcome."

"I asked Josse to help me debug some of the data-mining code I've been working on," Claire explained. "She's more familiar with AsgarTech's database design than I am. She understands that the data's part of an ongoing investigation, and she'll be quiet."

"I have no objection," Morgan said, "As long as Doctor Malmgren does not object to my paying her for her work at standard consultant's rates."

Josefine reddened at this, "I didn't do this to get paid."

"Just take the damn money," Claire mouthed at Josefine. "You know how he gets."

"I heard that," Morgan said, having read Claire's lips.

"Fine, I'll take the money," Josefine said, relenting, "But I am only going to bill you for twenty-four hours of work. Three days, eight hours per day. And where's Mordred? Doesn't the cat follow you everywhere?"

"Oh, sure," Claire pouted. "You'll pet Morgan's pussy, but you won't pet mine? Bollocks to the both of you, then. I'll go join Sarah in the shower."

"I left Mordred with Naomi," Morgan explained to Josefine as they ignored Claire. "I was planning to stay with her tonight, as it can get pretty noisy in here when Claire has somebody to play with."

"I know," Josefine said, "We were roommates at University. Hold still a minute?"

Morgan complied, watching out of the corner of his eye as Josefine took a hardcover anthology of early Eddie Van Helsing manga and flipped through it. "I didn't believe Claire, but she's right," Josefine said. "You look just like Eddie Van Helsing when he's not wearing his glasses."

"Did she turn you on to the manga?" Morgan asked.

Josefine shook her head. "No, I had picked up a copy from the beginning of the Christine Daae story arc while waiting for a maglev from Asgard, and got hooked."

"Is that the current plot?" Morgan asked as he led Josefine into Claire's kitchen. Noting with approval that Sarah had brought in the groceries and put everything in its proper place, Morgan began to prepare the counter.

"Yes, it is. Wait a minute. You can cook?" Josefine asked as Morgan opened a can of crushed tomatoes and poured it into the pot. Two more cans followed, and then a smaller can of tomato paste. He set a frying pan full of ground bison on another burner to brown as he began to heat the tomato sauce, adding pepper, oregano, thyme, parsley, basil, and parmesan cheese. "I learned how years ago," Morgan explained. "Am I the first housebroken man you have ever met?"

"I thought all men were housebroken," Josefine muttered, "After all, I've yet to see a man pee on the floor."

"That might be good enough for dogs," Morgan said, stirring the sauce, "But I think the bar should be higher for human beings. A man might hire somebody else to take care of his house and cook for him, but I think he should know how to do it himself."

"Morgan learned to cook in self-defense," Claire offered, leaning against the doorframe as she dried her hair, having just come from the shower. She had put on a fresh pair of jeans, and replaced the singlet top she had been wearing with a Doomed Space Marines t-shirt. "He let Christabel make him dinner one night, and it killed him."

Josefine looked from Claire to Morgan, unable to believe what she had heard. "Did Christabel's cooking really kill you?"

"Yes, but I got over it," Morgan deadpanned, turning over the ground meat to ensure that it browned evenly. He had decided to brown the meat slowly, and at a low temperature, so that he could add diced onion and garlic to it. He stirred the sauce before tasting it, and searched the spice rack for some rosemary. "Claire, have you got a mortar and pestle?"

"In the drawer in front of you. What's up?"

"Rosemary's flavor is stronger if you grind it," Morgan explained as he measured some rosemary into the mortar and took up the pestle. "And nobody likes to bite down on a twig. Josefine, I need a large onion, and two cloves of garlic. Would you bring me some from the refrigerator?"

Josefine nodded and turned to the refrigerator as Morgan found a cutting board and selected a suitable knife. He had finished washing it and his hands when Josefine placed the onion and garlic she had selected on the cutting board for him. "You might want to leave the kitchen," he suggested as he began to peel the onion.

"Do I have to?" Josefine protested, retreating several steps. "I still can't believe that you know how to cook. Claire has told me all these outlandish stories about you, you know. She told me once that you like to hunt bison with a pistol, chase them down on foot, and eat the meat raw and freshly killed."

Morgan arched an eyebrow, not missing a beat as he diced the onion with mechanical precision. "It is true that I like my steak rare, but I do butcher my meat and cook it before eating it. Claire is just trying to frighten you, to get you to think that I might eat you."

"Yeah, but you'd die happy if he did, Josse," Claire giggled.

"Not that either of us know from experience," Sarah said, joining Claire.

"Tell me you're not planning on spending the night with those two," Josefine sighed, turning to Morgan as he added the diced onion to meat he had just turned over. "What possessed you to pair those two up? I thought you liked Claire."

"Actually, it wasn't Morgan's idea," Claire said, "Morgan doesn't know how to deal with sluts, and I do. So I took Sarah in hand after I heard her refer to Naomi Bradleigh as a 'pale freak'. Isn't that right?"

"Yes, Miss Ashecroft," Sarah said, simpering as she clung to her mistress' arm. "I was a bad girl. I still am, of course; it feels so nice when Miss Ashecroft punishes me."

"I am sorry you have to see this, Josefine," Morgan muttered.

Josefine turned her back on the other women with a shrug. "It's not the first time. There was this young man at university, for example. We were in our second year, and he was a doctoral student, but Claire had him wrapped around her little finger. She'd even offer to let me use him, if I walked in on them playing by mistake. So, really, I'm probably more used to Claire's little sexual games than you are."

"You going to be all right in the kitchen by yourself?" Claire asked.

"I have it all under control," Morgan promised, stirring the browned meat, onions and garlic into the sauce. "I promised rigatoni bolognese, and I mean to deliver the goods."

Chapter 81

"If Naomi has any sense," Josefine declared after her first bite, "She won't let Morgan out of the kitchen. This sauce is incredible. Where did he learn to make this?"

"Morgan's the sort who reads the fucking manual," Claire explained. "Of course, it would be a waste to not let him out of the kitchen."

"Why?" Sarah asked in between mouthfuls, "You can fuck in the kitchen. Just spread out a blanket."

"It's hard on the knees," Claire pointed out as Morgan settled into an armchair with his own plate.

"Come on, let's get serious," Josefine demanded of Claire and Sarah, before turning to Morgan. "I want to know where you learned to make this sauce."

"I started with a basic recipe printed on a can of crushed tomatoes, and kept experimenting," Morgan said with a shrug before digging in. He ate a forkful of his rigatoni bolognese and said, "To be honest, this sauce is subtly different from what I make at home. Sea salt harvested from the North Sea must be slightly different from Great South Bay salt. Some of the herbs I used are probably a different strain than what I grow at home. There are probably slight differences in meat from bison raised here and North American bison, as well."

"You can tell all of that?" Sarah asked.

"He's joking, right?" Josefine asked, appealing to Claire.

"I don't think he's joking," Claire said after spearing a chunk of bison with her fork and eating it. "I've seen him identify different brands of beer by taste, while blindfolded."

"You could get a cat to do that," Morgan chuckled. "Actually, I was joking. I had been wondering if I could get Sarah to stop thinking and talking about sex for more than thirty seconds."

"Sorry, but you're not that good a cook," Sarah snickered. "Your ass looks so fuckable when you're cooking, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Claire, could I borrow your —"

"No, you can't," Claire interrupted as she saw the color rising to Morgan's cheeks. Putting aside her empty plate, she rose and took Sarah's plate from her. "Go to the bedroom and wait for me there. If you are remorseful enough when I am ready to deal with you, I will let you finish your dinner."

"Yes, Miss Ashecroft," Sarah said, her voice soft and chastened as she rose and headed to the bedroom. Though she had been looking at the floor as she walked past Morgan, he could see a glint of pleasure in her eyes; Sarah had been trying to bait Claire into topping her. "You realize that Sarah did that on purpose," Morgan said to Claire as she returned from wrapping Sarah's dish and placing it in the fridge.

Claire sighed and gave a resigned shrug. "I'm not surprised. At least now we can discuss business without any unnecessary interruptions. Where should we start?"

"Can you give me a summary of what you two have done so far?" Morgan asked.

"Mostly steganography," Josefine said. "Liebenthal and Murdoch both had a habit of encoding their financial records inside image data. However, not every image contained data of interest. Once we had extracted the data, we had to correlate it."

"The steganographic analysis wasn't that hard," Josefine said, waving a hand. "Once we worked out how the data was being encrypted, Claire let Hal deal with it. Cracking the Phoenix Society's databases was much more interesting."

Morgan's fork and empty plate thumped against the carpet. He kneeled to retrieve them, putting them aside before turning to Claire and saying, "You actually cracked the Phoenix Society's databases? The Sephiroth handle all of that information."

Claire's expression became all innocence. "Well, Josefine and I didn't exactly crack the Society."

"What did you tell the Sephiroth in order to get access?" Morgan asked, knowing that Claire would never bother to resort to forced entry if she could persuade somebody with authorized access to let her in.

"I didn't tell them anything," Claire protested. "I woke up yesterday morning to find Hal complaining that seventy percent of his storage had been used overnight. So, I opened a shell in order to check it out, and the first file I found was marked 'README'."

"And what did that file contain?" Morgan asked. "Some sort of note?"

"You might want to sit down," Josefine said, reaching up to place her hands on Morgan's shoulders so that she could guide him to his chair. "The file contained a note from Malkuth. All it said was, 'Morgan Stormrider needs to know the truth about the Phoenix Society'."

"Did you examine the data any further?" Morgan asked.

"Just the financial data. Most of it is video, but Josefine and I stopped watching it as soon as we realized what we were seeing," Claire explained, her face coloring. "Morgan, I think your whole life has been recorded via Witness Protocol. What you're seeing and hearing right now is probably being recorded."

"That is impossible," Morgan protested as his entire body stiffened and chilled. "When we Adversaries get our neuronics installed, we are told that the only time in which we cannot disable Witness Protocol is when we are acting in our official capacity. Otherwise, we can turn it on or off as we deem necessary."

"Hal," Claire said, "Please play the clip that Josefine and I happened upon when first exploring Malkuth's little gift."

Morgan grew colder as a heavily pixelated close-up view of Christabel filled the screen. "Aren't you going to kiss me good night?" Christabel demanded in a voice distorted by the extreme audio compression required to make Witness Protocol practical, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly. Morgan had seen her do that many times; she had done it every time she wanted something from him. He heard his own voice say, "I did not know that you wanted me to," before the screen faded to black for a moment. When that moment had ended, Christabel's face was closer, and her eyes held amusement. "That will do for tonight."

"That was the first time I kissed Christabel," Morgan snarled as the clip ended.

"That's not the worst thing we've seen," Josefine stammered, her face aflame. "Every minute of your life has probably been recorded. Everything you ever saw or heard, no matter how intimate, has been recorded by Witness Protocol — just as it is for Polaris, the Asura prototype."

"What else did you see?" Morgan asked, his voice soft. If every minute of his life had been recorded, then Claire and Josefine might very well have seen him at his worst.

"I'm not sure how to explain this," Claire began, "But if those files are all genuine, then I've got the last twelve years of your life on Hal's RAID."

"Only the last twelve?" Morgan asked, still struggling beneath the mass of his disbelief.

"See for yourself," Josefine said, opening a directory listing. "Each of these video files is five minutes long, and the name of each file doubles as a timestamp." She pointed at a file bearing the name 2112.05.13.0800: "This file here records everything you saw and heard from eight in the morning on Friday the thirteenth of May this year, to five after eight that same morning."

"Can you wipe this Witness Protocol video without destroying the other data that Malkuth had left for us?"

"Not a problem," Claire said, returning to the parent directory with a 'cd ..' command and followed up with 'ls -al' to pull a directory listing. She indicated two entries: 'witnessprotocol.morganstormrider' and 'ps.organization'. "All of the really interesting stuff is in the ps-dot-organization directory. My guess is that the other stuff is just a big old sledgehammer to the head to get your attention."

"Did you subject the video data to steganographic analysis?"

"We did, but it's just video," Josefine said. "At least, we think it's video. We had Hal examine a sample of five thousand files and found no hidden data.

"Might as well get rid of it, then," Morgan sighed. "I remember what I did, and there's no sense in wasting all of this space. However, I think precautions are in order. Did either of you ladies view these files visually?"

"We both did," Josefine said, "But I don't think that Isaac Magnin or the Phoenix Society would have bothered to override our Witness Protocol settings, since we're neither Adversaries nor Asuras. We're only supposed to record when we've drawn our weapons."

"My revolver doesn't trigger Witness Protocol," Claire interrupted. "I had it laundered by a friend of a friend. I think the guy's name was Drebin."

Morgan nodded. "So it is possible that Isaac Magnin does not know what you two know. I am going to attempt an experiment. Claire, would you mind asking Hal to grant me temporary access via secure shell?"

"I've given you access to those directories already," Hal said. "And I've forwarded a temporary password to your handheld. I'll be disabling access as soon as you log out, of course. If you're concerned about audio recording, I can host a secure relay chat. Just connect to me via secure shell and I'll do the rest.

"Whose idea was it to give me the handle 'Laharl'?" Morgan asked as soon as he had logged in.

"Mine," Claire sent. "I'm Etna, and Josse is Flonne because she's a little blonde love freak."

"You're too busty to be Etna," Josefine countered.

"Yeah, but my arse looks great in leather jeans," Claire said. "Code names aren't much of a security precaution, but it might make anybody spying on us work a little harder. So, what have you got in mind?"

"It depends on just how crippled my neuronics really are," Morgan said. "I will explain when I'm done." Placing the chat into the background, Morgan opened a second secure shell connection and pulled up the contents of the ps.organization directory. A query on file type showed him that none of the files could be converted into plain text without making the contents intelligible. This complicated matters, as Morgan knew that his neuronics would allow him to read plain text directly into his brain, giving him a visual representation of the data without involving his optic nerves. He was not, however, sure that he could get similar results for non-text data. He attempted to open one of the files anyway, hoping that the custom set that Tokiko Nakajima had made for him offered more functionality than she had been willing to promise.

"I have probably voided the warranty on my neuronics," Morgan said, using chat instead of his voice, "But I was able to load at least one of the files directly into my visual cortex. Have a look at the file marked 'revenue.sources'."

"Before we do," Josefine said, "Shouldn't we be spoofing Witness Protocol? If anybody is watching us, it's going to look awfully strange if we three are just sitting here staring at each other and saying nothing."

"Flonne's right," Claire said, springing from her chair. "Let me go get Sarah and a deck of cards. We don't have to talk much if we're playing poker."

"Wait," Josefine protested aloud. "I only know how to play five-card draw."

"Claire and I can teach you some other variations," Morgan said, following suit. "Claire, just make sure Sarah knows that we will not be playing strip poker."

"Oh, all right," Claire said with a sigh of mock disappointment. "You two wait for me in the kitchen."

Morgan waited until the game was well under way before turning his attention back to the file and to the secure relay chat. Sarah had joined, and had been using the handle 'SK'. "I can't believe we're playing Texas hold 'em with chips just to spoof Witness Protocol," Sarah said, rapping the table to indicate to indicated that she wanted another card. "You guys are fuckin' paranoid."

"I just learned that the Phoenix Society has the last twelve years of my life on file. Not just the time I spent on the job, but the first time I kissed Christabel —"

"Not to mention every time he's ogled Naomi's arse, and Shabranigdo knows what else," Claire added.

"Everything Morgan sees and hears right now, not to mention anything the rest of us see and hear, is probably being recorded. So we're sitting here giving ourselves headaches in order to learn the truth about the Phoenix Society without tipping them off," Josefine finished, "So would it kill you to just play the damned game, Sarah? At least we're not playing D&D."

"I left my robe and wizard hat at home," Morgan joked, causing Claire to giggle out loud.

"Fine, fine," Sarah said, submitting. "I was just about to suggest that we watch a movie instead. It doesn't have to be anything deep, something loud and flashy will do."

"sigh We overthought this whole spoofing thing, didn't we," Josefine sent. "Sarah's right. Nobody talks much while watching a movie."

"But there's no sense crying over every mistake," Claire offered as she opened the fridge and produced a chocolate cake that Morgan had purchased along with the rest of the groceries, "You just keep on trying till you run out of cake."

Chapter 82

"How many Godzilla movies do you have, Claire?" Sarah complained out loud as Japan's patron monster flattened Tokyo for the third time that night. The last of the cake had been eaten an hour ago, and everybody was on their fourth beer. They had started by watching the original 1955 film; Sarah, unable to understand Japanese, found herself paying more attention to the subtitles than to the job at hand.

"How many did they make?" Claire countered, for the benefit of anybody spying on them, as she said via secure relay chat, "I can't believe the Society got away with hiding this shit in plain sight. Every member of the Executive Council aside from Eddie Cohen has their fingers into at least half a dozen pies. Name an industry, and somebody from the Phoenix Society is involved, and sticking the profits into a Swiss bank for the Society's use."

"I can believe it," Morgan said. "There are no antitrust laws on the books, so the executive council has no particular reason for secrecy. Also, none of the companies owned by XC members has a monopoly on their sector of industry. They might have patented technology, like AsgarTech with the Asura System, but even AsgarTech has to compete with other technology companies."

"And this is consistent with the public history that the Society teaches," Josefine said as she cracked open her fifth beer. "The Society always claimed that they were a consortium of concerned businessmen who wanted to promote free and open societies in order to promote a healthy environment for trade."

"And this is how they do it," Morgan said, passing fresh beers to Claire and Sarah. "The Society can get away with banning the use of taxation by governments because they fund the governments out of business profits that they funnel through the society. The Phoenix Society owns the government, is the government, and is able to control organized crime because it is also organized crime."

"I don't get it," Josefine said, her face flushed by the alcohol. "Maybe I'm drunk, but did Morgan just say that the Phoenix Society was both the government and the mafia?"

"That is exactly what I said," Morgan said, "It is a nearly perfect setup: if the Phoenix Society governed directly, it would be accused of being a worldwide fascist regime. It would have no legitimacy. Instead, it positions itself as a nongovernmental organization that watches over governments to ensure that individual rights are upheld. If an official violates somebody's rights, or simply steps out of line, the Society cries 'tyranny!' and sics an Adversary on them. What I really was, though, was an assassin."

"Is that really such a terrible thing?" Claire asked. "Look back on some of the people you whacked. Can you honestly say that any of them didn't have it coming?"

"I am not sure I can," Morgan said, "But I am not sure I was right to kill them, either. If the Phoenix Society really is a worldwide government, then each of those men was entitled to a fair and public trial. They knew that they would get no such thing, so when an Adversary shows up, they are determined to die fighting their assassins. The Phoenix Society has been ignoring the standards of good governance that it uses killers like me to enforce on just about every government on Earth. Now I know why the Empress of Nippon swore to personally cut down any Adversary who takes a step beyond the Tokyo city limits."

"Is this the same Empress who dissolved Parliament with a katana in each hand during Nationfall?" Josefine asked.

"Her daughter," Claire said. "If the Two-Handed Empress was still running things, no representative of the Phoenix Society would dare set foot in Tokyo, let alone the rest of Nippon."

"Isaac Magnin has the perfect setup, if he wanted the rule the world," Morgan said. "He runs the Phoenix Society, which owns a tenth of all the business enterprises on earth outside Nippon and Switzerland. The people believe that the Society is a NGO that watches over city governments and protects individual rights. If enough people get suspicious, Adam Mellech can always foment some trouble among some of the monotheists that survived Nationfall, since people today blame all monotheists for causing Nationfall in the first place."

"Not all monotheists are hated by everybody," Josefine said, "I know Jews who remember what it was like before Nationfall. At least we finally got rid of anti-Semitism, and anti-Christianism and anti-Islamism aren't that widespread."

"Maybe not," Morgan said, "But there are still enough anti-monotheist and anti-religous bigots out there to cause trouble. It's mostly the atheist, agnostic, and polytheist survivors of Nationfall and their children, and the Society can always fan the flames of that old resentment if somebody decided to examine the Society too closely."

"Still, what can you do?" Sarah asked. "We know the Society's corrupt, but people are freer, safer, more prosperous, and happier than they were before Nationfall. If the Society isn't there to keep city governments on a leash, what's to stop people from starting up all the old shit again? What's to stop people from carving the earth into nations again, and starting wars over resources or territory?"

"Sarah is right," Morgan admitted as he cracked open his sixth beer and wished for the sixth time that he could get drunk. "I want to be indignant, to believe that I have spent the last ten years serving a lie as an assassin. I want to believe that humanity's advances since Nationfall are tainted by the means used to achieve them. I think that that is what I should believe."

"So, what will you do?" Josefine asked.

"I know almost everything now," Morgan said. "I know that Liebenthal did not mount a coup d'etat, but simply moved in on a power vacuum that the Phoenix Society created by paying the government of Boston to disappear. The referendum was just a pretext, something to get my attention, as were the murders of Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch, and the suicide of Tetsuo Munakata. I know how Magnin has been doing it all, but I do not yet know why. I have to go to Asgard tomorrow and ask him."

"And then you'll arrest him so that he can stand trial," Sarah said. "Right?"

Morgan did not answer Sarah's question; he had disconnected from Hal's secure relay chat before she had finished asking it. Instead, he asked aloud. "Anybody want another beer? Or something stronger?" This last was a pre-arranged signal for the others to disconnect, that they had gotten what they needed from the data Malkuth had given them.

"I think I should go back to the hotel," Josefine said as Sarah pounced on Claire and began to molest her.

"You and Morgan could always sleep on the couches," Claire suggested as she wriggled free, bent Sarah over the table, and gave her submissive's bottom a sharp swat. "Then again, I think Sarah and I are going to be a bit noisy. Morgan, would you mind escorting Josse back to the Hellfire Club?"

"Not at all," Morgan said, "Are you ready to leave now, Josefine? I will take care of the cab fare."

"Just let me get my bag," Josefine said, offering Morgan a grateful look as Claire frogmarched Sarah to her bedroom and kicked the door shut behind her. Morgan finished his beer and set about clearing the mess he and the women had made. By the time he had gathered up the plates and empty beer bottles, Josefine stood ready by the front door, shaking her head as the slaps and moans resulting from Sarah's chastisement escaped the bedroom. "Sorry to keep you waiting," Morgan said to Josefine as he shoved his feet into his boots and buckled them tightly. He shrugged into his jacket and slung his sword over his shoulder while following Josefine out of the house.

"It's all right," Josefine said. "I'm just surprised that Claire is so untouched by what we learned."

"Claire never really believed in the Phoenix Society or its mission," Morgan explained as they walked to a street corner. "She worked for me because the jobs I brought her were fun, and because I paid well and on time."

"And because she loves you a little," Josefine said as they continued walking. "Of course, she'd never say it herself, or expect you to leave Naomi for her, but she genuinely cares for you."

Morgan nodded. "I know. That is why I try not to let her flirting or her innuendo bother me overmuch. How about you? You admired Isaac Magnin, did you not?"

"I did, and I was a little infatuated with him as well," Josefine admitted, "I would like to ask him 'why?' as well, but I suspect that you will kill him. You are going to kill him, right? For what he did to Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch?"

"I want to kill him," Morgan admitted, "but I cannot be sure that killing him is the right thing to do now." Looking up, he offered Josefine a reassuring smile. "Look. We ended up walking to the Hellfire Club. I guess my offer of a cab was unnecessary after all. Do you want me to see you to your room?"

Josefine shook her head. "I do, but I'm tipsy enough that if you did, I would probably ask for a goodnight kiss. That wouldn't be fair to you or Naomi. What about you? Will you be taking a cab to Naomi's place?"

Morgan shook his head. "The night is pleasant enough, and it has been a while since I had time for a good run. I can make it to Naomi on foot in less than an hour."

"Does it bother you that you might be an Asura yourself?" Josefine asked after a few silent seconds as Morgan escorted her into the lobby. "After all, your physical abilities are not exactly human."

"Maybe not," Morgan said with a shrug, "But my mind is a human mind, and my emotions are human emotions. I might not be a member of homo sapiens, but neither are the AIs. I still think of Astarte and Hal as human."

Josefine blushed at Morgan's answer. "I'm sorry. It's the beer talking. I'm not normally this silly."

"Do not worry about it," Morgan said, brushing Josefine's cheek with a gentle, chaste kiss. "Be safe, and have a good night." He did not wait for Josefine's reply before turning from her and walking out of the Hellfire Club. Perhaps the beer had affected him after all, Morgan thought, unwilling to entertain the possibility that he might have given Josefine that barest hint of a kiss in order to prove to her or himself that he was, in fact, human.

Chapter 83

Morgan Stormrider stopped, and turned his face upward to the clouded sky. He suspected that Naomi would chide him for not avoiding the rain by taking a cab, but that did not matter. She always worried about him, and he suspected that she always would. Being drenched from a run through rain and fog would not be the worst state in which Naomi had seen him. She had seen him stagger into a rehearsal, limping because a target had tried to dissuade him from doing his job by kneecapping him with a sledgehammer. She had watched him pry a slug out of his own thigh and stitch the wound himself before a concert, because he did not want to delay the show by going to a doctor. Considering how often he had given Naomi cause to believe that he had allowed his cat to use him as a chew toy, Morgan doubted that Naomi would be shocked at the sight of him soaked and dishevelled by running through a thunderstorm.

Lightning struck nearby, driving its energy through one of the dozens of lightning rods the owners of the park in which he stood had erected in order to protect the trees. The thunderclap followed less than half a second later, drowning out the words of the man who had stepped from the fog as the storm hurled another jagged azure lance towards the earth.

"Do you make a habit of walking in the rain?" the man asked Morgan in the wake of the second thunderbolt's echo.

"I make a habit of doing as I please," Morgan countered, studying the man. It surprised Morgan that he had not bothered to disguise his appearance; instead, he looked just as he had when the AsgarTech Company had unveiled their Asura prototype. He looked just as he had when he had attacked Josefine and Claire. He was as tall as Morgan, with shoulder-length silver hair and wide cobalt eyes, and held a sheathed sword in his left hand. "No pistol this time, Polaris?" Morgan asked.

"Not tonight," Polaris acknowledged, drawing his blade and clipping the scabbard to his belt. "I suppose that Dr. Malmgren and Miss Ashecroft have told you about me."

Morgan nodded, keeping his eyes on Polaris now that he had his weapon out. "They tell me you have been doing Isaac Magnin's dirty work."

"I have my reasons, just as I have my reasons for being here tonight."

"Whatever your reasons are for having drawn a sword on me," Morgan said, "I doubt that they are good enough."

"Dr. Magnin is paying me. That is reason enough," Polaris replied with a shrug. "He wants me to test you. It seems that he means to use you, and wants to be sure that you can handle yourself in a fight against a skilled opponent."

Morgan turned his back on Polaris. Though the Asura had drawn a sword, Polaris had not yet attacked him. Morgan could think of no reason to fight Polaris, no reason to delay his arrival at Naomi's any longer than necessary. He raised his left hand to wave, and said, "Give my regards to Isaac Magnin, then. I will be seeing him soon enough. In the meantime, it is late and I have a lady waiting for me. Good night."

Morgan smiled at the sound of Polaris' bootheels striking the cobblestones. He had suspected that Polaris might not let him leave, but he had hoped that he could simply walk away. The hand he had raised to dismiss Polaris and his threats slid down to grasp the hilt of his own sword and pull it free as he spun to meet Polaris' blade with his own. Polaris sprang backward as soon as their blades crashed together, and let his sword-arm fall to his side. "I have nothing personal against you, Morgan Stormrider, but I cannot allow you to return to Naomi Bradleigh tonight. I have my orders. You will fight me."

Morgan studied Polaris and his sword. The Asura's stance was not one Morgan recognized; it reminded him more of the manner in which Naomi would stand on the stage while he, Naomi, or another musician had taken a turn for a solo. His pose was relaxed, and his sword hung in a loose grip so that its tip waited a few centimeters from the ground. Polaris' blade appeared to be shorter than Morgan's own, based on the split second in which their blades had crossed, and made to be held in one hand. Morgan held an advantage in power, being able to swing his sword two-handed, but he suspect that Polaris might hold an edge in terms of speed. However, Morgan doubted that Polaris could bring up his blade quickly enough to deflect a killing thrust delivered at a sprint; Polaris' only hope was that he could dodge the blow.

"No," Morgan said as he tensed his muscles and prepared to spring. "I will not fight you. I will kill you."

Morgan sprang. He had crossed the distance between him and Polaris before half a second had passed, the tip of his blade preceding him, poised to pierce Polaris' throat and rip through what passed for an Asura's brain stem. If the blow connected, Morgan expected that it would kill Polaris outright.

The blow did not connect. Polaris had brought up his blade in time to deflect the edge of Morgan's sword while stepping aside to avoid being bowled over. He then opened a shallow cut across Morgan's cheek with a flick of his wrist. Morgan skidded to a stop and turned to face Polaris, his sword poised to strike in his left hand as he wiped the blood from his cheek with his right. He licked the side of his thumb clean and then dragged it across the already scabbed-over cut. "You have proved me wrong," Morgan said, treating Polaris to his coldest, most predatory smile. "I will fight you, and then I will kill you."

Polaris' free hand strayed to his throat as he backed away from Morgan. The scarlet on his fingertips dissolved in the rain as Polaris offered Morgan a mocking bow. "Do not feel so bad," he said, "You managed to draw first blood after all."

Morgan began to circle around Polaris, testing his defenses with swift, one-handed cuts and thrusts. He did not expect to get through; the speed with which Polaris had raised his blade to deflect Morgan's and then counter had convinced him that Polaris knew what he was doing. The openness of Polaris' stance was a deceit meant to lull Morgan. As long as Morgan remained engaged, Polaris would wait for him to strike the first blow, and counter it. If Morgan moved to disengage, then Polaris would take the offensive. Keeping his tone light and idle as he probed with a thrust, Morgan asked. "What do you hope to accomplish by keeping me away from Naomi?"

"My instructions were to keep you occupied," Polaris said, evading Morgan's question along with his swordthrust. "Dr. Magnin has plans for Ms. Bradleigh."

"And you are not privy to his plans? Or simply unwilling to tell me?"

"You will find out soon enough," Polaris said as he danced beyond the arc of a slash meant to tear out his throat. "What is your rush?"

"You would not understand," Morgan said as he sheathed his sword. Sliding his left hand up the right sleeve of his armored coat, he withdrew the knife he kept for close-up work. He slipped his right hand into his pocket and slid his fingers into a set of alloy knuckles. "And I am not inclined to explain it to you."

Polaris raised his sword to counter the thrust of Morgan's knife, just as Morgan expected him to do. Turning the knife in his hand, he caught Polaris' sword and trapped it, forcing open a gap in Polaris' guard. He pressed himself closer to Polaris, shifting his mass from his left foot to his right so that he could drive his fist harder. Bone cracked beneath Morgan's alloy knuckles as his punch connected and snapped Polaris' head backward. "Compliments of Dr. Josefine Malmgren," Morgan spat at Polaris as Polaris staggered backward to stay out of Morgan's reach. Morgan put away his knife and knuckles as his opponent shook his head to clear it.

"Tetsuo Munakata was right about you," Polaris snarled, before spitting out blood and a broken tooth. "You are without pride or technique!"

"You talk tough for an Asura who whose technique has been defeated," Morgan replied, catching Polaris' wrist as he lashed at Morgan with a wild swing. As he disarmed Polaris, Morgan asked, "Is this all you can do? You can cross swords with a man, but you lose your composure as soon as somebody decks you?"

Grasping Polaris' sword by its hilt and point, Morgan snapped it across his knee and threw the pieces at Polaris' feet. "Here is a lesson that Isaac Magnin forgot to teach you. When you start a fight, strike your enemy with everything you have!" Morgan's left hand shot towards the hilt of his sword as Polaris swept up the hilt of his shattered sword from the ground and threw himself at Morgan blade first. Morgan thrust upward with both hands, catching Polaris through the chest. He held Polaris aloft for a moment, impaled on his blade, before ripping his sword free and letting him fall. Polaris landed on his feet and staggered backward as Morgan knelt, swinging his sword in a sweeping downward arc, and sheared off Polaris' legs at the knees.

Polaris toppled over, crashing to the ground as he stared at the stumps of his legs. "I said that I would kill you, but I need to see Naomi safe more than I need to see you brought to an end," Morgan explained as he wiped his sword clean and sheathed it. Turning his back on Polaris, he began to walk away from the clearing. "You will survive this experience," he said. "If you are lucky, you will learn from it. Stay out of my way."

Chapter 84

Naomi sat up in bed, blinking. "What is that noise?" she asked herself before she realized that it resembled a cat hissing and growling at something that had threatened it. "Wolfgang, I need some light," she said to her AI as she slipped out of bed. She straightened the black lace nightdress she had worn to bed in order to give Morgan a pleasant surprise when he showed up, and grabbed the sheathed katana that she had brought to bed with her.

"Mordred, what are you hissing at?" Naomi asked, drawing her katana as the lights came on. She had seen a cat bristling at an enemy before, its fur puffed out and its back arched, but to see Morded in that state was not something Naomi ever thought she would see. She kept her distance, just as she would have done if her own cat had been in a fighting temper. She doubted, however, that Mordred was fighting with her cat. Morded had always gotten along with Phantom before, accepting that he was a guest in the smaller cat's territory and treating Naomi's cat with the feline equivalent of the courtesy a human would offer in response to a host's hospitality.

Naomi's puzzlement deepened as she circled around Mordred and found that Phantom, named because he was a tuxedo cat with a white patch that masked the right side of his face, stood beside Mordred. He too stood with his back arched and his fur bristling, as ready to fight as Mordred himself was. "All right, you two, that's quite enough. If you two aren't snarling at each other, then what exactly is the problem?"

Phantom ignored Naomi, but Mordred stopped snarling long enough to look back at Naomi. His powder-blue eyes locked on her sword, and he appeared to relax slightly as he inched toward the sword. Naomi approached the door herself, remaining behind Mordred. "Well, you wouldn't be like this if it was just Morgan. Is it a burglar?"

Mordred looked back at Naomi again, and made a sound that Naomi had not heard before. It was not one of his usual meows. Nor was it his purring, or one of his trills. It sounded to Naomi as if Mordred had tried to speak an actual word, but lacked the ability to properly articulate it. However, if Naomi had heard the word correctly and was interpreting it correctly, then Mordred had just answered her with a word that had no meaning outside kabbalah and the lyrics of occult-themed metal bands. "Did you say 'Qliphoth', Mordred?"

Mordred answered with an affirmative trill, and repeated the sound. He then began to purr, but it was a purring that set Naomi's nerves on edge. It felt to her as if her bones were vibrating within her flesh.

Naomi shot Mordred an incredulous look and asked, "Mordred, do you really expect me to think that the emanations of the Tree of Death are in my flat? It's probably just a burglar."

"Naomi, I should warn you that you are the only human presence inside this flat," Wolfgang said as Naomi reached for the latch to her bedroom door. "There are, however, two roughly human-shaped sources of infrared energy outside your bedroom that are also generating the mild electromagnetic fields associated with human brain and nervous system activity."

Letting the doorlatch go, Naomi took a step back and scratched her head for a moment. "I'm not sure that makes sense, Wolfgang. You're saying that I am the only human life you detect in this flat, but you're also detecting heat and electrical activity from two other sources inside my flat that can't be blamed on the cats? Are you suggesting that there are two ghosts here?"

"Whatever they are, they showed up as soon as Mordred began purring," Wolfgang said. "However, I can't see anything in the visible spectrum that would explain the presences. Also, you may find it interesting that Mordred is purring at an infrasonic frequency. Humans should not be able to hear it."

"Then I must not be human," Naomi said, "Because I can hear it. I can feel it as well. It feels like my bones are resonating under my skin. It takes some getting used to, but it actually feels nice. Is his purring interfering with you in any way?"

"He is generating quite a bit of electromagnetic interference, but I do not think it is causing me any problems," Wolfgang replied after a second.

Naomi looked down and Mordred and ruffled his fur, "Infrasonic purring and electromagnetic interference? You're a strange moggie. Did you know that?"

A soft meow was the only answer Mordred offered. "Wolfgang, I am going to check the place myself. Have you contacted Morgan?"

"I have been trying to reach him through Astarte, since his handheld is a terminal linked to her, but I have not been able to make contact. Astarte has gone autistic."

"She picked a wonderful time to do so," Naomi remarked, reaching for the bedroom door latch again. "I want to see for myself what's going on outside. Keep trying to reach Morgan. I'm surprised he's not here already."

Mordred preceded Naomi, slipping out of the bedroom as soon as she had the door open. Wolfgang had prepared the way for her, lighting each room as she entered it. Remembering the methods she had been taught before she had been able to become the musician she had wanted to be, Naomi advanced behind the point of her katana with small, deliberate steps. She held the sword straight out in outstretched arms, so that she could stare down the the blade at any enemy that appeared. Mordred padded ahead of her, always a couple of steps ahead and to her right; he would not be in the way if Naomi had to make a downward cut, or if she had to leap ahead of Mordred to strike. Naomi suspected the Morgan had trained the cat to walk with him in this manner. The only other alternative that she could think of required that she believe that Mordred was intelligent enough to understand that he had to stay out of Naomi's line of fire, while remaining close enough to her to place himself between her and a threat.

She advanced into each room as Morgan had taught her, pressing herself against the wall closest too the doorlatch, and waiting until the door was fully open before stepping into the doorway so that nobody could shoot at her through the door. Each room was as Naomi expected it to be. Each room was empty.

"Are you seeing something that Wolfgang and I can't see?" Naomi asked Mordred, glancing down at the cat as it began to hiss again. She began to shiver as she stepped into a spot of cool air, and glanced around to find a reason for the cold that had enveloped her. Even though she had read that cold spots were a sign that there was a ghost nearby, she preferred a simpler, more naturalistic explanation. She found one in the form of a window that had been left open a crack to create a draft.

"I don't remember leaving any windows open," Naomi mused as she took a hand off the hilt of her katana to close the window. Stepping out of the cold spot, Naomi finished her exploration of the flat and returned to her bedroom with the same deliberate care that she had used when inspecting the rest of her home. Locking the door behind her, Naomi sat on the edge of her bed and sheathed her katana. "See, Mordred?" Naomi asked before stifling a yawn. "There's nobody here but you, me, and Phantom."

Mordred gave a protesting meow before turning to the door and making that sound that Naomi thought was the word 'qliphoth'. "I'm sorry, Mordred," Naomi yawned as she slid beneath her blankets and curled up, keeping one hand on the hilt of her katana and the other on its sheath. "I don't have the same senses you do. I couldn't see or hear or smell anything. All I felt was a cold spot, and that was because of a window that I must have forgotten that I had cracked open."

Without waiting for her command, Wolfgang turned off the lights. "Are you sure you want to stay here?" he asked.

Opening her eyes again, Naomi sighed. "I'm supposed to let something I can't see, hear, or touch force me out of my home? Wolfgang, are you telling me that I should be afraid of ghosts?"

"Those two unexplained presences are still there. You walked through them when you encountered that cold spot."

"All I felt was cold," Naomi insisted, "and that was because the window nearby was open a crack, causing a draft. Still, I wish Morgan was here."

"I still haven't been able to reach him, but I'll keep trying," Wolfgang admitted as Mordred climbed up onto the bed and curled up beside Naomi, pressing himself against her back. He continued to purr, and Naomi found herself drifting off to sleep as the cat's warmth and the vibration of his infrasonic purring lulled her. Her last thought was a question: "Morgan, where are you?"

Chapter 85

Despite being bodiless, having dissolved her Elisabeth Bathory avatar, Ashtoreth felt as though she had been holding her breath. She had dissolved her avatar as soon as she felt Sathariel's pattern begin to fray; she had not needed him to tell her that they had lost their concealment. Doing so, however, had not been enough. Naomi Bradleigh's household AI knew that she and Sathariel were there, even though he did not know what he was seeing. "Should we leave?" she asked Sathariel, communicating mind to mind using pulses of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths too short to show up on a scan for radio transmissions or microwave radiation.

"No," Sathariel pulsed back. "We have already taken Ashecroft, Kohlrynn, and Malmgren. We might as well finish the job."

"True enough," Ashtoreth said, thinking back to the other kidnappings. Taking Josefine Malmgren had been child's play. All they had had to do was place their avatars inside Malmgren's room, concealed by an energistic pattern that Sathariel had improved over the centuries to bend light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation so that none reflected from him and to dampen sound so that none emanated from him. Sathariel had never explained to Ashtoreth how he managed to cope with heat, but he managed to conceal that as well, and allowed it to radiate once he had let the pattern go. Since they were concealed, and had no need to negotiate the defenses that each Hellfire Club hotel provided its guests, she and Sathariel needed only to ensure that Malmgren would not wake. Malmgren had done most of the work for them; she was still slightly inebriated, and wrapped in a dream that began with Morgan Stormrider's unexpected goodnight kiss and led to conclusions that had tempted Ashtoreth to pounce on Sathariel then and there. Instead of doing that, however, Ashtoreth had used a small, familiar pattern to ensure that Malmgren remained locked in the embrace of this dream and would not wake for at least another three hours. She had then worked with Sathariel to open one of the 'gates' Thagirion made made for them.

Ashtoreth had always been tempted to think of these constructed patterns as mere 'gates'; the romances she had read as a girl had been full of heroes stepping through rifts in space that led from one place to another instantaneously, but that was not how they worked. One could not simply use one of them to open a portal linking one part of space with another. Instead, one had to choose an object for the gate to act upon. Once the target object had been chosen, the pattern would determine its current location. The user then had to determine the target location. Thagirion's gates would then alter the target's location in spacetime at the quantum level. Only one of the Qliphoth, or another Power, could use such gates; their use required that one be able to observe four-dimensional spacetime from outside its confines. Since Ashtoreth actually existed in a membrane of space contiguous with normal space and had to use an avatar to interact within spacetime, she was able to ensure that while Josefine Malmgren had caressed herself and fallen asleep in a rented room at the London Hellfire Club, she would wake to find herself in a guest room at Isaac Magnin's mansion in Asgard. She worked the gate, and Sathariel waited at the other end to ensure that Malmgren arrived safely, and that she was properly tucked into bed. Malmgren, as well as Ashecroft and Kohlrynn would find herself frightened and disoriented as soon as she had woken enough to realize that she was not in her own bed; Ashtoreth and Sathariel could think of no reason to let her get cold as well. They would treat Naomi with the same consideration, as soon as they managed to spirit her away to Asgard.

The presence of a rakshasa complicated matters. Neither Ashtoreth nor Sathariel had expected Naomi Bradleigh to possess one of the rare cats that the devas had bred over the millennia to use as defenses against energistic attack from Powers and other devas. However, Ashtoreth could not understand how Naomi Bradleigh could possess a rakshasa while remaining ignorant of its abilities. "Do you have any idea how Naomi Bradleigh acquired a rakshasa?" she asked Sathariel.

"Imaginos had mentioned that Morgan Stormrider had a rakshasa," Sathariel explained. "But I had not expected to see it here, protecting Naomi Bradleigh."

"Stormrider has a noble rakshasa," Ashtoreth said. "Why else would it be here, protecting Naomi Bradleigh?"

"If Stormrider knew what he had, don't you think he would have told Naomi Bradleigh?"

"Stormrider himself might not know that he has a rakshasa bonded to him. As far as he's concerned, you and I are just figments of the imagination of a university student under the influence of cheap booze and the Blue Öyster Cult's music," Ashtoreth countered, remembering with amusement the Witness Protocol video she had seen from Stormrider's conversation with Desdinova at Sun Wukong's.

"Well," Sathariel said, "That rakshasa in the bedroom is real. Any suggestions? We cannot materialize, or the household AI will detect us. It already knows that we're here. It just doesn't know what we are."

"Can you move your avatar to the basement?" Ashtoreth asked. "From there, you can cut the power to the entire building. Any active AIs will immediately go into hibernation in order to conserve their backup batteries. Then we can materialize and deal with the rakshasa."

"Killing the rakshasa will not help us," Sathariel pointed out. "To begin with, the cat's likely to put up a fight and make enough noise to wake the neighborhood. Naomi will certainly wake, and she is not likely to be happy to see us. I think you've seen that she feels as much affection for the rakshasa as she does for her own little tuxedo cat."

Ashtoreth considered a catnip mouse that had been left to poke its nose out from beneath the sofa, and then turned her attention to the cat flap built into Naomi's bedroom door. "No need to kill the rakshasa. Like us devas, they have a weakness in common with domestic cats. They love catnip, and Morgan Stormrider loves to see his pet rakshasa get stoned."

From outside spacetime, Ashtoreth could see that Sathariel had translated himself to the basement, materialized, and flipped all of the building's circuit breakers. Naomi Bradleigh's flat was no longer receiving power. Wolfgang, perforce, had gone into hibernation. Taking on physical form again, Ashtoreth crouched by the sofa to retrieve the catnip mouse she had seen. When Sathariel had returned and materialized his own avatar, Ashtoreth was on her hands and knees by Naomi's bedroom door. She had just lifted the cat flap when she felt Sathariel's fingertips graze her inner thigh, sliding upward to cup her from behind. His touch made her shiver; it tempted her to let him take her here as she was, but she had work to do.

Unable to see the rakshasa while on her hands and knees before the door, Ashtoreth settled onto her side as Sathariel took the cat flap from her. A little smile curved her lips as she saw Mordred curled up on Naomi's bed, his back against hers. "Here, kitty-kitty-kitty," she purred as she slipped a hand inside, dangling the catnip mouse by the tail.

Mordred, however, did not stir. "You could probably squeeze through there," Sathariel whispered to Ashtoreth. "Why not just stick the mouse in his face?"

"He's content to lay there and keep up his damnable purring as long as we keep our distance," Ashtoreth whispered back, narrowing her eyes as the other cat, Phantom, lowered himself to the floor and made a slow approach. It was not the cat Ashtoreth had hoped to entice, but she allowed the mouse to continue to hang by the tail from her fingertips as Phantom took another step closer, his whiskers straining forward and his tail and ears erect. The cat nuzzled his mouse before catching it in his mouth and taking it from Ashtoreth. Curling up on the floor, Phantom began to play with it, biting and licking the catnip mouse as the crushed leaves stuffed inside the toy redlined the pleasure centers of his brain. Once the effect of the catnip had worn off, Phantom took the mouse in its mouth again, and lifted himself onto the bed. Ashtoreth found herself stifling a giggle as she watched Phantom bring the catnip mouse to Mordred and place it right in front of the rakshasa's nose.

One sniff was all Mordred needed. The purring ceased, ending with it the electromagnetic interference that the rakshasa radiated in order to disrupt energistic patterns. Sathariel's concealment encased Ashtoreth once more, and she could see not only her own and Sathariel's sensory triggers, but Naomi's and those of Mordred and Phantom. Focusing on Mordred, she bound the rakshasa to sleep, just as she had with Josefine Malmgren, Claire Ashecroft, and Sarah Kohlrynn.

Sathariel helped her to her feet and drew her into his arms. "I'm glad you thought of the catnip," he said before brushing her hair aside and branding a kiss into her throat.

"Must you distract me so?" Ashtoreth asked, shivering in Sathariel's hands. She translated her avatar into Naomi's bedroom before he could answer, but as soon as Sathariel had translated his avatar to her side, he said, "Yes, I have to. I can't resist. I never could."

Both froze as Naomi turned over, still grasping her katana, and buried her face in Mordred's fur. An unintelligible murmur escaped her as Ashtoreth turned away from Sathariel to examine her mental state. "Poor dear," Ashtoreth muttered, "Having a nightmare, are we?"

"Anything interesting?"

"I didn't take too close a look," Ashtoreth whispered as she manipulated Naomi so that she could slip gently into a deeper sleep. "It was none of my business, after all. Do I look like Adramelech to you?"

"I would not have kissed Adramelech."

"Very cute," Ashtoreth chuckled. "Are you ready with the last gate?"

Sathariel nodded. "Should we take the rakshasa as well?"

Ashtoreth shook her head. "Leave the cat," she said, and Sathariel nodded before translating out of Naomi's bedroom. She thrust aside the temptation to lift the covers and take another look at Naomi Bradleigh, to admire her sleeping body. After all, she had already seen Naomi as she inspected every corner of her home, searching for the burglar that had roused Mordred's protective instinct. And there was always the video she had used Edmund Cohen and his equipment to create, which Naomi believed to have been rooted out and destroyed. There was no need to look upon her sleeping form; Ashtoreth knew something far more intimate about Naomi Bradleigh. "Do you know that your true name is Sarasvati, my dear?" she thought. "I wonder how your mother, Lakshmi, would feel if she could see what you have made of yourself. I think she would be proud of you. You deserve better than what I am going to do to you."

Thrusting aside remorse as she had thrust aside her earlier temptation, Ashtoreth used the construct Thagirion had created, giving it Naomi Bradleigh as the target and placing her in a bed in one of the guest rooms in Isaac Magnin's mansion in Asgard. As soon as it was done and the construct shut down, Sathariel translated back into Naomi's bedroom. "We're done. We should leave," he said. "Have you prepared the letter Imaginos suggested, so that Morgan Stormrider would know what happened?"

"You can leave if you like," Ashtoreth said as she unlocked Naomi's bedroom door. "I will remain. Morgan Stormrider can dismiss a letter. He will not be able to dismiss me as easily, and I think I owe it to him and to Naomi to face him."

She stopped as Sathariel's hand clamped upon her shoulder. "You do not have to face Stormrider."

"I do," Ashtoreth insisted, placing her hands on Sathariel's. "These people deserve better than to be used as pawns. This isn't their war, but you and I helped drag them into it. Besides, what can Stormrider possibly do to me? He cannot harm me as he is, and I suspect that his emotional control is too strong to allow him to manifest. Magnin has his work cut out for him."

"I know," Sathariel nodded, drawing Ashtoreth into his arms. "Still, don't take any chances. Even if it is only for the time it takes for you to create a new avatar, losing you would be torture."

"Trust me," Ashtoreth whispered against Sathariel's lips before letting him go. She found herself wishing, as soon as he had translated away, that she had asked him to stay and face Stormrider with her. "I despise you, Imaginos, for making this necessary," she thought, "Why couldn't you have dealt honestly with Stormrider?"

Chapter 86

A rueful smile flickered across Morgan Stormrider's face as he rested against the wall of Naomi Bradleigh's townhouse to take stock of himself. "I should have blown Polaris' head off," Morgan thought, castigating himself. He had not wanted to deal with the police attention that gunshots would bring, even if fired from the pistol of a retired Adversary with a letter of marque. Nor had he wanted to be the one to destroy the first artificial intelligence to possess not only human intellect, but a human body to match. Unfortunately, Polaris had not appreciated Morgan's restraint.

"Perhaps I can disappear into this crowd for a bit," Morgan had thought as he followed the map he had been given onto a street lined on either side with restaurants and pubs. Some of the restaurants were chains; if you wanted an Agni Burger or some fish and chips from the Ancient Mariner's, you could get it here. Quite a few people did, if the throng clogging the narrow street was any indication. Others crowded the smaller restaurants; one little trattoria appeared to cater entirely to couples out for a date. Other people staggered, red-faced and sweating, from a joint called Sati's Curries located next to the trattoria, which for some reason unknown to Morgan had been called Machiavelli. Across the alley from Sati's, Morgan could hear an Alice Cooper revival band extolling the freezing charms of a lady by the name of Ethyl in a bar called The Hanging Judge. As he pressed on, Morgan found that the Alice Cooper revival band had been drowned out by a jazz and space rock fusion outfit whose name, according to the marquee over the entrance to a nightclub called KOS-MOS, was The Hilbert Effect. Stopping to listen, he decided after a few minutes that he would have to see if the band had any albums available before continuing onward.

Morgan had shouldered his way halfway through the alley, when he felt the crowd behind him begin to disperse. The end of one piece by The Hilbert Effect produced a lull that allowed Morgan to hear a voice shouting his name.

"Morgan Stormrider!" Polaris screamed as Morgan turned around to see him brandishing a sword. "Our fight is not yet finished!"

Lowering his head so that his forehead rested against the palm of his hand, Morgan said, "Damn it, Polaris, you have instant online access to every work of human literature and drama, yet you choose to sound like a minor villain from a bad Nipponese role-playing game. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Just draw your damned sword," Polaris spat as more of the crowd pressed against the sides of the street to make room for what they believed to be a bit of impromptu street theatre. "I have my orders, and I mean to carry them out."

Advancing towards Polaris, Morgan forced himself to sound reasonable. "I already defeated you once. I broke your sword and cut off your legs. Are you incapable of taking a hint?"

A crowd of teenaged boys behind Morgan took up a chant: "Fight! Fight! Fight!" Offering Morgan a mocking bow, Polaris said, "Your audience is waiting. Must you disappoint them?"

"I have a lady waiting," Morgan said, turning away from Polaris. "Given a choice between my audience and my lady, I would prefer to disappoint the audience."

"I think your lady would be far more disappointed if innocent people suffered for your obstinacy," Polaris said, indicating the crowd with his sword's point.

"Go right ahead," Morgan said, injecting bored contempt into his voice as he opened his coat. "These people are no concern of mine. Kill as many as you like," he purred as his hand crept down to the pistol on his hip and thumbed off the safety. Pulling a flash suppressor from an inner coat pocket, he palmed it in his left hand. He turned his back and began to walk away, his right hand still hovering over his pistol.

"You're bluffing, Stormrider," Polaris called after him. "I know you won't leave innocent people to die on my sword. I'll give you five seconds to prove it!"

"One!" Polaris called, and Morgan had turned while drawing his pistol. He glared at Polaris, damning him for forcing this fight, as he attached a suppressor and chambered a round.

"Two!" Polaris called, and Morgan fired. Nobody heard the shot over the music of The Hilbert Effect, which continued to play inside KOS-MOS, but everybody there saw Polaris' head snap back as Morgan's shot struck him between the eyes. They saw him take a staggering step backward before locking enraged eyes on Morgan's. Morgan lowered his pistol as Polaris threw himself forward. The tip of Polaris' sword pierced Morgan's chest, and Polaris' momentum drove the blade in to the hilt, billowing out the back of Morgan's coat as Polaris continued to push. Morgan managed to keep the pain out of his voice as he jammed the muzzle of his suppressed pistol into Polaris' mouth and pulled the trigger: "This was entirely unnecessary."

Polaris' hands slipped from the sword embedded in Morgan's body, and he staggered backward as Polaris crumpled to his knees and collapsed face-down upon the cobblestones. Morgan's chest burned, and blood leaked from the wound as he pulled his enemy's sword free and tossed it to the ground by Polaris' body. "I am going to regret this in the morning," he muttered as he shouldered his way through the crowd that had thickened around him as people inside the restaurants and pubs heard about the duel that had happened outside.

The wound still hurt, half an hour later, but Morgan expected that. He had, after all, taken a swordthrust through the middle of his sternum. He should be paralyzed from the chest down, considering that the blade's tip had come out of his back, presumably piercing his spinal cord. "Of course," Morgan thought with a wry grin, "If I really am an Asura, then I should be fine as long as nobody thinks to shove a pistol into my mouth." Tearing open his shirt, Morgan saw that the wound had already become a livid scar. His shirt, however, was ruined. He had bled too much after pulling the sword from his chest. His armored coat's silk lining had also been soaked with his blood. "Naomi is going to be terribly disappointed when she sees what I allowed Polaris to do to me," he thought as he opened the door to Naomi's townhouse and mounted the stairs to Naomi's floor.

"Wait a minute," Morgan thought after taking a couple of steps. "The power is out. I should not have been able to get in. The front door should have automatically locked because of the power outage." Drawing his pistol, Morgan made a slow ascent, placing his feet with care to avoid making noise. Polaris had claimed that he had been instructed to keep Morgan from reaching Naomi's home in order to allow Isaac Magnin to implement plans involving Naomi. Morgan's grip tightened on his pistol as he cursed himself for not killing Polaris during their first encounter; the delay created by the fights might well have condemned Naomi to share Christabel's fate.

Creeping toward the door to Naomi's apartment at the top of the stairs, Morgan began to hear her piano. On another night Morgan knew that he would feel be relieved; Naomi would be safe and coping with the power outage by playing beneath the light streaming through her windows. Tonight, however, the piano had an undertone that tightened Morgan's trigger finger. As he listened, he suspect that even though it was the piano part to a duet that he and Naomi would often play while Christabel was offstage taking a break, it was not Naomi playing it. The hands playing this piano were too apologetic to be Naomi's; they belonged to somebody who knew that he had no business here. However, Morgan found himself unable to believe that it was Isaac Magnin waiting for him at Naomi's piano. He might sit and play in order to pass the time while waiting, but Morgan suspected that there would be a taunt in his hands' every movement.

As Morgan slipped into Naomi's apartment, he turned from one shadow to another, watching for threats through the iron sights of his pistol as he made his way upstairs to an attic that Naomi had converted into a solarium that Naomi had filled with potted rosebushes and a twentieth-century Steinway grand piano. Narrowing his eyes, Morgan considered the woman sitting by Naomi's piano. Her hair was too black and glossy to be Naomi's. Naomi was never one for high heels, or for little black dresses that barely covered the tops of her stockings. Naomi possessed a sinuous muscularity beneath her curves that this woman lacked, possessing instead the luscious figure of a twentieth-century burlesque queen. "No wonder Edmund allowed Elisabeth Bathory, if that's her real name, to seduce him," Morgan thought, remembering the pictures Edmund Cohen had showed him. "She looks like his favorite pinup girl, Dita Von Teese."

"You should be grateful for Naomi Bradleigh's absence," Elisabeth Bathory purred, "You look like something your cat might have dragged in."

Slighty lowering his pistol, Morgan asked, "Do you know where Naomi is?"

"I do," Elisabeth said, rising from the piano. As she covered the keyboard and closed the piano, she said, "She is currently a guest of our mutual friend, Isaac Magnin."

Disbelief narrowed Morgan's eyes. "Mutual friend?"

"Did I say 'friend'?" Elisabeth, purred, touching a fingertip to her lips. "I had meant 'enemy'."

"Tell me more."

"Put your pistol away, first," Elisabeth demanded. "It is an impressive tool, but not something a man shows to a woman he barely knows."

Engaging the safety, Morgan removed the suppressor and slid the pistol back into its holster. "Satisfied?"

"For now," Elisabeth purred, "Now, as I said before, Naomi Bradleigh is currently a guest of Isaac Magnin. He is holding her at his mansion in Asgard, along with Claire Ashecroft, Sarah Kohlrynn, and Josefine Malmgren. I know this because I put them there."

"Are you claiming to have commanded the people who actually performed the kidnappings?"

Elisabeth shook her head, and smile while approaching Morgan. "No. I am saying that I kidnapped them myself. Of course, given the distances involved, skepticism on your part is only to be expected. Did Polaris tell you anything?"

"No," Morgan admitted, backing away from Elisabeth. He could not see on her any sign that she was armed, but he did not want to take any chances, "Of course, I had not taken the time to indulge in an interrogation before killing him."

"Of course not," Elisabeth soothed, appearing behind Morgan. She caressed his shoulder, causing Morgan to shiver. "After all, he had told you that Naomi was in danger, and you wanted to get to her as swiftly as possible."

"What did you just do to me?" Morgan snarled, spinning out from under Elisabeth's hand and backing several steps away from her.

"All I did was ease your pain," Elisabeth said, her voice soft. "I know that Zachary Aster told you about the devas. I am one of them. Most of us have our little specialties. Mine is sensation. I've eased your pain for you."

"Should I assume that you used similar means to pull off the kidnappings while remaining here?"

"It would simplify matters if you did, for now," Elisabeth agreed. "I think it would be fair to say that Naomi's safety is more important than obtaining explanations for phenomena currently beyond the reach of your knowledge of natural law."

"Fine, then," Morgan said, "If I see anything weird, I will just blame sufficiently advanced technology for the time being. Now, are you going to tell me what is going on, or not?"

Elisabeth turned to the stairs with a sigh. "Follow me." As she led Morgan down to Naomi's bedroom, Elisabeth told him. "You were told about the war between the devas and the Powers. Isaac Magnin believes that you, as an Asura, have the power and the temperament necessary to destroy a Power that has lain imprisoned beneath the antarctic ice cap for the last ten thousand years. At least, you would if you had not accessed your asuric abilities at too early an age and then sealed them away yourself."

"And Magnin thinks that I will break the seal on these 'abilities' of mine if he annoys me enough?" Morgan snarled as he brushed past Elisabeth and stepped into Naomi's bedroom. "So, she truly is not here. How did you manage to carry her off without waking Mordred?"

"Is that what you call your rakshasa?" Elisabeth asked. "To be honest, he had gotten in the way of my partner and myself. To conceal us from the senses of Naomi's AI, my partner had to work magic of his own — and rakshasas are bred to sense the use of magic and interfere with it."

"Yet you did not kill him," Morgan said, stroking Mordred's fur. He could feel the cat's pulse, slow and strong; it was as though he was merely sleeping. "I suppose I owe you thanks. Did you cut the power in order to shut down Wolfgang?"

"I had my partner flip the circuit breakers," Elisabeth confirmed. "If you'll wait a moment, I will restore power."

The lights glowed to life as Elisabeth disappeared for a moment. "Morgan, I'm sorry," Wolfgang said. "I tried to warn Naomi that there were intruders here, but she did not believe me because she could not see anything."

"She did not believe Mordred, either," Elisabeth added as she reappeared at Morgan's side. "And the rakshasa knew what my partner and I were. He tried to warn Naomi. But the word 'Qliphoth' means something else to you humans, even to humans who do not know that they are devas — or Asuras."

"I am not an Asura."

"Care to explain why you got away with letting Polaris drive his sword through your chest so that you could shove your pistol into his mouth and kill him?" Elisabeth purred. "Oh, yes, I saw that. You know that you are something other than human, and that knowledge affects your tactics; it lets you justify allowing others to wound you as long as it provides you with an opening to strike a killing blow."

Morgan ignored Elisabeth as he unbuckled his gunbelt and shrugged off his sword. Laying them aside, he peeled off his armored coat and began to examine it. He doubted that anything could be done to get his blood out of the coat's lining, but the coat itself was unharmed. He tore off his ruined shirt, wadded it, and stuffed it into the wastepaper basket that Naomi kept by her night table. Looking down at himself, he decided that he could not tolerate the scent of his own blood any longer. "I am going to shower," Morgan snarled, stabbing a finger at Elisabeth. "I would appreciate some privacy."

"Making yourself presentable for Naomi?" Elisabeth asked, arching her eyebrows.

"I am not going to come to her stinking of my own blood."

"You need not come to her at all," Elisabeth said. "It appears that you do not understand the situation. Isaac Magnin does not intend to ransom her and the others. Naomi and your other friends will be released as soon as you have made your way to Isaac Magnin."

"Why should I believe you?" Morgan asked, narrowing his eyes.

"Whether you believe me or not is irrelevant," Elisabeth said, slipping behind Morgan and caressing his bare shoulders. "Now that you know who is responsible, you will face Isaac Magnin no matter what I do or say."

"Yes, I will," Morgan admitted, "But first, why should I believe that you are his enemy when you are doing his dirty work for him? Whose side are you really on?"

Elisabeth slipped past him and padded to the bedroom door. Leaning against the frame, she crossed her arms and gave him a smile that suggested to Morgan that Elisabeth might be more dangerous than she had currently shown herself to be. "I am on my side, and I have my own reasons for wanting Isaac Magnin dead."

Chapter 87

Naomi Bradleigh knew before she had opened her eyes that she had not woken up at home. The air in her house carried a subtle scent of roses, peonies, and orchids that she raised in pots. The air here bore no scent of flowers. The mattress beneath her was softer than her own, and covered in silk sheets instead of the extremely fine cotton that she preferred. Sitting up, Naomi checked her katana as she scanned the room. She could not fault its décor; the ivory paint trimmed with polished hardwood reminded her of her own home. The four-poster bed in which she had slept sat atop a costly Persian rug made of scarlet and white wool, and was itself made of polished oak.

"This is not my house," Naomi thought as she queried the GPS receiver built into her neuronics array. "Asgard? That can't be right. There's no way I could be in Asgard. It's only been six hours since Mordred woke me, and there isn't a maglev that can get from London to Asgard in less than twelve hours."

Slipping out of the bed, Naomi approached the vanity and examined it. She knew that she did not have a dozen different combs, and that none of the three combs she actually owned were made of silver. Nor did she possess a silver-handled hairbrush. A quick look inside the jewelry box revealed dozens of pieces that she would have loved to have, but had never bothered to buy. Holding a ruby teardrop pendant against the hollow of her throat, she admired herself in the mirror until a fancy struck her. "Persephone condemned herself to spend part of each year with Hades by eating a few pomengranate seeds. What will I be getting myself into by putting on this pendant?"

"You can wear that if you want to," an androgynous voice offered, making Naomi whirl about, clutching the pendant in her hand. "My employer had provided everything in this room for your use, Miss Bradleigh."

"Who are you?" Naomi asked, as she put the pendant back into the jewelry box.

"I'm the AI for this house. Call me Ariel."

"Am I to be Prospero's guest, then?" Naomi asked. "Or am I dreaming? My GPS tells me that I'm in Asgard, but I cannot believe that I was brought here while asleep."

"You are not dreaming," Ariel said, "However, I am not at liberty to explain how you were brought here or why. You will have to direct your questions to Mr. Magnin. He will want to see you as soon as you are ready."

"Ready?" Naomi asked, looking down at herself. "I doubt my captor gave any thought to how I might make myself presentable."

"As a matter of fact, he did," Ariel acknowledged as the wardrobe doors opened. "You may take what you like from the wardrobe. You will find underclothes in the dresser."

Naomi flicked through the hangers with a doubtful eye, and found a selection of suits, trousers, long skirts, blouses, sweaters, cardigans, jackets, and coats. Pulling out a white ao dai with a spray of cherry blossoms, Naomi thought, "All right, Magnin knows what I like to wear. I doubt he got the sizes right." She returned the dress, knelt, and pulled out a pair of black leather ankle boots with silver buckles. Trying them on, she found that they fit perfectly and needed only to be broken in. "Are you still watching me, Ariel?"

"I was instructed to do so, Ms. Bradleigh," Ariel explained. "Mr. Magnin wishes for you to have as pleasant a stay as possible, despite your being an unwilling guest of his. Anything you need will be provided."

"Is it possible for me to bathe? With privacy?" Naomi asked, turning a suspicious eye toward what sounded like the source of Ariel's voice, since the AI had not bothered to display an avatar on the wall's built-in display.

"I do not have a camera in the bathroom, but I can still listen. If you hurt yourself, I will hear you and be able to send help. Of course, you will not be able to call for help using your neuronics. I will know if you attempt a secure shell connection, and cut you off."

Naomi sighed; she had hoped that she could get away with using her neuronics to tell Morgan that she had somehow been kidnapped. "For some reason, knowing that my captor is not a moron comforts me. Is it too early for Stockholm Syndrome?"

"Probably," Ariel said. "You haven't even met Mr. Magnin yet."

Naomi remained silent. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she slid the straps of her nightdress from her shoulders and let it slide off of her body. She folded it and placed it by the sink. Stepping out of her panties, she folded them as well and put them on top of her nightdress, so that she could wear them again if her captor had not managed to provide a single stitch that fit her. She remembered Isaac Magnin; they had met last Winter Solstice at a charity ball. Morgan had not been there because his duties as an Adversary did not permit it, so Naomi had been able to see Christabel fawn over Magnin without any fear that Morgan would see and understand that he had been betrayed. She had no intention of telling Ariel that, however. She could not be angry with the AI, as it was simply doing its job and had treated her with more courtesy than a captive usually received, but that did not obligate her to tell Ariel anything more than necessary to improve the odds of her regaining her freedom.

Emerging from the shower wrapped in a white towel that threatened to swallow her, Naomi strode to the closet. "Ariel, I want you to disable the camera. I can tolerate you listening, but I do not Magnin to see me naked through your eyes."

"My instructions do not permit me —"

"Talk to Magnin and get updated instructions," Naomi demanded. "He has treated me with courtesy thus far, so I think that a bit of privacy while I dress is reasonable. Must I retreat to the bathroom every time I want to try on an outfit?"

"I'm disabling the cameras now," Ariel replied after a minute. "Mr. Magnin offers his apologies. He had thought that you would be content to try on clothes in the bathroom. His other guests expressed no objections."

"None of his other guests have a katana," Naomi observed, glancing at the sword, which she had placed upon the bed after she had finished in the bathroom.

"One of his guests has a twelve point seven millimeter revolver," Ariel countered. "Which is an absurdly large firearm for a man to wield, let alone a woman."

Naomi chuckled at this tidbit. "Claire is here too. Sarah is probably here as well," she thought, and felt heartened by this knowledge. If she had to fight her way free, having Claire at her back had to be better than fighting alone, even if Claire's only experience of combat was through competitive roleplaying simulations. "Perhaps I can get out of this without Morgan's help," Naomi thought as she began to flick through the clothes Isaac Magnin had provided for her use. "There has to be an outfit in here that will show Magnin that I am not to be trifled with."

"You may wish to consider the brown frock coat at the end," Ariel suggested.

Hearing this, Naomi felt an urge to tell Ariel to mind its own business, but did not act on it. She knew that if she lashed out at Ariel, she would only be wasting anger that should be saved for Isaac Magnin. Instead, she did as Ariel suggested, and pulled out the last of the coats. It was a rich brown, cut to resemble a man's frock coat, and had the weight and sheen of good leather. However, Naomi knew that Nakajima Armaments did not make leather coats. "This makes no sense," Naomi thought as she laid the coat across the bed. "First Magnin lets me keep my sword. Then I find an armored coat in a wardrobe full of clothing that Ariel claims that Magnin has provided for my use. He must know that I will try to reclaim my freedom by force should reason fail, yet he is making it easier for me to do so instead of ensuring that I am defenseless and have no choice but to submit to him. Does he not fear me?"

"It's a beautiful coat," Naomi said, meaning every word. Though she could not understand Magnin's motives for giving her such a garment, Naomi had to admit to herself that he knew what she liked almost as well as Morgan did. Returning to the closet, she began to search again, looking for clothes that would match her coat. She soon found what she wanted, and selected a white blouse with a ruffled collar and lace at the wrists and a calf-length midnight blue cashmere skirt. When she had dressed, and made herself up, she took one last look at the jewelry box. The ruby pendant she had held against the hollow of her throat still tempted her, but Naomi thought that she had taken enough from Magnin. She would take his armor, and the clothing he had been thoughtful enough to provide her. She would even take his life, if he did not let her go. However, taking jewelry from him was more than she could justify to herself.

"Ariel, tell Isaac Magnin that I am ready to see him," Naomi said as she gave herself a last once-over in the mirror. Satisfied that she did not look like a victim, she took hold of her sheathed katana with her left hand and settled into an armchair that faced the door.

Five minutes passed, and Naomi heard a knock at the door. "Come in," she said as she rose to her feet. She watched the door, flexing her right hand, as it opened and Isaac Magnin entered. He looked as Naomi remembered, dressed in a double-breasted white suit with a midnight blue cravat knotted at his throat and a matching handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket. Sapphire cufflinks glittered at his wrists, and Naomi could see amusement in Magnin's sapphire eyes as he approached. Naomi narrowed her eyes at the sight of the black crystal rod that Magnin had tucked under his right arm; there was something about it that offended her senses. The platinum veins running along the slim rod looked organic, and Naomi found herself reluctant to look at it for long as the veins appeared to be pulsing. It was out of place, and its existence offended Naomi because she could not place it in context with her knowledge of nature's workings.

"Good morning, Naomi," Magnin said as Naomi stepped forward, drew her katana, and slashed at his throat in one smooth motion. His expression did not change as he flicked the rod out from under his arm and blocked Naomi's cut. Nor did it change as he repelled Naomi's second attack, or her third. He said nothing until Naomi sheathed her blade and laid it aside.

"I must be out of practice," Naomi whispered, unable to believe that this man had used her own technique against her, and defeated her without effort. She tensed herself, hoping that she would be able evade whatever retaliation she was sure she had provoked by attacking her captor. "Or perhaps I am still dreaming. Where but a dream would I see a rod of black crystal that has pulsing platinum veins?"

Magnin spread his arms slightly, and smiled at Naomi as he tucked the rod back under his arm. "You are not dreaming, madam, and I would not have suspected that you were out of practice. Your technique, like your beauty, has not been dimmed by the last ten years. So please, relax. I will not harm you. After all, if I had been taken in my sleep and transported into the keeping of a stranger, I too would make an attempt on my captor's life. My pride would demand it of me, as your pride no doubt demanded of you."

Naomi relaxed at the assurance that Magnin would not punish her attempt to take her freedom along with his life, and said, "You speak as if you know that you have wronged me, but that did not stop you from kidnapping me. Why am I here? What do you want from me? Is it money you want, despite owning the AsgarTech Company and God knows how many other enterprises?"

She had not expected to see tenderness in Magnin's smile as he approached and brushed a strand of hair from her face. "Not only do you have your mother's face, but you have her temperament as well. Lakshmi had also been one to cut to the heart of the matter."

"I wouldn't know," Naomi said, refusing to let bitterness into her voice. She believed that she had made peace with the fact that she had grown up an orphan years ago, but to hear Magnin speak as if he had known her mother made her want to strike at him, even if her sword were to break against his skin instead of slicing into his flesh. "I grew up in an orphanage, after all."

"I know," Magnin said, his voice still soft and soothing. "This kidnapping is not the first wrong that I have done you. I took you from Lakshmi and placed you in that orphanage."

Whirling away from Magnin, Naomi pressed her eyes against the sleeve of her coat so that he would not see the tears escaping her eyes. "How dare you?" she hissed. "First you kidnap me, and now you taunt me with lies aimed at the scars on my heart? Is this what you have been doing to Morgan in order to manipulate him?"

"I am not going to lie to you. Not here. Not today. It is enough that I kidnapped my own daughter," Isaac Magnin said, his voice barely a whisper as he placed his hands on Naomi's shoulders and gently turned her to face him. "You are right to despise me, but you are here for a reason. Your life is what it is for a reason. What I do to you, I do for a reason."

"And just what is your reason?" Naomi snarled as she took up her sword again and drew it. She knew that she could not strike Magnin down, but its cold weight was something solid, something that she could hold on to. "Why did you kidnap me?"

"I kidnapped you," Isaac Magnin said, "Because Morgan Stormrider loves you."

Chapter 88

No matter how long Morgan sat with his eyes closed, he found that he could not sleep. He knew that this inability to rest, and the disquiet at the root of his inablity, was unlike him. He had always been able to sleep before a mission before, and had always done so. Experience had taught him that once his preparations were made, there was nothing else worth doing. One could only inspect one's weapons so many times. Mentally rehearsing one's orders and one's plan to carry out the mission degenerated into pointless anxiety once every likely contingency had been considered and countered with a plan. As an Adversary, it made sense to sleep once every other sensible preparation had been made. Even though Morgan no longer called himself an Adversary, he knew that it still made sense to sleep.

Knowing that he should did not allow him to do so. Treating the confrontation that approached with every kilometer the maglev traversed at nine tenths of the speed of sound as just another mission had proved to be impossible for him. "Why is Isaac Magnin trying to manipulate me?" Morgan asked himself again as he remembered what Magnin had said to him when they had met in Victoria Murdoch's penthouse: "You are the Asura Emulator I need". "Why does Magnin need me? Why did he make me his enemy?"

"You are taking all of this rather well," Elisabeth Bathory purred, causing Morgan to open his eyes and look at her. He doubted that any man could sleep beneath Elisabeth Bathory's eyes.

"Do you think so?" Morgan asked. "Simply because I am not willing to waste myself on you before I have dealt with Isaac Magnin?"

Something about Morgan's words pleased Elisabeth, for she favored him with a slow, creamy smile. "That's a little better. I had begun to think that I had made an enemy of you for nothing."

"I find it difficult to rage when anger is what my enemy wants from me," Morgan remarked. "And not knowing why Magnin wants me to hate him only makes matters worse. That bastard is trying to lead me into some sort of trap, he is jerking all of the right emotional triggers, and my wanting to know why is just another way for him to string me along."

"Poor Isaac," Elisabeth sighed. "He is going to be terribly disappointed, you know. It seems he made you a little too well."

"Not that Stormrider believes that he was made," Dr. Zachary Aster muttered from the doorway. Without asking permission, he stepped into the compartment and slid the door shut behind him. Morgan could feel Aster's eyes on him as he settled into the seat next to Elisabeth. "Did you come to save your brother's life?" Morgan asked as Aster met his eyes and looked away.

"No," Aster said, "I came to persuade you to turn back, but not for my brother's sake. You know that he is manipulating you. It is not too late."

Ignoring Aster, Morgan locked his gaze on Elisabeth and said, "If I did not have a better idea of how the Phoenix Society works, I would suspect that you had called Aster, or that you were working with him as well. I suspect that playing one man against another is a favorite game of yours."

"It is one of my favorite games," Elisabeth admitted, "But only when two men desire me and neither, in his pride, is willing to share my attentions with the other. However, I did not call Aster. I suspect you know that you are always being watched."

"I know many things now," Morgan muttered as he withdrew from his pocket the letter of marque and reprisal that Aster had prepared for him. As he placed it upon the table, Morgan's tone frosted with contempt. "You authorized me to investigate the possibility of corruption within the Phoenix Society. Did you know that the Society was corrupt from its inception? Its founders were corrupt, its executive council is corrupt, and its methods are corrupt. What did you hope to accomplish, Zachary Aster, by giving me this letter of marque and reprisal?"

"I had hoped to give you a chance to see the truth."

"Well," Morgan said as he rose from his seat and stood by the windows to watch the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert blur outside. "I saw plenty of that. I have seen you, Countess Bathory, and the rest of the Executive Council aside from Edmund Cohen profit from every human vice and funnel those profits into the Phoenix Society. You forbid taxation because you yourselves fund the functions of government. The money you do not use to rule, you use to prop up the Asgard Technological Development Company."

"So, Malkuth gave you those files after all?" Elisabeth sighed.

"He did," Morgan acknowledged. "I know that you own Xanadu House and a twenty percent interest in the Hellfire Club. Your Garden of Earthly Delights generates respectable profits as well. Dr. Aster, here, creates lifesaving drugs through Aster Pharmaceuticals — and he also manufactures profitable recreational substances like cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and a delightful little hallucinogen by the name of World Without End. Isaac Magnin has AsgarTech, and a respectable interest in Murdoch Defense Industries. Shall I continue with Samuel Tyrell, Tamarah Gellion, and Adam Mellech?"

"That is unnecessary," Dr. Aster said. Elisabeth nodded to indicate agreement. "You know about our operations and our methods. You do not know our reasons. I can explain."

Morgan turned to Aster and cut him off with a gesture. "I know you can. I might even believe your reasons. I do not want to hear them. I want to hear you tell me why I should not live up the ideals of an Adversary for once in my life and expose you."

"Do you have any notion of the harm you would cause by doing so?" Elisabeth gasped.

"I know what the truth would unleash," Morgan said. "Why do you think I had held my tongue? I have been trying to justify silence. The people you rule have a right to know how you rule them. The Adversaries who serve you have a right to know what they draw their swords to defend."

"If you expose the Phoenix Society," Aster pleaded, "Humanity would rise against it. After that, humanity would fragment into tribes and nations once again. Nations would war with one another, and use the threat of war to justify plundering people. You know the history of humanity prior to Nationfall: war, taxation, prohibition, privilege, and tyranny. Would you condemn people to repeat that history?"

Morgan shook his head. This was the dilemma that had worried at him ever since he had learned that he was not the knight of liberty and justice for all that Phoenix Society propaganda claimed that Adversaries were, but an assassin serving a cartel whose methods had been stolen wholesale from Machiavelli and Capone. By the standards he was taught to uphold, the Phoenix Society's secrecy made it a tyrannical organization, yet the individual living today was freer and more prosperous than any person who had lived before him. If he exposed the truth, Morgan knew he would be sacrificing the peace and prosperity of a billion people in the name of a principle. However, keeping the truth to himself made him complicit in all of the Phoenix Society's crimes against humanity. "I do not have the right to plunge a world back into the old cycles of war and tyranny just to uphold a principle. That would be a greater betrayal of my ideals than remaining silent."

"Then turn back at the next stop," Dr. Aster pleaded. "If you face Magnin now, you will end up exposing the Society, and that would destroy it."

"He cannot," Elisabeth said, turning sympathetic eyes to Morgan. "People he values are in danger."

"You went through with it?!" Aster gasped.

Rage flared within Morgan as he reached for Aster, caught him by the throat, and slammed him against the wall. "You knew that Elisabeth Bathory was working for Isaac Magnin? You knew that she had kidnapped my friends, and you sat here talking about how I must not not sacrifice the world's peace and prosperity?"

"Please," Dr. Aster gasped, his hands grasping at Morgan's steel-tendoned wrist. "I can explain."

"No," Morgan snarled as he let Dr. Aster crumple to the floor and watched him claw at his necktie and collar. "You can sit down and shut up. I am not interested in your lies. For all I know, you are working with your brother. He might have sent you here himself, having seen via Witness Protocol that Countess Bathory's crimes against me and mine were not enough to arouse my hatred."

"I don't think that Magnin sent him —" Elisabeth began.

"When I want to know what you think, I will ask," Morgan spat, turning his glare on Elisabeth. "This kidnapping is not the first time you violated Naomi Bradleigh, and I am tired of your machinations, Aster's and Magnin's. I am going to kill Isaac Magnin. After that, I do not care how you manipulate the records in order to make a villain of him while preserving the Phoenix Society's reputation."

"You can't kill him," Dr. Aster wheezed.

Morgan favored Dr. Aster with his coldest, cruelest smile. It was a smile that he had turned on Christabel once without thinking after she had needled him one time too many. She had accused him of practicing that predatory grin before a mirror, but Morgan had never practiced it. It was as natural to him as his need to kill. "Who is going to stop me, Dr. Aster? You? I have a letter of marque and reprisal signed by your hand. I have the authority to do whatever I damned well please. And it will please me immensely to kill Isaac Magnin."

Morgan could see that Elisabeth had paled at his words and manner, and found himself gratified by her reaction. "You should leave, Desdinova," she said as she helped Dr. Aster to his feet.

"And you should follow him," Morgan said to Elisabeth as Dr. Aster left the compartment without looking back. "Right now, I find that you remind me a great deal of Christabel."

Shock widened her eyes and forced a gasp from her. Morgan could tell from Elisabeth's reaction that she had understood the meaning of his words, but he found himself forced to respect her for recovering her poise immediately afterward. "I suppose I had that coming," Elisabeth said as she turned to leave Morgan. "I will be in the dining car. I will meet you when we arrive at Bifrost Station."

Chapter 89

Naomi's hand trembled over the hilt of her katana. Every emotion in her demanded that she draw her blade and take Isaac Magnin's life or die in the attempt. Her love for Morgan demanded that she strike down this threat to his happiness. Her pride and self-respect demanded that she destroy the man who dared to have her kidnapped so that he could lie to her and use her as one of his tools. Her fear saw Magnin's continued existence as a threat to her own survival, and demanded that she end the threat or escape it. Her reason acknowledged her desire to draw her blade and fight — and overruled it. Naomi knew that her sword would not touch Isaac Magnin. Her technique, despite his gracious words, had dulled from years of inattention. Even at her best, Naomi suspected that she would not be able to kill Isaac Magnin in an all-out duel. Instead, she suspected that she would accomplish more by waiting until she could reach Morgan and warn him against coming to Asgard, against playing any further role in Isaac Magnin's scheme.

Despite her logic, Naomi could feel every muscle in her body tensing to throw her headlong at Magnin, and she could not pull her hand away from the hilt of her katana. She had no logic with which to dispel the effect Isaac Magnin's words had had on her. "You had me brought here," Naomi asked in a voice she could barely control, "Because Morgan loves me? Do you truly mean to use me to manipulate him?"

Magnin shook his head and slipped past Naomi. Settling into a chair next to the one Naomi had been sitting in, Magnin motioned towards it. "Please, put aside your weapon and sit down. You are right to demand of me the explanation I owe you."

Naomi sat, but kept her sword, resting it across her knees. "I find it difficult to believe that you would use me in order to get Morgan to back off. I strongly suspect that if you were to come to him holding a pistol to my head, he would simply shrug and tell you to go ahead and kill me. Anything you could do to me would only give him another reason to do what he had set out to do." Naomi had expected her words to give Magnin pause; she did not expect the laughter that she had instead provoked.

"You think yourself a hostage?" Magnin asked as he reclaimed his control. "Please understand; I would not hold my own daughter as a hostage. What sort of villain do you think I am?"

"What else am I supposed to think?" Naomi countered. "If you truly are my father, then am I to think that you had me brought here so that you could express your disapproval of my relationship with Morgan? And why tell me? In stories like this, it's always the hero who gets the 'Luke, I am your father' moment, never the rebellious princess who turns out to be his sister."

"I have something better in store for Morgan," Magnin chuckled. "Your lover is not the Luke to my Vader. He is the creature and I am the Frankenstein who brought him to life only to abandon him. He is not a man, but an Asura Emulator. His intelligence is artificial, as are his emotions and his consciousness."

"Then you made him too well," Naomi said, rising to her feet. "I know what a man feels like, and Morgan feels like a man to me. Will you tell me why I am here, or will you at least offer me a more substantial breakfast than your lies and witticisms?"

Rising to his feet, Isaac Magnin offered his hand. "If you will come with me, I will lead you to the dining room. My other guests are already there."

Naomi refused Magnin's hand; she had no desire to touch him, and despised his attempts to pretend that she was a willing guest and not his captive. Naomi knew that this was how many captors induced Stockholm Syndrome in their victims; the captor pretended with such conviction that his victims were guests free to leave that the victims themselves found it difficult to remember the truth of their situation. Repeat the big lie long enough, and people eventually believe it if they have been denied access to the truth. Instead, she followed Magnin through his mansion, admiring particular works of art that he brought to her attention and making polite conversation.

"Hey, Josse, you owe me lunch when we get out of here," Claire laughed as Magnin led Naomi into the dining room.

"So, you're here as well," Naomi said, taking a seat across the table from Claire. She offered Sarah a polite greeting before turning her attention to Josefine Malmgren. "Dr. Malmgren, why are you here?"

"Good morning, Naomi. I have a hypothesis," Josefine said with a small, frightened smile, "But I'd rather wait for further evidence before I say anything."

"Oh, it is quite simple," Magnin said as he gestured to a servant. "Dr. Malmgren is here because Morgan Stormrider promised Claire that he would protect her." As Josefine turned shocked eyes towards Magnin, he chuckled. "My dear doctor, did you think I cared about you cracking AsgarTech's finance database? I suspected that you eventually would, and adjusted my plans accordingly."

Looking away, Josefine stammered, "Y-you're not angry with me?" Seeing this, Naomi found herself sympathizing with her; she could tell from Josefine's manner that she had once been infatuated with Isaac Magnin.

"Of course not," Magnin soothed. "I have no intention of harming you. Believe it or not, the pistol I had given to Polaris that night was missing its firing pin. He would not have been able to fire a shot."

Naomi narrowed her eyes as Sarah began to shake across the table from her. Though she had looked away, Naomi had seen her face just long enough to see rage in her eyes, as if she was the one Magnin had betrayed and not Polaris. Feeling Claire's eyes on her, she permitted Claire to reach her via secure talk. "Don't mind Sarah," Claire said, "She hasn't been herself this morning."

"I suppose she never thought that she would be a victim," Naomi replied, feeling sympathy for the young Adversary as Claire turned away from Sarah and slammed the heel of her hand into the table. Dishes and silverware rattled with the impact as Claire yelled, "I'd call you a motherfucker, but I wouldn't insult the pig that squeezed you from its arsehole by calling it your parent. Are you telling me that you suckered Polaris into doing your dirty work, only to send him into a trap? Are you telling me that I shot an unarmed man?"

"Yes, Miss Ashecroft, I am telling you exactly that," Magnin said as a pair of servants wheeled out breakfast and began placing dishes upon the table. "I would suggest saving that anger for later, lest it give you indigestion."

"Holy crispy crap," Claire muttered before raising her eyes to meet Naomi's, "First time I shoot a guy in real life, and he doesn't even have a working weapon. How do you like that?"

"I doubt Naomi would judge you," Magnin said as Naomi placed a steak and a spoonful of scrambled eggs on her plate. "After all, she killed her first lover because he wasn't man enough to let her go."

Naomi's fork fell from nerveless fingers as she forced her voice to work. "You know what happens to men who force me to claim my freedom at swordpoint, yet you still dared to kidnap me? Your audacity shocks me."

"Then I must shock you further by admitting that I have the audacity to hope that you will forgive my mentioning that episode from your past," Magnin said, passing a basket of croissants towards Naomi.

Naomi accepted the basket, took a croissant, and passed it across the table as Josefine remarked in an arch tone, "So, you'll apologize for that, but not for kidnapping us?"

"Or for claiming to be my father?" Naomi muttered under her breath.

Claire, however, had heard her. "Nims, are you telling me that this manipulative bastard is your father?"

A quiet cough from Magnin saved Naomi from having to answer. "I told her only a little while ago," he explained, "Her disbelief is to be expected."

"It explains a hell of a lot," Claire muttered as she sliced into her steak and chewed a piece. "Hey, Josse, is it bad form if I admit that Magnin has a good cook on staff?"

"I'm not sure," Josefine answered as she buttered a croissant. "I have no idea what sort of etiquette applies when one has been kidnapped in order to strike at a former Adversary who is dating the daughter of one's captor."

"Is that what you think?" Magnin sighed, causing Naomi to smile. It pleased her to know that Magnin could be exasperated; perhaps he could be angered as well. Magnin in a rage was more likely to make an exploitable mistake than Magnin calm and in control of the situation. "Dr. Malmgren, I am disappointed in you. If I disapproved of Naomi's choice of lovers, and thought I had a right to express my disappointment, I would simply hire an assassin."

Claire finished licking orange marmalade off of her butter knife and gestured with it. "Come on, Imaginos. Without some facts to work with, the only thing us girls can do with Occam's razor is shave our legs."

"Who told you that name?" Magnin asked, his voice as cold as his eyes, which had narrowed and locked on Claire. "That is not a name that humans are meant to know."

Claire met Magnin's gaze with a cheeky grin. "A blue-eyed programmer cat told me while I rubbed his tummy."

"I doubt that," Magnin muttered, before restoring his mask. "No matter. I suppose I owe you all an explanation. You are all here because of Morgan Stormrider. Miss Bradleigh, Stormrider loves you. Adversary Kohlrynn, Stormrider considers himself responsible for your safety. Miss Ashecroft, you are one of Stormrider's oldest friends. Dr. Malmgren, Stormrider promised Claire that he would protect you."

"He what?" Josefine gasped. "Claire, I thought I told you not to get him involved. It wasn't his problem."

"Stormrider made it his problem," Magnin explained. "He decided to pay for your lodging at the Hellfire Club under an alias. If one of my associates did not own a stake in the chain, Dr. Malmgren, it would have been impossible to kidnap you."

"So you had us brought here in order to get Stormrider to stop his investigation?" Josefine said as she picked at a pastry.

"Yes," Magnin admitted, "But not for the reasons you expect. I am not concerned with exposure. Instead, I want Stormrider to cease his investigation because I do not have time for him to do everything by the book. My plans require his emnity. Since he has not been able to find a reason to draw his sword against me, I mean to supply him with a reason."

"So you'll murder us as you did Christabel Crowley and Victoria Murdoch?" Naomi snarled, springing to her feet and drawing her sword as Claire drew her revolver and took aim from across the table. "Would that give Morgan the reason he needs to put your head on a spike?"

"It is true that your deaths would enrage him," Magnin said, ignoring the sword and pistol trained upon him, "However, the rage your deaths would provoke would place him beyond my control. I can manipulate Stormrider only by arranging events so that his pride and principles will force him to act in a manner conducive to my ends. If I enrage him to the point where he abandons reason, then he becomes a tool for my enemy to use."

"Bullshit," Claire muttered, "He's going to kill us. He's revealing his plans, after al